Tuesday, 29 March 2011

How To 2000 ad Part 2: A Bluffer Offers His Beginner's Guide To Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill's "Nemesis The Warlock" Books 1 & 3

In which the blogger continues his Bluffer's Guide To 2000 ad for some friends from across the Atlantic, suggesting a first key text for the beginner to enjoy while warning that all may not be exactly what it seems to be;

          
1.

Here’s a little experiment that you can try at home for yourselves.

Take a friend who absolutely devours modern mainstream detective novels from British, American and even Scandinavian authors, and present them with a small and carefully-picked selection of contemporary Italian novels from same genre. If you pick the right friend, and put together your sample of Italian detective fiction with just the right amount of discerning bias, there’s every chance that you’ll be able to thoroughly disconcert your victim. For no matter how fashionably jaded and morally ambiguous so much of modern English and Swedish language detective novels may be, they’re unlikely to be anything as grim and compromised as a great many of their Italian counterparts are.

        
In short, the Italian authors very often begin with a simple, taken-for-granted premise; society is utterly corrupt. Not only are the police so, and the state too, but the folks who work the evening shift in the local 24/7 all-in store and your street’s Neighbourhood Watch scheme too. Worse yet, to the less cynically mind, this state of affairs is often assumed to be the natural way of things. It’s not that a few bad eggs have taken over the nation, the town or the local boy scouts troop. The natural and just order hasn’t been disrupted and so it can’t ever be returned to. The detective can’t simply reveal the guilty party to the applause of relieved citizens while knowing that something of a state of moral and legal equilibrium has been restored. In so much of Italian detective fiction, the perpetrator either can’t even be found, or they can’t be brought legitimately to any kind of justice at all. The police don’t care, the law’s impotent and the government’s nothing more than another bunch of crooks keeping the citizens as quiet as possible while continuing their traditional business of fleecing society.

           
With no good world to return to, and no unsullied mass to appeal to, let alone defend, the Italian detective novel can read as a fundamental, and yet entirely unhysterical, assault upon familiar notions of social justice and human nature. It doesn't simply present a vision of society that's different to the one so often taken for granted elsewhere, so much as shrug its shoulders and laconically insist that all that talk of shining cities on hills and of the people, for the people, by the people, is a rather pathetic way of looking at the world. And as a consequence, the characters who fill the space in these narratives, which to our eyes should be occupied by a flawed and yet still heroic figure, are often so massively compromised themselves that they can seem quite alien and uninspiring. At times, they’re not even players from the other side lending us all a necessary if dishonoured hand, because there are no sides and everyone's hands are conspicuously dirty.

No pure-of-heart guys in even the grubbiest of white hats or dirty windblown capes to entirely save the day. No persecuted and innocent citizenry completely deserving of rescue while nobly suffering oppression. No tiny minority of evil-doers spoiling it for the rest of us. Just an everyday slog through a morass of self-interest, with the slightest gain in the direction of what might naively be called “justice” being achieved only through what to us can appear to be a quite disproportionate, and typically unethical, effort.

         
Why, if you gain the slightest emotional satisfaction from seeing a comfortably identifiable good bring a dispiriting disruptive element to justice, then the Italian detective novel may do more than just profoundly disappoint you. It may rather upset you too. There's no satisfying sense of perfect closure to be reached here for those looking for a hopeful and morally-reassuring ending, and the reader may well even feel themselves belittled for wanting that to be so. There are detectives who on occasion do competent and even heroic things there, and there are people who really do suffer for their crimes, but the field of play that incorporates these characters is so often a profoundly cynical, if not entirely nihilistic, one.

          
2. 

Similarly, trying to enjoy the majority of 2000 ad's best strips while using the skills and expectations developed over years of reading typical Marvel and DC superhero books can be at best a somewhat disconcerting project. For many of 2000 ad's most outstanding strips are written in opposition to the very idea of the noble, social-minded, self-sacrificing hero. Where the cape'n'chest-insignia sub-genre is based comfortingly on the premise that society is essentially decent, and that many if not most of its citizens will do the right thing if set a rousingly colourful and super-powered example, much of 2000 ad takes it for granted that any such social positivity is in truth quite ridiculous. More alienating yet to the superhero fan, the superheroic narrative's frequent presumption that only the worst and most flawed individuals seriously abuse power is absolutely opposed in the pages of 2000 ad. To many of the very best of the comic's creators, Lord Acton's dictum is law; no-one is above temptation and pretty much everyone is to one degree or another compromised if not actively corrupt. 

Or, to put it another way; a relatively small class of bad guys and gals aren't the enemy here; we are. Some of us are consistently far worse than the norm, a few of us are on occasion somewhat better. But the human race and its exceptionally bad habits are the problem as diagnosed. It's a situation which, I'm sure you'll concede, even the most vigorous programme of superhero team-ups and energy-blast-filled punch-ups could do little to allay, and whatever little or great victories the protagonists of 2000 ad achieve, little of lasting social value is achieved, or even appears to be. The heroes can't save us, because, basically, we're the problem.

        
As a result of this, what might appear to be British analogues of American heroic types in the pages of 2000 ad are mostly nothing of the sort. The comic book's heroes are not a breed apart and they're very, very rarely an entirely noble example to anyone. Judge Dredd, for example, may appear to be a futuristic, Dirty Harry-esque lawman, but he's really a nakedly fascist stormtrooper, and perhaps we might pause there just for a moment in order to take that inarguable fact in. ( ... ) For an awful lot of folks on both of the Atlantic seem to grasp something of this truth where Dredd himself is concerned without being willing, or perhaps able, to really grasp the point. Dredd may wear a splendid uniform, carry a big gun and drive a big bike, and he may often fight criminals and protect helpless citizens. But that doesn't change a slither of the bald and undebatable truth that he's a fascist, of the complete and utter variety.

Obviously, the very existence of a comic strip whose title character is only a prejudice or two short of fully-fledged Nazidom means it's impossible to read Dredd's adventures as anything other than a satire on comicbook heroism. And many of even the most apparently brave and decent of 2000 ad's characters fall considerably short of moral paragon status too. Approach Dredd and his breed with the presumption that their tales are going to provide anything other than a caustic view of humanity matched with a dismissive attitude to heroism, and the text of their adventures will nearly always frustrate and disappoint. 

         
It's not that every lead character in 2000 ad constitutes a satire upon comicbook notions of gallant and world-preserving protagonists, or that every strip mocks the idea that our world's just waiting to be either restored to or transformed into a utopia by the violent removal of a small cadre of criminals and ne'er-do-wells. There are some very fine strips associated with 2000 ad, including the exceptionally popular anti-hero "Nikolai Dante", which, while never complacent about authority and the powers-that-be, might be judged to sit more comfortably with the traditions of the superhero mainstream. But as a working premise, and accepting that I'm somewhat over-exaggerating difference in order to make a point, it's worth reiterating that a great deal of what's outstanding in 2000 ad's back catalogue is designed to mock many of those moral qualities and political preconceptions which the superhero book so often serves to bolster and even celebrate.

              
3.


