July 14th, 2011
That’s what I wanted to call Andrew Hickey’s new Seven Soldiers reader, The Miser’s Coat, but he’d only gawn an’ bleedin’ had another idea for the title of his own work first, so. An Incomprehensible Condition should be available from finer internet shops by the time you read this; and he’s only gawn an’ bleedin’ joined the Mindless Ones for his pop-culture critic hat, we’re over the bloody moon to have him, so this interview serves a twofold purpose: to promote and discuss the book and to welcome him to our plated bosom.
Botswana Beast: I’ll just sort of start off with, and I hope this is not something you already have been in print answering over and over (save all yr blog tour answers for C&P-style Johann Hari-ing, that’s my advice, I always look for the shortcut) but yeah, what’s this for – it’s, I mean it’s a pretty interesting idea, not something I’ve really seen done before, a blog tour, live performance etc. – but I sort of assumed in our case it was to promote your upcoming Seven Soldiers book, which David and I are doubtless concurrently offering brilliant editorial advice for, but then I look at the list of the other places you’re going, and I think it can’t be (solely) for that purpose? Are you just – and sorry, I know you’re not particularly comfortable with self-promotion, but I’m more than happy to enable you in that regard – are you just trying to establish yourself as a Web Personality, or author, or…?
(I apologise deeply if you have covered this, I do read S!JL practically religiously but I’m not – I don’t have a very detail-oriented memory sometimes, and it’s an okay opener…? Oh, say it’s an okay opener, won’t you?)
Andrew Hickey: It’s a perfectly good opener, and surprisingly not something either of the other two interviewers so far have asked me.
The idea of doing this is to promote the Seven Soldiers book, but also to promote my books more generally. Looking over the blogs I’m doing this on, you, Plok and Deep Space Transmissions are all very Morrison-oriented anyway. While Debi‘s very far from a Morrison fan, she does have a large readership that are into comics, and also she’s a very good friend so it’s just fun to do stuff with her. While the Liberal England post won’t get anyone new reading the 7S book, it may well get some people reading my Beatles or Beach Boys books, and lay the groundwork for the one on the Monkees I’m doing when I get the next couple of Beach Boys ones out. So the only one that doesn’t serve as some kind of direct promotion for one of my existing books is the one with Gavin Robinson. That one I did partly because I had quite a lot of things to say about the whole self-publishing thing, but if I posted them to my own blog, it would look too egotistical (I’m very aware of my tendency to navel-gaze, and spend a lot of time getting rid of the introspection in my work). Not only that, but Gavin is one of the two or three most rigorous thinkers I know – both intellectually and morally – and so discussing things with him is a good way of clarifying my own positions.
(That all sounds very calculated, so I should point out that the people involved here include some of my very closest friends, and I am at least moderately friendly with everyone involved, and would gladly return the favour. Half the reason for doing this is just that I’ve been neglecting my social circle a bit and needed a bit of an excuse to make time to talk to them).
The idea of a live performance kind of thing online is one that’s sort of steam-engine timing at the moment. I know Plok’s planning something along those lines, for example, but the idea of a blog tour is one that quite a lot of self-published authors are doing at the moment. I got the idea from Joe Konrath’s blog which is… it’s a very good resource for self-publishing writers so long as you don’t believe the hype. Or at least so long as you remember that people on the MP3.com forums were saying exactly the same thing about indie musicians being helped and the major labels being destroyed by MP3s as he’s now saying about publishers and the Kindle.
As for being a Web personality… christ no. If I wanted to be a web personality I’d have carried on writing for Liberal Conspiracy - I could have parlayed that into a gig at CiF quite easily, and had the whole Laurie Penny career route. (That’s not a dig at Laurie at all. I’ve known her for years, though never very well – we have a few mutual friends – and I admire her writing. But she’s not doing what I want to be doing). Similarly, I’d have jumped at Rich J’s recent offer to have me do some stuff for Bleeding Cool. (I still may take him up on that if I have the time, energy, and write anything I think would fit there, but I’m not going to force the square peg of my writing into that particular round hole). [n.b. after The Beast Must Die seen Johnston acting the tit in Orbital Comics the other day, this has become something less of a likelihood - Ed (Stargard).]
