Looking through James Herbert books just for the bits with sex in

Rereading Straitgate by John Smith and Sean Phillips.

We say a piece of art hits home, or when that’s worn out from overuse we say that it hits us where we live. By which we mean that it feels personal, as if the artist has created it just for us, that they’ve identified a singular feeling, a wound that others don’t suffer. At Tracey Emin’s retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 2011, a show I went along to toting a backpack of other people’s scepticism, I was hit by that shock of recognition, something that I’d buried and forgotten I’d ever felt, ever been, by an artwork that spoke about being a child of a single parent. It reminded me of the pain that child causes parent by trying to fill the role of a lover, and the pain that parent causes child by rejecting it. It hit me where I live.

Straitgate ch 003 (003) panelStraitgate, a comic I remember clearly reading the first two instalments of in Crisis #50 when I was on my own in Edinburgh, a 16-year-old playing adult up for the Fringe and the Festival, hit home in a different way. It hit home like no other comic ever had because it was literally close to home. That hairdresser the protagonist leaves on the first page of Numbers, the fourth episode? I walked past that every time I went to Manchester, the city nearest my hometown. It was on Oxford Road, and the fake red-brick facade next door belonged to Jilly’s Rockworld, if I remember correctly. I walked that way on my way down to Odyssey 7 in the University Precinct to get my comics. I used to call in McDonald’s, as depicted on the same page, for a milkshake if I had a quid spare. And, like the protagonist, I liked to spend time in the Central Reference Library; it’s my favourite building in Manchester. I never bought a short in C&A, though I was once flirtatiously gulled into buying an orange short and white polo-neck in Burton. And I used to walk down canals next to electricity pylons all the time, because they’re everywhere in the former industrial North, ribbons of green among the factories. A girl told me she loved me for the first time by such a canal, the opposite of events in the comic.

This happens in all fields of the arts, of course. They filmed Jossy’s Giants, a children’s TV series written by a darts commentator and set in Newcastle, round us, and the factory drama Making Out. But, as I seem to say every blog, it was new to comics. You can’t recognise your neighbourhood in Mega City One, or Gotham City, or even Spider-Man’s New York if you’re growing up in Northern Britain. And those places had been all of comics for so long, for years and decades, that Straitgate was a shock of recognition. It actually hadn’t occurred to me that comics could be set, could find life in, my world, rather than being an escape from it.

It was close to home in another way. The protagonist of Straitgate is an 18 or 19-year-old who appears to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, and the narrative is his failed attempt not to lose his mind. I was a stable teenager, with friends and a social life even though they weren’t always the friends or social life I thought I should have. But there’s a kinship in the solitary whirring of the mind, the adolescent fixations on atrocities and excess. I hadn’t looked through James Herbert books for the bits with sex in, but I had read his work and noted the two-sex-scenes-per-book minimum and I’d looked through lots of other books just for the bits with sex in. I wasn’t obsessed with a male friend but I had serial crushes on girls, crushes that carried huge weight in my mind and which they never knew about. I lived a mundane life on the outside and an interior life of extremes, like adolescent boys newly woken to their bodies, intelligence, and sexuality usually do. The excesses of imagination and language, the obsessions with everything dark and twisted, displayed here weren’t exactly where I lived. But they were somewhere I could see from my house.

Straitgate ch 001 (013) panel

David, the protagonist, narrator and only fixed point of Straitgate, was actually the third in a trilogy of doomed Crisis boys. Nigel Gibson of True Faith, Adolf Hitler of The New Adventures of Hitler, and David of Straitgate: all lonely young men beset by madness who end up killing people. Nigel’s insanity was forced upon him; he was giving a crash course in becoming insane and the power of it. Hitler’s insanity was nurtured and fed, exploited as a means to an end. David’s insanity comes from both directions, from outside and inside. He cherishes it, the sense of superiority it gives him, as he struggles against what it’s doing to him, eating him away.

Graphic novel length in those days at 48 pages, this is nonetheless a short story. And it’s one without fixed points, without plot, without anything but a narrator. Grant Morrison’s Hitler conversed with John Bull in a tearoom with a shitting bulldog in the centre of the table, but we got a couple of panels showing that there wasn’t anyone there, establishing reality. Comics have the advantage over prose here. They can show, not tell, so while a written monologue has to include inconsistencies to show us how unreliable the narrator is, to point out where they’re lying to themselves and to us, comics can give that narration its head while undercutting it by showing reality. But reality’s never established in Straitgate. The bloody and banal visions of the first few pages are shown not to be real, the protagonist’s imagination enacting tortures on those around him, but after that the lines are rarely clear. There’s no fixed point. David’s visit to his mother, his meeting with Phil, his mother’s death; I’m reasonably confident that these all happened, in the context of the narrative. And the more mundane stuff, like the haircut, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to disbelieve. Other than that, the objective and subjective aren’t separated. The delusions manufactured by David’s paranoid schizophrenia are indistinguishable from the pain of his daily existence, and the fantasies he indulged in become fantasies he can’t escape.

