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Friday, 26 September 2014

‘QUATERMASS’ – AN EXPERIMENT IN SCIENCE FICTION

Attention please! This first installment in a series looking at the classic 'Quatermass' series of British TV SF is notably being posted on the very day when, seven years ago, our first ever post looked at the Hammer movie version. We don't just throw this show together, you know.

Further attention required! Please note that this review is considered unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition.


”They are to reach a height of fifteen hundred miles above the Earth and there learn what is to be learnt. For an experiment is an operation designed to discover some unknown truth.”
- Opening narration

If British small-screen science fiction has never exactly been big-budget, with ’The Quatermass Experiment’ (1953) we can see how it’s Fifties origins were truly made from sticky tape and glue. Whenever anyone answers the phone to say (in clipped Fifties tones) “Experimental Rocket Group”, you can’t help but be reminded of Wallace and Gromit bashing together moonships in their basement. Indeed, its gang of high-minded well-meaning boffins are often reminiscent of the BBC in themselves, stumbling along between crises, extemporising history. In a way the title to the first series gives the whole thing away - it was an experiment, a prototype, built in such back-shed conditions you’re amazed they ever got it to fly.

The first series not only lacked for special effects, it was broadcast entirely live with neither space nor budget for location shoots. (We can only watch the first two episodes now, but not because the others were lost. They were just not recorded in the first place.) The ‘monster’ which appears in the finale was created by writer Nigel Kneale and his wife at home, by modifying a rubber glove from their kitchen, when the BBC effects department despaired of his requests and threw in the towel.

Nevertheless, Kneale and his producer/director Rudolph Cartier created something of more than mere historical importance. The Wright brothers may have pioneered flight, but today you wouldn’t want to ride in one of their planes - whatever the deal on air miles. Conversely, 'Quatermass' and its sequels are must-see items for anyone with an interest in science fiction. Kneale and Cartier took their limitations as challenges, as if writing a haiku, and brought to the screen a science fiction marked by intelligence and even social comment.

Dialogue, for example, tends to the smartly understated rather than the melodramatic. The rocket ship is simply described as having travelled “far”. Phrases uttered casually often come back to haunt, such as the pre-flight quip “bring something back”. (Made into the second episode title.) Which indeed they do


The most obvious and major difference between this and the later film version is that, instead of Brian Donlevey, Quatermass is played by an actor. To be specific, Reginald Tate (above), but perhaps any actor would have been change enough. While the film Quatermass is one-dimensionally remorseless, here he’s presented as much more troubled - and with it much more sympathetic. His main antagonist is Paterson, a member of his own rocket crew who takes on and amplifies his own feelings of guilt. In a live television broadcast, the big Q even asks for the world’s forgiveness. The Donlevy Quatermass would have seized the opportunity to tell everyone to stop bugging him.

The second big difference lies in the ending. If the film was 'inverted Frankenstein', this culminates in a more Prince Charles fashion. But let’s lead up to that gradually. As mentioned in the film review, the Thing represents the self reduced to a “pre-human state”. I also casually called it a “walking corpse,” and indeed it has many of the lumbering human-non-human features of the zombie. The name 'Carroon' may have been chosen to echo 'carrion'. With the novel 'The Day of the Triffids' released only two years earlier, it may be that vegetation was in those more refined times used as a stand-in for the undead. (Notably, the opening of 'Day of the Triffids' has since been recycled by '28 Days Later', 'The Walking Dead' and counting...)

In the film the Thing absorbs life, starting with the two other astronauts in the rocket, reducing them literally to powder. This original adds an extra fillip, the men’s bodies are devoured but their personalities are somehow retained inside the surviving Carroon.

Which doesn’t make for much in the way of logical sense. (There’s some explaining away that this doesn’t happen to the Thing’s other victims due to the ‘longer time’ it had to absorb the astronauts aboard the rocket). But it allows for much narrative tension as their personalities briefly burst to the surface of the stricken survivor, and the three-into-one-schema vies with our assumptions about the integrity of the self - and so underlines the theme of loss of individuation.

All of which works to underline just what sort of show this is. The rocket ship at first resembles a 'locked room' murder mystery, two men dead with no conceivable way it could have happened. Notably, its scientists and policemen who mull over this conundrum. But of course the rug is soon and quite deliberately pulled from under this, and the 'deaths' given a supernatural cause. The “something back” 'Quatermass' brings to SF is horror, rather than Westerns with ray guns or adventure stories. Just as Superman is now forever associated with the intro line "faster than a speeding bullet", 'Quatermass' comes complete in the popular imagination with the BBC voiceover warning to "those of a nervous disposition". Notably, its a story that starts with a rocket ship and ends with Westminster Abbey.