I am trying to establish myself as an author, but… I was talking with Plok about Jonathan Miller recently, and he was talking about Miller’s work as a theatre director, and wondering what he’d done before that. And I told him about Miller being in Beyond The Fringe, and he was shocked – he hadn’t connected Jonathan-Miller-the-comedian-in-Beyond-The-Fringe with Jonathan-Miller-the-director, though he knew about both. And I would be very, very happy to have people enjoying my books and only months or years later realising that Andrew-Hickey-who-writes-about-music is the same person as Andrew-Hickey-who-wrote-those-short-stories or Andrew-Hickey-who-writes-about-comics.
So, no, the last thing I want to be is a ‘personality’. But if I can get people reading my writing, this tour will have been a success.
Illogical Volume: Since you’ve already talked about this blog tour thing in terms of live performance, I was wondering about how this relates to your actual writing. Grant Morrison seems to think of his comics in these terms, as an ever-changing work in progress that’s meant to be interacted with as part of the weekly shuffle, rather than as something that was “written for the ages”. Given that two of your books have been at least partly inspired by Morrison’s work, and given the way you’ve serialised these books on your blog before collecting them, do you see any useful connections between the way Morrison conceives of his work and the way you’re reacting to it here?
AH: Hmm… I think there’s a form and content thing there that I’ve not properly considered before. What I love to do, more than pretty much anything, is to improvise and create a structure out of nothing while I’m improvising. I do sit down and plan things out beforehand, but I end up departing from the plan almost completely – using it more as a safety net than anything else. When I started writing this book, it was a far more conventional thing than it ended up being. In my old band, we’d often go into the recording studio and I’d improvise a solo and be asked to do a second take, and then the engineer would be surprised I’d played something different, because the solo sounded worked out in advance. And that’s what I like to do – come up with something structurally complex on the fly. And in a form-fits-function kind of way, that fits with Morrison’s work far more than it would, say, Alan Moore, who does this incredibly complex intricately planned stuff. I could never, for example, write Who Sent The Sentinels, even though that’s been a huge influence on what I’ve been doing with my comics-related books. But there’s a similar sensibility in Morrison’s work – a jumping in and trusting that if you’ve got enough sense of structure it’ll just come.
I wonder, thinking about it, if it’s because Morrison, like myself, is an unsuccessful musician. I think all writers should try writing music before they progress to words – it gives a wonderful sense of structure and rhythm that otherwise I certainly wouldn’t have.
IV: Well chuffed to have you join Mindless Inc, Andrew. Does this mean that your blog tour might also double as yr Introview? If so, I will ask you the question that was asked of me when I joined: How does it feel to be Mindless now? Brilliant, I’ll bet.
AH: Brilliant indeed. And very odd. While I still think of myself as primarily a comics blogger, I’ve not written all that much on the subject in the last few months, and wasn’t at all sure I had any kind of ability at it, compared to some of the other stuff I write. But I’ve loved the site since very early on, and have always thought there was a shared sensibility there, so it’s very, very gratifying to see that that’s not just a figment of my imagination.
*sniff* You like me, you really like me! Regular readers needn’t worry – Mindless Ones isn’t suddenly going to start running endless articles on the Beach Boys, Lib Dem internal politics, and how Doctor Who went downhill once it stopped being in black and white. All that stuff will stay on my own blog. I will, however, be bringing my own special talents of creating laboriously-constructed overly-pedantic sentences and references to stuff you don’t really care about. If the Mindless Ones site is AIOTM, then I see myself very much as the Dan Tetsell figure.
IV: I like what you said about not just doing the comic book metafiction, so mebbe we could formalise that into a Q & A thusly: Most of the existing analysis of Seven Soldiers has focussed on the way the series uses references to other comics & comics creators to explore the themes of paternity & mortality. Your book draws on a fairly esoteric range of sources, from Bunyan to Hawking & beyond, but it doesn’t spend much time on the comics commentary & I was wondering if this was a deliberate choice?
AH: OK, in which case, here’s a more thought-out version of the answer…
Absolutely. When I started writing the book, I was going to do more of that (and there’s still a little of it, in the first chapter and the appendix), but it seemed redundant.
