Friday, January 20, 2023

No, but seriously....

[Contains strong language]

I'm sorry if I have in the past said unpleasant things about dogs. I am personally not a dog person; but some of my dearest friends are, and I would not hear a word said against those very nice people who obviously get a lot of companionship and pleasure from owning furry shit factories that sniff your bollocks and masturbate on your leg. And I am quite sure that all you dog people would not say a word against me, either, just because I get a lot of happiness and enjoyment from drowning puppies. 

Of course I don't actually drown puppies. In fact I volunteer at the local vets....because I enjoy putting dogs to sleep. I enjoy it most when it's some kid's pet and I can make them cry. 

I actually have a private doggie abattoir in my flat. Every morning I round up dogs from the local dog park and slaughter them. Very humanely, of course. With a meat cleaver. And then I mince them up and serve them to my visitors. Don't look so shocked, it's all meat. No-one can tell the difference. Spaghetti bolognaise -- minced dog. Bacon butties -- sliced up dog. "Andrew, why is that Victoria sponge wagging its tail?" "Andrew, why do those Jaffa cakes smell of dog-shit?" "Why is the lasagne trying to shag my leg?" 

You know I don't mean any of this. I would never hurt a dog or any other of God's creatures. Not while anyone was looking, anyway.

No, but seriously...

How do you react to this kind of thing? You can basically go in one of five directions.

1: You know that, as a matter of fact, I am really not a dog person. You don't suspect me of actually slaughtering people's pets; but the riff is a ludicrously exaggerated statement of a genuine dislike of dogs.

2: You believe that as a matter of fact I am a dog person. What I am doing is presenting a grotesque parody of a dog-hater: what you are really laughing at is the ludicrous idea that anyone could possibly dislike something so obviously cuddly. At some level, we both think that non-dog people are cruel, foul mouthed monsters like the one I'm pretending to be.

3: It's not about dogs at all. It would be just as funny if I were talking about eating pigeons, gerbils or P.E teachers. What you are laughing at is the pompous cross man, and the whole idea that someone could treat grotesque cruelty as if it were a harmless hobby. (It's not against any religion to want to dispose of a pigeon.)

4: The content is irrelevant: the riff is merely a pretext for me to say "shit" and "masturbate" as often as possible, because (we are agreed) defecation and masturbation, or at any rate, talking about them, is just funny.

5: It's just not funny. At all.

Whatever direction you go in, you probably agree that talking about killing puppies is not the same as actually killing puppies. My comic riff is not going to cause anyone to actually dog-nap a pooch and serve him up in an Irish stew. 

So, that's all right then.

Isn't it?

Ricky Gervais came in for a lot of criticism after a comic monologue called Supernature appeared on Netflix. LGBTQ+ charities went so far as to say that some of his material was dehumanising and actually dangerous to transexual people.

And unquestionably, his comedy is in terrible taste: he jokes about penises (incessantly), masturbation, death, funerals, pedophilia, obesity, and at the beginning and the end of the act, trans people. (He mostly stays away from racism.)

At the beginning of the talk, he pre-emptively defends himself. His material, he says, is ironic.

Now, irony is a slippery word. If at breakfast I accidentally dip my clean tie in my fried egg, I might say "That was clever." You would understand me to be using irony: what I really meant was "That was stupid."

But when Jane Austen (who is a better writer than me) says "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" we understand her to be using irony as well. But she hasn't said the opposite of what she thinks. She isn't saying that everyone agrees that no rich singleton ever wants to get married. She isn't saying that the idea that well-off bachelors are often on the look-out for partners is so obviously false that it has never occurred to anyone.  I suppose it comes out as "When some of the characters in this story meet an unmarried man, they sometimes assume that he wants to get engaged, but this isn't necessarily the case." It takes us a little while to work out exactly what she does mean. That's why it's funny.

It is quite rare for someone writing ironically to find that their words have been taken at face value. We are told that some people in the eighteenth century thought that Jonathan Swift was seriously advocating cannibalism, but that is pretty hard to believe. Paul McCartney put nonsense lyrics to Get Back because he was afraid that people might not realise that his first version ("don't dig no Pakistanis taking all the people's jobs!") was not meant to be taken seriously. But that was because it was not very good or interesting satire, however well-meaning his intentions. 

Ricky Gervais defines irony thus: 

“That’s when I say something I don’t really mean, for comic effect, and you, as an audience, you laugh at the wrong thing because you know what the right thing is. It’s a way of satirising attitudes.”

Right thing. Wrong thing. Satire. You laugh at me saying "I like killing dogs" because you know that I don't like killing dogs. Killing dogs is a Wrong Thing. Being kind to dogs is a Right Thing. But by saying the Wrong Thing, I expose and criticise prevailing attitudes. 

It's like the story of Warren Mitchell being approached by a fan after a particularly pungent episode of Til Death Us Do Part. 

"I enjoyed you having a go at all the immigrants on TV last night" 

"I wasn't having a go at the immigrants. I was having a go at arseholes like you."

Let's test this theory against some of Gervais' actual material.

"I've got no problem with praying. I know loads of nice Christians and Moslems and Jews. And if one of my family is very ill, they always say 'I'll pray for them' and I say 'Thanks very much'; because it's a nice gesture. If they say 'We also cancelled the chemotherapy' I say 'Oh, don't do that'. Let's do the praying AND the chemotherapy. 'Cos that's the same result as just the chemotherapy. Let's definitely keep that one, shall we?"

I can think of four more or less plausible ways in which this could be read "ironically".

1: The speaker is a Christian. He is pretending to be a cynical atheist in order to expose and criticise the foolishness of atheism. The Wrong Thing is the idea that prayer does no good. The Right Thing is that the power of prayer is real. The audience laugh because they believe that praying for a cancer patient would do real, measurable good.

2: The comedian is a clever atheist, pretending to be a stupid one, in order to expose and criticise the wrong-headedness of the extreme New Atheist position. The Wrong Thing is his naive belief that Christians see prayer as an alternative to practical action. The Right Thing is that Christians are sensible pragmatic people with a sophisticated theological understanding of prayer and medical interventions going side by side.

3: The comedian is a nice atheist pretending to be a nasty one, in order to expose and criticise the cruelty of some anti-religious rhetoric. The Wrong Thing is to cynically mock people's sincere beliefs; the Right Thing would be to treat faith with respect, even if you don't share it. 

4: The speaker is an atheist, using situational irony to mock a contradiction in some Christian's behaviour. The Wrong Thing is the suggestion that Christians would even want to terminate a cancer patient's treatment because they had prayed for them. The Right Thing is that Christians want chemo as much as anyone else. This exposes and criticises the fact that Christians themselves don't really believe in the power of prayer.

He continues

"Do you remember a few years ago that terrible disaster in Oklahoma?...And I donated to the Red Cross, and I tweeted about it, with a link saying you can donate too. And one of those frivolous entertainment magazines from America tweeted 'Beyonce and Rhianna send prayers to Oklahoma.' And I tweeted back going 'Oh, I feel like a cunt now, I only sent money.'"

This is certainly ironic. He doesn't feel like a cunt. If anything he feels that the two singers are cunts. But what, in a more general sense, is the Wrong Thing in this case?

Is it Wrong to believe that money is more efficacious than prayer in the wake of a  disaster? In which case the Right Thing (which we agree on) is that spiritual help is sometimes just as good or better than practical action. You are troubled by many things, Ricky, but one thing is needful, and Beyonce has chosen the good part. 

Or is the Wrong Thing that he got annoyed by what someone said on Twitter? (The Right Thing would have been not to care.) 

Or is the Wrong Thing that he used the c-word? (The Right Thing would have been to send a politely worded e-mail.) 

I submit that there is no irony whatsoever in either passage. He is saying what he actually believes, and what he expects the audience to believe. "Christians say their prayers" is assumed to be just-funny, like flatulence, bottoms and the word "weasel".

Here is another, relatively harmless, section, about men's changing rooms.

