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Saturday, December 8, 2018

Comic Book Dystopia: City of the Living Dead

City of the Living Dead: An examination of Dystopia in American comic books.

In our last posting on Dystopia, it was stated that global fictional un-utopia came in two flavors: Literary Dystopia, which is an exercise in a big bad idea playing out on an individual (1984, Brave New World) and Pulp Dystopia, wherein whatever it is that went wrong is treated more or less as scenery (Mad Max, Hunger Games).  While Literary Dystopia adheres to the plot conventions of Horror, Pulp Dystopia cleaves to tropes found in the Western, Romance or Fantasy genres.  That Pulp Dystopia has such flexibility is one of the reasons for its current popularity.  My own contention is that there is an attractive democracy to Pulp Dystopia, a world devoid of celebrities and distinctions in class. I believe that Pulp Dystopia and Fantasy are occupying the same popular space that Westerns once did.

Attempts to tie this new Pulp Dystopia back to the actual Pulp Magazine era are dubious.  The pulp magazine form had faded by the time 1984 first hit the literary world. The other powerhouses of the dystopian form also came to us from the world of lit fiction. Our pals in the Sweats (linear descendants of pulp magazines, slick paper photo offset periodicals plying pulp genres) were still rolling off White Slavery and Nymphomaniac World War II tales at the time Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 were setting the pace in hardbound form. Real contributions to Dystopia were made in paperback, such as A Clockwork Orange, but there is next to no connection between this and the world of pulp in terms of authors, editors or publishers.  (1)

When it comes to popularizing Pulp Dystopia, I am laying the blame squarely at the feet of movies (Mad Max, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Japanese Animation), role-playing games (Gama World, Shadowrun, Morrow Project) and video games.  That said, I may have cut the other spawn of the pulps, comic books, somewhat short as far as covering their contribution.

Comic Books have been parading dystopian themes since their inception. While researching another project I ran into a slew of titles with a dystopian bent.  As a whole, the comic book presentation of dystopia peaked in the early 1950s, which indicates that it is breathing the same air as Literary Dystopia. Both the comic book version of dystopia and Literary Dystopia emerge at the same time and seem to have the same historical influences.  While not exactly conforming to the later idiom of Pulp Dystopia, the Dystopia found in comic books is very distinct from the co-emerging Literary version. 

In our last posting on dystopia, we traced the earliest emergence of Pulp Dystopia to a cycle of novels appearing in the character pulp Operator Number Five.  This series, known as The Purple Invasion, was a late 1930s imagining of the WWII to come, albeit involving a fictional nation invading the United States.  Much of the early comic book dystopia follows something along the same lines. Nearly every escapist action character took his or her turn at ending the paraphrased coming war.  Comic book anthologies were replete with eight to ten-page Armageddons wherein a singular figure is instrumental in the defeat of some Asian or European dictator. Even Superman took a turn at this, in fact several. That certainly is a form of Pulp Dystopia. As opposed to going through the horror process of learned helplessness, the superhero attempts to solve the crisis. But this may be defining dystopia too broadly.

There were several superheroes who fit the Literary Dystopia mold of being trapped inside a pervading big bad idea, mostly set in the future. All-American Comics featured Gary Concord, the Ultraman, the superhero policeman of a world-wide government.  Power Nelson was situated similarly, the sole superhero cop in a future world plagued with fantastic disruptions to civil order. Both Power Nelson and the interstellar dystopian Spacehawk wound up plopped down in 1940s America once real-world WWII became eminent. (Sorry about your future setting, the publisher needs you here now.) Super American took this concept one stage further. He lived in a future where everyone was a superman. Having lost some sort of draft lottery, he was sent back through time to aid the WWII Allied cause. Once the real war was under way, a lot of the paraphrasing and dystopian themes went by the wayside.  One can argue whether WWII constitutes a dystopia itself (two racist totalitarian nations attempt to enslave the world), but the stories which play out do not follow either Literary or Pulp Dystopian formulas.  (2)

Literary Dystopia does not pick up steam until after WWII and is largely inspired by the aftermath of that conflict.  Mechanization had advanced to the point wherein an unprecedented amount of control over the populace could be exerted by authorities.  Technology was now such that we could blow ourselves out of existence.  With the fascist, racist, totalitarian empires defeated, half of the world had been enveloped by atheist, collectivist, totalitarian regimes.  That’s a lot of angst.

Literary Dystopians broke the mold for popular novels.  Not much action. Characters are uniformly Alice in Wonderland types. Backstory is ladled on. And then it plays out like a horror story. Breathing the same air, in 1947 comic/pulp publisher Fawcett released its own dystopian work.

Or at least it looks the part. At first glance, Anarcho Dictator of Death seems to be some sort of arty expansion of the comics form, a “Complete Novel in Comic Strip Form.” Fawcett was one of the Golden Age of Comics Big Three sales leaders, a true innovator and top-quality operator. The Saint Paul-based firm was highly connected and very politically active. (3) Even before WWII had ended, Fawcett was sounding the alarm about communists through its spokeshero Captain Marvel. The firm seldom missed an opportunity to defend the free enterprise system or decry evidence of creeping socialism.

Taken in the best possible light, Anarcho Dictator of Death is a warning that the peace we have won requires defenders, that the peace is precarious and that there is a need to be vigilant against lingering forces of global division.  But that is cutting this work way too much credit.

This is an unmarked superhero comic.  Had Fawcett been interested in sending out a serious warning as to the return of fascism, they would not have waited three years after the war in Europe’s conclusion and might have used a higher profile hero--Captain Marvel, or more appropriately, Spy Smasher. (4) Instead Comics Novel features Radar, a back page non-entity which had been running as the last slot feature in Master Comics since 1943.  

