Monday, February 19, 2007

The Rise of the Silver Surfer


Stan Lee and Jack Kirby both have conveniently bad memories. People who knew Kirby say that he rarely knew precisely where he was going with a story until he sat down and drew it. So we can really only speculate about how The Silver Surfer came into being. But we do know for certain that several pivotal elements of the Galactus so-called Trilogy were introduced by Kirby at the pencilling stage. If my speculations are right, then Lee had further ideas after he saw those pencils, which caused Kirby to go back and re-think his interpretation of the story. And if the comic shows signs of cutting and pasting, then surely we should say that the final version was partly created by the editor?

The romantic idea that Jolly Jack was simply the illustrator of stories that were created by Smiley Stan has been thoroughly debunked. But some people have swung the other way and said that Lee's role was simply to provide copy for stories that were conceived, written and drawn by Kirby alone. Some people even yearn for a 'pure' Kirby, unadulterated by Lee's interference.

The published Galactus so-called Trilogy is unquestionably a masterpiece. Partly, this is down to Galactus himself. He's become such a familiar and over-used part of the Marvel brand that it takes a bit of effort to imagine what readers must have felt in 1966 when the face of 'god' stared out from among the ads for sea-monkeys. Similarly, we need to make a conscious effort to ignore the 40 years of bad stories with which the Silver Surfer has been overlaid to see the elegant simplicity of the character that Lee and Kirby originally presented us with.

But the real genius of the story resides in its structure; the way several different plots are interleaved; the way we jump between the mythological story of the the Surfer and Galactus; the 'operatic' story about the Surfer and Alicia; the straight super-heroics of the Fantastic Four themselves, and the 'realistic' sub-plots about the panic in the streets and Reed and Sue's minor domestic tiffs.

Kirby without Lee never had this much breadth, this much discipline, this much suspense; Lee without Kirby never had – well, anything very much at all. Is it really so surprising that the story which is most obviously a collaboration between the two men is also the one which fans have generally regarded as their best work?


The first thing we can say for certain about the the Galactus Trilogy is that it isn't. As published it consists of the following:

Fantastic Four #48 7 pages wrapping up the 'Inhumans' storyline from the previous issue; 13 pages build up to Galactus arrival on earth.

Fantastic Four #49 20 pages about Galactus and the Silver Surfer.

Fantastic Four #50 13 pages wrapping up the Galactus storyline; 7 pages setting up 'This Man, This Monster' (issue #51) and a soap opera about the Human Torch at college.

That is, the story of Galactus and the Surfer runs to 46 pages – six pages too long to be a two-parter, but shorter than the 60 pages an actual 'trilogy' would need to be.

A summary of the story would go something like this:

# 48: The F.F return to New York. There are weird phenomena in the skies, and the people are panicking. It turns out that the phenomena have been created by the Watcher, who is trying to hide the earth from the Silver Surfer. The Surfer is not fooled: he arrives on earth, lands on top of the Baxter Building and signals to Galactus. A brief fight ensues, and the Thing punches the Surfer off the building. Then Galactus arrives, and announces his intention to consume the planet.

49: Ironically, the Thing's punch propelled the Surfer to the roof of Alicia's apartment. Alicia is kind to him, and he starts to pity the human race. The Fantastic Four make various futile attempts to fight Galactus who sets a robot called The Punisher on the Thing. The Watcher transports the Torch through space to Galactus's 'home planet', which contains a weapon that can be used against him. The Surfer resolves to intercede with his master on humanity's behalf, to the consternation of the Watcher.

50: Galactus isn't interested in the Surfer's pleas, and there is a big fight, during which the F.F can only stand and watch. The Human Torch returns to earth with a weapon called The Ultimate Nullifier. Galactus is afraid that the the weapon could destroy the universe, and agrees to leave earth in return for the weapon. Before going, he removes the Silver Surfer's 'space time' powers. Alicia thanks the Surfer and Ben is left with the impression that she loves the noble alien more than she loves him.'

Let's call this 'G'.

Here is Stan Lee's account of how it was created: .

'Well, having written so many of them, I can tell you in confidence that stories aren't so difficult to create. All you have to do is loose weight, worry yourself sic, develop ulcers, become a nervous wreck, torture yourself unmercifully and go slightly out of your mind -- all this, of course, while watching the clock and realizing that if you don't come up with an angle in the next few minutes, you'll never be able to pull the whole fushlugginer thing together in time to make the printer's deadline! But I know how sensitive you are. I don't want to worry you any more than is absolutely necessary. So let's skip over the sheer anguish and misery involved in formulating our Galactus plot. Let's get to the good part.'

It seems to me that if a witness, in reply to a simple question, spends 200 words saying absolutely nothing, there is probably something that he doesn't want to say. Stan Lee's public persona has always been that of a fair-ground huckster or a wrestling promoter ('Step right up! The battle of the century!'). He's a past master of this kind of evasion. Look at his account (in Origins of Marvel Comics) of the creation of Spider-Man -- a character who no less than three other creators lay claim to. He says that he wanted to produce an unorthodox comic – a teenaged hero; a hero who 'loses as often as he fact more often', a story which avoided super-hero formulas. He then spends 500 words explaining that the idea of calling him 'Spider-Man' came from a 1930s 'Shadow' clone called 'The Spider'; and that publisher Martin Goodman was dubious about the idea. ('He patiently informed me that people didn't like spiders, that Spider-Man was an unlikely name for a hero...' This makes perfect sense on the assumption that neither Stan nor Uncle Martin had ever heard of Batman.) He spends a further 500 words describing how Kirby's heroic style was unsuitable for the character and how the project was given to Ditko instead. He concludes 'I asked Steve to draw Spider-Man. And he did. And the rest is history.' We've magically gone from 'A teenaged hero with 'Spider' in his name' to 'the rest is history'. This makes me think that Lee would rather not discuss the actual process by which Amazing Fantasy #15 came into being.

By his own account, Stan Lee used to present Jack Kirby with 'an outline of a story'; or 'discuss the basic plot with him, turn him loose, and wait until he brought me the penciled drawings'. A lot could happen between Stan's 'basic plot' and Kirby's 'finished drawings'. In 1966, a journalist recorded the conference between Lee and Kirby for F.F. # 55 (the second Silver Surfer story).

'Suppose Alicia is in some kind of trouble. And the Silver Surfer comes to help her...But the Thing sees them together and he misunderstands. So he starts a big fight with the Silver Surfer. And meanwhile the Fantastic Four is in lots of trouble. Doctor Doom has caught them again and they need the Thing's help. The Thing finally beats the Silver Surfer. But then Alicia makes him realize he's made a terrible mistake.' (Reproduced in Jack Kirby Collector #18)

Anyone can see that this is a very thin summary for a 20 page comic: Lee has left lots of things for Kirby to make up. (What kind of trouble is Alicia in? How did Doom capture the F.F?) But we can also tell that Kirby deviated from his brief in several respects. In the published comic, Alicia isn't in trouble: instead, the Surfer has gone to her to learn more about the human race. It is Reed, not Alicia who convinces the Thing that he's made a mistake. Doom isn't in the story at all. Towards the end of their professional relationship, Lee seems to have become (understandably) irritated with Kirby's habit of turning in work which was different to what he'd been asked for. At this stage, it seems to have been a positive part of their creative process.

So: what 'brief' did Stan Lee present to Jack Kirby as the basis for the Galactus / Surfer storyline? We have a surprising amount of information.

1: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby jointly came up with the character of Galactus.

A literal reading of Stan's evidence suggests that he came up with the name and Kirby thought up a character to go with it. Again we have to cut through the huckster persona, but the meaning is fairly clear:

'After hours of head scratching, gazing at the ceiling, stretching, yawning, bending paper clips, staring into space, then staring out of space, we finally got it. It suddenly all came together. 'Galactus!' we shouted. I didn't know what it meant, but it sounded real zingy to me. Jack, as usual, puffed his cigar and managed to look as if he definitely knew what it meant, and that was good enough for me. Galactus it was. Galactus it would be. We had our villain. Now all we needed was a story.'

