Dan Dare – the 2000AD years

Oh no. Oh no. Oh no no no…Dan Dare 2000AD

I read the news on Thursday (oh boy…) and one newspaper at least was making much about the reprinting of a large number of Dan Dare stories, unseen for many years. This volume of material will be printed in two volumes, the first of which will appear next year.
Of course, when I say ‘Dan Dare’, it’s on the understanding that this is not any version of the veteran hero that I recognise as actually being Dan Dare. Rather, it’s the complete IPC revival of the character that began eight years after he was finally laid to rest in black and white reprints in the thankfully-forgotten Lion & Eagle. It is the 2000AD ‘Dan Dare’, drawn at different times by Massimo Belardinelli and Dave Gibbons, that is finally to be reprinted, after thirty seven years unseen.
In 1977, Dare’s revival was one of the selling points for the new 2000AD comic. I was 21 that year,  unemployed for most of it, in limbo between Law College and the Articles of Clerkship that would see me on the road to becoming a Solicitor. Money was extremely tight, but I had loved Dan Dare in the latterday Eagle and I was interested to see the return. Not that I ever saw 2000AD 1, which sold out rapidly, so I had to settle for issue 2, which saw the debut of a character who has become as much a definition of British comics as Dan himself, Judge Dredd. It took only a single episode to demonstrate that this ‘Dan Dare’ was not for me.
I didn’t expect to get the original Dan Dare again: if anything, Dan was a very Fifties character, and this was the late Seventies, and the Year of Punk, moreover: when No Future was the watchword, there could hardly be a Pilot of the Future.
But the new ‘Dan Dare’ wasn’t even an updating. It was explained that there had been an accident, centuries before, that Dan had lived on in suspended animation, to be revived in this new future, his body so damaged that his face could not be recreated in any form that looked like he had before.
No Spacefleet, no Digby, no Earth, no eyebrows: they couldn’t have been more comprehensive in throwing out everything about the original Dan, and that went for every tiny aspect of his personality. In short, only the name was the same.
I really have no idea whether the Belardinelli ‘Dare’ was a good character in his own terms. A long time ago, a friend who owned a comics shop in Liverpool allowed me access to his 2000AD back-issues, to read for free, to take notes about the ‘Dan Dare’ strips, in return for me sorting those back issues into numerical and accessible order. There were many gaps towards the beginning, so I never had the chance to form any kind of real assessment of that first revived version, except that it was typically 2000AD: fast, brutal, uncultured, flashy and basically a bit crap.
Well, I was hardly the audience was I? By 1977, the boys who would have once lapped up Frank Hampson’s, or even Keith Watson’s Pilot of the Future wanted violence and destruction and people who fought and swore…
Evidently, the editors of 2000AD agreed with me in some respect about the Belardinelli ‘Dan Dare’, for it was pulled, revamped drastically, and rebooted, this time with art by Dave Gibbons. This was the pre-Watchmen Gibbons, yet to break into the American market. I remember him being regarded in fandom as a good ‘meat-and-potatoes’ action cartoonist, and his artwork on ‘Dan Dare’ bore this out.
It was stronger, steadier, more controlled. It was primarily in black and white, which aided the greater air of stability to the work. Gibbons also met Frank Hampson and apologised to him, though Hampson was pleasant to him about his work!
I read much more of Gibbons’ work in John Mottershead’s shop basement, but I remember very little of it. Better art, certainly, and the return of the eyebrows, if nothing else physically about the character. Did it stand up? Better than 2000AD‘s first version.
But that’s the thing. Certain creations impress themselves upon us, slide into our minds and occupy our memories because we recognise the life in them. They are true creations, neither symbol nor puppet, and they have within them an unshakeable, unchageable core that makes them, for better or worse, what they are.
To exist in 1977, Dan Dare had to be ‘updated’. Given how much he was a creation of his times, I doubt very much that, for a weekly boys comic that year, or after, he could have been presented in the context of his times without ignoring far too much of those core qualities. Neither Belardinelli’s nor Gibbons’ characters stood a chance as versions of ‘Dan Dare’ that stood in any way upon the ground. That clash between the name and the actual stories was unbridgeable.
Burdened by ‘Dan Dare’, neither version stood a chance of breathing. As new creations, they might have established themselves. It’s been the story with the vast majority of the post-1969 attempts to revive Dan.
As far as the historical record is concerned, this is the last of the early 2000AD series to be reprinted and it deserves it from that viewpoint. I shalln’t be rushing, or even idling, to add it to my collection, though I’d borrow it from a Library, out of curiosity. I hope that 2000AD‘s old fans will enjoy it.


