Sunday Watch: The Office s01 e05/06 – New Girl/Judgement


Office

I have never seen the American version of The Office, except for a couple of cl;ips, mostly from YouTube. There are some things about it that I think I would enjoy, especially the relationship between their version of Tim and Dawn. Then I watch even five minutes of the original and I could never accept the American show as an equal. There is both ice and poison at the heart of The Office, and it is those two factors that make it the work of genius that it is.

Most of it is David Brent. By episode five the audience is conditioned by expectation and dread to almost freeze the momenmt he appears, insinuating himself into the background of a scene that has nothing to do with him, but walking forward to pull everything about him, the only worthwhile subject of anything, the natural centre of gravity and attention. And you watch in absolute fascination, pre-cringing about what he’s going to say next, oh God, he didn’t, no, oh fuck, I would die.

And Brent’s not the only monster, just the King of Embarrassing Beasts, a tragic figure when contemplated from afar, with an objective head, all thoughts of which flee the moment he is near you and you’re in a permanent state of pre-wince. There’s Gareth Keenan, an Empty Space incarnated in awkward flesh, full of firm, in-command opinions that vanish in a flash to be replaced by polar opposites, a walking talking classic no-hoper that imagines itself as capable of anything, especially the having of any woman he sees even as he’s rejecting them as slags or loose women, and you don’t go there.

Even Tim Canterbury, the sane one, the intelligent one, the fish in concrete, the one I identify with inescapably, is in his own way a monster. Tim is out of place. He doesn’t like his job, he is understretched by it, he doesn’t like the people he works with, with one sweet exception, he is offended by the OTT laddishness of Brent and his mate Finchy, and Gareth, the hanger-on, with their crude and sexist language and attitudes, their sheer boorishness. And most of all he doesn’t like himself, for his inability to act, to go, to do something better, something fulfilling, because Tim’s self-confidence is solely based in the knowledge that he is better than everyone else at Wernham Hogg in Slough and shot through with the fear that, in another context, where he might not be the only one who can snap and snide at the likes of Gareth, come out with sardonic digs that go over the heads of everyone else, he might be out of his depth.

I said I identify with him.

And then there’s Dawn, who is sweet, and nice, and likes Tim, likes his compsany, but who is engaged to and living with a jumped-up thug, a warehgouseman with no more anbition than to shag and pint it up, and bang her up. Tim is evidently superior to Lee, amd Dawn knows that, but she’s with Lee, and she can’t yet imagine herself out of that, any more than she can get away from Wernham Hogg or the dead-end of being a Receptionist. She’s not a monster, except towards herself, taking the path of least resistance. Always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of finding aomething worse.

These two episodes finished The Office‘s stupendously brilliant first series. The first, ‘New Girl’, split itself into two phases, the first where Brent, in the face of the threatened down-sizing, decides his importance is such that he has to have a secretary. He interviews two candidates, one a bloke, the other a decently pretty blonde woman, Karen Roper. You know exactly what’s coming and it’s as horrifying as you expect, though only Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s imagination extends to Brent toying with a football and accidentally elbowing her in the face.

The second phase is the regular Wednesday night down the club, drinking till one o’clock, pinting it desperately, birding it with equal energy, fearful of loneliness, of insignificance. Gareth pulls a woman who makes all the running, he being unable to respond – she’s a loose woman, remember, and he doesn’t want to catch knob-rot (he is so much the charmer) – until he discovers she’s here with her husband, and he isn’t going to get involved in a threesome, well, maybe two birds. There isn’t, if you stop squirming long enough, an original word in there but bloody hell, Gervais and Merchant and McKenzie Crook get every moment spot on, like a butterfly pinned to a slide, only without the beauty.

And behind all of this is Tim, determined to quit, go back to University, study philosophy, and it’s not because he asked Dawn ut and was turned down in front of everybody else, and anyway it was just as friends, not girlfriends. Already we know he won’t do it, because he hasn’t done it, he’s going to do it, which signals he isn’t going to do it, he’s waiting for a face-saving reason to just do nothing. Always keep tight hold of nurse…

But it’s the final episode that’s the stunner. Gervais and Merchant have the courage to cut down on the comedy and allow the underlying horribleness of the situation to dominate, in a manner that is all the more pertinent in 2021 than in 2001. The time has come to decide the branch’s future. Downsizing will take place. Despite Brent’s public insistence that he will save everybody’s jobs, jobs will be lost. But…

The big but is that Jennifer Taylor-Clark is being promoted. Her job is open. There are two candidates for her replacemenmt and these are the two managers of the regional branches at Slough and Swindon, David Brent and Neil Godwin. And by a 5-2 majority, the Board has voted for Brent. Of course, if he accepts the job, and 5-2 is practically a landslide, and it’s a 71.4% majority, Slough will be shut down, its staff reduced and merged into Swindon.

It’s good news and bad news and Brent just can’t imagine why no-one is celebrating the good news or, as Malcolm outs it, the irrelevant news. Tim is indifferent, Dawn wants to be made redundant, to be kicked up the backside into doing something career-wise, Gareth is in tears at breaking up the old team, unwillingly aware that the limited and pathetic powers he has are wholly derived from Brent and that without him he is exactly nothing.

Don’t eworry though, there is a happy ending. Slough will survive. Everyone will keep their jobs, and Tim will be promoted to Senior Sales Clerk, with the prospect of taking Brent’s job in, maybe, three years, just the excuse (Lucy Davis’ ambiguous look at this news is genuinely unfathomable). Why for? Well, Brent only told them to stick their job up their arse, and now Swindon will be down-sized and merged into Slough. Hip hip hoorah for David Brent!

It’s about as unbelievable as a 45p coin, of course, but Slough has been saved, not by Brent’s hitherto unguessed at altruism but, as Malcolm has ferreted out, because he failed the medical due to High Blood Pressure. Faked, of course, just for the occasion, or so Brent claims. Heh heh.

I think I might not leave it so long before turning to the second series.

Good Girl Comics: Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld


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It was a good time to be a DC fan in the early Eighties, as the company bounced back with unexpected speed and agility from the nadir of the infamous Implosion and the threat that DC, and maybe even comics, might vanish. Instead, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein and George Perez, Marvel-exiles all, assigned to a series that at least one of them didn’t think could last, let alone would, turned The New Teen Titans into DC’s first genuine Direct Market success and, for much of the decade at least, things were on the up.
That half-decade, leading up to Crisis on Infinite Earths, was a fun time for experiments. Marvel did Marvel, and did it harder than ever but DC, under a management that accepted being Number Two and concentrated on providing more diverse experiences for older readers, came out with a number of fresh ideas, offering their readers things that differed.
It wasn’t always successful. Robert Loren Fleming’s Thriller was deliberately impressionistic, to the point of wilful obscurity: it flattered to deceive though I retain fond memories of it and all twelve issues, even the ones written by Bill DuBay that turned it into a hideous mess. On the other hand, Len Wein’s leftfield throw to hire a British writer from Northampton to totally invert his baby, Swamp Thing, changed the entire industry for a couple of decades.
In this atmosphere, a writing team consisting of Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn started getting regular assignments at DC, consciously intent on bringing a kind of updated Silver Age fun into an industry that, under the influence of The Uncanny X-Men, was trending towards anger, pain and other dark elements. They would make their most substantial contribution towards that goal in 1984, with the creation of Blue Devil (which efforts would lead to one of the most stupid letters ever printed in a comic book anywhere in the world). But the previous year, they and artist Ernie Colon came together on a bright, lovely and fantastic in the best sense twelve-issue maxi-series, Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld.

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The story pitched for a strong, fairy-tale like atmosphere, deliberately geared towards a female readership. It structured itself as an adventure, with a nod towards superheroics of a kind that, without which the book would not have sold, but by making its lead character a young, almost pre-pubescent girl who, magically, transforms into a beautiful Princess aged twenty – adult but still close to her girlishness – Mishkin and Cohn used archetypal tropes to hold the attention of an audience not geared to comics.
And in Ernie Colon they had the perfect artist: clear, clean, with bold black lines, influenced by Gil Kane in his action sequences but, best of all, able to draw Amy Winston as the thirteen year old girl she was, and Amethyst as a tall, blonde, long-legged and beautiful woman who drew the eye as a clean-cut and non-sexually threatening figure and, best of all, relate the two versions of the character to one another.
Colon’s art was both dynamic and comforting. He had a knack for the implausible landscapes of a fantasy land, the Gemworld, rendering them in a sharp-edged style that made them look realistic, even as his art was comforting and cheerful.
Mishkin and Cohn played their story cleverly, aware of what elements were standard tropes and dealing with these with confidence instead of the knowingness that would have undermined and destroyed the series. Amy Winston was an ordinary, blonde, freckle-faced thirteen year old, an only child of ordinary parents – a businessman and a child psychologist – and basically happy with life and school, until she is pulled inside a portal, a hole in the wall, and finds herself aged twenty in the mysterious place known as Gemworld where people she doesn’t know are trying to kill her.

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Over the first half of the story, the writers let Amethyst experience things, doling out information as needed to advance matters. Amethyst and Amy alternate. The opening page of the story riffs on the child-like trope of believing your parents are not your real parents and that you are secretly a Princess, and plays with that. Amy is not the daughter of Herb and Marion Winston, but of Lord and Lady Amethyst, the beloved and benevolent rulers of Gemworld, a fantastic dimension founded by the witch Citrine, who led the folk of magic out of medieval Earth to live and prosper here.
Gemworld is divided between Twelve Houses, each named after Gemstones – Ruby, Emerald, Topaz, Garnet, etc. – ruled over by the House of Amethyst, until, that is, the evil Lord Dark Opal built forces to usurp their rightful leadership. Lord and Lady Amethyst sacrificed themselves to enable their baby daughter to be saved by Citrine, placing her with the Winstons, whose own baby had just died in childbirth. Time flows differently between the two realms, thus enabling our heroine to be simultaneously 13 year old Amy and 20 year old Amethyst., depending on where she is at any given time.
The second half of the series forsakes Earth and the Winstons. Dark Opal is planning to achieve ultimate power, by securing a chip from every House’s gemstone and welding these into a breast plate that will make him invincible. Amethyst intervenes to prevent the marriage of Lady Sapphire – allied to Dark Opal – to young Topaz, the Prince Charming of the bunch, and thereafter builds a coalition of, eventually, the eleven remaining Houses that finally destroys Dark Opal and all his realm.
Then Amethyst is able to return home and become Amy again, though she knows that if ever trouble recurs in the future, she can transform into her secret identity by returning.

