“You’ve caught it too. Why d’you think I quit the nunnery? It wasn’t just Fred Christ’s wandering hands and all the brain damage cases that surrounded me all damn day. There’s nothing like working with that horrible little bastard Jerusalem that I know of.” – Channon
The cover for “Gouge Away” captures the essence of the book well: Spider, sitting on top of his half-demolished car, blocking traffic and writing a column with a knife in his mouth while everyone shouts at him. The city is in turmoil, the President is stomping on civil liberties and revving up for another try on Spider’s life, and Spider himself is having problems with the media making him into a cute cartoon that people don’t respect. He decides to damn well do something about it in the titular three-issue arc that closes out the volume. Spider’s losing it, but only because that’s how he does his best work. The tension is winding tighter and tighter through this volume as we approach the end. Callahan has had just about enough of Spider, but Spider hasn't had nearly enough time to do what he wants to Callahan.
“Gouge Away” also has some interesting methods for investigative journalism running through it. Methods I would perhaps not recommend, but they’re definitely effective, at least in Spider’s case.
Ahead: violence, violence, more violence—plus journalism, fear & loathing, and a ferocious game of cat-and-mouse between the President and a writer.
“Gouge Away” is made up of three single issues and a 3-issue arc. It’s a familiar pattern.
“Nobody Loves Me”: Spider’s been turned into a cartoon, a bad drama biopic, and a porn character thanks to Royce and Yelena (and likely Channon, too) signing off on the rights to make the shows. The media is defanging him by making him a friendly joke, something to be laughed at and elbowed around in the street. Spider cannot have this. He’s intensely displeased.
“The Walk”: This is another walk through the city. The difference is that this time, he’s not writing a column to be published. He’s talking to himself about the way the atmosphere has changed to one of unease. It’s getting ugly on the streets, but he refuses to be cowed. The issue ends with a quote about dissent from H. L. Mencken.
“Dancing in the Here and Now”: Channon and Yelena escape the apartment for a day on the street of their own, but they’re stalked by the typical “men in black” with unmarked cars. They buy guns. Channon has finally had enough and they shoot up the car and threaten the woman following them. Channon makes a point: she’s not afraid of them. They’re afraid of her. Afterward, they go to the park and talk about working for Spider.
“Gouge Away” 1-3: Spider goes evidence hunting. He finds a wealth of it, from the fact that Kristin knew ahead of time about Vita’s murder to the fact that Alan Schacht is a pedophile to the President hiring high class hookers at his hotel during the campaign. It’s a big column. He sends it off at a few minutes to midnight, so Royce has to publish it without submitting it for approval. Spider knows the shitstorm it will cause, so he clears all his bank accounts and heads for the streets with Channon and Yelena. The board of The Word fires him, but he was already expecting that. Spider has a plan.
The Part Where I Talk
Spider’s ethics are unraveling at the speed of light in this volume. Then again, we can’t really know what he’s done before—all the talk about the Night of the Telephone and the War of the Verbals sort of make me wonder exactly where Spider’s been and what he’s done while he was there. At least in “Gouge Away,” though, his words to Kristin just about cover it: “You’ve never met me before.” Certainly, Spider is letting loose with his fists (and anything in them) this volume and it doesn’t seem to actively bother him. In fact, he seems to be enjoying himself in some of the situations (such as when he beats the young man who killed Rory Lockwood last time around). Arguably, yes, that guy did deserve to have the shit kicked out of him. However, I find it interesting that Spider knows exactly how to get into the situation to make it work: he knows what to say to the barkeep and to the other patrons to get them looking the other way. We know he grew up in the toughest slums, but it’s not until now that I started wondering how much Spider holds back in his everyday interactions.