Mutts – a Touching Tribute

I don’t know how many of you are aware of the US daily cartoon strip, Mutts, written and drawn by Patrick McDonnell?
On the surface, it’s a simple cat and dog strip, centred upon Earl (a dog) and Mooch (a cat) living next door to each other: Earl with Ozzie, Mooch with Millie and Frank. The strip is animal oriented, with more animal supporting characters than human, and McDonnell is a passionate believer in animal welfare and environmentalism who uses his strip to advocate these themes.
Mutts has been around for the best part of twenty years. It had the great fortune to make its debut just as Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes was withdrawing: the two strips are radically different in style and theme, but Mutts was perfect for those readers who wanted a strip possessing a unique, offbeat humour, beautifully stylised minimalist art and an almost impossible amount of charm.
The first Mutts collection, gathering the first year of the strip, had a foreword by none other than Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, who praised McDonnell for Earl, calling him ‘an absolutely perfect little cartoon dog’. From the creator of Snoopy, those are high words.
I don’t know if Mutts is reprinted in the UK anywhere: I get my daily dose by e-mail, sent free from the Mutts website every day. This week’s strips have had a magical undertheme, in the run-up to Hallowe’en. Mooch, in his guise as the Great Proshpero, performs a magic trick, causing not just himself and Earl but the entire last panel on Tuesday to disappear!
The following day was a beautiful example of using the comic strip format: two entirely black panels, the third a balloon with the single word ‘Oops.’ On Thursday, the still invisible Earl asks Mooch to use his cat magic to bring them back: Mooch is happy to do so but asks ‘Can you see mu magic wand.’
So to today, which is Hallowe’en. For years, decades in fact, Charles Schulz would use this time of year to gentily satirise his own religion. Each Hallowe’en would find Linus van Pelt in the pumpkin patch, faithfully yet hopelessly waiting for the ‘Great Pumpkin’ to rise. And Mooch’s cat magic brings back one startled cat and dog in today’s final panel – in the pumpkin patch, with a perfectly Schulz Linus, still waiting all these years after Schulz passed on.
It was hilarious and touching: McDonnell is a daily treasure.


Travelling with Tinniswood: Witney Scrotum


Slakehouse is an elderly gentleman of obvious Northern extraction who lives in our village under an upturned zinc bath in the back yard of the cricket bag repository.
What other village, I ask you earnestly, would tolerate the presence in its midst of a wizened, moth-infested, fetid, belching, terminal inebriate with congenitally unbuttoned flies and a yellowing tongue encrusted with what appears to be a full set of aged rusting mountaineers’ crampons?
Who is he?
What is he?
No, he is not an ITN newscaster ‘down on his luck’.
No, he is not a former financial advisor to the Duchess of York.
No, he is not a younger version of Mr. Ned Sherrin.
The answer is far more potent and pungent – he is, dear readers, a sportsman.
And thus he is welcome in our village.
How and when did he arrive in Witney Scrotum?
On the matter of date we cannot e precise.
But neither can Mr. Raymond Illingworth be certain of the date on which he last captained Yorkshire from his bath chair.
And Sir Geoffrey Boycott is in a sea of total confusion concerning the date on which he is to have the next mammogram on his wallet under local anaesthetic.
There were four years between Winston, and Witney Scrotum, a far cry from the prolific Eighties when Peter Tinniswood was producing two Brigadier books a year. Not that he had eased up on his workload: in the Nineties, Tinniswood’s energy was directed towards Radio 4, to Winston serials and a plethora of well-received plays.
Witney Scrotum returns us one last time to the village and the world of the Brigadier, forever unchanged. I was concerned at the lack of imagination in the book’s title: we had already had Tales from Witney Scrotum, and this latest volume was confusingly close in name.
What can I say? It’s the Brigadier, and by now we know all there is to know about what we’ll be reading. Tinniswood changes the formula in no whit, save to include references to cricketers who have come along since the very Eighties era of the Brigadier’s creation: thus we have the shy Reverend Michael Atherton and those cheerful vandalisers, the Tufnell Twins, but apart from a handful of throwaway references, we might still be back where England were thrashing the Aussies in 1981.
The major difference between this and other Brigadier efforts is that I can’t find anything funny in it. It’s not simply a case of once too often to the well, though the sheer familiarity of the format is discouraging. It’s more that, whilst previous works have seemed to be effortless, too effortless as I have remarked, Witney Scrotum is constantly striving for effect.
Paragraphs droop with the density of improbable, incongruous adjectives. Tinniswood tries to cram in more and more detail into each moment, oversalting the fantastic elements. It’s the perils of any kind of eccentric or exaggerated humour: the writer continually has to overtop himself, to the point that the exaggeration ceases to be of real life, but of the previous level(s) of exaggeration. At some point, it snaps.
What’s worse is that Tinniswood is running out of sustainable ideas. There a couple of chapters that are made up of letters written by the Brigadier, with no genuine connection between them that would sustain a viable chapter. They are pressed into contiguity simply because the individual ideas are limited in length.
And the book ends with a Cricket Quiz that, in terms of humour, falls flat on its face. There are pages and pages of questions, followed by pages of answers, all serious and factual, save for the odd comic one thrown in to drown. The level of the humour can be demonstrated by the section on cricketer’s middle names, about one in every three of which is John.
It’s desperately sad to see a book like this published by Tinniswood, who was by now well-ensconced on Radio 4. It’s a pale reflection of his gifts, and a sad justification for his complaint, late in life, that he had spread himself too thin, accepted too many commissions to do his best work. In books, at least, it was far behind him. And one last utter disaster awaited.

