Posts Tagged ‘‘Bedtime for Bonzo’’

Comics and Political Satire: Diceman’s ‘You Are Ronald Reagan’

October 13, 2016

diceman-reagan-cover

I’ve written a several pieces about comics and political satire and comment. The 1960s counterculture produced underground comics, which dealt with taboo subjects. These included sex, and issues of sexual orientation, such as homosexuality, as well as explicit political commentary and satire. These continued well into the 1980s and 1990s. Over here, adult strips with a strong political content included Crisis, many of the Knockabout stable of comics, and Pete Loveday’s Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man. Mainstream comics, such as 2000 AD, also contained elements of satire and political comment, particularly in the strips created and written by veteran recidivist and script droid Pat Mills.

Way back in the 1980s, 2000 AD also launched a spin-off, aimed at the RPG crowd. This followed adventure game books, like the Wizard of Firetop Mountain, in which the reader also played the central character in the adventure, and their decisions reading the book/game determined how it ended for them. 2000 AD’s Diceman was similar, but the games were in comic strip form, rather than simple, unillustrated text. Most of the games were straightforward strips using 2000 AD characters like Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock and Rogue Trooper. There was also the ‘Diceman’ strip of the title, which was about a 1930s occult private eye in America, hunting down weirdness and assorted monsters and human villains assisted by his own occult monster, Astragal, the demon of the dice. The strip was set amongst the grim tenements of Depression era New York, though it could go further afield into Nazi Germany, and so also had more than a little similarity to the Indian Jones films then playing in cinemas. It was based on the writings and life of Charles Hoy Fort, the writer and researcher of the bizarre and weird, such as falls of frogs and other strange events. Fort was the inspiration for the magazine The Fortean Times, which continued Fort’s work of documenting the bizarre and the scientifically ‘damned’. The Fortean inspiration behind Diceman probably came from the fact that many of those involved in the British comics scene, like the late Steve Moore, were also contributors to the FT.

Most of the strips seem to have been written by Pat Mills, and the readership seems to have been somewhat more mature than that of the parent magazine, 2000 AD. So in a couple of them, Pat Mills let rip and dealt explicitly with two of the politicos then running amok on the world stage. These were Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Illustrated by the great underground comic artist, Hunt Emerson, these were ‘Maggie Thatcher: A Dole-Playing Game’, and ‘You Are Ronald Reagan’. I found the issue with the latter yesterday looking through a pile of old magazines. Published in issue 5 of the magazine in 1986, the game had the reader take over the brain of the American president and journey back in time to avert an impending nuclear war. During the game you were faced with such tasks as deciding whether to send the troops into Nicaragua, negotiating arms reductions with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, researching your family tree to boost your popularity with the American electorate, and trying to prevent a full scale nuclear war with Russia. While also trying to sort out what to do about Britain and Maggie’s plea to turn it into America’s 51st State. The reader also had to successfully maintain the illusion that they were indeed the real Ronald Reagan. If they didn’t, they were fried in the electric chair as a Commie infiltrator. Along with Maggie and various aides, one of the whom looked like an American eagle, was Reagan’s buddy, Bonzo the Superchimp, named after Reagan’s co-star in the film Bedtime for Bonzo.

Some idea of the style – both visual and narrative – of the strip can be seen in the sample page below.

diceman-reagan-1

The strip mostly has a light touch, even when Reagan fails to avert World War 3 and civilisation is ended in a nuclear holocaust. But it dealt with extremely serious issues. For example, nearly all of the options for solving the crisis in Nicaragua involved military force to a greater or lesser extent, and all of them would result in misery for the people of that nation. Which were illustrated with the same depiction of starving peasants and crying children for all of the choices. As with many of Mills’ strips, it was based on solid research, with some of the books consulted listed at the end of the strip, along with the terrifying real incidents where the world had come close to nuclear war through mistakes and stupidity.

