The Ones I Rarely Play: Richard Barnes – “Take to the Mountains”


Richard Barnes had a brief pop career that came closest to success in 1970/71, when three of his singles had massive backing from Radio 1, including Top of the Pops appearances for each one, yet failed to see him past no 34 in the singles chart. Take to the Mountains is a compilation CD released in 2007, bringing together all his singles, his one LP and two new tracks, recorded that year, and named after his best and most successful song.
I turned 14 in November 1969, knowing virtually nothing about pop music. My parents hated it, I never saw Top of the Pops (save for a few seconds, switching over from ITV to be ready for whatever followed it) and I didn’t start listening to Radio 1 until ten days from the end of the Sixties.
My tastes were naïve to begin with, unformed and impressionable, and I was open to the possible influence of everything as we entered 1970. Radio 1 played ‘Take to the Mountains’ and I was hooked.
It’s a big pop ballad, fully orchestrated, with a powerful chorus, and Barnes had a powerful, expressive voice. When he followed it up with the almost as good ‘Go North’ (to the same effect), I was hooked.
Barnes had started out as bassist and lead singer with The Quiet Five, one of many unsuccessful Sixties groups,relying on harmonies and a quieter sound than others, leaning towards what was not yet described as ‘middle of the road’. He’d gone solo in 1968 with a cover of Gary Puckett’s ‘Woman, Woman’ (it’s b-side, ‘The Princess and the Soldier’ is a minor gem) but seemingly didn’t record at all in 1969, before reaching his ‘peak’ with ‘Take to the Mountains’. This and ‘Go North’ were written by professional songwriter Tony Hazzard, a man with a good commercial and artistic track record.
But after 1971’s ‘Coldwater Morning’, a Neil Diamond cover, and Barnes’ last Top Forty entry (in a Top Thirty era), he effectively disappeared, leaving one final 1973 single and a re-issue of ‘Take to the Mountains’ behind for a stage career, taking over the lead role in Jesus Christ, Superstar on the London stage. That, apart from a 1976 album of duets with Tony Hazzard, including a cover of Hazzard’s Manfred Mann hit, ‘Fox on the Run’, released as a single, was that.
Some people, despite their talent, aren’t meant to make it. Richard Barnes had a great voice (and still does: on the two contemporary tracks on this compilation, his voice remains unchanged). But his failure to break through was in equal measure due to his being wrong for the times, and in being too middle of the road at heart.
Barnes’ voice was, in that respect, too good for pop, which never quite sounds right when sung by someone who sings clearly and confidently, with a rich, trained voice and a vocal range. Barnes, though something of a pretty boy, was too young and too pop for the kind of audience catered to by Tom Jones and Engelbert, but insufficiently rough and raucous, in every respect, for the younger audience.
His two 1970 singles might have done better a couple of years earlier, when Britain was enjoying a period of heavily orchestrated pop, by bands such as the Love Affair, the early Marmalade and the Casuals, but even then Barnes lacked the pop sensibility and dynamism of such tracks.
But in 1970, with the already legendary Sixties coming to an end, there was an atmosphere of change. So many pop bands, from all levels of the success spectrum, were suddenly going ‘heavy’. The underground came to prominence. Pop in its pure, innocent form was squeezed hard. And someone like Richard Barnes, who was not quite of the moment, whose music was too close to what your parents listened to, stood no chance.
Except with misfits like me, still working out what they liked and didn’t. Barnes’ voice, and the sheer quality of ‘Take to the Mountains’ and ‘Go North’, captured me, and a certain spirit of individualism, led to me declaring myself a fan. So, of course, I had to buy this.
I don’t play it often because, forty years on, I’m really not into MOR music. But this CD is part of my history, and Richard Barnes really is a bloody good singer, so it stays, to entertain me evey now and then, when the right mood strikes.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1978


Justice League of America 159, “Crisis From Yesterday!”/Justice League of America 160, “Crisis From Tomorrow!” Written by Gerry Conway, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Julius Schwartz.


For their annual meeting this year, the Justice League and the Justice Society attend a private meal at Gotham City’s exclusive “22” Club. For once, the heroes can simply socialise. Earth-1’s Batman tries to come to terms with meeting the Huntress, his counterpart’s daughter. The Star-Spangled Kid hates being called Sylvester. Those politically and socially polar opposites, Green Arrow and Hawkman, having got pissed together one night, are now bosom buddies. All is well, until the wall of the restaurant is blown in.
We cut to a timeless dimension bordering on 3786AD. The League’s old foe, the Lord of Time, is worried. The infallible computer he has built confirms that five historical figures have been sent to July 15, 1978. The Lord of Time, to ensure Earth’s survival, needs these figures to utterly defeat the League and Society.
This is because the computer, which he built to stop Time whilst he looted everywhen, has worked too well. It will stop Time, but Time cannot then be restarted. And he has built it too well for it to be destroyed.
Back on July 15, 1978, the attackers of the Club stand revealed. They are all characters from long ago DC adventure series set in the past: in chronological order, Jon, the Viking Prince, The Black Pirate, plunderer of Spain’s tyranny, Miss Liberty, heroine of the Revolutionary War, scarred bounty hunter, Jonah Hex, and Hans von Hammer, World War 1 fighter pilot for Germany. All have been enhanced with superpowers, and a second volley from von Hammer’s triplane brings the building down on the heroes.
Mystified as to how they have got there, how they can understand each other, and why they have attacked these strangers, the historical heroes retreat, at Miss Liberty’s suggestion, to a place where they can think.
After they leave, the heroes start to dig themselves out of the rubble. A handful of heroes are functioning – Leaguers Superman, the Flash, Hawkman and Elongated Man, JSAers Wonder Woman, Dr. Mid-nite, the Huntress and Star-Spangled Kid. The rest are comatose, in a state of shock, feverish. They are rushed to hospital by the survivors, who then seek out their attackers driven by an impassioned Hawkman, whose wife, Hawkgirl, is amongst those in a coma.
Superman’s X-ray vision detects a trail of chronal energy that leads the heroes to their assailants’ temporary base at Valley Forge. But, despite the massive imbalance in powers, they are easily, and comprehensively beaten by the historical quintet.
In an epilogue, the Lord of Time extracts his pawns and brings them to his Palace. They have done what he required: completely beaten the heroes. But the beaten come back stronger than ever. The League and Society awaken with renewed determination. Just as he planned.
End of Part 1.