Most modern superhero comics are about their own position in the phase space of superhero comics, first and foremost. You read something like Infinite Crisis, for example, and it’s all these floating signifiers, doing nothing but pointing to the creators’ views in an ongoing discussion about superhero comics, and not even doing that very coherently. So you have Mongul turn up, not because there’s any reason for him to, but just so he can stand behind Batman and Wonder Woman just like he did in For The Man Who Has Everything.
Andrew Rilstone once said “Marvel comics is more inclined to treat old issues as Holy Writ: new writers do not so much contribute to the evolution of The Fantastic Four as provide a midrash on the work of Rabbi Jack.” and I think that’s increasingly true of all superhero comics. Increasingly, rather than tell stories of their own, superhero comics just point to two or three other stories – or even, orouboros-like, point to pointers to pointers to pointers to other stories. So of course superhero comics criticism has to do that too, so people who want to write about superhero comics are trained to look for that kind of thing. And it can even be insightful – if you read what Jog or Marc Singer or people like that had to say about this series, they really added a HELL of a lot to it, because Seven Soldiers is part of that discourse, and does have things – relevant, important things – to say on those terms. And that’s not meant as damning with faint praise, or anything – those two particularly added a HUGE amount to my understanding of this series.
But it’s also a work that is actually engaged with the wider culture in a way very few modern superhero stories are. It recognises concerns and issues that have a far wider relevance than just to superhero comics, and I thought somebody should deal with that stuff. I think if superhero comics are ever going to have… not even mass appeal, but any kind of appeal… again, then they need to be more like Seven Soldiers than like Infinite Crisis, and we need to adapt our criticism in the same way.
BB: Yes, I think that’s – I really got into comics blogs around the time of Seven Soldiers; I mean, I read Fanboy Rampage because I’d a sort of acquaintance with Graeme McMillan through his earlier Barbelith persona and his stuff on Broken Frontier, and the boards there (also Matt ‘Highway 62′ Maxwell, who I’m very fond of indeed) and then discovered Jog via FBR and Not the B via him (I think, maybe it was the other way about; and Brill Building, whose author now writes Darkwing Duck comics for BOOM!, which I could’ve never envisaged, and I was communicating with all these guys. It was quite a time, for me, Seven Soldiers – I was doing a PGDip. in Librarianship and my girlfriend, now my wife, became pregnant midway through that, and – I always remember writing on Barbelith, the last issue was due on my 27th birthday, and as we now know, it came some 6 months late, but I was like “I hope I have achieved something by then”, which I did, in impending fatherhood. I can’t recall if the last ish came out before or after my son’s birth now? (This is a bit like the inverse of your gran and Optimus Prime dying, David, synchronistically, I suppose.) It was pretty hectic.
AH: Yeah… similar kind of experiences here. I got into comics blogging via the Howling Curmudgeons, because I was friends with Matt Rossi on LiveJournal, in 2003 or 2004 I think – certainly I started buying comics again after the usual period out of them We3 and Vimanarama (didn’t read Seaguy til a little later). I followed Marc off onto his own blog when he got that, and I think found Jog etc through that. Certainly by the time 7S was coming out I was reading Marc’s blog, Jog’s, Plok’s and a few others. I still think primarily of those people and yourselves when I think ‘comic blogging’ rather than, say, Robot 6 or Comics Should Be Good or Chris Sims (to name three things I do read, so I’m not slagging anyone off there). I’m a few months older than you, but 7S was the first big thing I got after getting back into comics, and while it was coming out I got my
first proper long-term job (after a few years of bumming around and periods of temp work after dropping out of university), got married, wrote my first academic papers, joined a political party, formed my second band and got my first flat that was just me and my wife, rather than being shared. It was a big time for me.
