Discovering Dortmunder: The Hot Rock

You know, it’s getting on for forty years since I first read this book: to still be laughing at the jokes this much later should give you some idea how good this story is.
It’s also the first time I’ve read the book with an analytical eye, assessing how it’s put together, and how it fares as the opening book of a series, which has led me to some intriguing discoveries.
The first thing anyone who goes on to read the entire Dortmunder series will realise is that the tone of The Hot Rock is very different from its successors. This is very often the case with series – compare Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic to any of the more recent Discworld novels – and is even more so here because this book was planned as a stand-alone.
And let’s not forget that this was originally a Parker plot. The Hot Rock was conceived as a hard-boiled crime novel, and more so than any other of its successors, its story strays not too far from that model.
Let me illustrate that by looking closely at Phase One (the novel is broken into Six Phases, each dealing with a stage of the continuing heist). We meet Dortmunder on the last day of his second prison term, escorted to the gate by the Warden, who talks about redemption but, underneath it all, has no belief that Dortmunder will change.
He’s met outside by Kelp, a colleague (these kind of people do not have friends), in a stolen car. Kelp has a job lined up. They are hired to steal the Balabomo Emerald by Major Iko, Cultural Attache at the Talabwo Embassy. Until recently, Talabwo was part of a British colony with what is now Akinzi. On Independence, the two tribes warred before splitting into separate countries. Both tribes worship the Emerald. Akinzi has it, Talabwo wants it back. It’s currently in New York, on Exhibition.
Dortmunder brings in three more men: Stan Murch, driver, Roger Chefwick, locksmith and Alan Greenwood, utility man. The gang study the museum, draw up and execute a scheme to get hold of the diamond. The plan works perfectly, up to a point: the gang get the Emerald but an alarm is set off and they have to flee. Everyone but Greenwood gets away: Greenwood is carrying the Emerald.
So far, this is a straight crime novel plot. But this isn’t that kind of book. Whilst keeping strictly to a realistic plot, Westlake makes certain that we know this is not for real by the character of the players.
It starts with the first line: “Dortmunder blew his nose.” He blows his nose into a kleenex, which he has to hold in his hand as he listens to the Warden lecturing him, all the way from the office to the gate, incidentally costing Dortmunder the $300 he was due for ‘selling’ his cell, which was going to be handed over just before he was let out. So Dortmunder shakes hands with the Warden. With the hand into which the kleenex has been soaking.
Then there’s Kelp. Kelp prefers luxury cars. Doctors have luxury cars with all the latest gadgets, like electric windows. So Kelp only steals cars with M.D. Plates. Unfortunately, he’s so busy trying to work out which switch is which, he ends up attracting Dortmunder’s attention by nearly running him down.
The rest of the gang are similarly not quite conventional when it comes to crooks: Murch is a car nut who lives with his cab-driver Mom, plays LPs of engines revving, roaring and screeching at Indianapolis and always explains what route he’s taken to get anywhere, Chefwick is a model railway nut, with an extensive home layout in his basement, and Greenwood has eyes for the ladies.
This section also includes our first visit to the O.J Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, where we meet Rollo the barman, tall, meaty and balding, who knows his customers by their drinks, our first walk down the little passage with the payphone and the toilets, and our first meeting in the back room whose walls are invisible due to the cases stacked, leaving space for a table, a light with a reflector and a half dozen seats.
But throughout Phase One, to borrow Clive James’s words in discussing Alan Bennett, the jokes are decoration, not architecture. The plot is completely realistic, whereas the characters are just that bit off-centre. That is, until the last page of this Phase, with Greenwood trapped on a mezzanine floor, with guards approaching ahead and behind, no concealment, no cover, no escape.
So he eats the Emerald.
At that moment, the book lifts out of the realistic story and starts to follow its own, slightly skew-whiff logic. It’s not just the characters who display their idiosyncrasies, but now the plot starts to wobble off-centre. It may stay pretty close to the hard-boiled milieu throughout Phase Two, in which the gang have to break Greenwood out of prison to find out where he’s stashed the Emerald, but as soon as we learn that this is not the end of the caper, the plot breaks free of its realistic tramlines and starts to head towards improbability.
Westlake judges carefully how to up the ante at each stage. Having started with a pretty straight crime story, he takes care to make each step an extension of the earlier path until the part with the life-sized model train and the mental sanatorium becomes perfectly plausible because the ground has been so expert;y prepared.
He even puts into words the gag that sums up the whole, ridiculous story, when the crooked lawyer Andy Prosker comments that he has heard of the habitual criminal, of course, but that this is the first instance in the world of the habitual crime.
By the time the job is done, and the gang have in their hands the Balabomo Emerald, the audience is just waiting for something to go wrong. And it does. Westlake’s hinted at it in advance, so it comes as no surprise, in fact with a roar of recognition, when Iko plots a double-cross, intending to return to Talabwo with the Emerald – and Talabwo’s new Government Legal Advisor, E. Andrew Prosker – without paying the gang. Having finally got the diamond after so many efforts, Dortmunder and Co. have to steal it again. This time, from their own client.
All that trouble, and they don’t get paid after all.
Dortmunder, however, is not a planner for nothing. Iko has promised to find the money and pay them, given time, and Dortmunder knows he can rely on that. In the meantime, he turns the Emerald in at the Akinzi Embassy, not for money but in return for two things: one of Akinzi’s perfect replicas of the Balabomo Emerald, and a promise that they won’t announce they’ve got the real jewel until Dortmunder says so.
Which is going to be right after Major Iko has paid him $200,000 for a piece of glass…
The Hot Rock was an immediate success and it has stayed in print since first appearing in 1970. It was optioned and filmed, with a screenplay by William Goldman. It was the first of five films (so far) to have been made from Dortmunder novels, and is distinctive in being the only one to use Dortmunder’s name. It starred Robert Redford as Dortmunder, which is casting against type to say the least and, this being a Hollywood film, the ending was changed to allow the gang to get away with the Emerald themselves.
Coming out ahead, except in being still out of jail, is not going to be a common characteristic of this series.
It’s a fine start. Of course, it lacks the multitude of mannerisms, schticks and tics that the characters accumulate in future books – interestingly, there are no physical descriptions of any of the gang, with the exception of Chefwick, who is in late middle-age, skinny and short: it’s not giving away too much to say here that Chefwick doesn’t make the cut into the second book of the series, Bank Shot.
But overall, The Hot Rock does everything to establish the laconic, pared down, low-life world of Dortmunder and Co. If it’s more serious and hard-boiled here than the series as a whole, if the gang are more prone to wield guns and threaten (though not actually perform) harm than they are later, if the plot is more serious than the story, it’s still a superb, and very funny book for all those contradictions.


