A big gaudy picturebook
Rereading New Statesmen chapters 1-6 by John Smith, Jim Baikie and Sean Phillips.
Things that were hot, post-graphic novel revolution: limited series. Painted comics. British writers. Bloody violence. Character deaths. Morally ambivalent protagonists. Straight up nasty protagonists. First-person captions. Sex and sexual deviance. Real-world political angles. Corruption in high places. Pseudoscience. Literary techniques. Literary allusions. Superheroes, still. Downbeat endings.
In a perverse sense, it’s mightily impressive that New Statesmen managed to tick all of the boxes above without making any impression on a comics public hungry for all those things. Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters got more props for being an adult comic than New Statesmen did. Published twice, in Crisis in the UK (with accompanying publicity tour) and in a five-issue US miniseries, and collected into a trade paperback with the weight of a graphic novel when trade were rare, it sank without a ripple. It’s about as well-regarded, and well-remembered, now as it was at the time.
So it must fucking suck, yeah? One of those pieces of crap where the writer thinks he can disguise his pretentious power fantasy as something trés moderne by pasting in a bunch of quotes from Plato, and the artist conceals his poor anatomy and even poorer storytelling by slathering on the acrylic paint. Lord knows there were plenty of them, usually printed in prestige formats because the publishers were as easily fooled as the public. Comics that were bought and, like the albums you’d paid full for and couldn’t quite bear to admit we’re no good, got put on the shelf next to the real stuff in the hope they’d absorb some of their gravitas. The early days of Vertigo were full of them.
New Statesmen wasn’t like any of those. It can grate in its determination to be adult, but it came a lot closer than most. It’s certainly guilty of taking superheroes too seriously, but then again it shows them suffering from impotence and drunkenly brawling. And while it’s no lost classic, it innovated with the tropes and the medium in a way that few comics would today.
The groundbreaking works of the late 80s — Swamp Thing, Daredevil, Watchmen, American Flagg!, Ronin, Love & Rockets, Elektra: Assassin, Grendel — created or popularised new storytelling techniques. They did new things with captions, with supplementary material, with splash pages and black pages and tiny panels. They tore up the Meanwhile… vocabulary of mainstream comics and forged a new language, a new grammar, using scraps from the ignored mainstream, old EC comics, the underground, bédé, Mad magazine, newspaper strips, wherever.
John Smith, a 2000AD name writing for adults for the first time, took this legacy of new techniques as his birthright and, in New Statesmen, used all of them. Everything was thrown in. First-person captions from an unknown narrator over abstract cityscapes? Surreal dreams of minor characters? Multiple parallel narratives? Action sequences seen entirely through the eyes of unreliable narrators? Flashbacks within flashbacks? The constant intrusion of media talking heads? Documentary evidence? All used, and all used pretty well, but with none of that hand-holding that the pioneers of the Dark Age used. Instead the reader is tumbling in a washing machine of storytelling techniques, disoriented and overwhelmed in a world they don’t know.
New Statesmen may have been about America but it was entirely British. Published in Crisis, a fortnightly comic on thin shiny paper but in colour, which for its first 14 issues was equally split between New Statesmen and Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra’s Third World War. Neither was an unequivocal success, but the latter continued and took up half the magazine for the rest of its run. To my mind this was a disaster for Crisis, because Third World War was Pat Mills at his worst; preachy, cardboard characters, ludicrously monstrous villains, and soon bogged down in its own convoluted continuity. And its prosthelytising tone became the dominant voice of the comic. Some stories, and I’m leaning towards discussing them once I’ve finished with British superheroes, rose above it. The majority didn’t. It lasted 60 issues without a long-running feature, or even any recurring short ones, to mark it out. In common with much of the nascent graphic novel market, it found itself unable to distinguish between the good and the merely new.
Like the previous two British superheroes I’ve written about, Marvelman and Zenith, the New Statesmen were the result of government experiments. Have we moved beyond that now? Would dark superheroes still be created by governments, or would they be fathered by zaibatsu? Anyway, there are two crucial differences between them and the other government-sired heroes: first, they’re sci-fi superheroes, products not of alien technology or the Old Gods but the genetic research of a dystopian future, and second there’s loads of them. Fifty-one to be exact. One for every state in the USA, the most recent of those states being Britain. Burgess, presumably named after Burgess Hill in Sussex, is Britain’s representative among the Statesmen. He’s telepathic, bisexual, tortured by guilt, close to mental collapse, prone to emotional outbursts and ultimately pretty ineffective. A comment on the state of the nation, or just another flawed übermensch in the era of them?
Burgess is one of two focal characters, or as close to that as we’re getting. The other is Meridian, green-haired female Statesman for Mississippi. There are essentially two kinds of Statesman: the older ones with hard talents, old skool strong and tough, and the younger ones with soft talents which include telepathy, a certain amount of control over anything flesh and blood, psychometry, and a bunch of other stuff which isn’t defined. Not that Smith left it loose; there’s a powerful sense that the writer knows everything about his world. Burgess and Meridian make up 40 per cent of the Halcyons, the black ops team of the Statesmen who are newly back in the States after six years on ice because they killed 700 innocent people on the Welsh Borders while ambushing terrorists. The others are Dalton, a confident and promiscuous gay man having a psychic/physical relationship with Meridian, the older and avuncular Cleve, and Vegas. He’s the nasty one, the superhuman who isn’t afraid to use his powers to kill and torture and in fact enjoys it, that every adult comic of this period had to have.