In my opinion Radar isn’t on the cover because he has no sales draw.  The Radar feature does have an interesting backstory.  This superhero was commissioned at the request of the US Government, its purpose to promote a Wendell Wilkie global good guy government version of the United Nations, complete with its own anti disrupting the new world order police force. (5) Radar’s origin was featured in the 35th issue of Fawcett’s top selling Captain Marvel Adventures title and includes a key role for their flagship hero Captain Marvel.  In this origin it is revealed that Radar comes by his abilities naturally, being the son of a circus strongman and a Gypsy fortune teller.  (Several sources have stated that Radar is a non-powered hero like Batman. This in not the case. Radar has that level of super strength which allows him to shoulder open an iron door but not quite snap out of a pair of handcuffs. He can read minds and has a remote viewing ability which accounts for his nickname.) At the end of his origin, Radar is requested to blaze the trail for an unofficial International Police Agency, acting as a global Jedi Knight answering only to FDR, Winston Churchill, Joe Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek. In the last panel it is announced that Radar is heading off to Master Comics to share anthology space with Captain Marvel Junior and Bulletman.

My best guess is that Anarcho Dictator of Death is an unused Radar serial, probably commissioned in 1945 for Master Comics.  Radar appeared in several continued stories early in its run.  Something went wrong with this story line between the time it was sent for art and the time it was completed. The first obvious issue deals with the people Radar supposedly answers to: FDR is dead; Churchill has been voted out of office; Chiang Kai-shek is being chased out of China; and Uncle Joe Stalin is no longer in the good guy club. By that time it was also becoming obvious that the United Nations was going to fall far short of its idealistic designs.   Although Radar was still appearing in Master Comics at the time that Anarcho Dictator of Death was released, he had undergone the fate of all comic book counter-spies and aviators—he was fighting aliens from outer space.

Radar would disappear from Master Comics shortly after Anarcho’s release, replaced by Hop-a-long Cassidy.  In Anarcho Dictator of Death, Radar’s International Police Force is an operational entity, with offices and prisons all over the world.  His sidekick is a Kai-shek issued fellow international cop named Chen.  They are engaged in rounding up fascist sympathizers at the onset of the novel. The tone is never dystopian, nor elevated above that of standard comic book fare, and any attempt at reading this for additional meaning will be dispelled midway through the first chapter. Far from channeling George Orwell, writer Otto Binder is doing a bad imitation of movie serial screen scribe George Plympton. The story is more about hidden doors than it is about politics.

Are there any Dystopian elements? There is a torture scene…

But Radar, being a superhero, shrugs it off and judo flips Anarcho into a troth of lye built into a hotel room’s floor. (Don’t ask.)  As opposed to sending political warnings, Anarcho is about salvaging 48 pages of expensive comic art.  They slid Anarcho into the slot of some cancelled comic title, stuck a two tone ‘arty’ cover on the thing—and issued it as a single title, without advertising, in order not to impact their circulation figures.

Anarcho is something of a rarity. There were some free-standing anti-fascist propaganda works in comic form, such as It Could Happen Here. Literary Dystopia only appears in earnest somewhat after Anarcho’s issuing. Other than occasionally sideswiping its feel, dystopia was largely ignored in the comics.  Even the popular Horror/Mystery anthologies avoided dystopian themes, favoring more visual supernatural stories involving witches and zombies.

On occasion, dystopia was simply grafted onto other genres.

The idea of atom bomb secrets being stolen by America’s enemies is absolutely terrifying.  Atomic weapons spreading into the hands of unscrupulous parties is the thing of nightmares. That one’s fellow citizens—your neighbors—might be so low as to give aid to the process of disseminating world ending weapons to foreign powers is enough to evoke paranoia.  Sadly, all of the above happened and is still happening today. But it happened first in this 1950 Avon comic book.

Atom bombs were supposed to make war obsolete.  The Korean conflict proved that this wasn’t the case. Our pals in the war comics business weren’t quite sure what to do.

Some of these are disguised anthologies about the Korean conflict, dressed up in atomic bunting for additional sensationalistic sales appeal.

Comic books in the early 1950s are shameless.

All of these are series books. Atom Age Combat was published in two series, one in the early 1950s and one in the middle 1950s.

Although most of these war anthologies are fairly pedestrian 1950s era stuff, there are many examples of Armageddon and Post-Armageddon tales in their pages.

The trend largely petered out by 1957. At that point most of the war comics publishers went back to depicting WWII--which is where they stayed until the demise of the war genre in comics.

The bulwark genres of comics in the 1950s were Horror/Mystery, Romance and True Crime. (6) This is a reversion to the mean, since these were the same genres which propped up the remaining pulps. Although Dystopia was an extension of the Horror/Mystery genre—a horror story writ very large—there was all of one horror comics anthology which routinely ran it.

This is a minor title from a minor publisher and only a minority of the stories fit even the Pulp Dystopian mold. As with most horror, it’s mostly monster stories.

Big Brother, Energy Shortages, Environmental Collapse and the other boogey men of Literary Dystopia are hard to do in eight-page comic book chunks. That said, comics did like to ape the globally oppressive feel of Literary Dystopia. Lacking time for a backstory, comic books substitute something visual as an analogy.  It’s a big bad thing and it’s in the midst of winning.  Our hero has given up on the idea of defeating the thing or saving other people and is instead simply focused on surviving it. Or the hero is fighting a seemingly hopeless rear-guard action. It clings somewhat close to the conventions of Literary Dystopia, only with a physical monster taking Big Brother’s place.

This may be the first zombie graphic novel.  Zombies were popular in all mediums in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  Most comic book publishers of the time were only willing to produce comic books in series form.  This publisher, Avon, sells comic books by the issue.  If they have a strong story idea, they will make a title for it, even if it’s only a one-time thing. (7)

Aliens also make good Big Brother stand-ins. There was a flurry of UFO sightings in the late 1940s which led to something of a pulp fiction craze.  This particular graphic novel (they were called comic books at the time) was written by Walter B. Gibson, the primary pulp writer of The Shadow.

Dystopian themed anthologies do start to appear in 1950s comics, but they are all weird genre grafts. Comic book Dystopia falls into the broad general category of “Space and the Future Suck, Too.”   If we include oddball works such as St John’s Tor we could add “Prehistory Was No Fun, Either” or the raft of still strong selling jungle books, “The Wilderness Also Sucks.”  The underlying message is that there is no geographic escape to conflict, that no matter where you go oppressive existential threats will greet you.  That may not be a form of dystopia, but it is hardly the warm and fuzzies of Star Trek.

