Wednesday 29 June 2011

RIP Brian Haw 1949 - 2011

Sadly, Britain’s most renowned and persistent anti-war campaigner of recent years, Brian Haw, succumbed to cancer on 18 June 2011.
Haw had maintained his Parliament Square peace camp for ten years, becoming such a thorn in the side of the Britain's warmongering establishment that MPs even went so far as to introduce a law banning protests within one mile of parliament (without prior permission). The funny thing is that this turned out to be a pointless waste of time and money for them, as they had failed to anticipate that their restriction could not be applied retrospectively to Brian.
In the last couple of years Brian’s actions inspired other, younger activists to set up peace camps in Parliament Square, such as those who established the Democracy Village peace camp (which resulted in the fencing in of Parliament Square) and a regular 24 hour Westminster Peace Presence, which takes place on Sundays.
Maybe one day, when British politics is once more ruled by those committed to serving the interests of people, rather than the private profits of the oil lobby and arms industry, we will see a statue of Brian erected in Parliament Square?

Friday 24 June 2011

Hollywood and The Abuse of Literature

Alfonso Cuaron's 2006 film Children of Men, loosely based on a 1992 novel by P.D. James, stands in a long tradition of British dystopias which includes such classics as George Orwell's seminal Nineteen Eighty-Four. The film itself also carries on a long tradition among film-makers of contorting works of literature into forms that are practically unrecognizable to anyone who may happen to have read the original, reflecting the somewhat contemptuous attitude apparently held by some producers/directors that those who watch films will never bother to read the original, and that the opinion of those who read books is of no value.

When Danny Boyle brought Alex Garland’s novel The Beach to the cinema the character Jed was written out completely, and the latent sexual dynamic between the central character and two of the principal female characters in the book became explicit once transferred to celluloid, altering the dynamic and mood entirely.

Comics writer Alan Moore became so disillusioned with the unfaithfulness of Hollywood producers that he insisted on having his name removed from all future adaptations of his work (ownership of which belongs to the publisher DC Comics). This is a persistent trend, satirized by MAD magazine in the 1950s when they contrasted the explicit sex and violence of a book with the sanitized Hollywood rendition. This is a trend which has seen an ironic reversal since the 1970s.

I find the fact that film-makers re-write books not nearly so damaging as the fact that the end result is frequently an artistic disaster, rife with inconsistencies and plot-holes you could drive an articulated lorry through.

On a seperate note, I am often struck by the way in which some film critics take verbal diarrhea to whole new levels. To use an example, one review for Children of Men by Michael Joshua Rowin talked about the “stunning verisimilitude within its mise-en-scène.” Clearly, Rowin could not have simply referred to the film’s “stunning visual honesty,” without having to explain what he means.

Thursday 23 June 2011

A Brief History of British Underground Comix

Underground (or alternative) comix are often thought of as an exclusively American 1960s west coast phenomenon, growing out of the underground press of that time, and best represented by the likes of Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Art Spiegelman. This is fair enough, as the explosion of American underground comix (around 1967-68) pre-dated the UK scene, which at that time was still centred around one newspaper (International Times) and one mag (OZ).

One of the first British underground comix was Nasty Tales, an International Times spin-off edited by Mick Farren, who wasn’t just a magazine publisher but a real renaissance man, playing blues-based psychedelic rock with his band The Social Deviants, before moving to Los Angeles in the 1970s to write science fiction novels. While Britain had a thriving psychedelic music scene, it took longer for strong artistic talent to emerge, so a fair bit of the content of Nasty Tales was reprinted from American underground comix.

The most well-known early UK underground comic was Brainstorm Comix (Alchemy Press, 1975), which was published by Lee Harris, the proprietor of the Alchemy head shop on Portobello Road (which is still there, but now sells mainly clothes), to showcase the work of Bryan Talbot, who had contributed comic strips to Harris’ dope mag Home Grown.

Brainstorm effectively launched Talbot’s career in comics, running for 6 issues and featuring his character Chester P. Hackenbush, the Psychedelic Alchemist, and sold quite well, by counter-cultural standards.

Other stuff had been going on at that time in Birmingham, centred around the Birmingham Arts Lab. One of the Arts Lab’s leading lights was Hunt Emerson, who produced one of the earliest home-grown underground comix in the form of Large Cow Comix (Ar:Zak, 1974), which set the tone for his later surrealistic excursions for Knockabout Comics, Fiesta, Fortean Times and the Beano.

Funded at one point by an Arts Council grant, the Birmingham Arts Lab would launch a number of different comics, including the anthology title Street Comix (1977-78) and Heroine, the first all-girl UK underground comic. It also launched careers, with future Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell contributing to Street Comix.

