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Comics You Should Own – Terminal City

by  in Comic News Comment
Comics You Should Own – <i>Terminal City</i>

Where the grass is definitely not green (because there’s no grass to be found!), but the girls are pretty!

Terminal City by Dean Motter (writer), Michael Lark (artist), Rick Taylor (colorist), and Willie Schubert (letterer).

Published by DC/Vertigo, 14 issues (#1-9 of Terminal City, #1-5 of Terminal City: Aerial Graffiti), cover dated July 1996 – March 1997 (Terminal City) and November 1997 – March 1998 (Aerial Graffiti).

Some SPOILERS in here, if you must know, but nothing too major!

On the page facing the first page of Terminal City #1, Dean Motter writes – in so many words – that he’s fascinated by the visions of the future as imagined by those in the past. This idea has a name, I guess – it’s “retro-futurism,” and Motter digs it.

Motter’s grand work is Mister X, which began in the early 1980s and has recently been rebooted in Dark Horse Presents and which deals with this idea quite a lot, but it’s not the only comics work of his that examines it. I haven’t read much Mister X, but Terminal City, in my mind, is a stronger work, as Motter not only creates a full-fledged vision of the future (the book is set in the “present” – 1995 – but because it’s a 1930s vision of the future, it feels “futuristic” in many ways), but is able to give us many characters who are more fully formed than what I know of Mister X (with the caveat that I could be wrong, of course). So this seems like it ought to be a Mister X comic, but it’s not. A few years ago, when I wrote about the final page of issue #1, Motter stopped to explain why it wasn’t: the rights to Mister X were tied up in 1996, so Shelly Roeburg, who edited the series, suggested to Motter that he just create a new city. And so we get Terminal City, a marvelous comic that exists partly because of forces beyond Motter’s control.

Motter’s interest in the “future” as envisioned by writers of the past is a clever way to get us into the story, as part of the fun of Terminal City is spotting all the references and jokes that Motter puts into the story.

Many writers do this, of course – a certain bearded Englishman comes to mind – but it’s always a fun game, especially because Motter doesn’t let them overwhelm the story. In the first issue alone, we get references to Mayor Orwell, who was replaced by Mayor Huxley (whom his closest confidantes call “Al”), while in the second series, the mayor is Herbert Welles. There’s a Three Stooges-style comedy show starring actual monkeys called Hirno, Sino, and Speeckno. The Brave New World’s Fair occurred, naturally, in 1984. Two unsavory characters are named Micasa and Sucasa, and they engage in a running “Who’s On First” gag over the name of a famous painter. There’s a political exile from Alacazar (which might be a typo, as it’s later called “Alcazar,” which, of course, also might be a typo) who’s staying at the Herculean Arms, the famous hotel in Terminal City, which is owned by ancient film star Debussey Fields. The bar in the hotel is called The Elbow Room. Among the buildings in Terminal City is a giant statue’s head, a remnant of the unfinished Colossus of Roads. The construction company at Cast Iron Beach is called Promethean. We meet Captain Habib, who’s slowly revealed as an Ahab character, hunting a large albino gangster named L’il Big Lil, who arrives in the city from the town of Melville and says she’ll meet her goons at Rick’s Atomic Café.

Finally, there’s a wanted poster with Mister X on it. And this is all in the first issue!

Motter doesn’t write this just to drop in fun Easter eggs, though. He doesn’t even really care about the plots of the comic, even though there are plenty and they’re all pretty fascinating. He introduces the nominal hero of the book, Cosmo Quinn, on the first page, where we learn that he was once the “Human Fly,” a daredevil whose career was ruined during the Brave New World’s Fair, a ruination that also cost him his girlfriend, Charity (who works at the Herculean Arms). Cosmo is reminiscing about all this while on his new job, that of window washer (because he doesn’t mind heights), which takes him to the giant expanse above the Arms’s main ballroom, where Debussey Fields is celebrating her 99th birthday. Into this party Motter drops a MacGuffin – a man running from gangsters along the monorail track falls through the window, right next to Cosmo – and onto Fields’s birthday cake, which helps him survive the fall. The man has amnesia, and chained to his wrist is a steel attaché case, which Cosmo recognizes because he’s seen it before – on top of the Colossus of Roads’s head a decade earlier, during the Brave New World’s Fair. It was attached to a severed hand, but before he could react, he was bashed on the head and when he woke up, all evidence of it was gone and he was disgraced. So one would think this briefcase would be important and the plot would follow Cosmo’s attempts to figure out what’s in it and who the dude is, right?

Well, yes, one would think that, but one would be wrong.