Most of these are from Charlton Comics, a firm known for its nimble capacity to triangulate trends.

Of these, the most successful title is Space War—a dismal, violent vision of the future.

Some of these anthologies did feature continuing characters, inhabitants of offshoot dystopian realms unrelated to the other stories. There were also a few dystopian character titles, all in the Space and the Future Sucks, Too category.

Major Inapak is pitted against an evil global Earth government, leading a rebellion in the remote space colonies.

Captain Science lives on a future Earth which is being invaded daily by a coalition of alien space nations.

Space Busters: Alien invasions have become so pernicious that a global Earth government has decided to go after them like an organized crime task force.

Commander Battle and his Atomic Sub find numerous uses for end of the world weapons.  Although the premise is as close to Literary Dystopian as it gets, most plots are typical Bug Eyed Monster hunts.  It seems to have been the inspiration for a later Irwin Allen television show.

My initial intention was to chronical these titles and extrapolate their possible influence on the development of Pulp Dystopia. Not all of my ideas are any good.  As any student of evolution will tell you, some paths just dead end. 

While comic books acknowledged Literary Dystopia, their approach is strictly cosmetic. Key to the early dystopian form are disasters propelled by human bureaucracy. Like mental powers, bureaucracy isn’t a particularly visual thing. If you substitute vampires or aliens or zombies for Big Brother, you’re not dealing with dystopia but rather a more pedestrian aspect of science fantasy.  Pulp Dystopia focuses more on the effects than the causes of a crisis, and was never chanced on as a repeated literary construction in comic books.

The current Pulp Dystopia TV hit Walking Dead did start as a comic book, but it doesn’t have much in the way of precedent within the comic book form. Even as a comic book, it has more to do with copping the feel of George Romero movies than advancing any idea from the world of four color sequential art.

This is not to say that Walking Dead is the only modern era comic book to have played with Literary Dystopia or Pulp Dystopia.  The Kamandi and Kilraven (War of the Worlds) series put the post global disaster themes front and center. (8)  Underground Comix anthologies such as Class War, Slow Death and Zap ran stories set in a decadent version of after the fall of now. True to Pulp Dystopian form, many were more interested in exploiting the shock value of leather clad women walking their sex slaves like dogs than explaining exactly what circumstances may have led to this. Mainstream comic book publisher Charlton had at least two continuing titles set after doomsday.

Comic books have generally had little truck with dystopia in any of its forms and have lacked the influence to impact the new Pulp Dystopian form.  That the medium has dodged having an influence for 60 plus years does not mean that it will continue to do so.  As long as Pulp Dystopia remains an ascendant genre, the chances of it making a strong showing in the graphic novel form remain high.  It is a mainstay of the Japanese version.

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(1)    There was a non pulp separation in Science Fiction, led by the digest title Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. In this new school, science fiction was getting away from the camoflague  Western Space Opera, bug eyed monster hunting, action plotting emphasis found in the pulps and more towards relativism and relevancy.  Ray Bradbury, though a pulp era author, was a part of this trend and his Literary Dystopian work Fahrenheit 451 is one of the better examples.
(2)    Most comic book superhero stories are set in what I have dubbed the Modern Thrills genre.  It’s the real world but… your wife is a witch… there are secret societies of vampires lurking about… there are occasional super powered beings.  Everything else is normal and the supernatural elements that do exist do not have the sway to make overall changes in society. Instead, the normal world sort of seals up wounds made by the fantastic hermetically, showing no lingering signs that anything out of the ordinary has transpired.  
(3)    Fawcett was well situated to withstand the sort of criticism that would later engulf other comic book publishers.  Not that they were any less vulgar.  Just in Anarcho they run an extensive torture scene and portray the people of Tibet as being demon worshippers. As opposed to policing their content, the firm had hired the First Lady and the daughter of Freud (along with Admiral Byrd and a bevy of other luminaries) to sit on their editorial board. These people were surely not reading the 60 comics per month Fawcett produces. It’s pure bribery. The names of these prominent establishment Americans on their comic book mastheads provided a very nice political smokescreen. 
(4)    Spy Smasher was Fawcett’s big hitter in the comic book spy game.  He had been featured in an early WWII movie serial and appeared in several of the firm’s comic titles.  It’s a big seller, drawing better than their licensed Captain Midnight title. Come the end of the war, however, both the Ovaltine owned Captain Midnight and Fawcett’s own Spy Smasher are in existential trouble.  With no war raging, neither of these guys has a reason for being. Fawcett took the typical tact of sending Captain Midnight into outer space.  Spy Smasher, at about the same time as Anarcho’s release, was re-christened Crime Smasher and then did a fast fade from view. Like Anarcho, Crime Smasher was given a one shot title and was never heard from again.
(5)    The US Government does seem to have a Department of Messing With Cartoon Characters.  Weird as it seems, this is not the first record we have of the government making such a request.  The popular Don Winslow of the Navy character was also commissioned by the government, supposedly to aid in recruitment. Winslow’s adventures in comics, radio and the silver screen were just as fantastic as anything Captain Marvel participated in. At this point Winslow was also appearing in Fawcett comics.
(6)    This was only the case of publishers who had failed to find a niche to monopolize.  Post the collapse of Fawcett,  Superman’s publisher DC Comics had a monopoly on the diminished superhero genre.  Archie had a monopoly on teen humor.  Dell Comics had a monopoly on licensed animation characters.  Post the emergence of the Comics Code, the True Crime genre would vanish. EC wound up with Mad Magazine, to this day the best selling comic book in America. Harvey would chance on a theme of dysfunctional weird kiddies (Casper, Richie Rich). Everyone else scrambled.
(7)    In general, distributors of the time wanted a commitment from the comics publishers. A publisher had to provide X number of new titles a week, mostly for distribution to local pharmacies. Avon was unusual, being effectively distributor sponsored. It was piggybacking its comics off of a system geared to circulating paperback novels.
(8)    Kamandi was a very imaginative Jack Kirby work, however it’s standing on the shoulders of previous dystopian lit and not making much of a unique contribution.  It reads more like a jungle comic than Pulp Dystopia.  The Kilraven series was a continuation of War of the Worlds and in the end seemed to be more about a post apocalyptic Marvel Universe than a real world dystopia.  