2: Lee's original concept did NOT include the Silver Surfer.


'When Jack brought back the drawings, I saw a guy on a flying surfboard and I said 'Who's this?' Jack said Galactus ought to have a herald who flies ahead of him, and I thought it was a wonderful idea...'

3: Lee's original concept was NOT for a three part story.


'We didn't originally plan to make our Galactus / Surfer epic three separate stories It just seemed to happen that way.'

Unless Lee thought he could introduce and dispose of Galactus in 13 pages, it follows that the 7 page 'Inhumans' prologue was not part of the original story. Maybe they planned to fill out issue #48 with some other material – say, the beginning of Johnny's search for Crystal that was going to ramble on for the next dozen or so issues – and give Galactus issue #49 to himself. They presumably changed their mind when Kirby found that his story was too big for one issue, but not long enough for two; they must have originally intended to do a 13 page build up in #48, and to wrap the story up in #49.

The link between the two sections of issue #48 is rather clumsy: when the F.F realize that New York is in a state of panic they fly to see what is going on in their jet-cycle. A caption reads: 'Having retrieved their jet cycle which they left at the airport before flying to the great refuge...'. This suggests to me that in the first version of #48, the F.F set out from the Baxter Building (where their jet-cycle lives); that this was pasted directly after their return to America by passenger jet; and that Lee, spotting the inconsistency, wrote a caption saying they left the jet-bike at the airport. (For comparison, see how carefully the epilogue to #50 is tied in with the main story: there are newspaper headlines which say 'Galactus vanishes'; Ben is still jealous of Alicia and the Surfer; the Torch is still thinking about his journey through space.)

It may also be significant that issue #48 ends with a big, nearly full page panel of Galactus (2 small panels of his ship opening up and one big one of Galactus emerging from it.) This 2 /1 grid is used fairly often by Kirby (on page 16 of #49, for example) although he is much fonder of putting the big panel first and the two small ones underneath. But I can't off-hand think of another example of him ending an issue on this kind of spread. However dramatic the situation, the 'To be continued...' is usually a small caption at the bottom of the last panel of a three-by-two or three-by-three grid. Note that letterer Rosen has had to place the caption in a starburst (another relatively rare devise) that partially obscures the Watcher's head. Because of this, it's easy to miss the fact that the Watcher is in this panel at all. I can't believe that Kirby drew a page intending one of the main characters to be covered up; but if 'To be continued...' had been placed more conventionally, in a box at the bottom of the page, then we'd lose the heads of Johnny, Sue, Ben and Reed. All this suggests to me that page 20 of F.F # 48 wasn't originally intended to end the comic. Once Kirby or Lee realized that they weren't going to finish the story in a single issue, they must have looked for a place to split the material which they had, and realized that this dramatic spread was the perfect place to end the episode. It was an inspired decision, creating one of the best cliffhangers in comic history. (Again, only Spider-Man #32 comes close.)

4: Lee's original concept did NOT give the Watcher a major role.

Lee writes:

'The mysterious Watcher plays a rather important role in the the Galactus Trilogy. He's a perfect example of what I'm talking about. I originally expected that we'd use him for a panel or two in the first portion of the story, just to add a little drama. But did it work out that way...Suddenly it seemed that the Watcher had become a totally pivotal character and much of the plot development was dependent upon his crucial role in the gathering drama.'

It is hard to see how a character could run away with itself if Stan was providing such pared down summaries as we have seen that he gave Kirby for issue #55. It's much more likely that he said '....and what if the Watcher was there to help them?' and Kirby took the hint and ran with it. In other words, when Lee says 'The Watcher became a totally pivotal character' he must mean 'Jack Kirby made the Watcher a totally pivotal character.'

Based on this, can we reconstruct Stan Lee's original, Surfer-less, Watcher-free, single issue 'Galactus' story?

It's easy to picture the story without the Silver Surfer in it. In truth, he sits un-easily in the published version. His sub-plot has very little effect on what is going on; his rebellion doesn't actually achieve much. Galactus is defeated, not by his herald's defection, but by the Watcher's perennial violation of the Prime Directive. Cut the Surfer out of the story, and you are left with 'Galactus invades earth; Human Torch fetches Ultimate Nullifier; Galactus goes away again.' The Watcher talks some melodrama at the end of #49 about how the Surfer's defection has spoiled his plan and may end up causing the end of the world, but this idea isn't developed in #50. Galactus says he will defeat the Surfer by threatening the human race but since he's planning to destroy the world anyway, this doesn't make much sense. Possibly the Surfer's rebellion delays Galactus until Johnny can get back with the weapon, but this isn't made explicit in the story. It would have made more dramatic sense if the F.F had thrown everything they had at Galactus, and when they were utterly defeated, the Surfer saved the day. As it stands we get the impression that it's Mr. Fantastic who saves the Surfer. (Galactus: 'Now by my hand, the Surfer must perish' Reed: 'No Galactus, it is you who will perish...')

A Watcher-free Galactus trilogy is rather harder to imagine. In the story we have, everything turns on the Watcher giving Johnny Storm the Ultimate Plot Device. Yet Lee is clear that the Surfer was originally only going to appear at the beginning to give Galactus a dramatic build up. Perhaps, in Stan's conception, the Nullifier is simply a weapon created by Reed; or perhaps Reed works out where Galactus home world is and sends Johnny to fetch it?

So, the brief which Lee originally gave to Kirby may have looked something like this:

'The F.F return to New York. The Watcher warns them that Galactus is going to destroy the earth and feed off its energy. Galactus arrives. The F.F plead with him and then make futile attempts to fight him. Galactus shrugs these attacks off. Reed disappears into his lab, and designs a weapon so awesome that Galactus fears for the universe. Reed agrees to hand over the weapon if Galactus leaves earth.'

We'll call this 'L'. It would not be unlike many F.F tales from the period, and would fit nicely into a single issue.

Now, a lot of Kirby fans would like to say that Kirby took this brief and expanded it into the comic we now have pretty much on his own. They reason that since, by Lee's account, Kirby introduced the Silver Surfer into the comic and since the Silver Surfer is pivotal to the story, the story as it stands must be Kirby's kreation. But two very clear gaps in the text indicate that life is more complicated than this.

In #49 there is a two-page sequence in which the Watcher transports Johnny Storm into 'the center of infinity'. Johnny has to fly through 'the celestial barriers known as un-life' (which takes him a panel) and arrives at Galactus 'home planet', one of those rambling abstract geometrical thingies that only Kirby could draw. The Watcher says that it contains 'the device with which you will battle earth's greatest menace.' When we next see the Torch in #50, he is already on his way home. 'The watcher has done it, I'm heading for earth again, I can feel it.' It is very strange to show Johnny's journey to Galactus' home, and his journey back, but not to show what happens while he was there. Surely Kirby would have loved to have drawn the interior of Galactus space station? It looks distinctly as if a page or two has been cut here, or at any rate, as if someone changed their mind about the focus of the story.

The Silver Surfer appears for a total of 13 frames in #48. He doesn't get a single word of dialogue. I don't think people have paid enough attention to how strange this is. When talking about the Surfer, Lee always puts great emphasis on how much care he took over the dialogue for this very special character. But when he first appears, he doesn't give him any dialogue at all. Why write ''On and on he soars, dodging meteors, skirting around asteroids, rocketing from planet to planet, being paid by the word...' where he could perfectly well have given him a soliloquy? The reason must be that at this point, neither Lee nor Kirby had realized just how special the Surfer was going to be.

