October 9th, 2008
In Poodle’s Perry Bible Fellowship post he tacitly (or not so tacitly, I can’t remember) exhorted us to pay more attention to the small things. To give detail a chance to speak before it’s drowned out by our boorish information culture, and it’s to that end that I want to take a look, over a series of posts, at comic panels that have have a special place in my heart. Tucker Stone, you might want to look away now.
It was the late nineteen seventies and I was three-years-old and living in suburban London with my Nan and Granddad. My mother was trying to put herself back on her feet in the wake of my father’s messy exit, and in doing so build something solid for my brother and I to return home to. Every morning I would get up, have my face and neck scrubbed by my grandmother, put on my clothes, head down to a breakfast of warmed milk and cornflakes (I tried this again recently, it’s seriously disgusting), and finally sit down in front of the seventies’ answer to childrens’ television: Play School, Sesame Street (if it was a Saturday), and Rainbow.
I always had a strange relationship with Rainbow, I don’t remember ever enjoying it – camp puppets and folk music sessions appeal considerably more now that I’m an adult – and yet I felt compelled to stick with it until the bitter end. As if watching it were some necessary ritual, a last ditch attempt to cling onto those few fleeting minutes of entertainment aimed squarely at children before we slipped off into the black abyss of daytime TV. The Thames Television ident, the herald of this change from child friendly space to the adult sphere, top and tailed the programme, and as such was the focal point for my discomfort at the coming shift in the universal alignment. The ident declared that my day was about to begin, and that it would be controlled – utterly – by concerns far more powerful, and far larger than my own. The shift contained within the ident also meant that I would have to pay attention to the passage of time as it marked a significant and unwanted change. But it wasn’t dread that I felt when I watched the Thames’ logo rise out of the river, its quality was more melancholic, captured by that mournful session trumpet. It was the feeling that something was passing, perhaps ending, and that this was going on around me all the time, and that I had no say in the matter.
Years later I read V for Vendetta
I’ve always felt that it’s difficult for people who weren’t brought up in England in the sixties, seventies or eighties to appreciate the powerful and precise ways in which V for Vendetta resonates with those of us who were. With its careful stylisations and glossy sheen, the Wachowski Brother’s movie, good as it was, was never going to be my film. My V for Vendetta stank of old flannels bathed in hot water and boredom, of days spent waiting to return to my mother, of orange streetlights, and the faded dreams of suburbia. A landscape that mirrored that year in my childhood – constructed from pure Sartrean facticity, and the realisation that the world could be banal, unyielding, and restrictive. Moore and Lloyd were riffing on the haunting iconography, plot and energy of 1984, but as English creators working in the eighties they instinctively painted a world that marries with my memories of late seventies / early eighties England, both on a literal and figurative level. When I look at the image above I’m taken back to grey journeys on the Undergound. Like the Fingerman (an agent of the totalitarian regime that controls the fictional British Isles of VfV) who catches this fleeting glimpse of the fantastic, I found myself somewhere between bored and hypnotised on those never ending journeys spent with my face glued to the window, watching as we dipped in and out of dirty brick tunnels, before plunging into the dark on reaching the centre of the city. My memories of the Tube share much (beyond their contemporaity) in common with my memories of that ident, they’re bound up with a deep yielding of control – the imposition of the adult order. The sounds of the train were the same rattles and clatterings that I heard in the distance as I tried to sleep at night – the sounds of a prison cage.
It’s these associations that initially strike me when I consider the panel in question, this is in a part the product of its context – the scene in which it’s embedded, and, pulling out further, the story in which the scene is contained – and in part tied to the content of image itself. The former I have alluded to, the latter I have yet to discuss. Remove V from the frame and you are left with a picture of nothing, the blank façade of the tunnel entrance set against the blue-white of the sky. It is, however, the kind of view that my childhood eyes, hungry for entertainment as travel transformed into tedium, might have deliberately sought out. The roof of a tunnel, the arch of a bridge, the depths of a wood, these were all spaces that demanded my attention as we flew past, principally because they repelled the casual gaze. They would go unnoticed if they weren’t actively pursued, and as a consequence needed to be carefully probed, afterall hidden spaces might well contain secrets. Sadly the hoped for ghosts and monsters always failed to materialise: the banality of the city was profoundly hostile to the lonely figments that haunted my imagination. And it’s here where the landscape of my memory meshes with Moore’s fictional future. This is one of those views, those hiding places for the uncanny, those spaces that never failed to betray me by ultimately reinforcing the concrete and determinsitic reality I wanted so very much to escape. Even the at first unnoticed hints of a nascent sunset do little to imbue the image with any romance. Instead of a feeling of warm melancholy, the sun blushed clouds gesture towards a lost or repressed beauty: in this Britain dirty brick walls attempt to obscure the majesty of the heavens.
Bring V back into play, however, and the panel’s impact is transformed. The image of a figure in silhouette framed by the sky is one common to heroic fiction, with it more often than not being used to announce the arrival of a story’s champion at some crucial moment. Certainly when seen within the context of the first chapter this reading gains a great deal of strength – we know that V is attempting to save Britain from its unpleasant rulers, and we suspect that he’s something approaching a good guy. But there’s ambiguity at work here, and there’s nothing simplistically heroic about this shadowy figure. To begin with we have the black cape, black gloves and wide brimmed hat, not the traditional garb of the uncomplicated hero, quite the opposite: they’re clothes one would expect to find on Shelley’s Frankenstein, or perhaps a vampire. Then there’s the camera angle that holds the composition: while ostensibly the fingerman’s point of view, on closer inspection it doesn’t quite match up with any possible view from a train window. This almost invisible dislocation produces a disconcerting effect, further reinforced by the diagonal surface on which V perches, and its attendant expressionistic overtones. That the figure looms over us, seemingly ready to pounce, is also not a little troubling. There is, of course, another strata of iconography in this mix, but one that might not be so readily available to those unfamiliar with the genre that concerns us most here in the Dark Dimension: the superhero. This is the iconic territory inhabited by the edgier brand of caped crusader, the character’s that some unfortunate writers can’t help describing as vigilantes. Looking up to that figure we might mistake him for the Shadow or, if we were a little more ignorant, maybe even Batman.
