The second Deluxe Reprint Volume of DC/Vertigo’s Sandman Mystery Theatre arrived today, and I’m even more delighted to see that Volume 3 is already scheduled for July this year. It gives me hope that the entire series will be collected, including those later stories that missed out when the first Graphic Novel series was abandoned.
Volume 2 is thicker than the first, collecting as it does the four-part stories, ‘The Vamp’, ‘The Scorpion’ and ‘Dr Death’, and the never-before-reprinted Sandman Mystery Theatre Annual, an extra forty pages. This will be balanced out to some degree by Volume 2, which collates only two stories from the series, ‘Night of the Butcher’ and ‘The Hourman’ and completes itself with the one-off Sandman Midnight Theatre.
If a six-monthly schedule can be maintained, given that Volume 3 would take us to issue 34 of the seventy published, then we’re looking at six volumes for the complete run, finishing in early 2019. These Deluxe editions are brilliant: if I were independently wealthy, I’d be looking to translate my collections of Lucifer, Fables and Preacher into that format.
Of course, what would be completely and utterly ideal would be a new performance, a new play, the re-uniting of Matt Wagner, Steven T Seagle, Guy Davis, Wesley Dodds, Dian Belmont and all the other denizens of the Mystery Theatre, advancing out of the dust and neglect to fill our eyes beneath the prosenium arch for four more Acts.
But it won’t be. It’s already eighteen years since the final, abbreviated play. Guy Davis no longer draws comics. The Mystery Theatre years sometimes seem as distant and distancing as the Thirties do when we re-read those tales. But to be able to re-read those tales, and to introduce them to new eyes without committing them to penury-by-eBay, is delightful.
Like Lucifer, the Vertigo Comics series, Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon looks, sounds and feels impossible to translate to television. There are things in there you just can’t say and do on the Goggle-Box. Good comics stories tend to be like that. Lucifer the tv series was a perfect example of an abject waste of a subject.
Preacher the tv series is, on the evidence of the pilot episode, tons better than that. Of course, when Lucifer is your bar, any three-month old baby who can crawl over that is already tons better, so the praise that entails is so faint as to be non-existent.
But it worked. And it worked for one simple reason. It took its subject seriously, seriously enough to introduce its three primary characters as clear, recognisable, mainly intact versions of the ones in the comics, to create a setting that sticks closely to the initial set-up in the series, and to only mildly dial back on those aspects of Preacher that will offend the unwashed masses.
So, we have the Reverend Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper playing downbeat, tired, drained and depressed, a complete contrast to his Howard Stark in Agent Carter), preacher in the West Texas town (?) of Annville. Custer’s following in his Daddy’s footsteps, fulfilling a promise to be one of the Good Guys, extracted by Custer Senior in the final seconds before being shot through the head. But he’s no damned good at it, and his heart’s not there.
And we have Cassidy (Joe Gilgun playing a gloriously OTT role to the hilt, with a genial Irish accent you could grind knives upon), arriving by plane, out of which he jumps, from 3,000 feet, holding only an umbrella. Cassidy’s a vampire, you see, with an uncomplicated outlook on life, except when it comes to the folks hunting him down and trying to kill him.
And we have Tulip O’Hare (Ruth Negga, balancing tough girl slinkiness, independence and a clear need forher ex-Bad Boy boyfriend Jesse), introduced fighting two guys in a car driving heedlessly through a Kansas cornfield, and impressing a 12 year old girl for life by making a bazooka out of half and dozen coffee cans and a shitload of toy soldiers. Someone’s chasing Tulip too.
We also have Arseface (incredible make-up on Ian Colletti: you simply cannot take your eyes off his mouth), introduced out of place from the comics series, and treated with a greater degree of human sympathy here.
It’s a pilot episode, it’s set-up time, so things move slow, but confidently slow. No-one’s spinning wheels and sacrificing coherency for atmosphere. We are allowed the full hour to get ourselves into Jesse’s mind, to understand where he starts from, what Annville consists of.
Whilst we’re doing that, in fact before we even meet Jesse or get to Texas, something roars out of space, a comet, swinging in through the solar system. It penetrates an African church, a primitive place full of enthusiastic believes, Christianity at its most purposeful and joyful, invades the preacher, infuses him with the power of the Word of God. Until he explodes all over the congregation.
We see this recur a couple of times, with a brilliantly evil twist as the tv news brings reports of Tom Cruise exploding at a Church of Scientology meeting! Then it comes to Annville. And it merges with Jesse. And instead of him quitting, it fills him full of purpose and determination.
It also gives him the Word of God, which has an unexpected consequence which ends the episode with one great big black boom of humour. Throughout the pilot, Jesse is afflicted with Ted, constantly complaining of how his mother, in Florida, phones him up and denigrates him. Jesse patiently counsels him to speak to his mother, tell the truth, be brave, open his heart.
