In which the blogger continues last Thursday's discussion of WTT, a process which will inevitably result in SPOILERS!
Getting the reader up to speed with the world of "Welcome Of Tranquility", while simultaneously ensuring that the narrative is packed with the requisite excitement and the necessary exposition, must have been something of a pleasurable technical challenge for Ms Simone. After all, the status quo of the town of Tranquility is both relatively complex and entirely unfamiliar to the reader, and yet, just as Ms Simone is introducing such an environment, she's also having to almost immediately disrupt it. In essence, she has to make sure that the reader knows where they are and cares about what they're looking at, while, at the very same time, she also has to tear down the facade of that same "lovely little town", the Tranquility that's only just being introduced.
It's not simply that the reader has to absorb the broad sweep of the locale, the plot and the various characters on display to want to stick with "Welcome To Tranquility". They've also got to be made to care. And that's surely something of a challenge when there's such a mass of information having to be delivered so that the comic can move from establishing shots to inciting incident and beyond as quickly as possible. Firstly, there's the matter of letting the reader know something of how the superfolks of the town both conform to and diverge from standard-model costumed archetypes. Secondly, there's the fact that this is a murder mystery, and it's a traditionally challenging and cheat-free one too, meaning that WTT has to conform to the demanding conventions of a genre that's very different from that of the standard-model superhero punch-up. Lastly, and as I've mentioned before and as I do intend to explain more fully, "Welcome To Tranquility" is something of a state of the nation morality tale, which means that the book doesn't just have to fulfil the expectations of both superhero and mystery fans, but it's got to do so in such a way as leads to some fairly specific moral and political points being satisfactorily and movingly established by the tale's conclusion.
As a consequence, "Welcome To Tranquility" really is an unavoidably crowded text, even as its pages ably sidestep the storytelling sins of exposition-laden panels and dry, endless theme-establishing set-pieces. But there are, for example, seventeen speaking parts and the looming presence of Astral Man in the first 28 pages of introduction and first chapter alone. Yet Ms Simone draws on a host of techniques to carry her readers through those first few dozen pages of orientation. There's an appropriate moment of spectacle in the first act, for example, when Miss Minerva's crashing of her jet into Tranquility's town square threatens both life and town relic, and there's the presence of Ms Pearson, a reporter who's new in town and needs most everything explained to her. And there's a plot that speeds from incident to incident as the story spirals from unease into crisis, and a constant shifting backwards and forwards between comedy and serious-mindedness, as well as a tone that consistently fuses the two, and, perhaps most importantly, there's a sense that everything we're seeing has a purpose beyond simply holding the audience's attention.
And that last point is perhaps the cleverest trick of all where the business of keeping the narrative turning in WTT's first few dozen pages is concerned. For Ms Simone constantly puts to use conversations which double, albeit surreptitiously and entertainingly, as moral debates. The presence of these emphasise how the narrative of "Welcome To Tranquility" has a coherence which it might otherwise seem to lack during the world-building of its set-up. Even as the camera-eye of Mr Googe's designs shifts us through parodies of old comic books, scenes of fearsome insect conflict, plane crashes, smalltown political debates and sensational soda biscuit recipes encountered in the "Chick'n'Go!!!", the reader is grounded not just by the interest created by the apparently disparate events, but in the common threads of the arguments which weave through each scene. Whether the reader is looking at elderly men confronting each other across garden fences or the supposedly threatening hip-hop stylings of the apparently villainous Emoticon, everything the audience experiences is framed in terms of a simple debate; to what degree are the people of Tranquility responsible for each other, and to what degree are they responsible for their own actions?
And why should we care?
The debate about what makes a good citizen, and what constitutes a decent government, begins at the very start of "Welcome To Tranquility", when Sheriff Lindo justifies her distaste for helping out Ms Pearson with the disingenuous words "I'm trying to be neighbourly", and it's a debate which concludes with the "picnic like nobody's business" at the tale's end, which functions as a wake for the divisive myths which had previously both bound and divided the townsfolks of Tranquility. And as WTT progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that decency is a quality that the story ascribes to individuals who are willing to think and act in the interests of their community. Yet, that community-mindedness, as we've already touched upon before, doesn't need to reflect any narrow and particular point of view. Ms Simone doesn't appear to believe in an rigid model of utopia where pod-people all think the same things and all march to same metronomic beat. Quite the contrary. And so, "Welcome To Tranquility" never presents the reader with a single model of the good citizen so much as it provides us with a series of examples of what an anti-social individual is, and how we might be able to tell one from the other.
