Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 2


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Back to see if the middle hundred of DC’s long-running House of Mystery show any signs of improvement or if I’m just in for more hours of inveterately dull reading.
At first sight, no. It’s practically all aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens, intermingled with the occasional monsters who look like aliens but who aren’t aliens. Aliens. Have you got it yet? Not once in these issues was there anything to write home about. Not until issue 143 (June, 1964) would the formula change and not until then would there be anything to write about but, repeat after me, aliens, aliens, aliens and aliens.
Alien invaders. Alien monsters. Aliens from different planets, aliens from different dimensions. Alien criminals. Alien policemen chasing alien criminals. Issue after issue after issue.
Things in suspended animation in caves, preserved for centuries by mysterious gases that vanish the moment the cave is breached, without causing any ill-effects.
From issue 126, Messrs Schiff and Boltinoff dropped out of the picture and George Kashdan was promoted to Editor. Again there was no discernible difference, but then was it wanted on a monthly title enjoying an average circulation of 224,000? But if that circulation dropped to an average of 175,000, as it had according to issue 131, might that indicate a need for a shake-up?
Whilst we wait for it, I was afforded a moment of amusement by issue 134, when the name of the villain in the opening story turned out to be that of one of my oldest mates.
The first sign of a shake-up came very quickly, with effect from issue 136, with the series reduced to eight-times-a-year frequency, on a two months on, one month off basis.

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Finally, and it only took until issue 143, House of Mystery achieved a serial character, in the form of J’Onn J’Onzz, the Martian Manhunter, arriving alongside new series editor Jack Schiff, taking a much more hands-on interest than before.
The story is complex, both on and off the page. The Manhunter had been the back-up feature in Detective since his debut in 1955 in issue 225. The series had changed in minor details down the years, the most significant being J’Onzz’s abandonment of his secret existence as a result of his involvement as the Superman-substitute in the early Justice League adventures.
Jack Schiff was the editor on Batman at this time. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, the Batman titles were encouraged to follow the example of the Superman stable, as managed by Mort Weisinger. The deeply unpleasant Weisinger was responsible for bringing Schiff to DC and had a hold over him. Weisinger was well in with Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, a power in the company. Schiff was a liberal, politically, which made him, in Weisinger-speak, a Pinko, the House Red. Weisinger liked having people under his thumb.
So we had the alien era of Batman, the silly, stupid, SF stories that were so unsuited to the characteristics of Batman. Schiff was doing as he was told, giving management what it wanted. Was he cynically showing them he could toe the line,or had he given up, blindly following orders? Either way, it might be what the management wanted, what the Superman fans wanted, but it wasn’t what the Batman fans wanted. Sales were falling away. Impossible as it is to imagine today, when every second comic DC publishes seems to be about him, in 1964, Batman was facing cancellation.
Julius Schwartz was good with superheroes, as his revivals had already demonstrated. Batman was given over into his care, with the results we are aware of today. Jack Schiff was given House of Mystery. Schwartz’s ideas for Batman did not include the Martian Manhunter so Schiff took the character with him.
There had very recently been a dramatic change in the series. Detective John Jones, the Manhunter’s assumed Earth-identity, had been ‘killed’ by the Idol-Head of Diabolu, a supernatural entity that generates monsters every full moon. Since tackling the Idol-Head is going to take up all of his time, J’Onzz decides not to establish a secret identity but set himself, and his alien pal Zook in a secret cave headquarters and try to locate the Idol-Head but in the meantime save everyone from the monthly monsters.
There are times when, just from the names alone, you can tell that something is a crappy idea. The best you can say for this set-up is that at least it’s thematically consistent with the rest of House of Mystery (the Martian Manhunter gets the cover and the prestigious back of the book story but the rest of the title is business-as-boringly-usual).
Apart from those early Justice League appearances, I am almost completely ignorant of J’Onn J’Onzz’s history or adventures. Zook was an unwelcome concept that I had known of but forgotten for a very long time. He’s that perennially bad idea, the cute-seeming alien sidekick and comic relief, unable to master anything but the most basic English. His cartoon face, for some reason, reminded me of nothing so much as Marlon, as drawn by Dennis Collins, in The Perishers. He’s small, orange furred, bare-bum naked, has powers that didn’t get used in this first story and I’m sure I’m going to be sick to the back teeth of him by the end of the next story.
As for the Idol-Head, it’s an obvious cheap idea – someone was following a subconscious prompting when they set it up in a junkyard – to start a procedural: when you create a Monster of the month you really don’t have to start thinking about your stories.
But look at that: I’ve written more about this one eight page story than the entire 42 preceding issues put together. At least I have something to write about now, even if I suspect it’s all going to be negative. Let’s move on.
Within two issues, the Manhunter’s role had doubled in length, a two-part story, upfront, with just one one-shot to back it up, or be ignored completely according to the reader’s preference. This, however, was an experiment Schiff was not immediately eager to repeat with the Manhunter back in the back, only to be found after digging through the two schtumers. The double-length story was repeated in issue 148. The Idol-Head was already boring me.
But the transplant was clearly in difficulties because the next issue chose to give its cover to one of the traditional stories, only flagging J’Onn above the title. He still stayed upfront, with the cover story going to the back – I can only conclude that this positioning was to et the kids to read all the way through to the end to find the story that has got them to buy the comic in the first place – and sandwiched between was a story with art by Alex Toth, a fine bonus.
On the other hand, the only thing significant about issue 150 was a story in which, for the first time in years, not just one but two women had speaking roles. Banal speaking roles, to be sure, but it was one hell of a shock nevertheless.
A two-parter in 151, a one-parter in 152: the latter didn’t feature Zook, which was some relief but also omitted the blasted Idol-Head, leaving it to be assumed to be the source of the monster that turned up. Add a new and slightly more simplistic artist and the only conclusion to be drawn is that this is one of the worst Silver Age superhero series ever.
Perhaps this was registering? Neither Zook nor Diabolu turned up next issue, just one of the Manhunter’s old enemies, evil scientist Professor Hugo. And in issue 154 Diabolu wasn’t even mentioned. Oh come now, they’re not just going to leave this one dangling, are they? Stop featuring Zook, let the Idol-Head just vanish, presumably spewing out its monster-of-the-month and nobody gives a toss?
Maybe so for Zook but not Diabolu, back next issue. It’s still the most tedious evil object in existence. It just drifts around, meaningless and motionless until, at full moon, the top of its head opens like a toilet seat and debouches a new evil monster, just as motiveless as all the others. Why? What does it get out of it? Is it just bored?

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But the Martian Manhunter was once again due to become a back-up character, with Diabolu and the return of Zook. Issue 156 introduced a brand new idea, out of the blue, unforeshadowed, unwarned. In the final part of my series on Adventure Comics I dealt with the Marv Wolfman/Carmine Infantino revival of ‘Dial ‘H’ for Hero’, and now it was time for the original.
Robby Reed is an ordinary, brainy, All-American kid in one of those sleepy, out of the way, slowpoke Mid-Western communities, this one called Littleville (because Smallville was already taken, we presume) that nevertheless hosts scientific plants just ripe for raiding by a super-scientific independent spy group called the Thunderbolt Syndicate, led by the red-hooded Mr Thunder.
But Robby, who has a habit of saying or thinking ‘Sockamagee!’ every second or third panel, falls through a cave roof and discovers an alien artefact that just happens to be shaped like a telephone dial without a telephone around it. All Robby has to do is dial the alien equivalent letters to H-E-R-O (aww! You guessed) and he is transformed into a super-powered hero. The catch, or the hook, is that it’s a different one every time. How long will imagination last?
It’s another of those mid-Sixties series I never actually picked up when I had the chance in the Sixties, like The Doom Patrol and the Challengers of the Unknown, or The Sea Devils for that matter. They were about. I saw such things in the spinner rack at the newsagents at Fiveways, or the flat racks near school, but my chances for purchases were limited, and I was not supposed to buy them full price (so I found a sneaky way round that prohibition), but if choice were limited, choice went with more favoured series, or any Justice Society character I saw.
The DC ‘Go-Go’ checks era started with issue 157. Robby Reed transformed into another trio of heroes, making his strip seem full and busy with the Martian Manhunter demonstrated the limited nature of his series by going back to Professor Hugo when Diabolu wasn’t around.
It only took three issues to get to the obvious story of a crook dialling V for VILLAIN, with an added touch of a suggestion that Robby’s gramps knew very well why he was continually late for meals. And in the back up, J’Onn J’Onzz finally caught up with the Idol-Head and smashed it for good… unless the readers wanted it back. Yes, they openly said that they’d bring it back if enough readers wrote in asking for it. Yeesh!
A letter column appeared for the first time in issue 159, full of praise from Robby Reed as the most original character ever in comics, whilst the Manhunter had another nondescript adventure, with aliens, before embarking upon a new direction. This involved pursuing the mysterious criminal organisation, Vulture, headed by a faceless man who J’Onn immediately dubbed Faceless. To do so, the Manhunter adopted the identity of the recently deceased playboy Marco Xavier (so recently his body hadn’t stopped burning).
Meanwhile Robby Reed paved the way for the short-lived return of a comic book legend by turning into Plastic Man in his story. He also turned into King Kandy, a hero whose powers were based in candy and sweets. It’s 1966. If I wanted to be charitable, I would describe this as goofy. On the other hand, if I really wanted to be charitable, I would not even have mentioned King Kandy.
But this ridiculous excuse for a superhero is just the beginning, and I should have known. 1966, the go-go checks, the Batman TV era, Marvel’s increasing and misunderstood popularity. It’s the Camp era and ‘The most original character in comics history’ is another exponent. The heroes Robby Reed inexplicably turns into are silly, the inventions of a writer who has lost all confidence in what he is doing, encouraged by an editor who gave up caring years ago, and who can sanction villains like Baron Bug and weapons like extra-strength flypaper. Goofy is not in it. It’s silly at best.
With this is mind, the Martian Manhunter’s back-up series, being played a little more straight, should be much better than it it but somehow it’s dull and predictable, in the same way that the Idol-Head business was. Vulture and Faceless are just an excuse for thinking, producing the same story every issue. Though just as I said that, issue 165 varied the formula in the only way they seem to know how, by bringing back Professor Hugo.
And this issue’s heroes were Whoozis, Whatzis and Howzis, which is beyond comment, save that the kids like this stuff: the current Statement of Circulation read 325,000 average, and this for a title still only pushing eight issues a year.
A stupid letter in issue 166 praised Dial H before saying that what it needed to be more ‘realistic’ was for Robby to get a girlfriend and have secret identity problems. In short, the series would be more fresh and different if it was identical to every other one. Comics audiences are like that: I remember sighing disgustedly at similar letters in Blue Devil and Wonder Woman in the late Eighties. What is wrong with them? They even want Zook back in Martian Manhunter, and sure enough he appeared the same issue.
That Suzy was going to Dial H for H-E-R-O-I-N-E in issue 169, becoming another Gem Girl after one had turned up in the 1967 JLA/JSA team-up, should have placed me on dickishness alert, because we sure got it. First, our likeable young lady sees Robby use his dial to become the Hoopster then, when he demonstrates to her how to use it, she becomes a superheroine. But instead of just enjoying it for thirty seconds like Robby plans she gets involved in battling the Toymaster. He doesn’t want her doing that so what happens? Two blows to the head, amnesia for the last hour or so and swearing to make sure it damned well never happens again. What is it with these creeps? Can’t blame Schiff for this one as the editorial reins were returned to George Kashdan as of this issue.
All this complaining, however, belies a new reality coming to transform the series into the one we fans who remember the business in the Seventies will always think of as House of Mystery. It was 1968. Joe Orlando, one of EC’s excellent stable of horror artists was free. New DC Editorial Director Carmine Infantino was interested in promoting more artists into editorships. And both DC and Marvel, after over a decade of strict restrictions, were chafing at the Comics Code Authority, pushing for relaxations, relaxations that would allow the companies to be both more realistic and more fantastic than before.
There was no sign of the forthcoming changes in issue 171, though the Robby Reed story should have been seen as a siren cry for cancellation. Sure, Robby and the H-Dial are popular, so much so that he and his logo dominate the masthead, with House of Mystery decidedly diminished, but the story involved one serious superhero and two disasters who weren’t even given a name. And the first one was near enough a rip-off of The Phantom Viking (maybe Jerry Siegel, writing the Spider and Gadgetman for Lion wasn’t so cut off from his former colleagues as he seems to have been, and clued Dave Wood in about Valiant).
But when one of Robby’s identities turned out to have the superpowers of a Go Go dancer, it’s time for a change.
And the circumstances were ripe. With issue 173, the series dropped to bi-monthly publication and, despite Robby’s presence above the title, it was the Martian Manhunter who led up the issue, whilst in the back a ton of ugly, ill-proportioned art was wasted on a dull story that demonstrated that, once the idea of three new superheroes per issue started scraping the bottom of the barrel, there really weren’t any ideas behind Dial H for Hero. And Suzy had become a non-speaking cypher.
The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.