Certainly we’ve seen that he doesn’t like to kill. It makes him sick, just like it does most normal people, even though he’s willing to do it. But delivering a firm and judicious beat-down seems to agree with him. He’s on a hair trigger—in Kristin’s bar, even the threat of someone questioning him is enough to throw him into a rage. He spends more time in this volume hurting people willingly than he ever has before. The end result, though, is that he gets the perfect information to write the perfect column and throw Callahan to the dogs. Is it worth it? I’d like to think so, but I also think he could have gotten through some of those particular interviews without assaulting anyone. He did it because he wanted to, not always because he had to. That reveals a little more about Spider’s darker side than we’ve seen yet. He’s snapping, snarling, up in everybody’s face that he feels has done something to deserve it or could help him on his way. Being nice has become too much effort.
Alternately, he’s even more energetic and happy once he gets the column out and burns his comfortable life around him. It’s like the frenetic violence of investigation, using force to get what he needed, lifted a weight off of his shoulders he’d been carrying since Vita. Like Royce said once—Spider needs to be hated to work. I like that Spider’s not a saint in any sense of the word. He has that human side of him that wants to take revenge in a physical, personal way. He usually manages to transmute it into writing (like the column that absolutely blows the kneecap off the Callahan administration), but he’s still a person, and sometimes the anger is going to leak out.
That column and the reactions it triggers, which only Spider is ahead of, are the best parts of this volume. He pushes it so close to the wire on time that Royce can’t submit it for approval before publishing it, so it escapes the D-notice. Slippery and against the rules, but it’ll be too late for Callahan to stop it. The board of directors fires Spider, but he was expecting that. (I love Royce’s lines in the board meeting: “Don’t be weak. Be tough enough to enjoy the notoriety and the money and the power and the best writer in the country.” He is such a badass behind the scenes; such an intense guy. Even though he provides a lot of comic relief he’s also one of the most important gears in Spider’s machine right alongside the Filthy Assistants.) Spider’s mission isn’t even directly aimed at just getting them out of power—it’s about revenge, now. When Schacht kills himself, Spider actually says “One down, Vita.” He doesn’t feel the least bit guilty. Maybe it’s because he didn’t do it himself, but he still caused the death, and he’s vindicated by it. This is the kind of cat and mouse game that gets innocent people (or relatively innocent people) killed: the foreshadowing of the big murders to follow comes in the assassination of Kristin and all of her bodyguards on the street in broad daylight right after she talks to Spider.
Again: unintended consequences. Spider won’t be mourning Kristin; he’s too pissed at her betting on Vita’s death. But this column will bring down more hell on the people around him than it does Spider himself, which he’ll find out next time. For now they’re off to the streets. Spider’s got everything ready as long as his Assistants are ready to follow. And, judging by that conversation in the park earlier in the volume, they’re ready to follow him into hell itself if it means getting the story. He’s infectious (likely in more ways than one). We’re no stranger to that charm as the readers—obviously we’re caught up in the cyclone if we’re still following along—but it helps that Channon and Yelena put it into words. (Though, the death of that poor helpless pigeon makes me sad every time. I need to stop that. Too many cute small animals die in this series to get upset over a many faced pigeon.)
Speaking of Kristin’s death, it’s gut-wrenching. The panels are produced with exquisite color and care, but the intensity of emotion on the dying and wounded’s faces is a little hard to look at. It’s easy to breeze by (oh look, comic violence!) but it’s not comic violence in that sense. Spend a minute looking at the dismayed, terrified look on Kristin’s face when the first shot takes her through the back. The Charlie-Brown-esque bouncer goes down from behind too, looking young and sad and helpless. It’s enough to stop you from breathing for a minute or two. The last panel of the scene is just their bodies. Kristin might not have been a good person, but Robertson pays so much attention to making her death visceral and real that you can’t help but feel bad about it.
Oh, and the pigeons again. There’s just something about those multi-winged, multi-faced, smoking pigeons that embodies the City perfectly. I would so keep one as a pet. I bet they’re interesting to have around the house when they aren’t stealing your cigarettes.
That’s it for today’s Tuesday comics jam. Join me next week for volume 7, “Spider’s Thrash.” If you want to catch up on previous weeks, go here.