Monthly Archives: November 2012

Taking sides in the Grant Morrison / Alan Moore cosmic feud

20121128-001951.jpgSooner or later, someone is going to come up with the idea of a story about two wizards – a hirsute, midlander who worships a made up god and dapper suited, bald Glaswegian chaos magician – and the bitter feud between them. The real life story about the animosity between the UK’s greatest living comics writers Grant Morrison and Alan Moore is nothing like as dramatic, but for anyone who has even a modicum of respect for both of them, rather compelling.

We aren’t talking about a massive feud here, incidentally. The two don’t publicly attack each other at every opportunity. The intrigue is rooted in the fact that both writers have very similar interests and backgrounds, and why exactly it is that they have managed to rub each other up the same way

Pádraig Ó Méalóid has written a synopsis of the disagreement which Grant Morrison has taken exception to and comprehensively fisked. You can make your own mind up but to a large extent it is impossible to arbitrate on the issue without your own prejudices about either writer getting in the way. In the interest of full disclosure then, let me say this: on balance I am probably more of a Grant Morrison fan, so take what I have to say on the topic with that particular pinch of salt.

Although I think he is right on the broad thrust, I don’t entirely agree with Morrison though. I think he let’s himself off a bit too gently with his justification that his column Drivel for Speakeasy magazine, which he wrote in the late 80s, was purely work for hire on which he was working to a specific brief. While it is self evident to anyone who has read them that the columns were tongue in cheek – at one stage, I vividly recall his dictum being that “99% of comics are shit except for the 10% that I write” – the fact is that this persona was rehearsed in all the media interviews he gave at the time. What was quite funny a few times rapidly ceased to amuse and he slowly became the parody that he was mocking at the time.

Morrison and his then writing partner Mark Millar were given unprecedented editorial control over 2000AD in 1993 (“the Summer Offensive”) and the two set about tearing up the comic from its roots and implementing the sort of philosophy that Morrison had been espousing in his Drivel columns for years beforehand. The result was an utter disaster, best forgotten. Morrison and Millar’s take on Dredd is the worse mishandling of the character in its long history. I recall in an interview atbthe time Morrison denouncing Dredd-creator John Wagner for not writing funny Dredd strips any more. Ironically, even at his most serious and po-faced, Wagner manages to inject each episode with more genuine humour than Morrison and Millar managed in their entire run on Dredd.

To cut a long story short, in the early 90s, Grant Morrison was a bit of a dick. Having suddenly found himself rich and successful after more than a decade as a struggling writer (his graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum hit the bookshelves at the height of Batmania following the release of the 1989 Tim Burton film), discovered the drink, drugs and sex that he couldn’t afford and wasn’t particularly interested in during the early part of his career. In his 30s, he went on a teenage bender, something which almost destroyed him as a writer.

But the important thing is, he grew out of it. The Morrison who emerged over the following decade was a different creature altogether. Most of his works during this period have a sort of life affirming therapy quality to them, with Morrison himself effectively starring in The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

I find the claim by both Moore and Michael Moorcock that Morrison is a creatively bankrupt thief of their work to be utterly bizarre. If you want to read a sub-Alan Moore deconstructionist and misanthropic take on the superhero genre, you need merely screw up a copy of Watchmen and throw it over your shoulder; the chances are you’ll hit a comic by a writer taking precisely that approach. On a superficial level, there are clearly similarities but where Morrison’s work is all about hope amidst the darkness, Moore’s work is, well, darkness amidst the darkness. They are so incomparable that it is barely worth even rebutting.

And this is the nub of it: Alan Moore’s complaint about Grant Morrison appears to be nothing more than a massive troll, and potentially an attempt by Moore to get his own back for a couple of mean-spirited things Morrison said about him during his idiot period. But as Morrison says, during the Drivel years, Morrison was a 30 year old still struggling to find his place in the world. Alan Moore is a highly successful man in his 60s. In the context, it is hard to deny that Moore is the bigger dick (term used in the strict Wheaton sense of the word).

I have heard more than once people defend Moore when he says his more outrageous things that if you hear him say them in person it is clear he has his tongue firmly in his cheek when he does so. But if this is all an act, is there a risk that Moore himself ends up resembling the persona he is pretending to be? We await to see what Jerusalem is like, but the fact is that most of his work over the past decade has given me the sense of a man coasting. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is good fun and a gentle read, kind of like putting on your favourite slippers, but nothing like as edgy as it thinks it is. Century had nothing to say ultimately other than “modern culture (and particularly Harry Potter) is rubbish” – the familiar old man lament since time immemorial. We appear to have reached the point in which Alan Moore has little more to say than “99% of modern culture is rubbish, except for the 10% that I write” – the only difference between this statement and Grant Morrison’s own utterance more than 20 years previously being that even at the time we knew with complete certainty that Morrison was taking the piss.