"If I'm in a public place, I have a shower, one minute, towel, corner, pants on. But there's blokes walking around naked before the shower, talking to each other, after the shower, and there was one bloke, spent far too long in the shower, walked, no towel, dripping wet, up to the mirror, and started doing his hair..."

Right thing; wrong thing; irony, satire. If this were ironic, we would suppose that the comedian, who is relatively comfortable with nudity, is pretending to be very inhibited in order to hold prudish people up for ridicule. The Wrong Thing is his being bothered about a man brushing his hair with no underwear on, from which we can infer the Right Thing -- that gym showers are essentially nude spaces. 

I think there is probably a generational divide between men who are fairly relaxed about communal changing and men who are relatively embarrassed by it. It probably depends on what the practice at your old school was. This could certainly be the basis for situational comedy. (I could imagine a Mr Bean routine in which one guy does contortions to keep his towel around himself without noticing that none of the other chaps have anything on at all.) 

So far as I see, there is no irony here. He's saying what he actually thinks; insinuating that the uninhibited are actually exhibitionist. For the purposes of this kind of comedy, the whole idea of nakedness -- the mere brute fact that men have penises -- is Just Funny.

Look -- men's locker rooms. Ha-ha! 

A riff about Time Travel is more promising. People always imagine that if they had a time-machine, they would go back and kill Hitler. But this would be a bad choice for two reasons. No-one knows what the result of killing Hitler would really be. His death would necessarily change every other event in world history since 1889: we don't know what the end result would be. Gervais effects to be concerned that the death of Hitler would negatively impact on him personally.  "I wouldn't change anything even if I could" he explains "My life's too good!" And secondly, the infant Hitler looked the same as every other baby. ("Have you seen Hitler when he was a baby? Oh my god! Absolutely adorable.") So people who say they would kill Hitler are saying they would be prepared to strangled a beautiful baby. 

The Wrong Thing here is the suggestion that preserving your own comfortable life is more important than averting the holocaust. Gervais is presenting himself as meaner and more self-centred than he really is; with the implication that everyone else is mean and self-centred as well. And although he doesn't say so directly, there could be a slither of satire: even though time travel doesn't really exist, we all prioritise our own comfort over the possibility of a better future. Isn't "my life's too good" precisely the reason we don't take steps to avert climate disaster or abolish third world sweatshops?

If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that child would grow up totally evil, to become a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child? It's a good question: I seem to think I have heard it somewhere before. It's usually framed in the form of the Trolly Problem: there is a difference between wishing that someone was not alive and personally taking steps to kill them. Perhaps there shouldn't be, but there is. 

At any rate, there is no straightforward irony in the piece. "You wouldn't kill Hitler because he was cute" isn't quite being presented as a Wrong Thing; "Obviously you ought to kill Hitler" isn't self-evidently Right. 

It would be interesting to know if Gervais really did have had Genesis of the Daleks in mind when he talked about killing babies and wondered if some things might be better with Hitler than without him. He talks about the space-time continuum and worries that changing history might make him "a bit more ginger."

The "cute Hitler" observation is a set-up for a digression about the fact that he has a picture of the infant Hitler on his phone, and the conclusions that some people might draw from that. This turns into a grotesque excursion about pornography and pedophilia."What if I do masturbate over it? What if it's the only thing I masturbate over? There's no victim, no crime..." and so on, for several minutes.

No-one thinks that Ricky Gervais really uses historical photos pornographically. (SPOILER: I have never eaten a dog.) So is he engaging in social satire: exposing and criticising the gap between our laws and our values? Is he saying "There would be nothing wrong with masturbating over Hitler" because there obviously would be? Is he saying "It's a victimless crime" because the law takes the strongest possible view of any sexualisation of children? Is he pointing out that behaviour which most people would think of as completely depraved might, in fact, be technically legal; while actions which are in themselves pretty harmless might actually be against the law? Is he asking if there is any difference between the feelings of "yuck" which would make us hold back from smothering Hitler in his cradle and the feelings of "yuck" we get when a grown man starts going on and on about playing with himself?

No, of course he bloody isn't. It's mere low comedy. We laugh at the outrageousness, the taboo breaking, the bodily fluids. And the coining of the word "wankorium". 

I don't care for this kind of thing. I'm not bothered by the guy in the gym brushing his hair with no pants on. I've probably been that guy. But I am squicked out by jokes about "pictures dripping with forty years of cum". But some people evidently find it very funny indeed. 

The most troubling aspect of the show was the two routines about transexual people. You've almost certainly heard the lines quoted already:

"Oh, women. Women. Not all women. I mean the old fashioned women. You know, the ones with wombs. Those fucking dinosaurs. I love the new women we've been seeing lately. The new women. The ones with beards and cocks."

And then

"And now the old fashioned women are like 'Ooo, they want to use our toilets'.

'Why shouldn't they use your toilets?'


'They are ladies, look at their pronouns. What about this person isn't a lady?'

'His penis.'

'HER penis, you fucking bigot!'

You get the general idea.

To repeat myself, reiterate, and to say the same thing more than once: how is this ironic? Is the joke that Gervais is perfectly comfortable with transexual people and is pretending that he thinks anatomy determines gender in order to expose and criticise the attitudes of people who really do think that way? Are we to take it that "women don't have penises" and "trans women should not be allowed to use ladies' loos" are Wrong Things and everyone is laughing because  "trans women are women" is obviously Right?

That's not what's happening. The audience is not whooping and applauding a comedically wrong thing. They are whooping and applauding because they agree with the point being made. Gervais really thinks Christian prayer is a waste of time. He really thinks that men should cover themselves up in changing areas. And he really thinks that it is absurd that a person with a beard and penis might go by "she" and want access to a ladies' lavatory.

Satire involves distortion and exaggeration. But he is not satirising and distorting the so-called gender critical position. He is simply saying what they say, every day, in every newspaper and every social media outlet in the land, right before they complain about being silenced. It's the trans women, or their supporters, who are presented as grotesque, loud, sweary caricatures, screaming that anyone who doesn't see things their way is a fucking bigot. 

He knows that the material is problematic, because he goes back to it at the end of the act. He says that jokes are not a window to the comedians soul: a comedian might pretend to be right wing, left wing, clever, stupid -- whatever makes the joke funny. He says that when he jokes about famine and the holocaust, people know that he doesn't mean it: but when he jokes about "identity" they assume he does. This is all very fair comment. And then: 

"Full disclosure: in real life, of course, I support trans rights. I support all human rights, and trans rights are human rights. Live your best life. Use your preferred pronouns. Be the gender that you feel that you are. But meet me halfway, ladies: lose the cock."

I see what you did there. An amusing comic contradiction. I never swear: what the devil do you mean? The two things I hate most are racial prejudice and black people. Don't tell him, Pike!

That is the formula. Say something very reasonable and conciliatory. Slip in something very offensive at the end. Do an absurd improvisation on the offensive bit. Add that you don't really mean it. Rinse and repeat. 

It's okay, dog lovers, I didn't mean a word of it. 

I bloody well did! 

No, honestly, I'm kidding. 

No, I'm not. 

Refined practitioners can keep it up for weeks at a time.

If I tell a funny story about a bear who eats so much honey he gets stuck in the doorway of his house; or create a sketch about a man in a restaurant who shovels so much food into his mouth that he literally explodes, you might say that I was making fun of fat people. I would respond that the material is not merely laughing at people because of their size: I have used the idea of obesity as one component in a comedic situation. I'm not saying my mother-in-law is fat, but yesterday she went out in a green dress and a troop of Boy Scouts pitched camp on her. 

But what would I say if my act involved pointing at fat people, literally or metaphorically, and saying "Fat people are fat. Isn't it funny that fat people are fat. Ha ha, fatty lard arse."

I might say: fat people are Just Funny. People laughed. My duty is to make people laugh by any means necessary. All's fair in love and stand-up.

