Theatre Nights: The Cannon


Sandman Mystery Theatre 57-60. Dramatis personae: Steven T. Seagle (writer), Matt Wagner (story idea), Michael Lark and Richard Case (artists)
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Cannon marks the end of Matt Wagne’s involvement in the Mystery Theatre, bringing a five year association to an end with one final story idea. The season, the approach, was his own idea, and his name should burn forever as a Patron. Henceforth, until the all too early end, Steven T. Seagle would have the Director’s role to himself.
The Cannon is also the last play to be set decorated by guest designers, the team of Michael Lark (pencils) and Richard Case (inks). Their work is neatly evocative of the era, wthout need of any of the hindering scratchiness of some of their forebears: their delineation of the people and the fasions of the time opens the door in your imagination.
And it’s the second and final appearance of the Reverend Armitage “Bagsy” Hawley, alias the Cannon, smiter of the Ungodly, and converter of tainted money to the good of the poor and weak.
Bagsy’s return is not only a delight in itself (though Seagle favours a slightly less broad portrayal of the Reverend, almost completely eschewing the self-mocking humour that underpinned Bagsy in Sandman Midnight Theatre) but it comes at a crucial junction for Wesley and Dian, who are both in need of a counsellor who can assist them in getting through the effects of the past few days.
Though the Reverend Hawley gives oonly the messages that his faith dictates must be given – that abortion cannot be acceptable, that Dian must tell her father, and very soon, and that she and Wesley must marry (this latter advice is give to the pair, though otherwise Bagsy’s counsel is for Dian in her needs) – he is nevertheless a comfirt to both at a time when the stress of what has had to be done threatens to destabilise their relationship.
That he works out that Wesley is the Sandman and is bold enough to bring it up before Dian and Humphries is just further evidence that here is one smart man.
And boy, is he needed! The play begins literally a couple of days after The Crone. Wesley has come to collect Dian from Sunnyhills, feeling guilt over what has happened, and feeling weak for feeling guilty. Meanwhile, a liner from England, setting off before the Declaration of War, approaches New York harbour, carrying the seemingly empty-headed Percy Russell, excited at his first sight of the colonies, a phrase his shipboard compatriot, Bagsy Hawley, advises him against using.
Though he’s not long for this world, Percy is the reason for the Cannon being himself in the New World. Ostensibly a businessman, the jovial Percy is a cold and calculating crook, not to mention a Nazi sympathiser, who’s gotten himself into a bigger game than he realises and which gets him and his frightful wife killed early on. Because Percy’s trying to cut in on a deal involving Gold: tons of it, a syphoned-off part of what the Nazis have stolen from the Jews in Germany.
There’s a bidding war going on, courtesy of the Gamboni family, for which th entrance fee is the extreordinarily rare 1933 double-headed Eagle gold dollar: a coin withdrawn from circulation before it was even issued, and illegal to even own since the Gold Surrender Act of the same year.
But it’s what’s going on between Weley and Dian that is more important.No sooner is she home than his inability to know what to say leads to a quarrel. Wesley is beginning to realise his own bereavement, the denial of his chance to be a father, to be a better father than was his own. Dian feels that she is being blamed, especially unfairly give that Wesley abdicated any part in the decision to her.And his admission that, with a son, he might have given up the Sandman results in a stony-faced Dian pointing out that it may have been a daughter, and that he has never offered to make that concession for her.
Tears follow, bitter tears and accusations that she is being blamed, that Wesley will batter her with blame. His denials are not impressive, especially when Humphries interrupts to draw Percy Russell’s death to Master Dodds’ attention, in light of the dream he had that morning.
So the investigation begins, with the Sandman at one end and the Cannon at the other. They will cross paths with some suspicion, at least on the Sandman’s part, at first, before agreeing, initially tentatively, then officially, to work together.
