A Scary Culture (The Last War in Albion Part 36: Skizz, E.T., and Margaret Thatcher)

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This is the first of six parts of Chapter Six of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work on Skizz and D.R. & Quinch  for 2000 AD. An ebook omnibus of all six parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords  for $2.99. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help ensure its continuation. The Last War in Albion now also has animageblog on Tumblr

The stories discussed in this chapter are available in the collections Skizz and The Complete D.R. & Quinch.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore finally got a regular strip in 2000 AD with Skizz, conceived of as a clone of E.T. Unfortunately, Moore had to write it before E.T. actually came out in the UK, thus leaving him with the unenviable task of ripping off something he hadn't seen. 

"England was a scary place. No wonder it produced a scary culture." - Warren Ellis, Planetary #7

“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” tells the story of a winged man who crashes to ground in the courtyard of Pelayo and Elisenda. But the story focuses resolutely on Pelayo and Elisenda’s experience and not on the nature of the winged man in their courtyard. Its memorable first paragraph carefully holds the titular detail back until the end so that it becomes just one of a host of details about their lives. “On the third day of rain,” Márquez writes, “they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench.” Only at the end of the paragraph about this rainstorm does the narration turn to the fact that there was “ a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn't get up, impeded by his enormous wings.” The story never moves beyond this approach: the nature of the old man is not explored. Instead the story tells of how Elisenda thinks to charge for admission to see the old man, who is proclaimed over the objections of the local priest to be an angel. But over time the old man becomes commonplace - his status as the town’s star attraction is usurped by a “woman who had been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents,” and who had none of the old man’s reticence about being a carnival attraction. The old man, meanwhile, only musters up a few odd miracles “like the blind man who didn't recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn't get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers.” In time he convalesces and flies away without explanation, and the story ends, never having stopped to consider much of anything beyond the question of what it is like for a poor family to have an old man with wings literally crash into their lives. 

Figure 267: Central to the concept of E.T. is the practice of
juxtaposing E.T. himself with the domestic normality of the
early 1980s, an essentially magically realist approach.
The influence of this approach on E.T. is clear enough. E.T. is a movie interested not in the alien, but on the way in which Eliot and his family’s lives change upon meeting the alien. This is not, it must be reiterated, due to Spielberg not being a sci-fi person. Spielberg’s later career, and indeed his earlier one both make clear that he has the same instinctual understanding of science fiction that Moore’s jargon-laced intro to Skizz assumes. But for E.T. he sets this aside and tells a story in a magical realist mode, albeit one that eschews the cynicism of Márquez’s quasi-angel in favor of an unabashed embrace of childlike wonder. 

Figure 268: The introduction of Roxy at the start of the third
installment of Skizz (Written by Alan Moore, art by Jim Baikie,
from 2000 AD #310, 1983)
Moore, however, changes things significantly. The biggest change stems from the nature of the human character encountered by the alien. Eliot is a ten-year-old boy, whereas Roxy is a fifteen-year-old girl. The difference is massive - the reader is first introduced to Roxy rejecting the advances of a boy outside her window - a boy she later decks when he spreads the story that he’d spent the weekend at her place while her parents were out of town. The decision to position Roxy as a character who has come of age changes the narrative considerably. Where E.T. is about a figure of innocence encountering wondrous things, Skizz is about a character who is defined not by her innocence but by her ethics and compassion. Eliot investigates E.T. further because he’s curious. Roxy, meanwhile, takes in Skizz and cares for him for no seeming reason other than kindness and the desire to help. 