And I might be right. But I couldn't, in the same breath, deny that I was making fun of fat people. 

Of course the rapid changes to our understanding of gender could be the source of absurdity, incongruity, misunderstanding, embarrassment -- or, in short, jokes. Of course "Her penis" still sounds odd to many people. Of course we can make fun of trans people, and gender critical people when they do silly things. But this material isn't ironic or satirical. It relies on us agreeing that the proposition "Some people happen to be trans" is just funny. 

Which is pretty much the exact definition of transphobia. Voltaire me as many Voltaires as you like. You don't get to say "Isn't it funny that black people are black?" and then deny that your material is racist.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Black Joke

A joke is something which makes you laugh.

If something makes you laugh, it is a joke.

If something makes you laugh a lot, or makes a lot of people laugh, it is a good joke.

The question I wish to set before the class today is "Are sophisticated jokes better than simple jokes?"

The question I will turn to tomorrow will be "Are rude jokes ever okay?" with particular reference to the oeuvre of Mr Ricky Gervais and Mr Jimmy Carr. 

Here is the most sophisticated joke I know:

"I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day
To me it is palpable proof of God's existence a

It comes from a patter song by the legendary poet and chansonner Jake Thackray, in which a husband complains at very great and verbose length about the fact that his wife talks too much. ("She is one of those women who/will never use three or four words when a couple of thousand will easily do.") Jake's biographer and interpreter John Watterson (aka Fake Thackray) says that the first eight words constitute the best opening line of any song, ever. 

It's low comedy, of course. We laugh because the man has said a rude word -- the kind of rude word that little children laugh at in the playground (Flanders and Swann's slightly priggish skit on the demise of censorship in the '60s was called "pee poo belly bum drawers". ) But the bawdy remark ("I like women's arses") is followed by a very serious one: the attractiveness of women's bottoms proves that God exists. The punchline combines the sexual remark and the theological remark into the only Latin pun known to have appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test. 

"There must be a God because of human kindness, humming birds and lady's bottoms" is certainly an a posteriori argument -- a deduction based on empirical data, not pure logical necessity. But a posteriori literally means "based on what comes behind", and posterior is a posh euphemism for, well, derrierre. We laugh at the vulgarity; we laugh at the fact that a schoolboy word and a donnish word occur in the same sentence. And we laugh at the speed of the delivery: we don't quite have time to see what he's done before we're onto the next bit. The line break creates a tiny pause: it takes a fraction of a second before you realise Latin is being talked at you. (You hear it as "palpable proof of God's existence ay....posteriori." It's a variation on the hoary old "implied rhyme" trick -- "when the fellow was right in the midst of his frolics / the innkeeper grabbed him quite hard by the jacket". )

Here is the least sophisticated joke I know

What is the difference between a weasel and a stoat?
A weasel is weaselly recognised and stoat is stoatally different.

This joke won second prize in the Beaver Club Super Joker Competition at Clacton Butlins in 1975. It is a pun and nothing else. I suppose it is slightly funny that someone has given a silly answer to a sensible question. And the great James Thurber said that weasel is an intrinsically funny word. But the joke has no further point. The first syllables of two English words sound like the names of two animals. Ho-ho.

I like wordplay. I don't like old-fashioned word-play: I prefer current puns. I once included ten different word-plays in the same article, hoping that at least one would get a laugh, but sadly, no pun in ten did. But a decent pun generally has to involve something apart from the mere fact of one word sounding like another word. For example: 

a: Dramatic situation: One character plausibly misunderstands what the other has said. ("Four candles! 'Andles for forks!")

b: Outrageous contrivance: A hugely complicated set up, generating tension which is relieved by the punch line.  ("It's a nick-nack, Patty Jaques: give the frog a loan.")

c: Dissonance: the speaker says something which seems nonsensical for a second, but is de-coded once you understand the pun. ("The vicar told the bellringer, and the bellringer tolled the bell.")

d: Double entendre: ("I do declare the prince's balls get bigger every year!") If the speaker is a pompous individual who doesn't realise he has said something naughty, so much the better.

e: Sheer, breath-taking ingenuity. ("Kings Cross Station -- A royal lobster.")

But we're linguistic animals: even the most unsophisticated pun can raise a smile. Like it or not, it is just funny that some words sound like other words. And we're also sexual animals, and social animals. Like it or not, it is just funny that men and women do a particular thing in bed; and like it or not it is just funny that there are parts of the body and bodily functions that we are not supposed to talk about. And I am sorry to say we are cruel animals: it is just funny when someone slips over or steps on a rake. If laughter is the object of the exercise, Jake Thackray didn't need to bother with the Latin. He might just as well have said "I like women's bums, me." He could probably have raised a laugh by merely walking onto the stage and shouting "Bum!"

So: by low humour I mean laughing at farts, bums, swears, custard pies, and pratfalls. (Pratt is an old fashioned word for bottom. A pratfall means falling on your arse. Bottoms are an indispensable component of English comedy. Fundamental, even.) By sophisticated humour I mean jokes which involve some ingenuity, or which have some sort of point to them. 

If you don't get a sophisticated joke, there is a chance I can explain it to you. You might not laugh: but you will understand why other people did. But if you don't find it funny when the clown slips on the banana skin, there is nothing I can do for you.

Here is a joke I didn't get the first time I heard it.   

Sigmund Freud: In your professional opinion, what comes between fear and sex?
Carl Jung: Funf

There is an old story about a local council official charged with censoring the postcards in a little sea-side resort (which, in the 1950s, often contained risque jokes.) He adopted the policy of showing them to the Mayor's life. If she said they were too rude to sold in a respectable town, he judged them to be harmless fun and approved them. But if she said "Well, I don't see anything funny in that" then he decided they were genuinely filthy and didn't allow them. 

Doubtless, quite a lot of prudes pretend not to find dirty jokes funny when they really mean that they don't approve of them. When the Slitheen appeared in the Sarah-Jane Adventures, Clyde had to explain to Luke (a super intelligent alien clone) that "Farts are funny. They just are". But, by the same token, if Queen Victoria is genuinely Not Amused by bodily functions, then she isn't.

So. Low comedy is basically cheating. The low comedian points to things which are just-funny and tells us to laugh at them. The wit or the raconteur, on the other hand, points to things which are not funny and enables us to laugh at them. You don't need to go to a Carry On film in order to laugh at the existence of lavatories: you probably have one in your own house. But an evening with a clever humorist will allow you to see the funny sides of tax returns and terminal cancer. He creates a funniness where it did not exist before.

So: sophisticated comedy is cleverer than low comedy. But that isn't the same as saying it is better. It is certainly not the same as saying it is funnier. We can't argue that opera singing is better than pop singing merely because it is harder. We don't have to say that Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen -- who are never indecent and almost never farcical -- are intrinsically superior to Charlie Chaplin (who is the king of the custard pie and the banana skin) and Geoffrey Chaucer (who, among other things, makes jokes about sex, farts, excrement and genitals.) Granted, Chaplin doesn't just fall over, and Chaucer doesn't just say "fart". They put a lot of effort into setting up their jokes. Someone once asked Chaplin how to get a laugh out of a fat lady falling on banana skin. Chaplin said that you showed the lady. Then you showed the banana skin. Then you showed the lady walking towards the banana skin. Then you showed the lady seeing the banana skin, and stepping to one side to avoid it....and falling down a man hole. But however much set up there has been "Spek, sweete bryd, I noot nat where thou art" only works if we agree with Clyde that farts are intrinsically funny.

The only criterion on which we can judge a comedian is whether or not they are funny. So, if, as a general rule, we laugh more at wit than at bawdy, the argument is over. Excrement, penises, swear-words and people falling over are components from which jokes can sometimes be constructed; but it is just not funny to walk onto the stage wearing a fake phallus and talk about taboo subjects.

But unfortunately for us sophisticates, low comedy is funny. People laugh their posteriors off at the silliest, crudest, rudest material. That's every vaudevillian's defence of his blue material. People pay money to come and see me. You can't get a ticket. My show sells out weeks in advance. Listen to the laughter. 

