I met Rob outside the Lower East Side apartment building the next morning, thinking about whether or not Kalli had found anything, not to mention that I was pretty sure this was going to be a complete waste of time. Rob seemed unnaturally excited, though today it wasn’t that infectious as last time. I was in work mode right now, and I knew that him fanboying all over the place was going to be supremely unhelpful.
I flipped through the keys the lawyer gave me as he hopped from foot to food with excitement. I could see he had a “Hawkblade” sweatshirt on under his coat and I rolled my eyes. “Ready?” I opened up the front door, we headed to the elevator, clicking the button. “I’m gonna be honest, I really don’t think that we’re going to find anything up there.” I could see him sag a little big. “You never know. Schultz left his drawing table the exact same way after he did the last ‘Peanuts’ strip, it was that way when he died.” Rob clicked the elevator button, peering up the open cage elevator shaft. “I think it’s busted. Hoof it?”
It was on the third floor. My phone rang as we were at the front door, and I handed the keys to Rob as I answered. It was Kalli. “Look, I’m on the way to a meeting but my assistant just brought me something you might find interesting. There was no Kirby Hale in the U.S. Military. Not Army, Air Force, the Marines, Navy, not even the freaking National Guard or the Coast Guard or the police. I thought you said he was some kind of military hero?”
“Yeah, I know. Hold on,” Inside, Robb was standing in the middle of the old living room, touching things, looking at the dusty photos on the walls. “Are you sure that Hale was in the Army?”
He put down the stack of books he’d found on the coffee table, the imprint of where it’d been left still visible. “Yeah, it was one of the big selling points of the strip, an Army veteran who fought for his country? He never talked about it and hated when other people did, but supposedly the fact that he was modest about it was well-liked. Strip sales guys never shut up about it.”
“I’ll call you later, I said into the phone, hanging up. I picked up a stack of mail in the front room off the table, slipping it into my bag to look at later. “Anyway, I’d hoped that his old army buddy contacts might lead us somewhere, but now I don’t know.”
“Well, if you think about, this isn’t a huge deal. After all, Stan Lee was Stanley Lieber, Jack Kirby was Jacob Kurtzberg, Hal Foster was Harold, they all changed their names or shortened them.”
“Who the shit are those people?”
He shook his head. “Never mind. The point is, all we need to do is find something with his real name on it, right? Isn’t that what PI’s like you do, track down real names, do stakeouts, stuff like that?”
I started flicking lights on and off, realizing that the shaded windows were keeping the whole apartment in perpetual darkness. No power was in the place, so we started to open the windows, drawing blinds and raising the shutters, letting late-morning sunlight filter in and make the old empty apartment a little less gloomy and foreboding. “You watch too many movies. Or comic books. Look, unless I can find something besides some mail, like a diploma or a lease, then we’re just gonna be spinning our wheels when it comes to his original name. If he legally changed it, then that’s different, there should be a record somewhere hopefully, a lawyer’s office. I can check around some more. So what happened that his kids aren’t cashing in on all this crap? Why keep it like this?”
Rob poked his head into what looked like a spare bedroom full of trash bags, and I followed in to start ripping the rotting old plastic open to spill old shirts and slacks everywhere. Clearly a donation to the Salvation Army never went through. “I just know that they sold the apartment and contents recently after hanging onto it for the sake of keeping the apartment off the market. This is a desirable neighborhood, my ex lived down near here and her rent was nausea-inducing. I heard he was pretty adamant about his kids not getting into comics, they’re probably gonna flip this whole building with the estate sale money. New York City real estate.”
“Ahhh.” The fashionable area was crawling with young couples, coffee shops, the type of gentrification that would normally have zoned in on the small hidden old walkup if not for the battered front door and stairs, the windows on the street level barred and shuttered.
I left the room as Rob was rifling through the closets, poked my head into one of the apartment’s dark rooms, finding what I assumed was the studio. I dug up the tiny throwaway flashlight I always carried around, a freebie from a bail bonds convention I went to last year, letting the weak light flicker around the room. There was a chair by a drawing table next to the room’s single shuttered window, and all around there were boxes and boxes of what I assumed were paper. “Hey, I found his studio.”
