Little Ironies 2 – Who are they selling this to?

When I log on to eBay, as I tend to do every few days or so, I am greeted with a panoply of prospects, mouth-wateringly assembled links to newly-listed items that would come up under the (fairly limited) lind of searches I tend to make.

I’m amused to find a familiar item turning up for the second time, having clearly failed to attract anyone’s custom a week or so back.

I’ve linked to the item here, but what this item is is a copy of the once popular British comics fanzine Fantasy Advertiser (informally, and later formally known as FA), issue 87, edited published by the late and much-missed Martin Skidmore in October 1984.

It crops up as a possible item of interest because one of the points of interest by which it is hoped to attract a buyer is the ‘zine’s article on Gary Trudeau’s immensely successful social and political newspaper strip, Doonesbury. And as I have been a devotee of Doonesbury since 1981, and have been known to search for old and rare collections (until I got the last of them), it’s been flagged up for my attention.

An article about Doonesbury: very interesting. It’s even flagged up on the cover, to attract the readers of October 1984, together with the name of its writer. Look closely at the cover below, squint at it if you have to, to try and make out which sage wrote this no doubt definitive piece. Is it, no, wait…

It looks very familiar, doesn’t it? And eBay wants to sell this to me?

FA87(Actually, the article isn’t very good at all, but if you do want to read it, you can always bid for the ‘zine on eBay. Or, if you ask nicely enough, I’ll post it on here…)

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier – 1976

Justice League of America 135, “Crisis in Eternity!”/Justice League of America 136, “Crisis on Earth-S!”/Justice League of America 137, “Crisis in Tomorrow!” Written by E. Nelson Bridwell (Plot/Continuity) and Martin Pasko (Words), art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

From an unknown place beneath the surface of an unknown Earth, an advanced spaceship rises into space, vanishes, and reappears at the Rock of Eternity. It is piloted by the primitive-seeming King Kull, last of the Beast-Men, former ruler of Earth before humanity appeared and wiped out all his people. Now Kull plans revenge: he uses his ‘torpor-ray’ to slow down the Gods, save for Mercury, who speeds free, driven by the thoughts of Shazam, to gather a force of heroes.
Kull’s torpor-ray has even froze the Gods who power the Marvel Family, preventing Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. from intervening.
Whilst Kull plans genocide against humanity, on all planets but starting with Earths-1, -2 and -S, Mercury gathers various heroes from Earths-1 and -2, including the Earth-2 Batman, who has come out of retirement to attend a ceremony honouring Robin. Six Justice Leaguers, counting non-member Hawkgirl, and six JSAers are taken to the old inter-dimensional limbo base of the Crime Champions (see the 1963 team-up), where they are introduced to five heroes from Earth-S, all characters formerly owned by Fawcett Comics. These are the magician Ibis, Spy Smasher, Bulletman and Bulletgirl, and Mr. Scarlet and Pinky, the Whiz Kid.
Teams are chosen, excluding Johnny Thunder, who is sent on a special mission. Superman 1, Wonder Woman 2, Green Arrow and Spy Smasher travel to Earth-2, where Kull’s plan involves Atlantis, which rose from the waves several years ago (see the 1968 team-up). Superman and Wonder Woman defeat Queen Clea and the Blockbuster, whilst Green Arrow and Spy Smasher overcome Ibac and the Penguin, but not before Kull’s plan goes into operation.
A pink cloud is formed that starts sinking islands by subjecting them to gravitational waves. But Superman uses his super-cold breath to condense and solidify the cloud before throwing it into space where it is destroyed, colliding with a meteor.
Ironically, Earth-2’s Atlantis undergoes an earthquake and returns to beneath the waves again.
Fuming at his defeat, Kull promises dire things for Earths-1 and -S.
End of Part One.

On Earth-S, Batman & Robin, Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Bulletman and Bulletgirl and Mr. Scarlet and Pinky face strange menaces that, in different parts of the globe, turn humans into rock, or ice, or steel, or diamond, or two-dimensional art, or water. A number of the heroes are partly transformed as well.
Meanwhile, boy newsreader Billy Batson reports on these events but no matter how often he says ‘Shazam’, he cannot transform into Captain Marvel. In addition, half of Earth-S is in complete darkness, half in unblinkered sunshine.
Batman and Robin, Mr. Scarlet and Pinky take on the Earth-2 Joker and the Weeper, who are robbing jewellery stores. With Dr Light and the Shade identified, the Hawks and the Bullets split up into male and female duos to defeat these villains, only to find that neither villain can switch the effects off.
It takes Robin to work out that Earth-S can only be saved by moving the two light and dark satellites together and crashing them into one another. This done, all ill-effects are reversed and Kull is left frustrated and swearing vengeance on Earth-1.
And Johnny Thunder arrives at the TV station, to meet Billy Batson, Mary Batson and Freddy Freeman, whose secret identities he knows.
End of Part Two.

