Discovering Dortmunder: Drowned Hopes

At 453 pp, Drowned Hopes is by a stretch the longest Dortmunder novel (it’s more than two and a half times as long as Jimmy the Kid) and if it has a failing it’s a sense that it’s got the usual amount of laughter in it, but having to fend for itself in more open territories.
It’s not a bad book, and I’m not suggesting that Westlake has stretched his idea out beyond its natural length. Rather, it’s the technical problem that Dortmunder has to solve that, perfectly naturally, requires time and space to tackle. Added to that a genuine sense of menace from the book’s seriously bad apple, and overall, Drowned Hopes, turns out to be an unexpectedly serious book, in amongst the absurdities.
Other than that, it’s what we all expect and look forward to. The gang is now fixed as a core quartet with an off-beat fifth member performing as a descant. May is once again something of a conscience for the book, Murch’s Mom plays a part – as well as giving up her first name as being Gladys – and it’s made perfectly clear that Tiny and J.C.Taylor are a shared-apartment item, even though the lady herself stays offstage this time.
Time has moved on, the big score the gang made last time out has gone the way of all money, and Dortmunder’s again working on the small heists that are bread and butter. This time his job goes wrong even before the book starts: the jeweller’s moved away, the antiques shop has switched to Disney collectibles, the cheque-casher’s got in a mean dog. It takes a page or two before May can get through to him that he’s got an even bigger problem: he has a visitor.
The newcomer is Tom Jimson. He’s not an old friend, but an old cell-mate: a bony, grey, tall guy notorious for being the only guy to come out of capers in which his erstwhile colleagues end up either in the hands of the Law or those of the Grim Reaper. And he’s not supposed to be here: he’s serving seven life-sentences. But, on account of prison overcrowding, and as a seventieth birthday present, the state has sent Tom Jimson out once more into the outside, where he intends to collect a $700,000 stash from a long ago job and head off to somewhere the other side of Acapulco.
Jimson is the sort of guy that nobody will miss having around. He calls Dortmunder Al, not John, on account of John’s middle name being Archibald, which he hates: Jimson knows that. However, he has a proposition for ‘Al’. It seems that, not long after he did the job that enabled him to bury that $700,000 behind the library in Putkin’s Corners, the New York State Government put a reservoir on top of it: the stash is protected by fifty feet of water. If Dortmunder, with or without whoever he calls in, helps Jimson retrieve his stash, he can have half.
This presents Dortmunder with two problems in the long and short terms. The long term problem is the way Jimson’s partners never really get to enjoy their share of the cut. The short term one is that Jimson doesn’t really want him for his skills at planning jobs. Tom has a plan: he just wants Dortmunder to help him place the dynamite when he blows the dam. That way, they don’t have to worry about the water, and they won’t get disturbed because people are just naturally going to be ore concerned about this great big wave of water sweeping down-valley and engulfing these half-dozen or so towns along the way.
Dortmunder is horrified. Actually, he’s appalled too. And he finds himself forced to take on this job, to find away of getting the loot, under the reservoir, under fifty foot of water, out without killing thousands of people in doing so. After all, it’s not going to be that difficult for Jimson to find partners whose desire for $350,000 won’t be hindered for a second by other considerations.
That’s where a lot of the book’s length comes from: you just can’t come up with simple, straightforward plans to tackle a job like that, and there’s a familiar Hot Rock-esque aspect to seeing the gang pulling the same job several times over. Westlake makes sure we don’t get bored with this repetitive task by providing several amusing distractions that weave themselves into the story.
The first of these is Wally Knurr, a four and a half foot tall, naïve but highly intelligent butterball of a computer geek who is, naturally, an acquaintance of Andy Kelp. Wally, who is not a crook, lives in a world of computers and interactive games, and is brought in by Kelp to ‘assist’ Dortmunder’s planning by running things through a very accurate model of the valley. Wally starts out being an innocent, but given that he’s very far from stupid, soon works out what’s going on (primarily through conversations with his computer, which tends to reduce things to the level of an interactive game, involving the hero (Wally), the warlord (Jimson) and the princess.
The Princess is Myrtle Street, who lives on Myrtle Street in Dudson Center, a town down-valley of the dam. Myrtle, a pretty but somewhat unformed girl of twenty-five, is a librarian, taking after her elderly, bad-tempered, fault-finding mother Edna, who’d borne her out of wedlock. Myrtle’s never really thought about her birth-father, not until her mother launches into some uncharacteristic obscenities one day in the car because she’s just unexpectedly seen Myrtle’s father again.
Edna’s shock is every bit as great as Dortmunder’s, and for the exact same reason: Myrtle is the daughter of Tom Jimson. And when strangers start turning up and showing an interest in the same long ago, pre-reservoir robbery that Myrtle’s already worked out is the probable cause of her father’s absence from her life, her already-fixated interest grows insatiable.
One of those strangers is Wally, but another is Doug Berry, a diving expert who, having gotten intrigued by Dortmunder and Kelp’s need for compressed air from a registered diver who won’t ask too many questions, is trying to muscle on on their job (and is soon trying to muscle in on what’s underneath Myrtle’s cotton dress). Doug has to be incorporated in the job, just like Wally.
Unfortunately, the job is not going well. It might have seemed easy just to suit up and walk in to find the stash, but Dortmunder and Kelp are complete novices at diving (even when they’re not diving) and Dortmunder soon develops a healthy and not entirely irrational fear of a reservoir that, quite seriously, is out to kill him.
Indeed, Dortmunder wants out. In an unusual twist, the extended gang stays behind, still trying to make the job work, whilst he goes home to New York. Until the day he returns to the apartment to find Stan Murch waiting for him with the news that May has moved out. No, she’s not left him, she’s just taking a holiday, her and Murch’s Mom. They’re renting a house in a nice, relaxing, upstate New York community. In Dudson Center. In front of the dam.
So now John has an incentive to come up with a plan that will keep Tom Jimson away from the dynamite.
That’s when things start to get complicated, when Westlake starts drawing together all the strings he’s been running out, including the more-than-crazed ex-partner of Jimson’s who wants revenge, and everything comes to a head out on the reservoir, in a boat, with the job working smoothly and everything going right, and Jimson preparing his usual double-cross.
Oh, it goes wrong of, course, and this time the twist is that Dortmunder’s the one who blows it, and there goes the $700,000 and this time no more chances. Still, Tom Jimson isn’t going to be bothering anyone any more, and the dam is still in one piece, even if the gang’s return for all their efforts is zip, zilch and nada.
Somebody does profit, however, as the final chapter reveals, much to everyone’s disgust.
Drowned Hopes is still a good book, and I wouldn’t suggest overlooking it, but don’t expect the same degree of fun as with others in this series. Whether he intended to or not, Westlake’s decision to use a character like Tom Jimson – who is a satire of the kind of people the late writer Jim Thompson (whose novel The Grifters, Westlake had adapted for the very successful 1990 film), a very hard-boiled writer, is known for – anchors the book in a greater level of criminal reality than anything since The Hot Rock.
Jimson’s really something of an inimical figure in Dortmunder’s world, which has over the past six books taken on something of a cartoon feel. We read the Dortmunder books because, whilst they are steeped in the reality of the criminal world, they are actually fantastic and improbable stories that are anchored to reality by that verisimilitude, when we know (but don’t want to understand) that neither these people nor these settings can actually exist. Jimson’s just that bit too much truthful, with too few comic edges to soften the blow.
Incidentally, there’s another crime fiction nod of the head in this book. Chapter 57 features the gang congregating in Dudson Center in a variety of stolen vehicles, one of which is a silver Cadillac, being pursued by a very intent repo man named Ken Warren, who has a speech impediment. Warren is intent on taking that car, but finds himself boxed in by vehicles on all four sides, not to mention Tom Jimson wanting to kill him. The moment he gets out that he’s a repo man, everybody is all smiles and clear his way.
This is, I understand, a crossover, or rather a ‘shared chapter’ with the book 32 Cadillacs by Joe Gores, part of his DKA series (novels featuring private detective Dan Kearney which apparently feature thinly-disguised accounts of Gores’ own experiences as a sleuth and a repo man). The same events appear in 32 Cadillacs, but from the point of view of Gores’ characters.
I’ve never read any of Gores’ books (apparently, Westlake and Gores had done this before, with a Richard Stark Parker book) though it would be interesting to see the other side of this. Unfortunately, whilst it’s a neat in-gag, the knowledge of it, for me at least, turns an otherwise throwaway gag into something of undue significance, blowing the gag.
Still, if Drowned Hopes was a minor disappointment, there would still be another story to come, of tighter length, even if there was a certain amount of familiarity to its theme…


