Have you ever had that feeling where you’re going about your business just like any other day, and all of a sudden everything seems strange to you? Nothing’s changed, nothing’s wrong, but you look at totally ordinary people or things and they just don’t make any sense. You start asking yourself questions like: why are they doing that? Aren’t clothes weird? Who ever thought buildings were a good idea? It’s this feeling of dislocation, of finding the surreal in the absolutely banal, that Paul Kirchner taps into in ‘The Bus’.
‘The Bus’ was originally published in Heavy Metal magazine from 1978 to 1985, making it the longest running strip Heavy Metal had. ‘The Bus’ has been collected in The Bus (1987) and The Bus 2 (2015), from which most of the strips in this article are drawn.
Perhaps part of the secret to its longevity is the simplicity of its form. Like long-running daily newspaper strips, ‘Garfield’ being the one that comes to mind, ‘The Bus’ works on a simple and repeated grid panel layout - six panels in two rows of three in this case. ‘The Bus’ has no ongoing narrative, but rather each strip starts with a scenario - generally a man waiting at a bus stop - then builds to a punchline. These punchlines often revolve around clever tricks of perspective, visual jokes and satire, with the protagonist (Kirchner’s everyman) at the mercy of the bus, its driver or the other passengers.
What sets Kirchner’s work apart is the enigmatic surrealism, the hallmark of ‘The Bus’. In the man’s own words:
I have always been interested in the conflict/connection between the “real” world–the world of material things, orderly transitions, and logical, predictable outcomes–and the other world, the world of spiritual forces, visions, dreams, and delusions, that follows illogical and unpredictable rules of its own. I’m not sure that latter realm is any less real in our lives. - Interview with James Ramberger for The Comics Journal
And it is true that, in these strips, not only do surreal things happen, but these things often follow a logic of their own. Like the work of M. C. Escher, Kirchner’s surrealism is often as mathematical as it is just plain weird. Contained within the simple six-panel grid (chosen to match the format of comics printed in The Village Voice for whom ‘The Bus’ was originally intended), Kirchner manages to push forward the comic medium with his use of angles and optical tricks that leave the reader trying to figure out how one panel gets to the next. Like any good trick, there is bemusement followed by laughter, as you realise just how the trick has been done and then, like a lot of optical illusions, you lose it and get to experience the joke all over again.
In the strip at the start of the article you can see how Kirchner employs these optical tricks not only to demonstrate the potential for surrealism in our ordinary world, but also to reveal and even undermine some of the common tricks employed in comics. In the third panel of the first strip, for instance, Kirchner uses the old trick of suggesting an object by using pools of white to represent lit areas and allowing the reader’s mind to fill in the rest of the object. With only circles and oblongs to show us headlights and windows, we quite easily fill in the outline of the bus. As it gets nearer, Kirchner chooses not to fill in the rest of the bus, and so the pools of light become more abstracted and the bus harder to resolve. As the protagonist turns back to the Lux Cafe the joke is completed - the old artists’ drawing trick doesn’t stop at the bus, but bleeds into the rest of the panel. What was clear has become complex, and what was ordinary - with no shift but in perspective - has become surreal. The protagonist is left, as he so often is, totally stranded and confused with the banal ‘real’ world subsumed in the surreal.
In the strip above Kirchner pulls back the curtain on the artists’ illusion of perspective as the protagonist walks up the bus, but instead of shrinking with the rest of panel, he stays the same size. As he walks back down, the situation is reversed until he is tiny and the bus looms around him. The real genius of this is that the man himself never really changes size, and barely alters his position, rather the mind of the reader does all the work of having the man walk up and down the bus.
Here Kirchner also suggests some of the social satire that is in his work. Like many surrealists, Kirchner is interested in satirising the world as we know it. Everything about the protagonist screams workaday, 9 to 5 and pedestrian. His overcoat (no doubt a sensible tan), his neat glasses, his tie and monk’s ring of hair - these all tell us that he is nobody and everybody. The bus is society, life and the world, full of other people who largely ignore one another, going about their business as they travel through on their way to wherever (In fact the bus’ destination is often shown with abstract destinations such as ‘Nowhere’, ‘Wherever’ or ‘Where I Wilt’). While the strip above implies the fruitlessness of attempting to alter one’s position in life and the inability to change, the strips below are both darker and more political.
One of the most enigmatic figures, and perhaps the only other ‘character’ in ‘The Bus’, is the bus driver himself. An old man, somewhat grizzled, he becomes more menacing the more times you see him. In the strip immediately above, the protagonist notices a world outside his window and, in fact, starts to see into the world beyond that of the everyday. But soon the driver, the man in control of the journey - metaphorically directing the lives of all of the citizens of the bus - puts a stop to it. The driver has control and the protagonist can only pay his money, sit back, and do as he’s told, ignoring, as best he can, the surreal and sometimes fantastical world outside.
In one final strip, above, we have the driver in his most sinister mode yet. Slightly atypically, we have the protagonist departing the bus and entering his apartment, but as he steps into his home he finds himself once again faced with that oh-so-creepy driver. Lit ominously from the outside and looming over the everyman, the driver is unavoidable. The long bus journey is inescapable. If ever a simple six panel comic has presented a wake up call to all of us stuck in routine and dull lives, this is the one. The daily journey grinds on and on, destination nowhere, and Kirchner is showing us that it’s time to get off the bus and see the world for what it really is.