Preach to the yout’ dem

Rereading Third World War by Pat Mills, Malachy Coney, Alan Mitchell and various artists.

Like a Detective Comics reader ignoring Batman, like a 2000AD reader never mentioning Judge Dredd, I’ve written about all kinds of stuff that appeared in Crisis but never mentioned its tentpole franchise. Third World War, written by Pat Mills and others and drawn by a rollcall of talent experienced and new, took up the half of the comic that wasn’t New Statesman for its first 14 issues. And thereafter, while New Statesmen’s vacant territory was used for serials with a lower page count, one-offs or journalism, TWW continued hogging the space. By page count it still constitutes the bulk of Crisis. There was a lot more of it than there was of anything else.

crisis_02_14What was it? What’s the one-sentence concept? For those first 14 issues, clear-eyed in their disgust, it was about the Third World and the war that keeps it that way. Set in a lightly-fictionalised future, five Westerners had been drafted into a Peace Corps to go and help the indigenous people of an unnamed South American country, but instead found themselves protecting the interests of MegaCorp. Drawn mainly by Ezquerra, it wasn’t wonderful but it was fairly effective. Each pair of episodes – 14 pages an episode, 28 pages a pair for the US reprint – focused on a different evil done to the third world by the first and proved its point in didactic style, the nominal heroine Eve falling for secret-but-obvious eco-terrorist Paul who explained the issue of the day in the angry, passionate rants of every radical who’s ever wanted a hot girl to notice him. In the final issues they abandoned a country in the throes of revolution and Book One concluded with Book Two promised.

Unfortunately Book Two arrived in the very next issue and didn’t conclude until #38. Sounds like an epic, right? 322 pages is longer than The Dark Knight Returns, and not much shorter than Watchmen. What couldn’t you do, given that kind of scope? Well, if you were Pat Mills writing Third World War you couldn’t do anything but thrash in a quicksand of half-explained issues mixing everything from identity politics to Northern Ireland to Rastafarianism to colonialism. The Mills of the time seemed to have some connection to youth culture; maybe teenage kids, maybe a younger girlfriend. A book of Nemesis the Warlock was set in the 20th century with cool kids at a party, Marshall Law had a student girlfriend until she got stuffed into a metaphorical refrigerator, and TWW’s characters return to London and hit the party scene. Which seems to mean squat parties in Brixton, a confusion between who’s living there and who’s a guest, a feeling of safety among freaks and dangerous streets. Ivan and Tricia, a skatepunk and a blonde Christian respectively, were fellow travellers in Book One but are quickly assigned minor roles in the narrative. Eve, our viewpoint character, remains the focus but Paul, now reassuming his role as terrorist Finn, is the one Pat Mills likes best, who’s put aside the moral concerns of others and metes imaginative revenge on the old white guys dining on the world. The issues in TWW are absolutely black and white, the baddies as bad as could be, to a childish extent. It reminds me of Mike Leigh’s Naked; there are all kinds of people in the underclass, a spectrum of good and bad and corrupt and indifferent, but in the upper classes there is only evil which revels in itself. The passionate hatred of the creator makes the work two-dimensional.

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Book Two is black and white morally, then. But it’s also black and white racially, the story of London blacks and how they created an independent country within their city. This Britain is a police state, privatised, with gangs of rich vigilantes and vicious racists roaming freely doing violence on any non-whites crossing their path. And it’s a state in which everything’s tracked via an ID card, where having a job depends upon keeping a clean ID and following stringent rules, where you’re practically pushed into being a fugitive. Within this state is New Azania, formerly Brixton, a black matriarchy representing Pat Mills’s political paradise. This is the good to Britain’s bad, the saintly black contrast to the all-pervading corruption of the whites. And it’s the de facto home of the Black African Defence Force – BADS – who are the guys with the guns in Book Two. They’re the plot driver. Eve’s old boyfriend is accused of being a member, they hang out at the house of the leader’s uncle, Eve’s boyfriend admits being a member, and finally she joins herself during a daring raid. We’re introduced to Liat, the master of disguise and an unbearable thorn in the white establishment’s side. We’re introduced to Chief Inspector Ryan, an old colonial whose love-hate obsession with blackness finds focus in Eve. There are manhunts and riots and shootouts.