Neil Gaiman – The Ocean at the End of the Lane: review

I’m a bit in two minds about Neil Gaiman’s new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I enjoyed the book on a first reading, or rather it kept me fascinated and eager to reach its outcome, but there was something missing, something in my emotional response to the story and the characters, that I expected to find.
Part of the issue is a confusion about what the book is supposed to be. I came to it knowing very little about the story, except that it was being billed as Gaiman’s first adult novel since 2005’s Anansi Boys, and to me it isn’t an adult novel, and I am not responding to it as an adult novel.
Yet it is, after a fashion, an adult story. The narrator is an adult of unspecified age (but implied to be mid-forties), whose name is withheld, but he is part of the story in his adult self only in the book’s opening and closing sequences. The real story is of a forgotten period when he was aged 7, that he now recalls in impressive detail, in the person of his seven year old self with his seven year old’s perception (there is a sex scene that is plainly not understood as such by the narrator). But the precision, and the detail of memory through which the story is conveyed, is definitely adult.
Yet the tale itself, delving deeply into fantasy of the kind Gaiman exemplifies, with its underlying of a mythic element (not one taken from any recognisable myth but, like the Endless in Sandman conceived in Gaiman’s own mind) feels like the concerns of a child. Gaiman makes the point explicitly in the book, that children explore, make their own paths, whereas adults follow defined ways.
The story is set in motion by the suicide of a lodger staying with the boy’s family. The family car is missing. The boy and his father go looking for it, and find it down a long lane, near an old farmhouse, with the lodger dead from exhaust fumes piped into the car. Whilst the Police carry out their business, the boy is taken in to the farm, which is run by the Hempstocks.
The Hempstocks are three women, three generations, daughter, mother, grandmother or, as they are open (in front of the boy) from the outset about having powers or abilities that we would equate to magic, we should immediately think of them as Maiden, Mother and Crone. Gaiman has form with just such a Trinity, in Sandman: the three Fates, the Erinyes, the Kindly Ones.
They are also the only figures in the book to be named throughout: everyone in the narrator’s family, in ‘real life’, is named only in relation to the boy: Sister, Father, Mother, the lodger. The ‘villain’ of the story, whose ultimate nature is never disclosed although she is plainly a predator, is named as Ursula Monkton when she breaks into real life, though her real name is apparently Skarthach of the Keep. It’s significant that, as a direct result of her true name becoming known, Skarthach/Ursula is destroyed.
Names are of importance. Gaiman never states this, but he writes in accordance with this belief. That the Hempstocks are named is an illustration of their security, a security that remains uppermost even though the Three are reduced to Two in preserving the boy.
The ladies, Lettie (aged an apparent 11), Ginnie and Granny, are the still heart of competence in this book. They are Puissant, Powerful, though never do they express it as such – it would be too common. They are three figures who simply Are, and what they are is unbeatable – for want of a better word. They already know that the death has aroused… something, something that they call a flea, indicating it’s level of significance, at least to them. Throughout the book, they act to support and defend the boy, even to the extent of taking his memories away from him, until – as he has done on other occasions in need – he returns, in need of their recollection.
I’m not going to say more about the story. Gaiman writes simply and precisely, an adult voice for a child’s recollections, fine and precise, but never over-reaching itself into adult understanding or imagery. The eye is finely detailed, and Gaiman evokes the times (drawing on his own Sussex childhood) with an unobtrusive accuracy. Over everything arches the absolute terror of knowing that any fight between a child and an adult is impossible and unwinnable from the outset: that even those closest to and most responsible for protecting you will abandon you wholly and allow the monster to win.
I think this is a very good book, but I also think I have to adjust, to learn to see it as it is, rather that as it’s been promoted. Gaiman himself sees this as an adult novel, and has chosen to tell it that way, but the story is a child’s story, and it’s concerns are those appropriate to the child at its centre. It is far closer in essence to Coraline than Anansi Boys, or, a fairer comparison, Neverwhere.
As a final point, given Gaiman’s caution as to names, except for those who are secure or destroyed, is intriguingly reversed in one specific instance. The boy has dealings with three cats throughout the book; a kitten he names Fluffy, which is callously killed early on; a full-grown cat meant for its replacement, though it is in every way unsuitable, and which arrives with the name Monster; and a kitten that comes through from the world that is seen with the Hempstocks, a kitten the boy loves as much as Fluffy but which is ultimately not of his world: this kitten has no name.
I see that I’ve managed to get through almost 1,000 words discussing this book without even mentioning the Ocean of the title, which is, on the surface, no more than a duckpond, albeit a duckpond that can get poured into a bucket (much against its will). What that Ocean is should be discovered in the book, which you really should all read. I shall be doing so again, soon.

