Well — hello again! An observant acquaintance on twitter recently remarked to me that he “hoped I’d get back to (my) ‘Portraits In Alienated British Youth’ series at some point,” and I had to make a glaring confession — I honestly thought I’d finished it already! I quickly went back through my saved documents, though, and discovered that, much to my chagrin, he was absolutely right. I left things hanging after a piece on the penultimate chapter of John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Staitgate and never wrote about the conclusion. All I can say is — my bad. I’ve been busy. Obviously too busy. Still, that’s no excuse. You’d think I could at least keep track of where I am with the various writing projects I’m constantly juggling, but evidently that basic responsibility is too much for me to handle. I aim to make up for lost time, though, and get this everything wrapped up (this installment plus one more) in a single afternoon, though, so let’s get on with it, shall we? And hey — in my defense (meager as it may be), Straitgate itself is now over a quarter-century old and we still don’t know how it really ends, either. But we’ll get to all that in good time here —
When we left things off an unconscionable five fucking months ago, our troubled (to say the least) young protagonist, Dave, appeared to finally be disassociating from reality completely, and not in the fun way. Rejection from the object of his would-be affections appeared to be the straw breaking this particular camel’s back, but a visit from his old imaginary “friend,” the so-called Slow Hitman, early on in chapter five (titled “Deuteronomy” and appearing in the pages of Crisis #53, cover-dated December, 1990) — after a double-page splash reprising the stomach-churning “Bitten Christ” motif from chapter two, as well as a few other more mudane visuals from earlier in the series — brings with it more bad news: his long-suffering mother is dead. The news is broken to Dave semi-gently after an inexplicable rant about a truly grotesque circus coming to town (featuring “offal in the sawdust,” “the high-wire strung with heads,” an “abortionist selling peanuts in the stalls,” and an audience packed with “the old, the homeless, the mentally ill and the unemployed,” among other pleasantries) wears his nerves down a bit. A glib “your mother’s dead” follows the Hitman’s announcement of “Harold Pinter as the Ringmaster!,” and then a bit of a switcheroo takes place — maybe the guy dressed as a clown isn’t the Hitman after all, maybe he’s just his one-man entourage, because into the room walks a man in a wig and a dress who promptly proceeds to shoot Dave right in the head, before he’s even had a chance to get dressed.
Okay, yeah, this is all another of Dave’s Grand Guignol-esque flights of fancy, but the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly difficult to discern as events progress here. We learn that the news about dear mum’s passing was actually delivered to Dave by his landlady, but a stroll around town to clear the cobwebs after does anything but, as he continues to imagine circus-themed trappings all around him and even pictures “everyone who’d ever hurt” him hanging from nooses so that they have to “suffer like I’ve suffered, so they know what I’ve put up with all these years, so they know what a martyr I’ve been.” Honestly, I’d tell the kid to lighten up, but we’re way past the point where that might do any good, aren’t we?
Then, in the midst of dwelling on some typically morose Simon and Garfunkel lyrics (those of “Scarborough Fayre,” if you must know), a most-likely-not-really-there old woman informs Dave, once again, that “She’s dead,” before going on to say that “they all are” and opining that “there’s no point you staying up here anymore, is there, love?” She closes, ominously, with “why don’t you go down there and join them?,” and he takes her advice and begins the long, slow descent down the hill toward the convenience store where he works. You already know this can’t end well.
On his way to his literal final destination, Dave takes one more moment to feel sorry for himself, reminiscing back to the days when he’d always be the last kid picked when teams were being chosen for football, throws up, and fantasizes idly about the other boys in gym class and their “damp white shorts” and “a sliver of white on their thighs where the sun never reached.” That so-called “forbidden inch of skin,” he informs us, “was the finishing line.” He never got there, of course, but as he enters the store, his own “finishing line” is coming well into view. He pulls a gun (one that, crucially, we never saw him purchase), yells “we’ve all gone to heaven!,” and shoots everyone dead.
Phillips’ water-colored (I’m assuming, at any rate) art here is particularly effective, as each person meets their end in front of plain, blood-red backgrounds, but the last page — showing Dave wading knee-deep in blood as it pools in the aisles of the market — is a pretty solid clue, I would think, that none of this is any more real than the Hitman or his/her clown. The final words of Smith’s script are borrowed, but do the job nicely : “Even when the darkest clouds are in the sky, you mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry, spread a little happiness as you go by, please try — what’s the use of worrying and feeling blue? When days are long, keep on smiling through, spread a little happiness — ‘till dreams come true!”
Then Dave puts the gun to his own temple and we cut to black.
The question now is, I suppose — did that even happen? Did any of it? I have some theories, but I’m saving them for our next — and final — installment.