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King Pleasure

Oct 04, 2010 in Books, Comic Books

more super rainI work in midtown, an area of Manhattan that isn’t often accused of having an excess of personality. Good restaurants within a few blocks’ radius are hard to come by. Chains dominate in all endeavors. But whenever I need to pop out at lunch for a few minutes of sweet escape from the nonconventional bookshelves, I’m glad the office is within easy walking distance of at least one New York underground staple: Midtown Comics.

Like Jonathan Santlofer, Brad Meltzer, and Max Allan Collins—like a whole lot of other crime and suspense addicts out there, I suspect—I, too, initially cut my teeth on the monthlies. It somehow became a tradition in my family that, after my father took me into town to get a haircut, we’d drop by the local independently owned comic store and I’d get to pick out one issue to add to my small but growing collection.

For me, it was less Batman or horror rags—I was a Marvel kid to start, mainly thanks to The Amazing Spider-Man around the time the villains Venom and Carnage were created.venom vs carnage

Whether or not all of my selections were age-appropriate is up for debate—I was young enough to still enjoy being read aloud to on occasion. During the recitation of a particularly climactic issue of X-Men, in which Magneto uses his power to forcefully expel all of Wolverine’s adamantium from his body—essentially gutting him like a fish—my father was horrified enough to refuse to continue right in the middle of a text box.

From then on, I kept my reading mostly to myself.

Like any self-respecting comic store, Midtown Comics has a section devoted to back issues many times deeper than the new offerings. This was my destination—not for one of the Marvel giants that initially drew my eye, but for something a little more obscure: Malibu Comics’ Solitaire #1. An origin story that has stuck with me to this day, of special note because it’s more than just derring-do, babes and bad guys. It’s a crime story.

Solitaire is the story of Nicholas Lone, son of Anton Lone—an immigrant from the slums of an unspecified Eastern European country. The founder and CEO of a major Hollywood studio, Lone pads the profitability of his empire with side ventures in organized crime—drug trafficking, prostitution, and the manipulation of the market through acts of terrorism.

Anton raised Nicholas to be his successor in all things. But Nicholas is acutely aware that the cushy existence his father has provided for him is built on the ruination of others. Seeing no other way to escape his father’s control—and despairing the empty, hedonistic lifestyle with which he attempts to fill his days—he takes his life, driving his car off the cliffs of an unnamed-but-alluded-to Mulholland Drive.

Anton, refusing to allow his son to get out from under his thumb even through suicide, brings Nicholas back to life by incorporating state-of-the-art nanotechnology into his son’s wrecked body. But rather than returning his son to his grasp, Lone inadvertently creates his nemesis: Solitaire, Nicholas Lone’s alternate identity. A hero who knows Anton Lone’s every secret, whose altered body refuses to allow him to die. A whispered-about urban myth who vows to take apart the empire of Anton Lone piece by piece.

Remove the supernatural elements of this particular hero mythos and you have what is essentially a crime epic with oedipal overtones, a neo-noir whose hard-nosed redemptive qualities are reminiscent in the annals of modern crime fiction of the likes of Charlie Huston’s A Dangerous Man and Roger Smith’s Wake Up Dead. The homage to the tropes of quality crime fiction is not an accident. Solitaire makes his base out of an abandoned, once-grand Hollywood theater and plays classic black-and-white films of the golden age of noir while he performs research into the criminal underbelly of Los Angeles. L.A. itself, one of the birthing grounds of the American noir tradition, is described as a town whose nights are filled with “the tinted shadows of Hollywood’s neon,” a city in possession of a “dead heart.” And at least initially, the evils portrayed within the monthly pages of Solitaire follow suit.

Take the first issue, “The Pleasure Principle.” In the debut storyline’s opening frames, a young woman attempts to outrun a pair of suited underlings. The thugs, catching up to her, tell her they can’t let her go—their boss likes the way she hurts too much. That boss turns out to be King Pleasure, an obvious foil for Nicholas Lone, a favored son who has fully embraced a life of crime. Investing his inheritance in crooked business dealings, he spends his considerable assets on—you guessed it—the pursuit of pleasure. “If it’s wet, I drink it. If it’s dry, I snort it. And if it’s young . . .” The King trails off, surrounded by chained young men and women abducted from the mean streets of the City of Angels.

One sees in the silk-robed King the sins a life of leisure may conceal, as well as a reflection of some of the same thematic territory limned in Don Winslow’s Savages—the Cult of Me, the dark underbelly of America’s reverence of the individual. What one doesn’t see are superpowers: the evils of Anton Lone and his associates are all too real, and so much more difficult to dismiss because of it.

Needless to say, I kept this issue particularly well hidden.

Did I “get” all of the series’ themes and Freudian constructs when I was in grade school? Highly doubtful. While I knew plenty about father-and-son dynamics, mercifully, I knew much less about sex slaves, debilitating poverty, corrupt businesses, and “feel-good” pills. But clearly there was more than just entertainment taking place when I first cracked the pages of Solitaire #1; besides the quality of the storytelling, there must be a reason why the series has been so hard for me to forget even after all these years. It isn’t the larger-than-life powers or the godlike grace of the hero—if it were, I’d remember the other rags of my youth with much more precision.