N.B. The book cover shown above is that of the UK edition. The American cover uses similar imagery, in that it shows a child underwater, but shows that image from a point level with the child, lacking the element of the sky above, and definitely lacking the ring of birds which creates a sense of borders, or shores, that in the UK edition directly evokes the duckpond element. The American cover is consequently darker, and more passive in the child’s figure. In addition, whilst the UK edition suggests a boy, swimming naked or possibly in shorts, the American cover is ambiguous. The figure wears a white, thigh-length garment, rendering it more female is aspect: the photos is too dark to tell what length hair the child has. I’ve often found American editions to have better covers than British ones, but this is clearly a case of the reverse. I’d love to know the rationale behind the selection of the different scenes.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Family Album

After Confession had been extracted to appear as a complete story, there’s an unavoidable rag-bag undertone to the third Astro City collection, Family Album, which brings together volume 2, nos 1-3 and 10-13.
This is another batch of short stories, though two of the tales reprinted in here are two-parters.
Curiously, the stories available here are heavily weighted towards the superhero (or, in one memorable case, supervillain) experience, with only the opening story really portraying the observer’s experience.
This is the opening episode, re-starting Astro City with an issue that re-delineates the purpose and the metier of the series.
It’s narrated by Ben Pullam*, father of two daughters, new arrival in Astro City, and who’s very conflicted about what he should be doing. Pullam’s marriage has broken down, in circumstances unrevealed but painful: his wife has a new partner, and he basically fears that he is running away from something too hard for him to bear. More than that, he fears he may be teaching his daughters to run away from hard situations instead of confront them.
The story explores Astro City physically, nodding to such things as the ongoing mystery of the Silver Agent’s fate, but the biggest lesson that Pullam faces comes when the city is attacked by a Thundergod, determined upon razing it to the ground if his kidnapped bride is not returned to him.
The heroes turn out in force, and the city turns out in its own kind of force: the entire block gathers on the rooftop to watch, except for one kid who’s inside doing his homework: if the city’s going to be destroyed, what does it matter? asks Pullam, aghast: and if it’s saved, he still needs to have his homework in on time, his pragmatic and much more experienced neighbour replies.
Disaster is averted, but Pullam is already planning to leave; the city is too dangerous to bring up his daughters. But in the morning, the clear-ups crews are out, the neighbours are getting together a pot-luck for the workers, and he gets to see a different side of things, a sense of community that doesn’t happen elsewhere. It’s a question of which lessons he feels his girls should learn – and his eventual decision is to stay.
(*Yes, the Ben Pullam of Volume 3, issue 1).

A few Fursts – Astra is in the middle

Busiek followed this by a two-parter, centring on Astra Furst, of the First family. Astra is a rarity: she’s a ten year old girl, of genius level intelligence, whose body is composed of energy, and she’s a fully-fledged member of the team, which now stretches across three generations. Busiek approaches things carefully, introducing the readers to Astra via a TV appearance which actually demonstrates her ignorance of the common things of the world, and of childhood.
This leads to a degree of dissatisfaction for Astra herself, furthered when she catches sight of a hopscotch grid in a nearby schoolyard, and wants to know more about it. When she can’t get a satisfactory explanation from either her mother or her robot tutor, Astra decides to go off on an ‘adventure’, joining the school as a new transfer and learning how to play hopscotch against the school bully.
There’s a quite brilliant sequence in the second part where, against the counterpoint of Astra’s affairs at school her distraught family, who’ve assumed she’s been kidnapped, descend on several of their enemies, demanding to know what they’ve done with Astra. It’s a very effective demonstration of the breadth and height of the First Family’s world, the details of which take place entirely in the reader’s imagination where they are so much more fun.
That the First Family are, as I’ve said, analogs of the Fantastic Four, lends an additional reality to those imaginings.
What’s more, when Astra reveals herself, on winning her hopscotch game, it earns her a place at the school and the chance to mix with kids her age on a regular basis.
After the intervention of Confession, the series resumed with my single favourite Astro City story, “Show ‘Em All”, featured in volume 2 no 10, and starring the villain The Junkman.

Would you recommend having your Astrobank robbed by this man?

It begins with a very skilful and completely successful robbery at the Astrobank: the Junkman’s devices – ingenious, highly advanced technology housed in broken toys and appliances thrown out – work perfectly, and over the course of the night, the 85 year old villain removes $7,000,000 in gold bullion, so smoothly that the only evidence there is that a robbery has even taken place is that the gold’s gone.
It’s the crowning glory of the Junkman’s career, his revenge on Society for rejecting him, as Engineer Hiram Potterstone, when he reached mandatory retirement age twenty years earlier.
So Potterstone heads off to Rio, to enjoy the fruits of his endeavours and generally bask a bit. But his basking turns sour when his young… companion can’t be persuaded that Los Superios aren’t the best things on Earth, smarter than every villain there could be. Potterstone’s dissatisfaction multiplies, wherever he goes: everybody praises the heroes, but he’s beaten them all, beaten them so much that nobody knows he’s done it…
The Junkman returns to America and starts a new crime wave. In Detroit, he attempts to repeat the Astrobank crime, only this time something goes wrong. He’s prepared for M.P.H. and gets away with some of the loot, but the talk is starting. Then he tries the jewellery stores in New Orleans, but the Black Rapier is more of a detective and gets there first: even so, the Junkman is ready for him.
But he’s not prepared for Jack-in-the-Box when he tries to repeat the Astrobank robbery, and this time his brain doesn’t prevail over Jack’s brawn, Potterstone is taken, identified, his hideout is discovered, all his devices. Everything’s revealed (except the whereabouts of the money). And he’s going in to trial, faced by one of the greatest trial lawyers in the land, with the eyes of the press on him as every detail of his ingenious plans are exposed.
Curiously, the Junkman does not appear concerned. Because, taped inside the chandelier in the courtroom, is another one of his little devices, planted weeks ago. Soon, he’ll put the second part of his plan into operation…

The Harlequin Hero

The remaining stories in this volume do rather represent a falling-off in standard. A two-parter based on Jack-in-the-Box does answer some questions about the hero’s past, especially the fact that Zachary Johnson is the second Jack, having taken over the role in 1987, after discovering that the original Jack-in-the-Box was his father, Jack.
The point of this story is the confused feelings that Zach Johnson has within about his father’s role as a costumed hero who, in the end, lost his life fighting crime, when Zach was only twelve. Though he’s rationalised his feelings of abandonment after discovering his father’s secrets, and has gone on to succeed him, Zach is still conflicted, and this is brought out when he is forced to face two incredible parodies of himself: one a biomechanical travesty, the other a biologically enhanced travesty.
Zach’s horror is to learn that both are his son, from different potential futures. Both have disastrously misunderstood his legacy, and both react homicidally at his ‘apostasy’ from their separate but parallel images.
That alone is bad enough, but the worst of it is that both ‘Jackson’s were born without a father, Zach having died before they were born. The problem becomes acute because, after capturing both Jacksons, Zach returns home to Tamra’s ‘good news’ that she is pregnant.
Zach is torn between the instinct to use his abilities to defend others, and his desire not to subject his unborn child to the same trauma he faced. It’s a conflict that’s intensified by the appearance of a third putative son – this time refreshingly un-selfmutilated, indeed utterly normal – but still haunted by the loss of a father he never knew.
The problem with this story is that, the first part especially, it’s entirely too conventional, and the solution is equally conventional and foreseeable. Just as Zach is Jack-in-the-Box (2), what’s needed is Jack-in-the-Box (3), a street kid already known to Jack, on the cusp of that dangerous point where the only feasible future is to throw in with the gangs. Instead, with Zach monitoring and training, Roscoe James takes over the harlequin costume, and Zach and Tamra are free to have their baby in faith and confidence.
It’s well-written, and the art is, as usual, excellent, but it’s a mark of the expectations Astro City had set for itself that it falls down for being too superhero for far too much of its length.
The last story in this collection is a truly oddball one, as goofy in its way as some of the classic Silver Age tales. It’s the story of Loony Leo, a cartoon character who once walked off the silver screen and into real life, an unintended side-effect of a machine a villain was using against the unfailingly polite, immaculately dressed hero The Gentleman. Think of it as being a ‘real-life’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit? if the Rabbit had walked off the screen into the audience and then had to cope with being alive.
It’s a neat idea, presented in a downbeat way, and with the underlying moral that some people can’t be protected from themselves, not when it comes to show business, but it lacks a point that attaches it to Astro City‘s real-life grounding, and as the last story in this volume, it leaves a bit of an inconsequential feeling at the end.
Next, in both Volume 2, and the Graphic Novel sequence, would come the second novel-length story.

