THE HOLLOW VORTEX: Starguards, Chapter 7

[Editor’s Note: The fictional 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.]

In early 1924, Henry R. (“Inky”) Grant was a cartoonist full of ideas, but bereft of friends. He had also run out of booze and cocaine, and he was nearly out of money. His diary entries for that period are frenzied: Hands shaking, DTs, he writes one night, then another night he writes, Cannot move or even think, for lack of cocaine.  

Despite his troubles, he never stopped drawing his comic strip, an increasingly sweeping and dark portrayal of the world a hundred years in the future, which Inky envisioned as a gold-coated seeming-Utopia that hides a vicious heart. Night after night, his shaky hands scribbled out panel after increasingly paranoid and overwrought panel.

“This is why those of us who love Inky love him,” comics historian Eugene Kovalenko (1930-1985) told the Boogernose fanzine in 1976. “In 1923, he imagined a future of expanding possibilities, a peaceful solar system. Yet by early 1924, all his hopes and dreams were dead. So he crushed that wonderful future. If he was unhappy, the solar system would be unhappy. There was no joy left in the present or in the future. All it took was rejection from a racist book editor, a drunken starlet and a narcissistic matinee idol to kill all that was good in the entire solar system, for the next hundred years at least.

“Humans,” the comics historian continued, “are so fragile, so ridiculously fragile, like a porcelain teacup balanced on a cliff-edge during a thunderstorm. Inky had the audacity to posit that the solar system, Solara, as Mary Luna calls it, is equally fragile, susceptible to crumbling and collapsing at the slightest insult. Joy is so weak. Despair is so strong. Despair will win. The porcelain teacup will crack. But is the universe truly as weak as us humans? It looks increasingly as though Inky was right.”  

Inky’s vision had indeed changed over the course of the first seven chapters. He began the story in mid-1923 as a heroic tale of an inter-solar police force, headed by a square-jawed, broad-shouldered protagonist named Nick Orion, which he hoped would be published by George P. Brett & Co. (after he’d alienated Walt Disney, the Fleischer brothers, the McClure Syndicate and Weird Tales Magazine, and many others) and then adapted into a silent screen motion picture starring John Gilbert as Orion. But Brett objected to the “Oriental” race of Orion’s sidekick, Mary Luna, which killed any potential book deal, and the Gilbert enchantment soon enough faded as well.

“He met Gilbert in 1923,” Kovalenko said in that same interview, “and they wound up, probably, vomiting by the end of the evening, which was early in the morning. Gilbert had been familiar with Inky’s work, but not enough of a fan to maintain a relationship. And Inky was enraged. He felt utterly betrayed. So psychologically everything changed for him. Nick Orion was Gilbert in his mind, he’d been writing him as a Gilbert avatar. So the portrayal of Nick Orion changed from a kind of stalwart protector of all that is noble to something entirely different, emasculated, useless, with a wombat fetish, which Gilbert didn’t have, by the way. Also because Brett had so viciously attacked Mary Luna, Inky began to identify with her, she became his voice, the Inky alter ego of the comic, someone who had been betrayed by everyone, someone who had to kill because of it, as Inky, possibly, probably, had to kill as well.”

Clearly, Inky identified so strongly with the Mary Luna character that she spoke for him, spewing his own resentments and anger at the world. The change in Mary’s character is disturbing, certainly, and by Chapter 7, she has herself become unsavory and unpleasant. Furthermore, Inky was a man of his time. He had not originally envisioned Mary Luna as his doppelganger, his conscience, and seeing himself as a pretty Asian woman must have been disorienting for him.

“I don’t think that John Gilbert betrayed Inky Grant,” the Gilbert biographer and Harvard film professor emeritus, Oliver Sinclair, told Oblivioni in a recent interview. “Remember, Gilbert had been familiar with a comic strip that Mr. Grant had drawn very briefly before it was cancelled, and Gilbert said something nice about it. And then Gilbert was kind enough to entertain Inky Grant once, to have a few drinks with him once. That implies no obligation whatsoever. Gilbert was kind to him once, it doesn’t create a promise to be kind to him forever, to star in his films, to make of him a success. And these two gentlemen were just in different leagues; John Gilbert was one of the most preternaturally gifted actors in the history of the world, a cinematic legend of his own era and every era, just a beautiful, poetic, ethereal vision of immortality. Inky Grant, on the other hand, was an imbecilic scribbler. For one such as John Gilbert to condescend to inhabit Inky Grant’s world for even an hour was a favor that was worthy of an entire lifetime. No; to blame John Gilbert for problems of Inky Grant’s own making — I’ve heard these specious claims for years — they’re unfair and untrue. Incidentally, it must be added, John Gilbert didn’t have a wombat fetish. As for this betrayal, John Gilbert, talented drinker that he was, simply blacked it all out, their whole supposed ‘friendship.’ I doubt he ever gave Inky Grant another thought, he probably didn’t even remember the evening.”

This period brought other developments as well. Between his meeting with his brother-in-law, who offered (and Inky probably accepted) a mob hit job, and the planned date of the murders, Inky reached out to many of his acquaintances and broke off all contact. Met Squishy Tuesday, Inky wrote, in one typical entry. Told him he has been a useless betrayer and false friend, and told him I wanted nothing further to do with him. Went home and wrote to Mrs. Grant in France where she has been in flagrante delicto with Mr. Touffey and God knows who else and told her that she was a betrayer and an adulterer and that I wanted never to hear from her again, and that she could tell our daughter that Touffey is her father and the Hell with all of them.

Then this, interestingly: Threw paint at a canvas in a tantrum. Drew Mary Luna’s face over my tantrum and used it as a couple of panels.

“Did Inky Grant anticipate Jackson Pollack by a couple of decades?” mused painter and Pollack biographer Maxwell Rivers. “Is that a serious question? You’ve made me mention the miserable Inky Grant and the great Jackson Pollack in the same sentence, for which I am probably going to go to Hell, now get the fuck out.”

“Why did Inky jettison all of his friends in early 1924?” Kovalenko asked the Ballhair comics fanzine in 1968. “After he was coerced into Rusty Malone’s scheme — I don’t think he agreed willingly, and I do not believe that he ultimately went through with the scheme — he distanced himself from his friends and even from, especially from, his wife and little daughter, so that they would not be tainted by association with a murderer, if he were apprehended. It was a beautiful act of love and generosity, thinking of others, as always. Remember, Inky Grant was not just the greatest writer and artist of the 20th century, he was also a giving and loving humanitarian.”

Kovalenko, of course, is not alive to defend this strange attempt to vindicate Inky, and his preposterous praise, but the Ballhair interview establishes the comics expert’s mixed loyalties, not revealed until after his untimely and astonishingly surreal and grotesque death, and which exposed a strange and twisted story all of its own.

In any event, in 1924, as Inky’s food and resources dwindled, as he awaited his first murder and possibly his own death, his creation, Mary Luna, with no assistance from her sidekick, scoured Venus in 2024 for Evelyn-Grace, the kidnapped heiress, and uncovered a conspiracy that could mean the end of Solara itself.

The Hollow Vortex

NEXT TIME: THE SHADOW OF A FORGOTTEN MOON!

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