Thursday, November 10, 2022

Episode VI + VII

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is, in complicated ways, unfinished. Sim sustained an apparently unexplained wrist injury which means he can no longer draw. The final pages of the comic are blue-tinted, to indicate that a second contributor, Carson Grubaugh, has taken over from Sim. (He isn't a believer in Sim's theories, but thinks there is something to them. Skeptical but spooked, he says.) Grubaugh is working from Sim's layouts -- big double page spreads (very reminiscent of parts of J.H Williams 's work on  Promethea) -- mapping the swirling influences of the metaphysical wassissname across history. It turns out that George Herriman launched five unsuccessful comic strips before Krazy Kat (which some people consider to be the greatest comic of all time). These five strips came out around the time of Alex Raymond's birth. This is

"either a comic arts metaphysics pentagram intended to encompass the new born Alex Raymond or a nearly unimaginably intricate five fold metaphysical foreshadowing coincidence"

A message from Sim to his Patreon supporters, explaining why The Strange Death of Alex Raymond will never be published, is part of the text: correspondence between him and publisher Sean Michael Robinson, encouraging him to carry on with it, are part of the afterword. The final correspondence talks in terms of a second volume that Dave is still working on. So although we get a fair idea of what Sim is driving at, we are a long way from having heard the whole theory. If everything connects to everything else, the whole theory is probably unachievable, in any case. If we get another 300 pages of this kind of material in five years time, I shall certainly read it, but I don't know if I will be particularly sad if it never happens. (I'd rather get more Beanworld.) 

It's all nonsense; in the same way that Objectivism is nonsense and the theory that the world ended in CE 70 and we are living in a divine hologrqm is nonsense. In the same way that talking to a sock-puppet snake or eating the body and blood of a dead Jewish hippy is nonsense. Sim thinks that the connections are so overwhelming as to rule out coincidence. I suppose that we could refute him by using the "look elsewhere" argument: are car crashes and the name Margaret more common 1949 comic books than at any other time? Is Margaret more common as a woman's name in those issues than anywhere else? Could we take a sample of comic books from some other date and find proof of some other metaphysical event: say, that Noddy is dead or that Paul McCartney is the son of God? 

But that's probably orthogonal to what Sim is doing. Proving that coincidences aren't statistically significant doesn't prove, to the true believer, that Things are not all fundamentally interconnected. Richard Dawkins says that things which people pray for don't happen with any more statistical frequency than things which people don't; that Queen Elizabeth II, who everyone in England had to pray for by law, didn't live any longer than lots of old ladies for whom no one was petitioning the almighty. I think a lot of fair minded people read that and say "You may be right; but I think you may have missed the point of prayer."

I read Watchmen and Promethea and From Hell and I feel that the Universe is a huge and complex web of symbols; even, if I don't in fact believe it. I am inside Alan Moore's head, and its an interesting place to visit even though I wouldn't want to live there. One of the reasons that C.S Lewis is so loved and so hated is that anyone reading about the death of Aslan feels (experiences, lives) the Christian doctrine of the Atonement. All I feel reading the Strange Death of Alex Raymond is that I am being bludgeoned over the head by an overwhelming quantity of facts. 


Stephen Medcalf was one of the English tutors when I was at Sussex University. He had been a pupil of Hugo (fuck-not-an-elf) Dyson: I wish I had known that at the time. (Why, says Sim elsewhere, do we get so quick old and so slow smart?) One cold February he found a baby girl abandoned in a telephone box. If he had not been passing, the baby would certainly have died; I think he became her godfather. He later described how incredibly unlikely it was that he should have gone for a walk on that particular day, and taken that particular route, and even noticed that there was something in the phone booth. 

"I do, as it happens" he said "Think the event was providential. I do not mean that if I did not already believe in providence this event would have made me do so, but that, since I have that belief, the event fits readily to it."

Flash, I love you: but we only have eighteen hours to save the earth. 


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.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

Episode V

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. 

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is subtitled "a metaphysical history of comics photorealism". 

The term "metaphysical" keeps cropping up. Alex Raymond is "the first human being to methodically and purposefully shatter the metaphysical realism barrier", apparently. 

In philosophy, metaphysics means questions about what is really, really, real -- as opposed to epistemology, which answers questions about how we know what we know, and ethics, which is about, well, ethics. Sim seems to be using the word to mean something like "underlying reality" -- what Douglas Adams called "the fundamental interconnectedness" of things. Dirk Gently, you will remember, saw the solution to each problem as being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole. 

Does one historical person share a name with another historical person? They may have a "metaphysical enactment relationship". Does a character in a comic strip resemble a real person? It can be said to be a "metaphysical comic art portrayal of them." 

The back cover blurb talks about "meta-textual resonances". A meta-text is a text which talks about itself; very often a book which knows that it is a book. One of the things which distinguishes human language from mere signalling is that you can use language to talk about language; where you can't -- say -- use road signs to talk about road signs. (I suppose a sign which said Important Sign In Half A Mile might be meta-sign. )

I do wonder if the two words -- metaphysics and metatext -- have become connected or confused in the writer's mind.

Raymond's death was so significant that it sent out "tendrils" forwards and backwards through time, leaving traces and connections that can be discovered by anyone who looks for them. Another historical road crash, or a comic strip depicting a road crash, can be said to have been caused by, or caused, the one which killed the creator of Flash Gordon. Sim plays with the idea of cause and effect: a particular comic is significant because Ward Green "will write it..he always wrote it..always had written it. It affects events in his past, which is...his present, and which is simultaneously...his future." (Alan Moore did a similar thing around Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen.) 

Further, characters in real life "incarnate" themselves in texts: sometimes because a real person has been depicted in a comic book; but sometimes because a comic book character happens to resemble a real person.