Another underground cartoonist who would go on to become a popular illustrator for the Guardian was Clifford Harper. While the work of Talbot and Emerson drew inspiration from science fiction and the surrealism of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic strip, giving it a modern 70s twist by adding sex and drugs to the mix, Harper brought radical left politics to the world of comics with his self-published Class War Comix (originally published in 1974, before getting picked up by the US underground comics publisher and distributor Kitchen Sink Press in 1978). He still describes himself as a “militant anarchist” and in 1987 created an illustrated book on the subject for Camden Press. When not creating his beautiful faux woodcut illustrations for mainstream journals like the Guardian or Radio Times he has helped to organize the London Anarchist Book Fair.

During the 1980s the main publisher of alternative comics (and underground reprints) was Tony and Carol Bennett’s Knockabout Comics, which is still based on Acklam Road, just up the road from where I grew up in Notting Hill. Publishing libertarian literature by Crumb, Shelton and Emerson at the height of Thatcherite repression, Knockabout had the misfortune of being busted for obscenity on a number of occasions, notably for distributing American cartoonist Melinda Gebbie’s semi-autobiographical comic Frezca Zizis. The book was found to be obscene by the UK authorities, and all copies seized and burned, an experience Ms Gebbie made wry and poetic reference to in a 4 page comic strip published in Anarchy Comics #4 (Last Gasp 1987).

By the end of the decade, with the startling popularity of VIZ (the comic that spawned a thousand imitators, all trying to cash in on the trend for toilet humour), the Scots weighed in with their own bawdy offering when Dave Alexander, Frank Quitely and a few others got together to publish the first issue of Electric Soup in 1989. The comic ran for about three years, even securing distribution from VIZ’s own publisher John Brown at one point, before the bubble burst. Quitely has subsequently gone on to become a successful comics illustrator, producing work for 2000ad and DC/Vertigo. Alexander has stayed in the underground, continuing to draw the MacBam Brothers for the stoner comic Northern Lightz (1999-2005) and new adult humour mag’ Wasted.

Which is more or less where I entered the story. Well, better late than never!

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Grayling Goes With the Flow

In an article defending his New College of the Humanities, Professor A.C. Grayling argues that he is not in the “vanguard of the marketisation of higher education” being pursued by the current Tory/LibDem government because:

“The part-privatisation of the publicly funded universities has been going on for years, though it is now doing so at an accelerated rate.”

Thank you, Professor Grayling, for cleverly sidestepping the main point held by nearly everybody who is concerned about or actively opposed to public sector cuts: that just because something is already happening doesn’t make it right or sensible, especially when that something happens to be the erosion of the public sector. As one of the article’s respondent’s eloquently put it “Education is not a commodity to be financially valued and traded.” The assumption that it is has been a major contributor to the widening gap between the richest and poorest we have seen over the last three decades.

Grayling adds: “Many universities seek overseas students at full fee, and most of these are now requiring staff to recruit as many more overseas students as they can in a bid to supplement revenue.”

This courting of wealthy foreign students is happening mainly because universities are already strapped for cash. But you do not solve this kind of problem by going with it. If anything, acquiescance to such a policy has the potential to lay the groundwork for a future of xenophobic resentment, from foreign students forced to pay much higher fees and, in effect, to subsidise UK nationals, and from British students denied places because their university of choice was more interested in chasing money from abroad. This is not a good direction to take, yet it has been relentlessly pursued by successive UK governments.

To quote Grayling again:
“Since 1970, general public sector pay has risen in real terms by more than 40%. University pay in the same period has risen in real terms about 4%, if that.”

A big contributor to this backwards slide may have been the attack on teaching unions that began in the 1980s, making it harder for them to protect the livelihoods of teaching staff, and by extension, the quality of public education. Again, you do not solve this problem by going with it.

Taken as a whole Grayling’s article suggests that, despite his stated sympathy with the situation faced by publicly-funded universities in the UK (such as his former employers Birkbeck), his main motivation in starting the independent NCH is merely to exploit the current situation, rather than pose a genuinely inclusive alternative.

Bear in mind that no where in the article does he even attempt to defend the £18,000 a year fees the NCH will charge, choosing instead to focus his attention on the New College’s charitable trust, which will apparently offer free or discounted access to around 30% of new intake.

A nice gesture, certainly, and one he can clearly afford to make!

Addendum: Curiously, Grayling made some interesting statements about free higher education in the Guardian back in 2009, which you can find quoted here.