Reid Fleming: World’s Toughest Milkman, vol. 1
David Boswell (w+a). IDW, 2010.
As a retail industry worker, I have, at least once a day, the fanciful wish to act like an utter asshole and get away with it. Disposing of — not dispensing — pleasantries. Saying and doing exactly what’s on your mind, employment be damned. The incredible torment that Reid Fleming doles out makes him my hero. He is a jerk that makes his own trouble and yet always beats the odds. I think that it is precisely the recurring improbabilities of Reid’s world that creates an astonishing and delightfully violent atmosphere, where no one gets (permanently) hurt and we do the same song-and-dance only a little differently each time.
The Jist: A hell-bent, chain-smoking alcoholic milkman with superhuman strength terrorizes everyone on his route. Dumping milk into a customer’s live fish tank, or crashing his truck almost constantly is the least he can do to give his supervisor, Mr. Crabbe, an aneurism. Both bully and hero (depending on the colour of your collar), Reid Fleming is a most peculiar and endearing jack-ass. Volume One is a collection of several individual books and strips originally published since 1978 (Deep Sea Comics, Eclipse, Dark Horse), including full-colour covers from each. Remember when dialogue text was hand-written neatly? Yeah.
First, a little bit about Boswell. I was surprised to find out that he grew up in parts of southern Ontario (graduated from Sheridan College’s film program in 1974) because well, Reid Fleming’s character just doesn’t reflect the personality traits that most Canadians might like to pride themselves upon — hostility, insobriety, laziness, sadism. Reid is certainly nothing like Johnny Canuck, Nelvana, Alpha Flight or other superheroes more renown with the annals of Canadian comic books, in the way that nationalistic pride is not the agenda here. Reid Fleming does accomplish what I can’t/won’t, yet is an entirely different kind of superhero, in the way that he upholds truths that not only apply but also reflect his readers. Though really, the last time I dismantled a nuclear war-head in mid-air above Ottawa escapes me…
Upon closer inspection, there are indeed sly shout-outs within Boswell’s strips, such as to one hometown of Dundas, Ontario through the name of a local newspaper being read (Dundas World). Or the landscape of hilly streets and cliffs as a nod to Vancouver, the author’s home since 1977 when he began creating the strip (Heartbreak Comics, which is included in Volume One) for underground paper The Georgia Straight. Also a nice surprise? Boswell was a total fox in those days; his bio photo is enough reason to check out this book. He was probably the most dapper guy in the country for 1978 (think Winsor McCay 1910’s dapper), especially in light of the type of alternative scene in which his books were being sold initially. The so-called Alternative Comics Boom of the 80’s saw titles like Reid Fleming, Cerebus, and Yummy Fur on the shelves of headshops and specialty comic book shops only, allowing for a direct mode of distribution that could bypass the filter of the Comics Code Authority, a route that most commercial comics/magazines had to go through in order to land on newsstands1.
So about this photo — a sort of external detail of the book — we have a sense of being out of place with time, which is echoed I think in the entire premise of the comic, especially for an audience of today. I mean, we’re reading a book about a milkman in the 80s for crying out loud. The image of a milkman in crisp white uniform and cap harkens an idealism that includes trust, wholesomeness, modesty, reliability, a friendly smile and the past, as in the days of the soda-jerk. I’ve never seen an actual milkman firsthand in my entire life — then again, being from Scarberia, we don’t even trust the folks in ice cream trucks (just kidding — I’m just a cheapo who’d rather get a tub of Chapmans for the price of a cone). Did this occupation still exist in the advent of supermarkets? The answer is yes. Our admirable friend from Leicestershire, while coming to terms that his occupation will soon become extinct, is unrelenting of this sacred code in his YouTube video. In his commentary about the downsides of his job he says, “ …you can’t just knock off when you want to. You’ve got to stick it out and get the job done,” which is striking because that’s exactly what Reid does without fail, every afternoon in the midst of his shift to catch his favourite TV program, The Dangers of Ivan — once, having commandeered a patron’s living room. Ironically like the TV show that he follows about a man who has been in a coma for something like six seasons, Reid finds his job boring, monotonous and inconsequential. The only reason he tries to stay employed is to impress his girlfriend, the sassy Lena Toast.
So how the heck does a jerk like him keep his job? Partly dumb luck, but it’s mostly the due to all too-trusting Mr. O’Clock, CEO of Milk, Inc. The unreasonable continuity of his employment is highlighted in the Rogue To Riches storyline (Reid Fleming, issues 2 through 6) where he smashes his tenth delivery truck and Mr. O’Clock finally agrees to let him go. Obviously this doesn’t happen without a fight from Reid, including stellar truck/car-chases and an attempt at blackmailing Mr. Crabbe. Reid does a short stint as a cable guy, which really ends up being the same job but with a cooler supervisor. I won’t spoil the ending as to how he gets rich — it’s better that you find out yourself. I will say that Boswell’s film and television influences are quite prevalent here, especially those of Buster Keaton and The Three Stooges.
Also featured in Volume One is the aforementioned Heartbreak Comics, which includes a jail-bird Reid but stars Laszlo the Great “Slavic” Lover (he’s actually Hungarian, as noted in his various untranslated expletives) and his love triangle with the vixen Constance. Heartbreak reads as a solid narrative work despite its original weekly format, and is a fun departure from the everyday milkman life in Reid. I enjoy the subtle undertone of melodrama, the moments of serious emotion between the utter slapstick. Constance’s presence tends to punctuate panels because she is drawn in a more realistic and expressive tone, such that it accentuates her movie-starlet sultriness (think of duo Jessica Rabbit and Bob Hoskins).
Watch for the graphic novel Another Dawn, to be published in Reid Fleming: World’s Toughest Milkman, Volume 2 (release date still TBA). Until then, beware of men in white.
1 – Sex, violence and the modern comic book. CBC Archives. Originally aired April 11, 1988. The Did You Know tab is chock-full of interesting background info. Watch the video, even if just for the interviews with Chester Brown, Mark Askwith and the lovely Margaret Booth. Note that Windows Media Player Plug-In is required, so I suggest viewing it in Explorer if possible.