Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last Thoughts on Edward Colston

-- I have listened to you, Mr Smith, but I am none the wiser.
-- Possibly not, m'Lud. But you are, I hope, better informed?

On the 2nd December, the Daily Mail reported that Colston's Primary School, Bristol is going to change its name.

The Daily Mail explicitly frames the story in racial terms. It repeatedly uses the word “pressure” and insinuates that the name change has been forced on the school by unspecified outside forces:

The school...has been under pressure to drop the controversial name over claims it is offensive to ethnic minorities.

But after a consultation and debates, governors decided to cave into pressure and change the name of the school.

However another school in the city has refused to bow down to pressure from within the community.

The online article carries the headline English School Named After 17th Century Slave Change Becomes Latest to Change Its Name. I am afraid it is only too clear why it says "English School" rather than "Bristol School" or indeed "School". (The “latest” bit is also a little misleading: the Primary school is the first school to change its name, although a concert hall and a pub have already done so.)

Some 135 Daily Mail readers took to the keyboard to respond to this story. The responses provide a good insight into how the Colston Cult thinks.

13 of the comments engage in simple abuse, in many cases limiting themselves to single word:

Smg, Edinburgh
Joke and what's next

Talula, London
How utterly ridiculous!

Hermes, Southampton
Stuff and nonsense!

The thinking seems to be that it is self-evident that schools ought to be named after human traffickers (or that no establishment can ever change its name) and that anyone supporting a contrary position is therefore actually unhinged. The school governors were said to be: numpties, dumb, idiots, and loonies ; the decision was a joke, nonsense, outrageous and ridiculous. It will be remembered that “political correctness” is regarded as the opposite of “common sense”; and that the American Alt-right believe that liberals (i.e. anyone who is not a member of the American Alt-right) are literally insane.

23 of the comments attack the school for weakness.

Roy IoW
You mean, by the fragile fluffy-kins, dead set on having things their way, and scream 'hate speech' if you disagree with them.

Tony, Wimbledon
The new school emblem will be a white cross on a white background

Mowdiworp, Huddersfield
But is it the 'ethnic minorities' who are complaining or the mindless little 'snowflakes'?

The most common word used is pathetic (14 comments): indeed 3 comments consist of that single word and nothing else. Others use more creative language such as gutless, wimps, fluffy bunnies, fragile fluffykins, wet wipes and having no cojones. 10 comments specifically use the word snowflake, often in combination with other epithets: pathetic snowflakes, pathetic leftie snowflakes, pathetic SJW snowflakes. Three different commentators independently come up with the incredibly droll idea that the school might take the name Snowflake Primary, Snowflake Academy or Snowflake Appeasers Academy. 

The idea that the change of name is a sign of weakness seems to be falling into line with the editorial text: the people who run the school have bowed down or kowtowed to unspecified external forces who have demanded the change for equally unspecified reasons. 

The term snowflake seems initially to have been part of a backlash against some schools' and colleges' practice of  issuing "trigger warnings" before discussing possibly traumatic subjects like rape or child abuse, and of providing "safe spaces" where marginalized people could talk about their experiences without being shouted down. The very far right (who believe that there is no such thing as PTSD and that rape and abuse victims should just suck it up) saw this as an attack on freedom of speech. Professor Richard Dawkins famously felt that physical and emotional strength were essential to the study of mathematics or biology and that anyone who needed a safe space “should go home, hug their teddy and such their thumb until ready for university.” But the Colstonians do not seem to have anything this specific in mind. Snowflake is simply one more hate word meaning liberal or more specifically anyone we don’t like. But there does seem to an underlying connection between left wing political views and weakness and effeminacy in some of their minds.

No less that 30 of the comments were interested in the politics affiliation of the people who had made the decision. Some used quite creative language:

Alan in France
Another victory for the PC Stazi!

D Lareme, United States
Mao’s Red Guard is a live and well!

Johnboy, Lincoln
We are creating a land fit for mindless Corbynistas

However, the majority went with lefties (10), liberals (14), and loony left (3). No distinction is made between Tony Blair, Jeremy Corbyn and Pol Pot, or between Red China, East Germany and Bristol City Council: all are irreducibly "the left". However, the word Trot does not occur: it is only now used by members of the Labour Party to describe other members of the Labour Party. 

The British have generally used the word liberal to mean centrist or middle of the road: the Liberal Party is generally considered to be politically somewhere in between the Conservatives and the Labour Party. However the commentators without exception adopt the American usage and use Liberal and Left-Wing interchangeably.

TruffleSniffer, St.Helens,
Just shows how the liberal lefties entrenched in our education system are brainwashing our children.

Richard from Norwich manages a full house in his Slave Trader Bingo game:

Pathetic. Snowflake sandal footed lefties/liberals.

And of course, 10 commentators think that the name change is Political Correctness Gone Mad. Of these 4 use PC as a synonym for communist or left winger; 5 use it simply to mean “bad thing”.

Mustafa Leak, Sin City
History is slowly being sanitised, by the bleeding heart liberals and the commie loving PC brigade

Clearly, some kind of code is being used here: if the words are being used in any normal sense, it is impossible to derive any meaning from the statement whatsoever. ("Moderates who are too concerned about undeserving cases and people who worry too much about using inclusive language and therefore love people who want to distribute income more equally?") 

Only one appears to actually use words as if they meant something: 

Me, Bristol,
Pathetic. They had to change the original name of the new shopping centre in Bristol from Merchants Quarter (which in no way can be linked to slavery because a merchant is a person who sells things, not necessarily slaves) it was just the politically correct brigade reading into it too deeply. It’s now called Cabot’s Circus, probably to relate to all the clowns who wanted to change in the first place.

"One who attaches too much significance too someone else's choice of words" is a perfectly feasible definition of "political correctness", although what this would have to do with the proletariat controlling the means of production and wearing sandals I couldn't say. "Me" is, however, entirely mistaken:  the new Mall has only ever been called Cabot’s Circus although other names, including “Merchants Quarter” and “All Saints” were considered. It is far-fetched to say that the word “Merchant” could in no way be linked to slavery, since the proposed name was very specifically a reference to the Merchant Venturers.

Some of the other commentators attempt to present actual reasons for leaving the schools name as it is. None of them are particularly helpful. 

26 use some version of the “slippery slope” argument: "if we allow X, we will have to allow Y; since Y is obviously silly, we must not do X”. They never establish any particular link between X and Y. (“If we allow men to marry other men, it logically follows that we will have to also allow women to marry garden furniture...”)

Of these, 10 seemed to be under the impression that the school was being closed or demolished, rather than just re-branded:

Richard, Worcester:
Pull down Bristol, it was a leading slave trade port at one time

Glynn Churchill
Better start demolishing large parts of Bristol, then.

OstrogothRome, Newport
We’d better demolish almost every building, stately home, church, castle, palace, cathedral, in Britain dating from before as it was either built with slavery derived funds or with exploited labour

Others had more creative suggestions:
  • Should we not eradicate the name Victoria?
  • Perhaps we should ban everything Italian...
  • We need to stop teaching about Henry VIII.
  • It probably won’t be long before the hymn Amazing Grace is banned.
  • Are we going to drop all references to Jesus?
Again it is very hard to discern any coherent thread in these comments. Does anyone honestly think that Bristol is in danger of being pulled down; or that anyone was going to ban the name Jesus “because he was a convicted felon”? Does anyone actually think that there is a plan to "eradicate", "ban", "stop teaching about" or "drop all references to" Edward Colston, as oppose to simply stop naming public buildings after him? My best guess is that the writers think, or affect to think, that kidnapping black people is a harmless peccadillo that the PC snowflakes have dredged up as a pretext to remove Colston's name from the building. You could equally well have found similarly trivial black marks against any other historical figure. They are like the man who politely says “Look! I’ve got mud on my shoe, I suppose I will have to leave!” when his date spills wine down her dress – a round about way of saying “It’s okay, no-one minds.” Being a slave trader is not a very serious skeleton to have in ones closet.

This brings us to the most common argument (no less than 33 occurrences): that the school is attempting to airbrush (3), rewrite (9), erase (4), sanitize (2), white wash, wipe out or trash something called history. Without exception, these comments appeared to think that the removal of Colston’s name from the school was part of a wider plot to remove all record of Colston from history, which is part of a still wider plot to deny that the slave trade happened at all. 

SensiblePerson, Oxfordshire
Please can someone tell me why these people are determined to make us forget about the slave trade and all the evil it stood for? To stop a repeat of these evils we need to know our past mistakes. This is madness.