Once he has signaled to Galactus, Ben clobbers the Surfer, and he falls from the Baxter Building. He is very clearly shown plummeting downwards, head first. Ben tells Johnny to catch him before he hits the ground; Ben says that he 'bounced back like he wanted to fall off the roof'. The Watcher says that the fall won't hurt the Surfer; that the Surfer let the Thing punch him out of the way 'because it was the easiest way for him to depart.' However, in #49, we discover that the Surfer has been rendered unconscious ('shocked into insensibility') by Ben's blow. The caption, indeed says that 'a being who straddles the starways can hardly be injured by a single blow no matter how powerful it may have been' – but this contradicts Ben's remark that 'I didn't hit him that hard.' Further, while he was clearly shown falling from the Baxter Building, he has somehow ended in Alicia Masters apartment -- which we know is some distance away. Clearly, between issue #48 and #49, Lee and/or Kirby have changed their mind about the direction of the story. The Surfer didn't allow himself to fall from a skyscraper – he was punched across town, hard enough to stun him.

The Surfer appears in #49 for only 3 pages (7, 11, 20): an extended scene between him and Alicia in which the F.F do not feature. There is also a two panel lead in on page 6, and a 1 panel lead out on page 12. Page 7, 11 and 20 can be read consecutively as a single scene: on the last panel of page 7, Alicia offers the Surfer food; on the first panel of page 11, he turns the food into energy. As page 7 begins the Surfer is discovered lying on Alicia's couch. The two panel lead in on page 6 show him unconscious on the skylight of her apartment; which falls open, causing him to land on the couch. This is surely very contrived. Similarly, page 20 could be placed straight after page 11 -- Alicia is still standing behind the Surfer, continuing to plead with him to save the earth. In the additional panel on page 12, the Surfer has gone over to the window, but on page 20, he is again standing in the center of the room. It looks very much as if Kirby had a near complete version of #49 into which he inserted a stand-alone 3 page cameo about the Surfer.

If this is correct, then there was an intermediate stage between Stan Lee's summary brief (L) and the completed comic (G). Let's call it 'K'. 'K' represents Kirby's take on Stan's brief, with the addition of the Surfer and an expanded role for the Watcher.

'The F.F return to New York, and are warned by the Watcher that Galactus is coming, and that he will consume the planet for energy. The Silver Surfer travels through space to earth. The Watcher tries to hide the Earth, but the Surfer sees through his ruse and signals to Galactus. The F.F first try to plead with him not to destroy earth, and then try to use their powers against him. Galactus shrugs these attacks off. The Watcher sends Johnny into space; Johnny, after many cosmic adventures, returns with the Ultimate Nullifier. Galactus agrees to leave rather than risk Reed destroying the universe.' (K)

So why did Kirby add three pages about the Surfer to his almost complete saga? The answer, surely, is because Stan Lee told him to. Lee spotted that the Surfer in #48 was (if nothing else) a design classic, and must have demanded that Jack make greater use of him. 'Maybe some human – no, maybe Alicia – convinces him that human are okay.' It is very hard to believe that Stan looked at the inhuman Surfer in #48 and thought that he had 'a spiritual quality, a sense of nobility, a feeling of almost religious fervor in his character and demeanor '; but this description fits the pencils of #49 perfectly. It must have been at this point, when looking at those pencils that Lee conceived of the hippy poet character that has become the 'received' Silver Surfer.

In summary, I think that the creation of Fantastic Four # 48 – # 50 must have gone something like this.

1: Lee briefs Kirby for a one issue story (L)

2: Kirby expands the plot, adds the Surfer and gives the Watcher a bigger role. (K)

3: Kirby finds that the story is too long to fit into a single issue. Either he or Lee decide to split the story when Galactus arrives on earth, and to preface it with the conclusion of the Inhumans storyline. (G, #48)

4: Kirby begins work on #49, which is going to focus on the Human Torch's quest.

5: Lee is impressed with the design of the Surfer in #48, and tells Kirby to give him a role in #49. Kirby draws 3 additional pages and adds them to the issue he is working on. As a result, part of the Human Torch's adventures are either deleted or never drawn. This makes the published version of #49.

6: After discussion with Lee, Kirby draws #50, presumably utilizing some material that would have been in #48, drawing the different threads (Galactus and the F.F; the Human Torch and the Watcher; the Surfer and Alicia) more or less seamlessly together. Since it is clear that this won't take the whole issue, the final 7 pages are used to 'trail' two future storylines.


No comic book has ever been admired – not to say revered – in the way that 'The Coming of Galactus', 'If This Be Doomsday' and 'The Startling Saga of the Silver Surfer' -- Fantastic Four #48, #49 and #50 – have been. It was comic book fans who dubbed the three stories 'The Galactus Trilogy'; but Stan Lee enthusiastically adopted the label. 'It sounds like it should be required reading, up there with the Harvard Classics and War and Peace. And for all I know, it is.' Page 2 of #49 has been called the best page, of the best issue, of the best comic of all time. Only Spider-Man #33 (by Lee and Ditko) has anything like the same reputation. So naturally, the authorship of these three comics has been the subject of more heated debate among comic fans than almost any other subject.

Writers are always being asked 'Where do you get your ideas?' People think that if they had a source of this mysterious commodity, then they would be writers too. They think that if the four words 'Boarding School For Wizards' had jumped into their head first, they too would currently be richer than the Queen. Once you have the idea, the process of actually writing the book is donkey work which practically anyone could do.

Writers, on the other hand, will tell you that someone with sufficient skill, talent and craftsmanship can work up almost any idea into a successful book. If you can produce the kind of prose, the kind of convoluted plot, the funny names and the silly jokes that children want to read (and can produce hundreds of pages of it by the deadline) then you'll become a best-selling children's writer, 'idea' or no 'idea'. We hear a great deal about how Paul McCartney woke up on emorning with the tune 'Scrambled eggs / Oh my darling how I love your legs' running round and round his head. We hear less about the weeks of work to produce a sensible lyric, a middle eight, an arrangement, to say nothing of the decade of jamming and improvisation that preceded this moment of 'inspiration'.

Yes; but. We happily talk about 'Walt Disney's Bambi' and 'Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings'. Yet Peter Jackson doesn't act, or compose music, or create special effects, or perform stunts. Perhaps we think that 'actually editing footage together' and 'telling people where to point the camera' is the key, creative role in producing a motion picture. Or perhaps 'Peter Jackson' is simply a code-word, meaning 'The man who co-ordinated all the people with the actual talent who made the movie.' But when we think of directors and conductors as creative auteur, we seem to be getting perilously close to saying 'Oh, the creative part is sitting in an arm chair and imagining what the finished product will look like. Then, it's just a matter of hiring more or less interchangeable technicians to put your idea on the screen.' We see this idea in its most extreme form in some kinds of modern art. The 'artist' is the person who has the idea of a bisected shark or a plaster cast of a bed. They then hire students to do the actual work. (I can't write computer code or produce computer art, but I am the 'designer' of two computer games. I was sometimes told that this means that I was the 'vision keeper' of the project. What, I ask in all seriousness, did that mean?)

Everyone, apart from Marvel's lawyers and a few journalists, now know how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby worked together. Stan came up with a 'concept'; Jack turned the concept into a 20 page comic book; Stan then wrote copy (speech bubbles and captions) that matched the pictures. But what did Stan mean by 'concept'? He neither wrote nor drew the first issues of Thor, but he still claims co-creatorship of the characters. Once you remove the waffle, his account of how he 'created' Thor goes like this: 'I thought I would do a mythological hero. I thought I would use Norse mythology. I thought I would make Thor the main character. I thought he could use his hammer to fly.' In Origins of Marvel Comics he adds 'I thought his secret identity could be a doctor.' I am very happy to believe that this was the brief which he gave to Jack Kirby, and which Kirby worked up into the (lackluster) Journey into Mystery # 83 and which Lee's kid-brother then wrote dialogue for.

But it is taking nothing away from Jack Kirby to say that it was Stan who spotted that there was a place in the market for a mythological hero; and that Stan was proved to be quite right. Practically all the characters who were launched under Lee's editorship – Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Thor, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Nick Fury, Gi/Ant Man – everyone apart from the solo Human Torch and Millie the Model -- are still being published 40 years later. That's a pretty impressive hit-rate. This may explain why Lee was courted by Hollywood, where Kirby, right up to his death, was employed as an ideas-gerbil by toy and animation companies. Lee had a knack for saying 'Here's a one-line concept for a character that will sell'; Kirby had a genius for saying 'Here are ten pages of sketches of interesting characters – I'm not sure who they are or what they do yet.'