Once again, the historical heroes have left a Chronal Energy trail that Superman can read. The superheroes follow it into the Lord of Time’s future side-dimension to resume the battle.
Meanwhile, the enraged historics mount an attack on the Palace itself, but the Computer responds by drawing in menaces from all over Time, a Tyrannosaurus Rex and mutated reptilian apes, which overcome this rebellion. They are sent back to their own times.
Back on Earth, fresh from Monitor Duty, Aquaman arrives at Gotham Hospital, concerned for the fallen. He recaps the Earth-1 & -2 set-up for new readers, gets inappropriately excited on hearing that there were survivors who have gone into the future and only then arranges to bring the League’s advanced medical diagnostic equipment down to deal with the strange radiation permeating everybody’s body.
The League and Society pursuers are nearing the Lord of Time’s Palace. The Elongated Man feels out of place in comparison to everyone else: they all have awesome powers and he can only stretch his body: what is he doing there?
The heroes run into the first of a series of barriers created by the Computer. They break through each in turn, but at the cost of losing another hero to each obstacle. Four get into the Palace itself, but The Huntress, the Star-Spangled Kid and Dr Mid-nite are taken out by a multi-armed robot, leaving only the Elongated Man to complete the mission. And, despite his doubts, he does so, blowing up the Computer by short-circuiting it with his own body. With seconds only to spare, Time is saved.
Back on Earth, the heroes are all restored by the simple expedient of using Green Lantern’s power ring to clear out the radiation from their bodies: all except Elongated Man, and he’s ok because his rubbery bones and organs kept him from being badly hurt in the explosion. He’s back to being boastful to his wife.
* * * * *
Despite what I’m going to say below, this is a distinct improvement on the last three years of the traditional JLA/JSA teamup. After Engelhart brought his run to a thunderous conclusion with Justice League of America 150, he was replaced by Gerry Conway who, with a few exceptions, would remain writer on the series until it was cancelled and rebooted in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Whatever I may think of Conway as a writer, and that needs to take into account my loathing of what he was to do in the following  year’s team-up, he brought a much needed sense of security and consistency to the Justice League, which was after all supposed to be one of DC’s flagship titles.
No mention of 1978 will be wholly accurate if it does not take into account the DC Explosion/Implosion, which seriously threatened the future of the company and which caused many very knowledgeable and intelligent people to predict that within five years, there would not be a comic book industry.
The Explosion was the brainchild of new DC Publisher, Jeanette Kahn, who had replaced the dismissed Carmine Infantino in 1977. Kahn, successful in publishing magazines for young people, was a complete Industry outsider, an unusual but ultimately successful choice. Looking at comics’ recent history of price increases, reduced content, reduced printing quality and DC’s by now traditional position as second to Marvel, Kahn’s solution was to get ahead of the price curve and offer more to the reader. Prices would jump to 50c, but story content would leap from 17 to 25 pages, with editors free to choose whether to extend the titular character’s stories, or re-introduce back-ups, to give different, unused or new characters a chance.
In one way, it was just another version of DC’s continually unsuccessful attempts to sell thicker comics for more, but whereas other such moves had smacked of a certain desperation, the Explosion was based on more positive attitudes, The line would be expanded, new creators taken on, experimentation encouraged, new ground seized. The publicity created enormous expectations.
Then, in the very month of the Explosion beginning, Warner Brothers looked at DC’s figures, panicked, and pulled the plug. Thirty-one titles, including five new series scheduled to start the following month, were cancelled in one go. The 44 page 50c 25 pages of content comic was cancelled and the line reverted to 32 pages with 17 of content, now for 40c. Credibility and confidence vanished like a mirage.
Ironically, Justice League of America was one of the few comics to have been losing pages in the Explosion. It had maintained its Giant size until issue 157, before dropping to the new format. As one of the titles surviving the Implosion, and with the issues already written and drawn, it was allowed to remain at Explosion size for three months, enabling this story to go out unchanged.
The following issue, it too dropped back to 17 pages for 40c.
The Justice Society of America was not so blessed. All-Star‘s first issue (#74) in the new size was the last of its revival, as the title was amongst those cancelled. The team did not vanish: its series was transferred into the new 100-page Dollar format in the struggling Adventure Comics and the already-prepared All-Star 75 was split over two issues of that.
So this team-up took place against a background of tremendous uncertainty. It would also be the last team-up to be edited by Julius Schwartz, who was reducing his workload and concentrating upon his work on the Superman titles. He had been the Justice League’s only editor in the nearly twenty years since their creation. At least he got to leave this tradition on a relative high.
Conway’s story reflected his interest in time-travel stories and his enthusiasm for having the JLA/JSA meet a group of DC’s historical characters. Jonah Hex, the extremely dark-edged bounty hunter was still in publication at the time, but the other four were vanished figures, characters from the Fifties and early-Sixties who had been pushed into obscurity by the Silver Age of superheroes.
Together, they fulfilled the ‘need’ for a third force without being as much of a contrivance as the Fawcett heroes had been.
To bring them into the story, Conway chose the early-League villain, the Lord of Time. The underlying idea is ingenious: the villain has set in motion a destructive scheme that he regrets but cannot stop: unknown to them, the heroes are his means of preventing the self-created disaster.
That much said though, there are an awful number of flaws to what is basically a decent story. Conway handles his five historic heroes well, especially in the scene where they compare notes about how they have come together and how they have been controlled – von Hammer, the ‘Enemy Ace’, is handled particularly well.
But the underlying issue Conway has to justify is how this quintet of ordinary people can overcome so many superheroes with so many diverse powers. All he can think of is some nebulous, unexplained energy that they disperse via their respective guns or swords or, in the Viking Prince’s case by, er, nothing.
It’s indicative of a poverty of imagination that has afflicted the superhero industry ever since the fans took over the writing. Nobody seems capable of thinking up powers that don’t just fire energy blasts all over the place, and this in Conway’s solution to ‘equalising’ the non-existent balance between the two sides.
The Lord of Time’s premise is that he needs to inflict the superheroes’ first ever defeat in order for them to come back stronger, strong enough to defeat his super-Computer. It’s another new angle, yet, assuming it is a viable notion at all, it depends entirely on its execution. The JLA/JSA must be beaten, and in a way that is different from any of those other times when they have been defeated – by the Crime Syndicate in 1964, the Black Spheres in 1967 and T.O.Morrow in 1968, just to pick out three off the top of my head.
Conway, via the Lord of Time, categorises these as ‘setbacks’, yet even within part 1, the ‘defeated’ heroes get up ready to fight again in a manner no different to such previous occasions.
As for the historics, once they have served their purpose, they are an unwanted and unnecessary presence in the story. Surely the Lord of Time would restore them to their rightful place in history, forgetful of their adventure? It is, after all, what he does after their rebellion against him in nearly 3786AD, a perfunctory ending for them. It reads like sloppiness on Conway’s part, as it’s patently obvious that this is the device to enable the JLA/JSA to track down the super-Computer.
However, given that the Lord of Time has done all this to get the heroes in fighting shape, I am forced to concede that this may actually be a deliberate manoeuvre: up to that point, the heroes have no idea who’s behind all this.
The historics’ last stand suffices to bulk out the second part, as does the embarrassing interlude in the hospital with Aquaman. This latter was, of course, chosen to host yet another of the increasingly tedious and long-winded explanations for the audience about the League and the Society, Earth-1 and Earth-2, etc., but it’s turned into something of a pantomime by the King of Atlantis, dealing out hugs to the female Doctor as soon as she mentions that the heroes not propped up in this surprisingly spacious ward aren’t dead (married man cops feel) and only then offering the use of the League’s advanced diagnostic equipment to, you know, sort of, help.
It’s supposed to be to determine why certain heroes were affected by this mysterious radiation, and others weren’t, but don’t worry, Conway has forgotten that part of the story by the end. As, incidentally, is the fact that the Lord of Time’s computer has sent the historics home on page 7, only for the Aquaman-led cavalry to mentioned that they sent the warriors back on page 25. That is sloppy, and something Schwartz should have caught.
But these diversions are only that: they’re present only to keep the issue from being the straightforward war of attrition as the heroes advance, sacrificing themselves one at a time with almost manic determination, to allow their fellows to proceed, until the last one left is the one least-suited for the task.
We know the Elongated Man is least-suited to defeat a super-Computer with incredible self-defence capability, because Ralph Dibny’s been telling us so from the start, thus telegraphing that he will be the only survivor left. Which is where Conway’s potentially interesting story hits its last hurdle. This complicated, some might say convoluted plot has been devised because the Computer is so strong, not even the full Justice League and Society, in their collective might can destroy it.
But an india-rubber man can stick his fingers in the futuristic equivalent of what looks like a plug-socket and, by short-circuiting it, cause it to blow up. Why didn’t the Lord of Time just pull out the plug, if it was so bloody easy?
Nice idea, inadequately executed (in some respects painfully so). Yet I still rate this as an improvement over the past three years? Perhaps that gives you an idea of how bad I think the last three stories have been. This effort is at least clear and logical and, whilst failing at its central premise due to lack of thought, doesn’t lose itself in ineffectually established, unnecessary and confusing circles.
Conway does bring in a greater underlying emotion than most previous adventures have done. We never really have seen the League and Society socialising, or simply responding as friends, and it’s a treat to do so. I do have certain reservations in this area: Batman’s musings about the Huntress, who is attending her first team-up, are wistful, but should perhaps not have been superimposed upon Helena Wayne clearly posing her curvaceous body, which lends a distinctively perverse undercurrent.
And I am far from impressed by Conway’s sudden decision, after years of hostility between the socially liberal Oliver Queen and the uptight, authoritarian Carter Hall, to turn them into bosom buddies, all polarities overlooked or forgiven, on the strength of one night going out (offstage) and getting tanked up. It doesn’t work, and what was so wrong with their entirely natural antipathy for each other’s views that Conway felt he had to destroy it?
I’m also very underwhelmed by the needlessly artificial way Conway tries to inject emotion into the aftermath of the historics’ attack that downs so many heroes. It’s not that there is anything at all artificial at Hawkman’s grief over Hawkgirl being injured, far from it. I’m just not convinced by the weight put on this incident, as if without it neither we nor any of the other survivors will understand that what has happened is a Very Bad Thing (it made Hawkman cry both under and through his hawk-helm, it must be serious).
At the time of this story, I read only the first part, the Implosion having buggered up the perennially dodgy distribution to British newsstands and the early comics shops. I was living in Nottingham at this time, when a visit to Ben’s Comics, between the cricket ground and Forest’s ground, was a long walk, affordable only once a month, and best completed by 12.30pm if Forest – the League Champions – were at home.
Finally, this is another story requiring only the most minor of tweaks to make eminently feasible in the post-Crisis Universe. Unfortunately so was the next.

