Friday 21 May 2010

The Stark Stooges

I posted something a month or two back about the Stark Cutaways – the part in every Parker novel (or at least the eight I've read so far) where Richard Stark/Donald Westlake cuts away from the main action to fill in some back story or follow a different but still-related strand of the story. To a greater or lesser extent, these cutaways always focus on some hapless individual who's causing Parker problems, intentionally or inadvertently. Let's call 'em the Stark Stooges.

The first Stark Stooge is, of course, Mal Resnick, the guy who double-crosses Parker in the first novel in the series, The Hunter/Point Blank. Once he learns Parker's on his tail, Mal spends his cutaway trying first to get the Outfit (the crime syndicate that plagues Parker throughout the books) to protect him, and then... well, laying low with a hooker in a hotel room. Good plan there, Mal. Just as Parker comes for him, we flash back to the aftermath of the heist that set events in motion and Mal's betrayal of Parker, using Parker's wife Lynne as his instrument. Goes without saying, really, but: shouldn't have messed with Parker's moll, Mal...

Point Blank is obviously a terrific book, but Mal is a pretty loathsome individual, even for a career criminal; he's self-centred, sadistic and a coward, so it's no great shame when he gets his comeuppance. But the Stark Stooge in the second book, The Man with the Getaway Face, is much more sympathetic, mostly because he's so hopelessly dumb. Stubbs is a former Communist party activist who got thumped on the head one too many times as a younger man and as a result stumbles through life in a perennially befuddled state. He blunders into Parker's life after Parker gets plastic surgery on his face and the surgeon who performed the operation is subsequently murdered by a different patient.

So Stubbs embarks on a woozy manhunt, with Parker being one of the names on his shortlist of suspects. He catches up with Parker in the planning stages of a heist; Parker doesn't particularly want to kill Stubbs, so he puts him on ice, locking him in a shack in the middle of nowhere. But when Parker returns to the shack after the robbery, Stubbs has escaped, which is where the Stark Cutaway kicks in and we find out what Stubbs has been up to. This, for me, is the best part of the novel; witnessing Stubbs' plodding, fuzzy but methodical progress as he searches for the next name on the list. Needless to say, as with pretty much all the Stark Stooges, it doesn't end well for him...

The next Stark Cutaway in the third novel, The Outfit, is split between the various criminals who respond to Parker's letter-writing campaign asking them to hit the Outfit, and the target of Parker's ire, Outfit boss Bronson. Bronson is the Stark Stooge here, a miserable figure who's reached the top of the tree but takes little pleasure in his position, pacing around his ugly mansion, waiting for Parker to catch up with him. It's almost a relief when he does.

More unusual is the stooge in the fourth book, The Mourner: Auguste Menlo. Menlo is an odd fit for a Parker book. He's an Eastern European intelligence agent, sent to America to look into the actions of diplomat Kapor, who's been squirreling away cash with the intention of absconding. Menlo is educated, clever and ruthless, but also rather charming, so his (altered) mission to get his hands on the cash instead and defect himself is actually quite compelling. It's easier to root for Menlo than for previous stooges, which makes his ultimate downfall as affecting in its own way as that of Stubbs. Even so, Menlo is so different to the usual protagonists of the Parker novels that he feels somewhat unlikely; by my reckoning Stubbs is still the more believable and therefore sympathetic stooge.

Our next Stark Stooge, Edgars, in the fifth novel, The Score, is probably the least interesting stooge so far, which is odd, as the book itself is one of the best in the series. But his motivation is simplistic (basically revenge on the town Parker's crew hit), and he's overshadowed by the heist itself, which is glorious and bloody. But the main Stark Stooge in the following book, The Jugger, is much better. Captain Abner Younger is the police chief of the small town where Parker's 'mailbox' (i.e. how other criminals contact Parker), Joe Sheer, has retired. In fact we get two stooges for the price of one in The Jugger: in a flashback the previously opaque Sheer is fleshed out, as Younger discovers who he is and proceeds to blackmail and eventually torture Sheer in the hopes of getting his hands on Sheer's money. Even by the standards of Mal Resnick and Bronson, Younger is a real son-of-a-bitch. When he gets his, in Stark's standard matter-of-fact manner, I almost stood up and cheered.

