It’s years since I last bought a mainstream comic, as in a 32 page pamphlet with a glossy, logo-ed cover and 25 interior pages of art (or whatever the industry standard story-length is these days). Not since the final Final Crisis in 2008. What little comics qua comics-buying I’ve done, and there’s been precious little of that since the end of 100 Bullets, it has never taken me back into any of DC’s Universes.
But there have been a couple of series that were issued in serial form since those days, series that I wanted to read but, instead, ignored and waited. Waited for them to be collected,to be issued as Graphic Novels that I can buy, read and keep in a better organised, more solid fashion. Besides, there isn’t even a market on e-Bay these days for individual comics, or a run of them, and I can’t afford to pay twice any longer.
Thanks to e-Bay, however, I’ve gotten hold of DC Legacies: originally a 10 issue series published between June 2010 and March 2011, long a hardback GN, now available in softcover. It’s written by veteran writer Len Wein and drawn by a host of top artists, each taking a different chapter. And it’s very apt to an epilogue to The More Things Change…, because it’s obsolete.
It’s been obsolete for a year, obsolete in a way that old books don’t usually become, not when they present fiction. Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles were written a century and a half ago, about a world, a life that has long since ceased to exist, but they are implicit in every book published to this day. Though it might not touch upon times so far back, every book set in a contemporary idiom is set in a world where 1862 existed and where things that happened in the Barchester Chronicles happened in the history of this contemporary scene.
Precisely the reverse happens in mainstream, superhero comics. Each new comic is set in a shared Universe, where every action implicitly affects every person, and where the past is alive and well and kicking in every comic written and drawn, because the authenticity of the Universe depends upon complexity, upon connection, upon the ability of the past to crash into the present at any moment.
It’s completely unlike the sphere of books, where Trollope’s Barsetshire and Dicken’s London are both ‘real’ and in which both can draw on contemporaneous events, but where Oliver Twist will never have to depend upon the charity of Mrs Proudie, nor will Lily Dale ever find herself threatened by the presence of Bill Sykes.
If books were governed by the same imperatives as superheroic Universes, such clashes would be an immutable requirement: the possibility of meeting transformed into the inevitability of meeting, driven less by logic than by fear that if the wife of the Bishop of Barchester were NOT to encounter an angelic street urchin, then the ever-diminishing yet sustaining audience will find this world… unrealistic.
DC Legacies is a good book, entertaining, comprehensive, comprehensible, never less than professional. Wein, as he has gotten older, has put behind him his purple prose, and the artists for each section have been chosen with care and forethought, to reflect the differing areas in which the story takes place.
The story is the History of the Superheroic Age(s), seventy years of publishing, of fads, phases and preferences, of whims and responses to the shifting of the kids’ taste, organised into a history that touches base in all significant points, and which skilfully presents them as the march of time, each era growing out of its predecessor with all the logic we can see, looking back.
As is now common with any such overarching vista, the vehicle for the tale is an outsider: a civilian, a citizen, a common-or-garden man, one who sees all with understanding and compassion, but who can only guess (perceptively, of course) as to the thoughts and feelings of that very different breed that perform these acts.
Paul Lincoln, an old man in a retirement home, telling this story from memory that runs from a two-page vignette in each chapter into the high action of the issue, started out a street kid in Suicide Slum, vulnerable to the risk of falling into a gang before the first masked and trench-coated vigilantes start blazing head-on at crime. His growing awe at the superheroes leads him to become a Metropolis patrolman and, later, Detective, a witness to many familiar events and scenes.
Wein draws lines from one era to another. Some tales are redesigned, some are alluded to, some are happily quoted, down to the actual dialogue of the originals (the classic Superman 1 film line, “You’ve got me – but who’s got you!?” makes its appearance). It’s a synthesis of was and when, a spine, an instant and entertaining explanation of the major continuity of the DC Universe.
Which is why it’s obsolete. The DC Universe is dead: The New 52 Universe is a completely new place. Its history is unknown, except for one thing: it wasn’t like this. To return to the book parallel, it is as if for every contemporary book, the history of the world has been changed, officially, to insist that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had never come into being, that there had never been a Queen Victoria, and that the world in which all stories existed was one that existed as a consequence of a perpetually warring island of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon tribes who never set a military foot beyond the White Cliffs of Dover.
That would make Barchester Towers and Oliver Twist obsolete. And Middlemarch, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Wuthering Heights.
That will never be the case because the history of the world in which such books were written remains unchanged, no matter how our perspectives on it may shift. DC Legacies has no such luxury. Its story officially never happened. Its history officially didn’t take place. The world has been remade and the Alan Scott who became Green Lantern in 1940 on what was later termed Earth-2 and the Alan Scott who has become Green Lantern in 2012 on what is officially Earth-2 in the New 52 have only the names and the blond hair in common.
Good as it is, DC Legacies isn’t a story. It’s an epitaph. An epitaph for something that never was, even in the peculiar life that is fiction.
But I’ll tell you one thing. Paul Lincoln’s story, long as it is, is a story he tells every night, in the same words, to the nurse who could by now repeat it word for word, but who knows it to be the fixation of an elderly old man who no longer understands reality. Only Paul knows it’s real, because only for him is it real.
It was never meant to be anything but an epitaph to something that wasn’t ever real.
Since I first read of its publication, in April this year, I have been eagerly awaiting this book, with greater anticipation, I think, than any book I’ve known in my life. It arrived today: I found it waiting when I returned from work, and I have read it, without pause or interruption.
This is a Response, not a Review. It is a tremendous book: an astonishment and, in places, a terror. But it is not a book to take in at one go. There is more in it than I have seen on a single reading, more to be experienced. But I know enough already to know it is not a disappointment to the highest expectations I’ve nursed since April.
Boneland is Alan Garner’s last novel. At the same time it is the unexpected, never-to-be-written final part of a Trilogy begun by his first, and perhaps most famous, novel, The Weirdstone of Brisinga-Mein, a novel written fifty years ago. It is Garner’s last because his approach to a novel, his line of work, the length of time a book requires, means that his age will more than likely preclude completion of another work. It is his last because, after all this years, there is no strand within this story that leads him onwards into another theme: he has already said that he has ‘no idea’.
And it is his last because, as I instinctively believed from the moment I learned of Boneland, it is his last. In it all his themes run together, beginning and ending meet and absorb each other, the work is complete. The ‘real’ and the ‘mythic’ are united.
This is not the third book of a Trilogy, not in the sense of an exclusive story in three books. You will never be able to read The Weirdstone, The Moon of Gomrath and Boneland as a ‘set’. Everything else that Garner wrote, the totality of his original fiction, comes between, is a partner to this story. The Trilogy is a panoply of nine books.
I’m not going to start to describe the story. We have been warned in advance that it takes up Colin (the ‘little bugger’ who, in a fit of fury at a story that was circumscribing him, Garner once ‘throttle(d)’ at The Morrigan’s hands). Years have past since Gomrath. Colin is a scientist at Jodrell Bank, obsessed with searching the stars for his sister Susan, but without any memory prior to his thirteenth birthday. I’m not going to tell you any more. You must learn it yourself, armed with nothing but your own anticipation.
But what I will say is that Garner casts a startling new perspective on his two earliest books, a perspective that similarly denies and confirms their events to a mundane reality. That to know his work and his life is to be constantly confronted with elements seen and known in other contexts. That at many points the story crosses the line of Red Shift (still my personal favourite of Garner’s books). That there are moments of strangeness, when the ‘reality’ of the story raises suspicions of something not quite real, and that those suspicions are correct.
Mostly, this story enters the undermind. The Aboriginal Dreamtime of Strandloper brings a shape to the mythological element of the story, retold through Garner’s masterful understanding and ability to translate folkmyth and fairy story. The story in both its halves is a surface, but in both story and reader it moves in depths that are not, perhaps, consciously accessible.
I look forward to a second reading, and to the many that will follow, each adding to the comprehension of Boneland. Make no mistake, it is a great book, a Great Book, and a fitting finality to everything Alan Garner has sought to say in his life.
Our first three walks were all up Passes. I’ve accepted that as a solid piece of memory for eighty percent of my life, but now, in coming to recollect those walks, I’ve begun to question that certainty. Where did the ‘stock’ valley walks come in? Did we really start off doing only ascents and then give that up for lazy, flat walks?
What about my Uncle: was he really there for Wrynose, because he definitely wasn’t for Hard Knott or our third destination, Sty Head? If so, when did we do these walks? If not, did we really go so long walking before introducing him to the fellsides? I’ve had concretely-sure memories proven wrong by external facts before.
But that third outing was to Sty Head Pass, from Wasdale Head, under the shadow of Great Gable, and it was only the four of us: the nuclear family. It was our first away from the comfortable accessibility of the road, and it was the first one when I learned to shut up and not grumble, for good.
Even more than before, I had a target. Everyone had told me that Great Gable had a sister fell, Green Gable, smaller, less famous, invisible behind the face you saw from Wasdale Head. I wanted to see it. I wanted to go behind Great Gable, see the other one. I couldn’t read maps well enough to make connections: to me, Green Gable was invisible to the world and I could only get to see it by climbing Sty Head and peering round the corner.
So we four set off across the fields from Down-in-the-Dale, where the cars gathered: past the Smallest Church, one of Wasdale’s four great attractions (the Highest Mountain, the Deepest Lake and the Biggest Liar being the others), towards the side-valley that ran across the foot of Gable, rising into the mountains.
From Wasdale, Sty Head is simple and direct. Beyond the fields, the path parts with the beck and rises across the fellside ahead. High above, great rock buttresses and sweeping screes rise at crazy angles, until the nature of the path changes underfoot: it reaches the first long fan of scree, it narrows, it gets steeper, it gets serious.
Mam took one look and refused to let my sister go any further.
I was disappointed, and so was Dad, but the solution was simple: Mam would take my sister back to the beck, where they’d paddle their feet whilst Dad and I – the men of the family – would go on. So we continued, the big, gruff men, strong enough for the added deprivations of the scree. Just me and my Dad, a circumstance of which I have far too few occasions to recall.
And I didn’t grumble. I had a destination to reach, and I wanted my Dad to think well of me. We went on, across the loose stuff, tiny cairn after tiny cairn marking our route, though there would have been no mistake underfoot. Until we rounded the last, fixed rocks and descended slightly to the official summit of the Pass, by the blue Stretcher Box.
Styhead Tarn was below us, and half left a sliver of green fell: no summit, no shape, but now I’d seen Green Gable.
We had to go back now. No time to explore, no time to descend to the Tarn, to go forward and see more of the invisible Gable: we had half a family waiting for us, and maybe there’d be time for us to have a short paddle too. Our feet would welcome it by then.
It was the day I grew up, the day that began my walking career. The day it first sunk in to me that there were things to be seen, sights in amongst the hills where beauty and strength lay, that would be forever hidden unless I got of my podgy little arse and got out there on my two hind legs to find them. It’s not that I didn’t ever complain in future, but the utter resentment of Hard Knott was done with, for good.