To no avail until the Reverend says it after merging with the comet/creature, Genesis. He has the Word of God. Ted does as he is told. He immediately sets off for Florida, incessantly repeating, “Tell the truth, be brave, open my heart.” He finds his mother in her retirement home. He tells her how he feels, with calm dignity. Then he opens his heart. With a butcher’s knife. And puts it on the table.
I’ve already commented a couple of times on the Lucifer TV series, and in uncomplimentary terms as well. My tendency to regard the series as a cheap, juvenile embarrassment unworthy of the character as established by Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey was only strengthened by re-reading the Lucifer series. I don’t recant a word of what I’ve said, and I’d say it all over again in respect of the first thirty-eight minutes of episode 6 this week.
But oh, the last two minutes. In that short space of time, the series changed out of all recognition, and Lucifer became something serious, deadly serious, and extremely dark as well. If this is what they propose for the second half of the series, people, we – or at least I – have been seriously suckered.
Next week is going to be pretty crucial in terms of what direction they adopt, but if the showrunners intend to seriously follow up on this new development, then I’m going to be eating some serious crow.
To set the scene: as of last week, Lucifer had inveigled his way into the confidence of Detective Chloe’s Lieutenant, to the extent of being made an official civilian consultant to the LAPD, and pretty much partnered with the reluctant Detective. He did not make a great beginning of it, proclaiming himself bored with their first murder, a security guard strangled in a warehouse at the docks, a container stolen.
That was until Mazikeen pointed out that it was Lucifer’s container that had been stolen.
Things progressed as I expected them to progress, with Lucifer unable to contain his simpering, giggling and childish behaviour in the investigation. Since the warehouse in question turned out to be a known repository of contraband imports, Chloe decided Lucifer was a crook, but an investigation of Lux and its books proved to be supernaturally clean.
Eventually, Lucifer came clean on the contents of the container: Russian dolls. And when it was recovered (after the thief committed suicide before spilling to Lucifer who he was working for), he obligingly opened the container to show Chloe a wooden chest packed with Russian dolls.
Then, when she had gone, he opened a secret compartment at the end of the container, which proved to be empty. At that point, I had a flash of correct insight as to what had actually been taken.
Dial things back a moment to Lucifer’s dealings with his therapist, Doctor Linda. Just last week, the Angel Amenadiel, pretending to be a fellow therapist, moved into the office next door, all smiles and bonhomie and volunteering to assist with difficult patients. It appears that Doctor Linda has been gabbing outside the Oath of Confidentiality, for the good unDoctor is here suggesting she follow the line of dealing with Lucifer’s ‘delusion of identity’ by taking it wholly seriously, by talking to him as if he really were the lord of Hell.
Which is where we’re at when the episode clicked into its final two minutes. Linda’s new approach unsettled Lucifer badly, especially when she recites other names he bears. The most disturbing of these is his first name, Samael, the Lightbearer. Lucifer rejects it, doesn’t want to hear it. Linda presses the line that he was God’s favourite son, entrusted with the most difficult task, that of ruling Hell. Lucifer unleashes some very painful thoughts about Hell, using the very lines Neil Gaiman wrote for him during the Sandman story, ‘Season of Mists’. His discomfort is building by the second. It reaches a peak when Linda presses upon him that Angels can not merely Fall, but also rise. But Lucifer cannot, because they’re gone. He punches a hole in the wall and leaves.
Only back at Lux, in the final seconds, is what I suspected immediately made explicit. What has been stolen from Lucifer, stolen from the Devil, is his wings.
And we are now in a completely different story entirely. And I am really looking forward to episode seven.
Most of the regular TV I watch nowadays comes from American series that, with the still-enjoyable exception of The Big Bang Theory, are based on comics I have read and enjoyed at one time or another. To keep track of these, I use tv.com. When it comes to new series, the site operates on the principle of giving them four episodes before assessing them. By that time, you should know what the show’s about, how well the cast are performing, whether the writers have a clear idea of what they’re aiming for, and generally, whether it’s worth your time.
This week, Lucifer, based on the DC/Vertigo Comics version of the Morningstar as framed in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and gloriously realised by Mike Carey in his own series, broadcast its fourth episode. I am assessing it in the manner of tv.com. My instincts suggest that every foot of film shot so far should be digitally erased, every writer, producer, director and actor even peripherally involved with the project be sacked and then either do a radically different version of the show or, better yet, forget the whole thing completely. Use hypnotism if you have to.
The basic problem for me is that, from the moment the TV series was first announced, I have known that it would be impossible to translate the elements that made the comics series so great onto television. I’m not talking effects and budgets, I’m talking about the storylines, the essence of Lucifer Morningstar, first and proudest of Angels. I’m talking about themes that stretch deeply into religious areas, into issues of Free Will versus Predestination, and ultimately about a rejection of God so deep that no TV network in any at least nominally Christian country could ever broadcast.
Carey’s Lucifer is a genuine subversive figure. You couldn’t put him on the screen.