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The whole series was a charming blend of the superheroics, which lay under the surface, and the fairy tale. I didn’t buy it at the time but found a complete set very cheap in a Sheffield shop that provided me with tons of my pre-eBay Eagles. I enjoyed it, especially Colon’s art, which combined clarity with a Perez-ian ability to add detail without obscuring the eye. In the end, it failed to survive one of my periodic culls of the comics I didn’t regularly read but I’m very happy to have it back on DVD-Rom, taking up no space whatsoever.
The Maxi-series was a success, enough to spawn first an Annual, in 1984, then an open-ended series, starting from no. 1 again. This I’m reading for the first time. It doesn’t augur well.
It’s an all-too-common failing. Mishkin, Cohn and Colon conceived Amethyst as a complete story, developed over a number of years, and intended to run contrary to the standard DC output. It was a success against the odds of a comic book structure not set up for such things. DC wanted to replicate that success. Mishkin and Cohn wanted to further explore the world they had created. The Annual was conceived as a lead-in to the new series. But maxi-series are complete because they have an ending. That sounds incredibly trite but it makes a massive structural difference.

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For one thing, Ernie Colon dropped out. The Annual was drawn by Ric Estrada and Pablo Marcos. Instantly, Colon’s bright, sharp images and their distinct lines were lost, as was the whole fairy-tale aspect. Estrada and Marcos were plainer and more conventional of line. They eschewed panel borders, marking no separation between images. Their art was overall more drab, their layouts less distinct.
Nor was the story up to scratch. It started on Earth with Amy and her best friend Rita (a red herring in the maxi-series, possessing an Opal stone) playing basketball when a dwarf breaks through and tries to steal Amy’s amethyst pendant. To fight it, she transfers to Gemworld, with Rita in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, the new Lady Emerald is about to be invested, whilst the impulsive, red-headed Lady Turquoise is mooning over golden-haired Lord Topaz (who is mooning over Amethyst) whilst young Lady Emerald confronts some mysterious menace. Amethyst rescues the munchkins from their land, the former Dark Opal territory but has to rescue Rita from a cat-like menace that turns out to be a former witch’s familiar, transformed by strange magic into an evil intent on conquering Gemworld. To neutralise it, leaving Rita behind temporarily, Amethyst and young Lady Emerald take it back to Earth where it turns back into a cat, but find their portal back to Gemworld blocked. Throw in lots of superheroing in the form of magical battles and you can see the problem: not only is the freshness drastically dimmed, but the story is all about setting up the new series, leaving the Annual incomplete. Something tells me not to read the new series…
Because one thing that always enters in with an open-ended series is Soap Opera, those unending sub-plots that drag down and trivialise events, like Princesses immediately starting to whine like adolescent girls. I got just two issues into the new series, pencilled by Ric Estrada and, for one bright moment in issue 1, inked by Ernie Colon before Romeo Tanghal took over, before deciding not to read any more.
The thing is, as it has taken me a lifetime to learn, you don’t have to accept everything in the DC Universe as real. Just because they publish it, just because diverse hands and minds – the latter term to be read metaphorically – have contributed doesn’t mean that you have to treat it as all being ‘real’. I choose to ignore the latter Amethyst because I can see already that it’s going to be absolute twaddle, even when written by Mishkin and Cohn, and edited by Karen Berger. The Maxi-series is a polished gem, and I’m content with that.

Preston Front: s03 e01 – Hodge’s Driving Test


Preston

It’s all back to Roker Bridge for a third and, alas, final time, with the start of series 3 picking things up in Central Lancaster six months on, and starting with a dream sequence. Hodge is taking his driving test. It’s very important to him because he’s being allowed to take his god-daughter Kirsty (actually his real daughter as only Eric and Dawn know) out on his own for the very first time on Saturday. But he’s failed, as the dry litany of mistakes is quietly reeled off by the examiner, including reversing through a supermarket window – at which point we twig we are not in Roker Bridge’s own specialised form of reality – only for the examiner to rip up the Fail sheet in time for a hallucinogenic congratulations sequence as even Stirling Moss (the real one) tells him he is a better driver.

Then he wakes up.

For the third and final series there are cast changes. Lucy Akehurst, aka Laura, has dropped out, and will appear only briefly in a later episode as a guest star. Carolyn Pickles replaces Susan Wooldridge as Jeanetta, Kieran Flynn, Ozzie Yue and Holy Grainger are all listed and there are two newcomers in Oliver Pickles as Declan (no last name given), a plastic surgeon and Jeanetta’s new ‘boyfriend’, and Angela Lonsdale as Mel, who plays a somewhat detached role in the first episode.

‘Hodge’s Driving Test’ isn’t quite as fuinny as previous episodes, though it contains a great deal of banter, farcical fun and confusion, not to mention my favourite Preston Front gag of them all (there’s another, nearly as good, later in the series).

The TA, under the puffed-up orders of Sergeant Polson (whose elevation by blackmail still rankles with Lieutenant Rundle and Corporal Minshull, aka Ally, since it’s them he’s blackmailing), are being trained in mine detection. Deisel assumes sophisticated ultrasound devices but the reality is glorified knitting needles, placed across the forearm and inserted into the ground – carefully – at a 30 degree angle.

Lloydy doesn’t like the prospect of this and starts chunnering. Polson describes the standard insertion from a prone position, but there’s also a two-foot extension so it can be done standing up. Lloydy immediately suggests a two hundred foot extension so it can be done standing up in Bradford. Next thing, he’s face down in the ‘minefield’, proding carefull, with Spock and Deisel immediately behind. He’s still chunnering. He asks why the Army can’t train moles to do this? Spock sighs and says they tried but it didn’t work. And Deisel agrees. It didn’t wiork because they had to have their desks too near the blackboard…

But whilst that, and many other things, like Lloydy facing down a tank, are wonderfully funny, that doesn’t for one moment obscure the fact that this is an episode filled with a tremendous amount of pain, and it’s that same pain we know from throughout the series, namely that Kirsty is Hodge’s daughter, and that she not only doesn’t know he’s her father but she must never know. Hodge wants to be a Dad, but cannot be in the way he wants, and, as the episode demonstrates, is far too wound up about being a Dad to be relaxed enough to be a good one.

In series 2, we had Jeanetta’s ex-husband, Greg Scarry, a very successful businessman, as the Hodge-that-might. Rich, handsome, a magnet for women. Hodge saw him as a rival, especially as he was making a play for Laura, but mostly as the image of a real Dad for Kirsty, even though she was none of his.

Now enter Declan, to be a new and even more serious rival. Not over Jeanetta, who’s clearly very comfortable with him (and Carolyn Pickles brings a very ready smile and an overall more relaxed and cheerful aspect to the role), but over Kirsty, who is also clearly very comfortable with him. Because Declan has an overwhewlming advantage above and beyond his craggy handsomeness, his wealth and his horse. Paradoxically, by not being Kirsty’s father or having any pretentions to be, he can play the part of a father with relaxed ease and comfort. No wonder Hodge hurts all over inside from the moment he meets him.

That’s all I’ll say for now. That alone would be enough to sustain a seven-part series without all the other subplots bubbling away in the background, but I’d better mention Mel. Mel, a very obviously Geordie girl, appears out of nowhere in the TA. Whilst trying to get her cigarette lit, she inadvertently directs Jeanetta’s car too far back and into a hole. She turns a palette into an escape ramp but doesn’t get all the nails out. She doesn’t tighten the nuts properly when she changes the wheel so the car has to be towed away… Oh, and when Jeanetta is gazing fondly at the departing Hodge, she makes a misassumption, and says, “Got a cracking arse, hasn’t he?”

We’ll get to know more about Mel over the next six weeks. Welcome back Roker Bridge.

Grand Master Westlake – A Career in Crime: The Comedy of Crime


Pity Him Afterwards marked the end of the first phase of Donald Westlake’s career. Those first five books earned him a reputation, praise and respect. He had broken out of the world of low rent erotica that had allowed him to practice, and make money whilst practicing, and he had a second line in the hard-boiled with his Parker novels, under the secret pen-name of Richard Stark. It looked all set to carry on, to grow and develop. Except that something went wrong, in the right way.

