Saturday, 29 January 2011

Retromancing; First Thoughts On Kieron Gillen & James McKelvie's "Phonogram: Rue Britannia"


1.

Honestly, I'm really not a betting man, but I'd happily invest a not inconsiderable amount of money on the proposition that most folks who finish "Phonogram: Rue Britannia" then suffer a barely controllable urge to blather about their favourite records, and of the youth cults that they belonged to, and of the pleasures and agonies of their own often exceptionally-protracted adolescence.

I'd also further risk that stake on a double which also predicts that just about everyone who's read the first Phonogram collection would testify as to how thoroughly enjoyable and, yes, moving "Rue Britannia" is.


It really is a tremendous achievement on the part of Mr Gillen and Mr McKelvie. They've created a comic about an often unpleasant individual experiencing a distinct and distant period of pop music's evolution, and made the whole business compelling. And, I'd strongly imagine, they've also simultaneously succeeded in evoking the youth of just about everyone who ever fell in love with a particular type of music and a way of life which seemed inseparable from it.

That fusion of the detail of Brit-Pop, as experienced from the periphery of the West Country rather than supposed heartland of the Good Mixer in Camden Town, combined with a skillful representation of what it feels like to belong to a sub-culture which is already moving on and changing just as it's being discovered and defined, helps protect Phonogram from seeming too local and autobiographical, or too broad and patronisingly inclusive. Instead, the progression of our old and always reliable narrative friend the hero's journey is grounded and invigorated by a comic book structure that's informed both by the exotic detail of local youth cults and the emotional resonances of the reader's own experience of trying to, and trying not to, grow up.


2.

And so, for all that I find myself really wanting to prattle on about the details of my own experiences, who really needs to know? We've got Phonogram, and Phonogram deals with a great deal of what feels so compelling about those stray fragments of everyone's personal experience , and it does so while telling a damn solid story too.


3.

It strikes me that I can't think of another comic where the traditional hero's journey has been so convincingly cast in a recognisably modern context. The threat that Dave Kohl has to face up to, overcome, and learn from isn't, for example, one that can be dealt with by muscle power and physical bravery, as if the world were still a place where testosterone-balled fists can be relied upon to solve every problem. Indeed, where most every other adventure comic this side of Sandman would resolve at least some of its conflict through punch-ups supposedly standing for less specifically brawny values, Phonogram's showdowns are constantly closed through discussion and debate, through the development of self-awareness and the application of a benevolent cunning.

And for all that Phonogram is studded with the tropes of fantasy, from sorcery to goddesses and other-wordly realms, the central dilemma of Dave's protracted and selfish adolescence is a profoundly contemporary one. How is he to create a sense of self living as he does within a culture lacking set traditional roles and yet awash with far more ways of experiencing reality, some substantial, most very much not, than he can ever start to process? Dave fears that if he doesn't fix his own identity in terms of the experiences he's treasured, he'll be swept away, lost in a never-beaching tsunami of information and options. If he lets go of Britpop, not only will he loose his ability to justify doing whatever he likes to whoever he chooses to do it too, but he fears he'll loose himself as well. He'll be nothing but a man defined by the outside world, ever-shifting without autonomy, lacking freedom but subject to responsibility, a reflection of other people rather than himself; a bloke called "Dave Kohl" rather than Dave Kohl.


Now, falling for a comic, just like falling for a song or a novel, can leave you misty-minded, and so I've no idea of the accuracy of what I'm saying. Still, if I'm wrong, it's a wrongheadedness inspired by enthusiasm and enjoyment, and perhaps such a measure of over-reaction is entirely appropriate when writing about a book that's concerned with how our thoughts and feelings can be transformed for good and ill by the sheer bloody joyousness of pop culture.

But it seems to me that until Dave grasps that he can't impose a fixed order upon his own life through the manipulation of the objects of his past, and until he grasps that he shouldn't ever try, there's no possibility for anything more than the odd mood of quickly-passing triumphalism on his part. He can win this and beat away that, but he can't ever belong. For culture inevitably mutates, time inevitably passes, people inevitably change, but there's a character-fixing constancy to the business of being gentle and kind to others that Dave can only discover as he chooses to abandon the past. That still point of being a human being, a mensch, never changes even as everything else does, and that's what Dave eventually learns.

All of which is a rather endearingly sweet and life-affirming core to find in a book whose surface is often so knowing and arch and sharp-edged.


4.

It's impossible not to be impressed by how the events of the mid-Nineties are woven into the narrative of "Phonogram". A great deal of the time, they're referred to in passing or touched upon rather than specified, unpretentiously left to lie in front of the reader so that anyone who recognises their value can benefit from their presence without the need for any story-slowing info-dumping. At other moments, of course, real-world events stand as symbols for major turning points in Dave Kohl's life, rather than merely marking the passing of time and the rise and decay of the goddesses reign.


Perhaps my favourite such use of a historical event being put to use is that placed in Book 6, where we're presented with Dave's sad diatribe against Richey Manic's decision to kill himself without ever informing his loved ones of the fact of his passing. It's a scene that marks Dave's first few steps on the path to a socially-hearted redemption, for he's been deeply moved by the confusion and grief of Beth's ghost and he's learning to think in terms of the consequences that our individual choices have for the well-being of others. Yet it's so cleverly marked that Dave's still got a long way to go, because even now he can't stop himself judging Richey Edwards in terms of his life as the pop star Richey Manic, in the context of his existence as a mass-medium player of meaning, rather than simply as a human being who suffered so that he couldn't bear to go on. For Dave defines Richey as "a shit" because he never left even a note to tell his loved ones that he really did intend to die rather than merely disappear, to save them those agonies of waiting and never knowing. And Dave interprets the symbols of Richey's death and decides that the whole process of the suicide was at least in part a singularity-sized egoistic design to create a myth of Richey Manic the self-slain and yet never-dying rock star.


