Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Ecclestone’

Pat Mills Talks to Sasha Simic of the SWP about the Politics of 2000AD

September 15, 2017

This comes from the Socialist Workers’ Party, an organization of which I am not a member and which I don’t support. But this is another really great video, in which one of the great creators of the British comics for over forty years talks about politics, social class, the role of capitalism and women and feminism, not just in 2000AD, but also in comics and publishing generally, and the media.

Mills was speaking as part of annual four day convention the Socialist Workers hold on Marxism. Simic introduces himself as the person, who gets the annual geek slot. As well as a member of the party, he’s also a convener of USDAW. And he’s very happy in this, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, to have on Pat Mills.

Mills starts by saying that as he was growing up in the 50s and 60s, he read the same books everyone else did – John Buchan, Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Pimpernel. But there was something about it that made him angry, and it was only looking back on it that he came to realise that what infuriated him was the fact that these were all authors from the upper and middle classes, who created heroes from those class backgrounds. He makes the point that these were good writers, but that some of their work was very sinister the more you go into it. Like John Buchan. Buchan was the major propagandist of the First World War. Mills says that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s infamous spin doctor, had nothing on him. He promoted the First world War, for which he was rewarded with the governorship of Canada.
He states that he doesn’t want to go too far into it as he’ll start ranting. Nevertheless, he’s glad to be able to talk to the people at the SWP’s convention, as it means they have a similar opinion to him, and he doesn’t have to censor himself.

He makes the point that there are very, very few working class heroes, and believes this is quite deliberate. It’s to deprive working people of a strong role. When the working people do appear, it’s as loyal batmen, or sidekicks, and there is an element of parody there. And it’s not just in comics and literature. In the 1980s he was contacted by the producers of Dr. Who to do a story. He wanted to have a working class spaceship captain. He was told by the script editor that they couldn’t. They also didn’t like his idea to have a working class family. It was only by looking back on where this hatred of the heroes of traditional literature came from, that he came to realise that it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to have any generals in his work.

He also talks about how it’s easier to get away with subversion in comics, as comics are treated as a trivial form of literature, which nobody really cares about. The profit motive also helps. So long as it’s making money, comics companies don’t care what’s going on. And this explains how he was able to get away with some of the things he did in Battle. He states that the way he works is by pretending to write something mainstream and inoffensive, and then subvert it from within. An example of that is Charley’s War in Battle. This looks like an ordinary war strip, but in fact was very anti-war. Even so, there were times when he had to be careful and know when to give up. One of these was about a story he wanted to run about the entry of the Americans into the War. In this story, a group of White American squaddies are members of the Klan, and try to lynch a Black soldier. Charley wades in to help the Black guy. The management rejected the story on the grounds that they didn’t want anything too controversial. Mills decided to draw in his horns and bite his tongue at that point, because he had a bigger story lined up about the British invasion of Russian in 1919, when we sent in 20-30,000 men. It was, he says, our Vietnam, and has been whitewashed out of the history books.

He also makes the point that subversion was also present in the girls’ comics. Even more so, as there was a psychological angle that wasn’t present in the boys’. For example, there was one story called ‘Ella in Easy Street’, where a young girl reacts against her aspirational family. They want to get on, and so the father has two jobs, and the mother is similarly working very hard to support their aspirations. But Ella herself is unhappy, as it’s destroying what they are as a family. And so she sets out to sabotage their yuppie dream. Mills says that it’s not all one-dimensional – he looks at the situation from both sides, pro and con, but the story makes the point that there are things that are more important that materialism and social advancement, like family, comradeship. He says that such a story could not be published now. It’s rather like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, where the hero, in the end, throws the race as a way of giving the system the finger.

Mills reminds his audience just how massive girls’ comics were in the ’70s. They were bigger, much bigger, than the boys’. 2000AD sold 200,000 copies a week in its prime. But Tammy, one of the girls’ comics, sold 260,000. This is really surprising, as women read much more than we men. These comics have all disappeared. This, he says, is because the boys’ took over the sandpit. He has been trying to revive them, and so a couple of stories from Misty have been republished in an album.