It's a process that we see being worked out where matters of sex and gender are concerned in the text, where figures who might easily be politically stereotyped because of their appearance and apparent values often prove themselves to be far more individual and interesting than any knee-jerk shorthand labelling might indicate. For example, it might be easy to decide just from her appearance as a corset-wearing Playboy Bunny-esque figure that Suze, the Pink Bunny, is a symbol of male sexism and weak-minded female submissiveness. But WTT soon reveals that Suze is a far more complex, strong, and admirably human character than that. For one thing, her costume is shown to be the product of a considerably different time, and Suzy reflects a different model of femininity than might be politically correct today. She's as proud as she is comfortable with the unreconstructed Mad Men expression of female sexuality that her costume carries. That she's a woman who expresses a great deal of her creativity in her cooking and her running of the "Chick'n'Go!!!" might again cause the quick-to-disapprove to tut and condemn her.
Yet the citizens of Tranquility are defined not by their appearance, but their worth as social creatures. And Suze is in many ways the most admirable of all Tranquility's residents. She may never have been, as her husband later tells her, "a fighter", but she's incredibly brave, exceptionally able and she doesn't hesitate to act against her own immediate interests for the general good. Quite contrary to any expectation that she might be a doormat for her husband, she refuses immediately and without hesitation to give up Ms Pearson to him without a very good explanation indeed. She may have been with Mayor Fury for at least thirty good and happy years, and she undoubtedly loves him dearly, but her response to his hypocritical appeal to some sense of absolute and blind "trust" on her part for him is unconditional;
"No. Tommy told me to watch out for this girl. I'm fixing to keep my promise."
And if anyone lives up in the end to Astral Man's maxim of "We Must Do Right", it's Suze, which makes her decision to cook for the whole town at the closing gathering despite her heart being "as broken as a mirror thrown off a roof" one that expresses her compassion and strength, rather than it being a response determined by traditional and inequitable gender stereotyping.
Nothing, we learn, can be taken at face value in Tranquility, because nothing but a knowledge of a person as an individual will do when it comes to judging their worth. Those that can't see beyond their own prejudices, those folks who are so unaware and self-involved that they can't question their own thoughts and apparently immediate interests, are shown to be at best laughable, and at worst, exceptionally dangerous. The Sampson Twins are a prime example of this, so self-obsessed that they can't grasp their own arrogance or care about the upset they cause those who are mourning Mr Articulate's passing. (That those folks who the Twins upset actually either killed Mr Articulate or permitted his death to happen is of course both a clever irony and a classic misdirection in the text, but their complicity doesn't diminish the crassness of the Sampson Twin's behaviour) Yet, Ms Simone carefully presents the musclebound brothers as ignorant rather than evil, for we can clearly see that they're not self-aware enough to be able to question their own homophobia. After all, when two half-naked, grossly be-muscled refugees from a Tom From Finland cartoon are mocking someone else's apparent homosexuality without the slightest trace of irony in their words, we know that they're dangerous moral idiots rather than the committed shocktroops of the fascist counter-revolution.
Finally, and as a closing example for the moment of how appearance and self-regard tells us nothing of an individual's social worth in "Welcome To Tranquility", we might consider Sweet Sally, who seems to occupy a fashionably indeterminate gender and sexual role, but who is in truth an unreconstructed, thoroughly old fashioned bloke. For all Sally's adoption of gothic ambiguity, he's a young man who regards his girl-friend Leona as "his", who is grossly insensitive and selfish when it comes to their sexual relations, and who has next to no empathy for how his lover is suffering in the wake of her unplanned pregnancy. For all of his determination to be called "Sally" and for all of his make-up too, he's little different from any other self-obsessed, sexist male. He may look different, and apparently subscribe to a more just and caring ideology, but he isn't anything that generations of boys haven't been trained to be before him.