That Dave should grieve for the appalling suffering of those Edwards left behind is a marker of the exceptional progress he's made. And perhaps Dave's distaste for Edward's behaviour is fuelled in part by his own shame at his own previous conviction that life should be experienced according to an archetypally callow music critic's code of what is and what isn't acceptable behaviour. But that Dave should still be unable to empathetically grasp that any man who kills himself is already beyond the degree of clear thinking and warmhearted social-mindedness that we'd hope for in an undisordered mind skillfully illustrates how Dave is viewing Richey's demise in terms of rock mythology and not individual suffering. Dave hasn't yet learn to always separate image from reality, legend from actuality. Edwards capacity to think and behave rationally had clearly been substantially if not entirely annihilated by the time of the death. In the weeks of his long passing, no matter what his mental processes led him to do or not do, Richey Edwards was a profoundly disordered and vulnerable young man, and already so close to if not completely beyond the event horizon of reason that any judgement of him surely needs to be supplanted by sympathy.

It's such a clever way of marking how Dave Kohl is growing up without presenting us with an all-knowing, completely empathetic ex-pop cult casualty born again as a paragon. Nobody changes that quickly, and Dave, for all that he's learning how relationships are marked by responsibility, is still carrying a mind that's all too full of the semiology of rock and not quite full enough as yet of kindness.



5.

The use of Britpop as a symbol for Dave's life-defining and soul-constraining desire to lock himself into an irresponsible and eternal adolescence is a similarly sharp and self-aware choice, since Britpop itself can be understood as a fundamentally conservative reaction against an avalanche of cultural change combined with the fear of the decay of secure, informing and yet invidiously constraining traditional social roles.

That Britpop could also be very much more than that parallels the fact that so can Dave Kohl. But first, a fair degree of digging underneath the surface is, "Rue: Britannia" informs us, a necessary beginning to a healthier understanding of what was really going on, and why.

I'll be honest. My low-level cynicism about Britpop and its fellow travellers has quite evaporated since reading the first volume of Phonogram in the past few days. Britpop all seems to have been a far more democratic and empowering and enjoyable business than it did from the other side of 30, where I stood at the time.


Interlude - "Sing This Song To Your Children" - 10 Much-Loved Songs From The Britpop Era
  • Save Me I'm Yours (live) - Gene
  • Common People - Pulp
  • Chinese Bakery - The Auteurs
  • Stay Together - Suede
  • Live Forever - Oasis
  • Fake Plastic Trees - Radiohead
  • Time - Supergrass
  • This Is A Low - Blur
  • This Is Yesterday - Manic Street Preachers
  • Kelly's Heroes - Black Grape
To be concluded, with particular attention owed to Mr McKelvie's fine work;





.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

"How Could There Ever Be Enough?":- Tolerance And Forgiving In Gail Simone & Neil Googe's "Welcome To Tranquility" (Part 4 of 4)

concluding last Monday's piece, and with the warning that spoilers lurk below;

11.

I need to take a moment to pause and digress here, because I'm just about to discuss what I suspect may be some intensely political aspects of Ms Simone's script for "Welcome To Tranquility", and it really is important that I explain what I'm trying to do first. Anything else and I may run the risk of appearing to argue a point that it's certainly not my intention to.

It will seem even more of a digression if I start by discussing Elliot S! Maggin, but I assure you I'm staying true to my point. For Mr Maggin was once generous enough to leave a comment on this blog following a piece in which I argued that it was probable his prose work on his first Superman novel has been a considerable influence on Alan Moore. It remains an essay I'm pleased with in content, if not style, because the similarities between some aspects of Mr Moore's scripts during his years working for DC Comics and that of Mr Maggin's writing in "Last Son Of Krypton" really are remarkable, and to my knowledge unmentioned elsewhere. Yet for all that I was sure there was a high probability of some kind of influence, I knew I couldn't prove it. I'm a social scientist by training, and a quarter century of degree work and teaching has left me constitutionally unable to say "I know" unless I've got the incontrovertible evidence before me. And in the case of the relationship between those two fine writer's work, I didn't have that evidence, and so I qualified what I wrote.


Mr Maggin's response was as forthright as it was thrilling to receive. Of course the influence was there, he said, and he advised me to be braver with my writing, to argue my case with more conviction. It was, he said, what he told his writing students.

Now, I can absolutely see the virtue of Mr Maggin's advice, but I don't believe that it's always appropriate to avoid tempering an opinion with a measure of doubt. For one thing, I've never been a blogger who was motivated by the desire to declare how right I am so much as one who's quite desperate to avoid being wrong, and one of the worst thing that an amateur can do, I believe, is to claim that they know what a creator was and is thinking and feeling simply through a supposed close reading of their work. Social scientists receive a great deal of flack these days, but the most effective of them never claim that they know anything, because they're aware that they surely don't.


Why am I saying all this? Well, I'm just about to discuss one particular reading of "Welcome To Tranquility", and I want to make it clear that I so very well know that it's just my opinion of Ms Simone's work that I'm stating, rather than any truth about Ms Simone's politics at all. I've not felt uncomfortable so far discussing the theme or the social content of WTT, because I think that any discussion of such fairly general issues merely emphasises the text's fundamental decency. But now that I'm going to touch upon what I suspect may be a specific political target of WTT, I think it's a good time to throw my hands in the air and declare mea culpe. Not to avoid criticism, because I really do think that the following has some small measure of validity, but rather because I can't possibly know whether what I've surmised is even one or two per cent vaguely correct.

And I don't think that any blogger has the right to say "this is what a writer believes and what a writer intended" on something as personal as a specific issue of politics without also writing "but I'm probably wrong and I know that and I'm sorry if that's so".


We do live in impolite and intemperate times, and an admission of a lack of surety is sometimes mistaken for timidity rather than common respect and good manners. But the following is merely intended as a "what if?", as the opinion of a baffled blogger still relishing coming to terms with a tremendously enjoyable comic book, and as, perhaps, a conversation starter rather than a debate closer.

Mr Maggin was almost 100% right. The influence of his work on Mr Moore's was so apparently clear that it'd be far more remarkable for it not to be so, and I ought to have been a touch more determined there. But here, I'd rather opt not so much for the self-preserving benefits of caution, but for the respect for others that caution can express.

If nothing else, it's an appropriate enough stance to take when discussing "Welcome To Tranquility".

12.

