Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Matt Howarth and His Keif Llama

Wasting the wide range of my xeno-tech training on a home office job was like putting a carpenter in charge of the psycho-ward. Like any fish out of water, I didn’t fit in. Bureaucracy said I didn’t belong.

So they finally shipped me out.

Murder on the O’Brien Express‘, published in Keif Llama – Xeno-Tech no. 4

« The ability to think like another species is a rare and galactically valuable gift. Those who are capable of it are called xenotechs. »

Technically, Kēif Llama (pronounced keef yamma) is a government official specializing in communication with alien species. Off record, she tends to poke her nose into beehives, and wards off attempts to deter her from doing so until she gets to the bottom of whatever’s happening, often pursuing the investigation far beyond formal confed business. When the government wants her to provide an quick’n’easy solution, or to hush things up, she kicks up a well-justified fuss. For this reason, despite being a top-notch xeno-tech, the planets to which she gets sent are further and further away from civilized life, the missions assigned to her increasingly inconsequential. Inconsequential to the government, that is – following the thread of a seemingly random event, Llama often stumbles upon some serious plot, often than not concocted by some evil corporation (and occasionally supported by the government itself).

The back cover of Particle Dreams no. 1 (October 1986, Fantagraphics).

Her name is probably a sly wink to Keith Laumer, a sci-fi/fantasy writer whose Retief series is about a diplomat solving alien conflicts on various planets. Except that Retief always comes out with his nose clean and his credentials reinforced by his success. Llama, on the other hand, stumbles through the puzzling and melancholy worlds she’s banished to with an increasing sense of despondence and powerlessness. She often lacks information to make informed decisions, though not through lack of trying; and in this universe of shades of grey, it is often unclear which is right and which is wrong. Saving one alien life can lead to a whole planet perishing. Overlooking a minor detail means disaster, and when hindsight is 20/20, her burden of guilt is heavy to bear.

Particle Dreams no. 4 (June 1987, Fantagraphics).

In FF1986: Keif Llama, Lars Ingebrigtsen, who likes this series with a few reservations, argues that “The stories are problematic. More than a few of them end with a sense of “Huh? That’s the end? Did I miss something?” And most of them feature a genocide of some sort or another. After a while, it starts grating on you.” I would respectfully disagree: these stories are a bit like a slice of life. Sometimes we start in the middle of something that’s already under way, and sometimes we get but a small glimpse of some larger, out-of-reach picture. Not everything gets explained, but that’s not because Howarth couldn’t tie the ends of this plot together: he’s our guide through strange worlds, but even a guide doesn’t know everything. This is *excellent* science-fiction, as far as I’m concerned, imaginative and wide of scope. And Llama does have her moments of triumph (made more precious by their rarity), when she manages to outwit the fools, the bureaucrats, the religious fanatics whose actions would lead to a destruction of a precarious ecological balance or a grave injustice. Howarth’s hallmark humorous winks are scattered throughout the stories, giving the readers a welcome respite from the frequently heavy subject matter.

But more importantly, it’s those ‘problematic’ – whether downright cryptic or just lacking closure – endings that make Kēif Llama into a truly striking body of work. Depressing, it can certainly be (thus the importance to not binge-read your way through these comics, assuming you get your hands on a bunch of them at the same time). Yet as we accompany Llama on her ‘journey of discovery’ that leads her (and us) through a maze of corrupt (or just so weary they can’t be bothered) officials, profit-hungry conglomerates, macho idiots who can’t bear to take orders from women, and alien locals who mostly want to be left alone or refuse to explain their culture to an ‘ugly and smelly’ human, the weight of the universe Howarth has created settles squarely on our shoulders, and keeps us pinned until some uncomfortable truths are faced, commonly held beliefs are unravelled, and a few tears are shed. Happy endings often come at a heavy sacrifice.

Page from Particle Dreams no. 4 (June 1987, Fantagraphics).

On a lighter note, fans of Matt Howarth will indubitably have noticed the abundant presence of tentacles in all of his series. Howarth is exceptionally good at drawing aliens: tangible, ‘believable’ aliens who come in a staggering variety of shapes and sizes, and rarely look like some Earth animal with extra appendages (something artists of more limited imagination resort to quite a lot).

Patience, published in Particle Dreams no. 6 (November 1987, Fantagraphics).
Keif Llama – Xeno-Tech no. 3 (November 1988, Fantagrahics).
A page from The Thorn Beneath the Rose, published in Keif Llama – Xeno-Tech no. 3 (November 1988, Fantagraphics).

A small-time sheriff, alien as he may be, summarizes the type of thanks Llama frequently gets in this tirade: « You’re an ambulatory disaster area, Llama. Smuggling fiascos, international incidents, they can’t even ship you to the frontier without trouble following you. You’re in transit to Edison-Blue, Llama. I don’t want you or your bad luck in my town any longer than is painfully necessary. »

Keif Llama – Xeno-Tech no. 4 (December 1988, Fantagraphics).
A page from Down and Out There, published in Keif Llama – Xeno-Tech no. 5 (January 1989, Fantagraphics).
Page from Dee-Pendence, published in Keif Llama Xenotech vl 2. no. 3 (December 2005, Aeon).

✶ ds

2 thoughts on “Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Matt Howarth and His Keif Llama

  1. matt howarth October 13, 2020 / 17:54

    I have continued to do Keif stories as a series of digital color graphic novels that are available from me at bugtownmall.com. The work has really evolved.

    Liked by 1 person

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