The Friday Review: The Broccoli Agenda
Writing a review of David Yurkovich's work is never easy. Writing a review of THE BROCCOLI AGENDA is even harder. Pressed for specifics on genre and style, I once described this novel to someone as 'a book about everything' because that was how it made me feel the first time I read it, on an overnight, half-empty British Airways flight back to London from Detroit. Perhaps that reading, while emotionally set adrift, in a setting totally divorced from reality and time, while crossing borders and time zones simultaneously, was an ideal place to experience Yurkovich's first full-length, self-published graphic novel. Perhaps.
Yurkovich was awarded a Xeric grant on the strength of his first full-length comic, DEATH BY CHOCOLATE. DEATH tells the tale of Agent Swete--a man whose life is altered completely after his body is simultaneously invaded by an alien presence and plunged into a vat of chocolate. He emerges transformed into a being comprised entirely of organic chocolate. After dabbling more directly in the superhero genre with THRESHOLD, Yurkovich returns to the theme of food-related affliction in THE BROCCOLI AGENDA, bringing Agent Swete with him to serve as a reminder that all of Yurkovich's work to date has occurred within the same universe.
A brief synopsis: Two men meet in a bar. One is an FBI agent composed entirely of organic chocolate, the other an ex-superhero and wanted killer with broccoli growing out of his head. THE BROCCOLI AGENDA tells, in flashback, how Dr. Broccoli survived the death of his parents and the murder of his adoptive family by clinging to his love of and interest in broccoli. This is both his salvation and his downfall, when a terminal skin disease and his dabbling in the arcane leads to his becoming forever joined to the vegetable love of his life. Mixed in with this tragic tale are strands that tell of revenge, obsession, the Mob and ill-fated superheroics as Dr. Broccoli seeks to live out his purpose in life...
Yes, it sounds absurd--even laughable. And in part, it is. Dark humour runs deeply through Yurkovich's work and there is a palpable sense of the bizarre in every twist and turn of this book. Where Yurkovich always succeeds, however, is in his characterisation. Dr. Broccoli's motivation--an obsession with green vegetables and an overwhelming desire for revenge on the murderers of his family--may seem outlandish on the face of it, as indeed are the situations into which he is plunged along the way. But as readers, we are never allowed to forget that this character is extremely human, and the emotions he feels are very real. The world is often a hostile place in Yurkovich's work, and if anything, the power of the book is increased by divorcing the events in the life of the lead character from any frame of reference that the reader can empathise with, thus bringing into sharp focus the actual emotional turmoil he faces in his quest to find acceptance and contentment.
The plot is extremely dense. It would be almost impossible to sensibly describe the sequence of events that occur to Broccoli from childhood right through to the realisation of his quest. Doing justice to his stint in the desert, or his ill-fated superheroics, could take several paragraphs alone.
The fact that Yurkovich manages to cram what feels like a whole lifetime's events into this slim volume, and achieve several unexpected plot directions that challenge the reader's expectations, is made even more surprising when one examines his choice of panel layout. I am neither a writer nor an artist, and yet I was still impressed by the audacity of choosing a strict three-panel-per-page set up to tell this story. The sheer scripting skill required to tell this epic tale in such a paucity of available panels, combined with the challenge of imbuing the artwork with enough depth to fill such large panels, must have been daunting. Yurkovich has since stated that it was an exhausting experiment, and one that he is unlikely to repeat. But he rises to the challenge well, and in fact the layout seems somehow to ideally suit the monologue-based story.
The content of the panels is equally challenging--don't pick up THE BROCCOLI AGENDA expecting traditional comic book art, or you may find yourself nonplussed. Yurkovich is possessed of a wholly original style that, once seen, is instantly recognisable. In keeping with the subject matter, his artwork is often visually unsettling and he has a tendency to keep the reader slightly off-balance. This is not to say that Yurkovich lacks skill--to the contrary, it's perfectly clear throughout his body of work that he is technically proficient, with a cinematic eye for layout.
The juxtaposition of the angular, boxy shapes of the characters against the softer, delicately detailed panel backgrounds is a visual treat, and the amazing depth of colour that Yurkovich manages to coax out of the black and white spectrum in order to imbue these large panels with life is quite astounding. His characters are rarely pretty, and his heavy use of black can be disturbing, but somehow utterly suits the absurdist nature of his fiction and these strange, edgy characters that he creates.
As a self-publishing writer-artist, Yurkovich is to my mind one of those setting the pace in today's industry. His switch to the longer single-story format resulted in two books last year, with another in the works. Added to his experimentation with genres and his apparent determination to retain control of all the creative aspects of his work, this sets him apart from many of his peers. Even the production values are not ignored--considering the relatively low price-tag, it's a pleasure to see the eye-catching cover and glossy, good quality pages, which make it both look and feel as if it should have cost more, and should set an example to other creators considering the graphic novel format. Clearly, it's not impossible to work in this format as a self-publisher--and do it well--without sacrificing quality or design.
Perhaps reading THE BROCCOLI AGENDA for the first time in the circumstances that I did imbued it with more ominous power than it might have otherwise held. But while I don't recommend going to the lengths of booking an international flight to test out the experiment, I definitely recommend picking up THE BROCCOLI AGENDA and experiencing Yurkovich's universe first-hand.
Marcia Allass is Editor-in-Chief of the comics webzine Sequential Tart.