I know that there's nothing that I've said so far which might justify my initial comments about "Welcome To Tranquility" carrying a political meaning which might irritate and annoy the gatekeepers of moral correctness on the far right. Yes, "Welcome To Tranquility" is undoubtedly a deliberately moral text, in that the virtue of forgiveness and of its little sibling tolerance are constantly recognised and reinforced, but such values are taken for granted today even as they're so often ignored. Indeed, forgiveness is so associated with the content if not always the practise of the fundamentalist religious mentality that few at the margins would care that Ms Simone was actually agreeing with the New rather than the Old Testament where the business of an eye for an eye is concerned. That's not where I'm suggesting the point of possible difference might lie.


Of course, "Welcome To Tranquility" is a social critique too, and yet the comic book contains almost as much social comment that might sit well with a conservative as with a radical agenda. It's plainly on the side of a woman's right to choose where abortion is concerned, but it also establishes a powerful argument for respecting the elderly and the traditions they've served. It's clearly respectful of law and order, just as it's distrusting of those who'd accept the holy relics and legends of patriotic legend without questioning their validity. And if it's clearly against homophobia, it's also obviously proud of the Republic and its citizens. Picking a fight with such a fair-minded work in these conditions would be more trouble than it was worth to all but the most pig-headed of opponents. For though "WTT" is an allegory of a society which has lost something of its way, and which has done so in part because of a corruption throughout its social structure, it's also a narrative that's always designed to stress the fundamental decency of the Republic's citizens and of the shared core of their common values too.

But what turns "Welcome To Tranquility" from a general social comment to a specific political concern first becomes obvious in chapter 4, when Sheriff Lindo discovers that the murdered gutter journalist Bug had stolen a copy of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" from Mr Articulate's home. From that point onwards, Ms Simone not only steams forward in carefully revealing the twists of her murder mystery, but she also names the guilty men, or rather, the guilty ideology, which has so debased the values which Tranquility has supposedly been founded upon, and which has so betrayed the citizens of the "town of peaceful woods". And in doing so, of course, she suggests that that ideology is a similarly corrosive one in our world, in that world without Maxis and their kin.

13.

As we've talked about before, "Welcome To Tranquility" is written in such a way as to be censorious of anti-social thinking, but it's never dismissive of the moral potential possessed by those who believe in such dangerously selfish ideas. And the knowledge that the kind and decent Mr Articulate may well be an Objectivist is used, I suspect, to empathise this very point. For although "Welcome To Tranquility" is a text which ultimately damns the ideology of Ayn Rand, and those ideologies bolstered by association with her thinking too, Ms Simone is extremely careful not to leap to the conclusion that Randians and their various fellow travellers can't as individuals be excellent members of the community, can't be decent citizens in themselves. So it is with Mr Articulate, as we've chatted of previously, though his attitude towards his own private wealth and advantage can be seen in the beautifully crafted inscription he left in each of his books;

"Please remember that loaned books are a joy to be treasured only BRIEFLY. Please return where found or stolen!"

Mr Articulate has the good heart to share, but that doesn't mean that he's just going to give away his own property. (It's a stance which, where the matter of my own books are concerned, I can't help but agree with. My opinions on the excesses of wealth owned by those who control the commanding heights of the economy may well be a different matter.)


14.

This copy of "The Fountainhead" most visibly functions as a vital clue in the mystery of who it is that's killing the citizens of and visitors to Tranquility, as well as hinting strongly at why the murders have been occurring. For Mr Articulate has annotated its title page in such a way as reveals something of how the town has been built upon the Fountain Of Youth, and of how that source of inconceivably precious advantage has been seized by a small cabal of Tranquility's leading citizens.


But, exquisitely, there's a wonderful further layer of meaning in the appearance of "The Fountainhead" in "Welcome To Tranquility". It lies in the relation of Rand's beliefs, and the many adaptations and popular mutations of it, to the scenes we see of the Liberty Squad's discovery of the Fountain far beneath the most beautiful and fecund of land, land which you might expect would be enough for anybodies ambitions to create a better world out of in itself. And it's a relationship between Rand and Cragg and Fury that can first be seen when the reader is shown how the Fountain Of Youth is no fountain at all, but nothing more than a few drips of water on a subterranean wall;

"It was the fountain ... just a trickle, a few drops a day."

And we're presented then with a room full of men - and they are all men - who are so powerful and influential in their own right, for good or ill reasons, that you might expect that they already had well enough uncommon advantage for this life. And up until this point in their existence, these Maxi-Men have been, with the exception of poor mad Cragg since his torture during the war, examples of self-sacrificing heroism which most any political ideology might be proud to claim for its own. They've been generous and socially-minded citizens who despite their considerable might have chosen to serve the community to at least the same degree that they serve themselves. Whether radical or traditional in one's point of view, these Maxis might be claimed to represent any belief that's optimistic about how human beings might deal with power.


Importantly, there's no sense that "Welcome To Tranquility" is any way a text that suggests that typical human beings shouldn't possess considerable privileges denied to their fellows. WTT is no leveller text, arguing that no-one should be allowed to amass uncommon amounts of personal advantage. As long as her superfolks are serving the common interests of the community as a whole, and as best as they can, Ms Simone is absolutely happy to present them as admirable individuals who deserve the boons they've been granted by fate. And by extension of such a point, we might choose to believe that Ms Simone's work expresses not the slightest problem with individuals acquiring wealth and status and power through hard work and good citizenship.

But what WTT seems to be concerned with is the difference between the rewards of hard work which has helped the community, and the accumulation of excesses of riches which deny the community that which it'd so clearly and substantially benefit from.


15.

There are, argues Mayor Fury, some temptations which few men can resist;

"I'd never been tempted. I'd been offered the wealth of kingdoms to look the other way while some maxi-villain ran. But this was different. It meant living maybe dozens of years past my expiration date.."

And so the super-folks who stumble upon Henry Hate's discovery of the Fountain of Youth are faced with an extreme of temptation which can supposedly corrupt a fine heart. And the gravitational pull of corruption, just as with repentance, is of course a constant lure to the characters in "Welcome To Tranquility". As Deputy Duray explains;

"You know anyone can break their beaks on a bad day."