The picture is of the ascent from Wasdale Head, just as the scree section starts. I think we came back another time, so that the distaff side of the family could get to Sty Head, though I have no memories of that expedition. Though I’ve climbed the Pass in my later years, both times it’s been from Borrowdale: I have never come this way again.
The Beiderbecke Connection November – December 1988
The first thing I noticed about watching the final part of The Beiderbecke Trilogy was how much I laughed from the very outset. The opening scene includes, indeed the opening line is spoken by a returning Big Al, with Little Norm in attendance. Suddenly, all is well. The gang is back, and so is the fun. And the story isn’t half as important this time.
Having taken almost three years to get from the Affair to the Tapes, the arrival of The Beiderbecke Connection (which, according to a contemporaneous interview, ought to have been The Coltrane Connection) in only twelve months was a signal that all was, and would be well. It was also restored to its original status as a Sunday night series in hour-long episodes, although there would only be four of them on this occasion. And everybody you wanted to see was back: there would no complaints as to texture this time.
Indeed, The Beiderbecke Connection swung over to the opposite pole, assembling a very full cast of Beiderbeckian characters and letting them get on with it whilst the serious plot, such as it is, takes place mainly a very long way offscreen, with only a small element of it troubling the Swinburne-Chaplin way of life.
It was almost as if Plater were experimenting with how abstract and minimal the story could be whilst its elements were in motion, and at some points it ran the risk of being entirely too attenuated.
Nevertheless, such as the plot is, let us try to explain it. The Connection was set approximately six months after the birth of Trevor and Jill’s son, who has competing names from the worlds of Jazz and Politics and so is mostly known as First-Born. Trevor bumped into Big Al and Little Norm for the first time in years, at the former’s new ‘offices’, the bowling green, whilst Jill interviewed ‘au-pairs’ for First-Born, enabling her to return to school: she settled on Yvonne, the former ringleader of 5C and chief deportee from Holland (a reprise for Judy Brookes, a pupil at the school used as ‘San Quentin’ High, given a minor role in the Tapes).
Jill’s return to school came at a time of crisis for an Education system starved of funds by a Conservative Government (yes, we are still talking about a quarter century ago). Mr Chaplin’s woodwork class study pictures of trees, having no actual wood, whilst Mrs Swinburne was expected to teach Tess of the D’Urbervilles with two copies among 38 pupils.
Two things happen: Joe and Ben, the bone-idle detectives from the Affair, who are to have a much greater role in the Connection are called to the shoplifting of books from the Bookshop in the Precinct, and extra copies of Tess start turning up in Jill’s class.
Plater doesn’t even try to conceal that Jill’s pupils are nicking extra copies of the book to keep the class going, nor that it is Yvonne who is masterminding the operation. The underlying theme of this story is the funding crisis in Education, and the lengths that people would, and should, go to to give their children the education they need.
Yvonne’s operation was running in tandem with a larger-scale effort by Big Al to provide greater necessities, such as wood and sports equipment, all delivered by Charlie, the moonlighting gravedigger, whose continual appearances with lorry-loads provokes the perpetual ire of Mr Wheeler. This is the context for Trevor’s indignant statement, as a new and very devoted father, that if it were a case of stealing to get his child an education, he would steal.
(This declaration later prompts a wistful, hesitant declaration from Mr Carter that Mr Chaplin’s speech has reminded him of his young days in the profession, when he carried the torch of education in his eager heart, which, alas, many years ago…: “I shall try in my heart to forgive you.”)
But this has nothing to do with the plot, which we’d better try to find. Having met Trevor in the park, Big Al and Little Norm produced first a gift – an intercom for bedroom to lounge baby communication – and a request for a favour: accommodation overnight, safe-house mode, for Ivan, an East European refugee and fellow radical. Ivan speaks no English, but likes Jazz, especially Bix Beiderbecke.
Having agreed to taken Ivan in overnight, Jill and Trevor ended up having him as a guest for a week. They were asked to take him to the border (the Lincolnshire border, at the Humber Bridge), but he turned up back at their house almost as soon as they got back to Leeds. In episode 2, Ivan was delivered to the Lancashire border (I will forgive and gloss over certain things said about England’s most noble County). Of course, at episode’s end, the doorbell rang again: everyone expected Ivan, but Plater was playing on that reaction: the new ‘refugee’ was Peter Swinburne, Jill’s ex-husband.
What might have been an embarrassing occasion was dealt with by aplomb and acceptance, initially from Trevor, subsequently by Jill. Peter is the past, a past rejected, and a past that still doesn’t really understand why, and really doesn’t understand how Trevor can have become so much more to Jill than he ever was.
Peter was also an ex-con, literally, having done time for Fraud. And, by remarkable coincidence, he used to share a cell with Ivan, whose venture into Lancashire was no more effective than that into Lincolnshire. Ivan, it turned out, was not a refugee but a bank robber, one who worked with a computer, and who got away with £3,000,000.
Thanks to Peter having a mate on the coast with a boat that will get the criminal pair off Trevor and Jill’s hands once and for all before the first ads in the final episode, the story is concluded satisfactorily. Those holes that are obvious holes, such as what happened in the other counties, and how did this suave, intelligent and very dangerous man ever get to be dependent on Big Al in the first place, are left to the viewer’s imagination.
Though the last one was given a surreal tweak by the late arrival of Chief Superintendent Blake to put the Police on high alert to find this dangerous financial subversive, in part responsible for the 1987 Stock Market Crash, who might tilt the world too far on its axis…
The Police, at this point, is Hobson. Our old friend of the Affair has prospered as a consequence of shopping his Superintendent. He is now Inspector Hobson, and he has a Ph.D out of it. (He is also the star striker for Q Division’s Mixed Hockey Team, with 31 goals to his credit last season). Hobson doesn’t do a lot this time round. He spent his time mostly in his office, giving instructions to Joe and Ben, who do the, ah, leg work, not that work is an appropriate word for their activities.
As far as screen time goes, Joe and Ben (who had a very minor role in the Affair) are second only to Jill and Trevor in the Connection. With Stephem Tomlin unable to reprise the role of Ben, the part was played by George Costigan, in Miami Vice imitation pastels and jackets with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows. His faux-eagerness is the perfect foil to Sean Scanlan’s laconic, dry, vaguely Scottish Joe. These are the kind of Detectives who, when ordered to investigate the theft of sports equipment – including Hobson’s hockey stick – elect to spend the afternoon at Headingley, in case someone plans to rush onto the field and conduct a smash and grab raid.
No, The Beiderbecke Connection does not pay overmuch respect to its story. Instead, it gives its characters room to breathe, and to play. It’s not above seriousness: as well as Trevor’s impassioned stance on his child’s education there is a momentarily bleak, wholly unfunny and deeply serious speech from young Yvonne who, faced by Jill and Trevor’s concerns for her future should the Police catch her, explains exactly why it really doesn’t matter.
It’s a moment of bottomless depth that is still horribly true today.
In fact, my summary of the story isn’t really comprehensible as a story or a summary. That’s because the programme isn’t really comprehensible as a story or a summary. Rather than me relate it in a matter that would make formal sense, you should watch The Beiderbecke Connection for yourself. Which I recommend you do, but not until after you’ve watched the first two. You won’t get it, otherwise.
As with its predecessors, the Connection was novelised, though not until 1992. I have never seen it as a separate edition, only in the paperback omnibus of all three. It makes for an amusing experience. The three series follow the same continuity on television, but the novel of the Tapes follows Plater’s original manuscript, making for confusion in the omnibus. It doesn’t matter too much that in the third book, Trevor and Jill refer to getting pregnant in Edinburgh when in the second book it distinctly took place in Athens, nor that the last meeting with Al and Norm was not that long ago, given that the the Tapes novel it is they, leading a redundancy package holiday, who rescue our heroes from the Grey Guardians.
But it’s distinctly odd when Mr Pitt, redundant and using his money to fund a jazz club at which Frank Ricotti’s own band plays, refers to his lateral promotion to the Registrar’s office when not all that long ago the role was played by a Mr Dawson, and even more so when Inspector Hobson appears after ex-Sergeant Hobson, now of a security service, has been advising Trevor and Jill about disinformation.
It’s all of a keeping though. The Connection disappears up its own tail at times, and you really should not try to make the story work out in any kind of a real world. Just accept it on its own merits, as the quintessence of a world in which people respond to men in suits with a deadpan daftness. Listen to the music man, be cool.
I’ve a tremendous fondness for it for a reason I’d long forgotten. By the time this final series was broadcast, I was deep in a loving relationship with a smart woman who relied on me as much as Jill relied on Trevor but who was equally determined never to admit to it. It wasn’t the situation though, but the conversations: I had forgotten just how much of it could have come out of our mouths when we were together.
But it was right to end where it did. Apart from the magic number 3, there was First Born: you can’t have heroes going on adventures when you’re that dependent on baby-sitters. Besides, Trevor and Jill were implausible but believable, and their adventures were plausible but unbelievable. You can’t go on like that.
What I’d like to have seen was Plater spinning Joe and Ben off into their own series. I swear it would have worked: I’d have been there in front of the set, with my guffaws all ready.
Not that Jill and Trevor really did go away. The DVD set is a steady seller, and Plater kept getting enquiries after the pair, and what was happening to them now, and he could see them in his mind’s eye, growing older in body but never in mind or spirit. In 2003, Mrs Swinburne was the Head Teacher of San Quentin High, bottom of every League Table going, whilst Trevor was retired and given to dominoes, with Big Al and Little Norm.
Alan Plater died this year, leaving behind him a body of professional work of which he could be justly proud. The Beiderbecke Trilogy, combining his twin passions of his native Yorkshire, and his beloved Jazz, is a worthy memorial. Watch it and laugh.
Action Comics no. 1 All art, images and characters depicted in this essay are (c) DC Comics Inc, and are depicted for purposes of critical discussion only.
Plus sa change…plus sa même chose or, for those who do not have the French, the more things change, the more they stay the same. This is one of those times when they did not.
In August 2011, DC Comics re-booted their Universe. It wasn’t the first, nor will it be the last time such a thing happened, but it was the one that ended my life-long interest in mainstream comics. I have been reader and fan through five different DC Universes, but I cannot bring myself to feel an interest in their Sixth World.
But I’ve been reading this crap for nigh on fifty years now: I’ve been through Crisis on Infinite Earths, through Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, through Infinite Crisis: what gnat made me strain at accepting The New 52? For, yes, it was indeed a gnat, and not a camel that was the final burden. A scrap of red did it.
Let’s go back forty six years, to the spring of 1966, when I was ten. I don’t remember the first American comic I ever bought: encouraged by my Junior School Headmaster, my parents didn’t try to stop me avidly reading comics, since I was equally avid to read books as well, but they drew the line at American comics. But just as they were keen to keep me from wasting (their) money on cheap, garish, overpriced rubbish, I was equally keen on reading the adventures of these gaudy creatures in their bright costumes. Something had to give, and even the most docile and rule-abiding boy will win out in the end.