So I knew, from the outset, that the TV Lucifer couldn’t even remotely resemble the Lucifer that impressed me so, and even before I learned that the TV Lucifer was to be a Police Procedural, case-of-the-week, amateur-shows-up-the-cops of the kind that we have seen dozens of times over, no different in concept than, say, Castle, where the Police rely, week-in, week-out, on a crime fiction novelist.
I did, at least, hope that they could capture something of Lucifer’s voice, something of his effortless arrogance, his disdain, his irony and his unbending superiority. At least that would have given us dialogue that cut, that would sharpen itself on other people’s pretensions and foibles. Alas, no.
The TV series does draw, very superficially, on the comics for its setting. Lucifer, though he already existed within DC continuity, was first used by Neil Gaiman in Sandman 4, when Dream, visiting Hell to retrieve his stolen helm of office, aroused Lucifer’s enmity, causing the Morningstar to swear to destroy him.
This set up the later ‘Season of Mists’ storyline, when Dream returns to Hell to free a prisoner he had unjustly condemned. He expects reprisals from Lucifer, but is stunned to learn that the Morningstar has used Dream’s visit as a pretext to close Hell, to send away the dead, the damned and the demons, and to end his reign. His revenge is to give the key to Hell to Dream, making him responsible for what next happens to it (what an unbelievably evil idea!). Lucifer has had enough.
Mike Carey would make even more of this, and it would be the underlying theme of his entire series. Lucifer had, after millennia of rule in Hell, long since recognised that even in rebellion, he was fulfilling the role created for him by his father, God. Dream’s approach was the catalyst for Lucifer rejecting the manipulation that had governed his entire existence.
Having renounced his part in the Divine plan, after Hell had passed under direct Angelic control that subtly altered the nature of the domain, making it worse, Lucifer retired to run a nightclub in LA, called Lux (Light). His series was set in motion by the visit of his brother, the Angel Amenadiel, bearing a commission from God, seeking Lucifer’s aid in a task. In return, Lucifer would be given a Gateway, out of creation.
This is the only thing Lucifer would accept. He itches under the fact that he has been created, that he is beholden to another. This time, he is seeking the ultimate rebellion, the complete escape beyond all reach of God, of his Father. Lucifer is self-willed, arrogant, puissant beyond belief, insistent upon his independence from all but his own will. He faces vast and powerful forces seeking to exploit a time of great change, forces that, in the end, will destroy all creation, Heaven, the Silver City and the Primum Mobile, despite all the efforts of Lucifer and his demiurgic brother Gabriel.
You can see why TV can not only do that justice, it can’t do it at all.
What has TV actually done with this idea?
The short answer is that it has cheapened and trivialised it out of all recognition. Lucifer has not closed Hell, he has not resigned his post, Hell has not been changed at all. He’s just taking a vacation. Lucifer simply got bored, that’s all.
He’s brought with him Mazikeen (who, until this week, has simply been referred to as Maze). In the comics, she is a complex character with a long history, who has a massive role to play both as an adherent to Lucifer and independently. On TV, she’s a demon with no apparent reason to have accompanied Lucifer, and who wants him to go back to his day job. That’s all Amenadiel wants, too.
And what does Lucifer want to Do On His Holidays? He wants to have sex. That’s all, basically. A quick shag here, a quick fuck there, the Prince of Hell can have any woman he wants, but in the cheapest of nasty traditions, he doesn’t want more than sex. Once you’ve had someone, they cease to beat al interesting.
(The same goes for Maze, it appears, at least in the pilot, though she seems to prefer tongue to cock. Women, huh.)
Actually, episode 4 is a very good illustration of the hollowness of all this, in more ways than the showrunners intended. Crime of the week is the disappearance of shy, sweet, hayseed girl Lyndsay, probably murdered after attending a party thrown by Cameron Cruz, proponent of the lifestyle of a ‘Player’, the worst kind of arsehole male chauvinist shag-’em-and-leave-’em git (whilst watching, I had this insight: leaving out the pathetic aspect, is there any kind of life more boring?).
In an entirely foreseeable twist, it turns out that Cameron is in actual love with Lyndsay but she’s scamming him with a fake kidnap scheme. All to which is beside the point when the show has Lucifer stand up during Cameron’s presentation, querying the Rules and pointing out how pathetic he and everyone else is, since Lucifer doesn’t need these rules to be ever better at pulling birds than all of them put together. The lack of self-understanding is enormous, but the show drops itself badly in it in a little scene shorty before this.
Lucifer is trying to deflect a security guard from throwing out Lyndsay’s brother. He pulls the usual stunt of directing the man’s attention to all the gorgeous, scantily-clad women wandering around, and asks him what his desire is. The guard, who is gay, replies that it’s Lucifer. Oh boy does the show give itself away here. Lucifer, the sexual magnet, the one who can have anyone, visibly recoils. Sex, it appears, is only for heterosexuals, no gays need apply. Even though Tom Ellis plays the Morningstar as an absolute collection of outmoded gay stereotypes in his nervous, fluffy, innuendo-dripping, giggling manner.