It’s great fun to watch Alan Moore be rude and nasty about everything, but there comes a point where it’s just rudeness dressed up as criticism. I think he went passed that years ago and it’s time he reined it back in. I suspect that if he did, his work would significantly improve as he was forced to move outside of his (cynical and world weary) comfort zone.

Still looking forward to Heart of Ice though.

Microscope: roleplaying history fractally

20121119-005738.jpgI’ve been exploring quite a lot of roleplaying games recently, but Microscope is probably the most unique I’ve come across thus far.

Arguably, it isn’t even a roleplaying game, although roleplaying is part of it. The goal of the players is not to play a character but to create a fictional history, potentially spanning tens of thousands of years.

The basis of the game is a timeline with a simple beginning and ending. This could be anything. For example, the start point could be “humanity struggles to recover from the zombie apocalypse” and the end point could be “humans and AIs form the galactic federation” (fantasy and mythical settings, indeed anything, can also be used – I’ve even considered it as a tool for developing a democratic reform counterfactual as an exercise for work).

In each player’s turn, they can either establish a new period, a new event (which must take place during an established period) or a scene (which must take place during an established event). You can place your chosen period, event or scene at any point in the timeline and can thus bounce around continually. The only restriction is that you must follow the “focus” – a particular thing that one of the players chooses all the players must explore during each round.

The scenes are the most complex aspect of the rules, and the closest the game gets to traditional roleplaying. For each scene, all the players pick a role and, in the process, work together to answer a question set by the person whose turn it is. So, if the question is: “Why did Halo Jones kill Luiz Cannibal in cold blood?”, one player might play Halo Jones, another might play Luiz Cannibal, and so on. The scene ends as soon as the question has been answered. If the players want to continue that story, another player will have to choose a scene on their turn to continue it.

One thing the game designer Ben Robbins is quite emphatic about is that the players must not attempt to write a history by committee. Instead, when it is your turn you have complete autonomy. The other players are banned from making suggestions, although they can ask for clarification. The only restrictions are that new elements can’t contradict old ones, and that they must stay within the basic rules. There is a slight exception to that in that during a scene a player can “Push” for something to happen – in which case the options are discussed and the players take a vote. Aside from that, and the fact that the players must initially agree what the overall theme is to be, that is the only point in which players have to reach some level of agreement. I disagree with some of the terminology used in the rule book: far from “banning” collaboration, this is an interesting way to enforce it in a meaningful way (as opposed to having the strongest willed player dominate); it takes the improvisational dictum of “yes, and…” and turns it into a fundamental building block for the rules.

The best genre settings drip with history, yet the idea of developing one of your own has been curiously unexplored by game designers up until now. I say “curiously” but it never occurred to me that it might even be worth considering until I came across this game. Now my mind is racing with possibilities, enthused by such rich histories as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Nikolai Dante, Warhammer 40,000 and Vampire: the Masquerade. But of course, those should only be starting points: the real genius of the game is not letting you explore established backgrounds but in creating your own by having a group of players subtly pulling in opposite directions. In short, this is another game to add to my burgeoning “must try” list.

Fighting Fantasy


A filmmaker is attempting to raise £40,000 on Kickstarter to make a film about the development and legacy of Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It’s an ambitious project which I’d love to see happen, so I’ve chipped in and would encourage you to do the same.

I was one of the first generation of Fighting Fantasy fans, starting with the publication of the Warlock of Firetop Mountain in 1982. We didn’t have the Puffin Club at my school; we had the Chip Club. Nonetheless, that was how me and my sister discovered the series and I quickly graduated onto the Forest of Doom, City of Thieves, Starship Traveller and Deathtrap Dungeon.

I had a bit of a pro-Ian Livingstone bias, which was probably unfair in retrospect and I suspect was limited to the fact that I got Forest of Doom while my sister got the more experimental Citadel of Chaos. That changed when I discovered the Sorcery! series, with its spellbook, overarching plot and gorgeous John Blanche artwork. I was pretty hardcore, buying Warlock magazine from issue 2, the Out of the Pit monster manual, the background book Titan, and so on.

They weren’t perfect. Like most RPGs at the time, they tended to be both combat heavy and leave you rather dependent on the luck of the dice, which was a little redundant as if you died, you would tend to simply ignore the result and carry on. But the Fighting Fantasy books opened so many avenues for me. Like many other people, they encouraged my reading, and it will be no surprise to anyone to learn that they got me into roleplaying games. But I’d credit them with something more fundamental than that, in that they made me realise at a young age that I didn’t have to just be a consumer, but an active participant in my media as well (of course, this also came at the same time as the rise of the home microcomputer – which had a similar democratising effect. As it happens there’s also an open Kickstarter at the moment to fund an updated version of Elite).