It was probably Superman, at first, or maybe Batman, and it was never going to be a regular thing, but I was allowed American comics from time to time, and I experimented with different characters: The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman, and then the Justice League of America, where they all got together.
But this was before the comic in question.
In the early Spring of 1966, I sat the last Eleven-Plus Exams to come out of Manchester Education Committee, to determine what school I would enter in the last year before the Comprehensive System. No ten year old realises when he’s going through a life-changing experience, but from those exams that, being ten weeks outside the cut-off date, I should not have sat, the whole of my life has flowed.
Little did anyone know it, but completing my final Eleven Plus led to another life-changing experience. It was a sunshine March Friday afternoon, walking back from the distant School where we’d been sitting the Exams, elated that they were over. Like a dutiful child, I would only cross Ashton Old Road at a zebra crossing, but if I went as far as the second one, I could walk back up the other side of the road to our Newsagents, look at the American comics in his window: I’d finished my exams and Mam and Dad would buy me a comic on the strength of that.
Justice League of America 37 was in the window. I have it still, forty six years later, signed to me by its legendary editor, Julius Schwarz, but I don’t need it before me to recall the cover blurb: “What?! Not a single member of the mighty Justice League on the cover of this comic? Why are the superheroes of the legendary Justice Society battling the menace of a living lightning bolt in – ‘Earth – Without a Justice League!’”
And there was indeed a giant, human-faced, malevolent-expressioned pink Lightning Bolt (Pink?) on the cover, fighting off a half dozen heroes, none of whom I recognised. But the truly weird, impossible to resist thing about it was that they had all the right names! The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman. But none of the right costumes. And two more great looking figures I’d never seen before, Doctor Fate and Mr Terrific.
I had to have it. I had to know what this was about, who these people were, how they came to have names I knew yet not be the characters I knew. One of the most important facets of my character was being born in those moments of fascination.
As soon as I got home, I brought it up with my Mam. And again with my Dad when he got home from work. And on Saturday morning, once or twice, in case they had forgotten through going to sleep. The completion of my exams was mentioned in this context: I was owed something.
So I got it. On the way to Granny and Grandad’s for Saturday Dinner, which we’d done all my mortal life, we stopped at the newsagents. I took Dad inside, identified the comic from the window, and took it gratefully after he’d handed over the all important shilling. But I couldn’t read it yet: you weren’t allowed to read in the car because it was bad for your eyes, and I was already wearing glasses, and arrival at Granny’s and greeting everyone was a non-stop preamble to Dinner on the table at 1.00pm sharp, and Granny’s home-made Apple Pie for afters, and all in all it was gone 2.00pm before I was allowed to leave the table and go off into my private kingdom of the Parlour, array myself in the proper comics reading position – flat on your tummy on the floor – and start.
Justice League of America 37
It seemed that there was an Earth-2 that had a Justice Society instead of a Justice League, and that Johnny Thunder had at last been invited to a meeting again. Johnny’s superpower seemed to be the ability to summon and command a disappointingly normal-sized pink lightning bolt, not to mention distracting himself into going to Earth-1 to meet the Johnny Thunder of that world. This was a mistake, as the Earth-1 version didn’t have a Thunderbolt because he was evil, as evidenced by his purple check sports jacket and his inability to pronounce his “ths”.
So Thunder knocked out Johnny, took control of the ‘Bolt and sent him off to do a payroll robbery. Which was interrupted by the Flash: the real one, in the all-red costume. Which gave Thunder a bright idea.
And suddenly, what had begun as a slightly tedious and not-very-funny attempt at a humour comic took off into the biggest, most grandiose concept that I had yet come across in my short life: Thunder told the ‘Bolt to travel back in time and change the entire world by preventing every single member of the Justice League from ever becoming a hero. Over the next two-and-a-half pages, the ‘Bolt criss-crossed in time; intercepting the lightning that struck Barry Allen’s laboratory and transformed him into the Flash; changing Krypton’s fissionable uranium core to lead, stopping it exploding and removing the need to send baby Kal-El to Earth; intercepting the yellow radiation that crashed Abin Sur’s spaceship and keeping Hal Jordan from receiving his Power Ring; smashing the white dwarf star fragment that Ray Palmer would not now use to create the Atom’s size-changing controls; shorting out Dr Erdel’s robot brain before it transported the Martian Manhunter to Earth; and dropping into the very first panel depicting Batman, from 1938, to help the thugs beat the shit out of him and Bruce Wayne’s stupid notion of becoming a crimefighter!
The details of how the JLA’s other four members were deflected from their courses were glossed over in a single montage panel, but it had happened: in the space of a very few pages I had been introduced to the idea of there being another Earth, identical but not quite to our own, and the notion that history could be manipulated to change everything we know.
It was decidedly heavy stuff for a 10 year old, and there was still the Justice Society, and these strange other-versions to get to know, as they followed Johnny to Earth-1, beat his gang, magically disguised themselves as guess-which-six JLA members, beat up the ‘Bolt and drove Thunder to another outlandish brainwave: the ‘Bolt would take six members of Thunder’s gang into the origins of the eliminated superheroes, giving Thunder a Lawless League of his own with which to face down the Justice Society.
Continued Next Month.
In it’s own way, that had more of an effect upon me than the contents of the comic itself. American comics didn’t continue next month. They knew that us in Britain couldn’t get consecutive issues, so every story was complete for that reason. But now they had cheated. They had drawn me in with half a story, knowing I would never see its end. They had seduced me with unfamiliar familiar heroes and left me dangling, ignorant of how they got out of it.
Ignorant for about six months, as it turned out, until I discovered my mate Steve had JLA 38, and was prepared to swap, though only for three comics (at ten, I had not discovered the idea of the poker face). At last I got to see how it ended.
The Justice Society, as veterans, easily whipped the novice Lawless League. They survived the combination hurricane/tornado/earthquake Thunder threw at them. They tracked him to the Moon, where he’d fled, to create three monstrous monsters who, between them, took out five of the six heroes, only for Doctor Fate to overcome all the monsters single-handedly. Then Fate entered into a knock-down, drag-out magic fight with the ‘Bolt, only with Thunder in the middle, getting him from both sides, until he finally cried out his last instruction – to make it all as if it had never happened, and he’d never seen the Thunderbolt at all.
Well, it satisfied me.
Whatever happened, I was hooked on superhero comics, and on the Justice Society in particular. They were my private possessions: when everyone settled for the Barry Allen Flash, I had the Jay Garrick one, and the vision of an Earth where anything was possible, because it was similar… but different.
I continued to read comics until the beginning of the Seventies. Time and changing tastes led me to discover football, in 1968, and football weeklies very quickly thereafter, I discovered pop and rock in 1970, and the rock press in its wake. My enthusiasm for comics diminished, although I always kept my eye open for the annual Justice League/Justice Society two-part team-up. There were a handful of comics in that last, awful week when Dad was dying, a similar handful in rain-soaked Ulverston in a week’s break taken after his death, just to get away, and then no more.
Three years passed, during which I accumulated O and A levels and went to Manchester University. Late in 1973, Charles Shaar Murray, the best rock writer of the decade, wrote a fanciful, but well-argued article in NME comparing the development of rock’n’roll with that of (American) comics. Comics: I used to read those! It was interesting to read about my old enthusiasm, and what had developed in the years I’d been gone, and equally so when Murray followed his initial piece with more in-depth looks at Batman and Captain America, though The Murray Age of Comics ended at that point, with no further explanation.
Come late January, the new term started. I needed a haircut so, on my way home after Uni, in the early evening sodium dark, I got off the bus at the barber’s, a mile from home. After my trim, I popped into a newsagents for a Mars Bar, to restore any physical weaknesses induced in Sampsonian fashion. Having picked up my confectionery, I was confronted by a queue at the counter.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a rack of American comics. Recalling the Murray articles, in an amused moment I decided to have a flick through what they had: a brief flirtation with nostalgia, look at a few covers, remind myself of the comics I’d retained, buy the Bar, get the bus home.
Earlier, I described buying JLA 37 as a life-changing moment. How true that is, and not just an amusing speculation with which to entertain my former wife, I’ve debated often with myself. There were years of comics ahead of me, at an age where I was openly impressionable. I would have discovered the Justice Society at some point, been awakened to the thrill of the possibilities they represented, wanted to learn everything I could of these figures whenever it had happened. So was JLA 37 really so important?
Until a reliable device, that meets current Health and Safety standards, is created to enable us to examine parallel worlds and our alternate lives, that can never be determined. What is absolutely certain is that that passing whim to browse American comics one last time unequivocally changed my life.
They had a Justice League of America comic, no 107. It was the first half of a team-up with the Justice Society. That, and only that, was the only comic I would have bought, would have had to buy. And because I bought it then, which I have yet, signed by its author who, when I told him it was responsible for getting me back into comics, shied away and refused to accept the blame, because of that one book being in that rack, I have read immeasurable comics, spent colossal sums of money, been influenced and drawn in ever so many directions, had long and earnest and hilarious conversations, launched a writing career that escaped my notebooks and made many friends.
On Earth-2, that issue wasn’t in that rack. The Earth-2 Crookall finished flicking through, shrugged, bought and ate the Mars Bar and caught the bus back home, never to look at another American comic, or a newspaper strip, in his life. Poor bastard.
Here on Earth-1, I still only had the first half of the story, just like almost a decade earlier. But, racking my brains, didn’t the newsagents at Lane End, halfway home from here, also sell American comics? Maybe they might have the other part? Instead of the bus I walked the two stops to Lane End and, yes, they sold American comics and, yes!, they had JLA 108. No six month waits this time.
So I walked home, adopted the traditional comics reading position on my bed, and read them.
The art was neater, sharper (obviously, with Dick Giordano on inks), the writing more colourful (Len Wein not being as overbearingly purple as he too often was) and my old Justice Society heroes, even if there were only three of them, were as good to renew acquaintanceship with. A few nights later, at the Lane End newsagents, I thumbed through the rack, determined on another purchase. It followed from there.
Justice League of America 107
What then was so different about comics, aside from my older, more thoughtful and analytical perspective? Looking at my collection now, it’s not as if I have more than a handful of Seventies comics. Indeed, the Seventies as a whole was a drab, dull let-down compared to the Sixties in the same way that music was (Murray’s thesis was obviously right).
But there were obvious differences. Rather than being interchangeable cogs in a complicated plot, with identical speech patterns, the heroes now spoke with a range of voices, and I would be able to describe the entire plot of JLA 107-8 in about half the space I needed to explain the plot of JLA 37 alone. My curiosity was aroused, and within three months it was once more an enthusiasm.
There’d been a Golden Age, practically the whole of the Forties, of which I still knew virtually nothing, and the revival of the superheroes in their new guises, starting with the début of the Barry Allen, not-yet-Earth-1 Flash had opened what became known as the Silver Age. It had ended only a handful of years before I thumbed nostalgically through that rack, though no-one had yet started terming this new period as the Bronze Age.
