Thursday, 20 July 2017

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe (#1-6)

"A lone mouse, even with the mythic Black Axe was poor odds against a single fox in its own lair" - Celanawe.

Time to return to artist and writer David Peterson's tale of the titular Guard, a fantasy story in which mice have formed a protective organisation made up of fierce little furry dudes who, armed with swords and suchlike protect the common mice from all the dangers life can throw at them. The first two tales were set in Autumn and Winter of 1152, and the correct guard were aided by a grizzled old veteran called Celanawe, who also was known as "The Black Axe" after the mythological weapon he wielded it.  He came out of retirement to help them and died after mentoring a replacement for him in the form of the "redfur" Lieam.  This story is a prequel to that already covered, set in 1115 it tells the story of how Celanawe came to discover The Black Axe and wrote his story into legend.  As well as the main miniseries, this collection includes the Free Comicbook Day prologue, epilogue and maps, guides and cutaways, all of which help with the world building of the series.  So without further ado, we shall begin.

It starts with said prologue set in Spring 1153.  The Matriarch of Lockhaven is writing her diary over images of the mice gathering food and so on.  She reflects on the fact that young Lieam has gone missing, he left armed with the Black Axe after Celanawe was killed in the Winter 1152 story.  She knows Kenzie and Saxon are worried about him but cannot spend the resources to look. Celanawe's death has shaken her, "I did not know the myth was truly protecting us, and when we found out that he was, we lost him forever".   She ruminates that she hopes one day soon the Guard and the common mice can soon once again "have a new hero in which to believe."
We then join the young Celenawe in Spring 1115, we see him doing his chores, while ruminating "it was the day my life would change forever."  He tells us that he had lived alone for forty seasons, working as a Guard Mouse who trained new Guard Mice whose first lesson was locating him.  That day he was returning to Lockhaven, and a younger mouse was going to take over his post.

He readied himself for the three day journey when a female mouse arrived flying in on the back of a crow, while he watched her hidden in the long grass.  He did not fear her or the bird, but he detected larger beasts nearby and we see a pack of armed ferrets.  He calls her into the safety of the grass while she asks if he is indeed Celanawe.  She tells him they are kin, but he cuts her off saying they need to move "for we are hunted."

The crow starts cawing and the ferrets appear and attack, ripping it apart while the female mouse sheds a tear but it gets her to understand the danger they are in and they make their way deeper into the wood.  The ferrets have their scent and pursue them, but the two mice hide in a tree and the ferrets move on and catch and kill a squirrel, wanting to make use of the bones for "adornment".

However the ferrets are still a threat and Celanawe realises their only chance is escape via the water.   He starts to ready a boat when one of the weasels spots him.  But the female mouse makes a duck sound and brings a duck to then. Just in time they leap aboard it leaving the ferrets floundering in their wake.  Celanawe asks if she can take them to a settlement where he can alert the Guard.

She tells him her name is "Em" and she has a letter from the Guard's matriarch saying he must do whatever Em wants.

Letter from Bronwyn: "Celanawe. Em, has greater need of you than the Guard can offer. Treat her words like that of a Matriarch, her commands as mine.  With all my love, Bronwyn".

Celanawe agrees, she says they are related and both have a "bloodline oath to fulfill".  It's across the sea, the duck can't take them that far, so Celanawe says they will go to "Fort Sumac" which has ship builders.  He asks the quest and she says simply, "The Black Axe".
The only way to travel.
They steer the duck to the bustling port of Fort Sumac.  He and Em go looking for a ship and a boat mouse, "willing to sail of of the edge of any map."  Em keeps to herself what she knows about the Black Axe and how she got the Matriarch's blessing.  She tells Celanawe not to mention the axe when bartering.  He grumbles but she says she's sure he will manage.

They go to a seedy bar where everything has its price, although Celanawe has very little cash to work with.   A fight is on the verge of breaking out, and Celanawe is told the Guard has no rule there when he tries to intervene.  Celeanawe fixes on a grizzled old mouse called Roarke  he can play one mouse off against another - "To gain Conrad's service without payment, I needed to make Roarke believe my goals were in his best interest."

Celanawe tells Conrad he can take him and Em across the Northern Sea and if he does he will be braver than the deeds of any Captain's Captain.  Roarke laughs and says if Conrad makes it there and back with "things my eye has never seen, he won't just be on the Council of Captains.  I'll make him Captain of it". So Conrad agrees and he cuts his paw to form a blood agreement with Roarke.
Conrad seals the deal.
Celeanawe squashes the slight guilt he feels for manipulating Conrad knowing he'd be in no more danger than he himself will be facing.  Next morning he and Em board the ship, Em doesn't talk much just sits "silently scrawling in her book". Conrad tells Celanawe his father was Captain's Captain and he suspects Roarke murdered him while Conrad was drunk. 

Celanawe: "I questioned my own judgement that day.  I was blindly following Em off the edge of the world for a mythological axe that no mouse had seen in twenty seasons.  Was I no better than Conrad?  Manipulated into this quest?"

He makes sure a note is sent to Matriarch Bronwyn letting her know what's going on.  And then they set sail.   The first few days are uneventful, once they hit the North Sea he loses track of where they are, though Conrad says he has little time for maps.

They are hit by full on summer sun then at night it pours, on the sevententh day they lose sight of the birds. Celanawe tightens the rations and tries to pry more information out of Em but that proves fruitless.  Until the night of the thirty-second day while Conrad sleeps, Em recounts the history of The Black Axe.
An difficult journey.
There was a farrier who forged The Black Axe due to his sorrows.  He took it to Lockhaver so one mouse could avenge the death of the Farrier's family.  Em says it is no legend, it happened.   After he took vengeance he began a new family and his bloodline continued on in secret.  She and Celanawe are his last living descendents of his line.

According to her research the axe had been forged in 915. Then handed down over two-hundred years until 1086 when it went missing.   She used every tool at her disposal to look for it and her beasts revealed an older brother called Benn who was the last mouse to lay a paw on the weapon.   And he was last seen on the shore across "Storvind Sea".  Which is now known as the "North Sea". She believed he had perished, just leaving her and Celenawe.

Conrad then wakes up and slurs "what are you two whispering about over that book?"  Celanawe says he is just looking at her drawings of the constellations.  After that night, Conrad didn't get drunk and stayed awake most of the time, they have a few close calls with attacks by octopi and squid.  After fifty-six days their larder was empty, but they collect rainwater and catch fish to eat, even getting a free tow by a large one.

Celanawe is uncomfortable eating fish as he had never consume flesh before, "it would take near starvation before I would do it again".  Then they are caught in a dreadful storm and the boat is broken apart.  He scrambles to find some wood to hold onto but is sucked under and his vision goes black as he begins to choke on the salty water.
Celanawe washes up on shore.
He comes to on a beach and feels like he's broken some bones.  He calls for the others and finds Em lying unconcious and he brings her round.  She stills has her book which Celanawe notes is in "impossibly good shape."  It's made of waterproof birch.  They search for Conrad but can't find him and Celanawe silently mourns him.   Then in a stroke of luck they come across a skeleton, and Em recognises the clothes as belonging to Benn, she wove that tunic on her loom and gave it to him a long time ago.  She grieves for him and calls some crows down to them.

The crows tell her that twenty seasons ago a mouse came to the shores with an axe and "marched to the Hall on the Hill".  So Celanawe and Em trudge uphill to a large dwelling, made for something bigger than a mouse.  They push the door open together and inside they find a ferret sitting on a throne, wearing a crown.  He taunts them and asks if Celanawe is here to slay him?

Celanawe says he is just here to reclaim what is his.  The Ferret King says there are no more mice on the land and sneers that Em looks too old to repopulate the place. Celanawe tells him to watch his tongue, Em is kin to him.  The King says if he gives the word they'll be slain.  Celanawe retorts that he'll feel his blade if he does so.  The King says his name is "Luthebon" and he takes only what he needs and two mice are no sport to him.
Luthebon, Ferret King.
He gives them his word they'll be safe for now, as long as they don't give him cause attack them. Celanawe says that's fair, "I take you at your word."  Luthebon sits back and asks why they have come,  Em speaks up saying the crows told her a mouse came to the gates five years ago.   Luthebon remembers hearing about it, but they didn't find him until he came to the hall.

He wanted to murder them all but they laughed at him because he was only one mouse and no threat to them.   The king cleaved him in two and swallowed both parts whole.  Confused Em asks if the mouse had a title and Luthebon says he was called "Merek" and the weapon he raised against him was The Black Axe.

Celanawe politely asks for the return of the axe as it is mouse property.  Luthbon says no.  He has it hanging from his belt as a reminder to all of what will come to those who threaten him.   Celanawe offers his service in return, but Luthebon says there is nothing he can do for him his own kind cannot.

