Wednesday, 13 October 2010
How Dirty Frank Won My Heart:- Rob Williams & D'Israeli's "Low-Life" In 2000 ad Prog 1706
Like a man who's survived all that fuss with the red and green lenses and is finally presented with an optician's prescription which makes the world look far clearer than it'd been for a long while before, the seventh chapter of "Hostile Takeover" by Rob Williams and D'Israeli provided this now-happy reader with three moments that've transformed the serial from being less than the sum of its parts into a convincingly beguiling tragi-comedy.
It was laughing at the panel to be found at 4.2 - below - that made me realise I was changing my mind about "Low Life". And it was a great howl of a laugh, actually, the kind of unexpected and joyous whoop that marks a change of heart if not yet opinion, because no story that's quite as funny as that in part can be entirely disregarded as a whole.
It was a laugh rooted in the incongruity of Dirty Frank rolling off a brilliant punchline immediately after a panel depicting a gruesome massacre, a bloody business which was instantly revealed as the straight man for Frank's gag as much as a grisly plot-point in its own right. And just as the fact of the massacre set up the black comedy of Dirty Frank's joke, so does his apparent buffoonery provide the comic-book jaded reader with a means to engage with the butchery. After all, mass-killings are far, far more prevalent than everyday kindnesses in comic books, and as a consequence the slaughter of all those dubious gentlemen from the East is unlikely to move an audience more familiar with comic book bloodshed than comic book kisses. But by grounding Dirty Frank's outburst in humour, in the reader's grinding experiences of Twenty-First century air-travel, the audience is elbowed out of the banal business of another bloody scene of future butchery. Instead, memories of the casual callousnesses of budget airlines compels a strange and sideways measure of sympathy for the victims of the Judges' execution squad; we've not been sprayed with bullets, or anything in any way comparable to that fate, of course, but it is possible at a not-too-considerable stretch to imagine those cheap-fare companies joking about how such a problem-solving strategy as machine-gun fire might resolve their never-ending struggle to dehumanise their wretched customers. As Mr Williams has Dirty Frank say;
"Heavy Firepower! Murder! Screams! The culling of the innocents!" (Beat: new speech balloon) "Economy class at its natural solution!"
Well, it is, isn't it, and for the first time I was convinced that Frank was worth listening to, that he was more than merely a vehicle for some rather sad outsider humour. His ludicrous cry of "Gott In Himmell!", for example, issued at his first sight of the bloodbath, only makes the whole business more amusing as well as more shocking. More amusing, because Dirty Frank is revealed as man who's so disordered he's reduced to expressing himself as an SS officer stereotype from a Sixties war comic, and more shocking, because he's the only character on view who can make the Mega City One of 2132 ad as affecting for us as any human enterprise should be for a reader.
Or to put it another way, he's the Fool, the audience's co-conspirator, who knows what he can't express and who expresses it clearly to the gallery, who's too disordered and too wise in his madness to inhabit his world without revealing its hypocrisies and its sufferings too, and who stands for "us" in the midst of all of those who belong to "them".
Which is not, I'd contend, as a reader new to Dirty Frank and "Low-Life", a role he's been effectively fulfilling in "Hostile Takeover" up until this point. Until now, he's just been a fool amongst many others, not The Fool, more pronounced in his foolishness than his fellows but hardly a character that might be used to illustrate Fo's belief that "Comedy makes the subversion of the existing state of affairs possible."
For in truth, Dirty Frank has come across too often in "Hostile Takeover" as a gelded, disordered eccentric used mainly to deliver up drollery, as if mental disorder was funny in itself, and the strip's suffered for it.
Of course, a joke's just a joke, and even a well executed one doesn't of itself bring a comic strip into focus and make it function as it might. But then, that single joke isn't the only element of "Hostile Takeover" that helps ground the story and compensate for whatever confusion and underachievement has come before. For this week has also brought with it the emergence of Dirty Frank as a point-of-view character who's more than a confused and rather emasculated bystander. Rather than being a baffled and rather piteously peripheralised figure, Frank is here shown both taking the lead and grasping truths that his more typical fellows can't. In that, he's more than just the outsider who can communicate the meaning of his world humorously to us in ways denied to the other citizens of 2132 ad. He's also starting to fulfil the role of the knight errant, and far more a Chandleresque protagonist than a Cervantian one too, and so now he's become our hero as well as our representative in the strip.
