After four Dortmunder novels in seven years, there wasn’t a fifth for six years,the longest gaps between books in the series. It was a fallow period for Westlake, with only two books under his name during that period, one of them the very serious novel Kahawa. Part of the time was taken up with writing the screenplay of the rather unsuccessful comedy crime caper film, Hot Stuff for director/star Dom DeLuise, as well as a pilot episode of the unsuccessful TV series Supertrain. So by the time Why Me? appeared in 1983, Dortmunder fans were more than ready for it. And Westlake had a brand sparkling new angle to feed them. I must confess to having a faulty impression about this story before I came to re-read it. The slowly deteriorating relationship between Dortmunder and Kelp, with the former being increasingly reluctant to work with the latter as caper after caper crashed, is reversed in Why Me?, setting things up for the two to work harmoniously ever after. After all, Kelp comes willingly, and at no little risk to himself, to Dortmunder’s aid in this book. But what I’d forgotten is that whatever reconciliation had taken place has already been and gone before page 1, when Dortmunder is trying to contact Kelp to invite him to join in on this little job he has set up, and which is to be the start of all his troubles. It’s just a burglary at a jewellers, is all, out near the Airport, a jewellers with a ‘going on holiday’ sign in the window, which is practically an invitation to do your shopping whilst it’s quiet, except that partway through the job the owner pays a late visit, no lights, to put something in the safe, and leave again. Dortmunder, whose interest in that part of the world that doesn’t affect him directly is less than total, shrugs it off, opens the safe and helps himself to all manner of pricey trinkets. Almost as an afterthought, he takes this massive ruby ring that’s obviously a fake: nothing real could be that big: maybe it’s worth something? Unfortunately, the ring is real. In fact, it’s the world famous Byzantine Fire, and it’s definitely worth something. It was being given up by the United States after ninety years to go to Greece, but all sorts of Nationalist and Terrorist organisations, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian etc, had contradictory opinions as to the propriety of that, and the ruby had been stolen in order that a certain well-trusted and calm Greek jeweller could take it out of the country the next day. A jeweller who planned to keep the Byzantine Fire in his safe overnight. A calm man who folds and confesses the moment the FBI arrive. Of course, Dortmunder being Dortmunder, he knows nothing of this. New York throbs with excitement over the theft of this famous diamond, the FBI, various security organisations and the New York Police collaborate (in a riven by distrust, jealousy and plain loathing manner) to find the Ruby, and the man who has it doesn’t read the papers or watch the news and doesn’t even know there’s a fuss at all. Whilst the FBI doggedly pursue the idea of secret and competing organisations, the Police, in the form of Chief Inspector Francis X. Mologna (pronounced Maloney) have the right idea, and the might of the NYPD is turned loose upon the poor unsuspecting criminal fraternity of New York (though virtually all of it is less unsuspecting than Dortmunder). The blitz affects everybody, very rapidly. Dortmunder narrowly escapes being swept up with the proceeds of the robbery on him, whilst he’s at his fence (a first appearance from the unloved Arnie Allbright), and when he is hauled in for questioning, just a few moments after May has broken to him that he’s the cause of all this ado, and what it is he actually stole, he’s actually got the Byzantine Fire stuck on his finger and effectively in his hand all throughout his sojourn at the station. The real problem for Dortmunder, and the point at which Kelp unselfishly and unhesitatingly weighs in on his buddy’s side, is that all this hassle has got the backs up of the afore-mentioned criminal fraternity, as presided over by Tiny Bulcher (he didn’t go back to prison after all: the gorilla didn’t press charges). Tiny, as we already know, is not a man-mountain that takes kindly to anyone who interferes with the smooth and efficient running of his life, and the unlucky person who has brought this shitstorm of discomfort down on Tiny is an irritation not to be borne. Accordingly, whilst the crooks are running around looking for the guy with the diamond, the crooks are sitting very still – in the back room of the O.J. Bar & Grill on Amsterdam Avenue, where else? – running a parallel investigation into what everybody was doing on Wednesday night. And their powers of subpoena, though not backed in any official way, are vastly more effective. The real problem for Dortmunder is not so much that confession and restitution will considerably diminish his standing among his confreres, not to mention get him into jail for life, but that Tiny Bulcher insists on having certain dealings with the guy who’s causing all this ruckus, before handing him over to the Police. So, with only the assistance of Andrew Octavian Kelp, Dortmunder has to work out away of divesting himself of the Byzantine Fire in such a manner as will clear his reputation as the man who everybody – police, crooks, press and all manner of fervently nationalistic and religious groups – is coming to believe has stolen it. That’s all you’ll get from me, because how Westlake plays out this nearly impossible situation, delivering all manner of comeuppances to everyone whose behaviour deserves it, should not be marred by spoilers. Let’s just say that Dortmunder does, in the end, walk free, walk tall (even with his stooped shoulders) and with his reputation clean, and that there’s no more fallings-out with Andy Kelp so long as the series lasts. Why Me? is effectively a two-hander, like the final part of Nobody’s Perfect, rather than a gang caper, fleshed out by a great many diversions into the concerns and actions of all the forces seeking the recovery of the Byzantine Fire. Stan Murch has a cameo role, calling Dortmunder up to consider a job he’s found, which has to be put on the back burner during the crisis, but which is still there to be picked up in the aftermath. Tiny Bulcher, as we know, has a central role, but not on Dortmunder’s side, and he ends up in hospital sick from having eaten all the crook’s files on everybody, to prevent the police getting their hands on them. Arnie Allbright is a new addition to the list of characters in this book. Arnie, as I’ve already mentioned, is a fence. He’s Dortmunder’s regular fence because he gives the best rates, and Arnie gives the best rates because he’s such a repulsive personality, he’s got no friends, so if he didn’t give the best rates no-one whatsoever would visit him, because he repulses them so much, they’d rather go to Stoon even though he doesn’t give such top dollar. Arnie lives in a top floor apartment in a run-down building that he seems to be doing his best to run down further. He collects calendars: they’re everywhere, every size, shape and subject, even the incompletes. And mention must be made of the truly monstrous Chief Inspector Mologna, who, like the Security Guards from Bank Shot, is just too vivid a personality not to bring back. Mologna, a mass of old school, Irish cop prejudices, instinctively hating his FBI opponent Zachary as much as Zachary hates him, shifting his immovable belly about the place and, gloriously, refusing to let Dortmunder give the ruby back and insisting on catching him. Westlake adds another running set-piece in the opening scene, a set-up that permeates the whole story and which goes on to be developed throughout the rest of the series. It’s a mini-masterpiece: Dortmunder rings Kelp to ask him to come on this job but Kelp doesn’t seem to be listening to him so he hangs up. It’s not until he tries a second time, and Kelp’s saying all the same things that Dortmunder realises what we immediately understood, which is that Kelp’s got an answering machine, though for why Dortmunder can’t understand. So he tries to leave a message, completely ignoring the fact that the machine is still talking to him, in fact Kelp has picked up and is trying to get through to John that it’s actually him now, though John is doggedly ignoring that detail! It’s the beginning of Andy’s ongoing urge to not merely surround himself with all manner of energy-saving gadgets but also to surround Dortmunder with them too, in the face of John’s determination not to want, or even see the point of another one of these crazy contraptions that just make everything more complicated than it really oughta be. But even if I misremembered the exact circumstances, Why Me? still represents something of a turning point in the series. From this point onwards, the endings do get a bit more positive. There are no great scores, no complete victories and the capers continue to run up against misfortunes and snags that turn them into pain-in-the-ass trials, but from here on there’s usually something in it, and with the next book the gang turns itself into a gang that automatically looks to its partners in whatever jobs might come up.
By my reckoning (and Kurt Busiek’s), this comic is three years overdue. It was plugged as coming out in 2010, but such minor matters as WildStorm Press being wound up once Jim Lee went in as Co-Publisher at DC, and Busiek’s ongoing debilitating health problems that have played hob with Astro City‘s publication schedule this last decade and a half, have forced a postponement until now. But Astro City is finally back,now from DC’s creator-owned imprint, Vertigo Comics, with a third volume of stories. Busiek assures us that by this time, either 11 or 12 issues will be ‘in the can’, so we’ve got at least a year of new stories to look forward to.
So what of Astro City (volume 3) issue 1, “Open the Door (Part One)”?
To be frank, my intial reaction is disappointment. What we have here is very different to the Astro City we long-timers have come to love. It’s deliberately so. This might be issue 60, if you tot them all up together, but it’s very much a relaunch issue, aimed in large part towards the nascent Vertigo audience, and Busiek has aimed so determinedly at not shutting them out with the expectations of the old audience that he’s gone to the other extreme by pushing anything too familiar out.
Whilst there’s a handful of existing figures, and our old buddy Samaritan gets seeral panels of dialogue as the unofficial but acknowledhed leader of the heroes assembled, Busiek’s emphasis is upoin two strange, new, deliberately unfamiliar characters, American Chiba – a Japanese anime superheroine figure to whom we are deliberately refused access and explanation – and The Broken Man. This latter narrates the whole issue in the biggest and most overt exercise in metafiction the series has ever run, making reading of this book a conspiracy against some shadowy, unimaginable, infiltrative threat. The Broken Man offers no clues as to himself, although the final page features a limp lapse into cliche when he’s revealed as a strait-jacketed patient in an asylum.
This is no more than the first part, which adds to my sense of deflation. All it is is set-up, and the trappings are extremely comic-booky, so much so that it has already built up the onus on Busiek to surprise us, to come up with what is new, fresh, unpredictable about this framework: set of doors mysteriously appears in the sky, heroes try to open them but fail, out steps emissary from star-spanning organisation, here to negotiate with Earth over irs admission, yawn, snore.
The one twist so far is that Earth’s representative to go through those doors is Ben Pullam: that’s right, the anxious divorced father of Astro City (volume 2) issue 1, newly-divorced, newly-arrived in Astro City with two young daughters in tow and massive concerns over what to do for their best. That was seventeen years ago (inside and outside the comic): he’s done not to bad for himself, the girls are women, with promising and exciting lives, He’s the one that the Broken Man manipulates (with our assistance) into volunteering as emissary for the ordinariness of Earth.
Thus ends part one, with very little having happened.