For it's not that being tempted is sign of a degraded soul in WTT, and even succumbing to temptation isn't a sign of moral damnation, as we've discussed, because this is a book about the possibilities for redemption that are inspired by the community's willingness to forgive. Those who've fallen are constantly proving themselves capable of turning their fates around. Dr Hate himself eventually repents of allowing Fury and Cragg to retain their power and returns Maxi-Man's magic word. Mad Dog is welcomed into the opposition to Cragg and Mayor Fury. And even Cosmos has been allowed to live in Tranquility despite his supposed responsibility for Astral Man's death, miserable on the periphery of society, but not constantly tarred and feathered for his presumed sins.

But what WTT is deeply, fundamentally, opposed to is the shameless practise of hypocritically wrapping selfishness in the corruption of a moral myth. For Mayor Fury to take Astral Man's incorruptible and profoundly American values and use them to create a cult which disguises Fury's own considerable sins is something which seems to disgust Ms Simone. As she has Maxi-Man tell Fury before the book's climatic battle;

" ... you have disgraced yourself and this entire town."


Tranquility may in many ways be nothing more than window dressing disguising Fury and Cragg's crimes, a kind of social housing equivalent of false accounting, but its inhabitants largely believe in the values represented by the legend of Astral Man, despite the Mayor's cynical appropriation of his example. For just as a liar's punishment is that they cannot ever believe that anyone else is telling the truth, so a cynical politician will mostly never grasp that the ideals she or he pays lip service to will inspire others to sincerely defend such principles. And Mayor Fury does seem bemused and baffled that everyone else can't understand that he had to do what he did. He knows that he was wrong to horde the Fountain's waters and deny others their use, and to effectively condone Cragg's various murders too, but he also appears to really believe that no-one else beyond the saintly Astral Man would really have done any different. (Astral Man is thought of as "the best of us", rather than just one decent human being in a population of other like him.) It's an utter failure of empathy, to see most everyone else in the world as being both exactly like himself and yet also of far less worth than he is. Even his wife Suze is discussed in terms of being an object to please him rather than a partner to cherish as an individual, as he shows when he describes how he'd considered the ways in which the Fountain of Youth might help the both of them;

"It meant never seeing my beautiful wife fading into senility and ill-health."

It's notable that he doesn't care think of what his wife might want where this temptation is concerned. Her feelings and thoughts on the matter are irrelevant to him. He thinks instead of avoiding his own suffering, of an oppurtunity, tellingly, to side-step the agony of watching his lovely wife lose her beauty, of grasping at a chance not to have to care for her when the trials of their later years arrive. For all that he's fond of his wife, she's almost a pet, thought of in the terms of her effect upon him and his desires for her. Such unsympathetic and self-obsessed egotism inevitably results in everything and everyone being less important to him than Mayor Fury's own long-life and health, and so it's no surprise that ends his days of freedom beating his wife into unconsciousness and setting out to murder Colette Pearson.

Anyone that's that rich, and that corrupt, and that hypocritical, and that independent of democratic oversight, Ms Simone seems to be saying, will eventually if not sooner end up doing some quite terrible things to maintain their advantage.


16.

The key to Ms Simone's specific criticisms of modern America can be found, I believe, in the nature of the Fountain itself, in the words that she uses to describe it, and the scene she provides with Mr Googe of the Liberty Squad debating how to put its few waters to use. It's such a cleverly-executed business that it at first went quite over my head, as indeed it should, because any political banners which can be obviously noted tend to throw the reader out of the story while reducing it to to a lecture. Yet, it surely can't be an accident that the Fountain's waters are described as "a trickle", making the scene of the Maxi's discovery of the life-enhancing fluid as succinct an assault on Randian economics as I can imagine in such a medium and such a genre. For the phrase "trickle down" is one that's of course associated with Objectivist and other brands of right-wing economic dogma, with those strange beliefs that individual selfishness inevitably leads to general social advantage. Let the rich become richer, as a brief summary of the argument might go, and their example will inspire everyone else to become rich too. At worst, these virtuous and hard-working wealthy individuals of Randian legend will as a class of discrete individuals re-invest their riches in the economy, nobly sharing their surplus capital through the process of "trickle down".


It's a ridiculous argument, of course, and one which has constantly failed to work in practise just as its advocates have constantly refused to accept its invalidity. And it's this kind of uncaring and yet supposedly compassionate selfishness that perfectly describes how Fury and Cragg justify their appropriation of the fountain. They're already incredibly privileged and powerful before they stumble upon Henry Hate's secret. They don't need anything more in their life. Yet of the members of the Liberty Squad present at the Fountain's discovery, only Astral Man is willing to retain his former convictions and contend that what they're faced with needn't and shouldn't be a matter of private advantage.

The extremely familiar excuses that Fury and Cragg provide for taking the Fountain for their own are perfect cartoon summaries of the broad justifications for "trickle down" as given in practise. Fury recalls, for example, how "... there wasn't enough" of the trickling water for everyone, and from that logical observation seems to have immediately jumped to the illogical conclusion that if everyone can't greatly benefit from such wonders, then just a few should have it all. It's not a logical or reasonable argument, but it is one which can ease the burden of a conscience. Neither Fury nor Cragg could claim to need the excess of years and


health, unless we define life as a process by which the individual seeks to get the absolute maximum of advantage for themselves and damn everyone else, which is surely the opposite of the common, non-"Objectivist" version of the word "hero" . Certainly, the conspirators never seem to have considered saving up the waters so that they might be used if some terrible disaster afflicted humankind, or using the Fountains trickles to study how the life-extending properties therein might be synthesised. (This is, after all, the Wildstorm Universe, full of super-intellects and magical adepts. It's hard to believe that the Mayor and Cragg couldn't envisage such a possibility if they'd cared to.) And yet more social-minded solutions abound. Why not identify those individuals which humanity could least afford to do without? Perhaps another few years of Martin Luther King might have been a fine idea for everyone, for a start. Or, as a last or first resort depending on where one stands, perhaps the drops might be allowed to enter the world's water table, giving everyone and everything just a moment or two's better health. Anyone who's ever been laid low by pain will recognise how being saved from such suffering is arguably the greatest gift that can be offered, even for just a moment or two.

Or: the observation that everyone can't have a super-yacht isn't a justification for a few people having very big super-yachts indeed.



