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Loft Perversion – A Double-Bill of Horror Delights

I’m delighted to announce the two delicious horror delights we’ll be screening for ‘Loft Perversion’ – a completely FREE double-bill taking place in The Loft (George’s Quay, Limerick) on 25th October (as part of the mighty Locating the Gothic festival/conference). Remember, if you wanna attend all you have to do is email me – johngeorgebyrne@gmail.com – and I’ll reserve you a spot.

And the 2 films are…

Night of the Demon (1957, Jaques Tourneur)

In the 1940s. Jacques Tourneur proved himself a master of ominous and suggestive horror with the classics Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie (both produced by that legend of understatement, Val Lewton). But Night of the Demon – a 1957 tale of Satanic shenanigans and inescapable pieces of parchment – may be his very best (even if it was compromised, a wee bit, by unsubtle shots of the giant demon of the title). Based on M R James’s short story ‘Casting the Runes’ – it’s one of the finest, funnest and eeriest horror films of the 50s.

Inferno (1980, Dario Argento)

A loose (very loose) sequel, of sorts, to Argento’s sublime SuspiriaInferno may have flopped on release, but no less an authority than Kim Newman now considers it “perhaps the most underrated horror movie of the 1980s.” Forget the story, this is horror at its purest. Full of eye-popping (ravishingly gorgeous) images and unsettling and impossible spaces. Full of symbols, signs and omens. The logic here, such as it is, is the logic of dreams…the logic of nightmares. Surrender to that ‘logic’ and you’re in for a wild ride.

Hope to see you (whoever ‘you’ are) there.

Tineeaniy – Issue #1

The latest comic from Herb (the nephew). Tineeaniy, Issue #1. The return of Professor Pelvis.

Tom Conway: He Comes From Everywhere

I first saw Tom Conway a couple of years ago. Outside Dunnes Stores.Henry St, Limerick. The day was bitterly cold. Tom sat hunched over a Yamaha keyboard.Well, it may not have been a Yamaha keyboard. But all such keyboards are Yamaha keyboards (at least in my imagination). A microphone jutting from his chest (held there by some contraption or other). Head down. Intense expression. Focused on the job in hand. He sang:

They come from here,
They come from there,
They come from everywhere,
Galway, Tipperary, and the county of Kildare.

“They” were congregating somewhere, this motley crew, but I’ve no idea where. Or why. Or what the song is/was called.Google reveals nothing. The keyboard stylings were very much of the plinky-plonky (synthesised Country ‘n’ Irish) kind, but there was something about Tom’s delivery, and his fractured/warbly voice, that stayed with me.

I’ve seen Tom 3 or 4 times since. Always with the same plinky-plonky intensity. Always in artic conditions. Not reaching out to a (largely indifferent) street audience, but wrapped up both in a warm coat and his own performance. The snippets of song I hear as I float past have a distinctive flavour. First impression: Maudlin or jaunty. Second impression: Drenched in melancholy. Or maybe it’s just the cold.

I saw Tom again today (it was cold and damp, of course). Chucked him a few coins. Bought his CD.

There’s Tom (from a few years back I’d say). Messing about with boats, enshrouded in an eerie green glow. The fingers of his right hand are…not quite there. He’s like a time-travelling accordionist – phasing between realities. Which seems about right.

A few samples.Tom will forgive me for sharing, I hope. Here’s Tom channelling his inner (Australian) yodelling cowboy.

And here’s Tom in satirical mode (taking a few swipes at parish pump politics).

So that’s Tom Conway. Freezing his ass off for all us sinners.

Vamos a matar, compañeros…


Slobbering in slobbery anticipation of Django Unchained? Then you might enjoy this. A thing I wrote (back in 2011), for The Irish Times, on the European Western.
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For many aficionados of the American Western, the 1950s was the decade during which the genre reached its aesthetic peak. Its chief concerns and conventions had, by that point, been extensively explored and codified by genre titans like Howard Hawks and John Ford, leaving a new wave of directors free to build on these solid foundations and expand the Western’s scope and focus. Film-makers like Budd Boetticher, Robert Aldrich and Anthony Mann would help steer the genre into previously uncharted territory: imbuing their sophisticated works with a world-weary melancholia, moral ambiguity and fatalism.

By the beginning of the following decade, however, much of this progressive vigour had drained away. The ubiquity of TV westerns – then enormously popular and being produced in huge numbers – had served to “domesticate” the genre, robbing it of much of its lustre and appeal as a cinematic entity. The comparatively few film Westerns that were being produced tended to be either star-studded, big-budget affairs that played it pretty safe thematically, like How the West Was Won, or melancholic and elegiac works, like Ride the High Country, that seemed to articulate not only the end of the West, and all it represented, but the end of the Western film itself.