In the light of the above, I can't help but suspect that the best place for a dedicated superhero fan to begin would be with a strip from 2000 ad's pages which stars an unambiguously heroic figure who, for all of his apparent otherness, is clearly embarked upon an unarguably necessary and moral mission. In such a way, you can enjoy a narrative which recognisably shares the same type of underlying heroic structure as those you're most familiar with, while experiencing a story which is also very much not a standard-issue adventure. Hence; 

Rule 4 Of "How To 2000 ad": Begin With "Nemesis The Warlock" Books 1 and 3

In "Nemesis The Warlock", the universe of the future is falling beneath the rule of the vilest of evil empires ruled by a genocidal race of religious fundamentalists butchering their way through a host of unthreatening and defenceless civilisations. Only the sorcerer Nemesis is able and willing to lead the resistance against this impossibly numerous and powerful enemy that's one part Einsatzgruppen and another the Inquisition.

It's a threat that Superman would immediately respond to, it's a scenario which would inevitably find Captain America taking up his shield and helmet-wings in order to defend the threatened masses of the universe.

           
But if the contrast between good and evil couldn't be clearer, and if Nemesis himself might well be described as a playful mixture of Dr Strange and Zorro where his role as a protagonist is concerned, everything else about the strip is a reversal of what the neophyte might expect from the above description. For the fascist fundamentalists slaughtering entire planets worth of helpless victims are the clearly recognisable human soldiers of the Earthly empire of Termight, and Nemesis himself is a profoundly alien creature. In essence, we are the worst of all possible opponents in "Nemesis", and the good folks of the tale are everyone but the human beings.

Where the American superhero tradition tends to suggest that Earth is a very special place indeed, and that its people are in so many ways the best hope for a crowded universe in desperate need of our good example and practical skills, "Nemesis The Warlock" takes quite the opposite view. Humanity is worse than a plague here, since even the most terrible of epidemics tends to leave some of its victims alive as it passes. Not so with the death squads of Termight's ruler, the of-course appropriately named Torquemada, which serve a state whose barbarous behaviour reflects those most inconvenient, unpleasant and recurrent truths about human society.

The distance between our heroes and the villains couldn't be clearer in these early Books of "Nemesis", the mission couldn't be more laudable and any less thrilling, the odds more overwhelming, the innocents in any more jeopardy; if only someone could stand up to those oh-so-recognisably savage, rapacious and self-righteous human beings.

        
4.

Much of the serious and conservative tone to be found in a great many American superhero comics can be associated with their traditional purpose of reassuring the reader, and originally the very young reader, that social disorder can be at the very least challenged, and, at best, defeated entirely. The American superhero book reassures, it stands for particularly conformist values, it assumes that most folks are potentially part of the solution rather than contributers to the problem, and it's founded on the premise that social harmony can not only be achieved, but that such is inevitably a very good thing.

Mr Mills and Mr O'Neill were having none of that with "Nemesis". To them, conformity is a sign of the tyrant's fist, reassurance is the opiate of the people, and political peace of mind is a delusion to be scornfully mocked rather than celebrated. Perhaps most disturbing of all, there's the clear implication that Torquemada's reign hasn't entirely corrupted human nature so much as it's allowed what's constant and appalling in our thoughts and behaviour to come once again to the fore. This isn't a narrative about how a few bad eggs have ruined society for everyone else, although there's absolutely no doubt that Termight's state and its ruler have made a consistently dangerous species into an actively deadly one. And so, the presence of the forces of disorder in "Nemesis" doesn't imply that there is any form of naturally ordered and just society to return to. Even the Warlock's own alien kinship network is riven by exceptionally human-like in-fighting, by murderously jealous lovers and manipulative, lying relatives, meaning that the reader who's used to straight-forward moral solutions being played out in their comicbook tales may find themselves worryingly discomforted here. Even the victories of our hero don't provide us with the sense that right has been in any fashion restored to the universe. After all, just to remove one element of oppression doesn't mean that any kind of state of justice has, or indeed could have, been established.

         
Faced with such a playfully absurd and morally bleak, if undeniably realistic, sub-text, the new-to-2000 ad reader is going to have to make the decision about whether to laugh along with Mr Mills and Mr O'Neill at the worst of the behaviour of their fellow men and women or not. And if you can't run with that satirical purpose, then you're probably going to stay excluded from much of the best of 2000 ad;

Rule 5 of "How To 2000 ad": Human Being's Refusal To Accept The Sad Truth About Themselves While Persecuting Others Is As Gut-Bustingly Funny As It Is Heartbreakingly Tragic

I do realise that the comic-strip I've outlined above sounds as if it might be, shall we say, a touch depressing and a smidgen worthy. But in the hands of Mr Mills and Mr O'Neill, nothing could further from the truth. "Nemesis" is often brutally and laugh-out-loud funny, or, at least, it is if you can accept the rather historically valid premise that human societies have a tendency to do the most terrible things in the name of the most exalted of poppycock. Even in the fine details of the text, there's the blackest and sharpest of humour on show, as might be noted in the comedy of the torture scene below, which, were it to be recreated as a cartoon, would surely need to be voiced by the survivors of the Monty Python team;

        
Even at its most bleak, and there are scenes which are both shiversome and even upsetting in particularly Book 1 of "Nemesis", there's a fundamental sense of glee driving the strip, a joy on the part of the creators that they can be making such unconventionally barbed and outrageous statements about the human condition in the context of a weekly adventure strip, and in such an obviously successful manner too. Creating Nemesis must have been, for all the undoubted hard work involved, incredibly good and satisfying fun. Mr Mills scripts sidestep his oft-prevailing tendency to loose the discipline of his storytelling, remaining focused on the precise progression of the plot while retaining a narrow rather than a scattershot moral purpose. In doing so, the first and third books of "Nemesis The Warlock" serve as the very best of his work, as bleakly hilarious and death-trap-escaping thrilling as they are thought-provoking and decent-hearted. And in the deliberate and disturbing perversity of Mr O'Neill's beautifully paced, innovative and crystal-clear story-telling, Mr Mills found for me his most suitable and successful conspirator. It's in these pages that the most convincing explanation for the Comics Code Authority's reputed decision to declare Mr O'Neiil's very style, regardless of its content, unacceptable can be found. So much of what he shows us of this future world, for example, evokes medieval grotesqueries and medical sketches of syphilitic victims, and his art as a whole might be mistaken by a conservative frame of mind for an expression of a profoundly corrupt sensibility if his images weren't so precisely put to use in service of Mr Mill's story. There's no indulgence here, no attempt to upset for the sake of upsetting beyond the confines of the stories at hand, although there's no disputing that much of what we're shown is apparently askew and often simply disturbing. Mr O'Neill's work is precisely calibrated in its discipline and excess to express the moral sickness of the society he's helping to describe, and in doing so, it's often both horrific and hilarious in the very same panel.

            
Regardless of how Saturday-morning pictures the main thrust of the plot might be, this is the most challengingly and coruscating of comicbook assaults upon the delusions of the morally occluded; racism, sanctimonious ignorance, imperialism, self-interest and plain old-fashioned religious bigotry are all mercilessly and broadly skewered, and then skewered several times more in swift succession too. Perhaps, as a consequence, the reader might care to warm up for "Nemesis The Warlock" with the DVD of "Life Of Brian" or "Idiocracy", with an hour in a comfy chair reading "A Modest Proposal" or "Skin Tight", or perhaps listening to the likes of "Sail Away" or "Springtime For Hitler".

In "Nemesis The Warlock", human beings are as a race so irredeemable and so pathetic that the only option for the beleaguered alien races is to wipe them from the stars unless they can force the bigots to just go home. This is, even on the level of its basic premise, a grimly amusing idea, as well as a depressingly plausible one.


