Sorry for the lower-than-normal number of posts recently – I’ve had writers’ block for a few days. Plenty of ideas, but when I come to write them out I’m completely lost for words. You can probably expect an absolute glut at the end of the week, when I suddenly get my flow back and can churn out the posts I’ve got planned (a look at the comic The Kingdom, a discussion of why I’m a Liberal Democrat, a review of the album & by Kristian Hoffmann and some more on All-Star Superman). But I always do my Big Finish A Week, so here goes…
Jubilee is probably best known among casual fans as the loose inspiration behind writer Rob Shearman’s Dalek, the best episode of the 2005 series of nuWho. However, the differences are so great that had we not been told of the connection I doubt many people would have noticed it. Both feature a Dalek locked up on its own and a companion who shows it a small amount of sympathy, and both end with the Dalek choosing to die rather than continue killing, but where the TV show is essentially just another base-under-siege story (except with a Doctor who is violent, rude and dismisses the idea of learning… ) Jubilee is actually rather special.
The plotline of Jubilee is relatively straightforward – the Doctor and Evelyn, through what appears at first to be a TARDIS glitch, arrive in 2003, but a 2003 where the ‘English Empire’ is in control of much of the world, where contracting words is banned, and where a Dalek is locked up in the Tower of London being tortured. It’s revealed that in 1903 the Doctor and Evelyn saved the Earth from a Dalek invasion (something that had not yet happened in their timeline) and this had caused these changes. There’s also a second prisoner in the Tower, who is very strongly hinted to be Davros (who hadn’t at the time yet appeared in a Big Finish adventure) but who turns out to be the Doctor, his legs removed to prevent his escape.
The TARDIS has glitched and created two parallel timelines and the Doctor and Evelyn must try to put things right, which is accomplished by handwave. (It’s actually a very tightly-plotted story with several plots and counterplots, but a day after relistening to it the resolution of the actual plot is only ‘handwave’ in my head).
Jubilee starts out by presenting itself as a comedy – it starts with an in-world trailer for a film called “Daleks: The Ultimate Adventure” with the Doctor saying ‘Daleks? I hate those guys” and Daleks shouting “Scar-per! Scar-per!” – but while it retains the humorous touches throughout, they quickly turn blacker, and the story itself becomes something very dark.
Unlike the previous stories I’ve reviewed here, which have not really been about anything much other than themselves – they’ve all been either adventure stories or comedies, purely for entertainment value, although the better ones also contained actual ideas – Jubilee is actually about things – about power, and responsibility, and about choice.
The writer Robert Anton Wilson coined the terms ‘burden of omniscience’ and ‘burden of nescience’, to describe why it is that absolute power does corrupt absolutely:
” But a man with a gun (the power to punish) is told only what his target thinks will not cause him to pull the trigger. The elite, with their burden of omniscience, face the underlings, with their burden of nescience, and receive only the feedback consistent with their own preconceived notions. The burden of omniscience becomes, in short, another and more complex burden of nescience. Nobody really knows anything anymore, or if they do, they are careful to hide the fact. ”
In Jubilee the TARDIS, early on, gets scared (the TARDIS has a personality and intelligence of its own in some stories) and refuses to make a choice – refusing to take full responsibility. In doing this, it causes everyone in the story to have to make choices that they don’t want to make – in the altered timeline, nobody is in a role they want to be in. The President is someone who is deeply, deeply disturbed, and convinced that the entire population is under the control of the one surviving Dalek (in the end it’s proved that he is, sort of, right). Because of this, he’s convinced he has to act like a sadistic tyrant even though he claims not to want to be one, ordering people to be tortured to death because he thinks it’s the kind of thing he should do.
Every character in the story – with the exception of the Doctor – is looking for someone to take orders from, and because the President is not the strong leader they want (desperately wanting orders himself), even though he acts in a fascist enough manner, there’s a void at the centre of all the interactions (the President’s wife is attempting to arrange a coup because he hits her, as he should, but not hard enough to break the flesh). The Dalek personifies this – a soldier with no orders, he goes mad with indecision until Evelyn presents him with the option of true freedom.
The health of a nation being tied to the mind of its leader is a very Shakespearean notion, and while there were no direct references, the torture of the Dalek (and in particular the ‘injury to the eye motif’), and the ramblings of the maddened alternate Doctor, called King Lear to my mind, while the relationship between the President and his wife was strikingly similar to that of Terry Pratchett’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth parodies in Wyrd Sisters. There’s a real sense of darkness and oppression throughout the story.