Theatre Nights: Programme Notes


In 1993, Vertigo Comics began publishing a spin-off to Neil Gaiman’s extremely successful Sandman series. Entitled Sandman Mystery Theatre, the spin-off focussed on the adventures of the original, Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, creating the unique situation where the subject of a spin-off was the original character from whom its ‘parent’ series had been spun off.
Gaiman’s series bore almost no resemblance to the Golden Age crime-fighter, or any of the revived versions that had already been seen, but his character, Dream of the Endless, was inspired by the Sandman name, and one of the first steps he took on starting his series was to bind Wesley Dodds into its mythos. Dodds had had no origin story in the Forties, but had had a convoluted story spun for him only a couple of years earlier, by Roy Thomas, only for Gaiman to dismiss this in a single panel, providing the simpler, and much more thought-provoking notion that Dodds was driven to his alter ego by dreams caused by the absence of the mythological presence of Dream from the Universe.
This explanation was taken up by writer/artist Matt Wagner, most of whose work has been done in the independent market (Mage, Grendel), but who has occasionally dipped into DC to shake up some of its older conceptions Wagner pushed for a Wesley Dodds series that would reinterpret the character in the light of his dreams: driven by them to unravel puzzles and crime in the late Thirties: puzzles and crime that, beneath a very stylish pulp veneer, would focus upon the genuine social ills and hypocrisies of the era. In 1993, he was given his opportunity.
Mystery Theatre would never hit the commercial heights of Gaiman’s series, but it sold enough to run for just under six years: 70 monthly issues, an Annual, and a couple of short stories in Vertigo compilations. As so often happens on cancellation, there were promises of repeat business, in mini-series, but the end of issue 70 was the end, even though that was (deliberately) halfway through the latest play.
Because that was the series’ conceit: that each story arc was a four-act play, with a different stage designer, or artist, for each drama.
Matt Wagner was the inspiration behind Mystery Theatre but only wrote the first three arcs, issues 1-12. After that, he worked with Steven T Seagle from issue 13 to 52, plotting each story for Seagle to dialogue. Wagner then withdrew from active contribution, limiting himself to suggesting settings and themes, before dropping out entirely after issue 62, leaving Seagle as sole scripter.
The intention was for each arc to be drawn by a different artist whose work was suited to the noirish, Thirties setting, and the first three arcs were drawn by Guy Davis, John Watkiss and R G Taylor respectively. But Davis’s renditions of Wesley Dodds and Dian Belmont, and the supporting characters, not to mention his depiction of the era, was so powerful and defining that an arrangement was worked out for him to become the series’ semi-permanent artist, drawing two arcs each year, with the third drawn by a guest artist.
To date, 52 issues of Sandman Mystery Theatre have been collected in a series of eight graphic novels, a mixture of single and double-arc collections. There are currently no plans for volume 9, though (assuming that the Annual and the short stories are not to be reprinted) the rest of the series could be collected in two further volumes.
The series ended midway through its final drama, with Wesley and Dian suddenly leaving New York, with the mystery of the latest monster unsolved, but with other mystery-men, not to mention the Police, poised to take it on, and with enough clues (allegedly) having already been given to enable the reader to decipher the mystery alone. This depiction of Wesley Dodds permeated back into DC itself, and the Justice Society, but it didn’t sell in the numbers needed to keep the series going, and in the New 52, there is no Sandman comparable.
So join me beneath the proscenium arch, as the curtain goes up on a series of plays, as the spotlight shines upon a dark stage, and those corrupted players  move upon it. Settle comfortably in your seat, ensure all mobile phones are switched off, and let the house lights dim. Appearing in our first performance, for your delectation, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the first play by our Repertory Company…. The Tarantula.

The Ones I Rarely Play: “We’re the Banana Splits”


The Banana Splits Show was around for about a year, in 1968 or 1969, when I was between 12 and 13. It was an American show that was shown about 5.00pm, the ideal time for getting back from school and having fun before tea and homework took over. I was the right age for it, just discovering the possibilities of absurdity: the greatest era of children’s TV is when you’re between 12 and 13.

It was about four guys dressed up as giant furry animals, running around some massive American fairground (Six Flags over Texas, it said, a rare early instance of me actually reading the credits). They’d meet in a clubhouse, tell outrageous jokes and puns, play songs, run after the bus, take out the trash, cower in fear from the Orange Crush Gang, eight year old girls who danced around, and be wonderfully, wonderfully silly.

And there were cartoons, and a live action serial titled ‘Danger Island’ which we all watched religiously, and we’d shout ‘Uh-oh Chongo!’ to each other, after one of the characters in the serial, and avoid talking about the girl with the long blonde hair, because we weren’t quite ready for that yet: well, I certainly wasn’t.

Then, inside the first two minutes of the second series, the Banana Splits, who’d been like real-life animated characters, turned into actual animated characters, and it was rubbish, and I never watched it again.

Years later, it kept reappearing, and I’d video episodes hoping to capture those one or two songs that had stuck in my memory, I mean, really stuck in my memory, from one, or maybe two hearings. By then, I’d discovered a taste for mid-to-late Sixties clean-cut American pop, bordering on but not actually bubblegum, and there was one Banana Splits song that was so perfect an example that I’ve never been able to understand why it wasn’t put out as a single and become a big hit.

Fast forward to about a dozen years ago and one of those late Sunday night cross-country drives, bringing the kids back from seeing their father. From somewhere, the conversation turns to the Banana Splits and those great songs, and their not having been released, until simultaneously we think of the internet. And, sure enough, a search as soon as we get in turns up this CD, in California, at an easily affordable price, and ten days later it arrives.

It’s an oddball of a compilation. First, there’s the We’re the Banana Splits LP of old, plus nearly a half-dozen bonus tracks from the series. Then it’s paired with another Sixties cartoon album, Here Come The Beagles, taken from the cartoon series ‘The Beagles’, which, to the best of my knowledge, was never broadcast over here, which provides ten tracks, but after that is another four bonus bonus tracks from the Banana Splits, which is weird programming.

Apparently, the CD was an unofficial release, mastered from the vinyl copies, with the benefit of noise reduction processing (which works incredibly well), but it covers the vast majority of the groups’ recorded output, or rather, let’s be honest here, the various combinations of LA session singers and musicians (which include Al Kooper, Barry White and Gene Pitney!) used to produce these tracks, who were working on a purely commercial basis.

I’m not usually into manufactured music, but you can’t love Sixties music as I do without recognising that a considerable amount of it was created as a purely commercial enterprise, overtly or covertly, by professional songwriters and producers, and yet so much of even that is art itself: happy, warm, living music that belies its cynical origins to sparkle.

The Beagles (and we can guess where that name comes from) were a two-piece who apparently took off Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as their personas (but then the wonderful Top Cat took off Phil Silvers as Sgt. Bilko, so let’s not quibble). Their songs date two to four years earlier than the Banana Splits, and it shows in their relative flatness: they’re responses to the British Invasion and lack any true inventiveness, where the Banana Splits music is derived from American pop and bubblegum: it’s original inspirations are further back, allowing a richer, more vivid palate to surface.

The styles of songs range too widely to be the ‘product’ of a single band. They’re catchy, but not all that memorable, except for the three tracks which make this CD worth keeping, one from the album, one from the bonus tracks and one from the bonus bonus tracks. Extracting these tracks and playing them together is a clear reminder that this is session work, for the lead vocals differ significantly from track to track.

But ‘Wait till Tomorrow’ is that perfect piece of cleancut pop, light, airy, with the most gorgeous, yearning chorus, all love from that time when holding hands is still a major breakthrough, all love lost but there to be recovered, given time: wait till tomorrow/we’ll find each other again/just wait till tomorrow/tomorrow we will learn to love again.

‘I enjoy being a boy (in love with you)’ (which was only ever given away with Kellogg’s box-tops) is a slice of psychedelia, with gravelly vocals and fantastic imagery and is one of the few songs ever to use the word ‘mellifluous’ in its lyrics.

And ‘I was the very first kid on my block’ is again a piece of pure pop, guitar based, a song on the edge of maturity as its narrator relates how he was the very first kid on his block to fall in love, with a girl who used him for fun, manipulating him without thought for his feelings. The song is his rueful acceptance of his experience, his dealing with the hurt and emerging strong, yet not unchanged: ‘I’ll forget about her in a while and then/I’ll be the very last kid on my block to fall in love again’.

I could easily rip those tracks, add them to a CD of my own making, but I like to hear them in their context. The golden age of children’s TV is between 12 and 13, and these were the only unmediated pop music I heard in a household where my parents hated the sound of it. This CD allows it to still be there.

The Ones I Rarely Play: Angelo Badalementi – “Soundtrack from Twin Peaks”


I bought this one because I loved Twin Peaks (that the cliffhanger ending to season 2 was left unresolved because the series was cancelled is, twenty-two years on, a nagging frustration), and because its soundtrack was not just the most apt I have ever heard but almost a character in itself.

The CD is like visiting Twin Peaks: Badalamenti’s slow, soft, atmospheric, jazz-inflected sounds offer minimalist melodies, of which the theme music is a perfect example. It appears here as the opening and closing tracks, the latter being the vocal version, entitled ‘Falling’, a number 8 hit in the UK, sung by the impossibly fragile-sounding (and looking) Julee Cruise. The track is built around the repeated three-note bass riff, overlaid with a synthesizer playing the main melody, rising slowly towards a peak.

Another example is the theme for the Man from Another Place, which is built upon a shuffling rhythm of plucked double bass and lightly brushed percussion providing the platform for a saxaphone to blow.

