I 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.
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.
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.