Then a wounded ferret is brought in, and lain at the King's feet.  He is Luthebon's son and he is dead and Luthebon mourns the loss.  He was killed by "the Red Beast".  Celanawe offers to kill the fox for them in return for the axe.  Luthebon tells him he "cannot wander into the lair of that wretch and just will him dead because you boast it."  
Luthebon cradles his dead son.
 As Luthebon's son is burned on a pyre, Luthebon finally agrees he has nothing to lose allowing Celanawe to take on the fox.  Em says he'll need The Black Axe to do it, and she agrees to stay as a hostage so Celanawe won't scarper with the axe.   She trusts Celanawe will defeat the beast in the briar, "your weapon will be that axe.  Mine will be faith".

Luthebon says it's a deal and hands over the axe.  But Celanawe has to do it in two sundowns, or Em will be a tasty morsel for him and they'll hunt Celanawe down as well. So he marches off into the dark, feeling the weight of the axe in his paws.  He walks into the briar patch with trepidation.

Celanawe: "After that storm I had thought I'd awoken on the shores of a glorious afterlife... and now I walked into the thorny bowels of the horror it must be like to die, only to find there is no afterlife at all."

He careful makes his way through thorns reflecting that his oath to the Guard's Matriarch leaves him no option but to slay the fox.  He's hungry, tired and finally lost.

He tries to put himself in the place of the hunter, not the hunted.  He remembers seeing a mink bury itself to snag a bird for its meal, so he digs a hole and waits.  Come the morning it's misty and his vision is almost zero.  He climbs a branch and suddenly the fox walks past him and he freezes. The fox slips away as fear grips Celanawe and he loses sight of it.
A misty reunion.
He returns to the ground and experiments with swinging the axe.  He feels a few well landed blows from it could take out the fox. He starts to follow the fox and bumps into Conrad who made it to shore alive.   Celanawe quickly fills him in on what he's doing.  Conrad recognises The Black Axe and Celanawe says he is now The Black Axe which grants him long life, and hasn't Conrad heard of his deeds which "extend beyond the natural life of any mouse?"

Conrad says teaming up with Celanawe and taking down the fox will surely make him the Captain's Captain.   Celanawe is encourage by his optimism.  Not long after, the fox finds them and battle commences.  The fox bites down at them and they dodge, Celanawe slices it's nose. Conrad leaps on it's face and digs his harpoon in its lips.  As Conrad hangs on Celanawe jumps down onto the fox's head, but it jerks back and he slashes Conrad instead taking off a foot.

They hide and Celanawe apologises profusely, putting a tourniquet onto the wound.  The angered fox comes gnashing down on them but in its rage it tangles itself up in the briars and Celanawe is able to climb onto it's head and bury the axe in it and thus it dies.  Celanawe collects evidence of its death, but then two fox cubs appear.  Conrad says they will be easier to bring down but Celanawe tells him, "I have no lust for their blood."  They won't pose a threat for many seasons yet.
The fox is dealt with.
He feels a little sad when he leaves them, "these kits had done nothing and hadn't asked to be born."  They were old enough to stay alive as long as Luthebon's people didn't hunt them.   He tells them to grow tall before you leave this place and they show they understood.  He and Conrad return to Luthebon.  He presents him with one of the fox's eyes as proof, Luthebon is subdued and it turns out Em had passed away that night causing the King's troubled look.

Celanawe is furious, but the King says he did not hurt her, "I did not kill her, brave mouse" he tells him. A subject of his, the healer, was greedy for a live mouse to study and picked her up accidentally mortally wounding her.  Luthebon killed him for it saying "my word and my honour are worth more to me than the life of one of my own".

He goes on to say they tried to save her but to no avail and she passed quickly.  Celanawe thinks how the Axe's history continued its tradition of being "steeped in the loss of loved ones as surely as it had with its forger".  They bury her at sea, Luthebon and several subjects attend the funeral scattering petals as she floats away and as Celanawe recites a eulogy.
Em's funeral.
Celanawe and Conrad camp out away from the ferrets for a few days as Celanawe reads Em's book on the Axe.  On the sixth day after her death his eyes alight on one passage, he should return to Shorestone and speak to the "Haven Guild, Keepers of the Ideal."  He tells Conrad that although Luthebon has said they can stay and make lives there they should return to mouse territories.

Conrad agrees, he wants to be Captain's Captain, and Celanawe is still a Guard with Bronwyn as his secret love. So with they help of the ferrets, they build a small sturdy boat. Luthebon gives them some sea and star charts and they set sail, following bird migrations to land on small islands to stock up on food.  He and Conrad bond over stories of their fathers.  Conrad's taught him all about the sea and sail. Celanawe says his father cared for him but his sister was his favourite.  When she died young his father never showed warmth again.

Conrad has taken the loss of his leg in his stride (sorry). He becomes obssessed with what will happen when he gets back to Fort Sumac.  Conrad also quizzes Celanawe about the Guard, its operations and symbolism.  He also asks about The Black Axe, Celanawe dodges the questions and peppers his responses with "answers that came from vague legend".  They make their way slowly via the islands and even craft songs about the trip.  Finally they make it back to the lands of mice.
The parting of the ways.
Celanawe gets out just east of Bawnrock while Conrad sails on to his native town. Celanawe wishes him a better life, and also asks him to keep The Black Axe a secret.  Conrad agrees, they shake hands and part ways.   Celanawe gets to Lockhave in two uneventful days.  He sneaks in via the tunnels, he only wants to see Bronwyn.  They kept their love a secret and he climbs the stairs up into her rooms.

He looks for her and to his horror finds a "Decree of Death", while he was away she had died two days before he reached land.  He searches his office to see all trace of him had been removed from the records.  He reads the letter she had Em give him again and realises she never thought he'd come back.

Celanawe: "Alone in that memorial of Matriarchs past, I clung to the axe.  It was all I had left.  Ny kin, my love even my status as a Guard were all the cost of the weapon.  I held it as I would have held Bronwyn, and I wept."

Three days later he arrives at the gates of Shorestone, a place known for its craftsmice, especially stonemasons. He asks where he can find the Haven Guild.  But no one seems to know what that is.  A craftmouse takes him to their archivist to see if he can help.  The archivist tells Celanawe he is speaking aloud of what they keep secret. He takes Celanawe into a secret room so they can speak more openly.
The Black Axe secret keepers.
He says Em must have found him and that he must have recovered The Black Axe.  Celanawe shows it to him, and informs him Em and Benn are both deceased.   The archivist declares him the "last living farrier."  He says the guild had dealings with his family when he was young.  His sister was next in line to wield the axe, but her death prevented that.

He asks if he has the next wielder chosen and Celanawe says it will be of his bloodline, "my burden".  The archivist says that bloodline isn't for the wielder but for the person they choose to wield it.  The axe is passed on to worthy mice by the Farrier's bloodline then returned to them on the death of the wielder to be passed on anew.  Benn passed it onto Merek and over the years eight mice have been granted use of the axe by Celanawe's bloodline.

Celanawe says he didn't know that, thinking for what it cost him he had no plan for the axe to leave his paw for anothers.  The archivist tells him that whoever takes on the axe must "shed their name, duties, life."  They become an immortal legend, leading a solitary life not placing the need of one mouse or town above any other.  Celanawe says it might take some time to find a worthy mouse.  The archivist says he should come and tell them when he decides they'll need to document them.

He departs Shorestone, he walks and thinks about who might be worthy amongst the mice he's trained. Then he thinks Conrad would be the ideal mouse, "he was brave, up to the challenge and his missing leg didn't even seem an impediment. A mouse in need of some subtle forging... I owed a visit to my friend in Port Sumac". 

He arrives there, stowing the axe so no one will know and returns to the shady bar where he finds Conrad drunk off his face.  Conrad moans that no one believes his story of what they did, even if Luthebon himself was there Roarke wouldn't honour his agreement.   Celanawe tells him he's better than this, that he should sober up and make something of his life.

Conrad yells at him saying he cost him his leg and his father's ship, "my life's worse for knowing you".  Even Em died because of the Axe.  He then attacks Celanawe tearfully, Celanawe backs away and hides under the cliff faking a fall off it, deciding he'll hang onto the Axe for now and that Conrad will think him dead.
Conrad attacks and Celanawe fakes a long fall.
We then jump forward in time to 1153, south of Lockhaven.  Lieam has been reading this story to Kenzie and Saxon.  He says he's been doing the job Celanawe entrusted to him and he hands over his Guard cloak to be returned to Gwendolyn the Matriarch.  They are to tell her that is all they found of him.  And the story wraps up with a quote from the last recorded words of The Black Axe: "Death is as powerful a weapon as it is an easy escape,  Heroes can pass into legend, legends fuel new myths, myths fuel new heroes."
There is a two page epilogue, which flashes back to Benn begging Merek not to confront the ferrets, but was then murdered by Merek who saw him as an obstacle for getting revenge for the death of his kin.   A crow is telling Lieam this now.

Crow: "The Axe of Black grants you the method to shape the world.  But not the knowledge or right to do so at your whim".

