A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (volume 3) issue 6


Curiouser.

This month’s story is called “Through Open Doors, Part 2”, which links us back to  the opening issue of this volume, and it is another piece of a puzzle that Kurt Busiek intends to take his good, sweet time with.

Having seen the Broken Man return last month, we know return to the Ambassador and, very much in passing, Ben Pullam. The Doors still stand, on the river, denuded of the crowds that flocked to them curiously. Now it’s time for other, more serious players to approach, visitors with a purpose who will, nevertheless, the whole story implies, contribute a great deal to the Ambassador’s assignment. Without knowing it, or doing more than wonder about it.

Our viewpoint this time comes from Thatcher Jerome (who, in the interests of not getting a little bit sick in my mouth every time, I shall henceforth refer to by his surname). Jerome’s some nobody official in the Longshoreman’s Union (Dockers and Riverboat men to us British), here to negotiate a deal with the Union over the supply of, well, supplies on their ‘turf’, the river. Except that Jerome isn’t really a union man, but a mobster: Jerome reports to Cabrero and Cabrero’s only three levels down from the Deacon, so we’re talking more than muscle, and he’s here to negotiate a shakedown, and gets his way with such spectacular ease – even billing the Feds! – than he ever dreamed possible.

Busiek pulls a switch in this issue, the implications of which I can’t yet see. Instead of allowing Jerome to speak for himself, as Marella Cowper, Mattie Sullivan and countless others have done, Busiek describes what’s in his head for us. It’s an obviously distancing device, with no apparent reason. Sure, Jerome’s a crook: he’s been working for the Deacon since the 1970s and you don’t do that clean, but whatever that involved is restricted to our imagination as Busiek drawns the picture alog contemporary lines.

Because Thatch Jerome has done good for himself by following one maxim: when a door opens, go through it. It’s got him a damned good house, an awful lot of money, a considerable amount of above mid-level power, a reputation, and a lot of sex from young, willing women who are not his wife – who was a stripper when he met her, but who he actually came to love and still does.

And Jerome still has ambition in him, and an eye open for doors that open.

Like Ben Pullam, he becomes a source of information for the Ambassador, to whom he tells only the atuthorised version of his life and responsibilities, but when he opportunistically steals an alien artefact, it’s implied that he becomes an unintentional source of information which we’re a long way from yet knowing if we’d want the Ambassador to have.

Because what Jerome has stolen is a box of six canisters, made of an alien metal, contents and purpose unknown. They’re a door too, and Jerome just has to find to what. And there’s his sleazeball brother-in-law Andrew Wilson, who’s a metallurgist (and a gambler. And someone who gets kicks from the thought of being on the safe edge of criminality). Wilson accidentally sets one off, and turns into a creature of earth, bedrock and magma that calls itself the Ore-Master and fixates upon some guy who did him wrong until he’s beaten down by Cleopatra. (The superhero cameo is a perfect minor pastiche of the John Broome comics story of yore, where villain beats hero due to unexpected and superior power, but hero decisively wins the rematch by having worked villain out).

The seemingly naive and trusting Ambassador even gives Jerome a comprehensive explanation of what the canisters (which he’s apparently misplaced) can do. Which leaves Jerome staring at five more canisters, which represent a very big door indeed, a door than can lead to even greater power in the Deacon’s mob, or a massive sell-out and retirement on a fortune, or maybe independence…

But Jerome does indeed love his wife. And she’s happy where they are. It’s more than she’d ever dreamed of having, and she’s with him, and, well, he’s not played away for six years at least because he’s happy with her. The door is there, and it’s open. But that doesn’t mean you have to walk through it. Not now, not just now.

I think Busiek places Jerome in the third person so that we don’t get too empathetic with him. He’s a major league racketeer, a blackmailer, an extortionist, a cold, callous, criminal bastard out for his own gain. But he loves his wife enough not to cheat on her for the last half dozen of the thirty-plus years he’s been with her, and by keeping us out of Jerome’s mind, Busiek is making sure we are neither too repelled at him, nor yet forgiving.

Next up, we’ve a four part serial centring on Winged Victory, and heavily featuring Samaritan and the (new) Confessor, which will be a decided change of pace for this volume of Astro City. I’d hope to see it keep a distance from the Ambassador and the Broken Man. Good as this issue is, and all the better for being absent our purple-haired obscurantist, I am still very reserved about this story and if we’re going to be fed bits and pieces until something clicks, I’ll have those bits and pieces delivered at distinct intervals, thanks.

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