The strip was also similar to some of the computer games then being created for the new generation of home computers, like the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. Some of these also had a satirical slant, including one called The Tebbitt. This followed the Tolkienesque adventure game format, but you played a politician running around Whitehall trying to solve political issues. Hence the title, in which the name of one of Thatcher’s cabinet thugs, Norman Tebbitt, was substituted for The Hobbit.

Sadly, Diceman didn’t last long. There are still underground comic strips and graphic novels with a strong political content. Counterpunch a few weeks ago carried an article about one attacking the current situation in America. And two years ago Mills announced another graphic novel containing an anthology of strips to counter the establishment propaganda about the First World War. Role-Playing Games like Dungeons and Dragons and various others based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos are still played, despite being overtaken by video and computer games. And Judge Dredd and 2000 AD and its other characters, like Slaine and the A.B.C. Warriors have survived into the 21st Century. Unfortunately, so have the Conservatives, Neoliberal economics, a political cult based around Reagan and Thatcher as visionary politicians, for whom it is tantamount to horrible blasphemy to criticise. And Obama and the Conservatives in this country also seem to want to pitch the world into another nuclear confrontation with Russia, this time over the Middle East.

Perhaps it’s time for a few more politically orientated satirical strips. Maybe one in which you play David Cameron, and have to avoid destroying the economy, making millions homeless and starving, and trying not to break up the UK while fighting the EU. All the while breaking trade unions, protecting the rich and powerful, and keeping the population as poor and desperate as possible. With the option of doing it all again as Theresa May.

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Resign, Tyrant, Said the Type-Type Man

September 23, 2014

Harlan Ellison on being spied on by Big Brother in Reagan’s 1984 America

Okay, so I’ve been away from blogging for a few months now. I’ve been working on a book. It’s my doctoral thesis on the origins and growth of the town of Bridgwater in Somerset from prehistory to 1700. It’s now with the publishers, and hopefully it shouldn’t be too long before it comes out. I’ve also been taken up and somewhat distracted by a few other projects. Nevertheless, I hope to get back to blogging regularly.

Edward Snowden’s revelations of the sheer size and scale of the American intelligence agencies’ surveillance of their citizens, and British complicity with it, has raised questions about the gradual diminution of personal freedom and the transformation of our societies into Orwellian surveillance states. This is just part of process that has been going on for a very long time, since the 1980s. Alan Moore, the veteran comics writer and co-creator of the V for Vendetta comic strip with the artist David Lloyd, stated has stated in interviews how amazed he is by the complete acceptance of CCTV cameras on Britain’s streets. When he included them in the strip as a visible sign of the totalitarian Fascist state in which the strip was set, he was absolutely sure it would terrify everyone to the point where they simply wouldn’t accept them. Now, as he remarked, they’re everywhere. Niall Ferguson, the right-wing historian and columnist, has also made the same point. He remarked in an interview on how he first noticed them after he came back from a visit to China. He too felt that they were a threat to individual liberty, and could not understand why no-one else was alarmed by them or saw them this way.

This concerns have become more acute with the Tory and Lib Dem decision to establish secret courts, functioning as a Kafkaesque travesty of justice. In these courts, people will be able to be tried without knowing the evidence against them, nor who their accuser is. All for reasons of ‘national security’. It’s frighteningly like the corrupt and murderous judicial system of the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein’s legal code. In addition to the laws, which were made known to the Iraqi public, there were also six pieces of legislation which were kept secret. Very secret. They were so secret that even knowledge of these laws was a crime that could land you in prison or worse. For all their claims to be the defenders of personal freedom, with the establishment of these secret courts the Coalition is laying the foundations of the kind of totalitarian state described by Kafka and Moore, only in 21st century Britain. And the surveillance of citizens by the Western intelligence agencies, for merely having political views the authorities considered dangerous or subversive, goes back even further.