Lieam reflects that even if history is nothing more than a dream, "I do not believe its moral to be any less true."
Dream crow has all the answers.
And that brings this story to a close.  There are maps, guides and assorted extras bundled into this gorgeous hardback book which really help fill out the mouse society David Peterson has created.  It goes without saying this book looks gorgeous, a real visual feast.  The various animals drawn just the right side of cute that we can also note they are predators that like to feast on little mice.  I really liked the characterisation of ferret King Luthebon.  It would have been easy to make him a moustache twirling villain but he comes off as honourable and generous.  Especially when he helps mourn the loss of Em during her funeral and grants Conrad and Celanawe a safe place to live if they chose to stay.  Conrad is also a cool character and I liked how he and Celanawe became bros, which made it all the sadder when he ended up blaming Celanawe for his woes and tried to kill him.  Celanawe's backstory filled out here is very engaging.  He's brave and clever and it's pretty badass how he kills a fox armed with just the titular axe.  Its history was very interesting, felt properly mythological and the burden of carrying it heavy indeed.  Of course the truly sad thing is with Celanawe's death in Winter 1152 and no offspring mentioned it seems the guiding hand of the Farrier's bloodline is lost.  But Lieam is a fine choice to shoulder the responsibility of wielding it.  All in all this is great stuff.  The agonising wait for Spring 1153 goes on!

Monday, 10 July 2017

Punisher MAX Book 6: Barracuda (#31-36)

"I was in no mood to fuck around" - Frank Castle

Sing hosannas!  After nearly two years I can finally bring the ten volume Punisher series written by Garth Ennis with various artists to a close.  If you've been following this blog for a while, you might recall I had to skip volumes five and six on my romp through the series as they were out of print and insanely expensive.  Thankfully the series got omnibus reprints fairly recently and so the missing two volumes are finally in my hands.  I've did Book Five: The Slavers a while back and now I am looking at Book Six: Barracuda. This volume introduces the MAX version of Frank's ultimate nemesis. We saw him killed in Book Nine: The Long Cold Dark, but here he's at full power.  He's a large, muscular black man, fiercely intelligent, with a savage sense of humour, he's also an assassin for hire and will do anything for a paycheck.  He's almost as skilled at fighting and gunplay as Frank and has the advantage of being younger than him.  Frank in this story is on the trail of corporate scum, taking him to Miami where Barracuda waits to take him on.

We start at the end, Frank on Barracuda's boat looking down at sharks and dead bodies churning amongst bloody water.  Then we return to the beginning.  Frank is on the trail of some particularly potent cocaine.  He kills the last armed man in a gang hideout thinking "the trail eventually led to these boys". Before he can leave the scene of the massacre he hears cries coming from the bathroom.
Frank finds Stephens.
A naked man, his hands bound is lying down in there.  Seems the gangsters took turns using him as a fucktoy.  He tells Frank where the coke is, while moaning one of them made him do some off his balls.  The man pleads for protection. Frank tells him the police are coming.  The man he's in serious danger.  Frank says  wait for the police, then he uses a white phosphorous grenade to cover his escape.  As Frank leaves the man yells he "can't talk to fucking cops!"  Frank tells him to try the Feds and leaves avoiding the police thinking "and that would have been that. But..."
We then cut to some businessmen at a party.  A younger man, Dermot is telling the older man Harry that something has happened that is "serious shit".

Harry: "What I meant Dermot, was why you didn't come to me the instant this faggot developed a conscience? Since when do you handle shit like this yourself?"

Dermot says he wanted to show some initiative and Harry leads him into his office where his wife is snorting coke and refuses to go and mingle in the party, but Harry sends her on her way.
Dermot and Harry.
Then he grills Dermot, it turns out a man called Stephens was going to blow the whistle on their whole operation, so Dermot called Enrique to kill Stephens as he's Dermot's coke connection.  He didn't expect Stephens to still be alive when he asked Enrique to kill him a week ago.  Now he's had a tip from the D.A.'s office that Stephens is in jail after being pulled out of a scene of a massacre.

Harry facepalms and asks Dermot if he realises "how badly you fucked up here?"  He tells Dermot could have been bought off, or talked round but Dermot decided to get criminals involved.  He asks what precinct Stephens is in, it's the sixty-third.

We then cut to Frank enjoying a burger in a diner which is playing the news on the TV.  It reports on the shooting of a Puerto Rican drug gang and how only one man survived.  He's been taken to the sixty-third precinct where they will question him after his symptoms of shock subside.  As the radio waffles on about an anti-Punisher initiative, Frank ruminates how that was his reward for stepping on the wrong toe investigating the slavers.

He watches the story on TV and suddenly sees a policeman called Billy Lacarda walk past the camera.  After writing two books so in-depth about the mob he was accused of having ties to them, he kept his badge just about but his glory days were over.  He remembers Stephens (for it was he) pleading not to be left to the cops and decides with Billy Lacarda showing his face again, well it was time to investigate more closely.

Using a fake ID he goes to the sixty-third precinct and bluffs to the desk sergeant saying he was hoping he could get a couple of minutes with the prisoner.  The sergeant says he's in luck there's been a delay with the paperwork for Lacarda to take him out of the city. He says he'll buzz Frank in when he wants to see the prisoner.
An assassin approaches Stephens.
As he walk down the steps to the cells, Frank wonders how far Larcarda has got with his bluff as he won't be waiting for paperwork.  He's down where Stephens is, and the police man down there is refusing tp allow him to take Stephens without papers.  Lacarda says it's a "fuckin' formality".  But the policeman stands firm.  Stephens pipes up saying he's ask for a lawyer and not gotten one, the policeman says they'll hold him until his story checks out.   He was at the site of a massacre with no ID or personal items which is very suspicious.

Lacarda tries to bribe the policeman with money, but that doesn't work.  So he pulls a gun and hold it to the policman's throat.  Then Frank sounds the fire alarm.  He knocks Lacarda out with one punch and tells the policeman to swap positions wth Stephens and he locks him inside.  He then drags Stephens away how says " so you... do you like believe me now, is that it?"

Using white phosporous grendaes he gets him and Stephens out of the precinct in the chaos that ensues, helped along by people evacuating because of the fire alarm. He ponders Stephens and thinks "thing was.  He probably thought that meant he was safe."
Back with Dermot and Harry, Harry puts down the phone having been told Stephens is gone and Lacarda has been arrested.  He has lost a valuable asset trying to clean up Dermot's mess. He then tells Dermot he doesn't know much about the Punisher.  But he's dangerous and a big gun requires a big gun in return.  He picks up the phone and says to Dermot, "I do not do what I am about to do lightly". He gets through to Barracude who picks up the phone, tells the out-of-it looking woman to keep sucking his dick then make some eggs, and then begins his conversation with Harry which ends this chapter.

Later we see he is on his boat, smoking crack with a woman and has a large pet snake.  It bites the woman, so Barracuda picks it up and smashes its head against the mast.  The woman dies from the poison and Barracuda just says "shit", tips her overboard and sails off.
Meet Barracuda.
In a diner, Frank is grilling Stephens saying he'll never leave him alone unless he spills what he knows.   Stephens asks if he has heard of "Dynaco".  Much to his surprise Frank hasn't, "we were on the cover of Time!"  A few years ago things were different, they were shittiest energy company in the world. Wall Street thought they were a joke.  Then Harry Ebbing came along.

He first fired ninety percent of the workforce, then got the rest to actuall work together.  He turned them into a team with two golden rules, "always stick together, and if you've got a problem, always take it to him first."  It worked and their stock went through the ceiling, the parties they had were legendary.  Frank asks how they managed it.

Stephens: "Harry found out... and I shit you not here. This is legal... that you could base your accounts not on your actual profits, but one what you expect them to be. Simple as that.  You like the sound of one point two billion for the quarter. Go with it.  Knock yourself out."

Frank says, well if it was legal what's the problem?  Stephens says the next thing they were planning was anything but.  We cut to the Dynaco executives on a sking retreat.  Dermot manages to piss Harry off and he skis off.  Harry's wife then asks Dermot if he has ever fucked a trophy wife before.
Stephens spills the sorry tale.
We return to Stephens and he asks Frank if he recalls the blackouts in Florida last Fall just after a hurricane.  Dynaco's stock went up when the grid got fucked up by the weather "power was all of a sudden at a premium".  Dermot brought an idea to Harry, him being Harry's "golden boy", put simply they were going to black out Florida. It would never be the whole grid at once, it would look random and the price of power would shoot up again.

It was at this point Stephens spoke up saying that crippling the infrastructure like that would be illegal.  He said they could get into so much shit if they were found out.  But the rest of the executives looked at him and he realised it was "time to shut the fuck up".   However he refused to and told them that soon Dynaco's profits would come out and "the projected terms we'd been trading under would be worthless.  That behind all his alpha male bullshit, Harry was desperate for capital."