These connections can be very obscure indeed. The main character in a Joe Simon/ Jack Kirby romance comic called "I was a pick up" somewhat resembles a character called Pagan Lee who appears in Alex Raymond's Rip Kirby. This character somewhat resembles Margaret Mitchell. Sim sees this as highly significant. 

"The comic arts metaphysic of Ward Green's fictionalisation in Rip Kirby of the March Hare Tea Shop Margaret Mitchell as Pagan Lee (the leeward side of Mitchell's intrinsically pagan self) seems to cause the March Hare Tea Shop Margaret Mitchell to...sprout elsewhere in other comic art as well."

Ward Green was the head of King Features Syndicate which published Flash Gordon; he wrote the scripts for Rip Kirby. The March Hare Tea Shop was a speakeasy that Margaret Mitchell frequented.

Now, this kind of pattern formation can be creatively fruitful. It is pretty much the whole basis of Watchmen. Moore believes that magic and creative writing both draw connections between disparate things: connections which did not exist before the magus or poet made them, but which are thereafter real. 

I have referred before to Sim's theory that the secret history of Christianity is encoded in the history of nineteen sixties pop music. James (Paul McCartney) and John (Lennon) kick Peter (Best) out of the band; the apostle Peter vacillated between two rival Christs (like a Rolling Stone); once Jesus has died, what you are left with is Peter, Paul and Mary. There is a genuine wit and cleverness to that: we can enjoy watching Dave Sim extract rabbits from hats. (Who is the Jesus analogue in the Beatles? The Jewish man in charge of the whole group?? Well, didn't George Harrison sink a lot of money into a film about an imposter-Messiah entitled Life of...Brian???) And those of us who managed to get right through Promethea may have some knowledge-by-acquaintance of Moore's deeply held believe that everything is a symbol of everything else. But it is also a story, with a plot and characterisation and narrative development and all the stuff you expect there to be a in a story. It may not convert us to ritual magic and path-working, but it stands as a worthwhile, if pretty obscure, work of art. An artefact as well as a statement: a thing made as well as a thing said. (The Middle English word for Poet was "maker".) 

I have argued at too much length that I think that Cerebus the Aardvark, despite its obscurity, difficulty and increasingly toxic ideology, stands as an astonishing work of art. 

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond? Not so much.

The purpose of the Strange Death of Alex Raymond is to tell us about this thing called Comic Book Metaphysics. Sim truly thinks that if he tells us about all the connections he has made -- and he honestly thinks that these connections are real and undeniable and that once they have been pointed out no-one will deny them or put them down to coincidence -- we will understand how the artist died and believe that this is how the universe works. 

Tell, at massive length: don't show.

I don't know whether he thinks that every death is at the center of an equally complex metaphysical web, or if Alex Raymond is a unique world historical figure. Probably the latter. The whole universe revolving around a single artist of genius. You can see why Dave Sim would be attracted to that idea.

I am not sure if I should reveal Alex Raymond's significance. It is an odd thing to be writing spoiler warnings for what is essentially an extended essay: but my jaw did genuinely drop when we came to The Point. In the same way my jaw dropped when Dave said that Cerebus was going to finish on issue 200, rather than 300; in the same way it dropped when Cerebus turned inside out and we were in Dave's studio, and Cerebus was a comic within a comic.

Maybe if you are the sort of person who thinks you might read this sort of thing you should skip the rest of my meta-essay? (Disclaimers apply. Do not feed the troll.)

Perhaps as much as a third of the comic is spent talking about Margaret Mitchell, the author (Sim insists on saying authoress) of Gone With the Wind. She also died in a car accident, five years before Raymond, and lots of comics around the time of her death seem to depict car crashes, near car crashes, characters called Margaret, characters with the initials MM and characters who resemble Margaret Mitchell or have affinities with her life. On page 244-247 Sim departs from his normal hand written lettering to show us a series of huge, headline like frontispieces, about a woman from eighteenth century Ireland who was prosecuted for witchcraft. (She is sometimes called The Last Witch in Ireland. She wasn't executed, but she was put in the stocks every day for a year while Irish people threw hard-boiled eggs at her.) Her name, of course, was Margaret Mitchell.

"Had Margaret Mitchell just been a contemporary iteration of an infernal presence in our world that dates back to the eighteenth century? Is that what had caused the weird outbreak of Margaret Mitchell analogues in comic books cover dated August-September 1949? Or was the motivating force behind these otherwise inexplicable manifestations Ward Green's obsessive and magnified focus on Margaret Mitchell?"

Why is the story of the woman who wrote Gone With The Wind of relevance to the story of the man who drew Flash Gordon? Because (apparently) Ward Green, had tried to come to an arrangement to adapt Gone With the Wind as a comic book. (Mitchell did, in fact, write the first few episodes of a comic book soap opera which was illustrated by Stan Drake: the only fiction she wrote after her famous novel.) Gone With the Wind was a massively successful book that had been turned into a massively successful movie; so the pairing of Mitchell with the massively successful artist Alex Raymond would have been a very big deal.

However, Ward Green was (it says here) an unreconstructed racist, and possibly an occult dabbler as well, so a Ward adaptation of Gone With the Wind would probably have been a thorough going Confederate apologia, rather than merely an exercise in Southern Nostalgia. If such a famous artist had illustrated such a work -- with a readership amounting to practically every adult in America....

SPOILER SPOLIER SPOILIER would have resulted in a Confederate Revival and a new civil war in the 20th century. 



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.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

Episode IV

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is more like an extended essay than a graphic novel. The text, sometimes in captions and sometimes in balloons, reads a lot like one of Sim's editorials or back-of-the-book text-pieces from the days of Cerebus. Some people will find that more off-putting than I did: I have always found Sim's prose style readable and engaging and indeed powerful. The Viktor Davies material directly prior to the explosive Tangents essay was an astonishing piece of prose by anyone's standards. (Disclaimers. Troll.)

