Remember me? I used to live for music. Remember me? I brought your groceries in. — Leonard Cohen, "First We Take Manhattan"
"The King" is, on the surface, simply an engrossing 250 page graphic novel about how Elvis Presley became, in the minds of many people, a God of Song, and whether or not the ubiquitous Elvis sightings a few years ago had a basis in fact. This God drinks and drugs and orgies with the best of the gods, but there is a deeper heartache to be found in the mission he needs to accomplish.
As the story unfolds, in unpretentious but effective cartooning with a delicate blue shading, the plot's loping shadow crosses many psychic landmarks in our popular culture, such as events which turn entertainment into meaning for the masses, and music itself into a mystery religion. Events such as the passing of Presley, and his relationship with thuggish apostles upon whom he bestowed grace with the presence of his evolutionary talent — as well as others he unexpectedly touched, who all brought something they needed in their souls to him.
More than that, in an intriguing twist, it also analyzes the oft-considered parasitic nature between entertainment journalism and celebrity performers by asserting that these are deliberate relationships, to the benefit of the artist as well as the reporter. The entire book is based around a burned-out tabloid writer named Paul Erfurt who has somehow climbed the journalistic ladder only to stall and stagger after struggles with a bad marriage and his own feelings of inadequacy. Or are those the real reasons he hasn't kept going with the success he found as an "Elvis reporter" back in the 80s? Had his muse dissipated, and he needed others with obsessions he enflamed in the world, to draw him back into participating with it?
By seeing tabloid "journalists" as creative types who need some sort of muse, Koslowski strains our sympathy factor — that shit at every newsstand doesn't seem to be inspired by anything but moneymaking. That's one of the main problems with the book, which is paced superbly like a noir thriller and illustrated with well written (if broad) and perfectly caricaturized characters — the protagonist's redemption doesn't seem much worth the effort. Much like other good classic noir, full of moral failures and spiritual fuck-ups, here they come in the roles of a suspicious entourage made up of a psycho, a stripper, a gambling addict, and a religious exploiter who have all been assisted by someone who is either lying or fucking up reality for himself, with the rest of us caught up in it. Hey, not unlike the culture of celebrity itself.
And yet that sort of judgment is against what's really at the heart of "The King" – this isn't merely about a person who had single-handedly transformed popular culture devising a conspiracy to live on differently, but how we all, in our small, wretched lives, need something greater, more magnificent than ourselves to cling to and shine by. The sad but brilliant truth is that when Erfurt actually chooses to tell the story he was born to tell, or inasmuch of it that he chooses to reveal, he goes back to the lurid devices of consumer reporting to deliver it. Like they say about the codes of the Bavarian Illuminati, the Truth doesn't even bother to hide between the lines.