Twenty Stories Down #2
Villainous Intent, February 2018
Writer: Marc Olvent
One of the most striking panels in this comic is of the main protagonist sprinting across a buried and forgotten Roman aqueduct from lost Londinium, spanning the gloomy depths as a moss-covered bridge. In that one image, writer captures the enormous potential of this title: that it is not just about the human characters in their ephemeral scams, but there is a bigger participant, ancient and implacable. And that is the City of London, to which men are transient intestinal bugs: a lifespan of thousands of years glimpsed at, both the backdrop and the determinative factor in whether the human players in their little contests succeed or fail. Respect it and you will live. Ignore it and you will die. As Samuel Johnson famously said, in a different context, “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
The second issue of Twenty Stories Down, a title we have previously reviewed, has been published this month. Our previous review was very favourable. This review is less exuberant but still enthused about the quality of this independently published title.
Writer again takes us into the subterranean depths, following urban spelunker Jack Tudor in his quest to find a hidden library in the damp Victorian tunnels beneath London. Tudor is only marginally a quirky mix between an obsessive librarian and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. This is because, despite denials of do-goodery to a mysterious English baroness and benefactor, Tudor vastly resembles Zorro, the Mexican economic equaliser. He has a sword, he dresses mysteriously in black, he has a raffish je ne sais quoi, and he is involved in saving hostages from heavily armed terrorists seeking something described only as “the heart”.
Tudor’s understanding of the tunnels, caverns, and nooks of underground London are what gives him the edge in his efforts at both evading the police and in dealing with the criminals. Tudor has his sword, it is true, and bolos thrown from a distance to knock out the armed men in their black balaclavas. He now also has three companion, former soldiers who he saved in what in a flashback looks like Afghanistan.
But it is his intimate knowledge of the bowels of the ancient city that enables his adventures. At the end of the issue, Tudor evades the police by leaping in front of a train. The police assume he is dead. But, we know as readers, Tudor would have survived, saved by his awareness of some hidden Regency-era drain into a some forgotten Elizabethan stairwell or some similar bolthole. And in his conversation with the baroness, the two discuss the interaction of the Northern Line and the Circle Line as if the two train lines were old companions – as indeed they are to tens of thousands of Londoners every day. There are faint echoes of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (novelisation: 1996; comic book adaption by Mike Carey: 2007) in this.
There are some small complaints. The appearance of the three soldiers in the gloom, and the fact that they each know Tudor and will follow his lead, is far too much of a coincidence. That aspect of the plot stretches the reader, as a willing accomplice to the fiction, too far. Second, English policemen have not worn traditional bobbies helmets (also called Custodial helmets) in London since 2010 – yet here they are, protecting the noggins of the coppers as they bumble about in the darkness.
When Tudor runs across the aqueduct, demonstrating his vast understanding of the subterranean topography, it is intentionally symbolic of the purpose of this issue. Issue 2 is a bridge, connecting issue 1 with the ongoing plot, a conveyance to what is next. London is an old and fascinating city, and much like this particular issue, hides much below its surface.