10 comments specifically say that the school needs to be named after an enslaver so that children will know how bad slavery was, and at least 2 attempt to paraphrase George Santayana’s remark about forgetting or denying the past:

DefaultAB, Essex ,
If we look to erase history, we're doomed to repeat it. People need to know the origins of slave trading and WHY it ceased... not pretend like it never happened.

FormerPerson, Somewhere In The,
Those who deny history are condemned to repeat it

This seems an exceptionally strange reading of events: why would Commies wish to pretend that the slave trade didn’t happen – why would Lefties want to make the British Empire seem less evil than it in fact was? You can pretty much guarantee that if someone decided to put up a memorial to the 100,000 people Colston kidnapped these exact same letter writers would condemn it as Political Correctness Gone Mad. And if naming schools after criminals is a good way of avoiding the repetition of certain crimes, why are we not agitating for John Profumo Primary School or Jimmy Savile Academy – nay, for Myra Hindley Comprehensive or Peter Sutcliffe Grammar?

The best I can manage is that the Colstonians are attempting some kind of “gotcha!”: “Ha ha you say you are against slavery but if you change the name over the gate to the school no-one will know slavery ever happened and there will be more of it har har liberals are silly.” 

Some of the speakers simply think that “history” itself is somehow under attack, which they connect in a non-specific way with totalitarianism.

Tony, Bristol
This is how dictatorships start, by erasing history and brainwashing children.

Gardeb, United Kingdom,
History will soon cease to exist under the new regime.

Glynn, Churchill,
Didn't Pol Pot try to rewrite history?

There are about one hundred primary schools in Bristol: one is named after a human trafficker; one after an opponent of slavery; one after the first European to set foot on the American mainland; one after the founder of anthroposophy; one after a marine mammal; two after the Christian Messiah and a whopping twenty after Christian saints. (The rest are just named after the district or the street where they happen to be.) How do the kids at the ninety nine schools which aren’t named after slave traders find out about this stuff? By what mechanism does "not having the name of a human enslaver on your school uniform" morph into "being brainwashed"? And who on earth was Nicholas of Tolentine?

Eight commentators resort to moral relativism: slavery would be a bad thing now but it wasn’t a bad thing then, so it is okay to carry on celebrating and commemorating slavers

Ex pat, wellington,
The British Empire was built upon such practices that were perfectly acceptable at that time, why should we be ashamed of our past? The Greeks, Romans, Scandinavians and Spanish are rightfully proud of their ancestors who probably did far worse things........

And two or three seem prepared to say that the slave trade was a good thing, or at any rate, not a bad thing:

Farmer Giles, Truro,
Bristolians, be proud of your great city of seafaring history and don't let the lefties get their way!

RabD, Glasgow, United Kingdom,
We should never be ashamed of our past!

What never? Well, hardly ever. And what do you mean "we", kemosabe?

Finally a few resort to made up facts and “fake news”

Bob , Cheltenham,
Well it will always be known as Colstons school anyway and considering he set it up who cares.

No, he didn’t: it was founded in 1948 and happened to take his name.

Loosehead, Basingstoke
Since Colston paid for Colston Hall, no-one can use it and it has to be knocked down.

If Colston had indeed paid for Colston Hall, there would be no need to knock it down: it was burned to the ground in 1898 and 1945. But he had nothing to do with it. He started a school for white males who believed in the same religion as him in 1710; the street was named after the school and 160 years after he died, the hall was named after the street.

Matt, Hungerford,
As no doubt the school was built from slave trade money, perhaps it should be demolished, the site levelled & the children taught in cold drafty tents

No, it wasn’t. There slave trade had almost completely finished in 1948.

And a handful contain racist dog-whistles

A pensioner, Bristol,
When will this kowtowing to the incomers stop, I'm tired of this PC nonsense.

David Mop, London,
Can we chuck out of this country anyone whose ancestors SOLD the slaves to Colston?

The Colstonians are (I assume) sentient human beings who have made a conscious choice to type comments into their computer: so they must be sincerely concerned about what name Colston’s Primary School goes by. The e-mail comments, like the comments in the Evening Post, show a surprising consistency of language and outlook. A group of people – communists, snowflakes, liberals, or the PC Brigade – have exerted pressure to which the school governors have bowed down, kowtowed  or caved in; resulting in history being changed so that children will be brainwashed into thinking that the slave trade never occurred; which is the first move towards physically destroying large swathes of Bristol and the country at large. One Sea Eagles from the Isle of Mull is quite explicit that this is “Preparation for the take over of our country...” By whom he does not say.

It is impossible that they believe any of this. What is actually happening, right now, in the world, is that some people think that memorials to slave-traders ought to be taken down, and some people think its okay for them to be left up. I suppose it is possible that the reasons for leaving them up (“it was a long a time ago” “slavery was okay in those days” “he also gave money to charity”) are so obviously weak that the “leave them up” faction need to create complex fictions to justify their position. “Taking them down” is a Communist plot to destroy civilization because, for some on the Right, absolutely everything is a Communist plot to destroy civilization. 

But still -- why Colston? Why would anyone get so angry about one school, one pub and one concert venue that they need to make up fantasies about the end of civilization? Suppose the very worst happened and the Awful Statue were in fact moved, as in fact the equally awful statue of Brunel has already been moved. You might conceivably think that this was unnecessary. (Before the Great Kerfuffle, I broadly thought that moving the statue was unnecessary.) But why would you think it crazy and insane and a joke? Why would you create fantasies of pulling down Westminster Abbey and Communist Take Overs? What do the Colstonians really believe? What do they really believe that the rest of us believe?

Some people at the Daily Mail really believe in the Frankfurt Group and Cultural Marxism – they really believe that the media, academia, local government and …. well, everything but the Daily Mail, basically… is secretly controlled by Jewish Marxist Intellectuals. (This is not exegesis on my part, but something that they have stated explicitly in banner headlines.) If you believe in one conspiracy theory, you see conspiracy everywhere. It is obviously impossible that a group of school governors could ever decide to change a school’s name in good faith. It must be pressure from a nefarious vested interest – black people, Islams, experts. And all notorious vested interests ultimately lead to the Cultural Marxists. If the Daily Mail doesn't like it then it literally is part of a communist plot.

But the Colstonians themselves? I see only two options. 

One is simple racism. Black people forced the school to change its name. Black people moved into our town and forced us to let them work on our buses. Black people hold a festival in the summer. We have been forced to accept a black man as our Mayor and a black lady as our MP. So we want a great big statue, right in the middle of town, to remind these black people that they are not real Bristolians (born and bred! born and bred! alive alive oh!). There was a time when we bought and sold you like cattle and don’t you ever forget it. If communist and leftie is understood to mean black person or n***** lover then very many of the under the line comments start to make a frightening amount of sense. 

But the more benign possibility is this.

If you are very old and very stupid, then change, change of any kind, is threatening to you. It is a very small jump from feeling nostalgic for the Epilogue and the Potters Wheel to feeling that the Bolshevic Broadcasting Corporation took those things away to spite you personally because they hate you. I do not think that the Colstonians care about Colston or about slavery. I don’t think they think  there is a communist plot to destroy civilization. I think that they would be equally up in arms if the Daily Mail had told them that the Old Red Lion was going to become The Lionhead Bar. One of the Bristol Evening Post Colstonians literally claimed that the use of parsley in salads was part of a European plot to destroy civilization. Colston is this week’s symbol. But what we are actually raging about is the dying of the light.

See also: Brexit. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Jedi, Intertextuality and Fanishness.

Almost the first thing we know about Star Wars is that we are watching one part of a larger saga. 

Granted, when we first saw Star Wars it was just Star Wars and not Star Wars: Chapter IV - A New Hope. But the opening crawl was undoubtedly telling us The Story So Far, and the story was already well underway when we started watching. We kept hearing about things like the Spice Mines of Kessel and the Clone Wars as if we ought to know what they were but didn’t.

As more and more episodes (and comics and cartoons and games) have come out, we have learned more and more about the Star Wars universe, but we have never really felt we are in possession of the whole saga from beginning to end. Watching the hidden parts being unveiled has always been one of the pleasures of a new Star Wars movie.

Some of us went to see Empire Strikes Back honestly not knowing who Luke Skywalker’s daddy would turn out to be. Some of us can still percieve that Vader’s identity was a choice; that until the moment of revelation the story could have gone off in a quite different direction. Some of us still wish that it had. What would a sequence of sequels in which Darth Vader had literally murdered Anakin have been like? More like Star Wars, I sometimes think. 

