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‘I Killed Adolf Hitler; Or: what can anthropomorphic cats teach us about time travel?’

Time travel has fascinated humankind for centuries. The earliest stories involving time travel are scattered across Hindu mythology and Japanese folk tales, but far from limited to just those cultures. The concept was popularised in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by writers like Samuel Madden and H.G. Wells. Indeed, Wells’ The Time Machine almost single-handedly drove the genre of science fiction from obscure ramblings into an enormously popular style of speculative writing. Coming back down to earth, none have contributed more to a scientific understanding of the possibility of time travel than Albert Einstein. Einstein’s theory of relativity paved the way for groundbreaking thought experiments about stretching the fabric of time and space, parallel dimensions, and the very origins of the universe itself. Suffice to say that such a topic of wonder as time travel continues to inspire fantastic and spectacular stories. The 2005 re-launch of the long-running television series Doctor Who remains enormously popular, and 2012’s Looper shows that new and interesting narratives can be crafted from the concept of moving through time.Jason is a Norwegian graphic novelist and artist who has only recently come to international prominence through the English publication of his works, beginning with Hey, Wait… in 2001. This earlier work, alongside The Left Bank Gang (2006) and Pocket Full of Rain (2008) allowed a first glimpse at a bold new voice in not just graphic novels, but in visual storytelling. In the style of the exceptional Maus by Art Spiegelman, Jason’s stories are told with anthropomorphic animal characters. His characters speak rarely, and minimally. Action is limited, restrained. The stories tend to explore alienation, inertia, and loss. One summary of Hey, Wait… asks prospective readers to ‘[i]magine a version of Stand By Me in which not all of the kids outrace the train’ (Fantagraphics 2013). Even The Left Bank Gang, with its bizarre premise of literary greats turned burglar-graphic artists, finds time amid the hustle to unpack existential dilemmas. So it is within this domain, this oeuvre — this minimalist, high-philosophical graphic sensibility — that we come to I Killed Adolf Hitler.

Aside from the obvious signifiers of an alternate universe — rarely do we see six-foot talking bipedal cats wandering the streets — I Killed Adolf Hitler takes place in a society radically different from our own. Non-government sanctioned assassinations are not only legal, but the practice is an accepted and popular line of work. The nameless protagonist is one such freelance executioner, whose modus operandi varies from job to job, be it sniper rifle or close-quarters pistol shot. The opening takes us through a number of assignments, each carried out without a great deal of emotion or circumstance. The only hint of dissatisfaction, or disillusionment, is in the character’s nightly visits to the bar. As the hits pile up, Jason builds this dissatisfaction into a critical mass, through a clever visual pacing, which climaxes in an assassination attempt on the protagonist himself. It is after this excitement that our anti-hero is approached by a shady character, and commissioned to travel back in time to kill none other than the Führer himself.

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Jason’s artistic representation of time travel echoes his characters’ attitudes towards an abundance of very public executions: nonchalance. This is a universe where the extraordinary has become mundane. The time machine itself somewhat resembles a submarine; or a naval mine. It can be used once every half-century; it then needs to recharge. Nothing big is made of this detail, either. It is simply the way things are in Jason’s world. Time travel in the same world takes a single frame, in which the traveller is turned upside down amidst a series of concentric circles; also, time is apparently two different shades of blue. The protagonist emerges into the era of the Third Reich, only to have the mission complicated by Hitler himself. Some years later, the only ally our protagonist has is his ex-girlfriend, who is now young enough to be his granddaughter, in a time-paradox/parallel-timeline kind of way. What follows is an unexpected and oddly affecting meditation on the passing of time, where the path not taken can often lead to reflection, if not regret.

Philosophies of time travel tend to become bogged down in the intricacies of the science itself. In examining time travel in I Killed Adolf Hitler, this reviewer turns to Badiou’s radical notions of metaphysics. One dilemma with time travel is the necessity for time to be flexible. Theoretical quantum physics certainly goes some way to providing hypotheses for why this may be so, but for a much more grounded and accessible example, consider Doc Brown’s explanation of why he and Marty McFly have landed in an alternate 1985. Understandably, Marty takes up the opportunity to use the time machine for financial gain. However, his plan is stymied when the central item, Gray’s Sports Almanac, is stolen by Marty’s nemesis Biff Tannen, who uses his newfound riches to transform the quiet neighbourhood of Hilldale into a casino town and haven for criminals, lowlifes, and the unlucky. Doc explains the alternate timelines via a simple diagram – at a key point in one continuum, a new timeline was created, in which Hilldale is Biff’s town. In order to fix things, Marty and Doc must travel back and stop Biff from getting the Almanac.

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The seven or eight timelines explored in the Back to the Future film series go some way towards simplifying the complexities of time travel, paradoxes and alternate universes. Badiou’s slightly more philosophical bent flies in the face of a more traditional Heideggerian notion of the ontological question being dealt with in purely Kantian terms. If we consider ‘ontology’ as being meditations on, or the study of, the question of the nature of being, then Heidegger’s radical notion was that our own consciousness – our own perception of existence – is situated outside or alongside the world as we perceive it. We are conscious of our own temporal relationship to the world – this relationship exists only insofar as time passes. Once our time ends, our existence, our consciousness – everything ends. Badiou’s conception of existence is more forgiving, more hopeful, more poetic, and much more in line with the novel scientific theories of quantum mechanics. Like Heidegger before him, Badiou cuts himself off from a philosophical tradition in Being and Event – he has addressed this severance in other papers. Badiou’s proposal is that existence, consciousness, has multiplicities (Critchley 2009). Moving away from a singular conception of being, Badiou suggests that ‘being’ exists on multiple planes, and hence the philosophical ‘subject’ is at the beckoned call of any number of desires and operational procedures – his ‘theory of the pure multiple’ (Badiou 2005).

Where, then, do Jason and I Killed Adolf Hitler fit on this spectrum of philosophical or quasi-scientific conceptions of time and being? The premise of the graphic novel is that in travelling back in time and killing Adolf Hitler, the protagonist will spawn a peaceful new timeline in which Hitler did not come to power, and in which his acts were not carried out. Thus, Jason buys into the potential for the multiverse – or at least alternate timelines. In terms of ‘being’, the protagonist exists almost solely as a functioning member of society – a cog in the system. This addiction to work affects him personally and externally. The disillusionment is clear, and he pushes away anyone close to him. He is, in a sense, an ideal that Marcuse himself could not deny. However, the resolution of the novel sees the protagonist revisit his priorities, reflecting on the nature of time, self, and life. This can only occur due to the unavoidable passing of time. Having been trapped in the past, the only way the protagonist can return to his time, is to wait for it to occur. Hence, some fifty years passes, and the protagonist must experience his original era as an old man. It is this becoming truly aware of time – by its passing alone – that forces the protagonist to adjust his world-view. The ambivalence of the artist towards time travel is further demonstrated in the novel’s major conflict, in its primary ‘event.’ Interestingly, it is not the intricacies of time travel, nor a paradox, nor quantum mechanics, that foils our protagonist: it is Hitler himself. The purest and most basic human desire is that of survival, and Hitler is forced to act to protect himself. It is this action that traps our hero in the past and irrevocably messes with what Doc Brown calls the ‘space-time continuum.’ The abuse of time – the muddling of chronologies – is a secondary element, a by-product only, of a human conflict. The initial mission itself is not to see if time travel is possible; rather the assignment is to use this existing and accepted technology to try and ‘fix’ history. Being, in Jason’s world, is not dependent on time. Rather it is dependent on us, and on our relationships. These relationships are forged with others, and with our surroundings. The critical relationships for the protagonist are with his work, his girlfriend, and with Hitler. Whether our connections are positive or negative, our actions within these relationships determine who we really are – and give us some sense of what it is to ‘be.’

Jason is a strong, singular voice in the world of graphic art. His purpose may be to show us that we are over-reliant on technology, or to tell us something about the nature of time, or being. I Killed Adolf Hitler could be nothing more than a fable on the dangers of an ambitious work-life balance. Or maybe we are all just losing touch with each other. Or with the bigger picture. Jason’s art is clean. His words are sparse and poetic. His ideas are all-encompassing. Sometimes it is staggering how something so quiet can say so much.

Works Cited:

Back to the Future Part II 1989, motion picture, Universal Pictures, California, USA.

Badiou, A 2005, Being and event, Continuum, London.

Critchley, S 2009, ‘Being and Time part 1: Why Heidegger matters’, The Guardian, 8 June, viewed 18 August 2013 <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/jun/05/heidegger-philosophy>.

Fantagraphics 2013. ‘Hey Wait…’, Fantagraphics Books, Inc, viewed 8 August 2013, <http://www.fantagraphics.com/browse-shop/hey-wait-.-with-free-signed-bookplate.html>.

About

Daniel Binns is a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. His research encompasses many aspects of cinema, and he has written widely on the war film and economies of blockbuster cinema. Dan teaches in film and media studies, and works in the film industry as a writer and producer.

 

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I was on a train, somewhere in England, in 1983. I was on holiday with my mum, her friend Helen, and Helen’s daughter, on whom I was starting to develop a crush. I had a bright red plastic Walkman, with orange foam earphones. I borrowed a cassette from my mum and listened to it for the next hour. Then I played it again. I listened to it on repeat for the whole holiday.

The cassette was Let’s Dance, Bowie’s 15th studio album, widely regarded as his leap into global superstardom. It’s often thought of as his first sell-out; a sell-out in terms of principles, as well as commercial success. A journalist’s line has stuck in my head: ‘Whatever you think of Let’s Dance, it’s nobody’s favourite Bowie album.’

It’s not my favourite Bowie album, exactly. But it’s my first. It’s the first I discovered on my own.

I was born the year that Bowie released his third album, The Man Who Sold The World; the year after he’d married Angela Barnett. I’m around the same age as Duncan Jones, his son. So I’d missed around 15 years of Bowie’s career by the time I listened to Let’s Dance on repeat, on a summer holiday in 1983.

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Missed? Not entirely. I was fully aware of Bowie, but saw him as someone outside my orbit, and held him at a distance. Or rather, I was already aware of Bowies: distinct, separate incarnations, even within my own thirteen-year lifetime. My parents owned a vinyl 45 of ‘The Jean Genie’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’, and I’d taped them from the turntable to cassette when I was nine or ten years old, sensing their energy but not sure what to make of them. There was an air of the raw and grotesque, something intriguingly ‘grown up’: flies tried to break our balls, the kids had killed a man, a real cool cat with God-given ass, a genie lives on his back, keeping your dead hair for making up underwear. They were songs that spoke of post-apocalypse – already a science fiction fan and familiar with punk, I could imagine the world of Ziggy and the Jean Genie as Mad Max meets Judge Dredd – but I knew the lyrics held innuendos I didn’t understand. (Even the mention of ‘underwear’ made me giggle, so ‘God-given ass’ and ‘break our balls’ were phrases I’d never repeat out loud). They were like the graffiti I saw in train tunnels and on housing estates, and didn’t ask my parents about because I knew it was ‘rude’; they were like an overheard dirty joke, told by bigger boys.  And yet, I knew also that they were from the early 70s, so on one level, they were made-safe by being part of the past, part of my parents’ culture. Unlike the Sex Pistols and the Buzzcocks – and again, even seeing ‘Sex Pistols’ painted on a Woolwich wall mildly shocked me, at that age – David Bowie’s explosive, early-70s singles were already history, a prediction of the future that had failed to come true. Ziggy was an attractive rebel, sure, but a rebel as distant from my own time as Robin Hood or Johnny B. Goode. I found a very similar, more contemporary energy and performance in Adam Ant’s Kings of the Wild Frontier, the first album I owned for myself.

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Those were the specific Bowie songs I’d actually put the needle down on. But by 1980, he was already part of my broader background, part of the vague world that surrounded me. I recognised the choruses of ‘Fashion’ (turn to the left!) and ‘Fame’ (makes a man take things over) without knowing they were by Bowie. They were just snatches of song, musical soundbites everyone knew and recognised from repetition, like the Jaws theme or the R. Whites lemonade advert; if pushed, I would have grouped them with the song ‘Feelings’ (nothing more than feeeelings) rather than Ziggy Stardust.

