Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

Opening Scene of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

January 22, 2018

And now for something a bit positive and optimistic, before I start blogging about the grim, serious stuff later. I found the opening scene to last year’s Luc Besson SF film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets over on YouTube. Besson was the director of the SF epic, The Fifth Element way back in the 1990s. This clip from Valerian shows the development of something, which looks remarkably like the International Space Station, into a massive, orbital space complex. I like it because it shows a succession of human nations coming through the airlocks, followed by a variety of alien races, to greet each other in peace and friendship. The musical backing is David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, appropriately enough, though the scenes of people and aliens shaking hands in welcome reminds me more of the line from Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’: ‘I see friends shakin’ hands, sayin’ ‘How do you do?” This was used at the end of the BBC TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy back in the 1980s.

As for people meeting and becoming friends with alien races, that was one of the elements that made Star Trek so popular. It showed that, despite our current problems, humanity would survive, flourish and go on to explore the universe. And that meant all humanity, with people of different races, Black, Asian, and Russians from the other side of the-then current ideological divide, and aliens, like Spock. Gene Roddenberry in his vision for the show stated that he didn’t want there to be an alien race we couldn’t possible deal with. And so in The Next Generation they created the Borg, which originally humanity couldn’t deal with. You either fought them, ran away, or were assimilated.

Alien invasion, or some other insidious threat from beyond the stars is a staple of SF, and has been ever since H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. But there’s another aspect to humanity’s fascination with aliens which counterbalances this. That apart from enemies, we will also make new friends. It’s the driving psychological motive behind the various UFO contactee encounters in the 1950s, when people claimed that they’d been taken aboard alien spacecraft by benevolent space brothers, to be given a message of peace and cosmic brotherhood. And it’s also why there have been any number of SF stories and paintings set in space bars, like the Cantina sequence in Star Wars.

And in this clip here, I particularly like the bit where the human shaking hands with one of the aliens is left with slime on his hand. It’s just a bit gross, but it is funny.

I wanted to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets when it came out last year, but unfortunately circumstances got in the way. I heard that it flopped. One reason for this, apparently, was because it came from a French comic strip, which no-one in America had ever heard of. I’m not sure if that’s the reason, and sometimes perfectly good films fall flat at the box office for no discernible reason at all, except that they didn’t appeal at that moment. Anyway, I want to get hold of it on DVD so that I can judge for myself whether it’s any good, rather than just take what the critics said.

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The Painter of Cyberspace: The Art of Jurgen Ziewe

January 20, 2018

Earlier this week there was a piece in the press announcing that the Turner Prize Committee had decided to go public early about which artworks and artist they were considering. I have strong feeling, like many people, about the Turner Prize. Many of the works seem simply designed to shock, with nothing more substantial underneath. Those that aren’t, are simply banal. It’s highbrow kitsch, which says nothing while claiming that it actually does. And I think modern fine art has reached a dead end. it’s anti-art, which constantly raves about Duchamps’ urinal nailed to a piece of canvas. Duchamps did it to make the point that whatever the artist claimed to be art, was art. It’s over a century old, and the joke’s well past it’s sell-by date. It was always an adolescent, childish prank anyway. To some of these art experts, it’s a hallowed artistic statement that must not be blasphemed in any way. You remember those Chinese guys, who were arrested when they jumped up and down on Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’? The same two were planning to urinate in Duchamps’ urinal. Which I feel is in keeping with the piece itself, but the mere thought horrified the keepers of official art.

The real artistic boundaries are being pushed, in my opinion, not by the fine artists, or at least, not by those fine artists currently pushed by the very small clique that defines what ‘official’ art is, like Nicholas Serota. Rather, they’re being pushed by commercial artists and film makers, often inspired by the worlds of Fantasy and SF, using computer graphics. One of the foremost of these, in my opinion, is the German artist Jurgen Ziewe. Ziewe lives over here, and has an English wife. And we are fortunate to have such a talented artist. I do wonder what will happen to other talented EU migrants like him after Brexit, who can’t stay in this country because they aren’t married. We’re going to lose a lot of very talented people.

Ziewe uses computer graphics, including Virtual models of humans and objects, and fractals, to create prismatic, Virtual, interior worlds full of robots, strange creatures, synthetic humans, fairies, wizards, witches, priestesses and temples. He started out making cards showing dolphins under cosmic skies. He’s a very spiritual guy, in a New Age-y sense, and his work is inspired by concepts from Theosophy and C.G. Jung. Here’s some of the picture from Nigel Suckling’s book about his art, New Territories: The Computer Visions of Jurgen Ziewe (Paper Tiger, 1997).