And yet for all that its not a Gothic story; even if Kneale's initial premise was “science going bad” it's never anti-science. Our protagonist is not only a scientist, he works with Police Inspector Lomax and journalist Fullalove – a microcosm of the enquiring minds within the British establishment. Here and later, horror is associated with a form of ignorance, knowledge with empowerment. Monsters (if that's even the term) are not part of the fabric of things, to be shied from, but more like Bunyanesque giants – to be toppled and overcome.

Which throws an entirely different light on the whole business of setting the finale in Westminster Abbey. However much Quatermass himself changes between TV set and screen, the Abbey may well change more. In the film the Thing appears by the end all-powerful, so you assume either it chose to go there or it stumbled upon the place by accident. But here Quatermass insists “it wasn’t chance” that took it there, and explains the Thing’s existence is parasitically contingent upon the existence of Carroon and the others. (Perhaps it's three-into-one absorption could be regarded as some perversion of the holy trinity.)

Addressing them he explains “it can only know by means of your knowledge… understand through your understanding. It can only exist through your submission”. His comments even take on the tone of an exorcism (“you will overcome this evil”), with the implication the Abbey was chosen not by the Thing but the three astronauts, as a symbol of human values from where to stage their final battle. (Albeit with the corollary that London has been reduced to a hysterical, fleeing mob – “like the beasts and the plants”.)

While in the film the Thing is destroyed by electrocution, here the astronauts are able to regain control enough to destroy it from within – by willing themselves to suicide they destroy their parasite with them. As Paterson, paralysed through guilt and blame, is ’Quatermass’s shadow self (who also sacrifices himself), so the Thing is the baser nature of the three astronauts – and by implication of us all. It is our attempt to leave the Earth that has brought it upon us, exposed our ties, like rattling the bar brings the jailer. But human values win out. Though initially juxtaposed, rocket ship and Abbey ultimately combine – standing for something like brain and heart, uniting against the mere brute body.

Kneale disliked the changes the film made to his vision, changes he had no part in. And he was right… about all of them except for this one. For one thing, this sudden change of heart makes scant sense. It’s what they’ve been trying to do all along, to little effect even before the Thing’s growth had been so advanced. Apart from the rarified atmosphere of the Abbey (presumably intended symbolically rather than as literally powerful), there seems little reason why the same trick should work now except for the fact we’ve come to the end of the sixth episode.

And while a fisticuffs ending might have felt equally hackneyed, there is always something stagily unsatisfying about ending a story with a rousing speech. It feels arbitrary and unresolving, almost a deus ex machina. More widely, this invoking of the basic decency inside us all now seems (to put it mildly) a touch na├»ve – the point where ’Quatermass’ stops seeming pioneering and becomes merely quaint. It suggests problems can be resolved not by action or change but merely by discussion and debate.

This unconvincing ending first felt to me like a product of its time, resting on notions of ‘chaps’ always ‘coming though’ when things looked at their rummest. Perhaps, had 'Night of the Living Dead' been made fifteen years earlier, they'd have given that the same ending – someone sticking on some Elgar and the zombies rediscovering their inner humanity. But interestingly Andrew Pixley’s notes to the BBC DVD edition reveal this was a widespread complaint even among contemporary audiences. (One commenting “the first five built up a terrific excitement but Episode Six went off like a wet firework”.) With recent memories of Nazism, perhaps such Sunday School notions of basic decency were already antiquated.

It's possible that Kneale took these criticisms to heart. If he had no involvement in the film version, he went on to adapt ’1984’ - where Orwell quite deliberately set out to scupper such sweet notions of some unbreakable core inside us. (More of which anon.) And the idea that alien life can be engaged in conversation, let's see how that fared in the sequels...


Coming soon! As you may have already guessed, more 'Quatermass'...

Grateful thanks to ‘Redsock’

Sunday, 21 September 2014

“FOG AROUND PLANET - UNIVERSE CUT OFF” (aka MAPPING A VERY BRITISH TAKE ON THE FORGOTTEN FUTURE...)


Having looked hard at this blog and decided it wasn’t nearly nerdy nor provincial enough, for the impending seventh anniversary the chaps in charge here have decided to devote a new series to old British sci-fi.* Fellow Englanders! Let us journey back to those days when the chaps in charge knew how to do that stuff properly, before reliable old Airfix and bakelite had been supplanted by all that CGI and 3D tommyrot.