Stephens: "And I guess at that point I was less scared of him than I was of going to jail.  Either we shitcanned this right then and there, or I'd call the F.B.I."
The next morning he was taken hostage my Enrique's gang.  He admits other shady stuff that happened before, like a hooker O.D.'ing at a party, one of the guys being caught in a coke bust and being released the same night, which is how he knew he wouldn't be safe with the cops.

He wonders if Harry is just carried away, creating sheer chaos and making it work for him no matter what the cost, "so long as it turns a profit." We then cut to Dermot dressing after having had sex with Harry's wife Alice.  She is teasing him saying was the reason he was so quick because he imagine Harry standing behind him telling him what to do. He grabs her by the throat and she laughs saying "that's the fucking spirit...!"  He demands to know if she wants him to fuck her, "that'd do for starters cowboy" she grins.
Barracuda, taking care of business.
We then cut to Barracuda driving in an open top car, a humvee full of men stops next to him and Barracuda opens fire on them with an assault rifle. He then gets out and asks one of the survivors where his money is.  When the man says he swears he has the money and begs for his life, Barracuda doesn't shoot him, he stuffs him in his car boot.

Back with Frank, he has left Stephens "mewling into his breakfast".  There was no way to get Dynaco investigated legitimately, not on Stephens' evidence alone.  But leaving Stephens behind "that was my first mistake."  Back in his safehouse he wonders if this is something he should be concerned with at all.

Frank:  "Then again, if Dynaco went ahead, Florida would have a body count. So that decided that."

He decides to get a public confession from as senior a figure as possible. Find Ebbing and put the fear of God into him.  There was a major shareholders meeting in Miami which seemed like his best bet.  His second mistake was thinking he could find what weapons he needed once he got there. Later when he was beaten, cut and bleeding, with a shark closing in on him, "I remember thinking just how wrong you can be."

We then cut to Harry on the phone to Barracuda who tells him that his target is in Barracuda's neck of the woods.  And Barracuda spots Frank walking across the airport floor, "you know, somehow I 'spected the muthafucka be taller".  Frank remembers back to him thinking he could get this done quickly and not need to hire a car, "stupid and sloppy".  His mind wandered in the car and he didn't react fast enough when Barracuda rammed the taxi and sent it careering into a tree and Frank passes out, "I'd have to say I deserved it".
We then see Dermot on the phone to Alice, she asks him to talk dirty to her, "no time like the present cowboy".   He does so, she asks him to say what he'll give her, he says "I'm gonna give you the whole four inches."  Thankfully we then return to Frank, bound in the boot of Barracuda's car, but he always has a small knife secreted in his sleeve for just suck instances and cuts himself free, then when Barracuda opens it boot he attacks him.
He also has concussion and his vision keeps blurring, but keeps fighting Barracua jamming the small knife into Barracuda's right eye.  They keep fighting and Frank finds an axe and slashes Barracuda's right hand cutting off his fingers, all this does is cause Barracuda to say, "it is on muthafucka.  It is on."

We then cut to Dermot and Alice walking along the beach and she admits to being "a real fucking bitch".  She says Harry doesn't fuck her he just has her bend over the bed and stares up her ass while he jerks off.  How charming.  She says before the married he shake her hand after sex and thank her for a wonderful evening, "you know who else was into that? Hitler."  She says she stays with him for the money, Dermot whinges about how Harry treats him., a "stupid shit one minute and son the next".  Alice says she knows the combinations to his safe and she used it before they came to Miami.

Back with Frank and Barracuda, they are grappling fiercely. Frank wraps some barbed wire round his neck and starts choking him.  Barracuda headbutts him and gets free.  Frank punches him and knocks out one of Barracuda's front teeth.  Barracuda grabs some wood and smashes it over Franks head and Frank falls to his knees as Barracuda tells him he has somewhere he has got to be.

Harry and Dermot in Harry#s office overlooking the beach. He says Alice likes it, "nothing but the best for the little woman". Dermot asks him what he's going to says to the shareholders.  Harry says he won't tell them they plan to black out the Sunshine State..  They've hired a boat and they'll take them for a pleasure cruise.  He'll get them drunk and tell them they are about to enter the "most exciting phase of the operation yet".  Top secret of course.  He tells them their "little problem" had followed them to Miami but he got a call from a most unexpected source.  And Stephens shuffles into the room.

Barracuda is now on a boat with Frank tied up again with Horace, the gangbanger he had in his boot too.  Barracuda tells him a story about the first time he saw a shark eat a person, savage shit "but hard to stop watchin' knowumsayin'?"  He tosses Horace into the sea.  He then tells Frank he has his fingers on ice, but Frank tells him that destroys the nerve endings so the can't be reattached. Barracuda picks Frank up saying "that a fact. Guess the muthafuckin' joke's on me, huh?"  Frank thinks as he sinks into the water that he's in the worst shape he's ever been in and still be conscious.  Then a shark starts bearing down on him.
Texting'll become a pain now.
Frank manages to free his legs and thinks to himself that from what he knows about Great White Sharks is that they don't much care for human flesh and once they take a bite they go to find something better, "Trouble is. Being tasted is nowhere near as gentle as it sounds."  And now and then you'll run into one that does enjoy snacking on humans. Frank surfaces and frees his hands.  Barracuda fires a shotgun at him telling him "shit's against the rules, muthafucka!" Frank then gets a hold of Horace and brings him to the surface.

We cut to Harry, Dermot and Stephens. Dermot is angry that Stephens is still alive. Apparently Stephens was the one who told them the Punisher was targetting them and when he was to arrive in Miami.  Stehpen then tearfully says he so sorrry to Harry.  He says he should have come to Harry with his fears.  Harry asks if he thought calling the F.B.I would be morally correct. Because he would have lost everything he had for the satisfaction of knowing he did the right thing.

Harry: "Oh Jesus Christ Harry.  That's the life I want back..!  I don't want to be out in the cold.  I don't want to be alone... I want it to be like it was.  With the guys. With the team. I'm sorry Harry.  I truly am.  I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
He drops to his knees and when Harry says it's OK, he wraps his arms round his legs and thanks him.   Dermot scowls and when Stephens leaves to get cleaned up, he says to Harry he can't believe he's doing this.  Harry says Dermot created a very dangerous mess that's cost a lot to clean up.  When Dermot says fuck you to him, Harry backhands him and says not to talk to him like that, "you stupid little cunt".  And he walks off.

Then we're back with Frank.  He holding onto Horace as the shark circles them and Barracuda looks on with glee. Horace tries to bribe Frank to help him, but when he admits to being a gangster.  Of course Frank won't stand for that and jams Horace into the sharks mouth.  Frank then dives under the boat as Horace gets chewed up thinking "Horace played his part to perfection".
Then we rejoin Dermot, Stephens and Harry sitting outside a restaraunt.  Dermot is pissed and when Stephens tries to talk to him, he calls him a "faggot" and to not talk to him.  Harry tells them about Barracuda who he met when he was convicted twenty years ago of insider trading and sent to a maximum security prison.  He bribed Barracuda who was also in there to protect him from the other inmates.  He maintained contact with him over the years, "a mutual beneficial relationship."

And we are back with Barracuda sailing his boat back, thinking Frank is dead as well.  But Frank is hanging onto a tire hanging off the side of the boat. On the shore, Harry introduces him to Stephens and Dermot.  Barracuda makes a joke about raping them, then shakes hands with the terrified pair.  Harry dismisses Stephens then sits down with Barracuda.  Noting Barracuda's missing fingers he says he'll double the agreed fee.  Barracuda asks him what he wants him to do next?

Frank crawls into a small pier, it took him a hour to get that far and he stands thinking he has nothing left inside him.  He staggers towards a small hut, but then he collapses thinking that Barracuda will find and kill him and he'd have to kick the shit out of Barracuda in hell.
Alice and Dermot having soapy fun.
Dermot and Alice are having sex in a jacuzzi. He says he was told to take a walk by Harry and Alice says, "so you took a walk up here and fucked the shit out of his wife, that ought to teach him a lesson."  Also a lesson for cuffing him round the ear, "like I was a goddamn ten year old."  He rages about Harry forgiving Stephens, and how he can't take any more of his bullshit. Alice asks if they are going to do the thing they talked about.  He says yes, and as they climb out of the jacuzzi we see Barracuda, armed with large blade standing outside of their room.

He walks inside shouting "naughty muthafuckin' children...!" He tells them Harry knows his wife has been up to something and now he's going to kill them.  Alice begs him not to saying she'll do whatever it takes as long as he doesn't kill them.  This gets through to Barracuda and he stops for now telling them to get room service to bring him some pancakes.