But what of Ellis’s co-star, Lauren Graham, who plays Lucifer’s unwilling side-kick, Detective Chloe Decker, struggling to make her way in a Homicide Division which includes her ex-husband, the surprisingly sympathetic Dan. Chloe is an attractive woman, but suffers from the handicap that she is a) the daughter of a famous actress and b) has briefly acted herself, primarily in a cheap Hot-tub comedy in which she took her top off. Needless to say, Detective Chloe has credibility issues.
She is introduced in episode 4, musing about all the weird things that have happened around Lucifer since the pilot (Chloe, being an atheist as well as a cop) does not believe in the Devil, despite Lucifer’s openness about who he is, to everyone he meets.
Needless to say, Chloe is doing this musing, in slow motion, under the shower, where she is perforce naked. This is no hardship, given that Lauren Graham is, unsurprisingly, an attractive woman, nor do we see anything that Network Standards & Practice won’t allow (if you were to believe network TV, no woman, no matter how long married she has been, has ever removed her bra to have sex).
However, Chloe is disturbed by noises off, and goes to investigate in just a loosely-wrapped towel and a police revolver. Of course, it’s only Lucifer, breaking in to make breakfast, and no sooner does Chloe find him in her kitchen than the towel falls to the ground (like any good cop, she is far more concerned about keeping hold of her gun). Lucifer gets an eyeful, so cue comments about how she’s kept herself in shape since the Hot Tub film that a fourteen year old boy would find embarrassingly juvenile.
To Lucifer’s great surprise, Chloe wants him out (even before Dan and seven year old daughter Trixie unexpectedly return and Dan jumps to the obviously erroneous conclusion). So Lucifer nips off to his psychiatrist.
Yes, the Morningstar is seeing a psychiatrist. She’s a cuddly, peroxide-blonde, older woman with the hots for Lucifer, who is paying her with cock (the show skates around this, turning it into yet another cheap sex-gag, but lets be straight about things). And she’s being seriously analytical about ol’ Lucy here, suggesting that he is being defensive, displacing his issues with snappy patter, because he’s changing. That he’s turning good.
Lucifer, naturally runs away from this idea, fixating on his belief that he will learn to understand, and therefore promptly forget, the enigmatic Chloe by,what else, fucking her. That Chloe doesn’t want to fuck him, not now, not ever, is irrelevant to anything except the overall arc of the series.
The whole mish-mash winds up with a climactic scene in which Chloe, from offscreen, somehow shoots Cameron’s gun out of his hand without the special effect of the gunshot being added to the soundtrack. Lucifer then confronts her, inviting her to shoot him, since it won’t kill him, will just being a light tap. Pressured, she fires, hitting him in the thigh. It hurts. It actually hurts. In fact, Lucifer bleeds.
What the (small h)ell is happening?
There are nine more episodes to go. I shall probably watch them, even though I can’t separate the two Lucifers in my head, and Tom Ellis’s version is so painfully inadequate. But if I decided not to bother, as I did last year with Constantine, for roughly similar reasons (at least that wasn’t so adolescently sex-obsessed), I won’t lose any sleep over wondering what’s going on.
By chance, a couple of days ago, I came across my review of Sandman Overture 1, which I read with a grim smile at its optimistic cheeriness and enthusiasm. In particular, I couldn’t help but seize on the assertion that Neil Gaiman had written this preface to the Sandman series of twenty-five years previously, which is certainly what we were all led to believe: six issues, published bi-monthly, starting in November 2013, ending in September 2014.
Today, I paid a fleeting visit to the centre of Manchester to purchase issue 6, which appears exactly twelve months behind schedule, having scraped in just under the wire to do so.
And though artist J.H.Williams is notorious as a slow artist, it is not he who has to take responsibility for this fiasco. As early as the interminable delay between issues 1 and 2, Gaiman accepted responsibility for failing to provide his artistic collaborator with scripted pages to be drawn. I have heard nothing since that suggests that the ongoing difficulty in producing this book was down to anyone else.
Now, should he choose to exercise it, Gaiman has a ready-made excuse for these delays, in the form of his previous defence of George R. R. Martin. I’d like to say that I agree with every word Gaiman says at the other end of that link. Wearing the hat I wear as a reader of comics for fifty years, bearing in mind that throughout that period, and even now, comics is a serial form of fiction that is heavily dependant on the even rhythm of its schedule, I don’t regard such an explanation as adequate.
I have already said, as much as a year ago, that had I known what would happen, I wouldn’t have even started the story. I would have waited for the Graphic Novel collection, and I don’t mean the hardback volume that is already treading on the heels of this comic with a haste that is indecent in the circumstances. The paperback is at least twelve more months away.
But what, we dare ask, is my impression of the Distinguished Thing now that it is present in its entirety? I have carried the comic home without opening its pages, have written the first half of this blog whilst it remains in the Forbidden Planet bag, and I shall now read the story in its entirety, and only then offer my opinion.
