In which the blogger attempts to discuss a rather touching and clever short story without giving too much away of the tale. But please be aware that there may possibly be unintended spoilers ahead;
Nihilism, it seems to me, is whatever Paul Cornell isn't.
"Secret Identity" is a short story so unfashionably optimistic, good-hearted and clever that it might almost have been adapted from an early Silver Age DC comic written by John Broome and drawn by Carmine Infantino. Or, such might be imagined if National Periodicals had been in the business of printing four-colour adventures where both the hero and the community he's protecting were world-famous gay icons.
It's a story of faith, compromise and ingenuity, grounded in what appears to be an ardent belief that there's nearly always a solution to disconcerting problems if only the folks involved can just be a touch more clear-headed, honest and unselfish.
"Canal Street (night-time)" by Michael Gutteridge
But Mr Cornell's tale isn't a backwards-looking indulgence haunted by the ghosts of old comic books. Instead, the old superhero archetypes being put to use in "Secret Identity" are very much alive and flourishing in the skies above Manchester's Canal Street, reincarnated and reinvigorated as magical English heroes and villains. It's a fact that's true in particular where "The Manchester Guardian" is concerned, who's very much an extra chord or two added to the old Captain Marvel riff, a rainbow-costumed superman who shares something of his body and something of his mind with Chris Rackham, an endearingly unremarkable and loving gay man. (*1) And failing to exhaust the noble Guardian's patience are the players on the other side. such as Top Hat, a super-villain who channels the dress sense of Mandrake the Magician and who seems to spend a great deal of time being thrown through outer space, and White Candle, a femme fetale given to breaking and entering the homes of absent gay men, and Jumping Jack, who's;
"Not the murderous sort, this one. The fun kind of magic villain of Manchester most enjoyed. His lightning just gives you a bit of a jolt."
It's as if Paul Cornell had taken a good and hard writerly look at Alan Moore's Neopolis and decided that something much less sprawling and crowded, something better humoured and considerably more English, would be a very good idea indeed. Somewhere, perhaps, full of typical un-super folks who just happen to be gay while struggling to come to grips with the typical, un-super questions of everyday life, while above them, like angels and devils perched on Canal Street's conscience, the costumed brigade act out a series of options of how life might be lived, and look downwards on occasion for inspiration to the men in the city below.
*1:- The relationship between Chris, the yarn's Billy Batson, and the Manchester Guardian is one so cleverly worked out that the Big Red Cheese himself, and all of the Shazam family too, might benefit greatly from Mr Cornell's conceits here being put to work over in Fawcett City.
"Jim Ashton heard the magic explosion. So could all of Mantos." (page 1)
It's taken for granted that the idea of the super-hero is a very good thing in itself in "Secret Identity". There's no literary shame, no self-consciousness about these silly if endearing creatures in their "form-fitting" costumes and their ridiculous abilities. Nor, indeed, is there a sense of an over-reverent attachment to the cape'n'tights battalions, or a desire to load the Manchester Guardian and his antagonists with a symbolic weight of worthiness and relevancy. Instead, the super-folks are no more and no less important than the everyday folk in the story, the capes and the uncostumed being equally vital individuals in Mr Cornell's tale. And so, rather than being yet another "meta-commentary" on super-heroes and the traditions of the genres, "Secret Identity" is a refreshingly thoughtful meditation on what it is to be a good person, rather than what it is to be a person thinking about good and bad comics.
There is, however, a deliberate commitment to expressing an unjaded sense of wonder here, both for the " ... magic 'hero fights' in (the) skies ... " and for the lives of earthbound folks trying to make their way in a world where just staying in love and on the right side of the community can be a challenge at the best of times.
In truth, this isn't a tale about superheroes at all, any more than it's a story about gay men. It's not about roles at all, and it's blithely dismissive of the 21st century myth that human beings are best off occupying the space proscribed by certain specific lifestyle choices and gaining meaning from sticking within them, changing only as mores and other fashions do. "Secret Identity" is rather single-mindedly focused on the process of being a person, an individual human being rather than a role or even a stereotype, whether that person might be found in Manchester's streets or high above them in Manchester's skies.
