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Hariton Pushwagner: Soft City

This is the first graphic novel on my website. There are not likely to be many more. I have avoided graphic novels for the obvious reasons: I like stories that consist of words and I tend to see (inaccurately, I know) graphic novels as something more appropriate for children. I am well aware that many graphic novels, such as this one, are written/drawn for adults but I am still reminded of reading comics in my childhood. However, I did think that I should give one a try and this one seemed a good bet.

Pushwagner was a noted Norwegian artist. This is his only graphic novel, though he did illustrate the work of Norwegian writer Axel Jensen. He started this work in the 1970s and then abandoned it. It was, with his other work, acquired by Morten Dreyer, who helped him and then exploited him. Only after suing Dreyer, did Pushwagner get the work back. He then completed it and it was only published in Norway in 2008

Though I enjoy art, I am not vaguely competent to judge his artistic skills. I will say, however, that he does use line drawings, somewhat like cartoons, and they are very effective. The story is simply the day in the life of a man and his family (wife and baby of unspecified sex but called Bingo, which I shall assume is a male name) in a large city where everything is uniform and which appears to be controlled by a mega-corporation called Soft.

Interestingly, the only person in the story that seems to have any independent action is the baby. Bingo gets up before his parents. He tells us I am a baby and then My name is Bingo. He manages to get out of his cot without any difficultly and then stares out of the window of his parents’ high-rise flat at the other high-rise flats.

All the flats seem to be more or less the same – in all cases we seem to be staring into their sitting rooms, which are furnished simply and, indeed, look like offices, but we soon learn that they are not. My friends, says Bingo. Quite a few of the drawings show a whole series of uniform pictures of people, offices, flats and so on. In this one, as in some of the others, there is a little touch, with one of the segments slightly different. In all cases, except the bottom right segment, there is nothing but furniture but in the bottom-right one, there is an elderly couple leaning on their walking sticks, with the caption below saying The Beginning or the End?

The parents get up. Both take their life pill. Baby is put back in his cot and is not happy about it – the only sign of rebellion in the book. The husband reads the newspaper – we get a few words from the paper (non-stop soft kill) – while the wife prepares breakfast.

After breakfast, he leaves the flat to go to work and we see everyone else leaving their flat at exactly the same time, dressed in exactly the same way. Again, there is another touch. We see all the men in the lift wearing the same clothes and hat. However, in the middle of the men is one woman, and one man imagining himself as a bodybuilder. They drive the same car, on the same road to the same office building, where they sit at a desk in serried ranks. We are secure, they say, We are the Soft executives.

We do not know what they do but we do not know what the Soft Company does. It makes armaments and toxic chemicals. We see these in action. The boss is Mr Soft and we see him come to work in his chauffeured car and speaking by videophone to his wife and child on a beach somewhere.

At this point it gets somewhat nastier as we see what looks like a totalitarian state, with a leader reviewing troops (and wittily saying Heil Hilton to one man) as well as a picture of man at a control panel, seemingly launching a rocket, the overall caption saying Who controls the controller? and a machine with a skull and crossbones on it and a caption coming from it saying Sieg Spray. (There are several drawings of unpleasant scenes and they tend to have captions in German.)

We also see the women going off, all dressed the same with the same hairstyle, going shopping or to the opera.

Then the men all go home, clocking off as they clocked on, driving the same cars on the same road to the same block of flats. Again, the little twist, with the cars being driven but a pedestrian being smashed over the head by a man holding a club or baseball bat.

Back home it is dinner and TV. They seem to watch a Western and a brutal war film, preceded by what looks like a Nuremberg rally. Then it is bed (Goodnight. Soft dreams, the wife says.)

The intro rightly points out that this would seem to be influenced by Metropolis and Brave New World, as well as any number of other similar works. It was certainly an enjoyable though short read, the art work was effective and Pushwagner certainly made his point. However, I still very much prefer a novel with words.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by No Comprendo
First published in English in 2016 by New York Review Comics