It’s so very good, and so very wide, and it seeps into every part of a story begun twenty-seven years ago, and ended nineteen years ago, as if in every part of it it was in Gaiman’s head during the nights that followed the Great Storm, when the shape and the idea came about.
And Williams draws or paints or does both and neither as if he is shaping the stuff of dream instead of using pencil, paper, ink, or even pixels.
And it will need many more readings for me to appreciate the immensity of this story, including those readings that will be necessary to eradicate the thoughts and feelings that form the first part of this revue.
For it is very good indeed. But it carries within it a sense of completion that makes it very hard to imagine that Gaiman will ever return to The Dreaming again.
Your life is shit. You scramble through each day but tomorrow is the same and it will never get better.
One day you meet a man who names himself Agent Graves. You don’t know him but he knows you. Who you are, where you’re from, what you think. And who did it.
Your life is shit is because somebody did something that put you in this place from which you will never escape. Graves knows who.
He gives you an attaché case, containing three things. Irrefutable proof that what he’s told you is true. A gun. And 100 Bullets.
The gun and its accompanying bullets are clean. More than clean: should you choose to use them, to respond to this revelation, the moment any of them are recovered, no law enforcement agency will touch you. Indeed, any ‘crime’ that you may commit with these things will vanish completely. It never existed.
Justice. Revenge. Redress. Restoration of a balance. Whatever motivates you, you have now been placed above the Law. You can act without consequence.
What will you do?
The facts are thus: 100 Bullets was originally published in 100 issues between 1999 and 2009, by DC Comics’ adult imprint, Vertigo. It has been collected in a series of thirteen Graphic Novels.
DC have now reprinted the series again, this time in Deluxe Editions, available in hardback in a series of five collections, giving the new reader the considerable luxury of reading something like twenty issues in a sitting. Though perhaps that’s not the best approach to this story.
What, though, is the story? “A revenge-of-the-month anthology” was how creator Brian Azarello once described it, jokingly. There was a wider story to it, hinted at in oblique references and unexplained events, a wider story that, if an audience was prepared to absorb it, or let themselves become absorbed, would grow to dominate a series that, if it did not succeed, would still be a series of tales of ordinary people given extraordinary licence to answer the destruction of their lives: a wider story that, when seen in full, would reflect its basic theme in its final stages.
Success it was, in the hands of a creative team that underwent only two changes in its whole 100 issue run: an extraordinary feat. Original editor, Axel Alonso, gave way to Will Dennis after issue 19, colourist Grant Goleash replaced by Trish Mulvihill from issue 15. But letterer Clem Robbins and cover artist Dave Johnson ran the gauntlet from beginning to end, as did the man who was the other half of Azzarello’s brain, artist Eduardo Risso, who drew all but a handful of pages (in issue 27).
And given that Azzarello comes from Chicago and Risso from Buenos Aires, and that neither man speaks the other’s language, the seamlessness of their collaboration is more than a vehicle for some of the best comics ever produced, something akin to a miracle.
There’s another fact to absorb: 100 Bullets is a bloody difficult series to review, for the fear of giving away information as to what you will find as you read: that Azzarello is a master of misdirection, constantly setting up a scene that the reader expects to play out a certain way, only to add a small, but essential piece of information that turns everything upon its head.
This is always an issue for reviewers of stories of suspense: how much of that suspense dare you blow? Perhaps an elaborate metaphor may explain: reading 100 Bullets is like doing a 5,000 piece jigsaw when every month for one hundred months you are given forty pieces. Each set of forty makes up a picture,or part of one. But you don’t have the box lid, and each month you try to fit these pictures together. Sometimes it’s obvious. But sometimes that obviousness is destroyed by a picture that breaks up the connection and sends scenes to opposite corners.
And, sooner or later, you add it up: 100 sets of 40 pieces totals 4,000 pieces. One fifth of the puzzle doesn’t even exist, and you will have to dream into being the pictures on the missing pieces, and where they fit into the puzzle.
All of which might suggest that the only appeal 100 Bullets has is on a first reading. Far from it: there are layers to discover, inferences to dissect, connections to trace. What the hell did he mean by that? Just who was at the other end of the phone? You might come to a different conclusion than I. Each of us is reading a subtly different story.
As a mark of respect, let me describe the first year of issues – a taster that will, I hope, intrigue without spoiling.
It begins in the rain, at night, in a deserted industrial area. On the wall a shadow holds a gun to the head of a kneeling shadow. From off panel to the left someone says “Bang. You’re dead.” 100 Bullets – in red – runs across the middle of the page, supported by a line of credits that separates the first image from the second, an inset against the cobbles underfoot. A Latino woman, with a tear tattooed below her left eye, both eyes closed against the increasing rain, awaits… whatever will follow… from the equally wet hand holding the gun to her head. The first speaker asks a question – again off-panel, this time to the right, where in a moment the page will turn – “What’s it feel like to be a Ghost, Dizzy?”
