Comic Connoisseur: The Dharma Punks is an explosive coming-of-age tale

In 2001, The Dharma Punks debuted on New Zealand newsstands and found overnight success. In a short but illustrious eight-issue run, the comic outsold the X-Men and other mainstream works before fading away into obscurity as a lesser-known indie gem. After 14 years in limbo, however, Ant Sang’s cult classic has finally been collected in a slick new trade paperback.

The Dharma Punks takes place in Auckland, New Zealand in 1994. It follows a group of anarchist punks who put in motion a plan to level a corporate fast food chain on the day of its grand opening.

The story focuses on a young Chinese punk named Chopstick, who is tasked with placing the explosives in the building the night before. However, in the process of doing so, Chopstick’s night takes a multitude of unexpected turns which lead him to face the paradox of his spiritual beliefs and his anarchistic tendencies. Skinhead Neo-Nazis, a mute girl hanging dangerously on a bridge, and the ghost of Kurt Cobain await Chopstick in one long dark night of the soul.

The Dharma Punks is story with equal parts drama and philosophical pondering. The two aspects of the narrative work harmoniously together to make a highly enjoyable experience for readers. The plot is paced provocatively with interspersed flashbacks and flash-forwards, which entices to find out what happens next. Moreover, the world and experiences of Chopstick are immersive. It features an abundance of close-up panel shots, allowing an intimate connection with the story’s lead.

Sang’s artwork for the series fits like a studded leather jacket on a punk rocker; it has a style all its own. The use of a black and white palette instead of coloured artwork contributes successfully to the story’s dark tone. Sang’s character designs are as rich as his narrative and add layers upon layers to his already dynamic cast of characters.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the series is Chopstick’s interactions with the ghost of Kurt Cobain. Unlike Jiminy Cricket, Kurt Cobain’s astral presence takes the role of a blunt guardian angel who is not afraid to speak his mind. Interactions between the characters are darkly hilarious, but also poignant and thoughtful. They are among just some of best scenes in the whole comic.  

There have been a fair share of punk-inspired coming-of-age tales over the years, yet the market never feels oversaturated with their presence. Furthermore, I say that they are some of the finest allegories for growing up that exist — with The Dharma Punks as one of the best ever created. Sang proves that while fashion and attitudes may take different shapes over each generation, the same questions of existence, purpose, and spirituality are still destined to pop up.

The Dharma Punks is an engrossing cult masterwork which continues to be just as relevant today as it was 14 years ago.

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