Was it Sydney? Seoul? Johannesburg? My head is too clouded by events of later that evening to really be able to ever remember it clearly again. Pieces of things erupt, event-fragments like hollowpoints rupture through a life I feel I’ve already lived far too little of, written about far too little of to ever do it justice. They “rip right through me”, as RHCP suggest on By the Way. I remember the sense of this being somewhere postcolonial, I remember it being a Splendid Affair, I remember dignitaries. And I remember the dread.
It wasn’t the dread of being introduced to His Excellency the Irish Ambassador, to wherever. It wasn’t the familiar dread of attending an evening of Beckett. At this point, the Jack Daniels of Sam Beckett, Waiting for Godot, was such a familiar dread that had it come round, I would have ended up embracing it like an old friend. No, this dread was another caliber of dread, was something else entirely, something new and unpleasant and, equally, easily recognizable, even at a great distance.
At some point in the evening, at some point Before…, while we’re all still busily ingratiating ourselves with our fineries and splendor, the crowd goes wild. Something broken and ugly and real stalks the edges of the party and then wanders off in some other direction. And then the preening begins in earnest. There’s a soberness like rotting meat, hanging in the air, and then reptilian parts of the brain begin to reassert themselves. Remembering looking on the crowd, also means remembering the feeling of being surrounded by great apes in armor. That even their fineries were already centuries out of date, but did a good job of preventing damage from the other apes in shining armor.
The real Ugly, doesn’t manifest until after His Excellency makes some opening remarks on the importance of Beckett, and the great literary contribution made and some personal nationalist joy held at the idea that Beckett can be staged here in this Third World Somewhere by local actors. Then his Excellency makes a dreadful mistake and the game is all but lost, nothing to be salvaged, I had probably just leave. But I didn’t have the good sense or proper decorum to leave, instead I stuck around for the blow I knew had to come, and wouldn’t cease coming until all the dust had settled.
His Excellency had mentioned that Waiting was really a comedy, but had failed to comment on the absurdist tradition the play was written in. Just moments into the opening, with Vladimir and Estragon (a name SpellCheck would now like to correct as ‘Estrogen’, SpellCheck is its own kind of Ape in Shining Armor), the crowd goes wild, howling with laughter. Not from a sense of embitterment at the inevitability of collapse that Beckett was facing. Not laughter out of a sense of frustration or anguish or exhaustion or comprehension of the fact that an end is truly upon us. Not laughter out of a sense of dignity, not the biting laughter you’d have with MAD Magazine. This was the other laughter, and I knew it well. The laughter of those heady campus mornings when Sean and Dirk and Viv and Kurt were coming down from Getting Gone by the only way they knew how—hair of the dog that smoke them. This was the sad, tragic essay of laughter as a bodily function. Even if this was years after college, with Lord and Lady Ape screeching at Waiting.
I only remember this dread, these long moments of fear between sensing that shift in the crowd, then seeing the ambassador’s misstep play out in slow-mo, then knowing that laughter will and feeling it rattle me as it passed through, because I felt that familiar (familial?) hand of somberness and substance fumble towards me again. Not just because Some Nameless Critic (no names now, I’m quite certain after all that talk about Apes and Armor there’s sufficient cause for a libel suit if names are mentioned) was recently talking to me in deep, sober tones about the “tragic loss of direction in the new Suicide Squad”; not only because this is not the case (in fact the opposite is true, this is the Squad, we’ve always deserved, and frustratingly, always failed to articulate); but because this Squad is as much Beckett, as much theater of the Absurd, as it is a comicbook you can pay three bucks for. Because each issue of The Squad is so inhumanly good, so inhumanly precise that I dread the next one might not be so.
I felt that Familial Hand of Somberness and Substance, and I felt that dread again. Is the Squad really about Amanda Waller being anti-sexy? Is it really about there being a core-group of villains running un-sanctionable missions on both foreign and domestic soil? Or is being dragooned into TaskForce X (the official designation of the more affectionately named “Suicide Squad”) itself an act of suicide? Is having been the kind of villain that got you sent to Belle Reve penitentiary, itself a kind of plea for help? And is being on the Squad a way of getting clear of being lost at sea. Is the Suicide, in Suicide Squad, a point you reach where you can no longer imagine how you might come out the other side, then fighting forward, come through this anyway.
I read these pages of the Squad let loose in Gotham, the first chapter in the “Hunt for Harley”, and there’s profound, crashing sense of Harley Quinn being more lost, more in danger than ever before. It’s like every page of The Sheltering Sky, like every Woody Allen you’ve ever seen, like proper, honest Beckett, where people laugh at the inevitability of being trapped. I read these wonderful, dark pages and I drink them in like an old, familiar whiskey, its pungent humors preparing me for the bad times that still loom.
In these pages, nothing is explained. The actual breaking point of Harley’s “seduction” by the Joker is never fully revealed. And yet everything is revealed. Harley’s choice in prioritizing her past, in hunting down those things that brought her here, is heartrending. You just know that despite being in a position to see her way clear, all she’s really done in returning to Gotham is open herself to the Apes and their Fineries and their Castles and their Moats and their Titles.
The praise for Adam Glass’s Suicide Squad really couldn’t be enough. Because Adam’s Squad is no longer the failed prescience of an off-the-books kill squad written in the days of President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev, instead of a decade and a half prior, just before Going Into Cambodia, when a book like that would really have mattered. Because Adam’s Squad is Easy Rider, reminding us how easily we’ve all bought into the myth of retirement. Because Adam’s Squad is LOST; not the story of people trying to make it off an island only to get thwarted at every turn, but the story of the missing persons we’ve all become, and needed to have become in order to make it to a point where a dead man can say to us, “Nobody does it alone, kiddo”.
I read these properly dark and deep pages of “The Hunt for Harley”, and I drink them in. They’re not the ersatz dark of a teenage Goth’s bedroom, the walls plastered with posters for Dark and Hip and Edgy bands, on the morning before said Goth’s parents force her to get out of bed and sack Rome. They’re the inner dark of Baudelaire, not the potable dark of the people who read Baudelaire. I read these pages of Harley unravelling herself now to become once more that girl who fell in love with the Joker and I realize that “Hunt for Harley” is a sublime pun. That the “hunt” is not undertaken by the Deadshot and the rest of the Squad, at all. But that time is the hunter, that history is the unraveler, that character, sadly, often is destiny. That the things we yearn for evaporate, when we no longer yearn for them.
I think that, and I realize how desperately wounded I am just by having partaken in that conversation earlier last week. Is there honestly no way forward for comics criticism than a paucity of imagination and ambition? Adam’s Squad again, and it hits me that this is Adam’s own wrestling with, and exorcising the drama of redemption that has haunted Western Literature since its origins. Now only TS Eliot seems to have enough of a response: “…the future is a faded song…/Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,/Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened./And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back./You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,/That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here”.