         

5.


It's not my intention, as we discussed before I started these pieces, to provide any full-blown reviews of the strips that I'll recommend in these "How To 2000 ad" pieces. There are plenty of them to be found on the net, and there's little point in detailed pocket summaries when they're so available elsewhere. Instead, all I'm concerned about, as we agreed, is to suggest where to start reading the comic's back catalogue and how to begin that process. To my mind, and I readily accept that I'm probably way off-beam, the problems that an awful lot of newcomers have with 2000 ad is one part practical - what are the rules about reading this stuff? - and one part ethical - what is the point of this?. For if these strips feel different, then it's because they are, and if they can come across as strangely dissatisfying, it's often because they're not setting out to make you feel any better about the world at all.


It's exceptionally fierce and fine work, although, as always, you really might want to tread with a little care at first. The form and content of these Books are, as we've of course discussed, influenced heavily by 2000 ad's chapter-based, weekly-published schedule and by the tastes of the comic's original audience. They read differently. Furthermore, the comparatively unrestrained and joyful onslaught against hypocrisy and exploitation that's woven through just about every single panel of Mr Mills and Mr O'Neill's work means that it's a comic-strip which might pose a few challenges to the unwary reader more used to even the more conditional takes on truth, justice and that American way.

But then, I love the fact that the first and third books of "Nemesis The Warlock" bite every bit as much as they entertain.

"How To 2000 ad " will return next week with another recommendation. Books One and Three of "Nemesis The Warlock" can be found in the first volume of "The Complete Nemesis". The other Books and volumes contain much that's worth your attention, but the Beginner's Guide will reserve its recommendations for the work which the Bluffer thinks is, in the words of Mr John Lennon, "the toppermost of the poppermost".


.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

A Part Of The Main: Your Empathy And Scorpio's In David Kraft & Keith Giffen's "The Defenders" # 46 to 50 (Part 3 of 3)

In which the blogger concludes his discussion of the character of Scorpio from The Defenders of 1977, the first two parts of which may be found in the March 2011 archive;

9.

Jake "Scorpio" Fury emerged into Marvel's continuity of 1977 claiming to have spent a Biblical span of seven years creating;

" -- The Zodiac Chamber, the Theater of Genetics taken to it furthest imaginings! A new life form for each month of the year - - led by me!"

Like a small and exceptionally unpopular boy responding to isolation by creating a faux-friendship network of sock puppets and charity-shop action figures, Scorpio's final response to his endless failures had been to quite literally make his own friends. And so narrow is the distance between his sense of self and his understanding of others that he hails this programme as " ... the salvation of the world - - and as its creator, I suppose that makes me a savior....". 

            
And since no-one except Jake Fury counts for anything where Jake Fury is concerned, it really does make perfect sense that the creation of a few android super-villains to serve as his duel-purpose chums and footsoldiers would carry with him the status of a world-saving project.

Yet the truly infantile and utterly confused nature of Scorpio's psyche is rather disturbingly revealed when we're shown exactly who and what constitutes the population of this android Zodiac.All but one of them is male, for example, and there's such a clear division of labour laid down between the ten not-men and the single not-woman that it's hard for the reader not to cringe at the thought of what's being learnt about the inside of Scorpio's empathy-less head. When the android that Scorpio's created to act as "Pieces" later dies before his maker's eyes, the "savior" is distraught, although tellingly not for the sake of the barely-born android fighting for his life before him;

"I wanted to share beers and long talks with you and the others, while we tried to get the world sane ..."

             
Putting aside the shiversome prospect of what exactly would constitute the process of getting "the world sane", it's immediately notable that what Scorpio is lusting after is the robot equivalent of a teenage gang to play much-feared and adored alpha male to. It seems painfully obvious that a sense of belonging is an experience that Jacob can only imagine by framing it in terms of a lonely and alienated childhood. Sharing beer and chatting forever with androids who in theory can only ever agree with their master is surely the opposite of society, and no marker of sanity either, but it's all that Scorpio can summon up to aspire to; a captive audience, the status of a beer-sharing big chief, and a grand plan to take over the world and restore its apparently lost sanity.

In this context, it's impossible not to see Scorpio's decisions to create only one female member of his new Zodiac as exceptionally telling, and, of course, thoroughly disturbing too. When faced just before his own suicide with the unborn android shell of his one female-esque creation, he rages that he'll "never hear you sigh, Virgo -- never feel your caress or know your embrace." She was, he declares, "... my last chance to be -- normal. I loved you, Virgo -- even though I never really knew you."

       
The gender roles of this new Zodiac are chillingly laid bare here. The blokes are for mateship, the bird is for physical comfort, and "love" is an emotion granted in return for services rendered. Most worrying of all is the sense that Virgo's perceived task was to bolster Scorpio's ego, to make him feel validated and "normal". No doubt Jake Fury has a concubine's role for Virgo pencilled in too, but in his distress at her destruction, it appears that he most regrets the loss of a soothingly loyal and nonthreatening female partner. In this, Virgo's role seems to have been designed as one far closer to that of a Mother than a lover, and the urge to feel securely psychologically attached appears a far more potent drive with Scorpio than eros. And it's surely telling that his final words to the wrecked mechanical carcase of his "Virgo" are quite different in tone and content to those he delivers to the dying Pieces;

"I'll never hear you sigh, Virgo -- never feel your caress or know your embrace. Virgo, how could you do this to me?"

                  
It's Jake Fury's way, of course, to see other people's suffering in the light of his all-consuming self-obsession. But here his utter lack of concern for anyone else manifests itself in what to us can only seem like a very unpleasant idea indeed of what the role of women, and in particular lovers, should be. There's certainly a disturbing amount of resentment expressed here towards his blameless never-born lovebot, who is inconceivably being blamed for Scorpio's gamble on a premature activation of the Zodiac. Having effectively killed her, he's now maudlin at the thought of her betrayal, at her sinful decision to permit herself to be prematurely and effectively murdered by her maker.

But then, there's a great deal of resentment and anger expressed by Jake Fury at everybody and everything in the world. It's not just that he seems to be suffering from confusion about his sexuality. Rather, Scorpio is confused about everything. Is he for the war or against it? Does he loathe his brother or despise him? Is he a man who refuses to be crushed or a victim who knows that he has been? Scorpio is a man without any kind of calm and fixed sense of self beyond a conviction that he's been picked on, and by the whole of reality too. Most tragically, there's a part of Scorpio which knows that's he lacks such a necessary sense of self, and it's that which seems to drive him to invest a tremendous degree of will and words into denying to himself that any such problem of self-identity exists;

".. to maintain self-esteem, so many such attributes are necessary. Among them, the courage of your own convictions. A sense of purpose and identity. Self-confidence, self-sufficiency, and an especially strong concept of -- self. Otherwise, you fall prey to confusion or despair and are all too easily swallowed by society. Thus, in order to survive, I have become my own creation -- An image, an ideal! I have become Scorpio -- and I shall succeed!"