17.

Cragg and the Mayor's response to the moral dilemna of the Fountain is to create a "compromise", and it's as hilarious and unethical as any extreme right wing economic thinking is;

"Each of us would get a drop a day forever. And one drop for the person we cared about most in the world, though they would never know. And the last few drops would go into the city's water supply at Six Mile Lake ... it would add years, not decades, to their lives."

It's a fine example of "trickle down" indeed, and quite literally so too. For supposedly "free-market" ideologies, which claim to want to liberate all individuals to compete against each other without unfair competition, immediately creates cartels and monopolies, classes and interests, individuals passing on their advantage unearned to those they hold in the greatest favour. It's remarkable how that "trickle" of Ms Simone's fountain so precisely summarises the real-world effects of Randian thinking. Cragg and Fury's closest lovers and friends come first to them, of course. And then there's a class of the privilaged around them, the folks of Tranquility, who are allowed a tiny fraction of the cabal's wealth. And then, well, everyone else can just go hang, despite the fact that the fountain itself was discovered by chance, and stolen from its original discoverer, and used to shore up a town characterised by deceit, and murder, and hypocrisy. Virtue has nothing to do with the whole process of unenlightened selfishness, except to justfy the practise of it.


"Welcome To Tranquility" seems to me to be in part a critique, and a very elegant and witty comic book critique too, of the radical right wing ecomomic and political ideologies which associate themselves with traditional ethical and national values in order to facilitate their greed, in order to make their rapacious intentions more appealling for the less enlightened. For of course there's never enough of the most precious riches to go around, to make everyone a zillionaire. As Fury says of the Fountain's waters: "How could there ever be enough?" But those rare riches could be used in ways that gradually help everyone, rather than in a fashion which brings the already powerful even more power, until the world becomes entirely theirs, and nobody elses.


18.

"Trickle down" in the world of Tranquility is the pernicious myth and practise that it is in ours. And just as in our world, the ineffectiveness of such policies for the mass of people is masked with a public ideology of worthiness. Cragg argues, for example, that stealing the fountain's waters will allow he and Fury to do "good", but his definition of good excludes everyone that Cragg doesn't approve of. And though Fury seems more consistently aware of what he's really doing, of his own corruption, he's still especially fond of the myth of his shining city on its hill. Tranquility is "peaceful". and "gentle". Why, look what a lovely world he's created! And as Cragg says, the cabal can "stay their protectors forever", which is no doubt a wonderful salve for whatever ethical nature either of them has left. Of course, staying the protectors of their loved ones, who they made sure will get to live longest, and of the citizens of Tranquility, who get to live somewhat longer than they otherwise would, brings with it the fact that everyone else on the globe gains nothing from the whole matter at all.


This fundamental selfishness of Mayor Fury is something which Ms Simone quite fairly presents to the reader right at the beginning of "Welcome To Tranquility", when he explains his reasons for not locking up Miss Minerva, "America's greatest aviator", despite the fact that she's been repeatedly crashing her jets onto the town;

"Minxy's designs won the war for us, Tommy, She's got friends in the White House and the Pentagon. And a personal net worth twenty times the value of this town."

At first, this seems to be a socially-conscious, comic-book way of expressioning solidairy with the elderly. For on a sentimental level, it's touching to think that, yes, old folks who've served the community should be allowed to accidentally fly their jets into the town's streets and parks. And that unconditional concern for the elderly is part of the expectations of the concept of "Welcome To Tranquility" that was presented to the book's readers before its publication, because the comic was sold on the high concept of "a retirement community for superheroes", which technically it is. But WTT is more acurately a comic which uses the metaphor of such a town to discuss far broader social concerns as well. Yet the reader is expecting a tale about the rights of the elderly, and so quite naturally presumes that the superheroic leader of Tranquility must be expressing some morally decent values in granting Minerva such license. As a consequence, Mayor Fury's flim-flam gets swallowed by the reader as an example of civic-mided compassion for the elderly when it's his obvious skull-duggery which should register.


For it's patently ludicrous that Miss Minerva should be allowed to continue her unimaginably dangerous hobby, regardless of how noble a past and how beautiful a heart she possesses. And the reader is actually being shown not that Fury is a decent leader of this community, but that the law in Tranquility is whatever he says it is. Indeed, what matters to the Mayor, despite his fine words, is his access to political and economic power, and his own rather stomach-turning sense of his own warm-heartedness. Nothing else beyond that hierachy of self-interest counts.


What's more, the Mayor in that scene does what so many of the worst do, cloaking his self-interest in the scoundrel's flag of patriotism, evoking "America", World War Two, and "the White House", and he accentuates his old-world, folksy man-of-the-people image with his suggestion that Lindo joins him for "sunday supper". In fact, he just can't stop representing himself as a fine human being deserving of everyone's faith. He's a peacemaker, having united the Maxi-heroes and the Astray, who, he declares, are "united" in their "fellowship" under his leadership of Tranquility.

But it's all snakeoil salesmen hookum, and far worse. And that's what Ms Simone is suggesting, I believe, about those whose behaviour exemplifies the ideology contained in the likes of "The Fountainhead". Selfishness doesn't promote social wellbeing, she seems to be telling us, with an equal measure of conciliation and exasperation, it simply enables even greater selfishness. For that book isn't just used in "Welcome To Tranquility" to throw a light on the conspiracy in the text, but also to suggest a parallel between Objectivist practise in reality and Fury's shoddy little deception in Tranquility.

And anyway, don't we already live in a world where the exceptionally rich live far longer lives in far healthier states than so many of their less affluent fellows? And aren't we so often told that they deserve that incredible reward for all they've done for the rest of us?


17.

It seems to me that a great deal of "Welcome To Tranquility" constitutes a misdirection on Ms Simone's part, to keep us from noticing what's actually going on in the text until the "doh!" moment arrives, until the point where the story's mystery is resolved and the reader grasps that they need to read backwards in order to realise all that they've missed. That is, of course, what good writers are supposed to do, just as good magicians must, namely, hide the truth in plain sight while convincing the audience that something else of greater importance is before their eyes.