But there had already been a change of Universe: unplanned, unrecognised, bolted together out of bits and pieces, unclear and undefined. The Golden Age had taken place in a Universe, but both the Silver and Bronze Ages occurred in a state where there were at least two different Universes: even if one Flash didn’t meet the other until 1961, demanding the existence of Earths 1 and 2, there had still been two parallel worlds since Barry Allen first stopped trembling from the shock of having electrical chemicals soaking him.
However, once you propose the existence of two parallel, similar-but-different Earths, you concede the possibility of a third; a fourth; an infinity of them: a Multiverse.
Earth 3 appeared as early as the second JLA/JSA team-up, and Earth-A came and went with the evil Johnny Thunder’s wishes. Then there was a bizarre story involving Barry-Flash breaking into another parallel Earth, where the Flash was a comic book published by National Periodical Publications, better known as DC, where his only hope of escape was with the assistance of the comic’s editor, Julius Schwartz.
But it was in the Seventies that DC began, deliberately, accidentally, unintentionally, to multiply their Earths. JLA 107-8 had actually taken the heroes to another parallel world, where the Nazis had won a World War 2 that lasted until 1966, and a group of heroes originally published in the 1940s by Quality Comics were the last defenders of Earth-X (it was going to be Earth-Swastika, but Schwartz refused to have that in any of his books).
Some Earths were conjured into being to accommodate other groups of defunct figures from long-bankrupt companies. Others had to exist to make sense of a story from a continuity perspective. One was identified by fans as the only possible explanation for stories from one editor who would disregard anything established or consistent about a character if it filled another page of story: Earth-B (for Murray Boltinoff) is now a recognised part of the DC Multiverse.
By the early Eighties, one intrepid and patient fan drew up a list of no less than twenty DC Earths.
At this time, DC had reached the lowest point in its history. The Seventies were a period of rampant inflation, as the OPEC countries flexed their muscles. The 12c comic book jumped to 15c in 1970, but after that increases came thick and fast. In between times, both DC and Marvel, who had taken a near-unbreakable grip on market share, tried to slow the price rises down by cheapening the package: reducing the story pages, cheaper inks, cheaper, thinner, nastier paper, plastic printing plates that confined clear lines to the first half of the print run.
Nothing worked. By 1978, with a price rise from 35c to 40c inevitable, the standard 32 page comic book contained only 17 pages of art and story, maybe two of letters and editorial material, and the rest advertisements. And these ads were no longer bought by the top companies of a decade before.
DC, under a new publisher, Jeanette Kahn – not merely the first woman publisher, but the first to come from outside the industry as it had been for the last forty years – came up with an ambitious plan to get ahead of the curve. Instead of the awkward chunk of change of 40c, the price would leap to a single coin, 50c. But the package would be worth it: instead of 32 pages, DC’s comics would jump to 40 pages, and all those extra eight pages would go to art. Some titles would expand their story count to 25 pages, others would introduce back-up features. Unused characters could be revived, new characters could be tested out. There was a buzz of anticipation surrounding the much-trailed DC Explosion.
Perhaps the name was too much of an open invitation, a red-and-white hooped bullseye asking for the Gods to visit their usual punishment for hubris. Maybe the timing was just shit out of luck. But the week the Explosion was launched into thicker comics, the sales figures for the line arrived at Warner Brothers, DC’s owners, who reacted with horror and swift instructions.
A curt order was given for DC to pull its horns in, to can this nonsense about new titles and higher prices: go to 40c, stick to 32 pages, stem this haemorrhage. Counting newly scheduled titles that were cancelled before even appearing, half the line was killed in a day. It was, naturally, immediately termed “The DC Implosion”.
Morale was staked through the heart: a writer at Marvel named Marv Wolfman advised people to get out: in five years time, there wouldn’t even be any comics.
But of course there are still comics, and we are thirty four years past that point. I include that quote from Wolfman because the records show that the Gods deal not only in the shattering of hubris but also the workings of irony.
Something else happened in comics in 1978: after five Editors-in-Chief in the space of eight years, Marvel Comics appointed Jim Shooter to the role. Shooter had entered the comics industry at the age of 13, writing well-regarded stories for DC, under the highly stressful and deeply unpleasant editorship of the legendary Superman editor, Mort Weisinger, the man who had wrested control of Superman away from his creator Jerry Seigel.
Marvel was in a mess. Unlike DC’s practice of having several editors each with a stable of titles to oversee, at Marvel the Editor-in-Chief edited everything. It was, of course, impossible. Writers worked at cross-purposes, followed their own instincts, blew deadlines all over the place. Steve Gerber’s famous Howard the Duck was introduced under Roy Thomas’s editorship: the first Thomas knew of this new character was when he saw the finished art just before it went to the printer: very nice, he is reported to have said: now kill him off next issue.
Matters were further complicated by the fact that, as each Editor-in-Chief stepped down, he became a Writer-Editor, responsible only to Publisher Stan Lee, and beyond the control of his successor. The same status was granted to Jack Kirby when he came back from an ill-fated move to DC, and to Gerber when he proved to be a (justified) right royal pain in the ass over the resurrected and cultishly famous Duck.
Having been brought up under Weisinger, and having perhaps absorbed more of him than was good for any human, Shooter was not going to have any of this. If he was going to be Editor-in-Chief, then he would be in charge. There would be no Writer-Editors unable to defy Shooter’s directions for the whole Marvel Universe.
One way or another, all those Writer-Editors had the second part of their tag removed. One accepted it with equanimity. The rest transferred to DC. This included Marv Wolfman.
His long term friend and associate Len Wein had preceded him there and had been appointed editor. DC wanted a revival of The Teen Titans, a series built around a team of everyone’s teenage sidekicks. Wolfman thought the idea sucked, that the series would fail like ever other attempt at the concept had, but as a professional, put his back into the job of making it as successful as he could.
Wolfman and Wein had begun their careers as fans-turned-writers at DC a decade before but had established themselves at Marvel, with its melodramatic and soap opera approach, featuring heroes-with-problems in a single, overlapping continuity, in which what happened in one series was perpetually having a dramatic effect on others. DC, in contrast, was historically more staid, more conservative, more restrained, more sclerotic. More dull.
Though Wolfman had always had his doubts, his meticulous, thoughtful writing on The New Teen Titans, accompanied by the highly-detailed, lush art of George Perez, was DC’s first step back from the Implosion. Sales built quickly, especially amongst the specialist Direct Market. New Teen Titans was DC’s first genuine fan hit and, with more ex-Marvel writers and artists unhappy at Shooter’s dictatorial approach, the creative pool was there for others.
The series’ success meant that people took Wolfman and Wein’s ideas more seriously. And there was one idea that was a bugbear with them, since the day they came back from Marvel: the Multiverse.
DC had a Multiverse of multiple Earths and multiple characters, some duplicated in all but tiny details, others in name only, some who moved from one Earth, some who were created because someone couldn’t remember which Earth they should have been on.
Marvel had a Universe with a tight (!?!) continuity in which everything fitted together without overlap, and twice the market share.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were some event, some gigantic, colossal, Multiverse-threatening danger that would boil everything down to Earth-1 and the bits DC wanted to keep from everywhere else? A Universe, in fact, just like Marvel: one single continuity to puzzle at and absorb, and incidentally get rid of every silly, goofy, illogical, impossible, nonsensical and stupid story that had supposedly happened.
It was three-and-a-half years in the making, a grandiose gesture, the ultimate comic book series that would not merely threaten the Universe but rather an infinity of Universes, in which the status quo would, defiantly, progressively, not be maintained. Its preparation involved hundreds of opinions, decisions on every level, negotiations as to who would make the cut and who would be brushed aside, the revivification of the Big Three and the creation of a new playing field. It was the biggest story there had ever been, twelve monthly issues in itself and crossovers rippling up and down the whole DC line. “Worlds will live, worlds will die.”
Pity it was such a bodge.
Crisis on Infinite Earths
DC can perhaps be excused its failure with Crisis on Infinite Earths: no-one had ever even imagined doing something of this magnitude before, and nobody ever will again because nobody who takes this step will let fifty years pass before acting. Nobody knew how to do it right, and so many things were done wrong – not least the failure to tie the whole damned thing together. Major reboots to Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t even start until months after the Crisis was over and one of the crossovers, unfortunately but significantly, involving the nearest equivalent to the Justice Society of America, was still crossing over with itself long after the thing itself was done and the DC Universe was a fixture.
Reducing Crisis on Infinite Earths to its essentials, it began in cosmic mode with the Dawn of Time, the Primal Atom, awaiting that shattering force that would expand it into the Universe but instead suffering an intervening act that split it into an infinity of inherently unstable, vulnerable, parallel worlds.
Flash forward to the present day and a blank white wall is sweeping through the Multiverse, destroying world after world for ever. It is of anti-matter, generated from the Anti-Matter Universe of Qward by one of two beings created at the Dawn of Time: brothers and inherent enemies: the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor.
The former had been plotting for the last year, observing all the superbeings of everywhere so as to use them to preserve positive matter. Unfortunately, he doesn’t succeed, but his death in issue 4 did preserve the last five Earths (1, 2, X, S and 4) by powering up great machines, which the Anti-Monitor will now seek to destroy.
In order to convince the sceptical that they were being serious about all of this, DC had decided to kill not just a string of unwanted, unneeded and often inconvenient characters, but also two big heroes, two who would have real ‘yes-we-do-mean-it’ impact. First was Supergirl – Superman’s cousin, his last true relative, but also the symbol of the cluttering up of the Last Son of Krypton legend – and immediately afterwards The Flash – Barry Allen, the first hero of the Silver Age, the symbol of the created Multiverse. One dies in public to preserve her cousin, the other alone, unseen, to save reality.
Barry Allen’s sacrifice forced the Anti-Monitor to go to the Dawn of Time, planning to make his the nebula-sized hand that released stars into the void in a particularly impressive mid-60s issue of Green Lantern that I’d long owned. Instead he was confronted by all the heroes, though at the last only the Spectre, the most powerful of them all, could stand against him. And their struggle shattered all of existence. The Multiverse was destroyed before it began. It had never been.
Originally, the final two issues of Crisis had been planned to feature the (new) History of the DC Universe, a series of pretty pictures laying out how everyone related to each other now. In keeping with a series that was still being made up as it went along, these were jettisoned in favour of two more issues of mayhem, calamity and destruction.
So, in a well-presented reverse of page 1, the Big Bang that once created an inherently unstable Multiverse was repeated, only this time to become a single, whole Universe. No-one remembered the Multiverse, except for the entire superhero community who were all fully aware of the incredible slaughter they’d just experienced and who, of course, would not suffer any psychological damage as a consequence, especially not in keeping it hidden from their loved ones who, not having been to the Dawn of Time, have no idea this has happened and that they’d all died and come back to life.
After that it was just a knockdown, drag-out, slambang battle until the Anti-Monitor got knocked down one too many times by the elder Superman, he who was once of an Earth-2 that has vanished, and who was now a greater outcast than the Last Son of Krypton could ever be. And he was rewarded by being spirited off, with his ageing Lois Lane and a couple of other characters as redundant as you can imagine anyone being, to some paradisial dimension to live in peaceful retirement from which he will never be able to return. What a pity that the word ‘never’ is meaningless in superhero comics.