This gets him onto the issue of reaching the audience, who really need it. In the case of the stories from Misty, this has meant that there are two serials on sale, both of which are very good, but in a book costing £17 – odd. The only people going to read that are the mothers of the present generation of girls, perhaps. To reach the girls, it needs to be set at a lower price they can afford. This is also a problem with the political material. If you write something subversive, it will receive glowing reviews but be bought by people, who already agree with you. He wants his message to get further out, and not to become a coffee table book for north London.

He talks about the way British comics have grown up with their readership, and the advantages and disadvantages this has brought. British comics has, with the exception of 2000AD, more or less disappeared, and the readership of that comic is in its 30s and 40s. People have put this down to demographics and the rise of computer games, saying that this was inevitable. It wasn’t. It was our fault, says Mills. We fumbled it. Games workshop still have young people amongst their audience, while the French also have computer games across the Channel, but their children are reading comics.

Mills goes on to say that it’s easier writing for adults. Writing for 9 and 10 year olds is much harder, because if they don’t like a story, they’ll say. He says to his audience that they may think the same way, but they’re much too polite to say it at conventions. And they had to respond to their young readers as well, as the kids voted on it every week. They’d tell you if they thought it was a bad story, even if you thought it was the best one so far, and asked yourself what was wrong with the little sh*ts.

He also talks about how difficult it is to break into comics. He has friends, who have been trying for decades to get into 2000AD, and have been unsuccessful. His advice to people trying to do so is: don’t bother. There’s nothing wrong with you, it’s 2000AD. And this also effects text publishing. All the publishers have now been bought up, so that HarperCollins have the fingers in everything, such as Hodder and Stoughton. And their politics aren’t ours.

The way round this is to get into web publishing. Here he digresses and talks about pulp fiction, which is a close relative of comics. He was talking to a guy at a convention, who writes pulp fiction and puts it on the net. It only costs a few pence. The man writes about a zombie apocalypse, but – and this is true, as he’s seen the payment slips – he’s pulling in £3,000 a month. Mills says that this is important as well. He wants to get his material out there, but he also wants to eat. This shows you how you can make money publishing it yourself. Later on in the video, after the questions and the comments from the audience, he goes further into this. He mentions some of the web publishers, one of which is subsidiary of Amazon, which will allow people to publish their own work. He also talks about self-publishing and chapbooks. He found out about these while writing Defoe, his story about Leveller zombie killer in an alternative 17th century England. Chapbooks were so called because they were cheap books, the cheap literature of the masses. And this is what comics should go back to. He says that everyone should produce comics, in the same way that everyone can also make music by picking up an instrument and playing a few chords.

He also praises some of the other subversive literature people have self-produced. Like one piece satirizing the British army’s recruitment posters. ‘Join the army’, it says, ‘- like prison, but with more fighting’. Mills is fairly sure he knows who wrote that as well. It was another guy he met at a convention, who was probably responsible for the anti-war film on YouTube Action Man: Battlefield Casualties. He enormously admires this film, and is envious of the people, who made it.

He also talks about some of the fan letters he’s had. One was from the CEO of a school, he talks about the way reading 2000AD opened up his mind and changed his moral compass. The man says that everything he learned about Fascism, he learned from Judge Dredd, everything about racism from Strontium Dog, and feminism from Halo Jones. He and his headmaster, whom he names, were both punks and he’s now opened a school in Doncaster. The most subversive thing you can do now is to try to create an open-minded and questioning generation of young people. The letter is signed, yours, from a company director, but not an evil one, and then the gentleman’s name.