How then can we spot a good citizen according To "Welcome To Tranquility"? Well, we'd have to get to know them first, and we certainly couldn't judge them on what they look like, and by how they conform to any casual stereotype that we might carry around with us. It's a truth that we can see exemplified by Mr Articulate, Suzy's rival for the most admirable member of WTT's considerable cast. For Mr Articulate simply can't be made sense of by any simple code of prejudices imaginable. He exists as his own creation, both explicitly male, in his attraction to and for Sheriff Lindo, for example, and yet less masculine than contemporary codes of machismo might allow for, with his studied manners and his deliberate, unassuming kindnesses. He does his best, he doesn't judge others, and he doesn't care to respond to anyone who judges him. Refuting the rumours that he's gay appears to have been of no importance to him at all, indicating that his sexuality was either less conventionally restrained than it might have been, or simply that he didn't care to buttress anyone's else's prejudice by caring to confirm or deny their bigoted curiosity, as if being homosexual was anything to be ashamed of, or to want to deny. In fact, the more we learn of him, the more we miss him, and the more the courteous world that he seems to have chosen to represent beguiles us. And that holds even when we discover that he was no representative of a better, more civil Tranquility, since Tranquility was, regardless of its inhabitant's manners, corrupt from before the moment of its founding.
Even the suspicion that Mr Articulate might have been a Objectivist, a philosophy it seems that stands at some distance from Ms Simone's highest regard, doesn't in any way disqualify him from being regarded as a valuable citizen of Tranquility in the text. After all, "Welcome To Tranquility" is a story that's wary and weary of ideologies which can be used to justify self-regard and selfishness, but it makes no sweeping judgements of any individuals who might interpret such beliefs in a socially-productive manner. Certainly there's nothing in Mr Articulate's behaviour than can't mark him out as a Randian". Even his desire to help Leona obtain an abortion is perfectly in keeping with Rand's own opinion that "abortion is a moral right". But the murdered detective's value as a citizen doesn't lie in the beliefs he subscribed to, but in the behaviour he undertook, just as Suzi's no advert for sexual oppression and Sally no representative of a kinder, less exclusive take on the politics of gender identity.
No stereotype is to be trusted in "Welcome To Tranquility", and virtue is rather established through acts of kindness and tolerance and forgiveness. It's a point that we'll discuss in greater detail when we come to discuss the ruling cabal of some of Tranquility's most revered, and most corrupt, inhabitants.
It really is important that I don't appear to be trivialising some exceptionally disturbing social problems here. Homophobia and sexism are, for example, overwhelmingly important and disturbingly commonplace examples of bigotry. Such is beyond any debate. And so, it's really not my intention to suggest that those who express such prejudices can be later regarded, even in the shorthand of the superhero narrative, as having been redeemed simply because they've shown bravery in defence of their community, as Sally and the Sampson Twins do at the end of "Welcome To Tranquility". I certainly don't think that Ms Simone's script would support any such shallow and mean-spirited conclusion, and I mustn't leave the slightest possibility here that I'm suggesting it ever could. After all, there's many a man of a machoistic bent who'd see leaping into any punch-up as a fine thing to do, and never do so as a consequence of a developing social conscience.
But rather than suggesting that a few rounds of heroic fisty-cuffs will mark any sinner out as a changed personality and a moral paragon, "Welcome To Tranquility" does seems committed to arguing, as we've mentioned, that no-one should ever be defined as unsavable, as being beyond reform, unless there's some mental disorder that causes this to be so. Whether they're completely transformed, or whether they merely dabble temporarily in community mindedness, change is possible for the folks of Tranquility if there's faith shown by others that some measure of reformation can occur. Redemption has to be earned, of course, but there also has to be a belief on the part of others that redemption might possibly occur. And we see more evidence of this in the role Sally assumes at the town picnic at the tale's end, when we're told that Leona's grandfather "seems to have taken a shine" to him "maybe cause he stood up and fought Fury like a man, girl's name or not". More importantly, however, Mr Googe's artwork shows us Sally smiling and relaxed in the company of Leona and Slapjack, and the implication is clear that he's grasped something of his responsibilities to those who exist outside of his own head. He certainly seems considerably more engaged, and kind-hearted, and happy to be siting outside in the sun without his greatcoat on.