Now having expressed my disappointment at the thinness of this gruel, let me immediately qualify that by ponting out very specifically that this is Part 1. We don’t now how long this story is (if it were a conventional comic, I would sniff the wind of what Busiek has hinted at so far and put the month’s rent money on six issues, though I’d like to see Busiek and Co. bring this in at three, tops: they don’t do bloated in Astro City), and we won’t be able to make a proper judgement until we’ve read all the story, by which time I could be eating my words.
Oh,the nostalgia of it! It’s not just having this series back, it’s the going into Forbidden Planet and buying a contemporary single comic book, and I haven’t done that since Dave Sim abruptly shut down Glamorpuss.
But the best thing of all was this full-page add, just before the end of this issue, for another return series that will have me buying single issues again, and which came as a total surprise on every single level: 100 Bullets: Brother Lono issue 1, due out next week. Sorry, Busiek, Anderson and Ross, I mean no disrespect but if Azarello and Risso are doing 100 Bullets again, that sweeps every other comic off the table.
I’ll be blogging that series as well, by the way, but for now, and the return of Astro City, despite the disappointment of this initial offering, I’m glad to have it back. Roll on the next episode.
Holme Fell is a true Lakeland fell in miniature, rough, aggressive, craggy, and spoiled only by its complete lack of height, just over 1,000 feet.
Geographically, the fell lies north of Coniston village, under the shadow of the Coniston range. Wetherlam’s third, and most diffuse ridge, culminating in the exciting (from below) ramparts of the Yewdale Fells, is bordered to the east by the shy, sylvan Tilberthwaite valley. A low ridge runs from Wetherlam across the head of the valley, which is closed off to the east by the rough sprawl of Holme Fell, which falls away towards the uplands between the Coniston range and Windermere, which includes Black Fell.
The summit of the fell is defended by a rim of crags that is only breached on the eastern flank. Take the Ambleside road north out of the village, into the long, flat, sylvan valley beyond. The road hugs the western side, underneath the Yewdale fells: if the weather has been wet and the becks are in spate, it’s worth pulling up just to look at the tumbling waters. When Holme Fell appears, directly ahead, a side road escapes left, to Tilberthwaite and the main road turns right, across the valley. The gap of Tilberthwaite opens alarmingly wide, the skyline disappearing completely in a most unLakes manner. Pass a side road signposted Hodge Close Only, and the entrance to Yew Tree Farm then, as the road turns left again on reaching the other side of the valley, look to park among the woods on the outside of the corner. This is the recognised car park for the scramble up besides Tom Gill to the picturesque Tarn Hows. If this is full, which on a sunny day is quite possible, there is off-road parking available further on the road, by the artificial fishing tarn.
Walk back, taking great care as this is a busy road, to the entrance to Yew Tree Farm and turn in at the gate. Almost immediately, take the gate to the right, closing it firmly behind you, and finding a path that heads away round the corner of the fell ahead, through fields of overgrown grass. The noise of the road is still there, if slightly distanced, and this is a pleasant stroll round to the eastern side of Holme Fell.
After about a quarter mile, the path starts to tend leftwards, towards the base of the fell. All this flank is quite thickly wooded, and the path makes its way into the trees and begins to rise.
It continues to climb at the same, steady, even angle across the flank of the field. below and to the right, the ground falls away sharply, although for most of the way there is enough of a screen of trees to your right to avoid any risk of vertigo, and whilst the ascent is never easy, it’s completely safe.
After a time, the trees begin to thin out, the sound of cars diminishes and is replaced by the sound of running water. This marks the approach to Uskdale Gap: the path begins to lose a little of its steepness and emerges into the open under the rim of crags, before turning into the wide channel of the Gap. Follow this up, keeping the beck to your right, and emerge onto the edge of a scruffy, rock-strewn top, with paths streaming away north and west.
Ivy Crag, decorated by a prominent cairn, lies directly south, and from there turn west to pick your way to the summit rocks.
Holme Fell’s situation, close to the high wall of Wetherlam, restricts its view, but the full-length prospect of Coniston Water is the obvious highlight, and a fine reason, alongside the exercise, be up here in the first place.
A return by the same route is perfectly feasible, but it’s always more fun to find a different route, and the paths across the back of the fell are too wide and too inviting not to explore. It’s worth a stroll even if you plan on descending via Uskdale Gap, but if you direct your steps towards the north west corner of the fell, you can find a steep and winding path down through the woods on that side, that, if approached with care, brings you down onto the Hodge Close road.
Stroll back along the tarmac, with no worries about traffic disturbing you, and Tilberthwaite Beck bubbling beside. Just short of the main road, a gate leads onto a field path back to Yew Tree Farm, paralleling the road but avoiding the risks of having to walk that, until you reach the farm entrance and have to complete your journey back to the care with your eye on the copious traffic.
For those of you who enjoyed my recent series of articles on Green Arrow, you might like to know that Comics columnist and writer Scott Tipton is running his own series of articles recounting the history of the Emerald Archer.
Nobody’s Perfect, which was published in 1977, continues the fun, with absurd yet strangely realistic situations and Westlake’s ear for funny yet natural lines.
The fourth book of the series has an awful lot in it: a lot of people too. There’s a bit of a Homecoming Week feel to it, especially in the Second Chorus, with return cameos for folks like Victor Kelp, Herman X and even Alan Greenwood, playing tiny but essential roles in a looping, multi-phased story that takes off in several different directions around a well-constructed and essentially linear story.
In some respects, it resembles The Hot Rock, with a stolen-then-lost valuable at the heart of it, but Westlake’s angle is far looser this time round (on the surface: the plotting is snare-drum tight). The book’s divided into musical pieces: three choruses and a bridge, with shifting casts for different sections and, uniquely, in the final part, a trip abroad. Dortmunder outside the US! In England, and Scotland.
The book starts in cracking form with Dortmunder in court. He’s been caught in mid-heist, red-handed, 100% guilty, and he’s not going back to May’s apartment any time soon. Except that, for no apparent reason, one of the most famous trial lawyers in the country sweeps into the cells, takes over Dortmunder’s case, pro bono, and, with the aid of the complete plot of a local sex film and some spectacularly hilarious court room theatre, bluffs Dortmunder out of the charge.
Naturally, there’s a catch. The catch is Arnold Chauncey: rich, handsome, well-connected, spendthrift. Periodically, Chauncey – an Art collector and connoisseur – supplements his impressive but somehow inadequate income with an insurance scam. This time, having been to that well a little too often, the theft has to be real. So Chauncey has had this expert lawyer find him two professional criminals.
One, Dortmunder, is a professional thief who will steal the painting in question, keep it until the insurers pay up, then hand it back in exchange for his fee. The other, to ensure that Dortmunder doesn’t get any ideas about selling the painting in the meantime, is a professional killer.
The painting, incidentally, is by Veenbes and is called Folly Leads Man to Ruin. The name is not without significance.
So Dortmunder goes back to the OJ to discuss matters with his string. This, of course, includes Stan Murch (who gains a physical description for the first time in four books, as a stocky, open-faced fellow with carroty hair), Roger Chefwick (clearing up that nonsense about hi-jacking a train) and a new guy, Tiny Bulcher. Tiny is a smash-and-grabber with the emphasis on the smash, a man with very high standards in his professional colleagues and a habit of explaining exactly what it is he did to colleagues who fell short of those lofty heights. In short, Tiny terrifies everyone, and Dortmunder is not being entirely facetious when he thinks of him as the beast from forty fathoms.
Tiny’s only around for the First Chorus: he turns up ten days out of jail, and shortly after the disaster, he’s on his way back. For punching a gorilla. Westlake doesn’t seem altogether too sure of his new creation but take it from me: we are looking here at the début of the fourth permanent member of the gang.
Speaking of permanent members, you will have noted the absence of a certain name from the string. Kelp’s been left out and he’s seriously offended at it. After all those jobs he’s brought Dortmunder. All those jobs that Dortmunder promptly starts to list. Nevertheless, under May’s prompting, he relents and lets Andy in.
And when the job goes wrong, it isn’t even Kelp’s fault. This time it’s down to the mark, failing on his promises to keep security off the upper floor, and to keep the elevator from being used. But the team of seven security guards – who are trying to rebuild their reputation after that disaster two years ago when the Bank they were guarding was stolen out from underneath them – insist on doing things their way, and the overcurrents (it’s all too blatant for undercurrents) of Chauncey’s dinner party send one guest howling upstairs.
So, between Dortmunder getting trapped in the elevator shaft, and the rest of the gang getting mixed up in a foyer of drunken, fighting Scots, it’s hardly a surprise that the painting goes walkabout. Which means that,in about six months time, when Chauncey has his money and starts asking for it back…
Thus ends the First Chorus. The cast changes for the Second Chorus. Chefwick retires and moves out west. Murch, who hasn’t had anything serious to do anyway, fades out. Tiny, as I’ve already mentioned, goes back inside. Dortmunder’s got maybe six months to live, but somebody’s determined that there’s got to be a way out of this, and that is Andy Kelp – who, incidentally, also acquires a physical description now, as a wiry, sharp-nosed fellow. Dortmunder, incidentally, is still only tall, thin and depressed looking.
Thanks to Victor, the possibility is raised of obtaining a top-notch forgery and selling that back to Chauncey. But the artist, Griswold Porculey (who has come to the FBI’s notice by his incredibly accurate but extremely low-productivity forging of $20 bills by hand-painting them), points out that it would be impossible to produce a forgery that good that it would fool a connoisseur owner.
On the other hand, at a Thanksgiving party in which all Dortmunder’s friends come round to talk (not to plan heists or discuss marks, just talk: it’s a strange idea), Kelp suggests that the copy doesn’t need to fool Chauncey for more than a couple of seconds, not if a gang got in and stole it just when Dortmunder was handing it over.
And if the other guy, the killer, was decoyed out of the way, and if whilst this gang was getting away, Chauncey were to catch a glimpse of the killer (played by that TV star, Alan Greenwood), and Dortmunder and May were to move overnight, it all ought to work.
Which it does, until halfway into The Bridge, when a dissatisfied Chauncey and an impatient club-footed killer who have compared notes, re-enter Dortmunder’s life.
