Theatre Nights: The Phantom of the Fair


Sandman Mystery Theatre  41-44 . Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
As I’ve previously stated, the Golden-Age Sandman appeared fully-formed, without explanation or origin. It took until 1986 for a retrospective origin to be written, only for that to be superseded by Neil Gaiman within two years.
That temporary origin was a typically convoluted affair by Roy Thomas: wealthy socialite, Wesley Dodds, learns of rumours that an assassin will attempt to kill King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England when they attend the forthcoming New York World Trades Fair. The supposed assassin is the Crimson Avenger, in fact a hero, one of the very earliest (before Superman) and sometimes mistaken for a villain in his early career. The Crimson is also the only hero apart from Sandman to start off in business suit and mask.
Now, rather than do anything sensible like go to the Police, Dodds decides to tackle the Avenger direct. As the Avenger operates with a gas gun, Dodds dons a gas mask (I assume that the green suit, orange fedora and grey cape are mere decoration). However, when he finally confronts the Crimson, in the Fair, he is shocked when the Crimson recognises his voice and unmasked. The Avenger’s real identity is crusading publisher/editor Lee Travis, who happens to be Dodds’s cousin (of course he is, comics can never accept that unrelated things can happen).
The true villain is an individual calling himself The Phantom of the Fair. Thus, though this origin has been wiped from existence, it came as no surprise that it should be obliquely honoured by the production of a play under the title of the villain.
And the Royals visit the Fair, and the Crimson Avenger is present, and there are nods and hints to the coming world of heroes, but this is a far different Phantom, with a far different aim in mind, and The Phantom of the Fair is the most visceral and disturbing of all the plays in this season, because underlying this story is sex, homosexual sex, a forbidden and illegal world in the New York of 1939. And the Phantom is a leather-clad figure of obsessive, perverted disgust and twisted self-loathing.
There is too much in this story, little details and moments, gathering in and binding, to speak of in any review. I shall do no more than touch upon the progression of the play throughout its engulfing four acts.
The story is set in and around the site of the famous 1939 New York World’s Fair, ‘The World of Tomorrow’, with its many famous features: the Trylon and the Perisphere, Democracity, the Lagoon of Nations etc. The setting awes and inspires Dian Belmont, so much so that she brings father Larry back for her second visit. Wesley, typically, is incapable of surrendering to the appeal of this vision of a better world without simultaneously seeing it for a fiction, a comfortable self-blinkering exercise that excludes evil by simply avoiding looking at it.
Unfortunately, others share that same view. Cannily, Wagner/Seagle/Davis begin by showing us the committee behind the Fair attacking its President, Grover Whalen (all the members are historically correct) over the financial failure it seems likely to be. This sets up a tension over the Fair’s reality before Wesley starts undermining it in his narrative.
But the killer who calls himself the Phantom of the Fair is equally determined to undermine the vision of the Fair. Even as Wesley and Dian enjoy their day, Lieutenant Burke is on the site – miles out of his jurisdiction – investigating the first in a series of murders, bodies been left provocatively to be found, and the notes that come with them assert the Phantom’s determination that what he represents be carried into the Day after Tomorrow, amidst its glacial perfection.
The Phantom turns out to be a very ordinary guy, with an ordinary name and a prosaic means of access to the Fair based on his involvement in its construction. His name is unimportant, and he is colourless in his public persona, but underneath, in solitude, he is a mass of seething passions and hatreds. Through his escalating cruelty, and growing delusion, we piece together a background that an almost make us feel sympathy to him: youthful experimentation with his cousin discovered by an overly-dominant father with his own, denied, tendencies, beatings and torture experienced and now regurgitated against young gay men that the Phantom both desires and loathes. I’m not going to go into any details as to the tortures the man inflicts, save to say that they include castration (and when his madness truly breaks, confronted by a Sandman who is seeking vengeance, not justice, this time), and it is implied that the [phantom has already castrated himself
It’s sick and it’s vile, and whilst the play does not indulge itself unnecessarily in graphic display, it does not shrink from what it is describing.
Nor do Wagner/Seagle/Davis concentrate solely upon the sickness of the Phantom. Burke, unsurprisingly, reacts to Hubert Klein’s diagnosis that the victims were homosexual (the medical grounds for this decision are clinically, and almost hilariously spelled out) with a disgust that underpins his every further action in the case.
But whilst Burke is the dinosaur tendency in almost everything in this series of plays, representing a contrast with Wesley Dodds, we then find that Wes is almost as disturbed by homosexuality as the Lieutenant. This is amply displayed in a wonderfully pitched scene in the gay bar Burke has terrorised, in which Wesley pretends to be one of the clientele, but is forcefully jerked out of his pretence by discovering his old friend and former college mate Robert Li in there. With his boyfriend.
Wes’s floundering is shown up even more by Dian’s rescue, her beautifully fictional ‘truth’ about his being there, and her blythe acceptance of Robert’s inclination: indeed, she has regarded it as obvious since she first met him.
But Wesley is seriously thrown, and Davis draws a wonderfully uncomfortable Mr Dodds, body language blaring, when Robert calls upon him to ensure their friendship is not compromised. He’s disturbed as much at being disturbed as at his discovery which, as such things are wont to do, immediately re-colours various elements of their shared past.
And the drama reaches its perhaps inevitable peak when Robert himself becomes the last victim of the Phantom, and the Sandman discovers that it is not possible to become inured to sudden, violent death.
Because its subject is so visceral, The Phantom of the Fair is probably the most powerful of all the stories in this season. It’s a subject that could so easily have been handled crassly, but Wagner/Seagle/Davis are on top of their form, and they avoid all the traps to produce a stunning drama, in which cross-currents constantly tug the story this way and that, and which enables them to build a complex interplay that encompasses many moments of no direct relation to the course of the story.
There are too many to go into detail about, and besides I don’t wish to spoil your own pleasure, but I have to draw attention to one deftly drawn, minimalist moment early on. Dian has dragged her father to the Fair. He’s quickly impressed with the size of the Fair, and also its cleanness, commenting that her mother would have liked it. We don’t see Dian’s face, or even body language, as they are minuscule figures in a crowd, but her response – “She… It is nice, isn’t it?” – opens up an aspect of Dian we have not previously seen, she having before this seemed to be perfectly at ease with the loss of her mother.
Perhaps, significantly, this inspires her to encourage her father towards a romantic liaison with his secretary, and to drag him into an exhibition of nude painting (though Davis is again wickedly effective in putting a revealing expression on Dian’s face).
One other, almost extraneous aspect of this play is the ongoing ‘superheroising’ of the world of the Mystery Theatre. For a start, Burke’s abrasive ways with Whalen (who is more concerned with protecting the Fair’s image than catching a serial killer nutcase – telling, given that Whalen was a former Chief of Police) leads to Mayor LaGuardia bringing in his best detective as back-up to Burke.
This is the legendary Jim Corrigan, loosest cannon on the force, back from suspension at long last. Burke doesn’t like Corrigan (Burke, in case you hadn’t noticed, doesn’t like much of anybody, but in this case he loathes interference). Corrigan reassures him that he’s not out to steal Burke’s glory: he’s a ghost, he won’t be seen. If Burke solves this, no-one will know he was there: if Burke misses anything, Corrigan will pick it up.
Of course, the comics fan has jumped liked a scalded cat at the first mention of Corrigan’s name, because we know that, before the year is out, Gats Benson will kidnap Corrigan and dump him in the river in a barrel of cement. Corrigan’s spirit will emerge and rise towards heaven, only to be sent back with vast supernatural powers to fight Evil as The Specre.
It’s a nod, nothing more, and to be frank it’s one of only two unsatisfactory elements to this play. Corrigan comes and goes within a page, and that’s it. He’s referred to as having phoned in information twice, but really he’s a cameo without point to the story, and his absence is a loose end.
Of more substance, but of equal irrelevance to the Phantom’s story, is Wesley’s encounter with none other than the Crimson Avenger. This one at least had to be included, in view of his central importance to that discarded origin, but he’s another diversion, a moment in which The Sandman crosses over into a non-existant series.
Investigating the Fair at night, The Sandman finds a bunch of mobsters strong-arming a man who owes them money. He doesn’t tackle them, but the Avenger does,since they’re here because of the case he’s pursuing. Big red cloak, even bigger automatics and a simple willingness to kill scum: the Avenger may be another midnight adventurer like the Sandman, but his mercilessness repels Wesley Dodds (but then inspires him to seeking vengeance against the Phantom.
It’s a longer episode, and the two players don’t actually meet: the Sandman tosses a distracting gas canister from under a bridge, distracting the last man from killing his hostage, and far from being grateful, the Avenger doesn’t like anyone horning in on his act. His ‘We’ll meet again” is a threat.
There’s an amusing coda at the next day’s press conference, when reporters try to bring the Avenger up. Burke refuses to confirm his presence, is derisive of the Press’s urge to big up the costumed vigilantes: the Crimson Avenger, Sandman, Hourman (Rex Tyler is clearly active now). He even suggests, sarcastically, that they move to Central City and try to interview “The Flash” (a continuity error there: the Flash of this era was based in Keystone City).
These are yet more signs that the superheroes were beginning to intrude into the pulp-noir of the Theatre.
Back, for a moment, to the story. It ends at Robert Li’s funeral, with Wesley assisting as a pall bearer, but it’s final grace note is of continuing security issues at the Fair. The King and Queen of England have arrived, Corrigan has uncovered a plot to assassinate them. Roy Thomas’s discarded origin is ready to play. But not in the Mystery Theatre.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Blackhawk.
Break a leg.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: The Dream Archipelago