If Stan Lee is one of those who thinks that the hard part about writing is coming up with 'those crazy ideas' and that all the rest is donkey work that can be contracted out then, according to his own lights, Lee is the onlie begatter of the Marvel Universe. But some of us think the creative process is a bit more complicated than that. What can we say about the process by which the first Galactus story came into being?

Monday, February 12, 2007

"I suppose the head of F.R Leavis in a charger would be rather too costly?"
C.S Lewis, on being asked if he would like Magdalene college to organise a dinner for his 65th birthday.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Most Important Question Facing Cult Movie Fans Today

The Silver Surfer was originally depicted as an alien being. He was a scout for Galactus, searching out planets that were fit for his master to consume. He is surprised that humans have to eat food in order to survive: he thinks it is more efficient to simply turn matter into energy. He doesn't understand the meaning of the word 'nobility'. He has never interacted with any other sentient life form; indeed, he seems to be surprised that the planets that Galactus destroys have people on them. 'Never have I beheld a species from such close range. Never have I felt this new sensation. This thing called...pity.' When he discovers that humans have thoughts and emotions of their own, he turns on Galactus. As a result, his master takes away his 'space time' powers and leaves him trapped on Earth.

Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer without input from Stan Lee. Lee, however, was very impressed with the look-and-feel of the character. It is likely that Stan Lee suggested that Kirby expand the the Silver Surfer from a very minor bit-player in Fantastic Four # 48 to a major supporting role in # 49 and #50. Several of the subsequent stories that feature the now earthbound Surfer – particularly the one where Doctor Doom usurps his cosmic powers – look as if they were Stan's ideas. And there is no doubt at all that Lee created the Surfer's dialogue -- although it is open to question whether this is anything to be very proud of. 'Nay. Tis supremely credible The earth is but a twinkling dot. A paltry pebble in the vastness of space.'

The Silver Surfer went on to star in his own comic. The writer was again Stan Lee, but, as everyone knows the term 'writer' can only be applied to Stan in a rather Pickwickian sense. As he puts it 'There was really no need for me to labour over a fully developed script if Jack was to be the illustrator. All that was necessary was to discuss the basic plot with him, turn him loose, and wait until he brought me the pencilled drawings.' Which is as much as to say: while Lee was writing the captions and the speech balloons Kirby was creating most of the plot. So when Lee decided that John Buscema should draw The Silver Surfer, Kirby was deprived of all input into the development of the character which Stan Lee admits that he had originally created. This seems to have been the beginning of the rift which caused Kirby to leave Marvel, although I imagine Yoko Ono had something to do with it as well.

The Lee-Buscema version of the Silver Surfer is radically different to Kirby's. Far from being an outsider who has to learn about human life from the ground up, this Surfer is a mortal from a futuristic, decadent, but essentially earth like planet named Krypton, sorry, Zenn-La. When Galactus pays the planet a visit, a hippy named Norrin Radd offers to become his herald if he will take Zenn-La off the menu. It's never very clear how this is supposed to benefit Galactus. The idea may be that Radd will find uninhabited planets for him to eat; but this doesn't fit in at all well with Galactus's Lovecraftian claims that humans are simply beneath his notice, or with the Surfer's surprise that the inhabitants of earth are even sentient at all. (And anyway, if Galactus is so dammed powerful and wants a scout, why does he have to wait for a volunteer?) At any rate, he coats Radd in what is technically described as a 'life-preserving silvery substance' and sends him foraging for edible planets.

Subsequent writers have tried rather desperately to make this consistent with the original Fantastic Four story, suggesting that at some point between the flashback sequence in Silver Surfer #1 and his arrival on earth, Galactus took Norrin Radd to Anchorhead and had his memory wiped. No-one is very convinced. John Buscema's art is absolutely gorgeous.

Jack Kirby was well aware of the religious resonances of the character. When Galactus exiles the Surfer to earth, we are supposed to think of God casting his favoured angel out of heaven. (This is particularly pronounced in the 1978 graphic novel version of the story, in which the Surfer spends a full page plummeting to earth.) Of course, 'God' is here the baddy, and 'Lucifer' is the goody, but Kirby revelled in reversals of this kind. Think of the scene in Eternals where the handsome Reject turns out to be a psychotic killer; but the monstrous Karkas is noble and gentle; or the episode of Boys' Ranch where the cherubic 'Angel' is a vicious brat.

But Stan Lee either missed or deliberately expunged Kirby's Luciferian symbolism. He also claims a religious significance for the character, but can't really get beyond "silver equals good equals Jesus."

'Somehow or other King Kirby had imbued this new, unique, totally arresting fictional figure with a spiritual quality, a sense of nobility, a feeling of almost religious fervour in his attitude and his demeanour. As I studied that first drawing ,and the ones that soon followed, I immediately realised that there was something very special about this solitary figure upon the high flying space board -- something seemingly mystical, and totally compelling I knew I couldn't give him the sort of dialogue I'd write for any other colourful supporting character in one of our fanciful little epics.'

This isn't true, incidentally: the artwork that Lee must be talking about – the pencils for Fantastic Four #48 -- don't make the Surfer look particularly spiritual or noble : he flies through space, signals to Galactus, and gets punched out by the Thing. And he doesn't get a single word of dialogue. As usual, Stan is thinking of what the character eventually became, and pretending that that is what he had in mind from the beginning. But once the Surfer got his own comic, Lee certainly did depict him as, I quote, 'purity personified'. He speaks entirely in sermons:

'It is as if the human race has been divinely favoured over all who live, and yet in their uncontrollable insanity, in their unforgivable blindness, they seek to destroy this shining jewel, this softly spinning gem, this tiny blessed sphere which men call earth! While trapped upon this world of madness, stand I...'

It turns out that when the Surfer sacrificed himself to save the Earth from Galactus it was only a reprise of his previous offering up of himself for Zenn-La. In case you miss the point Stan makes the Surfer's main adversary a demonic figure called, very subtly, Mephisto, who wants to destroy the Surfer because, er, he does.
('How oft before have I trembled in the presence of such awesome goodness; martyrs all who men themselves in their abysmal madness did so noble must not walk freely among those whom Mephisto would exploit, and so I now ordain that he shall die.') Where Kirby's Surfer has been cast down to earth from space, Lee's is merely home-sick for his very unpromising home-world. Kirby's character was an alien outsider who had to learn about the human race. (He was naive and childlike enough to be totally taken in by Doctor Doom.) All Lee's can do is angst about man's inhumanity to man and the girl he left behind. Buscema's art is absolutely gorgeous.

Superhero costumes are intrinsically unrealistic, but very easy to draw. They are pretty much nude figures overlaid with colours and insignia – you never saw a crease in Spider-Man's suit, not even when Ditko was drawing it. The Surfer takes this to the Nth degree: he is neither flesh nor spandex but silver all over. Kirby occasionally sketched a line along his waist and maybe diagonals at the tops of his thighs, but he's essentially featureless. In cheap four colour printing, 'silver' is pretty much the same as 'white', so the Surfer is a blank white nude: a plain sheet of paper waiting to be drawn on. In Buscema's art, the lines on the Surfer's middle are much more pronounced: he clearly intends us to think that the Surfer is wearing swimming trunks or shorts. This makes him look rather like an Action Man. The same Comics Code that would allow 'Mephisto' but not 'Satan' seems to have had a problem with cosmic skinny-dipping.


The superior Kirby version of the Surfer is an alien, very probably created out of thin air by Galactus. Possibly, like his board, he's made of energy and sometimes takes on a solid form. He doesn't have digestive organs, so there is no reason to think that he is biologically human in any other respect. Although he is impressed by Alicia's nobility, there is never the slightest hint that he is sexually attracted to her -- he simply doesn't understand Ben's jealousy. And he goes naked.

