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Borderland Speakeasy #13: "Look down, or look hard"

Oliver Ho
It's the terror of knowing what the world is about: Andrew Vachss' writing approaches the crippling horror of real life tragedies.

The stories of Andrew Vachss transcend clichés of hard-boiled fiction by conveying a sense of bleak, painful and horrifying reality.

A teenage gang member tries to make his bones with a local crime kingpin through a sudden and brutal act of violence. "This is where it shows, the heart of a man," the youth tells himself, just before pulling the trigger in the opening story of Hard Looks, a collection of stories by the legendary Andrew Vachss.

A prolific writer, Vachss might be best known for his series of novels centred around the character named Burke, a private detective whom the author describes as a "mercenary, a man-for-hire, a career criminal (and two-time felony loser)."

"[He is] the prototypical abused child: hyper-vigilant, distrustful, and, in Burke's case, intensely bonded to his 'family of choice,' a collection of outlaws who had nothing in common but their membership in that vast tribe I called the 'Children of the Secret.' Burke became the antithesis of the 'White Knight' so beloved of detective fiction," Vachss writes in an autobiographical essay on his website, www.vachss.com.

Vachss is also well-known as a staunch advocate for child protection, and as a lawyer who only represents children and youths. He's worked as "a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social services caseworker, a labour organizer, and the director of a maximum-security prison for violent youth," as the brief biography in the collection states. But that list only hints at the troubled people and situations Vachss has encountered.

"Because it was impossible to make a living by representing children exclusively, I turned to the one thing I knew about … crime," he writes in his autobiographical essay. "I did criminal defense work part-time, and that paid the bills for representing abused and neglected children … and for defending in juvenile court those kids the 'child protective system' had missed when it had the chance."

He describes a painful situation in an early job he held for the United States Public Service, a situation that would eventually fuel his passion (or outrage) and lead to his work as an advocate and writer. As a "Program Representative," he had to contact people with sexually-transmitted diseases, convince them to provide a list of all their sexual partners, then track down and test all of those people, "and keep on going until you broke the chain of infection." This work led to his discovery of horrifying examples of child abuse within families.

"What stunned me was not just the hideousness of humans who grow their own victims, but the sociopathic sense of entitlement they always displayed. I still remember one of those predatory degenerates who had just been informed that his child had syphilis, and that he was the cause of the infection. Confronted with the consequences, he looked at me, and, in a voice vibrating with outrage, said, 'That's my child'," he writes.

"Predatory degenerates" fill the pages of Hard Looks. At their best, these stories are so raw and filled with rage and pain that they leave labels like "hard-boiled" far behind. In much of Vachss's work, there's a sense of the author using fiction as a vehicle not only for raising awareness of issues related to child abuse, but also as a sort of wish fulfillment/fantasy, where the "hideous" predator tends to receive a particularly nasty comeuppance. "This is where it shows, the heart of a man," indeed.

While this tough-as-nails fiction is not without its dark, dark humour, it often risks pushing its gritty realism into becoming cartoonish bombast (see for example, the world-weary "Lt. Bookman" character on Seinfeld), Vachss seems to avoid this by infusing his stories with a sense of personal experience.

Vachss's legal expertise seems the shine strongest in "Treatment," which opens with an exchange in court between a prosecutor out to send a man to prison for sexually abusing a child, and a doctor (apparently a psychiatrist) who wants the accused man sent to a treatment facility. The doctor makes a convincing case for the accused's need of help rather than jail, but as the story progresses, various clues (including a suitcase full of cash) point to ulterior and more sinister motives.

Hard Looks began as a ten-issue series by Dark Horse from 1992 to 1993, selections from which were collected into a one-volume edition in 1994, and republished twice, most recently in 2002 with an excellent cover by Geof Darrow. The most recent edition includes the previously-unpublished story "Half Breed," also illustrated by Darrow.

Of the seventeen stories in this volume, 11 are black-and-white comics (although "graphic story" seems more appropriate, given the predominantly serious subject matter) and six are illustrated short stories. The impressive list of contributors includes writers Joe R. Lansdale and Charles de Lint, who each adapt one story, and artists Dave Gibbons of Watchmen fame, and V for Vendetta's David Lloyd.

The wide range of visual styles also prevents the collection from falling into monotony. For example, Gary Gianni's intricate lines and cross-hatching in "Hostage" contrast strongly with Doug D'Antiquis's rough and thick black inkwork in "Born Bad," which brings to mind the early artwork of Brian Michael Bendis.

Regardless of artist, Vachss's voice remains unmistakable. In "Replay," a young woman on her first night working at a phone-sex service (this was the 90s, after all) seems to be a natural until she receives a call from a client with a familiar voice. "Man to Man" takes the form of a monologue from one young hustler to a newcomer. They walk the streets together, while the more experienced boy tells his new friend how to score clients, what to watch for, and what to avoid.

"You wait for an obvious score, man. They aren't hard to spot after a while but I'll show you a few fro, the next bunch that pass by," he tells him. "...And make sure you get it straight in front--how much and what you gonna do. There's a lot of studs on this street who'll do any fucking thing for half a C-note."

Jack Pollock's artwork in "Man to Man," especially the beautiful crowd scene in the closing panel, recalls Will Eisner with its mixture of pained, haunted and mean faces populating a tale of life on one crime-filled street.

"[To] me, crime itself is one of the universals of human existence," Vachss writes in his autobiographical essay. "Crime takes the pulse of a culture. It tells us the truth about us as a species."

It's definitely a bleak truth. When justice finds its way into these tales, it often takes the form of furious vengeance, work-for-hire or (as in "Hostage") means to an entirely unrelated end.

One of the opening pages of the collection features a hand-written note from the author that sets the tone for the cold-blooded collection: "In some neighborhoods, if you want to walk down the streets, you've got two choices--look down, or look hard," he writes in the note. "I've spent a lot of my life in those places ... and this is some of what I've seen."


Borderland Speakeasy appears every other week and explores classic and contemporary horror and crime comics.

#1: Echoes of Vengeance

#2: "They Found The Car"—Gipi's Inverted Noir

#3: Needle in the Eye

#4: In Praise of Modesty Blaise

#5: Mirror Image Murders

#6: Moral Bankruptcy and the Smell of Fear

#7: Creepy's Cabinet of Wonders

#8: Arnold Drake's Secret Identity

#9: Call Off the Thriller

#10: Time to Join the Demons

#11: The Strange Case of Igor Kenk

#12: Beelzebub and that Other Devil: Mezzo and Pirus' "King of the Flies"


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