Tuesday, 15 February 2011
Valiant Comic's "Unity Saga" Book 1: Unexpected Pleasures
There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure where pop culture is concerned, David Hepworth once declared on the estimable Word Podcast, waspishly insisting that there's only examples of music which the individual listener might find themselves enjoying or not. "Guilt" was everything to do with other people's concept of cool and nothing to do with the music itself or the pleasure it can inspire.
On the whole I'd tend towards agreeing with him, although I'd have to say that a love for a totally sincere and committed reading of the "Horst Wessel Song" might indeed be an unqualified guilty pleasure. And as with music, so with comic books. What works is what works, and on the most purely fundamental of levels, that's all there is to say. Yet, without ever being truly conscious of the fact, it can be as difficult for a grown man to hold onto a comic that's usually a target for unguarded disdain as it is for a teenager to admit to having fallen in love with someone generally considered to lie on the less agreeable side of the beautiful/ugly divide.
"Unity" is not a crossover event burdened with a great chorus of doe-eyed admirers. If it's mentioned at all these days, almost twenty years after the event, it's as an example of the great comic-book glut of the early Nineties, of those ultimately catastrophically damaging years when one superhero universe after another was hyped up, made briefly hip, and then run into the ground to leave little behind beyond an unstable market, critical contempt and the fond memories of those who'd actually read and enjoyed the comics. And, I will admit, coming across its collected edition stacked at the back of a bookshelf a few evenings ago made me concerned that the Taste Police might somehow find me, might recognise through their surreptitious and esoteric arts that I own a four volume collection of a Valiant crossover with a special slipcase to keep them all together and trim.
But the only Taste Police I ever come across these days are clustered in my head, internalised during an adolescence spent devouring every word and contradictory judgement handed down by the New Musical Express and the Comics Journal. And so, ignoring those strange urges to make a supposedly credible fist of the contents of my own library, I tend to fall back on a simple principle that helps to keep my own deleterious internal Stasi at arm's length; if I can identify two good reasons to laud an even generally pitiful comic book, then it gets to stay.
Strangely, this is not a test which the overwhelming majority of comics can pass, which surely tells a truth, although whether it's about me or the books is, I will concede, well up for debate.
Of course, "Unity", as anyone who's ever read it will recall, is characterised by some incredibly dodgy sexual politics, by a shiversomely disastrous attempt to create super-villains out of a small cast of survivors of sexual abuse. For that reason alone, it's as hard to celebrate as are, for example, the far more important and able tales of "The Spirit" which feature the racist representations of the likes of Ebony White. The question of whether the reader can ever justify hanging on to a comic, or even enjoying certain elements of it, which contain such, shall we say, profoundly insensitive material is something which we'll return to in the near future, given that what once were habits are now vices, and that what once might have been unconvincingly passed off as acceptable when cloaked in undoubted good intentions now reads as something that's both embarrassing and distasteful.
*1:- Incredibly briefly, the main antagonists of "Unity" are victims of sexual abuse driven to conquer and destroy entire realities in order to create a perfect universe. It's strongly implied that incest is occurring between the second Mothergod, who's slain a similarly abused other-worldy counter-part, and her dead variant's son, who's a terribly bad sort too, a Nero for the Valiant Era. There's nothing in the text that suggests that survivors of sexual abuse can create meaningful and socially valuable lives for themselves, and the whole tale starts with a particularly ugly scene where a naked Mothergod falls out of the sky and is immediately threatened with rape by the first man she encounters. Need I go on? I don't think I do.
Reason-to-keep No 1: Expertly Unobtrusive & Effective Technobabble
Jim Shooter's script for the first issue of the crossover does contain my favourite example of technobabble ever, in which he has Solar succinctly explain over just two panels the basic premise of what could otherwise have been, in the hands of a less disciplined writer, several chapters or more of alienating continuity-bound waffling;
Page 6, Panel 3:
Solar: "This is just outside of reality, Geoff ... sort of the backstage of the universe .... Trouble is, it's a big place. It'll take us forever ... literally ... to search it."
"Sort of backstage of the universe" reads as if it's been lifted from the answers of an exceptionally idle, but fundamentally able, History Of Science student, who's grasped something of the concepts he's failed to make any serious effort at all to revise. And that is, of course, why this form of technobabble, containing a far higher proportion of babble to techno than is often so, works so well. We all know something of what "backstage" means, though we little if anything at all about "reality". "Backstage" summons up images of the places where magic is created, of dark corridors, dressing rooms and a mixture of ancient and modern technology all out of sight of the paying punters who only know the spectacle that's lit on the stage itself. That it's a nonsensical phrase is of course irrelevant, given that the vast majority of us, including myself I hasten to add, find it challenging enough to grasp any of the detail of the concept of the "universe", while finding it far, far easier to believe implicitly in ghosts, alien abductions, and fortune telling.