Looking through Youtube, I found this interview with Harlan Ellison, the veteran SF author and screenwriter, from 1984. It’s part of a discussion about the relevance of Orwell’s dystopian novel of the same name in contemporary America. When asked about this, Ellison states that he thinks it’s extremely relevant, because he’s lived through it in Reagan’s America. He described how, shortly after Reagan became governor of California, he began to hear clicks and noises on his telephone, suggesting that it was being tapped. He dismissed the idea, until he went out to empty his wastepaper basket in the trash one morning, and discovered an engineer for the telephone company outside, connected to the wire leading into his house. Checking with people he knew, who were in a position to know, he found out that it was indeed true, and his phone was indeed being tapped.

Ellison made sure, however, he had his revenge. Knowing that whatever he said on the phone would be written down and filed, he made sure that his phone conversations included some interesting and highly derogatory comments about the then leader of the free world and star of Bedtime for Bonzo, whose title character was a chimpanzee, and arguably the better actor. For example, the great author would remark that Reagan beat his mother and did not confine his romantic interests to those with the two legs, but also those with four, a wagging tail and wet nose. Here’s the interview:

It’s not hard to see why Reagan and his cohorts should view Ellison as a potential subversive. He’s an outspoken atheist and a card-carrying liberal. This was in sharp contrast to Reagan’s administration, which was strongly based on the American religious Right. Ellison had been a strong supporter of the Civil Rights movement. On one of his own videos on Youtube, he discusses his participation on the Civil Rights March on Selma with Martin Luther King. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI was hostile and deeply suspicious of the Civil Rights Movement, which they suspected was a Communist initiative. So Ellison’s participation in that would have been enough to arouse the authorities’ interest and suspicions in him. In addition to writing some of the most outstanding episodes of the original Star Trek series, such as ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, Ellison was one of the major figures in the SF New Wave, whose other leading writers included Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds in Britain. This was markedly countercultural, and attacked contemporary literary and social conventions. In one of Ellison’s best known short stories, Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tick-Tock Man, for example, the hero is a lone, vigilante prankster. The story is set in a dystopian society in which time is rigidly controlled, the Tick-Tock Men of the title making sure that everyone perform their allotted tasks rigorously according to the time table. The hero, Harlequin, tries to subvert this by performing practical jokes deliberately intended to upset the time table, and the rigid social order that it supports. These include releasing a torrent of jelly beans all over people as they go to work in the morning. Ellison himself declared of the SF writers in the New Wave that ‘these guys is blasphemous!’ In Britain too the movement caused outcry, and questions were raised in the Houses of Parliament about Moorcock’s New Worlds. There was concern about the allegedly obscene nature of Norman Spinrad’s story, ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’, which was then being serialised in the magazine.

Eventually, Ellison says, the clicking noises simply faded away and the authorities presumably lost interest. This was probably when they realised that, no matter how objectionable they found his politics, one of SF’s greatest writers was not actually planning to overthrow the government of the US, invade Guatemala, or even deluge the sidewalk with a tide of jelly beans. They may even have agreed with his comments about Ronald Reagan. It does, however, show that under Reagan, prominent intellectuals that didn’t share the president’s highly reactionary and paranoid views could be spied upon, simply for having those views, regardless of whether they were innocent of any crime. And as Snowden’s revelations showed, the surveillance state has expanded massively since then.

We do need the security and intelligence services. According to today’s I, Isis, the Islamist terrorist organisation Iraq and Syria, has called on its supporters to attack and kill citizens of the US, Britain, France and the other coalition countries. The work of the various intelligence agencies and their surveillance is necessary to stop ISIS and other terrorist organisations from carrying out their threats. But individual freedom – freedom of conscience, speech and publication also needs to be preserved. These are also under threat from the Right, though legislation like the Coalition’s secret courts. They need to be strongly rejected, and proper safeguards against further encroachment on our civil liberties put in place. The answer to the old question ‘Who watches the watchers’ has always been: ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’.