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The train hit the buffers in issue 173, the only issue of Robby’s run to have a cover I remembered, Robby half-angel, half-devil as his characters are temporarily influenced towards their own robberies. That’s how it ended, in mid-air. At least the Martian Manhunter got an ending as Faceless was revealed to be the most obvious and least logical person, the not-dead-after-all real Marco Xavier, who promptly destroys himself with a not-fully-tested Ultimate weapon. At least it was a conclusion, of sorts.
The change must have come as a shock, right from the cover and the new masthead: Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery, with Mystery drawn in that jagged style reserved for horror. Inside were four short stories, all reprints though not from House of Mystery itself, and one was a Mark Merlin story, drawn in an Alex Toth style. Merlin was a regular in House of Secrets so I’ll be able to tell when I get to that title but this story may have been touched up because Merlin’s girl companion Elsa was wearing a skirt significantly shorter than any ever seen in this title to date: my god, the girl’s showing her knees!
Though the next issue started with a genuine HoM reprint, after a one page introduction to our new Host and story-teller, Cain, the Caretaker, it was dominated by a new story, drawn in a contemporary, quasi-comic style, about a little town, a little kid, two stone gargoyles and a sculptor under a curse. House of Mystery may well have reverted to its original format but with one crucial difference: this story was fresh. It was alive, it was undercut by a splendidly dark humour, in short it was fun. It didn’t slide out of the mind like water the moment you scrolled down to the next page. In short, this was something different.
And having Sergio Aragones draw Page 13 for you (it had been page 17 last issue) was a veritable giggle.
The comic looked better than it had ever done, with Neal Adams hauled in to do appropriately spooky covers. The formula of one reprint and one longer, new story was repeated in issue 176 and looked to be here to stay, though next issue’s was retouched to insert Cain at top and bottom. That also contained the first new letters page and judging by some of the comments, crayons all over America were being worn down.
Adams wasn’t just employed in drawing covers, he was drawing stories inside, at least one with Orlando inks. And whilst vampires, werewolves and ghouls were still not part of the fare, except on Aragones’ gag pages, the tales were now fully in the swing of ghost stories and curses, and even I, so not a horror fan, was being impressed by some of these.
Issue 180 was notorious for printing the infamous Mike Friedrich story, “His Name is Kane”, seven pages of nonstop mocking, sneering and ridicule of artist Gil Kane. The whole thing is vicious from start to finish, but it’s also pencilled by Kane himself. How much of a spoof it is has been debated down the years, but it is accurate to Kane’s known ambitions interests and opinions. Even if he was in on the gag, there’s something about the story that makes me look at it decidedly askance. Kane later confirmed that he was on the outs with Infantino at the time and realised, when he got the assignment, what it was intended to do. What can you say? Was the comic book industry ever free from pettiness, childishness and spite?
Even the first appearance in HoM of a story drawn by the great Berni Wrightson isn’t enough to dispel that.
On the other hand, a gorgeous piece of work from Wrightson illuminated issue 181, justifying all by itself the increase in cover price to 15c. I am not, and never have been, a horror buff, but Wrightson, even in this early phase, was an artist of genius and atmosphere and everything I’ve undergone getting to this point has ben worth it to feast my eyes on his work. It was Alex Toth’s turn next issue with a plug for House of Secrets being revived to set up opposite HoM, but without any Sergio Aragones, not even Page 13.
That was only one issue however. Wrightson again decorated issue 183 but the best story was a goofy little spook story with a twist I should have foreseen, which has been used since. This was drawn in splendidly OTT fashion by Jerry Grandenetti, whose work contains strong elements of cartoonish exaggeration. I thought it was great.
So why is House of Mystery so great now at the kind of story I was practically sleep-reading through in Part 1? The answer is obvious and simple, the difference between the staid and tied-down Fifties and the late Sixties. There’s no rigidity to HoM now. It’s not being held back by fear of fear. It’s being drawn by artists with differing styles, and written with imagination and flair, only lightly-inhibited (there’s still a CCA certificate on every cover, for a reason). But it’s being produced by people who like that they are doing, not merely doing a job.
There’s also the question of space. Two stories per issue allow room to breathe, do not rely on formulas. Toth and Gil Kane. Al Williamson. More Wrightson. A superb Neal Adams job to go with the covers he’s supplying every issue.
There was a mis-step, Orlando’s first, in issue 189, featuring a reprint I recognised immediately. Given the 48 page period is not too far ahead, I suspect I’m just going to have to live with these things.
There was only a fun-twist three pager from Wrightson in issue 191, but what was significant was the writer he was working with for the first time: Len Wein. Another name that would be associated with Wein made his HoM debut next issue, Jim Aparo, already drawing for Orlando on The Phantom Stranger.
The 25c 48 page era began with issue 194 and an elevation to monthly status for the first time. Two new stories, one drawn by Toth, the other a debut for Filipino artist Nestor Redondo, and two old, though I have my doubts about the provenance of one, which looked nothing like an Orlando-era art job but nevertheless featured an attractive black-haired woman in very abbreviated shorts.
More and more figures kept emerging. Mike Kaluta drew a two-page twist-ending tale for issue 195, which also featured Berni Wrightson drawing Moss Men: you know, sort of swamp things. Toth was one of the reprints next time out whilst Gerry Conway was the latest new contributor grossly overwriting and overwraughting a story to make Len Wein’s purplest vein look like a Janet and John Reader.
Suddenly though, the well seemed to run dry. Adams, Wrightson, Toth, this trio were replaced by blander artists, and the stories lost that manic sparkle. House of Mystery reached issue 200 cover-dated March 1972, with nothing special about its stories. Hopefully, this was just a phase. But it’s also the point where we end part 2. The answer will be available next time.

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Good Omens: e01 – In the Beginning


Sometimes, a bit of fun is what you want, without necessarily the scope for too much serious thinking. You can have a bit too much serious thinking, and not always enough fun. Not that Good Omens is necessarily a case for leaving out serious thinking, nothing that comes from the word processor of Terry Pratchett can be entirely free from that, and this Neil Gaiman bloke isn’t exactly behind the door for that kind of business, what with his ‘There is room for things to mean more than they literally mean.’

I got ‘Good Omens’ the book as soon as it went into paperback. My battered old paperback, much read, in fact as recently as the week before last, is signed by both authors. I love it to bits. Well, not every bit of it. There’s this line, early on, where the demon Crowley, listing his demonic feats in causing horror and confusion on Earth, states that ‘he was particularly proud of Manchester’. I’m bound to resent that.

Adaptations of any of Terry Pratchett’s work, and I’m not slighting Gaiman here by putting Pratchett in the frame, are exceedingly difficult to make successfully. Partly that’s because the worlds he writes in are fantasies, impossible to reproduce as live action, or indeed visually at all, without an extremely expensive special effects budget, but primarily because the humour in the books is skewed to the narrative, not to mention the footnotes. The characters don’t say the funny lines, the author does. Getting those lines on screen, in any kind of convincing form, is the real difficulty, because putting them into someone’s mouth to say onscreen is next to impossible to do without it sounding like the character is reading the narrative.

