Tuesday 29 August 2017

I Blame Society #6: Firekind (1993); Killing Time (1991)

One of the good things about this strand of my blog is that I don't have to limit it to film. And while I don't read nearly as many comics as I used to, there are a very few authors and artists that I started following as a kid that I'll still look up from time to time today. So like if there's a new, rare, English translation of something by Enki Bilal, that's going to be mine, for example.

I bought 2000AD pretty religiously throughout my teens, and on and off into my 20s, and then stopped altogether sometime about 15 years ago. But very early on, I started noticing the writers who resonated with me. And I always used to get excited if there was a new strip by John Smith.
Each night the fire came calling
John Smith's is the only comic writing that directly influenced me as a writer, the only comic writing that I've ever seen where I find myself caring about the prose style, the use of language, so much so that unlike most other comic writers I've read, I felt that even the short prose stories he did in the occasional annual and special were worth reading.

But it's criminal how hard it's become to find some of his work.

While 2000AD happily reprints ropy old bollocks like Meltdown Man in nice paperbacks, Smith's work is frankly neglected, often relegated to a newsstand special or one of those pamphlets that comes free with the Judge Dredd Megazine, or in clumsily compiled and frustratingly incomplete editions. There was one Tyranny Rex book that left out whole actual stories and even pages of the stories it did include, and then put something entirely unrelated in the back; the supposedly complete Indigo Prime collection really wasn't. You have to hit eBay to find his old stuff, even collections of it, especially if, like me, you're not buying the periodicals every week anymore and you miss them first time.

Smith's work is horribly underrated, in that while people often like it, they don't love it. And they should. I think part of the reason his work resonates with me is because of his touchstones: the kitsch ephemera of working class spiritualism, Songs of Praise, the everyday, mixed in with surreal flights of fantasy and horror. Thora Hird drives off hordes of demons with a rousing chorus of Kum-Ba-Yah. Book-burning old biddies ride around in chairs that look like teapots and pilot battle fleets of CensorShips that look like giant pairs of scissors. Arch (in every sense of the word) villain Gabriel Haze set fire to his hair as a kid blowing out the candles on his birthday cake. That earthy, provincial quality (and mischievous humour) grounds the surreal invention and off-kilter poetry that pervades his work. It gives it an access point. It is the dreamspace I grew up in, a world furnished in Doris Stokes and stewed rhubarb, Hammer horror and Brain's Faggots.

Smith's stories spoke to me as a teenager. They were just better (there was a pinup of Revere that I stuck to the back of my school folder in a plastic pocket, and moved it from folder to folder over the years, and I still have it; it has these two quatrains on it. I learned them off by heart). John Smith shaped my writing.

I'm just going to write about the two that inspired me most as a teenager. Killing Time: An Indigo Prime Story. Firekind.

(You'll have to excuse the quality of the photographs)
A smell like peaches and perspiration
Killing Time is a whirlwind of rainbow coloured horror, all blood and parakeets.

Max Winwood and Ishmael Cord work for Indigo Prime, a private sector organisation that, under contract, sorts out problems in the fabric of reality. The Indigo Prime stories had been running, in fits and starts, for a couple of years by this point, and we'd met Max and Ishmael once before, but this was the longest of them, and the best.

Max and Ishmael are Seamsters. They (sometimes literally) sew up holes in spacetime. They wind up on a time machine in the shape of a sumptuously furnished steam train, its passengers the Victorian bourgeoisie: a gentleman scientist and his spiritualist daughter, a retired army officer, the daughter's friend, a dashing young doctor, an industrialist, some gentry, Jack the Ripper. Jack will commit his final ritual murder on the train, and Winwood and Cord will have to let him, so that he can open the path to the corezone, where waits a monstrous, godlike force of evil called the Iscariot. Facing the Iscariot is the only way to stop it, and letting Jack do his work is the only way to face the Iscariot. Winwood and Cord accept this, but aren't terribly happy about it.

Max and Ishmael's mission doesn't go according to plan, and the final parts of the story fragment into surreal horror, as each of the supporting cast meets the cruellest possible demise, most of them in their own Clive Barker-style personal hell.
Aged 15, I thought this was the best thing I'd ever read. Chris Weston's art for the story was both tightly drawn and impressionistic, unafraid to go wild without ever losing clarity. The writing, the poetic cadence of the captions that litter the surreal bits, the apparent ease in which Smith differentiates the speaking patterns of different Victorians. And this is his early work! He was in his early 20s when he wrote this!