This is an important part of my personal history, so I’m keen to see the documentary get made. Plus, it is possible I might be making a minor appearance in it as they appear to be using footage from Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson’s presentation at this year’s UK Games Expo in it, in which you can quite clearly see me in the audience! So please have a look at the Turn to 400 Kickstarter and consider putting some dosh behind it.

Three thoughts about Police and Crime Commissioner elections…

You can’t politicise the police any more than they have politicised themselves

Every time the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation or someone like Lord Blair complains about the “politicisation” of the police, the Baby Jesus cries. The police have always been political, and over the last decade have become quite shameless about this: Ian Blair representing perhaps the apex of this.

Let’s not forget the hacking scandal, and the close links between the police and media that it revealed. Or the interplay between police and politicos over the De Menezes shooting. Or the transparent way in which the Police Federation and the Sun worked together over the Andrew Mitchell affair in a blatant attempt to divert attention away from the Hillsborough inquiry.

I don’t like PCCs for very many reasons, but in terms of “politicisation” the only thing they will do in terms of the police is to take that politicisation slightly out of the hands of the establishment and put it slightly in the hands of people at a more local level. Of all the reasons to oppose them, this is the weakest.

The Lib Dems are to blame for holding the elections in November

They deserve the credit for this and twelve months ago, Nick Clegg was claiming it to everyone who would listen internally (I was on the party’s Federal Executive at the time and can claim first hand experience of this). They insisted on this partly because the party was woefully unprepared for fighting the elections in May 2012, the government’s original plan, and partly because they very much wanted them to be held as far from the council elections as possible, fearing that the increased prominence of law and order issues during that period would damage the party. This went hand in hand with a mindset, not universally shared across the party, that it shouldn’t field candidates in the PCC elections at all.

In retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this. The answer to the party being weak on law and order issues is to be better on law and order issues, not to pretend they don’t exist. I disagreed with the argument that the party should not field candidates and am pleased that in the face of some quite strong pressure from the centre, the FE did at least say it was a local issue rather than the original position of attempting to actually ban local parties from fielding candidates.

Nonetheless, as it is a stupid policy anyway, moving polling day to November has only undermined it further – and thus increased the chances that PCCs might get replaced with something better sooner rather than later. My only real concern about it is what the Tories got in return for this delay, which I fear we won’t discover until the main player’s memoirs are published.

The Tories are to blame for everything else

The sad fact of the matter is that the creation of a role like Police and Crime Commissioner goes hand in hand with the mindset that you can hold elections without having to promote the elections whatsoever. It’s all part of a “no such thing as (big) society” philosophy that dictates that participation in elections is solely due to personal responsibility and the ability of individual candidates. I’m only surprised that someone managed to force them to provide any online information at all, and that they didn’t ban the Electoral Commission from doing what it could.

Returning to Andreas Whittam Smith, it is hard to see the creation of these posts and not see clear parallels between them and the direction he wants to see British politics to go in: surely this shift from politicians to “managers” is exactly what he wants, so why not simply support the Conservatives? And it is hard to see what he brings to the table. 12 independent PCCs were elected on Thursday, out of a possibly 41. Meanwhile, Democracy 2015 managed to garner just 35 votes in the Corby by-election.

More than 4,000 people have signed Unlock Democracy’s open letter to Theresa May, calling for her to take steps to ensure we never see a repeat of Thursday’s elections, and for her to consider alternatives to PCCs. Please add your name.

Primetime Adventures: a review

Smallville RPG is one of the games that lead me to discovering the wonderful world of more collaborative, story based kinds of roleplaying. Not a fan of the TV show (beyond the first couple of seasons), I was interested in its different approach to gaming and the way it incorporated TV tropes and conventions into the game itself.

Reading about Smallville online, I kept seeing it compared to Primetime Adventures, an earlier game with a similar philosophy. But all I could find about it was the publisher’s website promising a new edition of the game in “2011“. Then, on Friday, I discovered you could still get the second edition, published in 2005, on Indie Press Revolution. I snapped it up (alongside a couple of other games) and read through it. Here are my first impressions.

Whereas it is clear that you can use Smallville to play pretty much any kind of Smallville type TV show such as Roswell or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Primetime Adventures promises even more scope: Battlestar Galactica to the Gilmore Girls and Desperate Housewives and everywhere in between. The reason it can promise so much is that the system is so simple. Characters are, for the most part, summed up by a handful of descriptive words. The only “stats” used in the game are the “budget” (a pool of points that the gamemaster – or rather the “producer” – can draw on throughout the game to provide a challenge for the players), “fan mail” (a pool of points which players accrue in the course of play for good roleplaying) and “screen presence” (a number between 1 and 3 which determines how central each player character is to the plot of any given episode – these rotate so that a different character gets the spotlight in each episode).

The game mechanic to determine whether Wash manages to outfly and escape the fleet of Reaver spaceships is essentially the same as the one used to determine whether Cordelia wins that slanging match against her rival at high school: combine your screen presence with your traits, add any fan mail and see if you can beat the score which the producer gets, which itself is based on the amount of budget he allocates to that test. Instead of rolling dice, the players all draw playing cards: for each red card you draw, you get one point.

