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6.12.08

New! Exciting! Starts Today!

People keep saying I should do a webcomic.

Okay then.



More tomorrow, and every day until Christmas. Enjoy.

31.8.08

REDUNDANT PITCHES #8

They're just doing their jobs.

6.8.08

REDUNDANT PITCHES #7

Here's the deal: every so often I get ideas for an established cultural property which I'll never get to implement, either because continuity has moved on from where they would be applicable, or because the owners would never let me anywhere near it. I haven't posted any for a while, so here's a double bill.

1.
Any sequel to Watchmen would, of course, be redundant by definition. You could catch up with the surviving characters, and make a stab at extrapolating the world of the series 23 years on, as once again a twisted mirror of our own - the Cold War replaced not by global harmony but rather a lot of paranoia about secret agendas, terrorism, and scientific progress run amuck - but even if executed with the same stylistic flourishes and meticulous attention to detail and structure, it would be at best a gloss on the original, more likely a travesty thereof.

That said, part of me did always wonder what might have become of these guys:



They only actually appear in about six panels of #8, and we don't see them again after that - but just at the point in the series when all hell is about to break loose and masked adventurers are in the news again for the first time in years, they stumble on a murder scene, in fancy dress, in time to see the culprits running away...

Sounds like the origin of a junior vigilante team to me.

Nothing ever ends...

2.
I liked this miniseries proposal so much I was hanging onto it, just in case. But DC now have other plans.

In Africa there is a legend.

It is told as fact in the refugee camps; journalists and diplomats share it as a joke in the foreigners-only bars; governments alternately dismiss it as nonsense and use it as cover for their own atrocities. From war zone to war zone, the legend prowls the continent, its power growing, death and madness trailing in its wake.

It is THE LEGEND OF THE HAUNTED TANK.

The Haunted Tank is a WWII Panzer that went astray in the desert and was somehow cursed to wander. The abominable secret of how that happened is another story (perhaps suitable material for an ongoing series if the reaction warrants it, but for now best left to the reader’s imagination): in this series we are concerned with the legends. Each issue is a self-contained story in which the Haunted Tank is largely an offstage presence until the final scene: in some it is a mindless engine of destruction, in others an instrument of nemesis. For example:

  • In a nation crippled by famine, a missionary hears the legend of the Haunted Tank when it is blamed for interrupting aid supplies. He seeks to prove that the corrupt government is responsible, rather than some phantom – but then comes face to face with it...
  • In a failed state where bandit tribal militias vie for control, a charismatic miracle-worker is employed to make one group’s soldiers bulletproof. Their rivals fall into terror and disarray, and for a while they seem genuinely unstoppable – until the Haunted Tank appears...
  • A ruthless dictator blames the Haunted Tank for the massacres carried out by his own security forces. The opposition and the outside world scoff at his claims, but what can they do? But then atrocities start happening that the tyrant doesn’t know about...

This is a horror comic, and Jeb Stuart has nothing to do with it.

1.7.08

Beating Up The Wrong Guy

It seems the proposed US remake of Life on Mars has hit the buffers. I have to say it comes as no surprise.

The unique texture of Life on Mars comes from the way it consciously addresses its own fakery: we're never quite sure if this is really 1973 or a marabou stork nightmare thereof. It's as much about the media presentation of the two periods as it is about the actual differences. The key lyric is not so much "take a look at the lawman, beating up the wrong guy" as "oh man, wonder if they'll ever know this is the best selling show". Sam Tyler is a modern TV copper, a politically-correct, university-educated managerialist familiar with all the forensic science, psychology and other procedures and jargon that pad out a typical episode of The Bill; Gene Hunt is his seventies counterpart, the sort of swaggering macho maverick who dominated shows like The Sweeney or The Professionals, for whom all that stuff was poncey desk-jockey rubbish that shouldn't get in the way of kicking villains' heads in. The trouble with translating this culture clash to an American context is that the core assumptions simply don't work.

The Sweeney was itself a metafiction: a conscious attempt to import the gritty rough-and-tumble of American gangster movies into a genre that had hitherto been dominated by cosy morality plays on the model of Dixon of Dock Green and Z Cars. It was violent, it was controversial, it was thought to bring policing into disrepute, and therein lay its transgressive appeal. It may have been partly inspired on the early behaviour of the real Flying Squad, some of whose officers went on record years later as saying they were making most of the rules up as they went along - but stylistically and thematically it was a complete departure from the way the police were expected to be portrayed on the telly. That it's now considered a kitsch period piece has less to do with the sideburns and lapels than with the way later programmes have reverted to the classic detective formula - as iconically demonstrated by the late John Thaw's transformation from Jack Regan into Inspector Morse. If, somehow (and it's hard to imagine), the cultural and political climate of the period had allowed the Sweeney trend to continue - each new series ratcheting up the grit, squalor and moral ambiguity - then we might very well have ended up with a scouse or brummy equivalent of something like The Shield or The Wire by about 1989. Instead, we got Heartbeat.

