The first two chapters of John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Straitgate, which ran back-to-back in issue number fifty of the UK comics anthology magazine Crisis, may not have been given pride of place on the cover (that honor went to Carlos Sampayo and Oscar Zarate’s jazz-themed story No Messing With Rupert), but they were “first out of the gate,” so to speak, in terms of where they were presented inside the book, and while the striking title-page images that Phillips designed for the series may not have reflected actual events taking place in the chapters they announced any more than the Biblically-inspired titles do (they do, however, reflect a distinct Bill Sienkiewicz influence), they went about their task of drawing the reader into the story with a fair amount of vigorous panache and set the table, so to speak, for the idea that this was certainly not going to be a garden-variety strip. They pushed the limits visually and established a tone for the story that let the reader know, on an intuitive level, that he or she was most definitely not in Kansas anymore.
As to where we were, that can be most easily answered as “Anytown, United Kingdom,” since a precise geographical location is never given here in “Genesis,” nor, indeed, in subsequent installments. Not that it really matters, mind you. The idea here is that this could be happening anywhere, and that our beyond-troubled protagonist, Dave, could be anyone.
Indeed, the only thing remarkable about Dave’s work routine, which we are exposed to before anything else, is how absolutely unremarkable it is: he’s a cashier at a supermarket and does what almost anyone in his position would do, which is to say, his mind wanders. In fact, it wanders a lot.
It’s where it wanders, though, that sets Dave apart from the kid who rang you up at Publix or Piggly Wiggly or wherever the other day — or at least we should all hope so. Because if your average grocery store worker has imagination like this, then sooner or later we’re all in very deep trouble.
Our first step into Dave’s inner world begins routinely enough, with him informing us that “This is what it’s like. Day in, day out. Even the weekends are the same” — certainly a thought that anyone who’s ever worked a retail gig can relate to. But things quickly take a turn for the considerably darker, and by the second page he’s imagining violently murdering one of his customers while confessing that “Sometimes I want to scream at them. I want to shake them and spit in their faces and tell them to wake up, to look around and open their bloody eyes.”
If it’s any consolation, though, no sooner does this notion pass through his ever-flowing stream of consciousness than he backs away from it, admitting, “But that’s a crazy thing to do, so I don’t.” Thank goodness for small favors, I guess.
Still, it’s not long — in fact, not even a page — before his inner psychopath is back in the driver’s seat and he’s picturing himself strangling an old woman and calling her every name in the book while attempting to savagely “educate” her at the same time. Watching him shouting “You bitch you stupid fat slag they’re drowning you they’re eating your brains why can’t you see what they’re doing to you?” while, over on this side of the “reality fence” he asks her for “thirty eight pound twenty, please,” is a harrowing juxtaposition, to say the least.
Things get even stranger on his walk home at the end of his shift, where a dog turns around and asks him “what are you staring at, queerboy?” — our first hint that a tortured inability to come to terms with his sexuality might be at the heart of his problems — and this sidestep into the surreal continues to play out over the course of the next page even as his narration veers back into some full—scale morose shit, with Dave next picturing himself as a tortured outsider on a sun-drenched tropical beach before his mind conjures up an image, for reasons I can scarcely fathom, of a white horse with blood protruding from its mouth, while he divulges to us lucky readers that he has a secret power to “see the cracks in people. In things.” He also lets us know that this special ability is, as all things in his life appear to be, “a curse.”
Finally back home, we’re introduced to Dave’s landlady, one Mrs. Reardon, who informs him that an ostensible friend of his named Carol — who we never do get to meet — called while he was out, and that she’s been thinking of getting a part-time job herself, just to pass the time for an evening or two during the week. She seems like a kindly enough woman — until Dave lets us in on the fact that “Her family was killed in a fire two years ago. She said that the worst thing was that she could smell them burning. Cooking in the bedroom. She said it made her salivate.”
Uhhmmmm — okay. Not something I’d personally ever admit to anyone even if it were true, but that’s Straitgate for you: everything it played for shock value, plausibility be damned.
“Genesis” ends with a full-page splash of Dave sitting on his bed, his hand tucked inside his briefs, soaking in the glare of his television. His wall is plastered with cut-up newspaper headlines of various tragedies, disasters, and crimes. He doesn’t get a joke the presenter is cracking on the tube and lets us know that “people say I take things too seriously.” Gee —ya think?
Not to worry, though, friends, since things get even more serious in chapter two, “Exodus” — and that’s what we’ll be taking a look at in our next installment.