A headful of loose change

Rereading New Statesmen chapters 7-12 by John Smith, Jim Baikie and Duncan Fegredo. 

Comics have never made it far enough into the cultural mainstream to become studied objects, to be tested against the -isms. They’ve been working too hard to catch up with literature and movies to worry about where they stand with modernism, with postmodernism, all that. I mean I personally made a case for Ronin as the missing link between Neuromancer and Akira in a university dissertation, making it both a cyberpunk and a postmodernist work, but as far as I know that supreme work of scholarship hasn’t been followed up.

Most comics readers won’t find it a great shame that the medium’s not been picked to death by theorists. But there are works, and New Statesmen is one of them, that could benefit. The comic doesn’t hit the all the postmodernist markers. It’s polyphonic, seen for a multitude of perspectives and narrated by numerous voices, but it’s not metatextual. There’s no ironic framework; everything we see is to be taken seriously. And there are no references to the past – indeed, this is a superhero comic where nobody’s ever heard of superheroes. But there are certain touches, like the Statesmen Rockford and Holden who’ve been surgically altered to look like Elvis and The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield respectively. And, like most of the big, dense postmodernist books, it requires the reader to work.

By my count, we meet roughly half of the 51 Statesmen in the pages of the comic, including the documentary material. (A roll-call printed in Crisis but not the collected edition volunteers no information on 14 out of the 51.) Exactly who is a process of deciphering, or connecting. David Foster Wallace, in Infinite Jest and in The Pale King, would drop a piece of information in one chapter that the reader had to collect, to hang onto until it could be correctly hung onto the character or strand of plot it referred to. A narrative as a torrent of content for which scraps have to be rescued, like panning for gold in whitewater rapids, until there are enough fragments to assemble an idea of the whole. The comparison to The Pale King is apposite because New Statesmen isn’t finished. And like that novel, or more accurately like that first-draft of a third of a novel, there aren’t enough fragments to even know the shape of the whole.

We meet most of those Statesmen at the reunion which takes up chapters seven and eight, springing from nowhere, a rock in the sea of the story. A more ordered and rational story would have started at the reunion. Or perhaps not, because a 51-hero team is by definition overwhelming. Compare the variety, the imaginative breadth, of the Statesmen with DC’s Global Guardians, say. Even Statesmen with walk-on parts, one-panel cameos, have more depth than superheroes who are a nationality and powers and a costume. It’s absolute overkill to create 51 superheroes, an act of artistic grand folly, and we’re introduced to them in a whirling spectacle of lights through a first-person POV narrator who was, if you’ve read the backmatter, cuckolded by a Statesman and has a major grudge to work out.

Working out which Statesman is which, especially without the crib sheet, means putting clues together. Wyatt, a reimagined Arnold Schwarzenegger, is easy enough to identify. Monhegan, the stage actor Statesman, is names by referring back to a movie review in the supplementary material and Honor, who’s trying to arrange Statesmen sperm banks and egg clinics, has to be linked to a gossip item. After a certain point it becomes trivial; is it important to know that the woman who couldn’t coax a fuck out of Vegas is DuPont, referred to disparagingly as a superwhore? But I still want to know who the Christian Statesman counselling Burgess at the bar is, and the shadow of what happened to Burlington in Atlanta hangs over the whole narrative as a foreshadowing and a warning. What happened to make a Statesman crazy? How does the Abort work or fail to work? What role did Mitchell have in killing his rogue colleague? What happened to Atlanta? And these aren’t questions you’d ask the first time through this story, or probably the second or the third. They’re questions that require a close reading of the text, the correlation of various remarks and references and clues, to even discover.

And the storm of voices never stops. The opening to the reunion is narrated in a reporter’s notebook, and by its close we’re reading Meridian’s thoughts in upper-case text and lower-case subtext as she sees the burning man for the first time. When California’s Governor is shot we enter his thoughts for a final two panels. In the closing battle, when Meridian and Dalton catch up with Phoenix in the art gallery, we get a full-page splash with duelling captions: white for him, black for their shared consciousness. And none of this is ever announced. There’s no establishing shot so the reader can get it straight and follow one line through the phantasmagoria of the fractured narrative. It’s all just thrown out there to be picked up. Even the names are chosen to be cool rather than to make sense: how does Halcyon fit a team chosen to do the United States’ dirty work? They don’t calm anything down, as this story attests. And the opaque chapter titles, like Where The Railroad Meets The Sea and All Doors Lead To The Minotaur, are evocative of something but hard to relate to the content.

It was also a boldly transgressive comic at the time. The Halcyons were properly diverse: 40 per cent black, 40 per cent bisexual, though obviously with only one woman. And bisexual doesn’t sum it up; Dalton has his psychic relationship with Meridian but he behaves like an out-and-proud New York gay of the most reviled kind. Bath-houses, jean shorts, vests, earrings, bleached blonde, flirting with everyone and worst of all, predatory. He seduces Burgess and he fucks him up. This wasn’t the kind of non-practicing homosexuality that comics wouldn’t be comfortable with for years to come. This wasn’t Northstar outing himself in combat and never having a boyfriend. This was closer to the real thing.

The big-name writers in the Dark Age were generally new voices, people who’d worked on the fringes of the industry but broke through with material that was very definitely in their own voice. This fits the pattern that we impose on creative people, that they achieve their greatest success only when they ignore the rules and do what they wanna do, like in Strictly Ballroom. It’s different for comic artists. Like actors, they’re bound by the scripts they receive and the industry they’re a part of. Great artists get crap projects; look how many years Bryan Hitch slaved away before Warren Ellis, and shortly after the entire industry, noticed how good he was on Stormwatch and The Authority.