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Underneath the surface, there’s the making of a serious novel in The Fugitive Pigeon, in the mode already established. It’s a long way beneath the surface, in fact it’s mostly in the situation and the background, but the execution goes off in an unexpected direction.
The narrator is Charlie Poole, who tends bar and lives above the shop at the Rockaway Grill in Canarsie. The big difference between Charlie and Clay, Tim, Ray or Paul is that these are all professional, competent men and Charlie’s a nebbish. He’s the first of Westlake’s parade of hapless schlubs with whom we’ll get very familiar. Charlie’s a bum, he always has been. The job’s undemanding, the work minimal. The bar has never competed with its existing and already successful rivals.
What it does is launder money for its real owners, the Syndicate. And Charlie handles packages when he’s asked to. Until the night two guys in dark overcoats and hats walk in about 2.30am, making wisecracks. They get Charlie to open the till and they empty it so it’ll look like a robbery. But they’re going to kill him.
Thanks to the lucky intervention of the useless beat cop, Patrolman Zicatta, who doesn’t like to pry into other people’s business, Charlie gets away. He knows he’s done nothing wrong, he figures it’s a mistake somewhere, and all he has to do is get that mistake identified and straightened out and he can go back to his life of being a bum at his bar.
Charlie’s the joker in the deck. Put a Clay or a Tim Smith etc., in that situation and you’ve another hard-boiled novel going, but not with Charlie. Charlie is what you might say a bit too real for that sort of thing. Even though he’s a clown, that still makes him a lot closer to us than the Syndicate’s run-of-the-mill guys. Charlie doesn’t know what the hell is going on. He’s hard put to know anything at all, except the fact that he’s the fall guy.
Hell, he isn’t even one of the Syndicate, he’s just a nephew who got lucky through his Uncle Al. Uncle Al’s part of the Syndicate, though Aunt Florence doesn’t know it, and Al is more afraid of her finding out than he is of the Syndicate getting the idea that he’s telling his nephew anything. Charlie’s just working his way from name to name, hopefully upwards, until someone tells him what they think he’s done so he can prove he didn’t.
Unfortunately, that proves to be a problem when he walks in on Farmer Agricola on Staten Island, because the Farmer is dead and nobody will believe Charlie didn’t do it, not his somewhat inefficient bodyguard Clarence, and definitely not his beautiful, blonde, fragile daughter Althea, who intends to revenge herself on Charlie but is too fragile to hold a gun straight and misses him twice in an enclosed space from six feet, so Charlie and his pal Artie Johnson, and Artie’s little dark Jewish Princess morning-after girl Chloe Shapiro have to take Althea hostage…
You’re beginning to get the picture now, aren’t you?
There’s Mr Gross, who is, and his theories based on the evidence that have no bearing on reality but which would work perfectly in a serious gangster book, who lets slip that Charlie is supposed to be an informer, so you can see why the Mob might take umbrage…
What Westlake has done, and surprised himself in doing, is turned the whole thing into a frantic farce, exaggerating both character and incident to the point that their very absurdity makes them feel much more natural. Throw in a happy ever after ending with Chloe and the result was the first in a long string of comic crime novels based on applying the way real, self-obsessed, inconvenient people behave to crime of all kind.
From a start like this, John Dortmunder was born out of Parker.

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Once you’ve done something like that, the natural impulse is to try it out and see if you can do it again. Westlake switched to Richard Stark for two more Parker novels before producing The Busy Body.
Never do the same thing twice in a row. This is still a gangster story and it still fills itself up with the standard gangster cliches and it could still be a straight story with a little planing down, but it isn’t. Our man this time is Aloysius ‘Al’ Engel, though he’s mostly Engel, and we’re in the third person here. Engel is, more by luck than good judgement, right hand man to Nick Rovito, a boss who has his own business that the cops are plenty interested in, especially Deputy Inspector Callaghan, who is honest. Engel does things for Nick. Mostly it’s glorified secretarial stuff but it gives him a good life and it makes his clinging mother proud that he’s higher up the organisation than his bum of a father never was. Engel’s fine with it. Until Nick Rovito’s latest order.
The opening chapter is all about a funeral, a great send-off like the old days. Charlie Brody wasn’t big enough to rate this kind of show, but since everything got better organised and people don’t end up getting gunned down, Charlie’s the chance to do it up right and proper, the old-fashioned way, even if what happened to him was that he had a heart attack whilst heating up some soup, fell on the hotplate and pretty much burnt his face off. Even if he was just a runner, who took money to Baltimore and brought heroin back.
And it all goes well. Engel rides in the first carriage, with Nick and Mrs Brody, who’s going to be going back to work next week under her former name Bobbi Bounds, and she’s weeping like any widow and about how she dressed him in his blue suit and nobody says a thing until the last line of the chapter when, leaving the grave, Nick takes Engel aside and tells him to mark the place quietly. Because tonight, when it’s dark, Engel’s going back to dig Charlie Brody up…
It’s a great stinger. Engel doesn’t like it, he’s not keen on becoming a body-snatcher and he’s also not keen on being told to take an informer with him to do the hard labour, then rub him out with the shovel and leave him in the grave when Engel comes out with Brody’s suit jacket. You see, that’s what Charlie used to carry his separate commodities to and from. They were sewn into the lining of his blue suit jacket. When Charlie got buried in that suit, he took a quarter of a million dollars of horse with him.
So Engel picks up Willie Enchik, who’s drunk and garrulous and altogether a noisy guy to have round you in a cemetery at 2.00 am when you’re illegally digging up a grave, and it only makes it worse when you get down there and find that the coffin is empty. So, where has Charlie gone?
That is the story. Engel has to find Charlie, or rather he has to find Charlie’s jacket but it almost certainly has Charlie’s body in it so it’s all the same and it doesn’t help that when he calls on the mortician, he finds the Police there because the mortician’s last job was an Officer, and it was his last job because Engel finds him dead, stabbed, and this tall, skinny, Scandinavian type blonde announces to all the Police assembled that Engel has killed her husband. Only she’s not the mortician’s wife.
All Engel has to do is work out what’s going on, and persuade Nick Rovito at a crucial moment, whilst he’s on the run from the Police and the Syndicate alike, that he’s not been running his own private protection racket that’s going to get him rubbed out too. Engel succeeds mainly because he’s not a schlub like Charlie Poole (even though, whilst on the run, he calls in the Rockaway Grill in Canarsie, because Westlake drops these little links in, to show that all these stories are taking place in the same, real world).
No, Engel knows what he is doing and eventually he works out who is behind all this, and that it’s nothing to do with Charlie Brody’s quarter of a million dollars of uncut heroin – he does find out who got the horse but not through working it out – and it gets him out from under, and all the way out because he doesn’t want to work for Nick Rovito or the Syndicate any more. It’s events here that are farcical in how they pile up, not the guy in the middle, which leaves the story closer to real than last time, but there is nevertheless a very real difference between The Busy Body and the hard-boiled books, which is that the people involved are themselves real. They have quirks and foibles, they are not grimly serious, there is a warmth that surrounds each of them that is inimical to hard-boiled fiction. It’s possible to imagine the people of this world doing everyday, little things, unconnected to their roles in the crime.

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One more Richard Stark later, Westlake continued his approach with The Spy in the Ointment. Though it has the most funny lines to date, a refinement of Westlake’s approach, it was a book of which I could remember absolutely nothing until I started re-reading it. Our man, this time, is J. Eugene Raxford, pacifist and first person narrator, given to going off at tangents to begin with, a trait that diminishes throughout the book as his personal circumstances demand more and more concentration.
Raxford is a pacifist, a whole-hearted pacifist, through and through, although like all pacifists in fiction, and probably most of them in real life, he will overcome his principles at the furthest provocation and save the day. Not at first, far from it. Raxford is the National Chairman of the fringe organisation, the Citizens Independence Union, or CIU from hereon for as long as we need to refer to it. The CIU was once a thriving organisation of some 1,400 students, that is, until drafting for the Korean War ended, since when it’s a bit smaller. Nowadays it has 17 members, of whom 12 are inactive and only two of the rest are less than two years behind on their subscriptions. We’ll meet the other one shortly.
It all starts with the appearance of Mortimer Eulaly. Mortimer has a proposition. He also has a list of ten other fringe organisations, whose aims and purposes are, on the whole, completely irreconcilable, none of whom are familiar to Raxford. The one thing they all do have in common is that they are terrorists who first of all have to destroy Society as it is. In vain, Raxford denies the CIU are terrorists, they are pacifists, but Eulaly noddingly recognises that as being for the benefit of the round-the-clock FBI surveillance (actually all their devices stopped functioning years ago for one reason or another – Raxford accidentally spilt evaporated milk on the one in the fridge – but at least he’s never had to empty his wastebasket for three years now). Actually, thanks to a typing error on the part of the FBI, Eulaly has mistaken the CIU for the World Citizens Independence Union who a) don’t believe in borders and blow up customs shacks, b) were terrorists and c) were wiped out to a man years ago.
Eulaly is here to bring all these groups together in order to concentrate the terrorist side of their interests into a spectacularly effective force, and postpone the incompatability of their aims until afterwards.
Raxford doesn’t want to know. Unfortunately, he now has a couple of problems. The FBI won’t take him seriously, they think Eulaly is a con job, a fake threat meant to waste their time and resources. Possibly more important, Raxford may now be in danger from this Council for New Beginnings. After all, he knows about them now so if he doesn’t turn up and play ball…
This suggestion comes from his girlfriend, Angela Ten Eyck, the only other paid-up CIU member. Angela is beautiful, blonde, rich – her father is a very successful arms manufacturer and she pays for Gene’s rent and food – but she’s also dumb. Sweet with it, and passionate for the cause, but still dumb. Nevertheless, Raxford’s friend, rising young lawyer Morris, agrees with her.
So Raxford goes to the meeting, followed by the FBI only they lose the tail, much to Raxford’s fear, accompanied by Angela, to take notes so they can convince the FBI that this is not a snowjob. The meeting’s a hoot. No doubt Westlake’s simplifying horribly but he skewers every competing group with acid and emphasises the total impossibility of any of them working together, they’re all harmless clowns.
Except that when the one business manager class turns to leave, intent on reporting them all, he is murdered, brutally. And the real leader, an obviously cruel and evil man and a sadist to boot, turns out to be Angela’s older brother, Tyrone, who defected in Indochina in 1954, recognises his little sister and send her and Raxford on the run with the aid of another Agency, who aren’t the FBI nor the CIA, but who are inordinately interested in Tyrone and Eulaly.
So Raxford the pacifist ends up co-operating with the Security agency because it makes sense to do so, and going underground, based on five days intensive but not necessarily that effective training in every discipline he might need, except sword-fighting (his instructor gives up after five minutes: if they come at you with a sword, you’re dead, that’s all). Oh, and also based on a well-judged series of stories leaked to the Press about him disappearing with Angela, culminating in the ‘discovery’ of her murdered body.
Which leaves the pacifist pussycat going in with someone who would be very comfortably placed in the World’s Most Dangerous Man stakes, with every possible tracking gimmick lost by an unforeseen but reliably human twist that we will grow very familiar with in the Dortmunder Gang books. Oh sure, he somehow manages to con Tyrone that he’s every bit as much a wolf as the genuine terrorist, but can he really keep it up?
Of course he can, all the way to that briefly violent ending that Raxford is prepared to admit to but not describe, and beyond, to the restoration of his usual life, and after all that cooperating with the authorities, he and Angela are back out there, picketing the United Nations with either commendable consistency or a naïve refusal to learn, and good for them. This was decidedly funny on the level I first found Westlake’s stuff when I first discovered him, even though back then this was just a title on an ‘Other Books By’ page. I’m glad I finally got there.