The standard device, given the Halcyons’ situation, would be for them to tour the US and for the reader to see the country they’ve been absent from for six years through their eyes. But John Smith, perhaps explaining why he remains in relative obscurity, doesn’t feel the need to hold the reader’s hand. Instead we plunge straight into a complicated political thriller. Dalton is in a gay bathhouse when it gets bombed by the League of Light, and in the aftermath when he may or may not murder large numbers of them and the police in a nude soft talent frenzy, someone tries to shoot him and/or Meridian. The trail, followed through the first six chapters, leads through street gangs, a drug-dealing hostel-running Reverend, a scandal which sounds similar to Iran-Contra and ultimately to Phoenix, the Arizona televangelist Statesman who’s running for President and who we’ve seen concealing evidence, blackmailing ex-Presidents, manipulating his underlings.
Phoenix is the clichéd element of an otherwise unconventional narrative. The late 80s had a bunch of evil televangelists and the UK is always swift to sensationalise those peculiarly American crazies. If it were published today, he’d be an evil Glenn Beck analogue. It’s our weakness; we love to see the outliers of US culture as central to US culture. It makes us feel better about ourselves. But the approach to him is far from conventional. We spend about as much time on the plot, and the internal politics that have brought the Halcyons home, as we do on the supposed leads. There are pages spent in the head of Ray Lindberg, a crucial part of the multi-layered cover-up protecting Phoenix. We learn how the gangs and the hostel link up. We follow the threads up through to companies destroying evidence and then the links to the Statesmen’s domestic operations. And doing all this, watching the Halcyons chase witnesses and kill the unspeakably compromised, we get to know them almost in passing, by reflection.
I remember John Smith saying, in interview somewhere, that the political thriller stuff was dictated to him by Crisis and 2000AD editor, Steve MacManus. I’ve been unable to trace this in a cursory Google but it’s the one element of his writing here which has never recurred elsewhere. And the fascination a conspiracy like this exerts, tangled and real, is impossible to recreate in fiction. It’s already hard to recall all the separate strands of last year’s phone-hacking scandal which riveted me at the time. Weaving a superhero story around one was either a bold or bull-headed thing to do.
Meanwhile the art is solid, grounded, experienced. Industry veteran Jim Baikie, best known for Skizz in 2000AD, had spent years drawing stuff like Charlie’s Angels for Look-In. Unfazed by Smith’s visions, he makes sure there’s a story being told on the page no matter what the captions are up to. He paints the colour, too, and does a fine job conveying mood. Smith’s writing has weird rhythms; full-page spreads for relatively undramatic scenes like Burgess escaping a torture to the peaceful emptiness of a deserted English town, truncated punchlines, and tons of talking heads. It can’t be easy to draw for a writer who alternates a pair of superheroes battling a street gang and a pair of superheroes pushing a pensioner in a wheelchair, but Baikie gets it all on the page. Unfortunately there can’t have been a lot of lead time, because after just four 14-page chapters Sean Phillips steps in to draw two, doing a Jim Baikie impression. It’s a good and a bad impression; good, because I must have read it at least twice without realising it wasn’t Baikie. Bad, because I only discovered it wasn’t Baikie when wondering why the art was so off, the figures too short, the colours too simple. Phillips returns to the series later, being himself and redeeming himself.
A technique taken from Watchmen and used with vanishing infrequency since is the bookending of chapters with pages of text taken from a magazine about the Statesmen: interviews, short stories, explorations of their sexuality and their houses. It provides context which is otherwise lacking, because Smith’s racing ahead with his story rather than bracing the reader with exposition. This in medias res technique is fairly common in science fiction and especially cyberpunk: William Gibson relies on it, M John Harrison’s Empty Space, which I’m reading at the moment, revels in it. It was rare in comics of the time. And Smith’s created an unusually detailed backstory which he doesn’t hesitate to drop in references, even knowing that they’ll make little sense. The blizzard of techniques, of shifting perspectives, of minor-character viewpoints and puzzling politics, already has the reader struggling for air. The unrevealed history constantly alluded to, the swirl of drug names and Statesman names and gang names, pushes them under.
In six chapters Smith and Baikie create a world, a future, around their leads. It’s one which we assemble from glimpses and glances, lit only where the wandering characters have chosen to go, but that very messiness makes it all the more real. This isn’t a stage set on which a morality play will be staged. We’re backstage with torches, following cursing technicians bent on fixing a mechanism we’ve only heard of and that we don’t understand the function of. Perhaps there’s no mystery as to New Statesmen’s lack of impact; it works pretty hard to discourage the casual reader. But the richness of detail, the connections that only surface when they’re held onto by a committed reader determined to make order from this decaying chaos, are a real reward.
New Statesmen chapters 1-6 by John Smith, Jim Baikie and Sean Phillips were published in Crisis #1-#6, New Statesmen #1-#3, and The Complete New Statesmen trade paperback, all of which are out of print.