The new complication is one of those drunken Scotsmen, Ian McDough (pronounced MacDuff, but not by anybody he meets). McDough wound up with the painting, not to mention a dead aunt (totally unrelated, move along now, nothing to see) whose ‘inheritance’ gives him the fake provenance to claim that his family has had the real original for over 150 years.
There’s nothing for it: Dortmunder and Kelp are going to have to accompany Chauncey (and the killer, Zane) to see if there’s anything that can be done to restore the painting to its rightful, though hardly deserving owner.
The book’s Final Chorus takes place in a very well-observed and accurately described London, not to mention a long drive along all the right roads, up into the Highlands where the final scene, including as it does the arrest of a surprisingly large number of guilty parties, but not Dortmunder and Kelp (who escape by disguising themselves in suits or armour).
It’s a Dortmunder and Kelp two hander for this phase, and even with the added burden of being fish out of water away from New York (the experience of Kelp learning to drive on the right should not be missed, although Westlake’s only false note in this sequence is his apparent belief that in British cars, the gear lever, or stick-shift, comes out of the steering column, like the indicator arm), they pull off yet another great caper, only for the painting to, one more time, be stolen from them, this time by Zane for real.
The ending, when it comes, is done quickly and decisively, whipping the rug out from under a situation that was nearing the point of having no plausible get-out. By which I don’t mean to suggest that Westlake as pulled a flanker or anything, only that he’s dropped in a kind of deus ex machina, that saves the day in a manner that doesn’t really help our two crooks any.
As the story fades out, there is strong evidence that Dortmunder has decided where the blame for this farrago once again lies. Nobody’s Perfect hasn’t been filmed, and it’s unusual story-structure and constantly shifting cast would be difficult to make work on the screen: a three part television series, maybe? It’s a long way, now, from the hard-boiled feel of The Hot Rock. Though almost everything that happens could be made to work in a serious crime story, the combination is just too improbable to work. Westlake’s hit his stride, with an exact understanding of exactly how far he can push as plausibility and still keep things real within the world of Dortmunder and Co.
But that rift between John and Andy has now reached a point from where it would be impossible to make people believe that Dortmunder would ever work with Kelp again. This much was clear to Westlake. What’s needed is something pretty convincing to change his mind. Fortunately for the series, he had the very dizzying thing right up his sleeve.
The first Astro City series ran for six issues from Image Comics in 1995. It was meant to be open-ended, but the ongoing chaos at Image led to the series being cancelled (or more appropriately, abandoned), and retrospectively declared a mini-series. This first run was collected as the first trade paperback, Life in the Big City.
The collection is a perfect introduction to Astro City‘s themes and approaches. The first and last episodes are seen from the point of view of Samaritan, Busiek’s Superman-analog character, who is the only character to recur in this volume. In between, the other four episodes are seen from the point of view of civilians, bystanders, observers – in short, the ordinary folk who live in a superhero world and who have learned to adapt to it as they would to any environment.
The first episode doesn’t really have a plot: it’s a ‘Day in the Life’, beginning and ending with Samaritan’s dreams of flying, the significance of which we don’t fully appreciate until the end of the day.
Samaritan swoops and glides in his dreams until disturbed by the alarm: not the alarm clock, which hasn’t had the chance to wake him for years, but the alarm from his personal computer, the Zyxometer, alerting him to the first of many crises – natural disasters, impending accidents, criminal activity – affecting the world. And that’s what follows. Samaritan races here and there, at top speed, counting seconds in a corner of his mind, dealing with the above as they are notified to him by the Zyxometer.
At intervals, he drops in on his ‘real’ life as Asa Martin, fact-checker with Current magazine: at the start of the day, at the start and end of lunch, on leaving. He’s their best fact-checker so he’s allowed to work in solitude, behind a locked door, enabling him to leave the Zyxometer doing the work, whilst Samaritan forges ceaselessly on.
In the afternoon, he meets with Honor Guard, the world’s main superhero team: professional and social matters, jokes about setting him up for a date with Winged Victory, then off to interrupt a gang hitting a bank. In the evening, he attends a memorial dinner in his honour, continually excusing himself to do his job. And at night, he hits the pillow, exhausted, slipping directly into sleep. In the final instant, he tots up the day – fifty-six seconds, the best since March. That’s the sum total of the time that, between all those cases he’s handled, he’s spent in flight – the flight that dominates his sleep, free and untrammelled.
I described Samaritan earlier as a Superman-analog. What this means is that whilst Samaritan is not Superman, and certainly not within any actionable limits, he is recognisably of the same cloth as the first ever Superhero. Superman is the last survivor of a destroyed planet, to which he can never return. Samaritan is the last survivor of a destroyed future, to which he can never return. Superman has powers of strength, speed, flight and invulnerability from having travelled to Earth, where his alien body absorbs energy from sunlight. Samaritan has powers of strength, speed, flight and invulnerability from having travelled through time, his body having absorbed the primal energy of space and time, which he calls Empyrean Fire. Both made their debut rescuing the doomed Space Shuttle Challenger.
It’s like The Prisoner, where Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six is not John Drake of Danger Man, but carries about him the shadow of the latter’s past, providing his character in the later series with an instant, recognisable history. Samaritan is fleshed out by the reader’s recognition of Superman: we instantly understand Samaritan’s place in this new Universe, as we do with those other characters who we recognise as analogs.
And we also understand that the connection is two-sided: that whilst Captain America lends an air of recognisability to the Silver Agent, we know that a story centred upon the First Family is at the same time a commentary upon the Fantastic Four.
Samaritan’s return in the final story is equally thought-provoking. It takes its cue from that throwaway line about fixing him up with Winged Victory (think Wonder Woman), and goes on to take a closer look at what that might entail.
The pair discuss something of their backgrounds during an evening where they end up eating out in both of their guises, comparing and contrasting their separate experiences, yet though both have a repressed desire for companionship, they’re as awkward as two 14 year old virgins sharing a milk-shake! Neither of them can escape their self-imposed missions long enough to truly relax and forget that, all over the world, every other superhero is engaged in filling in for them so that they can try to act like the human beings they are too obsessed to be. (Crackerjack is typically self-centred about it).
Samaritan gets to relate his origin, though we don’t get to hear Winged Victory’s. Instead, the couple debate their respective lives, with Victory allowed to expound upon her admirably feminist principles (about which Samaritan is unusually obtuse).
The interplay is fascinating, and if Busiek doesn’t provide us with more than the most fleeting hints as to Winged Victory’s origins, it’s telling that it’s not until the unremarkable woman she really is changes into her other self that she starts to relax more about this whole affair, and yet it is she who ends the date on an argument when she’s back in her ‘civilian’ state. It’s an interesting commentary – and role reversal from the originals – that Samaritan is the same person as Samaritan or Asa, whilst it is Winged Victory who is ‘Clark Kent’ and ‘Superman’.
The other stories take external viewpoints, though it’s stretching things to call all of them as ‘civilians’, as we shall shortly see. The range of stories is intriguing.
Episode 2 allows Busiek to delve into Astro City’s history, in a story set in 1960. It contains one of the series’ few extended fights, as the earliest incarnation of Honor Guard, at their more Avengers-esque, battle an interdimensional menace. Busiek frames his story as a tale told by newspaper editor Elliot Mills to a junior reporter about his early days in the business, and his first by-line. The story ‘punch-lines’ upon what actually got into the paper, an utterly trivial and meaningless couple of paragraphs. Every bit of superheroics is cut out.
Busiek’s point is in support of a journalistic ideal that was already getting tenuous in the mid-Nineties, being the Press’s responsibility to tell the public the truth, and only the reliable truth that can be sourced, confirmed, proved. What Mills witnessed, no matter how fantastic, was true, but he was its sole witness.
It’s a ‘moral’ that’s grown sadly archaic, and after digesting it, most of the reader’s attention will turn back to the heroes revealed in this issue. It’s perhaps typical of Astro City that, almost twenty years on, we know almost nothing more of them than we learn in this story, with the exception of the Silver Agent – ‘the poor, doomed, Silver Agent’ – whose mystery took over a decade to unravel. Each character represents a story: it’s just the getting round to everyone.
This was followed by something of a slighter, more amusing tale, centred upon small-time crook Andrew ‘Eyes’ Eisenstein. Eyes has the luck to be in the right position when harlequin hero Jack-in-the-Box is changing out of his costume, and sees his real face. By some astute digging, he identifies the guy’s name and address. This is pure gold to Eyes: there are people who would kill to have that knowledge. Unfortunately, as Eyes works through how best to exploit his knowledge, it becomes all the more obvious that the person they’d kill for that knowledge is none other than Andrew ‘Eyes’ Eisenstein: he ends up fleeing Astro City.
Episode 4 has a more serious, and rather disturbing point to it. It centres upon Marta, a young woman in her early twenties working in the accounts department of one of Astro’s biggest law firms, right in the heart of downtown. one of the firm’s partners, Darcy Conroy, is not only an assistant DA, and a renowned trial lawyer, but she’s the fiancée of Nick Furst, of the First Family.
Marta, in contrast, comes from Shadow Hill, Astro’s most backwards district, a region that centres upon the Eastern European immigrants who built most of the old city, in the days when it was still known as Romeyn Falls. Shadow Hill is, emotionally, still tied to ‘the old country’, where ritual and mysticism, and the supernatural reign. It frightens the rest of the city, but Matra is completely comfortable. She has grown up within its environs, she knows and understands its rituals, its talismans, She can cope.
But she’s also young, bright and ambitious. Like so many of her generation, like the immigrant experience for decades, she is exposed to the wider world. She wants to be part of it, to experience more than the enclosed, limited, confined world of Shadow Hill, despite the conflict this causes in her family.
Then the firm’s skyscraper offices are attacked by the Unholy Alliance, a team of destructively powerful villains. Ms Connor summons the First Family, they come and sort the villains out, Nick Furst personally saves Marta from rape. Everybody takes it in their stride: in a world of super-characters, they’ve learned to. Marta, however, sees it in terms of Talismans: just like those she has in Shadow Hill, the people downtown have their own equivalents, which they know and understand, and she doesn’t.
It’s an interesting perception, but the disturbing aspect of the story is that Marta’s response is to abandon her job downtown, take a (by inference) much lesser job keeping the books for a local butcher, who is older than her and ‘not bad looking’, with the further inference that she will end up marrying him, as her family want. In short, save for the urge to get an apartment of her own in Shadow Hill, Marta’s decision is to give up every one of her ambitions, to turn her back upon a wider world, and sink herself within the traditions, but most of all the insularity of her heritage.