On Earth-1, Kull plans to destroy the futuristic city, Tomorrow, using the gigantic robot, Mr Atom, and Brainiac. The Flashes, plus Mercury, run rescue operations on threatened bystanders whilst the Green Lanterns and Ibis (whose Ibistick is the equivalent of a Power Ring) try to penetrate the black radiation protecting the robot.
When people start flying off into space, they discover Brainiac’s ship, which they attack and destroy. This removes Mr Atom’s protective aura, but it is only when he seizes the Ibistick and tries to teleport Ibis into space that he is defeated: the Ibistick turns the order against anyone using it who is not Ibis.
Kull’s plan, to speed up Earth-1’s rotation and have everyone fly off into space, has been defeated.
The heroes regroup to attack Kull at the Rock of Eternity. But Kull uses some Red Kryptonite to turn Superman into a raging destructive force.
Back on Earth-S, Johnny T explains that Shazam has sent him to help the Marvel Family, though he doesn’t know how. He summons his Thunderbolt, only to discover that the Bolt’s magical appearance triggers the Marvels transformation into Cap and the rest, just like the magic lightning that Shazam has been unable to trigger.
They take off for the Rock of Eternity, free the Gods and capture King Kull.
This still leaves the enraged Superman to face. Captain Marvel faces him head-on, in the first ever fight between the Man of Steel and the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Except that The Big Red Cheese says his magic word, ‘Shazam’ just before they clash, and the shock restores Superman’s mind in time for him to save Billy Batson.
With Kull bound up in magic chains, the heroes depart to their separate Earths.
* * * * *
About the time this second three-part team-up began, DC’s distribution in Britain became as spotty as it had been in the mid-Sixties, when the only place to find comics was in newsagents, whose stocks would vary widely. I was able to get hold of the first part of this story, but no others: indeed, I did not read the rest of it until acquiring Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 4, whereupon I found that I hadn’t missed much of anything.
Indeed, despite featuring the first ever appearance of Superman and Captain Marvel in the same comic, to be frank this adventure is the least memorable of all those published in this series.
With Justice League of America still in its scripting by committee phase (which would end two months after the final part with Steve Englehart taking over writing for the following year), this time round it fell to Martin Pasko to deal with the annual team-up. However, the oddly stilted credits – ‘Plot/Continuity’ and ‘Words’ – make it plain that the former ‘Pesky’ Pasko does no more than dialogue this mish-mash, and that the story itself comes from the late E. Nelson Bridwell, making his only contribution to Justice League history.
Bridwell, the formally very much put-upon assistant to the ogreous Mort Weisinger, was a very sweet-natured person by all accounts, and a solid if mostly uninspired presence both at editorial level and in his infrequent scripting. What he was though was a walking encyclopaedia of comics – especially DC. Bridwell was, effectively, the company’s reference system, able to tell you, in a blink, when even the most obscure of characters last appeared.
The fourteenth team-up automatically recalls Len Wein’s 1972 story by being only the second such event to run over three issues. It also echoes Wein’s subsequent effort by incorporating a third team, an ad-hoc collection of obscure characters previously published by a long-defunct company.
But where Wein’s three-parter was a story of great scope, using an anniversary as a springboard, and was an innovative idea in itself, Bridwell’s plot lacks such a binding plot. It lacks any sense of the epic as conjured by Wein, and it lacks the underlying logic, not only of the 1972 team-up, but the 1973 affair.
In both cases, Wein gives the story a simple, central force. In the first, Earth-2 is threatened: the League come to the Society’s assistance to rescue the long-lost Seven Soldiers – who, being from the Golden Age, are Earth-2 denizens themselves. The second story is of Earth-X: it’s peculiar status, it’s rescue: the JLA/JSA members arrive from beyond in a simple, logical manner, and the obscure Quality Comics sextet appear as an existing team, with a history, drawn together logically by their Earth’s circumstances.
In contrast, this story lacks any of those attributes. It begins in visual confusion: a scientifically advanced spaceship, piloted by a primitive barbarian using advanced sciences to capture Gods. Only two pages in and the story is whiplashing around genres.
The barbarian turns out to be King Kull, last of the Beastmen, a former Captain Marvel foe who wants revenge by wiping out humanity all across the Multiverse (though the term is at least a half decade away from being coined). He’s a creature of Earth-S (for Shazam). (He’s also a Robert E. Howard character name, the original of whom is being featured at Marvel, which is still undergoing the first flush of their success with Conan the Barbarian).
But, just as Bridwell offers no explanation of where Kull’s been since he last appeared, what he’s been doing, how he escaped etc., he offers no explanation of how Kull knows there’s a Multiverse at all, let alone why he’s chosen to wreak his vengeance initially on Earths-1, -2 and -S. The absence of a logic to the tale fatally undermines it.
The rationale of this story is to do what Wein did and find another set of past heroes who have a world of their own. Though Earth-S is the former Fawcett world, and Fawcett’s most famous – indeed virtually only famous – character is Captain Marvel, the story avoids using him until the perfunctory end. Why this is so is difficult to comprehend, though I suspect it had a lot to do with the infamous plagiarism case that DC brought against Fawcett over Cap, which ultimately resulted in his being forced off the market.
Instead, we get a half dozen seriously obscure third bananas whose sum total of actual powers consists of Ibis’s Ibistick and Bulletman and -girl’s flying helmets. Though I may offend some, I can only say that these characters are universally dull. And whilst suspension of disbelief is a necessary precondition of opening a superhero comic, that requirement is put under great pressure by the notion that someone in their right mind would choose to fight crime whilst call themselves Pinky. Narf.
Nor are these characters a team. They’re billed on the cover of #135 as “Shazam’s Squadron of Justice” but inside they’re lined up as “The Legendary Heroes of Earth-S” and after that, no-one even tries to pretend they’re anything more that just a collection of nobodies.
The story itself, after that, is just routine hero vs villain, a series of encounters that slowly fill up the pages. Naturally, the heroes split up into teams selected to provide a mixture of homeworlds, and go off to guard each of the three target worlds. Heroes always split up into mixed teams, it’s a cliché, but on this occasion I find myself irritated by it.
They none of them know what to face, so how are the teams selected? How logical is it to send heroes who are strangers to a certain Earth to deal with it’s local conditions? Why is Ibis wasted by being sent to Earth-1 with the Green Lanterns, whose powers not only duplicate each others but also his? The same thing with the two Flashes and Mercury. When you’ve got heroes with duplicate powers, why do they go together instead of providing maximum diversion of power in unknown circumstances?
Why do the two adult/teen combinations work together? Why do the two married flying couples go together? Why, when they separate, is it in gender roles as opposed to marriages? Why is Hawkgirl here at all, since she’s not a member of anything except her marriage? Does Bulletgirl have, incredible as it may seem, even less personality than all the other Fawcetts?
The problem with this year’s team-up is that it is an unfocused and amateurish effort, a throwback in style by more than a mere decade, to when the whole point of superhero comics was costumes and powers. It lacks any foundation in plausibility, it’s poorly executed and as a consequence, it offers nothing to establish itself in the reader’s memory. The one with the Fawcett characters: oh yes: what actually happened in that one?
The two things that could have made the story at least a little memorable are both fudged. The appearance in action, at long last, of the Earth-2 Batman, is a non-event, his age, his experience, his breadth of knowledge, these things might as well not exist.
But the biggie is that long-awaited meeting between Superman and Captain Marvel, the inevitable capper to the story, the climax that keeps the reader eager to reach the climax, the clash that is paraded on #137’s cover. Superman, under the influence of some left-over piece of Red Kryptonite, being whipped back into existence for the first time in half a decade, is on the rampage, Captain Marvel flies to confront him and…
Nothing. Seriously, nothing. Cap says “Shazam”, turns back into Billy and the shock clears Superman’s head. It screams cop-out, it screams manipulation and bad intentions. It suggests that Julius Schwarz, having tried to attract readers with the prospect of Captain Marvel, bottling out of offending their sympathies by having the Big Red Cheese defeated – because, come on, this is 1976, the Bicentennial, and Superman is not going to be beaten here. Not by a character who did beat him where it counted, in sales, and who was only brought down by an immoral court action that prevailed through DC’s greater financial resources.
Bish, bash, bosh, Superman’s ok, Kull’s chained up, everyone goes home, nothing to see here, please move along. This is a second successive story that ends abruptly, with no proper conclusion, just the need to shuffle everyone off the page in badly-paced rapidity.
But Bridwell’s not the only creator involved in this. To him, as plotter, much of the blame must be assigned, but Pasko does nothing to alleviate the drabness of this affair. Though a perceptive and frequently critical letterhack, and despite his long career in comics, he really isn’t that good a writer. Maybe he felt less commitment to this tale, not having created it, but his scripting is the equivalent of an actor phoning it in.
It’s unbearably lazy too: at the start of #137, Pasko decides to have the Green Lanterns read out the synopsis to one another instead of, you know, thinking of something plausible. But, of course, there’s the wink, the nod to the fans, for Ibis comments that they are talking exposition, so the reader can be let in on the joke. Except that they are talking exposition and no amount of ironic self-commentary disguises how cheap the device is.
With McLaughlin swathing everything in sheets of black ink, Dillin’s art begins to seriously deteriorate. The thick outlines convert everything into cartoonish shapes, and start to exaggerate Dillin’s repetitive poses. Nobody is able to fall naturally. Arms, and legs, are flung out stiffly, people land on their arse with one leg in the air every time they fall.
We are a long way now from the grace of Sid Greene or the crisp detail of Dick Giordano.
At least Pasko remembers to refer to the Justice Society’s own series, in the revived All-Star, though except in Batman’s off-handed reference to the ‘Super Squad’ element of that series, there is no other point of contact. And three of the JSAers in action aren’t even in action with the team in its revived form. Continuity is not, as yet, a DC speciality.
Once again, it’s immediately obvious that this story is impossible to justify in a post-Crisis setting. It’s barely possible to justify it pre-Crisis.