The Fairy Queen

Picnic In Cyberspace

Journey of a Virtual Traveller

Apart from Ziewe, other artists working in film and television have also been using the concepts of computer graphics. One of the features of the BBC TV version of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that most impressed me in the late ’70s or early 1980s were the, ahem, computer graphics for the pieces of information provided by the Book. In fact, they were hand drawn, because the computers at the time simply weren’t up to the task of creating pictures that detailed. But the art produced as ‘computer graphics’, was superb, and those, who watched the show were deeply impressed. As an example, here’s a piece from YouTube of the Book describing Vogon poetry.

Further examples can be seen in pop videos. Like this one from the American electro-pop band, Information Society, which uses scrolling alphanumerics to suggest passage through cyberspace in a computer game, made for their track, ‘The Prize’.

Other artistic explorations of medically or cybernetically enhanced vision can be seen in the films Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick and the last of trilogy, entitled simply Riddick. Richard Riddick, the anti-hero in these movies, is a violent criminal, a murderer, who somehow ends up doing the right thing. While in slam for his crimes, he paid the prison doctor 20 menthol cigarettes to have his eyes surgically altered, ‘polished’, so that he could see in the dark. In these flicks, we so bits of the action through his eyes. The scene in Pitch Black, where he sees the predatory aliens pouring out of their underground lairs after the marooned crew of a crashed colony spacecraft, is awesomely beautiful. This is the trailer for the movie.

And this is the trailer for The Chronicles of Riddick.

In this movie, the Necromongers use visioners, cybernetically adapted humans, to seek and visually examine areas that are difficult or impossible for normal human eyes to see clearly. And the brief scenes, in which the audience is shown what they see, are also stunning.

But this is low, commercial art, and so unlikely to find any praise by the High Art people, no matter how popular it is, or how technically sophisticated and visually inspired. The best comment on this kind of artistic snobbery comes from the American SF/Fantasy artist and book illustrator, Bob Eggleton.

Being a commercial artist is itself a kind of pigeonhole in the art world, but it is not a label that troubles him. ‘Commercialism for the sake of commercialism is not a sin. What I hate is commercialism packaged as fine art. That’s what Abstract Expressionism about, you’re buying into a trend much of the time. There’s nothing wrong with any kind of art, provided the artist believes in what they’re doing.’

From Nigel Suckling, with introduction by Gregory Benford, Alien Horizons: The Fantastic Art of Bob Eggleton (Paper Tiger, 1995) page 83.

And the YBAs, such as Damian Hirst, Tracey Emin and Chris Offili, were very commercial, as was Salvador Dali long before them. This was pointed out on a programme on the great surrealist on Radio 4 several years ago by Malcolm MacLaren, the genius – well, he obviously thought he was – behind the Sex Pistols.

And here’s Eggleton’s picture of Great Cthulhu, painted for Weird Tales magazine, for all the Lovecraft fans out there.

I realised I’ve digressed a little way from the central topic of this post, the fantastic computer art of Jurgen Ziewe. But these are related issues, showing the way computers, robots, space and high technology – the stuff of Science Fiction – is pushing artistic boundaries in ways that the official fine art of Conceptualism really isn’t doing. I’m also exploring a few ideas here for a much longer article, or series of articles, I intend to do on this sometime.

Flying Saucer Art from 60s and 70s Comics

January 20, 2018

More fun SF art. This selection of covers for UFO and Flying Saucer comics, most of which seem to have been published by Gold Key, comes from the book Saucer Attack by Eric and Leif Nesheim, published by General Publishing Press in 1997. Subtitle, ‘Popular Culture in the Age of flying Saucers’, the book looks at the books, films, toys, TV series, hymns, pulp magazine short stories, comics, and, of course, the Mars Attacks bubblegum cards, which appeared following Kenneth Arnold’s sighting in 1947 of the unknown aircraft, which flew ‘like saucers skipped across water’. The SF pulp published in the 1920s to early 40s also depict strange, saucer-like alien and human spaceships, showing the pop cultural influences on the UFO phenomenon and its imagery as it would develop later.

The text at the bottom of the page reads

Sci-Fi and UFO storylines struggled as the -60s wore on. Some managed to survive- like UFO Flying Saucers, which lasted into the mid-70s with several reprint issues that featured earlier stories.

The scanned image on this page is probably too small for most of our to read comfortably. To make it larger, click on the image.

Alex Jones: People Are Having Sex with their Cars

January 15, 2018

More madness from the ever fertile imagination of Alex Jones. In this clip from The Majority Report, host Sam Seder and friends comment on a clip from Jones’ InfoWars show, in which the conspiracy theorist rants about how there is a movement encouraging people to have sex with cars.