It’s an odd outcome, and I have problems with Busiek’s endorsement of so negative a reaction, especially in a writer who usually embraces an outgoing viewpoint, a willingness to absorb change and explore possibility.
It also flies in the face of the American dream, of the melting-pot, of the forging of Amercanism from all the disparate cultures of the world.
The final story in this volume is out-and-out the most comic-booky of them all. It features an elderly man, retired, living in a cheap boarding house, with a gaggle of elderly, gossiping, bitchy women and a feckless young struggling actor. However, the old man is not an old man but an alien, planted on Earth to reconnoitre the planet, and its profusion of super-beings, on behalf of an aggressor race considering the planet for conquest. The ‘old man’ is torn; Earth and its people disgusts him, but at the same time fascinates him, and he has long postponed the decision as to whether to signal invasion, or to warn his race off, that Earth would be too much trouble.
The story centres upon his final decision, when, almost on a whim, he decides to base his decision on one night in the life of athletic, acrobatic hero Crackerjack. ‘Jack, however, is a blowhard: flamboyant, vain, arrogant, a glory-stealer, overly consumed with himself. Busiek paints an interesting portrait of a superhero who, despite his outward, flashy, heroic, Errol Flynn-esque persona, is inside a pretty disgusting human being. In the end, the signal is sent: we are left to presume which way the verdict went.
So that’s Life in the Big City. It opened a door upon a not merely a city, not merely a world, but an entire Comic Book Universe, no less rich and widespread than those of DC or Marvel, but differing from both in that only a narrow window, illuminating small areas each time is visible. It’s a Universe in a single comic, one in which we only see the stories that count, and not the ‘day-to-day’, fight of the moth stories that sustain whole series. That you can get elsewhere, in spades and at boring length: Busiek is writing the stories everybody else ignores, and when change comes to Astro City‘s Universe, that change is permanent.
One last note: I’ve refrained from using the names, but the world of Astro City is also a multifarious tribute to the writers and artists who forged comic books in the first place: buildings, places, areas, streets, businesses etc. are all named after creators, and Astro City itself lies under the shadow of Mount Kirby, as indeed does the comic book industry and Jack Kirby.
You are now leaving Astro City. Please drive carefully.
The Lake District is not just good for the big, all day walks, through stirring country, striding out in the sky all day, returning fatigued with satisfaction. It’s also blessed with little fells, miniatures in the midst of high country that offer nothing better than an afternoon’s quiet and gentle exercise, and views that are an over-reward for the effort necessary to reach their tops.
They’re fells for those who are ageing, whose stamina and agility is not what it once was. For those who have families adorned with small children, whose safety and stamina has to be the first consideration, for those whose time is restricted, for walkers who are starting their holiday in the middle of the day and want a good little leg-stretcher, a loosener before the serious business of Helvellyn or the Pike in the morning.
They’re fells for days that started with cloud and rain overhanging everything, and not just Skiddaw, only to clear unexpectedly at 2.00pm, leaving the air smelling fresh and clean. They’re even fells for that long summer evening, when the sun shows an extreme reluctance to leave the sky and the light is soft and rich.
It’s a bit of a cliche, but for one reason or another, they’re little gems and I’m going to write about a few of them in this new series.
First, and almost the lowest of the low in the Wainwrights is Black Fell, in the Southern Fells, a low and rambling wedge of land taking up a surprising length of Windermere’s western shores. Geographically, it’s the easternmost extension of the Coniston Group: where that range traditionally is bounded by the Yewdale fells limb of Wetherlam, the ground extends beyond the Tilberthwaite Valley, encompassing the little top of Holme Fell and, after being crossed by the main Coniston-Ambleside road at its lowest point, rises to touch the 1,000′ contour one last time, at Black Fell’s summit. Beyond it, the ground falls away at last towards Windermere.
Whilst it’s possible to force away up through the trees that cluster on the eastern flank, paths are not easy to follow in the plantations and there is little to see among the trees. The usual route crosses the fell on a well-established bridleway, from the north-western corner, overlooking the lowest part of Langdale, as far as the plantations south of the fell, which hold the famous Tarn Hows. The path itself simply doubles back, uphill, to the surprisingly isolated summit and its impressive cairn.
The start of the walk is a white gate on the east of the Coniston-Ambleside road, just before the road disappears into the trees to drop, quite sharply, towards Skelwith Bridge. There is a lay-by which doubles as the approach to a farm access on the opposite side, about 100 yards away in the Coniston direction: do NOT block the farm road.
From the gate, the walk starts immediately, and surprisingly steeply up a grassy bank about fifty feet high. This is actually the most strenuous walking between here and the summit.
The bridleway levels off just beyond the crest and trends gently up and down across the wide flank of Black Fell, heading generally in a direction south of south-east. Trainers are good enough for this section, although overall walking boots are preferable, particularly for the last section. The way bypasses a working farm – the path becoming heavily-rutted in this area – and ambles forward until it is south of the summit. Then it begins to descend noticeably, into a wide and shallow col. Plantations appear ahead, behind a well-constructed drystone wall, and the path heads towards a prominent ladder-stile. look, however, left for a path breaking off and doubling back uphill.
After an initial section of very easy scrambling, the path emerges into the open. The summit rocks are visible half-right and the path heads fairly directly towards them, emerging on a broad platform decorated by a substantial cairn, a substantial wall b=with a massive step-stile leading over it, the whole thing guarded by a surprisingly steep trench close at hand to the west.
There used to be some doubt about whether there were rights of way across the wall. Most people will cross the stile just to see what it’s like on that side, but wandering too far is not recommended, there being no discernible paths and the ground soon starting to fall away.
The view is exceptionally good for such a low summit, but it comes from Black Fell’s relative isolation. Windermere is seen at length, a side-on view of the upper two-thirds of Lake, with the islands opposite Bowness Bay being a particular highlight under a high sun. It’s a superb station for the Ambleside-based walker, on the first day of his holiday, to get a sense of the local geography, and a good look at the major fell-groups – the Conistons, Bowfell and the Crinkles, the Langdale Pikes, the Fairfield Horseshoe, Red Screes and Kirkstone Pass and the Ill Bell Range: a week’s walking to study for so little effort.
Those who do not have such ambitions will experience the joy of reaching a summit for very little expenditure of time or energy, and will relish the views as a proper reward.
Enterprising walkers, especially those conscious of geography, will have worked out that the route back involves a biggish detour to the south, and will want to consider the possibility of just striking out west and hitting the bridleway overland. This is perfectly possibly, but the presence of the trench complicates things and a long, rough detour about its head, north, is necessary, on surprisingly rough terrain. Care is necessary and the detour ends up not really being a saving, especially on time, but if the weather is good, it can be a fun exercise in primitive route-finding. Once at the bridleway, walk home.
When I first read the third Dortmunder novel, I knew very much less about Donald E Westlake that I do now, so I was ignorant for years of the magnificent in-joke that underwrites Jimmy the Kid.
A year has passed since the events of Bank Shot and Dortmunder has been studiously avoiding Kelp. It’s not that he blames Kelp for the last two disasters. I mean, he does, but more importantly, as far as Dortmunder is concerned, Kelp is a jinx. Even when he’s executing an everyday heist of furs from a clothing store, the mere presence of Kelp on the same block makes the caper go wrong, to hilarious effect.
But Kelp has an idea: of course Kelp has an idea, though he’s not keen to share the circumstances in which it came to him, involving, as it did, five days imprisonment in a town jail upstate for carrying implements. Kelp is thrusting a book on everybody, everybody here being Dortmunder and May, Murch and Murch’s Mom. No place for Victor or Herman X.
Those assembled enjoy the book to one extent or another – hell, it’s at least nice to read a crime novel in which the criminal gets away with it – but nobody sees what Kelp sees until he blurts it out. It’s not just a book. It’s got all the details, the set-up, the equipment, everything. It’s a blueprint. It’s a plan, and all they have to do it follow it.
The name of this book? Child Heist. And it’s author is Richard Stark.
Nowadays, we call this sort of thing metafiction. For those who missed the introduction, Richard Stark is a very successful pen-name for Westlake, and his series character, Parker, is the original, and decidedly serious model for Dortmunder.
Sadly, Child Heist does not exist, except in three widely-spaced chapters inserted herein, which Westlake uses, in part for context, but primarily to demonstrate the difference between a tightly plotted Parker novel and the way things happen for the Dortmunder gang (which is unfailingly but believably ridiculous). Though there’s a (possibly unintentional) undercurrent that suggests to me a commentary on the slickness of serious crime fiction, which always works perfectly, and is never hindered by unco-operative human beings caught up in their own causes, or the happenstance of real life.
Needless to say, Dortmunder won’t play ball. It’s not about Kelp-the-jinx this time, instead it’s the insult to his skills. He’s the planner, he’s the one who devises the jobs, and he’s not standing for Kelp suggesting it can be better done by some damned crime writer!
Once again, May has to wheedle him into it, though her task becomes more complicated when Dortmunder’s next job falls to pieces on him: between the final case of the joint and the night of the heist, the company goes bust and moves all its stock out, so yeah, it is still a bit about Kelp-the-jinx. But kidnapping, and kidnapping a minor at that, is serious stuff. It’s federal, which means life for everybody, and it needs Dortmunder to keep his ‘friends’ out of that hole, and also ensure that nothing happens to the kid.
So Dortmunder agrees to head things up, on the strict understanding that the book is not a blueprint, but a guide-line, a list of suggestions maybe. That the book then turns out to be an exact match for a viable caper is uncanny. And very misleading.
Because where it all starts to seriously go wrong for Dortmunder and Co. is in their selection of kidnappee. It isn’t just that Jimmy Harrington is twelve years old, instead of the eight year old of Child Heist, it’s more that he’s emotionally independent, has been in therapy for six years, has a very high IQ and, to be frank, is about three times as smart as all the rest of the gang put together.