There is some attempt to frame the essay in a narrative: a female comic-shop owner keeps finding copies of the comic in her shop. There is a very Dave moment when she herself realises that she doesn't have anything to do with the story, and also becomes physically aware of Dave's brush drawing her. This is the only part of the work that feels like a conventional graphic novel or a sequential narrative and serves to remind us just how fucking good Dave is at this sort of thing.

What do you do when you have finished the telling the six thousand page life story of a barbarian aardvark who becomes Prime Minister and Pope, founds a religion, dies alone, unmourned and unloved and then goes to hell? Obviously, you start to study fashion, and draw pictures of models in high-class outfits while learning the techniques of photorealistic artwork and researching the history of photorealistic comic strips. 
And gosh, the resultant artwork is stunning, even by Dave Sim's own high standards. He says that the picture of the lady in the diaphanous blouse on page twenty five is the best thing he's ever drawn, and he may be right. Given Dave's views on male/female relationships, the text around these pictures in the original Glamourpuss comic was pretty -- broad -- although by no means uniformly unfunny. (Disclaimers. Troll.) That hyper masculine Dave Sim was studying Vogue was superficially amusing: but he seemed to genuinely think the fashion designs were beautiful. 

QUERY: Has Dave Sim seen Mrs Harris Goes To Paris?

The comic was not a commercial success (leading to Sim, if I recall correctly, telling the world that he was going to quit illustration and become a copper miner) but the historical sections form the basis for this new work. All this is rather taken for granted in the opening sections of the Strange Death of Alex Raymond. If I had known nothing about Dave Sim, Cerebus, or Glamourpuss, I might have been a little bamboozled by it. 

This is a wider flaw in the book. Sim takes a lot for granted. I know my comic book history better than I imagine you do, and have actually read Flash Gordon, but "Terry and the Pirates" is really just a name to me. This stuff was incredibly mainstream in its day, but is now merely archival material; like old radio shows and old B movies.

Sim says that Alex Raymond, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) are the great trinity of photo-realistic newspaper strip artists. They drew in incredible detail; their art was seen by huge numbers of readers (we're talking, like, thirty million); they were very well paid, but they had to work incredibly hard. Almost uniquely in the history of American comics, their material was read by, and directed towards, adults as well as kids.

Sim has studied Raymond's artwork very closely indeed. Raymond was famous among other artists for his very fine brushwork. Sim, by experimenting, works out that he must have been loading his brush with ink, and then painting a tiny rectangle in order to bring the the bristles to a very fine point. (The normal approach was to moisten the brush with water, bring it to a point, and then put a tiny drop on the end -- which gave you much less line for your time.) And, sure enough, he finds lots of tiny rectangles in the shading on some of the fine-lined strips.

This is fascinating stuff, assuming it is the sort of stuff you are fascinated by. Not all of us can keep the distinctions between Non Stylised Realism, Stylised Realism and Cartoon Realism clear in our heads; or quite keep track of why Jack Kirby was part of the Raymond school where Neal Adams was more a follower of Caniff but Sim is the master of his craft, and it is always exciting to hear one master craftsman talk about the work of another.

But it is clear that Sim has studied the material in such minute detail that he has started to see things which are not actually there. Do not gaze for too long into the ultra fine brush-lines or the ultra fine brush-lines will gaze into you. 

Everything turns on a photograph of Alex Raymond shaking hands with Milton Caniff, on the occassion of his appointment as president of the National Cartoonists Society. Sim becomes convinced that the body language in the picture indicates a complex tension between the two men. His minute study of the artwork makes him believe that Raymond was swiping certain techniques from Caniff, even though, as the far superior artist, he didn't need to. Caniff would have resented this, which is why the handshake in the picture looks so awkward. 

When the Death of Alex Raymond was part of Glamourpuss, I thought Sim was going for a straightforward conspiracy theory: that Caniff had somehow had Raymond murdered in revenge for artistic theft, or that Raymond had committed suicide out of remorse. 

But that would be far too simple. It seems that the universe killed Raymond to pay a kind of karmic debt.


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.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

Episode III

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is completely unhinged. But it is interestingly unhinged. At the very least, it is a structural wonder, and of course the artwork is beautiful.

It's one of those texts which is a monument to its own composition; and to the impossibility of its completion. The introduction, by Eddie Campbell, compares it with Tristram Shandy, the book which is so full of digressions that the main character has not been born by the final chapter. The back cover places it somewhere between Alan Moore's From Hell and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Bryan Talbot's Alice In Sunderland is another obvious comparison. Eddie Campbell collaborated with Alan Moore on From Hell. He also said that Who Sent The Sentinels was the best thing that has ever been written about Watchmen. 

It starts with an account of its own genesis, as one strand in a comic called Glamourpuss. It ends with a collaborator,  Carson Grubaugh, writing "This is as far as Dave got" and trying to add some sort of closure based on Dave's sketches and notes. Cerebus, by the end, was a comic about a comic; with the Earth-Pig consciously aware that he was being drawn by someone called Dave. The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is about how Alex Raymond, and others, made comics; but it is also about how Dave Sim made, or failed to make, the Strange Death of Alex Raymond.

I don't think I understand it. I certainly wouldn't presume to review it. I will, at least, attempt to describe it.

On September 6th 1956, Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, Secret Agent X-9 and latterly Rip Kirby, was killed in a car crash. He was driving his friend Stan Drake's car over the speed limit and crashed into a tree. Stan Drake survived.