A bit (retro-) political… 3

That Mike Reid claim about ‘inadvertently’ causing offence with the ‘UKIP Calypso’ irresistably reminds me of an incident twenty-five or so years ago, in pre-Mandela’s release, Apartheid South Africa. Yorkshire and occasionally England) opening bat Martyn Moxon was coaching in the Republic during the English winter when, after a long, gruelling net session under the South African sun with a very promising young fast bowler, the Yorkshire captain headed for the Pavilion for some refreshing alcoholic drinks, only to be amazed when his young protege – who was black – hung back and didn’t seem to want to follow him to the bar…

To which my then-girlfriend, no cricket fan, commented: “With eyesight like that, it’s amazing he can even see a cricket ball…”

Insubstantial Airfill Reconsidered: New Tricks learns new tricks

Messrs Griffin, McAndrew, Miller and Standing, aka UCOS

Nine weeks ago, I celebrated the return for an eleventh series of the BBC comedy/drama cold-case series New Tricks. I’d describe it as a ‘guilty pleasure’ except for the fact that I don’t feel in the least bit guilty about it. But I did describe it as Insubstantial Airfill, which is a fair way of putting what the series has been for the past several years.
However, over the last couple of series, New Tricks has been shaken up by the departure of three-quarters of its cast, with James Bolam, Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman leaving and being replaced by Denis Lawson, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Tamzin Outhwaite respectively.
The latter two came on board at different times in series 10, so this has been the first time the new team has had a proper opportunity to shine, and the outcome has been surprising. I might have enjoyed New Tricks but that didn’t blind me to it being pretty formulaic, and just a bit prone to the comedy aspect. Insubstantial Airfill.
But the change of cast has refreshed the show, to the point almost of regeneration and I think this has been the strongest series I’ve seen.
What has impressed the most is how the writers and production team have suddenly found themselves able to deal with much darker and more complex themes without at any time appearing superficial. Though the light-hearted element remains, it has been muted to a degree as a response to the more serious cases that have been explored.
The series finale this week was a perfect example of the new standards. The team were investigating the 1983 death of sixteen year old Amy Taskerland, on the night of the school disco at a private school, found with a broken neck after falling down a set of stone steps. The death turned out to be an accident, a shoving match between best friends when the dead girl was in a confused and frightened state, but the outcome was not the point of the story, as with so much of the series, but rather the catalyst for uncovering a very dark seam of recent British history.
The case had been re-opened after the accidental uncovering of a ‘time-capsule’ buried in 1983, to which Amy had contributed a mix-tape (i.e. cassette, for our younger readers) that was found to include a terrified message from her, forecasting her death and referring to fear of ‘Alec’, a name that baffled everyone, there being no Alec known to anyone who was around her.
On the way to the almost anti-climactic ending, it was revealed that Amy had been having sex with her teacher, now the School’s headmaster, whose engagement had been broken off that same night, and who had been anxious to keep the tape covered up. This was deep water in itself, but only a red herring ultimately.
Whilst it was being investigated, we were introduced, as if a background element, to Amy’s father, a former Civil Servant, played with customary brilliance by Jack Sheppard. Mr Taskerland was emotionally distant, somewhat vague, paranoid about dirt and disease, and curiously disinterested in the loss of his only child, which had been followed within the year by divorce initiated by his late wife.
A curious, but seemingly irrelevant sub-theory was introduced by Danny Griffin. This as bee Nicholas Lyndhurst’s series in spades: the dry, reserved polymath has figured prominently in several episodes and was central to this and its predecessor last week. Here he theorises that Amy may have been reading from a speech by the Queen that gave the episode its title.
The problem was that the speech was never delivered, that its existence was Top Secret and it was only de-classified eighteen months earlier: it was the Speech the Queen would have read to the Country in the vent of Nuclear War.
The impossibility of Amy having ever known of this speech, not to mention the security aspects, meant this thread was officially disregarded, but Danny’s persistence with it, as the Teacher theory unravelled into a dead end, took the programme into its bleak final third.
I know there are some who think Nicholas Lyndhurst has spoiled New Tricks and whilst I completely disagree, it was very clear last night that he was the star: the case also revolved around Wham!’s ‘Club Tropicana’, it’s length and release date, which Danny determined with the help of Ethan, Sasha’s first post-Divorce boyfriend, not to mention a brilliantly timed shot of the gang, playing basketball hoops in the school courtyard, first up, ending with Danny flinging a gloriously casual one-handed shot over his shoulder and into the basket from what looked like fifteen yards!