So, leaving aside the many ways in which reality has suddenly chosen not to imitate art, hardly has the ransom demand been rung through to Jimmy’s Dad – a Wall Street broker who, unconsciously and automatically, starts to negotiate down the sum – the supposed victim has obtained the key to his locked room, worked out how to get out of it without anyone being aware how, and would be halfway back to civilisation if it weren’t pitch-black at night in the country, and pouring with rain and he’s walked in a circle back to the abandoned farm (which was so hard to find in the first place, abandoned farms being so attractive to developers and the ancestors of Yuppies).
But the gang do not take Jimmy’s sudden arrival at the back door as the omen they should, so the caper goes on to the collection of the ransom, during which things again refuse to conform to the security of Parker’s world. Harrington’s sent out in his car, which contains a rare-for-the-times mobile phone, to travel the freeway. He’s to be contacted en route and told where to drop the case of money except that, being a Wall Street broker, he’s straight onto the phone to start catching up on routine business, whilst he has a spare half hour or so, and Murch’s Mom doesn’t get through to him until he’s past the drop place, requiring him to u-turn and drive back, over the speed limit, thus attracting an irascible local speed cop whilst approaching from the wrong direction…
Suffice to say that the case with the money does eventually get into Dortmunder’s possession, though not quite in a manner that he anticipates. If only he’d looked up…
All that remains for the gang is to drop Jimmy off somewhere, safe and sound, where he can be found. Much as Dortmunder would like to do that immediately, May is not having a 12 year old being dumped on the streets of New York at night. So everyone settles in for the night, except for Jimmy, who gets out a second time and would be off home but for the fact that, unanticipated by everyone, the FBI has stuck a tracer in the case and the whole place is surrounded.
There’s only one thing for it: Jimmy has to go back, alert the gang, and get them out by his private route. After all, it’s not their fault: they’re just victims of their environment, he can see that clearly.
So everybody gets away safely, and Jimmy gets back to his Dad (via a trip to his psychiatrist first). There’s just three things left.
First is that, somehow or other, the case the gang gets away with is no longer carrying $150,000, but two pieces of brick rapped in a blanket – and a grand that Jimmy’s left them. For their time and trouble.
Second is that writer Richard Stark learns that there’s a movie coming out which is ripping off his novel Child Heist, only playing it for laughs, and gets mad. Unfortunately, Kid Stuff is an independent film directed by a thirteen year old whizz-kid named Jimmy Harrington, which is based on his real-life experiences, which can’t be copyrighted.
And lastly, a year and a half later, when Dortmunder finally agrees to do another job with Kelp-the-jinx, and it all goes wrong only it’s Dortmunder’s fault this time, the guys decide to take in a movie, having more time on their hands than they expected. Kelp’s heard about one that’s supposed to be funny, so they’ll go see that. Apparently it’s called Kid Stuff. Jimmy the Kid, at 174pp, is probably the shortest novel of the series but its absurd premise, and the careful contrast between serious and comic approaches to it, make it one of the most concentratedly funny. Like it’s predecessors, it has been filmed, in 1982, starring Paul le Mat as Dortmunder (under that name) and child-star Gary Coleman (best known for the TV series Diff’rent Strokes and his catch-phrase “What’chu talkin’ about, Willis?”: the film appeared halfway through the series’ eight year run). It was not well-received. I saw part of it once, when it was shown during a midweek afternoon: I caught about ten minutes from somewhere in the middle that resembled nothing in the book, and which suggested the film was being played as broad slapstick. It was aimed at a child/family audience apparently, so my switching it off was only right and proper.
The story has also been filmed twice overseas, in Italy in 1976 as Come ti rapisco il pupo (literally, “As the pleasure takes you away the baby boy”) with Dortmunder renamed Elia, and in Germany in 1999 under the book’s title and Dortmunder’s own name.
As for the series in general, the cast is beginning to resolve itself into a consistent team. The gang, even with May and Murch’s Mom, still meet at the O.J. Bar & Grill, where the regulars’ bar conversations are staring to take on an increasingly familiar shape, although Rollo getting all gallant towards May is a one-off development.
You’ll have noticed the increasing tendency of Dortmunder being reluctant to work with Kelp after some of the things they’ve gone through, which isn’t all that unreasonable but, given that the two are a double-act, is a potential problem.
Let’s just say that Westlake doesn’t do anything to improve that in the next book.
I made my Test Match début in 1968, an Ashes summer, when I inadvertently discovered BBC TV coverage of each day’s play. All day, every day, that summer I would sit in black and white fascination. All but the crucial final day at the Oval, when England raced time to mop up the Aussies on a drying pitch and square the series, whilst my Mam had taken my sister and myself to Southport for the day, and I had to try to follow the score from people’s transistor radios along the promenade. It was the start of a lifelong fascination with this wonderful game.
I made my real Test Match début, my first attendance at a Test, thirteen years later, again in an Ashes summer, on the third day of the Fifth Test between England and Australia, at Old Trafford, naturally. Popular opinion now, and for a very long time to come, will nominate the 2005 series as the Greatest Ashes Series ever, but for those of us who are a bit older, it doesn’t quite dislodge 1981 from our affections. There were all the same thrills and dramas, and England coming from behind, but that summer of the first Six Test series, of the first experiment with Sunday play, had more twists, more aspects, more turns. And where 2005 had Andrew Flintoff, 1981 had Ian Botham.
The series started at Trent Bridge with the 25 year old Botham as England captain. He’d made his début in the Test team in 1977 and had already made his name as a charismatic all-rounder, an exciting, aggressive batsman, a vigorous, dynamic bowler: so much so that, when Mike Brearley had stepped down after winning the Ashes in Australia in 1978/9, against a Packer-decimated Aussie team, Botham had been the popular and Selectorial choice to succeed him.
It’s an arguable point as to what was the cause, but Botham hadn’t won a Test as Captain, and his form had undergone a severe dip: he had scored a half-century in his first Test as Captain, but hadn’t achieved a similar score after that, and he’d taken no five-fors. The press and the public were sure that it was the pressure of captaincy affecting his performance, Botham that it was simply a coincidental loss of form, and the fact that all those Tests had been against the West Indies was certainly more than a contributory factor. Any Captain would have struggled to make an impression upon them at that time, and this was before the ‘Blackwash’ series’ of the Eighties.
The England selectors’ response at this point was to re-appoint Botham as Captain, but only for the First Test, which England lost. He was then appointed Captain for the Second Test only. This was virtually unheard of and served as a focus for Press attention, which was redoubled when England drew the Test at Lords, and Botham was out for a pair.
At the end of the game, Botham spoke to the Selectors and asked them to show their confidence in him by appointing him for the remainder of the series. When they refused to do so, he resigned, confirming this to the Press and explaining that the pressure on his family was unacceptable if he was to be appointed in this drip-drip manner. All resolved, painlessly and sensibly – except that Chairman of the Selectors Alec Bedser then bluntly told the Press that if Botham hadn’t resigned, he’d have been sacked anyway. A cheap, nasty, unnecessary, heartless statement, and absolutely typical of a dictatorial and impervious body of men.
So Brearley was back – a 37 year old man who was a good first slip, a respectable but not Test Class batsman, and a genius at the art of captaincy. That is what he was picked for, to straighten out the England side and get it to function again.
Brearley’s first self-imposed task was to contact Botham and sound him out about his mental readiness for the Third Test. Botham, of course, was up for it: no challenge refused.
Which is where the tenor of the whole series changed. At Headingley
Though Botham managed to hit 50 in England’s first innings, this was still Australia’s test, for the first three and a half days. They’d only made a modest first innings score, but England, despite Botham’s contribution, made a much more modest one and were invited to follow on. And only once in the whole history of Test Cricket had a side won after being asked to follow on. England’s only hope was survival, and that didn’t look too hopeful as wickets fell steadily.
At that time, I was working in Romiley to the south east of Stockport. It meant I got home about 5.50pm on the Monday afternoon, just ten minutes ahead of close of play. I went straight to the TV, switched on BBC2. I caught a shot of the Scoreboard and refused to believe it.
I thought it had said 326-8, but that just wasn’t possible. I had to have misread it, probably 226, that was more like it. But it was 326, and come the highlights I marvelled at the hitting of Botham and Dilley, the sustained attack on the Aussie attack, weakened by the decision to choose left arm spinner Ray Bright on a seamer’s wicket. At close of play we had a lead of 125. Not much, obviously not enough, and a complete surprise.
The next morning, I was in Stockport, at the Magistrate’s Court. As I walked back to my car, at 12.00ish, I passed a television shop and saw Australia were batting again. Obviously we hadn’t added much more, and they were on the way to winning, but at least we’d restored some pride in defeat.
The next thing that happened was, as the clock struck 2.00 pm and I came back off lunch, I stopped off in the Off-Licence opposite, to buy a cold can of Coke – and heard the radio news announce that England had just won the Test! How on Earth had that happened?
Well, we’ll all know about Botham’s 149 not out, and Willis’s 8-42, and what a game it was to watch as the tide of fortune swung so decisively in England’s direction in the last day and a half of the game, making history, overturning expectation in the most spectacular of fashion. Or what it would have been like to watch that, even on TV, which is something that I did not get to do.
It was a dramatic moment, but all it had done was to level the series, and there were few indeed who, at that time, expected better than that England would be better equipped to complete in the last three Tests.
Back in 1981, Test Match Summers had a smooth, enviable rhythm. Headingley ended on the Tuesday, and Edgbaston began on the Thursday of the following week, each Test occupying the traditional venues, at regular fortnightly intervals. We were ready and rested for the resumption of the fray, but it was a nondescript, low-scoring Test – one of the few in which not a single batsman scored a 50 – and once again Australia were chasing a low fourth innings score to regain the series lead. We were already calling the Third Test victory “The Miracle of Headingley”, but no-one expected miracles to repeat themselves. History seemed less flexible, the unexpected more unexpected, and certainly not a serial event.
This was one of the three Tests that were experimenting with no rest day, so the climax ended up on Sunday afternoon. The BBC’s schedules were not prepared for all day cricket coverage on Sundays, so the game was dipping in and out of visits to Birmingham, just like the stop-start nature of the usual Sunday League coverage, where equal time was devoted to other sports. To keep me going, I had on Test Match Special on Radio 3 MW.
It was Australia’s game again, making slow and unspectacular progress towards a low target, more time than anyone would need to get there, five wickets down and accumulating without worries. Then Ian Botham came back into the attack.