The Dream Archipelago differs from the rest of Priest’s work that we are discussing here in being a short story collection, each of the tales taking place in and around The Dream Archipelago and the psychological landscape Priest created in the 1970s, and used so brilliantly in 1981’s The Affirmation. Indeed, one of the first stories in this collection is titled ‘The Negation’, and references internally both a short story of that name, and also an epic length novel called The Affirmation, though it bears no resemblance to Priest’s own book.
Most of these stories originate in the late Seventies, though each has been re-copyrighted 2009, and we must assume that they have been revised, or at least polished, by the author before this latest, expanded version of the collection was published. I used to own an earlier version of this book, but the current compilation includes two even later stories.
Because the stories originate in the Seventies, the majority are not really about the archipelago itself, or its people. They centre upon people of Faianland, and their war with their northern continental neighbours. The Archipelago is a neutral zone, not merely in fact but in political determination, and access from the north is strictly limited and controlled, placing the islands beyond the easy reach of Priest’s protagonists.
And removal to the islands is all but permanent.
This version of the collection opens with the shortest, newest and least typical story, ‘The Equatorial Moment’,which is more a geographical account than a story, describing a newish feature of the Archipelago, a time vortex which flows along the equator, enabling rapid air travel to distant parts of the islands and the unpopulated southern continent, where  the actual fighting has long since moved.
Priest’s other new story, is almost as short, but is a world apart: ‘The Trace of Him’ is told from the point of view of a woman who, briefly, was the lover of an older, famous man, who she has not seen in years, but is invited to his funeral, amongst a family that treats her outwardly with the utmost respect but inwardly feels very different: she on the other hand feels only her memories of him, which may be enough to resurrect him for a few moments.
‘The Negation’ is unusual in taking place wholly in the war, on the southern continent, as its protagonist begins to doubt his side’s cause under the influence of the writer who pens for him and him alone the story that gives its name to this story: Dik never gets to read it but it fuels a desire to surrender to the enemy that is only foiled when a mirror image of himself surrenders to Faianland. This is the only story to touch upon Priest’s usual theme of Unreality.
Both ‘Whores’ and ‘The Discharge’ (which was written for the 1999 first English language publication of the collection) feature escapees from the war. One is an invalid, subject to attacks brought on by exposure to synaesthetic gas (Priest is entertainingly inventive with his advanced weaponry), the other a deserter. ‘Whores’s protagonist is the only character to come from the un-named opposite side.
The other three stories all centre upon people who originally come from the north, mainly from its capital, Jethra, but who, for reasons of their own, have come to the Archipelago. Lenden Cros in ‘The Miraculous Cairn’ is travelling on a permit, to dispose of a relative’s belongings on Seevl, the nearest island to Jethra, the gateway that hides sight of any other island from the city: there is a beautifully disguised twist to this story, midway, but the difference is that Lenden can and does return, whilst in their different ways, neither Graian Sheeld in ‘The Cremation’, nor Yvann Ordier in ‘The Watched’ can return to Faianland.
In their differing ways, each of these stories unsettles. I see no point in examining them in greater detail, nor in doing more that suggesting their themes. Short stories, even at the length of some of these, are by definition short: their focus is more finely concentrated, their range of characters much reduced, their ambit defined.
Priest still creates a great deal of space in these stories in which the reader has to supply his or her own explanations, but the overall effect is of a mosaic that does not even begin to create a picture. What we understand most about this collection is that the Dream Archipelago is indefinite, potentially infinite. The Archipelago has no history: the northern countries have only a shared one, of a war tat has lasted for 3,000 years and will last far more than 3,000 more, locking the Archipelago into a neutral space, bounded on both sides by the war of which it is not part, yet which locks it into a place that is at once nebulous and fixed in both space and eternity.
The Archipelago is fragmentary, physically and psychologically. Anything can happen and so nothing happens. It has no significance, and it is a place of escape. These stories address these complex contradictions directly, in the surface, but it is in the depths that the tales have their effect.
Priest’s next work would also concentrate upon the Dream Archipelago, this time in its own right and state. It would be both fiction and fictional fact, familiarising the islands more than they had been before, yet at the same time removing them further from our own mindscape. It would apply Unreality to the unreal.

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (vol 3) #12


As I predicted last month, this is going to be my last blog on the new Astro City series for the time being. I like the series too much, want so much out of it, that I can’t go on damning it with faint praise month after month. Thanks to everybody who’s been reading, but until there’s an issue that I can either genuinely celebrate, or I can (interestingly) excoriate, this series is suspended.

If I were asked to summon up what I consider the essential element of Astro City in a single sentence, I would describe it as a gigantic What If? What if we really lived in a world of superbeings with superpowers, of monsters, ghosts, aliens and mad scientists? What shape would that world take? How would we adapt, as individuals and as a society? What really happens in the heads of people who have these powers, who do these things? What stories can we tell about superhumans when you take out the 75% devoted to hitting people: what takes it’s place?

That’s what I’ve always celebrated Astro City for: Busiek’s gift for seeing through the endless superficiality into what, realistically, has to lie behind, and to write about that. That spark of realisation, of insight, that re-shapes your understanding of this strange, improbable, adolescent world that so many of us still find appealling. That’s what I’ve missed in volume 3. The spark is weak, mundane or, as in issue 12, simply not there.

I don’t even get to damn this latest issue with faint praise. It’s a landmark in two senses, firstly in that it completes a whole year of on-schedule, regular publication, and that hasn’t been the case for such a long time that it is worth celebrating. The other reason is more fundamental: it’s the first ever Astro City story not to be drawn by Brent Anderson, with Graham Nolan subbing.

No disrespect to Nolan, but it’s not an experiment I’d like to see repeated. Brent Anderson is what Astro City looks like, and whilst Nolan bases his vision on a Crafttint board to give it some solidity, his approach is simply too much of a cartoon to satisfy. No, thanks. If Anderson needs to be relieved from time to time, sobeit and it’s not like he doesn’t deserve it. If you can’t simply bring back Willie Blyberg, or have somebody else ink his pencils, please choose someone with a much more photo-realistic approach next time.

As for the story, it’s so slight as to be almost negligible, but worst of all, it’s mundane. It’s narrated by long-term villain Ned Carroway who, have been brought up dirt-poor and spat on, developed a taste for fine clothing and immaculate taste after robbing his first rich snob. He’s inspired by, of all things, Little Red Riding Hood, in which he identifies with the Wolf, the dangerous predator in the deep, dark woods.

So he becomes the Gentleman Bandit, educating himself along the way, exposing himself to more and finer ways of life, his one ‘failure’ being to fall in love with the woman he sets out to seduce, and to marry her. The relationship holds, even after he’s taken in by Jack-in-the-Box, and after serving his time, Carroway, having promised, goes straight. But straight is like being back at dirt poor and worthless, and when Ned is contacted by some old prison buddies (who, like him, are heavily into fashion, style and great tailoring), he’s back in the business, fitting in with a host of different themed gangs, culminating in the Sweet Adelines.

We’ve seen these jokers in passing. The Adelines’ motif is being a Barber-Shop Quartet with tommy guns and immaculate harmonies. The problem is, they are a joke. Everything about Carroway is plausible, real,  understandable, even down to his being motivated more by wearing classy clothes than the loot (Busiek is still a good enough writer to sell you that), but the Adelines cross the line into that nebulous hinterland where you cannot believe that anyone in their right mind – and Carroway is nowhere even hinted at being crazy – would do that. Added to a couple of his earlier gangs, such as The Mount Rushmore Four, who are even more headshakingly stupid, and this holes the plot beneath the waterline.

Not that the plot is a boat, or if it is, it’s a canoe. This time round, Ned is duffed up by not only the Confessor but his sometime sidekick (since when?), Stray. The latter slashes and scars his face, and this time his wife divorces him. Now Ned’s back on the outside, trying to go straight, struggling with menial jobs that don’t bring him anywhere near a tuxedo, whilst one of his old jail-mates keep trying to tempt him back to themed gangs in well-cut tailoring. Ned’s having none of it – until his temptor gives him a pair of handmade shoes, and that’s Ned tied up until his next prison term.

Between Nolan’s cartooning, and the underlying silliness – no, call it unseriousness – of this fine clothing lark, the story doesn’t stand much chance but, like last month’s Executive-Secretary-but-to-a-magician, it’s essentially banal. We are once again behind the scenes, on the inside, but what we see offers no revelation, nothing we had never thought of before but immediately recognise as true. It’s not like the Junkman’s need for his cleverness to be seen and acknowleded by others, or Vince Oleck introducing superhero tropes into a Criminal Court because they exist. No Oh. Oh, I see, I get the picture. It’s like Dorian Gray looking exactly like his picture.

I don’t want to be saying such things, so I’m signing off. I’m still collecting the series, and if an issue appears on which I think I have something valid to say, I’ll post on Astro City again. If that’s so, hope to see you again.