He starts off by talking about sex robots, before going on to claim that people are having sex and marrying their dogs and cats, and are having sex with cars. He then claims that if you identify as blind, and pour ‘Draino’ into your eyes to blind yourself, the governments of the US, Britain and Canada will pay you money to support yourself as you were mentally ill. He then goes on to say that he fancies buying one of these sex robots just to torch it. We need, he says, to form a human union and defy the elites, who are controlling us. They want to make normal sex biologically impossible, in order to absorb us into the Matrix. People have been brainwashed into this by Hollywood.

Seder and his crew make the point that they have no doubt that some men will insert their penises into whatever they can find. His female co-host states that when she was working on Death and Taxes there was indeed a man arrested for having sex with his car. She was part of a jailhouse protest to get him released. There’s a lot of joking about what the chants were ‘Ha-ha, ho-ho, let the carf***er go!’ But there’s hardly a movement for people to have sex with their vehicles.

They also speculate that Jones himself has personally bought one of these sex robots, and this whole segment is him trying to explain it away in case anybody else has seen it and come to the conclusion that Jones is a pervert.

Okay, there are people out there building sex robots. One of these appeared a little while ago on Philip Schofield’s show on ITV. There was even a Spanish brothel stocked exclusively with robots, which closed down after three works. One of the sentient robots on the Channel 4 SF series, Humans, which was based on the Swedish TV series, ‘Real Humans’, was one of the machines in an all robot brothel. Which incidentally escapes and goes on the run after killing one of the customers. I think Ray Kurzweil has also predicted that in a very few years people will be having sex with robots. One of the underground comics in America is Wet Satin, whose female creator writes stories based on women’s sexual fantasies. One of illustrations from the comic, at least as it appears in Dez Skinn’s survey of comics across the world, has a woman in the tender embrace of C-3PO. This surprised me, as I’d assumed that R2D2’s best mate was a little too camp to be an object of sexual desire for women. But obviously not. And Tanith Lee wrote an SF story about a woman, who has a romance with a robot, The Silver Metal Lover, way back in the 1970s.

But sex robots are just a progression from blow-up dolls, and while they are being developed, there’s no movement for people to marry them or outlaw normal human reproduction in favour of everyone having sex with machines. At the moment, the sex robots are pretty crude. They’re not really sentient machines, like all the other robots being developed at the moment. The type of mechanical people, with whom you could have a proper relationship, like C-3PO are a very long way off. Most people, I guess, won’t find them attractive, and will regard anyone with the money to buy them with the same contempt they regard those men, who buy inflatable women.

And yes, there are people, who have sex with their cars. Jones waxes somewhat graphic about this, talking about ‘fully lubed-up tailpipes’ and claiming that normal peeps, who won’t have sex with robots or cars, will be attacked as prejudiced or homophobic. Way back in the 1990s Channel 4 screened a documentary late one evening about people, who were sexually attracted to cars. I stayed up to watch part of it, as I’ve got a strong tolerance for weirdness. But this was too weird and creepy even for me, and I turned it off and went to bed, feeling somewhat soiled. I have a feeling it comes from a peculiar mental disorder, in which people attribute human features and characteristics onto inanimate objects. This goes much further than simply giving your car a name, or referring to it as ‘he’ or ‘she’. This is more like the mad German woman, who married the Berlin Wall a few years ago. This story got a few laughs on Have I Got News For You. And then there was J.G. Ballard’s infamous novel, Crash, filmed by David Cronenberg, which is all about a secret society of perverts, who get off on car crashes. The film was highly praised by the British small press SF magazine, The Edge, but sent the Daily Mail into a frothing rage, and they organised a campaign against it. It flopped massively over here, taking only a few tens of thousands of pounds before it was banned.

So while there are mentally ill perverts and transgressive writers, like Ballard, who explore cars and sexuality, like the sex robots there is absolutely no movement to normalise this. I can’t imagine a time when anyone, who has sex with an automobile or similar inanimate object won’t be regarded as a pervert, or simply a person with severe mental health problems. No-one’s going to accuse anyone of being unfairly prejudiced or ‘homophobic’ towards people with this kind of prejudice. And incidentally, that comment from Jones shows his prejudice against gay rights by equating homophobia and homosexuality with what are actually forms of mental illness.

As for people pouring drain cleaner into their eyes deliberately to blind themselves, this shows Jones’ anti-welfare outlook. He clearly thinks that such people should not receive state aid after damaging themselves. But these people do need help, most pressingly before they actually decide to harm themselves. I’ve known people, who suffered from very severe depression and were prone to self-harm. It’s not something they’d voluntarily do, if they could avoid, but brought about by a mental condition that they’d far rather not have. Jones is therefore severely misrepresenting them if he thinks that those, who do suffer self-harm, willingly and cheerfully go about it. Again, it also shows Jones’ own prejudices. He thinks someone, who blinds themselves with drain cleaner, would do it for the same reasons some people identify with the opposite biological gender. Er, no, Alex. There’s a difference between self-harm, and transgenderism, regardless what some of the Republicans say about male to female transpeople being ‘castration fetishists’.