W - God Save the Mark

Before his next book, God Save the Mark, which would give Westlake the first of his Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, he came up with another pseudonym, this of Tucker Coe, for the first two of eventually five books featuring retired Policeman Mitch Tobin. Another two Richard Starks followed and then came what several people regard as his first masterpiece.
God Save the Mark is a glorious book, and deserving of its accolades. It’s another first person story, this time told by Fred Fitch. Fred is a thirty-one year old recluse from Montana who has his own apartment in New York, where he works as a researcher. He’s soft and round: headed, bellied, that sort of thing. But what Fred is, mostly, which is why his entire family are several States over, is a Mark. A victim. A gulla-bull.
If there’s a con going around, Fred will fall for it. He just cannot bring himself to believe that one human being would deliberately lie to another. To their face. Jack Reilly, of the Bunco Squad, can’t believe Fred can get taken so many times and in so many ways, without learning better. Fred has had to call Reilly so many times that he looks upon Reilly as not just his cop, but more importantly, his friend.
It’s so bad that, at one point in the book, when someone tells Fred that there are 18,000 con-men in America, he wants to boast that he’s been got by all of them.
Naturally enough, the book starts with a con, two of them, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Fred falls for both of them and reports them to Reilly, who’s still amazed after all these years. For once though, Fred has sussed a con out for himself. A lawyer, name of Goodkind, ringing up to tell him his Uncle Matthew is dead and has left him $300,000. Even Fred knows better than to fall for that one. There’s just one flaw. This one is true.
Fred Fitch has inherited $317,000 (after taxes) from an Uncle who apparently chose him because he was the only relative who hadn’t bad-mouthed him, an easy qualification because Fred didn’t know he even had an Uncle Matthew before. Better yet, Uncle Matthew, alias Matt Gray, alias Short Sheet, was, of all things, a con-man.
A con-man who appeared to have made his money in Brazil, before coming home to die of cancer, at which he was spectacularly bad, since he’s already lived five years beyond his ‘six months to live’, but you may not be entirely surprised if someone lost patience and beat his brains out.
And if someone murdered Uncle Matthew, it’s not beyond the bounds of reason that they might also want to dispose of Fred too. Fred, who within a couple of hours of learning of his fortune and being determined, really determined not to fall for any more cons, is fending off a stunning blonde in the Park who is obviously pulling a con, but he winds up going to her apartment at 9.00pm that night, armed only with an address and a surname. This is because she warned him he was in danger, and just that afternoon this kid has to point out to Fred that these guys in a car have been shooting at him, three times in fact, missed them all, and does this Miss Smith really know something about it?
Actually, she doesn’t. Her name is Karen Smith and she’s just won $50 off her boyfriend, who bet Fred wouldn’t fall for it. Her boyfriend is Reilly. From there, it gets complicated. And that’s just Uncle Matthew’s ex-stripper girlfriend, Gertie Divine (the Body Secular).
There are all sorts of little twists and diversions along the way, outside of the story itself, but what it all boils down to is that there is a con operating. A very big one, a very detailed one, with multiple participants and only Fred – alright, temporarily he also has Karen on his side – to try to keep his own head above water and not fall for it. The odds are not short.
Further than that, I’m not prepared to go. This is definitely a book to read without the ending spoiled for you. Otherwise, I have no idea what else was up for consideration for the Edgar Award that year, but I’ll happily throw in with these guys knowing what they’re doing.

W - Who Stole Sassi Manoon

Donald E Westlake published three more novels, under three different names, before Who Stole Sassi Manoon? the last for this post. There was a juvenile, in his own name, a Richard Stark and for the book Anarchaos, an SF story, he chose Curt Clark.
Who Stole Sassi Manoon? has been described as the first of Westlake’s comedy crime-capers and that’s certainly true. Each of the other books has been about passive characters, people doing nothing, who suddenly find themselves being acted upon by an unforeseen circumstance. This is a caper. A crime is to be committed by a trio of young misfits who want to set themselves up so that they can pursue their own interests and to hell with the ordinary world.
The background to the book was unusual. Westlake was commissioned to write a screenplay. When the film fell through, given that he had a book-a-year contract with Random House, he decided not to waste his effort and converted the screenplay into a novel. As such, it contains weaknesses and cliches and implausibilities that are likely to be a reflection of the idea not being totally of Westlake’s shaping.
The caper is the kidnapping of Sassi Manoon, the world’s leading actress, able to command $850,000 per movie, currently in Jamaica as a Judge at a Film Festival. The kidnappers are led, unwillingly, by Kelly Bram Nicholas IV, possibly the only unindulged child in America. Kelly is a misfit, a recluse, a socially inept human being without a sense of humour or any social skills whatsoever. Kelly responds better to machinery, specifically his best buddy, STARNAP, the computer built by him into his yacht, the Nothing Ventured IV. What Kelly wants is enough money to be a misfit without financial concerns and avoid the non-mechanical part of humanity.
He’s even resentful of the fact that STARNAP insists he needs accomplices, resentful enough that when his two choices, Frank Ashford and Robert ‘Robby’ Creswell agree immediately, Kelly’s disappointed that the fun stage, refining the plan with STARNAP is over.
Frank and Robby are also misfits. In Frank’s case, he has reached the age of 25 without the faintest idea of what he wants to do with his life and would appreciate having enough money to think about it with the pressure off. Frank is not very well drawn, being basically someone who does impersonations and nothing more.
Robby, however, is black (this book coming from 1969, he and every other reference is Negro, and it was eye-opening just how offensive that came over as being), and is well aware, from experience, of what position he occupies in this world by virtue of his skin colour.
Robby was Westlake’s first black character to have more than a background role, and he makes a few very pithy points about racism along the way. He’s actually the most complex character in the book and it’s a shame he doesn’t get to dominate more of it.
The cast has three more players. Two of these are the elderly British couple Major ffork-Linton and Miss Adelaide Rushby, all old-fashioned courtesy. This pair are veteran con-men who are also out to kidnap Miss Manoon, to raise a ransom to buy back the life of their foolish son, Percy, who has conned the wrong person in Africa and committed the worst crime of all: not leaving before he got caught.
Then there is Jigger Jackson. Jigger, in case you didn’t immediately suspect, is a young woman, a woman who dreams of becoming a movie star. To date, Jigger’s enthusiastic talents and charms haven’t even got her a screen test, so her latest move is to get to Sassi Manoon and be taken on as a protege. It’s not a bad idea but it’s let down by a fatal flaw. Jigger is a sucker for a shnook. And Kelly Bram Nicholas IV is the Encyclopaedia Brittanica poster-boy for the word ‘shnook’.
None of these people, with the possible exception of Robby, really rise above being broad outlines, not even Sassi herself. Sassi is the bored filmstar of cliche, rich but unsatisfied, unable to take an interest in anything and anyone around her because she’s done it all and seen it all and heard it all so many times that nothing surprises her. As you might imagine, being kidnapped changes things for her more than somewhat, and once the first shock evaporates, Sassi is happy to be held prisoner indefinitely, on a Caribbean beach on a Caribbean island, with nowhere to do and nobody to see and nothing to do. Sassi is having the time of her life.
Once the plot is in motion, and the varying sides have to deal with each other, the book has at least the merit of movement, and some excellent set-pieces, but overall it suffers from being too obviously indebted to its origins. No book of Westlake’s is totally worthless, but this gets much nearer to that territory than most of the others.

These five books show Westlake’s abilities at turning crime into comedy, surprising him as much as it did everybody else. Though he varied his approach down the years, the comedic crime would be the form to which he would turn most often. In the next set of five books, we will see him flexing his muscles a bit more.

Danger Man: s04 e02 – Shinda Shima


danger

Here is where the story ends. Danger Man‘s second and final episode in colour, and it’s last ever episode, is, like its predecesor, set in Japan, to make the most of the location footage ATV’s camaremen had shot. The continuity of background was a fortunate factor in enabling the two episodes to be edited together as a feature film.

There’s an uncanny moment at the start of the film as electronics expert Edward Sharp is arrested on arrival at Tokyo Airport. Sharp is an agent for a branch of British Intelligence, occupying a sensitive post, who has abruptly resigned without a reason and who has gone off to do whatever he now chooses. I didn’t expect it at all, yet there’s probably a very simple and logical explanation, namely the presence of George Markstein as Danger Man‘s new Script Editor, the man who, allegedly, came up with the initial iidea for The Prisoner. Still, I had not realised there was so immediate a link betwen the two series.

Anyway: John Drake replaces Edward Sharp to see where he was going, what he was doing and who he was selling out to. There is the first of several long, time-consuming sequences as he comprehensively – and fasinatingly – takes Sharp’s case apart to discover multiple hiding places for electronic components, to be used to construct a code-breaking machine.

Starting with a jigsaw puzzle of a two-tailed dragon, Drake is led to an island off the mainland, Shinda Shima, the ‘Murdered Island’: unpopulated after a curse killed three leading family heads without a sign. We already know from the open that the curse consists of a skin diver attacking a pearl fisherman and killing him with an underwater karate blow, so we’re not surprised to find that the island has been taken over by another cult organisation consisting mostly of caucasian’s again, who are paying ‘Sharp’ to break the UN’s fiendishly complicated ‘Unicode’.