The young woman gives no answer, but her words take over in a narration box, as if in response: It’s a long story. Two-fold in meaning: the second page turns the story back to its proximate beginning, to unwind until, 54 pages later, Isabel “Dizzy” Cordova steps out of a car into the rain, has the gun taken from the waistband of her jeans by an unknown person who, over a repeat of the panel of Dizzy kneeling in the rain, speaks the opening words.
But Azzarello has only begun this first part of Dizzy’s story at its proximate end. She is one of two characters who appear on the final page of the final issue of the whole 100 issue story. How long a story is she referring too?
In between we learn Dizzy’s story: a former girl gang-banger who fell in love, married, had a child; was thrown into jail for 16 years as the last one standing when an innocent lift from homies who were carrying out a drive-by dragged her down; was widowed and lost her child whilst inside when Hector and Baby Santiago were themselves gunned down in a drive-by, in retaliation; is paroled three years into her term, because of prison overcrowding but who, in her own mind, will always be guilty, always be inside, because she was responsible for getting her family killed in revenge.
And on the Elevated Railway, under the Chicago sun, going home to the barrio she comes from, an old man – sixties, maybe even seventies, lined face, cropped hair, immaculate suit, you’d think twice about him, no matter how old he is – gives her a photo of two white guys at a barbecue.
These are the men who killed her family. But it was a drive-by shooting, she protests. That’s right: he drove and he did the shooting. Then Agent Graves hands her an attaché case.
In swift, deft strokes, strokes of sharp, tangy and very real dialogue, in the lines and compositions of Risso, under whose hands there are no stock faces or body-shapes, the world Dizzy has come from, and the world it has become in the three years she’s been away, are drawn. Morgan and Swirski – two Police detectives – roust Dizzy and find the gun, but when they call it in, to put her straight back in the joint, they are told to let her go, and give her back the gun.
Dizzy’s mother hasn’t an ounce of mothering in her. Her homegirls are in different stages of sass and struggle. The O.Gs (Original Gangstas) still run things, frustrating up-and-coming players like Dizzy’s little brother Emilio. Her friends at least are glad to see her.
Then the O.G.s get dead. Dizzy accuses Morgan and Swirski, gets shipped off to jail, but is still outside: bail, instead of the wagon back to the hole. Another Anglo enters the picture, a trench-coated man called Mr Shepherd, who knows about the gun. He’s an… associate of Graves, there to push her to whatever decision she makes.
Which Morgan and Swirski make for her, picking her up from the church, taking her to the yard. They talk as if she already knows: oh yes, they killed Hector, though the baby was a shame, but Hector had still been dirty, a druglord who made the mistake of treating two bent cops offering him Heroin from the Evidence Room as just players.
But the cops have a player on their side too, who fingered Hector for the shooting. Dizzy knows him, she’s already in his confidence, that’s how she knows what she evidently knows. Their partner is waiting in the yard. He takes Dizzy’s gun, playfully holds it to his sister’s head, says “Bang. You’re Dead.”
But Morgan and Swirski down Emilio with shots to the knee. Dizzy didn’t know after all, she just kept quiet and let them talk. So now the cops gonna be heroes, breaking a major drug ring, run by this brother/sister pair that fell out and shot each other.
Except that, as Dizzy cradles Emilio in her arms, behind his back is her gun, her ‘magic gun’. Which she turns on Morgan and Swirski, first downing them then, as they try to do a deal with her, executing them. But Dizzy won’t use the gun on Emilio: she hasn’t the right. But she can still tear open the heroin sacks, pour the drugs over her baby brother and call it in, leaving him to be found…
Dizzy has nowhere to go. Mr Shepherd arrives in a limousine. For want of anything better, she gets into the car.
The next two issues told the story of Lee Dolan in LA. Once an up and coming restaurateur, with a beautiful wife, great kids and money in the Bank, Lee now serves bar at a downtown shitty little hole, his sex-life consisting of watching an exotic dancer in a booth. Graves offers Dolan an attaché case, and details of the woman who put the hardcore child pornography that the Police found onto his laptop in the first place.
Megan Dietrich is young, sexy, rich, and far too good a talker for Dolan in the end. As she negotiates her life out of his hands, a black-haired guy in a loud Hawaiian shirt commits a flamboyant robbery in an unrelated skyscraper office. And Megan rings an unknown party in Miami to give him some unwelcome news: Graves isn’t dead.
Chucky Spinks is a crap-shooter, running to keep up, to pay debts whilst the big games are closed off to him after seven years inside for vehicular manslaughter when drunk. It’s even worse when his lifelong friend Pony, who used that seven years to become a bookmaker, not a gambler, buys up Chucky’s debts and forgives them. But there’s Graves who wants to tell Chucky a story. About a guy who drove when drunk and killed two kids, and then put his even drunker friend behind the wheel. The friend who can’t get into the big games because this guy, Pony, is spreading the word that he’s a cheat.