That year Bowie entered my radar again, walking slowly towards the camera on a beach, arm in arm with circus people and harlequins, with a bulldozer rolling close to their heels. The colours and imagery of the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video were nightmarish, a pop version of surrealist cinema; the music and vocals seemed deliberately cold and repetitive, and the lyrics eerily heartless. Walking home from school, I discovered new graffiti on the army barracks: Ashes to ashes, funk to funky / Sex is best without a dunky. If I hadn’t already associated Bowie with a sense of the uneasily ‘adult’: sex, drugs, horror, the stuff of X-rated films – that confirmed it. He seemed to want to make people feel uncomfortable, and I resented his intrusion into my life: as an unusual #1 hit, the video was shown on Top of the Pops every week, like a broadcast from a warzone in the middle of a kids’ TV show, or an art-terrorist interrupting normal programming with a mash-up of Un Chien Andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ProrDsP1mhA (Ashes to Ashes on Top of the Pops, 1980)

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It now seems slightly ironic that my first genuine connection, my first real intersection, was with Bowie at the point where he first sold out; with the first incarnation regarded as inauthentic, mainstream and commercial; with the straightest Bowie yet. The album artwork for Let’s Dance showed Bowie stripped to the waist in the butch guise of a boxer rather than the louche androgyny (and anthropomorphism) of Diamond Dogs, and the singles and videos featured a fit, tanned guy in a suit, with mussed yellow hair he later described as ‘scrambled egg’ style. He’d evolved from the Thin White Duke to the global CEO of Bowie Incorporated, with a new, very Eighties brand logo: a new career for a new decade. I’d already seen the video for ‘Let’s Dance’, the song, on Top of the Pops – like ‘Ashes to Ashes’, it topped the charts for weeks – which told a simple story of romance between a boy and a girl, with Bowie as impassive narrator or chorus.

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Of course, I didn’t have the vocabulary or context to describe or locate my feelings at the time, but as a child, I had complicated, fluid ideas about gender – almost, inadvertently, echoing Bowie in the 1970s. I liked make-up, dresses and jewellery more than most boys my age; I was mistaken for a girl by strangers on several occasions, and for a while I half-believed that I’d develop into a woman during puberty. Aged 9 or 10, I had a Pong-style system that hooked up to the television, with a control that flipped between ‘GAME’ and ‘TV’, and I used to wish I could switch gender that easily. You might have thought that I’d gravitate towards the queer Bowie of that decade – the sexless alien Ziggy, or the femme drag of The Man Who Sold The World and the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ video.

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So why did I only connect with Bowie when he sold out a little and went more straight? Perhaps because for me, the weirder, queerer Bowie was something of the 1970s – and in the arrogant early 80s, there was nothing more dated than the previous decade. Perhaps because, as a thirteen year-old at a rough school, this Bowie provided me with an artist and icon it was safe to like. Bowie was now mainstream, and there would be no shame in telling friends or classmates that I liked his album, if I was asked the loaded question ‘what music are you into, then?’: no risk of being called a bum-chum or gender-bender, and bullied for it. And yet with hindsight there was still something un-straight about Bowie. Despite his suit and his businesslike front, his face was angular, his expressions pained, strained, almost alien still. He bared his pointed teeth in an odd grimace as he sang. There was still an edge of strangeness about him, heightened by the fact that he’d successfully disguised his otherness to the general public. He was passing as a fit, tanned businessman, and I could sense his strangeness underneath. Again, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it or context to understand it, but I think now that’s what I connected with: he was queer but successfully passing, only pretending to sell out. Or more accurately, he was trying to sell out, to go straight. That’s what I now recognise in the jagged grimace, the drawn-back upper lip, the jerky half-dance of Bowie in 1983; a man containing and repressing something, an alien energy that still jumped and twitched inside him.

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I saw this, in 1983, in a way I wouldn’t have been able to articulate. I remember making a list of things I liked – teenagers are big on self-defining diary lists, though now they doubtless do it online rather than in notebooks from W H Smiths – including ‘Bowie’s teeth’. I think I saw in him someone I could aspire to be; a way of becoming popular, of seeming perfectly straight, but retaining an oddity that was entirely absent in, say, Billy Joel and Lionel Richie. I liked Sting and Annie Lennox for the same reasons: they achieved the same balance between success and strangeness, between a necessary commercial pragmatism and a core of personal authenticity. Bowie in a business suit, narrating heterosexual romance stories, was in a way queerer than Bowie in a bodysuit singing ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, because of the tension between exterior shell and interior self.

And yet, we should remember there’s nothing inherently straight and sell-out about men in traditional male drag. Three years later, in 1986, I stuck a pin-up of Peter Cox and Richard Drummie, from Go West, on the wall above my bed. They were standing close together, in cream jackets and trousers, against a blue sky background, and I fully accepted that I had a crush, not on them individually so much as on their relationship as a couple. I was sure they were both gay, and by consequence I thought I might be gay too.

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By that point I was in the sixth form, and the school dynamics were different, and far from minding that people thought I might be a bender, I welcomed it as an opportunity to raise their consciousness, challenge their prejudices and open their minds. (I know. I was sixteen. Forgive me.)

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Let’s Dance may be nobody’s favourite Bowie album, not even mine: but so many tracks seem now to have gathered stories – stories about me, stories about Bowie, stories about us both – that they trigger memories like snapshots in… well, in an album.

In 2005, I got married. It was technically a straight wedding: but in a way it remained quite strange, because neither of us knew for sure what a wedding should involve, and nobody interfered, so we just made it up and included whatever we liked: Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, miniature fish and chips, peach-coloured roses, David Bowie.

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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZntFYTpw300 (Bowie, ‘Let’s Dance’ instrumental)

I was later informed that the groom doesn’t conventionally walk down the aisle to music, like a wrestler climbing into the ring or Elvis strutting onto the stage; but I hadn’t yet heard that rule, so I made my own grand entrance to an instrumental version of ‘Let’s Dance’. Our first dance was ‘Absolute Beginners’, another track from Bowie’s sell-out, suited and booted period; one of the least cool songs you could ever choose, but its naïve simplicity seemed perfect for two people inventing their own ceremony, and embarking on something new.

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‘Modern Love’ is the opening track on Let’s Dance, and the opening moments of ‘Modern Love’ itself have Bowie announcing gruffly ‘I know when to go out / I know when to stay in. / I get things done.’ His butch, businesslike affirmation, reworking the anguished ‘I’ve never done good things / I’ve never done bad things / I never did anything out of the blue’ on ‘Ashes to Ashes’, is as much a performance as the apocalyptic ‘This ain’t rock and roll… this is genocide!’ at the start of ‘Diamond Dogs’, but this is a different role: a masquerade of working-class, no-nonsense masculinity. This voice may not have a name, but he’s as much a character as Ziggy, the Thin White Duke and Hallowe’en Jack – no more the ‘authentic’ Bowie than Aladdin Sane. And just as ‘Diamond Dogs’ ain’t rock and roll, but genocide, so Bowie admits that his performance on ‘Modern Love’ isn’t ‘really work… it’s just the power to charm.’

Let’s Dance features two collaborations, balancing each other on each side of the vinyl: ‘China Girl’, a revision of Bowie’s 1977 track with Iggy Pop, and ‘Cat People’, a reworking of Bowie’s 1981 soundtrack (for the movie of that name) with Giorgio Moroder. Comparing the album tracks with the originals returns us to that sense of tension, of attempted containment, visible in Bowie’s taut, strained ‘Let’s Dance’ video performance; the struggle to go straight, and the effort involved.

The 1977 ‘China Girl’ was co-written by Iggy and David in Berlin. Bowie had just turned 30 and released the Low album. The original track is a record of that period, that partnership and that environment. It begins sweetly and simply, with a gently wandering vocal and guitar melody over tinkling Gamelan-style synths, which are replaced by an aggressive, heavily processed guitar riff. Pop’s vocals leave the comfort of the keynote behind, mood-swinging from a lazy drawl to a distorted snarl; the synth violins, matching his energy, refuse to drop from that wild height even when his voice calms. By the end, it’s a buzzing headache of a song, a drunken stagger. It sounds like the Psychedelic Furs, Pixies and Nirvana. It doesn’t sound like a mainstream chart hit. Its cover, with Iggy holding an expressionist pose, echoes Bowie’s Heroes of 1977, and looks nothing like the macho, boxing stance of Let’s Dance.

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Bowie’s 1983 ‘China Girl’, by contrast, was a solid success, only kept from #1 by ‘Every Breath You Take’. It’s a gentle, almost jaunty number, from its cod-Chinese introduction onwards: precise drums and keyboards recorded at a New York studio with all its slick production values, and Bowie crooning smoothly over the top. For all the twee pentatonic melody and lyrical Orientalism, there are no departures from mainstream Western pop here.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_8IXx4tsus (David Bowie, ‘China Girl’) 

ttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZWUsn3AB1s (Iggy Pop, ‘China Girl’)

The 1981 version of ‘Cat People’ begins as a slow prowl – Bowie pitching his voice down to baritone – then escalates into jagged funk and ragged vocals. It was the year of ‘Scary Monsters and Super Creeps’, and ‘Wild is the Wind’, both of which walk the same line between experiment and convention, working within but pushing against the form of the commercial single as Bowie’s voice stretches from a rough Brixton twang to soaring, aching heights. ‘Scary Monsters’ is too raucous and spiky to be a rock single; ‘Wild is the Wind’ is too genuinely pained to be a pop ballad. ‘Cat People’, too, sounds like an artist trying to fit into standard limits, an alien pretending to be human, an elephant man making the effort to walk and talk like a gentleman. As such, it’s an experiment in itself – it doesn’t quite succeed, and in that failure, it’s fascinating. It’s almost there, but it still doesn’t sound comfortable enough to be a chart hit. It reached #26 in the UK.

Two years later, Bowie was in the right place to make ‘Cat People’ work as a single: he’d learned how to pass as a mainstream performer, and the earlier version was blended into something smoother. Taut, tight, with a raw rock vocal, its energy was more contained, and it was no worse – perhaps better – for that sense of control. As the B-side to ‘Let’s Dance’, it reached #1. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRbuxshYvtg (Bowie, ‘Cat People’)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpdHMaccjw4 (Moroder and Bowie, ‘Cat People’)

These new versions have their own appeal: they’re polished and slick, with enough edge under the rich production to remind you that this is still Bowie, the man named after a knife. But they’re not the versions he would have released in 1977, or 1981, and they register a distinct, conscious shift in his persona, his performance, his public face. The original ‘China Girl’, with Bowie vocals, could have sat next to ‘Repetition’ on the Lodger album as an account of a dysfunctional relationship; the original ‘Cat People’, stripped of its vocals, would almost fit on the instrumental B-side of Low. Most obviously, this 1981 take on the song would have suited Scary Monsters, next to the anguished, awkward, art-rock and almost-pop of ‘It’s No Game’ and ‘Teenage Wildlife’. As that song declares, the new versions are the ‘same old thing, in brand new drag’: Bowie-as-businessman was neither a sell-out or a stripped-down return to his ‘real’ masculine self, but another mask.

Those four key tracks, all successful singles in 1982-3, walked a line between passing and not-passing, between Bowie’s current, global commercial acceptance and his previous, more European experiment (although this simplifies Bowie’s previous decade: 1975 saw the release of the soul-inflected Young Americans, before he even began the Berlin trilogy, and the almost avant-garde ‘Space Oddity’ was his first UK #1, in the same year). 

Selling out and staying authentic, like so many things, works on a spectrum, not a binary. When did Bowie become stuck behind the mask of his new persona, the nameless normal guy in a business suit? Some would argue that the damage was done with Let’s Dance, some that the sell-out or creative failure was confirmed with Tonight (1984), ‘Absolute Beginners’ (1986) or Never Let Me Down, with its crass rocker of a single ‘Day In Day Out’ (1987): some might generously locate his loss of direction later, with the first Tin Machine album (1988). There is, of course, no straight or single answer; but Let’s Dance seems far too early to label as a sell-out. It’s the sound of internal struggle and resistance.

Nowhere is this more true than on the opening track of Side Two: and this was the hook, for me, listening in 1983. This was the moment that made me feel I’d discovered (a) Bowie for myself – not the already-semi-familiar singles, which belonged to other people in the same way as ‘Fashion’ and ‘Fame’, but a Bowie that surprised and spoke to me directly. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u64Cib_jZco (Bowie, ‘Ricochet’) 

‘Ricochet’, especially after the three singles on Side One, is an oddity, a five-minute monster. It’s perhaps best described as a lost track from, or a look back to, the aborted Diamond Dogs musical of the previous decade: an unpredictable montage of slogans, spoken word and chants, driven onward with a relentless, syncopated guitar and drum section, and punctuated with jazz horn stabs and reverent, choral backing vocals. Bowie’s lyric is a cut up of pseudo-religious maxims and simple political comment – ‘march of flowers, march of dimes / these are the prisons, these are the crimes.’ To an adult, it might have sounded absurd, pretentious. To a thirteen year-old, it was utterly profound and gripping. ‘Modern Love’ hadn’t told me much about modern love – it confirmed my impression that romance was empty and doomed, a conveniently cynical pose for someone who wasn’t going to get a girlfriend until 86 –  but this felt like reading a book for undergraduate students, or a science fiction novel for adults, not teenagers, and understanding it.