A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Introduction

Welcome to Astro City

It probably seems by now that I have totally fallen out of love with the superhero. That’s not entirely accurate, though: it’s more of a case that I am not willing to follow modern day superheroes into the places where they congregate. Time, circumstance and an increasingly jaded set of creators and audience have closed off all possibilities outside an ever-narrower band, in which pain, terror, destruction and degradation are the only applicable sensations.
It isn’t that I think these things should be expunged, be brushed under the carpet as unacceptable, morally unclean, beyond representation. These are perfectly valid areas of exploration. But these are, or properly should be, part of a spectrum, and instead they are the whole of what may be permitted.
It’s like comics and superheroes have become a species of pornography that can only remain stimulating by becoming ever more hardcore.
Thankfully, even now, it’s not totally like that. There is an alternative, and by great good fortune, it’s actually due to come back in June 2013, after a wait of three years.
Astro City (formerly known as Kurt Busiek’s Astro City) has been around since 1995, although for various reasons, mostly to do with the health issues Busiek has been facing for the last decade and a bit) there have only been just over fifty issues published so far. The complete Astro City can be read in a series of eight graphic novels.
Through all its time, the series has had a consistent team of creators. It was originally an idea of  Kurt Busiek, who has written every issue to date, it is drawn by Brent Anderson (for a time Anderson did only pencils, during which time he was complemented by Willie Blyberg on inks) , and all the series’ covers are painted by Alex Ross, who works in close collaboration with the other two creators on developing not only the characters, heroes and villains, but also Astro City itself.
What, then, is Astro City? Who is it about? What distinguishes it from other series?
The first answer is Kurt Busiek. Born in Boston in 1960, Busiek didn’t get into comics until he was 14 but immediately became fascinated with the intricate continuity and plethora of series interlinks that characterised Marvel Comics. He made his first professional sale to DC in 1983 and, after a decade on the margins, was catapulted to prominence with the 1994 four-part series, Marvels, on which he collaborated with Ross to produce what was, effectively, a history of the Marvel Universe from 1940 to 1974, seen through the eyes of a bystander, news photographer Phil Sheldon.
With Ross’s stunning artwork, demonstrating that it was, after all, possible for a highly realistic painted series to actually function as a comics story, Marvels was a massive success, and Busiek has been a popular writer ever since, working extensively at both Marvel and DC.
He’s been described as something of a schematic writer, and it’s true that, like Marvels, much of his mainstream work utilises existing elements in continuity to build interesting and entertaining stories, many of which effectively evoke the joys of older-style series.
But Astro City has always been the place where Busiek can operate without the demands of others’ continuity or editorial requirements, where he can take the opportunity to write the kind of superhero stories that the big Two won’t publish. In mainstream comics, the fight is the thing that the story is about: in Astro City, it is the last and least thing of importance.
Because Busiek loves superheroes, remains fascinated by them, and believes that they are considerably more flexible than the mainstream industry gives them credit for. At Marvel and DC, the superhero symbolises adolescent, male, power-fantasy: in Astro City, the superhero – indeed, not just the hero, but the villain as well – can stand for almost any kind of story.
The choice of Anderson as artist is also an inspired one. He’s been working professionally on both superhero and independent comics since the early Eighties, and uses a detailed photorealistic style that exactly suits the down-to-Earth nature of Astro City. He is flexible and thoughtful with layouts, a better-than-capable depictor of superheroes in action, and yet principally concerned with expression and character in amongst the occasional bombast.
He and Ross work closely together to develop both the City itself, with its varying districts and moods, and its colourful – and not so colourful – inhabitants.
The series has sometimes been described as “everyday life in a superhero universe”, and indeed that is what it is. The series has no star. Stories move from character to character, from time period to time period. Sometimes, as introduced in Marvels, the story is seen from the bystander’s eyes, dealing with the reality of life in a City that attracts colourful costumed characters. At others, the hero or villain is the centre of the story, but the story is still about the reality of the life they live, the effect that life has on others, on the world around it.
Many of the characters are analogues of famous figures. Samaritan, to whom we are introduced in the first issue, is an immensely powerful, flying hero. He comes from a future which his own actions wiped out, saving the world but stranding himself in the here-and-now, in which he uses his vast powers to protect as many as he can. He is, and is not, Superman, in the same way that the First Family – a multi-generational family of scientific and super-powered adventurers – is and is not the Fantastic Four.
Other characters are less analogues, allowing for stories to be told that comment upon the sources, but rather other aspects of the archetypes from which heroes are created. M.P.H. Is the speedster: his powers apparently derive from a 15% alien overlay. He’s neither The Flash nor Quicksilver, and indeed his only appearance of any great substance is in a Special Edition devoted to the crime-fighting android doll, Beautie (I don’t need to tip you off to that one, I hope).
The thing is that, one day, there’ll be a story about M.P.H. The world of Astro City is large, it contains many characters, and it’s been around since the First World War and Busiek’s happy to explore all of it. Some stories, like that of the fate of the Silver Agent, hang around in the background, for years (first hinted at, obliquely, in issue 2, in 1995, the story was not wrapped up until 2010).
What Astro City does is to tell the iconic stories, the ones that define characters, or times, or settings. Once we see The Blue Knight, we understand him, who he is, what he does, by what he is driven. Thereafter, though he may appear as a part of others’ stories, we are not staled by repetition, by monthly reappearances in which he does what he does over and again, some inspired, some written to simply give us something this month.
It’s a Comic Book Universe, as big and complicated, as wide and far-reaching as Marvel’s or DC’s, in one single comic.
And it’s back, from Vertigo Comics, in 2013.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to reread and blog about Astro City’s history, and I’m going to review the new issues as they come out. You’re invited to join me.

You are now leaving Astro City. Safe driving.

