Friday, 1 October 2010

The Valiant Hypocrites & The Hopeless Protagonists: Heroes Pretending To Be Heroes, Or Not, in 2000AD Prog 1704


It's an odd thought, or at least it is to me, to realise that the comic book heroes I turn to for my mindless escapism these days are no more in charge of their own lives than I am mine. I have no idea how I managed to miss that fact. I'd always assumed that the stories of wish fulfillment that I was willingly retreating into were in truth presenting some considerable measure of my wishes being fulfilled. But it turns out that I seem like to enjoy reading about characters who are incredibly frustrated, disappointed in what they've become, unhappy at their life's work, and compelled by duty to pretend to be someone somewhat different from themselves in order to live up to the expectations and needs of others.

Bloody Hell. What am I wasting my money on with my 2000AD subscription? I might as well just take photographs of my own life, paste them up on the 'puter and pretend that what I'm looking at is a heroic enterprise worthy of being immortalised in a comic strip rather than a life spent stumbling and plodding along just like everyone else's.

2."Defoe: A Murder Of Angels, Part 5" writer: Pat Mills, artist: Leigh Gallagher

I. "Who else would want the job but people like us? The lowest of the low." asks Defoe of his comrades this week (3:6-7) as they mow down the front rows of the endless hordes of levitating zombies. Even given my limited experience of the potato-skulled ex-Roundhead, it does seem safe to conclude that he's not just unhappy in his work, but in every other aspect of his life as well, if life he has away from the zombie-killing and the occasional pint.

It's not simply those damn zombies, or even the fact that he's surrounded by allies that he either doesn't trust, or respect, or both. It's not even the fact that he's reduced, in his attempts to save one little corner of the world from the undead, to sweet-talking an alcoholic magician with offers of free beer in return for the necessary assistance which will keep him alive. Most of us are surrounded to one degree or another by poltroons and knaves, and if we don't exactly have to bargain alcohol with the Ravenmaster, there's something of the sort going on with some influential individual or other out there "among them English", as Eli Lapp says to John Book at the end of "Witness". But Defoe is triple-burdened, locked in such a state of physical exhaustion and spiritual malaise that even his less-disastrous hours look far, far worse than most of our most challenging ones. Alienated by the natural order of the world and it's "overwhelming majority" of "fools", broken by the tragic loss of his family, and dismayed by the absence of the Leveller's vision of a democratic and republican England, Defoe would still be a miserable and bitter man even were every single zombie to disappear from England in the space between his next two pistol shots.

II. Time was when heroes had the autonomy to pick and choose their fights, and indeed much of what they did with their free-time too. At worst, most of even the anti-heroes had a cause to serve and be forced to salute to which the reader if not the characters themselves might believe in. But Defoe has nothing to live for except the business of killing the zombies and those who seek to profit from them. Zombie-killing is a less a mark of heroism for his character than the only thing he's got left to do that might profitably fill his hours. It's closer to a hobby in some ways than it is a mission, for what else would he do? It's a business that at times blots out the thoughts of what once was and what'll never be for him. Certainly, his isn't a fate which will lead to him sharing, with either enthusiasm or resignation, the lives of the better sort who find privilege in the England of Kings, those "painters, librarians and ladies companions" (3.5), for it's not as if Defoe has embarked upon a career that will advance his own interests into the rulling class or its flatterers.

He's where he is because he's where he is. There's not really anywhere else for him to go.

III. Of course, the old Leveller would never want to be anywhere other than standing with the lowest of the low, for what else are the most beloved of the Lord and worthy of England? Defoe's where he is because it's where he believes he deserves to be, and where no doubt he feels he ought to be too. But it's a strangely helpless place to find a comic-book hero, with no hope, damn little power, and no status quo to restore or kingdom of justice and promise to create beyond his own temporary survival. Most other characters in 2000AD have at least a cause to believe in and to actively serve, and even, in the case of the various Judges, a State to participate in. But Defoe doesn't seem to be a man with anything much to serve at all, not even in the terms of his own standards and conscience. He's just an individual like so many out here in the real world, serving his time, filling his hours, doing what he can as bravely as he might, and persevering because that's what people do. In that, he's not much of a traditional hero at all, and for a comic book lead placed in what appears at first glance to be the role of line-leading protagonist, he's as emasculated in his world as most of us are in ours.


"Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn'd upside down."