There’s no other honest way of describing it: it’s goofy as all get out. But a lot of people loved it. A lot welcomed it. A lot examined it very critically. And a lot of people resented the hell out of it for changing the status quo upon which they had grown. Though the old comics that everyone had, in different measures, loved had not been burned or anything, were still perfectly readable – I still have comics I bought in the Sixties, and DC have done a sterling job of reprinting the entire 1940s Justice Society of America stories, in hardback – they had been robbed of significance in these people’s eyes. What happened in them had no longer ‘happened’ – or, at least, it had not happened until DC published a new story that confirmed it did.
In theory, everything was up for grabs. In reality, nobody was going to change Superman’s costume, decide that the Joker had never existed, or turn Wonder Woman into a black lesbian (certainly not the latter. Not in 1986, at any rate). But they were going to clear away the crap, even if in many cases the ‘crap’ was brought back, in a modernised, rejuvenated and considerably less silly way than it had first occurred.
Superman was updated. Multiple forms of kryptonite, super-breath and heat vision were gone and, in the single most gloriously right change of them all, Jonathan and Martha Kent had not died of a mysterious space disease shortly before Clark Kent moved to Metropolis, but were still alive, to give Superman an emotional base he had never had before. That humanity would be a stronger and more meaningful form of weakness than Red Kryptonite ever could be.
Batman stopped being a slightly more serious version of Adam West and began his metamorphosis into Christian Bale by the simple expedient of removing Joe Chill: the man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents was never identified, never killed by his fellow crooks for bringing the Bat down on them, and the hole opened in Batman’s soul was never closed even a tiny fraction.
And Wonder Woman was reborn along with the Amazons – the re-embodied souls of women killed violently by men, Diana herself born from the unborn baby of her slain mother – with a closer tie to the Greek Gods, with ‘her’ Steve Trevor now a mature Army Colonel some thirty years older than her, and no silly ‘human’ identity. For the first time – EVER – Wonder Woman was good: not goofy, not sloppy, not underpinned by a bizarre sexuality, just plain old very good indeed.
The Justice Society were gone, however. They were no longer the heroes of another world, but instead the heroes of another generation, which opened up some very interesting story possibilities. Except that DC hadn’t spent all that time and money clearing its continuity of all those duplications and anomalies only to let other versions of Flash, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman hang around.
So the world’s first superteam were shunted off into limbo, literally, in a truly awful story whose only merit was that it was an archetypal comic book killing off: they’re still alive, we can bring them back any time the bosses let us…
Thus there was a unified Universe, old names suddenly available for new takes, slates that, if not clean, had had the ground in parameters smeared to greater or lesser degree, and next there was Legends. Now DC had a single, all-in, Universe, they would have stories that demonstrated that there was such a thing as the DC Universe.
I don’t propose to offer up any detail on Legends. Its only glory was in being the first: next year came Millennium, then the year after Invasion, after which War of the Gods, Armageddon 2001, Eclipse: the Darkness Within, Bloodlines… Each time, the DC Universe was never the same again, and a bunch of new series, which never lasted too long, were launched. Listen carefully, and you too can hear the Law of Diminishing Returns not so much setting in as building a bungalow and developing 100 acres of prime real estate for commercial and industrial use.
I welcomed the Universe. It was fresh, it was bright, it offered an inherently familiar overstructure in which fresh possibilities burgeoned: fresh possibilities that showed more than an influence of ‘realism’ – or that equally implausible aspect of it that was sparked into ‘grim’n’gritty’ life by the twin successes of Frank Miller’s driven, obsessive, brooding Batman of The Dark Knight Returns and the tour de force that was Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen.
But, because of Watchmen, I didn’t spend too much time in the DC Universe. Watchmen had ripped so many scales from my eyes that I found it next to impossible to get involved in superhero comics of a more conventional bent. Add to that the fact that, since the start of the Eighties I had been having my attention deflected towards the newly-appeared Independents market (i.e. not Marvel/DC) which offered stories aimed at an older audience, or a variety of different subjects, and which bypassed superheroes entirely – or maybe disguised them a lot better.
Between genuinely individual and different series such as Dave Sim’s Cerebus, well-disguised hero stuff like Howard Chaykin’s all-too-short-lived American Flagg! and a general post Watchmen trauma that had suspended my suspension of disbelief, I wasn’t reading too much of DC. But there was always the Justice Society of America to draw me back in.
It was a make-work project, something that needed to be organised rapidly. A pool of artists had been commissioned to work on a large scale project that, inevitably was running late. Something had to be found for these artists to draw, for, without pages, they had no income, and would have to get jobs elsewhere that would make them unavailable. Two editors decided to think about possibilities overnight, and both came back with the same idea – the Justice Society.
It was an eight issue story, designed schematically to provide four solo issues, each drawing in a different JSA member, two team-ups, one foursome and a special treat in the final issue as a past JSAer throws off his retirement to help defeat the villain.
It was the first time the JSA had appeared in a comic under their own name, it was set in 1950, a time in their continuity that had never been explored outside the original stories, and it told a story of no significance whatsoever, except that it was a good, fun, superhero story that set out to entertain. And, in complete contrast to the era of dysfunctional teams that had arisen from Alan Moore’s contention that the kind of extreme personality necessary to put on a costume and fight crime would not sit down and play quiet with the nice boys and girls, the JSA acted like grown-ups: mature, professional, friendly people who trusted each other implicitly.
The story was not only a delight, it sold. In numbers enough to support an ongoing title as well. So a cheap limited series was got up to release the JSA from limbo (whilst putting an unwanted hangover from the Crisis in their place), and the boys were back.
And so was I. Enough time had passed since Watchmen for me to rediscover the pleasure of a good superhero story, and there were enough good, or enthralling, titles around to keep me involved again.
Onesuch, in the enthralling category, was the famous Death of Superman. It got massive publicity in advance, especially with the special sealed-in-black-plastic and including a black armband issue in which it would happen. I bought it: for the event, for the ‘rarity’ value, for the curiosity. They weren’t going to kill Superman, nobody believed that, did they? Not the Big Blue Boy Scout, not the Great Goose That Laid The Golden Eggs. But they did.
At this time, Superman was appearing in four monthly titles, all devoted to him, and scheduled on a different week of each month. What’s more, these titles didn’t tell separate stories as they used to: under strict editorial control, with close-knit artist and writer teams, Superman was and for some time had been America’s first ongoing weekly series (for 48 weeks of the year).
It was the oldest impulse for reading that ever existed: what happens next? Superman was dead, killed, no more. I mean, he wasn’t going to stay dead, no-one who knew anything about comics doubted that, but in the meantime he was, well, dead. And with teams rotating as we moved through the publishing month, for the next thirteen weeks the story dealt – fairly realistically – with the aftermath of that death: upon loved ones, friends, colleagues, enemies and everyone from Government on up who wanted to get hold of that body and, well, experiment.
Then they stopped. All four titles just… ended. No Superman, no series. For three months, until Easter (and there could be no significance in the timing of the story that saw Superman’s father, his Earth father Jonathan, not his genetic donator, Jor-El, enter the realm of death, could there?). And all four titles exploded back on the same day, each one featuring the appearance of a resurrected Superman: four of them.
And the story continued, week after week, as the four possible Supermen played different roles – Cyborg, Kryptonian, Teenage clone and Soul Brother – one per title, showing different levels of concern as to which of them was the real Superman. Because, ultimately, none of them were, but four new characters were added to the mythos.
It was great fun again, heading for the comics shop every week for the next instalment of this crazy story, having to know what happened next, and picking up other stuff each time.
It’s funny how, looking back over the near half-century that I’ve read these things, how enthusiasm has come and gone in waves, how periods when a gradual disinterest always ended with a profusion of new things to read, to become involved in.
But Superman’s Death and Rebirth was a digression from the main subject of this essay. I’ve listed above a succession of annual crossovers with which DC exploited their new Universe in the years after shaking things up so fiercely and fundamentally in order to create a coherent continuity. Just as with Crisis itself, they’d blown it.
There were inconsistencies and holes everywhere. DC’s sales might have started picking up, and their greater willingness to offer creators as an equal attraction to characters (as opposed to Marvel’s rigid insistence that it was Spider-Man who sold, not whoever was writing or drawing him) had increased their audience and their profile, but the Universe worked even worse than the Multiverse and, only nine years on, something had to be done about it.
So 1994’s crossover series was to reboot the Universe all over again.
Zero Hour: Crisis in Time was a considerably less ambitious, and logistically far superior successor to the Crisis. It consisted of five, instead of twelve issues, published weekly and contained to a single month, with all the crossovers taking place in that single month, simultaneous with the event. Ingeniously, it began with issue 4, and counted backwards to 0: and at the end of issue 1, the Universe was again destroyed, this time as the entropy moving forward from the Dawn of Time and backwards from the End of Time finally met in the middle, erasing everything. Everything. In every issue of that week, the final page faded into blank pages for the rest of the comic.
The villain was Hal Jordan, once the Silver Age Green Lantern, now Parallax, a figure corrupted by loss and power. His motives were, ostensibly, noble: now the Universe is gone, he will recreate the Big Bang, restart time from the beginning, only this time he will monitor it, and unmake all the disasters, all the bad things, reshape the Universe into a Utopia and undo the total destruction of his California hometown of Coast City, during the Superman Rebirth sequence.
The last remaining heroes, there to bear witness, kept him from his scheme. The Big Bang was recreated and the Universe came back into existence, but nobody would monitor it, nobody would control or shape it, and so it would reform in more or less the same way it did before, give or take a few details here or there.
And so the DC Universe was reset: same as before, only with an excuse to straighten out all those messes. And that wasn’t all of Zero Hour (which would have been a feeble waste of time, if that’s all it did), because next month, EVERY title DC published, not just the half dozen new ones being spun out in by-now traditional manner, published its issue 0. Zero Month, an entire month of resets, as every creator of every title got the chance to lay down their marker as to the direction their title, their character(s) would take henceforward.
I admit it, I fell for it. I bought every single one, just to see. Just to learn, to get a map of where DC meant to go with this repeat reboot. A couple of them made very good use of this opportunity, and a couple of them I started following. And now, if you’re counting, we were into the fourth of DC’s Universes.
Yet again there was no Justice Society. The 1990 revival had led to the team’s return into an ongoing series that was cancelled after only 10 issues. Its writer, burning his boats at DC down to the last canoe, announced that it had not been cancelled for lack of sales, but as a political gesture. A bunch of popular artists had split from Marvel to set-up their own imprint, publishing comics for the kids today, leaving Marvel publishing their Dad’s characters, and DC their grandad’s.
Was there any truth in this accusation? Well, the editor supposedly responsible for this dismissal edited Zero Hour, in the middle of which the JSA took on the seeming-villain. And were devastated. Three members dead, two more incapacitated, everybody’s various immunities to the passage of time removed. And the survivors resigned. You tell me.