He concludes this part of the talk by describing the career of James Clarke, a member of the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party, a lion tamer and conscientious objector. During the War he ran escape lines for British squaddies in France. And people say that pacifists are cowards, Mills jokes. How much braver can you be than sticking your head in a lion’s mouth. He wrote a pamphlet defending a group of comrades, who tried to start the revolution by following the example of the Irish Nationalists and blow things up with a bomb. The pamphlet argued that this was wrong, and that if the working class wanted to gain power, they should concentrate on confronting capitalism through direct action. He also wrote poetry. Mills describes Clark as being a kind of Scots Tom Baker. One of these is a biting satire of Kipling’s If. The poem begins by asking if the reader can wake up every morning at 5 O’clock, or 4.30, and then labour at their machines, and see their wives and children suffer deprivation while those, who haven’t earned it take it all the profits, and describes the backbreaking grind of hard working life for the capitalist class in several stanzas. It ends with the statement that if you can do all that, and still be complacent, then go out, buy a gun and blow your brains out.

Clearly, I don’t recommend any actually do this, but it is a witty and funny response to Kipling’s poem. I found it hugely funny, and I do think it’s a great response to what was voted Britain’s favourite poem by the Beeb’s viewers and readers a few years ago. Can you imagine the sheer Tory rage that would erupt if someone dared to recite it on television!

Many of the comments are from people thanking Mills for opening their eyes and for writing such great stories. They include a man, who describes how Mills’ works are on his shelf next to his copy of Das Kapital. Another man describes how he used to buy 2000AD just after going to church on Sunday. So after listening to some very boring sermons, he came back from Baptist chapel to read all this subversion. One young woman says that the zines – the small press magazines, that appeared in the 1990s – seem to be still around, as she has seen them at punk concerts. Another young woman says that although comics are seen as a boys’ thing, when she goes into Forbidden Planet near her, there are always three girls in there and two boys. She also talks about how many young women read Japanese manga. Mills states in reply that manga stories generally are light and frothy, and so not the kind of stories he wants to write. But as for women in comics, he says that he spoken several times to students on graphic novel courses, and each time about 75 per cent of them have been women, which is good.

He also talks about Crisis and Action. The Third World War strip in Crisis was about the politics of food, and was set in a world where food production was dominated by a vast multinational formed by the merger of two of today’s megacorporations. Mills states that when the strip covered what was going on in South America, that was acceptable. However, at one point he moved the story to Brixton, finding a Black co-writer to help with the story. At that point, the White Guardian-reading liberals started to be uncomfortable with it. There was also a story in which Britain leaves the EU. This results in the rise of a Fascist dictatorship, and the EU responds by invading Britain. Mills says that he’s been trying to get Crisis relaunched, but the company are stringing him along with excuses, probably because it’s easier than arguing with him.

Mills obviously did the right thing by finding a Black co-writer. Marvel suffered a barrage of criticism with some of their attempts to launch a series of Black superheroes, like the Black Panther as part of the Blaxploitation wave of the 1970s. The Black Panther was particularly criticized. The creators were old, White dudes, who didn’t understand urban Black culture, even if the comics themselves were sincere in presenting a sympathetic view of Black Americans and combating racism.

He also talks briefly about Action, and the controversy that caused. What really upset Mary Whitehouse and the rest was ‘Kid’s Rule UK’, a strip in which a disease killed everyone over 16, and Britain was inhabited solely by warring street gangs. Mills used to take the same train from where he was living at the time with Mary Whitehouse. He said he was editing a Hookjaw script at the time, and notice Whitehouse over the other side of the carriage looking daggers at him. So he put in more carnage and more arms and legs being bitten off.