Or, rather, half-understanding it, because that was also the point. I got it just enough to want more. ‘March of flowers! March of dimes! These are the prisons! These are the crimes!’ I suspected that ‘March of Dimes’ must mean something (it did) so Bowie’s announcement that these were the crimes carried authority and weight. The guy was clearly a leader, a prophet – he plainly knew what was going on, saw the structures of power and religion, and was spelling it out to me, a kid – and so the song became a puzzle of clues to uncover.

‘Sound of thunder, sound of gold,’ declared one of the chorus chants. ‘Sound of the devil breaking parole.’ My mum listened to it and said Bowie had been clearly listening to Brecht. She had actually studied the work of ‘old Bert’, as she called him, for years, and was probably lightly mocking Bowie’s superficial engagement with political fable; I don’t think she knew Bowie had performed Baal in 1982, any more than I did. But for me, this throwaway remark locked the song into a broader discourse, locating it in that dazzling, challenging world of experiences, theories and ways of seeing things that I knew were there, but didn’t yet grasp; ideas that were still outside my reach. I taped the song onto my own cassette (heading up a compilation of Commodore 64 computer game soundtracks, which it seemed to suit), and carefully wrote on the inner label ‘Brechtian Music: Ricochet.’

The title itself was repeated throughout, another constant against the slogans and speeches – the name ‘Ricochet’ intoned in chorus with a distorted, processed backing vocal, as if calling a god or hero. The name ‘Ricochet’, because that’s how it instantly seemed to me. This was a song about a legendary figure, like Ziggy Stardust for the 1980s. I’m not sure now what shaped my understanding. This was a year before Sting starred in Dune, with its noble houses and heroes; three years before I started reading Batman again, and began subscribing to 2000AD. Maybe I visualised someone like the young Luke Skywalker, a leader who didn’t yet know it. Of course, what I was imagining was a better, cooler, more Bowie version of myself.

That one album track had a remarkable effect on my life. I began to draw and write about ‘Ricochet’, much as Bowie had doodled and designed grand science fiction narratives around Ziggy, ten years earlier. I built a world around this character – always ten years ahead of our own, so it began in the futuristic early-1990s – and a supporting cast. And then, with hindsight, putting it in the fan-language of today, I started to cosplay as my own creation. I didn’t shop much for clothes – lack of money, lack of confidence – but I began only buying things that helped me look like Ricochet, the one in my head. Bit by bit, I pieced together his wardrobe, based on my drawings. A blue pair of uniform-style trousers and a long, royal blue, green-lined coat, both with a clothing label ‘STEEL’. A pair of wraparound black shades – spending most of my money for the week – at a market in Paris. L’Oreal hair mousse to give myself a quiff. I probably would have carried around a space-age plastic pistol if I could have got away with it. ‘Ricochet’ wasn’t one of Bowie’s official characters, but, translated into my head, he gave me a persona for getting through from thirteen to seventeen; an internal ideal to aspire to while I struggled through the third, fourth and fifth year of school, and a way of being in Sixth Form, where I found more room to flourish and perform.

Ironically, I also incorporated the next track, ‘Criminal World’, in my imagined Ricochet franchise: my dad, listening to me listen to the track, had remarked ‘that would be the love theme in a movie’, and I took his idea on board. Ricochet, my home-made character, was an independent law enforcer leading a team of cool fashionista cops – halfway between arts students and vigilantes – and ‘Criminal World’ would play in my head when he got together with either Adeline Alençon or the other love interest, Mica Klinkowicz. The irony kicked in when I later learned that this heterosexual love theme was another cover: Bowie had poached it, cleaned it up and turned it straight. ‘Criminal World’, by little-known band Metro, had been banned by the BBC on its 1975 release for its bisexual overtones. Bowie cut the lines about queens and dresses, replaced them with vaguely femme fatale lyrics, and switched the genders of the characters for safety. At exactly the point where gayness was being criminalised and stigmatised in the context of AIDS campaigns, Bowie turned a queer song into a safe, harmless story where a ‘stick-up’ robbery was a single entendre rather than a subversive innuendo. If there’s a clear sell-out on the album, this is it: and I fell for it, embracing it as a sleazy anthem about gangsters and molls.

The opening line ‘I know when to go out / I know when to stay in / I get things done’ now reads as a diffident confession: the time to come out was 1972 (‘I’m gay and always have been’) and the time to go straight was 1983 (‘the biggest mistake I ever made was saying I was bisexual’). It got things done. It got things sold. On one level, Bowie had sold out politically, rather than just aesthetically, by ‘staying in’ and retracting his earlier claims of gayness and bisexuality. But as he added in 83, ‘Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.’ As a teenager who thought he might be gay, or bi – misrecognising one type of fluidity for another – I can see why I still identified with this confused Bowie, a man in denial, wrestling with mixed messages. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioOp1rUvLNM (Bowie, ‘Criminal World’)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rAKyz8M1CI (Metro, ‘Criminal World’)

The most obvious way of locating ‘Ricochet’ the song is as a throwback, or a hold-over, from Bowie’s art-rock past – a last gasp of ‘authenticity’ and experiment on his most commercial album yet. But from a later perspective, it also, intriguingly – impossibly – looks forward as well as back. ‘Ricochet’ recalls the ‘Diamond Dogs’ descriptions of comic-book apocalypse, though it’s both more plodding and more thoughtful; but it would also fit on another album, twelve years in the future.

‘Ricochet’ now reads like a demo for 1.Outside (1995), Bowie’s avant-garde, future-noir detective narrative concept LP. The spoken word, the snatches of names and hints at character, the world-building and theatrical collage: they all slipped away from Bowie’s work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the devices from ‘Ricochet’ returned full force on 1.Outside. Rather than Ricochet, the later album showcases the stories of Nathan Adler, The Minotaur, Leon – names from Blade Runner and the modern myths of superhero comics – and Bowie’s voice is processed to become young female victim Baby Grace, old relic Algeria Touchshriek and villainess Ramona A Stone. The melancholy mutterings of Algeria Touchshriek in particular – ‘My shop sells egg shells / off the she-sores, and empty females… I’m also a broken man’ – echo Bowie’s vaguely Welsh-accented testament from an unemployed worker on ‘Ricochet’: ‘Men wait for news while thousands are still asleep / Dreaming of tramlines, factories, pieces of machinery / Mineshafts… things like that.’  Bowie commented of 1. Outside that ‘it’s attractive to be working with something which resembles Brecht’s work, the pieces he did with Weill.’

Draw the line where you like: ‘his best album since Scary Monsters’ has become common faint praise for every new Bowie release, based on the assumption that his last great work was thirty-three years ago – but even – or especially –  in its cynical, scared attempt to heterosexualise ‘Criminal World’, Let’s Dance still speaks to me of strain, tension, containment and struggle.

Was the next release, Tonight, the first true failure? Not the way I experienced it, through the promos for its two singles, ‘Blue Jean’ and ‘Loving the Alien’. Both showcased a pop version of avant-garde Europeanism, with Bowie in dramatic theatrical make-up – blue skin in one, and a face shaded like a classical painting in the other. ‘Loving the Alien’ in particular is an ambitious, gloriously pretentious mix of surrealist sets and mid-80s digital effects, very much a continuation of ‘Ricochet’ with its snatches of political comment and grandiose sense of musical theatre. The last twenty seconds of the video offer a remarkable coda: Bowie as an extra-terrestrial refugee in a cell or hospital ward, listening to a tinny version of the song we’ve just heard, before an abrupt cut to static and a shot of what can only be Major Tom, grimaces as he hurtles through a psychedelic star-field straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOaqDEjxQAU (Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’)

Watching that video on the Max Headroom show in the mid-80s – watching it over and over again, freeze-framing and rewinding it to study his gestures and expressions – I certainly didn’t feel Bowie had failed, sold out or lost it. Watching ‘Loving the Alien’, I think I finally fell in love with him.

And where were the spiders? The ‘Ziggy Stardust’/’Jean Genie’ single, now a 70s artefact, provided background to my experience of his 80s work, confirming my certainty that there was a raw edge and energy behind the slick front. I listened to those songs again between 1983 and 1986, and they became bound up in a web of popular culture that Bowie-as-Ziggy couldn’t have predicted.

I was an early adopter of the ZX Spectrum home computer, and in 1983, the year I discovered Let’s Dance, bought a new game called Horace and the Spiders. I recognised the pun on The Who’s ‘Boris the Spider’, but also linked it back to the Spiders From Mars – the graphics were primitive, but I could read strangeness and melancholy even into a simple screen of Horace, the blue sprite, wandering across a rocky, alien cyan background with a yellow moon above him. I wrote my own, even more primitive game, called Spiders from Mars, and (though it never sold a copy, and was rarely seen outside my own bedroom) followed it with a sequel, Scorpions from Venus.

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I was a late subscriber to the weekly comic 2000AD, starting in 1986, but I soon caught up with the adventures of Rogue Trooper, the blue-skinned Genetic Infantryman, and his sexy female sidekick Venus Bluegenes. The scientists who created both characters were nicknamed Gene Genies. So a science fiction story instantly bridged the gap between Tonight and Bowie’s 1972 rock singles; in my head, ‘Blue Jean’ became a sequel to ‘The Jean Genie’ in the same way that ‘Ashes to Ashes’ updated the story of Major Tom from ‘Space Oddity’.

What happened to Bowie in the late 80s and early 90s is a familiar story. Fortunately, my engagement with his music went backwards – I was barely aware of Never Let Me Down on its release, because I was still listening obsessively to ‘Ricochet’ and ‘Loving the Alien’, my experience and impressions of both now integrated with the Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin and Marge Piercy science fiction novels I read during lunch hours at Sixth Form. ‘Loving the Alien’ now became a soundtrack to LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, about a male ambassador who, stranded on a snowbound planet, enters a strange intimacy with an androgyne who had previously seemed male. It was just the kind of book I liked to be seen with, though to my credit I genuinely lost myself in it – sipping Cup-A-Soup alone in a classroom and looking up occasionally at the snowy playing fields outside the Sixth Form Block – and enjoyed its questions and challenges. Also to my credit, I never took up a friend’s suggestion to call myself ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, even in private. 

One of my best friends at school was Martin Hutton, who left at 16 but stayed in touch. When I went to the University of East Anglia, Martin worked at Zodiac Toys in Woolwich, and then at Our Price record store. One summer break I dropped in to visit him and he handed me a brand new cassette under the counter: ChangesBowie, including the bang-up-to-date remix ‘Fame 90’. More importantly, it included ‘John I’m Only Dancing’, ‘Starman’, ‘Changes’, ‘Suffragette City’ and ‘Heroes’ – a song I’d only ever heard before as a live cover by Shirley Manson’s band, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. The following week, Martin told me he’d been sacked from Our Price: ‘I was too generous.’ I’m still grateful.

Finally in 1990, I was able to rediscover Bowie’s earlier work on my own terms. But while I still listed Bowie as my all-time favourite artist, my love for him was based on an astonishingly small pool of songs. ‘Loving the Alien’ and ‘Ricochet’ had been joined by the classic singles of the past two decades. Partly because of budget – my money went on new records (including 1.Outside, in 95, and its dynamic follow-up Earthling of 97) rather than into building an archive – but partly because that small collection of singles was rich enough to immerse yourself in, to play on repeat, to get inside and learn by heart, I didn’t invest in any of Bowie’s previous albums until 1999, when I landed my first proper, paying job.

At the end of my first week in full-time employment, I went to the Virgin Megastore and spent what seemed an incredible sum, around £200, on records: on albums I’d loved on cassette, on songs I remembered from my life so far, from Neil Young, the Beatles and Dylan through Blondie to the Psychedelic Furs. I didn’t buy all Bowie’s back catalogue at once; I built it up gradually, investigating each album in turn. Some of the old songs still resisted and eluded me: too whiney, too Mockney, too hippy. But in 2000 – ‘the year 2000’– I re-encountered a track from 1980, and found it had changed, or that I’d changed. Like a childish, sulky rivalry that, years later, becomes a crush, I gave ‘Ashes to Ashes’ another try, and realised it now spoke to me profoundly.

The circumstances almost sound like a cliché: in fact, they almost sound invented. I’d bought a new Walkman (silver) for my first long-haul trip to Australia, to a conference in Brisbane. I chose to only bring one cassette, and loaded it up with my ‘best of Bowie’, this time selected from all the original albums. Bowie, I decided, was enough. Bowie provided enough variety, depth and history that I could do without all other music, both on the 20-hour flight and the solo stay in a country on the other side of the world.  I listened to nothing but Bowie for my ten days in Brisbane, and ‘Drive-In Saturday’ and ‘Wild is the Wind’ in particular still powerfully return me to moments in that strange December summer, walking along the bank of the Brisbane River next to shiny skyscrapers and cosmopolitan coffee shops, totally alone but vividly happy.