Instincts, intuition, experience from the Diplomatic Protection Squad and detective skills lead Danny, and us, to the chilling truth. In 1983, with Thatcher in Downing Street, Reagan in the White House and Russia still very pre-Gorbachev, the Doomsday Clock was set at three minutes to midnight.
There were plans, highly secret plans, for the event of nuclear war: speeches, propaganda that openly lied to the public about ‘survivability’ that were no more than a deliberate deception intended to get the greatest number to barricade themselves in their homes – oversized coffins – in order to die neatly, division of the country into police-controlled statelets, and underground bunkers to be stocked by people who would outlast nuclear winter before emerging to ‘rebuild’ the country.
Amy’s father was one of those men. She’d accidentally seen the secret Speech, found the committee acronym –  A.L.E.C. – understood the horror that her father would go away and leave her and her mother to die horribly, to be vapourised.
All the more potent for being delivered in Danny’s dry, unemotional tones (he is so much a contrast to Brian Lane, being as far underplayed by Lyndhurst as Lane was overplayed by Armstrong), this exposure moved from the abandoned bunker itself to a confrontation with Taskerland over the crucial night.
Einstein was quoted: “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought but I can tell you how the Fourth World War will be fought: with sticks and stones.” Sheppard rose to the occasion magnificently. Outwardly, the story was simple and callous: a Nato exercise had spooked the Russians, their finger was trembling on the button, Taskerland was summoned to the Bunker, leaving a screaming, distraught Amy, who understood what this meant, hysterical that he would leave them. To die.
Sheppard, however, incarnated Taskerland brilliantly. The weary protest that if he had not gone voluntarily, he would have been forced to go by armed Police was but a part of it. Taskerland had a duty, a duty to the country’s future, to trying to restore it afterwards. Sasha tried to say that his family was his future, but it was the episode’s one mistake, a repetition of the argument laid in the episode about the Special Branch operative who’d raised a family undercover. But where that argument was pretty solid and unequivocal, it was a one-dimensional response to something of far greater moral complexity.
Because, horrifying as it was, Taskerland’s duty was also right, and necessary on levels that we cannot disclaim, cold, hard, pragmatic levels that we may want to ignore, or discard, but which have to be confronted unless we collectively decide to give up. What Sheppard did was to show us what a choice of that nature had done to Taskerland, what it would do to any of us with half an imagination, half a conscience, to be forced into making that choice.
Poor Amy, who didn’t live to see that the Russians relaxed, that we didn’t all die, ended up pouring out her fears and distress to a best mate who, despite her desire to help, couldn’t understand the way Amy understood, and it ended in a fight and a fall and a death. And the residual thought remains as to what shape Amy’s life would have taken if she had lived on, with the knowledge, and the heretic thought that maybe, just maybe, it might have been better not to. Taskerland showed the danger of a life spent in that knowing.
Yet, despite this deeply serious theme, the programme also managed to maintain its original comic impulse, and indeed had more of a light-hearted element to it than the whole of the series before it collectively, without misjudging the tone. Sasha had met someone, record shop owner and vinyl enthusiast Ethan, but was finding herself too scared to go away for a weekend in Barcelona. Strickland was hanging round the team, wanting to fit in on drinks, seeking someone to share his worries about becoming a father again at 55. The team, and especially Danny, were running the rule over Ethan, who came in handy about ‘Club Tropicana’, and Gerry’s suffering the stag-do of his future son-in-law, who’s terrified of admitting that his fiancée is pregnant.
New Tricks has been confirmed for a twelfth series in 2015, though Dennis Waterman will only appear in the first two episodes before leaving. That means that the entire cast will have changed. There’s no news as yet as to who his replacement might be, though based on past performance we should probably expect him to be a bit of a jack-the-lad, a bit fly, so as to fit the jigsaw. It’s not just mischief on my part to hope for something a little more adventurous, along the lines of he being a she, maybe?
Either way, New Tricks has shown that it can handle changes of personnel without losing its touch, indeed can thrive on them to give it new scope. If this year’s standard can be kept up next year, there’s no reason why the series couldn’t be kept going far longer than would have seemed desirable, let alone likely only a short time ago.
Another series like this one and I won’t be calling it Insubstantial Airfill again.

A bit political…

Let’s get this straight: Mike Reid, a white DJ, records a song promoting a political party whose most prominent policy is anti-immigration. He sets his lyrics to a traditional Jamaican musical form and sings it in a fake Jamaican accent. And he apologises for causing unintentional offence?