The inferior Stan Lee version has flesh, bones and all things which pertaineth to man's nature: they just happen to be coated with a life-preserving silvery substance. He has emotions and a human lover, and he always keeps his knickers on.

So the answer to the pressing question 'Does the Silver Surfer have a willy?' is 'Up to Fantastic Four # 70, no; after Silver Surfer #1, yes.'

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Incidentally, a merry Christmas to all of you at home.

Estragon: It might be better if we parted.
Vladimir: You always say that, and you always come crawling back.

So: 24 hours after he left Rose in an alien dimension, the Doctor, who used to think that Mickey Smith was an idiot, asks the cretinous Donna Noble if she would like to come with him. For the first and last time in the episode, Donna behaves like a believable human being and refuses to come. She's seen the Doctor's dark side, and couldn't live the way he does.
From the speech attributed to Doctor Bill ('Come with me, and I'll show you all that...or stay behind and regret that staying until the day you die') right through to the trailers for Eccleston's first series, the question 'Do you wanna come with me?' has always been directed to the audience rather than to the companion. On the surface, the 'Runaway Bride' is about the Doctor 'getting over' Rose, and realizing that he still needs a companion, even one who can't tell the difference between 'acting' and 'yelling'. But it's hard not to read it as being about the sado-masochistic relationship between Doctor Who and it's audience.
Last year's special, 'The Christmas Invasion', included a scene where Rose and Mickey went shopping at a Christmas market. Rose remarked that it is easy to lose track of time while traveling in the TARDIS. 'Oh yeah,' drones Mickey sarcastically. 'Because I love hearing all those TARDIS stories. Tell me another...' It would be going too far to say that Mickey and Rose are realistic characters. What would be 'realistic' behavior for a 19 year old girl who's been taken on board an alien space-ship and allowed to watch the destruction of the world? Best ask an anthropologist about the behavior of aborigines when transported to Times Square. But they are -- ahem -- semiotically coded as 'real' people. However much weirdness is going on around them, they stay within the narrative discourse of soap-opera, which is the closest TV gets to 'reality'. The scene summed up what Russel T Davies had done during the first season of Doctor Who. Here were two young people who could have stepped off the set of EastEnders talking about 'the TARDIS' without the slightest trace of irony or camp. Many of us expected – even hoped – that RTD would offer us dolly-birds and quarries, a pastiche of the Doctor Who we think we remember from the '70s. Instead, he said 'Let's pretend that Doctor Who is happening in the real world. Let's pretend it always has been.' It isn't very surprising that he convinced Doctor Who fans. Doctor Who fans will believe in anything, even Peter Davison. But to have also convinced the EastEnders audience was quite an achievement. At the end of episode 1, Davies effectively said to the mainstream 'Do you want to come with me?'. Astonishingly, eight million of them came.
There's an urban myth that everyone in England sits round the telly after Christmas Dinner and watches the Queen's Speech. It's certainly true that, on Christmas Day 1976, half the UK population – the largest TV audience of all time – saw Angela Rippon step out from behind the news desk and launch into a song and dance routine with Eric and Ernie. There were fewer channels and no I-Pods in those days, but the idea of the BBC providing a Moment of National Unity on Christmas Day remains a powerful myth. The 2005 Doctor Who Christmas Special played cleverly with this folklore. Only 8 million people watched the actual programme; but when we watched Harriet Jones make her emergency broadcast to the nation we felt – or at any rate, we could pretend we felt – that the whole country was watching with us. The papers were calling the Doctor Who special a Christmas tradition after just one year. Davies may not have achieved Morcambe and Wise viewing figures yet, but his Doctor Who is the very definition of mainstream.
Halfway through this year's Christmas special, the improbably named Lance directs a camp tirade at Donna Noble, the titular 'Runaway Bride'. 'How thick are you?' he sneers 'How can I stay with a woman who thinks the height of excitement is a new flavour of Pringles? Yak, yak, yak, Brad and Angela. Is Posh pregnant? X-Factor, Atkins diet, Feng Shui, Split ends. Text me, text me, text me.' Now, we know that RTD feels the need to insult Doctor Who fans. We're all asexual nerds with alien eyeballs in our pockets and he's not really making the series for our benefit. But aren't game shows, tabloid gossip, beauty tips and soap operas precisely the kinds of things which the mainstream audience might be supposed to take an interested in? Doesn't Doctor Who come on straight after Strictly Come Dancing, a less toxic talent show than X-Factor, to be sure, but a talent show nonetheless? We already knew that Davies had a low opinion of his audience. They are too thick to understand scientific explanations; too unimaginative to be able to deal with stories set on the Planet Zog; too ignorant to have heard of any but the most iconic historical characters; and so shallow that if there is even two minutes of exposition, they'll get bored and switch channels. Donna isn't even aware that the earth was invaded by cybermen, because she had a hangover at the time. That's about at the level of saying 'Oh, was their a terrorist attack on the Twin Towers? I must have been off sick that day' – a level of thickness that even Jade Goody would struggle to achieve. Is this how Davies sees his new mainstream audience? Is he insulting the EastEnders audience to remind Whovians that he really loves them despite it all? A sort of gift-wrapped revenge of the nerds? Or is he the kind of self-loathing artist who needs to despise his public? "Yes, eight million people watch me, but they're either nerds with wooly jumpers and no girlfriends, or else they're lower class people who like Pringles. Oh god, I'm so depressed." If he thinks that TV audiences like this kind of things then he is mistaken. When he slapped his old fandom bitch around, she put up with it because she was used to it and even quite like it. But lay a finger on your new mainstream slag and she'll show you the door. And quite right too.
RTD thinks that Little Miss Mainstream can't deal with anything heavy on Christmas night. This is simply untrue – look at the number of divorces, suicides, and switched-off life-support machines in the annual EastEnders special. That said, pantomime is a perfectly respectable Christmas tradition - (Several hon. members: 'Oh no it's not!') - and Doctor Who has always teetered on the edge of panto. Considered on it's own terms 'The Runaway Bride' was a harmless enough little romp. Donna has swallowed some Hewon particles, which are so dangerous that the Time Lords abolished them zillions of years ago. It turns out that they were administered to her deliberately by the agents of the Racknos, ancient enemies of the Time Lords from the Dark Times. (Memo to BBC: Ancient enemies of the Time Lords from the Dark Times are a lazy fall-back plot device when you can't think up a proper villain, and Russel Davies really should try harder.) The eggs of the only surviving Racknos are hidden at the center of the earth. Hewon particles are the only thing which can release them. Donna and the Doctor are chased around London by Racknos' agents, including the killer Santas from last year, and then trace them back to Donna's place of work – an office building that used to be owned by Torchwood. (P.S That's another plot device which is already getting terribly, terribly boring.) There is a big pit going right down to the center of the earth. Disappointingly, no one says 'We call it...the Pit.' After some waffle, the Racknos sends the Hewon energy down the pit; but the Doctor opens the Thames barriers and floods out the baby Racknos before they can be revived.
As the story rattles along, there are some nice stunts and special effects set-pieces. The Racknos herself, a giant red spider, is a fine creation. It appears that she is mostly a physical prop rather than a computer generated animation, and this gives her a slightly retro feel which rather suits the overall tone of the episode. The early scenes between Donna and the Doctor are quite amusing, although I find it hard to believe that even someone so thick and common that she likes X-Factor would, if she believed that she had been kidnapped on her wedding day by an alien, be primarily interested in getting to the church on time. She never changes out of her wedding dress which is, as the fellow said, a bit Arthur Dent. The whole story boils down to a McGuffin hunt in which the heroine is the McGuffin, but Doctor Who stories have been based on much sillier ideas.