Friday, November 2, 2018

Conclave Noir (Fiction)

“It’s a Studebaker Sky Hawk.”
My answer sucked the air out of the room. My intention was to enlighten. But I had not answered the question.
The question was “Is this an exotic, fantasy or foreign?”

The ‘this’ in question is a three-inch-long replica auto, with an aluminum body, plastic wheels and computer guts going on inside. It’s a small, programmable, toy car, identical under the body shell to the some two hundred other such cars found here, parked inside automated rotating trays in three illuminated glass display cases.
They’re all the rage. You can buy them cities to rove around in. Or they will just drive around on your floor, making turns and sounding their horns, as if some commuter mouse man was attempting to navigate his way to work through your kitchen. Depending on what they “are”—and they are all the same inside—they retail for between $47.95 and $265.95.  
The Sky Hawk is currently parked in the palm of a black suit clad thirty-something, here fresh from some office job himself.
I haven’t helped. I should go back to my dusting.  The miniature car dealer behind the display case is a full-sized woman-sized woman. Right now I know her expression without looking at it. I have Biblical knowledge of this woman. Satisfied that the thirty-something is a non-buyer, she lights palms to the toy’s fore and aft and lifts to withdraw it. (Analogous to the method in which she ended my biblical study of her, and for the same reason.) He’s already bought two cars. I haven’t killed the mojo entirely. There are other buyers present. 
Dust, you nitwit. I have done something bad here. Our suit was probably out to buy three cars. The Sky Hawk caught his eye. He issued a multiple guess test, based on some factoring of preferences for useless crap. Answer one of the three options and there’s a chance of being helpful in the sale. Make something up and POOF. I have a stupid mouth. Dust the Hummel figures. Dust the Precious Moments. Dust the discounted Magic the Gathering Cards. Dust the pile of Beanie Babies taken in trade many, many moons ago. Dust the tin packaged nostalgic candy assortments.
Dust and clean it good, because I am here at the car dealer’s sufferance, because without all these little useless things, Conclave Noir falls down. Once I am through, I move to the rest of the shop, the majority of the floorspace, the uneven isles filled with larger objects. The collection is an idiosyncratic menagerie of twisted neon, pottery with vague animal outlines, motorized windchimes, painted fantastic plastic portions of the mundane.   Once labeled as art or sculpture or miniature installations or unique decorative accents, they are what Conclave Noir Artistic Studio Curios was created to purvey and promote. Having filled all the space possible on the floor of this pie slice shaped storefront and splayed themselves on windows facing two busy streets, they have remained here, gathering dust and no interest from decorators, art critics or any manner of human. Like the Beanie Babies there are no price tags on them, the tags having long ago been removed with previous cleanings.
I hold off on the vacuum. Sally seems to have moved it. And Sally still has customers. A balding fifty something is haggling. He’s buying a city. Or he’s ordering it. And he would like one of the little car charging stations in the form of a garage thrown in with the rest of his microscopic municipality. My thinking is that he’s more interested in talking to Sally than he is in making a deal. It’s not beyond reckoning that Sally is his taste in women or that he is attracted to women who might share his interests.  Sadly, none of Sally’s actual interests are on display.
I don’t know if he chatted her up or talked her down. My own concentration was broken by an utterance from behind the wall to wall giant bookless bookcases behind Sally. “Tell Nadia it’s the conductor.”
I’m not the only person who heard that. One of the other shoppers immediately looked at me. I wasn’t in full uniform, but the patent leather Red Wings and navy slacks with yellow pinstripe is disclosing.  I have no shame in what I do, as I have no shame in dusting.
I was about to dust the clock thing. The clock thing, a box made from stained glass with an animation cell for a face and wispy cat silhouettes dancing stenciled on its interior, is my personal contribution to the collection of economic still-life’s on the window. I was proud of it at the time. But it has not sold and it does not keep time.
The last of Sally’s customers has his receipt tucked into his bag and leaves, parting into the night with a boyish smile. At that moment I am feeling disgusted with myself, with my planned venture. It is bad enough that I am in Sally’s space. And I am not here to see her. I am here to see Nadia. And I am not here to see Nadia. I am here to brag through Nadia, to politick through her. I should be ashamed of myself. I am this low.
“I think they know you’re here,” Sally says without looking up from the rotating garage of cars she’s neatening  
“I’m sorry about that,” I said. “Please don’t jam a Beanie Baby down my throat and make me poop it out.”
“At last, a use for Beanie Babies,” she says. “What are you sorry about?”
“The car thing. I should have just shut up.”
“Now I know what the thing is. It wasn’t on their website. They’re recycling stock numbers.”
“You getting these things on spec?”
“Nooo. Historicals are a bridge too far, too. The distributor must have slipped up or slipped it in. Dovetails too close to die cast. I’m not going there.-- I think this whole thing is about to Beanie Baby on me.”
“Any new ideas?”
“More candy. Liquor candy. Candy in boxes. Candy that doesn’t require refrigeration.”
The door in the middle of the bookcases opens. Nadia appears. And Sally shuts up.
Sally becomes a still-life, her thin brown pantsuit bent forward over the case, her bowl of yellow hair fencing off her eyes. Nadia takes center stage. Does Nadia glow? She is a bundle of earth tones in a long wool jacket, a white muffler stuffed around her shirt, a jaunty beret nearly slipping left off her head. She is a mass of long brown hair and big brown eyes and full red cheeks and a broad brown haloed smile.
“Sorry. So Sorry,” she says. “Did I keep you waiting?”
A little over an hour and fifteen minutes. But what is time?
I think I’m smiling back. She doesn’t wait for my answer. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge that I have an answer. She twitters on “There’s been a thing. You heard? I don’t think we are going to have much time.”
Nadia makes a determined sway for the door. I take this as my cue to open the door for her. We are outside in the pre-Halloween night air, tinges of the nastiness about to sweep Chicago any day swirling about us.
“You heard the podcast,” she says, the matter of fact tone smothering whether it is a question or a statement. “This changes things.”
The two tickets for the art movie I don’t want to see cost $45. If we leave right now, we will be on time. Nadia is not moving. Am I slow on picking up some hidden context here? If ‘podcast’ is the clue, I am drawing a blank. I look about. No evident zombie apocalypse.  No Gamera landing.
Out of the Conclave’s door is Jerry, tall, imperial and thin. He should have his fist forever jammed defiantly in the air. His black stringy fuzz face in grim mode, he pronounces “The entire community needs to be alerted to this.”
He is then joined by Thing One and Thing Two, a pair of male trust-fund babies in Northern Face outerwear. They are not quite as tall nor quite as fuzzy as Jerry, but they are in the same idiom. Don and Stu and Jerry are the Conclave’s members currently. For the moment, outsized egos are allowing for close proximity. Something is up. They’ve summoned Stu, the one that owns a car.
Stu locks eyes with me. “Pancake house. You take Nadia.”
How magnanimous of him. I had other plans: for myself, for Nadia, for this night.
The glass blowing bender of neon tubes, the potter and the painter turn as one and trudge away in the direction of the car some realtor gave his third born spawn.
I am on my best behavior. I am not sure what my tone of voice is. “Nadia, this had better be good.”
“It’s not. It’s a disaster,” Nadia says.
In moments, we part. I veer off the sidewalk into the street. Nadia stays on the sidewalk and keeps going, maybe five steps before realizing I have left.
She turns as I am opening the driver’s door.  “New car?” she asks.
And it is new, too. The passenger door pops open. I enter. She hesitates for a moment, her eyes sweeping the car’s midnight exterior. Whether it’s courtesy or curiosity driving, I don’t know. Then she slides in over the black leather seats.  “What is it?”