          
In this, the original emphasis on the question of "Who Is Scorpio?" in Jim Steranko's SHIELD tales is reframed in "The Defenders". Now, instead of the question referring to who it is that lies beneath the supervillain's mask, the question focuses on the fact that Jake Fury himself is a fundamentally disordered man. Everything about him fails to make sense unless it's viewed in the light of his own madness. His taste can seem cultured and informed, and yet his kitchen contains nothing but beer. He claims to loathe "having" to extort money from Kyle Richmond, defining such a business as "undignified", yet his throwing of a can of beer to the soon-to-be-murdered Moon Knight is, he declares, a clear sign of his own "class". Whether it's his sexuality, his morality, his class or his aesthetic identity, Scorpio is simply all over the place, as the distance between his declarations of principle and his actions illustrate. Consider, for example, his criticism of the America he's grown up in, which he damns for taking everyday citizens and brainwashing them;

“...  into the system, the all important economy. Get a job, buy on credit, go to war, do whatever they tell you – or you’re a failure. Exchange your life for a house, car, TV. Work at a job you hate. Make compromises. Be a consumer ... Respect institutions. Be a willing party to your own moral and physical debilitation. Above all –be normal – or feel guilty ... Ask society no questions and it’ll tell you lies …"

And yet, what example does Jacob Fury offer in opposition to this Beat criticism of America? Nothing but murder, torture, theft, violence, and everything else that we might associate with the least knowing and most corrosive of tyrants.

                   
10.

Of course, Jake Fury's words and actions can only be regarded as inconsistent if he's considered in the light of what we might call typical behaviour. As soon as we step away from that and judge his behaviour in its own terms, most of what Scorpio says and does is remarkable in its consistency. He never shows any understanding of, or indeed concern for, the well-fare of others. Moon Knight's execution is important only in that it helps Scorpio to make a point about modern manners. Virgo's stillborn corpse is a mark of an android who didn't care enough about her master to ensure that she was fully active and able to offer him her caresses. Jack Norris becomes little but a potential cheering section for a Scorpio who cannot understand why this man that he's kidnapped, and whose friends he's trying to torture and murder, shouldn't be on Jake Fury's side of the quarrel.

          
So convinced is Scorpio that everyone else - everyone else - is to blame for his own perceived persecution and suffering that he's set on creating a society that functions as he demands, rather than in any way altering his own thoughts and behaviour to adapt to the world beyond himself;

"Are you implying that I’m – alienated? Well – you’re right. I can’t relate to real people, I never learned how, so I’ve manufactured my own - - the Zodiac. They will understand me. They will see things my way.".

And when Scorpio's impulsive, gambling decision to prematurely activate the Zodiac speeds up the disintegration of his great plan, he's quite unable to recognise that he himself might have been responsible for his the collapse of his last great conspiracy against everything else. Instead, the whole of reality is blamed for acting as one in a great Cosmic anti-Scorpio conspiracy;

 "Life is cruel .. It feeds on your hopes and ambitions and enthusiasms -- and uses them to destroy you"

The Jacob Fury of 1944, who saw World War Two only in terms of how it served to make his brother appear to be more important than he was, is therefore fundamentally exactly the same man as the Scorpio of 1977.


              
11.

Quite what diagnosis might be made of Scorpio's disorder is beyond my ability to deduce. I'd be happy to be told that Scorpio's comicbook disorder matches none of the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV-TR at all. Yet, what matters in four-colour terms is not that Scorpio's behaviour can be seen to follow those associated with any specific disorder, but rather the fact that his thoughts and actions can be perceived to be convincingly consistent on the printed page. And that's certainly true with Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen's work here. Not only is Scorpio a character who follows a clearly undeviatingly deviant path from beginning to end, but that path functions to make perfect sense of his backstory too. 

Firstly, Scorpio seems to suffer from a form of mania which appears to typically be followed by recurrent states of despair. Secondly, he is almost utterly without empathy, and only ever once displays the slightest knowledge that his problems are to the slightest degree founded in his inability to integrate with society rather than with society itself. Thirdly, he's clearly delusional, and quite possibly paranoid; he really does believe in fate, and in a hostile universe that's deliberately conspiring to destroy him in what is to him the cruelest fashion possible. Fourthly, his behaviour fulfils just about every single one of the diagnostic criteria for psychopathy according to Dr Hare's PCL-R; from grandiose plans to implusivity, from superficial charm to shallow emotions, from grandiose self-importance to an utter failure to take responsibility for his own actions, Jacob Fury is at least a very strong candidate for testing and long-term detention. (Even the evidence of juvenile delinquency shown in the flashbacks to the family Fury's pre-war history in Strange Tales # 167 and Sgt Fury # 68 would encourage such a diagnosis.)


                    
Whatever diagnosis might be made of Jake Fury's state-of-mind, and there may be more categories of mental disorder in the MU than in our somewhat-less fictional universe, Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen's Scorpio is portrayed as being so constantly and believably disordered that he's clearly not responsible for his actions. Though so much of his behaviour mirrors that of a thousand other supervillains of the period, here we're compelled to see Scorpio as an individual rather than just another antagonist, as a victim of his own psychology every bit as much as he is an undoubtedly disturbed and dangerous manl.

And so, Jake Fury's despair at the end of "Scorpio Must Die"  inspires our empathy not because we recognise an individual who's redeemable, or a man who was pushed in any degree by uncaring others towards his final end. Sympathy for those who threaten order in superhero fiction is usually granted to those from the other side who have shown some kindness, reversed some terrible decision, revealed some possibility for change, stood by the superheroes as the universe threatened to fall. Jake Fury has displayed none of these signs of being the bad guy who we might feel slightly fond and sorry for. He's too obviously and  irreversibly disordered, and he's committed, or tried to commit, too many despicable acts to be added to the comicbook list of bad guys of whom the reader is supposed to think somewhat well of. This isn't Namor or Hawkeye, The Black Widow or The Swordsman. He doesn't even carry the menance and tyrannt's glamour of a Doctor Doom, of an antagonist who we might ever want to see again. Scorpio is instead a helplessly dangerous man who could never be trusted to live freely even in the everyday society of the Marvel Universe. Worse yet, in comicbook terms, he's ultimately a pathetic and disturbing supervillain. It's certainly hard to imagine too many readers of the day clammering for a revival of Jack "Scorpio" Fury as an antagonist for their favourite superperson.


                  
But the reader has been encouraged to understand Scorpio's misery, and regardless of whether we could ever envisage ourselves behaving as he has, we can certainly imagine feeling as helpless and hopeless as he does at the end of "Scorpio Must Die!". And we can certainly grasp that he was indeed always doomed to end up in one form or another of the escapeless situation that he finally traps himself in. Whether his Zodiac had been brought successfully to life or not, Scorpio was surely never going to recreate his life and the world around him in the fashion that he so vaguely, so very imprecisely, desired. He was ill-fated, he was damned, from the very start, and the only question was how many others would he damage as he spiralled down his own destruction.

In that sense, reality really was conspiring to constantly tempt and break Scorpio.

We may be fundamentally different from Jake Fury, and yet, we too probably know  we'd ever want to of what despair is, and we'll possibly recognise something of ourselves in that moment in which the 52 year old Scorpio finally surrenders to the ultimate logic of the disorder in his own mind;

"All my life, every time I've ever believed in anything, or had faith that the future would get better for me, I've had that false hope knocked out of me ... and found myself back on my knees in despair."