I’ve already spoken of peaks and troughs, but the years following Zero Hour would be a contained peak as I found myself avidly following four titles. Four series, each published on a different week of the publishing month so that, just as during the Death and Rebirth of Superman sequence, I was visiting the comics shop weekly. I might only be coming out with one or two comics, or on an exceptional week, three, but the weekly progression kept me in touch. I no longer read any fanzines, but I absorbed more than I read.
A late marriage, a deflection away from what was, by then, a busy unpublished writing career: in short, a life, did not end my continuing enthusiasm for comics, but with a family of five and a wife going back to University to support, the need for economy began to impose upon my growing separation from the everyday superhero comics.
The JSA were back, naturally: they are an idea that it seems impossible to kill, but this latest revival was a revivification indeed. Instead of simply bringing the old team back, the new JSA was spun as a family and a training group, a team of legacies, featuring first, second and, now, third generation characters: heroes taking on the identities of JSAers now gone, inheritors of all kinds.
Unfortunately, at a very early stage the series came under the control of a writer rapidly rising to the top at DC, a very popular, very clever, very controlled writer, who has produced very smooth and readable work of enviable complexity, but who has never convinced me. His name is Geoff Johns, and he is now DC’s Chief Creative Officer, the first the company has ever appointed, or even thought it needed.
His job is to direct the DC Universe, in cahoots with new Publisher, previously Managing Director, Dan DeDio, a frequently controversial figure.
But that is to jump too close to the present day. At the time of which I was speaking, the (actual) Millennium had passed, the post Zero Hour Universe had been in operation for six years or more, and there were still holes all over, slips, contradictions, little reboots slipped in there with overall disregard for the supposed tight continuity of the Universe. Fewer people cared, beyond the obsessive fans. DC’s writers and editors pretended the Universe worked but the evidence showed otherwise.
The Post-Crisis success of British writer Neil Gaiman’s horror/fantasy/mythological Sandman, coming on top of Alan Moore’s previous transformation of Swamp Thing, led to the creation of a separate imprint, Vertigo Comics, aimed at a more sophisticated, adult audience. Sandman ended gloriously before it could transfer to Vertigo, but Swampy, Animal Man, Black Orchid and Shade, the Changing Man moved sideways. Technically, the Vertigo Universe was merely a darker corner of the DC Universe, but the difference in tone, subject and execution made the Vertigo characters completely incompatible.
Johns was writing JSA (as the new series was titled) and I was getting the very same vibe as I got with Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron twenty years earlier. That title, pre-Crisis was set on Earth-2 at America’s arrival into World War 2, featured all the Golden Age characters of the time, not merely the Justice Society, and was Thomas’s private playground in which he could re-write/adapt/invent stories that fitted in with the contemporary tales, that segued between stories never meant to go together, tied up loose ends, gave reasons for unexplained things and were generally the product of a mind that had forgotten about the audience.
Yes, some stories were clever, even good, but most of them were clunky and forced and, to me, their failings were that they weren’t stories: weren’t written to entertain, to excite or amuse, but to provide a gloss on something that had ‘happened’ forty years ago. They might have been what Roy Thomas wanted to read, but that obsession showed itself too clearly. For the first time, I stopped reading a JSA series.
Johns was doing something very different in fact, but almost identical in practice. Each story, each arc was about nothing more than retrofitting the new Justice Society for life in the modern era. Where Thomas fixed up the past, Johns fixed up the future. Every character and situation he turned his hand to – such as Hawkman, whose personal continuity had gotten so inextricably tangled that a ban had been placed on using the character at all – was rebuffed, polished and given a twist-round that made them viable to go out and tell contemporary stories about, but Johns seemed incapable of telling a story that just exist to get the reader involved, or even say anything about the world.
This isn’t a digression, but rather a piece of background that soon will become relevant. It explains how, after Starman ended, and Johns became the new writer of The Flash, things had dropped back into mundanity again. But it was about to get interesting, for the last time.
After the Millennium, DC dropped formal summer crossover events until 2004, when New York Times Bestseller Thriller writer Brad Meltzer, a lifelong fan who’d just written his first comic in a six-part Green Arrow tale, was commissioned to write Identity Crisis. This was a seven part series that, though drawing in the whole DC Universe yet again, featured no cosmic crisis, no Earth-threatening menace, no drastic rearrangement of reality: not on the surface, that is. But the DC Universe really was never going to be the same again, this time.
Identity Crisis was, and still is, a very controversial series. Though I’m very conscious of its flaws, technical as much as conceptual, I remain an admirer of the series. It did what only an outsider could do: where Watchmen had introduced a level of reality as to what the rationale, practice and effect of people putting on costumes and fighting crime to an enclosed and separate Universe, Identity Crisis now did to the mainstream, suspend-your-disbelief-here, DC Universe.
It said, loudly and clearly, that if you want to read about people with superhuman powers fighting and committing evil, you have to accept this as an absolute consequence.
The story began with a event of sadness. Ralph (The Elongated Man) Dibny, a stretchable superhero and a detective second only to Batman, went on patrol to keep a protective eye on the much younger and less-experienced Firehawk. He’d only done so to allow his beloved wife Sue (the Dibnys are 40 year veterans, created early in the Silver Age) to plan a birthday surprise for him in their annual tradition. Ralph knew what was going on but would die rather than spoil Sue’s fun. But even he doesn’t know the ultimate surprise she has for him – that she’s pregnant.
Whilst Ralph’s narration counted down twenty five minutes until Now, it was intercut with scene of heroes doing many different, mostly domestic things, at different times after Now, until each receives bad tidings. The older reader is already saying, inside, “please, no, not that. Not her.” Because Now came when Sue was attacked, in an apartment protected from entry by all the most advanced security of the DC Universe, and Now was Ralph arriving too late, to find her dead.
To us veterans, it was a moment of shock and dismay. The Dibnys were good people, devoted to each other: sweet, decent people. The Elongated Man had always been played for laughs, a lightweight character to whom seriousness and depth could not be attached.
Identity Crisis was about Who Killed Sue Dibny? The whole community came out on that one, because they wanted to avenge someone all of them had liked and respected, but also because if Sue could be killed, behind all the levels of protection they had created for family, loved ones and themselves they had to know who and how: because everybody’s loved ones were in danger.
It would happen again. The Atom’s ex-wife, Jean Loring, was attacked, saved only by her former husband at the last minute. And Jack Drake, father of Tim, still reeling from learning that his son was the new Robin, was attacked in his own home. He killed his assailant, but not before receiving a fatal wound, with his son, and Batman, hearing all on the radio of a Batmobile racing to the scene from just too far away.
But that wasn’t what Identity Crisis did to undermine the whole Universe, and leave it in pieces that not all the King’s Horses and Men could ever put back together again.
Dr Light, a light-employing villain, had been around for decades. Mostly, he was an idiot, a bumbler played for laughs. But seven Justice Leaguers thought he was the man responsible for Sue Dibny’s killing. Those who, even after nearly twenty years of grim’n’gritty still maintained a belief in comics as escapism, were horrified as Meltzer opened a piece of history.
There’d been a time when the then-competent Dr Light had invaded the JLA’s satellite base. He’d found Sue alone, unprotected. And he’d raped her. The JLA had stopped him, but after Ralph had rushed his darling to the hospital, seven JLAers had confronted a villain who understood exactly how much damage he’d done, and how much more he could do.
So the Justice League wiped his memory of what had happened. Interfered directly with his mind. They did more. They tried to ‘alter’ him, remove that part that drove him to rape – and ended up giving him a partial magical lobotomy. Hence the buffoonery.
Nor was this the only time the League had done this. Meltzer presented it as an optionless decision: if someone as dedicatedly vicious and psychopathic as a supervillain gets to know your identity, what other choice do you have if your loved ones are not, one day soon, to be tortured to death?
But it broke the spell. It broke the illusion of trust. Interfering with someone’s mind might well be the necessity Meltzer stated it to be, but after that, how could you call the perpetrator a hero? How could you trust them again? How could you trust anything again?
Especially as it transpired that the seven heroes had not limited themselves to playing God with the minds of enemies. Because it was Sue Dibny, the ever-over-committed Batman, who’d helped take Light down before rushing off to his next case, came back. Came back, wouldn’t tolerate what was being done – and had his memory stolen as well.
The cat was firmly among the pigeons now, and DC were determined to chew.
Identity Crisis was the springboard for, literally, years of story, a constant thread, a chain of event and response, planned from above and riding hard over everything that was published in an unbroken wave of editorial planning. And I lapped it up.
It began with DC Countdown, a one-off, one dollar special that, on the day of its release, appeared as Countdown to Infinite Crisis, progenitor to the twentieth anniversary sequel to the original Crisis. In the world of paranoia and suspicion engendered by Identity Crisis, the Blue Beetle – a lightweight, happy-go-lucky non-powered superhero – discovered a trail of theft and robbery that lead him to a base in the Swiss Alps from where a great conspiracy was emanating. No-one believed him, no-one took him seriously enough to assist him, but Ted Kord uncovered a vast conspiracy: a very far-advanced conspiracy aimed at all the superheroes, headed by a figure who everyone had thought was a good guy, a part of the joke Justice League era, just like Ted.
But Max Lord had always been striving to regain control of the world for humans from superhumans, and keeping the JLA funny and disrespected had served his cause. Ted’s refusal to turn coat bought him a bullet in the head.
The story continued into the first of four six-issue mini-series, each foreshadowed in the one-off, each working off different strands of the growing tide of darkness enveloping everything. One of The OMAC Project, Villains United, The Rann-Thanagar War and Day of Vengeance would lead directly into Infinite Crisis itself.
Meanwhile, crossover stories started to flow through many DC books as the Universe started to shape itself towards a single end.
Geoff Johns wrote Infinite Crisis, for once with an eye to what was happening rather than what it could set up, because, just as in the original Crisis of two decades earlier, the whole of reality was going to change again. The new story was to last seven issues, spawn crossovers galore, feature a host of intertwining stories, and start things over again for another generation.
Not because it was necessary, even though the same old failings and flaws and continuity errors had been recurring again and again (an explanation was given for this, but nobody could take it seriously for a second), but because it was expected. Shake it all up, given a new generation of fans a new jumping on point, be big and dramatic. Plans were already in place for what would follow.
The link between the old and the new series were the four people who were saved from Crisis, the four rewarded with an eternal retirement in peace: the Earth-2 Superman, the original from Action 1, his Lois Lane, Alexander Luthor of Earth-3, and Superboy-Prime, the Superboy from a world without superheroes, the boy who hadn’t, and never would, grow up.
In the fast-darkening time of post-Identity Crisis paranoia, this quartet, who had sacrificed everything, came to the conclusion that they had made a mistake, that when the Universe had been created on the template of Earth-1, the wrong Earth, a failed, corrupted Earth had been chosen, and that the Universe had to be undone and remade, this time on the template of the cleaner, nobler, purer Earth-2.