The Prisoner: episode 5 – The Schizoid Man – synopsis

Thunder crashes. The credit sequence runs.
After an establishing shot of the sign outside Number Six’s cottage, we go inside to find him stood behind the breakfast bar in the kitchen. An untidy heap of renner cards – square cards showing red symbols on a cream background – are on the bar top and Number Six has the remaining cards in front of him, face down.
Unusually, he is not alone. A young woman with long dark hair, dressed in a red and white hooped Village top and slacks is sat on a buffet, looking away from him with an intent expression on her face. She is Number Twenty-Four although, again unusually, he addresses her as Alison.
He turns over the remaining cards, each time saying “Now”. They are, respectively, circle, star, square, cross and three wavy lines. Though she can’t see any of the cards, Alison correctly identifies each one.
The test over, she becomes more bubbly, thanking Number Six for practising with her, and for believing in her when so many others wouldn’t. She also asks if she can take another picture for the forthcoming Village Festival. Number Six jokes about whether there’s any event in which she hasn’t entered.
It’s clear the two are simpatico. Alison has got 17 out of 25 on this run and 73 out of 100 on the last four.
She is carrying a heavy Polaroid camera as she manoeuvres for position to take a photo. Accidentally, she knocks a heavy soda siphon onto Number Six’s hand,raising a blood-bruise at the base of the nail on his left forefinger. Nevertheless, he poses for a picture, holding a spread of cards: it is badly arranged, with the cards covering half his face.
That night, the new Number Two, a young, fresh-faced, collegiate type, enters the Control Room and orders up surveillance on Number Six. He is sleeping fitfully. Number Two wants a deeper sleep, and orders up the Pulsator. The light above Number Six’s bed starts flashing and beeping in time. It descends towards him until he falls into a deeper. Hypnotic sleep.
Two doctor’s in white coats enter his bedroom, lift him onto a stretcher and carry him away. Almost as an afterthought, they collect his watch and calendar, the last of which is set to tomorrow’s date, February 10. Elsewhere, his arm is prepared using an electrical device and he is given an injection. He is seen sat up in bed, looking somewhat bemused. The Doctors, holding a metal pole, advance on him, softly intoning, ‘Left hand, Number Twelve, left hand’. If he pushes the pole away with his right hand, he gets an electric shock. If he uses his left hand, which is protected by a rubber glove, he does not.
The sequence ends with the calendar being placed on a bedside table. It still reads  February 10.
Number Six wakes up, ostensibly the day after his session with Alison. His hair has been re-styled and is now black, and he has a full-grown moustache. He is unaware of any of this until he rubs his face to refresh himself and feels the moustache. He pulls at it but it is real. His changed appearance, and his presence in a completely different cottage, older in style, more fussy and full with objects, comes as a total shock.
Number Six is startled when the phone rings. It is Number Two, asking if he’d slept alright after the flight and inviting him to breakfast. Number Two speaks to him as Number Twelve. Number Six checks his wardrobe, which has all-new Village clothes. To the piped blazer is pinned the Penny Farthing badge, with a number 12 on it. Number Six unpins and crumples it.
He leaves to walk to the Green Dome. Outside his door, an Asian man in a turban greets him as Number Twelve. He automatically responds with ‘Be Seeing You’, doing the thumb-and-forefinger gesture with his left hand. It shocks him. When another Villager en route greets him as Number Twelve, he asks her why she’s using that number: she replies that it is what he was called the last time she saw him.
Number Two greets him as an old friend. He’s delighted to see him back, comments on what resistance there was to having him reassigned here. Number Six is suspicious but clearly has no idea what this is about. He’s offered breakfast, a la carte or table d’hôte. He decides to choose for himself, but turns his nose up at bacon and egg, bacon and kidney and kippers, but falls wolfishly on the American breakfast, flapjacks (these are not the health bars now widely available, but rolled up pancakes). The breakfast that has been prepared for him turns out to be the same: Number Two asks if “Number Twelve” thought he’d forgotten that they’d nick-named him Flapjack Charlie.
This is too much for Number Six, who demands to know what this is all about. Number Two immediately turns serious: his friend has been brought her to crack the Village’s prize pupil, Number Six, who cannot be subjected to normal methods as he’s wanted intact. Number Six has a very highly developed sense of self, which is where they will attack him. Besides being a superb field agent, Number Twelve bears a startling resemblance to Number Six: colour and restyle his hair, shave off his moustache, they would look alike.
Number Two jokes apologetically about Number Twelve’s moustache, and how Susan hated it when he previously had to shave it off, refused to kiss him for a month until it was regrown.
Of course, Number Six has seen all through this and, angrily bit icily, he states that the Village will never be able to convince him that he’s not ‘your Number Six’. Number Two looks puzzled, but then laughingly approves of his getting into character immediately. However, he warns “Number Twelve” to be careful, Number Six is right-handed where “Number Twelve” is left-handed.
In order to be sure he can identify “Number Twelve” afterwards, Number Two gives him the password Gemini.
Unable to make an impression, Number Six is led away to be ‘turned into’ himself. He’s then taken to his own cottage to confront the returning “Number Six”. Immediately, he notes several minor differences. Number Two warns him not to try that on: Number Six has a very strong sense of territory. Six-as-Twelve is left alone.
When Twelve-as-Six enters the cottage, Six-as-Twelve is truly shocked at the resemblance. Twelve-as-Six is absolutely identical, except that he wears a white blazer with black piping, and a Number Six badge. He’s identical in speech and character, immediately seeing through what is planned, being sardonically dismissive,  and treating Six-as-Twelve with amused contempt.
Rattled, Six-as-Twelve tries to regain the initiative by acting as host and offering drinks, not nothing is where it should be and Twelve-as-Six locates and pours for him. The same thing goes for cigars: Six-as-Twelve can only smoke Black Russian cigarettes: Number Six’s cigars choke him.
Steadily growing more amused, Twelve-as-Six invites a series of comparisons in Number Six’s skills, in the Recreation Room, a place he, but not Six-as-Twelve, is familiar with. Twelve-as-Six keeps his opponent off-balance by constantly harping on Six-as-Twelve’s instinctive use of the incorrect left hand. At shooting, fencing and boxing, Twelve-as-Six is clearly a better Number Six than Six-as-Twelve.
The last, impromptu bout was ended prematurely by Rover, who escorts the pair to the Green Dome. Inside, Twelve-as-Six is seized,interrogated and tortured as an imposter, whilst Number Two is supportive of and apologetic to Six-as-Twelve, who is keeping his disturbance well-hidden. When Twelve-as-Six refuses to break, Six-as-Twelve decides to break the deadlock off his own bat. Number Two is nervous but allows him to go ahead.
Six-as-Twelve phones Alison and asks her to come over immediately with the cards. She is very reluctant, but agrees to do so. When she arrives, she is stunned to see the doubles. Six-as-Twelve assures her that she can resolve the little problem. Each man will do a run of five cards,which will prove who is authentic. Number Two looks very dubious about this.
Six-as-Twelve starts. Alison gets the first card right but, to his increasing panic, none of the rest. With Twelve-as-Six, she gets all five correct. She also identifies Twelve-as-Six as the real Number Six.
She produces the photo of yesterday, with Number Six holding the cards. Six-as-Twelve snatches it, looks at it, crumples it up and shoves it in a pocket. Alison then identifies a simpler way to tell the real Number Six: he has a mole on the inside of his left wrist. Twelve-as-Six has it, Six-as-Twelve hasn’t. With a humiliating smile, Twelve-as-Six escorts Alison out.
Number Two explodes at Six-as-Twelve for trying that very costly experiment: Number Six and the girl have a genuine rapport. He castigates the Doctors for overlooking the mole. It’s been a colossal setback, and they will have to work hard to overcome it.
Six-as-Twelve goes back to Number Twelve’s cottage, but he is restless and cannot sleep. The massive reversals of the day have shaken him. Number Two and Twelve-as-Six observe him, reckoning that it is only a matter of time.
Six-as-Twelve starts tapping on his knee with the fingers of his left hand. Suddenly conscious of what he’s doing, he notices his forefinger. There is a blood-bruise under the nail, about halfway up. He hunts out Alison’s photo, examines it with a magnifying glass. It shows the newly created bruise at the base of the nail. It also shows the calendar saying February 10. But the bruise is proof that those events didn’t happen yesterday.
With the evidence that about a month must have passed, Number Six’s memory starts to feed him with images of the varying stages of brainwashing he’s undergone to set up this complex situation. He finds evidence that his cigars have been doctored. He’s still inconvenienced by having to use his left hand, but after using it to hold a shorting-out lamp, and grounding himself, the resultant shock destroys the last vestige of the conditioning.
Number Six breaks curfew to go to his own cottage. His absence is soon noticed and an alert raised. En route, he encounters two guards, who demand the password. Knowing Gemini is false, he gives it anyway and knocks both out. His cottage door is blocked by Rover but he creates a decoy by sending a mini-moke away and gets in.
Number Twelve appears to be asleep but instead is alert, and has a dangerous nerve-gas pistol. Number Six distracts him by pretending to be confused, and coming undone at the seams: when Number Twelve moves to call Number Two, Number Six jumps him.
This time it is no contest: Number Six is clearly superior. He breaks Number Twelve, forcing him to confirm that his name is Curtis and that the real password is The Schizoid Man. The noise of hunting outside distracts Number Six, and Number Twelve breaks free and runs outside. Number Six pursues him. They are confronted by Rover. Number Six gives the true password first. When Number Twelve breaks and tries to run, Rover pursues and kills him.
Number Six sees a chance. He goes inside and dons the white jacket with the Number Six badge before phoning Number Two. Giving his name as Curtis, he reports to a horrified Number Two that Number Six is dead.
Number Two is still agitated in the morning. “Number Twelve” has been summoned back to report on his failure. Number Six disputes this, claiming that he did his job of breaking Number Six, and couldn’t know he’d go berserk. It was Number Two’s plan and his responsibility. Number Two looks surprised: it wasn’t his plan and Curtis knows it. Number Six bluffs it out. Number Two tries to smooth things over.
Before he leaves, the General wants “Number Twelve” to talk to Alison, to see  if she has any insights. This worries Number Six, but he can’t refuse. After he leaves, Number Two evidently considers the possibility that Number Six is impersonating Curtis but shakes the idea off.
At Alison’s Number Six tries to be brash and distant. He’s deliberately curt, dismissive of the very idea of rapports. Alison insists they exist, and she and Number Six had one. As she does, she takes out a cigarette behind his back: Number Six withdraws his lighter, turn and holds it up for her. The two freeze for a moment, before Number Six makes a hasty escape.
At Number Twelve’s cottage, he changes into the man’s suit. In his wallet he finds a photo of an attractive blonde, on which is written, “From your loving wife, Susan”.
On the drive to the helicopter, Number Two asks “Number Twelve” if he’s had a chance to think about the proposition put to him on his arrival. Number Six tries to escape by claiming not to have any time, and no thoughts. Number Two admonishes him for acting this way: they’ve been in scrapes together before and not fallen out. Number Six’s agitation is new: only a month ago, Susan was speaking of how unflappable Curtis was.
Alison is waiting beside the helicopter. She approaches Number Six and explains that she wanted to apologise for the way she betrayed Number Six yesterday and wishes she had a second chance. He tries to deflect it as being her job, and that there are no second chances. Utterly seriously, she says that thee are second chances for the lucky few, and she wants him to know that she would never betray Number Six a second time.
Number Six has to be blindfolded for the short flight to the launching pad. As he submits to this, Number Two asks him to give his regards to Susan when he next sees her. Number Six agrees.
The helicopter takes off, flies for a short time, and descends. When it lands, several men grab Number Six and drag him from the cockpit. They strip off his blindfold, leaving him looking into the face of Number Two. “Susan,” he explains, with a rueful smile, “died a year ago, Number Six.”

