The interesting thing about the free, original comic that Rian Hughes and Grant Morrison created for the BBC’s freedom2014 season is that the very qualities that make it such an effortless, immediately accessible read are also the ones that leave it feeling quite trite in the end.

They don’t hand out Comics Critic Oscars to anyone who still feels the need to point out that Hughes’ art is heavily and beautifully design based in 2014, but Morrison makes expert use of this aspect of Hughes craft throughout this strip, artfully reducing big ideas like freedom, meaning, what we’re all here for and why” down to a brief flurry of scenes and images in which the fate of a hooded figure inspires the general public to collectively realise their individual agency:

The Key, then, is not a story about freedom but an advert for the idea of freedom. The BBC quoted this line on their website, and sitting on its own it carried the vague air of approval, so to be clear: in saying this, I meant that it had about as much to do with actual freedom as the famous 1984 Apple advert.  All the craft on display here is put to the purpose of making sure one Key fits all readers, and while the counterargument would surely be that this smooth quality allows the reader to project their own meanings on top of this scenario I would argue that this immaculate surface would absorb all light that shines its way without giving much of anything back.

And what use is a dystopian fiction if it doesn’t disturb, reflect or challenge our present reality in any meaningful way?  The Key Morrison and Hughes have created here doesn’t refer to any actual map; if we recognise the symbols in it, then that’s only because they look like the mental shorthand we’ve created as a guide to other stories on the same theme.

To put it another way: the masterful evocation of The Key would be perfectly at home in an issue of Seaguy, but it would never be an issue of Seaguy.

I’m surely not alone in having bemoaned the fact that much of Grant Morrison’s best work requires a prior investment in comics to be fully engaged with.  With considerable help from Hughes, The Key builds out any such issues, but in doing so it also removes any of the struggle that makes so much of Morrison’s work worthwhile.


(This article was originally posted at the end of March, in a slightly different form, on my Tumblr.)

9 Responses to “Freedom, 1984: The Key by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes”

  1. Alin Says:

    Ugh, Morrison went full on Zenpencils here.

  2. Illogical Volume Says:

    Ooft, sare yin!

    To be fair, The Key is better/worse than your usual Zenpencils fare since it looks beautiful and flows like a dream, but otherwise… it pains me to say it but there’s a similar blankness to this strip, aye.

  3. plok Says:

    The mental shorthand of it all, yes…but I guess what most disturbs me is that it’s not safe to assume those shorthand marks always explode up into an idea of “freedom”?</i? Operatic poses betoken great emotions and great significance, and the bug-helmeted troops are certainly wearing jackboots, but the thing is like a reversible coat: right-wingers could as easily read that so-heroic figure as one of their own, especially since martyrdom does not actually occur. It’s too superheroic, really; I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it’d be harder to read The Red Hood here as really having Glenn Beck’s face if he failed to survive, since it seems to me that extreme right-wingers really only embrace the idea of the sacrifice of the other guy. I’m no big fan of wondering aloud whether or not Batman and Superman are fascists, but there’s no avoiding the fact that in supercomics the Great Man will always survive even if he has to bend the plot with his super-charisma in order to do so. So I find myself disliking it more and more, actually. The semiotics are a bit off, aren’t they? I mean…yes, it’s low-hanging fruit that the Hero be faceless, and ordinarily that should work, but without the connection to actual political issues the facelessness can also support lots of contrary readings…which perhaps some would say is the Point, but I think I’d disagree. A faceless-but-proud insurrectionist, who does that remind you of? Is there a humour under that hood, in the scrunching of the fabric? Is that stance the coolness of a pop star? Are we looking at Gideon Stargrave, here, a bit more than Goldstein? All in all, I wonder if this wouldn’t be a better album cover than a comic…

  4. plok Says:

    Ugh, screwed up the tags…

  5. Freedom, 1984: The Key by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes | The Function of the Filth Says:

    [...] fiction if it doesn’t disturb, reflect or challenge our present reality in any meaningful way?  CLICK HERE TO FIND OUT! Share this:TwitterFacebookGoogleLike this:Like Loading… May 4, 2014daval82 Grant Morrison, [...]

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