So: it's just a matter of taste. I prefer the sophisticated joke-smith; you prefer the basic purveyor of smutty stories. And that's fine: I like opera and you like jazz. I'm a cat person and you're a dog person. What makes you laugh makes you laugh and what doesn't doesn't. Nothing is better than anything else.

Did you know that the reason comedians talk about "blue" jokes is that, in the days of censorship, unacceptable material was underlined in blue pencil? I certainly didn't. 

So: can I come up with any reason why it's better to tell a complicated joke with a set up, a punch line, and some word play that hadn't occurred to us before, than it is to walk onto the stage, drop your trousers and shout "Arseholes!" (granted that both get an equally big laugh)? 

Maybe we could say that high comedy does several things; where low comedy only does one. Satire is better than slapstick because it makes you laugh and also offers a critique of corrupt politicians. A clever pun is better than a simple one because it makes you laugh and also makes you think about the nature of language. This is not an argument that satire is funnier than slapstick. In fact, it's allowed to be less funny. Many of us forgive Private Eye and Newsthump for not making us laugh as much as they used to because we agree with their political points. The only justification for a custard-pie routine is if it makes you laugh an awful lot. If it doesn't, it's just boring. 

Not all satire is sophisticated. An alternative comic who walks onto the stage and says "That Rishi Sunak -- what a bastard!" is on exactly the same level as a clown who comes onto the stage and shows the audience his bum. If people laugh, then people laugh. 

This kind of argument is essentially puritanical. Pleasure is bad; or at any rate, not good. If people enjoy laughter, then laughter is probably bad. Since laughter is bad (or at any rate, not good) then the burden of proof is on the clown to demonstrate that in this particular instance the bad thing is justified by some higher purpose. But contrawise, if laughter is good (or at any rate not bad) then there is nothing in the world more harmless and innocent than a lot of people in a tent watching a man in a silly hat pulling down his pants and slipping on a banana skin.

Which makes comedy sound a lot like pornography.  If pleasure is bad in itself, then dirty books are bad unless they possess a quality called "artistic merit" which makes up for the sexual kicks people get from looking at them. But if sexual pleasure is good (or at any rate, not bad) then there is absolutely no objection to a room full of male persons watching a female person taking all her clothes off -- granted, obviously,  that everyone involved has given their informed consent.

Okay then. Let's not be puritans. Let's be Epicureans. Why read comic books when there's great literature out there. Why waste your time tittering at bum jokes when the great humorists and satirist are gathering dust in the public library. It's not wrong, exactly, to enjoy gassy larger and instant coffee, but if you'd only try real ale and artisan espresso, you'd enjoy it more. Give up Roy Chubby Brown for a month and work your way through Jonathan Swift and you won't ever go back. 

Is that pretentious and judgemental? Okay then, try this one. If you can watch a clown falling over and be transported into a state of hysterical ecstasy then you are less likely to spot all the things which are actually making you unhappy and do something about them. Circuses are good things. So is bread. But the government is very probably using both of them to keep us docile.

Laughter is the opium of the people. So is theatre and chocolate biscuits and folk music. And, indeed, opium. But if you are screaming in agony, opium may be precisely what you need. If the common people really have nothing else to do then it makes sense for them to sing and dance and screw. The poor invented music hall and clog dancing because the rich were hoarding all the champagne for themselves. The problem with capitalism is not that fun is bad, but that fun is unequally distributed. After the revolution, we'll all have the resources and spare time to go to as many comedy shows as we like. 

You can make the same argument from a more spiritual position. The only true pleasure and the only true happiness comes from union with God. Bounty bars, romantic love; the Marriage of Figaro and the Marx Brothers are all equally focussed on quick fix in the here and now. Pascal's Wager says abstain from laughter today so you can spend eternity laughing with the angels up in heaven. People living serious, spiritual lives are much happier than those living frivolous worldly ones. Too much laughter makes baby Jesus sad. It makes you sad in the long and infinite term. 

But these are arguments again all comedy whatsoever. If we monks have taken a vow to abstain from laughter, then P.G Wodehouse is just as off-limits as fart-gags. But if we are allowed to tell jokes in the cloister, then why is a sophisticated story more holy than a playground joke? Might it not be that a good honest dick joke is a good deal holier than a Wildean paradox? Low comedy laughs at the actual facts of the human condition; the way in which God decided to put incorruptible souls in flesh suits which piss and shit and have oddly shaped bits dangling off them. Wits and raconteurs created cruel paradoxes to show off their own superiority. Mr C.S Lewis thought you could extrapolate the whole of Christian theology from the existence of rude jokes and ghost stories. 

"But we monks -- we Christians -- are supposed to be very pure. And what you call low humour is really just laughing about impurity. We don't talk about our private parts or bodily functions or sexual immorality; and we only speak of God with respect. And the proper response to cruelty or misfortune, real or imagined, is sympathy and empathy. We don't laugh is someone slips on his arse, we offer him a cupo of tea and check he's all right. You are right to draw an analogy between comedy shows and strip clubs. Men ought not to be looking at ladies breasts for enjoyment. And they ought not to be laughing at indecent stories, either. Some things may be just funny. But some of the things which just funny are just wrong."

And that brings us up against a brick wall. The only justification for coarse, rude, silly, or cruel comedy is that coarseness, rudeness, silliness and cruelty are just funny. But equally, the only objection to them is that they shouldn't be. You shouldn't joke about certain things, because there are certain things that you shouldn't joke about. And puritanism will sweep the clever and sophisticated away along with the simple and crude. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Empire of Light

Bristol Arts Diary: Empire of Light

Friday, December 23, 2022

Tales of the Galaxy

I first encountered the Micronauts in the back pages of Star Wars Weekly.

Star Wars Weekly was a black and white comic which ran from 1977-1983 in the UK. (In May 1980 it unsurprisingly changed its name to Empire Strikes Back Weekly, and went monthly the following November.) For the first twelve issues it reprinted the Marvel Comic Book version of the original movie, and then launched straight into the "new" stories -- giant rabbits, cyborg bounty hunters, and all. The twenty monthly pages of American material had to be eked out at the rate of only about five pages a week; and the rest of the space was taken up with text features and comic-strips from Marvel's back-catalogue. The supporting material was branded as Tales of the Galaxy. Doctor Who Weekly would go with Tales From The Tardis a couple of years later.

The back-up stories in those early issues were mostly drawn from US Marvel's black and white anthology titles. Something printed in black-and-white and including text features was regarded as a magazine as opposed to a comic, and therefore exempt from the still influential Comics Code Authority. Children couldn't be corrupted by men's bottoms, vampires, marital infidelity and the word "damn" if they encountered them in publications costing a dollar as opposed to only twenty five cents. It made sense that the editors of UK Marvel would seek for non-superhero, raygun-and-robot material to fill up the blank pages of the Star Wars comic, but it is a little surprising that they went for the more "adult" end of the parent company's output. Perhaps they thought that older kids and adults would be interested in a comic book based on a blockbuster movie? Or perhaps they just grabbed anything they could find that had the word "star" in the title.


Issues #6 - #14 serialised a story called Man Gods From Beyond the Stars, originally published in Marvel Preview #1 (Feb 1975). It is certainly "mature", if by mature you mean long, dull and ponderously over-written. It is narrated in internal monologue by one of the subordinate characters, who keeps saying things like:

"I will not trespass the computers cold domain of facts and figures. I will concern myself only with wonders, with the exhilarated human response to this white moonbeam riding needle through the dark eye of space toward I know not what."

Let that be a dreadful warning about what will happen if you spend your formative years reading nothing but Stan Lee.

The story is not at all bad, but it is a not at all bad curtain-raiser to a series that never went any further. I suppose the point of a title like Marvel Preview was to provide homes for comics which Marvel had paid for but never published. It was a mix of Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, shot through with an unhealthy dose of Eric Von Daniken, who we are assumed to take very seriously indeed. It's written by Doug Moench, as practically everything was in those days, but it was "conceived and plotted" by Roy Thomas, Stan Lee's representative on earth.