Figure 269: The first page of Monster, a serial for
IPC's Scream, and one of only a handful of times
Moore has written something from a child's point
of view. Moore departed the strip after the first
installment. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Heinzl, Scream #1, 1984)
It is notable that one can scour Alan Moore’s career at considerable length and find few if any examples of Moore writing something from the perspective of a child. When he deals with childhood as a theme, as in Lost Girls or The Birth Caul it is almost always in retrospect - childhood is looked back on from a position of adulthood. The only real exception is the first installment of Monster, a serial for the IPC magazine Scream about a twelve-year-old boy’s attempts to hide his deformed and puissant Uncle Terry in the attic, and it is notable that after penning the first installment Moore departed the strip and was replaced by John Wagner. And so the idea that Moore would go with the same “boy and his alien” plot of E.T. was always a stretch. 

In the absence of a plot centered on the experience of gazing upon the alien, then, Moore provides a story about an alien’s perspective on the ordinary world. Skizz reacts with horror and fear at his surroundings, recoiling as he watches some punks stumble out of a pub and fight, begging to himself, “oh no, please. Don’t let it be! Don’t let them be that primitive!” Even after he meets Roxy he’s afraid - he accidentally burns himself on a cup of coffee she gives him, and as he screams the captions note that “it hurt him. He knew it. He knew the creature would try to hurt him.” As Roxy yells in frustration at the coffee stain on her carpet, Skizz cowers in the corner, looking at Roxy and thinking, “here it comes. The animal’s teeth are bared… the sharp teeth of a meat-eater. Its paws clench into clubs. Its posture radiates hostility. It’s going to kill him. Perhaps its going to eat him…” And even after Skizz learns English and firmly befriends Roxy, the story repeatedly reverts to his perspective in order to shed light on the world he has come to inhabit. 

But ultimately, the influence of E.T. on Skizz is one of iconography, and any similarities really do amount to there being certain things that are reasonably obvious aspects of the “alien lost on Earth and befriended by a young innocent” plot. In terms of things Moore consciously drew on in writing Skizz the obvious point of influence is, as mentioned, Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff. It is not that Blesadale is a major influence on the plot - that would, in truth, be difficult. Rather, Bleasdale has visible influence on the tone Moore adopted in writing Skizz. To fully understand the tone of Boys from the Blackstuff, however, it is necessary to understand the tone of 1982 in Great Britain. By 1982, Britain was entering the heights of Thatcherism.

Figure 270: Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher, born Margaret Hilda Roberts, was the daughter of a grocery shop owner in Lincolnshire who started her political career running doomed campaigns for a safe Labour seat in Kent, and who finally got handed the safe conservative seat of Finchley in 1958. After twelve years of rising through the ranks of the Conservative Party she became Education Secretary in 1970 when Edward Heath unseated the Wilson government. In that capacity she decided to cut education spending by ending the free milk program for children between the ages of seven and eleven, resulting in the tabloid nickname of Thatcher the Milk Snatcher.” Despite, or perhaps because of this reputation, she was elected Leader of the Conservative party in 1975 after Heath’s Government fell the year before due largely to the Heath government’s unsuccessful navigation of the energy crisis caused by the 1973 strike of the National Union of Miners. 

In May 1979, two days before the publication of the sixth installment of Roscoe Moscow: Who Killed Rock n’ Roll, following the collapse of the Labour-led Callaghan government in the face of the so-called Winter of Discontent, in which a series of industrial disputes led to widespread uncertainty, culminating in an unofficial strike of the gravediggers in Liverpool that resulted in 150 bodies being stored in a warehouse in Speke and the perhaps ill-advised decision for a mid-level bureaucrat in the Liverpool health system to publicly speculate that if the strike continued they might have to take up burial at sea, as well as a London waste collector’s strike that resulted in Leicester Square in the heart of the West End of London being used as a temporary garbage dump by the city’s Conservative-led council, Margaret Thatcher became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a position she would hold until her ouster in a 1990 party coup. 