“It’s a Lincoln Continental.”
“Smells nice. Seems in good shape.”
“It should. It has 210 miles on it.”
“I paid cash.”
She appraises me with new eyes, but it is not the calculous I have conceived. She must think the Union Pacific pays more than it does, or that I am miserly frugal when not in her presence. In any case, I have entered the realm of sell-out. It is on that continuum I will now be judged.
The car is here to help me pitch my case through Nadia. Nadia is not biting. End of conversation about my fifty-five thousand dollar brand new car. Instead conversation takes an immediate turn to directions to a restaurant that I can find blindfolded in my sleep.
As for the impending disaster, it is the restaurant. No, not Golden Waffle. Golden Waffle is perfect. It’s a perfect place for the dreamers to spool waffles and sip bottomless coffees. Conclave Noir used to have its own set table, dating back to a time when we could smoke there. And its almost the same assortment of folks congregating there as Nadia and I arrive, some a bit longer in the face. No, the restaurant is ‘the restaurant’ as in a place in Willowbrook, the site of Conclave Noir’s signature achievement. From the sign to the awning to the neon torches on the walls to the mural painted on the bar’s wall, it is the singular showpiece of Conclave Noir’s house style in comprehensive flourish. As a venture, this French Sea-Food purveyor lasted about eight months. It has been shuttered for five years now. The disaster is that the space is about to be filled by an operator who does not want any of the work Conclave Noir installed and is ready to scrape the place clean of it.
Given that Conclave Noir was never given another commission of this scale, perhaps this is for the best. The idea of having a single house style running across several mediums is itself out of fashion. It was not well accepted, at least in Willowbrook. Time has passed. No one will note the destruction of this collection of works. If anything, it cleans the slate of reflecting negative impressions evoked in Conclave Noir’s direction. This is the truth. The consensus at Golden Waffle is 180 degrees from what I have stated. There is talk of protests, of physically blocking the demolition crew. Cooler heads prevail. There is talk of contacting the landlord and the new tenant, of seeing if something can be arranged.
Since it involves contacting real businessmen, or any function other than social networking, I am sure that nothing will come of it.  I feel no risk in offering whatever assistance the team may require.
I am an idiot. Two weeks later I am sitting on a ladder in a darkened alcove in Willowbrook, scraping stucco off a wall.  Nadia is beside me, doing the same. Other Conclave members and adjuncts and family are toiling about, putting down a primer coat, ripping up carpet, sweeping and hauling. The triad of Jerry, Stu and Don are wrapping the dismembered chandelier, awning and light torches in newspaper. The new renter has allowed Conclave Noir the use of a cloak room to store its artifacts, for as long as the cloak room continues to exist. The overall deal is that we are free to take our things with us, as long as bare walls and floors are left behind. And all its costing us is paint.
Luckily, the restaurant chain is not in that big of a hurry. We are told that we have three months. This turns out to not exactly be the case. The sign was bulldozed down before we started. And the interior demolition crew is beholding to none. While Nadia and I are painting and scraping, a demo crew is removing one kitchen and installing another.
I was not asked to chip in for the paint. I think there was some sort of Go Fund Me for that. All I am out are some precious vacation days, all taken to meet the schedules of a critical mass of people, most of whom do not work. We wind up running way behind schedule, missing benchmarks, skirting deadlines.
I would be annoyed, concerned, aggravated—especially on those occasions when only Nadia and I show up.  Or when the triad membership does nothing except appraise what is already in the cloak room.  But I am not anything but overjoyed, because these are dawn to dawn days spent with Nadia. I am her rebound boyfriend. If you can be the rebound boyfriend, by all means do so. It is two day doses, serial uncorking, wave after wave. Spaced out over intervals of weeks, it is exotic, thrilling, the essence of invigorating. In short, at what time the project went sideways is beyond my comprehension. Nadia and I were lost in our own world, painting away, happy as a pair of bugs.
I did make my pitch, partially through Nadia, partially through the occasional presence of my new Lincoln, partially in those instances when the Conclave members remembered that they were supposed to be friends of mine.  I will make it short. Some time ago I began composing puzzle books, crosswords, word finds and the like, all woven around a single story. Each puzzle built on an element of the story and the solution to all of the puzzles led to the surprise ending. The books were in themes, one for Christmas and one for Halloween.  I composed them on my computer. I did the art for the pages. I had the books printed in China and distributed to dollar stores through wholesalers on Lawrence Avenue. They sold so well that I was offered a tidy sum for the rights to what I had produced and a contract to produce an open number of additional editions.  It may not be enough to quit the Union Pacific for, but it is where the new Lincoln Continental came from. My editor suggested doing a detective type theme, somewhere muttering the word ‘Noir’ and I immediately thought of my pals at Conclave.
“Screw them. Do it yourself,” is what both Nadia and Sally told me. Both of them were given my most persuasive version of the pitch, too. My conscious intention is to somehow share my success with Conclave Noir. Sub-consciously perhaps my aim is to gain admittance to cool kids club, to be deemed something of a peer. The reality is that my publisher has an art department, and a fine one at that. Conclave Noir would have to come up with something spectacular in order for me to justify messing with the publisher’s in-house crew. Regardless, I pressed on, never clear of how much of the lip service Conclave Noir spouted translated to actual enthusiasm.
Three months in, Conclave Noir seemed to have lost all enthusiasm for salvaging their masterpiece. All of the components of the glass mosaic awning and other items were now crammed within the cloak room, but the white washing of walls was still missing in parts. There were holes in walls and swaths of carpet squares remaining. No one other than Nadia and myself had shown this time or the last. Although the demolition crew claimed we had left the area as good as could be expected, it was not at all what we had promised the tenant. I was now out of vacation days. Nadia was despondent over how much still needed to be done, how big of a mess we were leaving behind.
We could only do what we could do. After aiding in the field testing of the newly installed cascade of fudge with our tongues, we trudged off to destroy the one work which could not be removed. It was Nadia’s mural, silhouettes of Chicago Blues and Jazz greats, outlined in neon, each interior covered in notes from their most popular works. All of it was against a pointed trapezoid sunburst in the outline of Chicago’s skyline. This was the main wall of the bar. It was unclear if it was ever used as a performance space.

