I have an odd story about this book ... below the cut!!!!
So this summer, while I was at yonder Comic-Con, I happened across M. K. Perker promoting something (probably Air, because I think it was in the DC area, but I can't remember exactly). I mentioned to him that I was looking forward to Insomnia Café, and he acted as if he had never heard of it, even though it's his graphic novel. Now I look at the picture of him in the back of the book, and I don't recall the person I spoke to looking like that. So, the question is - did I just think it was M. K. Perker and I was making an ass out of myself (very, very probable), or was Mr. Perker so tired from signing that he completely forgot he wrote and drew this (very, very unlikely), or perhaps ... it was an M. K. Perker from another dimension who had not written and drawn Insomnia Café. Hmmmm. I could have sworn it was Perker - he was sitting next to G. Willow Wilson, for crying out loud! Anyway, it doesn't matter. Insomnia Café, Perker's new graphic novel, is published by Dark Horse and costs $14.95. The only real question is: Is it any good?
Actually, yes. Perker begins his tale with a man sleeping on a park bench, carrying a briefcase, who is suddenly accosted by two men dressed in black who tell him they want to have a word with him. He manages to ditch them, goes into a coffeehouse and into its bathroom, where he opens his briefcase and pulls out ... a bleeding book. That can't be good.
Then the cops bust in and arrest him, finding something even more disturbing in the bag. And then it's time for a flashback!
Perker does a nifty job with the beginning transitioning back to the man's (his name's Peter Kolinsky) past. He gives us no indication that we have gone backward in time - we simply turn the page and Peter wakes up in his apartment. Of course, the fact that he has an apartment when, in the first few pages, he implied he was homeless, might clue us in, but for a few pages, I thought we had skipped forward in time, and Perker was going to fill us in on what happened with the blood and the cops later. Several times early in the book he misleads us to believing that's so. You might think this is cheating, but considering what we find out about Peter, it's not really a bad thing. It's an interesting way through the first half of the book, as it becomes clearer that we're leading to the book and the police instead of away from it, to keep us on our toes.
Peter, it turns out, was a top authenticator of rare books, and one time, he knew a book was stolen but helped find the man who brought it to him a buyer. This got him in trouble with the police and he rolled over on the thief. Now, the thief's brother, Mr. Oblomov, want a favor from him as repayment for his treachery. Peter was fired from his job and has a new, crappy one at a book distributor, but even this job is in jeopardy because he treats it with contempt.
He also has trouble sleeping, and one night he wanders around the neighborhood and finds Insomnia Café, where he meets Angela, a raven-haired beauty with whom he becomes friends. He doesn't want to work for Oblomov and gets his nose broken for his trouble. Then Angela takes him to "the archives," a library of unwritten books. It's deep underneath the city in an impossible space, and it contains books that are still being written. Some of them disappear when they're finished, but the library has an entire shelf of Salinger books, as he never completes them. She swears him to secrecy about the existence of the library, but of course it doesn't quite work out that way. Peter, desperate to give Oblomov something, decides to steal something from the library. This leads back to the beginning, as the men who accost Peter are from the archives. They don't take kindly to someone stealing a book from the library. This leads to a brutal and somewhat surprising ending. You can see some of it coming, but Perker does a nice job with misdirection, even though the ending makes perfect sense.
What's particularly interesting about this book is that Peter is a thoroughly unlikable character. People help him for some reason even though he doesn't deserve it. Angela pities him even though he rarely gives her reason to. He takes advantage of everyone he knows and takes no responsibility for his actions.
I have never been a proponent of the "loyalty" that Oblomov speaks of - his brother was a thief and should have gone to jail, and if Peter had been loyal to him, would Oblomov have gotten him out of jail? - but when Oblomov shows up, Peter does nothing to stop him, instead cowardly using Angela's kindness. He ignores the people at his work, takes advantage of his boss, and basically acts like a jerk throughout the book. Why then do we keep reading? Because Peter, despite his horrible personality, is in over his head, and Perker does a nice job showing him flailing around for anything that will save him. The fact that he misses plenty of ways out of his predicament actually humanizes him more, because we recognize the desperate actions of a man running out of chances. Yes, his problems are of his own making, but that doesn't make them any less compelling. Angela, on the other hand, is a fairly sympathetic character who become moreso toward the end, but even she commits foolish acts, like showing Peter the archives in the first place when she doesn't know him that well. Her arc is interesting mainly because of the revelations about her at the end, when we discover what her plan was. It casts her actions in a new light, one where we can see the flaws in her personality. Insomnia Café becomes a book about missed chances and what we do after that, and it's not pretty. But it is pretty gripping.
Perker's art, I would imagine, is an acquired taste. His characters are often pointy and angular and big-headed. They occasionally look uncomfortable within panels, either too big or too small for the surroundings. But it's just his style, and in the case of this book, it helps the feeling of paranoia that Perker builds throughout the narrative and also helps makes the library, with its arching ceiling and sense of grandeur, a more impressive space. What's nice about his characters is, even with the exaggerations, they look like real people - they have hair out of place, they wear real clothing, and they have different physical characteristics. Angela is a beautiful woman, but she isn't impossibly beautiful.
And Perker does a nice job showing the physical deterioration of Peter as the book goes along.
Insomnia Café is a fine comic that takes its time getting to where it needs to go. Perker builds this sense of tension nicely, never rushing to get to the gripping conclusion. He wants us to consider the way our lives intersect and what people really want - everyone wants things in this book that they can't really have, and their tragedy is that they don't realize it earlier. Peter dominates the book, naturally, but even minor characters are developed well, and it allows us to see Peter in different lights than ours, which makes him a more interesting person. We may not like Peter, but we do pity him because he's so out of his league. Perker doesn't give us any easy ways out, either, which is always good to see. And the ending has a clever little metafictional twist (not too obnoxious, though) that highlights the tragedy of the characters' lives.
If you're a fan of Air (or Cairo, Perker's graphic novel with Wilson from a few years ago, which is quite good), you should check this out. Even if you're not a fan, this book shows that Perker can write a nice story as well as draw one. If that's what you want from your comics!