Fortunately for all concerned, the adaptation, and the screenplay, is being done by Neil Gaiman himself, and more than authorial pride is involved here because Neil was doing this in tribute to Terry, his friend, his much-missed friend, with a ferocious determination to do right by him. Gaiman knows the book. What’s more, he knows what wasn’t in the book, and how much of that to fold in. And he is key to visualising what happens on the page and putting it on the screen, backed with a very expensive special effects budget where necessary, in a way that both dazles and satisfies every reader’s internal vision of what’s going on.

The mini-series is by far and away the most recent tv series I’ve blogged other than live. It appeared in 2019, when I watched it weekly, and I watched it again when I bought the DVD. I would expect most readers of this blog to be familiar with book or series or both but for those who are not aware of it, a short background is necessary. Good Omens is about Armageddon, the coming of the Antichrist and the final bettle betwen Heaven and Hell. It is also a comedy. This is brought about primarily by the principals, Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), an Angel, and Crowley (David Tennant), a Demon.

Aziraphale was originally the Angel with a Flaming Sword who guarded the gates to the Garden of Eden, who gave his flaming sword to Adam and Eve when they were expelled because, well, there are beasts out there, it’s going to rain and she’s already expecting. And Crowley was the Snake who tempted Eve because he was told to get up there and cause some trouble, but who’s a bit worried about why God made it so easy.

The point is that this pair of opposites have been on Earth ever since, some 6,000 years of tempting and thwarting. They’ve been the only consistent face either sees and they’ve become sort-of friends, each having been among humans for so long that they’ve more in common with each other than with either respective Head Office.

These are the pair who get involved when the Plan unfolds. Satan’s child, the Antichrist, is brought to Earth eleven years ago. Crowley delivers it to the Nuns’ Hospital where it will be switched for the American Ambassador’s new baby.  He would rather not get involved, and his wish to distance himself as fast as he can combines with the unfortunate coincidence of another, this time English and utterly ordinary couple turning up with her contractions every four minutes and a Chattering Satanic Nun who’s a bit of an airhead. The baby switch ends up being a threeway, and you can guess who gets the Adversary (hint: it’s not the Ambassador).

The big problem is that, in their entirely separate ways, Crowley and Aziraphale like the Earth. Neither wishes to see it end in eleven year’s time. So they work together to frustrate Armageddon…

As the title indicates, this episode is about setting all of this up, as well as our two principal characters. Gaiman makes a superb job of parcelling out information sensibly and intelligently, and he gets round the problem of animating narrative by limiting the use of dialogue, keeping these bits brief and as natural as they can be (not everywhere but at this sort of thing a 90% success rate is damned good) but mainly by hiving the job over to a voiceover narrative (by Frances McDormand) as the voice of God.

She’s good. The whole cast are good. Jon Hamm as the Angel Gabriel and Nick Offerman as the Ambassador, appearing by iPad, are perfect in cameo roles. And in his brief appearance at the end as Adam Young, the Antichrist, Sam Taylor Buck gives a brief but wonderfuly naturalistic show.

But the series stands and falls on Aziraphale and Crowley. David Tennant as Crowley is a given. I mean, David Tennant, demon, you’re wrapped up. It’s Michael Sheen who has the infinitely harder job, playing an Angel who’s basically, just, well, Good. How do you play that? Good and innocence – or as much as is left after 6,000 years of human beings – we’re just talking bland aren’t we? Nothing to work with. And he’s brilliant, bringing to the role a degree of effeteness that comes over as otherworldly as opposed to faintly gay, coupled to an underlying worry. Aziraphale is in earnest, but under everything he does he’s not entirely certain he’s doing the right thing. It’s a brilliant performance.

I look forward to more. Next wek, the story really starts. It’s Wednesday afternoon. The World Ends on Saturday.

A Marston Baines Thriller – Introduction


In 1963, after twenty years as a very popular writer of children’s fiction, Malcolm Saville started the eighth and last of the series that made up the overwhelming number of his books. The series’ main subject was the unlikely figure of Marston Baines, a middle-aged bachelor of somewhat nondescript appearance, who was nevertheless an experienced British Secret Service agent.
It appears that Saville hoped that the Marston Baines series, which was aimed at an older reader than he had up-to-now catered for, would be his legacy. If this is so, then he was sadly imperceptive as to where his true talents really lay.
The Baines series consisted of seven novels over a period of sixteen years, including his penultimate work of fiction. They were not a commercial success, none of the series being granted a paperback edition until the redoubtable GirlsGoneBy Press started reissuing them in 2016. The final two books only ever appeared in one edition each, making them incredibly rare and expensive to collect, until GGB caught up to them. At the time of printing, the penultimate book is due for publication within a matter of weeks.
What’s more, in contrast to his definitely English-set fictions, each of the Baines books were set in different European countries, the product of Saville’s growing taste for holidays abroad that could be set against tax as Author’s Research.
Though Baines was the series’ focal point, he was often only a background character, the bulk of the stories being carried by a rotating group of Oxford undergraduates who got involved in Baines’ cases, much like the contemporary TV group, the Freewheelers used to get involved with Colonel Buchan. The one constant was Baines’ nephew Simon, whose father dies in a car crash at the start of the series and who is taken under Uncle Marston’s wing, to the extent that he ends up training for the service himself.
Another feature distinguishing this series from his earlier books was that Saville used the Baines books for proselytising. Adult characters enabled adult themes and Saville, a committed Christian in his sixties, was out-of-step with, and both fearful and mistrustful of the changes taking place in society in the Sixties. The Baines books were his vehicle to issue trenchant condemnation of various evils, including trade unionism, the usage of drugs, Satanism and fomenting racial tension.
There is indeed the sound of axes being ground, but once again Saville’s inability to let go and, to misquote Anthony Trollope, get close enough to the pitch to be defiled, means he cannot do more than make a superficial presentation of naïve opposition. Such things are Wrong, and are the actions of people intent on committing Evil. There is no room for nuance.
Though the final book is near impossible to get hold of and unaffordable if it were, I have collected the first six books via the GGB editions (the last should be republished in a year’s time), and I’ll be looking at these individually next, before giving a broader impression at the end.

Danger Man: s02 e22 – Parallel Lines Sometimes Meet


Whatever the confusion over the running order of episodes between the DVD boxset I’m watching and the imdb listing, everyone agrees that ‘Parallel Lines Sometimes Meet’ – an abstract title rather than a seemingly random line from within – is the last episode of series 2, or of season 1 of Secret Agent, the show’s American title.

I ended up not just enjoying the episode but liking it as well for the bold step it eventually took. For a long while it seemed to be bitty, throwing in short, choppy scenes that took the episode in dofferent directions that didn’t really cohere, as well as a certain self-induced reservation on my part that detached me to a degree. However, everything fell into place as a well set-up story with an intriguing motivation that still could have done with being introduced a bit sooner.

The episode began with an intriguing open. Two people, husband and wife, in bathing suits, are out for the day with another, recently-met couple, boating. They are drinking and sunbathing. She (Janet Hargeaves) may be in a rather stiff tartan bathing costume, a bit too staid to properly called a swimsuit but she’s still showing more leg than the last half dozen guest stars put together. She seems to be getting light-headed, perhaps too much sun. He’s feeling the same, though he put it down to the drink. Both collapse. Enter their hosts, the Elliots. She is also in bathing suit, a little more flexible, but then she is Margaret Nolan, noted glamour model and actress. That’s her painted gold in the credits for Goldfinger, not Shirley Eaton.

The Brooks, Vernon and Eirlys, have just been kidnapped. The are both British Atomic scientists. John Drake, using the pseudonym West (the tinned fish company had only been formed under that name in 1964) is in Haiti, which is one of the places the Brooks might possibly have been taken to. A ship, La Reine Noir, is docking at a private port the following day: they may be on it.

The episode is set on Haiti. It’s made in 1965, with a predominantly black cast, on an exotic, faraway island known more for the fantasies woven around it, of voodoo and zombies, than its Twentieth Century realities, and I confess that I, with my Twenty-First Century sensibilities, was on a kind of edge over what the episode might depict. Oh yes, there were cliches, one of them being hotel owner and large-scale flambuoyant Mama Celeste (played by Pearl Prescod), all big black mamma, but the only zombies were jokes about them that you could see were tongue-in-cheek.

Apart from Mama Celeste there were three roles of substance played by black actors. In order of appearance these were Mr Darcy (Earl Cameron), the local representative of ‘World Travel’, Lieutentant Labaste (Clifton Jones), the local Policeman, who came over initially as someone likely to be corrupt and in it up to his neck, but who was ebventually revealed to be a proud Haitian, who did not want his country dragged into the power politics of larger nations, and Albert Desilles (Errol John), local mineowner and the villain of the piece. All thre were played seriously and without any cliches due to the colour of their skin, only to their roles.

More intriguing, and ultimately why I liked the show, was the presence of Madame Coussel, played by main guest star Moira Redmond. A man has been found dead near Philipville, where Desilles operates and La Reie Noir is due to dock, washed ashore drowned. Madame Coussel identifies him as her husband, an attache in Port au Prince. Darcy knows Monsieur Coussel and that is not him. He also identifies Madame Coussel as Major Natalie Tarasova of Russian intelligence: in sort, the opposition.

This seemed at first to be a straightforward set-up, Us vs Them, with treachery and double-dealing on both sides to be expected, as with Suzanne of French Intelligence, in ‘Have a Glass of Wine’ only two weeks ago. But that’s the beauty of this story. The dead man is a Russian atomic scientist who disappeared whilst on holiday at the seaside in Riga, having gone boating with a couple he’d recently met… Drake and Natalie are coming at the same thing from opposite sides, an independent that both want to bring down, Desilles.

Labaste wants them both out, before they do Haiti any harm, but the two agents are working together, and genuinely, towards a common goal that benefits both parties, with no-one cheating or trying to take advantage of the other.