Nadia was a trooper. She put a roller to it without hesitation.
“A lot of murals get covered. You never know, maybe the next owner will uncover it. Chances are it will be restored,” I said.
The words had just left my face when a member of the demo crew came in and sprayed a dayglow ‘x’ over our whitewash. He explained “That wall’s coming down.”    
Later we watched the chain buffet’s sign light up for the first time, took ourselves a hearty last swig of fudge from the cascade and trudged our paint spattered selves back to my Lincoln.
“My place, tonight?” she said.
“But we’ve already broken all of my furniture,” I replied.  Despite my tone, I had a feeling we were entering the coda of this opera, the dead cat bounce.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Nadia had moved back in with her folks. She had an apartment above their garage with its own entrance, all of which seemed new. It was nice, if a bit small. I sensed some sort of compromise agreement in the environment.
We showered and settled down for a night of cuddling. At various points my eyes searched the room. Where were her sketchbooks? Where were the color swaths? Where was the screen press? No smell of inks. In pride of place was a laptop, a Toughbook. A bookshelf held grad school catalogs and primers on taking the LSAT.
Nadia was not the first woman I had escorted out of our world. First you do the conductor, then you get off the art train.  
I called Nadia the next week, but she was out of town. The week after, she was studying. Then it was first year of law school and you know how that goes. Poof!
Good for her. Get your own damn Lincoln Continental. She needs me for nothing.
As vacation days spent went, it was better than any all-inclusive journey I had ever been on. I thought about it every time I accrued another vacation day. My offer to the Conclave remained in the ethers and my life went on.
There’s this disheveled man who rides my current line, from Clybourne to Arlington Park and back. Webs of dirt run over his too tan face. His body is shrink wrapped in brittle sweat-clinging rags. Every day he shuttles six duct tapped large cardboard boxes in and out with him. The boxes are heavy, filled with something akin to paper. Without fail, people help him load the boxes in and take the boxes off.  We help him. It’s a speed drill sociology experiment, taking serial advantage of the kindness of strangers. 
I have seen him each weekday for a year and a half, but have never spoken to him. He stinks and has wild, staring eyes. No one so far has talked to him. We get a lot of people on this line. While people are willing to haul and help him, no one lingers to converse. At length I became convinced that this was the way he wants it.
We had just completed his return stop. It was pouring. A pom pom girl and a stock broker both took up boxes. We had done all we could to get him close to an awning, but he had chosen the wrong car. So we rush to get his hoard out and then he just stands there, no mind to the rain, no urgency whatsoever as he’s pelted on the platform.
The door closed and I’m mopping my face. My phone rings. I don’t recognize the number, but I answer.
“Did you hear the podcast? All hands on deck. This is urgent.”
          “Is this Thing One or Thing Two?” I asked.
“It’s Don.”
“Thing Two, I don’t get podcasts. I don’t get email.  I work on a train.”
“Is the conductor coming?” someone on the phone asks.
“Do you have Nadia’s number?” Don asks.
“No Nadia. Nadia is in Law School,” I said. “Is Sally kicking you out?”
“The restaurant. They’re going to throw everything away. We have to get there tonight.”
It’s been months. Did they have to wait until the April deluge, the dead of night?
I show and I am a sweetheart. We had to pull the stuff out of drywall wreckage. The only cross words came from the demolition guys, who had started removing the cloak room only to discover it filled with glass and neon shards.
All of the careful newspaper wrapping melts in the rain, the ink on the various asset tags runs off. By the time it is loaded into the U-Haul truck Stu rented, it is no longer a carefully curated collection of bits for reassembly (God knows where), but rather a lapidary of brittle masts and their equally sharp kittens. Stu then drives too fast. The load shifts.  What will it be when it gets where it is going?
Had I known the destination, I would not have showed up.
We were set to meet at Conclave Noir. Sally had the shop’s door open for us and was generally pleasant as Jerry and I stood shivering, dripping all over her carpet. If Jerry were about to spring something, he didn’t display any hint. Time was not on my side and I was wondering where we would be unloading our treasure from the restaurant.
Then the U-Haul showed up in the alley behind the shop. Without a word of notification, Thing One and Thing Two started carting things in through the back door, leaving a trail of glass bits all the way. They were heading up the landing, putting torches and armatures on the stairs leading up, in the hallway, crowding the door to the second-floor apartment. Jerry soon joined in, wedging a section of awning into the hall.
I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea what they were thinking. One of the doors they were blocking was the fire exit for the shop next door. People unaffiliated with the Conclave lived on the third floor. Sally’s apartment was on the second floor, but the Conclave had no claim to that either.
Stu then suggested that Sally head to the basement storeroom, to see if she could make more room. As I head down with Sally, I hear Stu open the door to her flat.
The basement is where Sally runs the mail order part of her business. It’s where she keeps her packing materials and excess stock. In neat rows on a table in the corner is where she keeps her dreams. Sally is a quilter. Not a tapestry artist, which is where quilting has been heading, but a historical quilter. She has been saving quilt-capable scraps of used fabric for years, each individual piece cut into eight inch squares. She has thousands of them, no two alike. Moreover, she has a business plan with a price point, $350 wholesale $600 retail. Anything less and it’s not worth doing, anything more and you’re pricing the consumer out. Artesian or not, it is bedding. She has the complete fixings to whip up three quilts right now, but she can’t because there is no place to display them, because the Conclave Noir crap never moves. And now more of it is coming, marching like fire ants over the common areas of her dwelling, up and down her stairs, into her cellar, into her home.
Sally loves these people. She’s very tolerant of them, almost to the point of disbelieving in their evident inconsideration. Sally is very bright and she does have a spine, but there is a delay in reaction, stimuli having to overcome a peaceful and loving nature.
How dare they. Even for an hour. Even for a day. Knowing the Conclave I fear that this is the final place for this stuff, that this crap will congeal in piles, never to move again, another imposition for Sally to navigate through. She may say something eventually. Inevitably she does have a breaking point.
The only harsh words I’ve ever heard Sally utter were directed at me. I deserved them. I broke her trust, squandered my standing with her. It is not my place to step in here. If I speak I face an immediate and well-earned blast of venom, a fast exit from any further interaction with her. I chance it. I turned to her, looked her in the eyes and said “This isn’t happening. I’ll take care of it.”
Maybe she’s stunned, but she doesn’t say anything. I might very well be off my mark here. I was willing to chance it.
In a blink I am at the base of the stairs, calling up. My mouth is moving. I had no idea what I was going to say. “Hey guys, I was thinking. I have some warehouse space we could use.”