Discovering Dortmunder – Introduction

One of Westlake's many crime novels
One of Westlake’s many crime novels

I’ve just gone hang-the-expense crazy on Amazon (1p plus P&P) and bought the crime fiction collection Transgressions, edited by Ed McBain.
I’m not generally a crime fiction fan. I’ve read and enjoyed many crime books and series – McBain’s 87th Precinct stories for one, and the late Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe books, but overall it’s a take-or-leave field for me. Indeed, I’ve only bought Transgressions for one of the dozen stories collected, “Walking Around Money”, by the late Donald E Westlake.
Westlake was a very prolific writer, with over 100 novels to his name, including those published under a variety of pseudonyms. He died on New Year’s Eve 2008, still far less well known in the UK than he deserved to be. In his native America, he was tremendously successful, Grand Master of the National Crime Writers Association, and one of only three writers to win the prestigious Edgar Award three times, and the only one to do so in three different categories (Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Screenplay).
Like many writers of his generation, Westlake made his first sales in the 1950s dirty book industry, writing soft porn novels at a rate of one a month, under the bland pseudonym of Alan Marshall. He later used this experience to great effect in the painfully funny novel Adios Scherezade, which was the first of his books that I read, and which is still my favourite of all his work.
Then, in the early Sixties, he gained attention and success with his series of hard-boiled, stripped down books about the professional thief, Parker, under the pen-name Richard Stark. The Parker books are still selling today, and the recent Jason Statham film Parker is adapted from this series.
When Westlake began to establish himself under his own name, in the mid-Sixties, his work took on a quirky, comic aspect. He was still an expert at depicting the criminal world, its mindset and its characters, but his books would focus upon losers and oddballs, nebbishes and innocents, dragged into situations beyond their control. He would frequently experiment with form, in order to enhance the laughter he could quickly induce.
Adios Scherezade is an unusual, but superb example of what Westlake could achieve. The story is told, literally, by Ed Topliss, in an increasingly obsessive series of fifteen page Chapters, most of which are headed and numbered Chapter One.
Ed, a (very) average New Yorker, writes dirty books for a living. One a month, each to the formula of 150 pages, divided into ten 15 page chapters, with one sex scene per chapter. He writes a chapter a day for ten days every month, and does nothing the rest of the time.
Unfortunately, when Ed’s friend Paul – a real writer – offered him the chance to ghost write Paul’s series whilst Paul went on to write real books, he gave Ed a warning: nobody can write this shit forever. Ed wasn’t listening: he was too busy staring at Paul’s girlfriend’s mini-skirted thighs. But, thirty months later, Ed is realising that Paul was right. His last three books have been increasingly late. If he blows a fourth deadline, he’s out, and that means no income, nothing he can do, and a wife and daughter to support.
But the deadline is in twelve days, Ed’s only just finished the one before, and he’s dry. Not an idea in his head, facing disaster, and desperately writing something, anything, in fifteen page chapters in the hope it will trigger something he can use, as the immensity of his disaster builds up around him.
It’s a painfully funny book in both meanings of the phrase: it can be so funny that it hurts to laugh, but it’s also a book that finds laughter in an improbable but all-too-real situation of real pain. And Westlake’s knowledge of the dirty book industry is put to use in establishing the authenticity of this book.
The same year, Westlake published another crime novel, The Hot Rock. The story was started in 1967 as another Richard Stark/Parker book, one in which Parker would be hired to steal a diamond with religious significance on behalf of an African nation. Unfortunately, due to a series of unforeseen events, the jewel would stay out of reach, requiring Parker and his team to go through a series of plans to get hold of it.
The book got only so far before Westlake realised that it was just not possible: Parker was a strict professional, and he would have soon given up, refusing to throw good time after bad. Besides, whatever he tried to do, Westlake couldn’t keep the story from developing a funny streak.
So he put it in a drawer and forgot about it for two years, until he found it again, re-read it and liked the premise. All it needed was a suitable protagonist, a kind of anti-Parker who, like the original, would be a professional criminal, a planner, very successful, but dogged by misfortune, and by the company he keeps.
And when Westlake saw a billboard advertising the popular DAB beer by using it’s full name, Dortmunder Action Bier, he had a name for his character.
The Hot Rock was a big success, and was optioned and filmed within eighteen months, starring (incongruously) Robert Redford and George Segal in the leading parts, although in Britain it was billed as How to Steal a Diamond (in Four Uneasy Lessons).
The book was intended as a one-off, but Westlake liked his little band of hapless and somewhat quirky crooks, and he was delighted to resurrect them in 1972, for a sequel titled Bank Shot, which was equally popular.
For the rest of his career, every few years he would produce a new novel featuring Dortmunder, Kelp, Murch and a slowly growing cast of professionals who, each time, would find themselves in another, frequently improbable, but always entirely believable caper, that usually ended with the gang staying ahead of the law but not ahead of the game.
And when Westlake died, there was one completed but unpublished novel to appear posthumously, and, most fittingly, it was the fourteenth and last to feature Dortmunder. And it had a glorious idea behind it: way to leave on a high.
I’ve by no means read all Westlake’s output (though if you read the unjustly overlooked Adios Scheherezade, you’ve read all the ‘Alan Marshall’ books you could ever want.
But I’ve been collecting the Dortmunder novels for many years, and I have these and Thieves’ Dozen, a short story collection compiling all ten short stories featuring the hangdog John. It’s only lately that I’ve properly realised that there was one more story I hadn’t read, namely, “Walking Around Money”.
Transgressions has arrived, but I’m going to keep it back for a while. In the meantime, I’m going to re-read the entire collection, and only then sit down to enjoy the last Dortmunder story I’ll ever read for the first time.
And I’m going to blog the series as well, in the hope of alerting a few more people to the sheer delight of Dortmunder & Co. Keep your eyes open: I’ll be re-reading The Hot Rock very soon.



JSA Legacies: No. 16 – Superman and Batman

There’s no real need for this, but for completeness’s sake, and because I devoted an essay to Wonder Woman, at least a token effort seems appropriate.
The Man of Steel and the Darkknight Detective were the first two heroes, and they were the primal heroes, the twin poles between which all superheroes exist. Superman, the more than human in every respect, Batman, without a single superpower, humanity tuned up as far as it will go. Their success in being characters so popular that the kids would buy books featuring them and then alone. It was with a view to promoting those of his own characters that he believed could do the same that Charlie Gaines ordered up All-Star Comics and, through that, the Justice Society of America.
Superman and Batman were mentioned as being out there keeping the peace when the JSA had its inaugural dinner in All-Star 3, but they were not introduced as Honorary Members until there was a need for that class of Membership, when The Flash stepped down in issue 6. The very next issue, all three appeared briefly, at the end, to help out Johnny Thunder, but the World’s Finest Duo would only appear once in action, both in All-Star 36. I’ve discussed that particular issue elsewhere: suffice to say that it appears that Superman and Batman were shoe-horned into an already written story, to which they contributed little that was unique to them, and which was never repeated because of the intransigence of Superman’s editor, Mort Weisinger.
As with Wonder Woman, at some point between 1950 and 1960, DC’s stories about their big two switched from Earth-2 to Earth-1. I’m not going to start doing histories of the characters as they developed from there, as far as I’m concerned, that’s outside the remit of this series. But the careers of the Earth-2 versions are something different.
Though they were excluded throughout the Gardner Fox years, both Superman and Batman did eventually play their part in JLA/JSA team-ups. Superman appeared first, in 1969, and made the more appearances, with the Earth-2 Batman – referenced in 1967 as being in semi-retirement – only appeared once, in 1976. That was an unusual occasion, for almost at the same time Bruce Wayne was introduced in the All-Star revival as having ended his career as Batman, but still protecting his city as Police Commissioner.
Over the following months, a story was told: of how, years earlier, Batman had finally confessed his love for Selina (Catwoman) Kyle, who had served her time, gone straight, and then become his wife. They’d had a long and happy life together, and been blessed by a daughter, Helena, who inherited both their athletic skills and minds.
This idyll had come to an abrupt end when Selina was blackmailed by an old colleague into committing one last crime as Catwoman. With Robin out of town, Wayne had donned his costume to intervene, only to inadvertently cause the shot that killed Selina. After that, he tore up his costume, whilst Helena responded in true Wayne manner (I am so sorry, but I could not resist that), using her training to become The Huntress and eventually joining the JSA.
As Commissioner, Wayne had had a run-in with the JSA in which he appeared to be persecuting them, but this was exposed as being the influence of the Psycho Pirate in manipulating his emotions.
With Paul Levitz at the helm, the All-Star revival was making a determined effort to exploit Earth-2’s status as an alternate Earth, on which things were different, and this led to the controversial decision to kill the Earth-2 Batman.
The worst aspect of this was that the story – originally scheduled for the unpublished All-Star 75, but winding up split over Adventure 461 – 462, was such an atrocious, ill-founded, illogical and wholly unworthy affair. Instead of one of Batman’s traditional foes, we had a nobody from nowhere, a guy called Bill Jensen, suddenly invested with great and destructive power and intent on killing Commissioner Wayne. Jensen wanted revenge, claiming Wayne had framed him for murder to get himself into the Commissioner’s role, though Wayne stated that the case against Jensen was watertight. But after Jensen had knocked the JSA down – twice – Wayne puts on Batman’s costume for the last time, advances on Jensen through all these blasts that have floored the likes of Doctor Fate, until enough of his mask is burned away for Jensen to recognise him as Wayne and call down enough destructive force to kill both of them.
To compound this already idiotic story, the very next issue it turns out that the true culprit was a one-off sorcerer named Frederic Vaux, who was using Batman as a sacrifice to claim power for himself. So a Batman died – the original version of one of the two most important characters in DC’s history – killed in a stupid way by two nobodies.
Needless to say, an attempt was made to undo the ravages of this story, and by Roy Thomas, of course, but whilst his effort was marginally better, it was tedious and dull, and, most deep of ironies, required Thomas to contradict continuity! It appeared in the mini-series America vs the Justice Society, in which the late Batman’s Diary (a riff on the then recent Hitler’s Diary scandal) accused the JSA of having been firstly fascist dupes working for Hitler than, after the war, Communist dupes working for Stalin.
This required the Justice Society to go through a Congressional Enquiry in a ludicrous version of a courtroom drama in which all courtroom rules were thrown out. The mini-series was meant to string all the JSA’s cases into a comprehensible whole, which has the JSA ‘acquitted’ out of nothing more than popular sentiment, whilst the Batman Diary peg is settled by being a subtle clue by the late Wayne to an overlooked case the JSA needed to settle. As to why he didn’t just come out and tell anyone, this was attributed to Wayne’s paranoid attitude to the Justice Society in his last year, because he was dying of cancer.
Psycho-Pirate? What Psycho-Pirate?
No, it doesn’t make any sense, any more than the mini-series did. Thankfully, post-Crisis it all ceased to exist and it all became meaningless.