On top of that, I think it was the first comic I'd read with queer heroes.

No one writes queer characters like John Smith. While his most popular character, Devlin Waugh, is out and proud, John Smith's comics probably have more and better queer representation than any other British comics writer. And we're talking heroes and villains alike. It's often coded, a sort of sequential art palare, and sometimes it's blatant (I can't be the only one who spat out his tea when I saw a character in a Devlin Waugh story travelling through a spatial portal called a "Glory Hole"), and sometimes it's just there.

(I mentioned Clive Barker, and I think that it's a pretty apposite comparison. Both Smith and Barker write horror stories that are drawn from a Northern, working class source and which are essentially queer in conception.)

Max is coded visually in Killing Time as one of the Stately Homos of Old England; Ishmael is an acid house circuit boy. They bicker, they exhibit sensitivities that, well, aren't straight.
Stately Homos.
I love that it's never made a thing of; they're just there, being themselves. No one says they're gay. Comment is made about what extraordinary fellows they are, but they're pink-hued extradimensional adventurers, surrounded by straights, and they would be. But it's their business. They don't have to be a couple, and that's itself a revelation — how often do you see two gay guys who are friends and not explicitly sleeping together in genre fiction? Especially in, what, 1991?
Circuit Boys.
At 15 I didn't know about Quentin Crisp or gay club boys (although I eventually registered that Ishmael Cord and Richard Fairbrass were examples of the same sort of thing). But I saw that Ishmael and Max were different from other comic strip heroes. I could tell that here was a writer who told science fiction stories that had a place for me in them.

I searched the stars, looking for one I might recognise
The one thing that's always mentioned with Firekind — if it gets mentioned at all — is that when 2000AD serialised it, they accidentally skipped an episode, and printed the missing episode with an apology after the series had ended.

At least one of the handful of articles written about it a few years back (when superficial similarities between it and James Cameron's overrated Avatar were noticed) finished that story with the punchline "...and nobody noticed", and then made some sort of halfarsed point about Smith's writing being incomprehensible, which is lazy as hell, peak nerd illiteracy.

I noticed. I remember 17 year old me, on tenterhooks for the resolution of what was the biggest cliffhanger of the series, thinking, "Wait, what?" and going and pulling last week's issue from the stack and no, I didn't miss a week, there were new characters and no explanation of how the protagonist had survived. After they'd printed the missing episode, I went back and read the whole story in order. I was quite angry for the creators, that their story was wrecked like this, but also sort of vindicated. I loved Firekind.

Firekind got published in its proper sequence in 2005, in one of the compilation magazines that 2000AD published over the years. Of course I bought it. But it's poor treatment for something so good. If any of Smith's stories deserve a proper book, this is it.
Hendrick Larsen is a geographer, an anthropologist. He's sent down to the planet Gennyo-Leil to report on the indigenous people and their environment. And it's a world that feels vast but locally scaled, unearthly and logical, messy in the way that real ecosystems are, but making real sense. It's just sketched enough, with allusive language that allows you to imagine a whole world just around the corner. Vast slabs of stone drift across the sky; the people have three sexes — you get to see the Gennyans have sex, which is both erotic and genuinely alien, but at the same time fleshly and comprehensible — and navigate webs of social relationships based on the way their sexuality works; and there are dragons, the Kesheen.

Gennyo-Leil has a problem with poachers. The symbiotic organism that the Gennyans attach to the Kesheen to domesticated them, the lantrisant (Smith likes naming science fiction concepts after British place names) are the source of a drug. So poachers come to Gennyo-Leil and hack the lantrisants out of the Kesheen, killing both animals.

Larsen, living alongside the Gennyans, is witness to the mass murder of the people at the hands of organised poachers who want to know where the lantrisants come from, so they can farm them. Forced to breathe the psychedelic air of the planet after he's cast out by the natives (their fragile trust broken by the fact the humans picked the area he was living in to invade) without breathing equipment, he's transformed psychologically and physically. We discover that he can now never leave and survive, that he has tapped into the telepathic network that binds the intelligent beings of the planet together. He throws in with the natives and is witness to them calling down an apocalyptic retribution on the killers.