Into this atmosphere of relative stagnation exploded Sergio Leone’s seminal A Fistful of Dollars (1964). A “revolutionary assault upon the crumbling edifice the western had become” in the words of Kevin Grant, author of a major new work on the genre titled Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to the Euro-Western. Though Leone was far from the first European director to tackle the Western, his radical reimagining of it represented a significant departure from what had gone before.

“Before Leone came along”, Grant explains, “there had been lots of Italian productions, but most looked like very cheap American B-Westerns that didn’t really introduce anything new. Leone and his friends didn’t want to create a facsimile, so they decided to break with tradition. They threw away the rules, or rewrote the rules, and reinterpreted Western conventions”.

This reinterpretation would prove a huge commercial success, both in Leone’s native Italy and beyond, inspiring a slew of copycat European productions eager to hop aboard the “Spaghetti Western” bandwagon. In the peak years of the fad, between 1964 and 1970, hundreds of Leone-influenced films were made. Simultaneously transforming “backwater” locations like Almeria in Southern Spain into thriving creative hubs, while turning struggling American bit-part players like Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood into major international stars.

Though acknowledging Leone’s warranted status as the form’s master and pioneer, Any Gun Can Play is chiefly concerned with countering the perception that the European Western effectively begins and ends with Leone. The phenomenon Grant’s book lovingly and exhaustively catalogues and critiques is a rich and multifaceted one. One with its own star directors (like Sergio Corbucci and Carlo Lizzani), its favoured leading players (Franco Nero, Giuliano Gemma), its unique recurring characters (Django, Sabata), and its own specific concerns, tropes and motifs.

Stylistically, of course, the Leone-esque European Western offered a wild riposte to the staid and sober staging of many of its contemporary American counterparts. At their most lurid, visceral and thrilling they offered audiences an auditory and visual experience where every sound and image was heightened. Whip cracks, pistol shots and punches were louder and more explosive. Colours were deeper and richer. The composition of frames was calculated to produce maximum drama, through a jarring juxtaposition of extreme close-ups and long-shots. The dominant atmosphere was, consciously and deliberately, one of agitation and chaos.

Stylistic differences were not, as Grant makes clear, the only things that set the European Western apart. Unlike American productions where protagonists had to be integrated into a specific historical framework, sentimentalised as it might be, European Westerns were free to rewrite western lore to suit their own purposes.

“Recurring characters like Django and Sartana didn’t really have any back-story”, Grant says. “They weren’t rooted in history so there was no need for them to stick with any tradition. They were more like comic strip characters come to life, set loose in this fantasy world that the Europeans had created.”

This ahistorical approach may have irked Western purists, but it led to the creation of some of the form’s most memorably outlandish characters. At their inscrutable and enigmatic best, Euro-Western anti-heroes, like Django, seemed less like creatures of flesh and blood and more like mythical, elemental forces. Agents of change, disorder and destruction who’d apparently sprung fully formed from the desert sands.

They were, in addition, characters whose international popularity owed much to their canny articulation of the Zeitgeist. They were typically, Grant says, “drifters, outsiders and trouble-makers”, whose “sardonic attitude” tapped into a then prevalent antipathy to authority and establishment forces. Was this subversive streak driven by a desire on directors’ parts to overtly politicise the Western, or was it, instead, largely just the product of populist pandering?

“Well the Italian film industry was certainly bursting with left-wing radicals at the time”, Grant suggests. “Writers and directors who saw the Western as guaranteeing an audience of working-class film-goers that wouldn’t go to see something by Godard or Passolini. So they used them as allegorical frameworks. But, as with any popular development in cinema, there were just as many people who realised that these films were making money so they’d dress them up in the same kind of fashionable agitprop”.

Though the European Western had, by the mid-70s all but exhausted itself, commercially and artistically, it had succeeded in reigniting international interest in a flagging genre. In the process it had dynamited the hallowed archetypes of the traditional Western and replaced them with delightfully grim, misanthropic and absurd visions of its own. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the durability and potency of its characterisation and iconography can be seen in the revisionist American Westerns of the 1970s. Gritty, cynical and irreverent films that effectively re-imported the reimagined West dreamt up, by Leone et al, in the deserts of Almeria.

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Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns is out now (FAB Press, £24.99)

The Best of the Rest: 3 Euro-Western Classics NOT produced by Sergio Leone (Selected by Kevin Grant).

The Big Gundown (1966)
A muscular action film with a social conscience that confirmed the stellar status of Lee Van Cleef and launched Cuban ex-pat Tomas Milian as the genre’s equivalent of Che Guevara.