When you could rely on a raygun to look like a hairdryer and a spaceship like another hairdryer. When the Union Jack fluttered proudly atop heathen planets, boffins were running the show and sets were as wobbly as upper lips stiff. When, for their part, envious aliens ceaslessly plotted to invade the Earth, with particular interest in the strategically important location of Chipping Sodbury.

The cheaper the effects, the more cardboard the costumes, the more black-and-white the... uh... black-and-white the better. Not emotionally constipated about everything bar football and Royalty? You are most likely a colonial. Please change channels now.

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony involving Jenna from 'Blake's Seven' (subject to availability), proceedings will commence with Nigel Kneale’s pioneering ’Quatermass‘ series. To be shortly followed by a wheezing, groaning noise. From there, who can say? Does anybody here stll remember 'Star Maidens'? If so, don't worry, there are treatments...


* Yes, I am using the term ‘sci-fi’ to try and wind up 'proper' fans...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

JOHN CALE + LIAM YOUNG/ KING BUZZO (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

JOHN CALE + LIAM YOUNG
Barbican Theatre, London, Sat 13th Sept


The selling point of this gig was that John Cale, pioneer of drone music from his early days in the Theatre of Eternal Music, would be playing alongside actual drones - buzzing round the auditorium. Something like Stockhausen's 'Helicopter Quartet', where a string quartet played inside four helicopters, and alongside their whirring rotors. Only with scaled-down helicopters.

My natural assumption that he was returning to those drone roots seemed confirmed by speed-reading the programme beforehand. The piece was titled the catchy 'LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra', while Cale's sojourn in the legendary Velvet Underground somewhat downplayed. Liam Young it seemed was not a musician but “a speculative architect who operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures”, in charge of the overall concept.

And indeed things started with Cale strumming an acoustic guitar as a lead-in to a mounting drone-fest. Stage lights stabbed straight upwards, like London was expecting another Blitz. The promised drones then took off, their rotor blades adding to the sound but ebbing and flowing in and out of your ears as they traversed the auditorium. As a drone aficionado, I settled warmly into my seat.

Yet after that initial track, things turned into a much more conventional set-list gig. Ah well, let's focus on what we got rather than what we didn't...

As the set focused heavily on Cale's more recent albums, I kept mentally comparing it to the last time I'd seen him. So surprised I was to get home, read that previous write-up and find that in my ways my reaction was the polar opposite of before.

Cale chose to stack the ballads early. Now my two favourite albums of his are both effectively ballad-led, 'Paris 1919' and 'Music For A New Society'. Yet I found this a bit of a formatting error, with the result something of a slog. They songs were also mixed in quality, with a rather lacklustre version of 'Half Past France'. If buses are supposed to all come at once, this became like all your waiting-for-a-buses at once, and I started to yearn for some scrapes of the viola.

Plus, though the drones kept diligently taking off and landing again, they added little to this more song-based material. They were superfluous or at times actively intrusive, like an over-sized mosquito had buzzed in the window and now couldn't get out. It might have been wiser to hold them in reserve until that section was over.

Later, things picked up and we were treated to a set quite similarly sourced to the earlier one from Brighton. Though many of the newer songs were quite splendid, best of all were the radical reworkings of classic old tracks – a distorted 'Mercenaries' and 'Sanities' set to a lurching heigh-ho Tom Waits beat. Several tracks I only recognised some way in, 'Sanities' I only picked up through the words. Then, after not having played a single Velvets song all night, he closed with an extended 'Sister Ray', as if rewritten for a disco in hell which neither closed nor played any other number.

Despite the common assumption that we fans like to hear old albums intact and in full, what we actually want is something we couldn't have heard by simply staying home. It's more interesting to hear their creators come at them from some new angle.

Though of course too young for their actual era, I first got into the Velvets before they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – when they were still a cult act. I can remember when putting on one of their records was a guaranteed way to clear the room. And 'Sister Ray' seemed the most extreme track by the most extreme of bands. It seemed less challenging than disruptive, it seemed to melt down every assumption you had made about music in order to re-use the materials in something new.

But of course it can't keep that shock in perpetuity. It's only by reworking it, by making it simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, that it can reignite. It reminds you of the stunning moment when you first heard it, while at the same time it's something totally new. That's what we want. More stuff like that.