You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.

Man of Steel – The Non-Review

This is Superman

As a long-time DC fan, who has been known to read Superman from time to time, I’d been looking forward to the new film, Man of Steel for several months.

I have good memories of seeing the first Christopher Reeve film in the kind of old-fashioned big screen cinema that was perfect for the scale of the film, and which just doesn’t exist any longer. I have good memories of Superman II, a poor opinion of Superman III and I can console myself with the fact that I was on a date when I went to see Superman IV – The Quest for Peace and can at least look back on several long periods of snogging instead of following the film.

Superman Returns was better than that one, but we are still drawing a veil over it.

Following the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and the increasing darkening of DC’s comics that has beaten any residual interest in superheroes out of me, I admit to misgivings about what direction Man of Steel would take. It’s a cliche to say this, and like all cliches it might not represent the whole of the story but it gets close enough to the core of things to stick, but Superman is Light where Batman is Dark. Superman works in the open, in the daylight, he appears in primary colours, he is dedicated to Truth and Justice (we’ll forget the outmoded part of that line, thank you). Superman saves, Superman is Good. He’s the Big Blue Boy Scout and just as he is unreal and impossible, so he can be purer of heart than the rest of us. Batman is his opposite, in every aspect.

Don’t forget, this year, Superman will have been around for 75 years. And no cultural icon, no matter how low the culture, gets to stick around for that length of time whilst being only one thing to everyone all the time. But some things, some parts of the concept have to remain inviolate, no matter what else responds to the changing world, or how else do we know who we are speaking of?

That Man of Steel would try to drag Superman as far over into Batman’s psychological territory as possible was a given. That a large part of the audience would not just applaud this but would regard it as the only thing that makes Kal-El interesting to them, was only to be expected. So I wasn’t exactly expecting my kind of Superman film to begin with.

The early reviews were fairly equivocal, focussing mainly on the apparant absence of any chemistry between Clark Kent/Superman and Lois Lane. I don’t let reviews influence me – the Guardian ordered, commanded and screamed at me to hate the Tintin film The Secret of the Unicorn seven or eight times over, but I still enjoyed it immensely – not unless they come from someone with an unimpeachable record of being on my wavelength, so I wasn’t bothered even when my Team Leader at work warned us all off it because his lodger had gone to see it first night, and said it was absolute crap.

But I still read some comics sites, even if I don’t read the comics, and so I learned of Mark Waid’s blog on his visit to the cinema. Now Waid, if you don’t know him, is a lifelong Superman fan who’s also written the character (his version of Superman’s origins, Birthright, was the authorised version in the pre-New 52 universe, and some of the material in Man of Steel is based on his work). He’s also one of the most consistently entertaining, thoughtful and fresh comics writers of the past two decades, so his is a voice I’m prepared to listen to.

And when he explained how the film broke his heart, how it portrayed a Superman that he couldn’t believe in, that wasn’t Superman in any incarnation that he could recognise, I realised that my own thoughts of Superman, of who and what he was, and what he could do and be in order for me to be able to recognise him as Superman meshed in this respect. I won’t relate what Waid was talking about, for the benefit of those who do intend to watch the film, and who are entitled to allow the story to present itself, but it is as much a breach of what i can accept as the character as if Jeeves were to extricate Master Wooster from another of those unsought entanglements, not by the ingenuity of his superior brain but by having the girl kidnapped and sold into white slavery.

Here’s a link to Waid’s piece, and here’s a link to a very interesting piece by Greg Hatcher on the process of identifying what is ‘your’ Superman, your core image of what the character cannot abandon or forego or ignore and still be the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, the Big Blue Boy Scout.

The Man of Steel of Man of Steel goes beyond what I, like Mark Waid, and many others, can concieve of in Superman. So I won’t be going to see the film after all, and I won’t be blogging what I think of it. Although I seem to have done that, after all.

The Prisoner: Location, Location, Location

Six and Twelve – can you tell the difference?