Django, Kill! (1967)
Mario Bava meets Roger Corman in Giulio Questi’s grotesque story of greed and revenge. Psychedelic editing, a sarcastic parrot and lashings of stage blood add up to the weirdest Euro-Western of all.

A Bullet for the General (1966)
Many Euro-Westerns were powered by the Sixties protest movement. Damiano Damiani’s rousing saga of Mexican revolutionaries set the trend, pitting a simple-minded peasant against an insidious American assassin. Guess who wins?

[The above piece was originally published in The Irish Times, Tue 08 Aug, 2011.]

Doomlord: Master of Life, Bringer of Death, Lover of Coronation St…

[Hey ho. Apropos of nothing much, just thought I'd reprint the Doomlord piece I wrote for SFX #200. Enjoy, earthling scum.]

March 27th, 1982. Midnight. A fireball flashes across the skies over “the sleeping town of Cranbridge”. In nearby “Gallows Wood“ it crashes to Earth. The sole witnesses – P.C. Bob Murton and Cranbridge Argus reporter Howard Harvey – rush to the scene. Out of the Stygian gloom, a terrible figure (clad in ornate, ceremonial robes) emerges. A hideous skull-like face is seen. The creature begins to speak. “I AM DOOMLORD… SERVANT OF NOX… MASTER OF LIFE… BRINGER OF DEATH!”.

Thus began the dread (and often-times hilarious) adventures of the “Doomlords“. “Servitors” of the “unnatural world of Nox”, whose “ageless duty [was] to scour the cosmos” and “seek out worlds in danger from the ravages of their own inhabitants”. Yes, fellow earthlings, they were here to judge us…and (*gulp*) they didn’t much like what they saw.

The site/occasion of this startling debut appearance was the relaunch of classic British boys’ comic the Eagle – Issue No. 1 of which came with a free “Space Spinner” (a pound-shop Frisbee) and a cover that intriguingly promised “Dynamic Stories – Told in Exciting Photos and Pics!”. Photos? Over to Eagle editor David Hunt: “When the New Eagle was given the green light…all of us concerned in its development felt it needed an added ingredient to make it different from other mainstream comics of the time”.

This “added ingredient” turned out, controversially, to be the use of “photo-strip” – black and white photographs, speech bubbles and some very basic effects – in place of conventional illustration for the majority of the comic’s stories. A bold decision arrived at largely because, Hunt explains, photo-strip had been “proving…a big plus for the teenage girls’ market”.

Though reader reaction was far from unanimously favourable (with letters as early as issue 10 begging for a return to “comic-strip drawings” and “cartoon versions”), Doomlord’s writers and creators – John Wagner and Alan Grant (whose glittering CVs encompass Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Robo-Hunter etc.) – retain nothing but the fondest of memories of the experiment.

“Photo-strip gave the story an off-key, weird feel”, Grant recalls. “I loved it. I remember being shown the photo-art for the very first episode, in Dave Hunt’s office. It was so different from what we were used to…we were blown away by the quality”. Off-key and weird it most certainly was, but there were inherent (fairly obvious) limitations. “Our main consideration”, says Wagner, “had to be what could be achieved with a camera, actors and minimal budget and still look good”. What this meant, in practice, was that alien “invasion“ narratives were fine and dandy as long as there was “just one alien who happens to spend most of his time in typical, run-of-the-mill British settings”.

Yet, arguably, it was this very necessary grounding of the narrative in the banal and the everyday that made Doomlord so distinctive and memorable (unsettling and blackly comic in equal measure). Unlike ostensible flagship story Dan Dare (the adventures of a really boring good guy…from a different age”, according to John Wagner) Doomlord was, at least initially, neither space-operatic nor futuristic. It felt real and immediate, like it could be happening in your hometown. On your street. Hell, if you lived anywhere near King’s Reach Tower (IPC’s iconic London HQ) in the early 80s, then it probably was happening on your street.

“The main characters were played by hired actors and several leading actors’ agencies were used”, David Hunt explains. “Many of the guys selected were extremely grateful for the money photo-strip afforded them because of the vagaries and uncertainties of the acting profession“. The performers chosen may not always have been, as John Wagner recalls, of the “matinee idol” variety -  “[They] specialised in odd-looking people – I think it was called ‘The Ugly Agency’” – but this absence of glamour only added to Doomlord’s weird charm.