"Gradually showing us more and more of the setting” is one of the ways in which the Star Wars saga unfolds. The more questions the saga answers, the fewer possibilities there are. If the Clone Wars are revealed to be this, they can’t also be that. The alternative is not to tell any stories at all. 

So: in A New Hope, an Emperor is mentioned. In Empire Strikes Back, we see this Emperor as a hologram. And in Return of the Jedi, we finally meet him face to face and discover that he is an evil Jedi. In the prequels, the concept of “evil Jedi” is further explicated: The Emperor is identified as a Sith master and Darth Vader as his apprentice. Some of this is problematic (I am suddenly troubled by Tarkin telling Vader that he is all that is left of the Jedi religion) but this gradual decoding is clearly a big part of the trajectory of Episodes IV-VI and I-III. 

We reasonably expect The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi to develop in a similar way: introducing new mysteries about the Star Wars universe and gradually untangling them. When The Force Awakens withholds key information about certain characters while clearly coding them as “mysterious” that expectation is reinforced.

The Force Awakens is constructed in such a way as to make us wonder about the identity of Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren’s identity isn’t a mystery or a secret inside the the Star Wars universe: Luke, Han, Leia, Dameron and some of the First Order officers all know perfectly well who he is. But it is a piece of information which has been withheld from the viewer: a puzzle, a source of tension. About half way through the film, the set-up pays off: it turns out that (SPOILERS) Kylo Ren is Ben Solo. This is a good dramatic moment in the film; it makes sense of what we already know of Kylo; it fills in a wodge of background about Han and Leia and it increases the emotional jeopardy. We now know that Han Solo has a personal stake in the action. 

The Force Awakens was also constructed in such a way as to raise the question about who or what Snoke is. Again, Leia and Han and Poe and Kylo Ren and the various First Order functionaries know who he is, but we don’t. He’s presented very much as the Emperor was in Empire Strikes Back, only more so: a gigantic hologram that we don’t get a good look at; who appears to have some kind of facial disfigurement, bespeaking some previous fight. So, we expect there to be a similar revelatory moment about Snoke, one that explains and deepens him and makes the plot more complicated. Not necessarily “I am Yoda’s sister” — the family ties thing is specifically about the Skywalker clan — but some hint about who he is and how he got there.

The original trilogy tells us that however strongly the Force may be with you, you still have to go off to Hogwarts to learn how to use it. Luke is the most powerful Jedi in the universe and he still doesn't have any Force magic until he meets Ben. Nor does Anakin, who was literally conceived by the Force. (Yes: the prequels are canon. Episodes VII and VIII reference Clone Troopers, Darth Sidious, the Jedi Temple and the idea of bringing balance to the Force.) 

So, the rules we have been taught encourage us to ask, “Why is Snoke so Forceful?” Is he another alumnus of Luke's Jedi school? Did Darth Sidious have a backup apprentice? Is there a mysterious Sith Temple churning out little Darth Mauls? "Actually, there are lots of natural Force users running around the Galaxy who don’t need to be trained" would be a permissible, if rather boring, answer, but if that's the case why does Snoke talk as if he is part of some wider conspiracy? If people can just spontaneously start levitating rocks and telling Stormtroopers which droids they are meant to be looking for, why does Luke Skywalker's Jedi school even matter? But the film doesn’t give, or imply that answer. The question doesn’t seem to have occurred to it.

Episodes I - III reconfigured Star Wars as being about the battle between the Jedi and the Sith. They hinted at some interesting stuff in which the "Dark Side" wasn't wholly dark and the "Light Side" wasn't wholly light, and suggested that there were secret teachings within the Jedi tradition that Yoda and Qui-Gon were privy to. So we reasonably want to know what happens next. Did the death of Vader bring the Sith’s thousand-year history to an end; or are they going to spring up again in some other form? Is Snoke a new Sith Lord, or is he part of some other Dark Side tradition? But if there are Dark Side traditions apart from the Sith, what was defeated when Darth Vader was defeated? If Snoke is a Sith, is Kylo Ren his apprentice? Or has Ren independently decided to revive Granddad's cult? If Ren doesn't see himself as the continuation of the Sith, in what sense does he think he's the new Darth Vader? (But why hasn't he taken on the title Darth?)

I agree that one can be too obsessed with this kind of thing. I agree that many fan theories — however ingenious they might be — are palpably not the kind of thing that would ever happen in a piece of mainstream popular culture. There were a couple of fans who were convinced that the final episode of Doctor Who Season I was going to reveal that Christopher Eccleston was not, in fact, the Doctor but a new incarnation of the Master and the real Doctor was imprisoned on an asteroid somewhere. Brilliant, but just not the kind of thing the BBC would ever do. There certainly are people who spot that the new movie contradicts something mentioned in a footnote to a backup strip in issue #6 of the new Darth Vader comic and claim that this ruins the movie for them; just as there are fans whose whole interest in the Last Jedi rests on a rumour they heard that it will award canonical status to Jaxxon the rabbit. I agree that this kind of thing is tiresome. 

On the other hand: if Disney are going to make a big song and dance about anathematizing the whole of the Extended Universe and creating a new, singular canon in which everything is “true” I think we are entitled to expect very broad consistency between the comics, the movies and the cartoons. If Clone Wars tells us that Younglings were taken off to a special cave and taught how to make Lightsabers that suited their particular abilities, I think I am entitled to be surprised if a movie says that Obi-Wan bought his in Ye Olde Lightsaber Shoppe on Diagon Alley.

And yes: if Star War IX mentions Ye Olde Lightsaber Shoppe then twelve hours later three fan sites will upload five excellent stories about how the Empire conquered Ilum and three Jedi preserved the craft of lightsaber forging under cover of a shop. No canon is so contradictory that it is impossible for exegetes to harmonize. 

There is a theory that the normal, indeed correct, way of watching a movie or a TV show is with your ears turned off, one eye on your smartphone, one eye on your popcorn, letting the big funny lights wash over you. Those of us who give multiplex movies our full attention are therefore bound to misunderstand them: we're trying to do something with them that they were never intended for.  ("But Andrew" says an elderly TV viewer of my acquaintance "Normal people don't analyze Doctor Who in the way you do. They just watch it.”) 

There is something to this. But the line between "Star Wars fan" and "casual cinema goer" is much wobblier than it used to be. The prequels were incredibly "fannish" and people still went to see them. The Clone Wars cartoon series is (among other things) a fannish exercise in redeeming the prequels, and it went out on the Disney Channel. There is a fine moment in Star Wars: Rebels where the scooby gang is sent to meet an old-wise-mysterious Rebel contact, and she turns out to be Anakin Skywalker’s estranged padawan from Clone Wars. (Who doesn't know what happened to her old master, but is aware that the Empire have an incredibly nasty Sith Lord working for them. It doesn't end well.) That seems to be supremely fannish, if by fannish you mean “asking questions about what happened to subsidiary characters after they left the stage” and “expecting characters from one series to turn up in another” and “being interested in the shape of the saga, not just the fight scenes”. But Star Wars: Rebels is quite clearly a kids’ cartoon.

Some fans are more obsessive than others. Some people would regard me as quite a lightweight: I am still inclined to think of spaceships as “pointy ones”, “big pointy ones” and “really huge pointy ones”; and couldn’t confidently tell you the difference between an A-Wing and a B-Wing. But "a person who saw the prequels" and "a person who pays attention to the dialogue" is quite a puritanical definition of "fan".

I don't think The Last Jedi is a failure. I do not think that Johnson is ten thousand parsecs from embracing Russel T Davies' theory that coherent story telling is for wimps. On one viewing, I would say that Last Jedi is better than any of the prequels, but not as good as the Force Awakens or Rogue One. I only say that some of the narrative decisions were disappointing and may turn out to be damaging to the Saga as a whole.

Here is a question. Please do not try to answer it.

1: In the Force Awakens, the identity of Rey’s parents is presented as a mystery. Which of the following is true of the eventual solution?

A: J.J Abrams knew when he wrote the Force Awakens that Rey’s parents were blah blah mumble mumble mutter mutter.

B: J.J Abrams did not know who Rey’s parents were when he wrote the Force Awakens: he presented it as an unanswered question but left it open for his successor to answer.

C: When he wrote the Force Awakens, J.J Abrams intended Rey’s parents to be, for example, yadda yadda yadda, but at some point during development, Johnson changed this to mumble mumble mutter mutter blah blah.

