Alien Architecture (The Last War in Albion Part 91: Steve Parkhouse, Terraces)

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This is the third of eleven parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Ten, focusing on Alan Moore's Bojeffries Saga. An omnibus of all eleven parts is available on Smashwords. If you are a Kickstarter backer or a Patreon backer at $2 or higher per week, instructions on how to get your complimentary copy have been sent to you.

The Bojeffries Saga is available in a collected edition that can be purchased in the US or in the UK.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: The artist of The Bojeffries Saga, Steve Parkhouse, had a long and varied career in British comics, working, at various points, on Doctor Who, The Black Knight, and Night Raven.

"Alien architecture. Made by giants for a never-ending war. Perpetual war." - Grant Morrison, Nameless

Parkhouse, like his fellow Steve Moore, is one of the great strange men of British comics. Both serve to give the subtle and unsettling sense of the British comics industry prior to 1979 as a sort of graveyard of strange magicians, a vast collection of visionary weirdos content to be near-completely overlooked. Although Parkhouse does not share the Moores’ or Morrison’s active and public identification as a magician, he is as self-evidently one as exists. This is perhaps most clear in his often overlooked fantasy strip for Warrior, The Spiral Path. Like his Black Knight and Doctor Who work, there is an oddly shamanistic quality to The Spiral Path - it is a comic that is based heavily on intense visuals, at times at the expense of entirely clear plotting.

Figure 692: The ancient hill where Ruad hides Galbrain, one of many
lush and mythic landscapes in The Spiral Path. (By Steve Parkhouse, in
Warrior #1, 1982)
The Spiral Path is, on one level, a fairly straightforward bit of sword-and-sorcery fantasy in the tradition of Conan the Barbarian, or, to pick something perhaps somewhat closer to its conceptual terrain, Elric of Melniboné. It opens with a bombastic narration about how “the land of Tairngir had been invaded by hostile forces… after many years of battle, King Galbrain was deposed, his armies destroyed by magic and madness. Sick and dispirited, the King and a handful of warriors took flight and now approached the furthermost borders…” and the first installment largely focuses on Galbrain’s travels as he meets a druid, Ruad, who shelters Galbrain in “an old hill dwelling” full “of mine-workings and tunnels.” Galbrain obligingly retreats, at which point it is revealed that the armies that have been pursuing Galbrain have followed, and there are thousands marching upon the hill. 

Figure 693: Caed must kill the druid who saved him. (By Steve Parkhouse,
from The Spiral Path, in Warrior #4, 1982)
But the story this seems to set up - of a King fighting to reclaim Tairngir against seemingly insurmountable odds - never quite materializes. Galbrain is essentially absent from the remainder of the tale. The next two chapters focus primarily on the twin sacrifices of the druid, Ruad, who first sends his crow, Caed, to fly forth, tying a message to his leg and telling him to “bear this spell with you, in the hope it may reach the ears of the one who dreams us all… the one who may some day awaken,” and the warrior Nuada, who dies facing a fearsome giant. The story then drifts to cover the transformation of Caed from a crow to a human being with the help of a mysterious druid and his daughter. The druid, however, is killed in the attempt when he’s possessed by one of the lords pursuing Galbrain, the undead Artûk. And so the unnamed druid’s daughter, Bethbara, sets off with Caed to parts unknown, taking up another few installments, until they’re separated and have parallel mystical experiences. The strip ends, after twelve installments, with Caed slaying Artûk and, as prophecized, taking his place as a “king of terror and death” at the head of his undead army, while Bethbara becomes a queen of seemingly equal and opposite power. At the bottom of the last page, the caption proclaims, “Here ends the first twist in The Spiral Path - a sequel, The Silver Circle, may appear at a later date,” which, as it happens, it did not.

Figure 694: One of the mythic and surreal
landscapes of Caed's mystic vision. (From
Warrior #8, 1982)
Holding together this somewhat disjointed tale is Parkhouse’s moodily rich art, which makes rich use of dark blacks and thickly hatched shadow. Parkhouse favors a fairly wide angle on the action, confining closeups on his character’s faces mostly to small panels, with the majority positioning characters in the midground so as to allow him to fill his pages with lush portraits of his mythic landscape. This is punctuated by occasional bursts of mythic and symbol-laden surrealism, especially during the portion of the story in which Caed and Bethbara have their parallel vision quests, with Parkhouse working firmly in the same sort of ornate fantasy style that John Stokes used when illustrating his Black Knight strip in Hulk Comic, or that John Ridgway (who inked the final installment of The Spiral Path, presumably to help Parkhouse with the twin deadline of that and “The Rentman Cometh” for Warrior #12) would later provide for “Voyager” in Doctor Who Magazine

It is perhaps unsurprising that The Spiral Path is so untidy given the difficulties it gave Parkhouse, who described it as “a painful, lonely, and psychologically damaging experience.” He describes its method of composition bluntly: “no fucking script. I just drew the frames as they occurred to me. I hoped that some spirit would show through the agony - that I would be rescued by my guardians. It was a long, dark night of the soul that lasted over a year.” This is not, to be clear, simply hyperbole. The Spiral Path is a magical work in the same sense that The Birth Caul, The Invisibles, or Somnium are. Parkhouse explains that “Artûk, Lord of the Slain had appeared to me in a dream and nearly claimed my life. I tried to exorcise him by capturing him on paper - but I didn’t really get a handle on it. Part of me still shudders at the memory of The Spiral Path. I never worked that way again.”