The first of these low-budget, solitary (“Ugly Agency“) aliens was Doomlord Zyn. A relatively conventional villain who routinely sucked dry the brains of total innocents (absorbing their knowledge and hijacking their physical forms) before disintegrating their corpses with his multi-purpose energiser ring. All this in the name of a research project whose goal was to test the fitness (or otherwise) of humankind as stewards of the Earth. The rather limp protagonist/hero of the piece was crusading journalist Howard Harvey – out to expose Zyn’s true identity and intentions (ultimately, “the annihilation of the whole human race“) to superiors and authorities who viewed him as a lunatic crank.

Harvey eventually succeeded in preventing Zyn from carrying out his apocalyptic sentence, but only at the cost of his own life (and professional reputation). Zyn’s disappearance did not, however, go unnoticed or uncommented on. Back on Nox, the “Dread Council” (three cowled figures standing round a table in a tin-foil-walled room) were preparing to send a replacement Earth-ward. Enter Doomlord Vek – he who would become, right through to the strip’s abrupt end in 1989, the definitive Doomlord.

Vek’s initial (unimpressed) take on the human race was not substantially different from that of Zyn (“Their petty ways. Their primitive emotions. A  race of buffoons“),  but he soon moderated this Noxian disdain for human weakness and idiocy. A key development in this regard was his taking up of residency in the “Bradfield” boarding house of Mrs. Souster and her two sons – disguised as “commercial traveller” Eric Plumrose, a hapless passer-by he’d mercilessly zapped.

Exposed to the unpretentious, homely decency of the Sousters, Vek would come to a realisation that had eluded his predecessor. One that would inexorably shift the focus of his character from fearsome “bringer of death” to quasi-heroic “protector of Earth”. Vek’s simple epiphany was, Alan Grant explains, that “people are, generally, quite likeable, especially as individuals and families”. And that “it’s only when humans gather in abnormal groups – a clutch of politicians, a bevy of military planners – that they start to become insane in their thoughts and deeds”.

Not that this meant, in the short term at least, that Vek refrained from all that jolly brain-sucking and body-disintegrating. He didn’t  – carrying on much as before, endlessly repeating the Noxian mantra (or excuse) that “the fate of the individual is unimportant when the survival of the species is at stake”. This rather cavalier attitude to human life initially presented certain challenges in selling Vek as protagonist and “hero”. “I suppose we hit on the formula the first time it became necessary for him to kill”, says Wagner. “Won’t he look bad? No. To a Noxian our little lives were about as valuable as a blade of grass – the readers understood that and didn’t hold it against him”.

Unlike more conventional alien “invaders”, the Serivtors of Nox were neither here to a) colonise the planet, or b) enslave (and eat!) us. Equally, they had little interest in the threat a warlike species on the verge of space travel posed to the galaxy at large. Their chief concern was for the welfare of planets themselves - as ecosystems, as entities. The cataclysmic plague Zyn had planned to release would, for example, have targeted human beings only. Blameless “lower species” would have been spared: allowed to live on in an Eden untainted by man.

Under Vek’s watch Doomlord would flower into something approaching a radical  environmentalist/socialist fantasy – with the burgeoning ecology movement an acknowledged influence (Alan Grant: “It was on TV and in the papers constantly, a sort of background noise for everybody”). Polluting captains of industry would be forced (through hypnosis or plain old violence) to mend their ways. Corrupt judges and MPs were shamed and exposed. Vek even had his own TV show to promote and propel major societal changes (a slightly more extreme – but less crazy – forerunner to Noel’s HQ).

Vek’s most dramatic interventions centred around the campaign for nuclear disarmament – a utopian cause he pursued with no little vigour. Impressive results were achieved through such hard-core, zero-tolerance tactics as: deliberately launching an American ICBM at the USSR (to bring the super-powers to their senses) and completely wiping out the small market town of “Prattlewell” (to demonstrate his awesome “Don’t mess with me, Earthlings!” power).

As the years rolled by, however, and Vek grew further into his role as Earth guardian (saving the planet from countless perils/invasions), something of the delicious amorality of the early stories was lost. Vek had, basically, become too damn nice. A Superman-esque hero who even had his own “Fortress of Solitude” (sorry, “Isolarium”) on the moon. A worthy antagonist was badly needed. Someone who embodied the blackly-comic brutal essence of the old days. Enter Enok – Vek‘s deeply troubled offspring and one of the nastiest, angriest and most memorably demented “bad son” characters in comic history.

Born from a fusion of a human egg and Vek’s Noxian blood (and born out of Vek’s desire to experience the human feeling of familial love), Enok soon became an extreme poster-child for moody, pissed-off adolescence. Like Spock his mixed (alien/human) heritage would cause him to feel confused and conflicted. Unlike Spock, he responded to this confusion by murdering his own father, attempting to kill a school bully (who had unwisely harassed him), and creating a doomsday device to melt the polar ice-caps and flood the earth.