The puzzle books required staging. The Arab wholesalers on Lawrence Avenue will say yes to anything, but they will only part with cash when they see a physical product. Once the books arrived from China, I had to get warehouse space for them. As sales proved the books, they walked off soon enough. But the shortest lease I could get was eighteen months. I had been making a little extra cash subletting it on an ad hoc basis to a food packager. But it was empty at that moment.
I had made quite a bit of money subletting it. This wasn’t without sacrifice. The moment I made Conclave the offer, I knew it would be utterly thankless.
It got the crap out of Sally’s hair. And it earned me a cut which required stitches and a tetanus shot.
Due to logistics and the nature of the crap involved, it took us several hours to scoop it entirely out of Sally’s store and into its new home, two stories up and five left turns down an emergency-lighting-only warehouse. No tools. No carts. No gloves. We are carting mostly broken glass. And it’s raining. Many obvious things happen. Thing One and Thing Two are oblivious almost to the point of playing in puddles dawdling. I have to be presentable and on a train at the crack of dawn.
I make it. I had to shower at the station and I am paranoid enough to have a cleaned and pressed uniform in my locker there. At 4:38 AM I am on a train, the world moving beneath my feet. I haven’t slept, but I am where I need to be. I have not failed Union Pacific. I am on my feet for the next ten hours.
Don’t ask me what happened the rest of the day. I didn’t eat, either—unless you count a mountain spring of Mountain Dew. I made it back to my place and collapsed.
The phone rang. It was somewhere in the cushions near my head. I rose, digging my hands into the couch around me. It was one of the assigned ring tones. I feared it was work. Did I fail to turn in the ticket record? Did I mess up the cash drop? Dread and frenzy seized me.
It was Sally. No relent. Here comes. Here’s where she chews me out for the final time.
“Are you still asleep? Did I call too soon?” she asked.
I am not reading anything in her tone of voice. I am not awake. But I lie. “Everything’s good here. Everything good by you?”
“I owe you, Mr. Marshland.”
Still not capable of fathoming anything. I go with “Oh. I hope it all wound up ok.”
“You know, I spotted a new sewing machine. Especially designed for quilting.”
“That would be good.” She’s going to sew me to a cross and then kill me.
“It’s used. I guess it was her daughter’s. She won’t ship it to me because she can’t lift it.”
“I’ll get a truck.”
“You will?”
“And a hand truck and packaging stuff.”
“It’s in Paducah.”
“The sewing machine is in Paducah.” I am now half awake. Look, I made a sentence. “Paducah is in Kentucky, unless someone has moved it.”
“Lot of cool things in Paducah.”
“I’ll believe you.”
“Monday good?”
“Monday is my day off.”
“Monday still your day off?”
“Yes it is.”
“Good. See you then.”
As revenge murder plots went, it seemed a little convoluted. That dawned on me when I finally got up later.
I have destroyed a few relationships. Most of them I have left festering, gurgling, spewing lava tar or lashing out pseudopods. Once I’ve broken them, I am at a loss for a method of repair. I’ve heard the words ‘penance’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘grace of God’ but I disbelieve.
What I do believe in is showing up where I’ve promised to, even half awake. Paducah was fine. She didn’t kill me. To be honest, the sewing machine did not require a truck, although it would have been difficult for Sally to maneuver alone. We made a day of it. We toured the Quilting Museum there. We had dinner at a place where they throw rolls at you. As outings went, it went fine.
I’m not sure what I was doing right, but I kept doing it. One outing led to another. We went to the candy show. We went to a store fixtures auction. It became the outing that has never ended. There’s a rhythm, there’s music to it. Two worlds in orbit around each other, keeping our own time. The music keeps playing and we keep dancing.
If I did not notice the many urgent events involving Conclave Noir, I have no excuse. I was in its midst on a daily basis, seeing all of their faces more than I ever have before. To me, it seemed as if the whole artsy commune thing was melting away. Even trust funders have court dates and alimony payments and growing children and aging parents and there’s only so much playing at the rest of the filigree of life that even the dedicated adrift can do. More of the Conclave’s stuff moved to the warehouse, based on the notion that warehouse shows were where it was at. I am not sure there ever was a show. Maybe I had become so ubiquitous that they didn’t think to invite me—or more probably assumed I was preoccupied. As the Conclave’s stuff receded, Sally filled the seceded space, first with frames for displaying quilts. The quilts sold like bakery items. Three could be made a week. Two could be displayed at a time. When displayed in pairs, they lasted hours on the sales floor. We began spacing their appearances out. At one point Conclave Noir decided to call itself something else, leaving the name to Sally and her store. The increased foot traffic in the store seemed to discourage the artists so much that they all started hosting these events at restaurants where they taught people the distinction between vapid and insipid. I think it was painting classes, honestly. Painting classes where people eat and then paint while the artist-facilitators float about garden sprinkling advice on how to live off your parents forever. Had no one mentioned anything I would have forgotten about the proposal I had made to Conclave Noir.
“Puzzle book project. We have a verdict,” Thing One informed me. He was just back from teaching a high tea how to play with acrylic mud.  Perhaps my description is somewhat off base. They have been going to restaurants and they are carrying less and less stuff with them.  And they’re all gaining weight and the stray Asian girlfriend.
Whatever they were up to they needed some me time alone in the store to podcast socially promote drink bong water estimate belly button lint. Sally had insisted that this time be granted. I opened the door for her and it was again nearly November out.
Down came the rain. Where did the year go? As opposed to bolting from me, Sally turns and makes mincing backwards steps. At that pace, we will go nowhere at all. She has her head tilted up, her wild blue eyes tracing circles in the air, a broad smile parting thin lips. I offer “Golden Waffle then?”
“Neef,” is her response. It’s the sound the little cars make when they can’t get around something. She doesn’t want to go anywhere. She wants to wait this out. Our dialog lights to the subjects of calligraphy and floral place settings and matching dresses equally repellant on women of disparate sizes and banquet hall food options. In less than an hour we have a meeting on these subjects with some professionally female rented navigator who promises to dream on budget.
The short awning above Conclave Noir’s window isn’t protecting either of us. Neither of us are melting, but I can fathom no need for getting watered. We are bathed in photographic light cast from the podcast studio behind the bookless bookcases on the other side of the glass. They have the shade down as Thing One interviews Thing Two. Between the rain and the muffling of the glass and the roll of cars passing, I can hear very little, although it sounds profound. Sally transcends the irritants of our current circumstances, buzzing happy, recounting reactions from showing off the ring I gave her. Her mood infects and I am lost in time.
We did not notice the podcast light go out. Thing One hails me from the shop’s door.
A fraction before entering, Sally shoots a whisper from her perch under the awning ten feet away. “Clifford.” My name. No discernable inflection. Only I heard the heel tone.
My standing orders for life, as it should turn out.

