Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reading Matthew Hughes' "The Damned Busters"

Matthew Hughes has accomplished something unique: he has written a novel, without illustrations, that conveys the tone and feel of comics published during their Golden Age. The Golden Age of Comics lasted from the late 1930s until the early 1950s; and, it was during this period that some of its most iconic characters appeared: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Flash, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel. These comics were written for children(although many adults, especially men in the service, read them); they possessed a simplicity and naivety that modern comics no longer contain. However, in some marvelous way, Hughes has captured that earlier tone and transferred it to a novel that on a very fundamental level operates as a re-telling of the Faust myth. To accomplish this almost alchemical transformation--comic feel into novel form, he employs images and icons from the Jazz Age, the Golden Age of Comics, Milton and the Bible.

The novel unfolds from the third-person limited view of Chesney Arnstruther, a border-line autistic actuary, who accidentally conjures up a demon while constructing a five-sided poker table. The demon appears when Chesney bangs his finger, producing blood, and blathers in his made-up gobbledegook swear words an oath that summons it. When he attempts to dismiss the demon with protestations of a simple mistake made, the demon doesn't take no for an answer; instead, he does what any good bureaucrat does, he calls in his supervisor. The second one had "the head of a weasel that had been refitted to sport a pair of canine fangs of sabertooth caliber, and coal-black eyes the size of saucers"(p. 14). Xaphan, who has not appeared on earth since the 20s, comes on like Edward G. Robinson's Little Caesar: he wears "a pin-striped suit with wide lapels and a ridiculously small tie," "two-toned shoes of patent leather with the insteps covered by pieces of strapped-on cloth--spats." Xaphan quickly informs Chester that "they" do not make mistakes and starts bargaining with him, offering his services. But Chester is not tempted by the demon's gifts of wealth and power; he simply wishes to be left alone to play cards, read his beloved comics, and do math. However, Chesney's refusal of Satan's temptations causes a rift in Heaven and Hell, which ultimately discomfits the entire world, and becomes the exciting force of the novel. To right the world, Chesney must "bow down" to Satan. With a minister mediator's help, the parties might find a solution--Chesney wants to be a crime fighter like the heroes in his comics.

With just a cursory summary of the plot it becomes obvious that lurking in the humor and silliness of the situation is a serious story that relies not only on comics for its themes and structure but also narrative devices that borrow freely from philosophy, law, expressionist art, pulp fiction, theology, and psychology. For instance, many of the conflicts are resolved by lawyers, both secular and religious. When Chesney needs help his mother calls on the services of Reverend Hardacre--a lawyer and a minister. When a strike ensues in Hell, Hardacre mediates between the union faction--Infernal Brotherhood of Fiends, Demons and Tempters (the IBFDT), Satan and heaven's representative. When Chesney needs information on criminal activity he turns to his actuarial tables, computer, and the bell curve. When a character wonders what is the purpose of life, another quotes an English translation of Gauguin's epigram from his masterpiece asking the same question: D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous (Where do we come from, where are we going, where are we).

The Damned Busters feels like a comic of the Golden Age. Because of its allusions to and reliance on themes of pulp fiction and comics of that age it reminds me of both Chester Gould's Dick Tracy and Al Capp's pastiche Fearless Fosdick. There may be even conscious nods to Gould through Hughes use of quirky names, including the obvious use of the name "Chesney" for the protagonist and "Blowdell" ( maybe Ernst Stavro Blofeld from three of Fleming's 007 novels) for the antagonist, but also in the physical description of the characters; Xaphan described above and the wormed-nosed Melech are primary examples. But even though the tone captures an earlier time and genre, the novel itself is post-modern, utilizing various narrative devices to tell the story, even turning meta-fictional at the end by commenting on itself as a book: the demons have heard a rumor that life is simply a book written by some other entity and that they, as characters, are not trapped within their fates but can through their free will change their destiny.

In conclusion, The Damned Busters is a very clever book (and fast read), exactly the type of work that Angry Robot Books is noted for: it is a smooth melange of genres--comic, noir, humor, fantasy, and metaphysical; ultimately entertaining and damned smart.

As a postscript, be on the watch for a passel of allusions and unresolved plot threads which beg the question--what happens next?