Debuting in the pages of the well-regarded (and, at least by some of us, much-missed) British comics anthology series Crisis — specifically in issue number 50, cover-dated September, 1990 — John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Straitgate was a decidedly unique reading experience, to say the least. The two creators had teamed up previously to put the finishing touches on New Statesmen, a long-running dystopian sci-fi superhero fable that Smith had initially undertaken with veteran artist Jim Baikie, and the result was an ending that felt not just rushed, but completely out of left field. Still, their collaboration was enough to make an impression with Crisis editor Steve McManus, who was keen to see the tandem offer him something new and different, and I would think that the tale of an anti-social closeted gay youth with both homicidal and suicidal impulses would fit that bill quite nicely. In fact, it may have been more than McManus bargained for.
Critical reviews and analyses of Straitgate — and, indeed, entire reprinted segments of the strip itself — are reasonably easy to come by online, but anecdotes relating to its origin are curiously scarce. The series seems to have accrued something of a “cult classic” status over the years due to its unflinching subject matter and the fact that’s it’s never been collected or reprinted (and, yeah, it’s probably never been collected or reprinted because of its unflinching subject matter), but we’re in luck here since a British acquaintance of mine was kind enough to email me some scans of an interview Smith and Phillips did for Speakeasy, a semi-legendary UK fanzine, that I’m assuming saw print at some point very near to the strip’s initial publication. Mind you, I can’t be absolutely certain of that fact, given that my correspondent didn’t have the complete issue (crucially, the cover was missing), but even if (okay, it’s not an “if”) I haven’t got the exact publication date handy, and even again-it’s-not-an “if” I can’t find any reference to this interview via Google, Bing, or any other search engine you care to mention, I still think it’s fairly reasonable for us to infer by means of logical deduction that it took place at some point during the middle, or towards the tail end, of 1990 — so let’s just go with that and hope it’s reasonably accurate, shall we?
The interview took place at a bar and takes the form of a fairly free-wheeling conversation, but despite — or perhaps because — of the fact that all the participants had a few drinks in them, some interesting nuggets of information were revealed. First off, Smith tosses self-deprecation and false modesty out the window almost immediately by referring to himself as “the most under-rated writer in British comics,” and I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at that because not only was it true at the time, one could make a pretty convincing argument that it remains true to this day. Secondly, the author reveals his sexual orientation without a hint of hesitancy, and while it’s certainly “no big deal” to “come out” as gay in a public forum these days — nor should it ever have been — the simple fact is that in 1990, that took no small amount of courage, so overall the impression one gets of John Smith at that time is that he was a very confident young man (he’d have been 23 years old at the time).
And, shit — why shouldn’t he have been? Granted, his three previous “major” efforts — Tyranny Rex, Indigo Prime, and the aforementioned New Statesmen — all had their flaws, to be sure, but by and large they were reasonably well-received by both critics and readers, and, as we’ve already explored in my series devoted to Scarab last year, at this point (though he doesn’t make mention of it in this interview), he’d already been invited by DC to “pitch” whatever ideas he may have had brewing in his mind regarding John Constantine, Hellblazer, and editor Stuart Moore had strongly considered handing him the reigns to that very popular title before eventually settling on Garth Ennis as his new scribe instead. So, yeah, the John Smith of 1990 could well be forgiven for thinking that the comics world was his oyster.
Artist Sean Phillips — who, in actuality, would go on to become the “comic book superstar” of the pair — comes off, perhaps ironically, as the duo’s more subdued half, but there’s no doubt that both creators had big, ambitious plans going forward. And while Phillips certainly doesn’t make any waves in the interview, he doesn’t contradict his creative partner when he does — and by making waves, I’m not referring to Smith’s perhaps overly-candid revelation that his “masturbatory fantasies are totally degrading to animals, vegetables, and minerals,” but to his blunt statement that he was “pissed off” that the ending for Straitgate was “changed at the 11th hour.” In the closest thing the author offers to an olive branch, he says that “he can appreciate that Steve McManus has to be careful about what he runs in Crisis,” but the overall impression readers are left with is of a writer who is not-so-quietly fuming over what he perceives to be editorial cowardice.
Still, rather than take appear to take exception to his young-at-the-time phenom’s directness, McManus seems to have taken it as part and parcel of his charge’s rebellious nature, as evidenced by the fact that on the inside front cover of Crisis #50, Straitgate is touted as “a tale of loneliness, convenience shopping, and random violence from the ‘enfants terrible’ of British comics” — which, all told, is a fairly accurate description of the strip, even if it leaves out mention of the its admittedly forced Biblical references (which Smith admits in the interview he inserted for “pretension value”), and the blurring between fantasy and reality that is at the core of the story from the outset. Rest assured, however, dear reader, that we most certainly will get into all that in our series of articles here, though, since Sequart isn’t limiting my commentary to a single blurb — no matter how much you might wish they would.
And speaking of commentary, I may as well dispense with any sort of pretense toward that mythic beast known as “neutrality” right now and admit that I just plain love all of Straitgate, from its first page to its last. This is confrontational, in-your-face storytelling that doesn’t seek to do anything apart from tell its admittedly unpleasant tale in as honest a fashion as possible and then get the fuck out before it’s forced to consider its own ramifications. It doesn’t have a larger political point to make, unlike the previous stories we’ve covered in this series (St. Swithin’s Day and True Faith, in case it’s been so long that you’d forgotten), nor does it lean on the crutch of having at least a semi-likable central protagonist. That would just be too damn easy, and while there are certainly times when you can empathize with our ostensible anti-hero (for lack of a better term), Dave, but there are just as many occasions where you’ll feel he’s disgusting, pathetic, inhuman, or some combination of all three. Smith and Phillips don’t seem to care what you think of their character, in fact — their only goal is to “go too far” and leave you to sort out the mess for yourself.
And “go too far” they certainly did. But maybe it’s best if we start to explore precisely how and why that’s the case in out next segment here. For the time being I’ll just say this much — considering how Straitgate not only ends, but begins and middles as well, I do have to wonder just how crazy the original conclusion, before McManus ordered it “changed at the 11th hour,” really was — so John Smith, if by some chance you happen to be reading this, do get in touch!