I'm At An Impressionable Age (The Last War in Albion Part 37: Boys from the Blackstuff, Skizz, D.R. & Quinch, O.C. and Stiggs)

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This is the third 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 an imageblog 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, in which he combined the basic premise of the still forthcoming E.T. with the atmosphere of Alan Bleasdale's then-popular television series Boys From the Blackstuff.

"I could still walk away from this. I could say I was kidnapped. I could say I was forced to do things. I'm at an impressionable age. And I haven't killed anyone. Not yet." - Grant Morrison, Kill Your Boyfriend

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.

Figure 274: The final image of "Yosser's Story" is a freeze
frame on Yosser's grotesquely contorted anguish at his own
survival.
In “Yosser’s Story” he is reduced to a broken shell of a man, and, over the course of the hour-long episode, broken down further as his children are taken away and he continues to fail to find employment. The character becomes steadily unhinged and erratic, unable or unwilling to grasp that his increasing desperation is making his situation worse at every turn. The episode culminates with Yosser attempting suicide by jumping into a lake, only to be hauled out by the police, the final shot being his face as he screams in horror at realizing he’s survived.

Figure 275: Desperate Dan (From The
Dandy
 #1258, 1966)
“Yosser’s Story” works by combining this brutally bleak story with the superlative acting of Bernard Hill, who sells the anguish of a simple man who never had much trying to make sense of having it all taken away from him. Hill’s performance makes Yosser at once pathetic and eminently quotable, especially with Bleasdale’s deft use of the catchphrases “Gizza job,” (that is, “give us a job”) and “I can do that,” often spoken in rapid succession as he fruitlessly hounds someone for employment. The episode is also rife with deliciously bleak humor, such as a scene in which Yosser goes to a priest, pleading, “I’m desperate, father!” The priest says to call him Dan, and so Yosser, obligingly, declares, “I’m desperate, Dan!” The result was in effect Cathy Come Home for the 80s - a story of tragic circumstance, only now with a frenzied, grim sense of humor and the sense that the entire world is coming unglued. 

For all that Moore emphasizes the influence of Boys from the Blackstuff on Skizz, it must be said that the influence is not a general one. In reality there is only one close point of comparison, and that is the character of Cornelius, who is a wholesale ripoff of Yosser Hughes. Instead of saying “gizza job” and “I can do that,” Cornelius’s catchphrase is “I’ve got my pride,” and he lacks Bernard Hill’s distinctive moustache, but the underlying concept is the same - Cornelius has lost his job as a pipe-fitter, and seems constantly on the brink of a complete breakdown, a line he nearly crosses on more than one occasion in the comic. Indeed, this seems the major underlying concept of Skizz - to take E.T. and have him meet Yosser Hughes from Boys From the Blackstuff.

This collision of genres, however, has more of a consequence on the tone of the story than might be immediately apparent. For all that Skizz does, in fact, share the same basic plot structure as E.T., the fact that one is a movie about childish wonder in suburban America while the other is about the bleak pointlessness of coming of age in Thatcher’s Britain has considerable impact on the way that the two stories function. The sense of childlike wonder that E.T. is based around simply cannot plausibly exist in a world like Bleasdale’s, and Skizz exists to demonstrate this, demanding, in effect, a different and more cynical take on the alien/human encounter. 

Figure 276: Cornelius's improbable resurrection,
pride and all. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Jim
Baikie, from 2000 AD #330, 1983)
The best moments of this come when Skizz takes moments from Boys from the Blackstuff and refactors it into being about aliens. So instead of a moving sequence where Yosser finally speaks out loud his growing understanding that the world is broken and failing him, declaring that “the trouble is, most of us either talk to ourselves or through our ass. I found that out. I’m thirty-six years old and I found that out. Unless you’re somebody.” Instead of having this sort of personal revelation in the back of a squad care, however, Cornelius has it when asked by Roxy to help rescue Skizz from a government facility. “I didn’t understand before,” he says, “but I do now. It’s great when you can understand things. I can’t understand things at all. When I can, it’s great. That’s why I feel sorry for your mate. I bet there’s lots of things that he can’t understand. There’s lots of things I can’t understand, and I live here.” Similarly, Yosser’s ending - an attempted suicide that he comes back from - is mirrored in Cornelius’s. In the penultimate installment, he’s shot, apparently fatally, but then, improbably comes back in the next issue to defeat the story’s main villain. In both cases, there’s a strange and uncanny comedy to it . The tropes of the working class social realist drama playing out on a sci-fi scale are not entirely out of keeping with Bleasdale’s own sense of humor.