I said jazz-inflected above. I am not into jazz, I know very little about it and understand even less, so my comments here betray a deep-rooted ignorance. What I hear is a smoky, lazy sound, music that plays in dark, sparsely populated clubs whose patrons sit in silence, absorbing the sound as much through their skins as their ears. In the series, the music is not only on the soundtrack: Julee Cruise’s band are the houseband at the Roadhouse and their performances are incorporated into the story: it adds another layer of strangeness to the show that this avant garde, ‘cool’ music is the choice of everyone, especially the high schoolers, as opposed to something more representative of the time.

But Twin Peaks is about strangeness. beneath a surface veneer of normality, and so is its music. The CD evokes the television show, but is a presence in its own right. When I listen, I think of Twin Peaks, but not of any specific scenes. The music exists on its own, not merely as a background, or an influence, to words and actions.

There are three vocal tracks from Jule Cruise on the CD, the perfect balance to the intstrumental tracks, and each feature the wispy, not-quite-falsetto voice of ‘Falling’. All lyrics are by Twin Peaks co-creator David Lynch. The CD sets its own mood and every now and then I go under its power.

The Ones I Rarely Play: Laurie Anderson – “Big Science”


I bought this album in 1982 because of ‘O Superman’, which had originally been played by John Peel, the previous year, after a trip to New York looking for new sounds. ‘O Superman’ was stunning, a near 9 minute epic based on the continuous flow of breathy ‘ah – ah ah’, over which Anderson intoned rather than sang a cryptic story of seemingly banal concepts, leading again and again to the disturbing threat/promise of “Here come the planes…”.

Peely played it, I thought it was amazing and bought an import copy of the single, which I still possess. That was before it was released in the UK and, unbelievably, rose in two weeks to the number 2 position in the charts, even though Radio 1’s DJ’s were at best only playing two-thirds of the track. That reminds me of my first car, and my first few days of going away by myself, and hearing this on the radio. Of course it was no more than a novelty for the bulk of its buyers, much as Joe Dolce’s ‘Shaddap Your Face’ had been, but infinitely better.

Anderson was a Performance Artist, not a musician, and this was the first time I’d heard that term. ‘O Superman’ was part of a two-night performance piece, United States Live I – IV, and the Big Science album was a collection of some of the more music oriented pieces of that suite. The title track is the closest to an orthodox song, with a melody and genuine singing from Anderson, who talks her way through most of this album, her voice filtered more often than not through different forms of electronic distortion that it as much as part of the music as the mostly electronic instrumentation.

Being in only one dimension, that of sound, the ‘songs’ are limited from the outset. It’s a mainly electronic album, though as far from the bpm of dance music as it is possible to conceive. Anderson works by repetition, little phrases and rhythms, over which her voice draws the listener to try to understand the visions she’s seeing.

I keep this mainly for ‘O Superman’, which is still an extreordinary piece, undulled by repetition, and a constant reminder of what the British public can sometimes take to their fickle hearts, even in novelty (the single’s chart life was 16 – 2 – 3 – 18 – 35). It reminds me of its era, of being in my first, post-qualification job, of the new freedom of my first car. But I like it overall; its quirkiness, its atmosphere, the sense it gives of fragments surrounding a larger, ultimately absent but nevertheless defined shape, its sheer difference from everything else in my collection.

This is the time. And this is the record of the time.

A Bloody Embarrassment


As regular followers of this blog will know, I spent long years as a fan of Droylsden FC, a non-League football club on the eastern margins of Manchester, based in the Borough of Tameside.
I first went to see the Bloods (a nickname shared with only one other English Club, Essex’s Saffron Walden Town) in 1969, and spent two long spells following the club, from 1969 to 1980 in the Cheshire League, and again from 1995 to 2003, in the Unibond Northern Premier League.
In the latter spell, I became involved in the club itself, as match-day reporter in the local press, programme editor and main contributor for five years, and Vice-Chairman on the Supporters Club formed in 1999 in the wake of the Bloods’ greatest ever season, a marathon effort that ended with the club winning promotion to the Premier Division by the narrowest of margins.
Droylsden’s success in achieving that, and the success the Club has enjoyed subsequently – elevation to Conference North, winning that Division, a season in the Football Conference Premier and twice reaching the FA Cup Second Round Proper – is due to Chairman/Manager Dave Pace, a local double-glazing merchant who played for Droylsden as a Junior, and who has owned the Club since before 1995.
Pace has put at least £1,000,000 into Droylsden (that estimate was made several years ago and is undoubtedly much higher), and as well as being Chairman, he has managed the team since 1998, with a series of coaches assisting him, currently long-term Droylsden player and coach Aeon Lattie. He’s committed the team throughout this period to a ground-based, passing game, as opposed to lumping long balls forward, and when it has worked it has resulted in both exciting and attractive football, and plenty of wins. The fact that a club the size of Droylsden that, despite its success on the field, cannot command a committed support of more than a few hundred, would reach the Football Conference, is due to Dave Pace and the money he has pumped into improving ground facilities beyond all recognition, and paying good footballers to perform for the Bloods.
By the time that happened, I had stopped going to Droylsden on anything more than a very occasional basis, and that is also because of Dave Pace, and I am far from being the only person that thinks that way.
I’m not going to use this blog as a means of rehearsing my particular grievances. But it is acknowledged that Pace, who is not always the most diplomatic of people, is very single-minded and that this extends to his ownership of Droylsden FC. The Club is under his sole control, and therefore what he says goes. He is determined to maintain that control in every respect, and that has led at times to friction with the Supporters Club, which was set up as (and I assume remains) an independent Supporters Club and thus, whilst devoted to Droylsden, not under the control of its Chairman. The early enthusiasm of the Supporters Club to assist in any way possible, and its ideas (from a supporter’s perspective) as to what might be done to aid the Football Club, fell by the wayside over the fact that such ventures would have been outside Pace’s direct control.
Droylsden’s peak was the season in the Football Conference premier in 2007/8. Even as they won Conference North at the end of the previous season, my thought was that success the following year would mean finishing 23rd. I wasn’t just being cynical, I was being coldly practical, and unfortunately I was correct, Droylsden came straight back down, in 24th place, a last-day defeat costing them even the dignity of finishing second bottom.
It’s been downhill ever since, though not, initially, with the precipitousness that these past two seasons have displayed. The Club maintained its position in Conference North until 2012/13 and, to be honest, I paid them virtually no attention. I do recall the 2010/11 FA Cup, Droylsden reaching the second Round Proper against Leyton Orient, and the disaster of the replay away: leading 2-0 after 54 minutes, Droylsden conceded first an equaliser, and then, in extra-time, six more goals in a complete collapse that saw them knocked out 8-2.
The irony now is that the Bloods no longer have any money. A large tax bill, which Dave Pace has honourably chosen to pay rather than go into bankruptcy, has left him unable to put into the Club the kind of money he has done before now, and without Pace’s support, Droylsden FC is far from capable of supporting itself. The result has been collapse on the field.
Droylsden were relegated last season with 22 points from 42 games and a goal difference of -81, having conceded 124 goals. They were only saved from being bottom by the even more extreme plight of Leicestershire’s Hinckley United. In the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League, Droylsden are doing a Hinckley: they are in freefall.
Tomorrow, Droylsden are set to play at home to Liverpool’s Marine. It will be their 31st League match of a 46 game season. Of their first 30 games,  the Bloods have drawn 2. the other 28 have been lost, including the last 22 in a row. The defeats have been unending, and few have them have been close: already this season, Droylsden have suffered home defeats of 10/0 and 9/0 – the latter at the hands of local rivals Ashton United on New Year’s Day.
Should Droylsden lose Saturday’s game by two clear goals or more, they will, before the end of January, reach a goal-difference of -100 or more. Just think about that for a moment.
My first season ‘back’ at Droylsden, in the mid-Nineties, saw the Club concede exactly 100 goals, and be relegated from the Northern Premier League Premier Division (on goal-difference) on the last day of the season. The 100th goal was conceded in the penultimate match of a 42 game season.
This is an entirely different order of things. Though mathematically Droylsden are not yet down, the fact is that they would need to win ten and draw one of their remaining 16 games, without any of the four teams above them (two of which have a game or games in hand) adding a single point just to escape the relegation zone, means that the position is as hopeless as it could possibly be.
Last time they were relegated from this Division, Droylsden conceded 100 League goals: this season, they conceded that number before the New Year.
What is the cause of this spectacular collapse? The answer is money: the Club owed £100,000 to HM Revenue and was placed under a transfer embargo. The easy option was to let the Club go into Administration, write-off the debt, or at least the vast majority of it, and accept a mandatory three-level demotion (to the North West Counties League Premier Division). Instead, and to his credit, Pace chose to pay off the money in full, from his own pocket, and take a one-level relegation.
What has happened this season was not on Pace’s agenda.
As I said, I was (twice) a committed Droylsden fan, and on the second occasion the link was broken by Dave Pace. Like many others who have, in one way or another, gotten on the wrong side of him, I’m not prepared to go back whilst he is there: which, realistically, means never. Though I did return in November, as an away fan supporting FC United of Manchester: it felt extremely strange entering that ground to support the opposition and I couldn’t shake a certain sense of betrayal (FC won by a comfortable 4-1, which at another time might have felt like a spanking but, in the light of the scores the Bloods have been conceding, was no more than a light slap).
For most of the first half of this season I have been enjoying the results almost unreservedly. The reasons I have no time for Dave Pace are, in my eyes, full justification for enjoying the spectacle of his Club being completely humiliated as they have been, over and over. Though the 10-0 home defeat sobered up even me.
My only regret was for the loyal fans, who appear now to have been whittled down to about 120 people, several of whom I know and at least one who used to be a good friend. However much Dave Pace might deserve this, they surely don’t. But they’re taking it, and they’ll take it next season in First Division North, and all credit to them for their loyalty.
Now the only question is how deep the embarrassment will extend. Last week, the transfer embargo was lifted, and the Club is desperately trying to attract new players. Marine’s manager has already warned his team and fans about complacency, unless they should find themselves facing a Droylsden side unrecognisable from that which has been humiliated over and again. Surely something can be done to prise a win – or even another draw? – out of those sixteen remaining games.
On the other hand, you have to ask what player of the grade required would go to a Club that’s a stone-cold certainty for the drop?
Still, there is a ray of hope: unbelievably, two levels higher and a few miles distant, another of Droylsden’s Tameside rivals, Hyde (formerly Hyde United), having been going through an almost identical nightmare in the Conference Premier, having accumulated only four draws and no wins in the first 29 games of their League season (though with a negative goal difference less than half that of Droylsden). What chance two such appalling records within so small an area?
Then, at the 30th attempt, Hyde won, and away from home too! (Though they crashed 6-2 at home next game).
The example is there,and for the sake of Colin, and Mouse, and Leachy, and Rusty if he’s started going there again, Mike from Crewe and the Marshes, Stroller, Steve Jarvis, and Nigel Randall too, not to mention good old loyal Aeon, I hope the Bloods can muster up one win to give them relief, even whilst I hope for Dave Pace, and others I shalln’t name, I hope that the egg continues to be spread, liberally, face-wise.
Because Droylsden FC ultimately is Dave Pace, and he’s deprived me of what was once my team, and I do not forgive.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier – 1977


