Dean Motter is best-known for his sprawling epic Mister X, originally published by Vortex in the distant 1980s–a collaboration with a number of important indie artists, the story of an architect working to save the soul of his city after his designs are tampered with in order to drive the city’s inhabitants insane.
But I didn’t come to Motter’s work through Mister X. Growing up in the 1990s in small town BC meant that I limited access to indie epics like that, mouldering back issues hidden away in the quarter bins. Instead I came to Motter when he dipped into the mainstream, when he published a duo of limited series, illustrated by Michael Lark, through DC’s “Vertigo” mature readers imprint–comic books with watercoloured deco covers depicting a retrofuturist environment.
Jumping off from the aesthetics of Mister X, Terminal City is simultaneously tightly constructed and sprawling. The conceit is simple: this is the world of 1994 as imagined by people in the 1930s.
Well, imagined, but not imagined. Nobody in 1934 was picturing the perfect utopian future marred by unemployment and gang crime, a layer of rust clinging to the monorail tracks. Sure, there are flying cars, but how are you going to afford one with no job? When you’re all jacked up on electrocaine, high-voltage drug of choice? Tomorrowland is your final stop.
Recently, I got my hands on a copy of The Compleat [sic] Terminal City, an omnibus from Dark Horse reprinting both TC stories originally published by Vertigo, Motter still retaining the rights–coinciding with their renewed push for Motter, publishing a whole new era of Mister X. And while I certainly enjoy his original epic, the romance will always be with TC.
Terminal City is silly, for one thing. It mixes the Marx Brothers with Film Noir, revels in puns and surrealist imagery–one of the subplots threaded through is that people are suffering from “Escher Syndrome,” a form of sleepwalking that defies gravity. It also appeals to me for the cast, avoiding the singularly iconic protagonist in favour of a wide assortment of peculiar people. It’s difficult to thumb through the omnibus and avoid seeing its impact on my own preferences–cities, surrealism, misfits, haunting vigilante figures–the way that it refuses both the clean lines of utopia and the summary judgement of dystopia. I love how overt and on-the-nose the series is, never shying away from mayors named for dystopian writers, teasing the audience with a possibly racist neighbourhood nickname like “Slant Town” that turns out to refer to a structural problem that tilts the whole thing by 45 degrees.
Terminal City spreads out and crushes dreams. We’re introduced to Cosmo Quinn, former human fly turned window-washer, locked up in nostalgia for his time as a major attraction when a whole cluster of miraculous entertainers and explorers were the toast of Terminal. BB, a young woman coming to the city for a construction job that fails to materialize, chasing after her father’s imagined glory days building impossible structures. And they delve into farcical mysteries, introduce villainous Dick Tracy rogues like L’il Big Lil–a short, albino gangster.
The series isn’t without it’s problems. The silliness can lend itself to groans as much as smirks, some of its characters land better than others. You probably really only need one scene with Micasa and Sucasa, the French art dealers cum con artists cum Abbott and Costello. A lot depends on the crispness of Michael Lark’s artwork. It’s definitely a taste issue, the tone of the thing occasionally dipping into that of someone’s eyebrow-waggling uncle, slipping in sly references and amusing himself while he tells you the story. But its capacity to mix dark with light often saves its more imperfect moments for me. It revels in a shifting point of view. It makes no apologies for its aesthetic.
There is a third Terminal City story, of course, one that isn’t included in the omnibus. It was published later by Image Comics, drawn by Motter himself because Michael Lark was busy at the time and DC passed on it. Electropolis has been collected by Dark Horse in a thin volume. It was meant to be a Terminal City story, it features its citizens (distantly, occasionally) while giving us a robot private eye and his Girl Friday. It feels strange for it not to be included in the omnibus, for some reason, even though the aesthetic shifts subtly with the change of artist. Maybe it’s just that Terminal City feels as though it has a phantom third act, maybe it’s that Electropolis comes across as quirky rather than the bolder winking satire of TC.
It’s strange to look back at a piece of pop art and trace your own development in it, to see how important it was to your foundations even if the exact details don’t all line up neatly and hold up to adult inspection. Strange to see it reprinted and preserved for posterity. I appreciate that Motter retained the rights and was able to publish it away from DC, to see it cleanly cut away from a corporate grotesque while so many properties languish like victims; it’s good to remind yourself that for a while, DC was allowing creators to retain rights to the work, even if only at a small imprint off to the side. It’s nice to see Dark Horse really taking the time to promote their artist’s back catalogue, especially when so much of it has remained sleeping for so long.
And going back to it emulates the thrust of the narrative; Terminal City is not as great as it once was. The daredevils have fallen into drug use and disrepair. But there are still clean lines and jokes to be cracked, there’s still something engaging about the ridiculous characters, something charming, there’s still a certain joy in taking in an old farce.