Although it has a radically different tone, the theme is strikingly similar to Kirby's Eternals, which came out only a year later (July 1976). We know that, for Stan, a concept and a plot might amount to not much more than a one line synopsis. ("What if Doc Ock kidnapped Aunt May?") If it turned out that Roy Thomas "dreamt up" the Man-Gods story, handed it to Doug Moench a Stan Lee style pitch, been unsatisfied with the results, and passed the same idea over to Jack Kirby, I wouldn't be entirely surprised. "What if archaeologists in Peru found conclusive evidence that prehistoric earth had been visited by space aliens -- and that they were about to return?" would serve equally well as an elevator pitch for Man Gods From Beyond the Stars as it would for The Eternals.

But probably they are independently riffing on the same cultural meme. The New Age adjacent counter culture in the 1970s may not have literally believed that aliens built the pyramids; but pyramids, aliens and flying saucers went together on many a hippy poster and album cover. In retrospect, one can detect strong whiffs of the First Kingdom (which launched in 1974). It also anticipates Elfquest (1978): the Wolfriders were also alien space travellers who encountered primitive humans. Alex Nino's swirly whafty panel work at times feels quite a lot like Wendy Pini's.

So. Aliens come to earth in huge dramatic space ships -- curvaceous, womb-like, but not quite saucer-shaped. They appear human, and although they speak in long, wordy monologues, they have normal human feelings and concerns. (Very different from Kirby's Celestials who it was quite impossible to eff or scrute.) The leader has a huge winged helmet, somewhere between Marvel's Thor and the old Mobil logo. The story is told from the aliens' point of view which rather undermines the whole mythological angle. It's pretty much just a tale of a starship encountering some primitives and carelessly breaching the Prime Directive. (They do actually call it the Prime Directive.) They have visited the earth once before and are checking up on how everything is going. (You might, if you felt so inclined, call them the Second Host.) The earth is populated by cave-men with spears and fur underpants who instantly assume that the space travellers are gods and exclaim "Kneel to them, they have come down from the sun in a bright stick of flame."

Meanwhile, in the present day -- 1975 -- two archeologists are examining Peruvian carvings and slowly coming to the conclusion that they preserve a race memory about an alien visitation in the remote past. Despite the Von Daniken branding that's all the strip has to say about mythology, archaeology and religion: I suppose this angle would have been played up in subsequent episodes.

The aliens aren't meant to interfere with the cave-men, but the their leader transgresses the rule; first to rescue a cave-lady who is about to be killed by a saber-tooth tiger, and then to have a brief romantic encounter with her. (The rest of the crew thinks he wants to dissect her, which he distinctly doesn't.) They decide they had better leave in a hurry...but not before disclosing the Big Secret. Many years ago, their space civilisation was involved in a Great Big War, during which they bred a race of savage super soldiers. Once peace broke out, they had to retire the clone army, and so they rehoused it on earth. The cavemen are their descendants. (It isn't mentioned whether they also re-homed any hairdressers or telephone sanitisers.) The aliens gift one of the cave-men with a device which contains their knowledge and history. After the space ship has taken off, it is revealed that the cave lady who the leader befriended is pregnant...

Clearly the archeologists are going to discover that most human beings are alien orcs, but that a few of us are descended from the higher life-form. And presumably someone will discover the alien computer-thing as well, and the aliens will come back. A Third Host. H.P Lovecraft arguably came up with the idea of space-gods, and there is something a little Lovecraftian about the revelation that humans are not really human after all. (Who now remembers the Terry Nation story in which it turns out that primitive humans were taken to a planet called Skaro and therefore WE-ARE-THE-DALEKS!!!?)

I think that in pulp science fiction, the idea is often more important than the actual story. A title like Man Gods From Beyond The Stars can have a haiku like poetry that no-story can ever live up to. (For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky. The Brute That Shouted Love At The Heart Of An Atom.) The Neil Adams cover (which didn't appear in the Star Wars Weekly reprint) represents a myth which Doug Moench struggles to embody in a narrative. A man in shiny golden armour, floating on some sort of anti-grav device; a glowy flying saucer behind him; cave men cowering in religious awe... Von Daniken was a hoaxer, but he created a compelling meta-mythology. Some people prefer space-gods to actual gods. If God was an astronaut then astronauts may be gods. 

From issue 15 to issue 53, the back up strip in Star Wars Weekly was called Starlord.

Everyone has now heard of Starlord because of his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the character in Guardians of the Galaxy has very little in common with the 1970s comic book version. He first appeared in Marvel Preview #4 (Jan 1976) in a story written by Steve Engelhart; but was substantially rebooted by Chris Claremont and John Byrne in Marvel Preview # 11 (June 1977), The Engelhart strip has some aspirations to be proper serious science fiction; the Chris Claremont version is pretty standard super-heroic fare, with a distinct Flash Gordon flavour. Star Wars Weekly skipped the abortive origin story and dropped the reader straight into Claremont's space opera. This meant that we readers had a sense that we were joining the story part way through: but "hopelessly confused" was the default state for British comic book readers in the seventies.

The hero in each case is one Peter Quill. Peter is a fairly common American euphemism for a man's penis. And the word Quill is a slightly less common euphemism for the same body part. On his first appearance, Peter Quill was a bit of a dick. Creator Steve Engelhart said this is literally what he had in mind when he named the character. The "mature" in "mature readers" often turns out to mean "adolescent."

Engelhart conceived of the strip as a multi-part epic, during which John Thomas would have grown from a generally appalling individual into a proper hero. (The movie version chose to stick with the "appalling individual" angle, but passed on the personal development.) Each episode would have taken place on a different solar planet; and these adventures would reflect the planet's astrological meaning. Engelhart took astrology very seriously: his text intro assures us that he has tried it out and it "just works". But after completing only one issue, he defected to DC Comics, where he re-invented Batman ten years before Frank Miller did. The Starlord character was handed over to Chris Claremont and John Byrne who turned it into a very straight-forward yarn, in which our hero takes on a mob of evil slavers in a generic Galactic Empire.

Cock-jokes apart, the extant Moench episode is clearly trying to appeal to a relatively grown-up audience: Quill's family and school are several shades more realistic than Peter Parker's. There is a strong suggestion of marital infidelity, at a time when the comics code still theoretically banned any mention of divorce. There is something mysterious about Quill's parentage; his dad takes off when he is a baby and his mum is murdered by the occupants of interplanetary craft. Naturally, he swears eternal vengeance; he becomes an astronaut because it is the career which offers the greatest chance of saying "My name is Peter Quill; you killed my mother; prepare to die" to an alien reptile. While working on a 2001-style space station, he encounters a white-bearded figure who pointedly denies being God. The god-like figure gives him a silly costume and a ray-gun, and says that from now on he will be "a" Starlord. So despite a certain novelistic panache, what we actually have is a Marvel take on the Green Lantern Corps. The Guardian of the Sun giving an elemental gun to Peter Quill is not too far removed from Merlin giving the magic amulet and staff to Brian Braddock; or indeed Billy Batson learning his magic word from Shazam. And it has a certain Jedi Fizz about it.

The Claremont/Byrne stories don't have anything like the edge of the Engelhart one: they read disconcertingly like an extended episode of the New X-Men. But they are a much better fit to Star Wars Weekly. We are now in a Galactic Empire, where people travel casually between planets. There are pleasure worlds and throne worlds and an emperor with a wicked uncle. The wicked uncle is consorting with the slave traders to seize the throne. The slave traders are, astonishingly, referred to as Sith Lords, and are the same species that killed Starlord's mummy. (When he realises this "The hate is a rising crimson tide within him, a lust, a need, that will not be denied.") There are no lightsabers or force-wands, but Starlord ends up fighting the Emperor's wicked uncle with a sword. "There is an unreal quality to the combat" interjects the melodramatic narrator "That the fate of galaxy spanning empire...should be determined by two men duelling with swords...on a ledge a mile above the ground." It occurs to many of us that the fate of a different galaxy was determined by two men duelling on an armoured battled station; but although the comic came out in the summer of 1977, no-one seems interested in playing up the Star Wars link. (The Marvel Premier cover blurb went with 'In the tradition of Robert Heinlein' which didn't amuse Robert Heinlein one little bit.) 

