The consensus opinion among readers of John Smith and Sean Phillips’ Straitgate appears to be that this was “the story of a mass-shooter,” or words to that effect. But I think that I humbly — and respectfully — disagree. Sort of. Like the first story we looked at in this moments-away-from-being-concluded series, Grant Morrison and Paul Grist’s St. Swithin’s Day, it’s my (hopefully) considered opinion that the ending here is ambiguous in the extreme, and that the strip’s creators deliberately left us to form our own conclusions. Or were forced to. But I’m getting just a little bit ahead of myself.
For one thing, handguns aren’t particularly easy to come by in the UK. In order to get one, you need to have some pretty solid underworld connections, and our protagonist, Dave, barely even has any friends. There are no gun shops to walk into across the pond, plunk down your money, and walk out strapped, and the so-called “black market” in firearms is strictly the province of pretty hardened criminals. Dave would have to go through a tremendous amount of hassle to obtain a pistol or revolver, and it would also probably cost him a lot of money that he doesn’t have. So there’s red flag number one.
The other thing that — sorry! — triggers my suspicions is, as mentioned last time out, the sheer amount of blood that results from Dave’s kill-spree. Even if the market where it takes place were crowded, there’s simply no way he’d be swimming in as much red stuff as he is by the time his story reaches its conclusion. Just. Not. Possible. No way, no how. When I said he was “knee-deep” in it, I was being literal — Smith and Phillips show the blood running down the store aisles as being up to his knees. Artistic license is one thing, but come on.
Now, one could argue, I suppose, that Dave’s disturbed mind is exaggerating things and that what we’re being shown is the event as he “sees” it, and there’s some merit to that argument — but it still doesn’t explain where the gun came from in the first place, does it? No, it doesn’t, unless your contention is that the ending is “not entirely thought through” or something. That kind of sloppiness is always possible, I suppose, although I wouldn’t expect it from either of these creators, even at this early stage in their respective careers. The only way I’d buy that is if the ending were somehow a “rush-job” put together at the last minute, and that brings us to the most intriguing — and ultimately unanswerable — question of all —
Is this, in fact, the way Straitgate was meant to end? In the Smith/Phillips interview in Speakeasy referenced earlier in this series, Smith states that he’s “pissed off” that the story was “changed at the eleventh hour.” He said he “understood” that editor Steve McManus had to “be careful about what he runs in Crisis,” but seriously — if a last-minute mass-shooting was inserted into this story to wrap it up before things got really nasty, then how much more shocking and unsettling was the strip as originally constructed (or, at the very least, intended)? We know for a fact that Straitgate was changed at the last minute, but was it the ending that was altered, or something previous to it? If it was the ending, then was this deliberate (in my estimation, at any rate) ambiguity inserted into the proceedings by means of editorial fiat?
I think that’s rather likely, personally — because hey, let’s face it, there are few events (shit, if any) more shocking and horrific than a mass killing, so it doesn’t seem all that realistic that McManus would say “ya know, fellas, about that ending — maybe skip what you were planning and just wrap things up with a bloody fucking kill-spree and suicide instead.” My best guess, then — and mind you, it’s only a guess — is that Smith and Phillips had a far more concrete, less ambiguous ending in mind, and that McManus is the one who suggested and/or ordered that they amp up the blood and violence to leave the reader with the option of thinking the whole thing was some hallucinatory fever dream from the depths of a disturbed mind. It’s not very often that increasing the level of violence shown on the page actually dulls or mutes the impact of a story, but hey, as we’ve seen — Straitgate was certainly no ordinary comic.
Needless to say — but I’ll say it anyway — I’d love it if either John Smith of Sean Phillips would get in touch with me and let me know if I’m way off-base with any of this perhaps-idle speculation, but unless and until one or both of them does, the final pages of this series will remain every bit as much a mystery to yours truly as they are to anyone and everyone else who’s read it. There’s a certain charm in that, I suppose — to the extent that a strip as visceral and unpleasant as Straitgate can be said to have any “charm” — but dammit, my inner comics historian would love to know what really went down behind the scenes. Alas —
And with that, my friends, we really are done here. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series and, again, my sincere apologies for all the delays along the way — especially the last (and longest) one, a product of nothing other than sheer, stupid oversight on my part coupled with an inexcusably cloudy memory. If this were 1989 or 1990 I’d have a million ready excuses, most related to either drink or drugs, but this being 2016 and all, I have none. I hope that, if you’ve stuck with things all the way through, you’ve either felt compelled or reasonably intrigued enough to give any (or maybe even all) of these extremely worthy efforts a shot. And heck, if you’ve read ‘em already, I hope you were given cause to look at them in a new, or previously unconsidered, light. It’s been quite the nostalgia-ride for me, to be sure, but perhaps the biggest revelation of all that I encountered when re-visiting St. Swithin’s Day, True Faith and Straitgate was how amazingly well each of them holds up — not just as four-color representations of what life was like (more or less) in those years, but as timeless stories that speak to us all, to one degree or another, regardless of our age or location. A reader born in 1996 and living in the US or Spain or something might find it a bit more difficult to immediately relate to any of the characters or their setting (both chronological and geographic), but if they stick with any of ‘em for a few pages I bet they’d be just as hooked as a 40-something Londoner. For that alone, misters Morrison, Grist, Ennis, Pleece, Smith and Phillips should all take a well-deserved bow.