The trouble is that RTD doesn't even try to make any of this make sense. He gives the impression, to coin a phrase, that he's not bovvered. He has no idea what Hewon particles are, or how they work. They are just a tool to propel the unconvincing Donna and her even less convincing groom through a series of mildly amusing set-pieces. Whenever RTD needs to propel the plot in a particular direction, he makes Tennant mutter a new piece of gobbledegook and we watch the goalposts move to some new location.
A few of the more obvious absurdities were:
1: There are no hewon particles anywhere in the universe apart from at the heart of the TARDIS; but the Racknos is able to distill them from the water in the Thames because, er...
2: Lance has been feeding the liquid particles to Donna (in her coffee) because without a living host they will be inert. He chose a person who was getting married as host because the emotional excitement of a wedding would 'cook' the ingested particles. However, Donna says that he only married her because she nagged him so much; and Lance subsequently says that he had to marry her 'to stop her running off'.
3: Donna had to be fed the particles over six months; but when the plot demands it, the Racknos announces 'Now I have studied the bride's catalysis' (what dat?) 'I can force feed it,' and infects Lance with the energy between scenes.
4: Donna is the 'key' to releasing the Racknos eggs (which is like, very ironic, because the company that she works for makes computer entry systems). When she escapes, the Racknos infects Lance, so he becomes the key. But when Donna is recaptured, the Racknos suspends both of them above The Pit, in a scene so reminiscent of 60s Batman that it hurt. Is there some reason why two keys are better than one? Did I miss it?
5: Donna is initially sucked to the TARDIS because the hewon particles in its heart attracted the particles inside her. But when RTD needs to get our heroes out of a sticky situation, the Doctor decides that breaking a test tube of (inert?) particles will make the TARDIS materialize around Donna.
6: At the very end, when the Racknos space ship is going to be destroyed by earthling tanks the Doctor announces that 'She's used up her hewon energy...she's helpless.' Nothing has suggested that the Racknos lives off or draws strength from hewon energy -- and so far as I can tell, the plot rather depends on the fact that there are only two test-tubes of the stuff in the universe.
7: And how is it that someone who has been hibernating at the edge of the universe for a gazillion years knows what Christmas is?
When the Doctor can't improvise a new plot device out of hewon particles, he just whips out his sonic screwdriver. The screwdriver was originally a perfectly valid plot device: it's boring if the Doctor can't easily gain access to secret bases and other areas behind locked doors. (Davies own addition to the canon, psychic paper, serves a similar purpose.) But in the course of this single episode, the Doctor uses his amazing magic phallus to:
1: Operate a phone box.
2: Steal money from a cash-point.
3: Make the cash-point spray out money.
4: Deactivate the robot Santas.
5: Open the door of the taxi that Donna is trapped in.
6: Deactivate the robot driving the car.
7: Soup up a borrowed mobile phone so it will tell him who owns the company Donna works for.
8: Plug it into the sound system to make all the Santas blow up.
9: Trace the signal that is controlling the Santas.
10: Control the lift.
11: Cut Donna free from the spider-web.
And when Plot-device In My Pocket doesn't work, the TARDIS itself can be used to provide a never-ending stream of pixie dust. When Donna is kidnapped by a robot disguised as Santa disguised as a taxi-driver, he makes the TARDIS fly through the air (something it has never, ever done before) match speeds with the car, and persuade Donna to jump into it. With one leap, our hero was literally free. If I have counted correctly, the TARDIS makes seven separate trips through time and space in the course of this one episode: about the same number it made in the whole of the 1963 64 series of Doctor Who! (What would the classic Doctor Who stories been like if the Doctor had been able to use the TARDIS to check out on what was happening in the cybermen's tomb, give Marco Polo a lift to Cathay, or to go the Daleks' city without all that tedious mucking about in the wilds of Skaro?) The real Doctor had to get out of dangerous situations using his wit, his ingenuity, his cleverness. This one has such a large supply of rules-busting gimmicks that nothing can really challenge him.
Davies says that the mainstream doesn't like exposition and don't really understand science-fiction. I think that what he actually means is this: the lower orders like Pringles, watch X-Factor, and don't pay very much attention to TV shows. 'The Runaway Bride' was probably switched on in the majority of English living rooms. People probably walked into those living rooms, looked at the screen for five minutes, said 'I'm not bovvered', laughed, and walked out to get a turkey sandwich. They don't expect to be able to understand 'science fiction' and so they certainly don't expect to understand what is going on in Doctor Who. Hence, if the Doctor speaks a few lines that sound like an explanation, they will assume that the story makes sense, but that only a geek could be bothered to follow it. If it did make sense, they wouldn't listen or would fast forward through the explanations. The only people who know or care if the story makes sense are the asexual Doctor Who fans -- but if it doesn't, they'll simply write a fan-fiction patch and post it to the Internet by Boxing Day. So everyone goes home happy.
Fortunately, the one thing that Davies is bovvered about is the character of the Doctor. This excuses a multitude of narrative sins. There is a fine moment when a couple dancing at the wedding reception briefly make him think of Rose – a moment so artfully subliminal that I only spotted it on the third viewing. The 'wide-eyed enthusiasm' routine is becoming a bit wearing; it sounds too much like something out of the Fast Show. ('Ain't the universe brilliant?!') But the scene where the Doctor takes Donna back in time to witness the formation of the earth can be added to canon of 'magical moments'. The guy in the geeky suit and the girl in the creased wedding dress, floating in a telephone box while Creation unfolds around them. It isn't such a long journey from 'Unearthly Child' to 'Runaway Bride' after all. The dialogue is a little too Phillip Pullman for my tastes ('No, but that's what you do, find meaning in chaos...') but at least someone is trying.
Tennant also does a lovely job with the scary, cold-blooded side of the Doctor's character; psyching the Racknos out by revealing that his home planet was named Gallifrey. (The first time the Time Lord planet has been referenced by name: Davies previously thought that Little Miss Mainstream would be freaked out by such a geeky reference to the Old Series.) And the inevitable 'good-bye' scene puts another really interesting spin on the Doctor's persona. We've just seen the Doctor's callous streak, seemingly feeling no emotion while the baby Racknos are destroyed. Donna recognizes this dark side, and says that he needs a companion 'to stop him'. There is a lot to be done with the idea that the Doctor is a potentially dangerous force as well as a force for good – but it needs something more substantial than a pantomime to hang it on.
So, maybe 'The Runaway Bride' was simply a bit of Christmas whimsy; but since Torchwood I have no faith in RTD's good taste, or, come to that, his sanity. On average Davies seems to come up with a new direction for Doctor Who about once a fortnight: is there any danger that sub-Scooby-Doo romps represent his new theory of what the programme should be about?
Doctor Who has hurt me over and over again. Bertie Bassett; Bonnie Langford; the whole of season 23. But fandom is a classic dysfunctional relationship; unlike Donna, I don't have the guts to walk away. The idea that I might someday say 'I've stopped watching Doctor Who' is about as likely as Cardinal Ratzinger saying 'I'm going to have a lie in this Sunday and not bother with Mass.'
'Jason Statham has reportedly been offered the title role in the next series of Doctor Who.
The Crank star is allegedly being lined up as the 11th Doctor in the hit BBC show amid rumors current Time Lord David Tennant is quitting the role.
A TV source tells The People, 'It will be Doctor Who meets gangland. He will do a lot more thinking with his fists and will be a sure-fire winner with the ladies.
'Doctor Who is still seen as a bit geeky but Jason will add sex appeal and give the character a more dangerous edge.' '
But it could happen.