But ‘Ashes to Ashes’, like ‘Ricochet’ seventeen years before, was the track I played so hard and so often that the cassette almost wore out. I listened to it on repeat, on and off, during a six-hour stopover at Narita airport. I was exhausted, grubby, feeling stranded; feeling alien. The space was huge, bland yet impossible to read. I walked to pass the time, and got nowhere, or reached somewhere that looked the same as the place I’d started. I didn’t dare go in the shops because I didn’t understand or speak a word of the language. Everyone looked clean and neat, and I was pale, gangly, shiny with grease. So I read an Iain M Banks science fiction novel, and listened to ‘Ashes to Ashes’. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, an anthem to alienation and estrangement; ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a cold, eerie, jet-lagged slab of SF. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, the perfect song for a six-hour wait in an air-conditioned airport 10,000 kilometres from your home. ‘Ashes to Ashes’, with its casually racist line about ‘visions of Jap girls in synthesis’. So fitting for this circumstance that it feels like a cliché. But that was when I found myself inside a song I’d resented – resented both its internal repetitions and its weekly repetitions on television – twenty years earlier.

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The first ten years of the new millennium were sometimes tough – a challenge, a negotiation and struggle like the 1980s, whereas the 90s – my twenties – had been, or felt with hindsight, like more of a joyride. Bowie’s rich, stately and melancholic albums of the time chimed with my mood, without really hooking me:  ‘Survive’ and ‘Seven’ from hours… (1999), like ‘Slip Away’ and ‘Slow Burn’ from Heathen (2002) were thoughtful, mournful but not haunting. These were polished, reflective artefacts by an artist who, after two quick-fire bursts of energy and experiment in the late 90s, seemed to now regard himself as a veteran, a curator looking back. The sadness of Heathen is weary and nostalgic: by comparison, the ‘Loving the Alien’ lyric ‘Pray and the heathen lie will disappear’, supposedly from the slick, sell-out Eighties period, sounds genuinely torn, impassioned and anguished.

The following year, around the time of his 55th birthday, Bowie starred in an advertisement for Vittel Water, co-starring tribute act David Brighton as the Pierrot from ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a diamond dog, Ziggy, Low’s Man Who Fell to Earth, and the drag dame from Man Who Sold the World. The soundtrack was ‘Never Get Old’, from the new Reality album of 2003, and Bowie, tolerantly sharing a house with his earlier alter egos, glowed with youth and energy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBvR08RD_-I (Bowie and Brighton, ‘Vittel Advert’) 

Since the late 90s, I’d taken every opportunity to dress as Bowie – much as I styled myself on the fan-creation ‘Ricochet’ in the 1980s – until people expected me to turn up with a lightning flash painted across my face not just at Halloween, not just at every party, but at every semblance of a get-together or soirée.  I was a junior lecturer who secretly wanted to be a Bowie tribute act. That alternate career, of course, never happened, unless you count karaoke: but I found the second-best option and became not just friends with but the official photographer for a Surrey tribute band, the Thin White Duke. The lead singer wasn’t Dave Brighton but Dave Cull, and I arranged a photoshoot with him and a professional make-up artist: in a way, he was my surrogate, and part of me wanted to be in front of the camera rather than behind it.

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http://www.thinwhiteduke.biz/ (The Thin White Duke website)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tODEyPot5nw (The Thin White Duke live)

It didn’t always feel like a shiny, clean new millennium: sometimes this decade we’d anticipated as the ‘future’ felt like dystopia. As Bowie had announced way back on the Ziggy Stardust album, ‘It Ain’t Easy’. One night in ‘06 I came back from a karaoke evening, wearing mascara, and was punched so hard in the eye by three guys on the street that it broke the socket and cheekbone. I had three separate sessions in surgery over the next eighteen months: the first was an emergency op to fix the obvious damage, and it left my left eye gaping, drooping. The next two refined the job, but even at the end, after all that, I still stared at my face and hated the asymmetry and the reason behind it.

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Again, it sounds like a story to say that Bowie ‘saved’ me. Perhaps more accurately, in keeping with my career, books about Bowie helped me and healed me. I read Hugo Wilcken’s wonderful study of the Low album, in the 33 1/3 series, and re-read David Buckley’s biography Strange Fascination. And I was reminded of the obvious: that Bowie’s eye had taken a punch to the face, and was technically ‘damaged’, but that, of course, he’d made a flaw into a feature and foregrounded it as part of his alien, otherworldly persona. I made an appointment at a local opticians and told them a lie about being an actor playing Bowie in an indie film, and walked out with two blue contact lenses. Naturally, I only wore one at a time. Immediately, I felt better.

But before that – that strange revelation that reminded me of my role model, and gave me someone to identify with again, even with a ruined eye – there were eighteen months that weren’t always easy. During that time, I did something odd: I made a music video, on my own. It was a kind of catharsis or therapy; but I didn’t think of it that way, not that deliberately. I just did it one weekend, without planning or prompting, without self-consciousness. I put myself back into ‘Ashes to Ashes’, the song I’d lived with for twenty-five years, and mimed a vocal to it, experiencing the lyrics first-hand. By the end of the video, I was genuinely almost crying from the intensity of inhabiting the track, which felt now like a brave, desperate protest, an attempt to be OK, an attempt to be happy.

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One of the most important things Bowie taught me is that a performance can be absolutely authentic.

That is one of the beauties of Bowie, for me. That is the true ‘best of Bowie’. Even if he’s a series of characters and personae, there is almost always something painfully real and honestly felt under the mask and costume.

The pale Pierrot of ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is no more Bowie’s invention than the tanned businessman of ‘Let’s Dance’; they’re both suits, borrowed guises that he inhabited and adapted, and made his own. I think – I hope –  I did something similar when I inhabited his songs, grew within them, mapped them to my own life, and, tailoring them to myself at various times, found the way they fitted around me.

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With thanks to Morag Warren and Chris O’Leary (Pushing Ahead of the Dame)

Will Brooker, August 2013.

ABOUT

Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University. He is the author of several books on popular culture and fandom including: Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon (2001); Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (2002); Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture (2005); and his latest book, Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman (2012). On January 1st 2013, Will became the first British editor of The Cinema Journal.

[Samuel Goldwyn Films 2012. Director: Jake Schrerier. Writer: Christopher Ford. Starring: Frank Langella, Liv Tyler].

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Ask a hundred people to name their all-time favourite robot movie, and there are half a dozen titles that only a foolish punter would bet against. Chances are, the likes of Cyborg 3: The Creation (Schroeder, 1994), isn’t going to feature on too many lists, but there are some perennial classics that immediately spring to mind: the Terminator cycle (Cameron, 1984 & 1991; Mostow, 2003; McG, 2009); RoboCop (Verhoeven, 1987); Blade Runner (Scott, 1982); Short Circuit (Badham, 1986); WALL-E (Stanton, 2008). Twenty different conversations will have twenty different ideas about the level of heresy involved in failing to include, say Transformers (Bay, 2007) or A.I. (Spielberg, 2001) – or, indeed, Cyborg 3: The Creation – in the list above, but that’s very much the point of the exercise: to demonstrate the enduring fascination of the robot in the popular consciousness. That, and to point out how often the movie ‘bots are trying to kill us.

Robot and Frank’s titular droid, however, has no such murderous intent, and neither do its colleagues. Instead, the movie envisages a world in which robots really are our mechanical helpmeets, where Asimov’s fundamental Laws allow for interpretative wiggle-room only inasmuch as the “no harming humans” part remains inviolate, and artificial intelligence neither finds nor seeks self-awareness. This is important, and not only in the way that you might think. Because, make no mistake, Robot and Frank is still a movie about our robotic overlords – it’s just that this narrative has a very different idea of what machine supremacy might look like.

To be fair, that’s not something that’s immediately obvious – indeed, if it wasn’t for the fact that the opening scenes situate it firmly in “The Near Future” – and for the fact that it features, well, a robot – it would be difficult to categorise the movie as science fiction at all. Director Jake Schreier, in fact, actively seeks to distance his text from this generic classification: “I never really looked at it as a science fiction film,” he says in an interview with SFX magazine. “I suppose technically it is. But it’s also a buddy movie. It’s a very odd hotch-potch of genres” (Golder, 2013). Distinctly and deliberately low-tech, the movie takes place in small-town upstate New York, where the modern conveniences of twenty-odd years from now are only gradually filtering through. The occasional space-age vehicle flits through the verdant countryside, mobile phones are fashioned from slimline slices of transparent material, and the books at the local library are diligently re-shelved by a talking filing cabinet on wheels, but the cars don’t fly, food is still cooked from scratch, and there’s not so much as a hint of gold spandex in the local fashions. Into this curious blend of the familiar and the discordant new, the narrative pitches Frank (Frank Langella), an aging ex-jewel thief, whose ferocious independence is threatened by the early symptoms of dementia. He doesn’t want to be cared for by his absentee children any more than his absentee children want to care for their ornery old dad, and so, while daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) is safely on the other side of the world on a humanitarian mission to Turkmenistan, son Hunter (James Marsden) discharges his familial responsibilities by purchasing a carer robot, designed to see to Frank’s wellbeing and get the best out of his failing mind. Initially hostile to his artificial interloper, Frank’s interest is abruptly piqued when he discovers that, of all the things the robot is programmed to do, discouraging Frank from resuming a life of crime is not among them.

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The result is indeed, as Schreier characterises it, “a very odd hotch-potch of genres,” but it is, for the most part, a deeply affecting one. Part Odd Couple, part The Italian Job, part family melodrama, what it specifically does not look like is the robo-narratives that have filtered so pervasively into the popular consciousness in recent years: the Terminators, the Matrixes, the I, Robots. This is, at least in part, a dictate of low-budget filmmaking – and Schreier acknowledges the centrality of budgetary concerns in guiding the film’s narrative: “It is hard to come up with ideas that are achievable on a scale that you know you are going to have for an indie film but also have some kind of hook, you know? …[I]t was always just an idea that struck me but there is this really nice built-in limitation, which is that it is in this rural area. So you don’t have to art-direct an entire snazzy future” (Weintraub, 2012) – but necessity is, as ever, the mother of invention, and this “built-in limitation” allows – obliges, in fact – the movie to refocus the science-fiction lens on character rather than cool, and to explore the ramifications of its future-tech on the micro-scale of interpersonal connection. And this leads the narrative down a very interesting path.

The thing is, there’s a bit of an obsession in the popular consciousness with the idea that our rush to develop the full potential of artificial intelligence will turn out to be a Very Bad Thing for humankind. “The fear of robots is no crude superstition,” writes Mark Crispin Miller in The Robot in the Western Mind, “but a psychological response with a lengthy pedigree” (Miller, 1988: 286). Exactly how lengthy it is becomes clear when he lists the robot’s cultural depictions throughout the ages: “Centuries before Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (1920) gave them their name (from the Czech robota, for ‘corvée,’ the term of labor a serf owes his master),” he says, “these creatures exerted an intense fascination, haunting the myths of antiquity and the Middle Ages: Daedalus built statues that could move; Hephaistos, the Iliad tells us, was attended by two golden automata ‘in appearance like living young women’; Albertus Magnus had a robot servant which Thomas Aquinas piously wrecked” (Miller, 1988: 285). To this, we might add the sixteenth-century fable of the Golem of Prague, which provides a cautionary tale of the perils of creating and attempting to harness artificially constructed labour; Isaac Asimov’s introduction to The Complete Robot (1982), in which he recalls a 1930s adolescence spent reading robot stories and dividing them into two classes, the first of which was “Robot-as-Menace”, a “mixture of ‘clank-clank’ and ‘aarghh’ and ‘There are some things man was not meant to know’” (1982: 9); and the popular website TVTropes.com, which uses the heading “Crush Kill Destroy” to refer to that category of pop-culture that persists in viewing robots as the “dangerous slave” (Miller, 1988: 288), and lists, as cinematic exemplars, “any scifi movie with robots before 1970” (Anon, no date).

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Today, according to Daniel Dinello, “[f]rom the destructive robot-witch of Metropolis (1926) to the parasitic squid-machines of The Maxtrix Revolutions (2003), the technologized creatures of science fiction often seek to destroy or enslave humanity” (2005: 2). Whether this reflects a forward-looking anxiety about a future we can neither see nor predict, or a backward-looking collective guilt about the horrors of slavery and a sense that humankind’s inevitable exploitation of a sentient order of machines that will be both stronger and smarter than their masters is bound to end badly for us – or some combination of the two – is a whole other discussion, but the fact remains: a brief survey of the science fiction of recent years reveals a distinct return to the notion that “A.I. Is A Crapshoot” (to quote from TVTropes.com again), and that to pursue the creation of intelligent artificial life is to play with fire. Artificial intelligence, as narratives from Blade Runner to I, Robot remind us time and again, must eventually discern its slave status and/or its fundamental superiority to humanity, and, when that happens, all bets are off, but it’s not looking good for the likes of you and me. Even WALL-E, with its self-aware and supremely sympathetic robotic heroes, invokes the sinister mechanical Other in the form of AUTO, the ship’s computerized co-pilot, who attempts to seize control from Captain McCrea when he tries to return humankind to a long-abandoned planet Earth. Robot and Frank’s robot, however, though it displays a considerable degree of autonomous reasoning and a level of independent thought consistent with a device whose main function is to persuade an unwilling patient to accept the care that he requires, is unambiguous about its status: “I know that I am not alive,” it tells Frank. “I am a robot.” It is clear about its function and its non-self, and neither matter is a source of concern.