Oh, and that was just for starters. In an alternative dimension he became tyrannical overlord of the entire planet. Ruling with a seriously iron fist from his “Palace of Torture” in Trafalgar Square (where he even mercilessly tormented Vek’s beloved Mrs. Souster). He did, in fairness, eventually turn out a fairly well-balanced adult – but only after Daddy Vek had marooned him on an asteroid in the depths of space (a no-nonsense Noxian take on sending someone to their room).

By this stage (late 1986), the photo-strip experiment had long since been abandoned – having proved “extremely labour intensive” and “impractical” according to David Hunt. Though veteran artist Eric Bradbury (a master of shadow and texture) produced some strikingly beautiful work for the strip, John Wagner, for one, mourned photo-strip’s passing: “Doomlord was special in photo-strip – afterwards [though still good!] it was just another story“.

Bradbury’s glorious black and white art may have “liberated” the story – allowing it to become far more epic in scope – but it’s probably the incongruous kitchen-sink/SF charm of the early days that people remember most (and most affectionately). Images of a rubber-masked Doomlord Vek perched on the couch in the Souster’s chintzy front room (watching his favourite Earth show…Coronation Street) are potent and evocative ones for readers of a certain vintage. At a time when the (tedious) default mode for superhero stories is “dark”, gritty, and ever-so-serious (thanks a lot, Frank Miller) – we could do worse than pray for the resurrection of a Noxian who‘d routinely utter immortal lines like: “They are my….friends! They want me to go to Butlin’s with them – you must not hurt them!”.

Here to doom us, he came to love us…and we him. Happily forgiving the often brutal and murderous manifestations of his “love”. Why? Because maybe (just maybe) readers secretly felt that the Doomlords were right. That even if, in John Wagner‘s words, “some of us could be likeable on an individual basis…humanity, as a whole, had it coming”.

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Little extra bits…

Coronation Street

Fittingly – given the story’s zero-budget, kitchen-sink charm – Doomlord Vek’s favourite terrestrial TV show was Coronation Street. Earth cynics may have regarded it as just another soap, but for Vek it was: “A most excellent human drama!“.

Rarely missing an episode, and often eulogising its importance (“Ah, Coronation Street! All Human Life is Here! The Species in Microcosm!”), Vek’s love of “Corrie” was referenced frequently. Rarely more entertainingly than when, as he dashed out to battle a reborn Zyn for the fate of humankind, Mrs. Souster warned “Don’t be long now. Coronation Street is just about to start!”.

The Doomlord Mask

The relaunched Eagle’s most iconic image? Not the Mekon’s bulbous head – nor the arched eyebrows of Dan Dare – but (clearly) the fanged/skeletal rubber-masked face of Doomlord.

Though the mask may not have afforded the actor underneath much opportunity to emote, its unsettlingly “alien” blankness burned itself into the brains of sensitive readers (causing untold sleepless nights). Its designer remains unknown (perhaps  unknowable) as it was bought, along with the glitzy robes and deadly energiser ring, “off the peg” in a London theatrical outfitters. David Hunt, John Wagner, Alan Grant and (Group Editor) Barrie Tomlinson appear to be the responsible/guilty parties.

 

When Magoo Flew

So, I was on the wireless-radio-box last night talking about Adam Abraham’s fantabulous new book When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA. While the animation histories of Warner Bros and Disney have been rehashed ad nauseam, UPA’s significant contributions to the art have been somewhat overlooked (though they’re adored by the cartoon cognoscenti). Abraham’s timely, and exhaustive, effort might (hopefully) go some way to setting that right.

The studio may have burned at its brightest for a brief span,Undone, partly, by persecution from the House Committee on Un-American Activities but their minimalist/modernist aesthetic proved hugely influential (and that influence is still being felt today). Perspective was turfed out the window. Backgrounds were monochrome and flat. Characters were emphatically two-dimensional, and often wholly transparent. Scene changes would be executed not by cuts, but by backgrounds being erased and then drawn back in around the characters. As Adam Abraham says, the key feature of UPA characters was that they were unequivocally drawings. Not attempts to approximate boring ol’ reality.

Their first Oscar winner (in 1950) was the magical Gerald McBoing Boing (based on a sound recording made by Theodor Geisel/Dr. Seuss).Gerald McBoing Boing’s Symphony (1953), and How Now Boing Boing are also fabulous.

One of the main men behind Gerald was Robert “Bobe” Cannon, who in partnership with T. Hee made some of “purest” UPA cartoons – in terms of that flat, bare-bones, modernism. One of their best is Christopher Crumpet – the tale of a boy who would imagine himself into a chicken when he didn’t get his own way.