Uncompleted Stories: Journey


Since the independent market came to prominence in the 1980s, comics readers have grown used to the idea that, sooner or later, somehow or other, most stories will be completed in something like the form that their creator envisioned. Breaking the link to mainstream, own-all-the-rights, mass market publishers enabled creators to hew more closely to the idea that first inspired them, and to proceed with sales far lower than those that DC or Marvel would have countenanced, but which could still sustain them because they took a far greater share of the income.
That hasn’t always been the case, and there are still stories that disappear, never to be concluded.
Take the example of Journey, written and drawn by Bill Messner-Loebs, and sub-titled ‘The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire’.
Journey, and MacAlistaire made their debut as a back-up two part story in Cerebus in that period when Dave Sim was flirting with the idea of helping independent creators to improve their visibility by contributing to a successful, noticeable title. Loebs had already seen the benefit of this policy, contributing a five part tale, ‘Welcome to Hell, Dr Franklin’, a fantasy centred upon Ben Franklin. Sim and his wife Deni were impressed enough to offer to publish Loebs for a six-issue mini-series, and the two-parter was designed as a lead into that, introducing Josh ‘Wolverine’ MacAlistaire.
The setting was the frontier, the time somewhere around 1810. MacAlistaire was a fur trapper, out on his own, living off the wild, unsuited to civilization and to more than occasional human contact.
What Loebs was capable of was established on the very first page. MacAlistaire, a lone figure silhouetted against the sky of a grassland dotted by intermittent trees. Birds pour into the sky. He walks towards a stand of trees, the narrative captions slowly setting the time, the place, the pace. It’s the laconic words of a frontiersman, telling tales around a fire, years later. It ends with the words: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin… that was where the Frontier commenced back then… the old Northwestern Territories… No Civilization…No farms… Hardly any Indians… just trees and skies and considerable silence.
I can’t speak for you but that was – is – enough for me. I’m taken there, secure that I’m in the hands of someone who, like the once-legendary, but now near-forgotten trapper himself, knows where he is.
What followed that first page was an astonishingly powerful 14 page sequence that, in an era when the X-Men, under Claremont and Byrne, was the standard to which all aspired, demonstrated that the stakes did not need to be universe-threatening to be extremely intense and powerful.
Simply put, MacAlistaire disturbed and fled from a bear, exhausting himself in a fruitless attempt to escape until the bear finally got bored and turned back.
The sequence began with a bravura pair of pages in which Loebs manipulated the possibilities of comics without ever varying from a static, rigid grid and camera angle.
Both pages are identical: the ‘camera’ is set at ground level, two hundred yards or so from the stand of trees MacAlistaire was approaching. On the left hand page, the laconic dialogue, the campfire voice continues to set the scene, out there where a man has only himself to rely upon. The first two panels are empty of movement, only the narrator metaphorically settling himself down.
But in the third panel, MacAlistaire bursts from the trees, running at full pelt, his pack bouncing. He’s clearly terrified, which grows as he nears the camera, the sixth and final panel focussing on his moccasin as he passes the ‘camera’.
On the second page, we learn why MacAlistaire is running, as the bear emerges from the woods, in pursuit. But without moving the ‘camera’ an inch, Loebs emphasises the relative speeds for pursued and pursuer: the bear does not appear until the third panel of six, and by the fifth, his paw is almost blocking the camera’s view: the sixth panel is empty of everything but the prairie and the trees, and the narrator’s little joke.
It’s not until the second chapter that we get to the point of the mini-series, the MacGuffin. MacAlistaire encounters a pair of French trappers, one of whom is carrying a parcel to be delivered to a settlement the other side of Lake Superior, and agrees to carry it in return for a trade of (decidedly inferior) goods.
In the end, it would take until issue 22 and a change of publishers to deliver the parcel to New Hope. Indeed, from the very earliest of stages, it didn’t look at all possible for Loebs to get MacAlistaire to his destination in anything remotely like six issues, as his journey would take him through a series of encounters with the wierd, the wild and the strange in that empty, unimaginable land. The series became open-ended, to the delight of its readers who were having too good a time to want this to stop any time. The journey was too much fun.