Figure 277: Cornelius Cardew knows the
score. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Jim
Baikie, from 2000 AD #225, 1983)
But the moments taken directly from E.T. are changed too. E.T. is a coming of age story - the alien serves as a vehicle for Eliot to transform himself into, if not an adult, at least an altogether more mature character. Skizz, on the other hand, rejects the idea that encountering the alien might present some sort of transformative experience. Nothing in the end of the story gives any real indication that Roxy’s life, or indeed anyone else’s, is going to be changed by having met Skizz. Cornelius still doesn’t have a job, Roxy is still fifteen and growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, and though one nasty and sadistic government employee is summarily thrown off a bridge by Cornelius, one does not get the sense that this has effected any lasting change. Where there has been a change, such as with Cornelius’s epiphany that “there’s nothing as important” as outer space, “not even pipe-fitting!”, the change is pointedly useless. Cornelius is still on Earth at the end of the story, and while he may understand the vital importance of outer space, such importance is as inaccessible to him as Where Eliot has had a moving coming of age story, everyone involved in Skizz seems to have been left completely unchanged by the experience. This is, of course, in keeping with the tone of socially realist dramas like Boys from the Blackstuff.

The problem is that it’s not a terribly satisfying ending. Moore is trying to merge two very different plot structures with actively conflicting needs. Boys from the Blackstuff-style social realism is fundamentally a story of inertia. The entire point of sternly depicting the awful conditions of working class folk in the north is to present the problem as intractable so that the viewing audience is moved to care about and engage with the real world. An ending based on the transformative properties of an alien who descends from the sky is the exact opposite of what a story like Yosser Hughes’s demands. E.T., on the other hand, is at its heart still a sci-fi film in the Joseph Campbell/Hero’s Journey tradition, hitting all the requisite plot beats with banal methodicism. In that story the entire point is that Eliot is forever changed by his encounter with the alien and that he will now return to his life having grown up. That’s what a coming of age story (which is really the plot structure the Hero’s Journey is meant to emulate) does, just as surely as a socially realist story depicts inescapable conditions. And Moore is stuck trying to make both outcomes work.

Figure 278: The editorially mandated mawkish
sentimentality of Skizz's conclusion made Moore
fear to go out in working class neighborhoods of
Northampton lest he be beaten up. (Somewhat
written by Alan Moore, art by Jim Baikie, from
2000 AD #330, 1983)
Moore’s ending, in which Skizz is rescued at the climactic moment by the confluence of Cornelius’s unexpected lack of being dead and the arrival of a spaceship of Tau-Cetians to rescue him, ultimately fails to hit the balance. Moore has complained in interviews of the editorial interference that led to the insertion of dialogue over his planned wordless parting between Roxy and Skizz. As Moore describes it, “I just wanted them to look at each other, then he reaches forward, and they just kiss each other, and then he’s gone. There’s no words at all.” Instead, however, Skizz begins to say something to Roxy, and Roxy replies, “No words, Skizz. Just… farewell.” As Moore puts it, “can you imagine that a big, strapping, working-class lad like myself would write dialogue like that!? What really rankled me was that my name was on the script. People were going to believe that I wrote, ‘No words, Skizz. Just farewell.’ They’re gonna beat me up in the street.” 

Moore is not wrong that the altered dialogue is banal, trite, and moronic - not least because “farewell” is, in point of fact, a word. But Moore’s concern over the possibility of being jumped by a mob of working class comics fans from the Boroughs are surely not helped by the ending he did write one page later, in which Skizz explains humanity to his rescuers, saying that “they were cruel and ugly. There was so much hate and despair… and so much love. What are they like, Shipmaster? I will tell you. Some of them have style. And some of them have their pride. And some of them… some of them are stars.” While it is true that this monologue, unlike the editorially inserted dialogue between Roxy and Skizz, moves along with Moore’s trademark well-metered lilt (note in particular the repetition of “some of them” in the closing sentences), the fact is that it is not actually any less mawkish.

