As milestones go, it’s pretty pointless, but hey, 100 blogposts on Floppybootstomp compress! No bad, eh? And I’m featured on the Phoenix Writers website this month as well. Happy days, you bank-scammed economic crisis-riddled people, happy days…
Arguably the greatest living comic-book writer, Alan Moore (1953 – ) is certainly one of the best known. And funnily enough he lives just down the road in Northampton (where he was born) which is what, 25 miles from Leicester? So very much a local boy done good. I first became aware of him in the 1990s through his graphic novels V for Vendetta and Watchmen, although I’d read his stuff without realizing it in 2000 AD. The Ballad of Halo Jones and DR and Quinch somehow stuck with me, even as I (rightly) dismissed most US and British ‘graphic novels’ as inferior shadows of European ones.
One aspect of his work that stands out (perhaps the most important for me) is the way his comics are grounded in real world issues and are not afraid to tackle politics. V for Vendetta is a diatribe against Margaret Thatcher, Watchmen too is constructed around a critique of repressive impulses among the powerful (Superheroes being nothing more than fascist vigilante fantasies). In his less familiar works this tendency is also clear; ‘Brought To Light’ about conspiracy theories and 9/11, Aargh (an acronym for Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia), tackled the introduction of clause 28 and latterly Moore has become involved with Occupy Comics – a project by comic book artists to support the UK’s Occupy movement.
Issues of gender are also of particular interest to him. In a medium saturated with unfeasibly endowed superheroines, Alan Moore has collaborated with women artists (most notably Melinda Gebbie, his partner) to tackle the blatant sexism in the medium. Their most notable collaboration; Lost Girls, is an exploration of sexual fantasies from a woman’s perspective. An incredibly beautiful book, it references a great number of images, artists and styles.
Alan Moore is a writer who really understands the peculiarities of the comic book medium; its advantages and drawbacks. His writing is lyrical, literate and evocative, but when required it can be sparse, dense or spartan. In his dealings with big business comics he has specialized in turning round ailing franchises like ‘Swamp Thing’ and the bafflingly popular ‘Batman’. He no longer deals with either Marvel or DC, having fallen out over the adaptation of his work to film and their shabby treatment of artists and writers. A remarkable number of his comics have been adapted; From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Watchmen, V for Vendetta. Moore, however has disassociated himself from all of them.
Apart from comics, Alan Moore is a published novelist, has written widely on magic (he’s an occultist and a ‘neo-pagan’) and has a long-standing interest in music. His main legacy, however, will be a body of work that showed what comics as a medium could do and what they could be. Sadly, apart from the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask (bowdlerized to the extent that it is now used by Tea Party activists), it might just be the film manglings of his work that will endure. It will be a great pity if that happens.
The Bolivian Revolution of 1952
Ah, Latin America! At once evocative and mysterious… a continent of secrets. Who knows what strange exotic jewels lie in this continental Eldorado?
Well no-one in England will know anything about it for a start. Here we sit on our little island with the metaphorical Murdoch paper bag over our heads and very little knowledge of the outside world. Perhaps, you know, the BBC or someone could do a series on Latin America? Put in some history, politics, social and economic info, that sort of thing? After all when it comes to archeology, science or art they do whole series fronted by respected academics (Jim Al Khalili, Brian Cox etc.) Maybe they could do an in-depth one on 20th Century Latin America couldn’t they?
Well they can’t. What you get for your license money instead is a fucking know-nothing Dimbleby, bouncing around like pinball ball from cliché to cliché like the annoying little snot-monkey that he is. There’s Dimbleby dancing da-rumba-in-da-Cuba and over there he’s in Chile riding a horse. Ooh, he’s talking to real Latin Americans too. You know the ones, the ones that speak fucking English! So thanks, auntie beeb, thanks for fucking nothing.