Almost immediately, he ripped out Rodney Marsh, clean bowled. It was a start, at least until the next ball, with which he did Bright, leg before! Two in two, the balance of the game changing in an instant, on a hat trick and I’m screaming at the screen for the Beeb to get their coverage over to Edgbaston, before that third ball, come on, move it!
With the slowness of tectonic plates grinding, they did shift their monolithic direction, in time for a third ball that zipped past Lillee without taking a wicket, but now we were at the cricket, there was no going back. Botham struck again, and again, suddenly driving England to the edge of a second unexpected victory, the Botham whirlwind suddenly blowing away everyone in its path, and this was unfolding in real time, not something you come home from work to, done and recorded. And he did it, bending the world to fit around him, five wickets, five wickets in five overs and one ball, and only a single run conceded in that breathless rush. It was England now who, from a Test down, had taken the series lead. No-one who saw the post-match interview with the Captains will ever forget the look in Kim Hughes’ eyes. It was described as the look of someone who’d been sandbagged around the back of the neck just before going on, and in thirty years I’ve never come up with something to surpass that.
And so we moved to Manchester and the Fifth Test, and me.
Old Trafford was the last of the Sunday play Tests that summer. In later years, I would arrange my holidays in Ashes summers (and the West Indian ones) so that I could go to all five days, but this first occasion I hadn’t thought that far in advance and I was only going to the weekend, and Monday.
It was going to be a sunny weekend, August at its best. The first day’s play was pretty nondescript, England struggling towards a low total, and only being boosted past 200 on the Friday morning thanks to a maiden unbeaten Test half century from Lancashire’s fast-medium bowler Paul Allott, making his England début in this Test, thanks to a lot of hacking, slashing and Chinese cuts! It carried England to 231.
I’d been in Court again and now I was back to the car to go back to my Office, and straight to Radio 3MW, where the cheers were still reverberating for Bob Willis’s second wicket in an over. He’s had Johnny Dyson caught at slip off the first ball and, though Kim Hughes had struck a 4, the Aussie Captain was then leg before off the fourth ball. And it wasn’t over: off the last ball of the over, Willis had Graham Yallop caught at slip and then Allott took his first Test wicket, trapping Graham Wood leg before off the first ball of the next over! 20 for 0 to 24 for 4 in seven balls!
It knocked the guts out of the Aussie innings, and England established themselves a 101 run First innings lead which they’d extended to 171 at close of play, having lost the still-far-from-established Graham Gooch cheaply.
The Saturday was a sell-out, Old Trafford was at capacity, 25,000. I’d never seen the ground remotely full so far, so I was completely unprepared for the realities of the situation. There were none of the individual plastic-bucket seats of today: the terraces were adorned with park-bench type seats, in cracked and peeling blue paint, on which people sat and sprawled out as they choice, relaying on primacy of arrival. The ground might hold 25,00, but my inexpert guess was that it could only seat 21,000, and I wasn’t one of them.
Health and Safety be damned, people were sitting themselves on the long, low concrete steps of the gangways between sections on the Warwick Road End, and I followed suit, taking my thin summer jacket off and folding it into as thick a pad as possible (not very) and sitting on that for almost the whole day. It was hard and cold under… well, not foot, was it?
And for half the day, the cricket matched my bum-numb perch. In the morning session, two hours play, England lost three wickets and advanced their score by 29 runs. 29 runs in two hours of play, and a single boundary, a straight drive for 4 by Mike Gatting in the final over before lunch, through long off. And then, typical Gatting, he went and padded up to a straight one next ball, and was out lbw.
It wasn’t much better for most of the first hour after lunch, although it was getting warmer as the fringes of grey cloud were dissipating. Brearley came and went, bringing Botham in. At the other end, Chris Tavare pottered and nudged and nurdled and defended and generally advanced his score at a pace that would have had snails looking back at it, and anyone frustrated at Jonathan Trott rapidly revising their stories.
I decided I needed a drink and squeezed round to the bar under the back of C stand, only to discover when I returned that Botham had hit two fours in the same over off Bright – the second and third boundaries of the day, and I missed them. This was not an introduction to be remembered.
Though Botham was beginning to show a little more aggression, starting to drive the score on a little faster, the second new ball was due before long, and we all knew what that would mean: back into the shell, playing defensively.
The first over with the second new ball was bowled by Terry Alderman from the Warwick Road End, pitter-pattering away from us with that never-too-fast run. Botham was cautious for a couple of balls, then he tried to launch one over long-off and got under it a bit too much. Mike Whitney, the left arm seamer who, a week before, had been the Pro at Fleetwood, up the Fylde Coast, was racing back with arms outstretched but didn’t quite get there: the ball fell to earth and Botham ran three.
That left him on strike for the next over, Dennis Lillee from the Stretford End. This was Dennis Lillee – no longer the flat-out tearaway of 1972 who made me feel scared just running in on TV, but still, this was Dennis Lillee. And first ball he unleashed a bouncer at Botham’s head.
And Botham swayed out of the way, swung the bat round in a vicious circle and smashed it into the crowd behind square leg for 6.
I’ve said before of cricket’s peculiar virtue whereby a game can be fixed solidly in a certain groove, the weight and the power running strictly in one direction, and then in a single ball, the whole edifice is smashed and the game revolves into a completely different thing in an instant. That one shot destroyed the frustrating grip on the game of the austerity so far. The crowd were electrified. When Lillee came up to deliver his second ball, all things had changed.
Botham pushed a single. Tavare, unbelievably, scored 3. Lillee’s fourth ball was another bouncer to Botham, which he again hooked behind square on a flatter trajectory, the howls of the crowd running with it to the boundary. A dot ball, then off the last of the over, a third bouncer and this time Botham wasn’t even looking at the ball, head ducked as he swung and sent the ball back of square for another 6 and out of the ground too!
Funnily enough, after that first over, and those three strikes that I can still see in my mind, as exact as if I were still sat there on the stone step, I remember very little of the rest of Botham’s innings. The sweep for six over long leg, off Bright, with Lillee on the boundary stretching but not reaching the ball, to send us into lunch, the almost perfunctory snick when he edged Whitney behind and waked off briskly, as if he’d just completed a decent 38 at Taunton, these are all that have stuck with me.
But there were three more 6’s than I’ve already mentioned in an innings of 118 that tore the game away from the Australians. It was just powerful, aggressive hitting, the kind that often inspires the word ‘flaying’ to describe it. Botham’s been described as hitting the ball about like a mad baseball player, of scoring so fast that the scoreboard wasn’t able to keep up with him. That at least is hype, but he more than scored so fast that his partner Tavare couldn’t keep up with him. But then, he didn’t try.
Tavare, who’d come in on the Friday evening, after the fall of Gooch, had progressed to 35 not out when Botham came to the wicket. By the time Botham departed, the partnership having added 149 Tavare’s score had gone on to 63. That kind of disparity in a partnership is not surprising when you’re batting with the tail (Viv Richards/Mike Holding, remember?) but it’s highly unusual when the non-scoring partner is the no. 3 batsman. But, until the end of his career, that was Tav. He just stuck to keeping his end up. This really was a one-man show.
Botham’s innings had changed the game. There was a sense of inevitability to things thereafter that, under a hot August sun, filled the crowd with easy enjoyment, fuelled by the drink, of course.
Brearley opted to bat on, to bat Australia out of any prospect of coming back into the game, there being two days and six sessions after the Saturday. So Knott and Emburey, overnight and into a simply glorious and uproarious Sunday, piled on the runs, despite a certain impatience on the crowd’s part to get at those Aussies. When England were finally out, for 404, Australia’s target was 505, a fourth innings total out of all imagining, but still only 100 a session for five sessions.
And they were obliged to go after it. Not just because they were Australians but because there was so much of the game, in perfect conditions, to play. Yallop made a ton, Border made an unbeaten ton, 123 not out, batting with a broken finger.
I remember the uproarious atmosphere, especially on the Sunday, with a capacity crowd revelling in English superiority. The batting and the bowling was of a very high quality – the very best moment was when Alan Knott tried a controlled ‘uppercut’ towards third man and Johnny Dyson, who’d been a bit of a butt of the English crowd’s taunting all summer, sprinted a dozen yards to his right before diving to take a one-handed catch.
But it was the sense of fun I remember most of all. The pitch invasion, in the afternoon session, by the bloke wearing a gorilla costume and trying to get to shake hands with Botham (whose nicknames included ‘Guy the Gorilla’). The even better pitch invasion by two blokes who simply climbed over the fence in front of H stand and, side by side as if they had every right to be there, strolling across the ground towards the wicket, ignoring the umpire going to meet them and, as soon as they reached the wicket, grabbing the bails at each end and sprinting off into the crowd, to raucous cheers.
The best moment however was restricted to those sat in my section of the Warwick Road End. There were girls wandering around, selling ice creams, and some guy, six or seven rows behind me, had cadged from one a piece of the dry ice being used to keep the ice creams from melting. he wanted to cool his beer down, so he dropped it in his glass, and it started foaming and bubbling, the glass vomiting broiling liquid from its rim, and he held the glass up for all to see, the dry ice kicking and spitting and the foam streaming down his arm, and everybody collapsing in laughter at the sight of it.
Monday was a complete contrast, the ground only about a third full and though the sun was still high and full, a certain coolness crept into the air. England bowled on, Australia batted on. They’d been 210 overnight, for 5, still needing almost 300 runs for the impossible victory, but in terms of scoring rates, they had clearly set themselves for the steady 100 runs a session, and they weren’t losing wickets. In the afternoon, with Lillee supporting the immovable Border, the nagging doubt began to creep in that maybe, just maybe, they might do it, or even get as close as the New Zealanders had done in 1972, less than a decade earlier, when I was still at School, in chasing down a 500 plus target and giving history a real fright.
But this was Botham’s year and it was his Test for the third time in a row, and Paul Allott was bowling at the Warwick Road End, to Lillee, with Botham in that position of arrogance at second slip, hands on knees until the batsman’s played his shot, and Lillee edged the ball wide of Botham, and he snatched it in both hands, the ball behind him.