It's not about gay men and superheroes, any more than it's dismissive of the real and fictional lives of superheroes and gay men. It's about being a good person, and the process of what that involves.
"That night, all of Canal Street looked up from their pints to hear a very solid impact of magic villain with water ... " (page 14)
Stare hard at the apparently random, meaningless and cruel order of things, Mr Cornell seems to be saying, and have the faith to be honest and unselfish, and there'll be a way forward that's better than silence, self-deception and selfishness. It's a Socratic view of the universe, a faith that there's a truer world and a clearer purpose to be found there if we can just look hard and honesly enough for it, and that's exactly what Chris and Jim and the Manchester Guardian eventually manage to achieve in "Secret Identity".
In fact, the answer was there in front of them all the time.
Everything is connected, everything can made to make more sense, and look, there's all those superheroes "dumping energy into the atomic void" and "throwing glamors and dazzles and feints" to help sugar the message too.
"Crowds were rushing onto the pavement from the Cornerhouse bar ..." (page 8)
Mr Cornell's Manchester is laid out with all the precision of a soundstage for the Batman TV show. It has both the clarity and the lack of specific detail of a child's memory of a blisteringly hot day. Everywhere is a set designed without authorial indulgence against which the tale can be told, but it's never anything other than the thinnest of sets. There's a canal, and the nightclubs, there's the doorman and his bouncers, the punters and the gawpers, but beyond there's little to tell us that Canal Street is anywhere different to anywhere else in a British inner city where folks live their lives in the day and more folks arrive to live the life at night-time too. And while some of this lack of detail is undoubtedly due to the necessary brevity of the short-story form, it's hard not to believe that Mr Cornell's also deliberately insisting that the gay community should be regarded as a profoundly typical one rather than a strange and unknowable other-world that requires anthropological notes for the straight reader to make sense of. And as a consequence of only describing life on Canal Street in the most general and everyday of terms, the reader is compelled to fill out the scenes in the gay community there with parallel experiences from their own past, and if those experiences have been of a straight life, well, there's no unbridgeable difference between the one and the other anyway, and so the point is made.
There's no sociology, no "outsiders primer" here, no well-meaning if patronising attempt to educate and enlighten an audience. Presumably, Mr Cornell has faith that the readership will be far too knowledgeable for that, and it's hard to not perceive a belief on his part that his audience are simply too humane-minded to need any such nannying. For "Secret Identity" is a story about two gay men who are in love, rather than gay men. They're not representatives, types or symbols. Jim's passionate and threatened and waspish when he's trying to express his fears. Chris is somewhat baffled, sincere and he finds it hard to express himself quite as precisely as the Manchester Guardian would. Take away their sexuality and to a large degree, and for all the fundamental and vital parts of themselves that would be lost, they'd still be the same people, just as a superhero might still be a decent and caring person even if their "lifestyle preferences" were perceived unfairly to have changed.
And Mr Cornell's quite determined about this, for all of his relaxed and unpretentious style. No-one in "Secret Identity"benefits from the playing of a role, from being fixed with a definition of themselves that leaves compromise seeming impossible. And this principle, that people should be defined by what they choose to do rather than the roles they inhabit, is accentuated by the somewhat featureless city, by the lack of sensory information, by the absence of any too-specific slang or the minutiae of whatever the various clubbing sub-cultures are wearing on this evening or that. For "Secret Identity" uses the tradition of generalised, constantly recyclable, comic-book images of "the city" and "the street" and puts them to use to keep us focused on the story itself rather than the detail of the background.
It's the individuals who happen to be - amongst many other important qualities - gay that "Secret Identity" is concerned with, and not the colour and detail and potentially distracting complexities of gay Manchester itself.