So... the drone-fest didn't happen and the drones themselves were ultimately not much more than a gimmick. And the gig was uneven. Well, Cale's career has been uneven. (It's only comparison to Lou Reed's wildly oscillating musical fortunes which obscures that.) But the high points flew higher than those drones. If now in his Seventies, Cale isn't content to lay on his laurels. His brain seems as active as ever at trying out new things and at reworking old.


KING BUZZO
The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 30th Aug


No, your eyes do not deceive you. That is an acoustic guitar. And it is in the hands of one of the most recognisable haircuts this side of Sid Vicious – Buzz Osborne of the Melvins. (As enthused over here, after their earlier visit to Brighton.) In a not altogether expected development, the man whose spent the last thirty years presiding over a shotgun marriage between punk and metal has undertaken a solo acoustic tour.

However, don't go getting any notions he's decided to show us his sensitive side. Nick Drake this isn't. He's titled the new album 'This Machine Kills Artists', in a twist on the Woody Guthrie quote. And the twist is important. He strikes chords rather than plucks melodies, while vocals are fulsome and full-throated – often quite theatrically delivered. There can be quite long instrumental sections. You could call it 'mighty acoustic' if you had a mind to.

If anything, it seems more rooted in rock history than the parent band which spawned it. I took to thinking about how the Black Sabbath/ Led Zeppelin influence is more apparant on these new songs, just as he back-announces the last tracks as Melvins numbers. Maybe it's the new sound which more greatly exposes those influences, like different chassis being placed over the same engine. It reminds you how all that music was rooted in the acoustic to start with, though not always through a chronological journey back to the acoustic blues. There's all the bombast and swagger here too, and that can be a good thing. A large part of the appeal of rock music, when you first start listening to it in your teenage bedroom, is that it seems a means to finally get the world listening to you.

It's ambiguous which is in the driving seat - necessity or invention? Did Buzzo hit upon this new sound and run with it, or was the most cost-effective way to set up a solo vehicle to make the new combo a one-man band? He often employs a technique of playing overlaid bass and lead parts, and a habit of striding the stage like he's trying to fill the boots of a band. Which might suggest the latter. Then again, this is a guy whose collaborated at one time or another with pretty much everybody from the heavier end of music, so volunteers shouldn't have been that hard to come by.

The Melvins are of course a band known for their sound. Its like they built that sound up thirty years ago and have been inhabiting it ever since. But this new mighty acoustic business, that might be a narrower base. If the Melvins were a fortress this is more a bedsit. It works well for each and every track. No numbers come across as filler. But as the gig goes on it lacks for something in sonic variety, and each new number starts to feel like another slice of the same. Its a bit like visiting an art exhibition to find its all of pencil drawings. You can admire each and every drawing, but part-way through start to long for the odd splash of colour. In many ways it marks an adventurous break from business as usual. But maybe its a sound to visit rather than move into.

Some edited-together clips, with much audience chat about his wife for some reason...


Just while we're on this sort of subject... this is a pretty awesome full-length clip of the Melvins/Fantomas Big Band in full assault mode. See how long it takes you to recognise the opening number. I swear I didn't get it until the first line (which happens some way in), whereupon a great big “of course” expression filled my face…

Saturday, 6 September 2014

'COMICS UNMASKED: ART AND ANARCHY IN THE UK'



“Comics have always had the potential to be a radical medium, because they edge around the mainstream, because they are collaborative, because they play with time and form, and because they’re so much bloody fun.”

“The effect of these pulp paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant.”
- Sterling North

Noise in the Library

Of course only the most clueless straight would look at the poster to a show called 'Comics Unmasked' (above), and be surprised to see a mask. I mean, get like post-ironical, dude. Check out the nonchalant slouch of the pose, the diffident expression. Above all, check out the alley setting, chosen in contrast to some expansive, panoramic rooftop. 'Comics Unmasked' is a slack way of saying 'Superheroes Got Slack'.

Now for once in my life I may be using so dated an expression as 'slack' deliberately. The image is by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, and does reflect the Nineties era in which he chiefly found fame. It draws its frisson from presenting superheroes not in the heroic poses we're used to. And yet there's now nothing particularly unusual in this image. It's not impossible to imagine, say, the Black Widow from the Marvel Universe films pulling that pose. It could be taken to suggest comics have been frozen at their seeming moment of triumph, hands reached out for but never quite grasping that elusive mainstream acceptance.

