Hard as it may be to believe, Dave, the troubled-to-put-mildly “star” of John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Straitgate, does, in fact, have friends. In fact, if you’ll recall, we met a few of them back in the strip’s second installment, Exodus — and got clued into the fact that one of them in particular, a university student named Phil, even popped up on occasion in our protagonist’s sexual fantasies (sorry, Phil, you probably deserve better) — but as chapter four, Numbers (which originally ran in Crisis #52, cover-dated November, 1990) opens up, Dave is getting ready to meet Phil without their other friends tagging along, and he seems to be putting an awful lot of extra effort into getting himself prepared for the evening. In fact, when you consider that he goes and gets a haircut, buys himself a new shirt, and even goes to the library to bone up on current events, take copious notes, and — get this — memorize interesting things to say (particularly on the subjects of ESP and murder since, according to Dave, “those are the two things that really fascinate people”), you could be forgiven for thinking that he’s treating the whole thing like an honest-to-goodness date.
So — is Dave gay? Well, yeah, I should think that’s pretty obvious. And it is. To everyone but himself.
Shit, Dave even seems downright petrified of gay people, and makes it a point to let us know precisely that via his internal monologue, warning readers that “libraries are breeding grounds for homosexuals” (don’t worry, he only stays there for about an hour). As disturbing as our protagonist’s sexual confusion may be, though, he’s actually got an even bigger problem — the “slow hitman” (also first referenced in part two) is back, and he’s a creepy old fuck dressed in a clown costume.
This is actually a cleverly effective realization of Dave’s neurotic “other self” since, contrary to the old saying, everybody actually hates a clown. In fact, they scare the living shit out of a lot of people (including my wife, who’s been absolutely terrified of them since childhood). And this particular clown is a real nuisance — hell, he even tags along for the big let’s-not-call-it-a-date with Phil. Needless to say, things don’t go well.
Which isn’t to say that they don’t appear promising at the start of the evening — as our two (okay, three, if we’re counting the “slow hitman”) characters stroll leisurely through the park at sunset, Phillips treats us to a lush splash-page of watercolor flowers, but as the conversation heads south, the art gets progressively darker — in fact, it’s hard to tell whether or not Phil views Dave with pity, or with a measure of outright disdain. When he tells him “all that stuff about murder and war — I grew out of that stuff five years ago. When I gave up watching (old-school, given this series’ 1990 publication date) Doctor Who. Sometimes I can still imagine you looking through James Herbert books just for the bits with sex in (them),” you’ve gotta figure that maybe it’s both.
Still, with the “slow hitman” silently egging him on as he hangs, sloth-like, from a tree, Dave presses on despite his reservations. “I stare at Phil,” he informs us, “at the blue vein in his throat. At the fine hairs above his top lip. Remember when we were kids? The time we dug up an ants’ nest on the waste ground behind the garages? I slipped and put my foot in it. I’ve been putting my foot in it ever since” — and then, of course, he proceeds to do exactly that, looking downcast as he asks Phil “what would you do, right —what would you do if I said I loved you?”
Truth be told, we don’t know exactly what Phil does after this “big announcement”— but the increasingly distant view of Dave standing by himself as Phillips “pans away” from him before submerging him into complete darkness for a panel and then breaking out of said darkness by showing us an out-and-out gaggle of laughing clowns silently mocking him and the sidewalk under his feet running red with blood is a pretty solid (and quite Lynch-ian) clue that things didn’t go well, and when next we return to what passes for consensus reality in these pages, Dave’s alone in a dingy public restroom bemoaning the fact that “you were the only one who understood me. I’d have burned for you. I’d have burned.” But before you feel too bad for him, consider that this rejection may, in fact, be what he was after all along — heck, he even states, earlier on the same page, and in no uncertain terms, that “I always wanted to be a martyr.” It should perhaps come as no surprise, then, that when he finally pulls himself together and looks in the mirror, the “slow hitman” is looking back at him.
Quite obviously, yet another psychological break has occurred here, but hey — having your affections rebuffed always sucks, so Dave does his level best in the “quick rebound” department by calling a number that he scribbles down off the wall of the men’s room stall he was just in and gives the old “anonymous hook-up” routine a go — only to immediately hang up when the dude who answers the phone turns out to be fifty-three years old. Oh well — even if things had worked out, Dave’s feeling that “I’ve died and nobody’s come to my funeral” would probably only go away for so long.
As this highly cinematic and harrowingly effective installment comes to a close, Dave is attempting to jerk off to some (straight, it may be worth noting) porn in his room, but he’s too pre-occupied with the idea that “everything seems to be against me” to enjoy himself much, and as the downstairs phone “starts ringing and doesn’t stop,” he candidly confesses that he’s heading “down into darkness. Out of the blue. And into the black.”
We’ll find out just how black things get when we take a look at the — and I don’t say this lightly — unforgettable final chapter of Straitgate in our next installment.