Truthfully, it’s not really Solitaire at all that’s followed me into adulthood. It’s the gloves that slink down over the fingers of King Pleasure as he closes in on his latest fresh-faced victim. It’s Anton Lone killing the men who slit his throat on the docks of Istanbul and living to boast about the strength of his convictions. Good crime fiction, whatever shape it takes, is not simply a distraction. It forces the reader to confront a representation of evil—real evil, more like ourselves than not—in a way that most of us never otherwise will. And that sticks with you.


Our favorite commenter on this post will receive a complete used set of the Solitaire series.

Solitaire series created by Gerard Jones. Illustrated panels from Solitaire #1 by Gerard Jones (writer) Jeff Johnson (penciller) and Barbara Kaalberg (inker). Illustrated panel from Solitaire #5 by Gerard Jones (writer) Jeff Johnson (layouts) J.B. Jones (penciller) and Barbara Kaalberg (inker).

If Mulholland Books were a crime novel, Wes Miller would be its PI—the stalwart presence resolving its issues, making sure at the end of the day, justice gets served and good prevails—at least until tomorrow comes. He defected to Mulholland after a few years at a variety of different literary agencies. His favorite authors include Stephen King, Charlie Huston, Walter Mosley, Lee Child, Joe R. Lansdale, and John Ajvide Lindqvist.

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21 Responses »

  1. Great post!!

    My crime primers were Scooby Doo and Babysitter’s Club mysteries, which were (sorry, Ann M. Martin), seriously lacking. The culprit was usually a jealous Cokie Mason (the rival babysitter) or something corny like a janitor. I wonder why there isn’t a strong equivalent for women (other than Nancy Drew) until they reach teenage-hood, where there’s Veronica Mars in all her glory.

  2. If you haven’t already, you’ve got to check out James Robinson’s superhero/private eye series Firearm. It was also part of Malibu’s Ultraverse and just one of the best comics series ever.

    • Thanks Dominick–definitely will check that one out. Malibu Comics was hot stuff back when they were around.

      The other Ultraverse series I read regularly at the time was Prototype. Looking back, that one seems more like an Iron Man knockoff than anything else, though I remember it quite fondly. I’ll probably go back to that one as well at some point.

  3. I think that crossover between comic-book superheroes and noir/neo-noir/noir-PI/crime-noir/gonna-stop-listing-noir-variants-now-before-I-run-out-of-space-noir (man, genre definition arguments sneak in whenever you’re not looking) is a rich seam.

    I think it has something to do with the traditional view of superheroes as paragons of virtue – nothing like seeing the seedy underbelly of a paragon.

    If you like a bit of crime with your superheroes, I can very much recommend ‘Incognito’ by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips too

    • Brubaker’s a name I’ve heard bandied about quite a bit as someone of extreme talent. I’ll check that series out for sure.

      Right now, I’m reading Shmidt and Chee’s miniseries 5 Days to Die and am really digging it. Gorgeous art. Straight noir rather than being influenced by superheroes. The stuff I see on the shelves now really makes apparent the advances in the field that I’ve missed out on since my childhood infatuation.

      As I’ve only recently gotten back into comics, the suggestions are extremely helpful–keep ’em coming . . .

      • Well, I can also recommend ‘Powers’ by Brian Michael Bendis and Micahel Oeming (it’s about the coppers who investigate superpowered crimes in a metropolis-type city) – it wears it’s noir influences right on the collar. It helps that it’s great too – ‘Who Killed Retro-Girl?’ is the first volume

        And while it’s not superheroes, I have just now gotten into my hands a copy of Darwyn Cooke’s *beautiful* adaption of Richard Stark’s ‘The Hunter’. I’ve not read it yet, but Cooke is always good and this is apparently the first time an adaption of a Parker book has been allowed to use the Parker name, so that’s a vote for it.

      • Most stories by Brubaker are quite good.
        His “Sleeper” series is VERY noir, even more so than “Incognito”. His “Criminal” series is also very good. They are all done with Sean Phillips, who is a great artist for realistic stories.

  4. Holy cow, it looks like I missed so much by reading Archie and Richie Rich comics instead of superhero comics!

  5. I spent my childhood years reading manga instead of American comics, ha.

    Though I highly recommend reading DEATH NOTE. Incredible, deeply psychological manga. Could not put it down.

  6. While not truly crime fiction, I grew up on Encyclopedia Brown and his foil, Bugs Meany. Encyclopedia Brown could solve any mystery and usually did it in 2 to 4 pages, the typical attention span of his 8 year old reader, me!

    Troy

    • I read quite a few of those myself and hadn’t thought of the series for a loooong time. Thanks for stirring up the memory pot, Troy!

    • I LOVED Encyclopedia Brown except my sister could always guess the ending right away, and since I couldn’t, I knew that made her WAY smarter than me, which took some of the fun out of it!!

  7. King Pleasure is a dead ringer for Steven Seagal.

  8. Wow, I missed this one- probably ’cause my roommate as an undergrad didn’t buy it so that I could grab it and read it (He was buying comics anyway 😉 Have to get on his case about that.

    I also fondly remember the Marvel horror titles from my youth, back in the days when they were still producing stuff worth reading, and my parents buying them for me. I got lucky, though, as they were horror movie and book buffs. Not only didn’t they mind my comics, I got to watch all the horror movies of the 80s, too 😉

  9. I often feel lucky that I missed out on most of the 90’s books (and gimmicks), but then someone has to go and ruin my smug self-righteousness by pointing out interesting books from that period.

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