Sim makes out a decent case that accounts of the accident are inconsistent. It is said that Raymond accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the break in an unfamiliar vehicle: but how -- asks Dave -- can you mistake the accelerator when the car is already moving at speed? Sim thinks that the accounts of the death are so strange that the truth has become occluded. Not, you understand, through a conspiracy or a cover up. More a kind of mass delusion.

"Everyone -- everyone -- in a mass schizophrenic episode had ...fled... mentally from the accident and has stayed "fled" from it throughout the ensuing decades."

He thinks that Alex Raymond was such an important person and his death was of such significance that the universe -- what he calls "comic book metaphysics" have conspired to avoid confronting the truth.

“To understand why it is necessary to examine Alex Raymond’s metaphysical significance in our world’s history."

So that is what the books is about. Not about how Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant influenced Thor and the Green Lantern. Not about Dave Sim rediscovering lost and neglected newspaper strips. Not about which kinds of brushes and pens different artists used. About the metaphysical significance the creator of Flash Gordon had in human history.

The book is notably free from Sim's directly religious speculations. In Cerebus, he developed a complicated Marcionite theory that the Bible, and indeed all of history, is a sort of allegorical debate between the primary God and a secondary demiurge called YOOHOO (i.e the YHWH of the Old Testament). But if God and Yoohoo were trading allegories over Alex Raymond's car crash, he doesn't say so in this volume.

Most Christians regard occult and magick as decidedly Bad Things, but Sim doesn't seem to see any particular conflict between his metaphysical ideas and his religious beliefs. A long, long time ago, Alan Moore told Dave Sim that converting to Christianity was like becoming fluent in Russian, where being initiated into ritual magick was more like taking a PhD in structural linguistics. There is a lot more of Alan Moore in Dave Sim and a lot more of Dave Sim in Alan Moore than either side would probably admit.

There's not that much of Sim's gender-theory in this book, either, for which we should thank our deity of choice. He talks about a 1952 science fiction comic strip called Twin Earths, in which our planet is visited by the inhabitants of a more technologically advanced twin. He notes that (astonishingly) some of the technological predictions in the strip have come true (moving side walks, movable domed covers on stadiums, GPS navigation, the internet) but that some of them have not (miniature pets, extracting minerals from sea water, teleportation). But he then suggests that, the things which have not happened have simply not happened yet: some of the strips predictions may come through in the future. 

He notices that one of the male characters in Twin Earths wears a skirt. And he notices that one of the pieces of technology is a device which can read people's thoughts, determine if a person is thinking in the wrong way, and subsequently brainwash them. 

"For all of you who believe I shouldn't be allowed to think that there's something wrong with a man wearing a skirt, definitely something to look forward to."

Remarks like this simply shift the burden of proof: a standard technique for any dull right-wing pundit. It's not that different from saying that a bakeries selling veggie sausage roles is infringing our right to eat meat. It's a smallish step from there to saying that the real evil is not racism, but people who think that racism is evil. 

Dave: no-one is saying that you shouldn't be allowed to think that only people with penises ought to wear pants: they are saying that they believe that your thoughts in that regard are wrong and mistaken.

But on the other hand, it's a good example of what Dave does so well as a writer and a rhetorician. Speaking directly to the audience: responding to a probable objection to something which he has just said before the objection has been raised. (Ironically this creates the illusion that he can read our thoughts...) It takes you aback, a little bit. And there is a deprecating wit to the self-characterisation, a little like the "evil, mad" Dave Sim riff in Glamourpuss.

Usual disclaimers about whether praise for the form of an argument implies endorsement of its content -- about whether it is inconsistent to blame a writer for saying a bad thing and simultaneously praise him for saying it very cleverly -- can be taken for granted. Please do not feed the troll.


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.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

Episode II

 I saw Star Wars when it first came out in 1977. It was very good.

It was generally accepted that Star Wars was pretty heavily derived from something called Flash Gordon. The BBC started to show the old movie serials on kids' Saturday morning TV. So I saw Flash Gordon and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars, and they were very good.

The serials were based on an old comic strip by someone called Alex Raymond: and lo, the Observer Colour Supplement started to reprint Flash Gordon in the Ice Kingdom on a weekly basis, and I read Flash Gordon and the Ice Kingdom, and behold, it was very good.

Flash Gordon was quite heavily influenced by the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Borroughs; and behold, W.H Smiths had paperback editions of the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Borroughs in their science fiction section; and I bought a Princess of Mars and the Gods of Mars, and I read a Princess of Mars and the Gods of Mars, and behold, they were very good.

Alex Raymond is a terrific artist. If you don't know the comic book or the Buster Crabbe serial you have certainly seen the Dino De Laurentiis movie, which is not very good at all, but does have a terrific theme song.  

About the time Star Wars was coming out, a Canadian named Dave Sim was launching a comic called Cerebus. Cerebus was based on Barry Smith and Roy Thomas's Conan the Barbarian, which were based on Robert E Howard's pulps, which were based (among other things) on Edgar Rice Borroughs sagas. Roy Thomas who wrote the Conan comics also wrote a John Carter comic. So Cerebus and Star Wars, which both came out in the same year, are conceptual descendants of Flash Gordon. 

What are the chances?


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.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

Episode I

There was a thing called the Bible code, wasn't there? If you take the text of one book of the Bible and print it in a single long line, and then print the same text in a long column, and then fill in all the other letters so it forms a massive grid, and then start doing word searches, all kinds of surprising phrases turn up. "President Kennedy Will Be Shot" "Eleventh September Very Bad" "Liz Truss Likes Pork." What are the chances? 

Very high, as it turns out. There are about three million letters in the Bible, and three million squared is about nine thousand billion. The chance of any particular seven letter word coming up at random is about one in eight billion, so any eight letter combination of letters ought to be in there about one thousand one hundred and twenty five times. Hebrew doesn't have vowels, and the words don't have to to be adjacent and you are allowed to skip letters. You could do the same trick with Moby Dick. 