From there it was merely time. The ninth wicket went down before tea, which was delayed a half hour, but Border managed to keep enough of the strike away from Alderman to extend the game into its final session. And then there was a bomb scare in the Warwick Road End, and we all had to evacuate to other parts of the ground, but the game didn’t last long after tea, and we were all running onto the pitch in the manner of the early Eighties, not that there were that many of us, because we’d won the Test, and won the Ashes. My first test. My first Ashes Test. The only time I’ve seen England beat Australia.
It was Botham’s summer, or at least those three Tests were. No-one could fail to support him then, falling, like the Australians before his invincible form. Like everyone in that summer of 1981, I wanted to see him play far more than any other cricketer alive.
The years were not kind to that veneration. Nowadays, I try to ignore Botham, rather than endure the sort of stuff that’s totally destroyed my respect for him, such as his public declaration that he would hang me if he had the opportunity (he being a Monarchist and I a Republican). I’d rather remember the days when he was an exciting and flamboyant batsman and bowler, rather than a 14 carat ****.
Like when he batted like a madman at Old Trafford, and I was there.
Note: the following essay was written in about 2001/2002 for my personal amusement (I didn’t have a blog then) and appears now after being referenced in the recent JSA Legacies series. I’ve made no attempt to update it. I hope it amuses you too.
If I were to say that the current Wonder Woman is simultaneously the first, third and second to bear that name, and that her mother is, at one and the same time, the third, fifth and first, taking her name and identity directly from the character she inspired fifty years later, who preceded her by several years, you would be lost beyond all hope of comprehension.
Yet such a statement is meat and drink to a comic book fan, who regularly is expected to unravel such complex relationships with ease.
To the layperson, a considerably lengthy explanation is necessary to enable you to understand how such a situation could arise.
The first Wonder Woman (that is, the first first Wonder Woman: don’t worry, all will become clear) dates from 1941, making her debut in an unrelated back-up story in All-Star 8 and proceeding immediately to headline the new Sensation comics: she gained her own title in a shorter period of time than anyone before her and continued to appear in both Sensation and Wonder Woman until the former’s cancellation in the late 40’s.
Wonder Woman guested with the Justice Society of America in All-Star 11, appeared again in 12, when she was invited to become team secretary, and stayed with the JSA until their final adventure in All-Star 57 (although she played a purely passive and cameo role until issue 38 and was arguably demeaned when Black Canary became the JSA’s first official female member whilst Wonder Woman was never officially upgraded from secretary).
Wonder Woman’s title enjoyed continuous publication throughout the 50’s making her, along with Superman, Batman & Robin and back-up features Green Arrow and Aquaman, one of the few characters to have been continuously published since the Golden Age.
Wonder Woman was the daughter of Hyppolita, Queen of the Amazons. After their escape from bondage at the hands of Hercules, the Amazons withdrew from Man’s World, to Paradise Island. Hyppolita longed for a daughter and petitioned the Goddesses, who instructed her to form a baby girl from the clays of the riverbank. They then invested the model with life, the baby being named Diana and growing to become the best and strongest of the Amazons.
The Amazons learned of war in Man’s World when a USAF craft piloted by Major Steve Trevor accidentally penetrated the protective clouds that shielded Paradise Island from the world. Diana rescued the pilot, the first man she had ever seen, and immediately fell in love with him.
The Amazons resolved to send a representative to Man’s World, to help bring peace. Hyppolita forbade Diana to compete but her daughter entered the competition masked, and duly won out. To go into Man’s World, she was given a special costume, consisting of a red bathing suit top decorated by a golden eagle, blue culottes (later cycle shorts and even later orthodox trunks) spangled with silver stars and red boots (later laced Grecian sandals).
In Man’s World, Diana was given the name Wonder Woman thanks to a chance remark by Steve Trevor. She took over the identity of Army Nurse Diana Prince, who wanted to follow her boyfriend to California (and who, presumably, never came back). Later, Diana Prince entered the military, rising to the rank of Lieutenant.
Wonder Woman had super-strength, speed and agility. She could not fly, but could glide upon wind currents. She was not invulnerable, but was supremely skilled at deflecting bullets with her Amazonian bracelets. She possessed a magic lasso which, once looped around someone, forced them to obey her. She had an invisible robot plane which she controlled with her thoughts.
If Wonder Woman’s bracelets were bound together by a man, she lost all her powers. If she removed them, she lost all self-control and became a raging madwoman.
Wonder Woman was created by psychologist Wiliam Moulton Marston, with the assistance of artist Harry G Peters. Marston had complained about the lack of female role models in comics and was, in effect, challenged to come up with one.
The first inarguable appearance of the second Wonder Woman was in Brave & Bold 27, in 1960. B&B had started out as an adventure series, but was phasing into a try-out title, alongside the purpose created Showcase, which had very successfully introduced new (Silver Age) versions of Golden Age heroes such as Flash and Green Lantern. Now the new versions joined with the Big Three, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman and a couple of other characters to form the Justice League of America, a revival of the JSA-style hero team.
Which led to certain problems with internal consistency.
Wonder Woman (along with Superman and Batman) had been a member of the Justice Society where she had served alongside the Golden Age Flash and Green Lantern. She (like they) was now a member of the Justice League, serving alongside the Silver Age Flash and Green Lantern. But the Silver Age Flash’s origin had made it plain that, to him as much as us, the Golden Age Flash was nothing but a comic book character. How, then, could Wonder Woman serve with both?
This essential contradiction went unexplored (officially: no doubt it exercised the minds of fans) for a year, until the seminal “Flash of Two Worlds” in The Flash 123. This established the fact that there were two Earths, each occupying the same physical space but, due to their fractionally different vibration rates, forever invisible and intangible to one another – that is, until the Silver Age Flash accidentally tuned into the vibration rate of the other world and discovered that on this world the Golden Age Flash was more than just a comic book character.
This story would go on to be the foundation stone of DC’s Multiversal continuity for a quarter century. The Golden Age characters had lived, still lived, somewhat older, greyer, still with their powers but a bit rusty and with less stamina, on what would, in 1963, be termed Earth 2, whilst their newer counterparts lived on Earth 1.
No doubt the terminology was chronologically inverted, but to make that complaint ignores the reality of comic book publishing: Earth 1 was the current Earth, the mainstream, supposedly our own reality but with added superheroes, whereas Earth 2 was just that, a second Earth, a different Earth, where things were parallel but not the same.
There were two Flashes and two Green Lanterns and, within a year or so there would also be two Hawkmans and Atoms. It was less apparent that there also had to be two Supermans, two Batmans (and Robins) and, of course, two Wonder Womans.
These, however, were the Big Three, comics’ primal trinity. That there were now two of each was a logical necessity: that these alternates were virtually identical a logical requirement of their status. All three had experienced no break in their publishing history where it could be said that one had been replaced by another, and it was left to the obsessive fan to debate at which exact point DC had begun publishing the adventures of one in succession to the history of the other.
Thus the second Wonder Woman could only clearly be said to have first appeared when the first JLA adventure was published but, though her first unequivocal appearance was written by Gardner Fox and drawn by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, her creator was still Marston.
Though the Earth 1 Big Three were initially avatars of their originals – who would dare tamper with the Holy Trinity? – DC eventually cottoned on to the cute notion that where the early history of each character differed from the final and accepted form of the legend, those early and discarded characteristics now had a home.
Superman’s early days were littered with rejected elements – working for the Daily Star, not Planet, only developing powers as an adult, Luthor with a shock of red hair – which found their home in the Earth 2 version. Rather fewer distinctions could be drawn in the other two. The yellow oval that, in imitation of the Bat-signal, was placed around Batman’s symbol in 1964 was held to belong to the Earth 1 Batman only. And when the Earth 2 Wonder Woman finally made her bow, in 1967, she was found to have retained the original red boots, instead of adopting Grecian sandals.
As DC grew more confident in their parallel world system, moving it from gimmick to a fecund source of stories (sadly, the fecundity was in quantity, not quality), more differences appeared between the two Wonder Womans.
At first, it was the Earth 1 Wonder Woman, losing her powers and adopting a kind of Diana Rigg- Avengers existence, albeit only for a few years whilst her Earth 2 counterpart remained a fully-fledged Amazon. By the late Seventies, however, DC was fully alive to the possibilities of having a second version of a long-established character: things could happen to the Earth 2 Diana that could not be permitted to her more ubiquitous Earth 1 counterpart, because they would represent permanent change.
Thus the Earth 2 Wonder Woman could marry her Steve Trevor (instead of him dying in a hail of bullets, as happened to the Earth 1 version when DC simply ran out of ideas), and become the proud mother of a teenage superheroine: Hyppolita (Lyta) Trevor, aka The Fury, who had half her mother’s Amazonian strengths.
In the late Seventies/early Eighties, Wonder Woman transferred to TV in the bodice busting form of Lynda Carter. At first, her adventures were set in World War 2, with the comic immediately switching over to tales of the Earth 2 Wonder Woman to match: when a later series brought everything up to date, the Earth 1 model resumed control.
And a further change occurred in the early Eighties when Wonder Woman adopted a new costume: to tie in with a charitable Wonder Woman Foundation sponsored by DC, issue 300 saw the Amazon swap her golden eagle for a stylised WW logo across her capacious bosom. Naturally, her earlier counterpart retained her eagle.
But despite all this activity, despite her undoubted longevity, Wonder Woman had not, for many many years, been a big seller. With DC gearing up for massive continuity changes in 1985 with Crisis on Infinite Earths, the fate of the Amazing Amazon was just one of the issues under consideration. Crisis would bring to an end the Multiverse: a battle royal at the beginning of time would shatter the Multiverse from its inception, destroying all of reality for the briefest of spans before Time began anew, as a single Universe. The heroes of many parallel worlds, the Earth 2 Superman and Wonder Woman amongst them, as well as their modern counterparts, bounced back to the present day, in the new Universe, with full memories of the parallel worlds that had existed until just instants before.
The Universe had room in it for one Superman, one Batman and one Wonder Woman: the original, Golden Age versions were displaced, and had to be disposed of.
Superman, the progenitor, the first of the first, had the honour of striking the final victory blow, after which he was spirited away to some unidentified, unreachable paradisial retirement dimension, never to be seen again1. After that, he not only no longer existed, but never had. With the exception of Lois Lane, his wife, rescued from the reality storm as a final gift to go with him into Never-Never Land, his continuity disappeared with the Multiverse. His cousin Kara, aka Power Girl, was carried over into the Universe: in due course her ‘phoney’ memories of a Kryptonian background were replaced by ‘true’ memories of deriving her powers from the long dead Atlantean mage, Arion, her much-removed grandfather.