The next issue broke the mould. There were cases involved, two of them, but neither of them attachés, and neither contained guns or bullets. Graves delivered one to a Jamaican drugs baron in an industrial complex, took another away and delivered it in a beachfront café in Miami. One contained an experimental nicotine-marijuana hybrid, stolen to order for the Jamaican (though once the transaction was complete, Graves authorised the Police to go in with all guns blazing).
The other case contained $2,000,000.00. In cash. Which Graves handed over to the black-haired man in another loud Hawaiian shirt. The Hawaiian’s name is Lono. He and Graves have worked together before although, like someone else in Miami, he had thought Graves to be dead, after Atlantic City. Does Graves know why the Trust did it? And are he and Graves really the last of the Minutemen?
The ending is… intriguing. Lono isn’t coming back to work for Graves again, and leaves. Entirely out of nothing, Graves tells the waitress what Lono is carrying in that suitcase. She tells her boyfriend. There is a microphone attached to the base of the table that Graves selected. As Lono walks down the road, a car with three young men follows him. Sitting inside, out of the sun, Mr Shepherd listens in at the other end of the wire.
Atlantic City. The Trust. The Minutemen. Who? What? Why? And WTF?
Because this was the heart of what Azzarello would do throughout the whole series. When Lono raised Atlantic City, Graves knew what he was talking about. When Graves mentioned the Trust, Lono knew who he meant. The audience knew the significance of neither, nor were they given any hints to help them along. Neither man started explaining to the other about the Minutemen, and that’s the way it would be. No-one would ever tell anyone what they already knew so as to clue the reader in. The reader was just going to have to work it out for themselves as they went along.
That first year still isn’t over. We were next introduced to Cole Burns, in New York, driving an ice cream truck that also sold cigarettes. Working for racketeer Goldy Petrovic, Cole was hemmed in. He had Sasha: she loved him, he loved her, but there wasn’t the money to marry, and Cole was prickly enough in his pride. And quick to look for an angle too: an old man left him an attaché, claimed Goldy was behind a nursing home fire last year in which 40 old folk were burned to death. Cole’s grandmother was one of them.
Cole thought Petrovic would pay to know someone wanted him dead, but the Cossack wasn’t concerned. There were men in that room who wanted him dead, yet there he stood. Fuck them. But Goldy did burn the nursing home down: the Government wouldn’t let him turn it into Condos, he wasn’t getting any money off his own building. His men draw guns on Cole. A hippy whose left hand has been power-sanded for not paying his debts uses a word, a word of some significance to those who know something of American history and its mysteries: Croatoa. Cole, who is about to die, is frozen at the word.
Yet, at the start of the second episode, he isn’t dead. Wounded, lightly, in one shoulder, yes, but not dead. Everyone else is, though. And things are coming back to him, things he doesn’t know. That he knows the sandy-haired trench-coated man in the bar, who orders Cuervo Gold and limes for him. That the man with the attaché case is named Graves.
And an explosion as a rival driver overturns Cole’s truck sends a big chunk of memory into the air. A deserted pier by a restless sea. Six men in black suits and ties, one of them Cole. The hooded man, dragged out of the boot of a limo. Make him kneel down, pour gasoline over him. One man lights a match for the cigarette in the mouth of Cole, who doesn’t smoke. Then drops it.
Cole Burns knows who he is again, and is happy to come back to work for Graves: Cole Burns is a Minuteman.
Last among these stories, though it only completes eleven, not twelve issues, is the story of Lilly Dale, a fortyish, still attractive waitress in a diner in a small town. Lilly’s married to Phil, a garage owner/mechanic about a decade older than her, whose day ends as she starts her shift. She’s left him dinner to heat up, though he’d rather not bother.
Before she goes to work, Lilly walks into another room, a bedroom, a child’s bedroom, only far too neat and pristine to be the bedroom of any child living there. She spends some time just sitting there before going to work.
At the diner, there’s Lilly and Monica, another attractive woman her generation, and Tomas, a short order cook aged 17. Tomas is going on to College, going to leave his girlfriend behind. He’s a player, flirting with Lilly and Monica, not that either take him seriously. Tomas is about to receive a phone-call and a shock: Jenny, the girl he’s on the point of leaving, is pregnant: Tomas faces a choice.
So too does Lilly. She serves coffee to a new customer, a man in an immaculate black suit, close-cropped grey hair, a lined face. He knows her name. And he knows her daughter. The daughter who, four years ago, ran away from home to New York. Lilly sits and cries as Graves relates a story unsparing in its dispassionate degradation: a pimp, prostitution, drugs, HIV, mutilation, and death in a cinema a week ago, her shoes stolen from her body. Today would have been her sixteenth birthday.
Graves produces an attaché case. Lilly can’t understand why until she sees the photo within. Graves asks for more coffee, disappears whilst she goes to the counter for a refill. Tomas admits his dilemma, but Lilly holds no sympathy for the pregnant Jenny.