BB: Anyway – questions, questions – there were questions in my head before I preambled o’erlong; oh! I also contributed to the Barbelith wiki, which was under serial attack by spambots, primarily on… I think I did like Shining Knight #1 - 3 (hum, I don’t recognise #3 as my work, perhaps it was heavily edited,) and stuff like an entry for Neh-Buh-Loh which was later reprised, to my mind, in the actual issue of Frankenstein #4 with the lead’s “internet link” detail on the character – so, that was sort of my first experience creating web-content, something I’d always – I was always a bit sad I’d not been on Barbelith/Nexus when they did it for The Invisibles, so I was jazzed to have another longform GM work to try and chisel into. You know, I count myself, therefore, among the world’s premier Seven Soldiers experts but that what was so flabbergasting about what you’d done singlehandedly here, Andrew, providing this entirely… pretty much a whole cloth reconstruction of how to look at the series, it was absolutely, almost entirely new to me. I really am kind of in awe of it.
AH: Well, there’s not much to say about that except “thanks”, is there? But of course, this book couldn’t exist without all the stuff you put on the ‘lith wiki, and Jog’s annotations, and Marc’s stuff. But I don’t think that I’ve got a huge amount to say about 7S that a lot of people couldn’t have said. I think what I *have* done is found a form that allows that to be said – the form of this book is in large part isomorphic to the form of 7S, with its digressions, and the things that get picked up later that start off as asides, and so forth.
And that, I think, is down to Andrew Rilstone’s Who Sent The Sentinels, which I know I keep going on about, but it really opened my eyes to the way that criticism can mirror the form of the thing it’s criticising, and have leitmotifs and recurring themes and so on. It’s an astonishing, astonishing piece of work, and I can’t say enough good things about it.
So I tried to do the same thing, both in my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! and in the two issues of PEP! that I have so far put out. The really interesting thing about PEP! was that connections would appear between different people’s writing that I didn’t ask them to put there, and none of the writers had any contact with each other as far as I know. But that was an invaluable experience in structure, in teasing out connections between apparently-unrelated works, and in trusting that connections would be there.
So I think what I’ve actually done, with the Sci-Ence! book and PEP!, is learn enough about structure that I can take on a project like this. It’s not what I have to say, but how I’m saying it…
BB: So, yeah, “free-floating signifiers” – it’s, see, I do kind of think Seven Soldiers partly owes its success to… I do tend to think of coroporate superhero comics as, at least in part, the Internal Life of The Brand which is – you know, X-Statix was kind of remarkably prescient and defining (although I do think DK2 kind of has a handle on it too) ’00s superhero book, but signifiers I think have to be a bit freefloating on the bigger stuff, like Superman, a guy like that has to be portrayed in a fuzzy, vague good feeling, one of positivity, way; not unlike – in retrospect – the Obama election campaign (oh, God, can’t the 2012 one be over already?)
But Miller once said [totally paraphrasing] the best way to make an impact, as he did on Daredevil, as Moore did on Swamp Thing, as Claremont did on X-Men and as Morrison did on Animal Man and Doom Patrol was to get the off-brand stuff and transform it into, ideally, a creative and commercial success. I think Seven Soldiers completely has that proto-Vertigo, or Vertigo if it were starting up in 2006, not 1993 or whenever, feel and has probably actually – directly and indirectly – been the biggest influence on these new ‘Dark’ books in DC’s relaunch, so – it’s a lot easier to divest of all the superhero trappings (although there is a massive k-hole to fall into thereby too) than, say, Morrison’s current Batman book which is – in my experience, and there has been criticism to this effect – hard not to read as a (however engaging and/or impressive) symposium on Batman.
What demarcates 7S as a particularly – and Morrison is of course very good at detourning any franchise into higher biography anyway – imagined-future Vertigo-esque work for me is the Celtic underpinnings (which we seem to be getting back to in Batman Inc. right now) but also their farflung SFnal origins, and Morrison’s own, at 2000AD and even Starblazer before that (published in my home town, need I add?)
oh God, is there a question here…? See all I’m doing is inside baseball/autobio, shake’n'bake, which is how my default mode of how I write about comics, and thereby commodify myself – I just wonder if… is there a particularly British quality to something like this, that makes it more appealing to us – mongrel, demi – Celts? I mean, I like Ed Brubaker fine, or Jason Aaron, but I wonder if I’m just predisposed to – there are at least five British comics writers I’d rather read before any of them; what I’m asking is, am I just a mad racist/patriot? (I’m not even British, I don’t even think of myself that way, but I remember reading David Peace talking about – criticising his contemporaries in UK fiction and the idea that really came through, was startling to me was he said, in comparison to Moore or Iain Sinclair or Moorcock, whomever, these non-genre writers had “no strong British voice”, and I think Seven Soldiers does, somehow. What’s its tradition, I suppose I’m asking, going back past Gaiman, Moore, Kirby?)