Remember that originally The Prisoner was to run for 26 episodes, divided into two series of thirteen episodes. Everyman Films had a budget from Lew Grade of ATV with which to film the first series, which was to be based in the Village.
With the final episode of series one, Once Upon a Time, designed to be entirely studio bound, and to be a cliffhanger that would have the viewers desperate for series two, a filming schedule was set up for the initial set of twelve.
These were divided into three blocks of four, the first four of which were recorded on location at Portmeirion in the autumn of 1966, a second block of four the following year using a small number of additional Portmeirion sites but primarily relying on studio sets, and the remaining block of four shot almost entirely at Borehamwood, using only stock footage shot during earlier visits.
Such was the situation as I have understood it for many years, though I no longer have access to the source (which may have been one of the issues of Number Six, the official magazine of the long-standing Prisoner Appreciation Society, Six of One,
According to the Production Schedule, the first four episodes filmed were, in order, Arrival, Free For All, (which we’ve already considered), Checkmate, and Dance of the Dead (which we’ll come to). Both the first of these, as we’ve already seen, make extensive use of Portmeirion locations as, in the one case, the newly-arrived Prisoner explores his prison and, in the other, as Number Six campaigns across the Village in the faux-election.
Similarly, the other two episodes make use of the extent of the Village, beginning with the outdoor chess match in Checkmate and Number Six’s subsequent recruitment of potential allies, whilst in Dance of the Dead, a caged and edgy Prisoner is still (?) testing bounds within the Village.
Of course, all the interior scenes in the series were shot at Elstree. Portmeirion’s buildings, such as the café and the hotel (which features in the series as the Old People’s Home), appear as what they are in real life, whilst in other cases, such as the Green Dome and Number Six’s cottage, the exteriors are completely unrelated to their functions in the series.
Number Six’s cottage is a perfect example of this. Inside, it’s substantial, and well-appointed, which is why, on a first visit to Portmeirion itself, it’s such an amusement to find that the actual building whose front and entrance was used is about ten foot deep at the maximum (and has been used as a souvenir shop selling The Prisoner-related memorabilia since the Seventies).
Thus far, and given that these episodes are indeed the four that rely most heavily upon location shooting, the 4/4/4 theory seems to hold water. However, the next four episodes to be produced were The Chimes of Big Ben, Once Upon a Time, The Schizoid Man and It’s Your Funeral. And, as we’ll see when we come to it, Once Upon a Time uses only a single outdoor location shot from Portmeirion.
Indeed, if you look at it carefully, the same applies to The Schizoid Man. Run through the episode again, bearing in mind that it is set entirely in the Village, and start to look at the actual locations. Number Six’s cottage, Number Two’s Office and the Control Room are stock sets, used many times over in the series. Number Twelve’s cottage, and Alison’s, are one-off locations, only seen as interiors. The same goes for the supposed Recreation Room, with its shooting gallery and its fencing room: again we only see these from the inside.
But there are exterior scenes, aren’t there? Number Six’s door, the steps upon which Six-as-Twelve and Twelve-as-Six start to fight, the balcony outside the Green Dome, the helicopter pad in the closing scenes. But you will surely have noticed that the building outside which the doubles fight is the Town Hall of The Chimes of Big Ben, to which Number Six and Nadia were delivered, whilst the building behind the helicopter is the hall where the Crafts Festival was held in the same episode. Studio sets both.
Even the exterior of Number Two’s home is a studio mock-up. So only the stock shot of Number Six’s door comes from Portmeirion itself. And neither of the two Guest Stars, Anton Rodgers and Jane Merrow, actually got to the Village itself!
Actually, very few of the guest stars actually went to Portmeirion. If there were outdoor scenes that needed them there, these would be recorded in close-up on a stage set (a number of Portmeirion locations were duplicated at Elstree) and a double would appear shot from the back in linking scenes (never more obviously than in A Change of Mind, where John Sharpe’s double is at least five stone lighter, ten years younger and has far more hair – of a different colour – than him!).
So two of this second ‘block’ use no genuine location footage, and the other two, The Chimes of Big Ben and It’s Your Funeral, whilst appearing to be in and about, instead use studio sets to counterfeit the actual exterior of the Village.
Nevertheless, the pattern does still hold. What of the next set of four?
This consists of the already-referenced A Change of Mind, The General, A, B and C and Hammer into Anvil. Of this ‘block’, we’ve already seen that A, B and C is studio-based (and was written with an eye to budget, to use pre-existing sets). The other three episodes are all based in the Village, and I’ve already said that A Change of Mind uses a double on location,but a closer look at these again demonstrates that filming is based on studio sets and interiors. The beach in The General is almost painfully obvious as a set.
And whilst the same episode goes on to use location footage in the approach to the climax, it is clearly repeated footage from Arrival – stock shots.
This leaves only one episode of the original thirteen, the last of the original order to go into production and the episode that script editor and co-creator George Markstein felt exemplified the path the programme would take in series two, Many Happy Returns. I won’t say too much about this episode, except that it makes full use of location filming at beginning and end. And indeed was the last episode to be shot at Portmeirion, as the four additional episodes had to be created under very different circumstances.
To return to The Schizoid Man, I’ve already mentioned that this was one of the more heavily re-written episodes, with two lengthy sequences removed from the script: one in which the duplicates try to outdo each other in respect of their driving skills, with a Mini-Moke race around the Village, and one where Number Six runs a gauntlet en route to his own cottage and a showdown with Number Twelve.
It should be painfully obvious that these sequences had to be cut when the script was not included amongst that set of four to be filmed extensively on location in Portmeirion.
The three block theory does have a certain validity, except that after the initial run of four, the remaining episodes were all primarily studio-bound, differing in that some of them duplicated – or in some cases extended: there is a Village-esque walkway between roses that never existed on the Lleyn Peninsula – the Village on set.
However, it falls down on the notion that Once Upon a Time fell outside these blocks, as the series-ender. Ironically, the last episode was the only one outside the first four to make actual use of Portmeirion shooting!
Given that this series was filmed using the equipment available forty-five years ago, take another look at it and realise just how easy it is to overlook the fact that so many episodes that were set in the fabled and iconic Village just didn’t go anywhere near the place.