In essence, given the chance to be something more than he was, and a situation which made the choices before him clear and immediate, Sally did the right thing. And folks in "Welcome To Tranquility" can be clearly divided up into three moral categories, according to how they respond to these opportunities they're given to, as Astral Man would undoubtedly recommend, "do right";
1. Those who can't help themselves, such as Colonel Cragg, and who cannot do the right thing.
2. Those who can help themselves, and who may well do the right thing given the appropriate circumstances, such as Sally and Bad Dog.
3. Those who can help themselves, and who will not do the right thing.
Only Bug, Mrs Terrell and in particular Mayor Fury of all of WTT's cast fall into that last category, a fact which perhaps reflects a guarded optimism on Ms Simone's part that human beings will, if given the right circumstances, tend more towards the socially responsible than the individually advantageous.
But simply knowing what the process of doing "right" involves is no guarantee than an individual will choose to do so. Mayor Fury, for example, is absolutely aware of the immorality of his actions. He knows that Astral Man, who refused the temptation that Force and Cragg succumbed to, and who was murdered as a result, "was the best of us", but he's unwilling to master his own moral weaknesses. "Know what the most dangerous animal on the planet is?" he asks Ms Pearson, absolutely conscious of his own degredation and yet absolutely determined to maintain his own corruption; "A rich man with too much to loose."
In this, we see that Mayor Fury is a completely different moral creature to Emoticon and his crew, and to Sweet Sally and the Liberty Snots too. These young citizens of Tranquility may at times be utterly anti-social and even criminal creatures, but they're also the children of a corrupt and often uncaring world, and the more the reader is shown the reality beneath the facepaint of the apparently idlylic world of the town, the less the various representatives of Tranquility's "youth" problem seem to be no more than selfish and predatory members of an otherwise sane and caring society. Both Emoticon and Leona, for example, exist in the shadows of the influence of appalling family members, of role models of the very worst kind. And all of the once-labelled "Tranquility Teens" had their youthful identities reduced to the temporary status of product, to that of cartoon stars, before they were elbowed out of the spotlight for being too old and too commercially unpopular. In their alienated half-world between childhood stardom and adult conformity, they attempt to function in the context of a world where so much of the discourse is dominated by the likes of the yellow journalism of "The Tattler", spewing out opinion without responsibility, and of web-sites such as the "Eternal Rest Fangroup", a pro-suicide help-page offering the tools of self-destruction without restraint or accountability. That Sally and Emoticon and their fellows are confused and at-times dangerous individuals is hardly surprising. Adolescence is a tough enough process at anything short of the very best of times, with or without maxi-powers, but the world that Tranquility allows its young folks to exist in hardly stands as the most nurturing of environments.
For it seems that it's not youth per se that's the problem in Tranquility, to take but one of the town's most obvious social problems, but the way in which that youth is treated, though the youth can act like a pack of self-indulgent and almost feral beasts along the way too. But scratch under all that leather and make up, the bling and the razor-shave haircuts, and these are, if not exactly children, then certainly vulnerable people. An obvious fact, you might imagine, and one that might seem to hardly need accentuating in fiction, anymore than the commonplace that folks shouldn't be judged on their appearances surely doesn't need to be restated here in the socially just uplands of 2011. And yet, we do live in societies which do criminalise the very children that they alienate, and we do exist in a beauty-first, surgery-enhanced, diet-and-steroid-bemuscled culture, where appearance really is, apparently, what counts.
Look closely at Tranquility, and at all those peaceful tree-lined streets and that clean and welcoming "Scooperman" ice cream vendor's cart, and, soon, that which at first appeared to be something of a heaven on Earth soon shivers into focus as a community that's not actually so unlike modern day America. And in the best traditions of the murder mystery, the sickness underlying the safe and apparently stable surface of such a society, whether it's Tranquility herself or some broader political unit that Tranquility is a partial metaphor for, is only revealed when a crime designed to keep the truth from the public's gaze is committed, and a kindly old man is murdered during a morning-time brawl in the "Chick'n'Go diner".
To be concluded;
Ah. I thought it would be two parts, and it's turned out to be three. My apologises for mislabelling the first part, though I've done away with the evidence. As always, my splendid best wishes to you, and a genuine hope on my part that you enjoy the most appropriate virtues of the business of "sticking together!"