In such a way is our own empathy confirmed, which is surely, if I may be forgiven the expression of the thought, one of the most important functions of any fiction, regardless of whether it's trash-popular or some grand and U-Novel opus of great artistry. The irredeemably disordered and profoundly threatening Scorpio may not be able to feel any sympathy at all for the likes of us, but we're shown by Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen that we can feel such for him.


               
12.

There are two final ironies in "Scorpio Must Die!" which serve as rather delicious and touching epilogues to the whole of the proceedings. In the first, Jack Norris and Moon Knight come across the body of the dead Scorpio, his head, we must presume, for thankfully the art is restrained and respectful, blown completely off of his own shoulders. But Norris and Spector completely misunderstand the situation, assuming that the android version of Scorpio's brother Nick had somehow blown "a fuse and -- and just -- killed him!". Even in death, Scorpio couldn't manage to get the world to understood what he was doing. In the end, his suicide is understood by those who come across his corpse as nothing more than the result of a mechanical glitch.Where everyone else is concerned, he was a pathetic victim of random bad luck rather than, as he intended, a brave if hopeless arbiter of his own final destiny.

Nobody beyond Scorpio's faithful LMD would ever know the horror that Scorpio lived with.

The second irony is similarly quite heartbreaking, for we realise, even as The Defenders and their allies don't, that the android Nick Fury had loved Scorpio very much. For all their bickering, and for the rather unpleasant violence that Jacob had inflicted upon it, the LifeModelDecoy had genuinely cared for Jake Fury, and it  despairs at the loss of its partner. The presence of this final twist consolidates the tragedy of Scorpio's suicide, and of the life which preceded it, for Jacob himself had declared of the LMD;

".. he doesn’t have any feelings I can hurt. If it weren’t for the loneliness, I don’t even think I’d keep him around."

             
But the android had very real feelings, and Scorpio's despair and isolation might have been in some way assuaged if he'd known of that fact, although of course the very point of this sorry tale is that Jacob Fury could never have done so. More touching yet, we later learn that Nick Fury himself shares the sense of absolute loss that his android duplicate does.

"Scorpio Must Die" doesn't pretend that the self-slain supervillain could have been saved through therapy or, help us, lashings of love. It doesn't try to shift the blame off onto society, even as many of Scorpio's criticisms of America and the West carry a great deal of weight. It never attempts to convince us that the superheroes are the brutes here, that the law is an ass or that victims are in part to blame for the behaviour of the criminals who prey on them. It's not a tale that's sappy, soft-hearted or idealistic at all. It certainly never suggests that Scorpio is anything other than a profound danger to the public who should be locked away in the most secure of circumstances as possible,.

But what it does express is something which this sub-genre simply doesn't say enough, and which it too often actually works, albeit unconsciously, to deny. It makes us understand that Scorpio, for all his difference and inhumanity, was a human being too. Costumed superfolks and their battles all too often encourage us to glorify in the defeat of the other, and catharsis is so often framed in the moment at which someone we've been encouraged to loathe is very badly hurt indeed, at which point it's too often obvious that we're supposed to cheer. And that's a terrible shame, and something of a secular sin too, because the genre has no need to be so unintentionally cruel, so dismissive and anti-social, as Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen's work in "The Defenders" illustrates.

No man being an island, and asking not for whom the bell tolls, and all of that ... 
        
My very best to anyone who might have made it down to this line, and I wish you a splendid time in recompense for your patience!    

.         

Friday, 25 March 2011

It Tolls For Thee: Your Empathy And Scorpio's In David Kraft & Keith Giffen's "The Defenders" # 46 to 50 (Part 2)

In which the blogger continues his piece on the characterisation of Scorpio, which was begun in the piece published here last Sunday, the 20th of March;

          
5.

By 1977, even the endearing credulousness of comics fans couldn't always ignore the fact that those superfolks who'd once been shown active during World War II were now getting close to being too old to run up their own stairs at home, let alone face down youthful and powerfully world-threatening criminals. The links that Marvel Comics had created between its characters and real-world historical events in the early Sixties, when no-one had imagined that the superhero had anything much of a future at all, were now starting to seriously complicate the company's continuity. For those characters whose pasts were inseparably tied to the events of 1939-1945, explanations were suddenly in order for how they might still be so physically able in that futuristic era of President Carter and Studio 54. Some were provided with life-extending maguffins, such as Nick Fury's own immortality-creating "Infinity Formula", the existence of which had only been revealed in the year before Scorpio's run in the Defender's began, while those characters judged too important to be allowed to grow any older at all continued their gradual disassociation from the context of any specific historical moment at all. 

           
However, some of the very least important of Marvel's characters could still be portrayed as stumbling under the weight of their advancing years. The Whizzer, for example, who'd first appeared in 1941, was shown in 1974's Giant-Sized Avengers # 1 to be prone to the heart disease which would eventually kill him. And Jake "Scorpio" Fury, being an even-more insignificant character than the lemon-costumed, mongoose-blood powered Robert Frank, was a figure who could productively be allowed to retain the specific historical context that he'd first been shown in. In fact, one of the keys to the success of Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen's reworking of Scorpio can be found in the fact that he's doomed to age in a fictional universe where so many others never do, where even the aged Aunt May bears one fatal illness and even death scene after another without lastingly passing over to a better place. Accordingly, Jacob Fury, a narcissist and a fatalist to the end, constantly refers with no little bitterness to his passing years in his Defender's appearances, as he does when he warns the kidnapped Jack Norris to;

" ... tread carefully. I am 52 years old and I won't be mocked! This is my last chance!"

And just before his suicide, Scorpio refers again to those "52" years. Time, he believes with some considerable desperation, is robbing him of the strength and the opportunities he needs to fight for the things that he's convinced he deserves, and without which he's sure that his life isn't worth the living.

            
On reflection, it's incredibly rare for a comicbook figure of even minor standing to know their precise age and to be able to discuss the matter as if time really did pass in the major superhero universes as it does in ours. We knew, for awhile at least, that Superman was 29, but then he was always going to be 29; he was never going to be 30, let alone 52. And it's in part the untypical relationship that Scorpio has to a form of time that mirrors our own experience which lends his fate such poignancy. For if time is passing somewhat for him as it does for us, then there's a sense that death just might afflict him as it will you and I. By extension, it appears that Scorpio really does seem to be inhabiting a universe which, as he believes, is crueler to him than it is to many of those he shares it with, because he really is measurably growing older and declining while, for a variety of reasons, a great many others from the class of superfolks are patently undergoing no such fate. And from the perspective of 34 years later, we might note that all of the Defenders seen in this tale are still "alive", as is even Jack Norris, the all-too human and deliberately-unremarkable ex-husband of the Valkyrie, while the best that might be said of Scorpio is that a computer programme bearing his name is on occasion seen failing to achieve its ends in the MU.

The suicide of Scorpio's is, in such a fashion, a terribly and untypically final and tragic business. For in the way in which he experiences the passing of his days, he's actually far more a creature of our world than of the often-timeless superheroic madhouse that he's doomed to live his fictional life out within.

      
6.