2: As a way of developing a film script which is part of a forty-year saga is this

A: About how you would expect things to work.

B: A bit of an odd process, frankly.

C: Completely fucking deranged.

How Andrew rates the Star Wars movies.
For amusement only. 

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Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Last Jedi: first impressions.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was a mess. 

The atmosphere at 4AM in Screen 7 of the Cabots Circus Showcase was subdued. Not Phantom Menace subdued ("I piss on the evil of that film”) but still subdued. We had almost definitely seen something mostly very good; but there was a lingering sense of disappointment. Of having been cheated. 

I kept hearing expressions like “mad” and “crazy”. 

Some people are already comparing this film with the Empire Strikes Back. It’s the middle volume of the trilogy, don’t you know. And it’s about the Rebels, strike that, Resistance falling back and trying not to be annihilated, and an ice planet, and walkers, and the main character spends most of the film isolated from the action and learning the ways of the Force from an incredibly irritating Jedi Master. 

Sad thing is; I agree with them. The last time I felt this way was in the Leicester Square Odeon one afternoon in 1980. Yes, the walkers were great, and yes, the green muppet Jedi was great, and yes, the fight on the bridge was great, and yes, the Bounty Hunters, and yes the big reveal at the end, so why am I feeling this overwhelming sense of disappointment? 

I have always been an apologist for the Prequels. No, there is no need to list their deficits again; I know them and I largely agree with you. But I can see what Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith are doing and I think it is largely what they ought to have been doing even though I wish that they had been doing it better. 

I am not sure what The Last Jedi was trying to do. I am far from sure that whatever it was trying to do was what the eighth Star Wars movie ought to have been doing. But I am in no doubt at all that it did it very well. 

I assume that there must be someone who signs off on new Star Wars movies — if not George Lucas any more than some Franchise Runner? It cannot surely be that in a universe this size and a franchise this expensive very big decisions about which major characters live and which major characters die and who turns out to be who’s cousin are decided on a case by case basis by whoever happens to be producing this episode? 

Surely the final fate of Luke Skywalker —  and wild horses would not make me reveal what his final fate is, although irritating sparkly goats might persuade me to hint that it is not actually anything terribly interesting — surely the final fate of Luke Skywalker is decided by someone with an over-arching plan? Someone who knows where the Saga is headed? Surely after forty years and nine movies it doesn’t come down to someone called Johnson deciding, about six months ago, what might make a cool scene?

The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like a sequel to The Force Awakens: it feels like a repudiation of it: as if Rian Johnson has his own quite different vision of what a Star Wars film should be and takes on J.J Abrams’ characters only reluctantly.

The Force Awakens ends with Rey offering Anakin’s lightsaber — by now a literal holy relic — to Luke. The question left hanging is “will he take it, or not.” The Last Jedi begins with Luke taking the lightsaber.., and throwing it in the sea. (It is rescued by penguins. They are not referred to as Porgs anywhere in the film, but then, neither were the Ewoks.) This raises a laugh from the audience. It doesn’t feel to me as if Abrams set up a joke and Johnson delivered the punchline two years later. It feels to me as if Abrams left the story at a great big dramatic crux and Johnson chose to undercut it. 

There is nothing wrong with a Star Wars movie making the audience laugh. But this humour is too meta-textual: too dependent on shifts of register and gentle pushes at the fourth wall. This feels quite wrong. For Luke to have discovered a small cache of foundational Jedi texts is one thing; for him to realize that these dry old manuscripts do not contain the truth he is seeking is another; but for a character — I won’t tell you who, but they were a major supporting character in the old films and we weren’t necessarily expecting them to crop up here — to say “Page-turners they are not” is something else again. 

It’s the wrong sort of humour. Ewoks and Gungans to this undercutting of the material prefer I do. 

And, at risk of being incredibly geeky: anyone who has ever played the Star Wars RPG knows that there is no paper in the Star Wars universe. This is not, of course, a very big deal: but if you are always being reminded that bar-tenders use portable computers to tell you what your bill is and that messages are sent by hologram, not carrier pigeon, then you can’t forget that this is an alien galaxy, very different from our own. (Of course, Luke could have explained to Rey that these are strange ancient things called books made of a substance called paper. But he didn’t.) 

When Finn and a new character whose name I didn’t catch run off on what can only be described as a side quest to an alien casino we see aliens being served drinks in martini glasses and tea in cups and saucers. Is that the best we can come up with to indicate wealth and sophistication – Martini and Tea? Back in ‘76 one of the cool things about Star Wars was the blue milk. Milk just happens to be blue and no-one comments and nothing follows because we aren’t in Kansas any more. 

Does Johnson basically not get Star Wars? Did the keeper of the holocron never take him to one side and quietly explain it to him? 

The Force Awakens was criticized for being a little too safe and conservative, so it is perhaps unfair to criticize The Last Jedi for veering a little too far towards the unexpected. But we have reasonable expectations about what should happen in a Star Wars movie — obligatory scenes — and leaving those scenes out seems borderline sinful. If you’ve cast Mark Hamil and Carrie Fisher in the same movie than for George’s sake give them some screen time together. If a Major Character got killed off in the last film, then spend some time showing us how it affected his big furry companion. (Until next years ill-advised Han Solo movie comes out we aren’t going to know if the “Wookie Life Debt” thing is canon: but I would like it not to have been quite so much taken for granted that now Han is dead Chewie automatically stays with the rebel humans.) 

I suppose the original sin was committed in the opening seconds of Episode VII. What we want — what we need — is to see Luke in the Obi Wan Kenobi role: as the wise old man accompanying the kids on their adventures. But Abrams decision to make him the McGuffin of the first movie pretty much guarantees that he can’t be anything other than the Yoda of this one. He’s detached from the action, having very little dialogue with anyone apart from Rey. His major plot arc (which I don’t buy for one second) takes place in a few isolated flashbacks, which have the distinct look of having been added at quite a late stage in the proceedings. 

I know I am going to get punched for saying this: but I kept thinking of the Lone Ranger. This is not quite as rude as it may sound: I didn’t hate the Lone Ranger nearly as much as you presumably did. But both movies have the same feeling of vast, expansive splurging; of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks; of arguments between creatives and studios that were never quite resolved; of changes of direction part way through; the absence of a singular vision of what kind of a movie this is meant to be. Several times characters are on the point of laying down their lives nobly to save their friends when they unexpectedly get rescued, or turn out to be less dead then we thought, in ways that don’t give the impression that our hero has affected a dramatic hairsbreadth cliffhanger escape, so much as the impression that one writer wanted to kill them off and another writer overruled him at the last moment. 

We know what we want from a new Star Wars movie. We want the chance to play Star Wars one more time — to pretend to pilot and X-Wing, to pretend to be in the Rebel Alliance, to see all the great big ships crash together and explode. But we also want it to be the next chapter of the Saga, the unfolding of some more of the history of the Skywalker clan, revelations about who is who’s father which raise even deeper questions. What does the title mean? Who is the last Jedi? And why? But while it’s doing those things, it also has to be a good film: a film which hangs together and makes structural sense. 

The Last Jedi unequivocally succeeds in the first area. It’s the most visually exciting Star Wars movie we’ve so far seen. Po Dameron is basically what happens when Luke Skywalker and Han Solo get smashed together: the charming rogue whose also a hot young fighter pilot. The opening scene, in which Po takes on a Star Destroyer with a single X-Wing is fun in the way that the Death Star Run was fun in 1977. (It also feels like the kind of stunt which a player character with too many Force Points might have pulled.) 

I would say that the film pretty much crashes and burns in the second department. The Force Awakens left us with a series of big, interesting questions; and fans have spent two years coming up with more or less interesting answers for them. Johnson doesn’t merely fail to answer the questions – he seems actively uninterested in them. No, madam: I do not in fact think that The Last Jedi ought to have included long disputations about the fuel to speed ratio of the Millennium Falcon. There are, indeed, some things which are of interest to fans but of no interest to the general viewer. But I do think questions like “Who is Snoke? Why is he so powerful?” would occur both to fans and to people who have never owned a single Star Wars action figure.

As to the question of whether it is a good film or not… Well, I come back to where I started. The Last Jedi is a mess. Some of the material is good (the Great Big Space Battles) some of it is rather disappointing the entire Luke/Rey plot) and some of it – the whole Casino sequence – makes you drop your jaw and ask “Did I go to sleep and wake up in an entirely different movie?” I think that there is so much action and plot movement and aliens and jokes that the non-action-figure-purchasing community will like it very much indeed. But I think that a very large number of fans – people with an element of buy-in to the Star Wars milieu – are going to say “Yes...but wait a minute… what?” 