Desilles, we belatedly find, is working for an underground African organisation that wants the Bomb. Everybody and his neighbour Gordon has got it, but Africa doesn’t, and they are afraid of their resources being purloined underr nuclear blackmail. So Desilles has been using the Eliotts to kidnap atomic scientists from all over the world to build it, and John Drake and Natalia Tarasova put aside their deep diferences and, with a kind of mutual respect, rescue the kidnappees and solve the longer term problem by having Desilles under a rockfall when the mine ceiling caves in.

Ultimately, the episode did spend too long on displaying its jigsaw puzzle pieces before showing us the picture on the lid, but for the genuine, unforced and effective collaboration between East and West, without competition or any kind of idealoguery on either side, I give it a gold star. A very good season finale.

Next week, we plough straight on into Danger Man‘s third and, effectively, final series, in which we will get closer to the truth about Patrick McGoohan’s assertions about whether the show had run its course. Will we see hemlines rise as we move into 1966?

The Infinite Jukebox: Shawn Colvin’s ‘You and the Mona Lisa’


I could, if I wished, fill practically every slot on the Infinite Jukebox, if it were not Infinite, with Shawn Colvin, and on the version that’s in my head, practically all of them are there to be recalled, relived and loved. It’s amazing to me that it’s been nearly thirty years since I was introduced to her voice and her songwriting via a tape from a might-have-been girlfriend on which it was the filler to k.d.laing’s Ingenue.
But no matter how much you love an artist’s works, there are always the ones that rise up above the crowd, the songs that are extra special, that are the most beautiful, most moving and most important. The ones that, no matter the standard, are better than the rest.
‘You and the Mona Lisa’ came from Colvin’s fourth album, A Few Small Repairs, released in 1996. We’re talking the commercial peak of Colvin’s career here: the lead single, ‘Sunny Came Home’, was a top 10 hit in America and even gave Colvin her biggest success over here, a highest ever placing of no. 27 as a Top 40 New Entry.
‘Sunny Came Home’ got me in some unexpected bother at work. I was in the last year of a five year contract at a firm I’d long since come to loathe, counting the days with all but religious fervour. The firm’s main office was in North Manchester, with satellite offices in some of the surrounding towns. An assistant Solicitor at Heywood, the one office I’d not then so much as visited, was leaving for a better job, and I was tapped to sub for her. Each day, I’d call in head office for post and anything else requiring delivery before driving up to Heywood – a very pleasant, mainly country route for the rest of the day. Working from Heywood helped keep me sane.
Though that office was under the control of a partner, the day to day running was by a senior secretary with definite views. Early on, I got quizzed about various things, including my tastes in music. I can still recall the response to mentioning Shawn Colvin: ‘Never heard of him.’ ‘Actually, he’s a she. She’s a bit of a cult singer from America, but I think her work is very good.’ ‘Huh.’
And then, about ten days later, I’d no sooner arrived for the day and she said, ‘I heard that Shawn Colvin of yours on the radio this morning.’ (This was when ‘Sunny Came Home’ was current). ‘Oh?’ I said, interested in her reaction. ‘She was bloody rubbish!’ ‘Oh, right,’ with a bit of a shrug. ‘Everyone else I’ve played her to has liked her.’
That, as far as I was concerned, was that. It’s been a very long time since I was last fazed by someone liking different music to me. But it wasn’t that to my colleague. About a fortnight later, the subject of Diana Ross came up. She was playing Manchester. She was her husband’s favourite artist. She was getting tickets for them to see her. What did I think of Diana Ross?
Now a truthful answer would have, and still would be, uncomplimentary about everything but a handful of post Supremes tracks, and nothing more recent than ‘Chain Reaction’ but there was no point in being offensive, so I limited myself to saying, ‘She’s not my kind of music, actually.’ ‘She’s better than Shawn Colvin!’ I should have expected that.
From that point, it was on. At every possible opportunity, she was there, denigrating Colvin. I took it on the chin. There was no point in responding. I could have pointed out that I had heard considerably more Diana Ross, over a much longer period, in coming to my opinion and she’d heard one song once but it wasn’t worth it. The only time I did answer back was when she said I wouldn’t play Shawn Colvin at a party, to which I agreed, but I couldn’t resist adding that I wouldn’t play Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony either, which actually had the effect of shutting her up. For a while.
All of this was during the time A Few Small Repairs was out. I was playing it at home, but more importantly, I’d put it on tape and was playing it in the car. Driving to Heywood, driving home, driving on the runs I had to make to Council offices, other Solicitors, our Bury office, the album was my near constant companion, as I learned to understand it as a comprehensive piece of music, its tracks all in order.
The fourth of these was ‘You and the Mona Lisa’, a gentle, mid-tempo, almost jogging melody. The title caught my ear before I heard the words and I loved the words. It was a love song, but a love song with an angle, a song about someone with whom Colvin was in a relationship that her wiser self was telling her to leave (I should walk away right now). She was the one who would always do the heavy lifting, and unspokenly she asked why she should.
But that chorus would bounce in, singing that she loved him the most, always giving up the ghost, in his own private conversations. He’s a sweet mystery and there’s nothing in between you and the Mona Lisa.
And what is the world’s most famous painting famous for? It’s enigmatic smile, that soft curl of the lips, hiding forever what Mona Lisa is thinking, and whether her amusement is genuine or ironic.
And then would come the lines that I fixated on, for what I saw them as saying, nothing in particular and everything in between: this is what you mean to me. That said everything, more than anything a song could explain, the forever inexplicability of love and desire.
So many times I would sing softly along with that song then, rather than let the tape roll on to the track ‘Trouble’, I would wind it back to singalong again to the song that meant most to me in the album. And the best of it was that I was not cleaving to this album out of any need of escape from what was, however mild, workplace bullying, but simply because I loved it with all my heart.
Years later, seeing Colvin live for the first time, at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, she followed the first few songs by asking for suggestions from the audience: I was in right away with a call for ‘You and the Mona Lisa’, which she played superbly. At the end, in the instant before the applause began, I called out ‘Thank you’ and she replied ‘You’re welcome’.
So long after, this is still one of my ten favourite Colvin songs (most but not all of the rest come from Fat City), and it’s got a heck of a lot of memories associated with it.

Sunday Watch: The Class of ’92


United

I think it’s safe to say that this is more one for me than most of you. The Class of ’92 is a 2013 documentary focussing on the remarkable – oh, soddit, let’s not go all profesional and neutral here, let’s say incredible – sextet of youth team players who almost simultaneously became first team players for Manchester United in the years 1995/6 and who were the heart of the team that won the unique Treble of League, Cup and Champions League in the same season in 1999. This is another of those DVDs that I bought quite some time ago but which I’ve never found the right time to watch. It’s the extended edition too, running nearly two hours instead of the original ninety minutes, with no inkling whatsoever where the additional material has been interpolated.

It’s about, in alphabetical order, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and, my favoiurite player of all time, the Giger Genius, Paul Scholes. It’s about what made them stand out amongst a generation of young footballers that included players as good as and better than them, but who lacked the drive, the determination, the internal discipline to be footballers, to play for the club they all grew up supporting, and for their country. It’s about the common, utterly working class backgrounds of each boy, the East Londoner Beckham a product of Leytonstone and Chingford but no different in his formation from the five Mancunians, who came from working class districts in Manchester: Salford, Bury, Middleton and Gorton.

It’s about their experiences in breaking through and the wonderful, natural, cohesive respect, affection and admiration each of the six has for the others, both their abilities and their personalities. Gary and Phil Neville are brothers, but all six are ‘brothers’ to one another. It’s about male bonding, in a shared, mutually desired enterprise, an easy, non-toxic appreciation for one another.

And it’s about the years they shared together in the red and white of Manchester United, their parts in the Double Double on 1996 and the film is structured around the Treble year of 1999 – Ryan Giggs’ incredible goal in the semi-final replay against Arsenal that took ten seconds to make him immortal, Gary Neville’s ‘left-foot-hoick’ that set up the goal that won the League, Paul Scholes’ pass and goal that won the FA Cup, and finally David Beckham’s two corners that won the Champions League in Barcelona, my first visit to a foreign country and my last as an active United fan going to games (how could it get any better?).

It’s about United’s part in the changing times, the culture of the Nineties, the shift of emphasis from Liverpool to our city, not just in football but in our musical culture – Madchester, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Oasis – the overthrow of the dead hand of Tory Government, the Manchester Bomb and the beginnings of a wholesale regeneration of Manchester, all by our own hand, without the aid of Tory Government, indeed, one suspects, against its wishes.

And it’s about me, though I appear nowhere in the story, except in those big three games at the end of the 1999 season, one in the mass of United fans at, successively, Old Trafford, Wembley and the Nou Camp, but it’s about the time when I was an Old Trafford faithful, a True Red. It’s about seeing all of these six players making their home debuts and watching them turn into a phenomenon, a phenomenon that Gary Neville, sadly, can never happen again. Six working class kids, products of tough areas, brought up by tough but fair parents to understand hardship, coming together at the club all support and dream of playing for, and coming through together. I think he’s right, and if he is we’ve lost something we could do with.

The story is a mass of memory. Choosing it to watch today was, largely subconsciously, a badly-needed corrective to the events of the last seven days. A week ago, the news broke of the proposed and utterly despicable European Super League, with Manchester United one of the leading lights. It collapsed with almost comic speed, though punishment has yet to be visited on the participants, and that should be strong punishment, a righteous kicking. My relationship with the club I’ve supported for 42 years is now fractured, though my instant reaction to the news was that it was broken, completely. Where it goes from here, nobody yet knows, because you can bet your bottom dollar the bastards haven’t given up for one second.

But I needed to be reminded, and on a visceral level, of just what United in the Nineties were and meant, and not just to me only. The Champions League Final is one of the three most intense events of my life (the top two are more personal). The Class of ’92 contains all those memories but, in its intimate and honest discussions among the players brought it back to me at the same level of my near-simultaneous enthusiasm with Droylsden, where the football wasn’t in the same elevated plane, but you could sit and talk with the players in the bar afterwards, and travel to away matches on the team coach, and everyone was much closer for it.