Great Walks – The Langdale Pikes


To the general public, whose knowledge of Lakeland is based upon picture postcards, there are three iconic scenes: Great Gable above Wastwater, Striding Edge from above, and the Langdale Pikes, seen across Windermere.
It doesn’t really matter that the last of these are a bit of a fraud, a challenging, spirit-raising sight, an invitation to climb upwards that, when the heights have been scaled, proves only to be a facade, the edge of a low plateau with little or no intrinsic interest beyond.
Even the magnificent Pavey Ark is revealed as no more than a cliff, a geographical feature of a tedious fell named Thunacar Knott, which may persuade those who fear disillusionment to go no further than the banks of Stickle Tarn, where they may gaze in awed content, binoculars searching for the little specks of red and blue that represent the dauntless climbing Jack’s Rake.
The classic approach to a round of the Langdale Pikes is, of course, tackling that glorious steepness head-on. All the climbing is concentrated into the ascent out of and return into Great Langdale. Once the skyline is achieved, much of what follows is on level and easy ground, with occasional forays into short scrambling and very little expenditure of energy.
The most concentrated walk begins and ends the walk at the New Hotel, Dungeon Ghyll, at the foot of Mill Gill (I am aware that this magnificent watercourse has long been known as Stickle Ghyll, but this is my blog, and my experiences, so we stick with the proper name here, right?)
Mill Gill offers its sights openly, a series of cascades tumbling down the open gill, a temptation to the carbound, wondering below. In this, it’s a complete contrast to the watercourse that gives its name to the vicinity: Dungeon Ghyll hides itself in a succession of folds in the land and has to be visited to experience its falls.
I’ve probably ascended this route more often than any other in the Lakes, the climb to Stickle Tarn being a family staple. Indeed, my first ascent was so long ago that we ascended the west bank of the Gill, which was fenced off in the early Seventies, and which, when last seen, bore no marks of any path ever existing on that flank. In contrast, the eastern path, which has been rebuilt at least once, is an unmistakeable highway, about which the only direction is to cross the footbridge at the foot of the Gill, behind the Hotel, and turn uphill. Be prepared to slog.
I hesitate to mention this, but it’s probably just as over-used by now, but on my last ascent by this route, not far above the footbridge, I caught sight of a diversionary branch, narrow, unrepresented in The Central Fells, climbing sharply uphill to the right. On a whim, I ascended this, and was delighted to discover a secluded, narrow route, paralleling the main drag, about twenty to thirty feet higher, and giving me a delightful, crowd-free passage for about three-quarters of the length of the climb, until it merged with the main route at the bottom of the final steep channel towards the Tarn. Those bound for the round of the Langdale Pikes can cut this corner off by ascending the zig-zag path on the grassy slopes to the right, emerging at the eastern end of the Tarn, but no amount of route-saving can compensate for missing out on the sight of Pavey Ark rising slowly above the immediate horizon, in all its glory.

Pavey Ark

Here, my sister and I would indulge in our usual pastime of throwing whatever stones could be found by the weir into the Tarn, whilst my Dad and Uncle would stand side by side, peering at Jack’s Rake, trying to point out to me the dizzying course. Not until both were gone did I discover my own enthusiasm for that route: from afar, sadly.
In an ideal world, the ascent of Pavey Ark would be by this narrow, thrilling, frightening scramble, diagonally across the face of the cliff. Not until the later years of my walking did I even begin to think I might be capable of tackling it, but I never got to that before life intervened to more or less take me away from the fells, and I am probably now too old, my knees too fragile, to seriously think of chancing it.
But I still dream.
If Jack’s Rake is to be excluded, the obvious route would be to take the Harrison Stickle path, diverting right at its top to reach the summit of Pavey, but this is purely a functional path, with little interest. A more entertaining approach is to turn right, along the Tarn’s shore, heading for the low grasslands at its eastern end. There, the path curves away around the Tarn, following Bright Beck, its inflower. The cliff of Pavey turns side on as you gain height, heading for its back.
Bright Beck is the route to High Raise from Great Langdale, and further on it becomes a delightful scramble for the fit and active, before escaping onto the plateau. Look, however, for a path turning left, dropping to cross the beck, and rising steeply on broken ground. Over the first rise, the path bears for Wainwright’s North Rake, an unusual and fascinating grassy breach along the ridge of the crags, and providing an easy trod to just behind the summit rocks: approach without haste, the first step’s a doozy.
My first attempt by this route was with the summit under snow for three hundred feet or so. I climbed slowly and carefully, having no winter gear, testing each step with such caution that I eventually realised that once I did reach the top, and relaxed, I would probably wind up drained: a dangerous state in which to negotiate snow downhill. I turned back: one of only three times I have abandoned a climb without reaching a summit. Typically, when I returned in summer, I realised I had been within fifty feet of the summit.
Though it’s not one of the Langdale Pikes, the Wainwright bagger will now find himself called upon to divert to Thunacar Knott, just to have been there. Little description is necessary: the low, almost flat top is clearly visible half a mile away west and a virtual bee-line can be taken in the knowledge that precious little energy is being expended. The highest point is the first swelling reached, the official summit the second, beyond a small tarn, decorated by a miniature cairn.
Count it, and come back.
Back is another trek across the plateau, this time south, towards the prominent rocks of Harrison Stickle. There’s a bit more of a path towards Harrison than towards Pavey, but the main problem on this section is if the sun is beating down overhead, with no shade. A sporting route can be taken up the back of Harrison Stickle, to reach its neat, narrow top and the sudden view of Great Langdale below, leading towards the welcome waters of Windermere.

Pike O’Stickle from behind

Harrison Stickle is the highest point of the walk. From its summit, a path leads down into the little hollow lying between it and the two remaining tops. A path starts in the direction of Pike O’Stickle, looking infinitely less impressive from this angle, where it is simply a rocky excrescence on the edge of Langdale, but respect will increase again once you reach its base.
First, to the left of the Pike itself is the top of the ancient scree run that leads down to Mickleden and which, from below, is an inviting scramble for those with excess energy and a burning need to dispel it. Famously, this area was once the site of a Stone Age axe quarry, and visitors still comb the stones in the hope of finding an example of that ancient craft, though the number of visitors in the years since The Central Fells was first published alone have pretty much gleaned everything of even minimal relevance.
There is only one way up and down the Pike, a steep, scrambling way, with hands on rock that is delightful to ascend but which for some arouses only dread at the prospect of descending by the same route. This is one of those sections where I still maintain that I would rather climb it twice in one day than go down it once.
That can prey on the mind a little when stood on the tight, circular top. Fight this down and enjoy the vertigo-defying look down to the head of Mickleden, with Rossett Gill revealed in all its peculiar glory beyond.
One of the most attractive features of Pike O’Stickle’s view was that it was the perfect place to trace the old Rossett Gill pony route, which was considerably easier to track from the other side of the valley than when trying to put it underfoot. Since Chris Jesty reported, in the Southern Fells Second Edition, that it is now impossible to trace the old track, I was horribly disappointed. I would love to think that some ghostly traces of it, as if looking through a window in time, may still be seen from Pike O’Stickle’s top, if only for a time. When I think of how many paths Wainwright’s books have rescued from slowly fading, or simply conjured into being, it is almost heart-breaking to think that this piece of history has been lost forever.
The climb back down to the hollow behind the Pike is easier than fears make it, and beyond the head of the Axe Factory scree, a narrow trod immediately picks up the delightful ridge leading within a few minutes to the top of the third Langdale Pike, Loft Crag. The summit is achieved so easily that it seems criminal to enjoy the view.

Gimmer Crag

Loft Crag is most famous for its climbing grounds, Gimmer Crag, which are out of sight from the summit but can be enjoyed by a short diversion on the way down. Follow the path off Loft Crag down into the hollow. Opposite is the rounded head of Thorn Crag, not an individual fell but often included as one of the Langdale Pikes. Unless time or strength is at a premium, take the opportunity to visit its undistinguished top, but return to the hollow and start the steep descent of the fellside. Look for a path bearing away on the right: this is mostly on level grounds and is the approach to Gimmer, which can be seen, side-on, at quite close quarters – close enough to emphasise that this is not your world!
Return to the main path, which winds its way entertainingly towards the valley, arriving just above the New Hotel.

This is the best route for a day in the Langdale Pikes, and certainly the most dramatic, but there is an alternate, more roundabout approach which, paradoxically, I enjoyed rather more, for the enhanced solitude of the walk in its early/middle stages.
The start and finish for this walk should be the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, a third of a mile further up the valley. Take the path running behind the intake wall and follow this into Mickleden, whose sweeping openness offers possible the greatest sense of space anywhere in a valley in the Lakes. Follow this to the very head of the valley, under Rossett Pike and, when the path splits, take the right fork and ascend Stake Pass.
I came this way with my Dad, a very long time ago, on a walk into Mickleden, when he proposed an impromptu trip to the top of Stake Pass for him and me. Stake Pass was laid out in a series of well-graded zig-zags, but these were the days of the slashing, ugly short-cuts, which i would have foolishly taken, but which my Dad avoided rigorously. To my disappointment, the top of Stake was nowhere in sight when we reached the valley edge, just an undulating foreground that Dad was not willing to explore.
Now the shortcuts have been subsumed back into the landscape, and the zigzags rise peacefully and smoothly, and there is plenty of time to follow the pass to its highest point between Langdale and Langstrath.
From there, take the track working back eastwards, across an unfrequented moor. Once again, the hard part has already been done, and the rest of the day will be easy and calm.
The path skirts the edge of Martcrag Moor, a pathless grassland lying between here and Langdale, its slightly uplifted cairn visible on the immediate horizon. Cross over to visit it: there are no paths, nor any real need for any, though the walking is not smooth on coarse, tussocky grass.
Wainwright describes Pike O’Stickle from this angle as looking like a sugarloaf, but I’m not old enough to recognise one of those and can’t say whether I agree or not.
Once at the foot of the Pike, we are into the territory already described above, and will undoubtedly be surrounded by other walkers, which is why the roundabout, low-key approach has been so enjoyable.