Figure 279: Moore was not the only 2000 AD writer to
draw inspiration from Boys from the Blackstuff. (From
"I Could Do That," written by Alan Grant [as J.D. Kronk],
art by Mike White, in 2000 AD #321, 1983)
The real problem is that Moore, in this ending, completely fails to live up to the satirical promise that drew him to 2000 AD in the first place. It is worth comparing the ending of Skizz to the iconic Robot Wars storyline that was running in the magazine when Moore discovered it in 1977. The Robot Wars memorably ended with the messianic robot liberator Call Me Kenneth being thoroughly defeated by Judge Dredd, who emphatically reestablishes slavery for robots. The satirical bite was ferocious: the story pretends to be a story about the merits of law and order and tough policing, but that reading falls apart upon inspection, revealing the degree to which the protagonist is the clear villain of the piece. Moore certainly could have come up with a similarly embittered ending in which the naively innocent coming of age drama runs painfully aground against the reality of Thatcher’s Britain and comes undone. But instead Moore embraced the sentimentality of E.T. over the spiky anger of Boys from the Blackstuff and ended up with a mediocrity.

It must be remembered, however, that while Skizz was Moore’s fourth ongoing strip to start, it is notable for being the first one to end. Moore would not have to deal with the prospect of wrapping up Marvelman or V for Vendetta until 1989, and his run on Captain Britain extended to 1984. Skizz, on the other hand, wrapped in August of 1983, five months after it started. At ninety-four pages, it was by some margin the longest thing he’d ever tried wrapping up aside from his humor strips for Sounds, which are a fundamentally different sort of narrative. Much as his early Star Wars strip “The Pandora Effect” suffered from his obvious floundering at the length, Skizz shows a writer encountering an ending outside the context of short twist-of-fate stories for the first time and not quite making it. (Though truth be told, the accusation that endings are something of a weak point for Moore is not especially hard to back up with evidence - even among Moore’s agreed upon classics it is notable that the iconic moments tend to come somewhat early in the narratives. Eddie Campbell has suggested that Alan Moore “tends to trail off towards the end of the project” in terms of his speed in writing, and Lance Parkin has pointed out the way in which the scripts for Watchmen tended to get shorter as the series progressed.) 

Figure 280: Skizz made an unremarkable return
to 2000 AD in 1992.
Given this, the degree to which he flounders is impressive in its triviality. Moore’s only real failing with Skizz is that the two aggressively different narratives he mashes up don’t quite cohere in the ending. The strip is by no means a classic of the medium, but it’s good enough that 2000 AD’s various owners over the years have been able to turn a reasonable profit selling it as a historical curiosity, and that Jim Baikie produced two (entirely forgettable) sequels as a writer-artist in the early 1990s. Certainly the strip has moments of real and impressive quality, even if the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. 

If Skizz is ultimately hampered by its satirical toothlessness, Moore’s other early ongoing for 2000 AD, D.R. & Quinch goes a long way towards satisfying the criticism. That said, it is not entirely straightforward to call D.R. & Quinch an ongoing series. In most regards it is closer to the Abelard Snazz stories - a series of short stories featuring a recurring set of characters and a common underlying gag. There are in fact six distinct D.R. & Quinch stories, ranging in length from a single installment to a pair of five-parters, “D.R. & Quinch Get Drafted” and “D.R. & Quinch go to Hollywood.” The strip’s longest sustained run was a stretch of three stories that ran over ten consecutive issues in 1984, starting with “D.R. & Quinch Go Straight,” which began in Prog 350, and ending with the last part of “D.R. & Quinch Get Drafted” in Prog 359. 

Figure 281: The not entirely sympathetic introduction of D.R. and Quinch.
(From "D.R. & Quinch Have Fun on Earth," written by Alan Moore [as E.E.
Quinch], art by Alan Davis, in 2000 AD #317, 1983)
The strip’s origins, however, come in Prog 317 in 1983, where, alongside one of the middle installments of Skizz, Moore penned what at the time appeared to be a perfectly ordinary Time Twister entitled “D.R. & Quinch Have Fun on Earth.” Over six pages, it tells the story of Ernie Quinch (who notes, “my psychiatrist says I’m a psychotic deviant. But that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person, right?”) and his friend Waldo “D.R” Dobbs (the D.R. is for “diminished responsibility”) as they take an elaborate sort of revenge on Dean Fusk, who suspended the pair from college when he “found all the fur-coats and lasers” that Quinch had been hiding in his locker. Their scheme involves traveling back in time for several pages of sociopathic fun that incidentally results in orchestrating the entire history of Earth: shaping the continents with “a thermo-nuclear bazooka,” teaching neanderthals to beat each other up, and trying to grab aircraft with a tractor beam off the coast of Bermuda, which mostly just results in the aircraft being destroyed. At the end it turns out that the result of their interference is that humanity is having their first encounter with aliens, resulting in a big reception that Dean Fusk is attending. It further turns out that the shape of the continents on Earth spells out several nasty messages about Dean Fusk, resulting in the atomization of Earth and D.R. and Quinch being readmitted to college due to the suspicion that Fusk planted the evidence in Quinch’s locker. 