Jones is clearly wrong in just about everything he says here about there being a secret conspiracy to normalise and promote these sexual practices. He doesn’t have anything really profound to say about the prospect of robot prostitution or sex robots. But it is clear that he has a very vivid, lurid imagination.

SF Art: Planet of the Knob Heads

January 15, 2018

There are some stories whose titles alone bring joy and pleasure. One of these is the Jack Vance fantasy novel, Servants of the Wankh, which for some strange reason had another title when it was published over here in Blighty. Another is ‘Planet of the Knob Heads’, which a friend told me about years ago as an example of a story with an unintentionally hilarious title. I found it a little while ago in one of the pulp magazines in the SF section of one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. Unfortunately, when I came back to look for it later, that section had moved around and the stock had grown, so I’d lost it. But it’s there somewhere, so who knows, I might be able to find it again sometime in the future.

This is the art for it, which I found at the Sciencefictiongallery site over on Tumblr.

SF Art: Robot Evolution

January 14, 2018

I found this piece of SF art over at the sciencefictiongallery tumblr site. It looks like it’s the cover art to one of John Sladek’s two ‘Roderick’ books, Roderick, or The Education of a Young Machine, 1980, and its sequel, Roderick at Random, or Further Education of a Young Machine, both published by Granada in the UK.

It’s clearly based on all the illustrations showing the evolution of humanity from apes, through Australopithecus, Homo Erectus, the Neanderthals and finally to Cro Magnon people and ourselves. But instead of humans, they’re ape-like robots. At the moment scientists are busy trying to copy the behaviour and abilities of insects as a way of solving some of the complexities involved in robotic engineering, quite apart from the bipedal robots that have already been created. But this looks like it should be the way robots are evolving, rather than starting with machines modelled on ants and other insects.

India Unveils Their Robocop

January 7, 2018

And it’s less than impressive. In Paul Verhoeven’s violent and satirical film, the Robocop of the title was a cop, Murphy, who had been set up by the company now owning the Detroit police force, Omni-Consumer Products, to be gunned down by hoodlums so that he could be re-engineered into a ruthless crime-fighting cyborgs. Of course, Murphy then rediscovered his true, human identity through a dream his human handlers were too slow to suppress. Furious, he then went off to wage his war to bring the men, who attacked him to justice and overthrow the corrupt and ambitious corporate intriguer, who had authorised the whole illegal programme and was now trying to overthrow the wise and kindly paternalistic company head.

It was violent and like Verhoeven’s later Starship Troopers, sharply satirical, with fake adverts for slickly insincere medical companies and sadistic home and car security devices running alongside a depiction of a city rapidly running out of control, overrun by gangs and terrorists. An exaggerated image of Reagan’s America.

This robot, by contrast, is much more staid and limited. The first part of this video starts more or less like a rock promo, with the machine trundling forward to a pop soundtrack. It has now legs, and consists of a human-like torso with arms and a head, supported on a pillar-like extension, widening at the base. There are clearly wheels inside, allowing it to move. It’s Indian inventors are clearly proud of it, as well they should, but its applications are strictly limited. It’s to help in only certain types of crime, and, er, traffic direction. But it does have a touchscreen and keypad to get you in touch with real cops for more serious offences. The company spokesman states that it’s not intended to put real people out of work. Which is a relief, given the grinding poverty in India itself, and over here.

However, this whole invention does remind of yet another story from the hallowed pages of 2000 AD. Remember Abelard Snazz, the Man With the High-Rise Head? The Double-Decker Dome genius problem solver, with two sets of eyes, one above the other on his enormous forehead? Snazz was an interstellar problem-solver, called upon by planets to find solutions for pressing issues. And whatever he did, always made the situation worse. Much worse. In his first outing, he was called upon by the authorities of a world suffering a massive crimewave. He solved that by building an arm of police robots. Who were too successful. Not only did they eradicate crime by arresting all the criminals, they start arresting ordinary people for completely imaginary offences. Like wearing brown shoes as a crime against fashion.

How do you deal with out of control robot cops? Easy. Snazz then builds an army of robotic crooks, to keep the robot cops occupied solving real crimes. These have the stereotyped striped jumpers, masks and hats, worn by all thieves in comics of a certain vintage.

