September 28th, 2009
While flicking through the pages of Batman Year One in an effort to research my Batcave essay I paused, as I am want to do, on the pages where Bruce Wayne ventures into Gotham’s red light district. I feel now, as I have long felt, that I know those city streets: The neon gloom, the amphetamine air, the gaze of eyes it’s better not to catch. Coincidentally I’d recently listened to a show on Radio 4, presented by Suggs, on the history of London’s Soho and had been taken back to the early 80s and my visits to my Mother’s office, a television production company that specialised in music videos, that nestled on the edge of London’s red light district. I dreaded the inevitable few minutes spent under the glare of an arcade or sex shop waiting for a taxi or one of my Mum’s friends while the shadows of an adult world fell around me. Even behind the office walls I didn’t feel safe. Sometimes I overheard secretaries whispering about their sex lives thinking they were out of earshot or that the kid wouldn’t understand (I didn’t, but not in the way they thought). Then there were the alien artifacts that littered the rooms and staircases, the posters of rock concerts and the modern artworks that throbbed with a strange potential energy. But worst of all were the giggling men, who once or twice or perhaps more I can’t remember, offered me cocaine and cigarettes.
The worst offender was a man called Hilary. Hilary didn’t work, Hilary just hung around grinning and laughing and occasionally speaking in a creepy adult way than I could barely understand about things that they don’t tell children. To this day I don’t know if Hilary suffered from mental illness, or whether he was high, or whether he was just an adult who wanted to play adult games that admitted no kids, or, the most likely explanation, some combination of the above. What I do know is that he embodied the great black absence that was the hidden adult world. To me he was Soho in all its seedy glory.
Looking back I can see that Hilary informed how I felt about other more mythical street denizens: drug pushers, the child catcher, Fagan and this guy
Free pack of what? Fags?
(Those of you who like a side order of televisual entertainment with your text might want to click on this link as well)
Before smoking bans and packs plastered with promises of agonising death, age restrictions and Superman were all that stood between the yoot and the siren call of 20 B&H. I’m not sure if Nick O’Teen made it to the States or anywhere else beyond the UK for that matter, but in 1981, on these shores, when I was 6 years old, it all seemed terribly serious. An evil man, a super villain, was trying to get children hooked on cigarettes and Superman was trying to stop him in much the same way as he would try to stop Lex Luthor and Brainiac. As absurd as it seems I imagine this campaign did contribute significantly to my childhood conviction that fags (get with the British colloquialisms, Amerifolk) were bad, and that I would never, ever smoke. Before that point my Mother would have voiced her loathing of snouts, but the day to day reality of early 80s British life was full of happy smokers sparking up everywhere from the dining room table to cinema stalls. My Granddad smoked, my Dad smoked on and off, my health food crazy god parents had only just given up smoking, all my nannies smoked, smoking was absolutely normal and yet in some very theoretical way absolutely wrong. The contemporaneous and consequently culminative effect of this campaign and Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No (to drugs) crusade probably shouldn’t be underestimated either, after all both posited identical mythologies: there are evil people out there who want you to get you addicted to evil substance x, the subordinate and less in your face narrative being that once addicted you would be little bit, or maybe a lot, evil too.
For many years I took both narratives as statements of fact, unsurprising when you consider that I had to deal with people who seemed a lot like real life versions of Nick O’Teen. The relationship between my experience and the state endorsed fantasies was reciprocal, one reinforced the other, the resultant effect being that Nick O’Teen and drug pushers felt genuinely threatening and plausible, in fact probably far more threatening and plausible than 99% of super villains. Nick O’Teen was something more, and it’s in that “more” that the real difficulty in rogue’s reviewing him lies. I’d be the first to admit that the character is ridiculous on more than one level, but I’m not convinced that ridiculousness on its own should preclude the possibility of a place between the pages of a superhero title. There’s all sorts of ways around ridiculousness, all sorts of rationalisations that can be brought to bear, the genre and its fanbase are very forgiving of such excesses, just ask Garth Ennis’s wallet. The problem as I see it is in what a character like Nick O’Teen implies.
If you can bear to go back to the beginning of this essay and the florid metaphor that is “the black absence of the hidden adult world” you might start to see what I’m getting at. The social and psychological realities that underpin cigarette and drug addiction and their fallout, the fact that today smoking is more than ever an affliction of the poor and dispossessed these are things that don’t make their way into Superman comics. Smoking in the Nick O’Teen narrative stands in for corruption of youth, on one level the intrusion of an adult sphere of activity that is purposefully kept away from children, on another the encroachment of ill health and death. Within fiction more generally, particularly when tied to notions of corruption or criminality, smoking readily becomes a signifier of an illicit space: villains smoke, edgy characters smoke, the entire noir genre is wrapped in a shroud of tobacco vapour. The added pusher dimension with it’s connotations of drug abuse and the seedier side of human existence takes us further into territory that Superman would find uncomfortable. I’m not being prudish and trying to keep Superman safe for the kids, most superhero comics aren’t for kids, and like the majority of right thinking grownups and I’ve long outgrown the feeling that drugs and sex and booze and cigarettes are in some sense straightforwardly bad. Just the other week on Bobsy’s stag weekend I was reminded of how much I love aspects of the murky adult world that parenthood and a body in its thirties have forced me to quit.