Thatcher holds the interesting distinction of being the political figure with the most pop songs celebrating her death written while she was still alive. Morrissey closed his first solo album, Viva Hate, with “Margaret at the Guillotine,” asking insistently “when will you die,” while Elvis Costello vowed to stand on her grave and “Tramp the Dirt Down” on his 1989 Spike. Pete Wylie and Hefner had the similarly titled “The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies” and “The Day that Thatcher Dies,” the latter of which’s interpolation of “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead” from The Wizard of Oz inspired the movement to get that song to chart the week of her death in 2013, getting it to number two and forcing the BBC to awkwardly explain why a song from a 1939 film was playing in the chart countdown between Duke Dumont and Pink. The experience of living under Thatcherism has been memorably described by Warren Ellis on more than one occasion, including his claim that “we would look out the window every morning to make sure the bitch hadn’t put Daleks in the streets yet,” and all of Alan Moore, Jamie Delano, and Grant Morrison at various times heaped indignities on her in their work. 

Figure 271: The remnants of a barricade erected on Upper
Parliament Street in Liverpool during the 1981 Toxteth
riots.
Neither Boys from the Blackstuff nor Skizz depict Thatcher directly, but both are deeply informed by the cultural mood that her Premiership instilled. The earliest years of the Thatcher era began with massive unemployment due to Thatcher’s decision to prioritize monetary policy to employment in her economic strategy. By the summer of 1981, as riots began breaking out in particularly hard-hit areas such as Brixton, unemployment had surged to over eleven percent, over triple what it had been a decade ago, and double what it had been just two years earlier as Moore was starting his professional comics career. Some of Thatcher’s political advisers suggested partially evacuating Liverpool, where the July Toxteth riots hit, and to allow it to fall into “managed decline,” a proposal that was ultimately rejected in favor of a hard-edged police response due in part to Thatcher’s belief that the rioters showed excessive hostility to the police, whose repeated racial profiling of Toxteth youth was widely credited for the toxic environment out of which the riots sprung, and whose tactics to manage the riot involved driving vehicles into the crowds at high speeds. 

Figure 272: The Sun treated the death of 323
Argentinians on board the retreating ARA
General Belgrano with its usual tact and
sensitivity.
In April of 1982, the same month as the second issue of Warrior hit, Thatcher’s government entered a war with Argentina over the ownership of some south-Atlantic islands settled in the 18th century called, alternately, the Falkland Islands or, to the Argentinians, the Malvinas. The conflict, memorably described by Borges as “a fight between two bald men over a comb,” was nevertheless one of the defining events of 1982. Argentina’s post-Peron military junta, also suffering from an economic recession, contrived to invade the islands in an attempt to bolster patriotic sentiment and on the assumption that the UK would not respond militarily. Thatcher proved these assumptions wrong, kicking off a two-month war in which just a bit over nine hundred people died, most of them Argentinian, and nearly half of those in the controversial sinking of the ARA General Belgrano. The Falklands War, named, inevitably, by the victor, was viewed by many on the political left as a craven but ultimately successful ploy to win back popularity lost to Thatcher due to the unemployment rate, by then up to 12.6% and on its way to a high of 14%, including by one “Jill de Ray,” who satirized events in the comic strip Maxwell the Magic Cat for the Nohants Post. Thatcher, in any case, won re-election handily the same week that Prog 320 of 2000 AD came out, featuring Moore’s “Ring Road” Time Twister and the thirteenth installment of Skizz, in which Roxy begs Cornelius and Loz to help her rescue Skizz from the government.

Boys from the Blackstuff is a prime example of the grand BBC tradition of creating social realist dramas to highlight the conditions faced by marginalized members of society, a style of television whose pinnacle was the 1966 television play Cathy Come Home, an early work by filmmaker Ken Loach that documented the eponymous Cathy’s slow descent into poverty and homelessness, culminating in a shockingly upsetting scene in which Cathy’s children are seized by social services in the middle of a railway station. Boys from the Blackstuff actually predates the Thatcher era slightly - it originated as simply The Black Stuff: 1978-produced and 1980-aired episode of the Play for Today anthology, a series of television plays. The series was the successor to The Wednesday Play, the banner under which Cathy Come Home came out, and differed mainly in that it did not always air on Wednesdays, and featured work by numerous high-profile British writers, often, though by no means always with a focus on social realism. This was certainly the tradition that Alan Bleasdale’s The Black Stuff came out of. The Black Stuff featured six tarmac layers from Liverpool working in Middlesbrough and getting drawn into a scam working a second, non-union job, that results in them getting sacked. After a 1981 stand-alone piece called The Muscle Market, the characters were brought back in 1982 for the five episode Boys from the Blackstuff. The first of these reintroduced the main characters from The Black Stuff, and the subsequent four each focused closely on a single character’s story. 