Claremont ties up the previous episode's lose ends in a much more comic-booky style. In the old story, Quill's father accused his mother of seeing other men; in this one, Quill turns out to be the Son of the Emperor of the Galaxy. The Emperor says that when he left earth he used a device to erase Mrs Quill's memories, which is a pretty strong signal that we're looking at a ret-con. Star War's weekly uses "I am your father!" as the title of an episode. 

Starlord turns down the chance to become emperor of the galaxy, and decides to carry on wandering around the universe in his ship called Ship. "Let's go carve ourself a legend", he says; the sort of knowing, downbeat ending that seemed very classy in the days when one in three superhero stories ended with the good guy saying "Let's go home." In the months after Empire Strikes Back I built a conclusion to the trilogy in my head in which Luke Skywalker is offered the job of Emperor and rejects it: this must have been where I got it from. The episode is called The Hollow Crown. Richard II was our set text at O Level, and I half-believed Shakespeare was quoting Starlord.

There is a distinct feeling that the second story wipes out the first one and leaves subsequent writers with a blank slate: which makes one wonder what the point of the exercise was. Englehart's astrological cock-head was not entirely like any other character: Claremont's is a guy in space ship travelling around the universe having adventures. (The third story focusses entirely on the fact that "Ship" is female and sentient, which is just about the only distinct thing about the character.) Englehart says that Marv Wolfman gave him the name Starlord but gave him carte blanche to create any character he wanted to go with it. In 1967, Stan Lee had created a character called Captain Mar-Vell purely so that the company could maintain copyright on the name. One wonders if there was some legal reason why there had to be a Marvel comic called Star Lord. 

Man-Gods From Beyond The Stars played with idea that gods were aliens and aliens were God. Starlord presents astrology as a form of mysticism with scientific collateral. Engelhart's curtain raiser starts with pictures of stars and galaxies, and suddenly jumps to the Biblical start of Bethlehem which was (we are assured) an astrological conjunction. The idea of science-as-magic and magic-as-science sits alongside space-sword fights and the idea of science fantasy. 

Which brings us to our third strip. It arrived in Star Wars Weekly in issue 5 and lasted until issue 13. It came from the same black and white magazine that Starlord and Man Gods did, and it also had the word Star in the title. It was much more explicitly a mixture of fantasy and science fiction than either of the other strips, and the title was much cooler than anything in the comic.

It begins with a war. The hero's people are slaughtered, and his father sends him on your actual Quest. "The Gods have other paths for you to walk" he explains "Ways that will lead you to a time when you will return to your homeworld, to a day when it has been prophecied that you will see with more than your eyes and the sword you bear in blistered hands will glow with the fires of the stars." After his father's passing he is adopted by a Wizard. In case we are in any doubt as to the story's Epic Pretensions, the hero's people are called the Ithacon and the wizard is named Delphos. The hero himself rejoices in the name Prince Wayfinder.

Wayfinder speaks fluent Dungeons & Dragons. ("You would drive me from you, father? You wouldst divest me of my honour as well as my birthright?") He wears armour that would not look out of place in John Boorman's Camelot. But Ithacon the wizard speaks a sort of Ben Grimm jive ("here's the teacher, kiddo, c'mere while I fix it on your head") and has a home full of Modern Technology. It turns out that Wayfinder, and the aliens who have wiped out his people, and all the other races of the Galaxy are distant descendants of a human race that colonised the galaxy thousands of years ago. (Presumably, pre-empting Battlestar Galactica, by several years the "homeworld" where he will find the skin-blistering glowy sword is The Earth.) The wizard is simply an incredibly long-lived mutant human who has witnessed the whole show. He dies, right on cue, at the end of the first episode (or "stave") and leaves Wayfinder with a massive starship and a robot helmsman called Alkinoos. In "stave" two, they arrive on a forest covered world where they are menaced by evil plants and encounter a space-witch called Kirke (geddit?) whereapon the story comes to an end. There is a text piece by the writer in Marvel Preview #7, begging readers to write to the editor and demand more episodes. No more episodes were forthcoming.

The artwork has a slightly out of control detail to it -- the first issue is credited to P Craig Russell (as inker) and the second to Keith Giffen (his first published work.) It recalls Druillet's Lone Sloan and anticipates Kev O'Neil's Nemesis the Warlock. The  vast spaceship at the beginning of "stave" two seems part Star Destroyer and part gothic cathedral. Both episodes came out too early to be under the influence of Lucas, but the writer has drunk from a similar well. Dying fathers. Quests. Swords that glow. Wizards with spaceships.

The title catches the space fantasy atmosphere as well as anything ever has. Wayfinder and Delphos have something of Arthur and Merlin about them, and the title of the strip is The Sword In The Star. It was, of course, written by Bill Mantlo. It introduced a gun touting space racoon called Rocky. And some years in the future, it would transpire that Arcturus Rann is Prince Wayfinder's very distant descendent.

I first encountered Micronauts in the back pages of Star Wars weekly. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

Pledge £1 for each essay

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

They Came From Inner Space


Toy Story

How Toys Become Real

I've Never Seen Star Wars

Source Criticism

Tales From The Galaxy

Source Criticism

I was going to give this series of essays an academic sounding title. A Case Study In the Reception History Of Star Wars, perhaps. Defamiliarizng Lucas: Star Wars Observed Through a Mantlovian Lens. Or if that was too pretentious maybe Micronauts Considered As  Fan Fiction. Or something blunter. What Star Wars Looked Like In 1978

That was the excuse for dusting off these very old comics. I wanted to celebrate the best bad comic book I have ever read: but I also wanted to revisit that forgotten world when Star Wars was just one movie; when Darth Vader was not Luke's daddy and it wasn't squicky for Leia and Luke to go all kissy-kissy. When Steve Gerber looked at Star Wars, he saw silly hats and silly names. When Terry Nation looked at Star Wars he saw terrorists fighting fascists. When some advertising creative for a confectionary company saw Star Wars, he saw temples and cod-mysticism. What did Bill Mantlo see? And why did his version resonate with me in a way that Battlestar Galactica and even the Empire Strikes Back never quite did? 

But this plan collides with a very inconvenient fact. Bill Mantlo, like Terry Nation and Eddie Large, had never seen Star Wars. In a 1979 interview he is quite clear on this point:

"Star Wars too, had some effect, but not much. I saw the movie well after I conceived the Micronauts, and was surprised at how closely the two meshed."

Well: maybe so. But if Mantlo had an eleven year old son, he could hardly fail to have been aware of Star Wars  -- to know, at the very least that the idea of Space Fantasy had come back into the zeitgeist. And as a jobbing employee of the Marvel Bullpen, he must have known that there was a comic book adaptation of a block-buster movie in the works. 

His preview essay in FOOM magazine presents the initial five characters -- Rann, Acroyear, Bug, Time Traveller and Marionette -- very much as an incoming superhero team not entirely unlike the Fantastic Four. Only when Mego sent him a complete set of Micronauts figures did he become aware of  Microtron, Biotron and Baron Karza, and only at that point did his story become inescapably like Star Wars. And whichever Mego employee designed the Karza figure must have been well aware of George Lucas's big-bad. So even if Mantlo really hadn't seen Star Wars his comic book character was inspired by a toy that was inspired by the movie. Vader once removed.

Did Bill pass the toys on to his son, we ask ourselves? Did Adam Mantlo become the only kid in America with as good a collection of Micronauts as the lad in the telly adverts? And did Bill Mantlo, like A.A Milne, watch him play with the figures and borrow themes for his stories?