Motter does follow the guy around for a while, and several parties are interested in getting their hands on it, and Big Lil comes up with a hostage-taking scheme to get her hands on it, but in the end, it’s unimportant. At the end of issue #3, the man wakes up and discovers that the attaché case is gone, and he runs away, never to be seen again. We get a final look at the valise on the final page of the first series, and it seems like it could be something very bizarre, but Motter never revisits it in “Aerial Graffiti.” He did plan on a third Terminal City series, so perhaps he would have gotten back to it, but it doesn’t even feel like that big a deal. One reason is because none of the plots in Terminal City take precedence over any others. The redemption of Kid Gloves is as important as Manual’s attempts to woo Jezebel, and B.B.’s travails in finding a job are on par with Doctor Hu’s plot to win the transatlantic race. Motter isn’t interested in a big plot, he’s interested in a lot of small plots, and some of them don’t resolve the way we expect them to. Not only do we not learn what happens to the nameless man with the briefcase chained to his wrist, we don’t find out why Raymond Alexander is skywriting obscenities in the second series, and it’s actually called “Aerial Graffiti”! So the plots come and go, with resolutions to some of them, but certainly not all of them. Cosmo, one of the narrators (the silent avenger Monique is the other one), writes at the end that the transatlantic race is another story, one we’re not privy to. It’s a somewhat frustrating way to write a series, but also a satisfying one, in a strange way.

Motter is focusing on the vast number of characters and some interesting themes, and because of that, his plots tend to meander or fall away completely. In a comic that takes place in such a strange world, Motter is far more concerned with “real-world” plots – occasionally, we find ourselves in plots that don’t have closure. People wander into and out of our lives, make an impression in one way, and we don’t know what happens to them and they don’t know what happens to us. Some things do get resolved, but not to our satisfaction. And some things happen on the periphery, with only certain parts intersecting with our stories. So when Lance Boyle (yes, really) returns to Terminal City to romance his old acting partner, Debussey Fields, we only get his plans in the background, with a few small exceptions. Motter does provide a resolution to his story, but it never really becomes the main plot. Most of the plots are like that. They come in and out of the story, and Motter does a marvelous job juggling them all, but they’re not really the most important thing in the book.

The characters are more important than the plots, but even they’re not the entire point of the book.

Motter populates the book with so many fascinating characters that can’t be real – as they all seem to have stepped from 1930s pulp magazines – but who feel real, both because of the context of the book and because of Motter’s terrific writing. Cosmo is kind of the default main character, even though he’s not always the focus, and Motter makes him a bit older to give him some world-weariness. He’s fascinating because he is obviously courageous – he climbs tall buildings with very little support – but he also doesn’t want to get involved because he’s seen what happens when you stick your nose out. His fundamental decency wins out, of course, as he rescues Hope, Charity’s sister, when Big Lil takes her hostage, and tries to stop Raymond Alexander from drawing obscenities in the sky even at when his life is threatened because the mayor says they’ll shoot Alexander down if Cosmo doesn’t stop him. Charity is a good character, too, someone who is guarded about her life because Cosmo betrayed her (he cheated on her with a showgirl) but is also a decent person. Motter does a nice job slowly bringing her gambling problem to the fore over the course of the series, and while it gets “solved” in not a great manner, that’s probably more due to the fact that Motter couldn’t continue with the series rather than because of a problem with his writing (“Aerial Grafitti” was always listed as “1 of 5,” but I wonder if DC allowed Motter only five issues because of poor sales, and I definitely know Motter wanted to continue the series).

Jezebel and Manual have a good, flirtatious relationship like the best romantic comedies of yesteryear, and B.B.’s wide-eyed naïveté makes her a decent secondary point-of-view character, because she’s unfamiliar with the various people wandering around the city. Motter is deliberately writing this like a big 1930s movie production, with larger-than-life characters doing fantastical things (even as he juxtaposes gritty noir next to them), so B.B. providing some perspective on the city is nicely done. Motter keeps things comedic, too, so that the darker aspects of the book never overwhelm it. We get the wordplay, sure, but the increasingly brazen attacks on the mayor are very funny in the most Three Stooges way possible (until the attempted murderer eventually succeeds), Micasa and Sucasa’s issues-long dialogue about the painter they’re interested in is quite funny, Raymond Alexander’s obscenities (which we never see completely; despite this being a Vertigo book, Motter is often quite circumspect) are hilarious, and Manual’s persecution by the robot concierge at the hotel borders on the absurd. As I noted, Motter traffics in a lot of clichés from old movies, but because the book is set in the present, the oddity of it all is heightened. So there’s a gun moll in “Aerial Graffiti” who tells her gangster sugar daddy that she might be expecting … except the gangster in question is a robot. Kid Gloves fights his way up the evolutionary ladder, dispatching a gorilla, a Neanderthal, and a Cro-Magnon before moving on to a Yeti and finally a gigantic missing link. Motter takes every kind of pulpy noir trope you can think of and twists it, either making it weirdly humorous or putting his own unique spin on it, and it makes the characters come alive even if they aren’t always front and center.