I’d have gone for that, for a complete overhaul of the DC Universe, and a balance tilted back some ways to the original, idealistic, fun element of superheroics, but then I was just turning 50, and I remembered such times, and it was not the same world.
So instead it turned out that Superman and his Lois were too naïve, that the true villains were Alexander Luthor and Superboy-Prime, the one a cold manipulator who planned to first recreate the Multiverse, then refine it to build the Perfect Earth, by combination of varying worlds, the other an increasingly hysterical, petulant screeching boy who wanted HIS Earth back and to get rid of anyone who tried to stop him.
The upshot was New Earth, a self-selected mixture of alternate Universes combining to create yet another new Universe (Fifth, and counting). This one came with continuity of memory, so once more the past was shaped like the past had ‘always’ been, subject to whatever changes would now be made to take advantage of the Earth being New.
The other upshot, and one that the highest at DC seemed to see as a daring, dramatic conclusion that showed them to be reaching out, forever forwards, was the death of Superman. The real death, this time, no returns, of the original Superman, the grey-templed Man of Steel. Bereft of power. Beaten to death. By a blubbering, hysterical, petulant sham of a latterday version of himself.
Truly had the past been replaced by the future.
A future that DC had planned for in detail. No sooner had Infinite Crisis revealed its explosive conclusion than two new, Universe-encompassing events replaced it. There were One Year Later and 52.
One Year Later was every series. Every comic that appeared in the month following Infinite Crisis 7 had jumped twelve months ahead. A year of events had taken place, there were changes all around, and no explanations were being given. The readers had to pick up for themselves what had happened, from such clues as were being given. It was a brand new playing field. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman had disappeared for a year, and now they were back. So, what the hell had happened?
Which was where 52 came in. 52 was the story of the missing year, told in 52 weekly issues, conceived, plotted and written by a quartet of DC’s top-rated writers. Each issue covered seven days, the series taking its name and concept from the obvious source, TV’s bull-goose looney thriller, 24, aka the Jack Bauer torture hour.
I read 52. It wasn’t bad. It got me into the comics shop every week, even if I came out with very few other titles. It had its clever moments, its spinal stories. It told you what you needed to know, more or less. Of course, despite having been plotted in advance to dovetail into the One Year Later surprises, no-one foresaw that having the end of the story known in advance might depress its dramatic impact, nor that four writers with massive egos trying to collaborate but also outdo each other might not have new ideas during the twelve months the story ran.
But there was a big reveal in the final chapter of 52, as the story reverses through time to week 0, to the height of Infinite Crisis, where the energy that creates New Earth is not dissipated by such creation but goes on to create no less than 51 copies of New Earth, all of which immediately have different parts of their history ‘eaten’ during a mad hellride by a post-pupation superworm (don’t ask. Please, just don’t ask) turning all 51 duplicates into alternates with different histories.
Yes, that’s right, the Multiverse was back. All 52 worlds of it. Including one that looked intriguingly like Earth-2.
And having brought the Multiverse back, in this sequence of editorially driven events that has, even yet, still not finished, what has DC done with it? Virtually nothing, in seven years.
What they did do was Countdown. This replaced 52 as a weekly title, intent on running 52 issues, with the neat twist that, after the 52 logo was incorporated into the cover art, the same design is incorporated into the Countdown cover art, starting with 51, and counting down, one every week.
And what, you are doubtless asking, were we counting down to this time? All was revealed at issue 26 when the title was changed to Countdown to Final Crisis: another one, only three years later.
To spare a lot of time and to reflect my slowly-dying interest in any of this, I shall jump to the end. Countdown (under either title) was a mess. So too was the eight part Death of the New Gods which, like Countdown, was supposed to feed into Final Crisis. Grant Morrison, the Glasgow-born writer of the latter, had explained what he needed established but his instructions were either not passed on, misunderstood or just plain ignored, since continuity between the three series was impossible.
And Final Crisis was indeed final. To me. I read it, enjoyed its technical proficiency but couldn’t feel any involvement in the succeeding issues, although they read better as a continuing story, up to issue 6. The final issue was, to me, an incomprehensible mess, its final straw being the appearance in one panel of the ultimate vampiric menace to the Universe, and its being blown apart in the next.
This time the Universe was not changed, only me. If there was a representative moment, it was the return of Barry Allen.
Barry – the Silver Age Flash – was the first saint of the DC Universe, the hero who sacrificed everything, alone and unobserved, to save it all. He’d gone into death and never come back, the one for whom it was real. His place had been taken by Wally West, his nephew, once Kid Flash: the first teenage sidekick to grow up and fulfil the implicit promise of the role: that one day you succeed, you get to be the one out in front. Wally had done that, and proved himself.
But a new Publisher and a newly-designated Chief Creative Officer had other ideas. DeDio and Johns were wedded to the Silver Age, the age when they’d discovered comics, and things had to be put back. I disagreed: some things had moved on, had had to move on, and should not have been wound back. However, they were in charge, and I wasn’t.
So, quietly, unnoticed, I slipped out. The events continued to pile up whilst the room for individual writer’s visions dwindled quite as much as the audience for this ever-inward-turning art form. Johns remained the master of the kind of hyper-detailed, Universe-spanning, sweep aside all in their path event-stories that, when they reached their conclusion, were only set-ups for the next one.
But I kept in touch, maintaining an awareness of what was happening, reading what turned up in the library in the Graphic Novel section. Never getting involved in the mainstream flow of things, though every now and then an unpretentious, genuinely enjoyable, written because the writer had a great idea story would turn up, and I’d be reminded of all the reasons I’d been reading this stupid, florid, unrealistic stuff for all these years. Mostly though, my comics reading was elsewhere.
So why did I like this stuff for all that length of time?
Mostly, because it was good fun. I started by liking the art, until I reached the point where good art, even great art, was insufficient if the story wasn’t worth my time. I used to read mostly SF or Fantasy, in which lights the superhuman events were palatable to me, and believable, to a given value of belief.
And there was the soap opera effect or, rather than that, when the standard of writing got high enough, the serial effect. Where else could you get serial fiction? Where a story, many stories, would advance over such broad periods of time, where the shared background of the Universe, with its multitude of locations, characters, conditions and cultures, would constantly surround you, immersing you in the impression of a complex environment.
Where swift action, high emotion and deep thought circled each other. Where you could enter a world that was nothing like your own, that you would never voluntarily reside in, but in which you could explore in perfect safety, and in which your own dilemmas might any week be reflected back at you in an elemental form of decisions and demands that had to be taken.
Where you were constantly given, month in, month out, week in, week out, that ultimate, fundamental thing without which no story can survive: What Happens Next?
So now we come to the gnat at which I strained. Or rather didn’t strain at, because I didn’t even try to take it in my mouth, let alone swallow it.
DC was in its Fifth World. It was going to change again. You may not have realised it, but through each change, even through the most massive of them all when Crisis on Infinite Earths thrust fifty years behind it, there was a continuum. The details differed, but the thread continued to be woven into the same pattern. Behind each reboot was a wealth of accumulated knowledge and story that allowed the next world to be both understandable and instantly complex.
Then came Flashpoint, a five issue series, culminating in August 2011, in a week when it was the only comic DC sold.
Once again the Universe changed: the Fifth World was replaced by the Sixth World. But the Sixth World was different. Radically different. It had no history.
In the newest Universe, post-Flashpoint, superheroes have only been around for five years. It was hard enough to squeeze the multitude of stories that were accepted as canon into the ten year sliding scale of the Universe and the New Earth Universes, but five years is impossible. And this was DC’s intent. This time, we no longer were in Kansas, and a new audience had a truly new jumping on point.
Almost twelve months later, has it worked? I don’t know, nor do I care. This time I have truly been left behind. Too much that was an integral part of my enjoyment has been uncreated. The New 52 has no Justice Society, because there is no longer any history in which a Justice Society could have existed.
(It is true that a new Earth-Two title has been created, written by a writer who was responsible for some of the best stories of the post Zero Hour Universe, stories that no longer ‘happened’, in which a new JSA is being created on a new Earth-2, but this JSA is like all the latter-day Dan Dares: they’ve got the name, and nothing else. I will never read them).
But there was that gnat. A silly thing, too trivial to even think about. Throughout my association with comics fandom, there were always people, obsessed people, people who never quite understood the point, who would call for a change that would immediately mature comics, remove that one thing that kept them from being taken seriously, stop them being seen as fit only for children: Superman’s knickers.
If only DC could be persuaded into changing it so he wore them under his tights instead of outside them!
And now he does. It was announced, ahead of the New 52, that Superman would no longer wear his pants over his tights. And in that small detail, that piece of trivia too tiny to think of, I saw just by what extent the Powers That Be had missed the point of change, and of refreshment.
It’s their Universe now. I still have the one I shared in. The comics still exist. Jack Knight still reluctantly takes his old man’s Cosmic Rod and, intending not to look for trouble, finds that he has to grow enough to understand what the Life demands. The Justice Society still exist in all their myriad forms. Wally West still outgrows the need for a mentor, Animal Man still gets the biggest, most ridiculous yet tearjerking ending of them all, to wake up and find it was only a dream, Swamp Thing still learns how to understand the Way of the Wood, and stop trying to be human. The fun is still funny, the drama still dramatic, the stakes are still higher than any sane person can believe in, but belief is still suspendable.
And Superman wears his knickers outside his tights. Who could want it to be any other way?
Our second walk was another Pass: Hard Knott’s complement, Wrynose. Hard Knott carried traffic on a steep, narrow fell-road from Eskdale to the head of the Duddon Valley: Wrynose carried traffic on a steep, narrow fell-road from Little Langdale to the head of the Duddon Valley. My parents remembered it from courting, had a story about helping a man to push his overheated car the final two hundred yards to the top – only for him to take one look down the other half of the pass and insist on turning his vehicle around and going back the way he came!
I’ve the vague impression my Uncle was with us on this walk, which gives me cause to doubt the firmness of my memories, especially in terms of our third walk, from which he was definitely absent.
Wrynose was very different from Hard Knott: there was no overland route. The road, tightly walled, rose high above the beck, clinging to the side of the pass, so we walked the tarmac, there and back, treading only on the grass at the unexpectedly broad summit.
I was almost as miserable as the first time, the difference being that I had a stake in this walk. At the top of Wrynose Pass stood the Three Shires Stone, a five foot high limestone monolith, marking the exact spot where the three ancient Counties that, together, contained the Lake District met. Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire – carved on the face of the Stone that looked to the Furness fields – came together at this point, and still do: the 1972 Local Government Reorganisation Act abolished the administrative counties, creating the Cumbria of today, but left alone the hereditary boundaries, a fact promptly forgotten by the whole country, except for the determined standouts, few of whom are left forty years on.
And I wanted to see the Three Shires Stone, so, since there was equally no prospect of my Uncle or Dad taking a car up Wrynose Pass, the only way to do so was to grit my teeth and walk.
It was still too far, my feet still hurt, it was still too steep, the sun was still too hot, it was still difficult, I was thirsty again, my boots were maybe not quite as uncomfortable but they were heavy and not what I’d have chosen to stick on my feet.