A truer picture – geographically

24: Live Another Day 11.06 am – 1.00 pm


Me and Jack go back a long way, all the way to when Mandy the Lesbian Assassin bailed out of that jetliner that the blew up off-screen, because between filming and broadcasting, 9/11 had taken place and there was a certain sensitivity to film of planes blowing up at that time.

Back then, 24 was an innovation. It was only 13 to begin with, because Fox were scared the audience couldn’t concentrate for long enough, or would rebel against the idea that they couldn’t just dip in once or twice a month and find everything exactly the same each time. That meant that Day 1 was a little lop-sided structurally, because Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran had to write a thirteen episode series onto which another eleven episodes could be bolted without the join showing so much (oh, you know that assassin Bauer foiled? Guess what, they sent a second one…)

But it was great: fast, frenetic, tense, hyperactive, innovative, and it’s final hour was one of the best ‘hours’ of thriller television ever made, and 24‘s finest hour of programming.

We watched them all, eager each year for the latest series, to see how the ante could be upped yet further. Day 2 was much more structurally holistic, and came very close to equally Day 1, but a bit of a rot started to seep in with Day 3 (Kim Bauer, CST Agent: seriously? SERIOUSLY?). And despite the fact that Gregory Itzen was authentically slimy from his first appearance onscreen – silver pools used to just leak out of the telly whenever he appeared – President Charles Logan was the sign of serious degeneration.

The nadir was Day 7, the video game series: introduce threat, defeat after three episodes, go to next level, introduce threat, defeat after three episodes, repeat until bored. After that, even Day 8 was an improvement, though not by such that anyone really minded when the plug was pulled and the show was cancelled.

But 24, apart from its insanely enjoyable thrills and spills and maverick killings, was massively important in US television history. Though it was far from the first series to tell stories that reqired attention and concentration, it did more than any other programme to convince the television audience that it could commit to watching every week, to concentrating and working for their entertainment.

That was long ago, and in another country, and besides, the wench is dead. I’ll be honest, my first reaction to the idea of 24 coming back was why? It had died a death, killed by its own inescapable repetitiveness and its excesses. Jack Bauer had burned all his boats, and all his bridges, in fact burned everything that could possibly be at stake: where had it left to go?

The first answer was London, and the second was that the story would only last half a day, 12 episodes, 12 hours. Both those concepts seemed to make an absolute mockery of any revival. 24 had become the ultimate American supremacy reinforcement series, the entertainment justification for every nasty, degrading, inhumane,obscene thing America did to those it decided were its enemies. To me, at least, you can’t hope to juxtapose an enterprise that exists only in a Republican Fairyland with real, downhome England. The disparity’s just too wide to be believed.

And 12 hours but still calling it 24? Is he having a laugh? You’re having a laugh.

Anyway, I’ve finally got round to catching up with Jack’s re-emergence and judging the new series on evidence, not supposition. As to the London setting, it makes it impossible for me to take seriously all this CIA activity, chase scenes, gunfights, all these bloody Americans heedlessly racketing around London. But then there’s not much in these first two episodes to enthrall. Just the same old tropes, looking extremely tired and threadbare: Jack the renegade, plans to assassinate the American President, a dodgy Chief of Staff. We have seen it all before.

Isn’t there at least the glow of nostalgia,a flickering flame reminding me of when we used to love this sort of thing? So far, no. One reason for this is what Jack Bauer has become. He has rid himself of everything, and in the process he’s become nothing. Or, dare I say it, he’s become pathetic. I have no friends, he says, and it lacks the energy of bitterness, even though he still has one friend, dear old faithful Chloe O’Brian.

Chloe, who has changed style to become a kind of tattooed, black-haired puk/goth who now disseminates free information, Julian Assange-style, works in London. She’s wanted as a terrorist and in fact she’s been captured and is being tortured (by that special kind of destroy-the-mind-and-body, excruciating pain and confusion torture from which you recover absolutely in about a quarter hour), which is why, after four years, the CIA has finally not only uncovered a whisper about Bauer, but catches him when any smart-thinking Agent of half his seniority would have easily escaped.

It’s not too difficult to suss out that Jack’s let himself be captured in order to break Chloe out, though the revelation is clumsily handled. Long before Jack acts, whilst he’s still going through this extended silent routine, we’re shown Punk Chloe undergoing torture in the section we know Jack’s being transferred to: it would have been far better to only show some goth/punk being injected and shock us by being Chloe when Jack frees her.

Though the connection is simple to make, no-one at CTU… sorry, I mean CIA London, makes it except for in disgrace Agent Kate Morgan (a fine-looking performance from Yvonne Strahovski, being very Bauerish), who despite being a shit hot agent and the only analyst with their eyes open, failed to spot her beloved husband was a major Russian spy.

Anyhow, Jack’s out to foil an assassination on President Heller (see Days 4 and 6), whose daughter Audrey, his former lover, is now fully ecovered from her mindless catatonia at the end of Day 6 and has married the aforementioned dodgy Chief of Staff. It’s going to be done by taking over American drones with a device invented by a British hacker/activist/heroin addict who tests it out by shooting down a military convoy in Afghaistan, killing British as well as American officers and putting a crimp in President Heller’s attempt to negotiate a treaty extension for a drone base on British soil.

It just isn’t capturing my enthusiasm, no matter what twists you throw in, and it is so fucking depressing that the series’ idea of the British Prime Minister is Stephen fucking Fry (at the last head-count, it was determined that only three people in the whole of the country don’t think Stephem Fry is a National Treasure, and I would so love to meet one of the other two).

The problem is that since 24 died a merciful death in 2010, things have changed. The world has changed, I have changed, and what could once be seen as entertainment now rings too clearly of the behaviour of madmen and psychopaths. It’s most clearly seen in Jack’s evident and self-righteous contempt for the whistle-blowers who do not join in the any-means-to-an-end wotrld that Jack has so wholly embraced from the start. I can’t doublethink my way like that any more, but 24 has learned nothing.

I’ll stick with it, that is unless it gets too bad to bear, but it’s a mistake in every respect to have done this.

And on one curious note:note many people will realise just how far in the future this story is taking place. Assuming Day 1 took place in the year 2000 (as it would need to have done for a Presidential Election to have been taking place), and adding together all the spaces between Days, this story is taking place in the back half of 2018. No wonder Keifer Sutherland looks so haggard.

 

Dan Dare: Pilot with Two Futures


(This article was first published in Spaceship Away 29, Spring 2013, copies of which, and other back issues and subscriptions, are available via the Spaceship Away website.

Spaceship Away is published three times a year and, in addition to new strips, features and articles about the classic Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future of the much-missed Eagle comic, also features long-forgotten strips and stories starring other science-fiction heroes of the period.)