The received explanation for the relative unpopularity today of the traditionally square-jawed and decent-minded breed of action hero, from Dan Dare to Superman, is that the audience no longer believes in the ideals of a peaceful and polite world which those characters represent. I wonder if that's so. Perhaps it's not that we don't believe in truth, justice and whatever national way you care to mention, but that we can't delude ourselves in these days that any political system would permit us to act according to those more innocent beliefs. It's not that we've lost our simple-hearted, and perhaps simple-minded, faith in what might once have been labelled "goodness", but that we've gained the knowledge that states are founded upon hypocrisy and compromise and stupidity, realism and factionalism and self-interest, and that if Mr Deeds does ever indeed go to town, he'll either ends up corrupted or heading home with a heart saturated with disillusionment.

Kal-El and Colonel Dare aren't too good for us, perhaps, but they may be too good for any version of the world that we can strain to believe in.

What a perfect symbol, therefore, for such a state of pragmatic and principled pessimism is Defoe, a man that has tried his very best to be a good husband, a good father, a responsible democrat, and a loyal man of God, and who's now reduced to the business of striving not to get eaten by zombies.

"Nikolai Dante: City Of The Damned, Part 5" writer: Robbie Morrison, artist: Simon Fraser

I. It's this previously-unrecognised preference for the politically powerless hero that leads me, at least in part, to hope that Nikolai Dante hasn't transformed himself from broken drunkard to hero of the people and the single-handed winner of wars in the space of around 5 pages over the past 2 episodes of "City Of The Dammed". For if Dante has just been a little down-in-the-mouth for the last few chapters, and if he's capable of rousing himself back to full psychological health through the means of a few frowns from his mother and the pained suffering of his ex-comrades, then he's obviously not been suffering to the degree that it had seemed. In fact, if he can knit himself together that quickly and that effectively, then I'm less impressed by his marvellously heroic return than I am contemptuous of his bar-room self-indulgence over the past few months. No trauma that can be shaken off so completely can be considered to have been truly traumatic, unless the assault on Vladivostok just happened to coincide with the end of Dante's period of psychological instability, a happenstance too fragile in its unlikelihood to sit easily with this reader at least.

II. Of course, I realise that it's most likely that Dante's cry of being "too cool to kill" is intended to mark the return of the heroic Nikolai to the fullest measure of his former state-humbling powers, but I do hope not. Perhaps I'm so used to sympathising with heroes that are victims of their lives, prisoners of their own fate, that I can't switch the mental gears to cope with a character who can overcome the worst of disasters with a few months off boozing, a touch of guilt-tempered determination and a considerable slice of derring-do. Or perhaps I can't believe in a man who can practically single-handedly charge and collapse lines of laser rifles, who can, in a high-tech world, turn battles through his individual martial valour. For although Nikolai Dante is by his very design intended as a throwback to a more innocent tradition, of Flynn and Fairbanks Jr, there's something somewhat distasteful about the idea of a man who is indeed "too cool to kill!". For if we're supposed to care about the dangers inherent in the fighting experienced by Dante and his cast, then we need to believe that there's some danger there rather than an insubstantial bun-fight. And if we've retreated all the way back to the simple narrative physics that presents us with the equation "ND (our man) + B (Bravery) + RC (The right cause) = V (victory)", then we've travelled back to the times when simply being one of us and in possession of a pair of testicles was the same as being invulnerable and virtuous.

III. It's certainly an uncomfortable business, to be reading of Dante's life-preserving coolness while watching crowds of previously hopeless female warriors cheering him on. Couldn't one of them have been so brave, so cool, perhaps? After all, Dante has no high-tech protection anymore, so what does protect him from death on the battlefield that couldn't protect any other character?

Why should we believe that this man can turn battles simply by his presence, by his idiot habit of charging headlong into lines of ray-gun wielding professional soldiers?

It's not just a daft business, this rot about war being some great big sport for the bravest man to turn. It's an untruth that encourages the thought that victory goes to the daring and good and the noble of blood, and defeat to the unworthy and timid and common, and it's the kind of thinking that I'd have thought would have long disappeared from our comic books.

For if "Nikolai Dante" is a strip which wants us to be moved by Dante's psychological collapse, and to take his enemies seriously as they murder their way across Vladisvostk, then it also has to take the business of war seriously too. Otherwise, the mental despair seems as thin and sentimentally cheap as the fighting does, and the whole often-entrancing confection collapses under its own lack of weight.

III. But perhaps there's hope that "City Of The Damned" is as complex and brutal as Dante has often been as a strip this year. Perhaps the panel of Dante whipping the bad guy's head into pulp is telling us something about our hero's state of mind? Could it be that his bravery is a forced and necessary bravado, and might the unpleasant violence applied to the execution of Ushakov be a measure of Dante's despair rather than his war-winning masculinity?