Justice League of America 147, “Crisis in the 30th Century!”/Justice League of America 148, “Crisis in Triplicate!” Written by Paul Levitz and Martin Pasko (147), Martin Pasko (with an assist by Paul Levtiz (148), art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.


Having captured the Psycho-Pirate on Earth-1 in All-Star 68, the Justice Society enjoy a breather on the Justice League’s satellite, a get together extended when Green Arrow’s boxing glove arrow switches off the transmatter cube, much to the annoyance of Wildcat. Power Girl seems very taken with a much younger Superman who isn’t actually her cousin and the Star-Spangled Kid is snottily jealous over it.
This scene is interrupted when a gigantic hand penetrates the satellite. It grabs ten heroes, five from each team – Leaguers Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow and Black Canary, JSAers Doctor Fate, Hawkman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Power Girl – and drags them 1,000 years through time, to 2977, the time of the Legion of Superheroes. The hand belongs to their sorcerous foe, Baron Mordru.
Mordru, present in his spirit form, is disappointed. He did not want more heroes, he wanted to seize those three mystic talismans, the Green Bell, the Silver Wheel and the Red Jar, which govern the imprisonment of the League’s old foes, the Three Demons, Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast.
In order to regain his place as master of the planet Xerox, Mordru plans to release the Three Demons. But the whereabouts of the three artefacts have not been known since the Justice League satellite exploded some time in the past millennium. Mordru has located them and imprisoned five Legionnaires as hostages to force the rest of the Legion to retrieve the artefacts. When they failed to return, he tried to snatch them from 1977 but failed.
The historical heroes attack him but are easily overcome and Mordru threatens to kill them, though he is surreptitiously persuaded by a spell from Doctor Fate to send eight of the heroes after the Legionnaires, keeping Green Arrow and Black Canary in a mystical hourglass round his neck, to drown in sand if the heroes don’t move fast enough.
Hawkman, Superman and Doctor Fate rescue Sun Boy and Wildfire from a planet of shape-changing aliens that worship the Silver Wheel. When Doctor Fate mocks up stars to cover the snatching of the wheel, the aliens switch to worshipping stars instead.
Batman and the two Lanterns succeed where Brainiac 5 and Princess Projectra have failed to persuade a planet to give up the Green Bell, whose ringing drives off the space Dragons that menace the planet: the Lanterns sculpt the shape of the Dragon’s natural enemy into the planet, creating a space Scarecrow.
And Power Girl and the Flash enter another dimension where the Red Jar, in its vault, is guarded by one of a number of strange frog-like aliens, who are actually all mothers sitting on eggs, and the one they have to deal with has actually mistaken the vault for her real egg, and hops off as soon as her actually baby is produced.
By now, we’ve learned that Mordru has no intention of keeping his word about releasing the prisoners, but the Flash and Power Girl refuse to hand over the Red Jar until this happens. As Mordru turns to the three artefacts, the heroes attack him, but they’ve forgotten all about Green Arrow and Black Canary, who are still in the hourglass and have to back off.
So Mordru releases Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast, but when he orders them to destroy the Thirtieth Century they refuse to acknowledge him as their master and turn on him. The Twentieth Century heroes are disappeared, except for the Arrow and the Canary, whilst the Three Demons plan to destroy the artefacts so that they can never be imprisoned again.
End of Part One.


