Death in a Vacuum: Starguards, Chapter 6

[Editor’s Note: The story of “Inky” Grant and his comic strip will appear here every week or two (or sometimes three). Read the whole saga from the beginning, if you wish.]

As 1924 dawned, cartoonist Inky Grant had made up his mind. He had artistic dreams. He needed money. Crime could bring him money. He would turn to a life of crime.

“Inky” Grant

To embark on this life of crime, Inky turned to the only real criminal he knew, Rusty Malone, his sister’s widower.

Rusty was not a person Inky especially wanted to spend time with.

But several years earlier, Rusty had said, “If you ever need money, let me know. I’ll set you up.”

Inky needed money, and he let Rusty know. Rusty, as always, needed an extra goon.

Inky didn’t describe the details of the scheme in his diary, but, amazingly, a letter from Rusty survives among Inky’s personal effects, which was scattered in with his art. When his one art exhibit to date was organized at the long-defunct Inkwell Gallery in the late 1950s, comics fan (and future comics historian) Eugene Kovalenko (1930-1985) found the letter, shortly before the gallery’s permanent closure, grateful that Inky had failed to carry out Rusty’s most astute admonition: Destroy this letter.

“The plot described in the letter,”  Kovalenko wrote, “was breathtaking in its simplicity and brainlessness. New York City had seen a rise in warring bootleggers. Thanks to a breach between two rival gangs, Malone’s boss felt himself entitled to a warehouse of hooch. On February 6, Inky and his brother-in-law would invade the warehouse at two in the morning, shoot a couple of guards in the back and steal the hooch. That was the whole plan. That was it. Like, a plan that a five-year-old could have come up with.”

From Rusty’s letter, it seems that Inky had concerns about leaving corpses lying around a warehouse, but Rusty reassured him, in language that readers will likely find offensive, but was not unusual for the time.

“Don’t worry,” Rusty wrote. “Powlen will clean it up. We rub out the hooligans, Powlen takes out the garbage. Powlen is like a god. He is like a genius. He erases shit. He makes it like it didn’t happen. Powlen is the magic fucking kike.”

This impressed Inky, who obliquely referred to Powlen in a couple of subsequent strips. As far as we know, however, he never met Powlen, an allegedly Jewish gangster so far underground that no record survives of his existence other than a scribble in Inky’s diary and a few shadowy references in post-Prohibition police reports. Powlen was said to be an acquaintance of Bix Beiderbecke, although his name appears in no Beiderbecke biography.

“This fellow, Powlen, like everyone, gained a cultish following on the internet in the early ‘aughts,” says Al Capone biographer, Hugh Sendrick. “Various intrepid researchers have determined to uncover the mystery of Powlen’s identity. Common internet wisdom now locates him during the 1920s living in Brooklyn, on 6th Avenue, although there is no real evidence for this. Still, his supposed abode is today a very minor tourist attraction. We will likely never know the identity of this supposedly masterful fixer.”

Now truly friendless, Inky spent 1924’s New Year’s Eve alone, drinking, snorting cocaine, drawing his comic and anticipating what he described in his diary without elaboration as his “awfully big adventure.” This is a quote from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. The full quote is “To die will be an awfully big adventure,” so it seems Inky did not imagine that his January criminal escapade would go very well at all.

He then wrote, also without elaboration, “If one kills a bad person, it is not murder, it is societal self-defense,” likely an effort to come to grips with what he and his brother-in-law had planned: killing a couple of soldiers in a war between two sets of criminals was arguably less immoral than his last crime spree, which saw him grabbing purses from little old ladies. Would society be better or worse after he and Rusty killed a couple of mobsters?

The panels he drew on New Year’s Eve, which saw the Starguards’ future world celebrating the arrival of 2024, focused on Mary Luna in an especially dark and pessimistic mood. Reading his art today is a tunnel straight into Inky’s frame of mind, a hundred years ago, as his life took a turn for the worse.

Death in a Vacuum!




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