Perhaps the final irony of misdirection is the town's name of "Tranquility" itself. It was, said Mayor Fury to Collette Pearson, "a peaceful, gentle town" with "no secrets to keep", a quote I keep returning to for both its utility and its astonishing hypocrisy. But Ms Simone seems convinced that the myth of the semi-urban idyll, of the perfect America, is one of a whole number of myths not to be trusted. Certainly, "tranquility" isn't the be all and end all of what the "Maxis and their families" living "out their golden years" require. The aged citizens of Tranquility are as vital and vigorous and able as are those of our world. They've got far more to give than simply acting as nostalgic window-dressing to disguise the purpose of Fury's cabal, and they show that in their involvement in the common resistance to Fury and Cragg at WTT's end.


In truth, the town of "Tranquility" becomes a far better place to live the less tranquil it becomes. It's not that murder and mayhem and a war against tyranny are vital invigorating components of a healthy society, of course. Rather, WTT suggests to us that when things aren't being kept so deliberately quiet, and when the citizenry as a whole allow themselves to wake up and note the world around them, and to take action too in each other's interests, then Tranquility becomes that most inspiring of utopias, one based on constant hard work, debate, compromise, sharing, a lack of doctrine, and, yes, forgiveness.

A city which is set on a hill, after all, cannot be hidden. As the sermon on the mount says, it is the light of the world.

All of which might, if "Welcome To Tranquility" were held in the wrong hands and processed by the wrong mind, seem entirely unAmerican.

But then, that's where these pieces began .....


And I still didn't get to talk about the ants! Oh, well. Splendid wishes at the moment of writing were bring transmitted to all who'd even glance at this piece. And I continue to hope that others stick together with you as you do with them. Next time, we'll be chatting about a rather different proposition indeed, and you'd be very welcome to pop in, should you at any time care to.

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Monday, 24 January 2011

"Everything You've Always Said About The Traitors":- Tolerance And Forgiving In Gail Simone & Neil Googe's "Welcome To Tranquility" (Part 3 of 4)

continuing on from last Sunday posting, and still, I do assure you; spoilers!;



7.

As soon as a writer decides to tell a story about a small community that exists in relative isolation from the society around it, that community immediately becomes something of a metaphor for the wider world. That's just how story works, of course. Reduce all that we might see to a single household, or a block of flats, or a quiet little town far away from the sight of any urban sprawl beyond that of itself, and that tight focus of attention becomes in its turn everything else. And that's how it is with Tranquility.


But the more the writer chooses to use specific details from the broader society in their construction of a little slither of the globe, the more the symbol they're creating contracts in its focus, until it stops being a more general motif for women and men as a whole, and instead becomes a signifier of a particular society, and of the particular relations between that societies citizens. And as we've discussed, Tranquility is a town which has a very great deal in common with modern-day America, from its disaffected youth to its religious extremists and its irresponsible media.

And so, quite obviously by design, it's not just that "Welcome To Tranquility" tells the story of an imaginary town in an imaginary take on America. It's also that the reading of WTT brings with it the sharing of an individuals take on something of the business of being an American today, as expressed through the prism of a thoroughly well-crafted, utterly unpretentious work of entertainment.


Now, what might be deciphered from the apparent allegory of "Welcome To Tranquility" may of course not actually be there at all, though I doubt that could be entirely so, or it might not have been placed in the text to express Ms Simone's personal thoughts and feelings in any way. It may be that the specific issues and the general solutions that WTT presents us with are simply those which reflect the opinions and feelings of her characters rather than herself. We may merely be perceiving the world, for example, as Sheriff Lindo, the book's main point of view character, does. And yet, there does appear to be a coherence and consistency underlying the events of WTT which it's hard to interpret as being merely technical in origin rather than deliberate and heartfelt, just as it's somewhat challenging to imagine that "Welcome To Tranquility" lacks a committed political dimension at all.


8.

I'm well aware that this may all read as the product of a pretentious mind, and an over-serious one too. But it's not that I'm claiming that "Welcome To Tranquility" is a dry and uninvolving treatise. Regardless of its politics, it's primarily a joyful if often serious-minded superhero/mystery hybrid, and, especially during the first leaf through, that's exactly how it reads.

Yet, as with all well-constructed mysteries, a second run through the text is always a pleasurable experience, simply to note how the hidden world that was eventually uncovered at the tales end was always there, and to perceive how the enigma's answers were always hidden in plain sight after all. And then, on a third time through, the text and the sub-text starts, it seems, to merge together, until WTT appears to resolve itself into a kind of good-humoured and playful moral ordinance survey map, with its outposts of nobility, its dens of inequity, its safe and its dubious paths, its unsurveyed islands of unknown land, and, at the point of focus of the map's design, a really big "X" on display, with "you are now here, what do you think of the view?" written underneath it.


It's not that this "X" can possibly describe the creators politics in any detailed fashion. Nobodies convictions can be so reduced. A superhero book is first and foremost an opportunity to captivate an audience, to reward its investment in the product with an even greater measure of fun than was anticipated at the moment of purchase. Pulling off that trick is challenge enough, and it doesn't leave space for a great mass of worthy analysis or sloganising.

And yet, the superhero comic book, for all that it's already awash in metaphor from the very fact of those ridiculous costumes and those absurd superpowers, is well capable of purposefully transmitting concerns, and convictions, and let's-start-here compromises too. And that's very much what WTT seems to do, especially after that third read through.


9.

Reading Tranquility for the second time brings with it the pleasure of beginning to note how Miss Simone's plot and her meaning work in tandem from first to last page. To take but one example, the first substantive action in the book concerns Miss Minerva's plane crash into the town-square, where she nearly destroys Astral Man's statue, a threat which greatly upsets the touchingly serious-minded Sheriff Lindo no end. This is a town, after all, which takes its supposed founding fathers very seriously indeed, not least because so many of them are still alive and surprisingly healthy. And there in the centre of town is the great marble statue of the slain hero Astral Man, the founder who didn't survive, memorialised with an inscription representing his alleged final words "We must do right", the fallen soldier whose death sanctifies Tranquility with his heroic and fatal sacrifice. And so, at first reading, Miss Minerva's fearsome plane-crash might be presumed to foreshadow a tale of the trials faced by the town's elderly inhabitants and the responsibilities to be assumed by the society that the aged have each contributed so much to. What's more, with such a soul-strengthening example as Astral Man on display, we might well expect that we're facing an optimistic tale of folks bringing out the best in each other. And, in its own way, there is something of that in how "Welcome To Tranquility" will turn out.