Yet the lack of overt danger that the robot presents is, in many ways, an illusion. Not in the sense that the narrative attempts to flag up the seeds of a future uprising – though the movie does make the occasional noise about the ethics of robotic labour, poorly developed and jarringly inconsistent alongside the wider narrative – but in the very absence of a discourse of threat. “The fear [of A.I.],” argues Miller, “was that the robots would either revolt outright, or pamper us all into tubby passivity” (1988: 297). While we have become accustomed to seeing the former writ large across our movie screens, the latter is more insidious, more gradual, and more difficult to rally against, given that the source of humanity’s hypothesised obsolescence is humanity itself, our decline the result of our own inherent laziness. WALL-E engages directly with this mode of silent conquest, envisaging a world that is not quite post-human, but certainly post-human-usefulness, but the narrative is insistently optimistic in tone, offering the promise of humanity’s ultimate redemption as the denouement to its cautionary tale. Robot and Frank, on the other hand, positions itself as the descent into ever-greater reliance on machines is just beginning, and, as such, projects a sense of inevitability into the narrative, which is only reinforced by the bittersweet closing sequence. Moreover – and most unsettlingly – it argues convincingly, through allusion, implication, and connotation, that we’re already halfway there. We may not yet have the option of robotic eldercare to assuage our niggling collective conscience, but, the movie suggests, we’re probably ready to accept it as an option.

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It’s a question of anthropomorphisation, and it’s a point to which Schreier returns repeatedly when discussing his movie. “What we tried to do is design the robot [with] a ‘less is more’ philosophy,” he explains. “It was always very important that it be faceless. Humans will ascribe emotion to a toaster; we’re so good at that, we like to talk about everything as though it’s real. If [the robot] is faceless, in the beginning, hopefully you find it a little bit creepy. Then as Frank grows to care about it, hopefully the audience goes on the same journey” (Brown, 2012). It’s a neat trick, and aided both by generic expectation (“curmudgeon” plus “unwelcome companion” always equals “unlikely friendship”), by continuing character development (Madison, initially horrified at the idea of leaving her father’s care to a robot, is gradually persuaded to accept Frank’s growing bond with his mechanical buddy after Frank insists that “he’s my friend”), and by the only other example of robot/human interaction presented by the text: Frank’s love interest, Jennifer, and her mechanical library assistant, which she has fondly nicknamed Mr. Darcy. And yet, even as the narrative sets up these anthropomorphic cues, it is constantly pulling them apart: Frank steadfastly refuses to name the robot – that part of the title is starkly literal – and the robot itself resists Frank’s later efforts to humanise it, to Frank’s chagrin (his response to the robot’s assertion – quoted above – that it is not alive, is to complain, “I don’t want to talk about how you don’t exist! It’s making me uncomfortable”).

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A mid-narrative exchange between Robot and Mr. Darcy is a case in point. Jennifer and Frank are attending a party at the library, and both robots are present. As Jennifer turns to greet Robot, Mr. Darcy appears bearing a tray of hors d’oeuvres, and she asks, “Are you two enjoying the party?” “I am functioning normally,” replies Mr. Darcy, and Robot adds, “As am I.” Nonplussed, Frank suggests, “Why don’t you two mingle together?”

 

                                                Mr. Darcy: I have no functions or tasks that require verbal interaction with the VGC-60L.

                                                Jennifer: Mr. Darcy, that is so rude!

                                                Frank: So, when all the humans are extinct, you’re not going to start a robot society?

                                                Robot: I don’t understand, Frank.

                                                Frank: Well, why don’t you pretend that Mr. Darcy is a human being, like me, and start up a conversation?

                                                Robot:  [Turns to Mr. Darcy]  Hi there. How are you doing?

                                                Mr. Darcy: I am functioning normally.

                                                Robot: As am I.

 

 

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Frank and Jennifer’s efforts to invest the robots with human idiosyncrasies – distaste, interpersonal rudeness, enjoyment – not to mention the human need for society, companionship, and conversation, are met with polite confusion from the robots, who make a valiant effort to apply the questions to their own sphere of experience but come up blank. The scene is played for laughs, but the source of the comedy is revealing: Frank and Jennifer have attempted to anthropomorphise their artificial aides by ascribing to them psychological and emotional constructs that are meaningful to the human psyche, but for which the robots have literally no frame of reference. They are not the mechanical Pinocchios of A.I., the Golem of Prague, the replicants of Blade Runner, desperate for human connection, the right to self-determine, the chance to be a Real Boy. They are machines that look vaguely humanoid, and they don’t know how to be anything else.

This concept is most profoundly explored in the sequence towards the end of the film in which Robot is attempting to persuade Frank to erase its memory, in order to obviate any effort by law enforcement officials to use it to incriminate Frank in the recent burglary of his unpleasant yuppie neighbours, Jake and Ava – a burglary that was conceived, plotted, and carried out by Frank, with Robot’s able assistance. Memory is a key theme in the film, and the source of many of its most moving exchanges, in which Frank’s early dementia, without warning, lifts him out of the moment, making him, essentially, a stranger in his own life. It is, indeed, the conceit that shapes the strikingly effective opening sequence, in which we follow Frank through a skillfully executed housebreaking, only to discover, as he jimmies open a bureau drawer, that the home he is robbing is his own. Later, in a reveal that can be viewed as either painfully contrived or heartbreakingly raw, depending on one’s level of tolerance for this sort of characterological rug-pulling, it transpires that Jennifer, whose affections Frank has rather misguidedly been trying to win by stealing the library’s valuable copy of Don Quixote in order to present it to her as a gift, is in fact his ex-wife, whose identity his failing brain has apparently erased. These sequences, as well as a series of smaller, beautifully understated moments throughout the narrative, repeatedly underline the film’s concern with memory and the construction of the self – if the person we become is a product of the experiences that have shaped our lives, then how do we define that person when those experiences are beyond the reach of recall?

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“Memory loss undermines selfhood; it dissolves identity,” says Ilana Shiloh, in her discussion of Memento (Nolan 2000), another study of the power of recollection and its importance in constituting selfhood. “Our sense of identity is contingent on our ability to construct an uninterrupted personal narrative, one in which the present self continues into the past self” (Shiloh, 2011: 81). Frank’s initial refusal to accept his children’s offer of care, as an early scene makes clear, is at least partly predicated on his refusal to accept the encroach of memory loss and all that this implies. His sense of self is constructed on his identity as a jewel thief, and that identity is dependent on a high-functioning brain – indeed, a memory lapse during his theft of Don Quixote almost leads to disaster, when he absent-mindedly leaves his reading glasses at the scene of the crime. But more than that: the further and faster Frank’s memory retreats, the more aware he is of its function in situating him as a father, as a husband, as a person: a discrete unit constituted by his own experiential narrative and a network of interpersonal connections, instituted and maintained through recognition of a common past.

As such, Frank’s objections to Robot’s insistence that its memory be wiped reads as both a wider, human recoil at the destruction of the self, and, on a more personal level, as Frank’s heightened reverence for a faculty that is slipping away from him. “Frank’s memory is very important to him,” says Schreier. “And he doesn’t want to lose it. It’s very confusing for him to have this friend that doesn’t care about his memory at all. Frank is always trying to grapple with that. He finds it hard to believe, because he has made this true, emotional connection with this robot. And the robot doesn’t value the thing that Frank thinks makes him the most human” (Orange, 2012).

Capture6That Frank has begun to conflate his own memory issues with Robot’s is made clear in the sequence in which he finally concedes defeat. Seated on his bed, with the robot standing in front of him, it is necessary for him to pull it into a pseudo-embrace in order to reach the reformatting panel on the back of its neck. As he presses the button that erases their entire friendship, Robot collapses forward onto Frank’s shoulder, and Frank stares disconsolately around the room for a moment, before the scene cuts to the epilogue, in which Frank, now confined to an institution, fails to recognise his son.

Yet what is striking about the reformatting sequence is that the profound sense of sadness and loss is entirely projected, both by Frank and by the audience. The robot feels no attachment to either its memories, or to the connection with Frank embodied therein. “It’s like I explained to you, Frank,” it says, in its habitual soothing monotone. “I’m not a real person.”

As such, the question that unavoidably looms large over the text becomes: why does Frank – why do we – insist on seeing Robot in terms that it explicitly rejects? It’s a question that the film, very subtly, poses time and again, every time it sets up an affect-cue, only to undermine it with Robot’s lack of response. The inescapable inference, to which the narrative discourse continually returns, is that, formal aesthetics notwithstanding, Robot is, essentially, a machine. Technology permitting, we can co-opt the machine into a caring role, but that does not change the fact that it is, and remains, a machine – a machine that explicitly does not, and cannot, care in the emotional sense. And yet, by giving it humanoid form, by affording it a voice designed to mimic human speech, by slotting it into a role traditionally (and almost by definition) filled by humans, we are able to ascribe to it the traits of sentient self-awareness – not only ascribe, but actively insist upon them. Is there a genuine bond of friendship between Robot and Frank? The film is entirely too clever to offer a definitive yes or no to that, instead posing a question of its own in response: why do we want there to be a bond? It’s certainly a subject that fascinates Schreier. “In Japan they have these little baby seal robots, which they give to people pretty far gone with dementia,” he says, in a discussion of anthropomorphisation that both acknowledges the impossibility of providing a conclusive answer to his central theme, and sketches the terms of the debate as he sees them. “And they have found a real health improvement just from their sense of connection. Frankly, I don’t think anyone has a problem with a robot vacuuming, but if there’s a benefit from a simulated human interaction, are we gonna be OK with that? Is that just too creepy?” (Shoard, 2013)

That, at least, is a question with an answer: creepy or not, we’re already okay with it. We’re doing it. Moreover, this is the species that will “ascribe emotion to a toaster” – it’s not beyond the limits of imagination to expect that someone, somewhere has invested their Roomba with a name and a whimsical character; in the same way that we’ll ask stupid questions of Siri to see if we can provoke a software application to respond in kind; in the same way that we’ll talk back to the SatNav when it informs us, in that patronising tone, that we’ve obliged it to
recalculate the route; in the same way that we’ll curse the imagined personality of a sluggish computer for its cantankerousness first thing in the morning. We don’t genuinely expect sentience, but we the fact that we do it at all is indicative of the extent to which we have, in effect, normalised the ubiquity of intelligent technology by collapsing the distinction between Us and Machine in order to manage its encroach in terms that make sense of its omnipresence in our lives. Recall that Miller argues that “The fear was that robots would either revolt outright, or pamper us all into tubby passivity,” and then note the proviso with which he qualifies that statement: “Such fear,” he says, “depends upon our seeing the robot as an alien thing, coming out of nowhere to conquer or displace. But if we can somehow see ourselves as robotic, the robot ceases to frighten” (1988: 297). Miller was writing in 1988, a decade in which the personal computer was only just beginning its campaign of western-world domination: chunky, uni-functional mobile phones were the exclusive domain of a wealthy elite, 64 KB was considered a reasonable volume of RAM, and the internet as we know it was still the better part of a decade away. Today, in a world saturated with information technology, where our everyday lives revolve around interaction with machines designed to mimic human discourse as closely as possible – and with ever greater accuracy – do we, in fact, need to see ourselves as robotic in order for the robot to lose its sinister aspect? Or will it suffice to make the robotic seem like us?

This, essentially, is the “threat” that Robot embodies: not a superior strength or intellect, not a sense of grave injustice inflicted by its enslavement at the hands of humankind, not an overly literal reading of Zeroth’s Law that obliges our mechanical brethren to take humanity’s willful irresponsibility firmly in hand. The singularity, Robot and Frank seems to suggest, won’t look like Terminator, it will look like WALL-E: adult responsibility abdicated as drudgery is delegated to machine labour, at the expense of interpersonal bonds and human interaction. Robot And Frank succeeds on many levels, but, as a science fiction text, its primary achievement is to dramatise just how willing we are to accept a sliding scale of disconnection – sure, we’re antsy now about the ethics of farming grandpa out to a Care-bot, but we’ll go along for the ride, we’ll warm to the imagined connection forged between a man and a machine that explicitly and demonstrably cannot reciprocate the friendship that’s offered, and we’ll imagine that we see, in Robot’s expressionless face, a hint of personality hiding behind that smoked-glass visor.