Straitgate ch 002 (004) panel

Over five episodes we see David at work, going for a walk and going home, taking photographs of strangers, going to the pub with his girlfriend and his mates, visiting his mum in hospital, meeting his old mate Phil, and finally discovering his mother is dead. Even in the age when comics celebrating the mundane were themselves celebrated, that’s not a lot of action. Troubled Souls was a departure a few months earlier, and that had guns and bombs and romance. The action in Straitgate is internal; every episode sees another barrier fall, another key event in crossing the border from sanity to insanity. The first chapter, Genesis – the chapters are named after the first five books of the Bible, which the younger me lapped up but now I can’t really see any reason for – establishes the seething contradictions between a stable, ordinary young man on the surface and the megalomaniac power fantasies on the inside. It end with him watching TV wearing only Y-fronts, one hand down the front of them, a full-page splash that repulses and echoes. I used to have a collage on my bedroom wall, too. Though I hope by that age I’d got rid of the Y-fronts.

There’s something of the Hollywood nerd in David’s voice, the pastiche of high-functioning autism at the heart of The Big Bang Theory. He deals in precision; the right words, framed correctly. He makes declamatory statements rather than looking for confirmation from others: “Simon and Garfunkel. The Carpenters… They wrote all the best tunes.” Contrasted with Phil’s response, framed as though he’s uncertain of even his own opinion. David’s inner monologue is the same: statements of sweeping fact, a palpable sense of insecurity-fuelled superiority. I title a blog post with a quote from the comic I’m writing about, and almost every line in this comic could have served as a post’s title. There’s a bleak poetry to it, a sense of someone limiting their thoughts to the gory horrors of life that most of us endeavour to ignore, a determination to shock coupled with an ignorance of audience. You make people pay attention by getting personal, by talking about what they like. David doesn’t know enough about anyone to get personal, he doesn’t have the empathy, so he’s trapped with his clichés of murder and dismemberment. He’s at once precise and flailing, desperate to connect but obsessively chasing the reactions that mark him out as an outsider, as special.

Straitgate ch 001 (006) panel

Voice isn’t confined to dialogue or captions, either. I wonder what the script to this comic looked like and how it explained the visual non sequiturs. By page six of chapter one we’ve got David’s monologue over a horse on a hill with barbed wire in the foreground, and that horse with a bloodied mouth in the next panel. It seems symbolic but it’s hard to say what it means, for us or for him. It’s just an image, an icon with rhetorical power being employed in an attempt to connect. And they start coming faster and faster as David loses his mind, as he unmoors from the real, until they overwhelm reality in the last two chapters. By Deuteronomy, the final chapter, they’re everywhere, in front of objective reality like it’s a greenscreen, obscuring it.

In Exodus the madness – I’ve avoided saying that word because it’s so heavy with meaning, so commonly used, but David is going mad – breaks cover. It goes from a solitary indulgence to an empowering force. David, egged on by an imaginary figure that claims to be his mother but calls him Norman, vents his misogyny at his girlfriend, calling her a slut in front of his friends shortly after fantasising about cutting her throat. As turmoil becomes clarity in his head he becomes bold, determined to impose his interior reality on what’s outside. And it gives him a rush, a feeling of importance and a wet dream. Overwrought and lurid, the fantasy of his crucifixion and disembowelling is embarrassing in its self-indulgent fantasy of martyrdom. But madness is overwrought and ridiculous to those on the outside, all metanarratives and grand conspiracies ripped off from B-movies. When you actually believe you’re the risen Christ, it doesn’t feel derivative at all.

Straitgate ch 002 (005)If we’re searching for motive, for a reason for what’s happening to David, then the next two chapters give us two choices. First, his mum’s dying of cancer. The full-page where we see her, an overhead perspective framing a living person like a dead body, prefiguring what’s to come, hits the reader. Sean Phillips and John Smith worked together a lot during this period, became natural collaborators, and image and text are symbiotic. Smith’s disjointed rhythms, the interplay between captions and pictures as reality switches between them, are perfectly complemented by the shifts in art style, the realism overlaid with airbrush spatter or left as pure watercolour. David’s mum’s dying of cancer and he can’t cope with it. He can’t see her, really; his rising panic creates a hallucination, one of his nihilistic gore daydreams out of his control.