The original Superman at least fared better. He was brought into the JLA/JSA team-ups in 1969, the first post-Gardner Fox story, though probably in order to justify a tremendous Superman vs Superman cover by Neal Adams. Thereafter, he made the occasional appearance in team-ups, and had a short run in the All-Star revival, being introduced from the shadows in a page that simply breathes respect, and the right degree of awe (not, to be honest, something you could often accuse Gerry Conway of doing).
After that, DC seemed to recognise the value of having an alternate version of Superman around. For one thing, most of the canonical details of Superman’s career were later developments: the Earth-2 Superman could be distinguished by taking on all the original, spurned conditions – the Kryptonian name Kal-L, no Superboy career, working at the Daily Star under George Taylor, a more brutal Lex Luthor with a shock of red hair.
Best of all, he could allow DC to tell the then-unthinkable story of Clark Kent’s marriage to Lois Lane, and the back-up series “Mr. and Mrs. Superman.”
Crisis on Infinite Earths, as it was intended to do, swept all this away, but the series paid a proper respect to the original Superman, to the Primal Hero, the First Of Them All. He survives the transformation from Multiverse to Universe, only to find himself on an Earth that only has a place for one Clark Kent. He is utterly alone, his Lois gone, but still he throws himself into the final battle, striking the final series of blows that destroy the villain, whose ambitions have diminished in scope but increased in intensity.
The First strikes the last blow, and his reward is escape, to leave the Universe, together with his Lois and two other companions, into a place of beauty, of peace, of reward for all he has done, never to be seen again.
Unfortunately, as I have previously had occasion to mention, the word ‘never’ is devoid of meaning in mainstream comic books.
Superman’s other two companions were Alexander Luthor of the former Earth-3 – a world of inverted moral standards, where all the heroes were villains, and the Luthors were the only good guys – and Superboy of Earth-Prime – supposedly our own world, the one where we all read DC Comics. This latter was an oddity: he had been created halfway into Crisis, a new alternate world character in a series intended to wipe out all alternate world characters. I never understood why he was created at all, unless it were for the tenuous purpose of providing a Superboy to go into retirement, as a gesture to the forthcoming reboot and modernisation of Superman by John Byrne, in which Clark Kent’s teenage career would not now exist.
‘Never’, in this case, lasted fourteen years. In 1999, in The Kingdom, a sequel to his massively successful Kingdom Come series two years previously, Mark Waid introduced a figure battering at an invisible barrier in the sky. It looked like Superman, despite the shadowed face, but only the older readers noticed the simplified ‘S’ shield on his chest, the mark of the elder Superman.
The Kingdom introduced the short-lived concept of Hypertime, a bold and flexible means of reintroducing a form of the Multiverse (and eliminating continuity errors by absorbing them). Waid’s story reminded people that the first superhero was still out there, and strongly hinted that he would someday returm.
Had he done so under Waid, one of the biggest Superman fans alive, I’m sure it would have been a delight, and a fitting return. But Hypertime was banished and DC started building towards Infinite Crisis, the twenty-years-after sequel to the original Crisis and a reboot that would restore the Multiverse itself, in a more composed and finite form, as 52 Earths, each of differing histories.
It transpired that the original Superman and his fellow exiles had been observing the new Earth all along, growing ever more despondent over its darkening, its deterioration, its increasing corruption. Superman blamed everything on Earth-1, an inherently flawed Earth, being ‘chosen’ as the template for New Earth. At last, he broke everybody out, to change thing, to have the purer, nobler, cleaner Earth-2 as the template for a revised New Earth.
But Superman was unaware that his young allies had their own agendas. Alexander Luthor, specifically the ‘good’ Luthor, seemed to have made the intellectual decision to turn bad, just because all the others had been: he planned to first recreate the Multiverse, then create a perfect Earth by combining the best elements from however many Earths it took.
Superboy-Prime was a different kettle of fish. He was a permanent adolescent, full of raging hormones, trapped and unable to grow up to become Superman. He wanted his Earth back, Earth-Prime, his girlfriend, and to become the important one. He was a rage of uncertainty, paranoia, defensiveness, ignorance, arrogance and refusal to accept responsibility. In short, the psychological portrayal was acute, but on the page he was a hideous, whining, embarrassing OTT mess, who grew increasingly difficult to read on an exponential basis.
He became the villain, intent on destroying the newly created Uni/Multiverse and being the only hero left. To stop him, it took the two Supermen flying him through the core of Krypton’s red sun, temporarily stripping him of his powers. Unfortunately, it also stripped the two Supermen of their powers and, before other hands could come to restrain him, Superboy-Prime beat the original Superman to death with his fists.
In 1985, DC had been so respectful of their first hero, the First Of Them All, that he had struck the ultimate blow and gone on to peaceful retirement. Twenty years later, thinking of themselves as daring and edgy, they had him bludgeoned to death by a hysterical shrieking parody of his younger self.
No more telling symbol of the degradation of the comics industry could possibly be created.
Now the past, the history, has been destroyed yet again, only to be strip-mined for yet another round of pallid imitations, supposedly sophisticated but utterly devoid of any true life, just to titillate the jaded appetite of an ever-shrinking audience, taught by its own decadence and by the drip-feed of horror and destruction in its entertainment to respond only to the pulling off of fly’s wings in cruelty that exists only for its own sake.
For that, you have to have brutalised and ignobled the symbol of what once stood for openness, good, morality and progression towards what was better for everyone.
Superman is better off out of it. So too all the heroes of the Justice Society of America.

JSA Legacies: No. 15 – Black Canary

Black Canary 1

The Black Canary was more than just the last Forties member of the Justice Society, more even than their first and only official female member: the Black Canary was the last hero, the last new costumed character to appear before the Golden Age would come to an end. And she started out as a villainess.
Black Canary was created by Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino, for the Johnny Thunder series in Flash Comics 87, although given his contempt for the character, what Kanigher was doing writing Johnny Thunder in the first place is in itself a mystery. (Less of a mystery if you read his Wonder Woman, which is riddled with contempt for everybody, the reader not least).
The Canary was introduced as a beautiful blonde jewel thief, in a haltered evening dress and black domino mask, whose USP was that she stole from other crooks.
Naturally, Johnny was as much infatuated as eager to defeat the Canary who, equally naturally, got away to fight another day. That other day was the following issue, the character having gone down so well at National that Kanigher brought her back immediately, with an explanation that she had been misunderstood: she was a hero who was stealing crook’s ill-gotten gains in order to return them to their rightful owners. On that basis, she was installed as Johnny’s co-star in the name of the series.
The Canary’s real identity was dark-haired florist Dinah Drake. She was the only daughter of Gotham City Police Sergeant Richard Drake, who’d wanted a son to succeed him in the Police. When he had a daughter, he trained her for the Police, only to see her rejected for one of the few female posts available, after which he died of a broken heart.
This story has subsequently been retconned to make Sergeant Drake one of the few honest policemen on the pre-Commissioner Gordon Gotham Police, and Dinah’s rejection a matter of the force not wanting a second honest Drake around.
Dinah seemed to take her rejection calmly, giving up her Police ambitions and opening a florist’s shop. However, secretly she used her skills as the Black Canary. Her costume consisted of a dark-blue bathing suit, a lighter blue short jacket, fishnet tights and dark-blue boots, ith her dark hair concealed under a long blonde wig. The domino mask was dropped after only a couple of appearances.
It was the beginning of the end for Johnny: with Flash Comics 92, the Canary’s only cover appearance, she took over the series in her own name, until Flash was cancelled a year later, with issue 104.