Even the characters aren’t the main focus of the book, however. Motter pays lip service to the plots and does good work with the characters, but he’s really interested in a theme, one of nostalgia.

It’s unavoidable in a book like this, which is deliberately nostalgic even though it takes place in the “present,” but what Motter does is show that nostalgia isn’t particularly healthy, as it leads to ossification and decay. Terminal City, which takes its name (presumably) from the fact that it’s a terminus point for several modes of transportation (it’s basically New York in this reality), has a double meaning, of course – a place where things go to die. Terminal City’s glory days are behind it, but no one seems to notice, which isn’t surprising as people rarely realize they’re living in a declining age. The comic always looks back – Cosmo remembers when he had a good career; Monty Vickers has disappeared, taking his wonders with him; Kid Gloves lives in disgrace; Debussey Fields has her old movies posters all over the Herculean Arms – while the “newness” of the city seems sadder, somehow. At the very end of the book, the trans-Atlantic tunnel finally gets finished, but other than that, the architecture of the city itself has fallen into disrepair. The Herculean Arms is missing the “A” in its first name, while the statue holding up the name (which ought to be Atlas, which doesn’t fit the name) is missing his right arm. The Colossus of Roads was never built, and its head looms over the city, a constant reminder of the failure. Cast Iron Beach has been largely abandoned and is now only a place where drug dealers roam.

B.B. gets a telegram from Promethean Construction offering her a job, but when she gets there, the place is falling apart and the foreman tells her there haven’t been any jobs for years. The robots are the Arms are always breaking down, which makes the mechanical concierge, in an ironic twist, rely on a human even more.

The source of the decay seems to the Brave New World’s Fair of 1984, when Cosmo and his friends saw their worlds go bad for a number of reasons. Motter uses newsreels (another nostalgic trapping) to show that the propaganda, at least, was still looking forward – in the present, no one talks about completing the Colossus of Roads, but the newsreels do point out that the plans are still intact. Motter uses all sorts of things that are “retro” but still seem forward-looking to us – a monorail, zeppelins, pneumatic tubes – to make the city feel more like a relic of the past while still feeling “modern.” It’s a clever thing to do, because he can disguise his true intentions behind the cooler trappings of olden days. Terminal City looks like a neat place to live, until we look a little closer. Terminal City is a sad comic, because the people are trapped by their past. The characters reference the good old days a lot, and only a few manage to escape it, usually because they’re forced to. Even Cosmo, who becomes something of a hero toward the end of the first series, does so in his old gear and because he’s reminded of those days. Monty Vickers returns to Terminal City to reclaim lost glory, which provides Kid Gloves, who can’t get beyond his past, a chance at a redemption that he doesn’t necessarily need.

Captain Habib is obsessed with Big Lil, and that leads to tragedy. Rhoda Helle can’t seem to get past her time in Billie Divine’s revue, while Billie herself is slowly losing her audience because, of course, she can’t stop the passage of time and men want to see someone younger take off their clothes. Raymond Alexander is obsessed with the past, too, but unlike Cosmo, he’s unable to regain his sense of self, which leads to another tragedy. Even something relatively minor like Manual’s plot line hinges on secrets of the past. Motter writes this all with a slightly jaundiced eye, but because so much of the nostalgia has the illusion of “fun,” the book is cloaked in neat gadgets and impeccably dressed people, so we might miss the despair underneath it all. The book works as a look at a past that never was and how much “cooler” that might have seemed, but it also works as a critique of modern culture and its fetishization of the past. In Terminal City, the past is everywhere, and it’s decaying faster than ever.

Motter’s critique of nostalgia wouldn’t be possible without Michael Lark’s artwork. This was early in Lark’s career, but he was already a very good artist, and Terminal City is a good showcase for his style at the time.