Figure 282: D.R. & Quinch without a thermonuclear capacity
(From The Beano #1345, 1968)
Several influences collide in “D.R. & Quinch Have Fun on Earth.” The first is, as Moore himself puts it, “the great British comic tradition of making heroes out of juvenile delinquents; If you imagine Dennis the Menace with a thermonuclear capacity, you’re probably pretty close to the idea of D.R. & Quinch.” But there is more to the conceit than just that. Dennis the Menace itself belongs to the tradition of British children’s comics such as The Beano and The Dandy that Moore described as being about “working class children in working class environments, and generally being spanked by their parents and teacher, which was a peculiar fixation.” Which is to say that the comics Moore is extending the logic of were largely about the restoration of order. Dennis the Menace or The Bash Street Kids work in a sort of carnivalesque tradition where the entertaining and chaotic antics of the title characters are a short-lived inversion of the social order that is fun while it lasts, but always corrected in the end so that everyone knows their place. But D.R. & Quinch makes no effort to restore the social order. It is not just that D.R. and Quinch use thermo-nuclear bazookas instead of just leaving people to trip on soap, but that the sheer extent of mayhem that they get up to removes all possibility of restoring order. The worst thing that Dennis the Menace is ever going to do to anybody is make them fall into a lake or get slightly mauled by wild animals, which, at least in the context of a comic strip, is hardly a ghastly fate. “D.R. & Quinch Have Fun on Earth,” on the other hand, culminates in the casual destruction of the planet. Giving them a spanking isn’t really a suitable restoration of order at that point.


Figure 283: The October 1982 issue of the
National Lampoon was dedicated entirely to
the adventures of O.C. and Stiggs, a stylistic
inspiration for Moore's D.R. & Quinch.
The second major influence is the National Lampoon’s recurring feature O.C. and Stiggs, an influence that D.R. & Quinch largely wears on its sleeve, or, at least, in its title. Like D.R. & Quinch, O.C. and Stiggs tells the story of two socially maladapted college students and their mayhem-causing adventures. For instance, at the start of their most iconic adventure, The Utterly Monstrous, Mind-Roasting Summer of O.C. and Stiggs, which took up the entire October 1982 issue of the National Lampoon, the narrator, O.C., describes “the small inconvenience of having to attend the wedding reception of Schwab's sister, Lenora, a totally white-skinned harpist and ballet deviate with nostrils that look like old-fashioned key holes, who never appears anywhere without a ribbon on her somewhere, usually on her head, and usually four or five of them.” [continued]

Comments

Carey 3 years, 3 months ago

But instead Moore embraced the sentimentality of E.T. over the spiky anger of Boys from the Blackstuff and ended up with a mediocrity.

I'd disagree with this. Skizz identifies one of the central messages that runs through all his best work: people are individuals, and the moment we categorise them (as unemployed, or a teenager, or an "enimal" to quote Skizz's central villain) we reduce them to at best commodities, at worst statistics. The answer to Thatcher wasn't the creation of a radical but reflective ideology, but to become nicer people. The central point of Skizz is the JG Ballard approach to science fiction: to treat humanity as aliens and explore who and what makes the best of them that way. For all that they end the series in the same geographical location that they begun in, the protagonists end the story as different people, and better people at that.

For a comic that was aimed at the time to adolescents, that's as radical a lesson as armed insurrection. And one that will probably lead to a better outcome.

2000ad for its first ten years very much had that in common with Doctor Who: for all that adults read or watched them, they were primarily aimed at reaching the younger section of the audience, and then adding further layers on top to appeal to the older section. One of the reasons that Doctor Who enjoyed such success upon its return in 2005 was the realisation that the youth audience is crucial, not least in the fact that they may become the adult fans of tomorrow. Tragically, from the early 90's onwards, 2000ad forgot this. The nadir came with the "All Sex Issue" ( http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_f5CeYHsQgt8/S4gJsYCufPI/AAAAAAAABns/QV-ByzuhxKs/s1600-h/1066.jpg ) in the late 90's, which got the comic permanently consigned to the top self of newsagents and far away from any youthful audience.

