August 11th, 2009
or Crisis? What Crisis? (part one)
Think of him as 2000AD’s awkward cousin. He and Tharg used to get on great for a bit, but while The Mighty One went into his teens still drunk on the heady surge of Thrill Power, Crisis was always a bit serious. Self consciously so, you could say. You know the routine: went veggie. CND badge. Amnesty membership. Morrissey lyrics sung at high volume to that face in the bedroom mirror. Didn’t make friends that easily, and sometimes seemed to try hard not to be noticed at all, but on rare occasions he’d come out with something that would really be worth paying attention to.
Anyway this post and the sequel aren’t really about Crisis per se, which was always on the verge of collapse, due to the pressure of sustaining such an airy, vertiginous quiff on such a low-protein diet. They are instead about two particular strips in three particular issues of Crisis, found in the back issue bins the other week.
Straitgate, episodes 5 & 6, by John Smith and Sean Phillips (Crisis #52-53, 1990)
First of all, very important to watch this clip.
Massacres are so now right now. The news over here is still getting over a shedfull of Columbine: Ten Years on bullshit; and this is also as good an opportunity as any to remind as the world of the foul stink still emanating from the British press, with their continued reluctance to properly take one of their own to task for this inexcusable travesty.
Here in the UK, the Dunblane classroom shooting of 1996 is the demon, the worst imaginable example of the dangers of social alienation plus guns, but the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 was an international watershed for the phenomenon, the point at which it became clear that a new and dreadful reaction to the pressures of late capitalism was going to become an unspeakably sad and increasingly common reality. The Columbine High School shooting was different for reasons often touched on, but probably connected to, sorry, globalisation; the folie a deux aspect; the internet-record of the planning (the build-up, the Hype as Douglas Rushkoff would once have had it, is such an essential part of the narrative, as is the Spin, which you’ll remember went as far as a Michael Moore cinema-release film) and the media’s slow realisation that the ravers were old and preoccupied trying to think their way around a few dried-up synapses, that a new spirit was afoot in the millennial youngins, not always all nice.
When Straitgate dropped in 1990 neither of the events in Dunblane or Columbine had happened. The only conceivable model in UK life was the Hungerford massacre of some three years earlier. The memory of ‘quiet’ gun-nut loner Michael Ryan’s afternoon rampage through the sleepy English market town was then still so fresh and sore that Straitgate was singled out for particular criticism and censorship upon publication. The plot, both of Hungerford and Straigate, is by now all too familiar, too painfully predictable but for the odd detail or strange, ironic-after-the-fact variation.
Straitgate tells of a ‘troubled’ (that’ll be our euphemism for ‘paranoid schizophrenic’) gay youth whose nameless face somehow doesn’t fit the small, quiet town he’s been bearing his youthful turbulence in. His vivid, violent fantasies, compounded by acute disappointment and trauma, gradually come to a head and explode into tragic reality on one bad day at the local supermarket. He’s rejected by his crush, his mother dies, the clowns won’t leave him alone…
For all its reputation, and likely because of the censorshp row surrounding the strip at the time, of which few details or accounts remain, the massacre itself is a dramatic parallax, a space definable only by investigation of the contextual modes around it, of build-up and aftermath. As the entire build-up occurs within the perpetrator’s unreliable narration, and the massacre/suicide is the conclusion of the series, the two essential poles are both essentially absent. The story literally finishes before its end, before the wreckage and consequences, the grief and blame, of Our Man’s act can be surveyed. The lack is disappointing, the entire piece is a failure overall, but to reach into the reality of the stories of the checkout girl’s family, the man who has to hose the blood down, would be too big and difficult for any creative team, even one as ambitious, as prepared to nobly overreach itself, as Smith and Phillips.
The hallucinations that plague Our Man and propel him towards his end (realised with full gore and an almost inappropriate sense of glee by Phillips in his early painted/airbrushed/collage mode), somehow make it too easy. [By coincidence, a month or few go SP placed a few pages of Straitgate on his blog. The pages amount to maybe half the first episode, and give a good sense of the style and tone, both of art and writing, in use throughout.]