Larsen isn't a saviour. His story is the story of how he becomes an inhabitant of the planet, how he changes, queers himself. The Gennyans' story, to which he is a witness, is the tale of how they regain the agency to defend their secret and drive away colonialist murderers. And it's the natives that do it, but specifically it's the outcast natives, an enclave of the indigenous people who have been banished to the Shaming Lodge for sexual impropriety.

The protagonist, Larsen, is also queer-coded; in part six, one of the most beautifully written single episodes 2000AD ever ran, where Larsen, accepting he's going to die, gives in to the wonder of the planet, Larsen, hallucinating, sees an image of the (homoerotic version of) Saint Sebastian. And Sebastian says, "I love you."
I don't think it's hard to read Firekind as at least partly about being queer. The cycle of alien sex and death is contrasted with Larsen's difference. The fecund beauties and horrors of Gennyo-Leil infect him and he's forced to become a native... except he's not and never able to be one of them. He's always going to be an outsider. He's separate.

Meanwhile, the secret of the lantrisants is itself a signifier of queerness, the creatures being pupated third-sex children. Which doubles down the horror of poaching: these are intelligent creatures being harvested and rendered down into drugs.

The protagonist is also by his nature an opponent of colonialism, even while he's actually participating in it. He can't go back home. He has no home to go to. He may not find one. And he isn't one of the people. He will always be an outsider. A native says, "You are one of us now," but that native is himself outcast for his sexuality.

Paul Marshall's art is beautiful and clean, bedecked in bright, summery colours. Some of the spreads and full page illustrations are breathtaking. Wonder permeates; the atrocities of the monstrous humans are framed as a violation of that wonder, and the revenge of the planet is as beautiful as it is brutal.

And the writing here is poetic, melancholy in rhythm, and the beauty of the writing is contrasted by the horrors that colonialism brings. Indigenous people with guns to their heads; a man killed by a knife rammed up through his chin so you can see the blade behind his teeth.

And again, Larsen's story resonated with me. He was a real person, not a hard bitten bounty hunter or a lawman or a freedom fighter like the other 2000AD characters, just a gentle man, forced to be an outsider.

Postcolonial queer fantasy: is it any wonder that in a comparison with Judge Dredd, this won hands down for me?

Murder by numbers
Killing Time is probably one of John Smith's most reprinted stories. It has been released in book form three times now (most recently with some of the other early Indigo Prime stories, but not, frustratingly, all of them). I have it three times over.

Firekind isn't. It needs to be collected, badly. It deserves better.

There's a second volume of later Indigo Prime stories, Anthropocalypse, which is well worth looking for, and you can buy an ebook of some of Smith's prose stories, Weird Vibes. Of Smith's other stories, the Devlin Waugh books are accessible enough (my favourite is Chasing Herod, which is in the second volume, Red Tide). His Rogue Trooper story, Cinnabar (the single best Rogue Trooper story, period) is in Tales From Nu Earth, volume 4 and some of his Judge Dredd stories are scattered across the various collections.

I highly recommend his urban wyrd horror story, Cradlegrave. It's a harrowing read, that achieves the feat of making a tube of superglue more distressing than gut-knotting supernatural body horror (of which there is plenty). But it's also a sad, true story about family and class and poverty, and it's one of the very best things Smith has ever written.

But so many of his stories are out of print. Leatherjack had a collection in print a few years ago, but it's hard to find now (you can at least get a digital version though). New Statesmen (a dystopian superheroes story, for my money better than Watchmen) has been out of print for decades. A decently curated edition of Tyranny Rex would be lovely. A Revere collection, I'd buy that. Slaughterbowl, too. Hell, even a book collecting Scarab (the one series Smith did for DC, which had the single most transgressive issue I'd ever seen of an American comic).

I think it's fair to say that I've largely grown out of 2000AD, but John Smith's lyrical, fecund horror is the exception. It caught me at a time in my life when the affirmation it gave was sorely needed. He's my favourite comics writer, the only one of the British comics writers who wrote in a space that I recognised, a context I understood.