AH: Well, of course you can trace all those people back to people like Dunsany, who is obviously a very heavy influence on 7S too, with things like The King Of Elfland’s Daughter, and from Dunsany you get this connection to mystic-authors like Richard Burton or Yeats, and to the whole wellspring of Celtic mythology. It all connects to Lance Parkin’s Gray Tradition stuff, doesn’t it? I wish he’d finish that series of posts…
But yes, I find that I pretty much exclusively read British/Irish comics writers when looking at superhero stories. I’ll read… I don’t know, Greg Rucka or Gail Simone or somebody’s work… and it’ll be fine, and I’ll enjoy it, but I’ll be left with nothing to say. But if I read something by Morrison or Moore, or Milligan on a good day, or Ellis or Ennis or Gaiman when they can be bothered, or whoever, then it sparks all sorts of ideas.
I think the reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, back in the 60s and 70s, you wouldn’t get USian comics in Britain particularly easily, so if you were a kid who was reading that stuff, you had to be a reader, someone who sought out new things to read all the time, an infophile, so people like Gaiman or Moore or Morrison would read not just superhero comics, but would read Moorcock and C.S. Lewis and Dunsany and Blake and… they’d read good stuff, you know?
Whereas I think the American writers – and to a large extent the younger British writers, like say Paul Cornell (who I’m probably doing a great disservice to, really), read superhero comics as a mass culture thing which would also include, I don’t know, watching Star Trek or something. So that’s their context for the kind of stories they’re telling. Not that there’s anything wrong with Star Trek, but I think it comes from the same place as the old Curt Swan Superman stories, so the two together won’t spark off as many new ideas as, say, the Superman story and a poem by Blake.
The other thing is the sense of place, especially given that most of the better British/Irish comics writers are from relatively provincial areas. To someone from New York, you show them Superman flying over a skyscraper, and all you see is Superman. To someone from Glasgow or Northampton, what you see is a bloke flying over SPACE AGE FUTURE SKY CITY MADE BY FUTURE PEOPLE!
To a large proportion of USians, superhero comics show abnormal people against normal backgrounds, while to readers in the UK (less so now, with the modern electrickal telegraph machines that allow communication with the New World Colonies, but it’s still true to a surprising extent), they’re a window into a world where people eat strange things called “Ding Dongs” and “Twinkies” and live in buildings that stretch up into space. Ursula Le Guinn talks about how “the point of Elfland is that you are not at home there. It’s not Poughkeepsie. It’s different.” – well, to a lot of British people, Poughkeepsie looks a lot more alien than Elfland does (and certainly sounds more different). Little differences can often be a hell of a lot more disconcerting than big ones – my wife is from the USA, and the thing that shocked my brothers and sisters most when they first met her was that she’d never eaten a sausage roll. And they were flabbergasted when they realised they don’t have Yorkshire pudding in the States – until my brother realised “Oh yeah… you don’t have
Yorkshire over there either, do you?”
So a British writer wanting to evoke the feeling she got from reading a superhero comic in the 60s or 70s will try to make everything strange, and new, and frightening, and confusing, while a USian writer will just concentrate on the aspects that seemed different to him or her – a much smaller subset. I’m sure this is one of the reasons so much attention is paid in Seven Soldiers to the architecture of its alternate New York.
And see, this is why the book needs to be about five times as long as it is, because all this stuff should be in there and isn’t.
BB: Aand, I just read part 10 [WARNING: SPOILERS/PREPRESS EDITION] - so, I mean, yeah, I thought it was about parenthood largely (as I do All-Star,) but then I was just becoming a parent, so I thought, oh maybe this is a thing you read into it, like actually being in love gives love songs much more… dimensionality.
