They don’t make men like Bob anymore. Stoic and tough, Bob drinks heroic quantities of beer when he’s not at work and while he’s at work, he’s a tough-as-nails iron worker who isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right against foremen determined to cut corners on an unsafe building. He exists halfway in a bygone world, a gritty Western where he stands alone before railroad men determined to seize his land in the name of progress. But when Bob gets cancer, he will struggle to reconcile his self-sufficient values with the painful, degrading death that awaits him. Against all odds, he resolves his traumatic childhood, his inner cowboy, and his cancer into one final showdown against the inevitable.
Throughout his life, Bob finds himself in a series of boxes. First, his father punishes him by stuffing him into a cabinet. Then, later, Bob simultaneously ensconces himself in a workroom and in an elaborate, protective fantasy so rich that it’s almost an alternative reality. Finally, during the final days of his life, he obsesses over finishing a tool shed whose construction seems to symbolize the last of his manhood. In a sense, Bob has been living in a coffin for his entire life, inhabiting the state of repressed pain that replaced his love for his abusive father. Bob’s determination to be the opposite of his father culminates in his refusal to leave that space. In every situation he finds himself, he either drills or locates air holes like the ones in the cabinet where his father confined him. These seven holes symbolize not only his ability to endure hardship, but the division between Bob and the rest of the world. The shed, complete with its seven holes for air, is the blunt objectification of how Bob is seen by the world: silent, unreachable, and knowable only by indirect clues to his unseen inner existence.
His gunslinger fantasy life dominates Bob’s mental landscape. Whether or not he’s actually a relic of a better time is debatable, but the fact that Bob sort of believes that he is a gunslinger in the Old West seems to give him not only the means of understanding that he will die, but the ability to die on his own terms and in a way that he considers dignified.
The art of this book is arresting. As rough and gritty as Bob himself, it draws from Spaghetti Westerns in its framing, especially during action scenes. Parts of the story that take place in Bob’s fantasy world are drawn in greater detail – and less sketchily – than scenes from Bob’s reality. The upshot is that reality comes across as nebulous and unclear, almost as though it matters less than the idealized Western setting. The artist’s use of color is similarly evocative of Bob’s mental state; things that seem unreal to him or that he can’t see are often rendered in gray scale or monotone. Switching back and forth from the campy, clear fantasy to the bleak, muddled reality of Bob’s failing condition, the visual narrative manages to play each world against the other, giving weight to the Western and poetic dignity to the reality. As Bob nears his death, the two worlds run together until it’s impossible to be sure whether he’s a man dying of cancer or a gunslinger fighting injustice in a world pitted against him. In both stories, Bob loses and continues to lose; as an ironworker, he is ousted from his insurance and job, and as a gunslinger, he is defeated physically by his enemies. But the point is that Bob ultimately controls how he dies by making what he considers to be a good stand in each scenario.
Finding any book as profound as this one is a rare event. The fact that this is such a well-rounded comic is a genuine treat and not to be missed. Due to some mild sexual content, this book is likely most appropriate for older teens and adults, but adult readers will be more likely to appreciate the running reference to Westerns.