Before that, we’ve had our second long diversion in the form of Kenneth Griffith as Richards, a beachcomber type whose status is blurred. He breaks up the story by offering Drake a drink and telling him about the island in a stilted, highly mannered and above all unnecessarily slow monologue. You can feel time grinding to a halt whilst he does this.

Anyway, Drake arrives where Sharp was going, amongst another cliche tableau of Japanese cult terrorists. Amongst them is Miho, a small, dark-haired woman who is actually an infiltrator, out to kill the organisation that killed her sister in Tokyo, namely the British Agent killed in the open to the first episode, who was also played by Miho’s actress, Yoko Tani. She plans to kill Sharp but Drake catches her. Her intended execution forces his hand and they escape together by swimming to the mainland.

The next time-stretching scene is an awkward one where Drake exhorts the exiled islanders to mount an attack to take their island back despite it being populated with expert men with martial arts skills, guns and bows and arrows and these being pearl divers (at least there’s a diversity, as both male and female islanders join the attack, the women – except for Yoko Tani, in the shortest skirts the series ever showed).

Sadly, this is where the episode descends into farce, with a clumsy, overlong fight scene using half-learned kung fu moves. Still, the good guys win, the day is saved, and the series, and all of Danger Man finishes on an elegiac scene of boats laden with people and belongings setting out to return to their home. It’s by far the best moment of the episode and a high note on which to finish.

After this came The Prisoner, which you can find elsewhere on this blog, if you search. Despite the quite disappointing falling-off of quality as it neared its end, I shall miss Danger Ma, as I always do when i reach the end of a long series. It’s the loss of a comforting familiarity, the rhythm of Tuesday morning being devoted to such-and-such, and having to develop a new mindset for something else. What that something else will be has been decided a long time ago and it’s an appropriate successor to this series. Join me next week to discover what it will be.

The Infinite Jukebox: Wayne Fontana’s ‘Pamela, Pamela’


Graham Gouldman wrote it, Wayne Fontana sang it, despite absolutely hating it, and it took him into the Top Twenty in 1968, his last charting record. There’s nothing outstanding about ‘Pamela, Pamela’, not like others of Gouldman’s career as a professional songwriter, such as ‘Bus Stop’ or ‘Look through any window’ for The Hollies, or of Fontana’s career as lead singer of Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders.
Yet ‘Pamela, Pamela’ arouses in me a light, nostalgic affection for an innocent song, almost an archetypal Sixties love song, in which love and attraction is buried under young innocence that neither Fontana nor Pamela can yet see through to the affection they have for each other. It’s a schoolboy/schoolgirl love song, set to a bright melody and a buoyant, airy backing in which it’s always summer.
They don’t make songs like this any more, because they can’t.
But beneath the happy music, and behind the lyrics that are a rush of nostalgia for childhood symbols is something deeper. Listen longer and what Fontana is doing is looking backwards, into memory, and the song becomes touched by an undercurrent of regret, for things that never, in the end, happened, because Pamela grew out of her innocence.
The song begins full of the rush of memory, about schooldays and before, inkwells and school plays, Little Brer Rabbit and Pooh in the woods. Fontana celebrates these with happiness, telling her that he remembers them so well.
Then he moves on towards an adolescence of things that look like dates but which may only have been the natural events of young friendship, recalling with a painful precision when Laurel and Hardy were shown at the flicks, and sticky red lollies on splintery sticks, pigtails and ribbons and crushes on Miss. It even comes to that dangerous moment of puberty, when the young pair held secret discussions about a (their) first kiss…
But that’s the moment when this idyll burst. Girls grow up faster than boys, and that was true of Pamela and Wayne. You were so young and everything was new, he laments now from his distant time, impatient to do things you couldn’t do, answers to questions you wanted to know…
What did Pamela do, breaking out from that innocence that still held young Wayne. We don’t know, we are left to assume this into being, most of us having thoughts that lead in the same direction. Whatever it was, it led to a bad future, the rest of her childhood forgotten as a dream, the harshness of life dimming those peaches and cream.
Wayne recalls it with an unspoken pain that the things that seemed to be meant to be were derailed. Does he know where she is now, what her life is now? Is there still a chance, in the traditions of the finest romances, that he could descend from his deus ex machina cloud and rescue her?
As I’ve said before, the songwriters of the Sixties had the gift of presenting a complex and subtle romantic story in a few simple words that only hint as to what lies beneath these sweet surfaces, these sometimes bland-seeming lines. The only answer Fontana and Gouldman give is to revert to that nostalgia, the Laurel and Hardy flicks, the splintery sticks of the sticky lollies, the pigtails, the crushes, those secret discussions. But this time it melts into those last regretful words about Pamela growing away from him, impatient.
So, no, there are to be no eleventh hour rescues, and the lightness of the song acquires an unexpected weight of ruefulness, of the effects of time and biology on young relationships developing at different rates. You could also say that it’s a male-biased song, suggesting that Pamela had her life ruined by doing things Wayne would have been encouraged to do and you’d be right about that, but in the haze of memory that’s not the first thing I think of.
A nothing of a song, an ordinary thing. On the surface. Always be prepared to listen deeper.

Sunday Watch: The Thick of It – s01 e01-03


thick

What better follow up to last Sunday?

These three episodes represent the entire first series of The Thick of It, from 2005, when it starred a pre-fall Chris Langham as hapless Minister for Social Affairs Hugh Abbott, as well as introducing Peter Capaldi’s immortal Director of Communications, Malcolm Tucker, based very heavily on the real-life advisor to Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, and supportred by the unholy trinity of James Smith, as Glen Cullen, Joanna Scanlan as Terry Coverley and Chris Addison as Ollie Reeder.

The thing is, alerted by the press description of it as a Yes Minister for the 2000s, I started to watch the first episode but didn’t even make it to the end. I just didn’t find it funny and I found the constant profanity off-putting. I was just completely out-of-tune to the general atmosphere, unable then to appreciate the often poetic quality of the swearing – Tucker’s first line was to tell someone over the phone that they were ‘as much use as a marzipan dildo’, which makes me laugh out loud now, just typing that. So I quit it, prematurely.

I didn’t start to appreciate the show until I borrowed the DVD of In the Loop from the library, had a whale of a time with it and decided to get into the show proper, which was by then halfway through series 3. Subsequently, I bught the complete The Thick of It, four boxsets in a presentation pack got up to look like a Ministerial Red Box. Now I’m back at the beginning.

The first series is extraordinarily difficult to summsarise, or even analyse, and I find myself falling back on the factors that distinguishe it from Yes Minister (there’s the swearing, to begin with). Except that they are both set in the realm of Government, there sare very few points of contact. There’s the hapless, inadequate Minister, the same kind of Ministry with amorphous responsibilities that no-one could define, and the same polar opposite who’s the real star of the show. But that’s where The Thick of It kick-starts its own groove.

Instead of Sir Humphrey Appleby, the smooth, quiet pillar of the establishment, we have Malcolm Tucker, the journalist-turned-enforcer, violent of temper and tongue, issuing not guidance but directives. The key difference: Yes Minister was about the battle with the Civil Service, The Thick of It about the battle with Image and Perception. So, instead of structured episodes about a fcussed subject, we get an uncontrolled, impressionistic flurry of confusion, in which there is no stable ground. This is reflected in the filming, done by handheld camera that goes all over the place, unable to settle, looking from person to person, distracted by corners, swinging from side to side, up to down, corner to corner.

It’s as if the camera is an invisible person in the scene, its glance darting hither and yon as it’s ADHD interest is caught by what’s going on. It’s unusual, it’s off-putting, it’s even seasickness-inducing until you adjust to it but it brilliantly captures the uncertsainty Armandi Ianucci wants to portray. Everything is built on shifting sands, disturbable at a second’s notice, or less. In this political word, nothing has any solid footing.

Of course this could not be like Yes Minister. There was an is a massive difference between the politics and the Britain of the change from the Seventies into the Eighties and that of the mid-2000s. Inanucci is too perceptive and brilliant a satirist not to understand this, nor to portray it any way except accurately. The series is chaos loosely grouped into segments: Press Conferences that, despite the presence of cameras, don’t show what Malcolm Tucker briefs has been said, a hopeless Minister who flip-flops from struggling to survive to being bent on resignation and welcoming survival. Everybody is on their own, arguing at all times, directly rude and offensive to people’s faces. It’s an environment I could never survive in as I’m constitutionaly incapable of telling someone to Fuck Off to their face and then carrying on working with them – and I’m not referring here to Tucker, who is the overwhelming monster who is unchallengeable, but to the peons – and it’s simultaneously fascinating and horrifying in its depiction.

Especially as we understand it as being real all along.

The swearing. Oh yes, the swearing. I was brought up in a very staid atmosphere. I’ve grown out of that, a long times back, I use ‘bad language’ but I don’t use it indiscriminately, every third or fourth word. I use it for impact and effect. Repeat Fuck too many times and it just becomes a sound, and thus useless. The plethora of swear words – there was a solitary, half-swallowed use of the C-word in episode 1 – sometimes appears crude and juvenile: dockers’ language, fish-market language as it would be termed when I was young, and it did repel me a little, even today.

But it’s also an accurate reflection of the mindset of these people, masters of the Universe in their own minds and so licenced to talk as they wish, even as they can’t act as they wish. Big boys grown up, look, I can say Fuck. It’s juvenile, and it’s an integral part of what they are. And I can find it funny.

Overall, series 1 isn’t that good. I like Chris Langham, and he’s good here – everybody is good – but I can’t watch him now without being conscious of his flaws. Capaldi is of course monstrous, and monstrously good, and the rest are tight and sharp. But the show is learning about itself at this stage, it doesn’t quite understand itself. It will be back, and it will be better. Another Sunday.