That’s pretty much it as far as the system goes – not quite the simplest game system ever devised, but certainly pretty close (contrast that with the Smallville system which, while it looks like fun, I still find a bit baffling in places without having given it a go). I have a slight concern that in practice it might be too simple in certain places. While I really like its mechanism for changing the focus of the series from episode to episode, and quite like the rules to playing a scene, the rules for how an episode should work seem a little light. I have concerns about how you maintain momentum throughout an episode and ensure you hit the right dramatic beats. The rule book itself has quite an interesting section on how acts work in a standard four act TV episode format, but I was slightly disappointed that it didn’t provide a system for how this might work in practice. I wonder if you couldn’t have a rule whereby you should move on to the next act after a certain amount of the budget has been spent, to ensure the game stays pacy.

For a game that discourages pre-game preparation in favour of collaboration and improvisation, a mechanism for helping the players out with ideas for plot twists and complications would have been nice (a bit like the Fiasco tilt system) – especially given the fact that by using the core mechanic of playing cards you have a very simple system for randomly generating 52 different options right in front of you.

Some clarification and expansion would also have been helpful. What should the producer do, for example, if a character leaps out of an aeroplane without a parachute with the intention of catching up with the bad guy and stealing his? In this case, if the character fails he will die (assuming the setting is at least semi-realistic and a dimensional portal wouldn’t fit the genre), so does that mean it should be assumed that he will automatically succeed? If not, what should happen if the character fails (which is possible even if the producer doesn’t spend any of his budget to resist)? The rule book has nothing to say about character stress, injury or death – a bit of an omission. I would certainly be inclined to have a similar mechanic to that used in FATE and Apocalypse World/Monsterhearts whereby characters with a specific named “condition” (e.g. “broken arm”) would have to suffer some kind of penalty if they try to do things that that condition would make harder (or a bonus if they could justify that the condition would make things easier). And I’d be inclined to make character death possible – but only if the character in question was being spotlighted in that particular episode (after all, cast members on TV shows die all the time).

In short, Primetime Adventures is a decent game, but the fact that the second edition was seven years ago now shows when contrasted with the more recent game rules I’ve been reading recently. I’d be tempted to write up quite a few hacks before playing it. But it’s flexibility and simplicity is extremely clever and inspiring and I really love the rules for providing characters with character arcs throughout the season. It would be an interesting experiment to run a game with non-gamer players and a non-supernatural or science fiction theme at some stage.
NaBloPoMo November 2012

Andreas Whittam Smith and why Democracy 2015 should be called Technocracy 2015

Andreas Whittam SmithI’ve been following the development of Democracy 2015 in a professional and personal capacity since it launched this summer and listened with interest to Andreas Whittam Smith’s speech at the Unlock Democracy AGM on Saturday. Sadly as a result of Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday I’ve been forced to reassess the project, away from a relatively harmless hopeless cause and towards a dangerous, profoundly undemocratic idea – which fortunately is unlikely to go anywhere (I should emphasise at this point that these are my personal views only).

If you don’t know, Whittam Smith’s big idea is as follows: he’s trying to find 650 people to stand in every constituency in the 2015 general election, sweeping the board and helping to establish a reforming parliament that will take all the difficult and radical decisions that the politicians from established parties consistently fail to. The candidates, who will preferably be selected by primaries, will served for a single term and all have experience of “running things” – be it the head of a school, a trade unionist or a someone with a business background. And finally,this will all be paid for by supporters donating a maximum of £50 each.

As a former party agent and campaign organiser, it is easy to scoff at the practicalities of all this. Even leaving aside the election campaign itself, there is the question of how all these targets will be reached. Whittam Smith stated that he expected the £35,000 cost of running a primary in each constituency that the Conservatives have had to spend would be lowered if you had economies of scale – ignoring the fact that largest single cost will be on postage which will have a fairly flat marginal cost. If you think this all sounds hopelessly impossible and impractical however, Whittam Smith has a simple answer: he agrees with you but feels he has to try anyway.

That isn’t a remotely satisfactory answer. I don’t find it especially noble or inspiring to see people embarking on a project without any credible strategy or targets whatsoever. It is, after all, other people’s money – and blood, sweat and tears – which he is planning to use up on this project. He isn’t so much a Scott of the Antarctic as a Lord Kitchener: sitting safely behind enemy lines while sacrificing others on deeply flawed plans. I can guarantee that his followers will remain quite as enamoured as they clearly are if they end up with nothing to show for at the end of this little adventure.

Thus far, this is nothing I didn’t conclude from the first week of Democracy 2015’s launch. I was struck however during Whittam Smith’s speech on Saturday by how his analysis was not only wrong but positively scary.