Dare the Future

Spaceship Away has always concerned itself with Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, including the work by other hands that ended with Eagle‘s cancellation in 1969. From time to time there have been mentions of some of the later versions in 2000AD and the New Eagle, though, Keith Watson’s glorious contributions aside, I’ve tended to find that they could have been perfectly good stories if they hadn’t been saddled with Dan’s name.
But there have been two attempts to do a more mature, darker Dan Dare, a version of the character that is both true to Dan’s past but which sets that past against a much changed future, and it’s worth comparing these two stories, to see if either of them are successful.
The first of these appeared from IPC in 1991, by Grant Morrison (script) and Rian Hughes (art). The story appeared in Revolver 1-7, with the final episode appearing in Crisis 56 after Revolver‘s cancellation. It’s a brief story, eight episodes of 8 pages, and was collected in a single volume, under the name of “Dare” that is now ultra-rare.
The brevity of “Dare” does it no favours. There’s no room for subtlety, or indeed thoughtfulness, though given certain aspects of the story, it’s tempting to be thankful that Morrison – a young Scottish writer who has gone on to be phenomenally successful in the American comic book industry – wasn’t given more room to extend his travesty.
The story introduces Dan as a recluse, an invalid reliant on a cane. Mentally, he’s naïve, clinging to a simple certainty about the world that’s irrelevant to the modern day. At every moment, Dan just doesn’t understand.
He’s drawn out of seclusion to attend Professor Peabody’s funeral, Jocelyn having committed suicide, another in a series of scientists who’ve died whilst working on a food substitute programme (a nod to the Venus story). At Peabody’s funeral, Dan meets the Prime Minister, Mrs Gloria Munday.
I would describe Mrs Munday as a thinly-veiled representation of Margaret Thatcher if that did not discredit the subtleties in previous thinly-veiled representations everywhere. Munday is seeking re-election for the Unity Party and wants to use Dan, and his nostalgic appeal to older, better times, as propaganda.
Also at the funeral is Digby, but he rejects Dan’s approaches. Digby – a northerner and therefore, in this story, the soul of decency because he’s working class, see – has shunned his Colonel for years, since they put down a Treen rebellion during which Dan, following orders without thinking as he tended to do, killed women and children.
But Digby is prepared to show Dan what Munday’s Britain is really like, how the North is being beaten down, neglected, repressed. Digby persuades Dan that there’s something more behind Peabody’s suicide, that the project on which she and the other dead scientists are working has a sinister aspect. They find a tape left by Peabody, detailing that ‘Manna’ is a biomass made by breaking down the bodies of unwanted humans (northerners, of course) in league with the Treens.
Digby is killed getting Dan away, whilst Dan almost immediately loses the tape to the Government, he being an out-of-date simpleton. Mrs Munday is revealed, as if this is going to be a surprise, to be working with the Mekon. Dan mouths empty platitudes but is hauled off by the Police
But Dan Dare always saves the day. In keeping with his intellect, his knack for improvisation and his unending optimism, Dan has, as instructed by Digby, left a thermos flask in Anastasia’s cockpit. It contains a thermonuclear device powerful enough to vaporise London and all its inhabitants, including the Mekon, Mrs Thatch… Munday and Dan himself, not to mention giving Morrison the opportunity for a pretentious ending: the bomb wipes the page clean of everything but white, which dissolves into an artboard waiting for an artist to draw upon it, complete with a ‘voiceover’ from Frank Hampson at a low point in his life, wishing Dan Dare would ‘lay down and die’.
All in all, “Dare” is a pretty thorough act of arrogance and contempt towards another person’s creation, an attitude that reaches its nadir just before the end when Morrison unsubtly suggests that Dan is going to be subject to unpleasant sexual assault. But “Dare”’s biggest problem is that it’s not a Dan Dare story: Dan and his world is simply a shallow peg onto which is hung a political story whose ‘satire’ is delivered in a limp and amateurish fashion that would disgrace a student rag.
As to the art, let’s absolve Rian Hughes from responsibility. His style, based as it is in the European ligne clair tradition, doesn’t fit the world of Spacefleet at all, but he was chosen for that very reason. And, given what he’s called on to illustrate, he’s not totally unsuited for what is pretty much a cartoon story. His Dan and Digby are recognisable for who they ought to be, as is Anastasia, and I’d actually take his version of the Mekon over several of the IPC versions that have preceded it.

The image of a decent man

It’s perhaps unsurprising that there should have been no other attempts at a mature Dan Dare for a ecade-and-a-half, until the 2007/8 seven issue series from the short-lived Virgin Comics, written by Garth Ennis and drawn by Gary Erskine. With the final issue double-sized, this story ran to 176 pages, and Ennis takes full advantage of the additional space to produce a fully-rounded story in which the political points he wishes to make – more sympathetic to Dan’s worldview, and far more nuanced – can be woven into a story that’s more than just a coathanger.
Structurally there are surprising similarities between the Virgin series and “Dare”. Dan is again introduced as a reclusive exile, he is drawn back into the outside world by a Prime Minister clearly meant to represent the current incumbent and is reunited with Digby. Professor Peabody once again plays a substantial role in the story, without meeting Dan, Digby dies again, and the PM is once again in league with the Mekon. But all the relationships are very different from in “Dare” and, crucially, Ennis is not writing with contempt for Dan Dare and all that he stands for.
This came as no little surprise. Ennis, from Northern Ireland, has also enjoyed considerable success in America, primarily with the excellent Preacher, a tough, violent, irreligious and provocative piece of work. He’s an iconoclast whose instinct is to subvert heroic ideals: hardly someone you’d expect to approach Dan Dare with great respect.
And yet he does. Because Ennis also is a student of war and battle, and he has a tremendous empathy for the men who do the job, who get their hands dirty, and the camaraderie of men who fight and kill together. And Dan Dare, for all that he is foremost a pacifist, is still a military man: a commander who has seen action, who has fought for and protected his men and not spent their lives wastefully. To my surprise, Ennis ‘got’ Dan Dare, and Dan’s ideals, and he presented them with respect: yes, as something that was the product of another age, and perhaps a little simplistic, but ideals that were worth having, and that were worth fighting for, even in a compromised future that, in certain respects, was very like our own compromised age.
Dan, as before, is in exile, seemingly in an idyllic South Downs village, with cricket on the green and a friendly local, all of which is merely a holograph projection on a private base in the asteroid belt. But this exile is self-imposed: after Earth’s unity disintegrated, after China and America bombed each other into ruin, after England became master of the world by exploiting and robbing, instead of helping, the other surviving countries, Dan left Earth, unable to bear the betrayal of the former ideals of the UN and Spacefleet, all his battles rendered worthless.
But there are rumours of action by the Mekon, which is why the PM who has guided England on this path the last decade, comes to Dan to ask him to take over the Fleet and defend Earth again.
This Prime Minister is Tony Blair-manqué, a trimmer, a man without convictions, other than that he’s indispensable. It’s no surprise to quickly learn that he’s in thrall to the Mekon, and that he’s a coward who’s prepared to sacrifice all of Britain’s defences, including Dan Dare, superficially in order to minimise casualties, but primarily in order to maintain his role as ‘leader’. Even the Mekon sneers at him.
But Dan answers the call, though the PM clearly can’t understand why, especially as Dan plainly despises him. He receives an explanation he’s incapable of understanding from his Home Secretary: ten years ago, she was his Chief Science Officer and she’s still not lost the scientist’s need to know and understand, which drives her into a position of authority over the Government in the latter half of the story. She is, of course, Professor Jocelyn Peabody.
Dan prepares to take up his command in the wake of the Mekon’s first attack on the Fleet (a version of the Royal Navy, replete with all its traditions, has succeeded to the defunct Spacefleet). He’s assigned to the damaged Achilles where he meets his old friend Digby – an avuncular but sardonic friend – and his new friend, Sub-Lieutenant Christian, ranking officer in command.
Ms Christian is never given a first name, but I will go to my grave swearing that it must be Alexandra, or “Lex” Christian.
The story takes an unnecessary diversion onto a colony planet threatened by Treen-created Bug-Eyed Monsters, things unworthy of Dan’s world, and unworthy of this story. But Ennis makes use of this excursion to flesh out his Dan in splendid fashion, to introduce the Royal Marines, and to give Dan and Dig the opportunity to revive the old partnership a final time.

Old friends meet

Because, when rescue shuttles arrive from a fleet that, under Ms Christian, is defying the PM’s order to fly into an ambush, Dan and Dig get in different shuttles and are transported to different ships. Dan returns to Achilles, leading a fleet suddenly under threat from Treens, and needing minutes to escape from destruction. Those minutes are bought for everyone when Temeraire breaks formation to carry out a head-on attack. When Dan contacts the ship’s commander, we are shocked, but not surprised, to hear Digby’s voice.
Digby goes to his death honourably, in the series’ most emotional moment, saving his Colonel one final time, doing his duty to his country. Dan is shell-shocked, but conceals his pain as a man of his generation was taught to do: their farewell conversation is light and confident but no less emotional for that.
Meanwhile, on Earth, Peabody has worked out the PM’s schemes, he has fled to join his master, and Peabody becomes effectively the PM. From here on, except during the Battle for Neptune, a fight that assumes the same importance as the Battle of Britain that the PM has never heard of, she and Dan are in subspace communication, during which a complex understory can be read between the lines these two can speak to one another.
The Battle of Neptune, and Dan’s final confrontation with the Mekon, dominates the remainder of the story. Though he remains the cold dictator he has always been, the Mekon has been finally tainted with hate. Denied his chance to torture Dan into infinity, he attacks from a position of strength that is not enough. It ends with Dan running the Mekon through with a sword, in honour of Digby. Perhaps not a thing our Dan would even consider, but autre temps, autre mores. This Dan has learned that finality is necessary.
Perhaps aptly, the story ends with Peabody, awaiting news, planning to run herself for Prime Minister, determined on a platform of restoring Britain to its real greatness, in decency, fairness and honesty, not in power and deceit, a platform we would all of us love to see enacted in real life. A platform made possible by the report of victory, made possible once again by Dan Dare.
So far as the art is concerned, Gary Erskine is a typically comic-book photorealist, with a decent, if not outstanding, command of facial expressions. His figure work is sometimes stiff, but his technical art is good. His Dan has the twisted eyebrows, his Digby the white hair and the broad, open face and his Peabody is an attractive but not spectacular or sexy redhead, but except in these respects, they are not recognisable as the faces we know. Nor, in uniforms or technology, is there any continuity from Hampson’s era. Only the Mekon and the Treens are rendered faithfully.
This decision seems strange in that Erskine can draw the Dan of old, as he demonstrates in issue 3. But it’s ironic, really, that after so many visually consistent representations of Dan Dare that haven’t had an ounce of the spirit of the character, this series should ignore visual continuity yet come closer than any before to channelling the essence of the man.
And so it ended. I may be in a minority, but to me the story brought Dan into a later life, not unchanged, but still familiar. He was a Dan Dare that I could recognise and believe in, a Dan Dare, and a Professor Peabody, who still carried within them the ideals of a better, stronger time, all the hopes and dreams we had when we read the Pilot of the Future for the first time: ideals that had been betrayed and tarnished as they have been by years of Government by reference to private gain and personal power, but ideals that Ennis could put to the front of his story and hold up as things that needed to return.
And they would have done, perhaps, if Virgin Comics hadn’t collapsed and gone under. There is no permanent collection of this story*, only the individual issues for as long as they can be found, and a reportedly substandard over-sized money-grabbing hardback of issues 1-3. The hardback collection promised in September 2008, on the inside back cover of the final issue, and the new series coming in the ‘Fall’ of that year, never materialised. More’s the pity in the case of the latter.