Strange (but hateful) Adventures


SA12

How swiftly things can change.
I think it was as recently as 2018 that I discovered Tom King’s writings on Batman. I knew the name from various praise-filled comments about his Vision series for Marvel, but I tend to ignore anything written for Marvel. But I responded to a couple of reviews of Batman and was instantly hooked.
It meant I kept a close eye out for any other writing King did. I liked his perspective, I liked the angles he found, I looked forward avidly to Heroes in Crisis. That, however, turned out to be a bust, and a big one too. It wasn’t just the creative abdication of coming up with the story and meekly allowing himself to be dictated to as to the characters he had to use, it was the structure of the story itself, the failure to create a clearly developing story from episode to episode, and the stultifying revelation that everything in issues 1 to 8 were meaningless since they were a construction meant to conceal what actually happened.
Still, disappointment though that was, I could at least point, honestly, to the unknown quantity of just by how much Dan DiDio had interfered with the story. Maybe the crap was what DiDio rained down on the project.
So I approached the idea of an Adam Strange story with an open mind and optimism. DiDio was gone, the interference would, at the very least, be more sympathetic and less jarring. King was still an interesting writer, with a distinctive point of view.
Well, the final issue is finally out and I have read the story in full, the way all stories need to be read in order to make a serious appraisal of them. My final verdict remains unchanged from the opinion I formed round about issue 3 or 4, issue 5 at the very latest. It’s shit. Full set available on eBay from Sunday.
Some of that change is me. Over more or less the same period since I discovered King for myself, I have been expansively reading old comic book series, comics that represent the time I first discovered them in East Manchester. Among them was a run of Mystery in Space, featuring the complete Julius Schwartz/Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino Adam Strange run. The science hero, defeating the monsters with good old American know-how and purity, the saviour of Rann, over and over and over again.
I loved it. I loved it for how it was about a hero, a parfit, gentil knight, who came, saw, conquered, not for himself but for the woman he loved and beyond her the people she belonged to.
Tom King wasn’t the first to start to dig beneath that idyllic surface. For that, we have to go back to Alan Moore. Moore, however, played with the situation, not with the hero. Strange was the dupe, but he was still the pure-hearted hero, still the man Schwartz, Fox and Infantino made him.
But such things are not to be allowed now. Goodness no longer has any premium. Darkness must be inserted everywhere. Not just the creators of modern day comics require this, but also the audience. I expected Strange Adventures to pervert Adam Strange in some fashion. But with King as the writer, I expected that perversion to be well thought-out and at the very least interesting.
King chose to quite simply pollute Adam Strange beyond all recognition and recovery. He chose to do so in a manner calculated to create shock and revulsion, and it is indeed revolting, because it is so crude and disgusting. And so utterly dull.
The story is quite straightforward but King tells it inside out, achronologically and in a circular format that ends where it begins in order to spin it out and make it as confusing as possible. To this end he mixes and matches two different artists, one who does the classic Infantino-clear fantasy and the other who does the ‘realistic’ dirty, grubby, ‘honest’ version.
Unwinding things reveals the plainness. In classic Adam Strange fashion, Rann is under attack from the Pykkts, a race of alien conquerors, undefeated. Rann, under the leadership of Strange and his wife Alanna, defeats them, but their daughter Aleea is killed. Adam and Alanna come to Earth with Adam’s memoirs, intent on warning Earth that it is next. One lone fanatic accuses Adam of war crimes and lies: he is found murdered by laser pistol. Adam asks the Justice League to investigate him, to exonerate him. Mr Terrific is assigned. No-one co-operates, not Adam, not Alanna, not Sardath, not Rann. Terrific works out the lie: that during the War, Adam was captured, tortured, broke, did a deal to save Rann by turning Earth over to the Pykkts and left his daughter among them as a hostage, telling Alanna, her mother, that she was dead. Once Terrific exposes the truth to Alanna, she angrily confronts Adam. Rather than let her expose him, and endanger Aleea, Adam pulls his laser pistol on her. They fight over it, it goes off and, you never saw this coming, did you, it shoots him.
What I didn’t see coming before the final issue arrived yesterday is that that shot killed Adam Strange. And I’m bound to say that the final issue was somewhat impressive. Not enough to redeem the series, nor the destruction of Adam Strange, but enough not to leave a totally bad taste in my mouth.
The final issue centres upon Alanna and Mr Terrific – Michael – flying to a negotiated rendezvous with the defeated Pykkts, to take Aleea back. Alanna is in no mood for shilly-shallying. On the other hand, Aleea has been dreadfully affected by her experience: she is shy, withdrawn, awfully formal, unable to release the emotion you might expect of a girl restored to her mother: credit King for a very effective Show not Tell.
Because Adam is dead, killed by Alanna (we are not given how deliberate that may or may not have been). And Alanna is going back to Rann, to help her home, without its Earth-Hero, to prepare for the Pykkts’ revenge, but Aleea will be kept safe on Earth, living with Michael ‘Mr Terrific’ Holt. Since King can’t resist introducing a little shit into everybody’s character, making him responsible, against his will, the guy who lost his wife and child but pushed on beyond that, it’s meant as both punishment for destroying their family by discovering the truth but also as being good for him.
Despite some good moves in this final issue, King still manages to lose control of his overall story, which frankly wasn’t worth the old newsprint paper Mystery in Space used to appear on, let alone the white glossy stuff we have now. Continuity is blurred and it’s revealed that Alanna wrote Adam’s memoirs for him so the lies Terrific detected were hers not his. Sheesh.
Nevertheless, the collection is going on eBay come Sunday, in exactly the way Doomsday Clock and Heroes in Crisis did, and here’s to getting something back for it. The winddown advances: one last Moonshine graphic novel and five more Batman/Catwomans, but Astro City will be back next year so it still isn’t all over… And I wouldn’t even read the reviews for King’s Rorscharch. Just like I will not read any other story he writes. How swiftly things change.

The Doctor is In(consistent): The Modern Magic of Doctor Fate


Martin Pasko and Walt Simonson did more than just produce a superb story in First Issue Special 9, they turned Dr Fate into a viable modern-day character. Though it took DC until the Eighties before they began to take Fate’s possibilities seriously, there were multiple attempts during that decade to turn the master magician, the Lord of Order, into a viable feature.
Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths there was a back-up feature in The Flash for eight issues, later collected in a prestige format mini-series together with the Pasko/Simonson story, then post-Crisis a four issue mini-series that killed off Kent and Inza Nelson and introduced a new Dr Fate, an ongoing series of forty-one issues, the longest run Fate had after More Fun Comics, which was effectively two series stapled together, the first (of twenty-four issues) featuring Eric and Linda Strauss, the second (seventeen issues), bringing back Kent and Inza Nelson.
All of this was separate from Dr Fate’s regular gig in the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups, where he was the most frequent participant from the JSA, and his involvement in the team’s second life in All-Star Comics and Adventure Comics.
If you’re thinking that all of this could easily turn out a mish-mash, you’re not far wrong. I have all these solo issues on DVD now, together with a much later solo mini-series which has very little relationship to these efforts to establish the character, which I’ll precis at the end.
For now, let’s look at how Fate fared in the back of The Flash in 1983.

DF - backup

There were two stories in this run, each of four instalments, the first written by Pasko, building on the factors he’d set up in First Issue Special – Fate’s connection to the Egyptian Gods, Kent Nelson’s position as host for Fate and Inza’s continuing inability to reconcile herself to the need to share her husband with something she couldn’t understand and her loneliness when Fate is away on missions – and the second was written by Steve Gerber, with Pasko, which expanded the story in the direction that was later to be taken with the character.
The episodes were all drawn by Keith Giffen, with inks from Larry Mahlstedt, in the clean, open, neo-futurist style he’d used on the Legion of Superheroes, which had brought him great acclaim. Giffen drew fantastic scenes and made superb use of colour overlays to add a psychedelic aspect to his art.
The second story picked up on a thread introduced by way of foreshadowing by Pasko. This was museum director Vernon Copeland, a handsome man in his (probably) fifties, with distinguished white hair at his temples. Copeland is new at his job, with an affinity for women his own age that leads him to brush off the flirting directed at him by his sexy secretary.
Vern wants to get Kent Nelson, noted archaeologist, to contribute to the museum, but in the only photo he has, Kent is almost completely obscured by Inza, who Vern thinks is absolutely hot.
Which is unfortunate because, when Vern calls in the Gerber/Pasko story, Kent is off being Dr Fate and Inza answers the phone. When Vern hears she was on the relevant dig with Kent, he enthusiastically invites her to lunch. He thinks she’s even hotter in person, whilst Inza not only enjoys flexing her own archaeological muscles, she finds Vern rather dishy. Some of that is a response to the obvious way that he’s into her, but an equal part of it is that he looks like Kent would, if Fate had allowed him to age to his real age. Suddenly, they’re kissing. At the very moment that Fate, reaching out to Inza, connects with her and sees. At least it’s Fate, not Kent. So far.
Of course, the whole thing is a plot to destroy Dr Fate by driving a wedge between Kent and Inza, until the former refuses to transform again. Fate is faced with two renegade Lords, one of Order, the other of Chaos, allied for their own ends. His only recourse is to draw Inza herself into the merge, giving him the power to defeat his foes, her her first insight to what it’s really like to be the Lord of Order, and both a true understanding of the gulf between their separate situations.
Where Pasko or Gerber would have gone with that, and with Vern Copeland, who’d already tried to separate Inza from Kent deliberately, claiming he didn’t deserve her if he neglected her, still set on pursuing our red-headed lady was not to be known. The back-ups ceased, Vern Copeland was forgotten, and the next time DC tried to activate Dr Fate, Crisis on Infinite Earths was over, and more than one superhero was undergoing change.

