March 31st, 2009
Or: why David ‘Red Riding‘ Peace would be my perfect Hellblazer writer.
I really just want to post some of these pictures off the telly, they’re smashing:
So, 1983 didn’t end so well – I mean, logistically it did, emotionally it was kind of a relief, I suppose, that kind of beatification after a good six hours of largely pummelling, thrillingly blunt-nosed television. Bit like taking the squid out of Watchmen, ennit though, reaccenting the piece? The author is a man whose idea of a happy ending is wrists slit in bath.
The little girl is saved by the protagonist/the little girl is not saved by the protagonist:
The little girl is dead, and it’s all the protagonist’s fault and now he’s going to a mental hospital.
Newcastle. Leeds. Merseyside. West Yorkshire.
It’s all the bloody same in the end, the North of England:
Longcoated, bowed men.
Once were socialists.
I should probably clarify for any American or non-British readers we still have left: David Peace is, ostensibly, a crime novelist – fêted by your George Pelecanos’, your James Ellroys. So, literary crime, then; only, not all crime because two of his seven novels are not crime. So. More broadly. An “occult historian“, a writer of (hideous neologism, this) faction. Short, metronomic sentences. Ponces about with structure. Repetitious, a drillbore. Hard rhythms.
It’s also very much here in the UK his month, March 2009, in terms of dominating the mediasphere, because four novels have been transposed to a visual medium. Hurray. Three of the four Red Riding quartet, 1974, 1980 and 1983, made into probably the most ambitious British television production – certainly, I think, in the Zeroes, from 2000A.D. onward. Only thing we could conceivably stand beside The Wire without being laughed out of town. It’s all people can bring themselves to talk about regarding telly, anyway, these days. And the (association, if you must) football novel documenting the greatest failure of a manager who occupied probably the central part of British sporting life from the mid 1970s to early 1980s made into a motion picture, released 27/3/09, starring Frost/Nixon‘s Michael Sheen, The Damned United. (Book’s called The Damned Utd, a distinction that matters to me but probably not, Mindless reader, to you. Worry not thy fair head.) Everyone in football is very upset about it, because they do not understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction. It’s all people can bring themselves to talk about regarding football, anyway, these days.
Anyone left? I know all proper geeks hate sport. Improper, I don’t. Let’s turn this car around:
Peace attended Batley grammar school, then sixth-form college in Wakefield, but says he spent as little time as possible at school. He was more interested in DC and Marvel comics: “I definitely would have wanted to be a comic-book writer if I could draw.”
Admirable rigour, that; the best mainstream scriptbots can all draw, certainly. Whether Peace would translate visually, whether he has the visual imagination and capability is kind of opaque; the televisual translation did rely heavily on location scouting, I think, the intimidating facade of the Griffin Hotel but his sense of time, of pace, would translate wonderfully in the hands of someone who really can draw. They certainly recreated oppressive mood, in spades, the series’ directors, particularly I thought 1974 – a Tarkovskian tarpit. Not enough?
S: All of the rave reviews that often accompany your work tend to say that you’re a great “crime” writer, that you are rewriting the “crime” genre – crime this and crime that, basically. It’s not something I wholly agree with – there are crime elements to your novels but I think your work is more literary than its given credit for. I just wondered if it irked you at all, the tag you have of being a “crime writer”?
DP: Not really – Dostoyevsky wrote crime; Kafka wrote crime; Brecht wrote crime; Orwell wrote crime. Dickens. Greene. Dos Passos. Delillo etc. But anyway, to me, these days “literary” just means British writers with their Creative Writing MAs wanting to write the “Great American Novel” and filling bookshops with unreadable shite, with no plots, no characters, no balls, no heart and, above all, no British Voice. The best work is always done in the margins and the genres: Burroughs and Ballard in Science Fiction; Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore; and I’m proud to share the same section of a shop as Ellroy, Mosley, Pelecanos and Rankin.
Burroughs and Ballard. Sinclair and Moore. It’s a quartet to play with, really, and I don’t think it’s overstating to say Peace’s own Red Riding foursome reeling is very much of a lineage with From Hell, very much of a lineage with Sinclair’s White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings: a lurid, brutish psychogeography. Particularly noteworthy for the proposed protagonist here, too, in addition to the fact that the latter of the aforementioned is the character’s creator, during the midst of Thatcher’s dark reign (‘John Constantine. Hellblazer. 1985′) is Peace’s heralding of the British Voice, big caps. John Constantine is the de facto king of Brit comicdom because, look: the guys, chaps, lads that actually wear the heraldry? Jack Staff, Captain Britain. Bit embarrassing, really. Bit arch. We don’t go in for it. When it comes to the fantastical, probably best off with a trenchcoated (is a hell-blazer like a trenchcoat, I find myself wondering, often? I know it was supposed to be Hellraiser and then that bastard Barker ruined everything, wouldn’t change it now) smart-arse who sorts things, bad situations, with an unravelling blether, mostly. A retinue of other-Britons, but the lead is English. Cup of tea, lovely. You know the type, aye:
John Constantine is so effing quintessentially British as a character that a photocopy of him is Captain Britain’s boss, nowadays.
