Magen Cubed is a novelist and comics critic. Her superhero/SFF series THE CRASHERS is coming soon from Booktrope.
Fight Club 2 from writer Chuck Palahniuk and artist Cameron Stewart promised to be a return to postmodern brutality, irony, and fun. When Dark Horse Comics announced the title, I was excited. Fight Club has been one of my favorite books and films respectively since my formative years, chewing through the works of writers like Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis in that all-too-familiar fit of edgy nonconformity. The comic felt like a nostalgic shot in the arm, a triumphant journey back to Palahniuk’s jaded world of self-destruction and false revolutionaries. Fight Club and its 1999 film adaptation have been described as a coming of age story for people in their twenties and thirties, but it still felt relevant to me as teenager. It belonged to my generation as much as those who first read it in the ‘90s, speaking to dissatisfaction with modern society and the hypocrisy of the status quo.
In Fight Club 2, Palahniuk’s scripting is sharp, aggressive, and unflinchingly absurd as he follows the book’s protagonist (now going by Sebastian) into the depths of middle class discontent. His writing transitions smoothly from book to comic, maintaining its characteristic bite and jagged expositional language. Ten years after the events of the book, Sebastian is on medication to suppress his Tyler Durden persona and return to mainstream society. So far the first two issues recall specific book passages to hammer home its sense of cynical, anti-establishment scorn. This device trades nakedly on reader nostalgia, but is ultimately forgivable as a means of set-up.
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Stewart’s brisk, clean artwork is skillfully paced and makes for a fitting collaboration between these two creators. His dense and tightly-composed panels drive the reader through Sebastian’s claustrophobic melancholy as colorist Dave Stewart’s dreary, washed-out palettes compound the hopelessness. Breaking up the drudgery, Stewart’s swift narrative urgency intermittently bursts into full-page splashes of sexual acts or exploding skulls. Dialogue-heavy sequences break into violent images of burning buildings or train collisions as destruction seeps into Sebastian’s otherwise button-down existence. These non-sequiturs unashamedly evoke sex and death with a wry sense of humor, never allowing the book to take itself seriously amid the unfolding psychological drama.
Despite his sojourn into madness, Sebastian has accepted his place in the world and abandoned Tyler’s brutal machinations. He and Marla Singer have married and settled down into a quiet suburban life with their son Junior, whose love of chemistry and DIY explosives physically embodies Tyler’s destructive nature. His family is cold and dysfunctional, but Sebastian tries to make it work. Little does Sebastian know, his twice-weekly hypnotherapy sessions allow Tyler to emerge and continue Project Mayhem on a global scale. Even more troubling, a bored and sex-starved Marla has been switching his medication with placebos. She begins an affair with Tyler in order to feel alive again, ultimately contributing to Tyler’s plot to burn down their house and kidnap Junior as Tyler begins emerging while Sebastian sleeps. With Project Mayhem building momentum, Sebastian and Marla must put aside their distrust to save Junior and stop Tyler by any means necessary.
Fight Club 2 is a competent, well-produced book that captures the detached Generation X-er cynicism of its predecessor with style. It’s not new, it’s just more Fight Club. But that’s also the problem with Fight Club 2. It’s a sequel to a book culturally entrenched in its disdainful vision of 1990’s America. To its detriment, it’s not much more than that, either.
Fight Club made sense when the book came out in 1996, and the movie in 1999. Their messages, while tailored in slightly different ways, were clear and timely. Both mercilessly attacked and deconstructed consumer culture, toxic masculinity, nihilism, armchair revolutions, and western entitlement. Palahniuk did this by packaging the whole charade in the trappings of seemingly enlightened counterculture philosophy. You’re supposed to love Tyler Durden for the same reasons the narrator loved Tyler: he’s better, smarter, and more attractive than you, pumped up on faux intellectualism that sounds incredible on paper. Tyler is a product promising a new and radical way of living, only to sucker you into another level of hypocrisy. This irony is driven home by the sheer volume of Fight Club-inspired clothing and accessories that are still available to allow people to look as cool as they think Tyler is. Tyler Durden is a joke and you, gentle consumer, are the punchline.
But it’s now 2015. The America that Sebastian and Tyler are running amok in is a far different place from the one they knew in 1996. 9/11 happened. The recession happened. Occupy Wall Street happened. Well-organized terrorist networks pose a looming global threat, and America is currently grappling with how to define domestic terrorism within its borders. The socioeconomic landscape has changed drastically as the job market has endured in a state of seemingly terminal uncertainty. The millennial generation (the generation that I happen to belong to) have had to postpone seemingly sacred rites of passage, such as home ownership and raising families, at rates that startle the generations that came before us. American certainly culture hasn’t shaken its corporate leash, but to say that the issue hasn’t been examined and debated to death is a gross understatement.
This is why Fight Club 2 ultimately falls flat. While the characters have aged, the story hasn’t. Sebastian’s malaise at middle class living is as well-trodden as it is patronizing. Marla’s insistence that her husband’s medication is infringing on her personal happiness is tedious. Junior is like one of those obnoxiously smart TV show kids that nobody pays attention to and his parents not-so-secretly regret having. Tyler’s pseudo-philosophical terrorist plot is so unattractive that it’s no longer palatable, let alone romantic. Their individual rebellions against the status quo are meant to be fruitless – a nihilistic comedy of errors that ultimately leads nowhere fast – but their stories aren’t compelling enough to really justify such reexamination. The characters are no longer bold and edgy, just familiar. They don’t make statements or poke fun at the establishment; they just recycle catchy lines in order to sell you a comic book. And that seems weirdly anti-Fight Club to me.
Overall, Fight Club 2’s jaded postmodern absurdity feels out of place in 2015. From its cultural criticism to its gloomy parody of the middle class nuclear family, it’s constantly wagging a finger at its own outdated vision of America. Fight Club 2 is a solidly written and visually entertaining book, and on sheer technical merit alone, it’s a great read. But as a book that sells itself on counterculture, it seems out of step with the culture it’s trying to mock. Longtime fans will revel in its dark humor and pointed scorn, and that’s likely the only real point of the series. It is indeed a nostalgic trip back to Palahniuk’s most celebrated nihilist misadventure, but as I continue reading this series, I find that the story resonates far less with me now than it did when I was a teenager.
In the end, I suppose that’s the real problem. Fight Club aged, but not as gracefully as I once thought.
Magen Cubed is a Contributor to ComiConverse. Follow her on Twitter: @MagenCubed