A bunch of Legionnaires attack the Three Demons fruitlessly: the artefacts are destroyed. Under the Demon’s spell, the Legionnaires take Mordru’s spirit form to unite it with his physical body. What this might do to Green Arrow and Black Canary concerns them, but in the short run the hourglass is upturned, saving them.
The Demons turn to taking over the Thirtieth Century, but for the first time ever, their plans diverge.  Abnegazar wants to make peace, to join in with the harmony of the planet, Rath wants to take it over, exploit its power and Ghast to restore Earth to its original form, when only they existed.
The Demons are split, but they are too equally matched in power to destroy each other, so Abnegazar takes five Legionnaires as his proxies, to fight for him. Rath and Ghast reverse the dismissal of the JLA/JSA back to their own time and drag them back to 2977, the JSA serving Rath and the JLA under the dominion of Ghast.
The three teams start a three-cornered battle. Meanwhile, at Mordru’s tomb, Green Arrow and Black Canary are about to be buried when Green Lantern 1 turns up to rescue them, and turn them into puppets of Ghast as well. Another battle with the Legion rages.
But it’s noticeable that Power Girl alone among the JSA has some mental resistance to Rath, like the JLA have to Ghast. That is attributed to her (and their) greater youth and stamina, though it doesn’t appear to do anything for the Legion.
At first, the JLA and Power Girl use their freer will to let the Legion beat them, but a more permanent solution is needed. The League theorise that just because Rath controlled the JSA, Ghast assumed he needed only the same amount of magic to control the League. So they plan to get themselves knocked out, and let the JSA and the Legion fight each other to a standstill, so that the Demons have to face each other directly again.
The plan succeeds. Abnegazar and Rath turn on each other, the latter forced to relinquish his hold on the JSA. Doctor Fate, first to recover, leads an attack that is thwarted when the two Demons destroy each other, leaving only Ghast. His body energized by the release of magic, Fate summonses the fragments of the JLA satellite from all across the Universe,, forming these around Ghast. Infused as they are with the magical residue of the three artefacts, the satellite imprisons Ghast again.
With the menace defeated, the JLA and JSA can return to their own time.
* * * * *
At the back of Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 4, collecting this and the two previous team-ups, there’s an amusing piece about the changes that DC was going through in the years represented by these stories: about how DC’s comics, in their slow-moving, monolithic manner, were turning towards extended stories, told over a series of issues.
What this means, without mentioning once the cause of such a development, was that DC, over a dozen years later, was finally trying to emulate Marvel and pretend to a continuity.
It didn’t last long: in the following year, the much-ballyhooed DC Explosion/Implosion would reset the base form back to single issue stories that could still be read in more or less any order you chose without making any difference to their sense.
This essay is amusing in that it has almost no bearing on any of the three stories from this period. Indeed, the article makes much of the fact that these Justice League stories are completely uninfluenced by anything else happening to the heroes at the time.
The closest we come to any such concern is in the 1977 team-up. By the time this story saw print, the Justice Society had been active in their own series, in the revived All-Star, for eighteen months, at first under Gerry Conway, then for the past half-year by a young Paul Levitz. Thus we can commence the team-up in the most unusual fashion possible, without any semblance of a Crisis, on any Earth you care to mention.
It’s the beginning of a new phase for the JLA and JSA. From here, their joint adventures will almost invariably start as social events, as the two teams gather for the fun of it, and not at the behest of conveniently spaced menaces.
But the idea that the team-up now had to involve a third force was cemented in place, and in the absence of any other teams from the past, Julius Schwarz opted to go for a team from the future, in the ever-popular Legion of Super-Heroes. It was surely inevitable at some point.
Although Justice League of America now had a permanent writer in Steve Engelhart, spending a year at DC doing his balls-out best as a ‘Fuck You’ to a Marvel Comics that he believed had shafted him, Engelhart was not to write this team-up. Whether this was because he had no interest in doing so, or was not trusted, I don’t know. But with the young Levitz also writing the Legion, it made perfect sense for him to play a major part in the story, along with Pasko.
As for the discrepancy in the credits for the two issues, Levitz has admitted that due to over-committing himself as a young and eager writer, he was not able to do more than kibbitz on the second part. So at least we know who to blame.
The story is interesting in its first part, despite some early sloppiness. Dillin’s pencilling is appalling on the first page: for those unfamiliar with the character, the Psycho-Pirate is neither ten feet tall nor as immobile as a cigar store Indian, but that’s how he’s drawn. Wildcat’s punch-drunk slurring was part of a Levitz plot, but Power Girl’s strident feminism has gone out of the window at the sight of Superman’s muscles and the Star-Spangled Kid’s adolescent whininess over the fact she doesn’t fancy him in the slightest was tedious then and soul-destroying now.
Thank God therefore for Mordru’s millennium-crossing hand, though we might want to gloss over the miraculous manner in which all such devices infallibly bring back a perfectly balanced mix of heroes from each team.
These minor issues aside, the first half of the story sets things up well, until its conclusion. We can overlook the League being effortlessly superior to the hapless Legion – they’re only children, after all – and we can perhaps ignore the patronising way in which two planets are tricked into surrendering their artefacts. Well, maybe we can ignore the planet of shape-shifters and their primitive worship, but I for one find it less easy to accept a race of other-dimensional frog-types that are so amazingly dumb that they can mistake a metal vault for an egg: you know, their baby.
And there’s yet another demonstration of the failure of superheroes to remember anything, ambushing Mordru whilst he’s still got his hostages under complete control. Whilst it’s plausible perhaps in the Legion and, to a lesser degree, the Justice Society, how the hell can the Justice League forget Green Arrow and Black Canary?
But this is as nothing to the second part. Rich Buckler’s cover for it is sadly indicative: a shapeless, ill-conceived ring of heroes fighting each other. Because whilst the idea of the Three Demons, after all eternity, ceasing to think alike is interesting, the decision to conduct their fight by proxies, one team per Demon, leads into a dull fight-by-numbers stodge, with no clear line of development, and a very convoluted attempt to elevate the League above its guests, at the expense of the Justice Society.
I’ve mentioned before the tendency to slight the JSA in these team-ups, making them out to be inferior to the League. At the beginning of this series, that was at least explicable, given the unconscious imperative that the star should star, but the longer things went on, the more the Society were treated as equals.
But there’s no trace of that in the issue to which their scripter barely contributed. On the contrary, the JSA are under Rath’s complete domination, no leeway – except for Power Girl, because she’s young and has more mental strength. And why does the League have so much freedom of mind? Because Ghast foolishly assumed he could take them over with the same amount of magic as Rath had used, and this was foolish because the JLA were so much younger and inherently mentally able to resist.
That this is arrant bullshit that should never have been considered for an instant is further emphasised by having it come from Black Canary, who, let us remind ourselves, was actually a member of the Justice Society and is therefore considerably older than anyone around her in the Justice League, oh yes, and Power Girl, but has all the mental acuity of the superior beings of the League…
Astute followers of this series will, I hope, have already started muttering about the twenty-year rule, that Denny O’Neill conception that made the Society almost exact contemporaries of the League. Though this notion was never officially abandoned, it should henceforth be disregarded. In the pages of All-Statr, the Justice Society have gone back to being veterans – implicitly so under Conway, explicitly under Levitz, who had approached taking the series over by working out exact ages and biographies for each participant.
It’s a peculiarity of this year’s event that, although it occupies one issue fewer than its predecessor,  it is almost a third again as long as the Earth-S story. That had appeared in the year when the mainstream American comic book had reached probably its lowest ebb as a physical entity. Rising prices throughout the Seventies had been ever more frequent, but would have been far more common if the industry hadn’t conspired to do the comic worse and worse to cut expenses.
Thus, by 1976, the standard DC comic consisted of only 17 pages of art, as opposed to the 22 of the Sixties, and a three-issue team-up only added up to 51 pages of story, including splash pages and recaps.
To counter this, DC had decided to jump some of its titles, Justice League of America included, to a Giant-size. It wasn’t the 100-page Spectaculars of 1974, but then again it did not include reprints. With 32 pages of story in #147, and 34 in #14, this story topped out at 64 pages overall. And whilst the additional space suited the three-team format, we can perhaps be a little more generous to Pasko and Levitz, if we bear in mind that neither had great experience at plotting their stories out to this length.
Engelhart would return for an explosive two-part finale in the next two issues of Justice League of America before getting out of comics ‘for good’, after which Gerry Conway would take the series over until its end, writing, in the process, more issues than even Gardner Fox. The Justice Society would go back to All-Star Comics 69, and an explosive end to their current plot-line.
Future team-ups would not be as dire as these last three (actually one of them would be even worse, but I am prejudiced about that story and if I am to be objective about it, even my virulent loathing of it allows me to accept that it was less of a mess). Though the Justice Society’s future publication history was not to be stable, they would not find themselves wholly reliant upon two issues of Justice League of America for their sole exposure.
Ironically, in inducting Hawkgirl into the League as a formal member at last, Steve Engelhart had used the phrase ‘traditions arise as a matter of inertia’. Fifteen years on, the fans still loved the annual JLA/JSA team-up, and looked forward to it every year, and Julius Schwarz gave the fans what they asked for.
But it was patently obvious that the writers, whose nostalgia for the comics of their youth extended only to the early adventures of the League, had so much less interest in coming up with unusual, entertaining and exciting adventures for a wide-ranging group whose line-up changed dramatically ever year and for whom they were not prepared to go through the work of animating as people.
The ‘third team’ notion had been conceived as a Special Event, but it had become a mandatory factor, a substitute for real thinking about how to write a story about teams of heroes representing different generations.
Inertia had taken its toll, but inertia was the most powerful force now sustaining the series. It had happened every year for years, and therefore it would continue to happen every year, in the same manner that The Mousetrap‘s longevity on the English stage secures its infinite future: by being the longest-running play in History, it continues running.
Though I am sure that nostalgia affects my judgement, I don’t think that I am wrong in saying that once the Justice Society came back, in their own right, their team-ups with the Justice League should have been retired, gracefully. The heart had gone out of them, and with the heart had gone the life. The best had been done. But there were still years to pass through.
On the subject of post-Crisis viability, naturally this story could have happened, with only the tiniest of adjustments.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (volume 3), #8


The cover is quite an effective symbol for the second of this Winged Victory-focussed four-parter: Wonder Woman, her bracelets chained together, is in a symbolic pose, removed both physically and by Alex Ross’s pastel colours into the background, whilst the normally-lit men on the cover, Superman and Batman, do the actual fighting. That pretty much sums up what goes on inside this issue.

Oh, and I do know that that is actually Samaritan and the Confessor going at it, inside and outside, whilst that’s Winged Victory receding further and further into the background, but this is one of those cases where the analogue wears exceptionally thin. Though I have never read it, I am put very much in mind of Kurt Busiek’s weekly series, Trinity, devoted expressly to DC’s holy three. The cover, especially the chains, just screams of the original characters.

This second episode is devoted in large part to building up the Confessor as Batman-manque, which was not the primary aspect we witnessed in the Confessions graphic novel. But then that was the original Confessor, and this is a very-much-changed Brian Kinney: the disconnect is massive. The Confessor has broken in to Samothrace One, and Vic’s systems, to carry out his own investigation. Both Vic and Samaritan jump to the initial conclusion that he’s involved, but the Confessor is there to assist: he knows Winged Victory is being framed.

The encounter is very funny: Samaritan forces what, in normal circumstances, would be a Marvelesque unnecessary fight thatthe Confessor prolongs for a serious point, two, in fact. One he states, that at his end of the business you have to handle yourself against anyone, and the other being a demonstration that he can handle himself against Samaritan. It’s neatly done, and I laugh each time at Samaritan’s twice-pained acceptance, “Oh, don’t think t-twice about it — Just a little spot of exercise on a n-nice day –”

Even then, the banter, the exact relationship is too exact, too much Superman/Batman.

The fact that Busiek specifically acknowledges Winged Victory’s position in having to rely on assistance – upon an almost takeover – by men, highly competent, very fair men, but men nevertheless, plus the fact that this is only part two of four, keeps me from being negative about this aspect of the comic. I trust in Busiek, and in what he has planned,not to mention that whilst Vic has to slip away, her example devalued, her mission seemingly disrupted terminally, it’s only to bring her in contact with her foe. The man behind this is Karnazon, leading the Iron Legion, of whom we will learn more next month. But it’s Winged Victory who will go alone into the spotlight’s glare.