One of the most interesting questions is about the politics and morality of Judge Dredd. Dredd is a fascist, and in one of the strips it seemed to take the side of authority over subversion with no irony. This was in a story about the punks taking over Megacity 1. At the end of the strip, Dredd gets hold of the leader, and makes him say, ‘I’m a dirty punk.’ Mills actually agrees with the speaker, and says that there are people, who take Dredd as a role-model. He’s had letters from them, which he doesn’t like. He doesn’t know what these people do. Perhaps they have their own chapterhouse somewhere. He went cold inside when he heard about the story. It wasn’t one of his. It was by John Wagner, who isn’t at all political, but is very cynical, so this has some of the same effects of politics. But 75 per cent of Dredd comes from Mills. Mills states that it’s a flawed character, and that can be seen in why the two Dredd films never did well at the box office. Dredd was based on a particular teacher at his old school, as was Torquemada, the Grand Master of Termight, a genocidally racist Fascist military feudal order ruling Earth thousands of years in the future. They were both two sides of the same coin. That was why he enjoyed humiliating Torquemada. But it isn’t done with Dredd. Yet it could have been different, and there could be instances where people have their revenge on Dredd without losing the power of the character. He states that it was because Chopper did this in the story ‘Unamerican Graffiti’, that this became the favourite Dredd story of all time.

It’s a fascinating insight into the politics of the comics industry. The zines and other self-published small magazines he describes were a product of the Punk scene, where people did start putting together their own fanzines in their bedrooms. It was part of the mass creativity that punk at its height unleashed. As for the web comics, he talks about a couple that he finds particularly impressive, including those by the author of the dystopian science fiction story Y – the Last Man, set in a future in which all the men in the world have been killed by another disease. A number of my friends used to publish their own small press magazines in the 1990s, as did Mike. Mike started his own, small press comic, Violent, as an homage to Action when it was that comics anniversary. Mike was helped by some of the artists and writers from 2000AD, and so some of the tales are very professional. But probably not for delicate, gentle souls.

Amongst SF fandom, chapbooks are small books which another publishes himself. And they have been the route some professionally published authors have taken into print. Stephen Baxter is one of them. I think his Xelee stories first appeared in a chapbook he sold at one of the SF conventions.

Looking back at Kids Rule UK, this was my least favourite strip in Action. I was bullied at school, and so the idea of a Britain, where everything had broken down and there was nothing but bullying and juvenile violence really scared me. Action took many of its strips from the popular culture of the time. Hookjaw was basically Jaws. One-Eyed Jack seemed based very much on the type of hard-boiled American cop shows, if not actually Dirty Harry. One of the SF movies of the late sixties was about an America in which teenagers had seized power, and put all the adults in concentration camps were they were force-fed LSD. One of the four Star Trek stories that were banned on British television until the 1980s was ‘Miri’. In this tale, Kirk, Spock and the others beam down to a planet occupied entirely by children, as all the ‘grups’ – the adults – have been killed by disease. Kids Rule UK seems very much in the same vein as these stories.

Mills’ story about Dr. Who not wanting to show a working class family, let alone a spaceship captain, shows how far the series has come when it was relaunched by Russell T. Davis. Christopher Eccleston basically played the Doctor as northern and working class, wile Rose Tyler’s family and friends were ordinary people in a London tower block. As for not wanting to show a working class spaceship captain, that probably comes from very ingrained class attitudes in the aviation industry. A friend of mine trained as a pilot. When he was studying, their tutor told the class that the British exam included a question no other country in the world required, and which was particularly difficult. He stated that it was put there to weed out people from working or lower middle class backgrounds, as they would fail and not be able to retake the exam, as their competitors from the upper classes could.

It’s great to hear Mills encourage people try to produce their own work, and not be disheartened if they are rejected by mainstream publishers. I’m also saddened by the absence of any comics for children. They offered me when I was a lad an escape into a whole world of fun and imagination. And at their best, they do encourage children to take an interest in real issues like racism, sexism, bigotry and exploitation. I hope some way can be found to reverse their disappearance.

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The Doctor Inadvertently Explains the Need for Socialism

May 1, 2017

This is for all the Dr. Who fans out there. It was posted by male feminist and internet campaigner against Alt Right bigotry, Kevin Logan. It’s a clip from last Saturday’s episode. The Doctor and his new companion, Bill, travel back in time to Victorian London, where they find that an evil lord has been keeping a sea monster chained up under the Thames. The monster also lowers the temperature in winter so that the Thames freezes over. This allows Londoners to hold frost fairs on the ice of the river itself, which the lord encourages. Once on the ice, the smaller fish aiding the monster luring human victims away from the crowd, where they are then eaten by the monster. After passing through the creature, their remains are then harvested by the lord and his team, to be used as fuel for Britain’s burgeoning industrial revolution.

