Over the course of rereading Motter & Lark’s Terminal City, I’ve thought a lot about the characters and structure, the parts that I like and the part that I would do completely differently. One aspect that I am drawn back to is the point of view. The book has a large ensemble cast with a “camera” that moves between a lot of characters, but ultimately only two of them receive the role of narrator, switching off with each other at uneven intervals.
The Wash-up. Our first narrator, introduced on the very first page, is disgraced, retired human fly Cosmo Quinn–introducing us right away to the book’s concern with stunted, collapsed spectacles–who makes a living washing windows now that his time in the sun has concluded.
If you were short-sighted enough to want there to be a single protagonist for the series, Cosmo’s your man. In both the original storyline and Aerial Graffiti, the core problem comes down to one of of Cosmo’s old daredevil comrades returning to the public eye by committing high-profile crimes, and in both cases Cosmo is drawn into the action as a key figure in stopping them–stripping off the window-washer gear, of course, in favour of his old human fly equipment.
Cosmo’s narration is key because the method through which it is delivered reveals his character. We’re introduced to a text-within-a-text, “On the Wall,” Cosmo Quinn’s memoir, threaded through both storylines. They hint at Cosmo’s inherent narcissism, his need to ruminate on the “good old days” when he was relevant and successful, when his friends weren’t all violent monsters or otherwise lost. Cosmo’s narration is mired in his own nostaglia and regret.
The problem is that Motter doesn’t use “On the Wall” to full effect. It doesn’t contradict itself (or the “objective” version of events playing out in the story directly) enough. It’s pretty straightforward. Much of what I dislike about the series in retrospect is that it doesn’t feel particularly “deep,” playing with the tropes and aesthetics of its source material without complicating it, and Cosmo’s narration is complicit in this failure.
The Woman in Red. Our other narrator, who shares Cosmo Quinn’s penchant for voyeurism (him, through windows; her, around corners), is Monique Rome, although it’s almost to the end of the first storyline that we learn her last name, and for the majority of the characters, “Monique” is a best only a possible name. She’s the woman in red first and foremost, Motter’s casual exploration of the urban vigilante archetype, lacking identity in the same way that her forebear, Mister X, does. Monique is composed of rumour and question.
We know very few things about Monique. We know that she doesn’t speak. We know that she only wears red. We know that she is another hold-over from the Good Old Days, when she had a major confrontation with Terminal City’s crime boss, L’il Big Lil. We don’t know why. We barely know who, too–“Monique Rome” could be as much a pseudonym as, say, Lamont Cranston, one of Monique’s spiritual ancestors. Characters question her constantly–did she have her vocal cords cut? Has she simply taken a vow of silence?
Except that Monique does have a voice, through the narration. While Cosmo’s point of view is a narcissistic wallow for the most part, Monique’s is cold and clean. Cosmo is a memoirist and Monique is a naturalist; her sections (with lavender caption boxes and looping, handwritten-like text to counterpoint Cosmo’s white paper and typewritten prose) mirror events directly, but frame them as a long dissertation on the behaviour of predators and prey in a jungle setting. We can perhaps surmise from that–L’il Big Lil is the predator, their relationship is cleanly laid out even if we get few details–but Monique’s identity is as stripped away from her narration as it is from everywhere else.
I like Monique quite a lot–not only does she have a striking visual but she demonstrates how characters like the Shadow or the Spider would look to the people in their world who aren’t the viewpoint characters. I don’t always like how Motter uses her–reducing her to a damsel in distress, which seems like a waste.
I’m curious why Motter elected to have the narration split between the two ersatz super-heroes of the series (though I wouldn’t call them super-heroes; they simply emulate certain properties of that category), beyond their ability to comment on Terminal City from above and the from the fringes. Maybe it’s an issue of what the audience would accept at the time, though you have to wonder how the series would have played out if BB Bergman got the narration for a while, or L’il Big Lil.