So let’s take it that Busiek knows what he’s doing and that whilst the male/female tightrope might seem to be balanced in stereotypical fashion just now, there is more ahead. We’ll return to this particular current after issue 10, when we have everything before us.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: A Dream of Wessex


A Dream of Wessex was Christopher Priest’s fifth novel, originally published in 1977 and not currently in print, though seven copies (hardback and paperback) are available on eBay as I write. My copy is the paperback reprint by Abacus, published in 1987, the year in which the ‘present’ of the story is set.
Wessex is probably my favourite among Priest’s novels, though I wouldn’t say that it’s his best. Priest is one of those writers whose work has gotten better and stronger the longer he has gone on, and whilst Wessex is the book in which he found his abiding theme, it is a first exploration, as opposed to the mature and confident work of his current novel, The Adjacent. Priest isn’t entirely able to control the increasingly divergent levels of reality and the uncertainty surrounding the book’s ending is more that of its author than its reader.
The book takes place on two linked planes of reality, one ‘real’ and one ‘imaginary’, the latter a scientific construction that, perhaps not surprisingly, has become more real to its participants than reality itself. Its viewpoint is shared between two characters, Julia Stretton, a 27 year old geologist, and David Harkman, a social historian aged 43, both of whom are members of the Wessex Project, although a couple of scenes are witnessed through another, older member of the Project, Donald Mander.
Julia is plainly intended to be the central character, certainly within the reality of 1987, but Harkman carries a similar weight within the ‘future’ of Wessex, and the novel ends in his viewpoint, with Julia abruptly reduced to an appendage, a reflection of the lack of clarity engendered by the sudden multiplication of realities in the closing stages.
The 1987 of the book is, of course, a fictional extrapolation by Priest from the period of the books writing. It’s lightly sketched, in the same manner as Fugue for a Darkening Island: what Priest wants to suggest is a future that has deteriorated from the then present day, a Britain suffering from some form of terrorist assault, the Tartan Army, the effects of which are mostly apparent in increased travelling restrictions. This is one of Priest’s common themes: a near future Britain in which things are worse than they are now, presented for us to experience as a strangeness, rather than in express detail.
Julia Stretton is returning from a meeting in London at the headquarters of the Trust that funds the Wessex Project. She is angry, fearful and deeply disturbed at having encountered there her former partner Paul Mason, who she has not seen in six years. Mason, externally charming, smooth, intelligent, charismatic and progressive, is a control freak who dominated Julia’s life, undermining and humiliating her, manipulating and coming close to destroying her, breaking down her self-confidence. Though she escaped him years ago, the mere sight of him, unchanged, has shown that she is still very vulnerable, especially as Mason appears to be getting involved with the Project that has effectively become her life.
Slowly, this is revealed to us. The Wessex Project is based in Dorset, with offices and residences in Dorchester, but centred upon an underground laboratory complex beneath the Iron Age Hill Fort of Maiden Castle. There, a group of 37 participants, covering a wide range of scientific disciplines, have brought into being a consensual future, thanks to the Ridpath Projector, an invention that allows the participants to be mentally linked and share a consensus dream.
The Project’s idea is to try to find solutions to the growing social and political problems affecting Britain and the world by creating a future, 150 years distant, in which those problems have been resolved, and thus bringing back solutions that can assist the present day. Wessex’s external shape, and the nature of the problems it is set to resolve, was created in advance by exhaustive discussion and extrapolation, although the essence of the Project, when we enter it, is shaped by the collective unconsciousnesses of its participating dreamers, who have imagined a different world into being.
The world of Wessex is vastly changed. England is run by a Communist Government, implicitly a puppet of Russia, America is a Muslim state, but these are distant changes, limited to the periphery of Wessex. What is at hand, on the ground, is what is of most importance to the Project members, and thus the reader.
Because in this future, Wessex is an island, cut off from the mainland of England, by a land upheaval that has carved a passage from the Bristol Channel (now known as the Somerset Sea) to Dorchester Bay. Maiden Castle lies on the island, home to a thriving independent community that survives by servicing the tourist trade. Dorchester, on the mainland, has been promoted worldwide as a tourist centre, and is a brilliantly popular place, full of attraction: sunbathing, swimming, nude beaches, boulevards, promenades, sailing of all types, including the extremely popular sea-skimmers – effectively motorised surfboards – which are used to ride the tidal bore that daily washes through Blandford Passage, the narrowest part of the breach that separates Wessex from the mainland.
It’s this element that makes Wessex such a favourite with me. I don’t know the West Country at all, it’s a part of England I have never visited, save for a day’s outing to Bath, so I know little of the countryside. Priest, though born in Cheshire, clearly does, and equally clearly loves the area (or else he is so superb a writer to be able to produce such a convincing counterfeit). He’s made this future Wessex an idyll of tremendous appeal, and my own love of the Lake District resonates with that.
Though the first we actually see of Wessex is through Donald Mander, this is only a brief prelude to the arrival of David Harkman, who then becomes our introduction to Dorchester etc., as he gets the measure of his new environment. But let’s first go back to Julia.
She’s introduced in a state of disturbance over Mason, that is compounded when she arrives back at the Project to find a letter from him, seemingly benign but subtly threatening and condescending, suggesting that he is getting involved with Wessex. Julia is still afraid of him, and doubly afraid of what effect he might have upon Wessex, which has become a refuge for her, an escape zone into which the fear of Paul Mason cannot intrude.
I imagine that in 1977, a lot of this might have appeared rather far-fetched – not the science fiction, but rather the portrait of Mason – but sadly Priest’s portrayal is now something only too familiar.
As we will see, Julia has every right to be fearful. Mason is on his way to Maiden Castle, with the Trustees’ backing, to make changes and, not unincidentally, put Julia back under his domination. However, Julia has a second issue to contend with, as she has been tasked with special responsibility for retrieving David Harkman.
The Project is, after all, a dream conducted in an induced coma-like state. Participants can only be retrieved from Wessex by being made to ‘wake-up’, a process controlled by mnemonics and post-hypnotic instructions: the Project has two conductors whose role is to get people back, using round mirrors (that do not otherwise exist in Wessex) to trigger the response. This is quickly seen as necessary, for Priest doesn’t seek to hide that Wessex is indeed a comfortable escape, a genuinely idyllic scenario composed of the subconsciousnesses of its participants, which they are extremely reluctant to leave.
Mason may appear cruel, and calculating, in his repeated accusations that Julia is inadequate, that she cannot cope without him, that she has to have someone/thing else blame for her own failings, but Wessex is a compelling argument that he is not far from the truth.
Harkman is a special case. Like everyone else, he first went ‘under’ two years earlier, but he has never been seen in Wessex, has never woken, and despite constant physiotherapy and care, his body is deteriorating and there is substantial concern about his physical and mental well-being if he can ever be retrieved. Julia’s task is to find him, and now Harkman, after two years on the mainland, suddenly and inexpressibly obsessed with getting to Dorchester, and Maiden Castle, has finally got his transfer, ostensibly to research the archives, and is here.
It’s a curiosity, and in some respects a minor weakness of the book that Priest’s Wessex occupies only a very small geographic region, between Dorchester and Maiden Castle, and ignores the much vaster territory of Wessex Island, to the west. On the other hand, this can be justified by the consensual focus of the dreamers on such a small region.
So Harkman appears in Dorchester and meets Julia (who, in Wessex, is not conscious of the present, or of her mission). Like so many of the participants, Julia has constructed for herself a role in life that has no bearing whatsoever on her ‘real-life’ qualifications or interests. She helps at the stall, she lives with Greg, who makes sea-skimmers. Greg is not a Participant, merely one of the hundreds of background characters dreamed into being to populate Wessex.
It’s telling, even to Julia, that she has invented for herself a lover who is so sexually unsatisfying: Greg awakes with a raging hard-on every morning, starts groping her and enters her before she’s either fully-awake or sexually responsive, and by the time that her body does get itself ‘in the mood’, Greg is ejaculating and going back to sleep, leaving Julia frustrated: as I say, this is her dream lover.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that when Julia and David meet, they fall in love, out of nothing. Partly, it’s their inner recognition of each other as being more ‘real’ than those around them. This effect is emphasised for David over several days of delightful companionship and great sex which seem curiously forgettable, because Julia is ‘out’ at the time and he is making love to her consensual memory not ‘her’. The moment she returns, things suddenly reintensify.
But that’s inside Wessex. Outside, Julia’s fear has come to pass. Mason is at Maiden Castle, charming everyone, left, right and centre, and muscling into the Project with the Trustees behind him. Wessex is being increasingly seen as self-indulgent, satisfying only its participants and producing nothing of its mandate, a charge that we can see is far from unfounded. Julia feels under personal attack, but the rest of the participants are averse to Mason, though only as they would to anyone new, arriving after two years and threatening to alter their projection.