Bill and the Doctor are determined to end this, but are seized by the lord and his men. The evil aristo has absolutely no moral scruples about killing people to aid British industry. He helps Britain move forward. As for alternative forms of fuel, like coal, he points out that men die in mines.

The Doctor then makes this speech, where he makes the point that the needs of the many outweigh those of the privileged, aristocratic few, and that the true measure of progress for a civilisation isn’t in its industry, but how it treats its people.

It’s not a party political speech, but it does capture the essence of the Socialist ethos. And it is acutely relevant, given that the Tories are bent on grinding us all into desperate poverty, just for the enrichment of themselves and the corporate elite.

The speech also fits in with the concern the revived show has always had with protecting the marginalised. Apart from promoting the acceptance of gays as normal members of society, the series has also made pointed comments about the marginalisation and exploitation of asylum seekers and the homeless. In the final episode of the first of the news series, Christopher Ecclestone’s Doctor is told by the Dalek Emperor that the Daleks that are surrounding and threatening Earth have been engineered from humans. They are what has become of the poor and desperate, who tried to find a better life, only to be transformed into the emotionless killing machines.

Similarly, when David Tennant’s Doctor encountered the new cybermen on a parallel Earth, they were being manufactured from the homeless of this alternative London. The evil scientist’s henchmen lured them in with offers of food, before removing their free will with radio receivers that controlled their minds, and then mutilating them into the emotionless cyborgs.

And I’ve no doubt you can find similar examples in the earlier, classic episodes of Doctor Who as well. There isn’t any explicit party politics in Dr. Who, but he consistently stands up for the weak, exploited, threatened and marginalised against the powerful, whether alien invaders or ruthless corporations.

Charles Dickens on the Brutality and Rapacity of the Tories

September 29, 2013

Charles_Dickens_1858

Charles Dickens is one of the great titans of modern English literature. His works have been prized, celebrated and imitated since the publication of The Pickwick Papers . The book’s appearance prompted a horde of copies lower down the press hierarchy in the penny journals. The copyright laws were much less rigorous then, and so these, lesser novels all had titles similar, but not identical to those of Dickens himself. His book, Sketches by Boz, was taken and copied by one of the 19th century popular journalists, as ‘Sketchbook by’, followed by a name very similar to Dickens’ ‘Boz’. His books have been adapted into stage plays, films and musicals, most famously A Christmas Carol, which has twice been filmed as a cartoon, and Oliver Twist, which became Lionel Bart’s musical, Oliver! His novels have also been frequently adapted for television. In the 1970s, for example, many of the Beeb’s period costume dramas broadcast on Sunday evening were adaptations of Dickens. I particularly remember Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield.

Despite his deserved popularity and immense respect, I suspect Dickens’ status as one of the Great Men of English Literature has probably done much to put people off him. People have a tendency to distrust automatically anything that becomes official, established art. One way to guarantee that people refuse to read a particular willingly is to put it on the school syllabus. Moreover, modern audiences are also likely to be left alienated by some of the characteristics of much 19th century writing, such as verbosity and their sentimentality. Boys in particular are likely to be put off him because of his novels’ period character, which associates them with the great 19th century lady novelists Jane Austen and the Brontes. In Superman II, for example, Clarke Kent’s identity as a wimpish square is firmly established, when Superman’s alter ego announces he wasn’t around to cover one incident as he was at home that evening reading Dickens. One suspects that its the kind of literature that such narrow-minded upholders of bourgeois respectability as Mary Whitehouse liked. For those younger readers suspicious of Dickens, I strongly recommend his short story, The Railwayman. It’s one of the classic British ghost stories, and completely amazed me when I read it as a teenager with its complete absence of all the dullness, verbosity and sentimentality I’d expected to come across in his works. Today one of Dickens’ great champions is the thesp Simon Cowell, who has toured in a one man play about the great writer and his life, and even appeared as his hero in a episode of Dr. Who, with Christopher Ecclestone playing the Time Lord. The video below comes from the Guardian, and is on Youtube. In it, Simon Callow takes the viewer around Dickens’ London.