AH: Well, I have no children and no plans to have any, and the parenthood theme came through extremely strongly to me in both those works (though more blatantly in All-Star). I don’t know if Morrison has children – I’ve deliberately tried to avoid learning much in the way of biographical detail, so that I’m not thinking “Ah… Morrison was suffering from constipation when he wrote The Filth, which is why it’s so grumpy, but then he took some sennapods and it cleared up and that’s why Seaguy is so much lighter” or any of that nonsense (and I have seen, for example, people arguing that Karl Marx’s rage against the capitalist system was mostly because he had a bad case of boils on his arse that put him in a bad mood, and that that was why he wrote The Communist Manifesto and Capital) – but I do know that his father died around the time he was writing 7S
and ASS, and I can’t imagine that *not* having an effect on his thinking about parent/child relationships, or not influencing pretty much everything he was writing at the time.
IV: You’ve made clever use of lots of individual panels from Seven Soldiers in these essays, but did you worry that your digressive, thematic approach was responding more to the writing than the art, or do you think it’s inspired by both? There’s certainly a case to be made that you can’t always draw the line that clearly, but this is one of comics criticism’s recurring anxieties so I wonder whether it plays in your mind like it does on mine, always?
AH: Oh, absolutely. I’ve been *horribly* unfair to anyone involved in the comic who isn’t Morrison – and given that some of the best artists in the comics industry worked on this, people like Cameron Stewart or J.H. Williams, people who are gigantic, enormous talents in their own right, I do feel a bit like if I’d done a book on the Beatles and not mentioned John Lennon at all. Indeed, even the people who never get mentioned, the colourists and letterers, are people like Dave Stewart and Todd Klein, who are the best in their field. I’ve tried to at least ensure that I do *mention* everyone involved in the comic – all the inkers, letterers and so forth.
But at the same time, Seven Soldiers is a writer-driven series, and Morrison’s writing is the only thread that ties it all together. It’s not something like All-Star Superman or Watchmen, say, where it’s a direct 50/50 collaboration. If, say, George Perez had drawn Manhattan Guardian, Manhattan Guardian itself would have been very different but Seven Soldiers as a whole would probably work just as well, whereas if Perez had drawn Seaguy, another Morrison/Stewart collaboration, it would be a totally, totally different thing. And that’s not to minimise the artists’ contribution one iota, but in Seven Soldiers they’re Herman Mankiewicz and Bernard Hermann to Morrison’s Orson Welles.
More generally, I do tend to concentrate on the writing because that’s what I have a critical vocabulary for. I have very little visual aesthetic sense, but a fairly refined verbal/auditory sense – I can become entranced by a piece of music, or a poem, or a speech or novel, but have never seen a piece of dance or sculpture that made me think anything but “oh”. Film and comic art are in a grey area for me, where I can appreciate the art (I’ve been moved to tears by some of J.H. Williams’ layouts) but I don’t have a vocabulary for it that goes much beyond ‘pretty’. I’ve tried to change that, but have come to the conclusion that I simply am not a discriminating enough critic of the visual arts to have anything meaningful to say about them. And that is, of course, a huge handicap for someone criticising comics. All I can say in my defence is that I hope that I do make it clear that the fault lies with me, not with the artists.
BB: The thing of – I’m really not into biography straight, nor am I especially interested in those of… mmmost comics people, anyway; I am in the likes of Miller or Moore, probably even Claremont, because they are such giants of the scene, of the comicsgeist. But with Morrison, although he has perhaps retreated from that somewhat in the last 4 or 5 years, there’s so much authorial insertion – his peers do it too, but only really Milligan comes anywhere close to this multiplicity of self in his writing. (Though Milligan’s self is fairly consistently portrayed as enigma, as abnegation of “selfhood”) I mean, most artists work outward from self-portraiture but the hallmark remains – Frank Quitely draws a lot of people that look like Frank Quitely, you know.
AH: Yeah, when I met Quitely at a con a couple of years ago, I thought “bloody hell, he looks like a Frank Quitely drawing!”. Cameron Stewart looks quite like a Cameron Stewart drawing too. And Kirby looked a
lot like a Kirby drawing, didn’t he?