His main broadside against the political establishment is that it is fundamentally incompetent. No argument there, we see evidence of this pouring out of Whitehall and Westminster on a daily basis. But his analysis is that at the root of all this is the fact that politicians are simply poor at managing things: replace them with people with managerial experience, so the argument goes, and everything will be solved.

I’ve been a “manager” for the last 5 years but it is only in the last 12 months that I’ve had to fully manage staff on a daily basis. What I’ve learnt as both a manager and an employee is that “management” and “competence” can often be wildly divergent. Often the most talented person in an organisation can be someone who lacks the temperament or inclination to be a manager. Often the people who rise the most rapidly are people who’s ambition is far greater than their actual ability, but manage to float to the top because other people lower down the food chain manage to keep things on the rails and because few organisations would risk giving an incompetent employee was a bad reference and face either being stuck with them or an industrial tribunal. And then there is the Peter Principle, the dictum that “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” Great members of staff can make terrible managers, and vice versa. So when Whittam Smith dismissed the idea of cleaners and lower down the work chain as making suitable MPs, he wasn’t just being snooty but actually quite naive.

Perhaps a good test of how good a manager an MP would be would be to force them to manage and motivate a team of volunteers, raise their own money, build relationships with constituent groups and the press and generally run a difficult and stressful election campaign? Of course that happens to be what most winning candidates in marginal constituencies do indeed have to do. Not all of them do (sometimes you can get away with recruiting the right campaign manager at an early enough stage and leaving them to it – the lucky ones have the right campaign manager allocated to them by the party), and not all of them go on to become good managers, but it’s as good a test as any and certainly suggests that the key to having good people with managerial experience in parliament is to have more competitive elections.

But is management the answer to everything? Here I just think that Whittam Smith doesn’t just misunderstand the problem but is actually seeking to reinforce the status quo which has got us into this mess in the first place. As well as believing that having more managers in parliament would improve things, his concern is that ministers spend too much time interfering with the peope who are meant to manage the implementation of policy – the civil service. As an aside, I think he has a rather uncritical attitude about the civil service (the civil service is often known as the fourth political party in party circles with good reason, as anyone who has tried dealing with them will know), but the simple question you have to answer yourself is this: if the problem is too much ministerial interference and micromanagement, how will promoting more of a management culture in parliament and government help? I can’t think of anything that would make it worse. Imagine the former head of a school blundering in as the new secretary of state for education attempt to run the department like a school?

I have a rather different analysis. In my view, while I agree that the problem is that politicians have become obsessed with micromanagement and find themselves out of their depth, the cause is that politics has converged. Because there are no longer any big ideas being fought over in parliament it is only natural that politicians will turn their attention to things like competence and organisation. If parliament was fighting a daily battle over what kind of immigration policy we should have, it would be rather more content to leave civil servants with the job of implementing government policy – and ministers would too.

If I’m right, then Whittam Smith’s proposal would only make things worse. Having hundreds of MPs elected specifically on the basis of their management skills and a mandate to crack down on incompetence will only lead to more micromanagement, not less. The civil service, will not thank us for it even if former members of their ranks like Gus O’Donnell and Siobhan Benita seem to have similar shortsighted views.

What’s more, it’s the same agenda that Tony Blair inherited from Bill Clinton and bequeathed Cameron, Clegg and Miliband: ideology is dead; what matters is what works and seizing power. Whittam Smith was extremely dismissive of the people who criticised him from the left and seemed proud of his position in the centre ground. It seemed pretty evident that if he has his way, Democracy 2015 will fight on a platform firmly in the middle of the major two parties, but with a populist, anti politics edge. That’s the platform Nick Clegg adopted in 2010 and it didn’t work out too well for him.

Where he differs from the Blair copybook is his insistence that his successful candidates should only serve a single term. Whittam Smith sees this as a way of avoiding corruption, but the main purpose of re-election is accountability. What accountability will we have over MPs who plan to vanish after five years? At one stage in his speech, Whittam Smith said that he was sure that his one term MPs would have no problems seeking future employment. I agree, but most likely in the same jobs all too many MPs find themselves doing: consultancy, lobbying and public affairs. How many will spend the last few months in office behaving like taxi cabs Stephen Byers and Patricia Hewitt? And how many will find themselves in the same position as Louise Mensch, bored of the role and walking after just a couple of years?

None of this remotely resembles anything which you can call democracy. When unaccountable “experts” take over a country we call them technocrats. It’s the last throw of the die for a failed state. Is the UK a failed state? It is certainly failing but I don’t see us having exhausted all other policies first.

NaBloPoMo November 2012What we need in the UK is almost the exact opposite of what Andreas Whittam Smith is proposing: greater accountability of parliament and a return of the battle of ideas. Neither are easy to achieve within a system which is as jury rigged to favour the status quo as ours, but even if it has as much a chance of success as the Whittam Smith plan, it is certainly a more worthy prize (which isn’t to say we should be as excited by adventurism and simply stumbling along in the way that he intends to proceed). By contrast, no good can come from a project which ultimately has nothing more to offer than the technocracy of modern politics without even the veneer of idealism.

