Portraits In Alienated British Youth Circa 1989-90, Part Eighteen:

What’s To Like?

The image above comes directly from the festering cesspool that swirls in the mind of Dave, the protagonist in John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Straitgate. Okay, sure — if we want to be absolutely technical about things it comes from the festering cesspool swirling in the minds of Dave’s creators, but why dwell on that semi-uncomfortable reality? Instead, do me —and yourself, assuming you want to keep up here — a favor: don’t just look at this illustration, read the caption boxes.

Goddamn but this Dave kid is one self-absorbed little prick, is he not? Here’s a guy who’s never had to worry about where his next meal is coming from, who’s got a place to live and a job, who’s got friends (barely), and who’s got his whole life ahead of him, and yet he not only believes himself to be some sort of martyr, he actively relishes his (entirely self-declared) status as such.

What a fuckwad, huh?

This visual and literary representation of Dave’s “woe-is-me” outlook comes from Straitgate’s fifth and final chapter, “Deuteronomy,” but his invented victimhood is a constant theme that runs throughout the strip, and therein lies a crucial distinction between this comic and the prior two that we’ve placed “under the miscrscope” in this seemingly-endless-at-this-point series of write-ups, Grant Morrison and Paul Grist’s St. Swithin’s Day and Garth Ennis and Warren Pleece’s True Faith : our protagonist this time out is really not a very sympathetic character at all.

Oh, sure, Grant and Paul’s nameless teen and Garth and Warren’s Nigel had their flaws, but by and large they were conceived of, and presented as, people that their readers could at the very least identify with in part, and perhaps even philosophically “get behind” : they were decent kids with their hearts in the right places who were caught up in crazy situations that, admittedly, were either partially (in the case of True Faith) or entirely (in the case of St. Swithin’s Day) of their own creation, but dang — at the end of the day they probably both meant well enough, didn’t they?  And besides, who didn’t screw up or get in over the heads once in a while when they were that age?

With Straitgate, however, things aren’t nearly so cut-and-dried. True, there are times when Smith and Phillips present situations where readers may feel a modicum of temporary sympathy for Dave, but he usually reverts back to form pretty quickly and sends us scurrying from the “feel sorry for him” camp and back into the “man, this dude’s a creep” camp in fairly short order. And while it’s tempting to “give him a pass,” as it were, due to his obvious mental health issues, certain key instances — which we’ll be examining starting next time out when we commence with our blow-by-blow analysis of each chapter of this story — show that he wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of very good company even if he weren’t cracking up.

Is Dave presented as something of an “anti-hero” of sorts, then? Sorry, nothing so glamorous — or easy — is on offer here. If the tone Smith and Phillips take in regards to their central character could be described in one word, it would perhaps be clinical. Dave’s situation is in no way romanticized, nor is it subjected to heavy-handed judgments and editorializing. He’s presented as neither saint nor villain. And while the entire story is related from his own point of view and via the narrative device of his own internal monologue, the disassociation between how he sees things and how they actually are is always stark and apparent. Straitgate, then, isn’t so much an exploration of its troubled (and troubling) protagonist as it is an examination of him.

For that reason — among many others, I’ll grant you — this may be a tricky strip for a lot of people to “get into.” But for those of us who enjoy the challenge of being presented with difficult people going through difficult sets of circumstances fraught with difficult implications in service of  extremely difficult endings, well — warped sons of bitches like us really couldn’t ask for more than what we’re given here. And “what we’re given here” is what we’ll be taking a close, detailed look at starting in our next segment.

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at trashfilmguru.wordpress.com, and writes about films and comics for sites such as unobtainium13.com, dailygrindhouse.com, geekyuniverse.com, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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