I just came across the story on the interwebs of a skeptic who decided to see if palm-reading works. Palmistry is a fairly closed system compared with other divination techniques: there is a high chance that two analysts will interpret the same lines in the same way. To his surprise, he found that the system worked astonishingly well: his clients told him that he was reading their personality and biography with remarkable accuracy. This made him wonder if there might perhaps be something in fortune-telling after all. But to double-check he tried the experiment of telling clients the opposite of what the almanack taught. If good fortune was prophesied by a wiggly line, he warned them of hard times to come. If the health line was strong and virile, he told them they were in danger of getting sick. And -- spoiler alert -- they continued to tell him that his readings were astonishingly accurate.

Many British tabloid newspapers publish astrological columns: often superficial "sun sign" astrology, but sometimes very detailed horoscope readings by practitioners who know their celestial onions. The most famous, and therefore most investigated, celebrity of the 1980s was Diana, Princess of Wales. She famously and tragically died in a car crash, provoking a crisis for the British monarchy. Not one astrologer warned her in advance that 31 August 1997 was inauspicious: but after the event they were all able to spot the astrological data they had missed.
In the sixteenth century a French physician named Nostradamus wrote:

"Because they disapproved of his divorce,
A man who later they considered unworthy;
The People will force out the King of the islands; 
A Man will replace who never expected to be king."

No twenty-first century English person can possibly read these lines and not make a connection with King Charles III, Princess Diana, Queen Camilla and Prince Harry. They simply can't. But if Charles lives to be as old as his Mum and William V succeeds without any problems, people a hundred years from now will connect it with some other king and some other island. That's why Nostradamus was such a good fortune teller. 

Douglas Adams was a skeptic even before he was drawn into the orbit of Richard Dawkins. But in his book So Long And Thanks For All The Fish he puts a very clever argument into the mouth of an astrologer. Of course astrology doesn't work, they say: it isn't supposed to. It's an arbitrary set of rules that you play around with. But the process of playing with the rules leads to insights. It's a technique for thinking about yourself.

I am sure that some fortune tellers are charlatans or just entertainers. But some are undoubtedly gifted and intuitive counsellors for whom the Tarot is a tool or a prop. Very good books have been written under the influence of I-Ching. And also LSD.

Adams later says something similar about Feng Shui, and as a matter of fact and presumably to Richard Dawkins' consternation, God. Of course there aren't invisible dragons or mysterious flows of energy in your office: but pretending that there are may be a very good way of thinking about pleasant, relaxing spaces. So maybe the idea of a supernatural creator is a good way of thinking about how to live as an embodied consciousness in a world full of other embodied consciousnesses. Terry Pratchett had the same thought. So, come to think of it, did the Right Reverend John Robinson.

I think it was A.A Milne who said that his problem with Spiritualism was that it couldn't decide if it was science or religion. If it claimed to have scientific proof of the survival of the soul, then the mediums need to subject themselves to objective tests by skeptical scientists. But if it claimed to be a religion, then it needed to be judged by the results: were the "spirits" dictating profound wisdom that could be put alongside the Sermon on the Mount or the Fire Sermon or the Bhagavad Gita?

Alan Moore tells the story of the man who set out to prove that there was nothing to the occult. You could prove anything you liked, he said: you could prove that Noddy was the Creator of the Universe if you wanted to. Krishna is depicted as a dancing child, isn't he? After the first murder, Cain went to live in the Land of Nod, doesn't he? A few days later the man happened to be in the British Museum, and saw an Aztec carving of a deity in the form of a small boy with a pointy hat with what appeared to be a bell on it. Then he happened to be listening to the radio, and heard an interview with Enid Blyton in which she said that, while being given a dental anaesthetic, she felt as if her mind left her body and was being driven towards some divine light.

He gave the experiment up. Either it is true that Noddy is the Son of God; or else the skeptic had worked a spell and made it true; or else you can find patterns and proofs in everything if you stare at them for long enough.

I myself have told the story of listening to my Beatles collection just after reading The Walrus Was Paul. I kept finding obvious clues in the lyrics which had not been spotted by the writer of the book. Once you know that every Beatles lyric is really about the death of Paul McCartney, then every Beatles lyric really is about the death of Paul McCartney. And every line of the Jewish scriptures is really about the life of Jesus. And if you play a record backwards you can hear it saying whatever someone has told you that it says.

Which is what makes this stuff so dangerous. Start looking for conspiracy theories and you find them. Believe in one conspiracy and you believe them all. Crashed space ships in New Mexico are an entry drug to alien democratic lizards eating babies in underground Pizza Huts. Jewish alien lizards, almost invariably.

When Alan Moore decided to initiate himself into Aleister Crowley ritual magic, he asked his friends to tell him if he seemed to be going mad. "Alan" he says that they said "How could we tell?"

His answer was "Tell me if my writing changes."


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.

My extended Essay on Cerebus the Aardvark is available from Lulu press. 

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond

A meta review in six episodes

This essay is intended for people who do not intend to read The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, but are interested in what it contains and how it strikes me. It will probably also be useful to people who have not read it but think that they might, although it does contain what I can only describe as "spoilers". 

The usual preambles about how some people don't think you ought to read Dave Sim at all because his gender politics is so nasty and cancel culture doesn't exist can be taken for granted. Please do not feed the troll.


Andrew Reviews of Glamourpuss

General talk about shock and offence in art. 
(NOTE: Contains several usages of a very strong racial slur, in the context of a discussion of a work by H.P Lovecraft. If I were writing the piece today I might write this differently.)

General discussion of Dave Sim, in response to a correpondent.

Substantive review of Glamourpuss.

Substantive review of Judenhaas, which came out at about the same time. 

