Monday, September 20, 2004

My permalinks work now. I am very happy about this.

Travels With Larry XXII


Of all the books I’ve gotten from AiT/Planet Lar, the one I’ve most dreaded reading was Badlands. This is not out of any antipathy towards the creators or the subject matter or to the book itself. No, the reason I secretly dreaded Badlands was that I have been wanting to read this book for a long time. Anticipation is deadly.

I first read about Badlands when it was initially published to considerable acclaim back in 1991. Of course, as was often the nature of these things, I didn’t catch it when it first appeared and it quickly fell out of print. This was the way things worked in the days before the trade paperback became the industry standard that it is today. Stories were rarely compiled, and when they were compiled, they quickly fell out of print. Considering the fact that even massively important works like Lee & Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Barks’ Donald Duck have been out of print as often as they’ve been in, this is a status quo that benefited nobody but the short-sighted companies who didn't have the resources to keep their books in print, or even a market that desired them in the first place.

Larry Young is the furthest thing from shortsighted, and I imagine that this is why Steven Grant and Vince Giarrano’s Badlands is currently back in print.

I am not necessarily going to say that this is a timeless classic, but it is very good. Steven Grant’s profile and stature within our community has risen considerably in the last few years as a direct result of his weekly columns for Comic Book Resources. The man who wrote Marvel’s first Punisher limited series is now writing a column for The Comics Journal. Whether anyone coming to Badlands now - over a decade after it first saw print - will find a reflection of the knowledgeable thoughtfulness that Grant has since made his calling card is not mine to say. It’s a violent and ugly story, full of paranoia and exploitation, but it is told well.

The circumstances revolving around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy could not be better suited to the generic requirements of noir. The naturalistic – and extremely paranoid - notion of a monolithic and unknowable world seeking to crush the protagonist fits hand-in-glove with the amazingly intricate and arcane machinations of the various parties involved in Kennedy’s death. It would be easy to imagine Kennedy’s own life as a naturalistic struggle against the sinister forces arrayed against him – but Kennedy’s story is not now the one that interests us.

Conrad Bremen, unlike John F. Kennedy, is fictional. The events surrounding his slow descent into the labyrinthine circumstances that led up to November 22nd, 1963 in Dallas almost certainly did not occur. This isn’t like From Hell, where Alan Moore picked an already-disproved theory (i.e., that William Gull was the Ripper) and simply applied every bit of natural ingenuity he had to creating the most fascinating narrative he could. Badlands makes as much sense as any serious attempt to map the events leading up to the President’s death, even if it makes no pretence of being anything but fantasy.

The plain and simple truth of the matter is that we will most likely never know the exact circumstances surrounding JFK’s death. Unless you are one of those blessed few who believes the Warren Commission report, you will probably live a long life without ever hearing The Truth in this matter. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of murder mysteries can see the problem when examining Kennedy’s death: everyone had a motive. Everyone had something to gain. Everyone had a vendetta. Everyone wanted Kennedy dead, and even if not everyone had the means to carry off the elaborate preparations leading up to the execution, there were dozens of bit players with enough tangential connections to cast suspicions on even the most unlikely culprits. This is why everyone from Fidel Castro to the CIA to J. Edgar Hoover is implicated, and why we will probably never know just who did what, if anything.

I have to wonder how effective Badlands would be for someone who didn’t have at least a passing acquaintance with the players involved. I would like to point out to Larry Young 9if he's paying attention) that this is a volume that could definitely profit from the kind of historical bibliography that Moore wrote for From Hell and Chester Brown provided for Louis Riel. If you didn’t know that the “Sam G.” being referred to was Sam Giancana, would the book make any sense? If you didn’t know that Jack Ruby owned a strip bar named The Carousel Club, would the connection register at all? If you didn’t know how intimately Lee Harvey Oswald was entwined with American pro-Castro groups, would that reference mean anything at all? Ultimately, I don’t know.

For me, at least, the book was successful as a piece of historical fiction because I could understand the majority of the references. I must give Grant credit, because most mediocre historical fiction is rather pedantic. He doesn’t spoon-feed the reader anything, and in fact he insists that the reader do a lot of the proverbial “leg work” themselves. Ultimately, there is no one climactic moment when everything comes into focus: we know about as much as Connie Bremen does about his circumstances at any given moment – which is, not a whole hell of a lot. Even though we know Connie pulled the trigger and shot Kennedy, we don’t know who paid the men who put him up to it, we don’t know how or exactly why they did it, and we don’t know if he was even the only shooter that day. Grant has done a wonderful job of replicating the fog of uncertainty that hovers around these events. Bremen’s dilemma is fictional, but his confusion is very real.

There might be some who walk away from this book thoroughly defeated by the unrelenting pessimism that permeates every character and every situation. Certainly, there’s not a single “white hat” in the entire story. Conrad Bremen is just not very bright, in addition to being extremely violent and very suggestible. These characteristics make him a perfect patsy, but a mostly unsympathetic protagonist. Anne Peck, the proverbial "boss's daughter", is a manipulative nymphomaniac. Janetty, the oily crook who sets the wheels in motion at the behest of his shadowy bosses, is a vindictive, rape-crazy homosexual (because we all know that all homos want to rape unsuspecting, helpless heterosexual men). There’s not a redeeming character in the bunch, and I have to say that although it is an exhausting piece of work for just that reason, it is also appropriately grim. Reading Badlands is like watching a handful of insects trapped under an upturned wine glass, scrambling to find a way out before they die, and turning on each other when they realize that it’s a hopeless proposition. I don’t think I am particularly offended by these negative stereotypes so much as repulsed, which is – I imagine - the idea. Everyone is trapped by circumstances, and (almost) everyone dies for being an unrepentant bastard. You don’t end up in situations like this unless you did something to piss someone off at some point.

Perhaps the book’s unremitting bleakness is part of the appeal. Certainly, given a career of writing essentially harmless morality plays for mainstream audiences, I can see the appeal that something like Badlands would have had for Grant – a kind of moral enema. Although the characters are crude and the history probably needs an appendix, there are many masterful turns throughout. Its by no means a perfect book, but if I had read this when it actually came out I would have not been so surprised by Grant’s recent transformation into an eminance grise.

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