However, there’s a problem with this. Human bystanders are being injured in the conflict between the robo-crims and the robocops. So how does Snazz solve this conundrum? He has another drink of his favourite tipple, the Syrian sentient milkshake, before designing an army of robotic innocent bystanders, who cry out electronically for the cops’ help as the robo-crims commit their skullduggery.

At which point, the whole situation is well out of anyone’s control, the maniac machines have well and truly taken over. Thanks to them the planet is absolutely uninhabitable for sane, humanoid life, and the planet and its inhabitants are forced to leave in an exodus of spacecraft. All the while blaming Snazz, who they manage to get rid of.

Every one of Snazz’s adventures ended this way, with his irate former clients shoving him out of an airlock, or forcing him down a giant Jacuzzi, or stranding him on top of a giant rubic’s cube, which it then takes him six million years to solve. Or falling into a Black Hole. The tales were hilarious, and written by Alan Moore when he could still write ha-ha, rather than turn to the serious issues, which have made him one of the foremost figures in British and American popular literature.

It’ll be a very long time before we have police robots anywhere near as efficient, or even as autonomous, as those of Robocop and Snazz. But there are serious issues. There’s a video by The Young Turks about how the authorities in one American city are using robots to harass rough sleepers. And a few years ago scientists around the world were alarmed by plans to develop automatic robot soldiers, which would kill a programmed, without conscience or mercy. Kevin Warwick, the head of robotics at Reading University, warns about such machines in his book, March of the Machines. On the top floor of his building, they’ve got a robot firefighter. It’s armed with a fire-extinguisher, and a neural net to help it recognise fires. But he points out, that all you need to do is replace the extinguisher with a gun, and programme it to recognise and kill people with blue eyes, and it will go off and execute its murderous work remorselessly. The threat is there, and genuine.

As was shown in the original Robocop movie. In that film, OCP turns to using cyborgs because the wholly robotic law enforcement machine suffers from a series of severe computer flaws. Most obviously when it fails to recognise that the board member, who has been waving a gun at it as part of a demonstration has actually complied with its wishes and put the gun down. It then shoots him multiple times before leaving him for dead.

We haven’t got there just yet, and the Indian robotic policeman ain’t heading in that direction. But the threat is there, nonetheless.

Torquemada: 2000 AD’s ‘Ultimate Fascist’ and a Prediction of the Rise of the Brextremists, Kippers and Trump

December 31, 2017

As you’ve probably gather from reading my previous posts about art robot Kevin O’Neill, I was and am a big fan of the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ strip that ran in 2000 AD from 1980 through the 1990s. The villain of the piece was Torquemada, the former chief of the Tube police on an Earth thousands of years in the future. Outraged by the interbreeding between humans and their alien subjects, Torquemada overthrew the last, debauched emperor, founding an order of viciously genocidal knights, the Terminators. The construction of the linked White and Black Hole bypasses, giving Earth instant access to the Galaxy, also created terrible temporal catastrophes, resulting in creatures from even further into the future appearing in the present. These included the terrible gooney birds, giant predatory Concorde aircraft, which fed on the trains and anything else that travelled over Earth’s devastated surface. Torquemada and his Terminators blamed these disasters on aliens, killed human scientists and engineers, leading humanity into a new Dark Age. The Human race retreated underground, where the Terminators told them they would be safe from the terrible aliens threatening them. Terra was renamed ‘Termight’ – ‘Mighty Terra’, though Mills also gave it the name because the underground society resembled a massive termites’ nest. And Torquemada set up a corrupt, Fascistic, quasi-feudal society, which also included Orwellian elements from the classic 1984.

Pitched against Torquemada was the hero, Nemesis, an alien warlock. Horned and hooved, with magical powers, he resembled the Devil, and at one point, in conversation with his mad, cruel uncle Baal, he explicitly states that his powers are satanic. Nemesis is also the head of Credo, a human resistance movement dedicated to overthrowing Torquemada and restoring freedom and interspecies tolerance to Earth. Also resisting humanity’s aggressive expansion and extermination of other intelligent races were the Cabal, an alliance of various alien worlds.

The strip was possibly one of the weirdest 2000 AD had run, and was too weird for editor Kevin Gosnell, who hated it. But it was massively popular, at one point even rivalling the mighty Judge Dredd. Torquemada became British comics’ most popular villain, winning that category in the Eagle Award four years in a row. He was so popular that in the end I heard that they stopped submitting or accepting the character, in order to let others have a chance.

Torquemada speaks on the radio, in the strip that launched the character and Nemesis, ‘Going Underground’.

Looking back, I have mixed feelings about the strip. I still like it, but I’m not entirely comfortable with a hero, who has explicitly satanic characteristics, nor the villains, who are very much in the style of medieval Christian crusaders. Mills and O’Neill had had the misfortune to suffer brutal Roman Catholic education, and Mills states that where he grew up, everyone involved in the Roman Catholic establishment was corrupt. Everyone. They poured everything they hated about the bigotry and cruelty they had seen and experienced into the strip.

