Column: Retronomicon: Skin Graft: The Adventures of A Tattooed Man

By J. Keith Haney

Prosser, Jerry;  Pleece, Warren. Skin Graft: The Adventures of A Tattooed Man. DC/Vertigo Comics (July-October  1993).

Back in the 1990s, when I first got into comic books, DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint was where I went when I wanted something other than superheroes. It was a cornucopia of weirdness, showcasing Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series; the most famous streetwise mystic in comics, John Constantine, in Hellblazer; and Matt Wagner’s period-specific mysteries of the late 1930s in the excellent Sandman Mystery Theatre. But the real wealth of the imprint could be found in its many miniseries and one-shots. That is where literally anything went and usually did, from old rock stars hooking up with faded gods (Ghostdancing) to steampunk dandies unraveling dark conspiracies (Sebastian O) to a tragicomic fairy tale of a man who is recasting the story of his life in almost Seussian ways (Moonshadow).  Today, I’m going to pull something out of that mix which, to me, symbolizes the weirdness to a T: Skin Graft: The Adventures of A Tattooed Man.

The story starts off with a quotation from Leviticus, explicitly forbidding the practice of tattoos (Anyone who knows a little bit about their Bible should hardly find this surprising; there is a passage decrying male homosexuality  that has been used to justify plenty of homophobic oppression).  We open with a man, with a crescent moon tattooed right between his eyes, writing out a mysterious turn of phrase on what looks like blood: “I didn’t ever know you. I carried a picture of a person in my head that I thought was you, but I took the picture in the dark. When I look at it, I can’t even see your face. Who are you?”

His name is ‘John Oakes’, the seventh son of a seventh son who followed the family business of petty crime. His father even gave him a tattoo on his 18th birthday that summed up the family destiny overall: a gray skull with a banner reading “Born To Lose” in place of the jawbone. He’s doing five years for B&E and assault, with plans to do all the time (in other words, no parole) and learn a trade in the process.  Instead, he meets Abel Tarrant, a long-time con known as “The Tattooed Man”. Oakes finds it funny as there’s not a tattoo on Tarrant anywhere. But there’s a reason for that. His tattoos are made from a magic ink that he can use to bring the images to life when he exerts his will. He takes them on and off whenever he wants to. In John, Tarrant sees a golden opportunity to perform his greatest tattoo work ever: an elaborate system of images that mixes the iconography of the seven Hindu chakras with that of the Hermetic system of the seven planets. This work is more permanent than Tarrant’s usual tattoos (Oakes aptly puts it this way: “Our flesh is forever”) and carries a bizarre power that is hard to control. As he works on Oakes, Tarrant keeps making mysterious references to a friend in Japan who will be pleased with the finished work.

Oakes goes on to become a tattoo artist, himself, once he finishes up in prison…only to find that his past has caught up with him. His clients are getting eviscerated by the Yakuza for their skins, working on the orders of Mizoguchi Kenji, renegade tattoo master of the Kobe school. This puts Oakes on a collision course with his one-time mentor that will leave no real winners, when all is said and done.

Warren Pleece’s art style is, appropriate to a story about tattoos, very line-heavy, making out details with the simplest of lines that are expertly offset with solid inks and desaturated, naturalistic colouring. The line approach is especially effective during the series’ action sequences, conveying the power and swiftness of movement in punches, grabs and kicks, in a manner reminiscent of Jack Kirby’s finest work.  However, there are three sequences (pages 21 and 22 of issue #2, and pages 10, 11, 18, and 19 of issue #3) that simply don’t work. All three sequences are gatefold spreads that each have twelve small pictures surrounding the outer edge of one big central picture. The layout is simply too confusing to truly follow, as the reader is never quite sure what picture goes first on the outer edge and how it fits into the central picture. Given everything else that Mr. Pleece got right on the artwork, I am willing to chalk this one up to a noble experiment-gone-wrong.

Jerry Prosser’s dream-like story has been hard for me to sum up adequately (Its overall feel reminds me of the psychedelic Lee Marvin film, Point Blank). Having given it much thought, I think that the central theme is choice. People often have more choices than what they would like to pretend to have, be it what they do with their lives, whom they consider family, or what they value. The tattoo of “Born To Lose” perfectly sums up and symbolizes this all-too-common surrender to the world around a person. Oakes learns how to make choices beyond his perceived limits. But every choice has a trade-off, a price, a consequence that will come back to haunt you or hurt you. Sometimes, you never realize the price of something until it is far, far too late (Witness Oakes’ doomed clients, Tarrant’s drive to create a great work, or Mizoguchi’s lust for forbidden power). Thus, a tattoo serves as the story’s metaphor for the very concept of choice, a decision that literally marks you forever.

As much press as Sandman, Preacher, and 100 Bullets have gotten for the Vertigo imprint, I am firmly convinced that the lesser luminaries are an equally important reason that it succeeded in its 20+ years of publication. Trust me when I say that I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg, dear readers. There is much, much more to explore in this territory and I imagine that I will in future columns. Please stay tuned….

Skin Graft: The Adventures of A Tattooed Man is available on Amazon.com