Christopher Crumpet by WackyJacky

The absence of a rigidly imposed “house style” meant UPA could range from delightful whimsy like the above to the Gothic gruesomeness of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart (narrated by James Mason).

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Oh, and then (of course) there was the indefatigable Mr. Magoo – an odd-ball Victorian gentlemen adrift in the modern world. One whose near-blind misapprehensions are almost wilful. As Abraham says, the cartoons are not so much about his inability to see the modern world around him, but his dogged refusal to see or acknowledge it.

Complimenting Abraham’s book are two new DVD releases. TCM’s UPA Jolly Frolics (3-disc) set, and The Mr. Magoo Theatrical Collection (1949-1959). Buy them. Then give them to me.

ScreenGrab Friday: The Grabbening…

Wage slaves. Office monkeys. Toilers in the dark Satanic mills of late-capitalist cyber-labour. My gift to you? ScreenGrab Friday. 5 images (to begin with, others added later as you start to weep and struggle). From 5 films. Chosen to perplex and befuddle. Chosen, too, to distract you (albeit temporarily) from constant awareness of the grim inevitability of death. Yes. You will all die. ALL. DIE. Enjoy! Pop your answers in the comments section. Or on twitter. Or wherever.

#1 Scream Bloody Murder (Unsolved! It was brutally tough, in fairness).

#2 The Curse of the Cat People (Solved by Jason Hyde, via Facebook)

#3 Assault on Precinct 13 (Solved by @Fearganainim, via Twitter).

#4 The Skull (Solved by Jason Hyde, via Facebook)

#5 Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Solved by @Fearganainim, via Twitter).

Result: Jason Hyde: 2, @Fearganainim: 2. A deeply unsatisfying draw. Boo.

Why should I get my head kicked in for you?: A 2000 AD Birthday Post

Borag Thungg. In honour of 2000 AD‘s 35th anniversary, I’m hereby reprinting a piece I wrote for SFX a while back about my own favourite series: Zenith.Piece originally appeared in SFX #203. Here it be…

May 13, 1989. A beach, on Alternative Earth 666. Lying face-down in murky waters (with trousers round his ankles and broken toys strewn poignantly about him) is a young boy. And not just any young boy. Though he’s never explicitly named, the visual clues lead fans of vintage comics to conclude that this, shockingly, is none other than “General Jumbo” – the titular hero of The Beano’s long-running tale of a child and his remote-controlled toy army. The unfortunate victim of (we’re forced to imagine) an unspeakable violation by trans-dimensional demonic super-beings. What’s going on? How did we get here? It’s a long story…

A long story that has its beginnings in the summer of 1987. Thatcher’s Tories had just won their third consecutive general election; The Firm’s StarTrekkin’ was setting the charts alight; and Grant Morrison (a young Scottish writer who would, over the next 20 years, become one of the most influential names in comics) had been tasked with creating Zenith2000 AD‘s first foray into the (previously-shunned) world of superheroes.

Hard as it may now be to believe (in an age in which superheroes have been endlessly reinvented and “re-imagined”), but there was a time when revisionist superhero tales felt bold, refreshing and novel. By 1987 the comics world was rapidly reacting to the game-changing influence of Alan Moore’s seminal work on Marvelman (a.k.a Miracleman), Captain Britain and Watchmen (not to mention Frank Miller’s turn on The Dark Knight Returns), and it was into this potent flux of new creativity that Zenith was born.

Though it would owe a considerable (and acknowledged) debt to the pioneering work of Moore, Morrison intended Zenith as a conscious rejection of the kind of grim and gritty, “tormented superhero” narrative then very much in vogue. This was to be a strip firmly anchored to its time and place. One that would, in Morrison’s words, “reflect the eighties’ obsession with style over content”, fronted by a character who would embody his “worst, most venal traits”.

To help capture the shallow, avaricious mood of late-’80s yuppie Britain, Morrison turned first to the inimitable Brendan McCarthy: an artist/designer whose exuberant and wholly-distinctive work occasionally graced the pages of 2000 AD. McCarthy would go on to design several key characters, before standing aside to let (the brilliant) Steve Yeowell take sole charge of Zenith‘s art duties. Though his involvement may have been short-lived, the originality of his designs (which owed more to contemporary couture than traditional superhero aesthetics) lent the strip precisely the right flavour. More significantly still, Zenith himself (Morrison’s deliciously vain and self-centred protagonist) was actually modelled on a figure close to McCarthy’s heart: “Zenith was essentially based on my own superhero, Paradax, from a few years earlier – all that media-brat, superstar stuff. It felt a bit weird designing something so derivative of my own work.”