*Not so. I subsequently discovered that Dynamite Entertainment published a paperback collection in 2009 that clearly went massively under-publicised, and which is no longer in print. Scour eBay and Amazon for copies, and keep your pocket full of money!

JLA Incarnations 4: Too Many Leagues


Take your pick

Like the Detroit League, the Fourth Justice League was a new configuration, reconstituted after the formal dissolution of its predecessor, but continuing in the same series as the League that had gone before. The League is dead, long live the League.
This incarnation started with a twin-cover Spectacular, one for each of the dual line-ups that would be involved. Superman agreed to head up the America branch, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan, in his white-templed phase) the European branch, though in a potentially confusing move for future collectors, the JLE quickly renamed their series Justice League International.
To be honest, I don’t have much to say about this version of the League. I read the Spectacular, which made it plain that the sitcom approach of the past five years was being thoroughly rejected: no Bwah-ha-ha, not United Nations, no Max Lord, the League was doing it for itself. We were going to have respectable, serious superheroing again, and anyone who didn’t understand that would be out on their ear, pretty sharpish.
(Though, at some point of which I am unaware, the United Nations came back into the picture, at least for the main JLA and its Task Force: a re-rejection of UN auspices was an underlying dynamic of the final spin-off title).
As the Helfer/Giffen approach had run its course, reverting to drama was the only viable course for the series to take, but for me the Spectacular concentrated more on establishing what it was not going to be than on what it would do. As a result it was all too penny-plain-tuppence-cheerful for its own good. It seemed to promise an end to all the distinctiveness and personality of the lurid but fun years, without setting up anything of its own to substitute.
And the new League(s) were still operating under the same, indeed more so, conditions that had pushed Conway towards the Detroit League, in that bringing the big guns like Superman and Green Lantern meant operating under the restrictions of whatever was affecting them in their home series.
Even if there was now a greater correspondence in tone between between the world of the League and the rest of the DC Universe, the problem remained. What Superman did under his editor Mike Carlin (which, with four monthly titles, operated as a virtual weekly, with stories flowing between the tightly controlled titles and their even more tightly controlled four separate writer/artist teams) was of far greater importance than anything the League needed him for. So he didn’t last long.
Nor did Hal Jordan. The rapidly deteriorating continuity of the Green Lantern universe was soon at the point where a clean sweep was decided on, removing Hal Jordan by turning him into one of the most monstrous villains of the DC Universe, and bringing in Kyle Rayner as a new, untried Green Lantern who would hopefully become as successful as had Wally West in replacing Barry Allen.
The League became home to any number of b-list and passing characters, just to enable the series to continue with a minimum of disruption.
But it remained popular. How else to explain the fact that this incarnation of the League supported another two spin-off series?
The first of these was Justice League Task Force. Technically, this was not a third force. Instead, it was a special squad, headed by the Martian Manhunter, with Gypsy as its only other full-time regular, taking on covert missions with a variety of League members, to tackle cases where the League could not or should not be seen to be operating.
The actual Third Force was portrayed in Extreme Justice, a breakaway Justice League team only semi-officially accepted in the overall League structure. (The series was actually a replacement for Justice League International and Justice League Quarterly, the latter an over-sized title concentrating on one-off stories of varying, sometimes full-length).
This latest dilution of the franchise was headed by Captain Atom, who had recovered from the disaster that was Armageddon 2001, when it had been intended for him to go renegade and become Monarch, until the clues as to who was to become Monarch were deduced far too easily for suspense and a bodge-up was required. Atom’s team never called itself Extreme Justice, but that was its raison d’etre: refusal of UN backing, proactive and violent pre-response.
So: three Justice Leagues of one sort or another. Three team leaders pulling in different directions (Wonder Woman, J’Onn J’Onzz and Captain Atom). Hordes of minor characters milling around (with all due respect to Australians, the day you bring Tasmanian Devil onto a team, the barrel is being firmly scraped). Task Force even became a kind of Junior JLA, training up the younger heroes.
For me, what symbolises this failed Incarnation is the story of Triumph.
Triumph was created by, of all people, the usually very successful Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn, though he’s most associated with Christopher Priest (nothing to do with the British SF writer, this is veteran scripter Jim Owsley who chose a pen name in complete ignorance of it being in use). As a concept, he’s interesting: Triumph is supposed to be an original hero, one of the first of the Silver Age generation. Triumph was founder and leader of the original Justice League of America on its first mission, but he fell into some kind of timewarp that sent him ten years into the future, and which caused the world to forget him completely.
An interesting set-up that fell flat on several grounds, the first being that Triumph at no time looked or felt like a believable late-Fifties/early-Sixties creation, and secondly due to the fact that the man was a complete and utter jerk, from the ground to the roof and back down the other side of the house. This objection may well only be truly pertinent to those of us who were there at or pretty near to the time, and have the smell of Silver Age heroes in our nostrils, but it does appear that nobody or more recent vintage was particularly enamoured of Triumph either.
But that was how that era of the League came over: Nineties comics, with bad art, bad attitudes, bad costumes and bad ideas.
In the end, the ‘brand’ was spread too thin, the audience drawn in too many directions and the sales went into a downfall. Quality and consistency had long since evaporated, and DC decided enough was enough and swept the board clean. The ending was abrupt, and an in-continuity rationale was only given retrospectively, in the 2001 JLA:Incarnations mini-series: Extreme Justice attack Bialya, a Balkan/middle-eastern country that had featured heavily in both the original Justice League International  and Justice League Europe series’ and take out the superweapons Bialya is re-creating, but as a consequence the UN insists all Justice League teams shut down (and Superman insists Extreme Justice follow suit).
A new Justice League was needed, a better Justice League, and what better than to go back to the basics, to the original Big Seven, and renew the League’s foundations for its Fifth Incarnation.

The Lakes: Rain Days


I always had a great deal of luck with my holidays in the Lakes, with many more good days than bad, good here requiring only that it be dry and clear, with cloud no lower that the upper rocks of, say, Bowfell (unless, of course, I was heading out to Bowfell). Rain didn’t always stop me walking, and I have some very vivid memories of being out on the fells when it started pouring down, in that solid, unhurried, here-for-the-week-folks manner.

These were occasions when the weather turned on me whilst I was already in the high country: when I was coming down off Gable, descending through Gillercomb whilst the skies greyed and then blurred, and an impish mood saw me leave down my hood when I scrambled into kagoul and waterproof trousers just in time, letting the last afternoon rainfall wash through my face and hair: my first approach to Yewbarrow by that desperate scramble up the wrong side of Dore Head’s screes, the cloud on Stirrup Crag and the long retreat via Over Beck and the road back to Wasdale Head, hood drawn up but the persistent pressure of the unending rain turning waterproofs after a certain time into waterlogs.

Or when I got caught on the ridge between Eagle Crag and Sergeant’s Crag, necessitating a careful and slow descent of the soaking grass slopes into Langstrath, and the silent walk back, silent but for the drumming of rain on my hood, my glasses washed clean of spots and streaks by the sheer volume of water. Or the sudden storm that blew up out of nowhere on a Sunday afternoon leg-warmer in Wythop, and determinedly struggling into the face of an absolute storm, to the miniature cairn and round it and straight back down without a pause, refusing to be beaten on so small a fell.

But when it rains in the Lakes, that for me is usually the signal for a day in the valleys, a day of villages and tiny towns, of shops and windscreen wipers, and often a long, slow holing up in a cooling car, somewhere off the road, somewhere with a semblance of a view to glimpse occasionally when I flicked on the wipers, briefly, curled up over a book, without distraction.

When we stayed at Lower Bleansley, in the long-ago Sixties, it only ever rained on the Friday. It was the cue for the only journey into the Northern Lakes that my parents and Uncle would sanction: beyond Ambleside, beyond Rydal and Grasmere, over Dunmail Raise (they would not drive over any other Pass), by Thirlmere, still mostly invisible through the dense screen of trees planted by the Forestry Commision to keep even the great road north from the Lake they had seized. We wander round Keswick, all determinedly swathed in waterproofs better suited to the fells, look in the shops, eat bread and butter in a cafe and, when it would inevitably clear after lunch, go down Borrowdale, find a place to stop by the banks of the Derwent, ‘picnic’ until it was time to head back for our evening meal.

I also remember a brutally wet Rain Day in September 1970, an impromptu, escape from the stress holiday just a few weeks after Dad died, after a long illness and a terrible last week. We were in Ulverston for some long-forgotten reason, and there’s little enough reason to visit in fine weather, but this was the hard and determined rain that fell without pause, and I remember hiding from it in the Covered Market, where clothes steamed and my glasses fogged over constantly, and I was allowed to buy the last DC comic of my childhood.

Years later, I remember a day when it rained unmercifully, a day of kagoul, when I found myself in Windermere Village, outside one of those small record shops that you no longer see. Record shops were the same kind of magnet to me as book shops, and there were always things that attracted me then, though my practical and prudent side forbade me to buy LPs in the Lakes. Older readers will instantly understand, will remember the nervous moment of first playing your buy, fearful of the click, scratch, jump etc. that forced you back to the shop, enthusiasm greatly diminished by the record being damaged.