Figure 695: Artûk, Lord of the Slain, who appeared to Parkhouse in a dream
and nearly killed him. (By Steve Parkhouse, from The Spiral Path in
Warrior #3, 1982)
And while Parkhouse may have been scared away from such overt magical workings by The Spiral Path, he winds his way through the future of the War. He eventually works with Grant Morrison on The Invisibles, penning one of its most memorable issues, “Best Man Fall,” a comic Parkhouse describes as “a tour-de-force” that “reinforced all my feelings that comics can compete with novels, TV and cinema as long as there is a writer of real quality at the helm,” as well as doing art for Big Dave during Morrison’s co-editorship of 2000 AD for the aptly named Summer Offensive, relishing the opportunity to return to the “controversial and contentious and largely satirical” tone of the classic Mills and Wagner strips for the magazine. And he makes a brief cameo on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, inking Michael Zulli’s pencils for the “Men of Good Fortune” fill-in within The Doll’s House arc, an experience he describes as “working like crazy to contain Michael Zulli’s manic pencilling. He pencils like a spider on speed.”

Figure 696: Trevor Inchmale's assymetrical glasses help him
be immediately recognizable as a character. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Steve Parkhouse, from "The Rentman Cometh," in Warrior
#12, 1983)
In terms of The Bojeffries Saga, Moore is unequivocal in his description of Parkhouse’s contributions, saying simply, “Steve Parkhouse is the main vision behind the strip.” Specifically, he reflects fondly on working with an artist “who grew up on the same Beano and Dandy illustrators that I did. You know, the Paddy Brennans and the Ken Reids and the Leo Baxendales, and who kind of worked that into their style.” And Parkhouse’s style for The Bojeffries Saga owes a clear debt to those illustrators, and particularly the cartooning tradition of those artists. The Bojeffries all generally have distinctive silhouettes and unique body shapes, from Glinda’s blocky frame and bowl haircut to Jobremus’s eternally slouched posture, along with little touches like Trevor Inchmale’s asymmetrical glasses rims. 

Figure 697: The Bojeffries Saga saw Steve Parkhouse put his skills at
drawing intricately shaded landscapes to use on the working class landscape
of England. (Written by Alan Moore, from "The Rentman Cometh" in Warrior
#12, 1983)
But Parkhouse’s art is doing something altogether subtler than this. Generally, the point of the distinctive silhouettes in cartooning is to facilitate the artist’s use of a simpler, cleaner line. If a character is recognizable simply by the outline of their head, simply put, one doesn’t have to make the other details of the character particularly ornate - an expressive set of eyes and a mouth will generally do. But Parkhouse, although his characters are visibly cartoonish, employs relatively detailed linework. In particular, Parkhouse continues to draw the richly detailed backgrounds that characterized his work on The Spiral Path, except that instead of drawing lush portraits of mythic Britain, Parkhouse is drawing sweeping landscapes of British urban sprawl. Indeed, Moore and Parkhouse open “The Rentman Cometh” in such a way as to focus on this, with three wide panels of Trevor Inchmale biking down the street followed by a double-sized establishing shot of the skyline, the terraced houses of the Bojeffries’ neighborhood giving way to tower blocks and industrial landscape in the background, all meticulously hatched and shaded.

Figure 698: Detailed panels of British
architecture are a mainstay of The Bojeffries
Saga
. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Parkhouse, from "Raoul's Night Out,"
in Warrior #20, 1984)
Similarly, the second Bojeffries story, “Raoul’s Night Out,” has a wide panel of a terrace skyline as its second panel, and another large architectural panel at the end of its first page, this time depicting the eccentric jumble of structures that make up the factory at which Raoul works. The story’s second part, meanwhile both opens and closes with a skyline panel, with caption boxes providing a wry narration of events. (“In the smeared and glimmering tooth-mub of the night, the moon hangs suspended like a partially dissolved Disprin…” the strip opens.) In fact, every installment of The Bojeffries Saga has at least one panel in which Parkhouse draws a wide shot of some architecture, generally, though not exclusively, terraces. The effect is to make a specific landscape of Britain as important and defining an element of The Bojeffries Saga as the actual characters.