We have asked the question “What is the difference between fan fiction and any other kind of fiction?” several times in the past. In the end, it is (I am truly sorry) a question of canon. You are quite free to imagine in your head what should have happened to Luke Skywalker after The Return of the Jedi; and I am quite free to imagine it in mine. But what the Last Jedi imagines happens to Luke Skywalker after Return of the Jedi will now effect every Star Wars film comic book and novel for as long as they carry on making Star Wars films, comic books and novels. And it doesn’t seem to realize this; or spot why it matters. 

I think that history may show that The Last Jedi has damaged the integrity of the Star Wars saga much more irrevocably than Phantom Menace ever did.

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Friday, December 15, 2017

Some Slave Traders Were Very Fine People, Apparently.

New readers start here:

The Bristol Post has given three column of its letters page over to a carefully researched essay by three academics, enumerating Edward Colston's investments in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and his profits from it, in great detail.

I refuse to be brow-beaten into submission and belittled, just because my views are different to university academics. I have a right to express my view... I suspect Roger Ball and Mark Steeds have a totally different mind set and agenda...Lets not forget that Marx, Trotsky and Lenin were all academics. Also Maclean, Burgess, Philby, Blunt and Caincross were all Cambridge University academics...
David Whittern.

I now realize those attacking the Colston name are just creating urban myth, where half truths and outright misinformation, if repeated enough, becomes accepted as fact, which it is not. There are those of a certain political persuasion who are very adept at creating these myths, and use the media very effectively. This is very much like social media fake news. Edward Colston's name has been much maligned by those with a particular agenda. Clearly our Georgian and Victorian forefathers knew much more of the truth of his conversion and good works. (*)
Also David Whittern

Notwithstanding his connections with the slave trade, my recent letters on the subject have always supported keeping Colston's name (warts and all) as an integral facet of what it means to be a dyed-in-the-wool Bristolian.
R L Smith

...Without sounding flippant I nominate "The Colston Hall" [as a new name] -- for that is what the venue will be forever known to me and thousands of other real Bristolians. It irks me that right-on, politically correct, middle-class softies who, after studying at the University, like it so much here that they decide to make Bristol their home, then start wanting to change our history. I can't remember a time when I didn't know of Colston...but I have never wanted to whitewash him out of our history (pun intended). Name one city that doesn't have a murky past? What next, is the Hatchet to be demolished because naughty pirates used to drink there? {**} My point is, I an proud to be Bristol born and bred and I have never wanted to leave, and this may sound infantile, but if you don't like it here, then clear off to Shoreditch with the other dreamers.
Name and address supplied.

(*)The idea that Colston was, like Newton, a Christian convert who was ashamed of having been a slaver forms no part of the Victorian Colston cult, and seems to have been invented by apologists since the Great Hall Kerfuffle -- i.e in the last eight months.

(**) It is true that there has been a pub on the site of the Hatchet since 1606, and the current owners claim that Blackbeard drank there -- although since nothing is known of Blackbeard's life before his alliance with Hornigold in 1716, it's hard to know where they get this information from. If Edward Teach really was a former customer of the Hatchet, he was a good deal more than naughty. Need it be added that no-one is proposing the demolition of Colston Hall.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Stand Down

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Doomsday Clock #1

Furthermore if you want to sell science fiction, your chances would be considerably greater if you tried to write a completely original story for one of the magazines, rather than basing your work on the characters and background of an already famous TV show. Originality is valued more highly in science fiction than in any other branch of literature. Hence, no matter what your affection for the Star Trek characters — which I share— you will in the long run be better off creating you own.
James Blish.

There is nothing wrong with writing a sequel to a long established, classic work. Many great works of literature have been created in that way, such as…


Well, for example…

I’ll get right back to you on this.


We are in an alternate America; 25 years in the past but somehow a dark reflection of 2017. There is an international crisis going on, but the President is playing golf; “the wall” has come down and people are fleeing from the USA into Mexico; someone is holding a placard saying “make America safe again”. In the foreground, a riot is going on, possibly between liberals and conservatives; in the background news reports talk of Russia invading Poland and the US preparing a nuclear strike. The narrator, a masked man, leaves the riot zone and breaks into a prison; he rescues a woman, claiming to be able to reunite her with her infant son; and then her husband, who is mute and communicates in mime. The narrator expects to be dead by the end of the day. They travel through forests and sewers to a secret base where another masked man is waiting for them. There is much talk about other masked characters, some of whom are dead and some of whom are in hiding. The two masked men have a scheme to save the world by “finding God”. There is a final cutaway to two other characters, sharing a bed, one of whom has just dreamed of the day his parents died in a car crash. There is no suggestion of how these two characters connect with the rest of the action, although the dream-father tells the dream-son that whatever happens is part of God’s plan. 

The thing is reasonably well-paced and quite pretty to look at but there is no real hint of what the story is going to be about; why we should care particularly about these characters; or how much we should be concerned about a wholly fictional America blowing itself out of existence 25 years ago. Granted, this is the first of an (oh god) twelve part series; but 32 pages is a long time to keep the reader wondering “what is this thing going to be about?” Although the story turned out to be about very many other things as well, the question “Who killed the Comedian?” was asked on almost the first page of Watchmen. 


But this is not a comic book. It is a piece of conceptual art. It’s content is unimportant; it says what it says by virtue of existing.

A continuation of Watchmen without Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons is a very, very bad idea. But the history of comic books is littered with very, very bad ideas. The New Gods without Kirby or Howard the Duck without Gerber come to mind. In some cases these very bad ideas yielded pretty good comics. But we are not talking about an inferior talent taking on some auteur’s characters and running with them. The comic book industry was built by people who took other people's characters and ran with them. The one thing I learned in my year of reading nothing but Captain America is that Cap is a folk hero. He isn’t a singular work of art created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon; he is the end result of a torch being passed from Kirby to Lee and from Lee to Englehart and from Englehart to Byrne and from Byrne to Brubaker. Captain America is who he is as a result of their cumulative efforts. Twenty years from now he will be someone else entirely.

That’s also the definition of folk music. As the musicians play, standing behind them is the ghost of the person they learnt the music from. Standing behind the ghost is the ghost of the player they learnt from, and so on, back to the beginning of music. You are only a folksinger when you understand that soon you will be one of the ghosts. 

There is no shame in being an inferior talent. When we are talking about Alan Moore or Jack Kirby or even Steve Gerber more or less everyone is an inferior talent.

Very stupid people have said that there is Nothing Wrong with inferior talents writing Watchmen fan fiction because Watchmen is nothing more than Charlton Comics fan fiction. This is nonsense, of course, the kind of nonsense spouted by the kind of fan who holds creators oddly in contempt. But it is undoubtedly true that Alan Moore’s first commission from DC comics was to pick up an existing character and run with it, as fast as he could. By the time he was done, there wasn’t very much of the original character left.

Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein. Len Wein also edited Watchmen as well as creating some character called Wolverine. The first issue of Doomsday clock is rather pointedly dedicated to him. 

If you haven’t held the thing in your hands, it is hard for me to convey the sheer horror of the Doomsday Clock artifact. The title is printed in yellow on black text down the left hand side of the cover. There is a little yellow doomsday clock under the title, and a big doomsday clock on the back page, which is otherwise black. There is four pages of diegetic text after the main comic strip. There are four pages of in-house adverts, black and white with a single quote from each character. 

Which is to say: the first issue of Doomsday Clock is trying to be as physically similar to the first issue of Watchmen as it is possible for two comics to be. The ubiquitous Watchmen graphic novel reproduced the comic book issues exactly (including text pages and front and back covers) so any collected edition of Doomsday Clock will match Watchmen on the shelf. Some years ago, Jeffery Archer wrote a feeble short story about Judas Iscariot and arranged for it to be published in double column text with verse numbering and fake leather covers suggesting to gullible readers that this was some how a new section of the Bible. Doomsday Clock is very nearly as absurd a piece of hubris.

But the really fiendish thing is this. The various doomsday clock devices all have a teeny tiny Superman “S” motif where the “XII” ought to be. The black and white adverts are illustrated, not with Watchmen characters but with characters from DC comics: a quote from the Comedian adorns a picture of the Joker and a quote from Ozymandias has Lex Luther staring out underneath it. 