The New Terry Pratchetts

Sometimes, when I’m feeling a bit down and listless, I’ll go and surf on eBay or Amazon, looking for that miraculously cheap and previously unknown rarity from one of my favourite authors: maybe this is the day that I’ll find someone selling a copy of Once More (with Footnotes) in decent nick for about a tenner, instead of the usual multiple of three figures sum.

So I searched Pratchett, of whom there are 76 pages on Amazon, not that I expect all those seventy-six pages to be exclusively Pratchett books. After all, if Neil Gaiman has turned up at least three times in the first four pages of the Ursula Le Guin search (their surnames do share three common letters, in the same order, so maybe it’s not just a cynical ploy to try to feed you stuff you’re not actually looking for: come on you bastards, buy!)…

But I never got as far as even a high-priced copy of Once More (with Footnotes) because I was halted in my tracks by the discovery that all the Discworlds are being reissued in a couple of months time, in a brand new, uniform hardback edition, this time grouped into Collections of the individual strands (City Watch, Witches, Death etc). With brand new covers.

Gone, people, are those glorious Josh Kirby fantasias, and the decently attractive Paul Kidbys that succeeded them. Gone are the basic black with appropriate symbols covers, designed to let ‘adults’ read them on the Tube without feeling ashamed. Instead, we have covers that look like they’ve been designed by a drunken buffoon who can’t draw even when he’s sober and who has only had the title of each book read out to him to inspire his artistic representation.

People, these covers are horrible! They are amateurish in every respect, looking if the whole lot was scratched out in a single day and it’s impossible to believe that anyone under the sun would be attracted to read a Discworld book based on any of these covers. I can’t believe that our respected author is not sufficiently important to have had approval of the covers to any of his works, and I can’t believe he’s approved these – well, pieces of shit.

Having risked blindness (I am already substantially myopic) by looking closer, this new edition is being published by Gollancz, instead of Pratchett’s long-term publishers Doubleday (from whom the non-fiction collection A Slip of the Typewriter will appear in September, so hopefully future books can be purchased in dustjackets that do not set young children trembling in fear, but really: who the hell thought this a good idea!

Hopefully, all of you will have already acquired your weight in Pratchetts and will sternly turn your backs on these abominations, causing the entire print-run to be returned, unsold, pulped and then poured into landfill, out of the fear that, Discworld fashion, some fleeting trace of this (rinses out mouth and spits) ‘art’ might filter back. Reject this edition, reject it I say, and tell Gollancz just how effing awful it looks.

But do it politely: no threats, and only knuckledusters, not garottes.

PS: by page 5 of the Amazon Terry Pratchett search, we’re getting Tom Holt, H.G. Wells and Ian Rankin (?!), and there’s a used Once More (with Footnotes) for as little as £175. Not today, methinks.

Sherlock: series 3, episode 3 – Uncollected Thoughts

A monster

I want to say that this is the episode that answers all the critics of series 3, that was all that we hope for and expect from Sherlock, and there is so much of this story that would make it absolutely right to begin by crowing that, and shaking a fist at those who have expressed their disgust at the series so far. Yet I’d be dishonest, guilty of simplification, if I were to do so. For, what, forty five minutes approximately, His Last Vow was on course for just such an outcome but then there was…

Was something I can’t define, even to myself, not yet. It seemed as if the programme lost focus, became detached from its narrative thrust, and for a long period it seemed to float, removed entirely from any motivating force. It ceased to move, as if caught in an eddy, away from the downstream flow, and we became trapped in that eddy, for much too long.

Yes, I think that’s the appropriate metaphor for what I felt. What we were treated to during this eddy was, frequently, brilliant of itself. But it was a stall, and not until the decision was taken, by John Watson, to forgive and accept his mystery of a wife,could the episode begin to move forward again. And as soon as it did, the episode once again took on the mark of genius that had sustained it for its first half.

First thing to say is that all my dire expectations about Mary Watson and her death were confounded entirely. Two people died in this episode, and two people came back to life – and one character cropped up in both lists and he’s the one with his name above the door, which wasn’t what we expected – but Mary Watson was not one of the dead. Nor was she the character I suddenly flashed on her being, during the bit where Sherlock was tricking her into spilling the beans to John, a flash of intuition that had me saying “oh, fuck” whilst I was revealing that I was being a bit too obvious about such things.

So, how do we describe this story? The first thing to say was that it depicted a monster, a true, unalloyedly evil monster, a creature of power and venality, of control, brilliantly incarnated by guest star Lars Mikkelsen. I know Lars from his role as the charismatic Troels Hartman in the first series of The Killing, a seeming good man, a hero, and yet self-centred, self-obsessed, unable to see beyond his own advantage and ultimately a monster.

But not such a monster as here, as Charles Arthur Magnussen, newspaper proprietor, Napoleon of Blackmail and a character who does whatever he wishes in the knowledge that he owns everyone. Mikkelsen was not just cold and precise, using only the faintest hint of a Danish accent, but he was creepy as hell. The early scene when he licks Lindsay Duncan’s face, just because no-one can stop him, established him as something not human. After that, his pissing in Sherlock’s fireplace as he and John stand by was comic with a very sharp edge, and his game with John’s face at the end, in which he let slip the callousness enough to show that he was enjoying himself, was icing on the cake.

This came on top of his revelation that his ‘Vaults’, into which he would disappear to search for material, making curiously precise yet stylised hand-movements, was a Mind Palace equivalent to Sherlock’s. The revelation that there never were, and never had been, physical documents to retrieve did set up the obvious conclusion, yet even there I got it wrong as I expected John to put a bullet through Magnussen’s head, instead of Sherlock: mentally outwitted but taking the curiously obvious step.

Magnusson was the river. We rode its currents from the improbable start of finding Sherlock in a drug’s den, the hugely comic spectacle of everyone homing in on him to protect him from exposure, in the face of his weary claims that he was undercover, working a case: creating a Pressure Point for Magnussen to ‘use’ against him. The big laugh was that Magnussen, the kind of guy who, Sherlock-fashion, analyses everyone he meets for what he’s got on them before identifying said Pressure Point, had a torrent of red lines for Sherlock, zipping by too fast to be seen or even counted!

So the clues were there for us, if not Sherlock, to see all along, that there were no Vaults, not real ones. Sherlock pursues the retrieval of certain documents, going so far as to acquire a girl-friend (Magnussen’s PA) in order to get inside his flat (another lovely comic improbability, though by the end we do learn he hadn’t actually gone so far as to shag her). Inside, he finds Magnusson with a gun to his head, pointed by a black-clad figure wearing Claire-de-Lune perfume. The sleazy Magnussen had already impressed upon us that Lady Smallwood (Duncan’s character) wears Claire-de-Lune, but it’s also dropped in, in passing, that so does Mary Watson. And though Sherlock calls on Lady Smallwood to stop, when she turns it is Mary.

And she shoots him.