BB: But I think – and this is cult-of-personality/rock star stuff – that he has enabled and encouraged biographical reading, and thereby commodified himself in a manner fairly difficult to emulate…
AH: You see, interestingly, I think that’s why I’m not as interested in the details of his life as I might be in other writers’. I think of ‘Grant Morrison’ as a persona, much like the way David Bowie (clearly an influence on Morrison) created his own personas in the 70s. Someone like Alan Moore (and I know I keep comparing Morrison to Moore, other writers are available, the critical stock of writers may go down as well as up) is pretty much himself in interviews and personal appearances, so if you read something like The Birth Caul you’re pretty sure the bits about his own life actually happened to him.
Whereas, say, the Foxy bit in Animal Man… did that happen to the real Morrison? I don’t think it matters. It happened to Grant Morrison the comic character.
Of course, there are obviously inferences one can make about the real Morrison from his writing – I think it’s pretty safe to say he’s a cat person, and that he gets upset when his pets die, as an obvious example – but I think in a perverse sort of way all those avatars and fiction-suits serve to distance the work from the creator.
I’m not explaining myself very well. I’m only on the second coffee of the day. My brain’s not working properly yet.
BB: the only real difference with the work at hand and maybe it is part of a transitional phase, is that (and this is not at all explicit in the comics) he perhaps identifies more as part of a more immediate lineage, of these Seven Unknown Men. I think one is supposed to be Julie Schwartz…? I really can’t recall who else they’re supposed to be.
AH: I don’t think he ever said who they were meant to be in full, but he said they were all the other DC writers who’d put themselves in the stories, and named Cary Bates, Schwartz, Elliot S! Maggin and himself.
BB: to go back to the start, I mean, yeah, it was a leading question, I didn’t really think you wanted to be an internet personality, but it’s funny to me now being on twitter to see all these politics people like Sunny Hundal, Penny Red, who had previously really been only extant to me via your blog and maybe a CiF article or so; I’m not sure as to your involvement levels with science blogging too, but it is amazing to me, (a shiftless bastard, I may have mentioned,) for you to be, at the very least, a fairly prominent figure in these two or three spheres, I honestly feel quite privileged to know you;
AH: That’s really lovely of you to say, but to be honest I’m at best a C-lister in both comics and politics blogging, and I’m nowhere at all in science blogging (most of my science stuff is wild over-generalisations of stuff I’ve read somewhere). To the extent I’m known at all in politics blogging now, it’s within Lib Dem circles, because I well and truly burned my bridges with the Labour Conspiracy/Comment Is Free lot before I had any chance to become established with them – no regrets! NONE! – but while most of the leftblogosphere is full of people who want to be Polly Toynbee when they grow up, the Lib Dem blogs are full of more eccentric types
with multiple interests, like Millennium’s blog, which covers politics and Doctor Who from the point of view of a stuffed elephant (Millennium’s Daddy Richard wrote the Doctor Who thing for PEP! 1 and has a story in PEP! 3), or Alex who does fantastic Doctor Who and Avengers reviews, or Jennie, who does a podcast about old horror films and has a semi-serious fan club for her arse, or James Graham who writes about comics as much as he does politics, or Jonathan Calder who does the wonderful Lord Bonkers’ Diary and posts links to old 60s garage bands.
Those are My People, and so I get a certain amount of recognition from them, like the Lib Dem Voice blog post of the year award last year, which is nice, but I’m never going to be up there with the P. Staines’ and the Iain Dales pretending to speak for all bloggers everywhere on the Today programme. Like I say, if I’d stayed on the right side of the Labour Conspiracy people, I probably could have gone down the CiF route, but I’d much rather be in my niche within the Lib Dem blogs.
BB: what inspires you?
AH: What *doesn’t* inspire me?! I have a brain that works most of the time like a speed freak’s or something. I’m constantly, all the time, wired and thinking about connections between half a dozen things at once. I have a natural ability to see patterns, and so I end up doing things like quitting a job I was in a few years ago in a small tech start-up, because I looked at the information and cash flow, and realised that the way the
sales department was operating was precisely isomorphic to what I knew of cancer biochemistry. (The company went bust within six months).