But I digress. The purpose of this post is to celebrate, maybe bear witness would be more appropriate, the 60th anniversary of Bolivia’s national revolution. They call it ‘national’ because the political party and movement leading the charge, the MNR (Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario) saw itself as separate from full-fat Marxist ideology. The MNR, however, tried playing both sides against the middle. It had radical left-wing grass roots and a fairly relaxed attitude to capitalism within its leadership. In fact, some of the leaders of the MNR had strong links within the military high command (and versi vicey).
To cut a long story short, the annulment of the April 1952 elections by the military led to a revolt led by the workers in Bolivia’s tin mines. The three main tin mining conglomerates (Patiño, Araujo and Hochschild) also controlled the banking system and the media. Known as ‘La Rosca’ (the screw), they bled the country dry in Goldman Sachs style. Land ownership still followed the colonial model that meant agricultural workers endured feudal conditions of repression. 8% of landowners held 95% of land.
So the MNR called a revolt. The police in La Paz soon defected to their side and the mine workers circled the city with the supplies of dynamite sticks kept in the mines. Some armed battles were fought, but the young conscript soldiers were no match for the workers (many of which had fought themselves in the Chaco War of the 1930s). The army soon saw the game was up and changed sides and the MNR and the miners took control on April 9th 1952.
New president Victor Paz Estenssoro soon realised that he had no choice but to satisfy his radical support base (you know, the ordinary guys who did all the fighting). The tin mines were nationalized, land reform was instituted and universal adult suffrage introduced (previously there hadd been literacy and other qualifications). A central trades union congress (The COB) ruled jointly with the government. In addition, rural education was given priority for the first time.
The revolutionary period came to an end with the coup of 1964. Ultimately Bolivia remained a poor country with few resources. Economic problems, social divisions and the propensity for the army and factions of the political class to ‘do deals’ have always lead to coups. Hopefully Evo Morales (in many ways the heir to the ‘reluctant revolutionaries’ of 52) can do better.
Anyway, paper bags back on your heads! You do know that James Goldsmith, founder of the anti-Europe Referendum Party married the heiress of the Patino tin mining conglomerate? A man who was relaxed about tin miners paid under a dollar a day and having to chew coca leaves to stave off hunger because they didn’t earn enough to eat. Still, all that Socialist EU health and safety… that’s the real enemy innit?
Argentina’s (and Latin America’s) most popular cartoon strip of all time began its life as an advertising campaign for refrigerators. American manufacturer Mansfield commissioned the cartoonist Joaquin Salvador Lavado (Quino) to come up with a weekly strip to promote their goods in the press. One requirement they made on the artist was that the main character’s name should begin with the letter ‘M’.
Quino’s response was a strip inspired by Schulz’s ‘Peanuts’ (that lasted a lot longer than the Mansfield brand!), revolving around the the lives and travails of a gang of children. The difference between both strips, however, are perhaps more telling. Where Snoopy, Charlie Brown and his bunch live in a world formed by their own psychological foibles and devoid of clearly identified adults, Mafalda (1962-1973) lives in a world where the real world does impinge. And Mafalda herself despairs about the state of the modern world.
Mafalda is also a girl. A bad tempered, opinionated, backchatting idealist who hates soup and injustice with the same venom. Mafalda has a baby brother (Guille) and a father who works in an insurance office and a mother who (to her daughter’s dismay) stays at home to look after the kids. Her friends encapsulate various stock characters from the Buenos Aires middle class. Susanita is a typical bourgeois snob, Manolito is the son of Spanish (Galician) grocer, Libertad the child of leftist intellectuals and Felipe the son of an engineer. The last member of the gang, Miguelito, has Italian grandparents who are fans of Mussolini. These characters are, however, so well developed as individuals and the humour is so acute.