As for Loebs’ art, it was obvious from the first cursory glance that he had seen Will Eisner draw before. Indeed, to begin with it was impossible to see beyond the extraordinary similarity of line work. But Eisner was an artist of the city and the streets, and Loebs was an artist of the wilds, and though his drawing was superficially close, his choice of angles, his sense of pacing was his own, and the longer the series persisted, the less Loebs looked like Eisner-manque, and the more he looked like Loebs-prime.
I mentioned earlier a change of publishers: without warning, Journey 15 appeared published by Fantagraphics instead of Aardvark-Vanaheim. The circumstances behind the switch have never been disclosed, but the hints dropped in interviews and exchanges between Sim and Fantgraphics Publisher Gary Groth paint an image of a total breakdown in the creator/publisher relationship with Loebs and the Sims, with the former apparently turning up at the printers and demanding all his artwork. There were also stories of Dave Sim shouting threats to kill Loebs in the background of a telephone conversation between Groth and Deni Sim that Sim later passed off as humour.
Either way, Fantagraphics took over. There was little change, except in the publisher’s logo, though after two issues on the standard newsprint AV used, the stock was upgraded to a whiter, sturdier paper.
Eventually, after all the diversions, after the long digressions to Fort Miami, facing attack by Indians, MacAlistaire arrived at New Hope, accompanied by the acerbic, self-superior poet, Elmer Alyn Craft (whom many have chosen to see as a stinging satire on Groth himself: though Kraft was introduced long before the move to Fantagraphics, the parallels are easy to see).
What the pair found there was a community sinking under the weight of old sins and hypocrisies. The parcel turned out to be a Bible, delivered to Elinor, who had briefly been a lover of Kraft. But there were undercurrents associated with the death of Elinor’s late Reverend husband that slowly unpeeled over an intense winter until everything was laid bare to be seen, and the community given a chance to survive, free of its secrets.
Which was the cue for Kraft to stay and MacAlistaire to move on. The series ended with issue 27 and whilst it is mostly forgotten now, it is still a masterpiece.
In what way then is Journey Uncompleted? It was always a picaresque series, dependant upon movement from setting to setting. MacAlistaire was never a man to be comfortable in staying in one place for very long. There would always be more to tell, in the same way that no superhero comic really ends. And his past lay behind him, though close to the surface: nightmares about the Dark Man, a continually shifting series of claims about what his father did, occasional glimpses of what Ol’ Josh had seen and done, all contributing but never explaining the need to move on, the desire for silence, the fear of living over his own grave.
That was, however, the intention. Despite everything Fantagraphics had done, Journey still did not sell in enough numbers to sustain itself as an ongoing project. Loebs had made enough of a splash with it that he had begun scripting series for DC: The Flash, Dr Fate. Scripting only: there was no way his art would ever be considered appropriate for mainstream comics.
But he and Fantagraphics had no wish to abandon Journey. Thus it was announced that the series would continue, but as successive limited series, the first of which was to be Wardrums, a six issue series in which MacAlistaire became involved in the war of 1812 between America and the British.
What’s more, Wardrums would be printed in sepia, to reflect its olde worlde nature.
So the series began, though a wonderful tale of MacAlistaire’s encounter with a very territorial beaver had nothing to do with the war of 1812. That would undoubtedly be a part of issue 2.
But issue 2 never appeared. Or rather it did not appear for three years, a fact humorously recognised in its indicia by Loebs. It came out without fanfare, without any being aware, in black and white, the sepia promise forgotten. At a later date, I read reference to the art for issue 3 being destroyed in a housefire. It took me until 2014 to locate a copy of Wardrums 2, to complete what there was of MacAlistaire’s adventures, even though there was no point, no earthly prospect of the series, the story ever coming near to completion.
So far as I am aware, Loebs only drew two more comics, two issues of a new series titled Bliss Alley, published by Image in 1997, centring upon a street tramp with hallucinations, named Wizard Walker. It was the most untypical thing Image ever published and I seized greedily upon it whilst expecting it not to last: there was never a third.
Loebs and his wife Nadine fell on hard times in the 2000s, forced to live in a homeless shelter. As long ago as the 1980s, I was openly stating that we fans of Journey needed to find a rich patron who would settle a private income on Loebs so that he could write and draw Journey forever. But millionaires tend to back the wrong things.
Because of Wardrums, Journey is technically and emotionally incomplete. It would always have felt like that, even if that 27 issues series had been the whole of it, because of its nature. It was a journey, and it would not be finished until Wolverine MacAlistaire reached the end of his trail. We walked beside him for far too short a time for it ever to feel complete.