Frank is still out cold, but slowly comes round to find a seagull has crapped on his face. He staggers to his feet thinking "fucking birds".   Back with Barracuda sitting with Alice and Dermot eating his pancakes.  Dermot's been having Alice followed for a while.  He also admits he has no loyalty to Harry, either they make him and offer or he does his job saying Alice was "spreadin' it for his buddy Dermot".   Alice and Dermot's plan is they are going to get Harry busted for his plans to black out Florida then Dermot will take Harry's place.
Well that was convinient...
She has access to all of his notes in his handwriting, copies of all the memos he was too arrogant to get rid of.  Harry will have to resign, the shareholders won't let Dynaco go down with him.  She tells him about the boat the shareholders will be on tomorrow.  After the boat leaves Miami she going to send a press pack to the TV station so Harry will get fucked and Dermot will reassure the shareholders and they'll side with him "the end."  Barracuda is impressed, he says he's going to finish his pancakes then have a chat with Harry.

Frank meanwhile has made it to the shack and luckily for him it's one of Barracuda's safehouses.  It's full of guns, medical supplies and food.  He patches himself up, eats some food and reflects on what happened.  He realises Barracuda was hired by Harry, he decides to take Barracuda's boat "motor over to Miami.  Find them. Kill them. Then go home.  Nothing clever.  Nothing subtle."

Barracuda is reporting back to Harry. He lies to him about what Alice was doing the previous night, she was just clubbing and showed no interest in the men who approached her.  Harry thinks that's strange as he has photos showing she's "sucked at least half the cocks in Manhattan".  Barracuda says maybe she's turned over a new leaf.  Harry says that's unlikely.

Barracuda says why did he have him follow her when he knows what she's up to.  He says so he can get revenge on some of the men she's been with, "she has no idea how many of her one-night-stands I've sent people to visit".  He doesn't tell her because he wants her to be happy.  He is twice her age but quite devoted to her, can't satisfy her and can't abide the thought of the men who can. Sitting behind them, listening in is Frank who thinks, "nice".

Harry tells Barracuda he wants him on the boat with the shareholders to keep an eye on her.  He says he has something to annouce and he doesn't wants any distractions.  Frank thinks this must be the Florida plan. He decides rather than hit Harry and Barracuda there and then, he'll sneak onto the boat in the hope he can take down the entire Dynaco operatin. He leaves to go get tooled up while Barracuda and Harry talk.
Dermot murders Stephens.
Dermot and Alice are having frantic sex in the toilets when Stephens walks in on them.  He tries to run but Alice jumps on him and holds him, Dermot adjusts himself then starts punching Stephens. He starts chokng Stephens saying he won't sya anything about what he saw.  He rages at him and accidentally ends up killing him.  Alice tells the shocked Dermot to call Barracuda.  She leaves and Barracuda arrives saying he is impressed, saying "you Wall Street fucks play kinda rough, don't you?"  And he tosses Stephens body out of the window while asking Dermot if Alice is "nasty".  Dermot says yes and then Barracuda says:

Barracuda: "Only thing 'bout a ho lets you do anything is sooner or later you done it all. You look at this bitch got no kinda limits at all,  An' you start to hate her for it... I mean you fuckin' despise her man.  Knowunsayin'?"

Later on the yacht, Dermot is annoucing to the shareholders that Harry will be joining them soon so everyone grab a drink and enjoy themselves.  Alice and Barracuda are watching and Barracuda says that Dermot is "some smooth shit".
Alice says he learned from the master.  Barracuda says he learned so well he going to replace him. Alice notes the ships crew is staffed by Dynaco security, she says he always keeps his people around him.  Barracuda says if you know the right man "it makes all the goddamn difference in the world.".  She says meaning him and he says who the fuck else?  Dermot appears and Barracuda leaves him and Alice to talk.  Dermot says Barracuda is going to take Stephen's body to the Everglades and let the alligators have him.  Dermot says he's a useful guy to have around.  Alice says he's incredibly niave.  Barracuda is the most dangerous man they'll ever meet and they are going to have to kill him.
Frank enacts his plan.
We then cut to Frank swimming back to Barracuda's boat after having done something to the underside of the yacht.  He says Dynaco wouldn't hand over Barracuda and Harry, so "they made a fight of it.  What followed was their tough shit". Physcially he's still suffering, his stitches keep opening, his head still pounding, he's spitting out blood clots and pissing red.  Meanwhile Harry is being told the press want to talk to him, so he goes to meet them saying it'll be a chance to fly the Dynaco flag.

The final chapter begins with Harry running from the huge number of reporters.  He gets into his helicopter and tells them to take off.  On the yacht they are watching the expose of the plan to black out parts of Florida to increase the company's share value.  Down in the bowels of the yacht Alice starts coming onto Barracuda as she starts sucking his cock, Dermot creeps up behind him and hits him over the head.  Meanwhile the panicked shareholders are wondering where Dermot is.
Dermot takes on Barracuda.
Dermot keeps beating Barracuda until he collapses.  He then throws him into the sea.  He is angry that Alice was giving him oral sex.  She says it was the only way she could think to distract him.   When she accuses him of taking his time to find his balls, he angrily grabs her by the hair and drags her into a small room.  They start having sex and Dermot's phone goes off.  Alice answers it, as Harry tells Dermot to get his act together, they are an inch away from total ruin.  Alice just says to him, "He's fucking me Harry...!"

They spot a bomb Frank planted and Dynaco's men disarm it. Dermot then smartens himself up and goes to meet the shareholders saying Harry has to go, but isn't the company bigger than just one man?  He continues his speech saying Harry's mistakes were his own, after taking this hit they'll dust themselves down and come back stronger than before. "We are Dynaco" he concludes, "This is absolutely nothing".  Then a bomb goes off, "there were two charges" narrates Frank.

He had planted one on the outer hull.  If the one inside had gone off as well the ship would have sunk immediately.  He radios the yacht saying he wants to talk to Harry, Dermot answers saying Harry is not aboard the ship.  Frank says they need to give him Harry and Barracuda and then give themselves up to the F.B.I.  Dermot says Harry is no longer part of the company and he doesn't know who Barracuda is.  Also they found his bomb in the engine room, "you really are a fucking idiot, Punisher" says Dermot.

He goes on an epic rant saying they are not some tangible thing he can defeat with bullets, he says if they blacked out Florida would anyone give a shit? They do it, the stock goes sky high and the shareholders get a return on their investments, "what they care about is doing business."  No one will stop them because everyone who counts is on our side.

Dermot: "So why don't you leave us alone, and go and kill some fucking nigger drug dealers?"

But then Barracuda appears and climbs off the back of the yacht and to Frank yells that the charges are live and to set them off.  Frank presses the button and there is an huge explosion on the boat.

And the yacht asplodes.
The ship sinks and the people on it are left floundering in the water, and this attracts sharks.  Dermot leaves Alice to get eaten.  Frank shoots him anyway. Barracuda tries to climb onto the boat Frank is on saying they're on the same side now.  Frank shoots him thinking, "what's the only thing more dangerous than a Barracuda?" And a shark approaches as Frank turns and sails back to shore which brings this volume to an end.

I have to admit, this is probably the weakest of all ten collected trades of this run.  There isn't enough Frank in it and he's an odd fit for a story about corrupt corporate shenanigans.  Harry's fate is left unclear after the major role he played in it.  He's last seen opening the helicopter door on the way to the yacht.  Suicide?  Who knows.  That said, the introduction of Barracuda is extremely well handled, and we can see why he's such a match for Frank.  He's a brute but he's not a mindless one, his weak point mainly being his overwhelming arrogance.  And you can see why he concocted such a vicious revenge plan for Frank as seen in volume nine, "Long Cold Dark". Dermot and Alice are a pretty loathesome pair, Dermot especially deserved getting blown up, shot and then eaten by a shark.  You can see why he is so bitter in some ways, but it comes out so self-pitying and whiny.  Of course his treatment of Stephens was pretty appalling too.  Stephens being pretty much the only likeable character in this tale, and after all he goes through you have sympathy for his reasons in betraying Frank and wanting his comfortable life back. Goran Parlov is definitely the best artist Ennis collaborated with on this run, and you can see why they went on to do Fury MAX together after this. Anyway, this finally brings my look at Punisher MAX to a close.  There is the prequel mini-series Punisher Born to come at some point in the future, but now I can close the book on one of the best mature reinventions of a classic Marvel character.  It's been one hell of a ride.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Alan Moore Obscurities: Providence (#1-4) NSFW

 NSFW/Trigger warning: images of full frontal male nudity and incest rape.