Why I haven’t worn a poppy this year

NaBloPoMo November 2012I’ve always been a supporter of Remembrance Sunday and have never held much truck with this white poppy nonsense that has always seemed more like a pose than a genuinely ethical position. This is because, for me at least, the day has always represented a reflection on the awfulness of war and the sacrifice that everyone pays – be they soldier, conscientious objector or civilian – when it sweeps across the world. It’s a act of solidarity, and walking around with a white poppy has always seemed, intentional or not, like flicking a v-sign at anyone who wishes to participate in a collective national experience. But I didn’t wear a poppy this year (although I did stand for the two minute silence despite not thinking I would).

There are two main reasons for this. The first is my shock and disgust last month at learning that Sir John Kiszely, the then President of the Royal British Legion, had been caught on camera offering to lobby government ministers at “boring” remembrance events on behalf of one of his prospective clients as a lobbyist (in this case a fake company pretending to be attempting to sell the UK government military drone aircraft). He swiftly resigned and no one at any stage suggested that the Royal British Legion in any way condoned his actions, but what does it say about the organisation that such a man was free to rise to their most senior and prominent position? Either way, I don’t think this scandal received anything like the level of attention that it deserved.

The second is this discussion about marking the centenary of the First World War, which appears to be big on history, looking backwards and even producing a kind of theme park version of the war, complete with poppy fields and token football matches, all of which looks suspiciously like a celebration. After 2012, I’ve truly had enough of all this bread and circus business and am weary of the prospect of turning such an important occasion into yet another backslapping jamboree.

As we approach the centenary, the key question we need to ask is what the purpose of remembrance is once the generation that made that sacrifice are all dead? This is universally true in the case of the first world war and increasingly so in the case of the second. Walking through Kings Cross station yesterday, I was struck at how they’d got Barbara Windsor to be the “voice” of the poppy appeal – she was 8 at the end of WW2, and far more associated with the swinging sixties. However well intentioned, having someone like that simply lacks the resonance of, say, Thora Hird.

Over the course of my life, the TV coverage of Remembrance Sunday has shifted from pictures of a dwindling parade of war veterans to pictures of a bunch of politicians doing their best to look solemn. We seem to be sleepwalking on with an annual ceremony which no longer has the same meaning, and yet there is no attempt to take a comprehensive look at how we might make it matter for a new generation. What has happened instead is that an event that was supposed to mark a dreadful, world changing war, and which could conceivably be expanded to commemorate its depressing sequel 20 years later, has come to be used to mark the low and steady hum of military conflicts which the UK as periodically get itself embroiled in in the 65 years since.

We talk about “sacrifice” but that word has acquired a different meaning over the years. 90 years ago, people were talking about the self-sacrifice of a few for the benefit of the many. But the sacrifice that is being made now looks suspiciously more like a more Old Testament style sacrifice: a blood letting to appease the Gods and maintain the status quo.

The 20th century World Wars weren’t about fighting for the status quo, regardless of the hopes of those in power at the time. Their great cost lead to a social revolution, and rightly so. Are we really that comfortable about investing its legacy into the hands of a few politicians and professional tinpot generals (I originally wrote “professional soldier” but none of the people I’m referring to have seen the front line in decades)? What was meant to be a communal event has been privatised by stealth.

Remembrance Sunday’s meditation of the dreadfulness of war has been replaced by a focus on its inevitability and relentlessness. I find that a troubling shift and an effective takeover by an industry and professional class with an interest in its continuance.

Would I be endorsing all this if I wore a poppy? No, but it’s enough to make me want to abstain for at least one year. I only hope that over the next couple of years we can, as a nation, get our heads together and subvert David Cameron’s Theme Park Centenary with something more sombre – perhaps the cancellation of the Trident replacement? That, at least, would mean something.

Cowardice on public transport

NaBloPoMo November 2012Travelling home from central London on a train yesterday, a bunch of eight of drunken louts got on our carriage and proceeded to spend the rest of the journey loudly singing racist and misogynist football chants (I say football, but in doing so will possibly now get loud complaints about how it has nothing to do with the culture that pervades football; it is and you know it). And aside from a tweet and the odd grimace, I did nothing.

I spent the rest of the journey home fantasising about how I should have stood up in the midst of their 5th rendition of “I’d rather be a Paki than a Yid”, announcing that I was a Jew and that they ought to be ashamed of themselves, but the fact is I didn’t (I’m not actually Jewish by the way, but I figured I could pull that off more easily than claiming to be from Pakistan). Nor did I do anything when a bunch of kids started abusing my bus driver earlier in the day for threatening to kick one of their friends off for not having the fare on his Oyster card (he actually gave in to them but still got heaped with abuse). Nor did I stick up for the passenger on my bus on Friday who told off a girl for putting her feet on the seat and got verbally assaulted by the girl and her two adult friends (possibly parents) for the rest of the journey.