And Lieutenant Burke is placed on the case. There’s no appearance by Weaver, nor reference to dinners with Weaver’s wife and sister-in-law, but the Lieutenant is definitely mellowing. He’s been assigned a partner, rookie Detective Dan O’Grady, and he’s noticeably less caustic with him than we’ve seen all along. Hell, he even compliments the kid over his attitude to the captured Tony Gamboni.
Burke even manages to accommodate a joint investigation with Agents Stone and Hart, who come into the matter when their investigations into illegal gold-trading lead them, via the back door, into this nest of murders.
But Bagsy’s true mission, though he never suspected it, is as mediator to Wesley and Dian. From the moment of his first encounter, before the end of the First Act, his presence serves to limit the probability of their quarrel continuing.
Not for long though, and it is the normally placid and composed Wesley who finds things too much for him to bear. Dian produces photographs from London to show Bagsy, of which Wesley was not aware. When she dismisses the idea of his breing interested in them, he not being the sentimental kind, the hurt iverwhelms and Wesley rushes out into the garden.
Bagsy’s ability to lend a non-judgemental ear, his gentle understanding of how deeply Wesley has been hurt, and his gentle leading back to the fundamental point that Wesley loves Dian not only soothes his ‘patient’ but, in an unstated manner, gives Dian the space to understad how much she has hurt, and to prepare herself to begin to welcome her love back, intent on what banids rather than divides.
Not so long after, she returns to his bad,though not yet to his embrace. She wants and needs his presence: sex has too much of a visceral connection to life and pregnancy for her just yet.
She’s far from reconciled to what has happened,and to the as yet still implied likelihood that there will never be another time for she and her love to bring forth a child of their union (and she’s right, though she and Wes stay together for life,to the very end of the Twentieth Century). The sight of a child, later on, leaves Dian in floods of tears, attracting the concerns of a passer-by, a Presbyterian Minister.
Faith plays a deep, though not religious role in this play. Dian receives comfort from a stranger who cares not about denominations, merely a person in pain. And even as Dian receives support in one Church, Bagsy enters another to dispense ill-gotten loot for good. Only Wesley, understandably, takes no form of spiritual guidance: the Cannon’sadvice is administered in strictly secular conditions and terms.
Incidentally, there is an issue here as to Bagsy’s particular brand of the Faith. When we first met him, in Sandman Midnight Theatre, he was distinctly an Anglican: it was a fundamental aspect of his gently parodistic nature that he be entirely English. In New York, however, he speaks of taking confession, is himself shrived, and the gangsters who plan to kill the Cannon speak in terms of sending him back to his boss, the Pope. Is Bagsy Catholic? No, certainly not. But Seagle didn’t understand that.
Once Bagsy confronts Wesley over being the Sandman, his usefulness becomes merely that as a colleague in justice. Though even here he is of more than practical assistance, as Wesley understands the value in the freedom to to be both his public and private selves.
But Dian needs more. She needs the Reverend Armitage Hawley’s advice about ‘her friend’s pregancy and termination. It’s not easy, but it points her to where she needs to go, to begin to draw together her public and private selves, by speaking to her father.
So it’s over. Bagsy leaves to return to London, never to be seen again. Ironically, he finds himself next to a man who is going to a destination even he does not know, save that it can no longer be Germany: this is the unnamed man who has been behind this failed attempt to rause money for the Third Reich.
The true end, though, is one final dream, a dream by Wesley Dodds. It is not of a crime, at least not in the sense we have been led to expect, nor of any fabulous crook. It is a dream of a baby, born growing and leaving Weley behind on a New York lake shore he cannot escape.
It’s a sobering moment.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The City.
Break a leg.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: Afterword