But it’s not just that, not only that which led to this project of claimstaking for the world’s most hated form of storytelling: just like I don’t think it’s a coincidence that George Pelecanos named two of his protagonists Strange and Constantine, and aside from his sterling scripting (he’s not the best though; Ed Burns is the best) on The Wire, this was the siren screaming ‘one of us, one of us!’ that drew me into his orbit. Just like I don’t think that’s a coincidence, I don’t think that Red Riding‘s prime recurring character is Maurice “The Owl” Jobson. Or “Maurice Jobson. The Owl.” Or:
as it – as he – appears, variously, throughout, behind thick-rimmed glasses, peering. Not much like the Daredevil and Spider-Man villain, admittedly, not really, crap villain anyway but it’s the sort of thing grabs yer attention reading the Daily Record telly supplement. My attention. These elements of fantasia seeping into novels of purest black (Peace talked a little on a BBC documentary last month about this as his preferred genre descriptor, just “black” in a flat Yorks accent; it’s apt to describe him, certainly, and a fucksight better than “Dewsbury noir“) just make it all the more horrible – bad bits, like half-remembered Alan Garner: the Underground Kingdom. “The wolf did it.” Giant, rotting swan wings; some lost, retarded angel maundering about the task of justice over nine long years.
Warren Ellis’ work on Hellblazer I was perhaps a little surprised to find was pretty much by far the best on the title during my recent refresh; the Ennis stuff has some great character work, the Morrison, Gaiman and Smith shorts have nice, salient bits of social commentary, unlike Jamie Delano who’s never knowingly undercooked a steak, but basically it’s been pretty fallow since the Tories lost power (back soon, though, eh,) and gone up it’s own arse with continuity buggery, aforementioned Ellis and Brian Azzarello aside. Ellis, though: in terms of providing insight into the terrain (London, here, although most writers will tend to relocate Constantine to their own patch or at least bring as much of said to him otherwise – I’m surprised to see Peace’ contemporary Ian Rankin isn’t apparently having much to do with Edinburgh in his upcoming Dark Entries graphic novel), in terms of wry, bleak humour and the demotic (“You’ll never find a more complaining bunch of bastards than cabbies”/”Shut up, Chas”) and – for the most part, although Azzarello probably did this even better, in the representation of the supernatural, which is to say being pretty much nonrepresentational with it, because magic’s a load of bollocks, a string of coincidence that you can make a narrative of. That’s how I like it – you can maybe have a few angels and vampires or that, but don’t baldface it – they are really us, because the comic’s basically about the urban diaspora and bad bastards and the shitey, revolting things they do and maybe how you deal or don’t deal with it. ‘Haunted’, a decade ago (#134-139, I’m sure there’ll be a trade paperback) does all this whilst apparently ripping I Was Dora Suarez off, so I’m told; in fairness, Ellis talks about this conjunction between the Crime and Horror bookshelf and the character in the back of Vertigo Secret Files: Hellblazer:
…speaking of dead bodies, there’s a certain strain of British crime fiction that’s not been seen in American comics, a kind of murder writing that’s blacker and sadder than Ellroy. Derek Raymond’s Factory [of which said Dora is the fourth] novels are the obvious touchstone, brutal things without a chink of light in them. A very English kind of urban fiction, a perfect fit with John Constantine’s world of shabby magic.
That’s what I want, exactly. In the spirit of Jog’s Greenaway Watchmen (spun out of Andrew Hickey’s alternate treatment, which I nodded sagely along to) or Sean Witzke’s Coens’ Daredevil/Polanski’s V; a thing which will probably never be, like books better anyway, don’t trust film, even though the telly provoked me to this. I can’t make up a story, only a background – 1985, the miner’s strike lost, John in Leeds and environs, every internal tension in British life vibrating, thrumming through the wires - race, class, gender… something happened to send him to Louisiana, to scream out of the country. Something fucking dreadful, and I want to know what it is. Even though it’ll do me no bloody good.