The strip commented on all manner of issues both domestic and foreign, from the popularity of the Beatles and hippy culture to the war in Viet Nam and social injustice at home. Quino’s portrayal of Argentina’s middle class is so telling that he has been described as ‘a sociologist who draws’. Sadly, the atmosphere for social criticism in Argentina became increasingly unpleasant as the 1950s and 60s wore on (Dictatorships predominated with only the short-lived democratic interludes of presidents Frondizi and Illia to break it up). Quino himself had to flee into exile in the 70s where cartoonists (including Enrique Brescia and Hector Oesterheld and their families) became the victims of military dictatorships. As Quino had said, if Mafalda had grown up, she would have been one of the disappeared.
But the main delight in reading a Mafalda strip is the strong vein of humour running through it. The kids are no mere cyphers but hold their own as little personalities and the world they create has been popular throughout the world. They are still incredibly popular in Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia where collections of the strips still sell well 40 years on. Truly one of the worlds most influential comic strips.
Hint: Don’t Write Genre
The 20-45 year old female narrator gripped the steering wheel and gazed out at the road ahead. The car ate up the black asphalt and road markings as she sped to her destination. It was a destination of some significance to her and the trip allowed her to meditate on her life. Soon a Crisis Generating Event (CGE) would unfold, we’d be told she’s married to an astronaut or a root vegetable would crash through the windscreen or something. But before that, you have to ladle on the back-story.
This formula; female driver on road trip getting all wistful followed by a CGE/confrontation, is the sort of stuff the judges liked last year. When I say formula, I don’t mean formula-formula like those awful genre stories – you know the ones I’m talking about; westerns, crime, scifi, horror, romance, chick-lit or vampires. No, I mean bona fide mimesis-enhanced formula that’s dead clever and reserved for proper literature. Oh, and have her glance at her mobile or waiting for a text message or something that gives the story a contemporary feel, you’ll lose brownie points if you don’t.
So anyway, your heroine is in a speeding car and something is about to happen. She glances in the rear view mirror or she changes gear. This allows a flashback. Because rear view mirrors mean looking back, shifting gears signal a change in perception. See? Clever stuff, this. So what bit of her past should your female character think about? Her best friend at school? The day she stubbed her toe while making a sandwich? That awkward moment at John Lewis’s, wondering which set of coasters to buy her mum for her birthday? Nope, it’s the man in her life, that’s what she thinks about in her little flashback. That’s what the judges looked for.
And what a total wanker he is (was). What did our plucky protagonist ever see in him? OK, so at first she was wowed by his worldly charm (make sure he’s way older than her, of course), but then there is a cutaway to dialogue… she asks a heartfelt question, his answer is clipped and evasive. Uh-ho, trouble at t’ mill I’ll wager…
But don’t reveal all his terrible faults just yet, because it’s time for your CGE to happen. Put it in now. Crisis ensues, a turning point that mirrors her conflict with the man in her life. Feel free to mix and allude at will here, but make sure the ending gives no hint of resolution or (god forbid) a twist at the end or a punchline.( i.e. The narrator looked sniffily as the heat of the bonfire warmed her face. The journey had come to an end in one sense, but in another it hadn’t at all. Wednesday’s washing wouldn’t be ready until Thursday, she thought. The End).
And there you have it, a guaranteed winner. Of course the judges might decide to change the formula they want without telling you. Those bastards often do. Maybe the vogue will be for a middle class businessman who loses everything when he suddenly realizes he’s been dead for years (metaphorically as well as physically), another year it will be a harassed junior school teacher musing about a Pupil With Problems and comparing their own issues (see ‘man in her life’ above) to the hints and allusions to child abuse hanging over the poor ickle PWP.
So you never know what the judges will chose to favour next. It won’t be genre, that’s for sure, but whatever it is it will be dead clever, proper literature and it will signal a rebirth of the short story form as serious fucking shit. Or not.
Good luck with all your entries.