It was bad enough when that meant a half hour trek back into the City Centre, getting worked up over the coming battle with the shop assistant over bringing it back, but a three hour drive each way?

The shop’s been gone for decades, but whilst I didn’t buy anything there, it entranced me for ages, with five rows of old singles to go through. Five rows out of which practically the entire Top 30 from 1970 to 1975 could have been reconstructed. Singles that had been played to death on Radio 1 and hadn’t made (it was a different world then, people). Records that had been played half a dozen times over as many weeks, but I’d heard it. Records that had never been played on the radio since they had slipped below no 23 in the charts, and never would be played again, not by the most nostalgic of programme controller.

A treasure trove of memory and recollection. One I would never have discovered but for the Rain.

These reminiscences have been sparked by Manchester rain – or should I say Stockport rain? – an hour or so ago. I had finished my shopping, was waiting at the bus stop to get home, and down it came, even and steady, deep and darkening. It was cool and quiet and it sparked a memory of Rain Days: of sitting in the car facing the beach at Silecroft, or in the car park at the head of Coniston Water, book in my hands, hours of the day remaining. The fells out of reach, the bookshops of every village I could possibly reach exhausted of perusal. The Lakes dark under cloud and the weather.

But not bored, or at least not often. More often, the frustrations came on days when it was dry, but low, unshakeable cloud barred me from the fells. Rain Days were another state of being, a time out even from the time out of normal life, of the Law and Property, Leases and Wills. Just as, in my turbulent teens, in the years immediately after Dad’s death, I would often stand in my bedroom, looking out into the rain, the back garden, mesmerised almost by its constancy, watching pools slowly form in the flowerbeds, watching it drive down, letting it feed what I felt inside, a shock I was more than slow to deal with, yet forbidden to express.

Just so was I prepared to spend hours, watching the rain, determinedly cut off from everything else, but connected to the Lake District. It was not how I wanted my day to go, but it was still part of a world that lay outside my ordinary, often so frustrating life. Instead of the big turning circles for the busses outside of Tesco, it would have been deeply soul cleansing to sit and watch the rain form patterns on the lapping shores at Coniston.

Theatre Nights: The Mist


Sandman Mystery Theatre  37-40. Dramatis personae: Matt Wagner (plot), Steven T. Seagle (script), Guy Davis (artist).
The curtain rises, the stage lights glow into life, an expectant audience hushes, its chatter diminished to a mere mumble.
The Mist is another step towards the world of superheroes that, now we have passed into 1939, is on the immediate horizon. It depicts two first encounters: the one between Wesley Dodds and Ted Knight, his future Justice Society colleague, Starman, and the second between the Sandman and a Canadian scientist going under the name Jonathan Smythe who, as a consequence of the events in this play, becomes the supervillain The Mist, who is to be Starman’s arch-enemy.
At the same time, this play was also part of an oblique crossover with the contemporary Starman series, as written by James Robinson.
Though the events of the two stories never actually crossed over, the stories centred upon the same object: Robinson’s series starred Jack Knight, Ted’s younger son and the latest successor to the Starman identity, whose would-be arch enemy was the new Mist, aka Nash, daughter of the original, who had slipped into senility. Stung by comments from Nash claiming that she and Jack were the same under the skin, Jack went to New York to meet the elderly Wesley and Dian, having learned that the Sandman had fought the Mist before his father: The Mist tells that story, and both halves of the whole end with the chosen object being discovered.
With Davis back to restore the set design that we automatically associate with the Mystery Theatre, the play begins with its underlying theme: two Germans, father and son, running their own, one ship, freight line, are desperate to unload at the New York docks. They’ve already been held up twenty hours, but their abrasive approach, and the fact that they are not Union affiliated, leads to trouble. The Baederstadts unload themselves, ‘scab labour’, which leads the Union heavies to take reprisals.
The spotlight in this play is upon the Unions, upon the controversy they cause just be existing in American society, which is primarily directed towards the individual and what he/she can achieve alone. Perhaps because of this inherent prejudice, the Unions have merged to a large degree with the Mob, strongarming their way towards power. Their situation is delicate enough that defiance from any quarter, no matter how small, such as the Baederstadts, has to be stamped upon.
Unable to use their usual methods, which would draw too much attention, Union Chief Cohen decides to take a chance on the mad scientist who has approached them offering certain services in exchange for cash in large amounts. The scientist is the man calling himself Jonathan Smythe, and he’s Canadian.
Smythe needs money to fund his researches. Unable to convince conventional sources, because of the bizarre and unbelievable nature of his project, Smythe has lowered himself (and keeps making it plain that that’s what he thinks he’s doing) to accept money from the Union to test his machine against targets of their devising.
Such as ships owned by German scab labour.
Though the machine appears not to work, indeed shorts out before completing its run, it is a success: the Baederstadts are out at sea when the hull simply dissolves, sinking the ship and its cargo, drowning Baederstadt senior, and leaving Junior as the sole survivor, clinging to the wreckage.
From where he is picked up, by a passenger liner returning to America from England, and carrying two passengers who’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in their cabin: Mr Dodds and Miss Belmont.
At first, it is Dian rather than Wesley who is more concerned with the castaway, and what lies behind his situation, and though Wes does remotely relate a dream ancillery to the problem, the Sandman is for once not drawn into this investigation by his dreams but by another, equally fierce conviction.
For the moment, though, the play advances without any overt action. Frederic Baederstadt is quizzed in hospital by the FBI as a suspected Nazi infiltrator, an insensitivity that paradoxically brings out Frederic’s own prejudice against the Jews. As a stranger, he cannot get a crew position at the docks, to return to Germany, which makes him easy prey for German Fifth Columnists.
Meanwhile, Wes and Dian settle back into New York life. It’s Dian’s turn, again, to do the talking in this play, though it’s significant that it’s only in her outward talk, to her father, that she acknowledges (claims?) to have come to the equivalent of an epiphany in London over her destiny to be with Wes: there are still little moments where Miss Belmont demonstrates her discomfort with her beau’s other life.
But though this theme has persisted persuasively, its resolution is close to hand. Dian may hate to talk to the Sandman, even in his new, more stream-lined mask, but the sight of him ‘in action’, driving him away from danger, inflames her sexually and commits her to his cause.
And the fact that, after much vague concern about the future of her life, Dian gets herself a job, as assistant to her father, opens her up to a greater understanding of both the men in her life (a patronising, but contemporarily authentic notion) and a greater reconciliation.
Meanwhile Wes, apart from reducing the ability of people to grab his gasmask, finds himself recruited to a Special Commission. With War a looming certainty in Europe, the Army at least is shedding Isolationist tendencies and is looking to prepare itself against involvement. New forms of weaponry are to be studied, and Wes is co-opted by Judge Shaeffer, and another of his father’s friends, General Briggs, for his business mind, his ability to assess and project costs and feasibility.
At which point, a pushy young applicant from Opal City, name of Ted Knight, attempts to get ahead of his rivals.
It’s not like Wes and Rex Tyler. Ted’s forwardness – which is further demonstrated in his appreciation of Dian (who enjoys the attention mainly for how it brings out an ill-concealed jealousy in Wes) – isn’t much welcomed, but the resemblance of his presentation of cosmic rays, and his search for an alloy that can contain, store and direct them (Starman’s eventual Gravity Rod) to the effect that sunk the Baederstadt’s ship, and downed a plane carrying a rival boss, leads Wes to approach Ted for advice and assistance.
So the pieces are set in motion. We see how dirty the Mob-backed Union are, intent on crushing opposition, on dragging ‘Smythe’ into their world. We see Smythe’s obsession with his research into a machine he too presents to the Committee, that dissolves live flesh into its atoms (the utter, wasteful destruction that Smythe saw during the Great War, only without the trauma of pain, blood and bone). We see Frederic Baederstadt being driven unwillingly by the Nazi Fifth Columnists, creatures of bile and hate. And at the end, Smythe falls victim to his own machine as revenge for his using it on one of Cohen’s thugs: he doesn’t die because the men don’t understand his machine and he only gets a small dose.
Enough though for pain, and panicky flight, to a motel in Opal City, where Smythe discovers that, though he’s still human in form, his body is dissolving into a Mist…
One curious thing about this play is that, although Wes relates a single dream that is related to the skein of events, the Sandman’s involvement is driven by something other than Dream. A couple of times in earlier plays, Wagner and Seagle have shown us thoughtless, automatic anti-semitism, shouted in front of Dodds: each time, the bigot has checked that Wes is not Jewish but turned away even as Wes asks what difference that makes: now Wes reveals to Dian (whilst in disguise as a streetside apple seller) that his mother was Jewish (as his father was Catholic: theirs was a marriage of elopement, held in contempt by both families, even as Wes now holds both religions in a degree of contempt, favouring Eastern philosophies).
It is Wes’s determination not to allow hatred to be brought to bear on folk of his mother’s faith, not Dreams, that propels him.
In the end of both stories, the object the New Mist sought appears in Wes’s hands, for Jack Knight to take back in fulfilment of his self-imposed task: it is ‘Smythe”s Great War Victoria Cross, an oblique reminder that once he was a real hero, though his life would be spent as a callous villain, thanks to the weaknesses he displays in the play, and its ‘reward’ for him.
That Starman story is not really within our remit. It’s a story at the other end of the Sandman’s long career, in a different world, under different stars, far from the proscenium arch, a catalyst for the long end of Wes and Dian. In that future, she is, and long has been, the revered author who is the greater draw for Jack Knight than his father’s old comrade, even as we see her resolve form, under the arch, to spend the time waiting for Wes in writing.
But ten pages of James Robinson’s story are devoted to Wes’s recollection of an old adventure with Starman, set in 1943, and these are drawn, fittingly, by Guy Davis. Costumes and villains and Gravity Rods, and a touching friendship between two men who do not start off well, and in that distant future have differing views on their old relationship. It’s an indication that, if it would last that long, the Mystery Theatre might well be able to absorb the superhero era, without making itself or the superheroes absurd.
Though Robinson is awfully bad on the Sandman’s dialogue, even as he captures Wes and Dian with great skill.
The lights dim. The curtain falls. The actors retreat beyond the proscenium arch, to await their next call to performance, in a play titled The Phantom of the Fair.
Break a leg.