He has a very ligne claire look that evokes Tintin, naturally, and this crispness is critical in a book like Terminal City. Lark complements Motter’s themes perfectly, and he complements Motter’s wry sense of humor, as well. While Motter is naming prison ships after Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” Lark is drawing Micasa and Sucasa with Hercule Poirot mustaches, making them both humorous and slightly menacing. Lark is wonderful with the large cast of characters, making Cosmo look world-weary and burned out, and even when he puts his costume back on, it fits poorly and doesn’t exactly make him look dashing. Charity is an attractive woman, but she’s also seen a lot of life, and as she gambles more and more over the course of the book, she becomes more harried and aged as the stress begins to take its toll. L’il Big Lil is a whale of a woman who wears a giant fur coat and smokes cigars, and Lark makes sure all her henchmen are dressed impeccably in suits. B.B. represents the future, so she’s not only younger, but her spiky swoosh of hair looks more modern, as well. As I noted, Motter uses a lot of tropes in the way he writes the characters, and Lark follows along, as many characters don’t exactly look like real people but still look “realistic” – you’re probably not going to see a red-clad vigilante with a veil on her hat running around a major American city, but Monique looks wonderful the way Lark draws her.

There aren’t many robot gangsters in our world, but X.L.N.C. is pretty fearsome. Lark draws all kinds of people, from the unctuous used robot salesman (who has on his lot a C-3PO, an R2-D2, a Dalek, Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Robot Maria from Metropolis, among others) to the debonair Monty Vickers to the lovely ladies in Rhoda Helle’s and Billie Divine’s troops, all of whom fit the “retro” feel of the book – they’re 1950s (or earlier) characters in a futuristic world. Lark uses lines judiciously to show the way different people have lived – Captain Habib has a scar across his nose, while Jezebel’s eyebrows are always half-cocked, showing her rather cynical view of the world. Lark has to draw a lot of people in the comic, and because the action is often short and not even always the main focus, he has to be good at the way characters react to events and to each other, and he does an excellent job.

Lark reinforces Motter’s idea of nostalgia leading to decay beyond just the way he draws the characters. Terminal City itself is a major character in the book, and Lark is amazing at bringing it to life.

From the first page of the comic, where Cosmo hangs on the giant windows of the Herculean Arms with giant skyscrapers looming behind him and the Colossus’s head wedged in between them, keeping its dead eyes on him as airships fly overhead. It’s a wonderful image, and it sets a very nice tone for the book. Lark designs these monstrous buildings that combine an Art Deco aesthetic with an almost Stalinist brutality, making the city weigh on its inhabitants even in the largest spaces Lark gets to draw monorails, the giant head, hovercars, zeppelins, and robots, and he even gets to draw some expansive desert scenes in “Aerial Graffiti.” Throughout, though, he makes it clear that Terminal City, as amazing as it can be, is not the glory it once was. He uses stark shadows on the buildings, adding to the undercurrent of darkness in the town, and he cleverly puts a lot of scaffolding around the city, implying that building is going on, but because he never puts people on the scaffolding, the implication is that it’s been abandoned. He also puts lines where there shouldn’t be, showing the cracks in the great construction of the city – and the cracks are everywhere. He also draws a lot of trash in the streets, and while every city can be dirty if you look hard enough, it’s very much contrasted with Terminal City’s futuristic ethos – the city looks like it shouldn’t have any trash, so its presence is jarring. Motter gets at the sterility underneath the futurism – Cast Iron Beach is the best example – and Lark visualizes it beautifully.

A less precise artist might have used shading to show the decay, which might have worked (in “Aerial Graffiti,” Lark uses a bit more shading, but his strong line work still comes through), but it would have added a layer of grime to everything. With Lark’s strong, thin line work, we get both the promise of Terminal City and its failure juxtaposed very nicely. Taylor’s colors helps, too, as he often uses bright hues for the characters’ clothing, for instance, while the city itself is a bit drabber, implying again that its best days are behind it. Like a lot of good colorists, he knows when to stop being “realistic,” which aids in setting the tone of the book. Habib’s showdown with Big Lil, for example, is set against a blood-red sky, implying the violence of the confrontation. It looks like no sky you’ve ever seen, but the tone works for the scene. Taylor does a nice job making Lark’s pencil work pop.

Terminal City has been collected before (you can find it on Amazon!), but it’s getting a nice new hardcover from Dark Horse, which is in the latest Previews catalog (I swear I didn’t know that when I started this post – it was just the next comic on the list!). It’s a strange relic from the 1990s, much like Terminal City itself, as it was very unlike what Vertigo was publishing then and even now.

Motter examines interesting themes, gives us a bunch of compelling characters and bizarre (but relatable) plots, and Lark is amazing on art. The only thing not to love about Terminal City is that there are only 14 issues!

Yay, we’re out of “S”! I know I didn’t do much in 2014 because I was occupied with my daily posts, but it still took me over three-and-a-half years to go through “S” in my comics collection. Phew! Now we’re into uncharted territory! I have no idea what’s coming next, but comfort yourself by perusing the archives!

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