When Christianity Met African Possession Cults …
Our Easter story begins in days of the North American colonies. Not in the north, where the pilgrim fathers were busy developing their methods for ethnically cleansing the Native Americans, but in the slave plantations of the deep south. The slave-ships that carried their human cargo to Virginia, Carolina, Georgia and other southern states also brought with them the culture, language and religions practiced in Africa. Today, versions of these African religions still survive in the hinterlands of the former slave colonies. In Haiti they are known popularly as Vudon or Voodoo, in Brazil as Candomblé and in Mexico and Cuba as Santería. Despite their differences, these religions observe similar practices and rituals. They are known by anthropologists as “possession cults”, because their Gods can be enticed to descend into the world of men where they will temporarily possess the body of a host. Speaking in the language of the Gods, they will cure the sick, cast out evil and demonic presences and communicate their pleasure or displeasure to the faithful. In order to entice the Gods to descend, elaborate services are held. Dancing and singing are used to put the faithful in a trance-like state so that the spirit of the Loas (Gods) can enter them. Predictably, the Christian slave masters tried to wipe out these alien practices and attempted to convert them to the “One True Faith”.
American seventeenth and eighteenth Century Christians were serious people. Either puritan-inspired protestants committed to hard work, sobriety and Bible study or Catholics devoted to ritual and pageantry. I simplify, but only to emphasize the very real differences that existed between the religions of the slaves and the Christianity of the slave owners. No Christian would have tolerated spontaneous dancing or shouting in God’s house. They would have viewed the possession of a human being by God as sacrilegious or just plain demonic. On the contrary, Christians did their best to wipe out the beliefs of their captives. One of the key measures undertaken to justify the slave-trade was the conversion of the slaves to Christianity. Mass conversions and baptisms were a key feature of plantation life. The tactic worked. Most slaves converted and even the die-hard possession cultists gave their Loas new “Christian” names such as Sante Agatée (Saint Agatha) to replace their old African ones. In this sense, Christianity has triumphed over African religion, banishing it to a few ever-shrinking redoubts. Apart from the odd New Orleans witch-doctor, little more these days than a tourist attraction, African religions have vanished from American soil. Today the sacrifice of Haitian pigs and black cockerels are to be found mainly in the plots of horror story writers.
This is not, however, the whole story. Scratch beneath the surface of things and you find that America is now a Voodoo nation. Its religion is permeated with the language and practices of the possession cults they once tried to obliterate. Look again at any evangelical church service: The Holy Spirit can be enticed to descend into the world of men where it will temporarily possess the body of a host (usually the pastor or preacher). Speaking in tongues (the language of God), they will cure the sick, cast out evil and demonic presences and communicate their pleasure or displeasure to the faithful. In order to entice Jesus to descend, elaborate services are held. Dancing and singing are used to put the faithful in a trance-like state so that the spirit of God can enter them.
No eighteenth century Christian would recognize what goes on in these Evangelical services as anything other than Voodoo. This sea-change in religious practice has also had a profound ideological effect. Unlike Christians, believers in possession cults were always able to petition their Gods for material help; to become rich, get a better job, to cure a painful bunion and so on. Evangelical Christians have done away with that distinction. The asceticism and mistrust of wealth and money that was a feature of Christian rhetoric has waned and Evangelical preachers now claim that Jesus can make you rich in this life as well as the next. Mega-Churches, supposedly dedicated to the Jesus who only ever used violence to kick merchants out of the temple, now have branches of Starbucks and MacDonald’s within them. In essence, these all-singing, all-dancing Christians are Voodoo children at heart.
A Craic in the fabric of Space-Time gentlemen please.
The wooden sign creaked as the breeze wafted it to and fro. It stood amid a cluster of palm trees by a small farm settlement. It had been there centuries; a tall, burnt out wooden post, almost perpendicular, supported the sign that hung there from a rusted brittle chain.