Now, of necessity, the storyline stops here, for a bravura sequence in which Sherlock, in the three seconds he has before collapsing, manages with the aid of Mycroft and Molly Hooper – not to mention the late Jim Moriarty, played to manic perfection by Andrew Scott – oh how I miss him – to self-diagnose how best to keep himself from dying. Yet die he does, his heart stopping on the operating table, until he’s spurred on by the desire not to be Moriarty into returning to life.

Now all this creates a situation that then takes precedence, forcing the story for a long period, into an essentially static eddy. John’s wife – who Sherlock has already categorised as a liar, who can recognise skip codes and has a bloody good memory of her own, is being black-mailed by Magnussen and has come close to killing our hero. Who is she? What is she? Why?

We never do get those answers, and we’re better for it, as these are all questions that are better put in the past tense: was, not is. What little we are allowed to share sounds grim, yet to Sherlock his Vow takes precedence. She loves John, and John needs her: she saved his life (by a shot so precise that it did not kill, and by calling the ambulance before John found him).

This is the sequence that basically pulls me up short from praising the episode unceasingly: that and the moment where I threatened to disconnect entirely, when John demands to know why it always seems to be his fault, and Sherlock explains that it is, because John is addicted to danger, which his why his best friend is a highly-functioning sociopath and he’s fallen in love with a psychopath. Oh well, if you put it that way…

Nevertheless, the episode gets itself back on track with its ending, with Sherlock’s desperately risky plan to bring Magnussen down, that leads to the revelation of the Mind Palace and the tormenting of John Watson (who has his gun on him and who knows that a bullet to the brain will destroy Magnussen’s hold over his wife). But again we are confounded, for it is Sherlock who takes the necessary, and not necessarily regrettable step.

His lot is exile, to an undercover role that Mycroft predicts will kill him in six months time. There’s a few parting words with John, in which the two have almost nothing to say, having done all this before, a private flight into exile and the closing credits begin without the slightest suggestion of an end-of-series cliffhanger…

Except that the credits turn into a pub TV showing football but experiencing interference. The same interference everyone is seeing, all over Britain, at the same time, which causes an awful lot of reactions and which is directly responsible for Sherlock’s exile being cut short after a record-breaking four minutes. It’s a face and a voice: it’s Andrew Scott, it’s Jim Moriarty.”Miss Me?” he asks. And oh but I did.

All I ask now is that somehow Messrs Moffat, Gatiss, Cumberbatch and Watson, not to mention Ms Abbington, get their act together to let us see this in 2015 because I seriously do not want to wait two years to see how they got out of that (although I suppose there’s a certain irony to it: this year’s cliffhanger is almost identical to 2012’s, and look what consternation that caused!).

Only Fools and Horses: Comedy of Embarrassment

Would you buy a used sitcom from this man?

Despite its ratings success over Xmas, the word appears to be that Still Open All Hours will not be commissioned for a new series. On the other hand, David Jason has been called upon to recreate his most famous role, that of Del-Boy Trotter in yet another revival of Only Fools and Horses.
That piece of news burst upon the nation a few days ago in the form of a newspaper front page headline. I recoiled immediately. Still Open All Hours may have been fatally flawed in lacking the great Ronnie Barker, but given that writer John Sullivan died in 2007, surely it was impossible to resurrect Only Fools and Horses without its creator?
Needless to say, the press were not interested in highlighting the more nuanced report that the popular sitcom was to return only as a six minute sketch in Sport Relief, with a script to be supplied by Sullivan’s sons, Jim and Dan.

(Depressingly, having made it plain that he was up for a full series of Still Open All Hours, David Jason is now trying to rally support for a full-scale return of Only Folls and Horses, despite Sullivan’s absence, and his having said, years ago, that the show had come to a final end. What next? The revival of Captain Fantastic in a renewed Do Not Adjust Your Set?)
Nevertheless, I won’t be tuning in on the night, much though I respect the series: many many years ago, there was an awful extended Xmas special which burnt out of me any ability to enjoy the show.
When Only Fools and Horses started, I automatically started to watch it because John Sullivan was the writer. Back then, the first thing I looked for in any new sitcom was the writer. It enabled me to avoid any amount of dross: for instance, if an ITV sitcom was produced by Yorkshire TV, it would be written by Eric Chappell and would consist of the cheapest, tattiest, most predictable jokes.
But what of Chappell’s biggest success, Rising Damp, a very funny show that brought Leonard Rossiter to deserved prominence, with tremendous support from Richard Beckinsale, Frances de la Tour and Don Warrington. It was, and still is, deservedly popular, but one night, as an experiment, I closed my eyes and ears to the superb performances of the cast and concentrated upon the script: the jokes, the plot were nothing more that the usual trite, predictable Chappell fare, which did rather spoil the thing for me.
John Sullivan came with a good track record. He had broken through with Citizen Smith starring Robert Lindsay (still a newcomer, having first appeared in ITV’s RAF conscription sitcom, Get Some In). Citizen Smith was fresh, bright and sparky, and I found it innovative in one respect, in that it was the first sitcom whose characters appeared to watch television and made jokes and references based on television tropes.
Next had come the romantic comedy, Just Good Friends, about former lovers meeting up again, several years after he left her at the altar, which was not only just as funny, but which made up for featuring Paul Nicholas by having the lovely Jan Francis as a co-star.
So Only Fools and Horses came with a good track record from the writer, and held up its end of the bargain by being funny and engaging. I mean, you don’t need me to tell you anything about it, it’s one of the nation’s most popular and most famous sitcoms, and in the part of Del-Boy, David Jason found one of the great starring roles, a role for which he was perfectly cast.
Like everyone else, I lapped it up. That is, until the Xmas Special of 1986, following on from series 5.
Allow me to digress for a moment, and introduce the topic of the Laws of Comedy.
The first thing to say about the Laws of Comedy is that nobody ever agrees what they are. The second thing to say is that each and every single one that you choose to formulate can be broken with impunity by the right person at the right time. Because, above all, the one shiny, unbreakable Law of Comedy surely has to be Be Funny, although there are plenty of people who will argue with that one.
But there are certain Laws that are all but unshakable, and one of those relates to Comedy of Embarrassment. Comedy of Embarrassment centres upon a character(s) who is out of their depth, in an unfamiliar situation in which he or she is almost completely ignorant and, for the most part, wholly unaware of it. The Law relating to Comedy of Embarrassment is that it works for as long as you are embarrassed for the character. It ceases to be funny when you become embarrassed by him.
The 1986 Only Fools and Horses Xmas special ran for 76 minutes, only the second extended length episode of the series. Rodney meets an impoverished artist called Vicky, who turns out to be the daughter of the Duke of Maylebury Sensing the opportunity to make money from the connection, Del-Boy arranges tickets for the Opera so that Rodney can impress Vicky, although he proceeds to turn up himself, with peroxide girl-friend, and be embarrassing. Nevertheless, Vicky invites Rodney to her father’s for a weekend. Del-Boy gatecrashes and proves to be highly embarrassing, hideously so in fact.
I was enjoying it, up to a point. But the point was lost in a long scene at dinner as Del-Boy got drunk, got coarser and more offensive, and the Law kicked in. I stopped being able to laugh, and became as much embarrassed at the tedious, unending goings-on as the entirety of the dinner party was.
I cannot remember if I even finished watching the episode.
The point was that there was nothing wrong with the idea. It was a perfect fit for the series, and completely in character for everyone concerned. It would have made a classic thirty minute episode. But over 75 minutes, the episode required Del-Boy to go to such lengths that the joke was drained and the experience tainted with the hideous embarrassment, to the extent that I could not, and did not watch the series again.
(The only scene in subsequent episodes that I regret not having seen is, of course, the classic fall through the bar. I have seen the clip many times, and it is hilarious: beautifully conceived and brilliantly executed. But I saw it having been forewarned, and without context: I deeply regret never having seen it for the first time, without knowing what was coming. Typically, I now discover that it was in the very first episode I didn’t watch.)
In researching A Royal Flush (the episode’s title) for this piece, I’m interested to find out that it has proved to be something of a controversial episode for the series, for the reasons that so affected me. I understand that whilst the episode was originally released on VHS in its full-length, that it was subsequently edited under Sullivan’s direction, and it is the edited version that has been available on DVD since 2004.
According to Wikipedia, the edited version has had a laugh track added – something apparently omitted originally due to the limited time between completion and broadcast – but has been cut due to “Sullivan’s dissatisfaction with the original version, feeling that it seemed to show Del Boy in a negative light. Whereas Del was always seen to be a lovable rogue, in this episode there were some scenes where he came over as boorish and offensive.”
Indeed, yes, and very much so. Sullivan was also quoted, in the relevant issue of the Only Fools and Horses magazine/DVD part-work, as saying “Although Del comes across as rather cruel in the episode, his heart is in the right place.” I’m bound to say, from my memories, that he came across as selfish, ignorant, mean and grasping, unable to see anything but the possibility of personal gain, but then again, I probably switched it off and missed anything resembling a redeeming moment.
In a back-handed way, the entire episode is, I suppose, a tribute to John Sullivan’s skills as a television scripter. Del-Boy Trotter embarrassed me to the point where I no longer wanted to have anything to do with him, and I never watched Only Fools and Horses again. But he was only a television character, and a comedy character at that, always intended to be an exaggeration, an imbalanced, unrealistic version of a type of figure.
Yet Sullivan made him so real that I didn’t want to know him any more.
And even for six minutes I shalln’t be re-forging auld acquaintance.