Batman had already had the decency to be killed off on Earth 2, dying with his boots on, saving Gotham City one last time, from an inadequate and totally inappropriate adversary. However, he left not merely his now-adult Robin, but also a daughter, by his late wife, the Earth 2 Catwoman. This daughter had become a heroine as the Huntress. Robin, of course, had to go, there being room only for one, but most people would have kept the Huntress if they could. However, when not only the character’s parents but her entire raison d’être have suddenly ceased to ever exist, it became entirely too difficult to proceed. Thus Robin and The Huntress were trapped beneath a crumbling building whilst saving lives but, when the rubble had been cleared away, there were no bodies to be seen – as if they had never existed. A new Huntress was created, and is still around to this date, but no-one pretends she has anything like the appeal of the daughter of Batman and Catwoman.
As for the original Wonder Woman, she survived the battle and, like her male equivalent, retired with honours, being translated to Mount Olympus and joining the pantheon of Greek Gods, with her Steve Trevor at her side. After which she ceased to have ever existed2. Her daughter, the Fury, carried on: she was now the daughter of a retrospectively-created Forties Greek Superheroine also called The Fury, and had been raised by an adoptive American family called Trevor.
But, unlike the formerly Earth 1 Superman and Batman, the second Wonder Woman also did not survive Crisis: during the final battle, she was hit by a bolt of Chronal energy flung out by the villainous Anti-Monitor, which reverted her to the clay she had once been. It did more than that: in a manner entirely different to the Crisis itself, it ensured that not only did the second Wonder Woman no longer exist she, like her predecessor, never had existed.
The scene was therefore set for a third Wonder Woman to appear, who would not only be the third Wonder Woman but also, naturally, the first. After all, there hadn’t been any before her. Let us think of her as the second first Wonder Woman.
The third Wonder Woman made her first appearance in Legends, a six issue crossover series drawn by John Byrne, but her true debut was reserved for the first issue of her new series, Wonder Woman 1. She remains created by William Moulton Marston, but this new version was the work of artist George Perez, abetted as scripter (over Perez’s plots) by Greg Potter – replaced after two issues by Len Wein.
Perez’s Wonder Woman resembled the original – shorts became standard female briefs, she wore boots and bore the now official WW symbol – and her origin was clearly based upon Marston’s original. The Amazon race were now the embodiment of the spirits of all women who had died of violence at the hands of men, Hyppolita’s being the only one to have been pregnant at the time, and Diana’s, after her ‘birth’ from the clays of the riverbank, being that of the unborn child.
Once more Steve Trevor’s plane accidentally penetrates the wards separating Paradise Island from Man’s World, but this is now a ploy by Aries, God of War, who is seeking to foment nuclear destruction. Trevor is a much older man now, clearly in his 50’s: an uncle to Diana rather than a would-be lover (his romantic interest will come in the form of an up-dated Etta Candy, once a cartoon fat girl comic relief side-kick, now a capable if overweight Air Force Lieutenant).
And in Man’s World, Diana is given the name Wonder Woman by a publicist wanting to cash in on her symbolic value, and assumed to be a superheroine by virtue of her costume – which is rather the abbreviated battle armour given her by her Amazon sisters.
The third Wonder Woman was briefly a member of Justice League Europe, very briefly that is, and in later years has come aboard the latest JLA, but that was many developments down the line. She was the one and only Wonder Woman: the role of secretary to the JSA – now the hero team of another generation instead of the hero team of another world – was retrospectively vested in 40’s strongwoman Miss America. Until…
But that is to get ahead of our account.
For now, the third Wonder Woman stood alone. Her series, directed by Perez, who eventually grew confident enough to script as well as plot/draw, and then to cede the art to Jill Thompson whilst he wrote, proved to be the success Wonder Woman should always have been, justifying DC’s drastic efforts to sweep the decks clear.
Perez moved on after five years, leaving his charge in the hands of writer Bill Loebs. After a couple of years, Loebs introduced the fourth Wonder Woman.
She appeared in ‘The Contest’, along with hot new artist Mike Deodato (one of a number of hot artists whose facility with the human body and the art of story-telling took second place to his ability to generate violent pictures filled with extraneous detail), which ran in Wonder Woman 0, 90-93. Hyppolita, unhappy at the general lack of success of Diana’s mission to Man’s World, called her home and required her to re-submit to the original selection process, to prove herself still the best Amazon: Diana was – you couldn’t see this one coming? – beaten.
The victor in this new contest, and the fourth Wonder Woman, Artemis – a redhead bearing an unfeasibly long and horrendously complex pony-tail – was an Amazon from Bana-Migdoll, being a separated strain of the Amazon race introduced under Perez, who had followed Hyppolita’s more aggressive and vengeful sister, and who had not taken all that well to absorption into the main Amazon race on Paradise Island.
Artemis had a far more aggressive nature, not being content to subdue and overcome evil but being far more inclined to slaughter it outright, in as visually explicit a manner as was compatible with the Comics Code.
The fourth Wonder Woman was a nod to the more violent times, the last thrashings of the grim’n’gritty movement, a warrior (with all that implies).
Fortunately, the perceptive among you will have taken regard of the issue number in which she was introduced. With Wonder Woman (second series) just over half a year from its centenary, a landmark usually marked by an over-sized issue and a life-changing moment, it was fairly clear that Diana’s resumption of her traditional role would be the feature event.
In the meantime, Diana refused to confine herself to Paradise Island, and returned to Man’s World to continue her career, in a fetchingly tight dark blue bra-top and cycle shorts. The two characters ran parallel until the climactic issue 100 when, in battle royal, Artemis paid the ultimate price in defeating a ravening monster, recognising with her dying breath Diana’s greater right to the Wonder Woman name and cossy.
Artemis would return from the dead in a later mini-series, but not as Wonder Woman, and hence has no further role to play in this account.
Diana resumed her role as Wonder Woman, until 1998. With issue 107, her series had been taken over by writer-artist John Byrne who, some eighteen months later, chose to play another game with the character, leading to the fifth Wonder Woman and the onset of total textual complexity.
To clear the way for another successor, Diana this time was to die. Like the first Wonder Woman (the first first Wonder Woman, that is) she was translated to Mount Olympus, to become one with the pantheon of Greek Gods, although the second first Wonder Woman would prove to be far less amenable to giving up her humanity for divinity than the first first Wonder Woman had (presumably) been and, after an appropriate length of time, returned to life and her given role.
In the meantime, the fifth Wonder Woman was Hyppolita: Diana’s mother assumed her role in Man’s World, in penance for the part she had to play in her daughter’s death. Hyppolita was the fifth Wonder Woman, but we must remember that she was also the third Wonder Woman, after Diana and Artemis.
Her costume was identical to that worn by Diana and Artemis, except that she wore a skirt of sorts, its length varying with the artist in question (one particularly juvenile minded artist not only drew it as a mini-skirt but planned his shots to give as many glimpses of Amazonian white panties as he could get away with).
Whether this change of apparel was intended to reflect Hyppolita’s greater dignity as an older (albeit still immortal) woman, or as a Queen, remained unspecified.
But Byrne had great ideas in mind. No sooner had Hyppolita appeared on TV for the first time as Wonder Woman than she sparked a memory of recognition in the mind of Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash. Almost fifty years earlier (in a short story published in 1997) Flash had been captured by an old foe: he had escaped thanks to the advice of a mysterious elderly stranger who resembled his father (and whose identity was obvious to anyone who had ever read more than three comics). Whilst this stranger had been spouting Get-out-of-Jail-free advice, Flash had glimpsed a woman in an overcoat and a strange costume in the background. Meanwhile, in 1998, Jay Garrick was convinced that he had now recognised the mysterious woman.
Hyppolita had no recollection of the incident, but was willing to accompany Jay back in time (courtesy of the invisible robot plane and Paradise Island’s somewhat nebulous situation in the time stream) to 1941 to check out the details.
Needless to say, and without any time-consuming speeches about how at-last-I-realise, the elder Garrick gave the requisite information to his younger self, wrapping up that short-lived mystery with the perfunctoriness it deserved.
But Jay persuaded Wonder Woman to let him visit the old JSA headquarters at the Smithsonian before returning to the present, not thinking that some of his old comrades – not to mention his younger self – might be about (why this should be when the JSA headquarters had never been anywhere near the Smithsonian ould be due either to Jay having a senior moment, or John being too arrogant to research: you pays your money… This led to an adventure with Nazi’s that Jay only seemed to remember as it went along.
At the end, Jay returned to the future alone: Wonder Woman had decided (with no apparent explanation) to remain in the Forties, which she did for half an hour, present day time, returning to 1998 having stayed in the Forties until 1950. If you know what I mean.
The moment she returned, Jay remembered all those JSA adventures that had included Wonder Woman. What’s more, now everyone remembered the Forties Wonder Woman, they could all remember how Diana (the second first Wonder Woman) had been given the name of Wonder Woman because of the recollection of the first Wonder Woman (Hyppolita, the third Wonder Woman).
So, just to get this straight, the first Wonder Woman was now Hyppolita, who was actually the third Wonder Woman in current continuity, and the fifth one overall. She was active between 1941 and 1950, as an interlude from being active in 1998-9, in succession to Diana, the first Wonder Woman (the second first Wonder Woman, that is), but the third Wonder Woman overall, who was given the name Wonder Woman in tribute to Hyppolita, who was the second Wonder Woman to succeed her but had appeared forty plus years before her, both taking her name from and bequeathing it to her daughter. Meanwhile, the Earth 2 Diana was actually the first Wonder Woman (the first first Wonder Woman), but she never existed anyway, and the second Wonder Woman was originally the same as the first Wonder Woman, and she never existed anyway either, but not for the same reason. And, so as not to leave her out, the odd one out in all this is Artemis, who was the second, fourth and third Wonder Woman, according to which angle you look at her.
All of which is clear as mud to you, and daylight to the comic book fan, who may not be regarded as quite as big an idiot as you thought. And if you think that’s complicated, let me tell you about the pre-Crisis history of the Spectre.