She goes home. Phil is sitting up watching TV, hasn’t heated up his food, hasn’t eaten. He’s in a quiet, comfortable mood. His wife is home from her shift, he doesn’t like going to bed alone. She takes the gun from the attaché case and empties it into his chest, screaming at him that his daughter was only twelve, only twelve.
Outside, Graves listens to the sound of the gunshots. Lilly reloads, empties another clip into Phil’s long-dead body. Graves lowers his head and walks away.
The next issue, the end of that year, returned to Dizzy Cordova, took the story outside America, to Paris, an American in Paris, a self-exile from such things as The Trust, Minutemen, and his own gun that could not be traced. And the first signs of light began to shine into hidden corners of which we were not then aware, save that we suspected there was more to things than tales of revenge, of the choices people make when they are freed from consequence.
That’s all you’re getting from me. Read some of 100 Bullets for yourself. The softback collections are still available, with their coded titles that (with one exception) refer to their own number in the series. That’s why they start with First Shot, Last Call and go on to Split-Second Chance, and why the third collection would have been called The Charm if it weren’t for the story arc ‘Hang up on the Hang Low’ winning an Eisner Award and DC/Vertigo deciding to plug it as a book on its own and a direct title.
Read the first, absorb Dizzy and Lee Dolan’s stories, not to mention a short, anthology tale that was the very first intimation of this weird, wonderful, fucked-up tale of power and honour and death and morality. Learn from the books what is meant by the Trust and the Minutemen, discover what happened in Atlantic City, understand the significance of the Vermeer painting.
Complete the jigsaw for yourself, with its 4,000 pieces, and find out just what is contained on your missing pieces.
Be careful, though. No-one’s going to hold your hand. No-one’s going to tell you easy facts. You’ll need eyes and ears and a brain for this. And if someone approaches you, an old man in a sharp suit who carries an attaché case, think very, very hard about what you want to do with your choice. No-one can touch you if you act on what you will learn.
A year ago, I swore off blogging the new volume of Astro City. I was sick of writing blogs that amounted, in different ways, to saying that there’s nothing wrong with this, but it doesn’t do for me what it used to and I don’t know why. And I really didn’t like writing blogs that said ‘this one is shite’.
That didn’t mean I was giving Messrs Busiek, Anderson and Ross up. I’ve continued to enjoy the series, even if it still hasn’t given me any highs to compare with those of earlier years. It’s by far and away the best superhero series I’m following, and I’m not saying that just because it’s the only superhero series I’m following. Even with both eyes shut, I can still see that there isn’t anything at DC, or Marvel, that I want to share house space with.
But I couldn’t resist blogging this issue, for one very simple reason that absolutely deserves celebration, and that is that although we are only months away from Astro‘s twentieth anniversary, this is the very first issue 23 the series has ever had!
And this is definitely one for the deep fans here, the veterans who can go back to John Broome issues of The Flash in the early to mid-Sixties, the ones who hide inside the kid they once were but who still respond to the sheer goofy glee of a talking gorilla!
This is Busiek’s affectionate tribute to The Flash of the Silver Age, to Barry Allen and his battles with Gorilla Grodd, and hidden Gorilla City and wise King Solovar. It’s a subject that’s pure comic books in a way Astro City never has been so far before. It’s a bouncy, absurd, fun idea that will be kicking back and refusing to lend itself to any kind of co-option into a world where such things can believably exist.
For Gorilla City, see Gorilla Mountain. For hidden in deepest Africa, see a cloud-covered Savage Land type zone in Antarctica. For discovery by The Flash see discovery by the elder generation of the First Family (the only false note in my mind, a Marvel archetype discovering a DC trope). But whilst Gorilla Mountain remains defiantly insular, a military society, highly trained, there’s the one outsider: for Grodd, see Steek. But Steek doesn’t want to take over the world with the force of his mind, he’s just a kid who’s into the music, a cool cat… er, silverback ape who wants to throw down with the kids and beat the hell out of a drumkit. That’s why he wants to be called Sticks.
(I should just mention that at this point I am energetically suppressing any thought of any previous passionately drumming gorillas because, like all right-minded folk, I cannot stand Ph*l C*ll*ns.)
But there’s a problem. Even in Astro City, a talking gorilla can’t just go around minding his own business, People assume he’s a superhero. The Press want to interview him as a superhero. Villains want to kidnap him for his superheroic powers. Even Reflex 6, who are currently down to five members, want him to tryout to bring their numbers up to scratch.
But Sticks doesn’t want to audition to join a superhero team, he wants to audition to join a band and play music. Can he do that if nobody will leave him alone?
This is the first part of an as-yet undefined multiparter, so we’re a long way from whatever answer Busiek has in mind, but I had fun with it, and I’d love for one of those good old-fashioned completely unexpected but unexpectedly obvious solutions to hit this one out of the park. But it’s the best issue 23 Astro City has ever had, and it gives you a good feeling that issue 24 won’t let the standard lapse.