From a historians’ perspective, it’s not actually fair on the Roman Catholic church. Yes, medieval Christianity persecuted Jews, heretics and witches, and warred against Islam. But the great age of witch-hunting was in the 17th century, and cut across faith boundaries. Prof. Ronald Hutton, a History lecturer at Bristol Uni, who has studied the history of witchcraft and its modern revival – see his book Triumph of the Moon – has pointed out that the German Protestant states killed more witches than the Roman Catholics. And those accused of witchcraft in Italy had far better legal protection in the 16th century than those in Henry VIII’s England. You had a right to a lawyer and proper legal representation. If you couldn’t afford one, the court would appoint one for you. Torture was either outlawed, or very strictly regulated. There was a period of 50 years when the Holy Office was actually shut, because there were so few heretics and witches to hunt down.

As for the equation between medieval Roman Catholicism and Fascism, a graduate student, who taught medieval studies got annoyed at this glib stereotype. it kept being repeated by their students, and was historically wrong. This student came from a Protestant background, but was more or less a secular atheist, although one who appreciated the best of medieval Christian literature.

Underneath the personal experiences of Mills and O’Neill, the strip’s depiction of a future feudal society was also influenced by Protestant anti-Catholic polemic, and the theories of the 19th century French liberal, anti-Christian writer, Charles Michelet. It was Michelet, who first proposed that the witch-hunts were an attempt by patriarchal Christianity to wipe out an indigenous, matriarchal folk paganism. It’s a view that has strongly influenced feminist ecopaganism, although academic scholars like Hutton, and very many pagans have now rejected it as historically untrue.

The robes and masks worn by the Terminators recalled not only those worn by Spanish Catholic penitents during the Easter Day processions, but also the Klan, who are an Protestant organisation, which hates Roman Catholics as well Jews and Blacks.

There’s also the influence of John Wyndham’s classic SF novel, The Chrysalids. This is set in Labrador centuries in the future, after a nuclear war has devastated much of the world, except for a few isolated spots of civilisation. Society has regressed to that of 17th century Puritanism. The survivors are waging a war to restore and maintain the original form of their crops, animals and themselves. Mutants, including humans, are examined and destroyed at birth. As with the Terminators, their clothing is embroidered with religious symbols. In this case a cross. Just as Torquemada denounces aliens as ‘deviants’, so do the leaders of this puritanical regime describe human mutants. And like the pro-alien humans in Nemesis, a woman bearing a mutant child is suspected and punished for her perceived sexual deviancy.

In fact, the underlying anti-religious, anti-Christian elements in the strip didn’t bother me at the time. Mike and myself went to an Anglican church school here in Bristol, though the teaching staff also included people from other Christian denominations such as Methodism and Roman Catholicism. They had a real horror of sectarian bigotry and violence, sharpened by the war in Northern Ireland, and were keenly aware that Christians had done terrible things in the name of religion. I can remember hearing a poem on this subject, The Devil Carried a Crucifix, regularly being recited at school assembly, and the headmaster and school chaplain preaching explicitly against bigotry. At the same time, racial prejudice was also condemned. I can remember one poem, which denounced the colour bar in one of its lines, repeatedly turning up in the end of year services held at the church to which the school was attached.

I also have Roman Catholic relatives and neighbours, who were great people. They were committed to their face, but also bitterly opposed to sectarian bigotry and violence. And the Roman Catholic clergy serving my bit of Bristol were decent men and women, though some of those in other areas were much more sectarian. I’ve Protestant friends, who went on to study RE at a Roman Catholic college. Their experience was not Mills’ and O’Neill’s, though I also had relatives, who were estranged from the Church because they had suffered the same kind of strict, and violently repressive Roman Catholic education that they had.

But Torquemada and the Terminators were far from being a veiled comment on atrocities committed by medieval Roman Catholicism. Torquemada modelled himself on Tomas de Torquemada, the leader of the Spanish Inquisition, whose bloody work he so much admired. But he also explicitly styled himself as the supreme Fascist. By fostering humanity’s hatred of aliens, he hoped to unite the human race so that they didn’t fight each other over differences in colour. But the character was also supposed to be the reincarnation of every persecuting bigot in European and American history. In one story, Torquemada becomes seriously ill, breaking out in vast, festering boils, because Nemesis’ lost son, Thoth, has used the tunnels dug by the Tube engineers to channel away the destructive energies of the White and Black Hole bypasses, to travel backwards in time to kill Torquemada’s previous incarnations. These include Adolf Hitler, natch, one of the notoriously murderous American cavalry officers, responsible for the butchery of innocent indigenous Americans in the Indian Wars, and finally Torquemada himself. Torquemada therefore travelled back in time to confront his former incarnation, and save himself from Thoth.