And that's the key; because Life on Mars is about how we got to here from the seventies, and what the two eras would look like to each other if they somehow collided. And the cop shows of both eras look markedly different on either side of the Atlantic: ironically, at the same time as the Sweeney and CI5 were charging around playing at being the Untouchables, American series were veering away from the hardboiled, pulp-influenced tradition towards something a bit more nuanced, compassionate and complicated. Theo Kojak was a tough guy, but he had a big heart and he understood the social deprivation that led good people to do bad things; Starsky and Hutch were a deliberate subversion of the god cop / bad cop routine, both of them being young, hip, funny, friendly guys who tried not to let the job get to them. Even in The Streets of San Francisco, probably the closest match to the Hunt/Tyler dynamic, it was Michael Douglas as the young idealist who was most of the period: the culture clash element came from the fact that Karl Malden's character was a relic of the old mob dragnet days. The high water mark of the trend came with shows like Cagney and Lacey and Hill Street Blues, in which the characters' personal crises and the human cost of crime and policing often pushed the detective-story elements out of the script altogether, and no-nonsense hardliners like SWAT commander Howard Hunter were lampooned as triggerhappy fascists. The other side of the coin is that in modern US shows, the likes of Vic Mackey and Jack Bauer, for their own separate reasons, don't give a shit about careful proceduralism and social justice: they are thugs first and public servants second, if at all.


So to work, an American version of Life on Mars has to do more than just swap locations. It has to acknowledge its own cultural hinterland, because the audience simply won't recognise that of the original. That means turning the Hunt/Tyler relationship on its head: what the remake needs is a seventies cop who's progressive, empathetic, smart and incorruptible - a kipper-tied bleeding heart who'd lay his life on the line to save the most desperate junkie; and a 21st century walk-in who's more in the maverick, beat'em-till-they-confess vein, and mainly sees being trapped in the past as a chance to pick up cheap land in Manhattan.

Or would that say too much about America, then and now?

14.5.08

"So Powerful in Concept – It's Almost Terrifying!"



In 1970, stuck in a rut and itching to try new ideas and approaches, Jack Kirby left Marvel and went hustling for work at the Distinguished Competition. They were delighted to have him, and initially gave him pretty much free rein to do whatever he wanted; but none of the concepts he came up with over the next half-decade turned out to be commercial successes by the standards of the time, and all ended up being cancelled within a year or two of launch. Although revered now by connoisseurs of such things, the likes of OMAC: One Man Army Corps and Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth were just too intense, too personal, too unlike anything else for most contemporary readers to deal with.

The first and most egregious of these casualties of fans' conservatism was the unfinished epic which came to be known, for reasons that still remain obscure, as the Fourth World: three (four if you count Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen) interlinked series examining different facets of a cosmic conflict between beings collectively known as the New Gods.

Others are better qualified than I to detail the ins and outs of the saga's publishing wrangles: suffice it to say that, notwithstanding their curtailment of the original series, DC have made several trademark-protecting attempts to relaunch a "bold new chapter" in the New Gods mythos, some of which have been better than others. With a couple of exceptions (and it's no accident that the best non-Kirby treatments of the New Gods have been by writers who know a thing or two about non-Kirby mythology), the story of the Fourth World for the past thirty years has been the story of lesser writers just not getting it.

Two weaknesses bedevil these revivals. Stylistically, they often fail to convey the grandiose operatic bombast of Kirby's original, the declamatory prose and opposition of absolutes that made these characters resonate with the genuine mythic traditions to which they were supposed to be the heirs. Jim Starlin's recent The Death of the New Gods unfolded mostly with a whimper, debased by colloquial language and proceduralism to the level of a plodding sci-fi whodunnit - CSI New Genesis - so that when the final conflict eventually came, it ended up mired in page after page of expository dialogue and philosophical mischaracterisation, enlivened only by Superman's frustration at being too impotent to intervene effectively.