A couple of years ago, I received, read and enthusiastically reviewed Alan Garner’s last novel, Boneland. I called it his last novel, because Garner himself had described it as such: between his age, the time that writing takes, and the absence finally of an idea to inspire him, he did not expect another. And the book itself presented that conclusion. It was the culmination, the drawing together, the resolution of all Garner’s work. It was complete.

On 14 July this year, Christopher Priest will be 71. I have no reason to doubt that both his physical constitution and his mental acuity are strong. And as for his age alone, the world’s greatest writer, Gene Wolfe, is 88 and shows no signs of retiring. There’s no reason to think that there won’t be more thoughtful, perceptive, imaginative books from Priest. The Dream Archipelago has surely not been exhausted.

Yet I can’t help viewing The Adjacent in a similar light to Boneland. If it were to be Priest’s swansong, then it would prove to be a most apt book for that role. In it, many of Priest’s theme come together, forming parts of a disparate but absorbing whole, and the underlying theme of his career, Uncertainty, comes into its own, embodied in every page, every thought, every action. Reality expands beyond alternates into an infinity of worlds. I find it impossible to think where Priest can take this central obsession that goes beyond The Adjacent.

But then I’m not writing his books, only reading them and forming impressions and beliefs from them. I would be extremely happy if there are more works to come, works that can spread yet further outwards. That doesn’t deny, however, the feeling I have of culmination about this book. If it were to be the last, I would not feel cheated, or denied. And I would be spared the risk of the disappointment that comes from reading Robert Neill’s last two, weak, novels.

The Adjacent is a tremendous achievement. By the same token, it is an enormous hostage to fortune.

Thank you all for following my thoughts in this extensive re-reading of Christopher Priest’s work. Needless to say, I am already turning in my mind to another favourite author, and a protracted re-read and exposition of someone who ought to be better known. We shall convene again, shortly.

The Revenge of the Purple Puffin – new publication


Purple PuffinThose of you with long memories may recall that, during November 2011, I took part for the first time in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). My book was entitled The Return of the Purple Puffin and my daily drafts were published on this blog, and are still available in the Archives, under Novels.

Well, it’s taken a long time, including a pretty expansive re-write and a slight change in title, but I am proud to announce that The Revenge of the Purple Puffin has finally been published through Lulu.com, and that details can be had – and purchases made, hint, hint – on the following link: http://www.lulu.com/shop/martin-crookall/the-revenge-of-the-purple-puffin/paperback/product-21693281.html

I usually include an extract at this point, so you can see what the book’s like, but instead let’s share another link, to Day 1. Don’t think you can just go back and read those blogs, that was the First Draft and things have moved on since then, however slowly.

The Revenge of the Purple Puffin is my seventh published novel, all of which can be bought through Lulu.com. The preceding six can all be bought for the Kindle as well, and I’ll be preparing a Kindle version of Puffin shortly, and will announce its availability as soon as that’s done. With links.

 

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Vol. 3) #13


I might have known.

After a year of blogging the new series of Astro City, I gave up last month, tired of continually saying one or other variation of ‘it’s good – bit it’s not satisfying’. I promised not to blog the series again unless the gang came out with something worth talking about.

So, here we are with issue 13…

It’s called ‘Waltz of the Hours’ and it covers twenty hours in the life of Astro City, one hour for each of twenty four pages. And those hours are all jumbled up, chronologically, so that we experience this day is a disconcerting, kaleidosopic manner, effect preceding cause. And this deliberate fracturing of the story is not some desperate gimmick on the part of Busiek, but rather an intentional turning of the story inside out. We cut from hour to hour, back and forth, between the seven principal characters, three civilians, four super-characters.

That the story is about time is apt for our three civilians, Zvi, Laura and an un-named man, who we eventually learn is the unintentional precipitator of events. I’ve named them (so to speak) in the order in which we are introduced to them: Zvi a part of an NRGistics project, working through the N-field to operate a robot on the surface of Io, a moon of Jupiter, Laura a bank clerk in a humdrum, dead-end job, frustrated that she never gets to see her so-called boyfriend because his job/career is so demanding on his time, and the unknown man, also committed to a time-consuming scientific project at Fox-Broome University. Zvi and the unknown man also feel guilty and deprived at not spending enough time with their partner.

Three people, civilians all, with the common problem of time.

And the unknown man falls asleep, monitoring a carefully calibrated experiment, as a result of which an ancient, puissant being finds a way into this world. He has had many names in many times and places, but the one he holds for himself is The Dancing Master, and he it is who begins the dance, the dance that lies in everybody. The dance of life, of possibility, of love, of romance.

And for most of a day, the Dancing Master turns Astro City into an unpredictable, unstable stew of different possibilities, lighting flames, until he is confronted by the Hanged Man. For the first time, we see a glimpse into who and what the Hanged Man might be or have been (whether Busiek should reveal the origin/nature of this mysterious protector has been debated for several months, the majority opinion being that he should not).

The Hanged Man persuades the Dancing Master that this is not his place or time, and that he should return to the Older Lands, despite their emptiness and coldness. But the Dancing Master must perform the task for which he was summoned before he leaves, knowing the way to return.