"It's the risk you run if you're a dreamer.  Fact and fancy get mixed up, and dreams can come to rule your waking circumstances" - Tom Malone

"Objection!"  This series which ran for twelve issues last year and is currently in the middle of of being collected is too new to be considered an obscurity, you say. I say, had you heard of it?  The fact I couldn't walk into Forbidden Planet and pick up this volume relying instead on Amazon and the fact it's another for the small publishing company Avatar Press really makes it an obscurity from the start.  Which is a shame because, at least on the basis of this first trade, it's something of a return to form for Moore.  Now I must iterate that I am writing this up before reading the next volume in the collection, but on the basis of these four issues we've got something rather good forming.  It's a return to the Lovecraftian themes that inspired the repugnant Neonomicon (links to a very NSFW post), but unlike that vile piece of filth this captures the subtle building horror that so defined Lovecraft's work and lacks the unpleasant reflections of the real Lovecraft's asexuality against a backdrop of extremely graphic rape and abuse. Set in the 1920's we follow a journalist called Robert Black who has decided to write a book based on the underbelly of American small time life and the sinister things he discovers as he keeps probing deeper.  Each chapter ends with text diary entries that at first seem like padding but actually start expanding the story in a most interesting fashion while allowing us to get to know Robert more intimately via his ruminations and theories. I'll be concentrating mainly on the comic portions which are drawn by the talented Jacen Burrows because adding in summaries of the prose sections would probably triple the length of this already lengthy post. So let's begin and see long Moore can hold out before the inevitable rape happens.

We begin in New York 1919, a man called Jonathan whose face we never see is standing on a bridge in a park tearing up some romantic letters and tossing the pieces over the railing.  Then we cut to the offices of the newspaper The Herald.  There the boss, an older man called Mr. Posey is lecturing the others - Prissy the secretary, journalist Mr. Dix and our protagonist journalist Robert Black - on how journalism is trailing in the gutter now thanks to the antics of Hearst.  Journalism was once known for its courage, now "it's a badge of shame is what it is."
Robert Black, foreground.
They have one half page left to fill for tomorrows edition, Dix suggests something on local legends like the Jersey Devil.  Prissy pipes up and asks Robert about the book she remembers hearing about that "sent everybody crazy". Robert says it's called "Sous Le Monde" back in the 1880's, Prissy says no, wasn't it called something like "The Yellow Thing?"

Robert says she means "The King In Yellow" by Robert Chambers, which was written round the turn of the century, which was based allegedly on the scandal round Sous Le Monde.  He decides he will investigate further because it'll get him out of the office and his bickering co-workers.  There is a doctor who lives locally who wrote an essay on it, so Robert looks up his address as they had previously interviewed his landlady on an unrelated matter and leaves. 

We then see Jonathan silently walking towards a building in the park, to jump slightly ahead, this is an "Exit Garden" where people can go to end their lives peacefully. As Robert walks we get some flashbacks, first to him as a young boy and our first hint that he is from a family of German Jewish immigrants as first they argue about what he'll be when he grows up, then him as a young man leaving for New York while his father asks him "what do they have in New York that's not in Milwaukee?"

He stops off an an automat to grab some lunch and bumps into a friend called Charles who asks if he is still seeing "Lillian?"  Robert says he and "Miss Russell" broke up, "it was getting too close for comfort".  Charles says he recalls Robert saying he was going to write a book wasn't he?  Robert says he's been doing lots of planning, very little writing, he doesn't have a subject yet to be truthful.

Robert: "I want something that cuts to the heart of this country and these times.  That's talks about things nobody's dared talk about before.  You know? Not just another slice of life in the City of Bachelors."

After that he leaves and we get more flashbacks.  Him getting the job at the Herald where Posey tells him his personal life is his own business and not to bring it to work.  Then him skulking down the docks.   Then a woman whose face we don't see introducing herself as "Lillian Russell".  Then him naked in Lillian's bedroom as he admires all her books.  Finally he arrives at where Dr. Alvarez is living.  The landlady, Mrs. Ortega, wearing a furcoat and nothing else, lets him in warning that it will be cold inside Mr. Alvarez's rooms.
Memories haunt Robert.
Alvarez introduces himself and says the primitive air conditioning is keeping the place cool for his health.  Robert says Alvarez wrote an essay about Sous Le Monde for a Spanish literary magazine and could he ask him about it.  Alvarez spots some underwear on the floor and picks it up.  Robert apologises for interrupting Alvarez and Mrs. Ortega's love-making.

Alvarez: "Love is the only substantial thing.  It is noble in its noises and its odours.  From where I look at this, to not love is to waste the existence.  Even life is a small matter beside it.  You see, it is not interrupted by death.  Without it, the world cannot be endured."

Another cut to Jonathan now inside the Exit Garden, choosing some music to listen to on the gramaphone.  Then back to Alvarez and Robert.   Robert asks him what attracted him to Sous Le Monde?

Alvarez says it has a mention of an Arab alchemical text which had connection to his work at the time, "Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya" which means "Book of the Wisdom of the Stars".  For many years it was considered a fiction, but Guillot, the author of Sous Le Monde has read it.  It linked with Alvarez's interests and work at the time.  That was the prolonging of life.  Guillot reported that the Arab text had four methods, two of which - reviving cadavers and transplanting souls - seemed mystical.  "Others, perhaps, were more scientific" says Alvarez.
Dr. Alvarez and Robert chat.
Robert asks if he had read the Arab book himself.  Alvarez says not the original, but he knew of a copy in America which proved authentic and Sous Le Monde had proved useful in that regard.  Alvarez then goes on to say he thinks as literature Chambers' The King In Yellow was better. He tells Robert that Chamber's book is almost prophecy, set in their times with a just concluded war with Germany and "the lethal chambers we have in New York now".  He then asks Robert about working for The Herald.

Alvarez: "Before my illness, I greatly admired its offices.  The statue of Athena, the brass owls with electric eyes flashing... 'Al-Hikman Al-Najmiyya', there, too, is wisdom among the twinkling stars, is it not?"

Robert says it's a lovely thought, then questions Alvarez about his illness, did it start in 1905?  Alvarez says it was then he and his colleague Doctor Este tested their proceedures on themselves, but Este died and he is now confined to his cold rooms.

He doesn't seem all that bothered by his predicament, "life does not trouble me".  Robert notes that most people in New York mind their own business.  Then Alvarez gives him an idea.

Alvarez: "In America, we are allowed our privacy, yes? We are allowed our secrets.  I have my secret and you have yours, I think other people, also. There is a concealed country, therefore, hidden below the society we show the world. Uncomfortable truth, it lurks behind our pretences. This truth, it is a land sunken beneath many fathoms.  Were it on day to rise and confront us all, what would you do, Mr Black?  What would any of us do?"

After a cut to the man overseeing Jonathan's death checking if he is dead at the Exit Garden, we return to Alvarez and Robert.  Getting ready to leave, Robert thanks him for giving him a lot to think about and then asks Alvarez about the tragedies surrounding Sous Le Monde.  Alvarez says it was just coincidence exploited by the publishers.  Robert says he guesses that sinks his story, but talk of the hidden America is an idea he'll be chewing over.
Alvarez bids Robert farewell.
Alvarez shakes his hand as says he hopes his words on love have sunk in as well, "we must never discard those we are loved by. Lacking them, we are cursed." He says without Mrs. Ortega his world would fall to peices and that he has enjoyed their lively conversation.  As Robert leaves, Mrs. Ortega asks him not to print any lies about Alvarez, Robert says he would never put anything dishonest to print.  She thanks him saying, "Dr. Alvarez, he is the loneliest people, in this world, no one is like him".

Robert walks down the street, it's night now.  He remembers a conversation with Lillian who had met Mr. Posey at a charity function and this has freaked out Robert for some reason.  Then we see him walking out on her because of this and she pleads with him, saying she loves him:

Lillian: "How can you be so cowardly? You hide your religion, you hide the truth about us... you cover your feelings, it's like you don't have any.  You're cold, Robert.  You're really cold."

And Robert finds his way back to The Herald.  Posey is bemoaning the laws that will become Prohibition and how they are a sop towards the women who will be voting for the first time.  Although he thinks even if they pass it, it won't be enforced.

Robert tells them there wasn't a story in the Sous Le Monde business after all but Alvarez himself might make an interesting story.  Dix then says he has filled the half page so they won't need a story afterall. It's about the man who ended it all that day in the Bryant Park Exit Garden.  Robert mutters to himself about how The King In Yellow predicted it, while Prissy and Dix look for the biography file.  Turns out his surname was "Russell".
Robert controls his emotions.
Robert freezes, his back to them.  Mr. Posey says he remembers Jonathan, a successful young lawyer and oh didn't he say he knew Robert to Posey once? Robert stammers that he knew him a little.  And as Posey wonders why a man like Jonathan Russell should want to end it all, we realise that Jonathan Russell was Lillian Russell was Robert's boyfriend and when Posey says they could dig around and look for a motive, Robert silently panics, and tells the first lie he can think of, that Jonathan read Sous Le Monde (his notes accompaying this chapter do confirm it was "Lily" who introduced him to Sous Le Monde but obviously it's not why he killed himself).  Dix says he can work that into the copy, Posey seems satisfied and with his back stilll to them Robert looks quietly saddened. The first chapter ends with Mrs Ortega knocking on Alvarez's door and shedding her fur coat to reveal her naked body for him.