This was followed by another story, in which Torquemada himself travelled forward to the 20th century. Infected with time energy, Torquemada caused temporal disruptions and catastrophes in the London of the present. He found himself a job as a rack-renting landlord, before founding a Fascist political party. Using Brits’ fears that these disasters were caused by aliens, he became a successful politician and was elected to Number 10.

And one of Torque’s previous incarnations, recovered by Brother Mikron, his pet superscientist, using advanced technological hypnotic regression, was very familiar to British readers with an awareness of the history of Fascism in their country.

Torquemada as Hitler, and very Mosley-esque British Far Right politician. From Prog 524, 30th May 1987.

In the above page, Brother Mikron recovers Torquemada’s past incarnation as Hitler, but only after encountering a later incarnation, in which Torquemada was Sir Edwin Munday, the British prime minister, and leader of the New Empire Party. Munday/Torquemada goes off an a rant on public television, shouting

‘I’ll solve the youth problem! We’ll make our children respectable again! – with compulsory short back and sides! The return of National Service! Order and discipline’.

His name clearly recalls that of the far right, anti-immigration Monday Club in the Tory party, which was at the centre of continuing scandals during the 70s and 80s over the racism of some of its members, the most notorious of whom was Thatcher’s cabinet minister, Norman Tebbit. As a member of the aristocracy, Munday also draws on Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists and later Fascist movements.

Mosley unfurling his Fascist banner in the ’30s.

The rhetoric about youth is also very much that of the Tories around Maggie Thatcher, who really didn’t like long-haired liberals, hippies, punks and the other youth movements, who had sprung up at the time. They were calling for the return of National Service to stop the rise in youth crime and delinquency.

And this is now very much the attitude of the Kippers and Brextremists over here, who really do hanker after the old days of the British Empire, with all its pomp and authoritarianism. The last thing that incarnation of Torquemada says is

‘We’ll make our country great again!’

This is also based on the rhetoric of the Tories at the time, in which Thatcher was credited with turning around Britain’s decline and restoring her to her glory. In the general election that year, the Tory party election broadcasts showed old footage of Spitfires and Hurricanes racing around the sky shooting down Nazi planes, while an overexcited actor exclaimed ‘It’s great – to be great again!’

No, she didn’t make us great. She wrecked our economy and welfare state, and sold everything off to foreign firms, all the while ranting hypocritically about how she represented true British patriotism.

But it also recalls Trump’s rhetoric last year, during his election campaign. When he announced ‘We’ll make America great again!’ And he’s gone on to use the same neoliberalism as Reagan, Thatcher, and successive Democrat and New Labour leaders, backed with racist rhetoric and legislation supported by White supremacists.

Torquemada was one of 2000 AD’s greatest comments on sectarian bigotry and racism, with Torquemada as its very explicit symbol. Even after three decades, it’s central message about the nature of Fascism, imperialism and colonialism, and the western hankering for its return, remains acutely relevant.

Tharg’s Tribute to Kevin O’Neill: When the Comics Code Banned His Art

December 30, 2017

Yesterday in one of the posts I mentioned the dictatorial grip the Comics Code Authority had over American comics from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The Code was sent up to reassure and protect the American public after the moral panic over Horror comics in the 1950s. This spread to comics as a whole, which were seen as subversive, morally corrupting and un-American. This included bizarre accusations of Fascism and deviant sexuality aimed at those stalwarts of popular American culture, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The scare decimated the American comics industry, and nearly caused its total collapse.

The Code was set up to ensure that all comics were suitable for a child of seven to read. Its officials were unelected, and in many cases had right-wing views that showed absolutely no understanding of popular politics or culture. It was supposed to be a voluntary organisation, and there were comics creators who worked outside and often against the code. Like Robert Crumb and the underground scene, or the independents Like Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, those comics were well outside the mainstream, and were only available in head shops and specialist comics stores like Forbidden Planet and the late, lamented Forever People in Bristol.

I discussed how the Code rejected one issue of the Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, on the grounds that O’Neill’s artwork was too grotesque and disturbing for children. This was ironic, as he had been delighting children and adults with his monstrous aliens, mutants, robots and equally grotesque humans for years in the pages of 2000 AD. He was and remains one of comicdom’s favourite artists, and while the other artists who worked on the Nemesis the Warlock strip added the considerable talents to the tale of the Warlock and his foe, the human ‘Ultimate Fascist’ Grand Master Torquemada, I think much of the strip’s initial popularity came from his superb, bizarre artwork.