Whatever his roots may have been, Zenith (a.k.a. Robert McDowell) proved the perfect (cynical and sneering) anchor for an epic narrative that would, over four “Phases” and five years, touch base with everything from Nazi-engineered superhumans, to cosmic (Lovecraftian) horror, to apocalyptic inter-dimensional warfare and beyond. With a more traditional hero at its centre, these grandiose elements might have risked overwhelming the story, seeing it stray into, what Morrison has called, the “pompous and concept albumy” territory of other revisionist comics. Zenith (the strip), however, neatly avoided the pitfalls of taking itself too seriously, largely because Zenith (the character) took absolutely nothing seriously. So who exactly was he?

When first we meet him (Prog 537, 2000 AD) Zenith is flying (and crashing) drunkenly through the window of his London apartment. He’s 19-years-old, a successful pop star, utterly vacuous, and (we’re told) the “world’s only active superhuman”. As the story slowly unfolds we learn that he’s the son of Dr. Beat and White Heat – two (presumed dead) members of a 1960s’ superhuman team called “Cloud 9″. In the Zenith universe (a slightly askew version of our own reality), the origin of all superhuman powers dates back to a serum secretly developed by the Nazis, which they used to create a super-soldier called “Masterman”.

Britain reacted to the Masterman threat by using the same serum (given to them by Nazi defectors) to create a patriotic superhuman of their own: Maximan. As a result of Maximan’s intervention (oh, and the nuking of Berlin by the American air-force!), the allies won the war (with Maximan and Masterman both perishing in said nuclear conflagration). The superhuman experiment did not, however, end there. In post-war Britain, a Dr. Michael Peyne labours, with official sanction, to artificially create a superhuman team called “Task Force UK”. Intended as patriotic defenders of the British establishment (in the Maximan mould) they soon reject the duties imposed upon them and re-brand themselves as the aforementioned “Cloud 9″: hippy-ish, superhuman radicals.

Cut to the mid/late-’80s. Cloud 9 is no more – its members either dead, missing, (apparently) powerless, or (in the case of Tory MP Peter St. John) diverted into politics. Zenith survives as the sole progeny of a superhuman couple, and such is the state of play and status quo when the story opens. It soon gets much more complicated. The originators of the superhuman serum were not, we learn, Nazi scientists but, rather, “The Lloigor” (name borrowed from Lovecraft): formless, trans-dimensional, demonic beings who wish to create and possess superhuman “vessels”, thus becoming incarnate on our physical plain. Over the next four “Phases” they do just that (aided by their earthly disciples, the “Cult of the Black Sun”), and the conflict between them, and Earth’s surviving superhumans, forms the basic core of the Zenith drama (with dozens of twists and turns spinning the narrative in unexpected directions along the way).

Said drama reaches its crescendo in the epic (twenty-five episode) “Phase Three”, which depicts a catastrophic inter-dimensional war between the Lloigor and superhumans from a host of alternative worlds. Since the sprawling conflict called for a massive ensemble cast of superhumans, Morrison opted to expand on similar work Alan Moore had done in Captain Britain and revive legions of heroes from Britain’s rich comic past. Series artist Steve Yeowell explains: “That was always part of Grant’s grand plan. The third series was going to be our equivalent of [D.C.'s] Crisis on Infinite Earths. He wanted to use all these old British comics characters but obviously, for copyright reasons, we couldn’t use, say, D.C. Thompson material directly. So we had to come up with our own alternatives”.

The delicious pleasures offered by Phase Three are both train-spottery and perverse. Train-spottery, because Yeowell’s art rewards close, nerdy examination – as one tries to figure out precisely who dim figures briefly glimpsed in the background might represent. Perverse, because most of these figures (versions of beloved childhood icons) invariably die horribly at the hands of the merciless Lloigor. Look there’s Lion‘s jolly muscle-man Typhoon Tracy…sprawled dead in rubble. Oh, and over there I see, yes, Valiant‘s Steel Claw…having his arm ripped from its socket. And isn’t that Tanya, from Jackpot‘s “Amazing Three”…getting her head punched clean off? On and on the slaughter goes (with the poor, aforementioned, General Jumbo being yet another casualty).

While all this gleeful and murderous fun might strike readers as somewhat gratuitous, it actually serves to (neatly) address issue of heroism, altruism and self-interest at the core of the Zenith story. The revived old-school heroes are, almost without exception, selfless and well-meaning. Bumbling, jolly and full of old-fashioned pep and vigour. They want to stop the Lloigor because, well, that’s just what heroes do: beat the bad guys. Unfortunately, the bad guys, in this case, are monstrously evil, god-like entities who wipe out whole worlds without a second thought. In the face of such a foe their quaint and naive assumptions about a good ol’ fair fight are brutally exposed. And they die. In their droves.