We begin chapter two with a short flashback of Robert taking his leave of The Herald for now to start doing research for the book he's decided to write based on his conversation with Alvarez who told him a man called Suydam had the copy of the Arab alchemical book.  Posey wishes him good luck and says that The Herald has a police contact in Brooklyn he might want to speak to... and Robert is greeted by the very handsome Tom Malone who thanks Robert for his "eloquent letter".
Detective Tom Malone.
Robert shakes his hand saying he'd imagined someone older, Tom says because his letter mentioned Guillot and Chambers he's a man after his own heart.  He's had Robert meet him here in Red Hook because he wants to show Robert where Suydam works.  It's a church now used as mostly a dancehall and in the cellars underneath Suydamn lectures on Occult Philosophy.  Although from the noises "you'd think it was a witches' coven or an orgy".

Tom admits that he's studied mystical and mysterious texts and had thought policing Red Hook might be glamourous and exotic due to the mixture of people there, "in plain truth, Red Hook's a heaving slum, with nothing extraordinary about it."  After some chat about crime, and Robert admits he's here not as a journalist but researching a book and wants to try and track down the original alchemical text and Suydam who had a copy seemed the best place to start.  Robert says that he finds the idea of alchemists in modern America interesting.

Tom says he'd be interested in reading a book about that, they talk somemore about Suydam's love of underground spaces and Tom brings up Jung and how cellars and caves correspond to the unconcious mind.

Robert: "Well, if dreams are parts of us that we've hidden away or buried, I guess it makes sense."

They've been walking all this time and have travelled close to where Suydam lives.  Tom asks Robert to sit with him in a nearby cafe to watch out for Suydam when he comes out to take the air in the nearby park.

We jump forward a little in time and Robert has finished telling him about how the death of his "friend" had made him want to leave New York and if Suydam catches his imaginations he may never go back to The Herald. Sympathetically Tom slides his address over to Robert and when Robert goes to take it, Tom places his hand on top of Roberts telling him to come and see him if he writes the book or not.  Then he spots Suydam and Robert goes out to speak to him as Tom watches thoughtfully and drinks his coffee.
A significant touch.
Robert introduces himself to Suydam saying he is an occult scholar and Dr. Alvarez recommended him.  Suydam invites him back to his house, outside of which is a Kurdish man selling peacock feathers.  Inside Robert notes Suydam has a basement, Suydamn says it is unusable right now due to a gas leak.  Suydam says that his transcript of the Kitab Al-Hikmah Al-Najmiyya came from suppliers in Salem where there is a Brotherhood devoted to the book.

He says that his contacts in Salem and their associates are intrigued by a different world that may "precede or even underlie our own".  Robert asks if that means prehistoric remains buried under towns?

Suydam: "Not exactly.  It is more in the way that dreams or impulses of which we are not conciously aware may underlie our waking actions."

The Kitab explains it more fully, it is a book considered blasphemous and heretical amongst the Arab peoples.  Robert says Alvarez had said it was relevant to his work about proloning life and avoiding death.  Suydam says says the four methods concerned diet, temperature, transfer of the soul and finally revival of the cadaver of which the last interests him the most.
Suydam adds to Robert's knowledge.
Suydam then hands him a pamphlet on the Salem Brotherhood and tells him he's been dealing with them and buying their "folk artefacts" for forty years.  As he leafs through it, Robert asks him if he has anything concerning the Kabbalah, his grandfather had great respect for it.  Suydam says "rightly so.  Its mysteries are inexhaustible".  He says he is currently researching the "Qupoth" it's adverse aspect which includes beings such as "Lilith" and after telling him that "older Kabbalistic traditions... insist that dream and reality are part of the same sphere" he charges Robert a dollar for another pamphlet on the matter.

Then a woman comes in and Suydam says that his business with Robert is concluded.  Robert can stay and peruse more pamphlets and let himself out as Suydam has to hurry away to inspect some "merchandise".  Robert can let himself out.  But after they have gone, Robert is alone and as he makes to leave, he notices the basement door is open.  He walks downstairs and finds a torch on some shelves and sees a pentgram in a circle on the wall and a stone staircase leading down.
The black ocean under Suydam's house.

He walks down the steps and finds himself in a dank cave system, the floor is littered with human bones and skulls much to his horror.  Futher on he shines the torch out over a black ocean with strangely carved columns rising out of it.  Then suddenly a luminescent female humanoid yelling "HooHooHoo" at him starts chasing him, he runs losing his hat as he runs.  It get's closer and closed and he trips and falls and everything goes black...

....only for him to wake up on the basement floor, no steps down to be seen and no occult symbol on the wall.  Standing over him is a sympathetic Suydam and Miss Gerritsen.  Suydam says the fumes must have overcome him and he had a nightmare. Robert babbles about the cave and the ocean and being chased by Lilith, which Suydam puts down to his subconcious mind.

As he collects himself and leaves, he psychoanalyses himself, that Lilith was representative of Lily and the cave his subconcious guilt at not doing more to help her.  He then asks them if he had a hat when he came in?  Suydam and Miss Gerritsen say they didn't see one.  And that seems to satisfy him.  He waves them goodbye as they wish him well and the final image of the chapter is the three claw-mark like scars on the Kurdish seller's face.
After leaving a New York in the grips of what looks like a strike so severe Vaudeville are out on the streets, Robert arrives in Salem.  He's booked in at a nice looking hotel with a creepy manager who, like many locals has an unnervingly wide mouth, deep, wide-set eyes, small ears and sallow skin. Robert says he is hoping to find and talk to a man called Tobit Boggs who has a gold refinery there, he's a contact Suydam mentioned to him.

The creepy manager gives him directions and Robert makes his way there and overhears a weird conversation as two men are discussing some "considerable bounty" which has come into Boggs' possession which sound like it might just be about rare bottles and also well, something a lot more sinister.  Because when we see what they are, they are just bottles but have blobs inside them and tiny speech bubbles with unreadable text coming from a couple.  One of the other men quickly covers them up.
Tobit Boggs centre.
Boggs greets him with pleasure saying he has a card from Suydam saying he'd be coming to see him.  The other two men are leaving, one of them says bluntly to Robert that it "smells to me like you're a Jew, would that be right?"  Robert lies saying he might have Jewish ancestors, while the man tells him not to worry, he actually likes Jew smell.  His friend scolds him and Boggs laughs and shows them out while Robert sits meekly and waits.

Boggs returns and asks what Robert wants and Robert tells him he heard he had made a copy of an alchemical text about fifteen years ago.  Boggs said he it was "Hali's Booke" and he had "old Garland Wheatley from out Athol way write that out in Fair for me".  He was associating with The Order then before their split in 1912.  Robert is surprised The Order was still going strong then.

Boggs says they are still going strong today, 1912 was just when the schism happened, " 'course my folks hadn't been welcome since Granpappy Jack forty year afore that" Boggs goes on to say. Boggs says Captain Jack Boggs got into it via the other sea captains although it was when he brought back "Granma Pathithia-Lee" back with him that seemed to be when they turned against him.  Boggs says he can show the old sea tunnels to Robert if he wants and Robert says yes.

As they walk down the street Boggs tells Robert that his best bet as a next move would be to visit the Wheatley Clan out past Athol.  There's a bus tomorrow, then they both come across a swastika drawn in chalk on the pavement.  Boggs grumbles about the "big-eared, crowdy-eyed bastards" who did it, "they know this is our baptizin' season".  Robert asks what it is and Boggs says it's a symbol from India, and out on the islands it's known as bad luck "or worse".
An ominous sign.
He carefully walks round it saying that the waterfront folk have been shunned since Granma Pathithia-Lee, "people don't want different races breedin' together".  Robert commiserates with him saying people can be so primitive.  They arrive at their destination at the main refinery office.  There is Boggs' wife, she is from the islands herself, and has a very piscine appearance and speaks no English. 

Boggs tells Robert that the tunnels were mainly used by his Grandfather to bring immigrants from the islands, "it's how we look out for one another".  He opens a hatchdoor in the floor and tells Robert to go in first and he'll follow with the lamp.  As Boggs follows he rather overshares describing his wife as a "quite a catch" and "them island women... they don't mind it in the mouth or nothin'" Robert notes the tunnels seem ancient.

There are dirty pictures scrawled on the walls, which Boggs says were done mainly by the women.  It seems island women adapt to marriage with mainlanders better than the otherway round.  Captain Jack also read about the island in the Kitab.  They unlatch a heavy door and it opens out into a large cave with the sea, black and brooding in front of them.  Suddenly reminded of his "dream" of being chased by Lilith in the cave, Robert gets freaked out and so Boggs takes him back out and he takes his leave.
Some of Robert's dream.
That night he as a five page tour-de-force of a symbolic dream by Moore that I am quickly going to summarise as dealing with his grief at losing Jonathan/Lily, guilt over hiding his Jewishness, shame at his homosexuality, lots of fish related imagery including them all being gassed to death with piles of bodies under the images of swastikas in an Exit Garden and the owner of the Exit Garden saying he'll be getting to Robert soon enough, all wrapped up in puns and wordplay and just fantastic writing overall.  It ends with him getting into bed with Tom saying he wants to go to sleep and forget about it, does Tom love him enough to let him do that in peace?  Then he wakes up and all he can say is "the hell?"