I like to think I’m not a moral coward, but I’ve not exactly availed myself well recently. The worst I would have got from taking a stand in the bus incidents is a bit of abuse. In the case of the train incident, I’d have risked a physical beating but statistically speaking that probably wouldn’t have happened – and if it did, even then it would arguably have been worth it. At least that way there’d now be facing criminal charges.

Standing up to antisocial behaviour might not get you very far in the short term, but it probably doesn’t take very much to get these people to think twice in future. In the case of the girl and the group of boys, you could see the fear in their eyes – their displays of bravado were because they were terrified not because they were especially angry.

We’re probably just a few harsh words away from making our journeys on public transport a significantly better experience, and yet most of us do nothing. I sort of understand the psychological reasons for that, but ultimately I don’t really find that to be much of an excuse.

Ho hum. At least I don’t have to feel good about it. That’s at least something. Maybe next time.

John Constantine: Hellblazer. You only live twice.

John ConstantineNaBloPoMo November 2012The decision by DC comics to cancel its imprint Vertigo’s longest running title Hellblazer and replace it with a new comic featuring its main character John Constantine in a new in-continuity title may not seem like that much of a big deal to outsiders. For the comics’ fans however, this represents the end of an era and an uncertain future. Explaining why however, may get a bit confusing – for which I apologise in advance. Welcome to the mad, bad world of corporate comics.

John Constantine and Hellblazer were originally part of official DC continuity. Constantine was first created by Alan Moore as a supporting cast member of the horror comic Swamp Thing. A British occult investigator-cum-conman, Constantine acted as the Swamp Thing’s guide to the occult as he lead (and mislead) him through a series of adventures.

The Swamp Thing’s odyssey was itself part of a larger story which engulfed the whole of the DC Comics line. Constantine would use the Swamp Thing to perform a crucial war in a magical secret war taking place concurrently with the Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1986. The Crisis was DC’s rather futile and counterproductive attempt to clean up its continuity, replacing an infinite multiverse with a single universe in which all its characters interacted with each other.

Despite this integral role Constantine and the Swamp Thing played in the creation of this new world, within five years they would spin out of it to form a continuity of their own in 1993. This was ostensibly for commercial reasons. Both Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, together with a number of other titles (all of which, at the time, were written by Brits), were enough of a critical and commercial success to lead DC to publish a new imprint Vertigo. All the initial titles published by Vertigo moved from the DC universe to their own separate continuity. Initially, all these titles were tied together, even having their own crossover event at one stage.

Vertigo wobbled significantly during its initial period however, with most of its titles struggling to find an audience. Hellblazer was the only of Vertigo’s launch titles to survive for more than three years (admittedly, in the case of the hugely successful Sandman, this was due to the author choosing to end the series rather than anything else). The idea of a “Vertigoverse” fell quickly out of favour, and Hellblazer spent the remainder of its run existing in (mostly) splendid isolation.

So far, so – reasonably – straightforward. Things got a little more complicated in 2011 however with the reappearance of both Swamp Thing and John Constantine in DC continuity – despite Hellblazer remaining in publication. Of course, this was not technically the same continuity as the one the two characters left in 1993, with the universe having been rebooted in both 2005 and 2008 (and also 1991, but that’s another story). Indeed, the continuity they returned to was not even a universe any more, but a multiverse, with it having by then been established that there were now 52 separate worlds.

Both these characters kicked their heels around in the official continuity for a few months until DC decided to reboot their titles once again, this time calling it the New 52 (because there are to be 52 ongoing monthly titles in publication at any one time, not because there are 52 worlds). In this reboot, Swamp Thing has once again been given his own title (alongside fellow Vertigo alumnus Animal Man), while Constantine joined a title called the Justice League Dark (sort of an occult version of the Justice League America). It is this character who is about to get his own solo series.

You might ask “isn’t the new Constantine just the same character as the old Hellblazer character?” No is the answer, because while DC continuity has followed the standard superhero convention of having its characters age only very slowly, if at all (New 52 continuity has actually seen all the main characters get younger), since Hellblazer moved to Vertigo, that John Constantine has aged in real time. That John Constantine is an ageing ex-punk about to turn 60. The New 52 John Constantine is a still a jack the lad in his early 30s who can probably only just remember Britpop. Constantine’s slow march to docility is a main theme in the latter Hellblazer stories; in the New 52 Constantine is probably younger than most of his readers.

