King's Highway pt. 83: The Regulators

"His almost lifelong interest in footnotes had deserted him."

The Regulators was the "mirror" novel to Desperation, both released in 1996. Also published that year: The Green Mile. Not a bad year for the King (although the Thinner movie probably sullied things just a tad) but a great year for publishers and book-sellers. And readers, too, of course.

The two novels are parallel universes and feature the same supernatural entity, Tak, and the same characters, just re-shuffled (the primary bad guy of Desperation, Entragion, is a secondary protagonist in The Regulators, etc. Johnny Marinville is the King-stand-in-writer-guy .) Tak has the same origin in both books (it was imprisoned in the China Pit mine-shaft until the Desperation Mining Corporation accidentally unearthed it), but its powers are a little different In Desperation, Tak has the ability to control the local desert wildlife, while in The Regulators, he is capable of willing ideas into deadly three-dimensional objects: a child's toys become three-dimensional motorized killers, strange animal hybrids attack our heroes, etc.

"His remaining sight was almost gone, but there was enough left for him to see the perfectly round moon rising between the fangs of the black Crayola mountains."

In both novels, it is Tak's ability to take direct control of human hosts (causing them to rapidly deteriorate) that provides the key to defeating him. 

Okay, so first things first, this does not enjoy the greatest reputation among either critics (this Tor reread entry or the original NYT review) or King fans, usually clocking in the bottom rungs of any of the various King's Rankings out there. Whereas I'm some crazy fool who lists it as his 20th favorite King book - go figure.

Technically it's a Bachman book and not a King one. Does it need to be? I think it works for the double/mirror release, but does The Regulators have all that much in common, stystylistically or thematically, with other Bachman books? The destructive-nightmare potential of television and (if you count Regulators' minute-by-minute, live-update chapter design) a "countdown" sort of structure: that's pretty much it. Maybe it's enough. 

(And is this the only Bachman book with a relatively happy ending? I think it might be.)

What it seems to want to be, moreso than a Bachman book, is a kind of multi-media event. The kind the internet would popularize in later years. (Yes, the internet was around in '96, but, for most of us, just barely. People certainly weren't doing Lost-style tie-in stuff, at any rate.) 

King has his customary lack of success in making the diary entries/ letters sound as if they are written by actual people, or different people. None are badly written, per se, just you can always see the strings, so to speak.

If this came out now, I wouldn't be surprised if the various epistolary and "found items" elements of The Regulators were twitter entries and the story itself serialized on a website to tie-in to Desperation's release. (Maybe even a MotoKops actual cartoon - definitely Todd McFarlane-designed toys and Power Wagons.) 

If I had my way, it would be the other way around. Desperation has a helluva opening and an irresistible set-up, but... it flounders, badly, as it goes on and on (and on.) The Regulators in contrast starts just as boldly as its twinner but is much leaner and more focused.

The story - Tak terrorizes the residents of one suburban town with images he's plucked from the mind of his human host, an autistic child named Seth - might have seemed like "King on autopilot" to audiences of the time. (I get that impression from some of the reviews from when it came out, at least.) And in a way it's true that many elements are familiar (writer-protagonist, an outcast child with fantastic powers and genius beyond his outward appearance/condition, ordinary folks being terrorized by Joe Hill's toys, etc.), but to me - especially coming after the "feminist phase" of King's 90s-writings - this seems like a self-aware summation of his entire career before that point. Almost an affectionate tribute before moving on to newer pastures.

On Writing - which revealed the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of King's imbibing in the 80s - had yet to come out, so this passage where Johnny Marinville reflects on his writing retirement is interesting in retrospect:

"He could not, he said, imagine ever writing another novel. That fire seemed to be out, and he didn't miss waking up in the morning with it burning his brains... along with the inevitable hangover. That part seemed to be done. And he could accept that. The part that he didn't think he could accept was how the old life of which his novels had been a part was still everywhere around him, whispering from the corners and murmuring from his old IBM every time he turned it on. I am what you were, the typewriter's hum said to him, and what you'll always be. 

"It was never about self-image, or even ego, but only about what was printed from your genes from the very start. Run to the end of the earth and take a room in the last hotel and go to the end of the final corridor and when you open the door that's there, the one you heard on so many shaky hungover mornings, and there'll be a can of Coors beside your book-notes and a gram of coke in the top drawer left, because in the end that's what you are and all you are. As some wise man or other once said, there is no gravity; the earth just sucks." 