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Monday, January 15, 2007

Those are my principles. If you don't like them, I have others. -- Groucho.

In the Olden Days private schools were all about Latin, British history, army training corps, boxing, rugby and polishing the prefects' boots. The boy's schools were almost as bad. The object was to turn out people who would know how to lord it over the muggles -- sorry, the fuzzy-wuzzies and the oiks. It was felt to be a good thing that people who were going to spend the rest of their lives being called 'Sir,' 'My Lord', or 'Your Royal Highness' knew what it felt like to wipe the fag-master's bottom. When this was the case, it was fairly hard to stomach people saying that they were Socialists and then coming into some money and sending their offspring to private school. If you belong to a political party which opposes inherited privilege, hierarchies and the class system, then it is a bit rich (in every sense) to send your child to an institution that's dedicated to promoting them. But that kind of private school hasn't existed for decades. It's more common for middle-class parents to 'go private' because the independent sector is more progressive than what Tony calls bog-standard comprehensives.

In the slightly less Olden Days, there were Socialists who thought that education and health should be state monopolies: you shouldn't be allowed to pay school fees even if you wanted to. There have always be Socialists with this Stalinist streak: if the state pays for schools and hospitals, then it follows that the state should control those schools and hospitals, to the extent of deciding how many minutes of netball Dibley Village J.M.I should play on Tuesday afternoons. The Prime Minister's default reaction to an Oribble Murder is to invent a law saying that from now on all state schools must devote at least one hour a week to Not Murdering People Studies. (He made 'Citizenship' compulsory, although since no-one knows what 'Citizenship' means, this probably hasn't made much difference.) There is some case for saying that if you as education minister use schools as an instrument of state propaganda, then you ought not to use the salary you draw from the education ministry to send your own child to a private school where the rules you made don't apply. And it certainly looks bad to say 'no-one should be allowed to send their children to a fee-paying school' and then to send your children to a fee-paying school. But, since the Blairite coup, has anyone in his party remotely suggested that Eton should be turned into a comprehensive?

So: it's hard to be very interested in the fact that a 'Labour' education minister -- let alone a former 'Labour' education minister -- chose to buy their child a place at a private school. It's almost exactly as important as the former minister for rural affairs choosing to buy his child a pony. It certainly shows that cabinet ministers are very rich. We might even wonder how well they understand what it is like to be a hardworkingfamily if they can afford to pay in school fees more than some people -- a newly qualified teacher, for example -- earn in a year. But I've never been quite clear what a cabinet minister is allowed to spend his money on. Not holidays, not expensive houses and certainly not a second Jaguar. We are happy for the man who ruins our trains to be paid several trillion pounds a year, but we want our elected representatives to earn three shillings and wear hair shirts.

What was much more interesting was the terms in which the debate was cast. Every pundit and every editor seemed to think that the question was 'Is it ever right to put the interests of your children above your principles'. Or, as some of them said: 'She is a mother first and a politician second.'

Now, a 'principle' means 'what you think is right'. If I say that looking at pornography is against my principles because I am a feminist, which I don't, then I mean that in my opinion, it is wrong to look at pornography. It's a bit of a non sequitur to say 'Should I put aside my principles when I am feeling very horny?' A principle is what I ought to do, as opposed to what I feel like doing at a particular moment. It's beside the point to ask 'Should I put aside my anti-smacking principles if my child is very naughty,' or 'Should I put aside my pacifist principles in the event of war'. If you are prepared to put them aside, then they weren't principles.

Perhaps the people who are saying 'Oh, she was quite right to put aside her principles....' are endorsing the ever-reliable Daily Mail who summed up the case with the single word: 'Hypocrite'. Perhaps they are saying 'She may have said that she didn't approve of private schools. But she didn't mean it. It wasn't a real principle, it was just something she pretended to believe in.' Are we are so used to our politicians lying to us that it no longer merits even the mildest condemnation?

The alternative, however, is rather more scary. The people who has said that 'she was quite right to put aside her principles...' may have meant that a person can have a genuine and sincere principle but act against it when matters of family are at stake. In which case 'It is right to put the interests of your children above your principles,' means 'It is okay to do something that you sincerely believe is wrong when your children are involved'; 'It is right to do what you believe is wrong'; 'It is right to do wrong'; 'It is good to behave wickedly.' This is either completely immoral or actually meaningless; either way, if it's what people now believe then it's hard to see how we can ever again have a political debate about anything at all.

Or maybe what they were trying to say is that most people have a number of different principles; that they rate them in order of importance; and that in difficult cases they apply the most important ones first. My principles might be:

1: Obey the law,
2: Safeguard your children's physical health,
3: Let your children make their own choices,
4: Make your children as materially happy as you can afford,
5: Don't glorify war and violence.

On this basis, I would let my child have the very violent Playstation game he wants (free choice and material happiness trumps opposition to war toys) but not the cigarettes (health trumps freedom of choice) and certainly not the marijuana (obeying the law trumps everything). A family of hippies might very well put things in a different order, and regard toy guns as beyond the pale but have no particular problem with smoking dope.

But this doesn't really help, because what is being proposed is that 'Do what is in the best interests of my child,' trumps everything, including, crucially, 'Do what is in the best interests of everyone else's children.' If we accept this, then morality simply doesn't apply to family life and I can do whatever I like to protect my cubs. This is particularly sticky when something which will help my child will hinder yours. The advantages I get from a private school (smaller classes, more goes on the computer, a seat in the House of Lords) or a private hospital (shorter waiting lists, not having to share a room) only exist because not everyone can afford to go there.

I think that 'Is it right to put the interests of your children above your principles,' boils down to 'Does 'The interests of society' trump 'The interests of my child' in the hierarchy of values', to which I reply 'Of course it does', or, if you prefer, 'It's a silly question: in the long term, the interests of all children and the interests of your children amount to the same thing.'

If I have my child vaccinated, then there is a small risk that the vaccination will make him seriously ill. If I focus only on the welfare of my child then the ideal state of affairs is for everyone apart from me to have their child vaccinated. My child therefore avoids the small risk that the jab itself will make him sick, while also avoiding the danger of actually catching the disease because everyone else took the risk, got immunized and there is very little chance of an epidemic. The catch is that if everyone thinks like that no-one gets the jab and everyone dies of small pox. But the idea that we should all take the risk so we will all have the protection is, by Daily Mail standards, dangerously Socialist -- which may be why it likes to spread scare stories about the dangers of the MMR vaccine.

Is life is a competition in which the object is to get advantages for your family and take them away from everyone else's? Or are there principles which should be applied to the whole of society because they benefit the whole of society in the long term -- even if they do not benefit a privileged minority in the short term? The first approach is certainly the natural one; the second approach is the artificial one; the better way that some politicians used to think that it was worth trying to build. Have we really become so cynical about politics that we accept that nature-is-red-in-tooth-and-claw and have forgotten that anyone ever believed that there was an alternative?

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Saturday, January 13, 2007

They're selling postcards of the hanging....

Killing is easy. Third and fourth fingers on your palm, first and second sticking out, point at your victim and say peow. Or peow-peow. Only little kids say 'bang'. Real guns have strips of caps which make a satisfying 'pop' when you squeeze the trigger, but they don't actually kill anyone. Two fingers and peow-peow is the rule. Killing is fun. People recover from being killed quite quickly. Some people are immune to being killed. This seems like cheating. Captain Scarlet is indestructible. One day in infants Miss Ward read to us 'The Magic Tinder Box' which ends with the soldier sentenced to be hung and every few minutes the gaoler came into his cell to remind him that tomorrow was the day he was going to he hung. They also did the story on children's TV, one of those programmes where the people spoke in French but a man's voice told you what they were saying, so far as I could tell the soldier was expected to put a rope round his own neck and jump off by himself when he was ready. All his friends turned up to watch. I can't remember what the story is about: I assume he gets off? It was clear, even in that dull French space between Wacky Races and Crackerjack, that being hung was very different from being killed. People who were hung didn't get up again afterwards. It was probably like being sent to Mr Mariot to be smacked, only worse. But it only happened in the olden days, when there were pirates and Hitler and putting people in the stocks. It was extremely horrible and unbelievable and therefore very fascinating. There was an old fashioned English book with a blue cover that pointed out that verbs could have different past tenses depending on context. 'Hang the picture; the picture was hung. Hang the murderer; the murderer was hanged.' I could never quite believe that something so nasty was being used as a grammatical example. Guy Fawkes was a hero because he didn't cry or tell on his mates when they took him to be hanged, that's why we let off fireworks to remember him. Henry the Eighth chopped off the heads of at least several of his wives. Actually, pretty much everyone in history seemed to have been executed at some time in their lives: Mary Queen of Scots; Walter Raleigh; Marie Antoinette; Thomas Moore; Joan of Arc; Anne Frank; Jesus. I assume that the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds was originally just effigies of infamous criminals, but by the time I went it was pretty much a museum of capital punishment, wax convicts having ropes put round their necks by wax hangmen in worryingly modern looking suits and short haired wax works being strapped into distressingly modern looking chairs. There were slot machines where you could watch dolls being executed on Brighton pier. These days the London Dungeon has franchised out the torture trade, and Terry Deary has built a career on history books where you don't need to use the index to find the gory bits. When we were asked to improvise a play on an historical subject, we made one up about a beheading. God knows what the teacher thought. Little boys can be morbid. We got over it.