But it also suggests comics have a cumulative history. They're not some cultural equivalent of a social climber desperate to hush up their lowly lineage, but amending their history for their own ends. It's not just that superhero comics, despite everything, could sometimes be cool. It's that what once seemed a firewall between alternative and superhero comics is now a porous border. Superheroes are part of the lexicon, for us to pick up and mould should they seem useful. We don't need to mask anything off.

In fact the word I most seized on in the title wasn't even 'anarchy' but 'comics'. In recent years people have taken to the term 'graphic novel' much in the way they say 'bathroom' when what they really want is a toilet, as a polite euphemism. Milligan and McCarthy's splendid 'Skin' is even applauded for “opposing the gentrification of comics”. Which it did.

But perhaps the most cheering factor of all is the choice of venue. There's an inherent problem with trying to fit comics into art galleries, whose essential purpose is to display original works of art. Even if at times they might venture into posters, they're still dealing with objects designed for public display. Whereas with comics the existence of original art is merely a means to an end (in these digital days often having no physical existence at all), with the finished product that's designed to be read. And things that you read belong in a library. It's a basic point, but an important one.

'Comics Unmasked' reverses this almost to a fault – well, actually to a fault. It was often hard to actually read those comics, given the combination of glass cabinets, low lighting and my middle-aged eyesight. It having already been established we're not looking at original artefacts, they could have done more to blow sections up on walls. (Plus you can often learn as least as much about an artist by seeing their work enlarged as you can by studying the original art.)

But of course they didn't just stick some old comics under glass. The earlier 'Propaganda' exhibition had proven the British Library able and willing to do inventive, irreverent and audacious things with display. And, despite all the jokes about patrician Librarians shushing the punters, it may be the venue feels enabled to take more liberties. After all, you go to a Klee or Matisse exhibition to see Klee or Matisse, and the curators don't want to distract from that too much. They strain to make their efforts almost invisible, like roadies at a concert. 'Propaganda' was almost the reverse, a demonstration of concepts and ideas with works chosen to illustrate them, like walking inside some virtual reality essay. I tend to use the terms 'show' and 'exhibition' interchangeably. But 'Propaganda' was quite definitely a show.

I'd hoped this would follow in the same vein, and in many ways it did. It states early “comics can be a playground for the imagination”, and then does much to provide an adventure playground for the eyes. A giant Moebius strip stretches round the gallery, with projections played upon it (below). You realise this motif is becoming a visual analogue for comics history - twisting, multi-sided, subject to be rewritten, yet stretching through time.


You have of course to see such shows as aimed at newbies and innocent bystanders, rather than us obsessive insiders. And the associated unlearning isn't always easy. It's not just that they can't hope to include all the artists we'd like to see. (A subject which has set sections of the net's comics neighbourhood a-buzzing.) It's that we cannot help but see the gaps and so things inevitably appear to us as scattershot. Of course the premise is in many ways a hopeless one, a case of setting yourself up to fail. Its not like the next British Library show will be on the history or the novel, while the Tate will counter with the history of painting and the British Museum weigh in with the history of history. We pretty much have to just accept the picture will be partial, or else stay home.
 

Anyway, the show finds nuggets to reward us fans for our attendance, for example the trial 'Dan Dare' strip (1949, above) when he was still the originally intended dog-collared Chaplain, or the Judge Dredd strip 'Battle of the Burger Barons' (1978, below) never reprinted after satirising actual burger chains by name. (They state here through publisher jitters rather than actual legal threats.)


It was perhaps less a lure to the average comics fan, and hear me out on this one, but I was also interested to see for the first time 'Bulldog' (1981). Given this was published by the far-right National Front to lure in young members, you may understand my earlier reluctance to hand over cash for a copy. And it looks pretty much what you'd expect. In many ways the far right have no identity of their own, but are just a bizarre looking-glass-world inversion of the left - no matter how absurd a place that takes them to. It includes a graphic of a cop searching a white kid, a copycat image of one originally used by the Motherfuckers, above the sentence “the police have declared war on the white youth of Britain”. Course they have mate...

Perhaps most enticing of all, the show knows when not to confine itself to comics. In something I'd never heard before, we're told the hard-drinking wastrel Ally Sloper was not just one of the first comic characters but first comics brands, also appearing on stage, screen and here as a somewhat disturbing ventriloquist puppet (below). There's similar examples from later eras.