The Classic Look

Black Canary first appeared with the JSA as a guest in All-Star 38, discovering the dying Johnny Thunder in time to get life-saving aid for him from Wonder Woman, then turning up at the end to belt the improbable villain round the back of the head and save the JSA. The Canary would leave, hesitantly expressing the faint hope of maybe one day being invited into the Justice Society, but there wasn’t a vacancy until after the next issue (in which she turned up again), when Johnny Thunder stepped down.
Even then, though Black Canary spent the whole of issue 40 alongside the JSA, as an equal, it wasn’t until the next issue, in which she’s very clearly a guest and an outsider, that she’s eventually rewarded by officially gaining membership.
This lasted only until All-Star 57 and the Justice Society’s retirement.
She returned in the cameo JSA flashbacks in The Flash 129 but, as the JSA’s only female representative, Black Canary was featured in the 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1968 team-ups. She also took part in two issues of Brave & Bold, teamed with Starman, with whom she’d never worked before the 1964 team-up. Then things changed dramatically in the 1969 team-up.
Denny O’Neill’s tenure on the Justice League came with a mandate for change. This included having both the Martian Manhunter and Wonder Woman resign (the latter because she had lost her powers), but it left the JLA without a female member. There weren’t any credible Earth-1 heroines lined up to replace her, so it was decided to poach Black Canary from the Justice Society.
This was also the year that O’Neill tried to combat the ever-growing age-gap between the War-tied Society and the perpetual Cinderellas of the League by the notion that Earth-2’s different vibration rate caused it to run slightly slower than Earth-1: twenty years to be precise, putting the JSA back into their prime. So Black Canary ended up trapped in the face of a lethal ball of energy from the villainous star, Aquarius, her brain-washed husband Larry Lance was on the point of killing Green Arrow, but love won over his conditioning and he sacrificed himself to save Dinah.
And Black Canary asked to be taken back to Earth-1, to avoid a world filled with memories of her dead husband.
The next issue, whilst some of the JLAers (I’m looking at you, Hawkman) argued that the Canary shouldn’t be allowed in because all she brings to a team that regularly faces cosmic menaces is a jolly good judo throw, Dinah demonstrated for the first time an ability to generate an ultra-sonic and highly debilitating ‘Canary Cry’. It’s an instant mutation, caused by Aquarius’s radiation, but it’s a superpower nonetheless.
For the next dozen years, that was the new status quo. Black Canary quickly mastered her new power. She started a romantic relationship with Green Arrow that has lasted forty years, give or take the odd time or two off. And, with the exception of a couple of solo series and mini-series, the Canary has always been seen in the context of various teams – mostly the Justice League but, in later years, the Birds of Prey and the revived Justice Society.
Black Canary has undergone two major reboots in that time, both coming within a few years of each other in the early to mid-Eighties. The first of these was carried out by Roy Thomas (who else?), though via the medium of the 1982 JLA/JSA team-up, rather than Infinity, Inc, and was a response to the ongoing Black Canary/Green Arrow relationship.
It had begun as a relationship of roughly age-equals, though the Canary was obviously much older than the Archer. But Gerry Conway (implicitly) and Paul Levitz (explicitly) had rejected O’Neill’s differently-flowing timestreams theory in the All-Star revival, and pinned the Justice Society like butterflies to a real calendar. By 1982, Dinah Drake Lance was in her mid-fifties and getting increasingly implausible as either a superhero or a lover to a hero twenty years or so her junior.
For the 1982 team-up, Thomas brought back the Earth-1 Johnny Thunder for an adventure that was a complete travesty, except that, for its cliffhanger, the Thunderbolt took Black Canary to an interdimensional pocket, where she discovered her own body lying in a glass case.
What followed was the revelation that, since 1969 and Justice League of America 75, we had been following the adventures of Black Canary 2, of Dinah Laurel Lance, daughter of Dinah Senior.

Black Canary 2, in the non-sexist costume that everyone hates

It appeared that, when Dinah Junior was still a baby in her pram, she had been hit by a revenge spell from the former Injustice Society leader, the Wizard, who cursed her with the ‘Canary Cry’, a power that the months-old baby was incapable of controlling. The effect was devastating, and the distraught parents were forced into the hateful necessity of putting baby Dinah into the aforesaid interdimensional pocket, courtesy of Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt, where she could grow with her powers causing disasters. Seeing the distress it caused, the Thunderbolt removed Dinah Junior from the memories of her parents and the JSA.
Now, as Superman prepared to take her into Earth-2, Dinah Senior suffered crippling pains. The radiation from Aquarius was killing her. The Thunderbolt led them to Dinah Junior’s hiding place, where she had grown to adulthood, the spitting image of her mother. Dinah Senior’s final wish was that her daughter should be able to have a real life, so the ‘Bolt transferred all of Dinah Senior’s knowledge, memories and emotions to her daughter who, believing herself still to be the original Black Canary, had arrived on Earth-1 with a new body and a new life.
The reboot held for a bit more than three years until it required rebooting itself as a consequence of Crisis on Infinite Earths. The basis of the story remained the same: the current Black Canary was still Dinah Laurel Lance, and she was still the daughter of Dinah Drake Lance, the heroine whose career had begun in 1948, but there was no crossover between Earths, no Aquarius, no dead mother. Instead, Dinah Junior was a child who grew up with two loving parents, and a set of magical Uncles in the rest of the Justice Society. Dinah Junior assumed she would grow up to inherit her mother’s role, only to find Dinah Senior forbidding it. The elder Canary, especially after Larry’s death, believed the world had become too dangerous and dark for a Black Canary.
But Dinah’s ‘Uncles’ – especially Wildcat – agreed to train her behind Dinah Senior’s back, and eventually Dinah Junior stole her mother’s costume in a moment of frustration, and became the new Black Canary (as well as taking over the Florists’ business). She would even replace Wonder Woman as a founder member of the Justice League.
In this story, Dinah Junior’s powers developed later in her life, with no apparent cause to them, but her insistence on taking over as Black Canary drove a wedge between the two women, a rift that was only healed on Dinah Senior’s deathbed, from a cancer brought on by Aquarius’s radiation.
In the early days post-Crisis, Black Canary, in a much-revised, far less sexist costume, was a founder member of the Justice League International, a frequently-irreverent series, from which she disappeared, abruptly, after about eighteen months.
This was to facilitate the next phase of her career, in Mike Grell’s The Longbow Hunters, a three-issue Prestige series rebooting Green Arrow and taking him, and Black Canary, out of the mainstream DC superhero universe. The couple established themselves in Seattle, Washington, for a series of down-to-earth, non-heroic adventures until, with Oliver (Green Arrow) Queen beginning to show a roving eye, he and Dinah broke up, leaving the Canary in a very unhappy situation.
But the most controversial aspect of this period came upfront. In a reversal of their original age-relationship, Ollie was now by far the elder, having turned forty whilst Dinah was still only in her mid-twenties. Dinah was adamant that, whilst she loved Ollie, she would not make babies with him because she would not risk making orphans. Grell then removed that very option: Black Canary was caught (offstage) during an underground operation, was tortured and (impliedly) raped and had to be rescued by Green Arrow, who shot to kill. The outcome for Dinah was that she lost her ‘Canary Cry’ and became incapable of conceiving. Many people loathed the casual way this had been forced upon one of DC’s few strong female characters.
By the time Green Arrow died (temporarily, at least, replaced by his son in an ironic echo of Black Canary’s past), the two were completely estranged. Black Canary found herself going into partnership with Barbara Gordon in the new series Birds of Prey. Barbara, Commissioner Gordon’s niece, had been operative as Batgirl 2 from 1967 to 1988, before being crippled when the Joker put a bullet through her spine. Confined to a wheelchair, she had created a new role for herself as Oracle, the DC Universe’s premier information broker and computer genius. Birds of Prey started as a team-up with Black Canary, with the latter as field agent, but it has gone on to develop into a team of female operatives.

The Modern Version, which can be worn with or without jacket, with or without bare legs etc.

The new series featured another change of costume for the Canary, this time going to a more streamlined variation on her original costume, and with died blonde hair instead of a wig. This was carried over into the revived JSA series, with Black Canary a stalwart in the early days, and even starting a relationship with Doctor Mid-Nite 3, until Green Arrow returned from the dead, and Dinah was editorially reclaimed for various combinations of his new series, the JLA and the Birds of Prey. Dinah and Ollie resumed their relationship and, after Infinite Crisis, even got engaged and, whisper it after so many years, married.
The marriage didn’t last. It didn’t get off to the best of starts, with Ollie attacking Dinah on their wedding night and Dinah killing him, but of course that wasn’t the real Ollie. The first case of the new Green Arrow/Black Canary series was therefore Dinah tracking down her kidnapped husband.
These days, with mainstream superhero comics being dominated by editorially driven events, it’s impossible to say whether the marriage was actually intended as a long-term status, but in real life it wasn’t. A Justice League story featured Star City being devastated (again) by the villain Prometheus, but this time the victims included Ollie’s adoptive granddaughter. Green Arrow went after Prometheus without talking to Dinah, and killed him in cold blood. She in turn helped to persuade him to turn himself in but, given his refusal to talk, she divorced herself from him by taking off her wedding ring.
Since then, the Canary has operated away from Green Arrow, serving as Justice League chairman at one point and reforming the Birds of Prey at another. She’s now regarded as a master tactician, and one of the greatest martial artists in the world.
Most of this has been swept away by the New 52, but Black Canary continues in the newest Universe, in much the same form as she was, although she’s now the only Black Canary and there is not nor ever has been any Dinah Drake Lance. How that leaves Dinah Laurel Lance’s background, I do not know, nor do I intend to inquire.