Bill Loebs – life shits on those who least deserve it

Travelling with Tinniswood: Winston


Usually I like family conferences. I’m very good at them. I let everyone have his or her say and then I have my say and everyone does as they’re told. I do like neatness and tidiness in human affairs, don’t you?
But that night I just couldn’t arouse any interest.
My mind kept wandering to Winston.
What was he doing? Was he using my toenail clippers again to trim his moustache? Was he sticking his gilberts on the corner of the oilcloth on the kitchen table? Was he happy? Was he out with one of his bits of fluff with yellow teeth and big berdongers? Was he trying to make it up with his wife, his missus? Did he want to go back to her? Was he tired of living with us? Did he like being the the same house as me? Did he like smelling my perfume when I’d been to the loo? Was he fed up with my cheery laugh and the butter under my fingernails when I made french toast for Father? Oh Lord, was he happy? Really, really?
He’d done nothing about the house since he moved in. Not once had I seen him paying attention to the stench pipe. Indeed he seemed to go positively out of his way to ignore it. He hadn’t served at table or unblocked the drains. Not once had he rewired the house or put a new roof on the stables. All he’d done was hose down his dog in the bathroom and hang his dirty socks over the bannisters. Oh Lord, was he happy? Really, really?
Winston is the sequel to Hayballs, but only in the sense of featuring substantially the same characters in substantially the same setting. Almost everything of importance about Hayballs, and especially its plot, has been obliterated for the purposes of this book. Gone are The Duke of Wiltshire, the Marquess of Sturmbridge, Grampy Hayballs, and all the inhabitants of Winterleaf Gunner except Winston himself and the occasional, walk-on, non-speaking part.
Even Father’s death is clumsily swept aside as having taken place only in Nancy Empson’s imagination (and that doesn’t accord with Hayballs, as Nancy arrogates to herself the part played by Grampy in the first book).
It’s very odd indeed.
But that’s because Winston is not a sequel. It is a novelisation of the first of what would eventually be six six-part Radio 4 comedy serials written by Tinniswood. The series were five-handers, centring upon Winston’s various entanglements with the life of the Empson family, now restored to four people with younger daughter Rosie – blonde, beautiful, stylish and thoroughly bad-tempered and argumentative – being whisked back from her never-again mentioned relationship in Derby.
The effect is to further neuter Hayballs, in retrospect, by treating it as a mistake, a false start that should never have appeared at all. The only real gesture of recognition Tinniswood pays to his earlier novel – which, as you may recall, was written the same year as the radio series upon which this is based – is to acknowledge that the Empsons have been living in the Dower House for about a year, that it was in a disastrous state when they bought it, that Winston has done it up for them single-handed and on his own look, for next to nothing.
Oh yes, and that last Autumn Festival, he took Nancy Empson out back under this beech tree and had sex with her, despite their social differences. Strictly speaking, Nancy – who was in her late forties then but has now swept backwards into her mid-forties – had her virginity taken, but let’s not dwell on that.
It doesn’t work with me. It feels all wrong to have an entire story, an entire world deleted by a writer, and have him yet pretend that these two books are a continuum.
The other distinction Tinniswood draws is in having Nancy Empson narrate the novel, as she does in the radio serial: that is, for about 80% of the story, during which she is present. When it is necessary that there be a scene where she is excluded, the novel simply dips into the third person for as long as it has to, before racing back for the sanctuary of Nancy’s mind. The bald-faced manner in which this is done smacks of cheap contrivance.
The story can be summed up very easily. Winston turns up at the Dower House, having been thrown out by his extremely ugly missus (his extremely ugly, totally under his thumb, doormat wife, yeah, right) because of his bits of fluff. He’s come to live with the Empsons.
Initially, they’re against the idea (not that they stop him moving in, the Empsons being, individually and collectively, completely ineffectual) because he’s, well, not really their type is he? A working class man amongst so many superior, cultured, refined upper middle class folk. Of course, the moment Winston slicks himself up and becomes a world class chef/butler/manservant/maid and all round treasure, they change their minds.
But Winston has a plan, which he relates to Nancy. He’s going to work on and manipulate the rest of the family until they all up sticks and leave, so that he can stay in bed with Nancy all day.
And she lets him go about his plan, despite her self-martyrdom to her family and keeping it close by and dependent upon good old Nancy, the only sensible one. Even though it’s blatantly obvious that Father is sufficiently doolally and ga-ga as to be a danger to himself anytime he’s not looked after twenty-four seven three six five.
And it’s not as if he’s subtle about it, though the Empsons – even the seemingly intelligent and uneccentric Rosie – are unlikely to spot anything less subtle than a sledgehammer to the back of the neck. And Nancy knows his plans, but she is so far under the magical influence of this greasy-haired, Zapata-moustached, fat-bellied, dirty, wellied classic Male Chauvinist Pig with the tattoos of ‘Mild’ and ‘Bitter’ above each nipple, that she can’t bring herself to stop him.
Winston’s plans are, however, foiled (this is based upon a Radio serial, with the requirement of a status quo to be restored, ready for the next series) by Father falling ill, and William and Rosie deciding that a) they prefer family comforts and b) they are too scared to make it on their own, and thus deciding to stay.
In the case of William, the inveterate railway enthusiast whose hyper-detailed books appear to constitute the family income, that’s obvious to the proverbial three-month-old baby, but in Rosie’s case it’s a bit of a stretch and has to be stapled on for it to stick.
That’s not all though. Winston decides that if the other Empsons are going to stay, he and Nancy will go. He plans for them to elope after the Autumn Festival but, guess what, he reminds himself of why he married his wife and goes back to her. But not before having sex with Nancy under the beech tree again (poor woman: it can’t be much fun having a lover who only gives you an orgasm once a year, though according to legend most marriages don’t even achieve that much).
End of story.
I really don’t like this book at all. It’s recognisably Tinniswodian in that no-one else could have written this, but it’s a far cry from the wonderfully funny, grounded books of his early career. It’s irretrievably affected by the fact that I don’t like Winston one bit. He’s meant to be the romantic hero, using the term romantic in its more archaic sense. He’s the rogue, the charmer, the vagabond, the working-class hero befuddling and confusing the stultified middle class that thinks itself so much more sophisticated but which is wide open to the hero’s schemes. Winston follows that template almost to a ‘T’ – it’s not that far from the milieu of the early Leslie Charteris stories of The Saint – but Tinniswood blows it by exaggeration. Winston is so bleeding obvious, and the Empsons so bleeding oblivious that the humour inherent in seeing the stuffy and stuck-up humiliated by the wily ‘inferior’ goes completely by the board. Especially when the stuffies don’t get any comeuppance whatsoever and wouldn’t notice if they did.
Winston – incarnated superbly on radio by Bill Wallis – went on to star in another five radio serials, interfering with the life of the Empsons. It provided gainful employment for Tinniswood’s wife, Liz Goulding, who had been the second TV Pat Brandon, and who appeared in several of her husband’s radio plays, including the part of Rosie Empson. Winston never appeared in print again.