But if Star Wars was only an indirect influence on Micronauts, Mantlo happily lays claim to two more illustrious predecessors:

Kirby's 'Fourth World' was incredibly inspirational, though, I always felt, erratic and confusing, spread over five or more books....I guess (Micronauts) closest parallels are again Kirby's 'Fourth World' and the Thor comic stuff he and Stan did back in the mid-sixties. Yeah, a lot of Thor. 

The Fourth World was, of course, the interlinked series of mythological super-hero comics which Jack Kirby created for DC after he flounced out of Marvel in 1970. (It consists of The New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle and sometimes Jimmy Olsen -- which doesn't add up to five or more.) A civil war between good and evil deities spills onto the earth. The leader of the evil gods is Darkseid, pronounced Dark Side. The hero, Orion, is Dark Side's son. He wears a helmet to conceal his evil face. There is a non-specific theological power called the Source. 

When Kirby's acolyte Mark Evanier saw Star Wars, he instantly declared it Kirbyesque. Mantlo says that Star Wars was "derivative of a lot of Stan Lee's work." Both claims are probably overstated: Lucas, after all, was drawing on the movie serials and pulp science fiction which Stan and Jack had grown up with. Certainly no-one envisages George Lucas waking up one morning and saying "I have it -- since I can't get the rights to Darkseid, I will disguise him as Darth Vader, in the same way I disguised Flash Gordon as Luke Skywalker." But it is hard not to think that Darkseid is one ingredient in the literary soup from which Darth Vader was drawn. Stan Lee's Doctor Doom was clearly another component. So if Mantlo's villain was based on an action figure that was based on Darth Vader; he was also based on one of the comic book villains who Darth Vader was based on.

Thanos was rampaging around the back pages of Star Wars Weekly at about the same time as Baron Karza, and Thanos is about as transparent a copy of Darkseid as it is possible to imagine. 

Astonishingly, when Mantlo first pitched the idea of Micronauts to Stan Lee and Jim Shooter, they seriously entertained the possibility of asking Jack Kirby himself to draw it. Which makes for a pretty depressing counter-factual. After his acrimonious split with Stan Lee, Kirby takes his great mythological epic to DC. It meets with an ecstatic critical reception and mediocre sales, and is cancelled after only a dozen issues. After working on some other, lacklustre titles, he returns to Marvel with his cosmic tail between his legs, and has another shot at his magnum opus in the form of the Eternals. Marvel kill that off after only nineteen issues. He works on the widely derided Devil Dinosaur and the mildly diverting Machine Man -- and is offered the chance to illustrate a self-confessed rip-off of his masterpiece, written by a self-confessed Stan Lee impersonator, and based on a series of toys. 

In the event, Kirby went to Ruby-Spears animation and did storyboards for Thundarr the Barbarian (with a similarly disgruntled Steve Gerber) which is only slightly less depressing. He did end up illustrating a line of toys, Superpowers, for DC, but that was a decade later, as a kind of favour when he needed the money. But the Kirby who didn't illustrate Micronauts was still J*A*C*K K*I*R*B*Y. He would not have quite been at the height of his powers, but he still had at least Captain Victory and Hunger Dogs inside him. It's unlikely he would have really agreed to work with a writer. 

Astonishingly, a few issues of Micronauts were pencilled by Steve Ditko. They weren't very good.

It is pretty weird, in 2022, to hear Bill Mantlo talking of Kirby as a fellow-creator, and criticising New Gods for being incoherent. I can't help thinking about Ernie Wise improving Romeo and Juliet: "Shakespeare did it very well; but I am going to do it just that little bit better." But in 1977, Stan Lee was an editor, not an icon; and Jack Kirby was an artist, not a martyr. Star Wars was only a movie.

Vader looked like Darkseid. Karza looked like Vader. Vader looked like Doom. Darkseid looked like Thanos. Perhaps that's to say no more than that Lee and Kirby and Lucas and Mantlo and Jim Starlin and someone at the Mego corp were working within a genre, a genre in which villains have black capes and disfigured faces and metal masks and estranged sons. Perhaps Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung were right all along and if you try to imagine Ultimate Evil you come up with Darth Vader because that's what Ultimate Evil looks like.

What did Star Wars look like in 1977?  Like a tube of sweets. Like a man with a bucket over his head. Like Muffit the space dog. You don't have to have seen a movie to be under its influence. The Beatles influenced thousands of people who had never been to a Beatles concert. Northern colloquialisms. Sexual freedom. Bright colours. Psychedelia. Meditation. Even the straights who hated those things were affected by the prevailing atmosphere. "In Minnesota, even the atheists are Lutheran. It's the Lutheran God they don't believe in." Something in the atmosphere seeped from a comic to a movie to some toys and back again. 

A space-traveller who is also a god. Ancient prophecy. Priests. The Enigma Force. A Dark Lord. A rebellion. Robots. Swords. Mantlo may not have seen Star Wars, but he grokked the idea of science fantasy. Alone of all the Star Wars wannabees, Micronauts had The Fizz.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Monday, December 19, 2022

I've Never Seen Star Wars

Tuesday 27 December 1978: Star Wars opens in the UK. 

Monday 2nd Jan 1978: The BBC transmits the first episode of a new TV show. It is about a group of rebels, resisting and trying to overthrow an evil empire. I'm sorry: an evil Federation. There are ray guns and robots and pursuit ships and a hidden computer at the center of the universe. And there's a villain with a disfigured face and black mask and a bionic hand who says things like "I am your death!" at the good guy. Terry Nation swore that when he created Blake's 7, he hadn't seen Star Wars. And indeed, the tone could hardly have been more different. It went out at 7pm on Monday nights, a slot otherwise occupied by Angels (a medical soap) and The Rockford Files (a detective show). The adult slot meant that it came in for quite a lot of ridicule: thanks to Terry Wogan and Rowan Atkinson, Blake's 7 is a by-word for "terrible TV" in some circles to this day. Nation's previous series, Survivors, about a pandemic wiping out 99% of the population of England, was very dark, very adult, and shown after the kids had gone to bed. The crew of Blake's 7 are unambiguously terrorists. Good guys die with some regularity. The first episode shows the hero being brainwashed and framed for pedophilia. And yet: watch Travis's big fascist boots march into Servalan's office and try not to think of Darth Vader.

We sometimes call naughty children "menaces". And "menace" rhymes with Dennis. So there is no reason on earth that an English cartoonist and an American cartoonist should not have independently created a character called Dennis the Menace. What is slightly surprising is that they both did so in March 1961. 

There is no reason on earth why a very well established British TV writer and a hot young US film director should not have independently come up with the idea of a space-opera series in which the Empire were the baddies and the Rebels were the goodies. There is equally no reason why Terry Nation could not have heard someone talking in a bar about a new American movie and found himself musing about what he would do with a similar premise.

But perhaps it was Steam Engine Time. Perhaps society had grown tired of Captain Kirk and Dan Dare patronising everyone; perhaps we no longer imagined Space as the continuation of the British Commonwealth by other means. George Lucas started Star Wars with Vietnam in his mind, and Terry Nation's thoughts were never far away from World War II. Perhaps it was just the right time to tell stories about rebellions. If it hadn't been Star Wars and Blake's 7 it would have been something else.

April 1978: The legendary Steve Gerber dropped a two-issue Star Wars parody into his Cerebus-inspiring Howard the Duck comic-book series. Howard is pulled out of the main storyline into what looks a little like a dream sequence, making one suspect that Marvel had demanded or advised that Gerber incorporate the parody. The bad guy wants to fill the universe with bland shopping centres. He is completely without humour, and Howard has to learn to channel "The Farce" to defeat him. (The baddies are overcome by "their inability to accept the ultimate ridiculousness of themselves and the cosmos.") He befriends two robots, one of whom (2-2-2-2, or TuTu, for short) looks like a trash-can. He borrows a spaceship called the Epoch Weasel, and destroys the evil Emporium with double-entry bookkeeping. The first episode is called Star Waargh; the second, May The Farce Be With You. (A sequel, back in naturalistic mode, is more promisingly called "The Night After You Saved The Universe".)