Jubilee definitely rewards repeated listenings – my first impression of it wasn’t particularly favourable, as I concentrated too much on the dark humour and not enough on the meatier stuff within – and luckily the performances (with the exception of Kai Simmons’ stilted performance as the soldier Lamb) are excellent. Colin Baker does his usual superlative job as the Sixth Doctor, Maggie Stables shows once again why Evelyn is by far the best companion the Doctor ever had (though here she was still a new enough character that she’s not quite as fully-rounded as she would be a year later), and real-life couple Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayres, who have had a long working relationship with Rob Shearman, are as excellent as ever (for those who don’t know, Jarvis is widely-regarded as the British voice actor) as the President and his wife.
If anything, Jubilee has gained relevance over the last few years, with its portrayal of the torture of an ‘enemy combatant’ (and some of the torture scenes are genuinely disturbing), and it contains many more ideas than I’ve been able to discuss here, about choice, about the rather disturbing bloodlust in British popular culture, about morality, and about the way historical tragedy is sanitised and turned into tourist fodder. Sometimes the more over-the-top humorous elements clash a little with the more serious-minded work (Shearman is clearly trying to do what Douglas Adams tried, but usually failed, to do with his tenure as script editor on the TV series, and bring in ridiculous elements to make the scary stuff scarier when you realise they mean it. It works better here than it did then, but it still makes it harder to suspend disbelief).
It’s easily one of the best Doctor Who stories in any medium, and it’s a shame that nuWho managed only to take the least interesting parts of it; and it’s a greater shame that even the watered-down TV bowdlerisation was still better than anything else in the new TV show…
It’s hard being a Dave Sim fan. Every time I write about his work, I have to preface it with an explanation that I don’t agree with any of his worldview – I don’t think women are evil voids who telepathically spy on men while they’re masturbating and who are controlled by an evil transgender demiurge in the centre of the earth who is in fact the Biblical YHWH. That’s not a caveat I have to include when talking about Doctor Who or old Beach Boys records.
And after Sim’s most recent round of tantrums (when, after Glamourpuss #1 was ‘merely’ the most successful non-licensed non-big-four title of the month it came out, a lack of success obviously caused by evil women, he announced he won’t ever talk again to anyone who won’t first sign a petition saying he’s not a misogynist (except for those who, Captain Black-like, he won’t let sign his loyalty oath even if they want to)) I now also have to distance myself from those Dave Sim fans who think that calling Gail Simone a fat ugly cunt is the height of rational discourse.
So, before saying anything else, I just want to say that I abhor every single one of Dave Sim’s publicly stated views (with the exception of some of his views on rights for comic creators, his support of absolute freedom of speech, and his recent announcement that he’s decided the Holocaust wasn’t very nice). Take the exact polar opposite of Sim’s views on religion, society, women, homosexuals, transgender people, sex, the war in Iraq, evolution and… well, everything, and you’ll get my views. I think most of his views show signs of severe mental illness, and nearly all of them, including the ‘sane’ ones, are as close to a definition of evil as I can come.
But he’s also, by any reckoning I can come up with, the most talented comic creator in the history of the medium, and one whose work speaks to me in a way no-one else’s does. This puts me in roughly the same position as someone trying to defend Richard Wagner would be in, were Wagner still alive and saying “No, honestly, Hitler *did* have the right idea about my music. I think he was a good bloke. Don’t listen to my stuff if you disagree.” (It’s probably no coincidence that Andrew Rilstone has written so intelligently about both Wagner and Sim in the past).
In particular, he’s someone who knows more about the *craft* of comics than almost any other creator I can think of – he’s almost unique in being equally talented as a writer, artist and letterer (though he sees the praise for his lettering as a form of insult, to the extent that he’s now using computer lettering).
So I enjoyed Glamourpuss #1 immensely, not just because it was the first significant comics work from Sim in four years, but because it was a genuinely interesting comic. It seemed very much of a piece with my favourite graphic novels (or whatever Eddie Campbell thinks we should call them now) of recent years, Campbell’s The Fate Of The Artist, Campbell and Moore’s A Disease Of Language and Talbot’s Alice In Sunderland, along with things like Action Philosophers and Comic Book Comics A lot of creators of Sim’s approximate age appear to be having fun at the border between fiction and non-fiction, creating works which are the same sort of in-depth examination of their idiosyncratic preoccupations as books like Godel, Escher, Bach are in prose, but also acknowledging the inherently fictional nature of cartooning.
Sim’s own attempt at this was, in the first issue, a fascinating mixture of Mad magazine and Understanding Comics, combining a lecture in the art techniques of Alex Raymond with an attempt at satirising fashion magazines, and a quick demonstration of how it’s almost impossible to do a narrative using only photos traced from magazines (if only some popular comic artists would realise this).
So I was looking forward to the second issue, and very annoyed when four months later (the comic’s bimonthly, but I got the preview edition of #1 two months before it came out) issue two never arrived at my comic shop. Happily however, issues two and three arrived on the same day – Thursday of this week – so six months later I’m finally able to continue reading this. (Glamourpuss will work far better collected than in issues, incidentally, but I’m not at all sure that Sim will actually bother to finish the project, so I’m getting what I can when I can).