What did I miss by being born?

There was a small piece in the Guardian today about the new BBC Genome Project.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not an attempt by the Beeb to involve itself in the scientific mapping of human existence. The word ‘Genome’ was a construction first employed by Hans Winkler, botany Professor at Hamburg University in 1920 and is probably a contraction of ‘gene’ and ‘chromosome’. The word repesents the totality of genetic material carried by an organism.

But that’s not the context in which the BBC wants to employ the word. For some strange, pretentious and bewildering reason, the Beeb wants us to associate this word with a Project of completely unrelated trivia: what was on BBC TV (and Radio) the night you were born. Or, well,any night, really.

The BBC’s Genome is, quite simply, a night by night listing of their Schedules as printed in the Radio Times. It is utterly trivial, has no scientific application and is unrelated to any definition of the word ‘Genome’.

Needless to say, I went straight for the day of my birth to check what my parents (and I, of course) missed by not being in front of the telly that night.

I’m not going to start giving away too many personal details here: suffice to say that it was a Friday, and it was in 1955, so there was no BBC 1, 2, 3 or 4 to consider, nor any numbered radio channels: just the BBC broadcasting on 405 lines, in Black and White, on Channel 2 on your dial (ITV would be Channel 9 and I could never get the hang of why there were any other Channels even marked on the dial when nothing else was being broadcast).

The television day started at 1.30pm with Horse racing with a pesumably young Peter O’Sullevan – appropriately enough from Manchester, given that was where I was popping out into the world – and ended round about 11.00pm, I would guess: the last official programme was ‘Music in View’ with Alec Robertson taking a look at the next fortnight of music programmes, followed by The Weather and Close Down.

Amazingly, that far back we had Afternoon TV, not that it was particularly thrilling. There was a Music Festival of Commonwealth Youth, a fifteen minute piece on Costume Jewellery and Watch with Mother: it being Friday, this was The Woodentops. There was even the distant forerunner of Film ’75, ’81, ’93 and all the others, in Film Time, featuring that afternoon the very recent Royal Command Perfomance of Hitchcock’s ‘To Catch a Thief’.

At 5.00pm Children’s TV presented a play about Lord Nelson, the cast including a young Laurence Hardy and a decidedly young Michael Aldridge among other names that are now completely meaningless to me, though it’s nice to see that the BBC even then was not entirely male dominated, the play eing both adapted AND directed by Naomi Capon, holding open a door through which Verity Lambert would seize her fabled opportunity when I was a bit more used to watching the box.

The next listing was for the News at 7.00pm. Now either the play lasted two hours, which I somehow doubt, or this was evidence of the infamous Children’s Truce, when TV would switch off for an hour to enable parents to shuffle tinies off to bed without the distraction of the demon in the corner.

The evening schedule doesn’t exactly enthrall, considering this is Friday night telly: a kind of TV version of Radio’s ‘Two-Way Family Favourites’, playing requests for servicemen stationed overseas, a programme about hobbyist clubs broadcast from a Territorial Army Drill Hall, ‘Puzzle Corner’, filmed in Bridgend in which the audience was selected from people in Bridgend who put copies of this Radio Times in their window that Friday. This appears to be the only example of spontaneity that night.

Even that only lasted thirty minutes, including dances (?!), to make room for a political discussion (guests including Denis Healey!) as a lead up to the evening news at 10.00pm.

So far, the one common denominator about all these shows (and I don’t mean that they sound universally dreadful and dull, although they do) is that they’re all English. Homegrown TV for the entire schedule the day I was being homegrown, no flooding of the airwaves with trashy US imports, not then. Oh, no, wait, there’s still that awkward 10.15 to 10.45 pm slot to fill and, hey, waddaya know? It’s an American import! It’s the ‘Burns and Allen Show’, starring the veteran US comedian George Burns and his flighty, daffy wife and comedienne, Gracie Allen.

It’s also the only damned thing on the night I was born that I regret having missed, not that I’d have been allowed to sit up that late to watch it, not at the age of however many hours I’d lasted by then. Well, ok,maybe The Woodentops, but then I always preferred Thursday’s Rag, Tag and Bobtail, and I’d be nearly a week old before that came round again. Heavens, I was positively ancient!

On a more serious note, what does surprise me is the absence of any programmes relating to Remembrance Day. It was all over the Home Service on Radio, but nothing on the Box, a strange oversight given that it was only a decade since the end of the Second World War, and not forty years since the day being commemorated. My Grandfathers had been in their twenties during that War.

That was what was on TV the night I was born, or at least on the BBC side of things (ITV wouldn’t even launch in the North until I was six months old). It’s impossible to imagine that world and I’m glad to have grown out of it. There again, given that UKIP want to basically drag us back to the Fifties, the time may come when we get a stark reminder of it!