Showing posts with label Britain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Britain. Show all posts

Friday, 27 April 2012

Anxiety & Optimism In Frank Hampson's Dan Dare: (Part 1 of 2)

The first issue of Eagle appeared this month some 62 years ago;

1. Anxiety

There are very dark things going on here. From the perspective of 2012, it can be hard to grasp just how challengingly bleak the set-up of the first month of Frank Hampson's Dan Dare was. There's  little point in relying on the characters themselves to express what a terrible situation planet Earth's in, for these are men who've been mostly trained from birth not to express their thoughts and feelings in anything other than the most discrete and modest of ways. Even Digby, the strip's resident comic relief, can barely bring himself to utter anything more than blunt, pithy, largely impersonal comments in response to the calamities he finds himself in. But if we pay attention in the way that a curious child might to the lowered voices of unconvincingly calm parents, then the magnitude if not the precise nature of the disaster facing this Earth of "some years in the future" gradually becomes more and more clear.

Underneath the professional detachment and obvious competence of the men of the Interplanet Space Fleet lies a suppressed and yet all-too-obvious sense of emasculation and foreboding. When Sir Hubert graciously wishes the crew of the exploratory spaceship Kingfisher a final-sounding "Goodbye and the best of luck", Spaceman First Class Digby caps the comment with "They'll need it". Fatalism appears to grip all concerned, and the slight fractures which appear in their collectively stoic manner work to accentuate how anxious their mood is. Men like these don't tend to express their doubts in public in any fashion at all, and the boys who first read Eagle would have been well aware of how the stiff-upper lip was supposed to function; the slightest tremor of concern indicates a massive degree of worry, and there's certainly a few tremors appearing here. And so, as Colonel Dare quietly and yet conspicuously wonders whether his spacebound colleagues will "ever come back", and as Sir Hubert counsels that patience and keeping "our fingers crossed" is all that can be done, the weight of everything that's obviously not being expressed creates an air of brooding anxiety. 

But then, there's more than just a few moments in the first month or so of Dan Dare in which we're given that sense of men striving not to discuss the challenges before them."Hush!" Dare tells himself in the largest single word presented on either of the opening episode's pages, a comparatively large, bold, italicised reminder to himself that he mustn't openly express his frustrations. It's a tension between the apparently benign surface and the disturbingly threatening reality of Dare's future world which Hampson's work constantly stresses. And so, the reader's shown a tomorrow of obvious comfort and scientific achievement, and yet Dare longs for a simple breakfast of "bacon & eggs" when faced with nothing but a meal of clearly unappetising "vitamin blocks". The contradiction suggested by a technologically advanced society weighed down by material shortages was one which the boys of 1950 might well have on one level or another recognised. Theirs was a culture fetishically concerned with the promise of fantastical developments, and yet one that was also marked by a grey and grinding austerity. Sweets and sugar rationing wouldn't end for another three years, although the war itself had been over for half a decade, and yet the Eagle of the period often featured child-entrancing double-page cut-away spreads of mechanical marvels from fighter jets to prairie-flattening tractors. The terrible and nobly-fought past, an uncertain and yet beguilingly incredible future, a mono-chrome present very occasionally lit by bright flashes of innovation and promise; the unease and excitement, frustration and banality of the mid-century were in a strange way captured by chance and design in the very first appearances of Dan Dare.

In Dare's third chapter, we're finally presented with the reason why the Interplanet Space Fleet is struggling so desperately to reach the planet Venus; the Earth's soil is exhausted, its people are starving to death. It's tellingly Digby, the working-class Yorkshireman and comic sidekick, who's given the key, despairing lines to speak here. Of everyone who's present on the page in the strip's very earliest days, it's Digby whose role leaves him free to express himself with a touch more humour and a little less restraint;