Discovering Dortmunder: Good Behavior

Good Behavior was the only Dortmunder novel I read out of sequence. For some reason, it seems to be the rarest of the books, having apparently not been included in the Mysterious Press uniform re-issue of the series in the early Nineties, from which I draw the majority of my collection, the covers of which I’m trying to use as illustrations.
I’d originally read The Hot Rock and Bank Shot from the library, in English hardback publications, but Westlake’s works have rarely since then been available in the UK and I’ve had to rely on imports thereafter. In 1977, in a long ago closed London bookshop of good repute, I got hold of the next three of the series, but it was easily another decade before I found it had continued. I managed to get hold of the seventh and eighth books, and then the two after these as they were published and imported into the Crime Section at Waterstones in Manchester, but I had to wait until the Amazon era before I could backtrack to this missing gem.
Once again, the story opens with Dortmunder out on a job that quickly goes wrong, and when I say quickly, I’m talking within the first ten words here. Dortmunder’s partner here is not, for once, Andy Kelp but instead Jim O’Hara, a rather colourless fellow who is shortly going to have the opportunity to work on his prison pallor. Dortmunder takes off in a different direction, only to fall off a roof.
The scene quickly shifts to inside a convent, a convent of nuns devoted to contemplation, prayer and a vow of silence that only allows them two hours off every Thursday afternoon to talk. One nun in particular is sat there, Contemplating, whilst praying for long life to the Pope, forgiveness of the souls in Purgatory, the conversion of Godless Russia and the return of Sister Mary Grace. Suddenly, burglar’s tools start dropping from the rafters. Which is where John Dortmunder, with a badly sprained ankle, is perched. Thank you Lord, our prayers are answered.
This unlikely thought is gradually unravelled, through the medium of good will, patience and charades. Sister Mary Grace is the convent’s newest and youngest nun, faithful, devoted and determined. Unfortunately, outside the convent, she’s the youngest daughter of a very rich industrialist/financier/businessman, Frank Ritter, whose plans for her life are somewhat more conventional, and directed towards expanding the family empire, so he had her kidnapped, imprisoned on the 76th floor of the Avalon State Bank Tower, behind impregnable security, and is having her worked on (unsuccessfully) by the world’s leading deprogrammer.
It’s not a question of barter, but in unspoken exchange for not shopping Dortmunder to those very busy policemen at the other end of the block, the nuns want him to steal Sister Mary Grace back.
This improbable, but somewhat uplifting scenario makes for a strangely positive book, the first of the series, since for once – perhaps because they are working on the side of the angels – the gang gets an all-points win,including a pay-off that’s spectacular enough to see Dortmunder and May on holiday in Bermuda by the final pages. But, naturally, it’s not an easy ride.
Leaving aside the practical difficulties of breaking into a high security, 76 storey, downtown business centre to rescue Rapunzel from the apartment on the top floor (which only becomes possible because Rapunzel is not just faithful, devoted and determined, but resourceful and smart too, and gets the security spec books smuggled out to the nuns) there’s the question of manpower.
Sure, Andy Kelp – who has taken to using his credit card to bypass the lock whenever he drops in on John and May – will help, for old times sake, but Stan and Tiny will want a profit motive. However, given that the building is just chock-a-block with import and jewellery businesses, the prospect can be made tempting enough. And John’s plan is ingenious to say the least.
For the building includes, amongst its many tenants, several mail order businesses. And it is well known that wherever you get mail order businesses, you get people running scams. One such is J. C. Taylor, who is willing to allow the gang to hole up for the weekend in Taylor’s offices, breaking out on Sunday to relieve the 26th floor of its goodies, and sending these out of the building on Monday as part of J. C. Taylor’s everyday post.
The nun will be taken out separately.
It’s Tiny whose contacts have uncovered J. C. Taylor, and it’s Tiny who’s most affected by the discovery that J. C. is actually a woman: an attractive, albeit hard-faced woman, aged about thirty: self-confident, brash, cynical, and capable of having a very unusual effect upon Tiny Bulcher, hormonally, that is.
Indeed, though she’s cynical and uncaring enough to make him almost resentful of her, it’s not really surprising that, by the end, he’s calling her Josie (which nobody else ever does), and it’s clear the relationship is heading for blue waters.
J. C.’s not part of the gang, though her curiosity puts her on the scene in the latter part of the book, and she’s instrumental in driving the remaining members of the gang into doing the right thing.
The gang is, however, complete on this occasion by another of Westlake’s weird and wonderful locksmiths. Chefwick’s retired, Herman X. is now Vice-President of Talabwo (remember the Balabomo Emerald?), so Tiny brings in little old Wilbur Howey, a little old man who spends virtually all his time singing and dancing, and panting after women.
You see, Wilbur once got caught and sent down for ten years but, on account of his insistence on escaping over and over again, it’s taken forty-eight years for him to get out. Wilbur’s been locked away from women for forty-eight years and is eager to impress himself on them, though the fact that his tastes, talk and general demeanour are still set to forty-eight years ago, he’s not destined to have much luck.
You’ll remember that I said something about “the remaining members of the gang” just now? That’s because the plan is working perfectly, everybody’s busy filling their boots (almost literally) with precious items (Kelp keeps diverting himself into the Magic Shop, until Stan has to have a word about it), and Dortmunder, with Wilbur’s help, is off to the 76th floor to retrieve Sister Mary Grace, and you know how every time there’s some little obstruction, some unforeseeable detail that the plan doesn’t cater for?
This time it’s the fact that Frank Ritter has it in for some South American country which has defied him. So he plans to have its government overthrown by a small army of extremely violent, homicidally maniacal, volatile mercenaries, who are staying in the Avalon State Bank Tower before flying out on Monday.
Sister Mary Grace is on the 76th floor. They’re on the 75th…
I’ll leave the rest of it to your good idea to get Good Behavior and read it. All I shall say is that Ritter gets his proper comeuppance, the mercenaries are arrested, Sister Mary Grace is reunited with her convent (whilst supplying some assistance to the rebels of Guerrero along the way) and, in a delightful precursor of Sister Act, a bunch of singing nuns get the gang out of the building, under the not very watchful eye of our old friend, Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna. Pronounced Maloney.
More even than Why Me?, Good Behavior represented a pivot in the series. From this point on, though Dortmunder still finds life sticking spokes in his wheel all along the way, the gang will usually come out of their capers with something for their trouble, other than the freedom to plot the next job without the attention of warders.
And the gang is a gang now, John, Andy, Stan and Tiny. Though they all continue to earn their daily bread in their own manner, with or without other professional colleagues, when there’s a serious caper going, this is the quartet that will do it. Tiny’s initial fearsomeness, though it still has plenty of rope, begins to be tempered a little in this book, a process we understand will be accelerate once Josie starts to rub a few rough edges off him (not too many, Tiny being composed entirely from an overstock of rough edges).
But the moment J.C. shamed the other four into going to rescue Dortmunder, which even Kelp had agreed wasn’t going to happen, a sense of loyalty was created.
As usual, Good Behavior is very funny. There’s a lot of charades, which Westlake handles very skilfully, keeping it funny as Dortmunder (and others) have to interpret it, but not overusing the device until it stifles. There’s also a pragmatic degree of moral relativity among the nuns in the aid they lend to the gang, especially at the end, and May – who abruptly gives up cigarette smoking near the start of the book, only to start scratching her head a lot – even has a sub-plot of her own, scaring off the guy who wants to sue Dortmunder in court to recover the fee he paid John to commit the failed robbery of page 1.
It would be another five years before Westlake returned to his gang of oddballs, during which he would publish six other novels, four of them under the pseudonym Samuel Holt. It was one of the ways in which he would keep the series fresh, and fend off the risk of dipping too much into self-parody. Because next time out, in the longest book of the series, Dortmunder would find himself again doing the right thing, and this time without a convent of nuns spurring him on.

Personal Note: 24 June

Like all of us out there fortunate enough to have jobs in this land ruled by criminal lunatics, my life is not my own. It’s been even less my own this past eight days, which is why the usual flood of new stuff posted has slowed to less than a trickle.

I spent the whole of last week being retrained to do even more things for the same amount of money, which was pretty much ok, despite the early starts, except that ordinarily I get Thursday off in that half of my fortnightly shifts. You’d think that it would just be a simple matter of giving me a day back for the one I had to come it, but no. I work differing hours each days, so what my employers did was to tot up how long I’d have been in if I’d been doing my normal shifts, set it against the time I spent in training, and work out that they owed me two and a half hours.

Which I took first thing Saturday, so that I could at least get a lie-in.

Either way, I’ve been working eight successive days, which is no fun for the young and fit, let alone the old and increasingly decrepit (I am still getting gyp from my right knee since we had a Team Night Out 10 pin Bowling three and a half weeks ago). So there’s been little time for writing during this period, and, more crucially, very little time for thinking about what I’m going to be writing.

The next few days are going to be easier, and I hope to be able to get to some overdue things this week – the next piece on the Prisoner needs some serious work to prepare it, and I’ve a few more ideas I want to work on that I can’t get to until I’ve worked through some of the running series I’m doing now.

So, apologies for the recent semi-drought and I’m hoping to be back to normal now.

100 Bullets: Brother Lono 1

I didn’t expect I’d ever be doing this again. When 100 Bullets reached its 100th and final issue, in ruination, death and destruction, Azzarello swore it was the end. All that was to be said had been said: it was complete. Yet four years on, I hold in my hands again a 100 Bullets comic. And the gang’s all here again, the whole damned crew who stuck it out together: Azz and Risso, and Trish and Clem and the Reverend Dave, and Will Dennis riding shotgun like before. Like nothing’s changed, though everything’s changed. Everybody’s favourite big-dick Hawaiian took a bullet to the chest and crashed out a window, but that last panel that showed bloody fooprints and no body was no tease. Lono is back, and the hell of it is that there are only seven more of these left to me.

Brother Lono 1 is an extended first issue of an eight-part mini-series set an unspecified time after the end of 100 Bullets and focussing on the amoral, violent, OTT Lono: The Dog, Medici’s Warlord, survivor. Where is he, what’s he doing, is he still the world’s greatest Fuck? (we are not talking sex here). What’s going on?

This is an archetypal Azzarello first issue. It begins from the end, with a man digging graves, dozens of graves whilst an unknown narrator tells us that this is a tale of a man who believed he had nothing to lose. By the second page, we can see that that man is Lono. Like Dizzy’s first arc, Milo Garret’s, Wylie Times’s, we see the outcome before the why and the what.