Of course, Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen knew that Jacob Fury was 52 in 1977 because he'd been declared to be 20 years of age in Sgt Fury # 68/9, which was set in 1944. And Mr Kraft's take on the historical as well as the comicbook timeline of Jacob Fury's life is put to use in several exceptionally subtle ways across the five appearances of Scorpio in "The Defenders". For example, Mr Kraft refers three times to Scorpio's taste in music, and each of these examples are intimately related to Jake Fury's youth as well as being extremely telling where his state of mind is concerned. And so, when Scorpio is seen being psychologically charged and distorted by a great wave of mania in "The Defenders" # 48, he's shown playing a record of Varese's "Ameriques", that great sweeping and complex piece associated with the avant garde of the age between the two World Wars.This, Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen appear to be telling us, is what aspiration and expectation feels like to Scorpio when his mania allows him to both concentrate upon and dream of a hopeful future; a great modernist, orchestral evocation of New York complete with the howl of police car sirens and a lion's roar.  And, like most of us, Scorpio's visions of a better tomorrow are conditioned in large part by his own past, as here, by a profoundly daring work associated with the city of Jacob Fury's youth in the years before the worst of his mental disorder quite overwhelmed him.

          
It's well nigh impossible to believe that Mr Kraft choose that piece of music at random, or that he might have indulgently allocated the same choice to, say, the Vulture or Egghead. For "Ameriques" is exactly the kind of esoteric and challenging music that the young Jacob Fury would surely have convinced himself that he adored, given that Varese would serve as evidence, as proof,  that Scorpio wasn't just different to the folks around him, but better than them too. ("I've been an outcast all my life." he piteously declares, as if the world had compelled him to undertake his career as a costumed supervillain, as if they'd been no place in post-war NYC for a man of his talents, as if he'd never had a family that adored him even as he behaved like an ass, and far far worse.) For we already know that Jacob held socially heretical views in his younger days; after all, he'd been shown to be an open and virulent opponent of the War itself in "Sgt Fury" # 68, despite that having lead to his being labelled a "delinquent". And Mr Kraft constantly works to craft a portrait of Jacob Fury as always having had an unrealistically high opinion of himself while feeling rejected and indeed martyred by the lack of interest shown in him by the wider society. "In this world", he tells the android version of his brother Nick as the needle hits the vinyl and the orchestra starts to play the Varese, "autonomy, intelligence and originality are discouraged", although surely the very example of the composer's life and career might quash any such notion were Jake Fury capable of reasoned reflection.

         
But if Scorpio's manic surges see him temporarily energised and able to engage with the complexities and gameplaying of the avant garde, his quieter and darker moments demand music which is somewhat less apparently challenging in form if not content. When weary, his tastes turn to Billie Holiday and Judy Garland, and in the moments before he kills himself, he's tellingly shown having just listened to the latter's "Over The Rainbow" for "one last time". (We're shown the needle caught in the groove - "Klik - - Klik - - Klik " - with the song over and the vinyl still rotating, as clear and final an image as it's possible to imagine to express Scorpio's understanding of how his own fate has fallen.)

Well, of course a high-minded working class contrarian such as Jacob would've gone to hear Ms Holiday on 52nd Street in the Forties, and of course the younger Jacob would've been captured by "The Wizard Of Oz" in 1938, when he was a no-doubt precocious 13 years old. Those musical choices tell the reader so much about Scorpio's youth, of his aspirations and pretensions, just as they broaden our understanding of his state of mind in the last few days of his life.

             
Once every few years I take out "The Defenders" # 50 and read that last scene of Jacob Fury's suicide. I have always admired it, and did so long before I noted that Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen had used historical and comicbook continuity side-by-side in the fashion they had to evoke Scorpio's life and mind-set. But with a few more years under my belt, I read again the way that they delivered what's self-evidently a successful and yet standard-issue pre-Shooter superhero tale while also placing so much more of such considerable value into the sub-text of their story, and I find that I'm amazed. It would, after all, have been far simpler for them not to worry about such carefully detailed and subtle storytelling, while more egotistical creators might have placed their care and cleverness in a far more obvious and applause-inspiring place in the narrative. But to be smart and modest even as the unstable molecules and the Kirby Krackles are flying all around is well worth the noticing, even 37 years on after the event.

     
7.

There was remarkably little of informing detail or depth in the Marvel archives of the time for David Kraft and Keith Giffen to call upon in their characterisation of Jake "Scorpio" Fury. A two-issue appearance as a 20 year old in a homefront Sgt Fury two-part tale and a few scenes as an absolutely typical supervillain in "Nick Fury: Agent Of SHIELD" were all that they had to draw upon, thin gruel indeed, and especially when it's realised that the SHIELD appearances were designed to disguise who Scorpio actually was. Yet their Scorpio is admirably and quite logically extrapolated from what little there was to adapt, and a great deal of thought was obviously given over to how to put that extremely limited amount of information to work. As a result, nothing much that's new has been added to the backstory of Jacob Fury, but that which we've seen before is often placed in a quite different context. For example, there'd been a slight but notable difference in tone between the typical blowhardisms of Scorpio's in the first issue of "Agent Of SHIELD" and the contents of his thought balloons, which are somewhat less moustache-twirling in their excess. That difference between the language that Jacob Fury uses in public and private is maintained in these issues of  "The Defenders", although Scorpio's ludicrous but plot-serving habit of thinking of his brother as "Fury" in the second of the stories Jim Steranko told of him is rightly never repeated.

     
Far more ambitiously, Mr Kraft and Mr Giffen's take on Jake Fury fits perfectly with what little has been seen of the character before while it changes the very meaning of that backstory considerably. And reading backwards from "The Defenders" to Jake Fury's very first speaking appearance in comics results in his personality appearing to have always been that of a psychologically abnormal young man. Where Mike Friedrich's script for 1969's "Sgt Fury And His Howling Commandos" # 68/9 was designed to portray Jacob Fury as a feckless if redeemable younger son, the very same scenes which once did so now indicate something far more sinister. For example, Sgt Fury # 68 presents the reader with a Jake Fury who is a fierce opponent of the war, and the implication is that the younger son is jealous of his war-hero elder brother. But to re-read that story after experiencing Scorpio's last curtain call in "The Defenders" is to realise that Jacob wasn't so much resentful of his older brother's fame so much as thoroughly envious of the importance of the war itself in everyone's life. Yes, he loathes living in his brother's shadow, but he also seems to despise anything that doesn't have him sitting comfortably and self-aggrandisingly at the centre of events, and World War II was certainly, shall we say, a substantial distraction for the people of New York City. For the two key qualities of the 52 year-old Scorpio in Mr Kraft's scripts are egotism and a terrifying absence of empathy, and if those traits are used to make sense of the twenty year old Jake, a less benign character than that originally described emerges.

      
As a result, the frankly unbelievable decision for Jacob in "Sgt Fury" # 68 to wait two days before notifying anyone else of his brother's probable kidnapping, which was originally presented by Mr Friedrich as evidence of the 20 year-old's long suppressed capacity for honour, now reads as if the younger son was maliciously keen to keep the truth of the situation quiet for as long as possible.His tearful admission that he couldn't tell anyone because he'd promised brother Nick that he wouldn't seems now like the staged "admission" of a very nasty little boy indeed.

And where the Jake Fury of Mike Friedrich's tale is a lost and immature late adolescent inspired to join the army by the good example of the Howling Commandos, now we might note that he seems to change his mind about the War at the drop of a nickel when he perceives that he'll gain attention and advantage from following in the footsteps of brother and war-hero Nicholas Fury.