Oral review of Glamourpuss by friend who is not a regular Cerebus reader. 

Monday, November 07, 2022

Chibnall and I [6]

 6: Review

After Twice Upon a Time I said I was giving up on Doctor Who: it was no longer worth my headspace. (The discourse about the First Doctor threatening to slap Bill recently broke out again on Twitter: it's actually worse than I thought.)

I did, in fact, watch every Chibnall episodes and even jotted down some of my opinions, although I have dedicated considerably more time and effort to thinking about Tom Baker. I may try to publish The Viewer's Second Tale in time for Ncuti. 

But nothing in the last three years have particularly changed my mind. This is #NotMyDoctorWho; and what is worse, it never was. I am quite pleased that a woman got cast as the Doctor, party because it was a new thing which shook the format up a little bit; and partly because it was a symbol of which side we were on and because it annoyed the fascists. But I hold out some hope that the Fourteenth, or as we may have to say, Fifteenth Doctor will be more than just a semaphore flag to wave at the kind of people who call that kind of thing "woke". If it isn't: if its only redeeming feature is the symbolism of casting a monoped in a part for which two legs seems to be the minimum requirement -- well, that's exactly what the kinds of people who call these kinds of things woke accuse the kind of people they accuse of being woke of doing. I don't think the main purpose of TV is to offend neo-nazis; but I don't think it's there to make people like me go "squee" either.

I thought Power of the Doctor was quite fun. I was amused by several of the scenes. I enjoyed the cameos. I didn't think the Doctor-Master hybrid made sense even within the narrow definitions of sense that regeneration stories usually make: I didn't really understand what was meant to have happened (Regeneration somehow pictured as a kind of possession? I suppose the decrepit Master steals Tremas's body in Keeper of Traken.) I thought the idea of the Dalek which has studied The Abolition of Man could have been a jumping off point for something interesting, but it wasn't. The story had a sort of large scale glitz and unearned sentimentality which doesn't seem to me to have very much to do with Doctor Who. The Aquadiabolical one simply bored me. Flux made me want to smash my television into little tiny pieces, or, if they are slightly more clear headed, that the Vogon had never been born. This one diverted me amiably as it was going on.

I remember someone once said that they felt about Bob Dylan as they do about Test Match cricket: they can listen to it; its not unpleasant; but they look around and find that everyone else in the room is deriving great significance from it. There are some Doctor Who fans who really really like the Power of the Doctor and jolly good luck to them. I** L***** gave ten out of ten, said that it made him cry, and that it would be impossible for anyone to do anything better. Given that he vowed never to watch the show again after the casting of a gurl in the main role, this is quite impressive. I truthfully don't know whether gloss and untethered sentiment and drive-by story fragments are honestly what some people like (in the way that some people honestly like jazz or prog rock or dogs) which is fine -- or if "this is the greatest thing ever and if you can't see that you are no true fan" is a defence mechanism, loyalty to a beloved franchise, a kind of anti-critic vice-signalling. (It wouldn't be very bad if it was.)

I don't know what else to say. Seeing Jo and Mel and Tegan and Ace and Colin and Peter and Paul and Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All was nice, in the way that eating a chocolate souffle with two much cream was nice. Seventeen years ago seeing a Dalek would have been nice but now there is nothing special about seeing a Dalek because we see them all the time. I didn't hate it; and I suppose after three years of Chibnall that's kind of a win.


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.) 

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Pledge £1 for each essay.

Chibnall and I (5)

 5: On My Mother's Side

Star Wars and Star Trek and every single Marvel Comic cohere into one single story. Or, at any rate, if you squint very hard and say "I do believe in fairies" then you can pretend that they do. Picard is clearly trying to be a sequel to Star Trek: The Next Generation; and with a bit of effort, The Original Series and Star Trek: Discovery can be persuaded to share a setting. 

Doctor Who does not work like that. So it is more than usually important for fans to pretend that does; and more than usually exciting when the series itself affirms it. 

Paul McGann played Doctor Who for precisely 89 minutes. (He was unconscious for a lot of it.) His single episode was not a success: the whole point of it was to facilitate an American revival of Doctor Who, and no American revival of Doctor Who was forthcoming. The series remained in limbo for another nine years. (I have no beef with the episode itself. Some people liked it, others not so much.) It would have been perfectly possible to have ignored it and started Doctor Who up again in 2005 as if nothing had happened. 

But the TV film made a very big deal out of being a continuation of Original Doctor Who, where several of the rejected pitches would have presented themselves as reboots. Although he only gets a few seconds of screen time and no lines, we see the Seventh Doctor turn into the Eighth. And that's important. It tells us that the thread has not been cut. There just happened to be a longer than usual gap between Survival and the Backdoor Pilot With No Name.

Of course, the McGann Doctor has since appeared in -- dear god -- seventy novels and a hundred and fifty audio adventures. The canonicity of these stories is questioned. They contradict each other to death, so they can't all be true, unless they are. But those 89 minutes are the only definite for sure on screen canonical Eighth Doctor texts. 

And that's another reason why we are pleased when Peter Davison morphs into Paul McGann. Paul McGann doesn't do anything in the story, any more than Ian does anything in the story. He is just there. But him being there is kind of important. Because the Eighth Doctor has now appeared in definitely official New Who. (His face appeared in Human Nature; and he appeared in a Minisode during the the Fiftieth Anniversary, and I think he was in that weird sequence where Wonderful Clara turns out to have been in charge of Doctor Who continuity from the before the beginning.) But this is unequivocally part of the unfolding text. There are no gaps in the passing of the baton. All stories are one story, but that story is very big. Who said that fans talk about continuity, but what they really desire is linearity? 