2000 AD duly paid tribute to him and his censorship by the Comics Code in their anniversary issue, Prog 500, published on 14 December 1986. In it, Tharg took a walk through the contents of his mind, reviewing the comic’s history and revisiting some of the characters that didn’t work. At the end he comes to Kevin O’Neill, who appears as a stunted, crazed sadist. O’Neill admonishes him for censoring the most extreme piece of violence in the strip. Tharg tries to reassure him by reminding him that he won the ‘ultimate accolade’ for which other comics creators all envy him: the day the Comics Code banned his art as totally unsuitable for children. To which O’Neill replies ‘Hmmph. You won’t get around me by flattery’. Unsatisfied, O’Neill then calls down Torquemade, who promptly beats Tharg up.

The different sections of that strip were written and drawn by the different artists and writers, who worked on the comic, so there were different credit cards for them for each section. That section ends with the credits reading ‘Script Therapy: Pat Mills. Art Therapy: Kev O’Neill. Letters: Steve Potter’. Which suggests that the letterer was the only sane one there.

Here’s a few panels.

The real O’Neill is, however, quite different from his portrayal in the strip. It’s been pointed out several times that the fans, who’ve met him, are often surprised that he doesn’t dress in black and silver like the Terminators. And the other rumours about him are also totally untrue. Like he only works at night using a quill pen in the light of candles, and has an occult temple in his basement. I met him at UKCAC 90 in Reading, where I queued with Mike to have him draw a character on the blank badges we’d been given for our fave artists to draw on. O’Neill at the time was a wearing a ‘Solidarity for Nicaragua’ T-shirt, which a left-wing friend of mine at college also wore. He also was wearing a brown leather jacket, and his facial features at the time reminded me a bit of John Hurt. He was affable, enthusiastic, full of nervous energy and completely unthreatening. If you seem him now at comic conventions or footage of them on YouTube, or the occasional interview for television, he’s obviously older and balder, as effects so many of us eventually. He comes across as genial and entertaining British gent, completely unlike the berserk monstrosities that rampage across his strips down the years. Even when he’s telling the stories about how he and Pat Mills went as far as they could in savaging American superhero comics and right-wing, superpatriotic American politics in the violent and nihilistic Marshal Law. Actors, writers and artists aren’t their creations. Fortunately.

Robohunter: 2000 AD’s Warning about Crazed Robots?

December 29, 2017

Now for something a bit lighter. What struck me watching Six Robots and Us on BBC 2 last night, was how similar the real robots given to the six families to help them with their problems resembled the demented machines drawn by art robot Ian Gibson for 2000 AD’s ‘Robohunter’ strip. Written by script droid John Wagner, who was Pat Mills’ partner in crime behind Judge Dredd, ‘Robohunter’ was about a future private detective, Sam Slade, who specialised in hunting down rogue robots. In his first adventure, Slade is sent to Verdus, a planet colonised by robots ready for eventual human occupation. But the robots have developed so rapidly, that they now exceed humans in strength and intelligence. Programmed to regard humans as their superiors, they simply don’t recognise the inferior organic beings that turn up as humans, and so incarcerate as experimental animals in concentration camps.

‘Robohunter’ was one of my favourite strips in 2000 AD. It was Science Fiction, but had the wit and style of an old-fashioned hardboiled detective thriller from the thirties or forties. Slade – ‘that’s S-L-A-Y-E-D to you’ was something like a futuristic Sam Spade. Which meant that he was frequently being beaten up by the villains, before fighting his way out with a few laconic witticisms. And the robots drawn by Gibson were imaginative and convincing, with the same type of cartoony features as the robots used in Six Robots and Us.

And like very many of the other strips in 2000 AD, ‘Robohunter’ was also sharply satirical. Here’s Wagner’s and Gibson’s take on the British parliament, from the collected strips Robo-Hunter: Verdus, by John Wagner, Ian Gibson, Jose Luis Ferrer and Jose Casanovas, published by Rebellion/ 2000 AD.

Okay, so the robots sent to the families weren’t demented killing machines intent on enslaving us. In fact the Shopbot sent to a supermarket in Glasgow offered people hugs. One of the store workers observed shrewdly that he had nothing against the machine, as long as it didn’t put human employees out of a job. Quite.

And some of them actually didn’t work very well. The Carebot sent in to look after a lady with MS, thus allowing her husband some time away from looking after her, actually couldn’t physically help her. It could only remind her and her husband when she needed to take her medicine and to call him on the mobile if there was something wrong. Unfortunately, it used the internet, and so the moment the husband was out of wifi range, the connection went down and it was more or less useless.

So they’re not quite like the robots in ‘Robohunter’ just yet. But we have been warned!