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Dickens is partly celebrated for his work defending the poor and describing the hardship and poverty of the lives of ordinary people in 19th century Britain. Indeed, his surname has become a byword for conditions of grinding poverty and squalor in the word ‘Dickensian’. Dickens himself consciously wrote some of his novels both as works of social criticism, but also actively to improve the conditions of the poor. Horrified at the respectable middle classes’ indifference to the suffering of the labouring poor, he wrote A Christmas Carol. This transformed Christmas from a relatively minor holy day into the massive festival that it is today. As a socially engaged writer, Dickens could and did write bitter pieces sharply attacking the Conservatives. In 1841 the Liberal magazine, The Examiner, published his ballad, The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version. It was a parody of a traditional ballad celebrating the virtues of the gentry. The hero of the traditional ballad shared his good fortune with his social inferiors, in the line ‘while he feasted all the great, he never forgot the small’.

Dickens wrote his satirical versions after the reforming Whigs had lost office and been replaced by Peel’s Conservatives, and the country was in the middle of a depression. The poem attacks the Tories for their corruption, brutal and oppressive laws, and their savage oppression of the poor to enrich themselves and the other members of the aristocracy. Cheekily, Dickens states as a direction for the poem’s performance that it should be said or sung at all Conservative dinners. It shows that what could be described as agit-prop literature long preceded the Communist party. The blackly humorous suggestion of performance venue and the bitter satire of the poem itself very much reminds me of the same mixture of humour and bitter social criticism in much contemporary radical, popular protests following 1960’s Situationism. This leads to the question of whether Dickens, if he were alive today, would be marching with the demonstrators, neatly attired in top hat and tail coat, and wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. Here’s the poem:

‘I’ll sing you a new ballad, and I’ll warrant it first rate,
Of the days of that old gentleman who had that old estate;
When they spent the public money at a bountiful old rate
On ev’ry mistress, pimp and scamp, at ev’ry noble gate,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips, and
chains,
With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once in hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory timnes;
Soon may the come again!

The brave old code, like Argus, had a hundred watchful eyes,
And ev’ry English peasant had his good old English spies,
To tempt his starving discontent with fine old English lies,
Then call the good old Yeomany to stop his peevish cries,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need,
The good old times for hunting men who held their fathers’ creed.
The good old times when William Pitt, as all good men agreed,
Came down direct from Paradise at more than railroad speed …
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
When will they come again!

In those rare days, the press was seldom known to snarl or bark,
But sweetly sang of men in pow’r, like any tuneful lark;
Grave judges, too, to all their evil deeds were in the dark;
And not a man in twenty score knew how to make his mark.
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

Those were the days for taxes, and for war’s infernal din;
For scarcity of bread, that fine old dowagers might win;
For shutting men of letters up, through iron bars to grin,
because they didn’t think the Prince was altogether thin,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

But Tolerance, though slow in flight, is strong-wing’d in the main;
That night must come on these fine days, in course of time was
plain;
The pure old spirit struggled, but its struggles were in vain;
A nation’s grip was on it, and it died in choking pain,
With the fine old English Tory days,
All of the olden time.

The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the
land,
In England there shall be deear breat – in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, raly round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English ~Tory days; Hail to the coming time!

Great literature transcends the ages, and speaks eternal truths about human nature, politics and society. What is shocking reading this is just how much is true today. The line about the silence of the press in the face of horrific oppression and abuse just about sums up much of the modern press under Murdoch, Dacre, the Barclay twins and the rest.

Source
Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove with David Horspool, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2013).