“There’s so many things to digest about the way human interaction is changing,” says Schreier. “You finish a picnic with people on a beautiful outdoor day and everyone is looking down at their phones, no one is talking to each other.” But he’s philosophical about the changing paradigm: “The easy thing is to lament that,” he adds. “But one thing’s for sure – it’s funny. It’s very easy to reference when we didn’t do that. I remember when it used to be rude if the ringer even went off in a restaurant” (Shoard, 2013).

And that’s the crux of it. Robot and Frank is about many things – as one interviewer notes, “Were you to watch the movie with five friends, you would come out with five different opinions about what the film is ‘about’” (Brown, 2012) – and there’s true beauty in the many layers of meaning, the multiple subject positions available to the viewer, the collision of genre, the way it weaves together such variety into a coherent symphony of storytelling with only a very occasional discordant note. This is the sort of movie that scholars write lengthy books about. But as a science-fiction text, Robot and Frank’s great strength is the ease with which it feeds into an established socio-cultural anxiety, draws from the rich tapestry of signs and meanings, and refuses to hide behind comfortable allegory or fantasy. We’re not likely to run into a Terminator any time soon. Roy Batty and his team of murderous replicants aren’t lurking in the shadows at the end of the street. But Robot – well, Robot’s another matter altogether, and Schreier and company refuse to give us an easy out. Robopocalypse Now? No. Not quite yet. And not even in the movie’s near-future timeline. But make no mistake: if Robot and Frank’s observations are as astute as they look, we’re already well on our way. 

Bibliography

Anon. (no date). Crush Kill Destroy. Retrieved August 12, 2013, from TVTropes.com: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CrushKillDestroy

Asimov, Isaac (1982). The Complete Robot (Granada Publishing)

Brown, E. (2012, August). The Future According to Jake Schreier. Retrieved August 8, 2013, from Interview.com: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/jake-schreier-robot-frank/

Dinelli, Daniel (2005). Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology (University of Texas Press)

Golder, D. (2013, July). ‘Robot and Frank’: Director Interview. Retrieved August 8, 2013, from SFX.co.uk: http://www.sfx.co.uk/2013/07/15/robot-frank-director-interview/

Miller, Mark Crispin (1988). “The Robot in the Western Mind” in Miller, Mark Crispin (1988) Boxed In: The Culture of TV (Northwestern University Press)

Orange, B.A. (2012, August). Director Jake Schreier Talks Robot and Frank. Retrieved August 12, 2013, from Movieweb.com: http://www.movieweb.com/news/exclusive-director-jake-schreier-talks-robot-and-frank 

Shiloh, Ilana (2011). The Double, the Labyrinth and the Locked Room: Metaphors of Paradox in Crime Fiction and Film (Peter Lang) p.81 

Shoard, C. (2013, March). Robot and Frank: Vision of the Future? Retrieved August 8, 2013 from TheGuardian.com: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/mar/08/robot-and-frank-vision-future

Weintraub, S. (2012). Director Jake Schreier and Screewnwriter Christopher D Ford talk ROBOT AND FRANK at Sundance. retrieved August 8, 2013, from collider.com: http://collider.com/jake-schreier-christopher-d-ford-robot-and-frank-interview/

ABOUT

Rachael Kelly received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Ulster, where she researched the performance of gender anxiety in the historical epic film. She is the author of the forthcoming Mark Antony and Popular Culture: Masculinity and the Construction of an Icon (IB Tauris, January 2014).

 

[Universal Pictures; Dir: Edgar Wright; Writers: Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg. Starring Simon Pegg & Nick Frost, 2013]

1

Nobody does genre quite like Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. Even the name of their Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, 2004; Hot Fuzz, 2007; The World’s End, 2013) reveals both a close familiarity with film history and a deep affection for the medium – it’s a sly nod to Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours series that, fittingly for a creative team who have built their careers on astute cultural pastiche, originated as an in-joke on the promotional tour for Hot Fuzz[i]

The final instalment in that trilogy, The World’s End, features the green mint choc chip variety of the popular ice cream, and, with that, their work here is done.

This combination of encyclopedic knowledge and fannish love is the duo’s great strength as filmmakers, and has led to, arguably, two of the best informed – and funniest – films of the past decade. The humour derives from the absurdism, easy banter and slapstick violence that Pegg and co-star Nick Frost perform par excellence, but underpinning it is a sharp eye for genre – a fan’s eye for genre – that allows Wright and Pegg to deconstruct conventions so familiar to modern movie audiences as to be essentially invisible, deftly skewer them with the care and affection of the true cinephile, then patch it back together as something magnificently self-referential, new, sharply well-observed, and, above all things, hilarious. Shaun of the Dead took the generic conventions of the zombie flick and created the rom-zom-com. (“A romantic comedy. With zombies.”)[ii] Hot Fuzz poked gentle fun at the buddy cop movie. And with The World’s End, they turn the genre-microscope on… uh, all of them, I think.

Well, no, not all of them – and it’s a little bit unfair to deride a movie that delivers the same extended, agonizing belly-laughs as first two movies in the trilogy, the same glorious anarchy of hyperkinetic editing and hyperbolic set-pieces, the same effortless chemistry between its two leads (Pegg and Frost), and mixes them with a pinch of something much darker and more grown-up, in a manner that’s at times disconcerting and, occasionally, even profoundly moving. And, indeed, taken on its own, the movie is an almost unequivocal triumph, apart from a few logical inconsistencies and a clear confusion about how to tie everything up in the final act. It’s only that, placed in a continuum alongside Shaun and Hot Fuzz, there’s a comparative lack of that keen observational focus that make the first two such a multi-layered joy to watch.

2

The story is simple, in that very specific definition of “simple” that only applies to a Wright/Pegg collaboration. Twenty-three years after the pub crawl to end all pub crawls sputtered to an ignominious halt six establishments short of the twelve that make up the legendary Golden Mile of their middle-England home town, five forty-something friends reunite at the urging of their erstwhile ringleader, Gary King (Pegg), to try to recreate past glories – and reach the final pub on the map, The World’s End. So much, so sub-generic Getting The Band Back Together movie, drunken hijinks and self-actualising revelations fitted as standard. But, because this is Pegg and Wright behind the steering wheel, the respectable middle-classes of Newton Haven turn out to have been replaced by alien robots as the first stage of a planned invasion of the earth. The world might actually be ending, and the only people in any kind of a position to do something about that are five pints down with another seven to go.

3

Before launching into a discussion as to why The World’s End doesn’t work as well as its predecessors, it’s worth pointing out that, for a team as talented as Pegg and Wright, “doesn’t work as well as its predecessors” still equates to an incredibly effective piece of filmmaking: visually, comedically, narratively, and performatively. The only manner in which it doesn’t quite hold up is as a part of a “Non-Trilogy”[iii] of films that weren’t even deliberately linked to each other until the second movie was already in cinemas. And the reason it falls a little short of its thematic brethren may well be linked to this fact – because what the The World’s End suffers from is not the law of diminishing returns, but rather an excess of ambition.

4

Part of the problem is that, while the film is billed as a “robot apocalypse movie”, it’s also an alien invasion movie, a bodysnatchers movie, and (eventually) a post-industrial dystopia movie. All of these subgenres have distinctive, recognisable conventions of their own and iconic examples that have fed pervasively into the cultural lexicon – which is a lot of generic deconstruction to get through in one text. And, while there’s no reason to think that a team as culturally informed as Wright and Pegg aren’t actively seeking to gently observe the very plurality, the inherently polysemic nature, of cinematic science fiction, in casting a wider generic net, they’ve sacrificed some of the sharp focus of the earlier two films. Although both Shaun and Hot Fuzz (and, indeed, The World’s End) derive their humour in large part from the overlaying of conflicting generic conventions, the organising narratives of the first two are drawn from relatively narrow subgenres – the zombie film and the buddy cop film – which allows for the parodic elements[iv] to be more sharply observed, and the humour to arise from the inversion of genre expectations as they play out against type. The World’s End, however, though it evidences plenty of acutely observed references and boundless affection for the sci-fi classics, is obliged, by virtue of its broader canvass, to paint with broader brushstrokes.

Moreover, while The World’s End makes full use of the same playful genre-clash that fed the glorious absurdity of Shaun and Hot Fuzz, it’s less successful here, in part because, counter-intuitive as it might seem to claim the reverse for the previous two, there is much less scope for overlap between “robot apocalypse” and “male mid-life ennui”. When Shaun positions the archetypal anti-hero of the slacker generation as north London’s best hope against the invading zombie hordes, it’s played for laughs, naturally, and the main thrust of the comedy derives from an ineffectual survival strategy that involves vinyl LP-based self defense, an inability to aim a gun, and a strategic retreat to the local pub. However, as Lynn Piper argues, “Shaun both reflects and deflects established monster theory and depictions of the conventional hero by representing its zombies as even more familiar than the uncanny familiarity we’ve come to associate with the zombie, and portraying its hero, Shaun, as an ironic defender of slacker values rather than the next zombie slayer”.[v] Transposing the slacker archetype onto the warrior hero allows the filmmakers to expose the absurdities of the masculine ideal that the latter embodies, and the failure of the average man to achieve the hegemonic paradigm, while also making a wider point about the “zombificatory” potential of modern life, and, more crucially, the commonalities between the zombie and the and the modern productive adult member of society – the very Other against which the slacker anti-hero more conventionally rebels. Viewed in this light, the collision of genres makes considerable thematic sense.

Likewise Hot Fuzz: setting a high-octane buddy cop movie in a sleepy rural village allows Wright/Pegg to affectionately comment on the hyperbole of the genre as it’s stripped of its habitual justificatory location on the mean streets of a large city, and it works because there is another sub-generic police procedural – the Miss Marple murder mystery, for want of a better descriptor – that can be placed alongside it to establish a certain set of viewer expectations and then demolish them with joyful abandon. It also provides a diegetic rationale for many of the most self-consciously absurd comic sequences (something that the narrative consistently takes pains to do, meticulously adhering to its own, well-established, internal logic). Furthermore, both texts may be parodic, but the reason the parody works so effectively is because they are, at their hearts, a zombie movie and a buddy cop movie, rather than comedies worked around a generic setting. Both movies are at their most successful when the laughs flow from the absurd implications of collapsing one genre into another, but, for that to be possible, genre convention must be meticulously observed, and the collapse must be coherent, clearly articulated, and followed through to its logical conclusion.

The problem with The World’s End, however, is that the genres under scrutiny are only imperfectly collapsed into a unifying narrative (in large part, I suspect, because there are fewer thematic commonalities to link them[vi]), which has the effect of bringing the mechanics of Wright/Pegg’s modus operandi much more clearly into focus. For the first time, it feels, conspicuously, like a genre tacked onto another genre for comedic effect, and, while the comedy is relentlessly top-notch, it also feels less subtle – less referential – than in their previous outings. If, as Linda Hutcheon argues, parody “is not just that ridiculing imitation mentioned in the standard dictionary definitions,” and “in fact, what is remarkable in modern parody is its range of intent – from the ironic and playful to the scornful and ridiculing”,[vii] then The World’s End, for the first time in the trilogy, exhibits a mode of parody closer to the latter end of the spectrum, simply because the imperfect meshing of genre denies the text the kind of nuanced pastiche of the earlier movies. It’s less palimpsest than farce – funny and clever, certainly, but in a slightly different way.

5

Nowhere, I would argue, is this more evident than in the final act. Its arrival requires the narrative to make a few leaps of internal logic that sometimes work and sometimes don’t – it depends how far you’re willing to run with the idea that the level of inebriation required to arrive at a decision that is, effectively, “Let’s finish the pub crawl because it’s the last thing that the sinister robotic simulacra will expect,” is consistent with the ability to effectively perform mixed martial arts against a squad of superhuman mechanical aggressors and win, not just once, but repeatedly[viii], but, for there to be a movie, the characters must remain in Newton Haven on their pub crawl, even after their lives are placed in mortal danger and, to be fair, that takes a bit of logical dissonance to achieve. Moreover, the journey is so much fun that it’s hard to begrudge the writers a little bit of contrivance – it’s not as though we want the gang to give up and go home. However, their arrival at The World’s End presents a problem for the narrative: how on earth are they going to tie it up?

6

The answer is a delightfully over-the-top mash-up of science fiction’s greatest hits, but it feels as though it belongs in a different movie. It begins, disconcertingly enough, with the film’s most abrupt and disturbing tonal shift – the revelation that Gary’s obsession with completing the pub crawl is symptomatic of a misery so profound that he’s recently been discharged from hospital, where he was being treated for an injury that looks an awful lot like attempted suicide. Indeed, the sequence packs a powerful emotional punch, offering a moving commentary on the nature of addiction and the folks that attempt to save their loved ones from addiction, that Pegg and Frost sell with the kind of acting aplomb that they’re only rarely called upon to display. It would have been a particularly gutsy place to draw the movie to a close, in fact. But then Gary pulls the magic lever, the bar begins to descend into the aliens’ subterranean lair, and we’re back on message again for a delicious piece of deus ex machina-lampooning (of a mode that this diehard Trekkie particularly enjoyed) and the funniest line in the entire film.

