As anyone who was a kid in the very last year of the Sixties could assure you, it really can be hard to tell your Caramel Angel Delight from all those Hundreds and Thousands sprinkled on the top of it. And it’s the same with the story and characters of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s Century: 1969, because the comic's so loaded with eye-snagging, mind-snaring cultural references that it can be hard to notice, let alone care about, all that's actually happening on the page to Mina Murray and her immortal compatriots.
It's a perniciously distracting business, this caring for the pastry far more than the rhubarb in the pie. But that's a mark of the mind of the habituated comics savant, trained practically from birth to value the continuity allusion as least as much as the narrative twist and the character moment. Such produces and then constantly reinforces an obsessiveness which can quite short-circuit the everyday business of just setting out to enjoy the story first, and from beginning to end too. And so, it's quite possible to ignore the fact that the very first panel of Century: 1969 - below - is an artfully informing establishing shot which kicks off the narrative with a mass of mood and scene-setting detail. Oh, the amateur might take a moment to enjoy this gently unsettling scene, to shiver just a little at the sense of unease suggested by the stillness of the night, by the lack of stars and even ambient light in the sky, by the darkness that's fallen on the joyfully playing figures of the statue. And the story-centered reader might even allow themselves to relax into the narrative, to feel content and just a touch excited at being in the care of such exceptionally trustworthy storytellers, to allow their curiosity to be raised by the "Oh ..." in the tale's first word balloon, and to then read on simply because of a desire to want to know what happens next.
|"Ceci n'est pas une histoire"|
|What do these wind-chimes mean? WHAT DO THESE WIND-CHIMES MEAN!!!|
Caught on that very first panel, unable to read onwards until Mr Moore and Mr O'Neill's cryptogram is decoded, the cartoon cryptanalyst can find themselves helpless vacillating between competing analytical starting points. After all, what hope is there if that key jumping-off point is mis-interpreted and everything that's deduced from then onwards gets locked into an entirely misjudged context? Everything relies on starting out with the most productive strategy. Should the poor baffled investigator opt for a top-down approach, and attempt to first establish the themes which the initial frame undoubtedly establishes? Shall we presume, for example, that Century:1969 is to be a code organised around the conflict between a well-established suburban England mysticism and a transitory, butterfly-summer metropolitan media elite? Are we to understand that the statue of A A Milne's creations juxtaposed here against a flash-Harry convertible sports car suggests that we're dealing with a culture's infantilism, with the innocent pleasures of childhood having been supplanted by the shallow indulgences of a never-grow-up consumerism?
Or should the research begin with the patience of a bottom-upper, focusing on each object and its meaning in isolation before attempting to weave together the big picture suggested by the first one-third of the very first page? It is, after all, a first frame that's saturated with suggestion.“Sussex, 1969” declares the narrative caption, and “Sussex” and “1969” immediately suggest Brian Jones - “black eyes, under the skies of England, very stoned”- ensconced in Christopher Robin's father's old home, fated to drown in the house's swimming pool just 2 days before his ex-colleagues played their less than fabulous free gig in Hyde Park. And yet, for all that that seems transparent, there are immediately so many questions and contradictions in this single frame that the detail-merchant may well get bogged down from the off. For the building that Mr O’Neill’s shown us isn’t Cotchford Farm at all, and the statue before us clearly isn't the one of Christopher Robin which stands in its rather weather-beaten way on the site today. And what of that convertible? Research is obviously needed to discover what that refers to. Didn't Brian Jones rely on a chauffeur to ferry him around? Did he even have a driver's license? And what about those wind-chimes? Someone will know, someone will phrase their Google questions cunningly and luck into an entirely extra dimension of understanding. There'll be a tradition of Hammer horror movies, perhaps, where those chimes are concerned, there'll be a paragraph in a biography of the Golden Dawn, there'll be an account of the use of random notes generated by such an instrument in one of the trippier freak-outs of the era. It will all make sense.
It is, I will readily accept, something of a shame that I don't feel comfortable yet in moving beyond that very first panel of Century: 1969. For I don't want to contaminate my reading of the second panel and the third and so on with ill-considered assumptions. And yet, if I only could've accepted this volume of the League as a story rather than a great conundrum, I might have been able to grasp that one of the vital functions of that initial frame is to set up the hilarious and yet simultaneously shiversome shot of three black-robed figures striding across the same scene on page 2. In fact, if I'd not been resisting the distraction of the narrative, I might have been able to loose myself in a remarkably clear and quite frankly fun story of three amaranthine adventurers failing each other despite their best if baffled efforts in the teeth of a fearsome curse. I could've pushed aside for a while the fact that
Carter knew Lonely, and that Boot had feasted on Wellington's corpse, or that the secret agent's car crash had happened right before Parker's crumpled puppet-face. I could've enjoyed for its own sake Mina's battle with her nemesis on the astral plane rather than focusing on Mr O'Neill's channeling of the libertarian Ditko's otherworlds with the counter-culture's psychedelic extravagances. I could've had noted how wistfully beautiful is the shot of the bomb-site playground surrounded by a no-doubt apposite ruin and centred on a swing suspended from a Martian Tripod in its own terms. I could've chuckled and cringed at Terner's ill-judged pretension and his cages full of dying bats without ever needing to read the scene in terms of Jagger and Byron and the butterflies and the steep plummet downwards towards Altamont. I could even have shared in the frustration and unease of Alan and Lando as their useless search for Mina in the deserted park plays out so tragically, and then - then - perhaps knowingly noted the irony of the Yoko-esque 'Love' ballon drifting above them, destined, as hers were in our world, to unwittingly provoke a decade-closing bigotry rather than any measure of love at all.
Of course, that's not something that I could possibly say, because I've got my work cut out with panel number 1, and I fear that that very important work may take a good while yet ...