I was 14 when Skizz was serialised in 1983, and probably the right age for it-- to young to have watched Boys from the Blackstuff the year before (but not too young to be unaware of it or the furore that it created), and think the story perfectly crafted for exactly that age group. In many ways I feel it far more sophisticated than some of Moore's output from the last few years. At the very least, it lacks something that I feel has come to dominate his work: cynicism. For all it's faults, Skizz has optimism, and lacks irony. Something that I feel is a loss in Moore's work now.

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 3 months ago

Ah, D.R. and Quinch. Alan Moore has done deeper work, he has done more thoughtful work, he has done work of far greater artistic importance, but he has never, ever done anything even nearly as much fun.

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Tom 3 years, 3 months ago

In the context of Moore's work I think this is a fair assessment of Skizz - the ending is the weak part, with too many movie-style reversals of fortune: Cornelius sticking his wrench up through the window of the crashed van still makes me shiver, Cornelius climbing back up the overpass is a moment too far. You're right that ET vs Boys From The Blackstuff is an encounter that probably can't end well, but that's not the only genre encounter going on in Skizz, I think. Each of Skizz' three main human allies is stepping out of a different, very successful 80s TV program. Cornelius is Yosser Hughes. Loz is a Minder-style loveable wide boy/petty crook. Roxy is a Grange Hill age schoolkid. And they all get plots straight out of their shows - Loz with a comically OTT criminal scheme, Roxy with the soap-for-kids parents and pupils conflicts Phil Redwood pioneered on Grange Hill, Cornelius with the BFTB job-quest. So what the alien's arrival does is upset three different TV comedy-drama shows from their courses and bring them swirling together to beat Van Owen. That doesn't save the ending from your criticisms, but it makes the rest of the series a bit more intriguing.

From the perspective of 2000AD, meanwhile, Skizz was an absolute triumph, even beyond Moore being the best writer they had. 2000AD had basically avoided engagement with contemporary Britain - the residue from the ACTION! crisis, British comics' equivalent of the Hinchcliffe sacking - and had only featured a few present-day stories, mostly forced imports from other failed titles (eg The Mind Of Wolfie Smith). So Skizz' arrival in Birmingham is more startling than it reads on its own, and the comic is as uncompromising as Halo Jones would be in presenting adolescent boys with stuff they'd got used to not seeing. A female protagonist, obviously, and the reality of unemployment* but also little asides like namechecks of local reggae acts, and (very importantly) real-world politics without Dredd's veil of satire/allegory: given how cautious IPC sometimes were, I'm amazed and pleased Moore managed to get a racist white South African in as his villain, and make it clear that this is exactly why Van Owen is the villain. So a bleaker ending for Skizz might have made it a better Alan Moore comic, but would have been a disaster for 2000AD, sending the wrong signals about female leads and real-world politics in the comic. (Though this point is basically moot, given how almost nobody save Moore followed up on that.)

*though 82-ish 2000AD had a minor theme of employment as a source of stories. Behind all the rococo visual invention, Ace Trucking Co. is basically a story about cutting corners and blagging within a bureaucratic work environment, and had 2000AD's 'industrial action' story. Strontium Dog's central metaphor is of a minority doing the crap, dangerous jobs the privileged don't want. And it's the point in Judge Dredd's career where the satire is largely pointing away from the judges and out into the city, and Dredd is, more than at any other time, a guy doing a job and enjoying a bit of Sector House banter at the end of a case.

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Jesse 3 years, 3 months ago

I hope the next installment includes a long digression on Robert Altman's O.C. & Stiggs movie.

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Alan 3 years, 3 months ago

I saw the movie on VHS in 1988. Being a young college student in the 80's, I had no idea who Robert Altman was but assumed he was a no talent hack. Certainly, from watching the movie, I had no idea that it was based on a prior source, let alone one that was considered to be funny.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 3 months ago

"such importance is as inaccessible to him as "

As what? Something seems missing.

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tom jones 3 years, 3 months ago

The most depressing thing about Boys From The Blackstuff is that it was actually written in the late 70s. The first three episodes were written while Labour were still in power, according to Bleasdale.

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kodrati 1 year ago

I liked your blog, Take the time to visit the me and say that the change in design and meniu?

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