But appearances are supposed to be deceptive in mystery tales, and that's true even down to the minutiae of symbols and foreshadowing. And "Welcome To Tranquility" soon proves itself to be rather a story concerned in part with one of the most quietly distasteful and vainglorious of modern phenomena, namely that of the elderly who refuse to allow themselves to grow old, or to even look as if they're doing so. Of course, the representatives of the over-65's in WTT who are resisting the march of time by all means necessary are also politicians and secret agents and loyal thugs, but their tale is one of folks who are not so much facing up to the challenge of their senior years so much as refusing to accept that old age can have anything to do with them. A small ruling cabal of political vampires, if you like, of men - and they are all men - all way beyond their moral sell-by dates who've no intention of making way for anyone else at all.

Yet the truth of that revelation isn't one that's supposed to be obvious until the end of chapter five, and so WTT's script is carefully constructed so that we see very little of Miss Minerva's lucid moments at first, just as all we see of Maxi-Man's alter ego is a little, frail old man who appears to be characterised by forgetfulness and mental disorder. "Welcome To Tranquility", we keep being made to feel, must in part at least be about these poor victims of the aging process, except that we gradually learn that these poor "victims" will prove remarkably adept at saving Tranquility from the tyranny which founded it.


As a consequence of this, it takes a fair while to realise that Miss Minerva's symbolic function in that early scene of an almost-fatal plane crash is, beyond misdirecting us with pity and concern, to show the calm surface of Tranquility being shattered while leaving the statue which represents the grand ideals of Astral Man fundamentally undamaged. The dead superheroes virtues and values remain intact and unsullied, despite the mendacious use which Fury and his conspirators have put them too. Nothing, in fact, is going to knock the fundamental decency represented by that statue down, but everything else around it actually needs blowing up, though nobody beyond Mr Articulate grasps that at the beginning of WTT.

And so, as a result of the fact that Ms Simone and Mr Googe are subtly misdirecting us, while never actually failing to play fair, it really does take a long while for the ideological corruption that keeps Tranquility functioning to fall into perspective. That Tranquility should be a town ruled by tyrants and secured by a peculiar ideology of social decency just doesn't occur. After all, doesn't Mayor Fury declare that " ... ours is a peaceful, gentle town ... we no have secrets to keep. We just want to be shown fairly as the peaceable folk we are."?


Yet peaceable doesn't describe the behaviour of the Mayor's collaborator Cragg when he's concerned that the secrets of the town's rulers are threatened with exposure. For Tranquility isn't a placid and contented town so much as it is a deluded one, as it is a community which had been lied to and managed and which, if it's deemed necessary, will be brutalised by murder in order to keep its noble founders in their accustomed positions of power. That power, of course, needn't be formal, needn't be marked by a badge and a commission from the town council. Yet Cragg is as much the town's secret policeman as if he were wearing a cap badge marked American Stasi.

So powerful is this state of hegemony in Tranquility that it takes an outsider like Ms Pearson to begin to deduce that the secret state exists, and that it exists for a particularly disturbing reason.
As she says, the creation myth of the town makes no sense, for it's one thing to say that Tranquility's founders fathers fought a great evil there in those green and isolated hills and valleys, but quite another to explain why anyone would then build a retirement community on that spot and settle down within its borders.


The presence of that fatal improbability in Tranquility's origin story is doubtless one of the reasons why Mayor Fury is always keen to mask the improbable existence of the town with great latherings of cant, with worthy words which so distract the sentimental heart that any questioning of his actions would seem definitively unneighbourly;

"This town was founded as a safe haven for Maxi's and their families to live out their golden years in peace. We may have fought occasionally in the old days, but the astray have paid their debts. And you'll find us united in our fellowship."

And his apparently democratic-minded fiefdom does indeed seem to offer virtues often lost elsewhere in America. After all, Tranquility is a town which actually and actively honours its senior citizens while maintaining a civil, and civil-hearted, society around them. And through maintaining this cover story of a "peaceful, gentle town" that's a "safe haven" for the aged, the Mayor has strangely also created a reverence for the elderly which so many of Tranquility's citizens share, as Sheriff Lindo explains to Ms Pearson;

"These people, Collette. They told the Nazis to shove it, sometimes literally. Don't make them a punchline. I just don't want to see them hurt."


This is an undoubtedly moving statement, and it's especially so because it's given to Lindo to express, a fundamentally pragmatic woman not given to flights of sentimental rhetoric. And noting that, we might concede that just as the blocks of Mafia enclaves are usually remarkably free from random street crime, so too the Tranquility of Fury and Cragg provides its citizens with a sense of social responsibility to the elderly rarely seen in the modern West, where attitudes might be at best summed by Ms Pearson's description of the senior citizens of the town being no more than "Living fossils in adult diapers."


And yet, Tranquility's role as a haven for the aged is a mendacious facade, or at best a sop to the conscience of its founders, as well a justification for their crimes, The town doesn't exist to serve those who are approaching death so much as to protect the power and wealth of those who will not allow themselves to die, and who'll damn every one else, regardless of their age, if they get in their way. And it's all a wonderfully clear description of the way in which the powers-that-be have so often excused and justified their assumption of advantage. Yes, they're benefiting from the gains of office, but they're helping us too. Perhaps it'll be the trains that are made to run on time, or the nation that can be proud of itself again, or perhaps your shop won't be visited by a large and unfriendly gentlemen with an anti-social temperament if only that little extra money is found to help him continue as your protector.