So there’s no criticism intended in describing Jim Baikie as a UK comics veteran who’d never worked on anything this ambitious. Dave Gibbons and David Lloyd were also UK comics veterans, and having hundreds of pages of wonderful art in the service of pedestrian writing behind them didn’t hold them back. Baikie does some great full-page storytelling layouts, his figures and his faces are expressive and natural, and his control of colour which gives whole scenes predominant tints is fantastic at conveying mood. These chapters have a bunch of arresting images – chapter nine has three in its 14 pages, with Vegas catching the vulture, Meridian’s gore-soaked flash and Burgess kneeling, face shadowed, once again reluctantly inviting in the darkness which has taken up permanent residence in his soul.

But it’s impossible to ignore how much better Duncan Fegredo and, in the epilogue I’ll discuss next week, Sean Phillips do with the same material. I remember Fegredo being embarrassed about his early work on Enigma, riot of lines that it was, and so I imagine he wasn’t happy with his work on the two reunion chapters here. There are occasional distorted faces and dodgy angles. But his manic, fluid linework and the hallucinatory first-person style of the material suits Smith’s fractured style. Really, the reunion should be the hardest chapters to draw – all those Statesmen, the vast majority of which we’ve never seen before, the closing pages a whirl of perspectives invaded by a hallucination – but Fegredo conveys the action and the atmosphere, that booze-in-the-air haze that pervades big events like this, everyone wheeling at the centre of their own drunken universe.

It’s not that Baikie does anything wrong. Given the demands laid on him by the script, he handles everything superbly. But there’s a quality in Smith’s writing that lurches into lurid, grinning life when teamed with the younger, more nakedly expressionist artists, a lid that’s held down by Baikie and that flies open, disgorging mad colours and insane visions. Brendan McCarthy does some art for the supplementary sections. You wonder what he’d have made of it.

(Aside: Third World War also had a fill-in artist for chapters seven and eight, in the same issues of Crisis as Fegredo’s work. The fill-in was not very good. I was shocked to learn in the credits that those misshapen faces and stiff figures were the early work of consummate draughtsman D’Israeli…)

The plot goes on holiday for the reunion episodes and never comes back. A threat is building, a “red thing” sensed by Meridian that’s coming in hard and is going to kill Cleve, who isn’t with the Halcyons for this second half of the story. He’s been sent to live with Southern Belle Blanchard, Stateswoman for Arkansas, in her mint julep mansion. On rereading he’s hardly with the Halcyons at all; present, sure, but never really taking part. There’s no place for a genial superpowered Bill Cosby in a black ops team. Meanwhile, all that work to tie Phoenix to a complicated conspiracy is left behind. The trail of guilt becomes much more direct and the climax comes out of nowhere.

In chapters nine and ten, the Halcyons are following the trail of a missing undercover agent who was slaughtered along with a whole bunch of Tamerisk, who appear to be a hybrid of the New Age Travellers much feared in Britain at the time and Native Americans. The group have moved from linking Phoenix to old conspiracies to linking his followers to acts of terrorism. We’ve learned, from a page that’s a babble of overheard voices, that Phoenix’s militant Christian followers want to clean up California. There’s talk of civil war.

And then, at the beginning of chapter 11, a full-blown Californian insurrection begins. The various Christian groups affiliated with Phoenix’s presidential campaign have, either on some secret signal or spontaneously, gone apeshit. They’re crucifying ballet dancers, executing gay men, bombing the Golden Gate Bridge. There are hints that the political situation has led to this, but the reader hasn’t been told enough about it to come to any conclusion. It’s a serious weakness in the narrative which gets away with it only because, after resisting the whole way, it’s finally following the time-honoured superhero structure where the villain throws off all pretence of virtue in the end and goes unapologetically Götterdämmerung.

We only learn Phoenix is a problem because Burbank, a world record-holding surf star Statesman – and how does that work? Surely enhanced superhumans would hold all the world records – turned to drugs and Tamerisk politics is asked by the President to take Phoenix out. For a four-page stretch we drop into Burbank’s life and thoughts as he takes the call, gets prepared, costumes up and gets his head exploded by Phoenix in a white suit. That’s how we’re introduced to the big villain turn, only two chapters before the end.

So the final battle was always going to be anticlimactic. Phoenix takes Vegas down easily, pausing only for a five or six packed balloons of exposition to update anyone lost in the plot, and is only stopped from killing him by Dalton. In turn he’s saved by Burgess and Meridian, but Phoenix exploits the former’s jealousy of the latter and turns them against each other. A slugfest with Burgess takes them to an art gallery full of deeply awful works, a Dick-Sprang-for-the-Dark-Age backdrop to the fight. Dalton and Meridian, working together, turn the bad guy into a wet spot on the sea. It’s over. While John Smith’s stories usually end up in climactic acts of violence, they’re rarely so unadorned so I wonder if the closing pages, like the political thriller elements of the opening chapters, weren’t subject to some editorial influence.

It ends, then, with the dull, conventional thud of punches after the fireworks of postmodernity. The villain, obvious from the start, is killed by his weakness to his former lover who we only found out had been his lover two chapters earlier. There were no surprises; Phoenix told us early on that Meridian would be the one to kill him. But with the genre stuff out of the way the series was freed to go wherever it wanted, to strike out in whatever direction took the creators’ fancy. It didn’t make it, of course. But it managed to make a start.

New Statesmen chapters 7-12 by John Smith, Jim Baikie and Duncan Fegredo were published in Crisis #7-#12, New Statesmen #3-#5, and The Complete New Statesmen trade paperback, all of which are out of print.

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  1. […] I wrote about New Statesmen in an early series of blogs about British superheroes, spending three different blogs proving, at least, that it’s somebody’s favourite. I’ve written about the […]

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