Black-hearted Brigands Abroad (Reclaiming the Colonies)

A whole room is given to heroes, and it’s interesting how this inevitably slips into the story of the British invasion of America. (Characterised as “extraordinary” and “radical”.) And of course there’s a Stan-Lee-style prize for spotting what links the two. Our mark was made on the most hero-centric genre of all, superheroes, precisely because heroes were what we didn’t deal in. What we had that was saleable was what the show describes as “a heritage of rebelliousness”, a rich history of anti-heroes, even when they weren’t out-and-out black-hearted brigands. (The show includes, for example, a Dick Turpin comic from 1948 next to a penny dreadful featuring him from eighty years earlier.) For the American superhero publishers, we were sexy because we were bad. Centuries after the colonial era, we were still offloading our trouble-makers abroad.

But then, at least up until the arrival of the infamous Comics Code Authority, weren't American comics gaudier and wilder, with all the salacious crime and horror titles? Or even after then. Didn't Marvel essentially invent flawed and anti-heroes, such as the Hulk or the Thing? Didn't underground comics export from America to Britain?

To which the short answer is yes. But remember the stories of the Beatles first arriving in America, the source of the music which had so inspired them, and finding the place strangely straight-laced. And that music had been made in America. But it was made by currents which didn't make it to the surface of society, which either never had or which had by that point been buried again. It took someone from elsewhere to take up that music and return it to America before the home-grown variants could arise. And the British comics invasion worked much like that, re-introducing stuff which seemed obvious to us but at home had been forgotten. Alan Moore, such a spearhead of that invasion, later commented “I couldn't have done that if I hadn't been a traditionalist”.


Talking About Sex

If you want something to truly date the Sixties/ Seventies underground, and don't really want to bring up their infamous uncritical support for the Viet Cong, your best choice is their sexual politics. Or lack of them. A telling example is John Kent's 'Varoomshka' (1972, above), it's cover-girl heroine obligingly disrobing while she cries cheerily “this strip is purely political”. Politicians of the day look on in shock and disgust.

Of course we see such an image with hindsight. But its almost absurdly easy to see the chain between it and Conrad Frost's 'The Life of George and Lynn', (scathingly dubbed 'The Perpetually Naked Middle Class Bastards' by Brendan McCarthy), which debuted in 'The Sun' a mere five years later. (A task made easier by them both being in the same show, of course.) Perhaps the only difference between Varoomshka's “purely political” gesture and the cover of last week's 'Zoo' magazine is that one is a drawing and the other a photo.

And yet if you're interested in cultural or sub-cultural history, this is just what makes porn such a useful barometer. As the show says “there is something about the lens of desire that is particularly revealing about a culture”. Its precisely because sex and sexuality are defined as something natural and unmediated, that leads to its cultural content rises to the surface more openly. After all, what is there to be guarded about? It's all just innate and biological, isn't it? And this is strongest in Sixties/Seventies subculture, which often blithely assumed we could revert to some 'true' nature outside the norms of society. This hopeless simplemindedness is more flagrantly on show than Varoomshka's nipples.

Then again, at the other end of the scale... Underground and alternative comics worked better as negative and disrupting forces, upending popular assumptions - and sexuality may be no exception. 'Sourcream' (1979) was a women's comic who depicted sexual matters in a simple, de-eroticised child-like style which matched their frankness of content. A strip like 'Which Contraceptive?' could scarcely be any more demystifying. (Matching many punk songs of the era, such as the Snivelling Shits' 'I Can't Come' or the Dead Kennedy's 'Too Drunk to Fuck'.)

However, let's back up a little. That distinction between picture and photo that separates 'Varomooshka' from 'Zoo', is it actually so trivial? The prevalent trend in pornography has been towards photography, with perhaps only technological limitations ever holding it back. But I've never been sure why people are always so keen for porn to be 'real' when it's a genre that couldn't be any more about fantasy. Doesn't it work better when combining sensual thrill with aesthetic buzz, like a cocktail drug? Take Ron Embletons 'Oh, Wicked Wanda' (1983, below), with what the show describes as “colours so lavish and sensual that you could almost taste them”. (Disclaimers: Whether this strip would have progressive sexual politics is of course another thing. It was published by 'Penthouse', after all. Also, to spare the blushes of gentle readers, I have also chosen a more family-friendly sample than the one from the show.)


Can Comics Be Magic?

There being a room devoted to magic, that's not something I would necessarily have bet money on before entering. When they state “some of Britain's key comics talents are practising magicians” you are tempted to ask if by “some” they actually mean “two”. And the phrase “magic is hugely important in British culture” feels little like one of those statements you make hoping no-one actually calls you on it.