There's a constant and balled-fisted loathing for the endless and self-righteous hypocrisy of the powerful woven through "Welcome To Tranquility". "How could you betray me like that?" demands Mayor Fury of his wife Suze later on in the piece, following her pragmatically and morally correct decision to throw boiling hot fat and chicken nuggets into his face. The fact that he's expecting her complicity in a campaign of murder, and that he's stood by and effectively permitted both Mr Articulate and Astral Man to be killed, and that's he's therefore lied about himself to her for all of the decades of their relationship, simply doesn't register with him as a matter of sufficient importance to explain her determination not to help him. For "decency" to him is a business that's largely indivisible from his own desires. Even at his most ethically lucid, his support for Cragg's plan to horde the waters of the fountain of youth is framed in terms of a conscience-calming "compromise", as if things might have been worse if he hadn't retained whatever basic uprightness it is that he feels he can still access. Oh, the Mayor may be secretly adding "decades" to his life, but he can't quite accept absolute responsibility for his actions. He didn't know that Astral Man was going to killed by Cragg, though he didn't respond by turning the law onto the Colonel. And though Astral Man could resist the temptation of so many more years of life and health, Fury explains that this situation was actually "different" and "dangerous"; he's not entirely to blame you see. And he has added "years" to the lifespan of the local community by sharing out the little that's left of the waters of the fountain. He's kindly to Miss Minerva, not forgetting her political connections and her impossible wealth, and he's even keen to publicly brawl with homophobic brutes who insult the memory of the man that he'd let his colleague Cragg assassinate.


Tranquility's elite constantly wrap themselves in a flag of their own deceitful making, part-believing in their own righteousness while consoling what's left of their consciences with thoughts of group loyalty and semi-eternal life. But most despicable of all, perhaps, is their habit, so common in tyrannies, of posthumously claiming those that they've murdered as friends and allies, of putting their victim's very identities to use in sanctifying the continuing subjugation of Tranquility citizens. It's not enough that Mr Articulate has to be murdered, but he also has to be twisted into a representative of Tranquility and its leaders, rather than mourned as a victim of a petty tyranny. And how Cragg and the Mayor seem to enjoy playing the role of chief mourners and respectful friends of the dead, as we're shown when Cragg orders Zake, the town's damned grave-keeper, to provide a gaudy last resting place for Mr Articulate's corpse;

"Don't do the die-and-dump you give the rubes, Zake. Guy was a hero. Top-of-the-line, all the way. And I want so many angels on the headstone it looks like Heaven's pissing cherubs, clear?"


10.

But, appropriately, the sense that the audience is given of an ordered and just Tranquility also draws at first off of the nostalgia that comic book fans feel for the four colour stories of long ago. Throughout "Welcome To Tranquility", the reader is presented with a series of takes on the past of the town and it's citizens as represented in parodies of old-time strips, and what at first seems like something of a process of pastiche soon becomes obvious as a satire on the political content which saturated the comic books, and by extension the culture, of the past. Once again, we're being encouraged to swallow the myth of Tranquility before grasping the means by which such meaningful untruths are replicated. For those old comic books were of course self-evidently highly political documents, presenting a world where heroes are always decent and the government is always right, where sex and gender is never an issue while men are in charge of the world, where moral purity and strength of character will always defeat evil, and where the end of a punch-up with a super-villain will always return the world to its natural state of perfection.


As in our world, so in that of Tranquility. For we learn that the comic books inspired by the Maxi's of the Wildstorm Universe are, in addition to being "a three billion dollar a year industry", propaganda tools which have supported Fury and Cragg's power while creating the myths of martyrs to their cause, such as Astral Man, or the essential and exceptionally useful serpent to inhabitant their creation myth, such as Cosmos. Mayor Fury may declare that he sees very little profit from these improbably successful books, but he surely doesn't mean that comment to account for the business of political capital. Like all effective tyrants, and many a democratically elected politician too, Fury has evidently used the popular media to ensure that his side of the story enters the general consciousness as the unquestionably correct side of the story. As he says, "comics lie", and he's managed to ensure that it's his lies that enter the continuity.


Yet comic books have always worked both for and against the status quo. Because in emphasising virtues such as honesty, and heroism, and self-sacrifice, comics cannot help but create a childish and yet beguiling myth of decency by which the actions of the less-than-honourable in the real world can be compared. In such a way, even cartoon women shown behaving bravely within the constraints of traditional gender roles, such as Miss Minerva with her inventions or Pink Bunny rescuing children while her comrades punch out villainous robots, can become a symbol encouraging female readers to raise their self-esteem and ambitions.

And throughout "Welcome To Tranquility", Sheriff Lindo, for example, is shown to have been fundamentally informed and inspired by what she's been told of Astral Man's values and actions, meaning that Fury's corrupt idealisation of the superhero murdered by Cragg comes back in the end to savages him.

Comic books do lie, of course, but they can also at the same time tell something of the truth too.


11.

Ms Simone and Mr Googe present us with a Tranquility which is composed of a series of elements of American nostalgia and utopianism. Tranquility is the city upon a hill, it's a town that's at once both modern and Arcadian, urban and rural, traditional and inclusive. As pages of the old Liberty Squad comic presented to us in WTT's forward declares, it's "the town of peaceful woods", the town that's so perfectly in harmony with its sacred environment that it isn't really a town at all. Tranquility is white picket fences, it's the community eating together in the Chick'n'go diner, and it's a strong and trustworthy leader in the council chamber, whether he wears a mask or not. It's long quiet tree-lined streets, inspiring statues of founding fathers and it's both affluent and relatively free of discord and crime. As Ms Pearson notes during her introductory tour of Tranquility, two old men threatening each other over a garden fence is "Tranquility's idea of a crime wave". ("Hey, I told you this town's quiet." replies Sheriff Lindo, knowing that there's nothing to be ashamed of in an untypical level of social harmony.)


At first, Mr Articulate's murder seems to be an anomaly disturbing Tranquility's semi-rural idyll, rather than a symbol of all the corruption that the town has been founded upon. And so "Welcome To Tranquility" seems at first to be concerned with the horrors of the modern-day. How, the text seems to say to us, could such a decent place have become touched by the anti-social forces of the 21st century?

But, of course, "Welcome To Tranquility" is concerned not with how paradise was ever corrupted, so much as how paradise never existed in the first place.

To be concluded.


Ah. I thought it would be two parts, and then I thought it was three. and now it's turned out to be four, but the last one's written, so I can be sure of what's coming now. As always, my very best wishes to you, and I hope if you stick together with others, they stick together with you.

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