Because a bare-chested, unbloodied and battle-turning Dante, a hero simply because he's a hero too cool to kill, simply reflects that rather distasteful myth that war is won by playground daring and goodness, but a Dante who's pretending to be heroic, or who's been so brutalised himself that he's lost his moral core, and even his desire to take care of himself, would be a far more interesting figure.

That Dante would be a man of and for our times too, trapped at the top of an embattled hierarchy just as Defoe is trapped at the bottom of his, trying to win something worthwhile from an impossible situation while struggling to retain a measure of his faith while doing so.

Like we do, in our own little and mostly unremakable ways.



  1. Based on the previous Tsar Wars and Sword of the Tsar story arcs, I'm assuming Dante is covering up his damage with bravado: he did it regularly throughout those arcs. In both those stories, in fact, he was playing up his role and inspiring people with it even though he was working on the wrong side in both (by necessity: there was nowhere else to stand in the former and blackmail in the latter). He's likely going there again.

    It is a bit of a stretch that the entire merc army is routed so quickly, but I'm willing to buy it since they weren't expecting a sudden up-close assault or to be facing Dante: the rebels have the advantage of both speed & surprise and successful psyops. I can buy this platoon being defeated and their boss killed quite easily - though there should be more of them who will regroup under the 2IC and continue the attack, but I'll be nice and go with the genre trope for the moment...

    Defoe's growing discontent and the clear "no, these guys are all bastards, obviously" text is rather interesting, isn't it? It makes an interesting contrast with the over-the-top, madcap zombie-killing and pre-steampunk. (Woodpunk?) Compare to Books 4-6 of Savage...

    - Charles RB

  2. On Dante:

    1. Yes his drunken, piss-stained, floor-hugging bender was self-indulgent and a little pathetic, I assume it was supposed to be. There were a lot of people in need he could have helped but he felt sorry for himself and crawled inside a bottle.

    2. His turn around struck me as just the flip-side of his deeply-flawed personality. He thrives on danger and peril, so it wasn't a coincidence he came out of his slump at that point, as he has always appeared most alive when leading the charge into a flurry of bullets and swords or jumping out of windows with wronged husbands or angry debtors on his heels. His recent low point was because he had been comprehensively defeated and also left alive to let all the little agonies sink in - a far crueller fate than a quick death for Dante. He was left with the knowledge that he couldn't win, he couldn't save his friends and if he tried it again he'd be contemptuously put in his place (as the bastard offspring of the Romanov's). If you look at him jumping right back into the bear pit it is not a hero leading the charge it is a man looking to die, just not by his own hand - it is not a man "too cool to kill" it is a man who Fates have cruelly denied death to (a man "too cursed to die"). Although this might only be a temporary state of affairs, as it is the weapons crest that has kept him alive in all his capers and close scrapes. With that gone and Dante possibly becoming even more reckless it is only a matter of time before he gets his wish.

    Why did none of the warrior women lead the charge? None of them were crazy or suicidal enough.

    Why did he butcher a pleading Ushakov? It seemed more a cathartic release, as death was clearly denied to Dante that day.

    It'll be interesting to see what happens next - whether he is going to be on his rollercoaster until Death eventually grants him what he is after. I can't really see him going back to his former cocky, swaggering self, at least not all the time - the mask will slip in some unguarded moment.

  3. Hello Charles:- I think it's heartening that both you and Emperor came to similar conclusions about Dante and his psychological situation. It's an absolute boon to have such knowledgable chaps being good enough to drop in and help me think twice, and a good few times more too, about the things I write.

    I do get concerned when I read those glorious war moments, though. Yes, I can play along with them as genre tropes, and yet I've just been re-reading "Arms And The Man" and Shaw's lancing those tropes in 1894. Tellingly, the play was revived in the First World War and respectable citizens were apparently offended by it's unromantic view of war, but it's also said that soldiers on leave packed the theatre and laughed as no-one had heard a West End audience laugh before. My feeling is that the time for this nonsense is long gone, and that victories have to be shown for what they are and what they cost.

    I utterly agree with you that Mr Mill's approach to depicting Defoe as the most unheroic of heroes has been fascinating, and such a relief after bloddy Savage. After all, I know what version of reality I most recognise.