          
There's a moment during the closing brawl against the Nazi who'd kidnapped and brainwashed Sergeant Fury in those tales where Jake tells the men of the Howling Commandos to "Leave some of  'im for me ... I've the biggest stake in this, ya know.", and it's a scene obviously constructed to tell the reader that the 20 year old of 1944 has absorbed and internalised the need to fulfil his brotherly duties. But glance at it now and it seems obvious that Jacob Fury really does believe that he's got "the biggest stake" in the fight, and that he'd think that regardless of what was going on around him. To him, the fight isn't to avenge or even support his brother. It's nothing to do with the war and it's as divorced from conventional morality as can be imagined.

Because Jake Fury, the man who will eventually decide that all of reality is acting just to ruin his own pyrrhic schemes, really does believe that he has the "biggest stake" in everything.

                   
8.

When I was re-reading these 34 year-old issues of "The Defenders" earlier this week, the use of  "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" in the tale's conclusion seemed to me to suggest the possibility of a camp sensibility on the part of Scorpio, and for a moment it seemed conceivable that that could've been being used as a marker of a lack of  an "appropriate" masculinity in Jake Fury's make-up. Yet it just as swiftly became obvious that there was no other likely markers of camp where Scorpio's thoughts and behaviour are concerned, nor, of course, are there of any attempt in the slightest having been made to associate one particular socio-sexual preference with Scorpio's anti-social nature. Indeed, given when and where Jake Fury grew up, there's no need to perceive any irony at all at play in his choice of final record. Yet at the same time, there are signs that Scorpio is thoroughly confused about his sexuality, just as he seems to be a quite utterly perplexed individual in general. For example, there are moments when Scorpio and the android version of his brother Nick Fury bicker and argue like an old, sit-com married couple, with the LMD taking the submissive and quietly deeply loving role. (He only retains the android, Scorpio explains, because of  "the loneliness", the fear of which is no doubt shared between Jake Fury and a great many other middle aged and unhappily-matched pairings.) At other moments, Jake is violently, and disturbingly, abusive to the android, and it's there as elsewhere patently obvious that the "sense of self" which Scorpio claims so vaingloriously to possess is nothing but a cruelly temporary illusion created by his mania.

                 
In the light of Jake Fury's tenuous hold onto the facts of his own character, there's little in the history of superhero comics to match the sheer strangeness of the scene wherein Scorpio follows up his apparent murder of Moon Knight by escorting the kidnapped Jack Norris to his bedroom;

"Jack, you get to sleep on the floor. I've shown you enough courtesies -- I'm not giving up my bed."

How astonishingly odd it is to read that scene again! Scorpio is extremely quick to declare that he's not "giving up" his bed, as if Norris will demand to sleep there rather than, perhaps, think to demand his own freedom or at the least a show of guilt on Jake's part over the drowning of Moon Knight. Certainly Scorpio never seems to consider that it might be exceptionally odd to have his "guest" sleeping in his room anyway. They are in, after all, a huge secret base created within an old and abandoned warehouse, and it's a complex that's been shown to be full to bursting with secret compartments from which a non-superhero like Norris could never escape. And yet, there's an unavoidable sense that Scorpio is simply desperately lonely, and lonely, in the light of whatever reason, for male company most of all.

So; "The Defenders" # 49 has within its pages a scene in which Scorpio has Jack Norris sleeping on his bedroom floor while he takes the king-size mattress for himself. And all the time, the android Nick Fury, in his full Agent Of SHIELD costume, is there in the room with them both, charged with spinning Billie Holiday records into the night.

It is indeed as if Jake Fury isn't simply profoundly mad, but unimaginably lonely too.

To be concluded:

.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

"Close To The Edit" Part 2: John Wagner & Nick Dyer's "...Regrets" & Al Ewing & Simon Fraser's "Mutopia" in "Judge Dredd: Tour Of Duty: The Backlash"

In which the blogger concludes his digression from his "How To 2000 ad" bluffer's guide into the matter of edits made to material collected in several Judge Dredd trade paperbacks.


6.

By disguising the points in these collected stories at which each individual chapter gives way to the next, the editorial staff at 2000 ad have consistently created awkward and often quite dead moments on the pages concerned. This must surely be judged a serious problem if the editor's intention was indeed to create the impression of a less-compartmentalised reading experience through the excising of the evidence of the original structure of these stories. And yet, where the unknowing reader of the edited product might well expect each story to progress in a fashion which both serves the plot and the meaning of the piece, as the audience for any fiction would surely hope for, the dislocations which still mark the transitions from what was once one distinct chapter to another often result in;
  • the effectiveness and attractiveness of artwork being diminished
  • the content of dialogue and captions becoming marred in redundancies
  • the pacing of the story being disrupted as chapters designed to work both independently of and in sequence with each other are suddenly run together without respect for their original form

Sometimes even the most slight of changes can create a dysfunctional effect. If you were to compare the original final page of the first chapter of "Mutopia", as shown above, with that from the collected version, presented below, all that's different is the removal of the "coming next" line which had originally been placed at the bottom right-hand corner of the side. Yet even the removal of that changes how we perceive the cliffhanger of the piece. With the "next prog" tag removed, our eye is drawn to the middle of the panel and the threateningly toothy scowl on Clavier's face and it's held there too; indeed, there's no obvious direction to exit that panel from unless the text at the bottom of the page remains. With that closing line intact, our gaze is pulled down from the Professor's face and then carried along to the far right of the panel, which creates a far more intense sense of a cliffhanger looming over us. Pushed to the exit point at the edge of the page, we can't dwell for too long on the scene of Clavier without wondering what's coming next, meaning that the enigma of  "what's coming?" hits with far greater force than otherwise. The presence of that text tells us that there's no solution to the problem to be found in that panel, and it  shoves us off the page with the sense that we need to make sure we find out what happens next in the coming chapter. (Without the "next prog" line, I assume the Professor's face would have needed to have been placed far closer to the extreme right of that final frame, allowing our gaze to exit the panel there rather than linger on Clavier's facial tentacles.)


But remove the closing line of text and it's actually astonishing how much more passive and less engaging that last panel is. Yet, having created a less compulsive page-turner from Mr Fraser's work through their removal of that tag, the editors then do the same, and to a far greater and less helpful degree, to the first panel of the following page too, the original of which you can see below. As you'll note, in its weekly context, the intital frame serves as both establishing shot and recap panel;

    
Yet a version of "Mutopia" which is pretending that the story was never published in two separate parts, or indeed created specifically to be so, has no need for any such any panel. What's there to establish and what's there to recap if the story has never paused between one chapter and the next in the first place? And as a result of this, the panel stands in "Tour Of Duty: The Backlash" with its text removed and its reason to be quite absent too;


Instead of leaving the material as it was, or of asking the creators to help make the panel fit more comfortably into the context of its new purpose, nothing has done at all to it to compensate for the removal of its original text. As a result of that negligence, the initial panel on what's now page 7 of one apparently continuous 12 page story becomes not only unhelpfully purposeless and silent, but awkwardly composed too, since removing the captions exposes a previously productive composition now standing somewhat empty and unbalanced in their absence. And as a consequence of those edits, the frame now just kills the progression of the tale stone dead, whereas in its original form it served the purpose of a two-chapter "Mutopia" very well indeed, containing as it did the caption which helped to immediately create rather than diffuse tension with the chilling declaration that; "In less than thirty minutes the next hostage will die...".         