The second motive is that David might be gay. Straitgate gets its title from a Biblical quotation: “Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it,” from Matthew 7:13. You could take the straight bit extremely literally. And David does, in the penultimate chapter, prepare to meet Phil like he’s on a date, and he does ask “What would you do if I said I loved you?” The interpretation is there to be made; he’s in the closet and can’t cope with it. Together with everything else, that drives him mad. But it’s far from sure that the protagonist actually says those words, or that anything after the James Herbert line takes place the way we’re shown it. David sees the killer clown, the slow hitman, the personification of his own gradual derangement. Time seems to stop. Day becomes night. Phil’s there and he’s not there. Assuming confession and rejection seems too easy when what happens on the page is complex and not easily explained. And there’s that heartbreaking full-page splash, the final cry for help to an anonymous desperate soul who left their phone number on a toilet wall. An attempt to connect, to escape, that ends up no more than a few halting sentences in a Bill Sienkiewicz kitchen. There isn’t anywhere else to go, now. The euphoria of madness is crushed by its inevitability.

Straitgate ch 003 (006) panel

The final episode is almost an epilogue. David’s mother is dead. He’s shot in the head by the slow hitman. He goes out in blazing sunshine to walk streets peopled only by his visions, the tortures his imagination used to inflict now inflicted endlessly. He sees the clown, and his landlady, and the blood beneath the earth. He steps from motorway to supermarket like they’re adjacent and we end where we began; in the workplace, killing the customers. David pulls out a gun and shoots them then shoots himself.

The Mindless Ones blog, in the only piece of writing I can find about Straitgate online, equated this massacre with school shootings. I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s the evidence, within the narrative, that it actually takes place. Generally I’m not a fan of it-was-all-a-dream; in American Psycho, for example, the book’s far more interesting if what Patrick Bateman does is real. But it’s almost impossible that David’s massacre takes place, because we don’t have guns in Britain. We just don’t. To give Nigel Gibson a gun Garth Ennis had to contrive a whole army and a fortuitous bounce. For a checkout clerk teenager to have one in 1990 crosses from implausible to impossible. To talk about guns, to think about guns, sure. But in Britain we don’t have guns.

Straitgate ch 004 (005) panel

There is, therefore, no way of knowing what happens at the end, what happens to David, if he said that to Phil, if he was gay. There’s no conclusion. At some point during that penultimate episode, at some point after those poppies, the balance tips and the protagonist switches from sane to insane. We can’t trust anything that we see after that. We can’t know. The point was never to tell a story about what one person does in the world. It was to detail his disconnection from the world, to watch it come down, to be in his head when it happens. Teenagers, the young, the audience of Crisis and of graphic novels 23 years ago, lived in heads packed with lurid violence, thrilled and disgusted sexuality, consequence-free bloodbaths, madness as a virtue. Straitgate was a slow bullet aimed directly at the voyeuristic readers. It hit us where we lived.

Straitgate ch 003 (005)

Straitgate by John Smith and Sean Phillips was printed in Crisis #50-#53. It hasn’t been reprinted, so I’m making it available for download here. If the copyright holders have any objections, please contact me and I’ll remove it immediately. 

5 Responses to “Looking through James Herbert books just for the bits with sex in”
  1. Tom Murphy says:

    Hi – many thanks for uploading the pages; I’ve a feeling my copies got lost along the way a long while ago.

    I always took the Biblical chapter titles to be a nod to Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, published four years earlier, which did exactly the same. (I followed the ‘gay but deeply closeted’ reading of Straitgate, and also imagined that Jeanette Winterson’s local celebrity in Blackburn/Accrington would have had an effect on John Smith.) This Grauniad piece might be of interest: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/oct/20/jeanettewintersone

    Ah – Odyssey 7! I used to hop down there from Chorley regularly around 1985-6 (prior to moving to London for university). Whenever I find myself at what’s left of Manchester Victoria station I get a little eidetic pang of how excited I used to feel on those expeditions, with the anticipation mounting as I strolled past the Arndale and the Town Hall into Oxford Road.

    • On reflection, I was disingenuous in disavowing the gay but closeted motivation for David. It’s clearly signposted in the description of the slow hitman, the meeting with Phil, the lines on the penultimate page about boys in shorts. But there’s so much else going on that it seems reductive to bring it all down to being afraid of his sexuality. It’s undoubtedly part of what drives him mad, as is the death of his mother, but it’s by no means the prime mover.

      The Smith-Winterson connection hadn’t occurred to me. I believe he’s from Darwen and she came from Oswaldtwistle, just over the hill. Don’t think she’d agree that being gay in the North leads to insanity, however…

  2. John says:


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