DF - mini

The path had been laid for the character’s most extraordinary transformation. Inza Nelson had been allowed, for a couple of pages, to share the transformation into Dr Fate and it was this aspect that J M de Matteis picked up on with a four-issue mini-series out to create a new Dr Fate. Art was by Giffen again, but this was the other Giffen, the one who’d rejected his clean, well-structured art for something fractured, angular and distorted, as influenced by the Argentinian artist, Jose Munoz.
I bought the mini-series at the time but didn’t enjoy it. Some of it was that it took away Kent Nelson, who’d been Dr Fate all the time I’d known him, a lot was down to Giffen’s art but as much of it was de Matteis’ construction of a new structural underpinning.
de Matteis was always into stories with a spiritual underpinning, drawn from Eastern philosophies rather than Western mythology, to which I always respond more instinctively. Building on the fact that Dr Fate, or rather Nabu, was now established as a Lord of Order, part of the eternal struggle between Order and Chaos that everyone ripped off from Michael Moorcock, de Matteis now introduced the idea that Earth cycles through four cosmic cycles, starting with an era of pure Order, passing through two ages of increasing Chaos influence and ultimately putting us now firmly in the fourth of these cycles, the Kali Yuga, the age of pure Chaos.
So, despite the battle between Order and Chaos having gone on for over half a million years Order has decided not to bother for the Kali Yuga. Why should they raise a mystical finger when all they need to is go for an extended tea-break and come back when it’s their turn again?
This defeatist attitude riles Nabu/Fate, who is the descended one because he was sent down to Earth to fight against Chaos and won’t give up now. As a result, he’s kicked out of Order and, effectively, defrocked. The fight is his own. And he’s handicapped.
Because Inza is dead. Later, it will be ascribed to suicide, to knowledge of the discovery that will not be made until the last issue of this mini-series but for now it’s fudged, it could just as easily be natural causes, despite Nabu’s spells that keep both Nelsons young. Either way, Kent has aged considerably (no, he doesn’t look like Vern Copeland, Vern is completely forgotten) and is only hanging around to assist Nabu in selecting a new Dr Fate. Nabu at this point is a wide-open mouth in Nelson’s stomach, with lots of predatory teeth, which is a sight you don’t want to see.
The choice falls upon Eric Strauss. The pattern is going to be the same. Eric is only ten years old but he’s going to be accelerated to manhood, exactly like Nelson. Only he’s not like Nelson in almost every way you could probably imagine. His Dad, who’s dead, was a big-time gangster. He’s being brought up by his stepmother, Linda Strauss, a somewhat skinny short-haired blonde, though you can tell very little from how Giffen draws her.
The relationship between Eric and Linda can only be classed as dodgy. Linda has feelings and, dare we say it, stirrings about her ten year old stepson. He’s so wise, so mature, an old soul, and besides she only married his Dad for his money, which doesn’t say much for her to begin with.
And then suddenly Eric’s a grown man, age undetermined but impliedly on a par with her, and whilst she’s outraged at what has been done to him, there’s a part of her that, to put it bluntly, can’t wait to get at him.
But the big reveal comes when Eric insists on having Linda with him when he transforms into the Doctor, whilst Nabu tries to insist she stay out of it. This is no mere misogynist gesture, because Eric realises the real and awful truth, which is that Dr Fate was always intended to be the merger of male and female (into a very male looking form but we’ll deal with consistency when anyone gives a damn). Fate should always have been Kent and Inza, but Nabu shunted the redhead aside so he could control Dr Fate himself, naughty naughty.
Cue therefore a complete meltdown from Eric, calling Nabu as evil as Chaos, the effective merger of him and her and Fate saving the temporary day. After that Kent dies peacefully but the now no-longer-Lord-of-Order Nabu takes over his aged body to act as trainer and advisor to Eric and Linda who, henceforth and forever, will be Dr Fate.
Actually, they won’t, but you know how these things go.

DF - McM

This was where Doctor Fate’s first ever ongoing series under his own name began. It’s written by de Matteis, but art duties have transferred to Shawn McManus, the artist of all the bucolic-looking, cartoon-like fill-ins on Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, most notably the homage to Pogo. McManus was perfect on those, his style involving rounded characters and perpetual broad grins suggesting we’re mere inches away from the top of the head falling off, but dare I suggest he’s not the best fit for a superhero supernatural series which is going to involve demons, as well as a very awkward psychosexual setup involving a twenty-nine year old woman hot to trot and a ten year old boy in the body of a twenty-nine year old man who is nowhere near the emotional maturity to handle jumping her skinny bones. The situation is not helped by McManus’s style on Linda’s short hair doing very little to make her look tempting (bring back Inza!).
The note being struck at first is predictable: it’s all about arguments. Nabu argues with Eric about his abandoning the connection that lets him advise them, Linda argues with Eric about the bombastic way he talks, he argues with her about being a weak part of the combination, oh it’s a happy little household indeed.
Meanwhile, an overlooked demon invader of hideous mien stalks towards Fate’s sanctum to be attacked thoughtlessly when actually he’s a non-bad demon who only wants to live in Earth in peace once Nabu talks to him, and is adopted as the household pet, Petey, shape-shifted into a dog. Since de Matteis is, and the humour definitely was Jewish, it’s highly appropriate for me to say, Oi vey!
This formulation would last exactly two years. I did have the run but I sold it, unhappy at too many aspects of it, from the jokey art to the mystical writing and some extremely glutinous combinations of the two. One major departure was that Fate’s golden helm was no longer a helm but Fate’s head, which may not have looked much different but was hard to reconcile to.
The panel to panel writing is even more irritating now. de Matteis was dialoguing Justice League International as a superhero sitcom and carries that over to this series. Not having re-read the JLI in a couple of decades, I wonder how I might feel about it now, but it’s tedious here thanks to the self-consciousness with which it’s laid on.
The constant bickering between Eric and Linda, both in propria persona and in the shared consciousness of the Doctor was repetitive in the extreme over the early issues, with Eric playing the bombastic card, the gothic language, the uncontrolled temper underlined by the fear of inexperience, and Linda trying to play an equal role. It was enough to drive anyone mad and Eric was a long way down the road already when, as early as issue 4, he lets Linda take over, producing a female Doctor Fate, and one with much bigger tits than she had, a fact rather blatantly highlighted on the cover of the next issue, along with her ass. Karen Berger is still editing this, isn’t she?
The first serialised story took five issues to get through, ending with a ton of metaphysical nonsense bound up in over-ripe smiles and the non-death and non-rebirth of the universe. I don’t remember it being so utterly awful back then, I may have been thirty years and more younger but I wasn’t that undiscriminating.
McManus started inking his own pencils in issue 7, in which Petey went back to Hell to fetch his demon girlfriend, a story that was literally unreadable, and that before the constant cutesy dialogue. We were only just half a year into the series and Eric was laid up with dysentery (who cares?) so Linda had to become tits-and-ass Fate again, painfully, only half as strong and with practically no knowledge of the magic side of things, that being Eric’s job. I am already being tempted to go and re-read Swing with Scooter.
Anyway, if you believe the story, Eric died in issue 9, and Darkseid turned up to loom ominously. Even though it was continued on the next cover, he wasn’t actually dead, although don’t start planning any parties because de Matteis is off on another of his spiritual ascensions. A new fetus is about to arrive on Earth that will be the first in a new order of Humanity, outgrowing gods, especially Order, Chaos and New. In fact, that’s why Order wants to speed through the Kali Yuga, to get rid of it before it gets rid of them. Darkseid offers to kill it in return for a half share in the Universe, whichever side wins.
So Darkseid goes to kill Dr Fate in the form of Eric, because Linda’s out of town. Eric becomes Dr Fate on his own but is Boom Tubed to Apokalips. Linda becomes Dr Fate on her own as well and goes to Apokalips to rescue Eric. Vel Semeiks and Mark Buckingham fill-in at the crucial moment. Eric-Fate and Linda-Fate hold hands and defeat Parademons. On Earth, Nabu admits that the energies he used to age Eric from 10 to 29 are killing him. On Apokalips, the Strauss’s defeat Darkseid by opening their love for each other in his heart (oh, now he’s raping Kirby’s creations as well).
Having won the day, Linda’s just about to take the exhausted Eric home when a soldier throws a spear at her. Eric jumps in the way. He dies. I told you not to start planning any parties. We are halfway through de Matteis’s run but don’t worry, it gets worse.
So, in the space of one year, a Doctor Fate intended to be the merger of male and female, animus and anima, is reduced to anima only, to play the weak female stereotype with a survivor incapable of handling the power and the responsibility. What is this, still the Fifties? Was Karen Berger editing this? No, she’d moved on, to better things (i.e., absolutely anything else) and left it to Art Young now).
Before that there was an odd story in issue 13, concluding the death of Eric story. McManus suddenly sharpened up his art whilst de Matteis provided a surprisingly excellent portrayal of Linda in denial-grief over the loss of Eric. She insisted on forcing herself to become Dr Fate, despite the absolute torture that represented, and going off to Limbo to bring him back, at which point the story nose-dived into what de Matteis had Linda call ‘cosmic platitudes’, though immediately afterwards she Understood. Having a Christ-substitute Guide drawn to look like de Matteis himself was the nadir.
Bringing back Fate’s oldest nemesis, Wotan, and guest-starring Justice League Europe resulted in a mish-mash with another glutinous ending, transforming the villain into a proto-saint by confronting him with the ultimate power, God as Love. You can go off redemption when it’s flung at you so relentlessly, like a custard pie to the face.
The basic problem is that I am completely out of sympathy with de Matteis’ spiritual beliefs, which are the core of the series. In real life I have ended up an atheist, a pragmatist, insistent upon actuality and fact, and the nebulous and, indeed, platitudinousness of de Matteis’ portrayal of a Universe where God is Love and everything is Love, and the pain and suffering of being human can be borne by recognising this Universe of Love is just wishful thinking to me of a kind to which I can’t respond. Or, to put it more crudely, it’s bullshit.
Anyway, the endgame starts in issue 17. Eric and his Guide pause at the edge of Nirvana because he needs to go back, via a convoluted past of people’s previous lives. This is because de Matteis is introducing Eugene de Bella, a slightly overweight, manically happy guy with a wife, a ridiculously beaming daughter called Faith, a de Matteis moustache and another baby on the way. This is the guy de Matteis kills off in a car accident in order that Eric can merge with his body and reanimate it, leading the depressed Linda to beam a truly mad smile that just hurts to look at, it’s such a harbinger of obsessive danger: “He’s alive!”
The story grinds slowly. Linda can’t become Dr Fate any more. An Anti-Fate is constructed by Chaos and takes two full issues of brooding before deciding to act. The Phantom Stranger drops in on Eugene de Bella to talk to Eric (and his sickeningly cute six year old) to unveil the plot that Eric and Wendy’s forthcoming child is the progenitor of the new humanity Order and Chaos were trying to prevent, and Nabu-as-Kent Nelson takes everybody to the reconstructed Fate’s tower in Salem, where the real helm and amulet have also been re-constituted, and Petey the demon and Jack Small the lawyer, who I’ve been trying to avoid mentioning, are sent into the amulet to bring out it’s occupants, the souls of Kent and Inza Nelson… Has this entire run, and its preceding mini-series, just been an elaborate bluff?
Four more issues to the end, four issues none of which were worth describing except the last one, which was in the form of a bedtime story told by The Phantom Stranger to Eugene and Wendy’s six year old heap of sugar daughter Rainie, who could give you diabetes just from looking at her and who, this you hadn’t guessed already? was the new seed of humanity. Along the way, Kent and Inza agreed to come back from their private heaven of normality in the amulet, despite Inza fighting every step of the way until she’s convinced to do so by her imaginary son, whilst Linda became Dr Fate one last time in conjunction with Nabu, got their asses soundly kicked and she died. Which was all right because Wendy de Bella was about to suffer a fatal cerebral haemorrhage and have Linda take over her body, just as Eric had Eugene (so the two could finally shag to their hearts’ content without it being seriously icky).
And everything ended with the cosmic smile that signalled nothing more than the urgent need to turn the page as fast as possible. This has to be the most appallingly sickening series I’ve read and I cannot believe I once actually bought all twenty four issues. Should a time machine come into my possession, I shall be going back to give my younger self a good shillelaghing for doing so.