Rob was barely in the room before the contents of one of the boxes were in his hands, rifling through them. “Well?” I asked, kneeling down next to him to start rifling through another one. “This is amazing, it’s all sketched, thumbnails, this is awesome stuff!” He started handing me what I realized was scrap paper, stuff in faded pencils, smears of inks from what I figured were brushes and pens on the borders. “What is this? Scrap?”
“What? No, this is amazing. Some collectors are paying top-dollar for this stuff. Thumbnails from a Gray ‘Little Orphan Annie’ strip were auctioned off by American Heritage for like five grand last year.” He was stacking paper as he took it out of the boxes, moving twice as fast as me. “I still keep comics in longboxes,” he said, answering my unspoken question. “So far though, none of this looks like a finished strip.”
“What’s the last strip supposed to be, anyway?” I asked. We’d been spending so much time talking about Hale that I realized I didn’t even know exactly what it was I was going to be looking for. “Well,” Rob said, settling in, “the last strip that was published had Prince Valor and his aides looking to establish defense posts around their castle, because the invading…” I held up a hand, sighing. “Alright, I get it, so the missing one’s a follow up to that? What, the attack?”
“Well, that’s the assumption. Or it’s more planning shown. Hale was a long-form storytelling and by that point he pretty much had free reign with how long he took to reach the conclusion of a storyarc, he was Schultz-level of…”
“Alright, I get it.” Rob Wagner was smart but, I was realizing, had an annoying tendency to trail off easily. After a few hours, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that it wasn’t in the aparatment. In fact just about everything we’d seen was penciled drawings on paper, or pages from notebooks.
We were in that apartment for almost two hours, rooting through boxes, shaking out books, going through everything and anything. No completed strips, barely anything concretely “Hawkblade”-related.
“Look, the strip’s not here. You find any actual complete art?” I’d gotten a look at what a Hale strip looked like as an original, so at least I vaguely knew what to look for size- and shape-wise, and nothing we’d come across was even close. “No, a lot of thumbnails and pre-production art, but not the strip.” He looked a little dejected. “Are we gonna be able to find this before we head to print with the last volume?”
“Hell, I don’t know, why don’t you guys use some of this crap?” I waved my arms around. “There’s gotta be at least three or four books’ worth of stuff, right? I saw those volumes at the office, it’d work, right?”
He took a few sheets from one box, carefully sliding them into the empty plastic sleeves of the binder, putting the binder back into his bag. “I guess,” he said. “I’m gonna take some of these into the office with me, I still have a script to work on.” I’d forgotten that Rob was supposed to be writing the comic as well, attached to me because of his prodigious knowledge of the comic. “Hey,” I said, feeling bad at his lack of excitement, the way a parent patronizes a hurt or embarrassed child, “You got any of the comic you could show me?” I was starting to feel embarrassed at how bad I felt that he was so down. “Really?” he said, looking up. “Yeah sure, email me something,” I said, heading toward the apartment door. “Come on, let’s go, I gotta go do some things.”
We left the apartment building and parted ways on the sidewalk, Rob going back to the Manta offices to use their studio space, apparently a part of the upper floor I hadn’t seen, while I was intent on heading home after stopping off for some Chinese food. I was honestly not that surprised that we didn’t find the strip there, especially after what I’d read about Hale in the book that they’d given me.
The author of the book quoted a little too much from a 1980 interview with him in some comic book trade magazine or journal, and one point had stuck with me about how Hale said that he considered it a trade as much as an art, and refused to “dilly-dally.”
I had to admit it was a quote that made me respect the man, sitting in that apartment all day churning out work, a one-man assembly line of funnypage material. But if he was that prolific, then that meant that he would have finished the strip entirely before letting someone know that it was done.
Hopefully the stack of mail that I’d grabbed would maybe lead to something. Technically, it could be considered mail theft or mail fraud, but since I was working for the new owners of the estate, I figured I was covered. Just in case a random cop stopped me on the walk home, asked why I had a messenger bag full of mail from an apartment on the Lower East Side on me.
If it hadn’t been found immediately after his death, that meant that it’d been finished a while but held back, obviously. But why? That didn’t make any sense. The only thing I could think of was that the strip had been finished, was literally on the table ready to go, but at the last minute moved or taken.
That night I dreamed about a young prince in a weird bowl cut and tunic and pantyhose with a glowing sword, and I woke up in a start, rolling off the bed with a resounding and painful “THUMP” on the hardwood floors.
I was starting to hate comic books.