As Steely Dan once put it, those days are gone forever, over a long time ago. Woe, yeah.

Old Houses aren’t safe: House of Mystery – Part 1


HoM1

Once more unto a DC anthology series, a long-running series that stretches over three decades of existence, 321 issues in unbroken order, but a series that went through many and varying themes in its lifetime. It’s a series that straddled the entire Silver Age, indeed first appearing in that early Fifties period I’ve chosen to call the In-between Age. It’s a title that belies DC’s history of failure in that period, by being a title created between the end of the Golden Age and the first appearance of Showcase, and being a success. I speak, of course, of House of Mystery. Let’s go back to the very beginning.
The first issue, cover-dated November-December 1951, edited by Whitney Ellsworth, positioned itself as a horror anthology, with stories about marrying a witch, a female werewolf, and a frankensteinian murderous monster. Horror was big, especially from market leaders EC Comics, and House of Mystery was clearly an attempt to cash in on the market. But whereas EC were whole-hearted blood and gore producers, whose deep understanding of horror and their refusal to compromise would lead, in the near future, to their destruction, DC were mainstream. They were clean and wholesome. The witch wasn’t a witch, it was all coincidence that every boyfriend she kissed died. The female werewolf was also human, being drugged as part of an attempt to steal her fortune.
As for the monster, that was down to a chemical formula unleashing inhibitions, whilst the guy in the fourth story was scared of something he saw in the haunted house but died from carbon monoxide poisoning after forgetting to switch his car engine off.
Was this going to be the pattern? Spookiness undercut by rational explanations without any genuine supernatural elements? Very much so. A rational explanation was to be provided, though usually accompanied by enough maybe-maybe to suggest that something more was indeed going on.
It makes for weak stories that have no conviction in them, but horror was big and House of Mystery was an instant success, going from bi-monthly to monthly in just six issues. None of the one-off tales displayed any distinction, until the final story of issue 8, which was not out of the ordinary in any way except one: it was narrated by Mr Thirteen. Yes, Terry Thirteen, accompanied by his secretary Marie Leroux. Dr 13 had run in the last nine issues of Star-Spangled Comics and transferred here after that series was cancelled.
Though apparently it was only to use up one outstanding story, as his next appearance was in 1968, alongside The Phantom Stranger in Showcase.

HoM2

Already, by issue 10, the trappings of horror were falling by the wayside. EC were provoking controversy, DC wanted nothing to do with it. Mysteries were mysteries, and nothing but elaborate hoaxes. History would prove them right, aesthetics would turn its back on them.
Having said all that, issue 11 partially refuted me in the story ‘The Bewitched Clock’, which I’d read before as a reprint back-up in, I think, The Phantom Stranger, with a genuinely supernatural theme, a clock that allowed its owner to manipulate time only to trap him in a Groundhog Day 24 hour loop, only in total, unchangeable isolation.
It was the same in issue 12, three stories with over-complicated explanations for the supposedly supernatural circumstances, one without any rational explanation. That appeared to be just a one-off, or rather a two-off.
As an aside, in common with the other series of this era, this Inbetween Age, that I’ve read, there are half-pages devoted to DC’s Editorial Approval Board, that little panel of experts in children and their psychology that, in those pre-Comics Code Authority days, were the guarantee to the parents that their cute little monsters wouldn’t develop any psychoses as a result of reading a DC comic.It all sounds so quaint now. But each little reassurance was coupled with a complete list of all DC’s comics. I find these fascinating, as a picture of an era that’s scorned because it isn’t dominated by superheroes. Western, War, Funny Animals. Funny Teenagers. Mystery titles. Radio/TV show adaptations. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Even Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Just once I would love to read this panoply, all the issues for one month, to get an impression of the range. What DC were in, say, November 1953, two years before I was born. Just to gain an insight into what was thought entertainment for Americas children. How much might that explain?

HoM17

Back on point. Issue 20 included a story, ‘Mr Mortem’ that rips off Somerset Maugham’s famous epigraph, ‘Appointment in Samarra’ but was otherwise undistinguished.
Twenty issues is enough to pass a judgement on this early phase, and it’s not a positive one. There are four stories per issue, each setting up supernatural situations, some of which are led genuinely unexplained, but must of which end up being elaborate hoaxes, usually by the Police, to get murderers to confess, or with concrete explanations that try to leave open that sliver of doubt, that what-if-it-wasn’t-coincidence nod. Several of these hoaxes are impossibly complicated but the endless repetition of such outcomes makes the series dull: no sooner does a story start than you’re looking for the trick ending.
The one superstition theme the series hasn’t dealt with yet is vampires, but that’s hardly surprising: no vorvulka would have been seen dead around stories so bloodless.
Nor is the art anything special yet. It’s dull and drab and even the ghosts and demons are lacking in inspiration. Of the artists, I recognised one story drawn by a young Gil Kane, but the only artist signing their work was Ruben Moreira. What surprised me most was that, in a comic aimed at children, the overwhelming majority of the male characters were middle-aged or older, and looking like it. The women, of course, were young and fair.
Issue 26 made me think. It was cover-dated May 1954, the year of publication of Dr Frederic Wertham’s infamous Seduction of the Innocent and the convening of Senator Kefauver’s Committee examining juvenile Delinquency, which combined to put the blame on comics and shift it off everyone else’s shoulders. I don’t know when in the year the book actually appeared, or what was known about it in advance, but the first iteration of the Comics Code Authority would censor anything out of the horror tradition out of existence, crashing EC (whose owner, William Gaines, had proposed the self-regulation of the CCA in the first place) almost completely.
And House of Mystery, which padded its pages with short features on ‘real-life’ ghosts and mysterious goings on, suddenly ran a one-page cartoon featuring Professor Eureka. A scientist, with no irrationality involved (except among those who thought it was funny). Hmm.
Though if Eureka’s arrival was foreshadowing anything, it wasn’t soon in coming as the series continued unchanged. It wasn’t until the end of 1955, early 1956, issues 46-48, that a couple of SF stories started to get slipped in, amongst the fake mystical and the was it reallys to draw away from the horror style. And issue 49 had no mystical stories whatsoever, just pure science from start to finish.

HoM86

But after fifty issues, at four stories an issue, House of Mystery had failed to produce even one story that was memorable. So far, this is not turning out to be worth my time. And as I read on, it seemed like the stories without even a suggestion of the supernatural were even blander than before. There isn’t even any kind of quantifiable categories to which stories can be assigned, which could at least be said of the non-series stories in Mystery in Space.
However, issue 61 bucked the trend by reverting to the mystical, with not a single rational explanation in sight, though the most (only) interesting thing about it was that the last story was drawn by Jack Kirby.
Kirby was back in issue 63 and again in 65, lending an air of distinction to the magazine. It’s not prime Kirby, and the stories are too restrained and plain to be his writing, but it’s Kirby and that’s enough. He was next seen in issue 70.
It took until issue 82 to get a change of pace, when the series switched from four six-page stories per issue to three eight-pagers. There was no immediate difference to the content from a thirty-three percent increase in length. We’re definitely a Science Fiction anthology now, with very little pretence otherwise and though Whitney Ellsworth is still credited as editor, I suspect the hand of an assistant with the initials JS. Incidentally, I was amused to see that the star of the first story was Detective Martin Crane, though there was no suggestion that he spoke with a Droylsden accent.
However, my assumption looks to have been terribly wrong for, with effect from issue 83, editorship passed to Jack Schiff, with Murray Boltinoff and George Kashdan listed as Associate Editors.
Kirby was back with the cover story for issue 84, about a ‘Negative Man’, an energy being, emerging from a scientist’s body in a manner that suggested a possible source of inspiration for the Doom Patrol. And he had the same spot next issue with a story about ancient stone sentinels that foreshadowed his forthcoming departure to Martin Goodman’s unnamed company to work on Stanley Leiberman’s monster tales.
And the change in editorial control made no discernible difference to the content or quality of the stories.

HoM91

House of Mystery‘s 100th had a cover date of July 1960. Nearly one-third of the full run is an appropriate point to end Part 1 and consider what we’ve had to date. Which, in my eyes, is not much at all. The stories featured a giant Aztec warrior who was really an American using ‘old’ science to steal Aztec gold, the rationalist Mayor of a superstitious Mexico town exposing its legends of a curse by hiring an illusionist to create and explode them and a monstrous beast from an alien planet temporarily running ravage on Earth.
Is this really only me? There’s not a worthwhile idea in any of those three tales, and the hundredth issue is no better or worse than the ninety-nine that came before it. After one hundred issues, the only thing I’ve found of significance is less than half a dozen stories drawn by Jack Kirby. Yet this is a very successful title, appearing monthly. Nor am I unfamiliar with the Fifties and with its entertainment. So why has nothing been remotely satisfying?
Is it really as simple as there being no serial characters? No returning figures about whom further stories can be told? Every single story has no consequence beyond its final page, it’s sixth, eighth, ninth. In such limited spaces, with a gimmick or twist ending to be set up, executed and rationally explained, there is no room for the least personality trait. What cannot think or feel cannot inspire the empathy that lies behind every successful story.
What I’ve seen so far is an anthology title that tried to piggy-back off the horror boom initiated by EC Comics, but crippled both by DC’s self-sought image as the most mainstream of mainstream comics, the company whose titles guaranteed you could leave Little Johnny alone with them without reading them first, and by the company’s inbuilt instinct for science-oriented rationalism that refused to allow anything stronger than a well-maybe ending.
Then, in mid-decade, with EC destroyed for wanting to be serious, with the Comics Code Authority hamstringing the business, the title slid into being a cheap, unimaginative SF series paying the lippest of lip service to any supernatural explanations, with pot-boiler shorts that live or more usually die by their ‘twist’ endings. The series was merely primus inter pares with stable-mates such as Strange Adventures, My Greatest Adventure, Tales of the Unexpected, and its own shadow, House of Secrets.
There are two more parts of this to follow, and House of Secrets after that. Aren’t you glad I’m doing this, not you?