DF - Inza

I am at least pleased that this issue saw a complete sweep-out, de Matteis, McManus and Young getting the kick in the seat of the pants and being replaced by a completely new creative team, starting with editor Stuart Moore and going on to penciller Vince Garriano and, most welcome of all, writer William Messner-Loebs. This was going to be much better.
I was already a fan of Bill Loebs for his independent series Journey, which he wrote and drew, and it is one of the minor tragedies of my life that not enough people bought Journey to sustain it indefinitely. But Loebs was a refreshing mind, and a very left/socialist oriented one, to bring to bear on any subject, even when he was clearly writing beneath himself on superheroes, like the Wally West Flash and the new Dr Fate.
Because Loebs wasn’t just going to bring back Kent and Inza, oh no. There were a few twists immediately. Instead of being trapped in Fate’s tower in Salem, Kent initiated a merge, first of himself and Inza, then of the tower with a tall, thin apartment block in New York that Sven Nelson owned and Kent inherited. Which is now the last intact building in a neighbourhood that’s not so much run down as being actively decimated, a place for poor people, most of them not white, driven down by the underside of the Yuppie dream.
Meanwhile, the Lords of Order are abandoning Earth to its own fate except for one crusty old bugger determined to wreak revenge on the traitor Nabu and Dr Fate. Only this time, when Kent and Inza try to merge to defend themselves, only Inza makes it through the mix. We have a new, inexperienced female Fate again, one who will approach superpowers with non-male thinking who, in the meantime, defuses Shat-Ru by binding him into the (mummified) body of old Kent, from which he can’t escape without burning it up before he can escape. If you get my drift.
Loebs was taking the series in a unique direction. Inza as Fate thought as a woman, with the instinct to deal with her neighbourhood and the people in it. Doing things that were in themselves trivial, like repairing broken traffic lights and giving people new dresses, things that directly benefited people in ways they could see and feel, without their having to be hurt or threatened first. Kent worried, argued, feared. She wasn’t doing it right, which meant she wasn’t doing it the way he had, even as he was incredibly grateful not to have to be Fate any more.
But was Inza doing too much? Was she retarding people by making them too dependent upon her?
Garriano left after five issues, leaving Peter Gross to take over the full art job for an issue before Chas Truog spelled him. And Loebs dealt with the question of the use of power by having Inza Fate refuse to allow a young Policewoman die, shot in a bloody stupid accident. The energy this took was taken from the living, causing Inza’s elderly friend Mary to have a heart attack. Unintended consequences: even good things have them. And the saved woman understood who Fate really was.
And from there it was one step to taking a Master of the Universe, a man who openly didn’t give a shit for those who had no power, and stripping him of everything: power, money, empire and identity, and using those resources for public benefit.
It was glorious, on one level. All the rich shits should have that done to them, for simply stealing all the air for themselves, but at the same time it was the ultimate in Might makes Right, a level of power that no-one should have. Power Corrupts: What the Hell else is it for? as Howard Chaykin put it.
The path crossed for two issues with DC’s other 1991 Summer crossover, War of the Gods, something for which Dr Fate was well-fitted, En route, four Egyptian gods claimed to have blocked Kent Nelson out of the transformation on the basis that they’d find the inexperienced Inza easier to overcome but it didn’t work out like that.
Loebs then turned the screw by presenting Inza with a tragic outcome based on her not helping someone, causing a backlash where she tries to do everything. This brings Government and Big Business down on her tail because, you know, it’s wonderful that people are happier and safer and more content but they’re not smoking or drinking or doing drugs in the same quantities any more, and we can’t have that, fortunes are not being made out of weakness.
It’s a savage point, an extreme satire yet one that, in the world in which we reside, one of an unwanted truth. Kent has to go in to bring her down, and which point Inza’s swallowed by the Helm… Whilst we’re set up for the big reveal, Kent resumes being Dr Fate in his own way, with the half-helm of yesteryear before coming to the rescue of Inza, prisoner of a Lord of Chaos, because it is Chaos-Magic, not Order, that has infused her tenure, hence Kent’s exclusion.
And in the end, Dr Fate’s investment in people was repaid. When Inza, without chaos-magic or order-magic still defied the Chaos Lord, the neighbourhood stood with her to back her as she had backed them. All over the world, the currents of love and magic in every human being fuelled her. It was another retcon of Dr Fate, in its way as mystical as de Matteis’s gloop, but far more moving and impressive because it needed no gods, just humans to be human in their best way, to be ourselves as we can be. And no damned stupid smiles.
In a way, that was the end. Even though there were four issues left. After a weak fill-in, Loebs contributed a mini-arc of three issues dealing, with a fair degree of reality with the aftermath of what had just happened. There’s an instinctive groundedness to this coda that would permeate the best of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City only a few years later. Of course, being politically sympathetic never hurts.
The whole thing is a gentle easing down, a steering into the skid. There’s a calmness to it that you know can’t last because, after all, it’s only possible to be a different kind of superhero for so long until the novelty wears out and they want the same thing back again. Inza wrapped things up in swaddling clothes, and it was done.
Dr Fate was cancelled after forty-one issues, a decent enough run. For once, it was not cancelled because its sales had fallen too low, but because without a powerful new direction, and a creative team eager to explore it, it would have run itself into the ground, into cancellation, probably within half a year. Why do that? Let it rest in goodwill, and return when someone was fascinated enough to kickstart it again.
That was the theory. In practice, Mike Carlin exerted his influence to get the Justice Society finally killed off in Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, and the next Doctor Fate was no Doctor. The Doc returned as Hector Hall, and later Kent V Nelson, about whom I’ll write another time in a kind of coda to this piece, but this was the last time Kent and Inza Nelson played their signature role.
I’m very glad Bill Loebs put in that year and a half and Fate didn’t end on de Matteis and McManus. But in dozens of old comics the Doctor Fate who matters to me will always exist, in one form or another.

Zodiac: e06 – The Horns of the Moon


Zodiac

I could just say that acquiring Zodiac was a potentially interesting but ultimately failed experiment on my part but that’s more or less what I’ve been saying over this past six weeks so why bother? Is there any real point to reviewing the final episode, especially as it was the worst of the series, albeit with the strongest all round supporting cast?

Well, I suppose I’d better say something. ‘The Horns of the Moon’ never got beyond the level of silly. Peter Jones played General Sir Horace Mannering-Weston, chairman of a private Merchant Bank and martinet and Preter Egan, all nervous energy, jumping to unfortunate conclusions and generally being utterly irritating from his first appearance, his ineffectual son, Tony, a client of Esther Jones. Throw in Michele Dotrice, all faux slinky in backless dress and little girl voice, doing amateur dramatics as the General’s bit of stuff and you had more than you ever wanted.

So, the General is murdered. Tony’s the obvious suspect, especially as he appears to have embezzled £200,000. Grad suspects him from the start on no better grounds than, well, it’s obvious. Esther insists Tony’s birth chart makes him incapable of murder but that doesn’t stop Grad from arresting him, if only to shut Esther up (that’s a motive that will stand up in Court, oh yes).

Anyway, the real embezzlers are the other three members of the Board, one of whom is played by Graham Crowden, who naturally turns out to be the real killer, Q.E.D.

Once again, the only highlight was Amouska Hempel, tall and slender, with her ash-blonde hair framing her face and her tasteful silk clothing, whether in pants or kneelength skirt paired with dark tights. Esther looked good but this series was a flop and a cheap flop at that. Why it was never renewed is hardly a mystery.