If anyone truly believed that the Watchmen were just one more group of comic book characters — that it was as natural for Geoff Johns to have his turn on Doctor Manhattan now Alan Moore has finished with him as it is for Dan Slott to have a go at the Silver Surfer  —  then no-one would feel the need to produce a comic which is a pastiche of itself. No-one expects a 2017 issue of Captain America to look like a 1943 issue of Captain America, except maybe for some special anniversary edition. Everyone involved in constructing this artifact knows that Watchmen is a singular text; twelve issues created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and there can’t possibly be any more of it. The packaging of Doomsday Clock is, I suppose, intended to conceal the stupidity of the idea of adding more chapters to Watchmen. Instead it screams out its stupidity on every page. 


Watchmen, of course, ended on a big question mark. Ozymandias has forced America and Russia to bury their nuclear differences by staging a fake alien invasion, but Rorschach has discovered the plan and posted his diary through the mail box of a right-wing newspaper. We are left not knowing if this package will ever be opened. Many interesting questions are thus left hanging: was Rorschach right to never compromise even in the face of Armageddon? If the paper discovers the truth, should they reveal it? Is the killing of millions to avert nuclear annihilation at any level justified?

Alan Moore didn't foolishly forget to tell us if anyone ever read Rorschach's diary, any more than Ibsen carelessly omitted to tell us whether or not Mrs Alving administered the suicide pill to her dying son. The whole point of the book is that it asks a question and doesn't answer it -- that it leaves both outcomes suspended as eternal possibilities. No one reads the diary; nuclear war is averted; but it is based on a lie and Ozymandias gets away with a million murders. Someone reads the diary; Ozymandias is exposed; everyone knows the truth; the world has to face the very real possibility of annihilation. 

Within three panels of Doomsday Clock we have been told yes, the New Frontiersmen did publish the diary; yes, it was believed; and yes, nuclear war between America and Russia is very much back on the agenda. So pretty much the whole point of Watchmen is wiped out in a page. In place of the very specific question “Who killed the comedian?” we are offered the very general one “What, exactly, is Rorschach up to?”

There is a riot going on, and we pick up a few things from news stations: Ozymandias is wanted for genocide; Robert Redford really is president; America and Russia are gearing up for war; American politicians still use the term "Ruskies".
Rorschach is still the main character, and still keeps a very wordy diary ("we split open the world’s belly, secrets came spilling out, an intestine full of truth and shit strangled us” etc etc.) He keeps making reference to “God” having turned his back on the world, and intends to somehow "call God down". Of course, at the end of Watchmen, Rorschach was inconveniently dead — atomized by Doctor Manhattan. This character insists that he is truly Rorschach, but he very definitely isn’t Kovacs — at one point he takes off his glove and reveals that he’s a black man.

(Please, god; please don't let him turn out to be the kid at the news-stand.) 

Most of the strip consists of fake-Rorschach rescuing someone called the Marionette and someone called the Mime from prison: the Marionette is absolutely essential to whatever it is fake-Rorschach is trying to do; but we are given no hint as to her background or her connection with him. They go along the sewer to Nite Owl's old base, but it turns out that the person Rorschach is working with isn’t Nite Owl but Ozymandias, who has cancer. (He also has a baby Bubastis, which made me want to hurl the comic through the window.) It transpires that the God who Rorschach wants to find is Doctor Manhattan. "This is our mission. All of us. We need to find Jon.” Doctor Manhattan presumably being the only person who can prevent this volume's nuclear holocaust. 

At which point we cut away to Lois Lane and Clark Kent in bed. (They have been legally married since 1996, although they would still have been single in 1992.) Clark is dreaming about the death of his earth-parents, in a car crash on the day of his high school prom. There have been many, many reboots since I last read a Superman comic, so I don’t know if this is how they currently canonically died, or if we are supposed to go “Gadzooks! That’s not right!” I assume that these final pages are taking place in the DC Universe while the rest of the comic takes place in a different Watchmen Universe, but that’s only because (the last time I looked) Superman and Rorschach didn’t share a continuity: nothing in the art or the captions makes this at all clear.

Ozymandias specifically recalls Doctor Manhattan saying “I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated” so I think we are supposed to infer that the regular DC Universe is the “less complicated” place he ended up, or possibly that DC Earth is the human civilization he threatened to create. I suppose that Ozymandias is going to find some way of hopping between universes and winding up on DC Earth. We can expect a big argument about whether Superman or Doctor Manhattan is the better God, with doubtless some meta-textual musings about whether comic books were better before or after Watchmen.

How they are going to spin this out to 360 pages I cannot imagine.

I have no doubt you could augment an earwig to the point where it understood nuclear physics, but it would still be a very stupid thing to do! 
The Second Doctor

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

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Doomsday Clock and Watchmen is copyright DC Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #30

The Claws of the Cat


The Cat Burglar

Supporting Cast:
Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Mrs Watson, Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, Liz Allen, Flash Thompson and a chorus of police, crooks and cab-drivers.

Peter Parker’s financial position:
Parker is still broke. (He moans that he can’t even afford to take the subway.)

Jameson offers $1,000 reward for catching the Cat Burglar. This is what he pays Peter for fair-to-middling pictures — maybe $7,000 or £5,000 in today's money.

Jameson underpays Peter for his pictures, while claiming that he’s being generous because he saved the reward money. This suggests that he is paying Peter a lot less than $1,000 — maybe as little as $250 this time?

The action of this story takes place over two consecutive days. Everyone has a rest on the day after the fight with the Scorpion, but Peter Parker goes into action the following evening. 

Day 0: Fight with the Scorpion (issue #29)

Day 1: Spider-Man encounters the Master Planner's men; Cat Burglar robs J.J.J. (Page 1-6)

Day 2: Cat Burglar attempts another robbery and is captured by police. (page 6 - 20)

Day 3: (Morning) Peter Parker sells pictures to J.J.J. (page 20)

For details, see Appendix. 

p3 “When the apartment’s tenant returns home…” Millionaire J.J.J rents an apartment in Manhattan. He has a home office set up in the flat, and Spider-Man knows its location.

“A truck carrying a dangerous but priceless load of uranium derivatives to the factory of Anthony Stark”
You might expect this to be setting up a guest appearance by Iron Man, but you would be wrong. 

p4 “I eat my crunchies and brush after meals, I’m sure to win out in the end!”
This is a flippant comment: but it illustrates the way Spider-Man thinks. He deserves to beat the baddies because he is a good person, so every defeat is perceived as a cosmic injustice.

p5 “That’s music to my little shell-like ears!”
Spider-Man and Stan Lee get the banter about right this issue: lots of flowery little phrases, but nothing too irritating. 

p5 “I’m gonna bring you that cat burglar before you can say ‘All the way with J.J.J.’”.
“All the way with L.B.J.” was President Johnson’s slogan during the 1964 election. (A confirmation that the comics are happening more or less in real time, incidentally.) 

J.J.J’s dream sequence
This is the first time since Amazing Fantasy #15 that Spider-Man has been shown with pupils in his eyes. 

p6 “This is Aunt May’s apple pie night! I don’t wanna miss it!”
Aunt May went to the movies with Mrs Watson shortly before Spider-Man went web-swinging. She must have started baking after the film (close to midnight) and left a piece out for Peter as a late night snack which he can hardly have eaten earlier than 1AM. (See Chronology)

In his 1965 song National Brotherhood Week, Tom Lehrer said that class hatred was “as American as apple pie.”

"Petey! As I live and breathe! I haven't seen you since graduation."
Liz last appeared in issue #28, which by our calculations was about three months ago. This will be her last appearance in the classic era: Gerry Conway exhumes her in issue #132. 

p8 “Don’t try to answer me now, Betty!”This frame is problematic: we have to imagine that Ned drops in on Betty at 9AM on Monday morning, asks her to marry him, and then rushes off because he’s late for work. (See Chronology.) 

p9 “Stay right there Betty, I’ll be over in two shakes.”

This frame also makes little sense: why should Peter phone Betty (presumably from a phone booth) after he has already set out to visit her?

p13 “Got any of that groovy apple pie left!!” “Yes dear, it’s in the fridge.”

The word “groovy” became a universal term of approval in the flower power era (usage peaks in 1972). In 1965 it still retained its older 1950s jazz club connotations -- so Peter is saying that his Aunt’s pie was “up to the minute” “fashionable” or “of the moment”. The word “fridge” was certainly in use by 1965, but it hadn’t fully replaced “icebox” as a synonym for refrigerator. So Peter Parker misuses a slightly unfashionable word; his aging Aunt responds with an up-to-the-minute one.