However, the show may be on stronger ground when it states “comics have lent themselves so well to dreamlike and transcendental states”. In fact, in my youth I dimly conceived of British comics existing in some schizo state. At times they'd seem populated entirely by square-jawed chaps winning the war by not showing any emotion, or footballers who strangely didn't seem to share the working class origins of footballers on the telly. But seconds later they seemed to flip, and would suddenly be brimming with enticing strangeness, with characters such as the positively deranged Adam Eterno or the sinister Black Sapper. Yet there never seemed a way of separating them, of getting one without being saddled with the other. It seems explicable enough how they could be so staid. The real question is – how could they simultaneously be so mad?

Perhaps there is something innately strange about the world of comics, rather than it being a mnaifestation of British culture. Think of the old DC Comics, ostensibly the upright goody-goody imprint which got upended by the hipper Marvel. And how downright bonkers they could become, with villains who could control anything or anyone provided it was coloured blue, with robot duplicates which turned out to be robot duplicates of robot duplicates and such like.

Perhaps the show has it upside down. When comics were really strange was before they were made by drug-crazed hippies, Northampton maguses or students of chaos magic but by hacks on scale pay and instant coffee. Take for example the pages by DC Thompson artist Dudley Watkins, who worked on both 'Desperate Dan' and 'Lord Snooty'. Devoutly religious and teetotal, he was still a source of some of the most left-field images and ideas you're ever likely to encounter.

In other words, it all happened when it normally does – when no-one was really watching. The act of observing normalises what is observed, suddenly it feels self-conscious and starts to follow rules. Clearly, speed of production had much to do with it. Surrealist techniques such as stream-of-consciousness were emulated almost by accident, because dream logic and the association of ideas assembled faster than a coherent plotline.

But there's something bigger. In the quote up top, Laurie Penny comments on the way comics “play with time and form” as something which makes them a radical medium. There's an inherent formalism to comics, which lies latent even in the comics which don't actively try to exploit it. The form is there on the paper, inextricably interwoven with the content. Comics are composed of language, while film or theatre merely use it. The naturalistic illusion becomes a bit of a non-starter, so things head in the opposite direction. And that direction is the association of ideas. Surrealism's spark came from juxtapositions. There is nothing very odd about telephones, and nothing particularly unusual about lobsters – yet a lobster telephone becomes a surreal object. And those formal qualities of comics make them inherently juxtapositional, lining up images alongside one another. (Think for example of the way Jeff Keen's paintings combined the two.)

Anarchy Amid the Short Loan?

Let's go back to that image of the Moebius strip. It suggests comics have something of a through line, albeit a bendy and stretchy one. The show takes a take not just on comics history but on what comics are, and its to do with that word 'anarchy' up there in the title. That dummy of Ali Sloper, drunken and indolent, the leery antithesis of Victorian thrift and industry, becomes something of a totem.


Comics are either like 'Action' (above) - cheap, seditious pulps you kept under your schooldesk to stop your teacher confiscating them - or like 'Nasty Tales' (below), underground, inherently antagonistic to the Establishment, more likely to be found in the dock than at an awards ceremony. Comics are gaudy, disreputable and – above all – popular. The point isn't just that you can use comics to explore ideas outside of the political mainstream, but that comics as a medium are antithetical to the dusty shelf.


In a way it's an action replay of British creators being given American heroes precisely so they could mess with them. What's going to interest the British Library is precisely what makes comics unique or different, otherwise they may as well just stick to their books. And this can often be a useful filter. For the longest time comics were full of creators trying desperately to be 'mature', by which they tended to mean aspiring to the smart or sophisticated. But the smartypants stuff only ever worked on comics fans. A comics artist might – to pull an example right out of the blue – enthrall fans by aping the Pre-Raphaelite painters. But he's scarcely likely to pique the interest of a gallery curator, who could just go and book an exhibition of the real thing. Meanwhile, Dudley Watkins has something you won't find elsewhere.

And it's not merely a romanticism. When public information strips try to ape the comics form, they often betray themselves by looking stiff and staid, by lacking the dynamics that bring a comics page to life. They're like teachers trying to utilise playground slang, like vicars trying to rap their sermons. Some of these are on show in this exhibition, sticking out like thumbs.

But on the other hand its scarcely an eternal truth. As the saying goes, everyone loves you when you're dead. It only takes for someone to pop their clogs and all their positive features – until so recently taken for granted – start to stand out. And, from the Victorians who sought to collect and catalogue the folk culture their world was destroying, does anything get celebrated more than a dying culture? The answer is yes. A dead culture does.