The real winners, and survivors, in 1980s Britain are (Morrison shows us) those driven by pure self-interest and cynicism. The key figures, over the whole four phases, are, after all, Zenith and Peter St. John – self-centred “heroes” who thrive and prosper while others fail and perish. St. John (who turned his back on his ’60s counter-cultural roots and embraced Tory politics) makes his motivations explicit at the end of Phase One, telling a former Cloud 9 colleague that he only helped defeat Masterman’s reborn twin “to pick up votes in the election”. He duly wins a seat (despite opposition protests that his battle with Masterman was “a shameful piece of Tory propaganda”), gets offered a position as Defence Secretary by Thatcher, before ultimately becoming Prime-Minister himself.

Not only that, but he does so by influencing Commons debates through telepathy and by acting as a covert Tory assassin: seemingly agreeing to dispose of Ted Heath (at Thatcher’s request!) while most likely having an active hand in the fatal heart-attack of Labour leader John Smith (an act that swept St. John’s Tories back to power). As an eerie side-note, I should mention that this happened in Phase Four’s finale – on 24th October, 1992 – eighteen months before the real John Smith died…of a heart-attack.

Zenith, like St.John, survives to the end – seeing his pop career flourish as he cynically reinvents himself with the times. So what kind of “hero” does he, in the final analysis, turn out to be? Throughout all four Phases he has to be cajoled, bribed and badgered into taking part in traditional (world-saving) heroic activities. “I’m not a fighter! There must be another way to deal with this”, he bawls early on, while reacting to a call to arms with, “Why should I get my head kicked in for you?”. When faced with a devastated survivor of Alternative-666, a world utterly ruined by the Lloigor, he offers these words of “comfort”: “Oh stop moaning!”.

The ultimate Zenith moment arrives at the climax of Phase Three. The surviving heroes reconvene at base, build a memorial to fallen fellows, and solemnly share their thoughts – convinced that Zenith has sacrificed himself to save the universe from Lloigor domination. “Strange how it was Zenith who came through in the end”, says one. “He died a hero”, says another. Moments later, Zenith pops through the door, a can of beer in hand, and says: “What? Me sacrifice myself? You must be joking?”. The realisation then dawns that the character who so heroically gave his life was “Vertex” – an alternative (friendly and pleasant) “Zenith” from another world (“I’ve been here all the time”, chortles Zenith). A horrified hero hilariously sums up the outrage of all by wailing, “Well I hope [we're] taking his name off the memorial!”.

Yet for all his ’80s shallowness and self-obsession, Zenith does, bizarrely, stand as a quasi-hero for uncertain times, in one regard. Unlike most of the key players (St. John, Cloud 9, the Nazis, Dr. Peyne, the Lloigor etc), he pursues no ideology. He couldn’t care less about changing, reshaping or reordering the world. If he stands for anything it’s for hedonism and individuality (crass though his versions of them may be). He’s harmless and inoffensive as a superhuman precisely because he doesn’t care. He kicks back and (mostly) watches as zealots battle it out for the future of the universe. In a world riven and divided by ideologies that almost, nearly, sort of…makes him a hero.
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Little extra bits…

Steve Yeowell

The “Galaxy’s Greatest Comic” has hosted its share of fine illustration over the years, but Steve Yeowell’s beautifully spare art on Zenith remains a notable high-water mark. As Zenith progressed, Yeowell (who’d previously worked with Morrison on Zoids for Marvel UK) began to experiment with “a lot of much looser techniques”. Influenced by Scottish artist Ian Kennedy – who had, Yeowell says, “a way of reducing everything down to solid blocks of black and white” – he used Zenith to perfect a “pared-down, simplified, chiaroscuro look”. A look that delicately emphasised fragility and anxiety over conventional superheroic muscularity and confidence.

Name that (slaughtered) hero

Phase Three’s brutal wipeout of both much-loved and mega-obscure British comic characters of yore is a nerd’s wet dream (or nightmare). Spotted among the living and the dead are “Big Ben” from “Caucusville” (i.e Desperate Dan/Cactusville), “Jimmy Quick” (The Beano‘s, Billy the Whizz), an Acid House-obsessed Robot Archie from Lion, “Tiger Tom” and “Tammy” (Beano‘s Billy the Cat and Katie), Sally‘s Cat Girl, Tri-Man from Smash, Buster‘s Leopard from Lime Street, “Prince Mamba” (Hotspur’s, King Cobra) and many more. There’s even a four-legged fatality with “Bobbie” (The Dandy‘s, Black Bob) being upsettingly dashed against a wall by a nasty Lloigor.

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