There are three civilians in need and two more superhumans. The first of these is Jack-in-the-Box, fighting to bring down Gundog. The villain traps the Harlequin Hero in a Ryman Sphere, that slows down time, and continues on his self-imposed task of robbing five banks in a day. But he’s bored: bored of the black leather and the fake southern accent and the whole thing. His second bank is the one where Laura works, by which time the Dancing Master’s influence is starting to take effect. The two fall for each other across a bank counter.

So much so that, after robbing the branch, he leaves Laura with the guns to cover everyone, and she, giddy and delighted, does so. But after the third bank, he comes back, chucks down all the money, tells them to tell the Police he’s retired, and he sweeps Laura off to Maine, where his Great-Uncle’s been wanting him to come in on this lobster joint. Laura’s from Iowa, but she’s always wanted to live by the sea.

It’s greatly improbable, but in a few short words and smiles (thanks, Brent), Busiek persuades you that this giddy liaison will work.

Where does that leave Laura’s so-called boyfriend, we wonder, with his demanding career and conflicting schedules. Mr unknown gets home to an empty apartment, cooking for himself again, but Busiek’s kaleidoscopic handling has concealed what at least one reader with his heterosexual assumptions hadn’t twigged – that the un-named man’s partner is Zvi, not Laura. A Zvi who’s home earl;y despite his brilliant, intuitively successful day at NRGistics, when abruptly he lost his concentration. At the interference of the Dancing Master.

A beautifully told, compulsively woven tale, and a genuine reminder that Astro City can still be as good as it used to be. There’s even a magical final page, as the robot dog continues its collection of samples on distant Io. Only it too remembers the dance. It knows itself as Rover, and it is lonely for the voices of Zvi and his fellow operatives…

Lovely, intriguing, individual story. I am so glad to have ‘my’ Astro City back.

Two final points: I’m intrigued that Busiek so resolutely keeps the unknown man’s name out of it. It’s uncharacteristic, and therefore significant, at least to me. I mean, I can see the plot point notion of initial anonimity, so that we may think of him as Laura’s unnamed boyfriend, even as we are also offered the possibility that the boyfriend may be Zvi. But the revelation that Zvi and the man are partners comes after Laura’s flying car elopement with the former – and equally unnamed – Gundog, and it would have been entirely natural for Zvi to call his man by name at some point. Interesting, and I wonder/hope there may be more to this.

The other is that this is still a one-off. Don’t assume that in four week’s time you’ll be reading me blog about Astro City 14. That’s entirely down to Messrs Busiek, Anderson and Ross.

Set a date…


For those who, like me, are fans of The Big Bang Theory, and who still find it funny even if it’s not still doing everything it did in season 1, there is a date to go on the calendar: Monday, September 22nd.

That’s the date when season 8 starts in America,with a double episode, same as last year.

Monday is not the usual Big Bang night but fret not. For some esoteric reason, the show is broadcasting in the new slot for five weeks, then will return to the regular Thursday night slot on October 30th.

That’s only 87 days away. Bring it on!

24: Live Another Day – 7.00 – 8.00pm


A spoiler?

Sigh.

Ater last week’s dramatic drone attack on Wembley, there were plenty of people on-line convinced that Heller wasn’t dead: that Chloe had doctored the feed, fed in a cloned loop and that Jack had spirited the President away from the centre spot in the nick of time. I hoped they were wrong. I’d rather admired Heller’s quiet dignity in going to his death and this kind of convoluted, oh so clever trickery was, in dramatic terms, flat and banal. Needless to say, the internet got it right, despite 24‘s usual trick of leaving William DeVane’s credit out of the opening titles.

At first, it looked like a success: everyone hung around in mourning, Stephen Fry paid tribute to the late President (I’m sorry, I cannot give credence to Stephen Fry as anyone except Stephen Fry, which is why he just doesn’t work as Prime Minister Alistair thingy), Audrey refused to be consoled by Creepy Mark and, most importantly, things started crashing into the sea off Dover. Yes, Mama Terrorist Margot was keeping her side of the bargain, despite Smartarse son Ian’s fanatical reservations. Five down, one to go, until Smartarse sussed out the trick. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, so the wrathful Mama Margot sent the last drone to bomb Waterloo Station, where people were desperately trying to get out of London in the wake of the Wembley bomb.