The Monocled Mutineer: e04 – A Dead Man on Leave


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I’ve tended to focus on structure in reviewing this short series, and I shall maintain that approach to the end. Alan Bleasedale’s story has broken itself down into four episodes or acts, three of 75 minute duration and this last of ninety minutes. We’ve had establishing Percy Toplis, the Monocled Mutineer of the title, establishing Etaples Training camp, the flashpoint of the Mutiny, and now we have the aftermath.

To my considerable surprise, on finishing watching the final episode, I discovered that John Freeman’s excellent downthetubes site, a fount of up to the minute news about all things British comics related, had linked to this series, comparing it to the appearance of the Etaples Mutiny in Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s brilliant ‘Charley’s War’. Though I have some of the hardback collections, I haven’t got that far yet. I must repair that omission. The odd thing was that I was already thinking of the structural similarity between The Monocled Mutineer and a completely different comic series: Dave Sim’s Cerebus.

Cerebus is about a lot of things, not all of them marred by its creator’s eccentric beliefs. Sim chose a structure that meant that Cerebus’s story is, effectively, ended by issue 200, echoing Sim’s recognition that some people’s lives work that way, leaving them to live a long and, effectively, purposeless afterwards. So too does Bleasedale choose to make the climax of the story, it’s reason for existing, the third part, leaving a final episode to take a fatalistic form. Percy Toplis, who didn’t give a bugger about anything, is not yet 21. He’s the whole of his life ahead of him. He’s affected by what he’s seen in the Great War – who who took part in that as a soldier in the field was not, or could not have been? – yet outwardly he’s unchanged. Nevertheless, because of his recklessness in the Mutiny, his couldn’t-care-less-ness, he’s a wanted man: Edwin Woodhall, of the Secret Service, remains fanatically determined to arrest him.

And we see how determined Woodhall is early on. Percy’s socialist friend, Charles Strange, is standing in Southwark as a Labour MP, likely to be elected after a post-War year of ‘a land fit for heroes’ (have there been many more sickening lies from a Tory Government? Including the present one). Percy’s there to blackmail him for £100, to pay his adoptive parents back for all his stealing, to make them safe now his ‘father’s lungs have filled up and he cannot work. But Woodhall’s there, with his men, two of whom are on Strange’s staff: Strange is arrested at gunpoint, told to step down or else he will be publicly exposed for his desertion. Woodhall thinks his ‘masters’ are very ‘very decent’ in allowing that.

As a result, Strange throws himself off a sea cliff to his death. And Woodhall’s ‘masters’ congratulate him for helping to preserve ‘the fabric of decent society’, whilst making cruel jokes about his lack of stature.

Watching all this made my blood boil. All they ever wanted, those men who went to war and came back, was a decent life. After what they did, after the way the ordinary folk of this country have been treated all along, it was the only decent thing to do. It still is, no matter how much it’s sneered upon now, how much Labour have abandoned the merest thought of it. Back then, though, as we saw in Etaples through Thomson and Strachan and the rest, the idea of treating these people as human was unthinkable.

Sorry, bit political, not apologising for it. It’s woven into the series though, inescapably.

Percy Toplis doesn’t want to get involved. He’s seing his rich widow love, Dorothy, once every five weeks or so. He won’t say what he’s doing at other times and neither does Bleasedale, because to get too close to what the real Percy Toplis is doing in these times, including a year in prison for fraud, is to present a version pf the character that not all Paul McGann’s charm could obscure. But Dorothy – and Cherie Lunghi is as superb in this episode as McGann has been throughout – wants more. She’s in love. She will end up carrying Percy’s baby. Thjey both evewntually admit their secrets to each other: Dorothy is as much of a conwoman as Percy. Like him, she comes from a dirty, drab, despairing village. She accepts him for what he really is (though we never see exactly how much truth he tells her and how much he conceals). The only thing that shocks her is to discover that her lover is only 21 (Lunghi was 34 the year of the series: mind you, McGann was actually 27).

But Percy’s life is one long drift, from this to that, the pursuit of money without working for it or caring about anyone he robs or cheats, or himself that much for that matter. But what he did at Etaples marked the end of his life: the effects will follow him to his death.

The episode starts to pick up momentum in its second half. Percy re-enlists in the Army as ‘Johnnie Walker’ – cue much jokes about whisky – the name Dorothy has known him by. He’s recognised by anothe Etaples Mutineer, Tommy Turner, now a racketeer with a petrol scam. Percy joins the business as its front man, its negotiator. Unfortunately for him, he’s dogged by Harry Fallows (Aran Bell), too young for the actual war, a naive, talkative, hero-worshipping idiot. You know he’s a disaster in human form, a stupid bomb waiting to go off. When the taxi driver representative Sydney Spencer (Jim Carter) weasels down the price by threatening to dob them in to the cops, Harry puts a gun to the back of Spencer’s head. Then the stupid git shoots him. With realistic effects that he is completely unprepared for.

And naturally he shops Percy to the Police as the killer, the utter scrote. So begins the endgame. Percy goes on the run, despite Dorothy’s loyalty, to save her from her association with him. He’s chased all over the country, to Scotland and back. He gets wilder and wilder, more violent and threatening. On a lonely country road in Cumberland, on a Sunday afternoon, he is cornered, and shot dead.

There’s a final touch of Establishment cruelty. Percy’s funeral is secret, not even his family allowed to attend, they diverted by a disgusting trick. Only the minister insists of a proper service, pointing out that at his death Percy Toplis had been connvicted of no capital crimes and thus the only judgement he has to face is not here on Earth.

So it ended. I’m reminded of another line from another comic, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s superlative From Hell, the exploration of the myth of Jack the Ripper. I made it up and it all came true anyway. It’s pretty clear that there’s not that much of absolute truth in The Monocled Mutineer. The Etaples Mutiny remains one of the biggest mysteries in British Military history. All records have been destroyed, the series was attacked as unBritish, unpatriotic, as all such things will be. Alan Bleasedale has had to make an awful lot of it up. He never pretended it was anything but a fictional drama. I made it up and it all came true anyway.

Because even if none of it happened the way it was shown, I believe it all to be true. I believe in the underlying truth of everything in the series. I believe this because I have read histories of the period, because I have read writings by J.B. Priestley about that era. I believe because of my entire life and the things I believe in. The Monocled Mutineer was written as a condemnation, and it is a condemnation. And I stand by what it says.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge’s Modesty Blaise Checklist – Afterword


Aside from our five artists, Holdaway, Romero, Burns, Wright and Colvin, several other artists illustrated the MB stories, whilst still keeping very much to within the long-established style of the characters. Below are several examples.

American/Colombian cartoon and comic book artist Al [Alfonso] Williamson (1931-2010), illustrated the early story “Uncle Happy”, originally by Jim Holdaway. From the one page example available, his interpretation was quite different, but here his depiction of WG and MB are very much in the Holdaway style – more so than Colvin or Romero. As far as I’m aware this was a one-off, which is perhaps a pity. It might have been interesting to see how he might to have illustrated the Romero stories.

Another American, this time DC Comics Dick (Richard Joseph) Giardino (1932-2010), and his comic version of the first MB novel Modesty Blaise. Competent, but perhaps (inevitably) very much in the DC/Marvel Comics style – WG especially.

We have already looked at the all-too-brief John M. Burns period at the Evening Standard, before his rather abrupt and mysterious termination. Burns (English, born 1938) also illustrated newspaper comic strip “The Seekers”, which featured a MB and WG-style of sassy heroine and her male sidekick, plus he provided illustrations to the Pieces of Modesty short stories, as well as – again – illustrations to the novel Modesty Blaise, in a style quite different and distinct from Dick Giordano. Like Romero, Burns was a master at depicting sexy, often unclad or semi-clad, females, as this illustration of MB in action mode shows. Again one can only regret his exclusion from the comic strips themselves, especially in this final Romero period we have examined in Part 2.


Jim Holdaway’s very sexy nude depiction of MB, somehow still more erotic and interesting than Romero’s black and white nudes.

Finally, Peter O’Donnell’s template for WG was the young early-1960s, pre-fame Michael Caine – seen here to compare.