Figure 273: Yosser Hughes, as played by Bernard Hill in
Boys from the Black Stuff.
As with The Black Stuff, the point of Boys from the Blackstuff was the depiction of the difficulty of working class existence at that particular moment of British history. It is not a show about diagnosing the underlying causes of unemployment - there are no thorough and informative debates over monetarism, or close-readings of Friedrich Hayek. It simply attempts to show the experience of living at the bottom of society when times are getting harder. Its iconic episode was its fourth, “Yosser’s Story,” which focused on Yosser Hughes, the character responsible for getting drawn into the scam back in The Black Stuff. [continued]

Comments

BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

Among premature celebrations of Thatcher's death we might include Lady Cynthia Fitzmilton in the original version of Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide. She's an obvious Thatcher clone who makes her debut at 9:02 in the first episode, here, where she is presiding over the destruction via eminent domain of the protagonist's house to build a bypass -- something the real Thatcher did a fair bit of. (How this wanton seizer and destroyer of private property got a reputation of being a free-marketer is a mystery, but that's another story.)

Adams introduces her with the comment: "Many of those listening to her speech would probably have experienced great satisfaction to know that in four minutes time she would evaporate into a whiff of hydrogen, ozone, and carbon monoxide."

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Wm Keith 3 years, 7 months ago

No. She's not anything like Thatcher, nor meant to be. She's county aristocracy, a well-born nonentity spouting platitudes.

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Nyq Only 3 years, 7 months ago

I concur - a variation of upper class twit. Thatcher was many things and many pejorative terms can be fairly applied to her but 'twit' wasn't one of them. Thatcher was far more populist also.
I suppose it could have been inspired by the pre-79 election Thatcher - but that doesn't count :)

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

Yes, she's aristocracy, but her attitudes are urban, not rural -- the attitudes of a visitor from the imperial capital ("what a great honour and a great privilege I think it must be, for you, the people of Cottington, to have this gleaming new motorway going through your cruddy little village" -- note "your," not "our") and not uncontroversial enough to be platitudes; she has Thatcher's faux-utopian technocratic boosterism, expressed in Thatcher's intonation. Plus the 1970s were a period in which Thatcher's party was supporting an aggressive program of roadbuilding via eminent domain over local protests. (Of course it got much worse once she was actually in power; she would soon be bragging without apparent irony about bringing Britain the greatest roadbuilding program since the Romans.)

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

a variation of upper class twit

The character seems more arrogant and contemptuous than merely twittish to me.

I suppose it could have been inspired by the pre-79 election Thatcher

Well, the show premiered in 1978, so pre-election Thatcher is the only Thatcher available for satire. I reckon the satire would have been more pointed and direct if the show had aired a year or two later.

but that doesn't count

I am the Count, I love to count.

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Wm Keith 3 years, 7 months ago

I feel very proud to have been a part of this very special and worthwhile comment thread. It has been an honour and a privilege.

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Whittso 3 years, 7 months ago

Is it me, or is Alan Moore a big Police fan?

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

I am proud and humbled. 'Cause those mean the same thing nowadays.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

Anarchists love them some cops.

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Whittso 3 years, 7 months ago

I suspect people know this, but for avoidance of doubt, I meant the Police as in Sting as in Gordon Sumner. Not the law enforcing arm of state.

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Alex 3 years, 7 months ago

But as the text itself states, Madness is preferable to the Police...

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