The paint on the sign had faded beyond recognition under the blistering sub-Saharan sun. When it moved back and forth in the wind, it twinkled as the last traces of golden paint caught the light. The sign had once borne the picture of a harp styled with curlicued Celtic patterns. It had announced the presence of the only Irish pub in this part of Africa. The city around it, Mombasa, had also fallen to rack and ruin. But the fate of the city wasn’t their concern.
Dermott Malley, dark skinned, blue eyed officer of the regiment of the Blarney Stone stepped down from the transport pod. His uniform bore the insignia of a De Valera class starship. He stopped before the sign and admired it for a brief second before barking orders into his intercom. It was the real deal. One of the last remnants of the Atomic Age Irish diaspora.
An excited Lieutenant Malley had found it. A relic of a time before the world wars (IV, V and VI) that had reduced the world to rubble leaving only Ireland to take humanity beyond the confines of a sick blue planet.
“Feck!” he said in reverential tones as he was joined by the Guinness (an old-style priest with black robes and a white head). After his blessing, two slaves – from the ancient caste of English navvies – cut down the sign and carried it back to the pod. Now it would be restored, placed in one of the grand museum collections dedicated to the millennia of Irish culture and history. Perhaps even to the very place where Irishness itself began: to the ancient city of Liverpool.
Carlos Gimenez – Paracuellos
Graphic novels and comic books have, ever since Will Eisner’s day, told personal stories; true tales of suffering, survival and hidden (or forgotten) histories. Paracuellos by Carlos Gimenez is Spain’s best example. It tells of the author’s own experience in a Spanish children’s home in the 1940s and 50s, during the early years of the Franco regime.
Gimenez himself learned his craft on the treadmill of Spain’s comic book industry: mass producing quality artwork at a speed that others in Europe have been unable to match. He published many kinds of titles; Science Fiction, Fantasy, Historical… he’s even produced the storyboards for Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Devils Backbone. Paracuellos is, however, very much a solo project, a story the author felt driven to tell.
The orphans of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the children of those on the losing side, the huge numbers of the poor and destitute were dumped in institutions like Paracuellos. Gimenez documents the cruelty, abuse, malevolence, contempt and disregard these children suffered at the hands of their fascist ‘carers’. He picks at wounds that he can’t heal; how the rich charity ladies, Catholic church, and the Francoist state did what comes naturally: turned on the poorest and weakest in society.
The comic book itself is inked in a style that complements the narrative perfectly. The cartoony style large heads of the boys a visual echo the malnourished state they lived in a lot of the time. The use of tight close-up framing adds to the sense of claustrophobia. These kids were locked in these institutions and at the mercy of their ‘carers’. Their powerlessness is expressed in the brittleness of their thin limbs and necks, the depiction of the cruelty of their gaolers (anyone who has ever experienced the treatment that nuns mete out to the poor, the sick or the weak would sooner be in jail – don’t let the wimple and false smiles fool you).
And so the books in the series chronicle a vicious and bitter coming of age. All the innocence and goodness in the boys is beaten or bullied out of them. They learn from their elders to be bullies, misogynists, racists and to be pitiless. Although some, the more heroic among them, stage their own small rebellions. Some even win small victories.
Among all this harrowing detail, however, there is still the warmth of nostalgia – for a childhood that has passed, for games, language, friends and experiences that shaped the author in later life. There is even a vein or two of humour and exuberance bubbling under the surface. It is Gimenez’s genius that he can transcend the anger and the wounds of history to deliver such a human book. It is, without doubt, one of my favourites.
Oh, it’s been a while since I updated you on stuff, hasn’t it? Too long I think, so I’ll try and do better job of things in future. Slackness is ever with me, raiding my fridge, messing up my DVD collection, forgetting to pay its half of the bills… So here goes a catchup. First few items are about the past, later ones about forthcoming events. Sure you’ll work it all out.