Next day he catches the bus for Athol, as the bus makes its way along the coast road, one of the kids calls "howdy, all you sunk 'un ones! Howdy" to something moving in the water.  Robert asks if they are seals, then further words sputter out as everyone on the bus turns to look at him, all scowling all fishfaced.  Then the father says, yeah they're seals. And a freaked out Robert goes back to his to the parish magazine of the fishface people which has some piscine priest's fishy takes on parables and signs off with the cheery "Oannes keeps you safe within his mouth".
Creepy as fuck.
At the barber's shop in Athol, Robert collects some gossip on the Wheatleys, he's been in Athol a week and nobody can tell him much about them.  The barber says if he's after "Warlock Wheatley" he has a farm out on North Orange road, to be truthful.  They're poor as dirt, "and nobody round here thinks much of 'em".  Robert queries why he's called a "Warlock", the barber says folk call him that because he goes on like he's a medicine man.  He gives Robert directions there and off Robert goes.

As he walks there he reflects in a conversation he had with the local librarian, the Wheatleys came from Salem and most of the Wheatleys in Athol are fine, upstanding citizens but some branches are not. 

Librarian: "Bloodlines can degenerate over time. Intellectually, morally... even physically".

She doesn't know Garland Wheatley and if he's from the declining stock she doesn't want to. The way these people live, well, "it's nothing to shout about."

He arrives at the farm and there doesn't appear to be anyone around. He approaches the barn, then Garland Wheatley appears and tells him to move away, there's slaughtering done in that barn and blood soaks into Robert's shoes. He is surly and when Robert tells him Boggs suggested he come here and Garland says "that wall-eyed bastard owes me thirty bucks".
Meet Garland Wheatley.
Robert goes on to say he's writing a book and is interested the copy of Hali's Booke he copied for Boggs.  Garland says he hasn't seen it since 1912, "when ny privileges was took away."

Garland: "See, this society I belonged to give Saint Anselm college in Manchester a copy o'the book aroudn 1890. That was when they was havin' all their big ideas. Anways, we had a fallin' out.  They don't allow me in their library now."

He then grumbles some more about how they'd looked down on them and mentions a stone they brought back from farming land and they claimed it vanished before he could see it (shades of "The Colour Out Of Space" perhaps?).  He was bing shut out by the "blue-bloods" they have their own plan for the Order.  They want to fufill the "Redeemer prophecy" and the "poor relations wasn't consulted".

Robert notes that the Redeemer prophecy appears in Hali's Book. Garland says the Redeemer is the "feller gonna put the world to right again".  The Order decided it'd be one of their own then gave the book to St. Anselms, "reckon they were done with it."  But after a fire which destroyed pretty much all the books but never touched Hali's St. Anselms didn't want it either.

Garland bemoans their high-handedness and says he's a better "cunnin'-feller" that what they are.  He waited and when the Redeemer thing still hadn't happened in 1912 he put his proposal togther and he and his daughter Letty were immediately expelled from the society. Robert says it sounds like the prejudice he heard aimed at Boggs and Garland decides he can meet his daughter.
Garland's daughter Letty.
Robert is unsure, but Garland wants him to have the whole story and also it'll be good for Letty to see some new blood, "she's dreadful isolated".  Robert asks what happened to his wife, Garland says she was found with all her bones broken which happened right after he objected to the Order creating their own Redeemer.  After their expulsion Garland says they Order had enough influence to keep him away from the book.  So it's just you and your daughter says Robert.  Garland says, well there's also Letty's offspring, "could be us Wheatleys gets the last laugh over them gentlefolk an' their Redeemer".

Inside the house a dull looking woman called Letty is sitting at a table and doing some drawings.  She is happy to see Robert and Garland leaves them alone to chat.  Robert makes small talk about the renovations Garland told him they were having.  Letty says it's for her boy, he's getting too big for his shed.  Robert says that's Willard ins't it?  Letty says "Lord, what did I say?  I didn't say John-Divine did I?"

She then vehemently says John-Divine definitely isn't Willard's name and what is his book about?  He tells her and she offers him the pictures she's drawn saying a book should have pictures. Robert takes them politely and asks if she still sees the boy's father. 
Letty's drawing of "John-Divine"
Letty then reveals what happened, she only saw the father one time.   Her memories are hazy but she was taken up onto the hills by the Sentinel Elm.  Garland was present, although Letty says "he was and he weren't, kind of". She says her dad was like an inseminating syringe, "that's how he worked daddy".   She remembers the flowers and the nightjars and Garland saying "We'll show them stuck-up bastards".   Then he was having raping her and:

Letty: "He was... just big balls, you know?  Just hangin' there... It was fireworks, like what they say in the books.  The love.. fireworks right up to the sky".
Well done Alan, you managed to hold out until the fourth chapter
Garland then reappears and says Willard wants to see Robert and he's out in the shed, but he's got one of his "queer humours on him today".  Robert mustn't get riled by anything he says.  So tentatively Robert goes out to see him.

Inside the barn is a large male, he's a dark grey colour and a definite bestial aspect to him.  Robert says he's surprised he's not in college, Willard says he's six and-a-half and continues playing with the tesseract cubes he has.   Robert tries some small talk saying his mother and grandfather seem like nice people.

Willard: "They's a hindrance, thuh both of 'un.  On'y reason they's heeyun is cuz it's haow the story's gotta be. In the 'deener story, s'gotta be thuh crazy granpappy, un' thuh whaht-faced wunnun , un' thuh bad-lookin' bwoy.  Thet's whah ah ain't warmin' tuh yuh. Yur aht uv a diff'run story awlduhgethuh".

Confused Robert says "I-I am?" and Willard says yes and he thinks he's putting a spoke in the Wheatley's wheel.  Robert stammers that he is just here to meet his family.   Willard tells him to stick around and leaves.  So Robert takes a look around and sees a photo on the wall with Willard putting his arms round someone invisible.
Willard Wheatley.
Garland and Letty come in and Robert says he upset Willard.  They say he'll be better after his nap.   Garland starts to hurry Robert back to the road and Letty turns and says "Oh, mercy, what's he done?"  Robert turns to see her talking to some invisible beings.  Garland tells Robert "this is a personal family concern".

He takes Robert to the front gate and apologises to him.  Robert says that's fine and he he is grateful for telling him about Saint Anslem.  Garland says he'll be heading to Manchester then and hopes he has better luck than him.   He hopes "as you'll speak kindly of us Wheatleys when your books all done".  Robert says he can't wait to follow his new lead. They wish each other well and Robert sets off down the road back to Athol.  Bringing this chapter and the volume to and end with an excerpt from the HP Lovecraft story "The Ancient Track".
Robert heads back to his hotel, deep in thought.
So, I must reiterate, I am assessing these volumes as they come.  I haven't read volume 2, and will most likely have a full wrap up overall when I come to do the third and final volume.  So based on what we have so far, it's very good stuff, Moore on the best form he's been on for a long time.  It's full of those lovely ironies and juxtapositions Moore has always done so well.  The main one being that our protagonist is searching for a hidden America while he himself hides his religion and sexuality. In chapter one we have the comparison between the physically cold Dr. Alvarez who values his relationship with Mrs. Ortega above all else and believes that life cannot be endured without love, while the emotionally cold Robert abandoned Jonathan/Lily who killed himself because well, life cannot be endured without love.  We explore the symbolism of dreams in chapter two, but that is used to create the lie he didn't have a genuine real life experience down in the caves under Suydam's house.  And of course in chapter three his epic dream is screaming out all sorts of things he is being somewhat naive about as well as acting as prophecy for the Holocaust.  Lovecraft used fish people breeding with normal humans in "The Shadows Over Innsmouth" as being symbolic of his fear of racial mixing because he was a massive racist.  But chapter three asks us how people might react to their fish people neighbours and ironically it's with social exclusion and out-and-out racism, the fish people and their mixed offspring are creepy no doubt, but seem to be harmless and although they peg Robert as a Jew, show no prejudice towards him. They're just living their lives, raising their kids and though of course future issues could show them as actively evil, so far they seem innocent enough.  The same can't be said for the unpleasant Garland Wheatley, raping his daughter despite acting as the physical embodiment of somekind of god himself, he still planned and executed it.  That said, I find this rape justified by the context it takes place in and has interesting ramifications in the half-god "Dunwich Horror" son/s, Willard or John-Divine. Finally let me praise the artwork of Jacen Burrows.  He has a hard task, he's locked into a four panel layout with the occasional half or full page panel.  Yet he manages to block his scenes so the talky stuff is compelling to follow as well as capturing the era beautifully and giving us fine facial and body language.  Although it's only four issues collected, the inclusion of Robert's notes, the excerpt of the pamphlet on The Order and the fish people's church magazine means you get plenty of material for your money and I am eagerly awaiting the next installment which of course will be chronicled here.