And what we see, as the pages begin to turn, are scenes and snapshots: people we don’t know doing things that make sense to them but not yet to us, though we quickly begin to guess. Firstly, we are in Mexico: though the words are in English, they are translated. A man named Ernesto, undergoing bloody torture, pleading that he has told everything he knows. Yet a threat to his baby, the sight of his wife forced into prostitution, and his tongue is loosened yet further.

A man who watches and listens to this torture attends Mass, talks to a Father Manny, hands over blood money from an organisation calling itself Las Torres Gemelas, or “The Twin Towers”. The Father would refuse the money if he could, but he dare not. Instead, he finds Ernesto’s baby on his doorstep.

Then we meet Lono, as we would expect to meet him: in jail, snoring, locked up. There’s something wrong though, that we don’t immediately register, something different… the white shirt. In the ending we have already been shown, Lono has on his traditional loud Hawaiian shirt, but here he’s dressed in white, all white. And there are no obscenities in his speech.

Lono’s getting out, his boss has a job for him, meet the bus, collect a nun, bring her to the church. The other guy in the little jail is getting out too. That’s not supposed to happen: he had a deal, he’d be deported back to the States. But his bail has been paid, and they’re waiting for him outside. ‘They’ are interested in the bus too, the bus from which two women has just disembarked: one grey-haired, fiftyish, a tough old broad who knows the score, the other in her twenties, tall, slim, red-haired, sweet, in the shortest of frayed shorts.

The guy who was in jail has to identify which person on the bus is the DEA: to stop them cutting any more fingers off, he identifies a man, but it’s bullshit: this is Senor Butler, and he’s with ‘them’. Lono misidentifies someone too, assuming Beatrice, the tough old broad, is Sister June: she’s not, it’s the sweet young girl. She’s a nun. She assumes Lono is a priest, calls him Father, but he hastily corrects her. He’s not the Father. But he is Brother Lono… The title of this story isn’t just for show.

Oh, happy day. There’s a lot to learn. Things are not as they once were and there are reasons for this. But things are moving, and things will not be as they are for very long.

Only seven more…

Little Gems – Latrigg

Keswick, Derwent Water and Borrowdale from Latrigg

Latrigg is the Little Gem of Little Gems, an easy to ascend, grassy and gentle fell with views of such beauty that they are almost obscene in the reward they give for such little effort.
Latrigg is the cub of Skiddaw, a low, sprawling, rounded fell overlooking Keswick, a Sunday afternoon fell par excellence, free from risk or difficulty, and blessed with a car park at 1,200 feet that usually serves as a massive leg-up on the Tourist Route to Skiddaw itself, but which turns Latrigg into a veritable pussycat.
Leave Keswick on the main road north through the Village, but turn right at a mini-roundabout, following signposts for Carlisle. Go straight across the A66 at a major roundabout, and immediately turn right onto a side road signposted Underskiddaw and Latrigg. Follow this for a mile, before turning sharply back right, onto a narrow fell road leading uphill at a steep angle.
This is a route for cars with good suspension, although it may have been upgraded since I last passed this way (it needed it!). The road is narrow, and steep, uphill through trees, juddering and shaking and trying to avoid the worst of the potholes. It emerges from the woods into a narrow valley between the adjoining swells of Skiddaw and Latrigg.
The car park is at the head of the road, with room for about 15-20 cars, depending on the courtesy or selfishness with which they have been parked. If there is no room, turn round carefully and start back to find an off-road place where you can leave your car without blocking anyone’s passage.
There are two routes from here. The simplest and most direct is from the further end of the car park: leave via the gate, skirt some reedy and slightly soft ground in the bed of the depression, and bear towards the broad green path rising above the immediate skyline.
This route of approach has nothing to recommend it from a walking point of view. It is enclosed between two grassy convex slopes, and feels a touch claustrophobic as a consequence. There is nothing of interest on the way and the walk is nothing but a monotonous trudge, but the great appeal of this approach is that the stunning and expansive view from Latrigg’s miniature crest comes in the last couple of steps, as an enormous revelation, sudden and enthralling.
A much better walking alternative, longer but infinitely more entertaining, does show its hands over the view from a relatively early stage. At the bottom end of the car park, on the right as you arrive, a gate gives access to a broad path heading downhill and curving away quickly out of sight around the corner of Latrigg.
The path gently descends and it would be easy to develop a fast walking pace, but instead keep an eye open for a grassy ride descending from the left to join the path. Turn back upon yourself, gaining height in a series of gentle zig-zags on the side of Mallin Dodd, until the path levels out, turning south and contouring around the broad swell of the fell. Bassenthwaite Lake, below and behind, is already in view, and the vista is opening up towards the Newlands Valley, and as you progress, further east towards Derwent Water as well.
This high level terrace curves into and out of a sweep of land before rising to a small platform about 100′ below the, now-visible, crest of the fell. A park bench has been placed here, in the perfect position on the corner of the fell, where the view towards the lake and Borrowdale first opens out. It only accommodates two people, or three if they’re friendly, and most walkers, knowing how close they are to the summit, will not feel the urge to stop, but this route is for the leisurely at heart.
When ready, follow the path up the surprisingly steep edge to the crest for the fullest effect of the view.
After this, the direct route is a simple, easy, downhill march, back to the car.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City – Confession

After the ‘failure’ of Astro City at Image comics, the series transferred to Homage, the personal imprint run by Jim Lee, one of the Image founders, where it’s remained ever since, until this month, and the first issue of the series from DC’s Vertigo imprint.
Astro City volume 2 would run for a total of 22 issues from 1995 to 1998, its schedule growing increasingly sporadic to to illness on the part of Busiek, which was eventually traced to mercury poisoning, causing bouts of extreme fatigue during which the writer, having a wife and family to support, concentrated his limited writing time on the better-paid work available to him at various times from Marvel and DC.
The second volume featured a mixture of short stories a la Life in the Big City, and novel length stories. The first of these was ‘Confession’, running in issues 4 – 9, and collected as the second trade paperback.
In his introduction to the Graphic Novel, Busiek discusses Robert Heinlein’s theories as to the very limited nature of stories. One of Heinlein’s categories is ‘A Boy becomes a Man’, and this is the ultimate basis of this novel.
The boy is Brian Kinney, who narrates the story from beginning to end. Originally, Kinney comes from outside Astro, from the small community of Buchanan Corners where his Dad, now deceased, was the Town Doctor. Kinney senior was a better doctor than businessman, more concerned with the treatment of illness than the collection of fees. Unsurprisingly, he was mercilessly exploited by the neighbours he served, and when he died destitute, was stigmatised by them as a deadbeat, and Brian as a chip off the same block. Brian runs away to the Big City, to seek his fortune.
Brian, like many a boy or girl in their late teens, is ambitious: he wants to become a superhero. the best way of doing this is to get taken on by an existing hero as a side-kick, and Astro City has the greatest concentration of costumes in the world. The first thing to do is to get to meet them.
He achieves this by initially getting a position at Bruisers, a down-market Bar and Grill, run by K. O. Carson, who used to be the Black Badge before he retired. Bruisers is the bar of choice for the more boisterous, rough and ready heroes, and Brian is actually a cut above that as waiter/busboy, so Carson recommends him uptown to a very exclusive, very unadvertised club, populated with the more creme de la creme of the community, a place where masks and costumes can be forgotten, where they can meet and mingle and relax.
Except, of course, that the crass Crackerjack turns up in costume, horribly embarrassing his girlfriend, Jessica Taggart (aka Quarrel (II)), and blowing the club’s security so that, a couple of nights later, the place is invaded by cheap gimmick crook, Glue-Gun.
In order not to be set upon by a couple of dozen heroes, Glue-Gun grabs a busboy as hostage, threatening to shoot him a skull-ful of epoxy. But the busboy he’s seized is Brian, who takes the opportunity to use his own martial arts training and knock Glue-Gun for a loop, to the mass approval of the guests.
Unfortunately, Brian’s acted out of turn. All the other waitresses/waiters/busboys and girls have been here for a number of years, looking for that shot, that chance to impress and be picked out, the one that, as far as they’re concerned, Brian’s stolen from them. They’re going to beat the shit out of him in the yard. That is, until a voice intervenes, that of the mysterious, black-clad hero, of whom no photo has ever been taken: the Confessor. And the Confessor wants to speak to Brian…