“A typical Parker day! I lost my girl — couldn’t find the Cat — and didn’t even have a token for the subway ride home!”
Presumably he couldn’t afford the subway because he had spent his last dime on the wholly unnecessary call to Betty from a public booth. Why he should want to take the subway when he can web-swing home in a quarter of the time is a matter for conjecture. 

p16-18 “I’ll be back for more playtime before you know it!”
“Ready or not, here I come!”
“Anyone around my base is it!”
“Holy smoke, what game are you playing?”
“If you are determined to play follow-the-leader…”
Peter Parker has been dumped by his one true love; but Spider-Man regards his fight with the Cat Burglar as a rather enjoyable game. 

p20 “So the good guys do win out in the end after all! Everything turned out fine for me at last! I guess its because I’m such a kindly lovable character!” 
J.J.J thinks in the same way that Peter Parker does. When things turn out well, it’s because he deserves it.

"Only the batty Marvel bullpen could present such a truly dazzling display of derring-do as The Claws of the Cat!" 

You could call  issue #30 of the Amazing Spider-Man a lot of things — a soap opera, a film noir, a slice of life — but “a truly dazzling display of derring-do” it really isn’t. Once again, one wonders if Stan Lee had actually read the comic before writing the cover copy.  Or is it the “batty Marvel bullpen” who are supposed to be engaging in swashbuckling courage by publishing something so odd? 

The Claws of the Cat is not really about anything. It is an orphan issue, winding up threads from last month, setting up plots for next month, but not really about anything itself. Like issue #9 it seems to plunge us into the stream of Peter Parker’s life and make no attempt to connect the threads together.

Even the cover is weird: our hero is so small you could easily overlook him. A tiny Spider-Man, a tiny man in a green boiler suit on a rope. Way, way down below, tiny police and tiny onlookers shine search lights at the building. We’re observing Spider-Man from a distance. A small figure involved in a small crime. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was the latest issue of The Amazing Collapsing Water Tower.

The splash page warns us that Spider-Man is going to “encounter a brand new foe”, but in truth the Cat barely rises to the level of foe-hood. We see him on page 1 running through a montage of faces -- Aunt May, Betty, Ned, Flash, Liz, Jonah Jameson and some guy in a purple mask. The message is clear. The Cat Burglar is simply one of many things which happen to Peter Parker this issue. He is a nobody, and he knows it:

“That was a close call! If Spider-Man had just turned his head, it could have been the end of the Cat Burglar’s career! But I’m just small potatoes to him! He’s only interested in super-powered world menaces!” 

It takes a serious nudge from our old friend "an inscrutable fate" for Spider-Man's life to become entwined with that of this criminal non-entity. The Cat Burglar just happens to burgle the New York apartment of one J. Jonah Jameson and J.J.J. offers $1,000 reward for the thief's capture. So naturally, Peter decides that he is going to capture the Cat and claim the reward --- partly because he could do with the money but mostly because it will annoy Jameson. "Jolting ol’ Jonah is fast becoming my favourite indoor sport”. There is no longer any doubt that the relationship between J.J.J. and Peter Parker is one of mutual bullying.

The first great cycle of Spider-Man stories is nearly at an end, and Peter Parker is still no altruist. He goes after the Cat for money, and for fun, and as a distraction from his personal troubles. When he accidentally stops a businessman from being murdered by a disgruntled former employee, he is positively disappointed. "Heck! It wasn't the Cat Burglar after all!" What was that you said about power and responsibility? 

But Spider-Man's attempt to catch the Cat and humiliate J.J.J (which fails) is only one of at least four subplots in the comic. Spider-Man also encounters a group of hoods with purple suits in a van; and stops a bank robbery. Peter Parker has one final meeting with Liz, and Ned Leeds pops the question to Betty Brant. And of course, Aunt May is still very poorly. 

There is a lot of violence: Spider-Man hits the men in purple suits on page 3; knocks out the guy threatening his boss on page 8; scuffles with Flash Thompson on page 7, and dispatches the four bank robbers in five panels on pages 11 and 12. But the climactic confrontation with the “new foe” takes the form of a chase -- a chase which pointedly fails to come to much of a point. After Spider-Man and the Cat Burglar have run around the rooftops for a few pages, the Cat hides down a chimney and is apprehended by the police.

The multiple plots keep interrupting each other and ostentatiously failing to come together. Peter rushes out of Aunt May's house because he wants to see Betty, and runs right into a gal who is coming round the corner...but it isn't Betty it’s, Liz from school. She is still trying to avoid Flash Thompson. This incident is itself interrupted when Peter Parker thinks he spots the Cat through an upstairs window, and stumbles on the murder-in-progress. It's a fun little scene, of course, but it has no bearing on the Cat, or on Betty or on Aunt May or on anything else.

Is Ditko thinking in larger narrative units than a single issue? The guys in the purple suits and Aunt May’s fainting spells are completely unconnected this month; but they are going to become very deeply intertwined by issue #33. It may be that Steve wanted the Amazing Spider-Man to develop into a soap opera, with multiple threads getting tangled up over a multiple issues. But it is equally possible that he is trying to make an, er, existentialist point. This is what life is like. You think everything ties up neatly? Well, it doesn’t. 

If this issue is about anything, it is about Peter Parker's relationship with Betty Brant. We are running towards the "final chapter" and there is a sense that Ditko is tying off long-dangling plot-threads. It is a shame that the iconic final panel, in which the ghost of Spider-Man pushes the lovers apart, could not have been the last word on Peter and Betty's relationship.

Ned Leeds drops in on the way to work and asks Betty Brant to marry him, as one does; Peter fortuitously drops by a few minutes later. Much of the rest of the issue is driven by humour and a sense of fun (Spider-Man seems to be thoroughly enjoying all the fight scenes). But the big confrontation between Peter and Betty is incredibly emotionally charged, borrowing its visual vocabulary from horror comics. Betty tells Peter the news; Peter loses it completely and storms out of the apartment, saying that he never cared about Betty to start with; Betty is left on the other side of the door, crying that Peter Parker is the only person she has ever loved,

It’s worth comparing this breakup scene with the reconciliation scene back in Amazing Spider-Man #22. That scene was told over four panels, with the “camera” held at a consistent distance — we get a waist-up view of Peter and Betty in panel 1, full length shots in 3 and 4, and a simple portrait of Betty in panel 3. Emotion was conveyed by simple body language — Betty hanging her head in panel 2 and smiling demurely in panel 3.

Compare that with the present confrontation, which takes twelve panels to unfold. The camera is much closer to the characters, making them seem physically larger. But the characters are fragmented: the top of Peter’s head is cut off by the frame on panels 4, 6 and 7, and only about a third of Betty's features are squashed into the close up on panel 5. When Betty tells Peter that Ned has proposed, her head is glowing white and there are shock lines around it — the kind usually reserved for the spider-sense. Peter looks stunned, and seems to be lit with an intense green light. We look down at Peter and Betty through an outside window — possibly to give us the sense that we are eavesdropping on a private moment, and then see two panels of Peter looking sadder and sadder, before he explodes, turns around and storms out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Both he and Betty have glowy heads and spider-sense lines. And finally we have Betty banging on one side of the door, wishing that Peter would come back and Peter slouched on the other thinking “I’ve lost her!”

Well, I warned them. Back in issue #11 I told Peter to have a look at Cyrano de Bergerac? Relationships based on masks never work. From Betty's point of view, she has done the decent thing, telling Peter of Ned's offer of marriage. From her point of view there is no reason for Peter to go berserk and storm out of the room. But while she thinks she is explaining why she likes Peter Parker ("you were so studious…so sincere! You were a good student… a hard worker!”) Peter hears her rejecting Spider-Man. He has neither the courage to admit the truth; nor the decency to let her down easily. He lashes out. “Go ahead and marry him! You probably deserve each other! What difference does it make to me!?!”

What difference does it make to me.

Peter is behaving appallingly. Since Bennet died, he has known that Betty will never accept him as Spider-Man, but he has continued to passively date her -- or at least flirt with her in the office. He knows that Betty and Spider-Man are mutually exclusive; but he somehow thinks the situation will magically resolve itself. When he thought he had lost his powers (in The Sinister Six) almost his first reaction was that he could now marry Betty; and when he was ready to give up his double life (in The End of Spider-Man) settling down with Betty and making a life as a scientist was one of the attractions. He cannot accept that Destiny -- Mr Stan Lee -- will force him to remain Spider-Man forever. At some level he still thinks that being Spider-Man is a phase he will grow out of. 