But I got there. I saw the Stone, I got photographed next to it, with the Stone beating me out for height, I looked down into Wrynose Bottom and couldn’t see what had made the man turn round all those years ago, and generally I only whinged about half as much as I had the first time. No changes on the route down, no Roman remains to distract us from getting back to the car and driving to somewhere were they sold ice cream, or maybe fizzy orange.
I’ve driven Wrynose myself since, again out of the Duddon and into Little Langdale, a short-cut back to Ambleside and maybe-a-pizza-for-tea. It’s not as fearsome as Hard Knott at either end, though I’ve never been back to do it a second time.
The picture is of the Three Shires Stone in the place it has stood since 1860. A nearby plaque, set into the roadside, records its history. In 1997 the Stone was found broken into four pieces, presumably the consequences of an unreported road accident, but was carefully restored by the National Trust and re-erected the following year.
Before The Beiderbecke Affair even finished, everybody wanted a sequel. Alan Plater wanted it. Yorkshire TV wanted it. James Bolam and Barbara Flynn wanted it (Flynn became a conservationist herself, so impressed was she by her character’s beliefs). And the audience sure as hell wanted it. So why did it take nearly three years before The Beiderbecke Tapes was broadcast?
As a future President of the United States would put it: it’s the economy, stupid!
Plater began by plotting Beiderbecke Two as another six parter, scripting two full episodes of a plot that would apply the expected laconic approach to ever bigger issues: the dumping of nuclear waste and supposed national security. Series two would have its international aspect, with Jill and Trevor accompanying a School Trip led by Mr Wheeler to Amsterdam, and winding up even further afield, in Athens, these scenes to form the bulk of the middle two episodes. There would be roles for all the favourites from The Beiderbecke Affair.
Yorkshire TV was delighted with the scripts but the country was heading into recession (when isn’t it?) and a series involving international filming was out of the question for the foreseeable future. Instead, with Yorkshire’s consent, and justifiable enthusiasm from Methuen after the sales figures for one book, Plater signed up to deliver The Beiderbecke Tapes as a novel, appearing in mid-1986.
(Initially, Plater had intended the series to appear as The Gillespie Tapes, with a possible third series to be called The Yardbird Suite, though I recall a contemporary interview that proposed a different Jazz giant for the third title. He was persuaded by Yorkshire TV that, as he had successfully impressed the name of Beiderbecke on the audience, he should stick to the brand.)
I don’t wish to sound negative, but, for reasons I will describe below, The Beiderbecke Tapes is the weakest of the trilogy and, given its history, it was at that moment that its fate was sealed.
The book was successful, and highly entertaining. The story is, naturally, loose, but once it gets under way, it is more central to events than its counterpart in the Affair, and, where Big Al and Little Norm appear in the unused episode one script, now they, and former Sergeant Hobson, make cameo appearances in the very late stages. I read it with great enjoyment and looked forward to its eventual onscreen version.
Things were not looking good. Everyone wanted it to appear but Yorkshire’s financial state was still a key factor. Now that the story existed in toto, they proposed to buy the rights from Methuen and commission Plater to adapt it as a single, two hour film. The writer was unhappy, the format simply not fitting the story, and requiring a truncation of the plot. The eventual deal was for two episodes, each of ninety minutes (ads included), effectively seventy-five minutes a throw.
Then, having bought the rights in full knowledge of the contents, Yorkshire refused to go to Athens: Rotterdam (as opposed to Amsterdam), yes, but no further afield. After heated discussions, in which Yorkshire made it plain that if Plater insisted on Athens, the show would be pulled, the writer decided to compromise, substituting Edinburgh for the Greek Capital.
Out went Big Al, Little Norm and Hobson. On the other hand, in came the spineless Mr Pitt, taking over from a newly created character in the Registry Office, Dawson in the novel. The Tapes finally reached the screen in December 1987.
Two years have passed since Trevor and Jill exposed corruption in local Government and the local Police. The story begins with Trevor being notified of the intention to demolish his flat to put in a motorway, Jill confidently assuring him that she’ll get it stopped, the flat being demolished and his moving in with her.
Two things happen: Mr Wheeler, the Headmaster, discovers two members of his staff co-habiting and coerces them into accompanying him on the School Trip to Rotterdam, at which point the whole of 5C signs up, cos Miss and Sir are dead cool cos they cohabit and they’re not married (this is 1987, remember). And Jill insists Trevor put up shelves to accommodate his Jazz records and tapes.
Which naturally requires a trip to the pub, where John the Barman is playing music, not muzak: Jazz: Bix Beiderbecke, in fact. (John is an ex-hippy who got bitten by the jazz bug after this series on TV a couple of years ago). John offers to make Trevor some tapes. The problem starts when one of the tapes isn’t of music but of men talking. About nuclear waste. And dumping it. In the Yorkshire Dales.
Jill takes charge, and the tape goes into “a safe place” (actually, into the handbag of Jill’s mentor, Sylvia, The Oldest Suffragette in Town – a joyous cameo by Beryl Reid.) However, recovery of the tape becomes the aim of certain unspecified security organisations, headed by Peterson, the Man with No Name. And in the wake of Peterson’s appearance as heavy, it appears that John the Barman has succumbed to a serious case of being run down by a car.
Between preparation for the School trip, handling Peterson (who may be fearsome but is easily outflanked) and trying to confirm John’s death, episode 1 – the halfway point, remember – ends with Trevor attending a funeral in quite heavy snow, only to find that John is also in attendance, just not in the coffin.
Episode 2 ups the action. Six men in grey suits, with at least one gun between them, prevent Jill and Trevor leaving on the School Trip whilst they thoroughly, but unsuccessfully, search the house for the Tape. Peterson pursues the pair onto the North Sea Ferry, where Trevor gets plastered with a jazz hero. Peterson declares his love for Jill and a completely smashed Trevor completely smashes him down with one punch.
In Rotterdam, our pair discover that 5C (and Mr Wheeler) have already been deported. The Grey Guardians follow them from bridge to bridge down a canal boat trip and a bunch of elderly Americans smuggle the supposed honeymooners onto their touring coach to Athens. Alas, however, Athens is next week’s itinerary, and Trevor and Jill are wafted off to Edinburgh. There they are cornered by the Grey Guardians, only to be rescued by the Americans springing a bagpipe band onto the Englishmen.
All is officially resolved offscreen. Sylvia confirms the tape is a fake, actors reading from a script, and Peterson makes a final appearance to explain to Jill what she has already worked out: that the tape was disinformation, intended to get into radical hands, be exposed and officially denied, to keep attention away from the less splashy but more serious proposals.
As with the Affair, the Tapes ends in the hills, or rather the Dales, with a piece of news. In the rush to get after the school trip, and the subsequent luxury of the Honeymoon Suite at a posh Edinburgh Hotel, Jill forgot her Pills, and Trevor is going to be a Father.
Watching it again, though I still enjoyed The Beiderbecke Tapes, I have to admit to making a too-critical comparison between it and the Affair. It had a lot of potential, and I’m sure that, given the breathing room of six episodes, it would have worked very well. But the moment that the initial scripts were stopped, that prospect was lost. It’s simply too short. Worse, it’s too thin, both in plot and texture. There is just not enough of it.
Having just recited it, let’s take first the plot. Plater was reaching for something larger in scope, something in which there would be a genuine element of danger to Trevor and Jill, and I think that in a mere 150 minutes, he can’t achieve that. There isn’t enough time to develop a real sense of risk, not to Trevor and Jill, not to our favourite gentle, bickering but essentially eternal pair. The Beiderbecke Affair established an off-kilter world, a gently different reality centred upon this pair: the Tapes doesn’t have long enough to break through that.
It’s not aided by the imbalance in the plot over the two episodes. Far too little happens in episode one: Peterson forces his way into Jill’s house once, breaks in twice (once offscreen), and retrieves a George Formby tape but lately posted at a proper Post Office, but that’s all the forces of evil do in the opening seventy-five minutes, leaving the rest to be squashed into the second seventy-five minutes, practically all of which has to be devoted to the plot, with anything else we might be watching this story to enjoy having to be spread on top, like margarine.
Given Plater’s sheer professionalism at writing for television, this imbalance is surprising to say the least. And it offers nothing to distract us from a doubly dubious ending that doesn’t add up.
If this tape is supposedly so important that not only Peterson is out to retrieve it, but also a separate department that works in sixes and is prepared to snatch British citizens into confinement in foreign countries (I am remembering Athens in the book here, as well as Rotterdam), why does everything fizzle out? An Old Etonian confiscates Trevor and Jill’s passports in Edinburgh and sends them home by train and suddenly no-one’s chasing this tape at all? And Peterson’s confessing it’s all been meaningless all the time?
The logic doesn’t quite work, and there’s nothing to get us looking at the magician’s face instead of his hands.
Because that’s the other side of the problem: the texture’s too thin. The Beiderbecke Affair might have centred on Jill and Trevor, but it wasn’t only about them, both in terms of eccentric characters and what was happening to them. Dudley Sutton contributes more cynicism as Mr Carter, but is woefully underused, Keith Smith is again the dreaded Wheeler, and Robert Longden drifts in as Mr Pitt, having taken ‘lateral promotion’ at a lower salary, and then drifts out again.
Nor do the new characters add much. Peterson is the heavy and the villain, and Malcolm Storrey does all he can with him, but he isn’t meant to be funny, quite the opposite rather, and whilst there are good performances from Beryl Reid as Sylvia, Peter Martin as Charlie, the cheerful gravedigger and a short comic Dutch accent from Bill Wallis, the Americans don’t convince as American accents, and nobody plays off anybody except Jill and/or Trevor.
There’s no texture, no cross-playing between different characters, no multiplication of stories: nothing outside the moving light of Mr Chaplin and Mrs Swinburne. And far too little that doesn’t relate to the plot, the way real life insisys on doing.
That said, it’s enjoyable, and it’s certainly no Get Lost! Revisited: we are far from that, and Barbara Flynn is still a delight to behold, though the shorter hairstyle is nothing like as flattering. The relationship between her and Trevor has grown. There’s still no overt romance, she’s not sure whether she’s going to totally take to him on a 24/7 basis, or at least so she says so, but ‘probationary cohabitee’ swiftly becomes a catchphrase in Trevor’s mouth, and we know it’s alright.
He’s more relaxed than in the Affair, and he talks back more, instead of just avoiding the point with a degree of fantasy. They’ll never ever use the word love, indeed they’ll look shocked if either of them ever does, but these two are a till death us do part duo, and that takes a little of the underlying tension out of it.
It might have been different in six episodes though. Plater did want to set the couple a test, something to overcome, but Peterson’s declaration of love is too implausible to be taken even momentarily seriously, and is allowed so little time as to be negligible.
So, what next? Plater had already begun work on series 3. Things come in threes, it’s a magical creative number. Beginnings, middles and ends. Besides, what are they going to do now they’re going to have a baby?