The problem is, I’m pretty much detached from popular culture, and so I’ll get a fairly simple insight that maybe takes twenty words to explain, about a comic or a piece of music or a political event or whatever, and then I’ll think “Hang on, to explain that, I’ll have to explain this first…. which means I have to explain that… which means…” and there’s often this huge inferential gap between what I want to say and what I can expect people to know about. ESPECIALLY because I’ve got such a mixed audience, because I write about so many different things. I can say to you, say, “Shaky Kane is post-Kirby in a sort of Tom Scioli way, but with a Brendan McCarthy tinge” and you’ll know more-or-less what I mean, but someone who’s there because they liked my review of the Monkees gig will be lost. So I tend to have to bridge that inferential gap with long series of posts (or just long posts) and in doing so I tend to find myself thinking of other aspects that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of if I’d been able to write twenty words instead of five thousand.
BB: How rigorously is your day planned?
AH: I don’t do planning, really. If I can get a flow going with any creative process (writing, editing, songwriting, whatever) then I can do it for seven or eight hours at a time, but if I can’t there’s no point even starting, and I can never tell until I try which state I’m going to be in.
BB:How do you find time to do other things, such as have a (fairly taxing, from what I can gather) job, etc?
AH: My job’s far from taxing, though I do work long hours. I’m a software engineer, and while that requires a fair amount of thought, I’ve done really hard jobs before. I used to work the same sort of hours as a nursing assistant on a psychiatric ward, and given the choice between stripping the faecal-matter-and-semen-encrusted bedsheets off the bed of someone who is known to be HIV positive and to hide used needles in his bedclothes, or sitting in front of a computer and writing a few perl scripts, I know which one’s the really taxing job.
But yeah, I do work quite long hours. I suppose I find the time in a few ways. Firstly, I write fast. If I’m in the right mood I can write a thousand words an hour, and it’s relatively clean copy – grammatically correct, with very few typos. I very rarely have to do much in the way of redrafting.
Secondly, I don’t have that much of a social life. I have a few friends, but I’m quite an introverted person, I’m not out down the pub every night or anything.
But most importantly, and this sounds daft but it’s true, I don’t own a TV. The average person spends three and three-quarter hours a day watching TV. I maybe spend that much time a week watching video material of one type or another. That gives me a full extra day a week, near enough, for writing, political activism, playing the banjo and so on.
(I’m not one of those snobs who won’t have a TV so they can impress people, I just found I didn’t watch it often enough).
Even so, often I find myself unable to cope with all these commitments, which is why there are sporadic periods when I don’t post very much – if a ball has to be dropped, I’m always going to drop the blog before my marriage, my job and my activism.
BB: Lastly, you were on University Challenge? This surely merits further discussion.
AH: Yep, UMIST team 1999-2000. We lost in the semi-final to Durham by five points, and they went on to win by about a million in the final, so we had a moral second place.
Paxman swigs Heineken from a can under his desk, and in the aftershow party is very drunk and rants about how Bill Gates is the worst interviewee he’s ever had. He also doesn’t know half as many answers as he pretends to. I lost count of the number of times I buzzed in with an answer, he said “No” because it wasn’t on the card, someone spoke into his earpiece and we had to do a retake, with him sneering condescendingly “Yes, well I will let you have that because of course scrofula is a form of tuberculosis…”
As a result, I was also involved with the documentary Forty Years Of University Challenge (since rebroadcast as Forty-Five Years Of University Challenge and I have absolutely no doubt to be rebroadcast as Fifty Years Of University Challenge next year). They wanted people who looked like 60s and 70s students to recreate famous-but-wiped moments (e.g. David Aaronovitch answering “Trotsky” for every question) and as I had a large beard they asked me to be in the recreations and round up some other people to do it. If you ever see that documentary, all the ‘archive footage’ from the 60s and 70s is actually footage of the band Stealth Munchkin, an early-2000s Manchester indie band I was guitarist for (and from which I took my email/twitter name), plus the lead singer’s girlfriend.
My appearance on UC also led to my dad, very drunk at a Leonard Cohen gig in 2008, chatting to a bewildered but friendly Paxman under the assumption that Paxman must remember me.
(My appearance on the documentary also got me an IMDB page as having appeared on TV with Stephen Fry, Miriam Margolyes and various others, which in turn gave me a Kevin Bacon number of two and a Hitler number of three. But I was purged as non-notable in 2005ish).