Great Walks – Great Gable from Honister


Great Gable from the north

There are multiple ways by which one can climb Great Gable, and to my shame I have used only two of those routes, in only two visits to that famous summit.
The best route for the peak-bagger who is still counting off Wainwrights is from Honister Pass, in the rear of the fell. It’s an ever-changing route, with many merits, although there are no sightings of the Napes and the other crags on the famous face of the fell, and the walk is well-advanced before foot is even set on Gable itself. But the views offered throughout, towards Buttermere and Ennerdale, and the sight of Gable’s less-celebrated but still very impressive northern crags, at close quarters, is worth the expedition in itself.
A simple up-and-down from Honister offers the priceless advantage of a 1,167′ boost on the departure point. On the other hand, there is little opportunity to vary the walk on the return route, and the peak-bagger will be looking longingly at the nearby Base Brown, off any direct route from Honister and disturbingly isolated: omission would require a separate expedition, and the fell does not really justify being the sole objective of anything but a rain-affected half-day.
So what contrivance makes this set-up into a viable walk?
The simplest one might seem to be making Base Brown a there-and-back from Green Gable on the return trip. But even if there’s no actual need to return to a summit that’s to be crossed twice already, the retreat is more than I’d contemplate so late in the day. Either Base Brown must be the first top, or the last, with an ascent from or descent to Seathwaite as part of the plan. Which means bridging the gap between Seathwaite and Honister top at either the start or the end of the day. How would you rather end the walk? With a long, steep descent among trees from Gillercomb to Seathwaite, or the road to Honister foot and another, albeit sylvan mile to Seathwaite? I thought so.
So park at Seathwaite in the sunny morning hours, the earlier the nearer to the farm itself. Once in boots, with rucksack fully loaded, turn your back to the hills and walk back down the Seathwaite lane, a tree-shadowed delight on a morning such as this, until reaching the Borrowdale road, a half-mile from Seatoller.
These days, the Honister Rambler bus runs from Seatoller to Buttermere, allowing easy passage to the top of Honister, but on that long ago day there was no such facility. My plan involved hitching a ride to the summit, but a half hour at the Seathwaite road end, where the only passing drivers indicating a willingness to pick me up were those whose cars were safely full, I had to take to the road and haul myself up on foot: not a recommended start.

Honister top: the drumhouse route is the leftmost path

The walk proper doesn’t start until Honister top. A few years ago, the owner of the Slate Mine planned to install a zip-wire from the top of Honister Crag, across the valley. A BBC documentary followed his efforts to get Planning Permission which, thankfully, was refused, although this was sadly posthumously, he having lost his life in a helicopter crash before the decision came up. He was passionate about his plans, which would have irreparably changed the scene here, but incapable of understanding that he might not be allowed to do what he wanted.
Honister is a scene of industry, and always has been, but slate mining (and tourism!) is a Lakes industry, and long may it stay that way.
Start along the level towards the Honister Mine, as far as the foot of the old tramway, which has been visible from lower down Honister, scaling the flank of Fleetwith Pike. It’s steep throughout, until it eases off on reaching the back of Fleetwith, and an eroded middle portion, just short of the old cutting, has been fenced off, with a path constructed to bypass it on the right. It’s hardly what’s wanted by anyone who has been forced to walk up Honister, but it’s the gateway to the fells, and it leads over easing ground to the old Drumhouse.
Here, the scope of the coming walk becomes visible. The distant fell appearing over the immediate skyline, looking impossibly distant to the average walker, turns out to be Pillar: Gable lies much closer at hand, still looming darkly, at the end of a long, mainly grassy ridge, the middle ground of which is not immediately visible. A path bears left from the Drumhouse, towards the ridge, turning in a wide curve to follow the base of the higher ground.
If Gable were the only concern, this path would provide a smooth, fast highway, only gaining the ridge at the back of Green Gable. However, it is much more satisfying in all respects to leave the path, after it has straightened out, taking one of the easy green rides towards the ridge, and gaining the old post and wire fence that runs from Honister top, across the summit of this first fell.
Appropriately, the top is one of two knotts, with no immediate indication of which is the highest, so visit both before following the infallible fence onwards.
As Grey Knotts falls behind, the ground broadens and flattens. The next top, Brandreth, skirts the wide bowl of Gillercomb to the left, offering nothing of excitement, but all eyes that are not directed towards Great Gable’s cliffs will instead be turned northwards, towards Buttermere, High Stile and Grasmoor. The view towards the lake, across Haystacks’ back, looking down on Innominate and Blackbeck Tarns, is magnificent despite the dull foreground.
Beyond the cairn marking Brandreth’s highest point, the path declines gently towards the low dip at the back of Green Gable. The direct route from the Drumhouse appears on the right, converging gently, leaving only an uphill walk on rising ground to the grassy, but neat and narrow summit of Green Gable.

Approaching Green Gable

The lower Gable is forever subordinate to its higher and more famous neighbour, but it has a better summit, and it is the perfect place from which to look up to those northern cliffs. It will now be afternoon, and the sun will be casting a halo over the dark face.
Another great thing about this approach is that, if you are feeling heavy-legged, and doubting your ability to make it as far as Great Gable, the subsidiary summits are a brilliant device to keep you going, there being such a short distance from one to another, until by Green Gable it would be a dull fellow (or lady) indeed who could not sum up the extra effort to cross to Great Gable.
There is a short, steep descent to Windy Gap, a true narrow-sided col, and beyond, a stony path wastes no time in ascending to the left of the crags ahead, a well-graded zigzag route making the most of the slope as it patiently ascends onto the broad, domed top of Gable, so unexpected to the first time visitor who has only known the fell from its classic aspect above Wastwater. Walk south to the summit cairn, into which is set the memorial plate for the Fell & Rock Climbing Club fallen in the First World War.

The summit on Remembrance Day

The view from Great Gable is excellent, and is best of all in its close range of the western wall of the Scafell massif. This held my focus on my first visit as the texture of the air made it plain that the sun of morning was fading away, and that there would be rain coming. So it was not until a second visit (direct from Seathwaite, via Sty Head and the Breast Route), that I wandered towards the view of Wasdale and descended to Westmorland Cairn, which should be on anyone’s programme.
This not only offers a superb full-length view of Wastwater, but also the chance to study the tops of the Napes Ridges, and the scree-laden routes upwards between them. This being a clear day, these slopes will be ‘wick w’foak’ toiling upwards, already in need of a Boots full of deoderants and antiperspirants
A return via Windy Gap is unavoidable. and the simplest route from there is up and over Green Gable again, veering to the right as Gillercomb begins to open out, for the neck of land leading to Base Brown. If you’re starting to feel tired, and want to avoid what appears like unnecessary climbing, it is possible to contour around the flank of Green Gable, high above the Sty Head route, crossing the upper part of Mitchell Cove, but the way is pathless and isolated, and the effort of walking across a tilted slope is not worth the energy saved.
Descend by the route taken in ascent, as far as a fork, where take the right hand branch down to the head of Gillercomb ignoring the turning down into the valley. There are no difficulties between here and Base Brown’s summit.
The difficulty now is how to proceed. There is a route down the ridge but the terminal rocks are likely to prove so, and unless familiar with the route in ascent, it is probably wiser to turn back as far as the head of Gillercomb, and descend through that spacious bowl. The early stages are steep but a long, level section follows until the route starts to descend again towards the open mouth of the glacial valley, where the path loses itself in sight of the terminal wall.
I arrived here with the day cooling, and the rain massing, and struggled into my waterproofs twenty yards from the wall, just in time for the deluge that fell.

Seathwaite when it isn’t raining

The descent into Seathwaite, steep and dark and winding, with the farm tantalisingly in view below and seeming never to be growing nearer, was my first experience of a National Trust relaid path. With the rain pouring and the stones underfoot shining, it resembled nothing so much as spiral crazy paving, and I moved slowly and carefully down. There were no difficulties on that occasion, but on a later visit, in the dry and the sun, I found the path vanishing midway, and a precarious climb necessary down a steep slope to regain the route.
Whatever the conditions, the path eventually reaches the valley, and the young River Derwent. Cross the footbridge laid by the Ramblers Association, cross the fields and enter the Farm under the square arch, from where we shall once again prove the wisdom of my advice about getting there early to park near.