The flip side is that it’s this very tension that makes my interpretation of Nick O’Teen so appealing: an intrusion into Superman’s world of something that he’s ill equipped to deal with is the very definition of the word threat. Seen in that light the character is inherently dangerous in much the same way that paranormal threats are dangerous in horror movies (we are fooled into thinking that the threat can be dealt with through the application of human logic – bury the bones, right the wrong, etc.. – but slowly and surely we come to realise that we’re dealing with a different order of being entirely and that it can’t be tackled with human tools), he threatens the ontological status quo, our understanding of Superman’s universe. Unsurprisingly it would be difficult to make such a character work in practice because his presence would run the risk of fatally undermining the Superman experience. Talking with Bobsy about my ideas for this review I was taken with his suggestion that Nick O’Teen shouldn’t be framed as a major threat. In my schema Nick O’Teen might represent the most unpleasant aspects of a corner of the adult world, but it’s their very banality that make them dangerous, particularly in so far as Superman is concerned. In order to change them Superman would in some sense have to change our everyday existence, clean up our streets but also our souls. The trick would be not to take things too far, subtle gestures to world where Superman doesn’t make sense rather hammering the point home by having The Wire invade the DCU. Additionally one could attempt to show how Superman is (and this might well be the twist) capable of tackling life in the gutter. As ever I think Morrison holds the key. His All Star Superman #10, the issue that led Marc Singer to compare the moral message of ASS to Kurt Vonnegut’s plea “for Godsake be kind!”, would seem to be on the right track. Left leaning liberal that I am, I would like to see much more of that Superman and maybe Nick O’Teen is the chap to make it happen – my vision of his litter strewn corner of the DCU could certainly do with a whole lot more super-love.
Visually Nick O’Teen’s design invites Bobsy’s reading: his lank hair and his emaciated frame imply malnutrition and more than likely drug abuse, possibly homelessness; his costume has a cheap, homemade air, as if he were trying and failing to impersonate a real supervillain; his attempts to get children addicted to cigarettes speak of petty cruelty, boredom, poor socialisation and amorality more than they do genuine evil; and his implied smoking habit points to a very human brand of frailty. This is a character who one could easily picture haunting Metropolis’s red light district, or lurking in the shadows behind a nightclub trying to ride out one line too many. Speaking of The Wire, I can’t help thinking of Nick O’Teen as Bubbles gone bad in a world with superheroes. He’s a survivor and a street celebrity, but only just. One day soon the residents of Suicide Slum might well find his body in an lonely back alley, curled up like a dog turd.
Nick O’Teen’s efforts to addict children (or, in order to get past censorship, young looking people who might conceivably be children) to cigarettes would, in my vision of the character, be relegated to a signature personality quirk but no more. It wouldn’t be his raison-detre, that’s for sure, just an unpleasant and memorable shtick, hence the nickname/super identity. Nick O’Teen’s schemes would skirt the sleazy edge of the superverse. He’d deal in illicit super-substances and probably get himself addicted in the process, or at the very least end up in A&E. I can picture him laughing hysterically at private phantoms, his bulbous eyes glowing with unpleasant red energy while the orderlies physically restrain him. I can see him on the street demonstrating a stolen, faulty plasma pistol to some second rate hood, who decides that, actually, he doesn’t want to pay and that, yes, Nick O’Teen should in fact hand over all his cash. A slightly more fearsome version of the character, or one that’s on his uppers, might try his hand at pimping Betelgeusian booty, or trafficking extra-terrestrial refugees. Maybe he can be found in the darkest depths of the Metropolis’s hypernormal nightclubs surrounded by his very own dysfunctional version of the Newsboy Army, identifiable by their strangely scented, multi-coloured cigarettes. This incarnation of the character would play more heavily on the myth of the predatory drug pusher: slightly damaged but fundamentally inscrutably evil.
My fantasy comic featuring Nick O’Teen would bring with it an entire environment, something of the atmosphere of the Soho of my childhood, one in which Superman would be made to feel awkward and uncomfortable for existing. Girls and boys in short skirts and short shorts would whisper to each other, glance at the man of steel’s pants and giggle. Stone faced teens would attempt to sell him the metahuman equivalent of Es and whizz on the dancefloor. Eccentrically dressed young strangers would make inscrutable comments and crack oblique jokes at his expense. However Nick O’Teen’s played, I’d want to see subtle allusions to all those things that Superman, as we understand him, would struggle to solve, in particular the way we all self-abuse: be it through drugs, or drink, or bad relationships, or our basic inability to live a straightforwardly healthy existence. Nick O’Teen should inhabit the inner city night lands because it’s there that our pain and pleasure is made abject and that reality is hard for any man, let alone a superhuman boyscout, to stand against.
Superman might tells us not to smoke, but the thing is that some of us want to, and we don’t want to stop there…