Okay, so there are a few little things King doesn't do so well (the epistolary stuff) or does too much (autistic child with psychic powers, King-stand-in-writer-guy, which is tough because it's difficult to make an author of King's stature come across realistically in print. He doesn't even seem realistic as himself in Song of Susannah and DT Bk7, for crying out loud. It's an irony of his Horatio Alger-esque story/ position.) But there's plenty here I do like, and if you don't mind I'll switch to bullet points.

- King has said this book is about TV while Desperation is about God. That made more sense to me on my first read. This second time around it seemed less "about" TV and instead just used tropes from television (the old violent westerns of King's childhood and adolescence, and the cartoon violence of his own children's/ Seth's) in traditional-King-horror ways. 

SNAKE HUNTER: A deep-space Power Wagon assault? Could be a quick trip to that Boot Hill in the sky!
ROOTY: Root-root-root-root!
ALL: Shut up, Rooty!

Pictures of Dutton edition (including that Power Wagon above) from here.

In other words, there's less message in The Regulators (especially - as we are invited to at every turn - when compared to Desperation) and more just simple mayhem. Not simplistic, though. I quite enjoyed the subtext of a lot of what was going on. The paperboy blown away, the little redheaded girl from Charlie Brown, grown-up and bikini-clad, blown away, the real-life projections of The Wild Bunch and Bonanza, not to mention the insanity brought on by a steady diet of chocolate milk and canned spaghetti-and-meatballs: all of it adds up, Tommyknockers-style, to an ideographic (and unsettling) mirror-universe of the TV nuclear family / suburbia.

- Along these lines, King's fine eye for detail serves the book well. One scene showcases a Charles Barkley/ Space Jam fast food cup, and another has Marinville in one of the victims' houses looking over the framed photos of Corgis with amazing facts printed on them. ("SHOWED APPARENT ABILITY TO ADD SMALL NUMBERS.") And then there's stuff like this:

"He realized he was still holding the dead girl's hair. It was kinky, like an unraveled Brillo pad - no, he thought coldly. Not like that. Like what holding a scalp would be like, a human scalp. He grimaced at that and opened his fingers. The girl's face dropped back onto the concrete stoop with a wet smack that he could have lived without."

- I really liked Steven Jay Ames, "a scratched entry in the great American steeplechase." King writes the sections dealing with him with his "No problems / ZERO PROBLEMS" mantra splitting it up.

- Constant Reader might notice a few elements that were repurposed for later King books, such as Audrey's Montauk-world or Seth's dream-corridors (recalled in the Dark Tower books, as well as Dreamcatcher) or the "mental slime" left in the wake of Tak's possessions (End of Watch).

That's it for my Regulators notes. I hope it's rediscovered someday, as it would make one hell of a movie.  



Wolverine by Archie Goodwin and John Byrne



Currently, I have thirteen posts in draft mode: three King's Highway posts, three From Novel to Film posts, a TV Tomb of Mystery post, plus some other odds and ends. I also need to get the next Fantastic Four in the 1960s post together. Sheesh.

It'll happen, don't get me wrong. Just not today. Let's have a look instead at the seven issues of Wolverine that comics legends Archie Goodwin and John Byrne (as inked by fellow comics legend Klaus Jansen for five of those seven) put out twenty-seven years ago.

I remember enjoying this at the time but outside of a brief glance when I did my other Wolverine post, I haven't looked at it since. Not the best thing any of the talent involved ever did, but it's a fun little story with lots of payoff and a pretty good example of how comics were being made in 1989.

The action movie trailer for it that I'd like to see would go something like:



The world thinks the X-Men are dead* but Logan lives a happy life as "Patch" on the island of Madripoor, also known as Gomorrah on the Pacific Rim.

* This story takes places after Fall of the Mutants.

But his routine is shattered when he gets mixed up in international intrigue that will take him across the globe to Tierra Verde, to face down a dictator with a plan worthy of a Bond villain, bring a Nazi War Criminal advisor who wears an exoskeleton to justice, and to destroy the world's only supply of Insanity Cocaine that turns men into super-powered monsters. 










Something like that. Logan's not Marvel's hairiest hero - he's not even the hairiest X-man (or X-woman) - but okay, ad hyperbole. 