"It all seems very ironical like to me, sir. We get a world government that ends wars, the doctors have nearly every disease taped, and nobody's really poor any more - in fact, everything in the garden's lovely - except there's nothing to eat."
It's a wonderfully written speech, delivering as it does the "ironical" nature of the situation with exactly the right sense of resignation, good humour and frustration. Hampson's artwork for the three panels which carry Digby's words is exquisitely judged too. (See scan below.) Nowhere are we shown the slightest sign of starvation, and yet, as the reader is pushed further and further away from Digby and the flying craft he's in, the sense of an empty, peaceful and yet doomed world is created simply through the absence of human activity. It's a subtle effect which Hampson doesn't dwell upon, but it captures an air of a peaceful and well-ordered globe which can't possibly survive, and in doing so, it suggests the disillusionment which for so many folks followed the end of the war. The War was over in the East as well as the West. The United Nations and the World Bank had been set up, the Welfare State created. So many impossible dreams had been achieved, and yet for all that sacrifice, Britain still seemed to exist as a nation afflicted by perpetual crises mixed equally with eternal hardship. What if we finally did everything right, asks those first few Dan Dare chapters, and it turned out that we were too late. What if a Malthusian end was waiting for us even when we'd all finally pulled together and done the very best that we could?

The spectacle of the Kingfisher's rockets powering her vertiginously skywards may have also brought with it a strange, disturbing collision of emotions and thoughts to the young readers of 1950. Rockets may have been the fictional marvels which carried the likes of the American pioneers of 1950's Destination Moon into the heavens, but they were also real-world weapons of mass destruction such as the V-weapons which had rained down upon London and its surroundings in their thousands and thousands just five years before. In their functionally convincing designs and regretable habit of becoming marooned and destroyed in deep space, Hampson's rockets were rarely the entirely safe and unchallenging genre conventions of either earlier or later pop sci-fi. Indeed, they often suggested that anywhere but their vicinity was the safest place to be. The very presence on the Eagle's cover of the Kingfisher's ominous departure might therefore inspire more complicated and contradictory responses than the plot of Dan Dare alone could provoke. Similarly, the culture of the time was saturated with tales of how desperately-needed weapons such as the Spitfire and the bouncing bomb had been developed under nerve-shredding conditions of urgency and jeopardy by brilliant back-room boys and stoic, courageous test pilots. The launch of the Kingfisher and her mysterious mission drew upon histories and fictions which suggested beleaguered nations and desperate, last ditch projects bolted together with super-science, sticking-plaster, and wing-and-a-prayer improvisations. These were imaqes which a Britain still struggling to recover psychically and physically from six years of total war might immediately recognise and identify with, meaning that no matter how futuristic Commander Dare's world might appear, it always felt recognisably 1950 too.

The horrors of Hampson's set-up become more obvious and explicit in the strip's second chapter, which shows the Kingfisher exploding in space in a scene which remains, for all its restraint, uncomfortably raw. Just before the expedition's catastrophic and impossibly lonely end, the reader's introduced to the ship's "Commander, Captain Crane, a space pilot of vast experience", a calm and benignly smiling officer whose very presence seems to promise the mission's success. Then we're shown four panels in which one disaster arrives hard on the heels of another; a terrible flash of light; immense heat radiating from the "impulse engines"; crewmen beaten back as they clamber for extinguishers; and then - "Too late!" - the Kingfisher's destroyed in an immense, structure-rendering explosion. It's a conspicuously all-ages and yet powerfully despairing portrayal of a spaceship's end, drawing as it does upon a broad variety of narrative traditions used to represent the destruction of technological marvels. The plight of the crewman in the second panel in the sequence suggests a stoker struggling far below decks with an out-of-control furnace.  The stumbling men seen from an angle which suggests the Kingfisher is diving out of control in the third frame summon up memories of Lancaster's and B-17s tumbling hopelessly from the skies above Germany. "Poor old Crane - I feel like a murderer." declares a sternly sorrowful Sir Hubert, his face displaying no more emotion than a tightened lip and a severe frown mitigated by his refusal to allow his eyes to close. Lost airmen, hopeless crashes, desperate wireless operators striving to communicate with comrades who are suddenly silent; this wasn't just the stuff of soldiering epics and disaster pulp fictions. It drew from the traumatic fabric of the nation's common experience of war too.