Steve Gerber was incapable of being unfunny; and the speech beginning  “Within hours, as bees reckon time, we shall bulldoze the universe and build on its ruins a shopping centre unrivalled in its crassness” made me laugh out loud. But it is striking that he has nothing whatsoever to say about Star Wars. A few issues previously, when Howard the Duck learns the ancient art of Quack-Fu, Gerber makes serious points about cultural appropriation and the sanitisation of violence. But when he looks at Star Wars, he sees only trash-can and gas-masks. 

Saturday 8th July, 1978:  Two second division comedians, Syd Little and Eddie Large, do a turn on BBC variety show called Seaside Special, alongside the Brotherhood of Man, Sacha Distell and Schwaddywaddy. (The show happens in a tent. By the seaside. In the summer.) 

Syd and Eddie's act consists of a nerdy little man trying to sing a song or give a talk, and a silly fat man interrupting him with corny jokes and bad impressions. This is what passed for entertainment before YouTube. In this particular skit, poor Syd was trying to tell the audience about a new film called Star Wars; while Eddie appears dressed in a dustbin, and then with a bucket on his head. At one point he appeared wielding one of those off-brand lightsabers you could buy in toy shops.

"It is called a Force Wand."


"Wait til you see where I am going to force it."

A representative cross-section of Seaside Special viewers around the age of twelve disapproved of the skit. Supersonic Syd described Star Wars as a film about "a big planet that wants to destroy a little planet", and claimed that Artoo Deetoo was the true star. The sample was offended. They were daring to to parody the sacred text, but they had obviously never seen it. 

Monday 23rd October 1978: The penultimate Season of the Tomorrow People. Human beings are being eaten by alien life-forms disguised as anoraks. Or possibly a cursed drum was calling an alien Hitler back to earth. Recollections, as the Queen said, may vary. But there must have been some special reason that a middle-class geek was watching ITV. 

The advert break includes a now legendary advertisement for Trebor Refreshers. Trebor Refreshers are little sherbet candies, a bit like love-hearts, but without the love. I think you can still get them. The advert featured an elderly actor (Derek Farr) doing what was, in fairness, a pitch-perfect impersonation of Alec Guiness. He tells a young lad that "the time has come for you to learn about...the Fizz." He hands the younger actor a tube of sweeties, which ignite into a light sabre, or possibly even a Fizz Beam. "When will I get a chance to use it?" asks the young initiate, whereupon a heavy-breathing silhouetted bad-guy appears, also with a glowing swordy thing. "Now would seem as good a time as any." End of advert.

Fair play to which ever creative spotted that a tube of sweets feels quite satisfying in a kid's hand, and tried to set up a subconscious connection between the sweeties and the iconic weapon. Or perhaps they just wanted an excuse to use "May The Fizz be With You" as a slogan. They normally went with The Fizz That Gives You Whizz which we assume was not one of Salman's. Badges with the slogan May The Fizz Be With You are now sought after collectors items. 

A representative cross-section of eleven year olds who had been annoyed by Little and Large approved of the Trebor advert, to the extent of supplying Refreshers to meetings of the East Barnet Lower School Jedi Knights Club. It had a quality that I can only describe as Jedi Vibes. Someone had watched Star Wars, and spotted one of the things which was awesome about it, and gently turned it into a joke which the fans could share. 

The advert appears to take place in some kind of Temple; and the Obi-Wan figure is on a throne. This is how I still imagine Real Jedi to be. I am still vaguely disappointed that neither The Phantom Menace nor The High Republic capture the magic of the Trebor Refreshers advertisements.

What do you see when you see Star Wars? Rebels fighting fascists? Silly shiny robots with silly shiny names? Dustbins and buckets? Or a vaguely eastern confection of mentors, mysticism and shadows?

The Chrome? Or the Fizz?

Dec 1977: Star Wars
Sep 1978: First Issue of Micronauts
Nov 1978: Lord of the Rings
Dec 1978: Superman: The Movie
Apr 1979: Battlestar Galactica 
July 1979: Arabian Adventure
Sep 1979: Alien
Dec 1979:  Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Aug 1980: Buck Rogers 
Dec 1980: Hawk the Slayer
Feb 1981:  Battle Beyond the Stars
Apr 1981: Excalibur
Jun 1981: Dragonslayer
Jul 1981: Clash of Titans 
Apr 1982: Conan the Barbarian
Aug 1982: Beastmaster
June 1982: Blade Runner
July 1982: Tron
Dec 1982 Dark Crystal
June 1983: Return of the Jedi
May 1984: Final Bill Mantlo issue of Micronauts

In that great blank space between Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, many things were offered as The Next Star Wars. None of them were. I recall a very dated attempt to revive the Sinbad/Arabian Nights genre optimistically writing "Like Star Wars, but with Flying Carpets" across the posters. Things like Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been in production for years, but still seemed to be riding the Star Wars wave. The Black Hole and Buck Rogers were clearly created partially with Star Wars in mind. Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrived in the UK before Star Wars, and are somehow part of the same moment. People at the time talked about Star-Wars-and-Close-Encounters-Of-The-Third-Kind as if they were a thing, which makes about as much sense as talking about Casablanca-and-Bambi. I suppose to a muggle, they were equally part of that crazy impenetrable thing called science friction. 

I remember a school-friend's very rich elder brother took us all to see Battlestar Galactica in a big London cinema. I dutifully enjoyed the little red space-ships and shiny bad guys, but even then I knew that little red space ships and shiny bad guys weren't what Star Wars was about. (The ultra-low-wave surround sound gimmick, which was supposed to make the theatre physically shake, was distinctly underwhelming.) The Black Hole had spaceships and a cute robot and went mystical at the end, but was merely boring. Buck Rogers had space ships and a cute robot but was mostly silly. 2001: A Space Odyssey got a big screen re-release. That had space ships, mysticism and classical music, but on the whole I preferred the original Jack Kirby version (//Irony//) When Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers emerged on UK TV, I couldn't quite be bothered to watch them. 

Hollywood did, eventually, try to get beneath the chrome and serve up some fizz: but they largely identified "fizz" with the Hero's journey. There was a glut of fantasy quest movies; some very good; some very not good. Swords and shards glinted. Prophets prophesied and chosen ones got chosen. Dark Lords fell like nine-pins. There were princesses, comical companions, clockwork owls and English actors who's shoulders had been tapped by the Queen. Star Wars is a myth set in space, they said, so let's go one better and sell the punters a myth not set in space. 

And indeed, Star Wars with no space ships is a much better proposition than space ships with no Star Wars. It is much more a fantasy story which happens to be set in space than a space-story which happens to have fantasy elements. But it turns out that, without the chrome, the fizz goes flat pretty quickly. The biggest lie that Joseph Campbell sold the world is that the Hero's Journey has power in and of itself, as opposed to being a hook on which a powerful story can sometimes be hung. And the joke is that Lucas himself moved on: when the Empire Strikes Back arrived, the one thing it did not do is serve up the magic of Star Wars all over again. A good movie? Definitely. A better movie than Star Wars? Very many people think so. But I have never been quite convinced that it fizzed. 

Still, we were young and computer games hadn't quite been invented and we were only just getting into Dungeons & Dragons and we would take what we could get. If there's a sword and a mentor and a quest and a dragon, we'll throw ourselves at it wholeheartedly for ninety minutes, and build a better film in our head for the next few years. C.S Lewis said that on first looking into Homer's Homer he was thrilled because it reminded him of Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum. I think the reason I adored Boorman's Excalibur; and the Arthur stories more generally was that Arthur's sword (like Narsil and even Nothung) reminded me of Force Beams and Trebor Refreshers. 


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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