Ray Manzarek R.I.P.

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Doors: eight or nine great tracks but in other respects I couldn’t get in to them. It wasn’t that they were just before my time, or that they were too much of their time and too little else for other eras because, for one thing they weren’t  that at all, and for another that sort of thing has never stopped me in the past. Some times it just dosn’t click. It’s never stopped me acknowledging that they were one of the major bands of the late Sixties.

It was late last night, and I was just rounding up before going to bed, when I read that Ray Manzarek had died of cancer, aged 74. No matter how late, that meant I had to turn to those two tracks by the Doors that, for me, are immortal. I logged into YouTube and, to my delight, found remastered versions of each that enhanced the sharpness and clarity of the music and, in the case of the first, restored its essential loudness, and its sheer sonic crunch.

This was, naturally, Light My Fire. It was an American no. 1, but did nothing in the UK, where instead we Top 10ed a radically different and acoustic version by Jose Feliciano. Sometimes I am very ashamed of my country: I mean, Jose Feliciano, come on.

It’s the archetypal Doors song, the epitome of their sound, with Manzarek’s organ dominating, simultaneously making a complex riff sound cool and simple, and providing the bass rhythm that allowed the four-piece to function without a bass player. John Densmore provides a tight rhythm that holds the song together over its full seven minute distance, anchoring long solos by, first Manzarek, then guitarist Robbie Kreiger, who otherwise is content to minimise his chops and allow Manzarek to carry the main burden of the music.

And upfront there’s Morrison. The Lizard King, Jim Morrison. His voice soars over the song, deep, wide, containing within it its own space that distances him in front of the music. Even as just a voice, he is a magnetic, charismatic presence, effortlessly drawing the ear into him.

And the song? It’s about sex. It’s about that moment of taking the final leap, of relying on trust in what you’ve built up, of acting not waiting, the first time of going to bed together. And of fucking each others’ brains out. It’s the music that makes this latter point, building and cresting. Morrison is self-confidence, not needing to boast or promise, and the band, through their instruments, speak of the heights of passion that are to come.

We also sent Will Young to no. 1 with Light My Fire, admittedly in a different age. Doesn’t it just shame you to know that.

The other song, though of almost the same length, could not be more different. To me, it’s a book-end. It came out as a single in 1971, after Morrison’s death, and we managed to scrape it almost but not quite into the Top 30. It is,of course, Riders on the Storm.

This song is about night and foreboding, and darkness, rain and the feeling of a late night, long road-trip, with the rain pressing down for hours, no-one else about, the roads slick and anything possible. It begins with, is underpinned by, the sound of rain, of thunder, the most extraordinarily effective use of sound-effects in a song, and the most organic. Again, Manzarek’s keyboard dominates the sound, but he has opted for piano here, and not organ. It’s a cold, clear round, wth cascades of notes reflecting the fall of the rain.

Krieger and Densmore again stay cool. Krieger has his chance to solo in the latter part of the song,strong and passionate yet, like all the song, keep himself within a restraint. This song’s passion is hidden within. Its atmosphere is icy, and does not break. The band hold themselves together. Morrison again sings from a distance, over and above the music. His voice is breathy, he is singing within himself, painting a picture as the Sixties slide away, oblique warnings, the need for love, the presence of threats.

The song settles into itself. It could last forever and still you would want to be in there.

Light and Dark. Outward and Inward.

Thank you Ray Manzarek, thank you Morrison, Kreiger and Dunsmore. Sleep easy.

JSA Legacies: No. 14 – Wildcat

Wildcat 1

Wildcat’s is an interesting story to reflect upon. He was a Forties also-ran, who was twice elevated to Justice Society membership, only be be immediately rejected through no fault of his own. Discounting the Trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, he was the last JSA member to be brought back in the Silver Age. He appeared more often with Batman in Brave & Bold than he did in JLA/JSA team-ups, yet from the All-Star revival in 1976, his status has grown and he has been an ever more central figure in the Justice Society, to the point where his absence has become unthinkable.
It’s a bit like Green Arrow’s career path, as explored on here at length not long ago, except that the Big Cat has never at any time been made over: his time finally came, and when it did, it stayed.
Wildcat was created in 1942 by writer Bill Finger and artist Irwin Hasen, for Sensation Comics 1. Sensation was dominated by Wonder Woman, but Wildcat’s series was consistently the second most popular in the anthology. Wildcat was Ted Grant, whose father Henry had intended for him never to be afraid of anything, and who had been trained in all sorts of sports discipline. But Henry Grant’s death had left Ted penniless, unable to go to college. Whilst searching for something he could do, Grant stopped two muggers attacking a man in an alley: the man he saved turned out to be Heavyweight Champion ‘Socker’ Smith, who took Grant under his wing, and started him in a boxing career.
Grant turned out to be a natural fighter and his career began to take off, leading eventually to a match against Smith. Their crooked managers, Flint and Skinner, sought to fix the fight by slipping a drugged needle into Grant’s glove, but they misjudged the dosage and Smith was killed. The managers pinned the blame on Grant and tried to kill him by running the Police van off the road, but though the Police were killed, Grant survived. He went on the run, trying to clear his name. After hearing a kid talking about his Green Lantern comic, Grant was inspired to create his own masked identity. He became Wildcat, dressing in a dark, blue-black bodysuit, incorporating claws on his hands and feet, and a pullover headcowl and eyemask shaped like a panther-esque head.
Having solved his own case, Grant found himself keeping up his Wildcat identity, especially after he was landed with a comic relief character as early as his third adventure. This came in the form of Hiram “Stretch” Skinner, a lanky American yokel with improbably long arms and legs, check suit and straw boater, who had come to the big city to become a ‘dee-tec-a-tiff’, and became Wildcat’s partner to all intents and purposes.
Wildcat got his first chance at JSA membership alongside stable-mate Mr. Terrific in All-Star 24. Like the Defender of Fair Play, Wildcat was to join the Justice Society, and his headshot appeared on several issues worth of Junior JSA Certificate adverts, but Charlie Gaines’ insistence of having Flash and Green Lantern back prevailed, and the Big Cat became a mere guest on the first appearance.

Wildcat in the Forties

But he was not forgotten. The Atom was about to be dropped from All-American, leaving a slot open, and the Feline Fury was chosen to replace him.
His first case as an honest-to-goodness member was written at the request of a national Children’s Charity, who had requested National to feature a story promoting tolerance towards disabled children. Thus the JSA deliberately set out to elevate such youngsters’ sense of worth by involving them in cases where their attributes were of service. Some see it as patronising, from a modern perspective, though I disagree: each of the six children featured are given the chance to act, to demonstrate to themselves as much as others that a disability in one area does not incapacitate them in everything. Each impresses their community and overturns prejudices.
A laudable story, but one with unintended consequences for Wildcat. Naturally the Charity wanted to see the story as soon as possible, so it was advanced into All-Star 27. But this left two complete JSA stories featuring the Atom – and three once someone discovered that the original story for issue 24 was still unpublished. National were not prepared to pay extra to have Atom figures pasted over with Wildcat, nor to chop and change membership between the two over such a short span, so the Tiny Titan stayed, and the Big Cat went back to the bench. These days, he and Mr. Terrific are treated as having been Reservists.
Eventually, Wildcat’s series was cancelled after Sensation 90, and he disappeared until 1966, when he appeared in the fourth JLA/JSA team-up. After that, he didn’t appear again until 1972, when everybody turned up, but a Wildcat character did team-up with Batman four times in Brave & Bold.
This Wildcat is a bit of an anomaly, like the Earth-1 Spectre of Joe Orlando and Michael Fleisher. There was never any reference to the Justice Society, whilst the Batman involved was fairly clearly the Earth-1 Batman, so the status of this Wildcat is by no means certain. On the other hand, Brave & Bold was edited by Murray Boltinoff and written by Bob Haney, neither of whom held much truck with continuity. Indeed, the Multiverse did come to include an Earth-B originally proposed by fans as the only logical home for any story edited by Boltinoff, so we may as well not pay this version any attention.
But everything changed in 1976, when All-Star was revived. For no apparent reason, given that he had made so few appearances with the Justice Society, Wildcat was part of the initial line-up, alongside Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and Doctor Fate.
Maybe it was just so he could be presented as a contrast to the feminist Power Girl: Wildcat has, ever since, been portrayed as a tough guy, with a streak of chauvinism (though as time has gone by, a certain amount of self-mockery has crept in, as if Grant knows very well the impression he’s creating and is playing the part to a larger degree). But the constant clashes between the two were a running feature of the series. Wildcat even took centre stage towards the end of the run, suffering brain damage after being cut by one of the Thorn’s thorns and needing emergency surgery. Though he recovers from this, he was written out in the penultimate Adventure episode, feeling his age amongst the JSA’s new younger members, and deciding to open a gym and start training the next generation of superheroes.
From here, Wildcat went back into obscurity again, with the JSA only represented in All-Star Squadron. But, as Crisis loomed and Roy Thomas lost his battle to completely undercut everything it was devised for by retaining Earth-2, the time came for a genuine Wildcat 2, in, where else? the pages of Infinity, Inc.