  4. Hello Emperor:- reading your comment made me realise something which I previously hadn't, and that's that Nikolai Dante can be confusing to read because SOME things are made absolutely obvious to the reader, spelt out in considerable detail, while others aren't. What that means is that the reader - well, this reader - expects everything to be what it is on the surface, since if things are openly explained at point (a), the expectation is that things are as they seem on the surface at point (b) too. And so, I tend to take Dante on face-value. If Dante is winning wars through his bravery and virtue, it's hard to read it as a manifestation of some inner insecurity or pain. It's an unsteadiness of purpose in the text that leaves me not knowing when the creators are being literal - war can be a glorious business - or being subtle - Dante should have died and is an arse for behaving as he did.

    My feeling remains what I mentioned to Charles above. We've long since passed the point where war of any sort should be swash-buckling fun. It can be fun, but not in the sense of the brave chaps saving the day. It's more than 30 years after Battle and Action, collections of which I'm working happily through. I remain concerned that Dante is a regressive strip as regards war compared to comic books of three decades ago.

    But I could be being a humourless arse too. Which is why I'm keeping my powder dry to see what gets done with Dante and whether I'm just heading up a PC blind alley.

    Because I find your alternative explanations to those apparently given by the strip to be right down my alley. Dante not a hero leading the charge, but an idiot doing what anyone with an ounch of sense in their head wouldn't? Yep, I could go with that, but it needs to be the centre-piece of the strip's meaning rather than a possible reading.

    On m'other blog, I've just written a couple of pieces on DC's war comics of the early 1970s. Perhaps that's made me more sensitive about these things. I was actually rather deeply moved by what I read there, and by how I saw the writers struggling to represent their beliefs about their politics and the meaning of war in a popular form. Archie Goodwin's strips particularly moved me, even if they weren't actually that succesful in their own terms. And Dante feels dangerously ... unthinking.

    All of which means that I suspect I've missed the point. I shall listen to your good ideas and await the coming weeks with the hope of being proven exceptionally wrong. I admire the creator's work, after all, so I'd like to be wrong!

  5. I wouldn't worry about Nikolai Dante the series glamourising war, its only ever been shown as an unpleasant and dirty business. When Dante first met his regiment, the Rudinshtein Irregulars, his first act was to kill one of them. Apart from Kurakin they have all been depicted as despicable scumbags (and I suspect Kurakin has a similar deathwish to Dante). I don't recall them managing anything resembling a clear-cut victory being achieved - if they don't end up sabotaging themselves then it ends up being revealed that their commanders have either set them up, sold them out or used them as cannon fodder (or just misdirection, making any gains pointless). Granted it is no Charley's War but it rarely paints war in a good light and if it does then it soon undermines it.

    Dante being an idiot is pretty central to the whole series, it could be seen as the main story engine for the series, whether he is getting into a scrape in a brothel or leading some ill-advised rebellion he has rarely thought anything through and it often turns out he is being manipulated, often with pretty disastrous consequences to anyone nearby - only John Constantine has a higher mortality rate amongst his friends and just because the deaths aren't part of some scheme shouldn't let him off the hook. The fact that the rebellion he just le failed spectacularly should be no real surprise, it was because the reader has had their fingers crossed that perhaps this time he gets to win. Unfortunately when you bet big you also stand to lose big and this has been an utter disaster. Dante is not only unheroic but you'd also be pretty foolish to be caught standing next to him.

    A reasonable argument can be put forward that not only is Dante not "dangerously... unthinking" but it has all been meticulously planned out (or at least the longer broader themes have been there from early on). Those who have re-read the stories from the start, suggest it really rewards this activity as it has been developing these themes and ideas for a long time. Not that you need to have read everything to understand what is going on, but it is a bonus. ;)

  6. Hello Emperor:- that's exactly the kind of detailed argument which could put even the most dedicated skeptic at ease. I appreciate the info.

    Strangely enough, though, I'm not so much a dedicated skeptic as a grumpy old curmudgeon, and although I absolutely accept the validity of what you've written, it doesn't reflect what I've read of Dante this year. This year he HAS been the valiant warrior and the terribly hurt noble fighter, and in the context of the period of the past 9 months, Dante's behaviour in the battle we're discussing here reads as traditionally heroic.

    This doesn't mean that you're wrong in any way, or that the creative teams have been dangerously selling militaristic pablum. But perhaps - perhaps - it does point to the fact that comics which are serialised weekly over a long period time need to constantly make sure that their values are re-stated just as their plots are clarified and characters re-introduced. There's no point in some senses of Dante reading one way over time if over the period of 9 months it seems to read another.

    This could be another example of the long-running strips not being edited to reflect the fact that not all readers are long-term ones.

    Or I could've missed the point again. I throw it up into the air, however, as a thunk to get me thunking about the whole business.

    Thanks for the information. It's very much appreciated.