AFTERWORD
I rather imagine, for most MB fans, their preference is whichever of the two they read first – comic strip or books. It is, of course, not unusual for fictional characters to exist in more than one genre, although normally the transition is from book (or, latterly, comic strip) to movie or television drama. There are numerous examples within crime/spy thriller fiction – from Sherlock Holmes, to the Agatha Christie stories, Leslie Charteris’s “The Saint” stories, Colin Dexter’s “Inspector Morse”, Erie Stanley Gardner’s “Perry Mason”, Len Deighton’s ‘Harry Palmer’ early spy novels (whose first person narrator anti-hero was actually not named in the books), even to Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the first half dozen movies (with Sean Connery and Lazenby) which did at least still try to keep to the basic book plots. However, all of the above examples – even when the author was still alive – inevitably meant the principal character (or characters) underwent some change from that originally envisaged by their creator. The transition from printed paper to visual moving image involves too many other minds contributing to the adaption – starting (as Peter O’Donnell found with the awful 1966 Modesty Blaise movie version) with scriptwriters, often with their agenda, to costume designers, time constraints, or finding the right locations or studio-created backdrops. All of which will, more often than not, be at odds with the perception of the reader, or even that of the author.
The transition from comic strip or graphic novel, to that of movie or television drama can potentially be less jarring, both genre already being visual, but again it is still easier to create an image on a page, depicting an historic period, place or fantasy world, and more difficult to replicate that image as a movie or TV drama – even with the widespread use now of CGI. Each genre still has its own medium, strengths or weaknesses, style and approach that don’t always easily translate from one to the other. The movie/television version, by its very nature, is inevitably more pacey, and gives less insight into plot or location backgrounds, or the thoughts or emotions of characters (even with a ‘voice-over’), than a book or comic strip can. But again, almost always the creative outcome has moved from that of the original author. By contrast, the MB comic strip and books has a continuity that both are the sole creation of just the one author – Peter O’Donnell.
If we leave aside the ‘hidden’ influences – input from the newspaper editors, self-awareness of what the all-important readers will deem acceptable, the different interpretations of the five MB artists; suggestions perhaps, and/or minor textual editing by the book publisher – perhaps the only other source of disharmony between the two – or, indeed, as we have illustrated, between the comic strips themselves – is that of time, a period of writing of nearly forty years, from a comparatively young 43 year old in 1963, to in his seventies, and pushing eighty, by the time he wrote the last comic strip story. Even in the introductions to the early Titan Books editions, written in the years after retirement, but before his death in 2010, Peter O’Donnell admitted he barely remembered the story plots, or even why some were titled as they were.
However, even with both written by Peter O’Donnell, and, granted what we have said, the difference in style and approach of a pictorial comic strip and words on a page of a book, the two versions of Modesty are still distinct and different. In the books O’Donnell could expand the characters more, linger longer, fill in more backstory, indulge in more complex plots, or situations that might not be possible – or even allowed, given the newspaper comic strip was still meant for a ‘family friendly’ audience of readers. In the book, O’Donnell had more freedom – MB could go full-on naked for fight scenes, as with Mr Sexton in The Silver Mistress, or indulge in bedroom romps – but the martial art combat scenes necessitated more description. The novels, however, are brilliantly written and researched, I think far superior to Ian Fleming’s James Bond books – in character, imagination, ingenuity or complexity. On the other hand, even within the limited format of a three-panel, daily comic strip, O’Donnell was able to achieve something that few other newspaper or comic stories were able to do – create a vivid, complex, believable, multifarious, three-dimensional heroine and hero. Indeed, I could argue that few of the British or American newspaper (or comic/pulp magazine) comic strip characters ever rise above being shallow and two-dimensional caricatures. In my initial introduction I mention a number of predecessors and/or contemporaries. The long-running “Jane” in the Daily Mirror, was essentially humorous, only developing into plot-driven stories during the Second World War. Fellow Daily Mirror British gumshoe “Buck Ryan” (by Don Freeman, who also worked, like Peter O’Donnell, on the “Garth” strip), certainly had some interesting and clever story plots, as well as fascinating collection of villains or regular characters on the fringes of criminality, but Buck Ryan himself remained a rather shadowy character, lacking roots or backstory, and his relationship with his blonde assistant Zola, and later Twilight – first as his criminal opponent, then apparently his girlfriend – never quite seemed very credible. Sydney Jordan’s “Jeff Hawke” too (in the Daily Express) was little more than a convenient cypher about which Jordan and his co-writer, Willie Patterson, waived clever and ingenious science fiction stories, ideas and themes. He went from spaceman to “gentleman adventurer” to Royal Air Force Wing Commander and astronaut/space explorer, having an on-going girlfriend named Laura in the earlier stories (later abruptly and unceremoniously dropped), and his Canadian sidekick Mac Maclean, but again we only get very brief glimpses of his history or background, while many of the stories actually deliberately contradicted or cancelled each other out.
The same could be said for the other long-running Mirror comic strip “Garth”, running from 1943 to 1997. At least Buck Ryan and Jeff Hawke were scripted by the same writer – Freeman and Jordan respectively – whereas Garth underwent several different incarnations, as well as various different writers. He started out essentially something of a fantasy character, existing in a rather timeless, location-less world, before briefly evolving into a rather feeble British version of the typical American ‘superhero’ character, with a flying helmet and invisibility cloak, before becoming more grounded in the ‘real’ world, but still mixed with space adventures on other planets. When Peter O’Donnell took over, he dumped Garth’s two conflicting good/bad girlfriends, and introduced the Goddess Astra as his sometime companion and lover, in addition to already long-standing French scientist, Professor Lumiere. Thereafter, Garth stories alternated between being space-bound science fiction and/or good vs. evil fantasy (Astra vs. various demons); Garth’s trips back into the past, either as himself or as some earlier Garth-like incarnation; or contemporary crime or The Avengers-style of earth-based science fiction stories. After O’Donnell’s stint as script-writer, and although there were a few one-off scripted stories still (until Martin Asbury took over both story and artwork in the final phase), it was Jim Edgar who wrote most of the best-known Garth stories, certainly the ones illustrated by Frank Bellamy (until his premature death), and Martin Asbury. Garth continued to find himself transported back into the past, or living his previous incarnations (sometimes under different names), while occasionally being carried off to other planets (“in another galaxy” – Edgar’s grasp of cosmology was rather child-like), and, once in a while, a trip to the near or far future. Stories tended to bustle with ideas, good intentions, but weak or illogical plots. Both Bellamy and Asbury also got to illustrate earth-bound crime, espionage or terrorism stories – plot-lines that the artist Bellamy especially obviously felt most comfortable with. It is these non-space fiction, non-historical stories that might be considered to nearest direct comparison to the MB comic strips. Alas, while both Bellamy and Asbury (certainly when at his best), were both far better artists than Romero, the stories were, for the most part, simplistic and inferior, and the villains – indeed, almost all Garth villains, without exception – were rather stupid, and, by comparison to MB villains, easy enough to defeat. More important to our argument, Garth himself was again a totally two-dimensional character, his backstory already too fantastic, yet somehow existing in a London flat, driving fancy, flash motor vehicles, but with no visible means of where his finances came from, or what he actually did – never mind how he managed to commit complete mayhem at times, without any apparent consequences. Yes, he has a few “Scotland Yard” friends, but no one at the level of Sir Gerald Tarrant to cover his tracks as MB had, nor does he seem to have any other interests or talent other then entertaining a succession of chick-bait into his bed, and using brawn rather than brain to get out of difficult situations. On several occasions Garth blunders into the villain’s hideout relying only on his fists and not much else. He has little ingenuity and no subtly. Perhaps equally damning to a MB fan, he is an un-reconstructed male chauvinist. He regards intelligent women with a mixture of contempt and disdain, only worthy of his interest when they apparently fall, starry-eyed, into his bed. He has no time for matriarchies, and indeed, manages to help overthrow a few. If some of MB’s boyfriends are luckless enough to end up dead, that is certainly a frequent occurrence with Garth’s bed-fellows. If they’re lucky, they a get a brief epitaph, but little else. His relationship with Astra – his so-called “soul-mate” – was more about lust. She herself, flitting about the cosmos, was barely even an two-dimensional character. Often her purpose was nothing more than a convenient plot device – a deus ex machina – to extract him from some dire predicament at the last minute – like, cheating! Under Asbury’s pen she became this ridiculous nude fantasy blonde with the most extraordinary ‘fly-away’ hair, and she and Garth spending several strips romping naked together by way of ‘celebrating’ their latest victory. Again, boring! Neither were particularly likeable or inspirational. The only female character in the Edgar/Asbury stories who proved to be something of a challenges to Garth (at least at first) was Inspector Eloise Grunier “of the Sureté and Interpol” (again, as if Interpol was a proactive police agency). She first appeared in the Garth Story “Sapphire” (1977), followed soon after by “Power Game” (1978). In the first (which did, at times, have a MB feel to it) Garth was really quite rude and condescending to her. MB would have smacked him. At the end of the second, things had melted a bit, but she still deliberately refused to go to bed with him. An unusual ending for Garth! But a snub he justly deserved for his male arrogance. Alas, we only have the Mirror reprints (abruptly terminated incomplete), coloured by Martin Baines (who gave Eloise orange hair that rather suited her), so I know she appeared in a double story – a Moon-based science fiction, “Dark Side” (1990), and a history/Greek mythology story “Treasure of Colchis” (1990/91), and certainly by this second story Garth had his wicked way with her, indeed, at one point in the story she deflected a would-be female rival by declaring Garth was her “husband”. From a few stray internet downloaded strips I know she appeared at least one more time, in “Railhead” (1995/96), back in her Inspector Grunier of the Sureté role, but, this time, happy to go off for a naughty vacation together with Garth at the story’s end.
Some people in the Garth fan fraternity, have speculated what if Garth had met Modesty? Better for Garth it didn’t happen! She would regard him as a boorish, oversexed dinosaur and numbskull. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. She would have outsmarted him, and outfought him, pricking his self-inflated ego.
Which brings me to another oversexed male chauvinist, but one MB often gets compared to. I really take issue with the lazy-man’s description that MB is “a female James Bond”. She is not. I suspect that O’Donnell’s preferred spy story author was the early Len Deighton. Given that, in the 1960s, the Ian Fleming “James Bond” novels were being serialised as a comic strip in the Standard’s then sister newspaper, the Daily Express, I don’t know O’Donnell’s thoughts on Fleming’s snobbish, womanizing, utterly ruthless spy and professional 007 killer. Again, I don’t think MB would have regarded him very favourably. O’Donnell’s Modesty certainly could be ruthless at time, especially towards enemies who have threatened her or those nearest or dearest to her. But she often erred on the side of caution when it came to underlings merely employed or being used by a villain. Whereas, in both book and movies, Bond would happily wipe everyone out. Sometimes, this reluctance – what WG called “sleeps rather than for keeps” – to kill their enemies came back to haunt her, including putting herself, WG or other innocents in danger. So, straightway, the ruthless killer instinct of Bond, as opposed to MB’s only kill if and when she really had to. Many of the MB comic strip stories do not feature espionage, as my essays above make clear. The actual number that are in the espionage/spy category are quite limited. The greater majority are small time crime capers, or personal conflicts.
The next point to make, of course, is that Bond is, not only a serving member of the British armed forces, ranked as a Commander in the Royal Navy, but a government employee. ‘M’ gives him his orders; he has to obey them, like the proverbial Nazi concentration camp guard. MB makes quite clear, right from the very first story, she is under no such constraint. As she remarked very early on to Tarrant, “Nobody uses me, Sir Gerald, I decided that in a refugee camp when I was twelve.” She and WG are always in control of their destiny as far as taking or refusing anything Tarrant asks of them. This is dramatically illustrated in the second comic strip story, “The Long Lever”, where MB walks away from the mission in hand. This gives MB the freedom that Bond does not have. She is truly independent, much like a private investigator is to a police officer.
Bond is a dreary snob, very much reflecting his creator, Ian Fleming. He likes gambling and womanizing. In that he might be compared to WG, but the latter has respect for women, and not just his girlfriends. Although the later movie Bond has a female ‘M’ (as happened in real life, with a woman chief of MI6), one suspects that the original Fleming book James Bond would not have approved of, or easily accepted, a woman boss. WG has no problem with that, as he frequently points out. And even the other former Network members knew to treat MB with respect, as “Mam’selle’, the boss. Both the book and movie Bonds treat women as playthings, bed-buddies to be enjoyed, then dumped – if they didn’t get brutally killed first! Fleming himself was another one of those male writers who could not really create credible female characters, much like Hemingway or Georges Simenon. His one attempt, in the book The Spy Who Loved Me, got panned by his readers and critics alike, and he, in effect, disowned it. This alone, puts O’Donnell in complete contrast to Ian Fleming, who, not only having created MB, as well as (within the comic strips) other wonderful, strong female characters like Maude Tiller and Sam Brown, but he also wrote the ‘Madeleine Brent’ books under that pen-name. These were novels written in the first person, featuring young heroines battling against disadvantage and villains. For twenty years none but a handful of people – notably O’Donnell’s British publisher and his secretary – knew that the true identity of the very reclusive ‘Ms Brent’ was really male, middle-aged Peter O’Donnell, creator of Modesty Blaise.
Very early on in the comic strip, we see MB engaged in other hobbies or interests, such as engraving previous stones, going off climbing mountains or trekking in the wilderness, going ‘walk-about’ with Australian aborigines, hang-guiding, perfecting foreign languages, cooking, horse-riding, archery, going to amateur dance classes, scuba-diving, skiing, enjoying ballet or music concerts. She has varied acquaintances and friends, from American multi-millionaires to Indian princes, to penniless doctors and indigenous peoples, to young aspiring architects, lady spies, police officers or crime bosses. Loyalty to friends, and debts of honour meant a lot to her, even if they might bring danger or disadvantage. Again, unlike Bond, she has a moral compass. Certain things are right. Dealing in drugs or vice are wrong. Even Tarrant sometimes fails on this moral plane, when he is prepared to use individuals in the white slave trade to extract information, or sacrifice his own agents rather than try to rescue them. But again, MB would never give in to blackmail or hostage ransoms or threats. Her argument – which, alas, even now, many democratic governments still only pay lip-service to – is if you give the terrorist or hostage-taker what they ask, you only encourage them to do it again and again.
Aside from the harsh lessons of her orphaned childhood, MB had acquired other skills, especially achieving mental powers of the mind over body. Bond is the macho man. MB, as a woman, has learnt how to overwhelm her physical disadvantages and suppress memories of unpleasant experiences, including rape. In addition to martial arts, she practises meditation and yoga. Unaware of her own nationality or family, she is at home in many difficult countries and cultures. She chooses to be English (or British) only for convenience and perhaps the stability (as it once was) of the country, compared with North Africa or parts of Europe or Asia. Peter O’Donnell only hints at her true origins – perhaps from somewhere in the Balkans or then war-torn Central Europe. Although she lived, spoke, knew, shared aspects of the Arab world, she herself was not an Arab. Again, what might have been, it might have been interesting in the latter comic strip stories, to – not only let MB get older, into her thirties and early forties – but perhaps to have given her – and us – a possible glimpse to her origins, some fellow refugee in the displaced persons camp perhaps, some lost memory. That might have helped give the final stories more direction towards a proper ending.
And then – perhaps the biggest contrast between MB and Bond – can you imagine James Bond having a donkey sanctuary? Giving dumb animals names, risking his own life for theirs – as MB does with the donkey in “The Inca Trail”, or a horse from the roaming lions in “Death of a Jester”, or the wounded dolphin in “Dossier on Pluto”…No, please do not compare the thuggish, rather two-dimensional, Bond of book or movie, with Modesty Blaise of comic strip and book.
I make no apology that my own preference is the comic strips, and in particular from the Holdaway and Colvin illustrated periods. The short stories from Pieces of Modesty are also most enjoyable, and “A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck” and “I had a Date with Lady Janet” would have translated well into comic strip, if drawn by Holdaway, the master, or Colvin, or John Burns. O’Donnell gave Romero permission to illustrated the short story “The Dark Angels” from Cobra Trap, but this, alas, was not included in the Titan reprints.