100 Bullets: Brother Lono 7

For the last-but-one time.

For reasons unknown, issue 7 – “El Inferno Llega del Casa” (The Inferno Comes Home) – was held over through December and only now appears, taking us to the edge. Yet, even with the threads wrapping so tightly, Azzarello and Risso have room yet for more than undiluted story, as Lono patiently undergoes torture, a still centre, not answering questions that are deliberately not asked. For every physical torture there is a mental one, a constant reminder that everything that goes on in that hot little room will be reflected outwards upon others, who will suffer simply because the Dog has come there.

Around, outside, the ants scurry. Maddon pulls out of the deal, because of the mention of the DEA. Cortez calmly listens to Father Manny’s abject pleading, knowing that it puts the good Father entirely in his control, incapable of any future resistance. Sister June goes in pursuit, carrying her gun, driven by the one-armed Paolo: despite his cynical. pragmatic warning, she intends to contact the Sheriff, enlist his aid.

But things are already too late. The Sheriff is dead, strung up from an underpass where his car is parked, and Sister June faces an ambush, from which she is saved by Paolo, driving the truck to kill the three gunman. But Paolo dies.

And Manny looks into a private cupboard and sees something, an abomination, that changes everything. We don’t see for ourselves, but it is enough for Cortez to string him up, in the desert, above the wolves. For what Manny has seen is Cortez’s twin: an explanation in part for that strange, twisted, pickled baby we saw earlier in the series.

And, as I intuited in response to issue 2, together, Cortez and his ‘twin’ are Los Torres Gemales, who control the drug-trade.

Finally, Lono moves. His torturer has ripped off a fingenail, has rubbed a cut chili into his eye, and jabbed directly into his chest a Police badge which tells Lono what has been going on without, but when he produces a burner, set to assault Lono with fire, then the Dog reacts. And Hell comes home.

One final chapter.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1975

Justice League of America 123, “Where on Earth am I?”/Justice League of America 124, “Avenging Ghosts of the Justice Society!” Written by Cary Bates and Elliott S! Maggin, art by Dick Dillin (pencils), and Frank McLaughlin (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.

On Earth-Prime (an Earth where the JLA and JSA are characters appearing in comic books published by National Comics), editor Julius Schwarz is arguing with his young writers  Cary Bates and Elliott S! Maggin about their failure to come up with a Justice League plot for him.
When Schwarz leaves to get a bowl of chilli, the pair dig out the Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill, from a Bates story in which Barry Allen had turned up on Earth-Prime. Unfortunately, it still has a residue of superspeed energy in it, and Bates disappears.
He arrives on Earth-2 (not 1), where Robin and Johnny Thunder are tackling a couple of crooks. Bates discovers that he has a ‘plotting power’, that he can make things happen with his mind. Eager to become a supervillain, he helps the crooks escape.
Back at National, Maggin confesses to Schwarz what has happened. Whilst Schwarz holds the fort, Maggin uses the Treadmill to follow Bates, only to arrive on Earth-1 (not 2), in mid-air, over the harbour. He has to be rescued by Aquaman, who teleports him to the Justice League satellite to tell his tale to a very sceptical Justice League, including Green Arrow. Maggin writes Ollie Queen the way he talks himself.
On Earth-2, Bates has equipped himself with a ludicrous costume and set a trap for the Justice Society at the Botanical Gardens. Hourman, Wildcat, Dr Mid-Nite and Wonder Woman join Robin and Johnny Thunder to fight off an array of killer plants, only to fall into Bates’ trap and be overcome by a sleeping gas.
Back in the Satellite, the JLA, using Maggin’s Earth-Prime ‘aura’ as a guide, has scanned Earth-1 but can’t find Bates. They deduce he is on Earth-2 and set off there. But on Earth-2, we discover the Injustice Society celebrating their own cleverness: it is a spell by the Wizard that has turned Bates evil.
When the JLA arrive, on an aircraft carrier, Maggin reminds them that Earth-2 is about twenty years behind them. The Injustice Society attack, but the Leaguers take them down with suspicious ease. Too much ease: the villains have all died. But they are in disguise: behind their masks are the six JSAers, all dead at the hands of the Justice League.
End of part 1

