FOR DECADES, Casey Kasem, the disc jockey and “Scooby-Doo” voice actor who died three years ago this month, would end his “American Top 40″ franchise radio shows with a sign-off that seemed to suit both the long reach and relative impermanence of communication that floated along the airwaves. His 12 simple pseudo-inspiring words: “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”
Jillian Tamaki, in her beguilingly layered new graphic work “Boundless” (Drawn and Quarterly) — a collection of short comics from recent years — hilariously puts the lie to such a rhetorical dichotomy within the tools of the 21st century.
In Tamaki’s collected stories, most any attempt at transcendence — corporal, emotional, spiritual — is bundled with the potential life malware of loss or sacrifice.
The effect upon the reader can be organically disorienting, visually jarring — and, sometimes, sublime.
Tamaki, the Caldecott- and Eisner-winning author of “This One Summer” and “SuperMutant Magic Academy,” has a knowing knack for grounding these virtuosically drawn tales in the familiar — right before launching into flights that challenge our sense of mind and matter and what matters.
And it all often glides along prose so clean and in control that you surrender to its sharp, smart wit.
One of the more satisfyingly realized stories here is “Body Pods,” in which IRL relationships are mapped along headline-grabbing events tied to a sci-fi/action film. Our fascination with celebrity and fame is skewered, as fans mark the untimely deaths of the movie’s actors (“The Internet went crazy,” we are told wryly. “Talk of a curse and whatnot.”) When a moviegoer’s investment in manifold aspects of a film — from aesthetic achievement to actor mortality — is so complete, does this experience eclipse even one’s own relationships? (“Marcella was disgusted,” a caption says. “She fell deeper into depression with every announcement Disney made regarding their plans.”)
The question keeps resurfacing: Can content that lives in the digital somehow imbue meaning into the actual life ephemeral?
The Internet also seduces in the story of “Jenny,” in which the title woman is entranced by a “mirror Facebook” in which her avatar is leading a different, perhaps better, life. In a deliciously satiric twist, Jenny doesn’t seek grounding in nature, but instead goes to work in a nursery only because the foliage provides cover — all the better to surreptitiously check her smartphone.
Many of the women in “Boundless” only want to slip the surly bonds of dreary quotidian existence — what if I could fly? Or live an alternate existence? Or at least have better skin? — but the siren’s sales pitch also drowns out the caveats. With a pitch-perfect ear, Tamaki mimics the language of these cultural come-ons.
Most manufactured entertainment in these worlds must be viewed with a jaundiced eye, and you are absorbed at your own peril. You might even join the cast of a once-cutting-edge “sitcom-porno” series — in a tale titled “Darla!” — with a healthy degree of irony. But years later, once you’re hawking your autographs at fan conventions, sadly capitalizing on the prostitution of nostalgia, you and your head shots become the subjects of the derisive laughter.
Perhaps only the nonhuman beasts have things all figured out here, so sure of their purpose as they respect their natural bounds. Then again, even a rodent can feel hemmed in by the borders of territorial urine markings, from a rival who rules because of just a coupla extra ounces of heft. In this world, even the soaring bird can be brought down by the near-invisible wisp of a spider’s web.
What to do? Keeping your feet planted can beget monotony. Reaching for the stars can invite fatality.
In the better stories within “Boundless,” perhaps the wisest path is to laugh at the absurdity of teetering between two such poles.
Tamaki’s tightrope-precise lines at least provide a welcome way to enjoy the treacherous view.