It's sixty-seven panels and three weeks worth of adventures until the first signficant sign appears that Dan Dare is going to be a strip more concerned with idealism and positivity than self-control in the face of a terrible end. But the optimism isn't allowed to arrive without just a touch more stage-setting despair being introduced into the piece. Just before the closing panel of the Dare strip in Eagle of April 28th 1950, we're shown a brief sequence of the Space Fleet craft flying high above the green fields, cliff-faces and shore-line of England. It's a backdrop which even now is associated with the Few and the Battle of Britain, and there's never been any doubt that Dare and his space officer fellows were obvious takes of World War II R.A.F. pilots thinly but touchingly transposed to a fantasy future. Yet in these few panels, Dare and the others are presented flying above the aerial battlefields of 1940 without the slightest sign of an enemy to dog-fight with. They're warriors with no war to fly off to, and that creates a compelling enigma at the heart of the tale; what's the point of even the bravest warriors when there's nobody to turn a gun towards? Part of what makes these first few chapters of Dan Dare so surreptitiously unsettling is the sense that the martial achievements of the past have been for nothing, and that everything which was sacrificed in the two great wars will ultimately fail to help carve out a better world.

Of course, a recognisably fiendish fascist enemy to dog-fight the hours away with was waiting for the men - and soon women - of the Interplanet Space Fleet some 26 million or so miles away closer to the Sun. And with the imminent arrival of a series of improbable challenges which actually could be successfully grappled with rather than merely endured, Dan Dare swiftly became a comic strip characterised by a particularly British, Fifties form of optimism, as I hope to discuss next time here at TooBusyThinking.


Friday, 6 January 2012

On "Knight & Squire" (Part 3)

In which the blogger continues the pieces on Knight And Squire begun here and continued here;

What's the point of the superhero, if it's not to deal with disorder? That's what heroes do. Yet there's a fundamental difference between the character who fights to secure a more ethical status quo, and the one who's framed to represent all that's somehow good and true about the people she or he are battling to defend. The former is one of us, struggling on our behalf, but the latter is intended to somehow be us, to summarise and symbolise our most admirable common characteristics and values, and that's clearly a potentially pernicious business. The idea, for instance, that a community can be represented by a single superhero - or even a team of such folks - in anything other than the most broad and meaningless of senses is one of the stupidest conventions which the sub-genre has ever indulged itself in.

Somewhere along the line, as we've discussed before, Captain America was transformed from a symbol of the nation's fighting resolve to a symbol of America herself. It's been an often unfortunate metamorphosis which at times has seemed to suggest that a fantastically diverse nation of 310 000 000 or so folks can be mystically represented by a single white, heterosexual, affluent and supremely well-connected male who's often given to Civil War levels of impulsivity and irrationality. As a consequence, the modern-era Steve Rogers repeatedly runs the risk of seeming more like a statement of everyone who isn't invited to the patriotic party rather than a noble and all-encompassing symbol of the Republic's citizenry. No matter that such an impression has clearly never been intended, for Captain America's actions and status often have an unfortunate tendency to carry with them the sense that this is how his creators believe that the nation ought to behave.

It's in no way an inevitable problem. The Captain America of the 2010 movie, for example, is, yes, a laudable patriot, but his motivation is nothing more worthily nationalistic than a simple but generalised loathing for bullies. The meaning that the character creates throughout the film is tautly and undoubtedly deliberately controlled, and Joe Johnston's tale never once fails to draw the most obvious of distinctions between the superhero and the nation he serves. That take on the Captain served as a very different different beast indeed to the worryingly fascistic icon of the martyred Steve Rogers encountered in the post-Civil War Fallen Son, for example, who was showered by honours by the very state, and unconditionally adored by the very citizens, whose government he'd so treasonably and catastrophically rebelled against just days before.

When a supposedly patriotic character's saintly status is such that they can behave so treacherously and yet still be presented as the most spotlessly virtuous of national icons, then there's inevitably an anti-democratic meaning being shiversomely transmitted by the text. For there's no doubt that in some sentimentally careless sense, the Steve Rogers of Fallen Son somehow is America, and no-one can judge him because, quite regardless of how he behaves, he's better, more decent, more brave, more understanding, more loving, more 100% American, than anybody else. It is, you might think, the most fundamentally UnAmerican argument that might be made, and there's no little irony that it's the figure of Captain America who's being inadvertently used to express such a dubious world-view.

It might be easy at first flick to jump to the conclusion that the creators of Knight And Squire were at the very least similarly disinterested in the politics of their work. As we discussed last time, the comic's pages are largely bare of any single super-character who might pass muster as a 21st century, politically correct representation of this strata or other of the people. Yet Cornell's the writer who reframed Captain Britain so that there was no doubt that his patriotic flying suit and flag-bearing status served as a symbol of diversity and debate rather than of tradition and conformity, and his work has always seemed to reflect a fierce commitment to avoid as far as possible any ethical sloppiness at all. As such, that great lack of politically obvious role models in Knight And Squire's cast of superheroes has to be a deliberate challenge to the reader's expectations of what ought to be found - if anything at all - at the ethical heart of the superhero comic.