But it’s clear that Mason has to be accepted, or the Project will be closed down. Julia is personally threatened by Mason, blackmailed into silence over their past relationship (which is against Project rules), and is almost raped by the super-confident Mason. Though she does fight him off, clinging to her love for Harkman as a means of strength, she cannot prevent him going into Wessex with his own ideas, one of which he hints is an omission the Project has failed to see from the start.
Whilst Julia is out, though, Harkman finally gets into the archives for the area. He is stunned to discover newspaper reports for 150 years ago about the Wessex Project, reports that include familiar names and photos: himself and Julia. It’s something too large to absorb, but Harkman is forced to confront the seeming fact that neither he, Julia nor Wessex are real.
Harkman’s discovery of this is seen against a background of gathering thunderstorms coming out of Wessex and holding above Maiden Castle. Julia tries to get him to join her, and them, at the Castle, doing their secret work, but Harkman resists, fearful of what it might lead to. He rejects the mirrors that are supposed to lead him out. Julia returns to the Castle, enveloped in the thunderstorm, to attend a meeting to bring Donald Mander into their group, but whilst the meeting is a consensus approval, it is dominated by its Chairman, the Project’s Director, the brilliant Paul Mason, whom everyone worships, and defers to.
Wessex is gone: Mason has destroyed it. The geography remains, but Dorchester is now an oil-town, dirty, noisy, repellent, it’s filthy bay a mass of rigs, flares, steamers, ships of all industrial kinds, 24/7 noise. And Mason has ‘discovered’ a working Ridpath Projector from 150 years ago and plans to Project everyone into another future, one that this time replicates 1987.
Julia, out of her extreme fear, resists, even though in this new Wessex, she now ‘lives’ and sleeps with Mason, and has done throughout (his rape of Wessex is complete). Harkman’s revelations from the Archives are helping memories to break through from her undermind, and Harkman is intent on defending her.
But as the story rushes to its climax, things break down. Having finally got the absolute power he’s always craved, Mason breaks down into madness. Everyone’s been sent into his Project, instructed to wake up with no memories of their life in Wessex, but Julia’s not supposed to go, she’s supposed to stay with him, alone here in Wessex.
As Harkman fights Mason, Julia gets into her cabinet and emerges back in 1987. It’s complete chaos: everyone’s woken up and left, except Harkman and Mason. Everyone has lost their memory, there is mental and physical damage, only Julia knows what has happened. The Trustees are going to close the Project down immediately, even though it will kill Harkman and Mason. Julia breaks free, jumps back into her cabinet and returns to Wessex, where Harkman and Mason are in cabinets. She frees Harkman.
But where are they? Levels of reality have begun to multiply. When Julia return to the Project in 1987, did she really return to 1987, or did she enter another Projection, 150 years ahead of Wessex but identical to 1987? And where did she come back to? Because whilst she is stood here, with Harkman, her body is also inside the cabinet.
The only thing that is certain is that the Wessex in which they are together, determined to maintain it as their refuge, their escape, is under their dream control. They sit on the hillside and the perverted, oil industry Dorchester Bay slowly fades out and is replaced by the Wessex we have seen throughout the story, free of Mason.
Yet though this is supposed to be the real Julia, even though she is now inside a Projection inside a Projection inside a Projection, with a seemingly real Harkman who is probably her third level projection, leaving the ‘real’ Harkman within the first level projection, the book ends with a final chapter from the viewpoint of the ‘real’ Harkman, sea-skimming in the Bay in either the first or the recreated Wessex.
He’s still chasing the crest of the tidal bore through Blandford Passage when reality changes. The Passage, the water, his sea-skimmer all vanish, and he finds himself in mid-air over the Dorset countryside. In the real world of 1987, we assume that the original and only real Ridpath Projector has been switched off, with Harkman’s unrecovered body still inside. Reality overwrites the dream as Harkman, we are led to assume, dies.
Yet by an effort of will, Harkman reconstructs Wessex, completes his ride of the bore, and returns to Dorchester. He meets Julia, passes the Maiden Castle stall, where a pretty girl is serving, refuses to look in a round mirror and, in an echo of an incident much earlier, when the Wessex Julia destroys the mirror of the conductor who tries to intercept the newly-arrived Harkman, hears a woman’s voice raised in anger, and the sound of glass breaking.
I confess to not fully understanding the final passages. From here on, all Priest’s novel length fiction will concern itself with unreality, offering differing, alternate realities, none more so than The Adjacent, in which the reader must decide – or choose? – for themselves which, if any, is the primary reality.
Wessex at first lays things out neatly and simply. 1987 is the reality and Wessex a fiction, and a mutable fiction, given that Paul Mason’s force of will is enough on its own to mutate Wessex beyond recognition. But the end piles Projection upon Projection, whilst following the consistent thread of Julia’s consciousness, only then at the last to abandon her, showing her only as the ‘cypher’ Julia who exists for David Harkman whilst the ‘real’ Julia is out of the Project.
Now Priest is not in the business of laying everything out neatly and tidily, with labels on for the hard-of-thinking, so I neither expect nor want to be told who and where everyone is. But at this relatively early stage, I don’t think he controls his ending as well as he wishes. Whilst going for pace, he ends up being too abrupt, and instead of challenging the reader with his vision of multiplying realities at the end, I think he obscures the point.
I’m especially not happy with the sudden collapse of Paul Mason. Throughout the book, he’s presented as a considerable force, determined, intelligent, formidable, unheeding of others’ wishes and determined to bend everything to his personal advantage (on a symbolic level, Paul is Thatcherism, which when Wessex was published was still two years away from taking hold).
His domination even continues into Wessex2, where he’s seen as brilliant, creative, charming, effective, but also thoughtful and self-effacing. And then, offstage, he cracks completely, and unconvincingly. There’s no preparation, no foregrounding: Mason goes from sanity to madness in one bound, cracked and ineffectual, and get written off as always having been “unstable and neurotically inadequate” by a suddenly authoritative Julia.
It jars, frankly, it’s too glib and dismissive, and its blatancy, coupled with the panic surroundings in which this exchange takes place, obscures what may be happening. We haven’t yet caught up to the fact that Julia may not have, in fact probably hasn’t returned to 1987 but is in a deeper level Projection, in which hers is the dominant mind, making Mason suddenly dismissable.
We’re being sucked further in, and we don’t realise it.
Where does the application of logic take us, if we dissect the end of this book? At ‘ground’ level, we have 1987, where a group of scientists have entered into a shared reality projection. There are doubts about the value, and validity, of the project and Paul Mason has been sent down to shake things up, generate results. Mason has entered the Project. Beyond this, we do not know the outcome, but we assume that at some point, for reasons unknown, the Project is switched off.
Inside the projection (level 1), Mason has altered the basis of the consensus reality, in which two participants have questioned the ‘reality’ of their world. Mason has created a shared reality projection into which all the participants at this level have entered, except himself and David Harkman. Mason appears to have gone mad. We lost contact with level 1 when Julia enters the projection. What occurs afterwards on level 1 is unknown.
Inside the new projection, level 2, the consensus reality is actually supposed to be ground level, i.e. the projection from level 1 is supposedly ‘up’ to ground level. The shared reality projection has ended in disaster, with amnesia for all participants, together with mental and physical damage, leading almost directly to closure of the supposedly level 1 projection. Julia Stretton escapes by, ostensibly projecting herself back into level 1.
But this level is not ground level but level 2. Julia returns to the machines from which the participants have arrived from level 1, assuming she will return to level 1. Instead, she enters yet another shared reality projection, level 3. This is ostensibly identical to level 1. It is not level 1 for, if Julia had returned there, she would have emerged in her cabinet. Instead, she arrives in Maiden Castle and goes to the cabinet, where she extracts David Harkman, but where her own body is in the cabinet, and remains there. The David Harkman she extracts is her level 3 projection of him. She then imposes the initial level 1 consensus onto her level 3 projection, and lives happily ever after.
Then Priest produces a coda-like chapter, set in a scene not visibly different from level 3, which exists to imply that at ground level the projection has been switched off, but that Harkman now has the internal ability to generate the projection alone. His projection is identical to the original level 1 and the altered level 2, but logically it is neither (the switching off at ground level will terminate all projections at every level). We are led to think that this is the ‘real, i.e., level 1, Harkman, but the truth is that we have no way of knowing.
Looked at analytically, we have five different endings to Wessex, packed into a linear conclusion, in which the ground, first and second levels are actually left incomplete, and whilst the ‘heroine’ and ‘hero’ are ostensibly together, they are actually existing, in one form or another, in different recursions.
Absolutely none of which is apparent from the book.
On the one level, this is genius (although utterly depressing) writing, but on the other the ending betrays none of this. I think that if Priest had come to this story at a later stage in his career, we would see a lot more focus on separating these levels and a stronger, more determined book.
But Priest could not have come to the works that would sharpen and clarify his abiding interest in unreality without writing A Dream of Wessex as we have it now. And, as I saw, for the dream of Wessex itself, the idea of a practical idyll, I return to this book time and again with great enjoyment.