Wildcat 2

Thomas had thinking for some time of bringing forward a feline superheroine. Originally, she was to have been Canadian, but when the character first appeared, as a teaser in an Infinity,Inc promo, she was riding a motorcycle (rather like Wildcat used to) as La Garra, a latina.
Then, with Crisis looming, he decided instead to make his new heroine Wildcat 2. She was Yolanda Montez who, it transpired, was Ted Grant’s god-daughter, being the daughter of another boxer, “Mauler” Montez. Yolanda had cat-like attributes, having retractable claws in her hands and feet, and took up the Wildcat costume in tribute to ‘Uncle’ Ted. Wildcat did not approve, until he learned it was little Yolanda behind his mask, at which point he gave her his blessing.
The transition seemed to be permanent, especially when, during Crisis, Wildcat 1’s legs were crushed in battle with a possessed Red Tornado 2, leaving Grant confined to a wheelchair forever.
Grant even appeared in a wheelchair at the start of The Last Case – ludicrously in full costume apart from legs bandaged from hip to foot, but he was mystically rejuvenated to deal with both the fatal attack on Hitler in 1945, and the charge into the Gotterdämmerung limbo, where Wildcat fought forever.
But Yolanda didn’t last. Her post-Crisis appearances were few, and, along with Doctor Midnight 2, she was killed off in an attack on Eclipso in his own series in 1992
Wildcat 1 returned to action in the open-ended Justice Society of America series. He and the Atom teamed-up to rebuild their private lives, by opening a ‘training facility’ (or Gym, as Grant nostalgically put it). It was touching to see how concerned Al Pratt was for his buddy, and the fear that Grant’s legs might go out again at any time, but the rejuvenation was proof against that happening again
The series was, as we know, short-lived, and in Zero Hour Wildcat was one of those pushed to the brink of death by being re-aged. Like Doctor Mid-Nite 1, he required a heart operation but, unlike McNider, Grant survived. But it was clear that he would never be a superhero again.
Yeah, right.
The next sighting of Wildcat was in a three-issue series that he co-headlined with Batman – the first time Wildcat appeared under his own name (and other than a mini-series in which Grant co-starred with Catwoman, the only time). The series started badly, with Wildcat fighting against Batman foe Killer Croc, who beat and killed him inside two pages. This, however, was Wildcat 3, coming and going in those few panels.
This hapless lug was Hector Ramirez, an ex-Marine who’d trained under Grant and wanted to succeed him as Wildcat. When Grant refused, Ramirez stole a costume and went out as Wildcat, only to be captured and forced into a series of underground fights for illicit betting. This ‘origin’ of Wildcat 3 is more or less as long as his entire career on the comics page, but the details were related by a completely fit and healthy Ted Grant, who’d obviously made the best ever recovery from a heart attack there has ever been in the world. And he didn’t half look bad for someone bordering on being seventy, especially when he got into costume and ended up fighting Batman.
An explanation was not long in coming. In JLA 28-31, Grant Morrison brought the officially retired Justice Society back into action, for the first team-up between the two teams since 1985. It was a great and glorious romp, worthy of inclusion in such a prestigious series, and it surely contributed to the full-scale revived JSA series a year later. It introduced JJ Thunder, it gave Hourman 3 his first meeting with the JSA, and it included a welcome addition to Ted Grant’s career.
Much is made throughout the story of the fact that someone is going to die. Morrison also foreshadows things by bringing Hyppolita into the action on the JSA’s side, meeting Wildcat for the first time in decades (it would be retrospectively provided that Ted and Hyppolita had an affair in the Forties), and her asking how Ted has remained as active as her when he isn’t immortal.
It’s a damned good question and, when Wildcat proves to be the sacrifice, letting the villain explode his heart rather than that fate happen to The Huntress or Hyppolita, it’s a moment of shock for the reader as well as Ted’s team-mates: there have been so many JSA deaths in recent years. Everybody gathers rounds, mourning, until Wildcat is forced to admit it’s getting embarrassing.
Yes, Grant is alive, and the secret he’d been keeping for decades is finally out: the Afterlife has a cat-flap (brilliant line!). Or rather, Wildcat’s had nine lives since an incident in 1945, and he’s only used up a couple: come on, he didn’t get to look this way through clean-living only.
The nine lives thing was never played up much, and Grant remained his tough, wiseguy self throughout the JSA and Justice Society of America series that followed. By now he was an elder statesman of the JSA, by virtue of having survived, a central figure in all incarnations to come.
And as an elder statesman, and an undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World, Grant has also been a trainer to more than one younger hero. That he helped trained Dinah Lance, the second Black Canary, was long-established, but Wildcat went on now to be revealed as a mentor, and occasional lover, to Selina (Catwoman) Kyle, and a trainer to none other than Batman (one of the few people who can see that left hook coming).
At one point, in the 2000s, it was decided to remove Grant’s nine lives, by having the Crimson Avenger 2 pursue him for framing an innocent man, and kill him enough times in quick succession so as to leave him only his last life, but even this has been reset so that Grant permanently has nine lives, meaning that he can only be truly killed if someone kills him nine times in quick succession.
Grant still remains the Wildcat, but post Infinite Crisis another successor, Wildcat 4, was introduced and thrived far better than Yolanda Montez or Hector Ramirez before him.

Wildcat or Tomcat?

Tom Bronson is actually Ted Grant’s son, one of two children Grant fathered out of wedlock at different times. Initially, Bronson was the son of a one-night-stand, without any resentments towards his absent father, though subsequently, Grant’s relationship with Bronson’s mother has been expanded upon. However, Bronson turned out to be a metahuman, capable of turning into an actual black-furred, long-tailed Wildcat. Despite his reservations about being a superhero, and the fact that the Wildcat name was firmly taken, Bronson entered the new ‘training-system’ JSA, and Grant was more than happy that they both be Wildcat, given that both Flash and Green Lantern had other heroes operating under their names, without any confusion whatsoever. However, Bronson increasingly was referred to as Tomcat.
Whether that name has stuck, or if Bronson was still Wildcat 4 became irrelevant in the New 52. All Wildcat’s have been swept away, and there has been no sign so far of another reappearing. Given the popularity Ted Grant achieved over the years, I would expect him to be brought back in Earth-2 at some point, but I’ll stick with the down-to-Earth guy I’ve been reading for almost fifty years.

Spam Bucket

I assume I’m not the only one experiencing this, although if that’s not the case then maybe it’s a sign that the spam e-mail industry as a whole has started following this blog and come to a collective recognition of my innate talent, but over the last couple of weeks, my spam bucket has been heaving with offers to take my TV and Film ideas and translate then into reality, oh, and unimaginable sums of money, of course.

Needless to say, if I had any TV or Film ideas, which I do not, I would not be exposing them to people whose major contribution to my inevitable success would be to steal all the credit (and the unimaginable sums of money) for themselves.

Then again, as I have recently read, the reason these spam campaigns are so irremediably dumb is that they are merely filtering out those not sufficiently irremediably dumb as quickly as possible. Given the exceedingly high bar of naivete required for these scumbags to find people to exploit, it does make business sense to go straight for your targets with as little contact with the smart and sensible on the way.

Still, it makes a change from Nigerian widows and lawyers trying to smuggle millions out of an unsuspecting country, if only you’ll send them your bank details.


Eurovision 2013

And may I just mention in passing that I not only backed the winning song in Eurovision, and cheered it along to victory, but that I actually liked the song as well. Well, I am into Shakira.

Anyway, it was either that or Belarus, and let’s just say that I didn’t want to get that young lady back on stage again for the music. I have at least one Graphic Novel featuring hordes of impossibly proportioned women with legs twice as long as their torso, and I’m now going to have to apologise to the artist for thinking that this doesn’t happen in real life.

How many tears do we have to cry?