It would be strange if this principle, this principle that cameos are good in themselves because they tie the canon together, became a core narrative principle. But we keep hearing that Russell T Davies, with the distribution network of Walt Disney behind him, wants to do spin-offs. Wants Doctor Who to became a Vast Franchise like Marvel and Star Wars. And fans (some fans) instantly latch on. Wouldn't it be cool if Romana were recruited by UNIT to track down all three surviving incarnations of the Master and had to recruit K9 to help her find Jenny in order to...

No. No it wouldn't be.


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.) 

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Pledge £1 for each essay.

Sunday, November 06, 2022

Chibnall and I (4)

4: Squee

All fictional characters are constructs: David Copperfield and Dorothea Brooke just as much as Charlie Brown and Buzz Lightyear. Some of them seem to be real, but they never are. Karl Ove Knausgaard uses a writer's box of tricks to create the impression that he's telling us every detail of his life. But it's really only a tiny, stylised fragment. If he'd written everything down I suppose the world itself could not contain all the books that would be written.

But some characters are more constructed than others. Darth Vader is a two dimensional villain; but he does have a life story. He's defined by it. Little pod-racer slave; cynical Clone Wars apprentice; secret marriage; protégé of Palpatine; dead mother; younglings; Sith apprentice; Death Star; Alderaan; Cloud City; Endor; Redemption. Secondary canon sometimes adds to the story arc."Anakin had an apprentice named Asoka" is now a true fact across all media. But if a secondary source significantly contradicts that story arc, we reject it out of hand. Darth Vader can't be an ally of Count Dooku in the Clone Wars.

This means that new and interesting stories can arise inside the plot-arc, and be generated by it. The current Darth Vader comic book has a plot thread in which a post-Empire Strikes Back Vader makes contact with Sabe, the hand-maiden decoy of Amidala from Phantom Menace. She has worked out that the Dark Lord must be Anakin, but doesn't yet know that he was the one who killed Amidala. Things follow from this premise: our knowledge of Vader's plot arc makes us wonder how he will react, and what will follow. If we had no knowledge of Anakin Skywalker or Amidala, it is much harder to get worked up about the storyline.

You may think this is a lazy way of writing. You may think that it is cheating for one text to borrow significance from another. You may think that it amounts to a weaker writer stealing from a stronger one; to give his story an emotional impact it hasn't really earned. You might even think that this is why some people use "fan fiction" as a pejorative. I can't stop you from thinking any of those things.

But the Doctor doesn't have that kind of story arc. They don't really even have a biography. Or if they do, it remains pretty much exactly where it was in 1963. "The Doctor ran away from their home planet a long time ago and has been wandering ever since." That's pretty much the whole pitch. You can add "They used to be friends with the Master, but now they are bitter enemies" if you want to. If you are a fan, you can reel off sequences of events: "exiled to earth", "temporarily elected President of Gallifrey"; "changed their name during the Time War": but these aren't part of who the Doctor is. Incremental changes work their way into the story and become things which everybody knows: Sonic Screwdriver, Time Lords, Two Hearts, Gallifrey, Twelve Lives. But those are facts about the Doctor, not events in their story. 

Perhaps that's the difference: Darth Vader is a sequence of fictional events; Doctor Who is a bundle of fictional facts. Der Doktor ist alles, was der Fall ist.

Chris Chibnall would very much like "used to work for the Division" to become part of the Doctor's story. My guess is that it won't take. Doctor Who always regresses to the narrative mean. The story can't grow beyond "they ran away from home to wander in time and space".  If it did, it would no longer be Doctor Who. 

When Ian Chesterton was introduced into Doctor Who in 1963, we knew two things about him: he was a thirty-something male, and he taught chemistry at a London school. When he departed in 1966, we had not learned very much more. He was still a thirty-something man; he was still a chemistry teacher, but now he was a thirty-something chemistry teacher who had spent two or three years travelling with the Doctor.

I am sure we could assemble a list of trivial facts about him. He and Barbara had divergent opinions about the Beatles. His chemistry classes included Boyle's law. He like cricket more than he likes football. And we could deduce facts based on his age and profession. Evacuated from London in 1939; National Service in the army in 1950; retired from teaching around the end of the twentieth century.

His life after leaving the Doctor is not a completely blank sheet. There was a plan for him to appear in the 1983 story Mawdryn Undead (which was set in a boys boarding school) but the actor was unavailable, so the part was rewritten for the Brigadier. His name appears on a sign outside Coal Hill School in the 50th Anniversary story Day of the Doctor. (He's the chairman of the governors.) The School is only Coal Hill School in a manner of speaking: a kind of joke, or hyperlink, a chance for fans to stroke their beards and say, yes, well, of course, that was the name of the school that appeared in the very first episode in 1963. (And again, in Remembrance of the Daleks, for the twenty-fifth anniversary season, in 1988.) He talks to a camera about his adventures in a framing sequence for the VHS release of a partially wiped black and white story called the Crusaders. And in the children's TV spin-off, Sarah-Jane mentions in passing that there are two Oxford Professors, Ian and Barbara Chesterton, "who haven't aged, not since the sixties."

And for those who care about such things, he appeared in a dozen novels and fifty audio adventures. (Fifty!) Probably some comic books too. 

But none of this makes any difference. The appearance of Ian in Power of the Doctor is not a new chapter in a fictional character's life-story like the Return of Sherlock Holmes. It isn't a retrospective addition to a story arc like the Book of Boba Fett. The Ian who is surprised that Graham refers to the Doctor as "she" is a ninety something man who taught chemistry in a London school in the 60s and travelled with the Doctor for a couple of years. He is Ian. That's all he can ever be.