The Justice League respond by carrying out a hidden burial of their fallen comrades. Meanwhile, supervillain Bates robs Eaarth-2 unopposed, bringing his loot back to the Injustice Society. A whisp of green, observing this, vows not to let this profanity continue.
Meanwhile, without letting on to anyone what they’ve done, the JLA fill in for the missing JSA. The Injustice Society, fearing Maggin may become a threat to them, send Bates to capture him, using him to draw the JLA into a trap where the Injustice Society can ambush them.
The whisp of green resolves itself into the Spectre, last seen on Earth-2 in the 1970 team-up. After announcing that the rest of the JSA are on a space mission, and it is all up to him, the Spectre soars into the heavens, seeking powers to undo what has happened. He speaks to the Voice that restored him to life, seeking the power to restore the fallen sextet.
Meanwhile, the Injustice Society have the unexpected upper hand, until Maggin realises that they are plagued by their consciences, and the memory of striking at Injustice Society members who turned into dead friends. Indeed, Bates is augmenting the guilt by projecting ghost heroes to the JLA.
Maggin starts to taunt Bates, and ultimately succeeds in breaking his concentration. The ghosts fade, for a moment, before returning, looking even more real. That’s because they are real: they’re the restored JSA. Once Maggin manages to knock Bates out against a rock, the heroes easily capture the villains and Bates is freed from the Wizard’s spell. The Spectre looks on, invisibly: nobody will know the true drama. The Thunderbolt sends Bates and Maggin back to Earth-Prime to write up the story – though Schwarz is not impressed by the ending!
* * * * *
There’s not that much to say about this story after pointing out that it was the proverbial Not A Good Idea.
Actually, the 1975 team-up was pretty much representative of its era. After Len Wein had gone over to Marvel, DC were either not able or not willing to replace him with a permanent writer, and for the next two years, rotated scripting duties among a pool of young fans-turned-writers: Bates, Maggin and Martin Pasko.
At almost the same time, the experiment with the reprint-heavy, 100 page Giants was terminated and, with issue 117, for the first time in its history, Justice League of America was promoted to monthly status.
There’s no immediate suggestion of the scale of the disaster to come when the story starts on Earth-Prime with Schwarz and his writers struggling over a new JLA/JSA team-up idea. Introducing real people into a superhero comic is never a wise idea from the point of view of the art: any penciller good enough to draw a realistic version of their features immediately sets up a tension in the art between them and the rest of the characters who are drawn as idealisations or abstracts of humans.
But that’s before we find that this is not merely a cutesy introduction, and that writers Bates (who plotted the story) and Maggin (who dialogued it) are going to be guests in the story: not just as observers, but as actual participants. And Cary Bates is actually going to be come a super-powered villain.
At that point, there’s no going back: every page is going to have to be gritted out.
It might not have been so bad if the story had at least featured some consistent plotting. Bates is the first to step onto the Flash’s left-over Cosmic Treadmill, from the 1968 story that introduced Earth-Prime to begin with, but though this was constructed by the Earth-1 Flash to get him back to Earth-1, it’s residual speed energy actually takes Bates to Earth-2. However, when Maggin uses it, literally a few minutes later, he is dumped on Earth-1.
The most egregious inconsistency – which was commented on by readers at the time and ‘explained’ by pointing out who plotted the story – is that Bates has ‘plotting power’, to make things happen on Earth-2, but all Maggin can do is talk. It may be symbolic of their roles as writers, but it drives a thermonuclear missile through the middle of the story.
That’s without looking at the story as a JLA/JSA team-up. Credit Bates and Maggin for coming up with another structural twist on the team-ups, for this is another when the two teams do not actually team-up, but it’s a reversion to the very early days of the series when the tendency was to demean the JSA by showing them as unable to deal with matters without JLA assistance.
This is very much so here: a half dozen JSA members (without Doctor Fate for an unprecedented second successive occasion), tackle Super-villain Cary Bates and his quasi-Injustice Society cohorts and are beaten. They are then hypnotised? brainwashed? magically controlled? to pose as the villains against the Justice League, who not merely defeat them easily but kill them all in the process.
Let’s pause on that moment. The Justice League have killed six Justice Society members. This is undoubtedly a stressful moment, a trauma of major proportions, something to give the culprit Leaguers pause. How do they react? There are many possible, and even many plausible responses to such a tragedy, but the one the League choose is to hastily, and secretly, bury the dead JSAers, hush the whole thing up and go out trying to fill their places.
Leaving aside the question of justice and law, what the hell do they think they’re doing? These people had family and friends, loved ones who are not only suffering the most extreme loss possible, but are not even allowed to know their loved ones are dead, let alone been given the chance to attend their funeral, mourn at their graves, come to terms with their appalling losses. Not to mention the fact that these were only six JSAers, out of a team with at least fifteen members (the rest of whom are, conveniently, absent on a space mission, or so we are told).
The League don’t think about this. All they’re concerned about is Earth-2’s public, and how they’re going to explain killing their heroes. This is far from impressive.
So the League continue blindly rushing around, being Earth-2’s protectors, only to discover, when they are called on to face the villains again, that they collectively freeze up, subjecting themselves to illusions of the dead heroes. Until the JSA reappear and defeat the villains, story over, and Bates and Maggin can go home and write this up for Justice League of America 123 & 124.
Now, just wait a cotton-picking minute. The JSA reappear: do we mean that the rest of the team return from their space mission to save the day and force the JLA to confront the reality of what they’ve done, enabling them to deal with their overwhelming trauma. No, stupid, I mean the six dead JSAers come back to life.
Some team-up this is.
As to how this is achieved, it is down to the Spectre going to talk to God and asking him, nicely, to return the six dead heroes to life. Which he does, because he is a just, wise, merciful, benevolent and utterly bewildering God. This is what you call a deus ex machina, only without the machina.
Those reading this series who are not themselves familiar with these stories will be asking about the Spectre’s presence, given that he ‘died’ in the 1970 team-up. In the context of the period, the Spectre’s presence here, as an intangible, invisible, inaudible (except to God) ghost is even more of an anomaly than it seems.
There was no, and never has been any, explanation for the Spectre’s survival after his 1970 destruction. He had, however, returned very visibly, in 1974 in Adventure Comics.
Adventure, which had for years been the home of Supergirl, had been left in need of a lead feature when the Maid of Steel was finally given her own mag (which lasted only 13 issues, ironically). After having been the victim of a street-mugging, editor Joe Orlando was open to a suggested revival of the Spectre in his original form, as an avenging ghost, a proposal made by Michael Fleisher. With some splendid, if misguided art from Jim Aparo, the Spectre had blazed across issue 431 – 440 of Adventure before being cancelled at the earliest opportunity.
Fleisher’s portrayal of the Spectre was and still is controversial, though he continues to maintain that he did nothing that the Spectre had not done at the beginning of his existence, in More Fun Comics in the early Forties. I doubt, however, that Bernard Bailey had ever drawn the Spectre chopping his girlfriend into seven separate pieces in a single panel, even before the Comics Code Authority.
This version of the Spectre was a radical departure from the benevolent supernatural being restored in the mid-Sixties, and there was much argument among fans about it. As to such issues as the Crypt, Orlando was having none of it: that was up to Denny O’Neil: this was the previously unseen Earth-1 Spectre (a claim rendered somewhat tendentious by a throwaway reference to Clark Kent leading a rookie policeman to ask if the reporter is Superman).
Fleisher’s version was still turning villains into wood and feeding them into woodchippers when this portrayal appeared, causing complete confusion that was never resolved before Crisis on Infinite Earths swept all this history away.
The worst of this, for me, is that whilst this is supposedly a Justice League/Justice Society team-up, in the days when the JSA only appeared once a year, their presence in this supposed event is purely perfunctory. Bates and Maggin have not the slightest interest in them, except as a plot function that allows them to interplay their great in-joke with the Justice League. I’m surprised at Schwarz for allowing it to go ahead in such a badly-written state. Indeed, with the Justice Society near to making their own return to their own series, in a revived All-Star, this effort makes a good case for discontinuing the tradition. There would, however, be another decade to stories to follow.
As well as the change in writers, there’s another change of inker, with Frank McLaughlin succeeding Dick Giordano. This was something of a retrograde step. Giordano was one of the best inkers in the business, crisp, precise, using sharply-defined lines that brought out the clarity of an image and gave it a lightness that enhanced the reality of the image. In contrast, McLaughlin was a heavy inker, swathing everything in black outlines that had the effect of simplifying images, adding a cartoon dimension that did not suit Dillin’s art.
I’ve recently read online that Dillin’s pencils were extremely good: that he worked ceaselessly to produce a fully-detailed job, complete with word balloons and letters sketched in. It seems a shame to hand what was apparently quite delicate work over to a McLaughlin, who sometimes gives the impression of slapping the ink on with a paintroller.
Sadly, the introduction of McLaughlin seemed to coincide – or did it in some way influence? – with the increasing use by Dillin of stock figures and postures. Gradually, Justice League of America became a venue for the recycling of a limited number of images.
As for post-Crisis plausibility, thankfully this effort has none.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: Fugue for a Darkening Island