It is therefore worth pausing to consider the nature of terraced housing, since it is so clearly a major signifier within The Bojeffries Saga. From a strictly architectural standpoint, terraced housing refers to rows of houses featuring identical floorplans and shared side walls, either “through terraces,” which had a back door, or “back-to-backs,” which share their back walls with the next row of houses down. However, for the purposes of The Bojeffries Saga, it is the social history of terraced housing that is more significant and revealing. The terraced style is associated with a particular period in the long history of British class relations, starting in the Victorian era when they were the preferred style for industrial revolution-era workers’ housing, particularly in the textile industry. Their existence was in many ways an extension of the basic logic the industrial revolution itself - an attempt to replace the slums with efficiently stamped out housing. The underlying ethos was Victorian in the extreme, harkening back to that old belief that that what poor people really need is to work hard - poorly constructed, dark, and small houses that served little purpose other than containing people who were not at that precise moment working. 

Figure 699: A street of English terraced houses.
The style took off in the wake of World War I, when the army discovered, to its alarm, that the fighting-age population of British cities was generally in appalling health, a state of affairs blamed on urban poverty, resulting in the Housing Act of 1919, which gave money to local authorities to construct new housing, leading to the rise of the council estate, which, at the time, was generally constructed in terraces. But in the wake of World War II and the extensive bomb damage to British cities a new vision of housing policy took hold, first with the New Towns Act in 1946, which, in Northampton at least, resulted in the abrupt bulldozing of the council estates in favor of new developments meant to attract a better sort of worker from London, and then, over the 1950s and 60s, in the steady turn towards the brutalist tower block. 

So for Moore and Parkhouse to actively invoke the terraces in 1983 was not merely a specific cultural reference, it was a specific cultural reference to a working class landscape that was already largely gone. Moore notes that one of his favorite things about The Bojeffries Saga is the way in which it serves as “a kind of history of British culture, the incidental British culture that is kind of embedded in that narrative. How long as it been since there was a rent man? Or giro checks? There’s all these things that don’t exist anymore.” Indeed, by the time of the last Bojeffries Saga story, this will largely become the explicit point of the series. But in many ways, it’s baked into the premise - from the start, the Bojeffries are an artifact of the past idiosyncratically embedded in the present. That’s the entire premise of “The Rentman Cometh”/“One of Our Rentmen is Missing” - that the Bojeffries have been living in their eccentric house for ninety years without paying rent or anyone noticing.

Figure 700: The indecipherable factory at which Raoul works. (From
Warrior #19, 1984)
The theme is similarly present in the second Bojeffries Saga story, “Raoul’s Night Out,” which, as the title suggests, the story’s primary focus is on Raoul, the werewolf, with only Jobremus and Glinda representing the rest of the Bojeffries clan, and only appearing on two of the twelve pages. The rest of the characters involved in the farce are Raoul’s coworkers at Slesidge & Harbuck Ltd. Staunchion Grinding and Light Filliping. Moore notes that the name was selected to evoke the experience of walking past factories where “you don’t know what they do in there, and you suspect the people who work there don’t know either,” an image that similarly evokes a sense of a rapidly disappearing past.

Figure 701: A single werewolf. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Steve Parkhouse, from "Raoul's Night Out" in
Warrior #20, 1984)
The story also marks a subtle evolution to the runderlying format of The Bojeffries Saga. The plot is still basically that of a farce, but instead of focusing on one character in a traditional “idiot” role, he layers together a set of absurd misunderstandings incorporating several characters, all of whom are, in their own ways, complete dunces. But what’s in many ways more important than the change in comedic structure is the nature of the characters involved.  The first story was, at the end of the day, essentially a Hogben story transplanted to working class Britain, with the focus firmly on the eccentric family and Trevor Inchmale as an intrusion from the mundane world. But “Raoul’s Night Out” is a story about working class Britain into which a single werewolf has been inserted. [continued]

Comments

Charles Knight 2 years, 2 months ago

Just as a minor point - if this is going to be collected as a book - I'd swap out the edwardian/victorian style terraces you have used as an image in this article - those types were generally not bulldozed and (depending on area) are highly desirable -You want a copyright free version of something like the following i think:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/pictures/9883749/Pound-land-derelict-houses-in-Liverpool-to-be-sold-for-just-one-pound.html?frame=2487430

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Archeology of the Future 2 years, 2 months ago

The nostalgia thing gets me with Bojeffries every single time. The one where they go on their summer holiday especially. It's the past as a place. The back to backs and factories were still there in many places in 1983 but their meaning was changing. They were beginning to lose their place as a kind of anchor of popular culture and being repurposed as something else, something less normal and homely and more disturbing and other as the texture of popular culture changed.

There's always something very seventies about Alan Moore in the way that there's always something very eighties about Grant Morrison.

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Corey Klemow 2 years, 2 months ago

Okay, I'll pop in to be the pedant:

You keep saying "Glinda." The delicate Ms. Bojeffries' name is "Ginda." No L.

http://www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog/previews/bojeffries/bojeffries_004.jpg

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Daru 2 years, 2 months ago

Yes that nostalgia of place is one of the things I really enjoy about Bojeffries too. I have a whole deep sense memory myself of the warehouse and factory buildings near the docks in Leith, Edinburgh where my father worked in the 70's/80's.

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Daru 2 years, 2 months ago

Really enjoying the exploration of Steve Parkhouse, who is a pretty underrated comic book artist/writer.

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