The second weakness is more substantial. To Kirby, the Fourth World saga was literally an exercise in mythmaking, an updated synthesis of the Norse and Classical pantheons he'd played with at Marvel. The New Gods may have dressed in spandex rather than togas, and used Astro-Force Harnesses and Boom Tube Generators rather than lightning bolts and winged sandals - but they were actual gods, walking embodiments of particular principles or ideas, just like the gods of old. Rather than just run with this idea, too many of Kirby's successors have tried to explore, explain or explode it; to rationalise their status in the context of the broader DC universe - a universe where the Old Gods, far from being dead, appear regularly as supporting cast to the likes of Wonder Woman and Doctor Fate. Sometimes this manifests as a a sort of Gaimanesque psionic multiculturalism, in which gods are seen as being created and powered by the belief of their followers - a handy notion for a composite universe, but not one that's supportable for a pantheon too new to have any followers!

Other times, fervently mono(or a-)theistic writers have preferred to dismiss the New Genesites and Apokoliptians as not really gods at all - just immensely powerful aliens with pretensions, like the Goa'uld or the Squire of Gothos. Starlin, whose reputation as the 1970s' other doyen of cosmic comics is largely based on his iconoclastic Warlock/Thanos saga, falls into the latter camp. His antipathy to the very notion of godhood even spills over into his choice of godkiller, such that Kirby's ineffable, all-nourishing "Source" - the numinous superdivine power of which even the gods are in awe - becomes just another pan-dimensional gameplayer bent on genocide, and Darkseid - Darkseid! - is thrust by default into the role of plucky individualist underdog. It's hard to imagine a more bizarre travesty.

Darkseid is Kirby's greatest villain: the ultimate enemy of joy, freedom, creativity and compassion, as conceived by a New York Jew who went to war against the Nazis and then came home to find himself living under the shadow of the H-Bomb. He is not merely a god of evil: he is the god of triumphant evil, of authority for its own sake, of the subjugation of individual hopes and dreams to the demands of groupthink, militarism and automation. His eternal goal is the "Anti-Life Equation" - the outside control of all living thought (the quotation marks are important: like many of Kirby's big ideas, Anti-Life is an elegant concept given a clunking, unwieldy name, like an inadequate translation from an unknown language).

What Kirby did with Darkseid, in true mythographic fashion, was diagnose what he saw as the greatest contemporary threats to the human spirit - meanness, paranoia, intolerance, the abuse of power - and posit a god of them, poised on the brink of hegemony; and then posit a whole raft of other gods, rising to oppose him at the eleventh hour. These New Gods, with their absurd definitive names and iconic costumes, who act out of love, enthusiasm and hope - who champion Life against Anti-Life - are the angels of our own better natures, our connection to the Source in an age of fear and despair.

So what would a religion of the New Gods look like?

A few pieces of nomenclature apart, the very existence of a pantheon would make it more like classical paganism than the Abrahamic faiths to which we're now accustomed. The gods themselves revere The Source of all life; but although able to communicate in oracular letters of fire, the Source is not a moral authority, still less a person -- it is more like an energy field, or a natural phenomenon like sunlight or the Nile floods.

Highfather Izaya is its guardian, a benevolent shaman/prophet, counselor and patron of the arts. Highfather has renounced war: his way is to promote reconciliation, as with "The Pact" that forestalled the conflict for a generation in NG#4, or the the alchemical marriage between Mister Miracle and Big Barda in Forever People #14.

Yet New Genesis is not undefended -- it has Orion, born the son of Darkseid but raised by Izaya as part of "The Pact". Orion is not really a war god -- he is violence personified, but neither leads nor cajoles others into combat: he is a god of wrestlers and duellists rather than of generals, an acme to be emulated by those who choose a fighter's life, rather than a patron whose favour can be invoked to turn the tide of battle.

Most of the New Gods are like this, in fact: ideal figures or one sort or another, each finding their joy and fulfilment in some sphere of activity at which they excel -- Orion the brawler, Metron the scholar, Lonar the explorer, Big Bear the technician -- even Scott Free, who as God of Escape is the closest thing the mythos has to a messiah, does not really promote a code of behaviour for others: he has a small group of "disciples" (Barda and her Furies, Oberon, Shilo Norman), but they are friends rather than followers.

The fundamental principle of this odd, worshipperless non-religion, then, seems to be something like "to thine own self be true" or "be all you can be" rather than "do as we tell you". Radically, there is only one New God who behaves like the God of Abraham -- who demands worship, obedience and praise; who offers rewards to those who do his will, and destruction to those who oppose him: