Even when it’s meticulously planned out, graffiti has an improvisational feel that’s a hallmark of its genre. There’s a lot of wall-writing in the backgrounds of Keith Jones’ weird little graphic novel, Secretimes, and its influence bleeds into the whole feeling of the book. Just as the title is a portmanteau, smushing together the sounds and the meanings of two existing words, Jones plays with combinations in both visual and verbal spheres. But it’s not as though the jokes throughout are carefully constructed masterpieces of finely tuned expression. They feel less conscious, more like the product of someone doodling while his superego completes other tasks. In other words, they’re as loose and goofy as spray paint tags on trains and buildings.
The plot meanders in Secretimes, which starts out as hobo comedy, wanders into dystopian sci-fi and some other stuff that suggests class war. The characters have animal heads and humanoid bodies, and wear brightly colored suits with ‘30s-style hats. Color is everywhere—bright and flat, with subtle gradations. There’s little talk; sentences rarely top five words, and sometimes characters communicate in nonsense that resembles words. A phone conversation might go like this: “Yaaayow” (one character, in a single panel that takes up a whole page on the left reader) and then “Yeehaw” (his counterpart, on the right reader). Some use phrases even further removed from recognizable English (“Scummbumm yabbadabba yuppyupp”), yet still somewhat comprehensible.
The ever-present graffiti reflects a similar linguistic devolution. Sometimes it’s echoed in the abundant sound effects. Sexual attitudes (represented by naked women who hang around, parting their buttocks and posing) are notably more primitive. And the trash scattered everywhere, even in the nicest of homes, suggests nothing so much as Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy. Somehow, it’s not depressing, even with the rich murdering the poor for sport, probably because of the fun Jones seems to have drawing the thing. Nothing seems to mean much, but that keeps the stakes low, and the artist’s habit of filling every bit of space with some doodad or other is pleasant without becoming overcrowded. The result is like James Joyce’s riffs slowed down to a more manageable pace—a gifted brain unwinding for pleasure by extemporizing.