The Confessor

So Brian gets his wish, albeit under the rather unfortunate name of Altar Boy, undergoing training with the Confessor (whose real name is Jeremiah Parrish, and whose home/base is in an abandoned crypt in the sprawling, unfinished Grandenetti Cathedral). The Confessor is a mystery, but they’re supposed to be detectives, aren’t they? If Altar Boy wants answers, he has to do what they do with villains: find them for himself.
All of which is set-up for the second phase of the story. It’s a hot, dry, increasingly strained summer in Astro. The heat is driving people crazy, and they have something to be crazy about, because there’s a killer striking in Shadow Hill. He’s been killing for some time, but the public only starts to take notice, and demand action, after the first white victim, a smiling, beautiful, but above all white teenager.
It awakens something in the city, something that always underlies a world where figures of immense power, who are simultaneously protectors and ostensible oppressors (how could you stop them doing anything they decided to do?) have such incredible visibility. Gradually, public opinion, fed in many ways by the growing aggression of a City Mayor who seems determined to stand up for the ordinary people of America, the ones who seem to be beneath the notice of the arrogant supers, starts to turn nasty.
And it’s not just the city that’s disturbed, but Brian too, a new figure in transit between two worlds who can’t help sympathising with some of the citizen’s opinions, and wondering why he, and the Confessor, aren’t doing more to directly pursue this killer. That they’re not seems to have something to do with Shadow Hill’s antipathy to the Confessor himself, their obvious fear of him, the one time he crosses its boundaries. So much for Brian to think about, so many patterns to look at, trying each time to find what doesn’t fit, what is out of place, what inescapable conclusion it leads to.
The first revelation is the Confessor’s secret, one that, despite Brian’s trust for the man, disturbs him and leaves him in deep doubt about his role, and whether he should continue as Altar Boy. Meanwhile, the tensions continue to rise, and Astro City’s administration eventually declares virtual war upon its masked community, heading towards a massive quasi-military presence, to support legitimate law and order.
And it’s at that stage that the Confessor sees the flaw in the pattern, and leads Brian to the second, and ultimate revelation, of the other secret that has underpinned all the events of this story. And Altar Boy learns more than just one lesson from more than just one teacher as the hidden currents run through into the open and a resolution.

Altar Boy

There’s an interesting macro-coda to the story in that, after all the dust has settled, the Shadow Hill Killer strikes again, but this time the culprit is apprehended and defeated by the area’s most unusual protector, the Hanged Man. The Killer had nothing to do with anything. It was just a coincidence, an unrelated story, seized upon and exploited as a smokescreen. And there’s an even more interesting micro-coda, four years on from the events of the story, demonstrating just how Brian responds to the lessons he has learned, and the Man he has become.
Overall, Confession is an intriguing, thoughtful, well-constructed story that shows a very different side to Astro City and to how ordinary people respond to heroes at different times. It also illustrates one of the advantages Busiek has created for himself in this series, in that, just like Marvel and DC, his Universe has a past. But unlike them, it’s a genuine past, not an ever-mutable construct that shifts according to the temper of the times, and it has a depth that isn’t available to either of the big companies’ insistence that all their stories have taken place over a fixed period of time, constantly shifting forward.
Astro’s history, as we’ll go on to see, is linked to the history of the comic book industry, to the mood of various eras influenced by the prevailing attitudes of the comics of that time. It lends an extra level of fascination, especially as Busiek’s trick is to refer to historical things in the way that we would do in real life: as history that everyone knows and recalls, needing no more than a brief reference. We are warned that the mood of suspicion and paranoia in this story is not new, that it was prevalent in the Seventies too. Names such as the Blue Knight and the Pale Horseman are dropped, piquing our curiosity.
In time, we will be satisfied as to those two characters, and the temper of the times in which they appeared, but the beauty of Astro City is that its history is long, and, given the publishing difficulties that would arise as a consequence of Busiek’s health issues, much of it is still the mystery in which it begins.
As for Confession, it is rounded off with “The Nearness of You”, a one-off story not published in either of the Astro City series, but instead in a promo issue of the then-successful Comics magazine, Wizard.
Just as Astro City presents a Universe in one comic book, this tale has Busiek presenting a Universe-wide, time and reality shattering event a la Crisis on Infinite Earths in a sixteen page story – or, to be more accurate, in three pages of that story, which is only right and proper given that it’s really only a MacGuffin. Only Busiek, only Astro City…
“The Nearness of You” focusses on Michael Tenicek, an ordinary guy being driven slowly demented by his memories. His days and nights are filled with memories of Miranda, a woman he knows, in intimate detail. But he doesn’t know who she is, or why he knows her, or where he met her. His friends and family have no idea who he’s talking about. He’s unable to think about anything else, and it’s destroying his life.

The Hanged Man

Until, one night, the Hanged Man comes to him in a ‘dream’. Tenicek’s ‘memories’ are dangerous: they are weakening reality. There was an event in which all of reality, all time and space was destroyed, but then it was reformed. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect match. All sorts of little details were changed: Air Ace fought the Barnstormers on a Sunday, not a Monday.
Miranda was Tenicek’s wife, but because of that changed detail, her grandparents never met. But his love for her is too strong. He has a choice: to give up those memories, forget Miranda utterly, or to retain them, and with that a sense of understanding that won’t explain but will relieve. Tenicek is one of many who have to make this choice.
The story is simple and affecting. In a universe of superheroes, of vast cosmic beings and cosmic wars in which reality is uncreated and recreated to serve a company’s continuity reboot, these are the unconsidered side-effects, the changes that beak hearts into impossible shapes that no-one cares about, except in this short moment of recognition of a risk everybody takes for granted.
Tenicek chose to remember and understand. Everybody does. The heart in all of us rises to that choice.
And next time DC rewrites its entire continuity, keep a thought for all the people who get fucked over by it. Even if it’s only the ‘real’ Justice Society of America.
You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.