In that, Knight and Squire really is a genuingly subversive endeavour. It certainly appears to mark something of a break with the work of Cornell's that I'm familiar with, since his writing has previously tended to be studded with characters who carefully balance out his narratives with a broader-than-typical range of sectional interests. By that, the intention isn't to in any way that his characters are lacking in depth or life, that they exist solely to keep the dialectic turning. Yet as part of their function, a great many of them do, as we'd surely expect, serve his story's themes and values every bit as much as they do its plots and story.

In the Doctor Who two-parter Human Nature/The Family Of Blood, for example, the characters of Martha and Joan allow a range of issues from race and gender to class to be discussed, while the figure of John Smith helps Cornell to further develop his theme that the social relations and mobility of the period weren't quite as proscribed and contentious as popular political assumption would have it. In Captain Britain and M1:13, the aristocratic Lady Falsworth and Brian Braddock's presence is contrasted with, amongst others, Pete Wisdom's more earthy associations and Faiza Hussain's experiences as a British Muslim. In addition, there's a theme running throughout the comic concerned with social outsiders establishing their essential worth as they willingly and bravely sacrifice themselves for their fellow citizens, and that informs the arcs of characters from John The Skrull to Faiza's father.

 And in the short story Secret Identity, Cornell's Shazam-esque Manchester Guardian selflessly patrols the skies of the city's Canal Street and its gay inhabitants, while the influence upon his own sexuality from forces which he can't control inspires the folks who he protects to consider their own attitudes to who does and who doesn't belong with them.  In each case, a community characterised far more by common interests and decencies than sectional divisions is threatened not just from the enemy Other from without, but by values which prevent its citizens from thinking as clearly and cooperating as effectively as they might. And in each of these examples, Cornell provided us with well-realized and nuanced characters who successfully express the conviction that there's so much more to admire in society than just its admittedly admirable heroic male leads.

There's a great deal of the same ethical purpose in Knight and Squire too, of course, and a great deal of the superstructure of the aforementioned stories is present there as well. The inclusive and yet contentious community, the evident and yet often ignored need to compromise, the external threat which inspires folks to count their blessings and strengthen their relations with others. And yet by removing the lead and supporting heroic characters from the responsibility of representing anything of any specific communities, Cornell creates a far more challenging book. It's one that could be a profoundly uncomfortable read for anyone wanting to experience either the political cant of today's right or that of the left, for wherever we might expect to encounter another obviously good example representing a recognisable social constituency, we're instead faced with the likes of Major Hubert and The Choreographer, the Mandarin Twins and even "Pop superstar Cery's Tweed of the Muses".

In short; are we superhero readers prepared to accept a vision of a comicbook Britain which doesn't just focus predominantly upon the less culturally and politically correct, but which fiercely and fondly celebrates them as well? In doing so, Knight And Squire emphasises the fact of how narrow the range of folks is which the contemporary superhero book and its audience feels comfortable in discussing. It's not just that the comic deliberately steps outside the tradition of the brutal and brutalised vigilante. It also strides right beyond the unspoken assumption that mainstream heroic comics fiction should be concerned with nothing but the narrowest range of conflicts, people and pleasures.

In stripping that socially representative role from his 130 new British superheroes, Cornell frees his community of crime-fighters and criminals to stand for a culture capable of defining its own worth in terms of how much difference it can work to incorporate. In Knight And Squire, even the ridiculous and the apparently redundant are valued for their gifts and contributions. How they reflect one narrow cultural and political agenda or another simply isn't important here. Even the sole American superhero here isn't one of "the big guns", although Wildcat is a senior citizen and a veteran of the Second World War in the UK too.  All these super-folks stand not for the best of any supposedly monolithic group, but for the values which enable society as a whole to respect one another and, in doing so, survive and prosper. As Jarvis Poker explains, "But I was made in England. I had to rub along with my peers, close to them, all the time." Under such circumstances, respectfully getting by isn't a mark of woolly headed liberalism, but an absolute necessity, and that goes for everybody, no matter how odd and challenging and even pathetic they may look through the prism of this sub-culture or that.

To be continued next week.