How did we get this far? I'm currently doing a course at Bristol College, and therefore coming into contact with what I believe are called 'teenagers': the kinds of people who think that 'blogging' is a little bit retro, understand the point of Myspace and think that 'gay' is a term of abuse. I have overheard them in the computer room, looking at pop videos and Jackass stunts on Youtube and then saying 'Have you seen Saddam Hussein yet?' There are apparently edited versions of the footage, with the killing set to music for comical or ironic effect.

The creepiest thing about the Tony Party is the way they get together beforehand and decide not only what they are going to think but the exact words in which they are going to think it. It's been put about that when Prescott said that just possibly televised public hangings weren't a particularly good idea he was breaking ranks, speaking what we might loosely call his mind. In fact, he had clearly agreed a form of words with Tony in advance, ventriloquizing what last night's focus group had decided was the most expedient lie. 'I think the manner was quite deplorable really. I don't think one can endorse in any way that, whatever your views about capital punishment.' Not, as you or I might have said 'The way in which it was done'; the manner. This was the same phrase used by Blair's spokesman ('he does believe that the manner of execution was completely wrong') and, when the focus group decided he should break cover, by Blair himself ('the manner of the execution was completely wrong.') Members of the hivemind cannot criticize the killing itself, only the manner in which it was done. Our problem is that it was an undignified ritual strangulation; that they weren't very courteous to the man whose neck they were going to break; that they took photographs while his pants were filling up with shit. There was a way of doing it which we would not have deplored; a manner that we would have approved of; a kind of human sacrifice which would not have been completely wrong.

As the fellow said: the word you were looking for was 'obscene'. 'Deplorable' is when you fuck your secretary.

I remember when the worst we could say about Blair was that he had wasted a lot of money on putting up a big building to celebrate the fact that there was going to be a date with a lot of zeros on the end and only noticed on December 28th that he didn't have anything to put in it. I remember when we used to wonder if he should cuddle up quite so closely to Bill Clinton, whose left-wing credentials were not impeccable. We used to worry about the fact that his friend Bill had signed death warrants; including one for a mentally handicapped man who would not have been executed in a civilized country i.e one that doesn't execute mentally handicapped people. Straining at gnats.

How did we let it get this far? How did it happen that, in his eagerness to position his product alongside the Twin Towers brand, Blair nailed his colours so deeply into the backside of the unelected thanatos-worshiping simpleton who succeeded Clinton that the most he can bring himself to say is that he wishes we could have had a more polite hanging? Bush has never made any great secret out of the fact that he used the terrorist atrocity as a pretext to attack a short-list of despots who had been fleas in his father's ear. I've seen The Godfather: that's how gangsters behave. Blair, as we have seen, has that particular God complex which says that whatever comes into his head at a particular moment must be right; and that even to stop for a moment and think about the reasons is to betray of the idea of leadership. In 2003 God (i.e Tony Blair) decided that the answer was 'the invasion of Iraq' and he's been trying ever since to work out what the question was. To find non-existent nuclear weapons. To bring peace and stability to Iraq. To make a Iraq a beacon of democracy and liberal values for the whole region. To pull down a statue. I am not going to apologize for removing Saddam. I made the decision to remove Saddam. I think that the world is better off without Saddam. His prayer-partner yo-Bush is notorious for his hang-em-high mentality. ('I do not believe we've put a guilty - I mean innocent - person to death in the state of Texas.' ) How could Tony have been in any doubt that what he had got us all involved in was the War of Saddam's Neck?

Clinton told the Labour Party conference that Mr Blair was the only person who could act as a restraining influence on Mr Bush. That is, if not for Tony, Mad President George would be even more insane. A journalist once asked Auberon Waugh how he could be such a nasty person and also a Catholic. Waugh replied 'If I wasn't a Catholic, think how much worse I'd be.' Couldn't Tony have persuaded George to hand Saddam over to a properly constituted international court which gave people proper trials and didn't practice ritual asphyxiation? Did he try?

Did you ever think it would get this bad? Did you ever think we would reach a point where members of the Tony Party were using phrases like 'whether or not you agree with capital punishment' as if it were a matter of legitimate difference of opinion, a subject for debate? You ritually slaughter criminals, we don't; but then you wear body armour to play rugby, and we don't; aren't these quaint little cultural differences fascinating? Where have the last 40 years gone? Are the 1960s still in the future?

Regular readers will remember that, as Shadow Home Secretary, Blair expressed the view that watching a (comparatively mild) 'video nasty' was likely to turn innocent children into murderers. How appropriate that his last year in office should be ushered in by a nation of cretinous ghouls drooling, like morbid eight year olds, over the nastiest video of all time.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Emperor Nero has expressed regret at the manner in which a Christian was eaten by lions.

"I would have like Androcles to have been torn apart in a more dignified fashion," he said "Obviously, something went wrong. Whatever you think about throwing Christians to wild beasts, the shouts of encouragement from the crowd were quite deplorable."

However, Nero pointed out that a scroll, which he had temporarily mislaid, conclusively proved that Androcles and the Christians were capable of burning down the city of Rome and killing everyone in it at XLV minutes' notice.

"I have made my position very clear," explained the Emperor. "I am opposed to people being eaten alive by lions, whether they are Christians or anyone else. However, this is purely a matter for the lions. All I did was throw Androcles into the arena. What the lions choose to do with him once he was there was purely their business and nothing to do with me. It would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. Now I think that's a perfectly sensible position that most people would reasonably accept."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

“What’s that so black agin’ the sun?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny fightin’ ’ard for life”, the Colour-Sergeant said.
“What’s that that whimpers over’ead?” said Files-on-Parade.
“It’s Danny’s soul that’s passin’ now”, the Colour-Sergeant said.

For they’re done with Danny Deever, you can ’ear the quickstep play,
The regiment’s in column, an’ they’re marchin’ us away;
Ho! the young recruits are shakin’, an’ they’ll want their beer to-day,
After hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’.
Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it; he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed,
As 'twere a careless trifle.
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen, yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and found it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

Chidock Tichborne, on the eve of his execution (1586)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Private Eye Cover: Happy Noose Year
The morning wind began to moan,
But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning-steel
We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars
Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
God's dreadful dawn was red.

At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
Are all the gallows' need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.

Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

'I am sorry," said Frodo, 'But I am frightened, and I do not feel any pity for Gollum'

'You have not seen him,' Gandalf broke in.

'No, and I don't want to,' said Frodo. 'I can't understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.'

'Deserve it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end, and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many, yours not least. In any case, we did not kill him: he is very old and very wretched. The wood-elves have him in prison, but they treat with such kindness as they can find in their wise hearts.'

Monday, January 08, 2007

As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for school-boys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occurrence of crime.
Oscar Wilde

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun.

The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators.

When the sun rose brightly-as it did-it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil.

When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

Charles Dickens, 1849

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities. But....
Margaret Beckett

We are against the death penalty, whether it's Saddam or anybody else. However.....
Tony Blair

He does believe that the manner of execution was completely wrong, but....
Spokesman for Tony Blair

As has been very obvious from the comments of other ministers and indeed my own official spokesman, the manner of the execution of Saddam was completely wrong. But....
Tony Blair