I follow the second son of the best real estate agent in all of Evanston through the swinging bookless bookcase and up the stairs and into what had been Sally’s apartment until two months ago. Now that we have the house in Lincolnwood, the renamed Conclave is free to use this space for whatever it is they take up space for. At least until the new sewing machine and mail order stuff show up.
Other than the stove and fridge, there is very little in this apartment. The boys have taken up seats behind school desks that Sally used as nightstands. We are all seated upon vintage 1940s diner chairs dumpster dived from the Golden Waffle. It’s an all-adult adult-free parent-teacher conference.  
I mention the setting only because I do not see any drawings or proposals for drawings. None of them have a pad of paper on their desks. None of them have a pen, So I already have my answer. 
I am smiling. I am not mentioning the fact that the owner of the warehouse has been leaving me voicemails day and night about the people I vouched for assuming my lease. Or that the only portion of his rant that I understood was the word ‘dumpster’. Because I am counting on these suckwads and their plus ones to fill seats and eat chicken kiev/chicken cordon blue come April in a hall I am about to dump two grand on reserving. I am remaining silent, in as visibly happy of a way as I can pretend.
          “Cliff, as you know, our organization is governed by strict bylaws,” Jerry begins. “We call them the three Ps.”
No. I wrote the bylaws. It’s the three Rs. The three Ps are Pierce, Peerless and Packard. The three Rs are renown, reputation and remuneration.
“The first of the Ps is prestige,” Jerry explained. “Does it add to our collective reputation to have our work appear in a crossword puzzle book?”
Ok, we’re paraphrasing. Probably because they forgot the bylaws, only remembering that they had them in reference to an excuse.  I don’t know where this is going. Right now their work appears in a warehouse, a closed warehouse. Keep looking right at them. Keep smiling.
“Irregardless of that,” Stu adds, using the ignoramus tense of regardless, “How many people would even see our work in a puzzle book?”
The standard print run is a quarter of a million. They make their living on forty percent sales. And the stuff changes hands and lingers for months. In short, about ten times the number of people who have seen your work so far. Please God let me look swayed by this nonsense.
“Finally, pazoozas,” Jerry says.
Pazoozas? I’ll admit remuneration is obtuse, but at least it’s a word. I wanted to go with the three Ms—moxie, mojo and money. Not that there’s ever been any money involved in this clam bake, although I was offering some.
May God keep and love these bozos. They never intended to treat my proposal seriously in the first place. I’m only getting this much because I’m in orbit around Sally. And my motives aren’t pure. I’ve spent the better part of a decade attempting to insinuate myself into their little art club, This excuse was the only creativity that I was likely to inspire from them.
To them, Noir is Art Decco in the darker floral tones. It’s swaths of blacks and tilted ladies hats. It’s moral ambiguity dressed as realism and relativism as religion. I think that spits the bit, sees the trees for the forest.  The seeming no-win choices, stark scenery and motivational ambiguity are decorations, style imposed on what is straight up classical tragedy. And in classical tragedy, your tragic flaw is your destiny.

Conclave Noir promotes noir, claims to give it tribute, has quested for a venue in which to triumph their take on the subject. Yet when they are offered a platform to do so, they decline it.
We all get what we deserve.

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