- Vampsov 38, my forthcoming novel, is proceeding through its edit. The first chapter has been done and the editor seems happy. Hope to plough on and get things done. I have an author page on facebook now (not that there’s much to say at the minute, but if you want to get in at the ground floor, so to speak…)
- I have a story coming up in a forthcoming anthology. All a bit hush-hush at the mo, which is a bit paradoxical, but heigh-ho.
- Phoenix writers is growing in numbers and scope. Already have 20 members on the E-mail list and have started work on getting a website, critique guidelines etc together. Excitig times.
- Still on Phoenix writers, Leah and Maria both completed Nanowrimo and Mary Essinger was featured on Radio 4s Womans Hour (talking about her non-fiction book ‘How to be a merry widow’). Leah also had some exciting news which might involve the future purchase of a double pushchair. Congratulations!
- Guillermo Sheridan, the Mexican author shared a comment on Floppybootstomp. Woohoo! So loved his book El Dedo de Oro, so happy he stopped by.
- The Brightside Cabaret is a new (to me) spoken word event gracing the fair city of Leicester. Must go and see them sometime. Shortfuse, as per usual, continues apace.
- My campaign to bring SF/Fantasy/Horror conferences to Leicester has worked! I am therefore solely responsible for the bringing of Alt.Fiction (April 14-15th) to the Phoenix and the Discover Festival (May 18th – 20th ) being brought to Coalville. In an act of magnanimous humility, I will be reading a short piece on the open mic at Alt.Fiction (seriously, thanks Adele Wearing for the opportunity!).
- March 17th also sees the now regular States of Independence small press bookfair taking place at De Montfort University. I’ll be going to catch up with friends and browse the bookstands. Always an enjoyable event. And on St Patrick’s day too.
- One of my fellow Speculators (Leicester’s foremost and only SF/Fantasy/Spec Fic writers group), has bagged themselves a top London Agent. Can’t say any more right now but it is thoroughly deserved as X’s writing is superb.
And that’s all for now. I leave you with a Carrotnapper short play, currently in play on a number of radio stations… enjoy.
As the author of a forthcoming WWII themed vampire novel, I am wholly relaxed with the concept of distorting history for the purposes of fun. Donna Barr’s Desert Peach is a great example of a fine imagination giving the historical record a sound thrashing. The comic book’s central conceit, that Erwin Rommel had a homosexual younger brother commanding a unit in the Afrika Korps during 1940-1943, is a delicious one. The Nazi aesthetic, a fashion that has long entranced and fascinated some (including otherwise laudable individuals like Lemmy off Motorhead), is rendered simply fabuloso. A great way to undercut the attraction of Nazi chic.
It also draws attention to the undercurrent of misogyny and homoeroticism deep within the fascist soul. In his amazing book Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit analyses this very subject. Looking into writings of members of the Freikorps (the predecessors of the Nazi party; unofficial armed units who set out to destroy communists, trade unionists and other labour organizations). Using Freudian (and post-Freudian) readings, Theweleit examines their autobiographies and memoirs, to find some very revealing tendencies (For a start these ‘soldiers’ can name almost every single member of their paramilitary band, their servants, aides de camp and officers. All of them described in minute detail. Their wives? Not a single one is given a name).
Back to Donna Barr. Desert Peach, which follows a rather camp SS officer by the name of Manfred Pfirsch Marie Rommel, his boyfriend and a series of misfits in a support unit based in North Africa. Some of the characters and most of the plots have quite a surreal edge and the art style contributes to this. A rather trippy sense of irreality pervades the whole thing. Certainly more to it than German sausage jokes and innuendo (although some of that does make its way in, so to speak).
Barr seems to have nailed aspects of a German (or mittleeuropean) sensibility in the strip. This is more obvious in her fantasy strip Stinz (centaurs in pre-WWI Germany and Austria). Peach is however, her most celebrated work. It has been collected in eight volumes and led to a spin-off novel Desert Swans (2005). The real kick I get from Deser Peach is the sheer audacity of the concept and how Barr stretches such rich narratives from an unreal standpoint.