So what do I make of all this? I’m in two minds. I think there is an argument that after 300 issues and 25 years Hellblazer has run its course. It has slipped into repeating itself on numerous occasions now. Furthermore, while ageing a character over several decades is interesting and something we rarely see in comics, Constantine differs from Judge Dredd (who has aged in real time over 35 years) in two fundamental respects. Firstly, the comic has had a number of typically very good but different writers, each of whom have brought with them their own ideas, themes and supporting cast. While John Constantine’s own personality has been fairly consistent, pretty much everything else has been thrown up in the air every few years.

Connected to that is the fact that nothing really changes in Constantine’s world. They hit the big reset button every few years. While one of the overarching themes of the series is that actions have consequences, you don’t see Constantine really deal with the consequences of his actions 20-30 years ago, which might as well be ancient history as far as the title is concerned, because everything has to get wrapped up in 2-5 year story arcs. In that respect the title’s continuity has been a real straitjacket. Contrast that with Dredd where John Wagner regularly revisits a storyline from decades in the past, and can irrecoverably change the world as a consequence.

So in principle, I have nothing against giving John Constantine a reboot, any more than I have for any other character. Whether this is the right reboot however is another matter; without wanting to get into the topic of the New 52 more generally, the John Constantine we’ve seen in Justice League Dark thus far has been fairly fun but unremarkable. He lacks the weight and groundedness that his past incarnation had in abundance.

It’s also interesting to note that this switch comes at a time when there are rumours of a Justice League Dark film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Constantine has of course been in a film before, in a film which cast Keanu Reeves as a black haired resident of Los Angeles (as opposed to a blond Londoner). It shouldn’t have worked, and was certainly not a critical or commercial success, but I have to admit to enjoying it for reasons that go beyond my Tilda Swinton obsession.

My guess is that DC have decided that if the film does come off, they want to present the world with a single, simplified vision of the character, rather than two versions at different ages and with wildly divergent back stories. Of course this is dumb: they aren’t about to stop publishing the collected editions of Hellblazer, so anyone visiting a book shop will still be confronted by two versions. But it is how the corporate mindset works.

So this is a bit sad, but does point to the character getting wider recognition; and if that means more people reading Hellblazer at its best then that’s something. I just hope it doesn’t mean we’ll never get to revisit the old John Constantine again or that it will prevent other, potentially fascinating interpretations of the character.

My thoughts on the Obama election win


NaBloPoMo November 2012I’m sure I have nothing to say here that will prove especially interesting or insightful, but I thought I should stick my two pennorth in nonetheless. I wasn’t entirely overwhelmed by Obamamania in 2008, but I’ll admit I was excited and stayed up to watch the results. This time, not so much.

I am pleased and relieved that he won, but it has felt somewhat that this has more to do with the fact that the other guy lost. While there have been a number of positive things to come out of Obama’s presidency, not least Obamacare, on foreign policy he has been a real disappointment.

The cynical view of US politics is that the two main parties are so closely aligned that it doesn’t matter who gets in. I don’t agree with that, but it is certainly true that for years the Democratic party pursued a triangulation strategy which made it hard to argue with. Obama’s success is not so much in his ability to push forward an authentic left wing and liberal agenda (despite his trenchant critics’ claims) but in opening up space on the left. He might not have moved quickly enough, in some areas he has merely inched forward, but there seems a greater prospect of a genuinely progressive US administration emerging eventually thanks to his ability to push the envelope.

The fact that he hasn’t managed to go as far as his base would like is due in no small part to the ability of his opponents. For a brief moment, the Tea Party – backed by its billionaire donors and media allies – looked like a real threat. It did succeed in driving the Obama administration almost to a standstill. And while Romney himself is a moderate, he was forced into taking a massive shift to the right in order to win the Republican nomination.

I have to admit that my big fear for this election was that, while I never rated Romney’s chances (who comes across as a Republican Gore or Kerry straight out of the Drew Western copybook on what you don’t want your candidate to look like), I worried that the wingnuts would be successful in getting the US political centre ground to make a massive shift to the right. Superficially, that fear now looks unfounded, with some of the most vile Republican candidates now defeated and a number of states even voting in support of gay marriage.

Despite the result on Tueaday however, it is still too soon to judge. Abortion and same sex marriage are matters for state legislatures (and ultimately the supreme court) not the federal congress. The US is a big country, and issues like abortion appear to have taken a step backwards in a number of states in recent years. As a nation, the US has never looked more divided and the traditional post election appeals for bipartisanship are liable to fall on even more deaf ears than they have in the past.

It is a country in a deep period of change both in terms of its status and its demographics. Hopefully the superficial failure of the right this week will dampen the enthusiasm in the UK and elsewhere for conservatives there to embrace a similar red fanged approach to “compassionate” conservativism, and hopefully their chances of running the country are looking more bleak than ever. But if you think they are going to give up without a fight, or fail to retain a foothold for a good while yet, you are sadly mistaken. I just hope that the Bill Clinton days of appeasement are now long gone, and that the Republican party has learned a salutary lesson.