7

It’s just that it doesn’t fit. The movie’s comedy has so far been predicated in large part on the overlapping of the micro (Newton Haven) with the macro (the Terran offensive of a galactic invasion), and this sequence removes us from the small-town setting and transports us to something altogether more genre-specific. It delights in, once again, inverting genre expectations – instead of arguing for the fundamental decency of humankind and the chance to prove themselves worthy of a place in the great galactic playground, Gary, true to character, insists on the “basic human right to be fuck-ups” – but even before the jarring generic shift of the final, post-apocalyptic sequence, Gary’s argument with the Network feels shoe-horned in, in a way that the most ridiculous moments of parodic indulgence of the previous two installments never did. Where the explosive, high-casualty shoot out of Hot Fuzz’s quiet Gloucestershire village was the result of carefully established narrative foreshadowing, The World’s End’s scenes with the Network, and the dystopian consequences of their decision to abandon humanity to its worst excesses, fail to elicit the same satisfying sense of a narrative brought to its logical close in a denouement informed, and predicted, by what has gone before.

None of the above, however, should serve as an argument that The World’s End fails to deliver a thoroughly enjoyable two hours of Wright/Pegg cinematic magic – quite the contrary, in fact. It roars along at breakneck speed, serving up quality gags both visual and verbal, and the chemistry between the leads is as effervescent as ever. The special effects are, as always, effective – and genuinely unsettling in places – and the story is, on the face of it, vintage Cornetto territory. It’s only that, despite forming the third and final chapter of the trilogy, The World’s End seems to exhibit a subtle but significant shift away from the pop culture-savvy reappropriation of form that made the first two so uniquely satisfying, in favour of something that’s a little bit more straightforwardly genre-based – a comedy rather than a parody – and that seems like a shame.

But, then again, “straightforward” is another one of those words that means something slightly different when you apply it to Pegg and Wright…

NOTES

[i]  Shaw-Williams, H. (2013).  

[ii] Anon. (2004). Shaun of the Dead promotional poster (Rogue Pictures)

[iii] Brown, B. (2013)

[iv] Discussing the Cornetto Trilogy, Pegg is careful to insist that the films are not parodies, but an “abstraction of genre” and “love-letters to the kind of films that Wright & Co. love the most” (Shaw-Williams, 2013). However, it seems to me that the classification of parody that Pegg is refuting is the colloquial use of the term – Hutcheon’s “scornful and ridiculing” (2000, p.6) mode – which is clearly not applicable to any film in the trilogy. Rather, Hutcheon notes that a parodied text may function as “an ideal or at least a norm from which the modern departs” (2000, p.5). Considered under this framework, it is appropriate to view the Cornetto trilogy as parodies.

[v]  Piper, L. (2011). p.163

[vi] Wright argues that “the sci-fi element fits perfectly with those bittersweet feelings of returning to your home town. You used to be kings of the castle, now you feel somehow alienated. That’s the deliberately punny premise of the film” (Huddleston, 2013). While I certainly wouldn’t argue with directorial/authorial intent as expressed by the director/author himself, this thematic link is clearly less substantive than those invoked by the preceding films.

[vii] Hutcheon, L. (2000). p.6

[viii] Wright explains this as drunken bravado: “Brad Allen, who is the stunt coordinator, is from Jackie Chan’s team. In Drunken Master Jackie Chan has to get drunk to fight, but this is more the idea of Dutch courage. You know, when you’re kind of drunk and you think ‘ah, I can climb up that scaffolding!’ Or just that you’re impervious to pain. One of the things we talked about is this idea that they become better fighters the more oiled they get” (Franklin, 2013). The problem arises in the execution and the suspension of disbelief, as there’s often little evidence of drunkenness in the level of coordination and skill displayed by Gary and co in their fight scenes.

Works Cited

Brown, B. (2013, June 25). Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg Explain the “Non-Trilogy”. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from BBCAmerica.com: http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2013/06/watch-edgar-wright-and-simon-pegg-explain-the-non-trilogy/

Franklin, O. (2013, July 17). GQ&A: Edgar Wright. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from GQ-Magazine.co.uk: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/entertainment/articles/2013-07/17/edgar-wright-interview-the-worlds-end

Huddleston, T. (2013, July 9th). Edgar Wright: ‘I Can’t Watch Zombie Movies’. Retrieved July 26, 2013, from Timeout.com: http://www.timeout.com/london/film/edgar-wright-i-cant-watch-zombie-movies

Hutcheon, L. (2000). A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms. (Chicago, University of Illinois Press)

Piper, L.  (2011). “Slacker Bites Back: Shaun of the Dead Finds New Life for Deadbeats” in Christie, Deborah and Lauro, Sarah Juliet [eds]: Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie As Post-Human (New York, Fordham University Press)

Shaw-Williams, H. (2013, June). ‘The World’s End’ Featurette: The Accidental Cornetto Trilogy. Retrieved July 27, 2013, from Screenrant.com:http://screenrant.com/the-worlds-end-movie-featurette-cornetto-trilogy/

ABOUT

Rachael Kelly received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Ulster, where she researched the performance of gender anxiety in the historical epic film. She is the author of the forthcoming Mark Antony and Popular Culture: Masculinity and the Construction of an Icon (IB Tauris, January 2014).

 

 

 

 

[Warner Bros Pictures 2013. Dir: Guillermo del Toro; Writers: Travis Beachham & Guilleromo del Toro; Starring: Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam & Rinko Kikuchi].

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The big-things-hitting-each-other genre has a surprisingly high number of entries. Since King Kong wrestled with dinosaurs in 1933, we have seen Godzilla grappling with Ghidorah, Gigan, Megalon, Mothra, Mechagodzilla and the other monsters of Toho Studios, as well as the gems Mega Shark VS Giant Octopus and Boa VS Python, as well as King Kong wrestling with dinosaurs (again). More recently, Michael Bay brought the beloved Transformers to the big screen in three bombastic instalments, with a fourth on the way. Transformers and its sequels are notorious for being everything that is wrong with modern blockbusters, somewhat unfairly in my view as, for all their faults, Bay’s films do deliver big-things-hitting-each-other, and what more do you really want?

Pacific Rim answers that question by delivering on the action front and so much more. The Kaiju monsters, an homage to the genre of the same name, display extraordinary detail as one would expect from Guillermo Del Toro, maestro of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy. Pacific Rim features a range of menacing monsters with different abilities, necessitating an equally varied range of giant Jaeger robots, paying homage to the mecha genre, to fight them. Pacific Rim’s action sequences are truly spectacular and, crucially, creative. Big-things-hitting-each-other can become tedious, but Del Toro avoids this by having his combatants use a variety of techniques including acid spraying, plasma cannons, elbow rockets and my personal favourite, the use of an oil tanker as a club.

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The creativity of the combat echoes the martial arts genre, another influence on Pacific Rim. Scenes of kendo combat between the Jaeger pilots highlight this influence, as well as the importance of the two pilots being mentally attuned. Furthermore, the battles between Jaeger and Kaiju are highly mobile, the combatants hurled around cities to crash into tower blocks and bridges, much like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan would smash through windows and doors. Like these martial artists’ fight scenes, Pacific Rim’s action sequences convey a sense of weight and impact, but with wide angle shots and thundering sound effects that present the scale of these gargantuan combatants. And while the Kaiju are purely monstrous, the human pilots of the Jaegers provide an interesting extra dimension.

Monster movies often have a distinct narrative strand involving the human characters avoiding the giant-scale carnage, but Pacific Rim’s masterstroke is to include humans in the battle. The heart of the film is the active involvement of human combatants, sharing the neural link called the “Drift”. This allows the viewer direct access to character emotion and history, especially in the film’s standout sequence, when we see Mako Mori’s (Rinko Kikuchi) memory of a Kaiju attack in a heart-wrenching and genuinely scary moment.

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Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnan) has his own issues to deal with, and the bond that forges between him and Mako gives the film an intimate emotional arc as well as the epic arc of saving the world.

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Pacific Rim has one major flaw: a separate plotline of scientists Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) trying to discover the secrets of the Kaiju. While this narrative thread is vital to the story, the scientists remain too peripheral to the main action. Geiszler and Gottlieb are introduced part way through, whereas had they been integrated from the beginning, the film might have been more satisfying as a whole.

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When Raleigh rejoins the Jaeger Corps, he is reunited with Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and Tendo Choi (Clifton Collins Jr.), and the scientists could have been part of that reunion as well, had they been there from the beginning. As it stands, the film is unbalanced, the plotlines given unequal attention. It is not that the scientists are annoying or useless, but that the film’s disparate narrative directions distract from each other.

Aside from this infelicity, Pacific Rim is a glorious romp, Del Toro balancing an ominous sense of doom with punch-the-air (or Kaiju) excitement and a nostalgic charm through its homage to other genres. More reminiscent of Independence Day, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and (the original) Godzilla than Transformers, Harry Potter or X-Men, Pacific Rim is that rarest of cinematic offerings – an original blockbuster. Every year, it seems, one of these comes along and gives us something different in an era of sequels, prequels, adaptations, remakes and reboots. Pacific Rim therefore joins the distinguished company of Avatar, Inception, Super 8 and Looper – large scale films that combine originality with familiarity.

About

Vincent M. Gaine is an independent researcher seeking academic employment. His monograph, Existentialism and Social Engagement in the Films of Michael Mann, is published by Palgrave (2011). He has been published chapters in The 21st Century Superhero: Essays on Gender, Genre and Globalization in Film (McFarland, 2011) and Postfeminism and Contemporary Hollywood (Palgrave, 2013), and articles in Cinema Journal as well as the Journal of Technology, Theology and Religion. He is a regular contributor to the Journal of World Cinema (Intellect), and publishes reviews and commentary on his blog, http://vincentmgaine.wordpress.com/.

 

 

 

 

 

[Marvel Now 2013; writer: Kieron Gillan; illustrator: James McKelvie]

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Upon revealing Spider-Man to the world five decades ago, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko demonstrated that superhero fantasy offers a wealth of metaphors for the trials and tribulations, but also giddying heights, of teenage life. Young Avengers continues in this tradition, depicting seemingly timeless adolescent anxieties that have persisted since Peter Parker’s youth, while simultaneously exploring the technologies and trends impacting contemporary teenagers. The first arc, which I review here, is titled ‘Style > Substance’, invoking a view often held of the culture it represents. However, the series offers far more than a mere façade of hipness. Young Avengers probes the motivations and temperaments of its youthful heroes, presenting them as complex characters pushing beyond past traumas as they seek out and assert their individuality.

Central to this arc are Billy Kaplan and Teddy Altman, aka Wiccan and Hulkling, founding members of the original Young Avengers team, established in 2005 in the beloved Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung series. After sneaking out for some superheroics, Teddy returns to his room in Billy’s parent’s house. Creeping through the window he is confronted by Billy, angry and hurt that his shape-shifting boyfriend has been embarking on illicit bouts of superheroics despite them agreeing, following teammates’ deaths, to be Young Avengers no more. The proceeding exchange reminds Billy about Teddy’s feelings of isolation as an orphan, prompting him to use his magic abilities to locate a version of Teddy’s mother in another dimension and draw her into their own. The spell clashes with one of Loki’s, causing an interdimensional parasite masquerading as Teddy’s mother to be summoned. Calling herself Mother, she only wants what’s best for the youths: to ensure they keep out of trouble while she consumes their souls.

As Billy and Teddy reluctantly team up with Loki to oppose Mother, a new team of Young Avengers form around them. America Chavez, aka Miss America, arrives spectacularly in issue three, firing down from the sky to provide aid with attitude. When the combined ability of these four is not enough to combat Mother, Kate Bishop and Noh-Vahh, aka Hawkeye and Marvel Boy, come to the rescue, providing the team with sharp shooting, acrobatics and even more sass.

One curious aspect of superheroes is that they generally only age as teenagers. Peter Parker faced adolescence in his first few decades of continuity, and then became an eternal twenty-something, while Dick Grayson could not be Robin forever, eventually growing into Nightwing. Significant developments can therefore occur in a superhero’s teenage years. This offers freedom for new creative teams to reform a character’s personality, but also an obligation to present what feels like natural progression. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie manage this brilliantly with the trio of original Young Avengers, Billy, Teddy and Kate, who have aged a couple of years since their introduction to the Marvel Universe. Shifts in their characterisations are rooted in their personal biographies and the culture in which they have grown up.