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Which makes Book Two sound exciting. And it has the elements of excitement. If it was stripped down to a 2000AD story, presenting ideas like a black nation to the readers and letting them think about them in their own time, it could work. But this is Crisis, and there’s consciousness to be raised. So every 14-page episode is larded with a lecture about the evils of patriarchy, sexual jealousy, the Troubles from the occupied and the occupiers’ perspective, the British repression of Kenya, etcetera. Each episode ends with a quote, Watchmen-style, in the place of what marketing calls a Call To Action; put down this comic and get radical, kids. The story is so subordinate to the point its writer wants to make, so clearly a vessel for the message, that it lurches all over the place. At one point there seems to be a run of about five episodes which are flashbacks, and some of those flashbacks come from minor characters who pop up to give us their memories and are never seen again. We see flashbacks of Liat before we ever see him, we’re introduced to the unconvincing psychopathology of Ryan in an episode dedicated to his past. Various artists work on these issues, Ezquerra keeping a presence but Duncan Fegredo, Sean Phillips, Richard Piers Rayner, Glyn Dillon, John Hicklenton and Steve Pugh all take their turn. Perhaps, given the nature of anthology comics, some of the episodes were presented when they’d been completed rather than in any strict order. It reads that way. It meanders, rushes, dawdles, and by the time it gets to any point it’s lost it.

Image 0017Book Three, having established New Azania and Liat and Ryan as the engines of our plot, and Eve as our protagonist, decides it’s all about Paul instead. Or Finn, his superhero alter ego, and his Green Army taking the war on the planet back to the rich old white men fighting it. His shtick is to let the punishment fit the crime, so board meetings are disrupted with environmental poisons and carbon-polluters roasted alive. It’s a decent idea for a 2000AD story, certainly, and so it proved when Finn moved over to Tooth in a strip with all the gore and less of the lecturing. Eve is mainly a bystander, a rhetorical device who has the tactics of eco-war explained to her, and Liat and the BADS are absent.

According to the Wikipedia entry on Crisis there’s a Book Four, Ivan’s Story, but in the actual comics most of it was presented as Book Three. The hedonistic punk from Book One has a girlfriend who gets involved in prostitution and the Freemariners, Mills’s Freemason analogue and the rich white evil men Finn’s been killing. He ends up stumbling onto one of Finn’s operations, she ends up dead, and the Freemariners are perhaps the most ridiculously caricatured villains seen in 90s comics. South Africans, corporate CEOs, men who burn the earth for profit whose venal wives think only of new conservatories and punishing the servants.

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The last episode is the conclusion of Book Four. Inspector Ryan goes after Liat and both die, in one last burst of richly detailed ugliness, gun violence and confused sympathies. The last page, thanks to John Hicklenton, is dominated by a bloody mess of both bodies, burning, shot, and splatted on a pavement. That’s a reasonably apposite image to end on; a horrible mess of black and white where the only constant was that appetite for gore. There were 622 pages of Third World War in total. God knows it tried to say something, and it blooded some amazingly talented artists trying to say it. It flailed around in the right areas and provided strong images for confrontational covers, covers which gave the comic an identity in the newsagent. But ultimately it had stuff it wanted to tell you but no story to tell, and it dragged Crisis down with it.

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Third World War by Pat Mills and Carlos Ezquerra, D’Israeli, Angie Mills, Alan Mitchell, Malachy Coney, John Hicklenton, Duncan Fegredo, Sean Phillips, Sean Hollywood, Richard Piers Rayner, Tim Perkins, Glyn Dillon, Steve Pugh, and Rob Blackwell appeared in Crisis #1-#38, #40-#41, #43-#51 and #53.

7 Responses to “Preach to the yout’ dem”
  1. Alan Mitchell says:

    Gotta say, I find this sort of criticism lazy and spiteful and lacking in any real depth, mainly because it is so cozy about issues that have never been covered before to the extent they were in 3WW. I’ve been lucky enough over the years to meet a lot of people who tell me they thought the politics of 3WW and the polemical fashion it was constructed in, was a perfect jumping off point for them to ‘get’ what we were driving at and to go study further for themselves. 3WW was not like the endless parade of catwalk comics, self serving, middle class, fan wank that pretend to be entertaining and serve up the same cold, curdling slushy soap that passes for storytelling or compelling character studies these days and I ‘m talking at least 90 percent of the bollocks! Dissappointed in your snooty pespective and would give it the more time if it wasn’t such disparaging shite!

  2. CRISIS editor Steve MacManus used to say that the definition of a pioneer is the guy you find at the end of the trail with arrows sticking out of his back. I’m not going to bother criticizing the critique as I find some of the points in terms of story-telling valid. But context is everything and the context was that at the time nothing like 3WW had ever been tried in British comics before or much less American comics. 3WW broke allot of molds in comics and although it may have ultimately been unsucessful as an epic in its own right it was inspiring and had influence on countless comics witers and artists that followed. It also gave allot of young artists and writers an opportunity to do something besides superhero comics; talk about polemical, comics were never going to grow up into a literary medium until they outgrew their adolescent fetishes. Instead, the adolescence appears to have overflowed the printed page onto the film industry,

  3. Brilliant piece of writing.

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  4. […] • Suggested for Mature Readers: Preach to the yout’ dem […]

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