‘I’m all alone out here, Jerry. I have been all along.’
It had to end, didn’t it? As all things inevitably do. The relentless ride examining our world’s toxic culture and capitalist cruelty arrives at its final destination here in Friendo #5. The creative team of Alex Paknadel, Martin Simmonds, Dee Cunniffe and Taylor Esposito bring the book to a close in this final installment with impressive flair. The story of Leo Joof through the last four issues has moved through Hollyvoid, Cornutopias and the digital subconscious. And now in this conclusion, the book focuses in and loops back in to the most fundamental, basic idea at the heart of it all: The Desert and The Action Joe.
Quoting T.S Eliiot from The Rock is how the entire book began and those words inevitably ring loud and clear here. ‘The desert is in the heart of your brother’ are the first words, the key idea and reference upon which the creative team decides to make its first impression and it’s no accident. Eliot speaks of the desert as a place that is belittled and neglected, a place that is more than just what it seems. A desert is an indicator of something greater and something that’s everywhere around us, even if we choose not to see it. It’s a lesson in not damning and turning away from that which represents potential. And thus Friendo takes us to the desert, that place which has been belittled, neglected and turned away from.
Flashbacks tinted in brown kick off the story, as the book details the history of The Action Joe toys and their arrival in the desert. And therein, the book once more reaffirms what it’s really about: advertising. A lot of it is built on desire, needs, wants and perceptions of reality, which powerful capitalistic society exploits. The Action Joe is a grinning Aryan hero of America, draped in the colors of its flag, with the image of the entire planet on his chest. He’s an action hero who’s bulletproof, white and all powerful, with a revolving earth at his core. It’s the ultimate image of America’s view of itself, with even the name ‘Joe’ playing into it. This is the absolute american role model, in a very literal sense. And it’s the product corporations and culture sell this role model to kids and their parents, reinforcing it again and again. It’s the thing people are made to think they need and want, it’s presented as the ultimate desire.
But what happens to those who are sold this model? They quickly fall sick, suffer and fade, losing all that they were and could have been. Because as you might expect, the model is, again, literally toxic. It’s a toxic symbol and a false dream sold to generations, who to this very day, chase after it, despite its toxicity and falseness. There’s a terrible sadness at the heart of that and the book plays it for satire, laughing with us at the sad state of things, because it’s all that’s left to do beyond sob. It’s why even the adverts for the toy in the image scream of the pain and horror while also chuckling at the futility and tragedy of it all.
Even the ‘solution’ that is put forth to deal with the toxic Action Joes is scathing commentary, with America burying all of them in Native American land and trying to pretend the problem was no longer a problem. And as they continued to act as though it was all fine and dandy, the Joes continued to spread their toxicity and destroyed these lands of people of color, until naught but this horrible false idol remained and nothing else could exist. An attempt, eventually, is made to redeem things, but where does that lead? Nowhere. And the book once again returns to show us a key image at the heart of the narrative here: a void, because that’s really all that’s left. A horrific, destructive void that spreads its dreadful poison everywhere and it’s seeped in to the point that there may be no way to stop it.
As the story progresses, we see that the damage is so deep that now even the people that help perpetuate this role model and rise to the top in this dreadful capitalistic society drown in its horrific poison, growing stiff until they themselves are like the models they represent, grew up with and sold. It all builds and all you end up with is a swath of bodies and endless tragedy. A circular loop that cannot be broken, even if the flaw is staring you right in the face, because ultimately, people see what they want to see. And that’s another thing Friendo carefully plays with, the idea of this virtual being visible only to you, tailed for you, sold to you by callous corporations looking to exploit you.
And Leo Joof, our protagonist? He’s the problem, he’s the manifestation of america’s ills, a product, victim, perpetrator and supporter of the toxic culture he inhabits. A fully grown man with love and a job, he abandons it all and sinks lower and lower, all in the pursuit of this all-powerful, all-false and corrupt role model he was sold as a child. The thing he desperately felt he wanted, he needed, but never did attain. With his journey’s end near, as he’s bleeding to death, he finally attains what he wants. He gets his Action Joe and he sees the flaw, the futility, the lonely nightmare he’s been a part of. The virtual friends he’s tried to make do with are not his friends, they never have been. He’s not free, although he’s assumed at points he is. He’s a caged prisoner serving the interests of corporations at every turn and he’s got nothing except isolation and pain. Even his fame is false and farcical, at best. And yet, he does not do the right thing. He merely sinks deeper into the chasm he’s in.
Which is why when it all comes to a close, with our hero having attained his desire, having been ‘reborn’ as Action Joe, the thing he’s desired all along, it’s not upbeat. In the end, Leo drowns even further in great stardom and garners more attention and power, with the culture choosing to see what they see. And they see Action Joe, the powerful Aryan symbol to whose whims the planet revolves and moreover, they wish to be him. But when you look closer and really see beyond the big sales pitch, you see what’s really underneath that projected false american image. You see a burnt blob oozing everywhere, desperate, paranoid, in pain, pretending every moment that it’s something greater. And if that doesn’t say it all, what does?
Paknadel’s talent for dragging some level of humor out of the depressive tragedy is on full display in this final installment, as is Simmonds’ versatility, which sells the minimalistic and shallow world, helping land the satire. The latter’s layouts especially match the former’s storytelling sensibilities, with the Zajicek page being a remarkable highlight. The way it’s laid out and the storytelling at play is a perfect showcase of the book’s appeal. Cunniffe’s colorwork, from delicate yellows and browns to the more brighter shades or even muted mundane sets full of grays, very much sets the tone for the book in a wonderful way. The splashes of unique texture that cover the book upon every flame or light source are a lovely touch, as are the dots on the Joe advert, which grant it a retro sensibility and give it a feeling of artifice. Esposito continues to be brilliant as ever, marrying together all the elements of the book with great skill, utilizing everything from blocky white-and-black letters for ad headlines to leaner black-and-white letters for the details, to expose the contradictory nature of the entire endeavor and make the humor work.
Friendo is brutal, it’s relentless, but it’s also necessary. It’s a haunting piece of work that asks the reader to look out and see beyond the veneer and thus be wiser, really. It’s a condemnation, sure, but in revealing all the problems, it’s a book about how we can be better. It’s about looking at the toxicity and damage of the American role model and the void it leaves behind and understanding how and why things can get so broken. It’s about being able to make some sense of the chaos, so we may hope for order someday.
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