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Duke and Jill
by Ron Kolm
(Unknown Press)

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Duke and Jill starts out as a feverish, deranged comedy. It pretty much ends that way, too. You can read it in just a couple of hours. I can promise you that if you love Ralph Bakshi’s work on Fritz the Cat, you’re going to wish Duke and Jill would go on longer than it does. These are not particularly pleasant or sympathetic people. But they are never boring. Kolm has written exhaustively on his life in the post-doomsday mania that was swallowing up New York in the 1970s and 1980s. This book boils down Kolm’s personal experiences into a series of vignettes, depicting two tragi-comic figures who effortlessly symbolize everything we understand about that time and place. There is so much material on the New York of this era. Duke and Jill is a legitimate standout, which is an impressive achievement in of itself.

The energy of Kolm’s characters, as well as how he paces his short collection, is something along hyperactive lines. You could even say it’s a little cartoonish, which is why the Bakshi comparison will make sense to you, when you read it for yourself. This is all true, but nothing about Duke and Jill feels over-the-top. Even if you only faintly understand that New York City in the 70s/80s was on an unprecedented downward spiral of urban decay, Duke and Jill will retain a strong sense of realism all the way through. Kolm puts Duke and Jill in ludicrous, horrifying situations, but he isn’t cruel to them. He isn’t mocking this era of New York, or the people like Duke and Jill who lived there during that time. They’re still there. They just can’t afford the rent anymore. New York in the present remains a remarkable city. There is just no question that it is a very different place from the metropolis that both embraces and actively tries to destroy Duke and Jill. 

Kolm is not cruel to Duke and Jill. He writes as though he actually misses them. Duke and Jill has a slight romantic twinge for the danger and lunacy of its time period. It doesn’t drown in sentiment. It simply acknowledges that at least to some people, New York was a lot more interesting way back when. These thoughts will occur frequently, as you laugh at the casual hell that Duke and Jill live amongst and bring upon themselves. Kolm brings a unique voice to the crowded market of people who are determined to immortalize a New York City that no longer exists. He unleashes fervent vintage indie-comic book energy on his tribute to the stomping grounds of his youth. The result is one of the best books thus far released from Unknown Press. Kolm provides characters who are heightened, yet not exaggerated. He moves them through this vision of New York at the pace of junkies who are desperate for money, speed, coffee, and collector’s item porn mags. Every page emphasizes Kolm’s ability to tell stories that are sparsely written, yet somehow immensely rich in detail.

Duke and Jill gives Duke and Jill eternal life. When they’re not busy stalking the abandoned subway tunnels, I hope they take a moment to be thrilled about what Kolm has done for them.