"Canal Street (daytime)" by Michael Gutteridge
We've come to a damn strange place culturally where the use of the word "decency" to describe a text fondly is almost a taboo-breaking matter in itself. "Decency" seems to at best to summon up a sense of a vaguely well-meaning, almost vicarly, almost camp, niceness. At worst, the word summons up the sicknesses of the meddling and even poisonous fundamentalisms of the various moral majorities. But "decency" seems to me to be the best word to sum up "Secret Identity", and, perhaps, the rest of Mr Cornell's work that I've come across too.
It's not that his work lacks passion, as if decency was an easy option, a calmly-arrived-at business that cost not a bead of sweat or a single moment of self-doubt and despair. In fact, "Secret Identity" is a quite noticeably passionate if also good-humoured and fiercely tightly-constructed text; it's certainly not "decent" in the sense of conformist or dull. But the story seems obviously concerned with a moral purpose as well as the writer's duty to entertain and charm and amuse, and so the enemy in "Secret Identity" isn't Top Hat or White Candle or any Canal Street-threatening super-villain at all. Instead, the real antagonist on show is the very-human tendency for characters to hold to the beliefs they're familiar with and the principles which they take for granted.
It's the dual absence of unselfishly critical thinking and the knowledge of how to use that to compromise that's hurting everyone to a greater or lesser degree in "Secret Identity". You can see it in Tall Ben the doorman, set on defining who's gay and who isn't without flexibility or humour, and in the Canal Street community itself, who've seemingly decided that the Guardian's services are only truly welcome if he conforms to their definition of what's acceptable and appropriate. You can see
it in the Manchester Guardian himself, so bound to his fixed beliefs about how to do the right thing that he allows himself to disappear from existence after every brief moment of super-intense life because he wants to be respectful of Chris and his mortal existence. You can see it in Jim, who's so frightened of deception and uncertainty that he's ready to run away from love, and in Chris, who's unexamined life is to a degree not worth the living because he's not engaging with a fundamental truth that he barely lets himself accept.
Everyone's living a role and everyone's hurting themselves and others, and yet the answer has been in place for the tale's three main characters from almost the very beginning of the tale. And of course that's a question of good plotting, of foreshadowing and being true to the reader by leaving the tale's macguffin in everyone's plain sight, but it's hard to suspect that it's not something else too.
For without being anything other than fun, and without displaying the slightest evidence of a po-face, this is a mystery play of sorts, a morality tale where the closing message is that it's not who you think you are, it's how you think and care about those around you, and indeed yourself, that counts.
"The applause his magic hearing had picked up came from the tower of the old Refuge Assurance Building." (page 4) -- Refuge Assistance Building by Paul Waters at http://www.flickr.com/photos/paulwaters/with/2172561412/
"Secret Identity" is a story so lacking in cynicism on first reading that it's actually quite disconcerting. And although trace-elements of the familiar modern day obsession with doubt and despair are still absent on a second reading too, it's hard not to be cheered by a story that's this engaged with the necessity of imaginative compromise, of the need for folks to be both kinder to and smarter with each other. At times, reading "Secret Identity" seemed so out-of-its-time that I felt like a man collapsed under the weight of a savage hangover being helped up by a remorselessly cheerful optimist. It's certainly hard not to suspect that anyone burdened with a fashionable degree of social disengagement or an unfortunate weight of despair may hold "Secret Identity" in something of contempt, if they can raise the intensity to feel so moved at all.
But it's that quality of decency, of hopefulness and purpose, in "Secret Identity", that I find myself responding to now. It's an insidious business, this decency, it sneaks in under the cover of superheroic hi-jinks and kitchen-sink drama, and it leaves the mind whistling an unexpectedly and perhaps slightly embarrassingly happy tune.
And so, for all that I could be way off of the mark here, I'd still bet a handful of solid, bank-worthy coins of the realm that whatever nihilism is, Paul Cornell most certainly isn't.