Danger Man: s02 e21 – The Mirror’s New


danger

My enjoyment of this latest episode of Danger Man – the penultimate episode of the second series – was marred to some extent by the poor quality of the print used for the DVD, which was overly dark and dingy. This was a shame, because this was an intriguing story, with some intelligent use of misdirection and an ending with a twist that took the whole show in an unexpected direction.

Structurally, the story was not a whodunnit but a whydunnit. Two men are having a drink in an opulent French apartment. One wants his money: he was a slight East European accent and a nervous, impatient manner. The other man, florid, wearing a smoking jacket, sprawled on a big bed raised on a dais behind a open arch, the kind of bed on which you can only sprawl, with a confident manner is, unexpectedly, English. One glance is enough to tell you that this is a seducer’s flat.

The Englishman is not here to seduce the other man, far from it. There is mention of papers, Ravel’s Bolero is playing in the background, it’s tempo and loudness increasing. The other man wants it switched off. The Englishman taunts him, asking if the music is too ‘decadent’. He’s going to shoot the other man and drop the body in the Seine. He provokes the East European into running for the door and kills him. Going outside to his car, he places something in the boot. He’s being watched by two young men in identical coats, wool polo neck sweaters and eye-concealing dark glasses. Returning to the flat, the Englishman slips on the stairs, cracks his head and falls unconscious until morning. His plans will have to be changed.

It’s an intriguing set-up: who are these people, why did one man kill the other? Enter John Drake, several minutes into the programme, arriving at the British Embassy in Paris. A diplomat, Edmund Bierce, a fine patriot, a decorated War hero, has gone missing with an important report. He should have been in Bonn, on a regular meeting with his German counterpart there. No-one, least of all his wife, knows where he is. Drake has to find him.

He presses Virginia Bierce (Mary Yeomans) so hard on their personal life that she cracks and slaps him across the face, but she does admit her husband has a weakness, for playing cards: poker, gambling. Strangely enough, the man to whom she sends Drake for collaboration, denies Bierce gambles at all.

This doesn’t seem to matter as suddenly Bierce turns up at the Embassy, large as life and twice as natural. As we expect, he’s the killer from the open. What’s more, he doesn’t seem to think anything’s wrong. He’s due in Bonn to take the Report. But that was yesterday. Edmund Bierce has taken a blow to the head and has lost twenty-four hours to amnesia.

Or has he?

Drake hangs around even though, as far as Bierce is concerned, he’s returned to London. He follows Bierce to Bonn, sees him slick down his hair, change his clothing and arrive at an apartment where he stays the night. In the morning, Drake poses as an encyclopaedia salesman to get into the flat, where lives Penny (Wanda Ventham playing a bubbly blonde kept woman, simultaneously naive and mercenary). Penny is Bierce’s mistress in Bonn. Or rather she’s ‘Nigel White’s mistress.

Back in Paris, Drake trails Bierce further and discovers his seducer’s apartment. The two men in dark glasses are watching but they don’t interfere. One who does is Nicole. This was Nicole Padgett’s first television appearance of substance and she’s a delight, a bubbly chic beauty with shoulder-length black hair, brainless yet perceptive about Drake. She notices a plastic, full-length mirror. She points out that it’s new. Drake has to carry her out.

Nicole’s an oddity. She doesn’t relate to the story, she comes and goes mercurially, and when Bierce admits his weakness for ‘the ladies’, he doesn’t even mention her, nor does Drake. She’s there for her own sake, like Andy Newman’s piano solo in ‘Something in the Air’, a taste of Paris, a lovely ditzy stereotype. But she’s provided a clue.

Or rather a second clue. Drake’s already found out a name and an address: Dupoirier. Dupoirier is a money lender. He’s not at his office but the two men in dark glasses are and Drake is beaten and tortured (in untranslated French) for his connection to Bierce.

You see, whilst Dupoirier was indeed an agent for the ‘Opposition’, Bierce’s connection with him was purely mercenary. Running mistresses in two different capitols is an expensive business. Penny may be lovely (Wanda Ventham certainly was) but she’s high maintenance. It’s not about spying or anything like that. It’s about a man who found life exciting during the War, when he needed all his wits about him, who found ordinary life, the diplomatic life, constricting and cool and who, in Paris, learned how to live again, his senses once again supercharged. He’s going to kill Drake the same way he did Dupoirier. Drake’s cut three notches in the new mirror and found Dupoirier’s body behind it. Exactly the same, the Bolero playing at its loudest for cover. He can’t get away with it. But he can get a few more days of Life, and feed his addiction to it a little longer.

But Drake recognises that Bierce can’t kill a sitting duck, he needs the adrenaline. As the Bolero flares, Drake drags the plug out of its socket with his foot. Bierce is thrown, by the sudden cessation of the music, by Drake treating his to a judo throw. Bierce breaks, runs for it, up the steps outside. The two men in dark glasses are waiting. They shoot him. With his last breath, Bierce asks Drake not to tell his wife about the ladies…

What impressed me most about this episode was, as I said above, the misdirection. We start with a murder, we are left wondering what it’s all about. For over two-thirds of the episode, we’re induced to ask ourselves what does this add up to, with the nature of the series and Bierce’s status pointing to an espionage aspect, before the shor reveals its hand and the motive turns out to be completely anti-political. It’s all about human weakness, the triviality of all our days. About the composed, restricted life of a true, repressed Englishman suddenly exploding when shown something more colourful, like sex with younger, decidedly beautiful women. In short, what would have been called, in 1965, a sordid little affair.

It’s a neat reversal.

It was a shame about the print, especially as I would definitely have wished to see both Mesdamoiselles Ventham and Padgett is a clearer light, but the show rose about such minor details.

And then there was one.