And there's nothing more dead than the notion of a broad popular culture existing in perfect opposition to power. Except perhaps the idea of comics as a popular, accessible medium. Those massed mannequins in the 'V' masks with throng the show (below), they're not here for a celebration. They're here for a wake.


And a perfect illustration of the way comics just aren't cheap, cheery and popular any more could be found by sampling the wares at the Comiket independent comics fair organised in conjunction with this very show. Comics are now a craft industry, a personal statement, a labour of love. Let's be clear - there's absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. I was an active part of that scene for many years, and enjoyed being so. Its appeal lies in the way its so unlike the corporatised, commodified world we inhabit the rest of the time. It's a scene where people do the things they want when they want to, and if anyone else likes any of it that's a plus. But it's quite a different appeal to a comics at war with a narrowly defined Establishment. It's more like a pocket universe where things are nicer.

At points the show tries to pin these new comics to the same big Moebius strip, like they're the latest twist in this one long line. It uses the term “every day life in comics” but let's call them Real Life stories (a catch-all term to incorporate biography, autobiography, virtual autobiography where the author has a comics avatar with a different name, metafictional autobiography, and all the rest). These are at absolute odds with the broad sweeps by which the archetypal comics of old were drawn. It never mattered much if, say, musclebound-gent-in-loincloth Morgan the Mighty bore a suspicious resemblance to Tarzan. The point was that the gentleman savage was just the sort of character you expected to turn up in a comic. There was no formal relationship between the black-clad anti-hero the Black Sapper and the black-clad anti-hero Dick Turpin, but they seemed cousins somehow – branches from the same twisted tree.

Real Life stories, conversely, prize uniqueness by their very nature. Implicit in Real Life's commonly seem phrase “this happened to me” is “it didn't to you”. It's not just that these comics are less political, even though they often are. If you look at some of the contemporary political comics artists, such as Edd Baldry or Isy Morgenmuffel (neither represented in the exhibition) they write about their political activism, but only as a feature in their lives – among going on holiday and watching DVD box sets. Which is a quite different approach to, for example, the World War Three collective. Who operated as... well, as a collective, with a loose but definite house style.

There's a disconnect, a growing divergence between appearance and content. Just as comics have become more individualised, more 'arty' they've also become more associated in the public mind with the crowd, with all that is bawdy and rambunctious. Notably the recent Tate exhibition 'Rude Britannia', while not a dedicated comics exhibition, assumed comics quite naturally belonged under its populist header.

Because of course its not just a type of comics that's dying off. We now celebrate the virtual crowd precisely because any real crowd is so quickly kettled by police, so soon demonised on the evening news. If an actual gang of masked hoodies gathered outside the front of the British Library, they'd probably be served a disposal order. So the 'V'-mask figures in the show come to be as much figures of fantasy as schoolkids in shorts and stripy jumpers. The less the signified, the greater the need for the signifier.

Overall, two words out of three in the title are well-placed – even if 'anarchy' isn't really earned. Which perhaps isn't bad odds. Could things have been done differently? Of course! Could they have been done better? Possibly. Perhaps a chronological structure, highlighting how comics have changed over the years, might have both emphasised what a durable medium they are and – perhaps more importantly - mitigated against any tendency to universalise. Plus, as the British Library like to go to town on set design, they would have scope to give each area its own identifying style. To pursue the painting analogy, a catch-all exhibition of painting would be more likely to show how Impressionism led to Post-Impressionism then Fauvism, rather that sticking all the still lifes in one room and the sea scenes in another.

But of course, as said, a single one-stop show isn't going to get the span of it. It could be said what we really need we do sort of have. The London Cartoon Museum, with its varied permanent collection and rotating special exhibitions, is by its nature not stuck with trying to sum comics up in one shot. If its a somewhat 'Blue Peter'-ish venue, that's in equal parts charming and frustrating. It may just be looking a gift horse in the mouth to say but, if it was bigger, we could import some of those classic continental comics exhibitions.



Coming soon: Okay, I did rashly promise I'd catch up on all my exhibition reviews. But it then occurred to me there might be more than the standard two or three people who'd be interested in what I had to say about this one. At least I kept to time-honoured tradition, and didn't get a chance to post this till the show was over. Should an unexpected tranche of time come my way, I may follow up with something on the Tate's 'British Folk Art' show. The two make up a pair, at least in my mind...