Fair enough, thinks I, at least it’ll get Sky’s poisonous Kay Burley, who’s down there lending her own special branch of ignorance to the scene.

But we are failing to take into account Jack Bauer. Browbeating the still pub-bound Chloe into tracking Mama Margot to an otherwise deserted office block in Hackney, Jack calls in the Cavalry in the form of Barbie Doll Kate and the much-chastened Eric (plus an entire truck of guys with tommy guns) to clean out the guards whilst Jack inflitrates from the roof, climbinmg down the outside of the building on a makeshift rope of cables. Envisaging his making the traditional dramatic entrance, shattering glass as heswings into the room, I could think of nothing more than the legendary Stan Freberg in ‘The Banana Boat Song (Day-Oh)’ and that lovely line ‘I come through the window’.

However, Smartarse Ian, having shot the windows to buggery on sight, makes the mistake of leaning out, whereupon Jack grabs his hand and hauls him out for the fall (fifth floor). Time being tight, he shoots Mama Margot through the shoulder and, with the Waterloo bound missile already in flight, uses the override machine to divery it into a nearby lake at the literal last second.

Then, with Mama Margot screaming at him about all the deaths today that have been at his hands, he wraps up the plot by throwung her out the window too! Eight and a half hours, a new World Record!

But this show is called 24 (and there’s something like a twelve hour leap between episodes scheduled yet), so there’s time to kill (heh heh, poor choice of words there, sorry). This is not, however, to be three and a half hours of mopping up operations, do not fear, action lovers. First there is a suspiciously timely call to Barbie Kate from her Police contact, who’s just found the body of the late Jordan Reed, plus dead assailant, over in Camden.

Consternation spreads. She and Eric head over there where the total lack of any identification on the killer makes them suspect a Pro (and what was Jordan doing in Camden anyway?). Jack, who is securing the override device to bring in to CIA, suspects a connection to the now obliterated El-Harasi family (incidentally, the late Mahmoud, in whose name dear Mama has been working, turns out to have been only a second husband, stepfather only to Smartarse and Baby, in case anyone had been worrying about their genetic purity). And Mole Steve Navarro is shitting bricks over his eventual exposure.

Monotonous Adrian offers him a way out: escape, money, safety, on condition Navarro brings him the override device. This means getting it off Jack, not to mention out of lockdown in a secure CIA facility with the DoD already there to remove it for analysis. Navarro is sweating, knowing that Jack’s back-channel detection of the dead Pro’s fingerprints is going to lead to him. So what ingenious plan does he deploy? In a glass-panelled office, under the view of staff starting to look at him strangely because he’s being a bit wierd over Jordan’s death, he knocks out the DoD man with a sleeper hold, stuffs the override device into a holdall and – Station Chief that he is amd constantly in emand – walks unnoticed out of a back door. A back door in a secure, lockdown room. A back door in a secure, lockdown room that leads to deserted corridors, the basement and a fire exit (with no apparent security) into the back streets.

There are people who are taking this show seriously, who think it’s actually exciting.

Jack, of course, is hot on his heels, but just not quite hot enough. He was decoyed out of the way by a phonecall from Audrey, thanking him for saving her pa. There is an old flame seriously a-kindling there, possibly timely since Chloe, who has gotten out of that pub unmolested, after about three hours saving the world without apparently drinking even half a shandy, has finally brushed him off. Jack wants her to come in to CIA HQ to analyse the override device (a magical weapon, it transpires, that can override anything military, not just drones): that’s CIA HQ where, nine hours ago remember, Chloe was being tortured. No, Chloe’s done her bit and she’s not doing any more. Chloe’s going back to Monotnous Adrian.

Who, as the clock ticks, is driving her to Finsbury Square, to meet the runaway Steve Navarro…

Before we go, let us not forget (since the split screen reminds us in timely manner), that the President’s Lazarus-like reappearance spells all sorts of shit for Creepy Mark, in the shape of a forged Executive Order handing the now pardoned Bauer over to the Russkie’s.

And let us also not forget, since the scripters obviously have, that James Heller is no longer President of the United States of America: he resigned the post as of 7.00pm this evening. It will be interesting to see if anyone remembers that little wrinkle…