In truth, and here's the contradiction that those who love to stud their scripts with reams of complex and pseudo-appropriate expositionary dialogue miss, the less information we're given, the more likely we are to believe. The Kingdom of Olympus doesn't become any less absurd if its existence is buttressed with fake mathematical proofs and impressionistic "scientific" terminology, but its absurdity does become more obvious the more folks are pushed into actually thinking about it. (In that direction lies all those questions about pin-heads and how many angels can stand on them. *2). And simply by Shooter having Solar declare that he and his lil'pal Geoff are "just outside reality", "sort of backstage of the universe", and that "it's a big place (that'll) take ... forever ... literally ... to search ... " gives the reader all the information they need to grasp where they are in the story; they're somewhere else, it's an exceptionally large neck of the woods, and it may not follow the same rules as our existence does.
But it's the next speech bubble that I most admire, wherein Shooter establishes as much of the nature of the Mothergod's secret, extra-reality kingdom, all futuristic Kirbyesque technology and very big dinosaurs, as the reader currently needs and no more, and does so in just 22 words too;
Panel 6, Panel 4:
Solar: "Hmm, looks like a little pocket continuum formed here in the most sluggish part of the time stream ... "
Geoff: "Are those dinosaurs?! Neat!!"
The closest we get to alienating technobabble here is the phrase "pocket continuum", and a few words that seem to carry some little scientific weight certainly don't clog up the dialogue at this point. (*3) Shooter knows that it's the use of everyday language that will allow the reader to swallow what they're reading and move swiftly on, and the key to the effectiveness of his explanation is the phrase "the most sluggish part of the time stream". Well, we all know what a stream looks like, and we all know that stuff piles up there when things get sluggish, don't we? (We might even recall all those geography lessons about ox-bow lakes and how they're formed.) And of course, the whole process isn't hurt in any way whatsoever by Barry Windsor-Smith's accompanying panel showing, yes, an apparently slow-moving river bend turning through wetlands full of, yes, really neat dinosaurs.
Two panels, 68 words in all, great distracting dinosaurs and a big red superhero; scenario established, job done, move on!
*2:- Gabba, Gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us! (Of course.)
*3:-Indeed, "Pocket continuum" is a phrase which would've reminded comic book readers at the time of a similar concept which had been used to try to explain away the existence of the Pre-Crisis Superboy in the history of the post-Crisis DC Universe.
Reason-to-keep no: 2; It's Often Fun
These first four chapters of "Unity" may not be superhero comics at their very finest, for there are longueurs in which the exposition necessary to maintain each title's existing continuity mixes with that needed to carry the crossover forward, creating an attention-stunning effect which quite derails the narrative. But there are still sufficient moments of charm and comic book audacity to make "Unity" worth returning too. Some of this can be found rooted in Shooter's ability to tap into an early-Silver Age spirit of playfulness while maintaining a contemporary sense of the utter seriousness of universe-threatening superhero adventures. It's hard not to imagine Grant Morrison, for example, approving of the scene in which Solar, a creature of pure energy dressed up just like a superhero, lends Geoff, his travelling companion, the power to return to the Valiant universe by quite literally removing his own hand. "Lots of energy in there...", he declares, which sets up the quite beguiling scene of Geoff sitting in a ruined phone box back on Earth wondering what to do while holding a single red heroic hand silently leaking power into the air.
"Unity" is sprinkled with moments which set the book apart in its flashes of imagination matched with traditional standards of comic book creative competence. The meeting of an Aboriginal sorcerer with a Bronze Age warrior before the storming of a Southern Mesopotamian city "before history"; the notably idiosyncratic cartooning of Ernie Colon, which provides us with a distinctly, and of course appropriately, late-Fifties version of the far future of 3988; Archer's coming face-to-face with religious fundamentalists from the future who've been inspired by deeds he's not yet undertaken, and the piquancy of the scene in which the young superhero is almost executed by a rather disappointed acolyte; the presence of the Immortal Warrior at different points in his life in several strands of the narrative. "Unity" is something of a grab-bag mostly full of somewhat familiar fare, but rustle around in its pages for just a minute or two and something arresting, and often downright amusing, will appear.
Yet if "Unity" does have a single claim to uniqueness in the history of superhero comics, it must surely be in its use of dinosaur dung as a major plot device. No-one before or since Jim Shooter and Barry Windsor-Smith has ever shown the comic book reading public a scene of a super-human escaping captivity through the device of allowing himself to be pooped upon and buried under a great mound of pterodactyl ordure. It's a potential genre convention which surely deserves at least a single homage in these days of inter-textuality and post-modernism.