The final element that I wish to discuss is the subtle suggestion of a rapidly passing moment. Taken within the context of the page it’s impossible to misunderstand that the panel represents a fleeting glimpse, but it’s a testimony to Lloyd’s attention to detail and his raw artistic instinct that there are clues within the panel itself. Most obviously there is the diagonal sweep of the train carriage’s chassis that occupies the bottom right hand corner of the page, which, if one looks very closely indeed, can be seen to be moving towards the semi-circular brickwork that heralds the entrance to the tunnel. Secondly there is V’s pose and his billowing cape, both of which are pregnant with motion and dynamism – time straining to move on, something about to happen. An effect further reinforced by the juxtaposition of these components with the static background imagery.
But considering each of these factors in isolation is only a means to an end. It’s how they work together and how they map across my psyche which interests me here. Certainly, I wouldn’t expect anyone else’s experience of the panel’s background detail to chime with my own. The way in which it somehow distills what I consider to be the book’s ambient qualities is a feat of magic that is almost certainly unintentional, and not something I would expect others to relate to or even understand. As I said at the beginning of this essay, we are talking about why this image is so important to me. But I also recognise that I’m not alone in my appreciation – an updated and expanded version has been used as an introductory image in at least one print run – and that there will likely be some crossover between my reading and the readings of other fans. I think the way in which the shadowy figure vacillates between saviour and threat has something to do with the panel’s broad appeal – the compelling mystery contained there-in, and let’s face it, V is nothing if not mysterious. But to refocus on the superheroic component for a moment, it seems to me that the panel’s greatest strength (at least as far as the comic book reading audience is concerned) is the powerful way in which it feeds into the iconography of the superhero dancing on a ledge at twilight. This is imagery that transcends its content, that speaks of the superhero genre in its entirety. In blogging we talk about pillar posts – posts that exemplify a blog’s USP – this is pillar imagery, fundamentally bound to the genre. Imagery that we, as superhero fans, are all on intimate terms with. And I believe that this panel, thanks to its paired down simplicity and the quality of the craftsmanship on display, is one of the best of the bunch. If only Batman were this frightening and mysterious, if only Daredevil moved with V’s grace.
Like the image in question, that dull landscape of memory infected by the Thames ident wasn’t entirely without beauty and hope. On those pebble-dashed streets my imagination was put to solid, gruelling work, but it needed food, something, anything to burn as fuel: monster lollies, Starwars, the gatefold image of the dragon Maleficent that struggled to escape my Disney compendium (which I now read to my two and a half year old son). Comic books. Oh God, comic books. When I think of my childhood lust for them I can’t help bringing to mind that line from Knocked Up, about adults not being able to enjoy anything as much as children enjoy bubbles. To the three-year-old me the experience of reading a comic was completely and utterly transformative. The dayglo ideas and concepts on display bent and contorted my mind and supercharged my imagination. As an adult the walk down to the newsagents on the roundabout that nestled at the end of the Leafhill Crescent takes two or three minutes, but to the child in me that short journey will always be an eternity of anticipation soundtracked by my grandmother’s snapping mantra “One comic each!”. Two comics was always enough, besides, it wasn’t as if we had much choice – we’re talking about a British newsagents in the seventies here, a shop which seldom stocked more than four or five random American titles (at that time in my life I was only interested in reading books published by Marvel or DC), none of which were likely to be duplicated next month. We seldom saw the end of story arcs, and we seldom saw them begin, and while I can’t say that fact didn’t bother me at all, it was of limited importance: the aesthetic hit alone made me giddy, and for a while the world would be illuminated by four colours and blaze with possibility.
And it’s that experience that is in some way captured by this small panel. Like the ghosts I hoped to glimpse from train windows, V haunts the image, infecting the space with counter meaning. There’s something fantastic, almost beyond acceptability about the possibility of the superhero – a superhero so perfectly rendered, so, as I said above, quintessential – invading Moore and Lloyd’s dead-end universe. And yet thanks to the way the panel’s imagery, and V for Vendetta as a whole, is interwoven with my own experiences of a world of cold facts and concrete truths, and of flooding that world with, well… what amounts to magic, V’s presence feels in some way not only permissible but necessary. If the Thames ident speaks to me of the beginnings of existential anxieties, this panel illustrates the cracks in the hard slabs of facticity that make up life, where the rainbows stream through. By confirming the hard limits of my reality by gesturing back to that sad formative year, whilst simultaneously admitting the impossible, it steers clear of sentimentality – instead it brings to mind the numinousness of things. Everyday, transient, limited things like train tunnels, and suburban streets, and orange streetlights. The panel offers me another way of seeing that period of my childhood: as a time when I got to know my imagination, just as I started to engage with my finitude.
It’s strange writing something this personal and throwing it up on the Internet for all to see. I doubt Tucker Stone would approve, but when we’re talking about the things that really mean something to us, when we’re prepared to look really hard at them, we can’t fail to see ourselves reflected back.