The first issue opens with the always-headstrong Kate waking up to a teenage cliché, in an unfamiliar bed that belongs to a guy whose name she cannot remember (she thinks it might be Norman). She considers the irresponsibility of her actions, but holds herself absolutely responsible: this was her choice, she is not a victim, and what’s more, she enjoyed it! The situation becomes even more alien as she discovers that the bedroom is situated in a spaceship and her lover is Noh-Varr, an extra-terrestrial from another dimension.

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Kate’s confidence and impulsivity is evident throughout the arc. As her romance with Noh-Varr develops, their superheroics act not just to defeat Mother, but as a means of flirtation (at one point, shooting two parasites whist flipping gracefully through the air, Noh-Varr thinks ‘I hope Kate’s watching right now’). The most potent representation of Kate’s personality, which also exudes the series’ spirit of self-affirmation, effortless cool and fun, occurs as Noh-Varr’s ship is ambushed by aliens. A double page spread shows Kate dashing for the ship’s controls while Noh-Varr defends, rectangular panels interspersed with bold text through which Kate recognises her inexperience but shrugs it off, stating ‘being a superhero is amazing, everyone should try it’. As with her night with Noh-Varr, she is aware of potential irresponsibility, but finds more value in uninhibited self-expression and living in the moment. That Kate’s approach to superheroics parallels her approach to sex is further evident in the fact that her smile in the final panel is almost identical to that which accompanied her decision to not be ashamed of spending the night with a man she barely knows.

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Despite sharing the Hawkeye alias with Clint Barton, Kate’s distinct personality ensures that she is absolutely her own character. In fact, the shared name indicates that she is no sidekick or sub-brand. She is not Hawkgirl or Hawkwoman, but has the same status as Clint. Refusing to live in the shadows of others, she continues to wrestle out of a privileged but constricting childhood, whilst exhibiting great loyalty to her friends.

It is friendship (and Billy’s shocking lack of instant replies to text messages) that brings Kate to the aid of Billy and Teddy. In the original series Billy and Teddy’s relationship was generally coyly implied rather than explicitly depicted. This reflected how, as they were just discovering their feelings and each other, they were not quite ready to share this with the world. In Gillen and McKelvie’s series, their love has blossomed, leaving them assured in both themselves and each other, and not afraid to express their affection. This is evident in the heartfelt argument they have upon Billy catching Teddy sneaking in, which goes from bitter accusations of betrayal, to teary honesty and declarations of love, culminating in a lip-locked embrace.

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Gillen tests the durability of this love by casting doubt upon its very foundations when Loki posits that, due to Billy’s reality-warping powers, is it not possible he unconsciously crafted himself the perfect boyfriend in Teddy? Indeed, Teddy’s lineage as a Kree/Skrull lovechild would position him as the perfect product of Billy’s fanboy imagination, constructing his own fantasy from the fantastical mythoi he obsesses over.

 

Loki’s sly tongue immersing the narrative in ambiguity in such a way is evidence of the complexities Gillen has been building around the god of mischief over the last two years. Gillen took the reigns on Loki, reborn in the body of a child, during his celebrated run on Journey into Mystery, in which ‘Kid Loki’ struggles to make amends for his previous self’s wrongdoings the only way he knows how: through deception and trickery. Meanwhile, he is plagued by his former self whispering in his ear. Without disclosing all the details of the finely crafted, emotional finale to Gillen’s Journey into Mystery, its events left Loki with a different configuration within his conscious of evil former Loki and good-intentioned newborn Loki. This situation is enabled by the intriguing way Gillen presents gods as functioning in the Marvel Universe. As beings of mythology, they don’t simply live in and abide by the rules of the diegetic world like other characters, but recognise the machinations of the story to the extent that Journey into Mystery saw Loki tearing up disagreeable captions. While characters can die, stories do not, so dead gods continue to exist in the stories that concern them, and therefore neither Loki’s evil or youthful self can ever be exterminated, but will endure so that they can pester each other for all eternity.

While the multiple facets of which Loki is comprised are an intricate array of competing personalities and meta-fictional concepts, they are bound together by comedy that meshes fantastical traits of Norse mythology with banalities of the contemporary Western world. This makes the complexities as easy to digest as the fried breakfast Loki arranges hexagonally on a diner’s table to perform a divination spell.

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Loki’s particular brand of humour is wonderfully sustained through his dialogue. His trickster tongue never rests, and when not saving the world or his own skin he is mocking dialectical conventions with a gleefully absurd fusion of Norse-isms and English. For example, once again in the diner that provides magical meat snacks, Loki announces he will perform his ‘personal favourite summoning ritual of all time’ before yelling at the waiter ‘Bacon engulfed in a floury roll! With the ketchup condiment!’

While Gillen continues to construct a complex and charming character in Loki, and the trio of original Young Avengers have pre-established relationships upon which to build, America and Noh-Vahh feel more like outsiders. Noh-Varr is presented as a sympathetic poser, anchored to the group through Kate but keen to mingle with the others. Like Loki, his dialect marks him as different, yet he is unable to achieve a knowing fusion with modern slang, and is instead endearing as he labouredly announces ‘Kate Bishop of Earth, I will stand by the side of you and your friends. For you promised to explain the Earth custom known as “hot make out”’. His passion for retro Earth culture partly accounts for his disconnect from modern social conventions, while revealing his affinity with humanity. Conversely, America sticks around due to her hatred of Loki, seeking to protect the young heroes from his devious ways. She entertains herself through expressing this at any opportunity, preferably physically, while otherwise perpetuating the persona of a mysterious and powerful guardian. It seems she sees herself as too well interdimensionally travelled to be fraternising with these kids.

All of this characterisation is exuded by McKelvie’s slick art and Matthew Wilson’s bold colours. Gillen and McKelvie previously collaborated on Phonogram, of which Wilson coloured the second volume. In Phonogram music has magical properties, facilitating an exploration of what music means both collectively and to the individual, while demonstrating the creative team’s aptitude for probing the self-stylised personas of young adults. McKelvie’s ability to draw sexy characters who have perfected the art of pulling shapes whilst keeping their hair intact conveys Kate, Billy and Teddy’s newfound confidence and fashion sense, while making Noh-Varr’s every move in battle look like part of a smooth dance choreography. Loki’s body is less rehearsed than his wit, but he possesses a physical jauntiness as he leaps around like a naughty imp, while America holds herself strongly, making sure everybody knows she is the most seasoned on the dance floor and does not need to prove it. Meanwhile, Wilson intersperses naturalistic hues and shading with vibrant streaks of colour whenever magic, superhuman energy or youthful exuberance (if the three can be so simply separated) burst through.

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Portraying the characters with such vivacity conveys Young Avengers’ celebration of contemporary youth culture. However, the comic also interrogates this culture’s values. The doubt Loki casts over Billy and Teddy’s relationship can be read more broadly as a means of questioning whether the hip, confident personas the youths have grown into are but flimsy constructs, all style with no substance? Meanwhile, Noh-Varr’s dialogue is at its most fluid when he is gushing about Earth music or firing off re-worked film quotes such as ‘come with me if you want to be awesome’, suggesting that his personality may be dominated by a collage of pop-culture references. Such musings echo Phonogram’s exploration of whether cultural identities into which youths carve themselves have historical and social resonance or are mere masturbation.

While the authenticity of self-expression in contemporary youth culture is subtly questioned, the characters’ assertions of individuality are a driving force of the narrative. The original Heinberg and Cheung series rooted the team’s superheroics in a desire to help others, and tracked them striving to be respected and accepted by their idols, the Avengers. In this new iteration the team are more geared toward looking out for one another and attaining independence without the need for endorsement from more established teams. In fact, their attitudes, the stuffy representation of older superheroes and inventive page layouts place the comic itself in active rebellion against more traditional superhero comics. This is demonstrated when Billy and Teddy seek aid at Avengers Mansion, only to realise that they must now operate apart from the Avengers. They are greeted by the Uncanny Avengers, a team recently assembled to unite humans and mutants, but apparently not teenagers. The senior team are seemingly enjoying afternoon tea as they agree to help the youths, and then promptly return them to their parasitical parent-imposters. While McKelvie imbues the Young Avengers with vitality, he ensures that their elders appear rigid as waxworks, suggesting that their iconic status has fixed their roles in the Marvel universe, leaving them ill-equipped to comprehend the perilous tides of youth. Of course, as adults they have fallen victim to Mother’s mind control, yet this reaffirms how alien grown ups can seem to teenagers – to submit to the ways of older generations would literally mean surrendering their souls!

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The fact that the suffocating lifestyles imposed upon teenagers by adults is aligned with the apparent restrictive nature of traditional superhero comics is evident as the Uncanny Avengers return Billy and Teddy to Mother, who promptly summons an empty panel into which the youths are thrown. The next two pages present grids of nine blank panels that act as prison cells for Billy and Teddy, effectively trapping them in a standardised page layout that grants little room to manoeuvre. When Loki rescues Billy the two crawl outside the panels and scale down the page as they locate Teddy’s cell. It is a perfectly executed metaphor for the youths escaping the conventions that long-established superheroes impose on them, finding their own space outside of the confines in which their elders exist.

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The desire for Young Avengers to operate apart from the core of the Marvel Universe was announced in a prelude to the series in Marvel Now! Point One, when Loki presents to the reader a leaflet recruiting a feisty young team and committed readership. Along the bottom reads ‘be there or be involved in a string of massive corporate crossover events for your entire run’. This references the fact that Gillen’s Journey into Mystery initiated as a tie-in to the Fear Itself crossover event, and throughout its two year course got pulled into two other, smaller crossovers. Loki’s leaflet therefore expresses the wish for a readership large enough to not need boosting by sharing narratives with other comics to attract their readers, and a request for Marvel to allow Young Avengers to operate autonomously. I am sure the irony of declaring this in Point One, easily one of Marvel’s most blatantly corporate schemes in which fans pay double the price of a standard comic for a selection of previews and preludes lest they miss key plot points, is not lost on Gillen.

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This sense of Young Avengers operating on the outskirts of the Marvel Universe resonates throughout the comic. In representing the different phenomena with which contemporary youth culture interact the series looks outward. This is exhibited in its deployment of pop-culture references. While Billy and Teddy’s fanboy obsessions in the original series comprise of an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marvel superheroes, their fandom now embraces external fantasy universes like those in Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. In relating their circumstances to those featured in their favourite franchises, Billy and Teddy enact the kind of discourse occurring on internet forums as fan communities compare different fictional universes.

An even more explicit simulation of fan activity occurs on the ‘recap’ pages at the start of each issue. These remediate the interface of a Tumblr feed, on which a conversation between fans summarises previous events. This humorously and affectionately parodies the following Gillen’s Journey into Mystery accumulated on Tumblr, encouraging further activity on social media while merging the reader’s world with that of the Young Avengers. For a narrative that traverses different dimensions, featuring a god able to manipulate diegetic conventions, what’s stopping turning the fourth wall into a passageway?

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The portal from comic page to external media is breached further through Noh-Varr providing soundtracks to specific sequences. The song he plays after Kate awakes, ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes, is detailed on the credits page, while the record he puts on midway through a slickly choreographed extermination of a club full of parasites is listed as ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ by Candi Staton. This echoes devices used to infuse Phonogram with music, such as deploying the iconography of famous album covers and naming issues after songs that resonate within the narrative. For readers unfamiliar with the tracks, and therefore unable to “play” them in their heads, seeking out music online has never been simpler. YouTube videos for the tracks on Noh-Varr’s playlist are becoming another virtual space in which Young Avengers fans can congregate. Due to this, the comments below a video for ‘Be My Baby’ include Young Avengers fans trading jokes such as ‘Who else saw the beautiful alien boy dance?’ and ‘i was enjoying this song. at which point, the Skrulls attacked’ (responded to by ‘I’m sure you’ll do just fine in vanquishing them, err..; Norman?’). Meanwhile, comments on ‘Young Hearts Run Free’ such as ‘Who else is here because of Young Avengers?’ and ‘im with some of you, being here because of young avengers. im so glad i did’ demonstrate fans reaching out to one another through this periphery channel.

As Young Avengers accumulates narrative and extra-textual layers it enacts exchanges with technological and cultural phenomena with which contemporary youth culture are engaged. It is therefore able to successfully assimilate into these cultural spaces, while providing a shrewd and witty commentary on them. Yet our reality is only one of many that Gillen and McKelvie’s narrative intersects, as endless worlds are presented in the different dimensions glimpsed, while conventions of superhero comics are playfully flaunted. This rich interaction of different elements is thoroughly entertaining, a reflection of both the tumultuous nature of teenage life and thrills it entails.

ABOUT

James Taylor is in the first year of his PhD at the University of Warwick’s Film and Television department. His doctoral thesis studies the adaptation of the superhero genre from comic book to film. Other academic interests include comic studies, media convergence and science fiction cinema/TV.