The Stark Stooge in The Seventh (a.k.a. The Split) stands out by dint of something Westlake doesn't do: name him. (Westlake even has some fun with this, having characters state that it doesn't matter what the stooge's name is – and indeed it doesn't.) This un-monikered chancer careens into Parker's world after he kills Parker's bit of fluff (actually Nameless Stooge's ex-girlfriend) and makes off with the proceeds of Parker and his crew's latest heist. The result is the biggest bloodbath so far, as Parker and co. hunt for Mr. No Name and eventually turn on each other. The way this nobody, by no means a professional criminal, continually frustrates Parker is fascinating to watch, and becomes almost comical when it emerges he gets terrified and freezes during shootouts. The murder of his ex aside, Nameless Stooge is probably the closest character to the average Stark reader in the series so far; it's all too easy to imagine yourself in the nameless one's shoes at the end of the book, being pursued relentlessly by Parker through the woods.

The eighth Parker novel, The Handle (and the last one I've read to date), brings us Baron, owner of the island of Cockaigne off the coast of Texas and the casino that sits on the island. Baron is, in fact, an actual baron, who escaped from Germany after the war with his ill-gotten gains and eventually got involved with the Cubans, who set him up on his island. Baron is similar to Menlo from The Mourner; a more sophisticated and urbane foil for Parker. Although 'foil' isn't entirely accurate: Parker never really confronts Baron, although he is, at one point, shot by him. The fun with Baron is following him after the apocalyptic heist on his island, as he makes his escape in a boat and then to Mexico, meeting his unfortunate fate at the hands of a couple of peasants: class warfare, Richard Stark-style.

And those are the Stark Stooges thus far. Next up for me (after I finish the first Alan Grofield novel, The Damsel) is The Rare Coin Score. Wonder which type of stooge we'll get this time...?

(Some images 'borrowed' from The Violent World of Parker. Hope you don't mind...)

Thursday 20 May 2010

Extra Comics

So I didn't buy Jim Woodring's Weathercraft – I flicked through it in the shop but, lovely though it looked, I couldn't bring myself to part with fifteen quid for a 100-page graphic novel that'll take about half an hour to read because it is, like most of Woodring's comics, 'silent'. It also looked really similar to another Woodring comic I already own where Manhog becomes civilized and ends up in a bathrobe; whereas in Weathercraft it looks like he attains enlightenment... and ends up in a bathrobe.

So I passed, for the moment. Instead, as well as the four comics I said I'd buy, I bought a couple of extra DC comics. Namely:

That's Jim Lee's variant cover for Legion of Super-Heroes #1. Yes, despite my protestations, it seems I am still a sucker for a variant cover. And weirdly, I don't even particularly like this cover. And also weirdly, I don't particularly like the Legion either. I've enjoyed the odd comic with them in, but the supposed glory years of the Legion – some of which were written by newly-ex-DC publisher Paul Levitz, the writer on this new series – passed me by completely. I remember my friend Wayne from school being really into the Legion, but I think I was more into Captain America or Batman at the time. The Legion seemed like this weird soap opera-y thing with lots of heroes with daft names like Bouncing Boy and Dream Girl and Lightning Lad and Alan Ladd. So I don't really know why I picked up this new #1. Clearly there's something wrong with me.

I also got this:

Which is the first issue of a ten-issue maxiseries called DC Universe Legacies #1. I've got a stronger reason for picking this one up (well, it couldn't be much weaker, could it?), which is, one of the things I've always liked about DC is the sprawling interconnectedness of the DC Universe. It was Crisis on Infinite Earths that got me hooked on that, where hundreds of superheroes, many of whom I'd never even heard of, were crammed together in one massive story with the fate of the universe in the balance. Even though I didn't know who the Crime Syndicate of America were, it was still pretty shocking to see them get swallowed up by a wall of nothingness and blink out of existence in the first issue of Crisis.

Over the years I read more and more DC comics, and became immersed in the complexity of the DCU, to the extent that I had a pretty firm working knowledge of continuity and the various changes to it wrought by Crisis and subsequent events like Zero Hour. So the idea of a maxiseries like Legacies, which looks like it'll chart the history of the DCU as the continuity currently stands, does appeal to me.

