Wednesday, December 15, 2021

You Can't Be Too Young Or Too Pretty

This is the title of my latest novel, made, most incongruously, by combining the Smiling Face Killings with my long bygone experience working at DC Comics, in the romance division. 

The Smiling Face murders are either a wild conspiracy theory or one of the worst governmental cover-ups of all time: some fifty young college men across the Midwest have been found dead in bodies of water, sometimes accompanied by a graffito of a yellow emoji. The grin. Some observers—including two retired police detectives—believe the dead are victims of serial murder by a group or individual and that the authorities (who insist the victims simply got drunk or high and, tragically, fell into water and drowned) deny there is any foul play because they are too lazy and incompetent to solve these murder cases. 

As any mystery fan can tell you, serial killers are all but impossible to stop because their prey is chosen randomly, leaving no telltale connections to detect and convict on. Generally, murders are solved when the victim is a spouse, a lover, a business partner, a relative with a will of imposing bandwidth. The kill is for money, passion, revenge. Only when the serial killer gets braggy and sloppy can he be caught. So the Smiley Face operation, if it is indeed plotted murder, would naturally confound police detectives. 

You Can’t Be Too Young Or Too Pretty is set in a college town, with the school separated from the urban center by an eerie forest. A road runs through it, and students often walk to the campus from the apartments, stores, and bars in the town (and vice versa). But the road is largely deserted at night: a perfect pick-up spot for a homicidal gang.  

Further, the Smiley Face victims are all attractive young men, for murder is power, and power loves quality in all things. Thus, there is the air of a religious rite, a sacrifice of a community’s favorite members, suggesting that an arcane cult is operating in the neighborhood, perhaps one reaching back into the very birth of recorded history. It relates to the many vampire novels and films that explain that the re-dead have been with us forever, waiting for the opportunity to come forth and assert citizens’ rights, in the True Blood manner. Or, as one of the worst of them tells the titular hero of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter just before he chops his head off, “We won’t stop till the whole country’s ours.” 

It’s an alarming proposition for law enforcement, as the adherents of such a cult would have the experience of millennia’s worth of practice in subterfuge and evasion. They would be champions at killing, which explains why the authorities—who are all too often feckless foodledoos—can't keep up with them.  

As for romance comics: all seven of our monthly titles created a world in which everyone except the grownups was, as my novel’s title suggests, young and pretty, and happy endings were the rule. Our readers were young girls still ahead of full-blown love; they had been earning small change selling lemonade from roadside stands only two or three years before, and their “lovers” were boys with a paper route.  

By law, comic books had to include at least one page of solid text to take advantage of a shipping discount (which explains why the old Classics Illustrateds had those back-of-the-book essays that nobody read). Ours were advice columns, attributed to phantoms with generic names such as Carol Andrews and Ann Martin, who was billed as “Counselor-At-Love.” 

Well, I was all of them, Carol, Ann, and five others, cobbling the letters we received from readers into simple tween “love” problems—Does the cute boy in the store like me? and so on—though the girls writing in didn't give me much to go on. How do I know if he likes you? Still, a theme emerged: everything starts with looks, but then personality comes into play, and one’s insides don’t necessarily comport with one’s appearance. 

So my novel’s characters are all wonderful to look at...but what happens then? For example, my hero, Connor, is every girl’s dreamboat, and he does have personal charm—but no staying power. Giving is not his style, and the “real” Connor underneath the devastating smile and wide shoulders is so impenetrable that his girlfriends (he amasses them by the flock) keep coming back to try to collect him: to figure him out. They’re like the girls who wrote to Carol Andrews: does he like me? 

Or take young Baker, who shoots into fame with an advice column filled with outspoken recommendations—”Cut your father out of your life!,” he’ll urge—captivating a national readership. Baker hooks up with a vast gym hunk, a veteran called simply Marine, who speaks in a mixture of military jargon and rural idioms. (“You gonna get up on me again like so?”) Marine looks hot and dumb, a celebrated type. Yet his rap takes in odd cultural points. He even knows all about Oz—the magic land, not the prison. 

Marine is bi and Baker a self-destructive gay, and I can imagine the letter the two of them might have sent to a romance advice column, a “he said, he said” of gnarly complaints about everything. It’s ghastly when two are in love yet can’t get along. What good is young and cute then? And this despite Marine’s fail-safe recipe for effective romance, made of equal parts of (in his wording) fuck and trust. The former is easy; again, it’s all about liking looks. But trust is hard, because you can’t just ask for it. When someone wants something from you and you resist, if he then says, “Don’t you trust me?,” it’s a giveaway: you can’t. Trustworthy people never ask that question. 

I find eccentric characters very enjoyable to write about, because “screwy” makes good reading while “normal” lies dull on the page. My lesbians are eccentrics, too (one’s a cop, which is pretty wild in any context), and even Connor’s four-year-old nephew is one, as an imp who runs around in exotic headgear and speaks a language all his own. Every time he says something, everyone will turn to his older sister, who translates. 

It’s fun life, yet there are still those vicious killers to deal with. And I remember, back at DC Comics, how some of the letters we got were from young girls in the south asking for help because their mother's boyfriend had seduced them. This was an appalling situation, way beyond the expertise of a Carol Andrews, and my boss drew up a form answer to be sent privately to these girls, urging them to take the problem to the minister of their church. 

Hopeless, I thought. What good is he going to do? It cast a dreadful shadow over our land of the romance of young and pretty. Is it religion that explains where the shadows come from, or fiction?  






  1. Hey Ethan - my parents gifted me with 'Pick A Pocket Or Two' for Christmas. I'm devouring it. I'm glad you share my sentiments about Josephine Barstow and her performance on the JAY 'Oliver!' disc (sorry to be so specific) - looking forward to the next theatre book - is there one in the offing? Thanks! PX

    1. Just one more--Gays On Broadway. Meanwhile, I'm returning to fiction, so I can make everything up instead of having to research it all.

    2. I look forward to reading that.