Fugue for a Darkening Island, Christopher Priest’s second novel, was originally published in 1972, though I’ve only now read it for the first time. It’s both a product of its time and a chillingly contemporary story, of equal relevance in 2014 as when it first appeared. That the novel can remain so valid is both a complement to Priest’s penetration and the state of urgent relapse our society is currently experiencing.
The edition I have has been thoroughly revised by the writer, and re-copyrighted 2011.It includes a short but comprehensive foreword that takes a lot of the fun out of analysing the book, by laying its author’s intentions and inspirations completely bare. So let’s go with that flow to begin with, and see what detailed inferences can be drawn later.
Priest’s original desire was to write a Catastrophe Novel, of the kind typified in British SF of the Fifties, the most obvious examples of which being John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes and The Day of the Triffids. Priest points out that this strand of genre fiction was popular in an age where the country was still outgrowing the aftermath of the Second World War, when apocalyptic occurrences were not too distant from the reality of daily life.
With the coming of the Sixties, an improved economic era and a more utopian period in which the underlying mood was possibility and expansion, this genre had vanished. Priest was interested to see if a Catastrophe Novel was a feasible project in an era where the depradations of the Seventies were, as yet, unforeseen.
The shape this would take in Fugue was derived from two current and highly visible political issues. The first of these were the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which re-emerged violently in 1968, leading to nightly news coverage of riots, murders, attacks, bombings: sectarian violence reflected in the police forces supposedly responsible for maintaining stability, and the Armed Forces on the streets of a part of the United Kingdom.
The capacity for hatred and revolution was there, but how to bring it onto mainland Britain’s streets? The answer to this lay in the contemporaneous issue of immigration: in particular the Asian populations being forced out of East African dictatorships, such as Uganda under Idi Amin. This displaced population held British Passports, and tens of thousands of them came to the UK. This diaspora was unwelcome in Conservative circles (the Tories were in power under Edward Heath when the novel was written and published), and was a cause of the infamous Enoch Powell speech suggesting that Britain’s streets would run with “rivers of blood.”
By extending the comparatively localised East African Asian refugee issue to a continent-wide disaster, Priest located the underpinning of his novel.
To what extent this is attributable to the different era in which it was set, or to the fact that, on one level, Fugue for a Darkening Island has the hallmarks of an intellectual experiment, the novel differs dramatically from the classic form of the Fifties Catastrophe Novel. The very title signals as much, and the opening page sets out how Priest plans to progress.
The novel is told in the voice of Alan Whitman,a former college lecturer, an irresolute, liberally-minded figure, husband of Isobel, father of Sally. Take note of the deliberately colourless name, emphasised by the surname Whitman – a letter removed from White Man. Whitman is not a leader, he is not a major character in any sense of the word, he is not an active figure. His political position is small ‘l’ liberal, but it is an unthinking, unthought-out stance. He is entirely passive, reacting to circumstances but unable to initiate any meaningful action. A far cry from a Wyndham hero.
Furthermore, the opening page makes it plain that this is not a story that will be told in linear fashion. Whitman introduces himself in a series of short, unexceptional declarations as to colouring, appearance, style of clothes, marital status, job etc. No sooner is the paragraph written than Whitman reintroduces himself, six months later, in the same unadorned declarative style, in the same order of priorities, demonstrating that in that period everything has changed.
The story then flicks backwards and forwards, never quite sustaining a lineal progress in any of its three main time-streams: the pre-Crisis world heading towards the current catastrophe,in both the personal and the political, Whitman’s current place as a subordinate member of a wandering group of men under the command of Rafiq, and the various steps taken by Whitman and his family to try to preserve themselves in a Britain deteriorating beyond rescue.
In the opening paired paragraphs, the course of the book is implied, and it does not require the reader to pursue it to the end to realise that, unlike the traditional Fifties novel, there is no escape. No body of survivors who begin to organise themselves against the catastrophe, no peak reached beyond which the threat begins, however slightly, to recede. Entropy succeeds.
As a result, there is no actual story, in the sense of an over-arching plot, a fact simultaneously obscured and highlighted by Priest’s achronological approach. What there is of an underlying story is Whitman’s wish to rescue his wife and daughter, who have been taken by a raiding party and, it is assumed, being used in some form of mass prostitution (despite Isobel’s lifelong sexual issues and Sally’s unspecified, but implicitly, pre-puberty youth).
Again, it does not take too long for the reader to understand that there will be no reunion, happy or otherwise. It is not giving a spoiler away to say that the book ends with Whitman’s discovery of the bodies of his family, in a mass shore grave.
Or rather, the end of the story comes in a final paragraph in which Whitman, in a strange sense feeling released of his final ties, kills a young African and steals his gun. It is implicit that this will only be his first kill.
One aspect of the book that must be confronted, and which will divide opinion about it, is the question of racism. The book screams a proto-racist conflict: a predominantly white Britain, possessed of its own long-developed culture, undergoes a literal invasion by black Africans (which Priest’s use of the term Afrims does little to conceal). The native culture resists, the foreign invaders are too numerous and powerful, the country descends into the popular conception of anarchy because the Afrims insist on taking Britain as their home.
How can the book not be seen as an account of a race war?
One of the major reasons for Priest’s revision of Fugue was a pair of long-separated reviews in London’s Time Out. The first, representing a progressive mind-set, praised the initial publication for its anti-racist, politically neutral tone. The second, presenting the same mind-set, excoriated a re-publication as racist.
Despite a distaste for Political Correctness, Priest could not accept being accused of being a racist, and determined to revise the book to remove material that reflected that aspect. (At the same time, he sought to eliminate the original stance of ‘cool detachment’, prevalent in late Sixties/early Seventies SF and reflect a greater degree of emotional response, though I’m bound to say that the novel still appears dispassionate: Whitman is too uninvolved, beyond his every day needs, to react in a purely emotional fashion).
What makes the book so relevant today is the fact that, whilst the British Asian diaspora of the early Seventies was more or less assimilated, and Powell’s visions of blood in the street have never come true, the same attitudes are getting stronger and stronger each year in this country, as all elements of the political spectrum, and not just the extremist, thuggish right, increasingly demonise the alien, the outsider, the foreigner.
That they focus as much if not more on ‘invaders’ who are white is particularly worrying.
Priest endorses no point of view in Fugue but the book is shot through with the racist response of the ordinary British public to black immigrants. There’s a political leader who incarnates that response, and further legitimises it, and Priest intends that we should see this for what it is and confront our response to it.
The problem is that Priest does not summon up any reason to see the British impulse towards charity and tolerance as having anything like the same visceral force. With the exception of the clearly Asian Rafiq, who is more of a leader than Whitman could ever be, we see nothing but white faces in action. The Afrims are kept at a distance, they are out and out invaders, they are portrayed as ‘different’ and their actions – however forced by necessity they may be – are without exception antisocial, criminal and violent.
And they enslave white women for sexual trafficking.
No, I don’t accuse Priest of being racist in any conscious way. It’s clear from his body of work that he dopes not have that mindset. But in Fugue, the situation he sets up to examine, and the studied inadequacy of his viewpoint character, do not allow him from depicting Britain as a largely racist society that is nevertheless justified in its responses to an unheeding, alien force.
For all that, I was still impressed enough by Fugue for a Darkening Island to want to read it again, and to recommend it as a book worth reading. Given that Christopher Priest would not begin to discover his underlying theme of unreality and our perception of it until his fifth novel, A Dream of Wessex, this could perhaps be described as apprentice work, though it’s too well handled for such a description to be fair. It’s a book by a writer who hasn’t properly discovered himself yet, but it shows great promise.