Nothing can excuse Peter’s mean-spirited rants. But Betty can’t have it both ways either — she can’t say that she wants a safe, stay-at-home guy with slippers and a pipe and in the same breath proclaim undying love for her great big hunky crime photographer. And the silly woman waits until after he has slammed the door in her face to tell him the she loves him.  

It’s sad. When they were just two kids laughing about grouchy Mr Jameson behind the desk they seemed so happy. But she can’t overcome her wholly irrational dislike of Spider-Man and he can’t just come out and tell her the truth. I'd like to give both of them a bloody good slap. 

“There’s no way out. She’d never have me as I am — and I just can’t give up being Spider-Man!”

On the splash page, Stan Lee talks about Peter Parker being “beset with the same old problems”. As we come to the end of the Lee-Ditko era, I fear that the Lee-Romita Spider-Man is beginning to show his irritating face. This is the received Peter Parker, the Peter Parker of the movies and the cartoons, the angsty Peter Parker who walks the streets with his hands in his pockets, vaguely blaming the universe for whatever harm he has inflicted on himself this month. Superheroes with super-problems, as the fellow said. 

“A typical Parker day! I lost my girl — couldn’t even find the Cat — and didn’t even have a token for the subway ride home!” 

Yes, Peter. A bad thing has happened. But it is the bad thing you have been setting yourself up for, every day, for months. You can't bring yourself to tell even a white lie to your Auntie but you are happy to tell the most blatant lies to the girl you think you love, every day, for years. You could have told her you were Spider-Man. You chose not to. So go ahead and tell yourself that every day is like this due to some metaphysical entity called "the Parker luck."

"Sure I've had my share of bad breaks!" said Peter back in issue #18 "Who hasn't? But I've been wasting too much time in self-pity!! Well, I'm done with that from now on!"

So. How's that going?


This issue contains one of the worst acts of sabotage Stan Lee ever perpetrated against a collaborator. 

As well as fighting the Cat, Spider-Man has two encounters with a group of bad guys in purple James Bond villain style jump suits. The first time they are stealing “uranium derivatives” from Tony Stark’s truck; the second time they are observing some common crooks robbing a bank. These purple men will show up again next issue when they will be robbing a “plant which produces radioactive devices.”

In issue #31, the purple men report back to someone they refer to simply as The Master Planner who will also be the Big Bad in issues #32 and #33. He resides in an underwater base, and his identity is a big secret. (Clue: It’s Doctor Octopus.)

However, in the current issue Stan Lee believes that the Purple Minions work for the Cat Burglar rather than the Master Planner. "Only the cat could have thought up a scheme like this!" they say, as they steal uranium from a moving vehicle. Stan has not remotely understood what is going on: the whole point of the Cat is that he is a skilled, but otherwise unimportant “second storey man”. The idea that he’d have secret agents stealing nuclear material from Iron Man is obviously bonkers.

When the Minions report back to base, their mysterious boss talks like a super-villain:

“Spider-Man is beginning to be a nuisance! It might be necessary for me to take steps to stop him before he becomes too dangerous to my future plans!” 

But the Cat talks like a gangster out of Central Casting: 

“Of all the crummy luck! I hadda pick the one building whose windows were just washed yesterday!” 

But Lee really thinks that the Cat has something to do with the Minions: on page 13 he is shown thinking "I'll grab a bundle and then think of a plan to get rid of Spider-Man!" even though he has never met Spider-Man and regards himself as beneath his notice. Even more oddly, Stan gives a random Purple Minion a thought balloon (while he is being knocked out by Spidey) that says: 

“My plan was perfect…except that I didn’t count on any interference from such an unexpected source.” if he thinks that either the Cat or the Master Planner is one of the goons carrying out the uranium heist. 

This is not a slip of the pen, like calling Liz Allan “Liz Hilton” or renaming Peter Parker “Peter Palmer” or saying that MJ is Mrs Watson's daughter when she is actually her niece. It represents Stan Lee completely misunderstanding what is going on in the story. In issue #29, J.J.J asks Foswell to find out about a series of scientific robberies in the city; in #30, the Purple Minions appear for the first time; in #31 we discover that they work for the Master Planner; and in #32 we find out who the Master Planner is. (Clue: Doctor Octopus.) It's a lovely way to roll out a big story event, and Stan Lee has ruined it.

It really is a massive cock up: and one Marvel were loath to admit to. The Merry Marvel Marching Society -- the official fan club — published an index of all Marvel Comics published up to 1969 still claiming that in this issue “Spider-Man fights a clever Cat Burglar and his men.”

All of which raises a further question. The Master Planner and the Cat Burglar are accurately foreshadowed (as two separate characters) in issue #29, but Lee has no idea what is meant to be going on in issue #30. Doesn't this suggest that communication between Lee and Ditko only irretrievably broke down after Never Step on a Scorpion was completed. (say, in May 1965). It would follow that the so-called Master Planner trilogy is our first specimen of what the Amazing Spider-Man would be like if it was created by Steve Ditko without input from Stan Lee. And, by an astonishing coincidence, those three episode are universally regarded as three of the very greatest comic books of all time.

Appendix: Chronology

Day 1: 

Mrs Watson invites Aunt May to go to the movies “tonight”. “Minutes later” Spider-Man is out web-swinging, and fails to see the Cat Burglar. The Cat Burglar is using a flashlight. 

J.J.J returns to his apartment “later” and calls the police; “at that very moment” Spider-Man encounters the Master Planner’s men. He hears that J.J.J has issued a reward and goes to taunt the publisher personally. He then returns to Aunt May’s house. 

It gets dark at about 9PM in New York in August, so the sequence of events must have looked a bit like this: 

2030 -- Aunt May and Mrs Watson go out
2115 -- J.J.Js house robbed
2215 -- J.J.J returns home; Master Planners men rob the Stark van
2245 -- J.J.J announces his $1000 reward, which is immediately reported on the radio
2315  -- Spider-Man visits J.J.J
2330 -- Spider-Man returns home

Day 2: 

Peter Parker goes looking for Betty “after a good night's sleep”. Aunt May specifically says he has started early. He runs into Liz (who is on her way to work). Ned is visiting Betty again; he is late for work but she is not going in until the afternoon. Peter must arrive almost as soon as Ned leaves (the phone is ringing as Ned walks through the door). 

The Cat says that it is “getting dark” on page 14, so a whole day has passed between Peter visiting Betty and him leaving the house as Spider-Man. 

Betty said that she was going into work for the afternoon, but she clearly phones Peter from her apartment (note the table lamp) so she must have worked from around 1AM to around 6PM and returned home. 

0800 -- Peter leaves house
0815 -- Peter encounters Liz and Flash
0830 -- Ned visits Betty
0915 -- Peter visits Betty
0900-1700 -- Ned at Bugle?
1300-1700 -- Betty at Bugle?
1000-1800 -- Peter wandering streets feeling sorry for himself, and stops bank robbery.
1830 -- Peter Parker back at Aunt Mays
2100 -- The Cat begins new robbery; Peter Parker leaves Aunt May’s house 
2130 -- Siege and capture of Cat.

Day 3

Stan Lee simply tells us that Peter Parker takes the “newly developed” photos to J. Jonah Jameson “later”. However, he could hardly return to Forest Hills, develop and print the pictures, and get back to Manhattan in less than two hours, which would make it well after midnight. We know that Betty worked at the Bugle in the afternoon and returned home in the early evening. And it is clear that she is wearing different clothes in the final frames. So I think the final frames take place early the following morning. There is no reason why this should not be the same day as Spider-Man's second meeting with the Purple Minions at the beginning of issue #31.


Next issue, Spider-Man will encounter the Master Planner's men again, and register for college the following day. If Empire State University is the same as New York University, then freshmen classes start in the final week of August. 

Our day 2 has to be a weekday since Liz, Ned and Betty are all at work. One possibility that very nearly makes sense looks like this:

Saturday 21 August
Fight with Scorpion (issue 29)

Sunday 22 August
Afternoon: Everyone recovers. 
Evening: Cat robs Jameson, Purple guys rob the van. 

Monday 23 August 
Morning: Betty and Peter have a row.
Afternoon: Peter mooches round feeling sorry for himself.
Evening: Cat Burglar caught

Tuesday 24 August 
Morning: Parker sells pictures (issue 30);
Evening: Spider-Man encounters Master Planner's men (issue 31)

Wednesday 25 August
College registration.

Thursday 26 August
Aunt May sick; Classes begin.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are used for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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