If you think about it as a story, it breaks. The serious man in the suit and the punkette who calls everything wicked don't fit into one story. You might as well show Big Bird, Frankenstein and the Mayor of Casterbridge at a support group meeting. Graham says that if he told anyone about his adventures in the TARDIS he would be thought insane, which is more or less word-for-word what Ian told the camera in the Crusade framing sequence. But hang on: aren't Jo Grant and Kate Stewart at the meeting too? Isn't this a world where there are government and extra-government organisations specifically to deal with alien threats? Where dinosaurs have been sighted in London (more than once) and the government has used Daleks to suppress public disorder? 

Well, no, it isn't. And it can't be. Doctor Who is about alien worlds invading and intersecting with the ordinary present day. So the ordinary present day world must always be the starting point. It's not like a Marvel movie where everyone remembers New York being flattened by aliens, and treat superheroes as a kind of ultra-celebrity. Every meeting with the Doctor is the first meeting with the Doctor; every alien invasion is the first alien invasion. A support group meeting -- even a Tegan/Ace team up -- is very close to being a contradiction in terms.

So why is it such great fun? Why we fans lap it up?

Fan fiction is not just a niche hobby: it is a state of mind. If I say "Tellytubbies and Edge of Darkness take place in completely different universes" then your fan-brain starts to picture nuclear waste pouring into Tellytubbyland and Tinky-Winky testifying before a House of Commons inquiry. You can't stop yourself. I do it too. It's what being a fan means. 

Sarah-Jane said that Ian married Barbara, and that they both became dons at a prestigious university, and appeared to be the same ages that they were when they left the Doctor in 1966. So why is the Ian in Power of the Doctor well into his ninth decade? Well, the story of the Immortal Academics can't be true. Sarah said it was only a rumour, after all. But that's interesting in itself. The rumour must have come from somewhere. Ian and Barbara must have done something in order for the story to attach itself to those particular names. (Sarah hadn't heard of them from the Doctor: the Doctor doesn't talk about previous companions.) Maybe Ian and Barbara took a life-prolonging drug in an un-transmitted William Hartnell adventure; and maybe the drug had a finite duration, and poor Ian has done all his ageing in one go, like Steve Rogers. (That must have happened a couple of decades ago: he looked about 70 when he was talking to his un-named visitor about Richard the Lionheart.) 

But that's quite boring. So, then after years of living together as ageless academics, Barbara is called, let me see, Thal Space aid reconstruction.... But Ian cannot go with her for...reasons....and bereft, he chooses not to take the drug any more. 

Weak? Okay. Some years after leaving the Doctor and going their separate ways Ian and Barbara discover that clones -- robots? androids -- with their faces have been installed in Oxford University. But to what purpose? Well, in one of the quads they discover...

If you have ever asked a word-of-God Christian about an obvious contradiction in the Bible, you will know how the game works. 

I think some people like these kinds of teeny tiny cameos because they give them raw material to create fan fiction from. I think this is why fans cluster around franchises with uncertain or contradictory canons. And I think this may be why some people are perfectly okay with perfunctory and fragmentary story-telling. If you are a certain sort of person, the merest hint of mutual attraction between the Thirteenth Doctor and Yasmin generates a whole archive of "Thasmin" romances. A resolution, one way or the other, would spoil the game. Some fans were very cross with J.K Rowling and Rian Johnson for giving their stories the wrong sort of closure. Once Harry has married Ginny and Luke has retired to Ach-To, the sacred texts lose their exegetical potential.

Nostalgia isn't as good as it used to be. It's okay to look back, provided you don't stare. When I was a teenager, some of the stars of the golden age of radio and the last days of Music Hall were still alive. It was just barely possible to get Chesney Allen into a TV studio and stagger out a few lines of Underneath the Arches. And if you were a certain age, that was a wonderful thing to see, even if his performance left a little to be desired. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney still give pretty good performances: but we'd probably turn up and applaud them even if they didn't. Being Bob Dylan is quite an achievement in itself. So perhaps Chibnall is just providing us with a curtain call. Literally his last bow. It's giving us a chance to affirm how important the early days of Doctor Who were to us and how important William Russell was to the early days of Doctor Who. To say thank you, in a way. Perhaps they could have arranged for him to have tea with Paddington Bear. 

Doctor Who has never just been about Doctor Who. It has always partly been about the making of Doctor Who. I suppose any movie buff might be quite interested in knowing how his favourite film was put together; but Who fans are more interested than most in peeping behind the curtain. There were books like The Making of Doctor Who and the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special before there was organised fandom, and before that, there was Blue Peter. The process of creation is baked into the narrative itself. We knew from an early age that the nice one with the white hair turned into the silly one with the scarf because an actor name Jon Pertwee wanted to move on and the BBC tracked down an actor named Tom Baker playing Rasputin on a building site. And of course, in Old Who you could very often see the wires and the construction lines. 

Fandom created the idea of the Doctor Who family: that having worked on Doctor Who, even as a caterer or a hair-dresser, obliged you to appear at conventions, answer obscure questions, and be greeted with rapturous applause. If Christopher Eccleston doesn't want to do conventions or come-backs, there is a sense that he isn't quite playing by the rules. 

When that scene broke on our TV sets, I don't think my first thought was necessarily: squee, squee Ian Chesterton. I think my first thought was squee, squee William Russell. (Good god, is he still alive?)

I** L***** posted a back-stage picture of all the actors together and said that this was what made the episode so special. William and Bonnie and Sophie in a room together. Squee, squee. 

There's nothing wrong with it, particularly. But it rather confirms Doctor Who as an exercise in mummification. An endless memorial to a series that can never move forward.

William Russell appeared alongside Marlon Brando as one of the Kryptonian elders in the first Superman movie. He also did a scene with Brian Blessed in Blackadder. He remarried fairly late in life, and his son Alfred is also an actor. This information will be useful to you if you are ever called on to play Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon. 


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.) 

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Pledge £1 for each essay.