Sherlock: series 3, episode 2 – Uncollected Thoughts

Traditionally, the middle episode of a series of Sherlock is the one where it sags, the worthy-but-slightly-dull one, the one not written by Mark Gatiss or Steven Moffat. There’s no such failure here, in an episode in which the funny lines sometimes ran the risk of colliding with each other, but the episode has already provoked a lot of online unrest and accusations of shark-jumping that are hard to refute for the obvious reason: they’re entirely valid.

Now, I liked this story, even though, properly speaking, there was only about ten minutes of story in it, and that right at the end. The advance publicity – which the opening and potentially completely irelevant sequence only emphasised – laid heavily on the idea that Sherlock’s biggest ever task was being Best Man at John Watson’s wedding, and giving a speech.

The episode set out to be a comedy, whose paucity of plot was disguised by an intricate chronological to-and-fro about the build-up to the wedding, interspersed with a Best Man’s speech that seemed to fill about two-thirds of the running time and which did, with the best will in the world, test the credibility of the wedding audience’s patience. A lot of the speech, and its accompanying byways, was designed to build up Watson to the point where his character could be put on a par with Holmes, which was laudable, and entirely in keeping with Martin Freeman’s continuing note-perfect performances, but which is potentially lethal to the classic concept of the partnership’s skills: I know this is a modern interpretation, a re-creation rather than an adaptation, but how far can you get from the original Holmes-Watson template before the point is lost?

What you had no sense of, throughout all this time, was that the thin and unconvincing cases the time-filling duo were engaged in were not only serious but related. The show gave the very smart ample opportunity to see this before it was spelt out, given that it began with the intended murder victim – Watson’s old Commander – strapping on the very belt that would prove key to deciphering the plot. The seeming scattergun approach scattered all the clues necessary, in a very fair manner, in plain sight between the dazzling distractions of the one-liners.

So many people seem to have hated it, yet in many ways this episode does fill the classic mould of detection. What makes it differ from previous episodes is the fact that, exactly like the first episode, the plot isn’t the focus of the story. It’s there throughout, unseen until Sherlock finally adds enough of the pieces together, but by then a lot of people were way out of sympathy with the show.

And I take their point. Part of the beauty of Sherlock, inherent to its appeal but simultaneously a pain in the arse, is that the series are so short: three 90 minute stories every couple of years. The series started less than a week ago, and its final episode – for another two years – is on Sunday: everything in twelve days only. So whilst this story is a brilliant change of pace if taken in isolation, it’s an enormous and potentially destabilising step in a series of three: change of pace from what? And given that so much of the first episode was devoted to atmosphere and relationships, pushing the plot to one side, the series doesn’t only risk being imbalanced, it actually is imbalanced.

What remains to be seen is how the series will end, on Sunday. Reading between the lines of what I’ve seen so far, and factoring in my decidedly imperfect knowledge of the original (confession: I have read very little Conan Doyle, and have not been impressed by what I have – I much prefer Raffles if I’m being honest), I am expecting a massive changing up through the gears in the final episode, and a very much blacker affair.

There’s the unexplained but vivid assault on Watson in episode one, the mysterious observer that everyone thinks is Alex Ferguson but who’s really Troels Hartman from The Killing series one, the elusive Waters gang from the start of this episode, the fact that the Conan Doyle Mary Watson died, and the title of episode three – His Last Vow. A vow made explicitly near the end of this episode, to love and protect the Watsons, and their barely-conceived child.

This series has, I think, been planned over four and a half hours, planned so that these two, somewhat uncharacteristic episodes create a mood, an atmosphere that will be blown apart. I recognise Dave Sim’s technique, honed over a quarter century of reading Cerebus, of breaking free of the confines of the individual chapter to greatly enhance the force of the overall story.

Moffat’s come in for a lot of flak for using this approach in Doctor Who, and is now being slagged off for bringing the two series’ closer togethet, in tone and attack. But where the criticism has a degree of validity when applied to the long-running Who, I think that in such a short series, appearing so rapidly, that the combination of episodes in this manner is entirely justified. And, frankly, there are enough programmes out there that pander to the audience’s dull wish to be led by the hand through the tulip fields, and I really don’t want to be held up waiting for them.

So: loved it, recognise it’s flaws, but if I’m right about the final episode, I think that those ‘flaws’ will then be seen as a perfectly judged element of a whole. Not so much a three act play, as a three movement Symphony.

But that’s down to Moffat…

Eusebio – The Measure of the Man

Eusebio da Silva Ferreira probably made only one significant mistake on the football field in his whole career.
It came in the second of the two games in England that endeared him to the population in this country, the European Cup Final in 1968.
With less than two minutes to go, Eusebio finally broke free of the shackles Nobby Stiles had placed on him the whole game, evaded granite stopper Bill Foulkes, and bore down upon Alex Stepney. Less than ten minutes earlier, Jose Graca had equalised Bobby Charlton’s second half headed goal, and now Eusebio was in position to win the game, win the Cup for his beloved Benfica, and tear the heart out of United’s bid to honour the memory of their dead at munich.
But this was long ago, when the cold-hearted pragmatism of the modern game, where goals are to be planned over every inch of the ball’s journey into the net, was far from taking hold, and Eusebio was a man of the glory of the game, the excitement and drama. He drew back his right boot and smashed in a shot of tremendous power.
By rights, no human keeper should have deflected it. But Stepney not only blocked the ball with his whole body, but despite being knocked literally two to three yards back by the force of the shot, he held the ball. And I am here using the word ‘literally’ in its old-fashioned sense of meaning literally: watch the video (at 3:41) and compare the distance between where Stepney plants his feet and where he ends up!
Stepney then got to his feet and cleared the ball to his fullback, Tony Dunne. Eusebio came forward to him. Not to block or in any way seek to prevent Stepney’s clearance. But to clap him, to slap him on the shoulder, to smile and salute, in every way possible between opponents who do not speak the same language, what Stepney had done. To recognise a feat that enthralled Eusebio’s heart as an example of the greatness of the game.
That was the heart of Eusebio. Not frustration or curses or anger. But the joy of a superb performance by an opponent.
That was the measure of the man.