Glamourpuss #2 is more fashion-satire than comics-analysis, unfortunately, as Sim’s once-biting wit has become steadily more borscht-belt over the years. Having said that, there are some genuinely hilarious moments (‘Glamourpuss” analysis of a revolting advert featuring a puppy in someone’s bed – “Well, how desperately needy is that? Going to all that trouble and expense just to have something fur-covered looming over you drooling, and looking for ‘treats’ the minute you wake up and then calling it love? The foundation of Glamourpuss’ ‘who’s been sleeping/is planning on sleeping in my bed?’ theories is that if a piece of imagery exists nowhere in a Bronte sister’s novel… (i.e. in this case ‘fur-covered, looming and drooling’)… the odds are that someone — not naming any puppy names — is playing you for a patsy.”)
I also found the first half of Glamourpuss’ tirade against anti-depressants to be spot on – “When glamourpuss buys anti-freeze for her car, it’s supposed to make the water in the car ‘not freeze’. Which it does. If the water in her car freezes, glamourpuss gets her money back. So, same theory, if glamourpuss buys anti-depressants they’re supposed to make her ‘not depressed’.” Sim is, perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who spent time in a psychiatric hospital a few decades ago, not completely convinced of the efficacy of psychiatric medicine (a scepticism which I share).
However, the second half of that rant works far less well, as Glamourpuss is portrayed as being a shallow, vapid, fashion model who nonetheless rants about ‘the patriarchy’. This simply doesn’t work as satire, and is Sim’s own unusual views leaking through into his character – Sim claims not to be a misogynist, merely to dislike feminism, but he doesn’t actually seem to understand what ‘feminism’ means, taking it instead to mean ‘anything at all feminine’ – in Sim’s world, Cosmopolitan and Andrea Dworkin are the same kind of thing, which of course makes a nonsense of his claims not to be misogynist.
However, even on these pages, the sheer density of information, and the number of ideas thrown in, make it well worth reading (for example the wonderfully-lettered ‘beep’ of the mobile phone on page 9, which may be a Comiccraft font but I suspect is a rare example here of Sim lettering).
The comics-history sections though are far more interesting – just seeing Sim tracing pictures by Schulz, Kirby, Neal Adams, Art Adams, Rob Liefeld and Bruce Timm to show where their influences came from, or talking about the influence of Milt Caniff on Alex Raymond’s work, is worth the cover price in itself.
Glamourpuss 3 redresses the balance, looking more at the comics and less at the fashion mags. Unfortunately, it’s by far the weakest issue so far.
The problem is that Sim sees a lot of the world in terms of people ‘sending messages’ to each other, and sees most people’s actions in terms of what they’re ‘really saying’ to someone else. He then builds elaborate narratives on top of this, usually without actually referring back to reality again except for some tiny detail that supports his line of thinking.
This way of viewing the world was immensely useful for Sim in Cerebus, where things did have these layers-upon-layers of meanings and subtexts, because Sim put them there himself – the fact that Sim actually thought the world worked that way merely meant that these incredibly convoluted plots had a conviction to them. Sim thought of Cerebus as his attempt to discover ‘the Truth’ and so every panel had an absolute conviction to it that meant that within the context of that fictionalised world Sim’s worldview rang totally true most of the time.
It doesn’t work so well when Sim tries to apply this to the real world though.
In this case, Sim takes the fact that Caniff once said in an interview that he didn’t especially like Alex Raymond’s work, the fact that they both started doing a new ‘creator-owned’ strip at around the same time, some similarities in Raymond’s later inking style to Caniff’s and a photo of the two of them shaking hands where Caniff appears to be squeezing a bit, and built a huge, elaborate rivalry between the two for which he presents no real evidence. The bulk of the issue is spent talking about this, and it’s to the issue’s detriment.
The ‘Skanko’ section at the back is getting steadily more unpleasant , being essentially an extended ‘yuk’ at the idea of female sexuality (this issue containing things like “Before I started Bikini Clubbing I could never get any of the guys who I’d infected with gonorrhea or syphilis to even call me back, but now I’m the most popular girl on the party circuit!”).
It’s still worth reading – it’s still more interesting, inventive and ambitious than almost anything else being published today – but this issue left more of an unpleasant aftertaste than the first two. I suspect that as long as this series continues it will be incredibly patchy – alternating between fascinating and appalling – and I’m willing to take the appalling to get the fascinating. It’s not something I’d recommend to everyone, and I don’t really feel very good about recommending it at all. But Glamourpuss is still far more than just ‘outsider art’, it’s genuinely interesting, intelligent and different.
I just wish it wasn’t by Dave Sim…