Mind you, if it's crap, I won't be getting the second issue.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Parker Progress Report: The Split, The Handle, and The Outfit (The Movie)

Eight books down now on my Richard Stark/Donald Westlake Parker novel marathon. I just finished #8, The Handle, which was a fairly straightforward heist tale with a few swerves to keep things interesting. Parker getting involved with the FBI struck me as slightly unlikely in this one; I'm pretty sure the Parker of earlier novels would have cut and run at the sight of the Feds, no matter how badly he needed money. But what the hell: it made for an interesting set-up. I was sad to see a semi-regular cohort bite the dust, but on the upside Alan Grofield gets a fairly meaty part in The Handle. I've just started reading the first solo Grofield novel, The Damsel, which follows on directly from The Handle, so it'll be interesting to compare that to the Parker books.

The Split
(a.k.a. The Seventh), Parker #7, was even better than The Handle. The runaround that Parker experiences at the hands of the nameless murderer is almost comical; it's funny to watch Parker seething that such an obviously incompetent criminal can cause him such a headache. It reminded me of poor old Stubbs in The Man with the Getaway Face. I really liked the final business in the woods at the end of the novel, and Westlake's parting shot, as Parker works out how much money is left. Brilliant stuff. You gotta feel for the rest of Parker's crew in the aftermath of the college football game heist though...

And I finally got round to watching the 1973 movie version of The Outfit. It's surprisingly faithful, with many of the beats of the novel translated almost verbatim. Also, Robert Duvall doesn't really look like Parker but he sure acts like him. He's abrupt almost to the point of monosyllabic in places, which is in keeping, although he does display a certain amount of tenderness to his girlfriend. I haven't seen that side of Parker in the novels yet, but perhaps it's coming – I think he hooks up with his squeeze, Claire, in the next one, The Rare Coin Score.

Anyway, other than the addition of a girlf, the other major change in the film of The Outfit is that Parker – or rather Earl Macklin as he's called in the movie – and Handy – or rather Cody – take all the scores themselves, rather than other criminals doing them. That alteration makes sense though: it gives the film more of a standalone feel, and a straightforward through-line. It took a little while for me to get used to the relaxed pace of the film (the occasional burst of excitement aside), but overall it's a pretty decent piece of '70s crime moviemaking.

Listifaction Time... Listification Time...

Looks like a fairly decent week for new comics this week. I count four definites for me, plus a graphic novel I'd like to get if it arrives, plus a few other comics I'll flick through. I can't be arsed to list the 'maybes' today though, so let's just look at the 'definites', shall we? Yes, let's.

Marvel launch their 'Heroic Age' thingy with this Brian Michael Bendis-written/John Romita Jr.-drawn new series. Woo hoo. Should be pretty good actually, although there's eight variant covers on this one, including the main cover. Eight! That's ridiculous. Silly old Marvel. Mind you, I like the sound of the 'Avengers Party Gatefold Cover'... No! Noooo! Resist! Resssiiiissssttt!

Ex Machina #49
Penultimate issue! I'll be sad to see this one go. Hope Brian K. Vaughan's got something new lined up. This and his Y: The Last Man were two of the best ongoing titles throughout the noughties.

Invincible Iron Man
Always solid this.

Walking Dead
And this.

This is the graphic novel I mentioned, Jim Woodring's Weathercraft, which is his first full graphic novel (it sez 'ere). I've read a fair few of Woodring's Frank comics, and they're weirdly compelling, although they generally leave you feeling slightly wrong, as awful things tend to befall the characters. I like feeling wrong though. Is that wrong?

Monday 17 May 2010

EXCLUSIVE: Spandex Issue #2!

Mart has just sent out a press release for his second issue of Spandex, the gay superhero comic that caused quite a kerfuffle when it launched last year. Issue #2 will be on sale in time for the Bristol comics festy thing later this month, but there are a few preview pages with the press release, so I thought I'd re-post them – the first time anywhere on the web (er, right Mart?). It's looking utterly splendid. I love the Queen peeping out of the window of Buckingham Palace in that second page. (More info on Spandex here.)