The enigma inspired by the revelation concerning Clavier on the preceding page, therefore, is now followed in "Tour Of Duty: The Backlash" with an establishing shot with no reason to be and a frame designed to accommodate expositionary text that's been excised from it. It's as if the point at which at a roller coaster pauses before starting its sheer drop towards the ground has been blocked by a blank brick wall, with all that expectation and gathering momentum crashing into one great solid disappointment.
               
          
I'd confidently invest a substantial amount in a bet based on the premise that Mr Ewing and Mr Fraser would never have produced such a dramatically unhelpful and story-slowing panel as that which now opens page 7 of the edited "Mutopia", although this trade paperback makes it appear as if that was their very intention.

7.                 

You'll also note, of course, the same problems caused to the structure and effect of the above page following the removal of the titles and credits panel as those we discussed in part one of "Close To The Edit", where we considered the similar fate that had befallen the story's opening side. And so, for the second time in 12 pages, the reader of the collected version of "Mutopia" is faced with a page which is of quite different dimensions to those around it, and once again there's no explanation for that being so. What sense this makes to the reader unfamiliar with the story, and/or unaware of the editor's designs, escapes me, although at best I'd suggest that the effect of the changes is to compound one storytelling problem with another, leaving a sense of dissatisfaction and confusion to be generated as a result.

             
If you or I were to buy the DVD of a contemporary TV show which had been edited so counter-productively, we'd be both annoyed and mystified, and that would be especially true if there'd been no warning that the changes had been made to the product on the packaging at the point of purchase. I suspect we'd also be concerned  about the degree of respect that the producers were showing to the original product, to its creators and to the audience too. And I very much doubt that we'd want to keep our misguided purchase either once we grasped the difference between what we'd expected and what we'd been sold.

Perhaps worse yet for Rebellion Publishing and 2000 ad, any newcomers to the edited product may well be inspired to wonder what all the fuss is about where this much lauded "Tour Of Duty" cycle of stories is concerned. The very idea of investing in another collection from 2000 ad, whether it stars Joe Dredd or not, could so easily be deterred. After all, a neophyte might be forgiven for concluding that in places these "Tour Of Duty" stories aren't very well written or effectively illustrated, while even the pace of some of the more successful of these tales feels distinctly odd, somehow ....

           
8.

To discuss the other stories in "Tour Of Duty: The Backlash" would be to debate the degree to which this editing process can be judged to work or not, and, my preference for the original form notwithstanding, it can't be denied that there are stories where the collected version feels quite seamless, such as in Mr Wagner and Mr MacNeil's "The Secret Of Mutant Camp". Yet even where the progression from (obscured) chapter to (obscured) chapter is considerably less jarring, the sense of an oddly structured story tends to remain, as with the otherwise smooth-reading  "The Edgar Case" by Mr Wagner and Mr Goddard. (*1) In the edited version of the opening page of the second chapter of John Wagner and Nick Dyer's " ... Regrets", for example, as reproduced above, the logo, title and an expositionary caption have been removed in order to destroy any impression that anything other than one continuous story is underway. And yet Mr Wagner is left looking like an amateur or careless scriptwriter by the process, since much of the catch-up information that he's so carefully and effectively seeded into the page for the benefit of the weekly reader still remains unremoved in the edited version. The dialogue in the very first panel of this page, for example, is often word-for-word the same as that presented on the facing page of the collected edition, as you can see by comparing the panels I've placed above sections 9 and 10 below. (Even the newsreader at the end of what was originally page 1 of chapter 2 - above -  is repeating in part information given to the reader just one-and-a-half pages before in the trade paperback.)

*1: - It's hard not to believe that Mr Wagner is writing both for the weekly and collected format at the same time, which is as admirable as it's surely almost impossible. Surely both formats tend to inevitably suffer somewhat in such an endeavour even with Mr Wagner at the helm?


panel 5, page 6 of TPB: "We demand freedom for all Total War operatives.They will be flown to the Mongolian Free State and released unharmed. You have forty eight hours."

panel 1, page 6 of TPB: "We demand freedom for all Total War Operatives. You have forty eight hours. Fail to comply and the boy will die."

It takes a considerable editorial misjudgement to make John Wagner look even the slightest bit less than marvellously competent, but that's what's happened here. Information that once needed to be restated is now no longer required, and yet it's still there, on the printed page. And even where Mr Wagner's work flows in a less juddering and repetitive fashion between one once-was chapter and another in both "The Backlash" and "Origins", there's still often a sense of a story that's not being told as it would be if the creators had had the freedom to structure the tale they're telling in something other than short sections. Simply obscuring the original chapters doesn't change much of the experience of reading them one after the other, after all. At the very least, the original chapter breaks gave the reader the chance to pace themselves as they worked through each long tale. What's more, it's so much easier to enjoy and admire the discipline and achievement of a team of creators, and to understand the presence of what might otherwise be read as excesses and redundancies, when the form that that writer and artist are working to is evident on the page.

          
That "Origins" is still such a fascinating and exciting read in its edited and chapterless form is testament to the brilliance of Mr Wagner and Mr Equerra. But in its "final" and published form, "Origins" provides nowhere near the quality of the more controlled and enjoyable experience to be gained from reading the epic in its original chapter-based existence.

I'd love to see the market research that Rebellion Publishing has financed in order to inspire their decisions as regards the composition of these collections. In particular, I'd love to know how they're tracking their respondents after they were first questioned. Whether they surveyed established and/or potential readers, or even relied on anecdotal evidence from sources such as comic shop owners,  I'd be fascinated by whether those surveyed actually ever did read such an edited volume, and, if so, whether that inspired them to buy more collections, and of what kind?

What evidence was the decision to publish these collections in this way based upon, and is there proof that this experiment has worked?

        
9.

The only way that folks can buy a collected edition of these "Tour Of Duty" and "Origin" stories is in this bowdlerised form. I'd suggest that there really does need to be a pressing reason for that to be so, because I suspect that it'll be a decade and more before these tales appear in one of the Complete Case Studies collections, resplendent in their original form. (I simply can't imagine that 2000 ad is going to issue an "uncut" collection of these tales in the coming months, although I for one would certainly buy such a publication.)

And that's more than a shame. Given the excellence and importance of some of these stories, it's actually something of a comic-book scale tragedy.

          
10.

The more time I spend looking at the consequences of the editorial changes that've been made to these strips, the more disappointed I am at myself for not checking that 2000 ad was reprinting its stories intact before buying several of the imprint's recent collections.

And the more disappointed I am too in the attitude to the work expressed by the folks who made the decision to edit this material. At the very least, they might have warned the reader that what was being collected and published was very much not what was originally published. 

I hope the programme has resulted in a significant and lasting increase in sales, although I won't be touching any future collections which don't faithfully and respectfully reproduce the work as originally published unless there's a really good reason for doing so. For if I'd've wanted a version of the work that'd been created from a process of hacking away at the published pages of gifted creators, well, I could have done a poor job of that for myself with Photoshop and half-an-hour in front of the family computer, and saved myself the money which, in all honesty, I really don't have to spend on comic book collections anyway.

But I really do enjoy and admire the work of many of these creators, and I've always been beguiled by the character and world of Dredd too. And that means, in the strange and often futile way of the comic book fan, that I trusted Rebellion Publishing and 2000 ad to feel the same way, and to do the right thing as a consequence of that.

                
Next up; the second part of a look at the madness of Scorpio, from Marvel's "The Defenders" of 1977.

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