Let's break it down some.

Archie Goodwin was one of the industry's most-respected writers and editors. And for good reason. His stories were always a memorable mix of plot, characters, and dialogue. Here is no exception. Consider the main villain, Geist, the Nazi war criminal with an exoskeleton and shaving fetish.

Most folks would be happy enough with a Nazi War Criminal. The exoskeleton's a bonus, but this is a Marvel superhero comic so not really a remarkable innovation. Neither is giving the main baddie an odd fetish, for that matter, but it allows a writer of Archie Goodwin's experience some fun room to maneuver.

I've made that same point - as have many people, I'm sure - on Nazis and Hollywood.
Back to the shaving.

The secondary villain is equally above-and-beyond. President Caridad is the democratically-elected / CIA-supported leader of Tierra Verde. Much of his power comes from the trafficking of cocaine that turns the user into a disposable container of rage and invulnerability. This was the 80s, albeit the very end of them, and cocaine-and-banana-republics were very much en vogue in comics and elsewhere. So it'd have been enough to have this angle, but Archie Goodwin adds three things.

1) The Insanity Coke is actually a sentient being with ties back to the uber-races of Marvel's then-continuity. The short version is "Failed genetic experiment from Earth's past sleeps in Earth until coca cultivation awakens them." 

Here's the longer version for interested parties.

2) President Caridad is a client of the U.S., who provide him with one of Uncle Sam's special operatives, Nuke, to help silence his domestic enemies.

See Daredevil: Born Again for more. (And the Iran-Contra hearings.)

He is greatly impressed by Nuke and becomes obsessed with the idea of engineering Tierra Verde's very own super-soldier. Providence has provided the means to do so with the Psycho Cocaine, so abundant (and exclusive) to Tierra Verdean soil. Only problem: it burns the user out fatally after a short period of time.

If the cops don't get them first.

So, he has Geist kidnap Roughouse - one of Wolverine's mildly-super-tough sparring partners on Madripoor - or, rather, purchase him from Prince Baran. (Madripoor's a rough place.) Wolverine follows along and discovers that while Roughouse has survived longer than most, the Insanity Coke is still killing him. So:

3) The President turns to his estranged wife, Sister Salvation, a mutant with healing powers, to counteract the effects. To secure her cooperation, he lets her see their son, who has thrown in his lot with the regime. 

The young woman in the foreground of the above-left is La Bandera, a revolutionary whose mutant power is "to inspire." Archie Goodwin was way ahead of his time. She was apparently later killed, but that shouldn't stop anyone from making her the most popular heroine in grade number two in 2016.

Anyway, both the President and Spore agree Wolverine is a far more suitable subject for the Super Coke / Super Soldier hybrid and hi-jinks, as they often do, ensue. 

Tiger Shark makes an Acts-of-Vengeance-related appearance.

The art's pretty cool. I've read some criticism of the Jansen-inked issues about how Jansen's inks overpower Byrne's layouts. Any and all criticism of Klaus Jansen in whatever form it takes is silly, of course, but this is especially silly. Of course it looks more like Jansen than Byrne - he's finishing Byrne's layouts, not inking his pencils. 

Jansen above, Byrne-inking-from-his-own-layouts below.

It's certainly a fun little series, and all of the above things that Goodwin adds to things certainly demonstrate a tried-and-true (and solid) approach to storytelling. Everyone is clearly motivated and individuated through dialogue. Plenty of plot twists and drama. And the ending is great:

1) Tierra Verde is still too important to Uncle Sam to let Wolverine just topple the government and take out Geist, whom they've been protecting and using to spy on Caridad's regime. 


2) Uncle Sam is capable of a little bait-and-switch of its own, as Geist discovers once spirited to his new home in America.

Byrne's second period at Marvel (I always think of his post-90s work for the company as his third period, though technically I guess it's just an extension of his second. But bear with me) is pretty strong: She-Hulk, Namor, Avengers West Coast, that terrific "Armor Wars 2" storyline with JRJR for Iron Man, and other little surprises, like this. I think I still prefer his first period (the classic X-Mens, FF, etc.) more than any, but if you're ever looking for some solid Copper Age fun back when Marvel still had its active mk-1 continuity and you see Byrne (or Goodwin for that matter) in the credits, don't hesitate.