My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Synthesizing romance comics with the sexy global dystopias popular since the early 1980s, this 2005 graphic novel was aptly described by one Goodreads reviewer as “a cyberpunk Love, Actually.” 100% charts three love stories through a future New York City.
The action centers on a strip club where the women dance “gastro”—that is, they not only take off their clothes, but display to the throng a digital projection of their throbbing innards as well. A nomadic sex worker named Daisy gets a job there and ends up in a fraught and doomed relationship with the club’s dishwasher, John, a slumming former grad student in medieval literature. (John supplies the book’s title early on when in his inner monologue he vows to accept experience “come what may, one hundred percent.”) Meanwhile, Strel, who also works in the club, has to deal with the absence and then the sudden return of her estranged husband, a boxer who “fights gastro” in the masculinist counterpoint to the spectacle the strip club offers. Strel has in the course of things introduced her artist cousin, Eloy, to her friend Kim, and the two begin to fall in love; they particularly bond over Eloy’s quixotic quest to get funding for his conceptual art project, about which more below. 100% began as a set of linked short stories; it is more episodic than heavily plotted, though Pope creates tension and emotion by rapidly cross-cutting between the three plots.
Thematically, 100% celebrates the mysterious core of the individual—the thing that is loved in a love relationship—against all present and future attempts to know fully, much less to coerce, the self. The narrative shows both gastro stripping and gastro fighting to be cruel and inhumane, a mechanical substitution of technological exposure for genuine personal relations, one so brutalizing it leads to the grotesque violence of the fights and even murder:
We want to touch…we just can’t figure out how to do it. We lost the words for it. Then we forgot the question.
The novel begins, perhaps somewhat gratuitously, with the body of a murdered young woman, her upthrust bare leg resting on boxes labelled “whitemeat chick” and “breasts and thighs” in what Pope must have intended as a feminist protest against objectification rather than a somewhat tasteless, heavy-handed gesture (albeit one, admittedly, borrowed from feminist art). Pope invokes the threat of murderous violence but it never comes to pass in the novel, because all of our main characters are struggling for love and art—struggles that, when pursued as such, make unnecessary and absurd any use of physical force. Daisy falls in love with John when he refuses to read the diary she left behind at the club, despite his temptation to do so; rather than seeking to expose her insides, to inspect ocularly her corpus, inside and out, he gets to know her through conversation and, eventually, lovemaking.
Allowing others their inner life, the space to cultivate their selves, is the essence of the ethic portrayed here. Whatever you think of Pope’s politics as a guide to policy—he is, or anyway was, a libertarian—this is its valuable and utopian ethical core. To recur to a theme running perhaps too insistently through my recent reviews, it may even be a more reliable ethic than the contemporary literati’s equally insistent appeals to empathy, which tend to imply everybody’s right to everybody else’s affectional innards through the medium of feeling—a right easily twisted by the powerful into imperial dominion over others, including the right to bombard or poison them, in the name of alleviating whatever real or imputed suffering the empath presumes to share with them.
As for art, it is the graphic novel’s subtext, while love is its text. Eloy needs to apply to a funding council made up of dire hipsters to finance his rather improbable art project: he proposes to set off 100 tea kettles, all whistling in the same key (“for one hundred percent sound”), to create a multisensory event of unity, a symphony. But the council demands, as a condition of funding, that he set off the kettles in different keys to create discord and disharmony: “A symphony! That’s not how the world is!” Pope here satirizes an art world that has so bureaucratized subversion that the only true subversion left is the bold and independent re-creation of beautiful forms—Pope’s aesthetic is less cyberpunk than a punk classicism.
Signaling awareness of tradition—there is an elaborate retelling of Tristan and Isolde in the middle of the book—as well as a fervid technological and futurological imagination, Pope nevertheless insists through his freehand style of gestural brushwork and his fluid storytelling, along with lyrical monologues and poetically compressed duets, on the right to art as a personal, handmade, and idealizing expression of the present moment. His polemic against an exhausted but dominant avant-garde establishment would amount to little if he could not provide a counterexample with his own work—and he does it beautifully.
The future in 100% is ostensibly dystopian—Pope implies that genetic advancements have gotten out of control, that war and militarization are omnipresent, and that an oppressive global government is in control (the libertarian artist pointedly shows U.N. currency, issued by “le banque du monde,” with Che Guevara’s face on it, while another subplot implicitly decries gun control as an abridgment even of the individual’s moral right to choose not to bear arms). As in much cyberpunk, the seeming dystopia is largely left off-stage so that the spotlight can fall on the vibrant anarchic bohemia growing in its niches: this, and perhaps its genre, is a belated modernist urban pastoral.
Like many modernists, Pope pits his own version of order against the chaos of a society run by and for those who care more for money and power than for love and glory. The modernists also tended to lift their vision beyond the nation and the ethnos, to see the possibility of new forms, new beauty, and new love in a cosmopolis on the horizon. 100% ends when one character wishes to flee New York; he hurls a dart at a map, promising to move wherever it lands. It lands where he is standing: wherever you are right now is the beachhead of the new world. In the author bio at the end of this book, Pope’s goal is described as the creation of “world comics, 21st century comics, stories in the comics medium which can reach and speak to people everywhere.” Take out the specified century and the word “comics,” and you find an old dream—one that has never yet been realized.