The fantasies he experiences and imagines are too coherent in their fucked-upness. The maimed clowns and blood in the aisles give him something too easy to work with, too horrorshow, and although the coulrophobia wasn’t at the time quite the cliché that it has since become, more troubling difficulties remain: the scapegoating of the schizophrenic; the stigmatisation of the mentally ill sold to nice earnest comics reading boys as an entertainment, vicarious views offered through hypothetical windows into a reality that’s mercifully unavailable to most. The sincere and trenchant social commentary, always Crisis‘s staple command, gets too close to exploitation in its effort to imagine the worst things in the world, the death of the life of the mind. Straitgate‘s not subtle, and try as it might, it’s not sensitive either. Crisis was always in danger of being too worthy, of protecting certain (necessarily) sacred isms at the expense of others. Some prejudices are more evil than others. Politically and socially, it’s not a mature work, it’s fair to say, though nor did it come from a mature society. (This of course typed from the safety of a society passed from immaturity to senility without any perceptible stage of adult clarity.)
The basic thesis, a simple if fitting assertion thatextreme Oedipal damage plus neglected and suppressed homosexual libido will resurface in Thanatos and carnage, is beginner’s Freud (and similar, coincidentally, to the conclusion offered by Gus Van Sant in Elephant). As such it’s too easy, too pat, and Smith seems to know it, as he compounds the list of hurts and grievances against Our Man with the same delirious vigour that his prose is so good at evoking, multiplying Mother-death trauma by underlying psychotic delusion plus rejection plus the kitchen sink won’t work, as offerings of reason to a set of actions that can’t be broken into component motivations, causes and explanations. Unfortunately this tactic risks inappropriate bathos – ‘this happened, and then this happened, such a bad day I just had to go and kill someone’.
It’s only right to remember that this particular bad fantasy was really still about a fantasy. Back then, it didn’t matter. These weren’t a fact of life, they were still just freak weather. The urban massacre, the school shootout, the really bad day to be in town, were, if not outside imagination, still far outside the norm, and far from becoming the inevitable, sellable symptom of consumer-capital’s supremacy that we now see them as.
Ultimately, Straitgate sets itself an insurmountable task, and so fails. To render the processes leading to the state of massacre-mind as a complete and realised fiction is basically impossible. A fiction that explains the massacre completely would be a massacre itself. To understand it, and to look to the greater crime of communicating that knowledge, would be an inescapably dangerous act.
The censorship in this respect fulfills the necessary ingredient, breaking the story open, rushing it to a wet and premature ending that cannot balance the preceding storm. An almost perceptible outside agency reaches into the story to force Smith’s hand, and breaks the flow of the narrative in such a way as to almost ruin the piece for prosperity, while at the same time perhaps saving him from the consequences of his own logic in starting such an endeavor, a convenient scapegoat to save the story about an inconvenient scapegoat from itself.
But Straitgate, still incendiary, remains something important to the form that spawned it. The British boy’s comic, not unfairly recalled as a happy, distracting parade of madcap outsiders, desperate Dennises and painless class warfare, wouldn’t ever go any further into the dark than it would with this story. And it happened at the height of the industry’s boom and cultural influence, at that evanescent point of implosion back into near non-existence. Long a source of amusement, and secret, nearly verboten thrills and power, UK comics never got closer to the wind (allowing for underground, cultish exceptions like, say, Reverbstorm, which would have to be considered the hurricane itself). In that section of the provincial newsagents, sheltering there in the shadows under the porn mags, it was Crisis and it was Straitgate that were as edgy as it ever got. It was a point where the form got as close to not transcending but transgressing its own daylight boundaries, its own self-agreed limits. Not in the sense of badly realised blowjobs in off-panel shadows, but in terms of a durable and essential historical artefact, and an unwittingly prophetic account of the forces at work in the following decades, boiled like an unstable alchemical condensate from the minds of the two most unpredictable talents available. Straitgate was always likely to go too far. And someone was always going to say ‘no’.