A few weeks ago I highlighted “Dope Rider,” the trippy Wild West cartoon that appeared in High Times over a number of years in the 1970s and 1980s. The talented artist of those comic strips was Paul Kirchner, whose masterwork may well be a thoughtful and surreal strip about a municipal bus that appeared regularly in Heavy Metal over the same period, from 1979 to roughly 1985. That strip, “the bus” (always scrupulously set in lower-case), provided an ideal starting point for Kirchner’s fertile imagination, as the strip explored many variations of futility and disaster, fueled as much by The Twilight Zone and Godzilla as the paintings of Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher. As Kirchner himself writes in the afterword to a dandy collection of “the bus” published in 2012 by a French company called Éditions Tanibis,
The humor was inspired by the crazy logic of Warner Brothers cartoons; the paranoia of the Twilight Zone television program; and the surrealistic artwork of Bosch, Magritte, Dali, and Escher.
Escher, for sure—although the comic strips remind me of nothing so much as the playful, deadpan philosophy presented in the works of Jorge Luis Borges.
The book collects 73 of the strips (if my counting is accurate), which would represent almost precisely six years’ worth of output, as reflected in Kirchner’s account. According to Kirchner, he had wanted to present the strip in a horizontal format in the hopes of selling it to the Village Voice, but an editor at Heavy Metal had the shrewd idea of reducing the size:
Shortly after getting my foot in the door, I approached editor Julie Simmons [at Heavy Metal] with a comic strip called “the bus” (always written in lower case). I had drawn the first ten episodes in a horizontal format because I had intended to sell it to a weekly newspaper, the Village Voice. However, the Village Voice turned it down, though the art director was gracious enough to tell me it was the best thing he had ever rejected. Julie liked it and decided to run it as a half-page feature, as Heavy Metal often sold half-page ads and had to fill the remaining space.
Many, though not all, instances of “the bus” have precisely six panels, and most of my favorites are wordless. Tanibis to be saluted for rescuing these great strips from obscurity—even Kirchner himself admits that he never had much idea if anyone really liked the strip:
In those days before the internet, I rarely got feedback from readers about my work. It was published and I was paid, but what did people think of it? I didn’t know.
According to Tanibis, Kirchner has recently started doing “the bus” cartoons again, and Tanibis intends to publish an updated collection before the year is out. Very good news for all of Kirchner’s fans.