It's a point that can be illustrated at 7.2.5, where our disordered hero is shown being tailed by several of his fellow oddities from the Wally Squad. There we're at last shown in clear focus that, despite his mental infirmity, Frank has skills which his fellows lack beyond his unquestioned bravery, dedication to the job, and unintended predeliction for quipping. Alone as he is in the sensory overload of a Big Meg street, Dirty Frank has the capacity to focus his attention upon details which escape all of those around him. He can spot and categorise the corruption that's escaped the unthinking observers, that hidden and unpleasant truth that the more respectable and supposedly sane members of society can't. Indeed, even his fellow members of the Wally Squad can't fully grasp what he perceives and processes. "Why does Thora want is following Frankie anyway?" asks Judge Coil at 1:3, "Aside for the obvious reason: to observe a complete lunatic at large in order to avoid eventually becoming like him?" But Thora, and presumably those lined up with her, know that Frank's a more substantial man than Coil suspects, a truth that's evidenced by the "complete lunatic"'s private investigations.
And if he's at his lowest ebb by the last page of this tale, there's also the sense that our Frank's got everything he'll need to close this matter successfully. He's his skills, his conscience, his unconscious ironic distance, and now, through daring and sacrifice, he's earned his chance to deal with the dragon in her lair.
So, Dirty Frank's now more precisely placed as our representative in 2132 ad, and he's explicitly established with the unfamiliar reader as a protagonist of some substance. More than just a loyal if mind-battered foot-soldier, he's the Detective Fool, and the balance of the strip has shifted from being a rather muddled narrative to one in which Frank is placed centre-front and worthy of being there. And, in combination with those two components, there's a third matter to be found in "Hostile Takeover: Part Seven" which defines Dirty Frank as a figure of greater substance than he previously seemed; his untypical and uncompromising integrity. "These are Dirty Frank's comrades of longstanding. Justice should be their myopic goal", Frank records in his "case notes" at 2:5, and, as a result of displaying such probity, he's transformed into Serpico and Avila and Ciello, "our" man against all of "them". Before he was one of a gang, or he seemed to be, and now he appears to be the only one capable of stopping his "comrades" from the worst of crimes. And though there's a great deal of reason to doubt whether Thora's game is as nefarious as it's seeming at the moment, it's effectively Dirty Frank against everyone else, which of course marks him out as the last honest gunslinger in town.
In truth, he's a believer, a man committed to his service and its principles, clear-minded in the terms of his duty even as he's somewhat confused as to everything else. The very presence of that word "comrades" in his notes reveals both his naive integrity and his vulnerability, his desperate need to trust those around him just as he surely can't rely on Mega City One's citizenry itself. And regardless of what I might think of the fact and principles of the Judicial State, the expression of Frank's devotion to his duty while others fatally betray their comrades lends him an absolute dignity that ennobles the character and ensures that I'll be reading carefully next week.
It's not that Dirty Frank should have by necessity stood revealed as "Hostile Takeover"'s sole apparent hero from the tale's first chapter, strong and competent and shiningly decent. After all, heroes need to be confused, and sidelined, and rendered helpless, so that the pleasure of their fightback and the catharsis of their victory is intensified. But this story was confused in itself, and particularly for the new reader, as we've discussed before, and the need for a clear heroic centre to the tale increased as "Hostile Takeover" became more challenging and opaque. After all, if a plot is slippery and hard to make sense of, an engaged and sympathetic point-of-view protagonist gives the reader something to hold onto, as any who love the occasional mystery or thriller can testify. But to provide a tale without either clear plot or straight-forward protagonist when chapters are being doled out in tiny weekly installments is to risk losing both the momentum of the tale and the enthusiasm of the reader.
But a Dirty Frank who's suddenly active, if somewhat beaten-up, and following his own agenda, who's uniquely competent and fiercely honourable, who's Serpico-ised to the degree he has no allies at all, and who's a Fool that speaks for us all rather than a fool in his undies eating popcorn, is a character that serves to lock every other narrative component securely and satisfyingly around him. After all, we'll put up with any degree of confusion if the likes of a Marlowe or a Shardlake or a Rebus is there at the centre of things, or actively searching for the centre of things.
Up until this week, Dirty Frank has seemed placed more at the edge of events than the heart of the tale itself, and perhaps that's where he'll be when next Saturday rolls around. But for the moment, "Hostile Takeover" seems like his story rather than a series of plots occuring to a large number of characters which will, eventually, be tied together in one fashion or another, and the tale is all the stronger for being more obviously that of Dirty Frank's.