Magic Villages (The Last War in Albion Part 90: The Hogben Stories, Steve Parkhouse)

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This is the first of a currently unknown number (ten-ish?) of parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Ten, focusing on Alan Moore's Bojeffries Saga. An omnibus will be available as soon as possible - probably by next Friday, but the world is full of surprises. 

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: Among the many things that The Bojeffries Saga has been compared to is the work of the alternative comedy scene of the early 80s, particularly The Young Ones, a TV series that featured, among others, Alexei Sayle, who was vocally leftist in his politics, and saw alternative comedy as a vehicle for advancing those politics, occasionally leading him to butt heads with other members of the scene.

"See, this is my point. It's like all the small towns up here all think they're magic villages." -Warren Ellis, Blackcross

Figure 686: Ade Edmonson as Vyvyan Basterd in The Young
Ones
.
Sayle’s shock is not entirely fair (and it should be stressed that Sayle is clearly poking fun at his own political intransigence as much as he’s offering a serious history of the alternative comedy scene, describing how, upon turning up at the studio to discover the guest stars, he “railed at the writers,” saying, “The whole point of what we were doing was surely to challenge the smug hegemony of the Oxford, Cambridge, public-schoolboy comedy network, as well as destroying the old-school working men's club racists,” to which, in his telling, the writers replied “that was just you, we never subscribed to your demented class-war ravings”). It is, after all, not as though the alternative comics were by and large from less privileged backgrounds than their similarly transgressive predecessors in Monty Python. Rik Mayall (who wrote for the series and played the entitled anarchist asshole Rick) was born to a pair of drama teachers, while Ade Edmonson (who played the sociopathic punk Vyvyan Basterd) had an international upbringing living, among other places, in Bahrain, Cyprus, and Uganda before attending a private school, and both attended the University of Manchester, as rigorous an academic institution as exists in the UK. 

All the same, the cultural differences between the University of Manchester and Cambridge are genuine, and speak to a larger difference in approach between The Young Ones and Monty Python. The Young Ones is not, by and large, a show that concerns itself at all with the notion that there might be such a thing as the sane world. Its conflicts are generally between equally absurd figures, such as the eternal hatred between Rick and Vyv. Indeed, this gets at the heart of the comedy in The Young Ones, which is often about the ruthless mockery of the excesses and pretensions of the very left-wing politics that animate it. Instead of being a show that pokes fun at the absurdity of the larger world, it is a show that pokes fun at the absurdity of its own audience, skewering the punks and hippies that the show appeals to. And in this regard, at least, Lenny Henry’s comparison with The Bojeffries Saga is on target. What is crucial about The Bojeffries Saga is not, ultimately, its supernatural weirdness, but the conceit of this bizarre family living in terraced council housing. It is a setting that is heavily grounded in Moore’s own upbringing. As Moore put it, he was “trying to convey the sense of these working-class traditions that you were aware of but didn’t understand the reason for it. The normal rituals and traditions that came with an ordinary family life… it’s all autobiographical, in that all families look a bit weird and monstrous when you’re growing up in them.” 

Figure 687: The Addams Family as depicted by
their creator Charlie Addams.
This last notion - the idea of monstrous families - further highlights the fact that, for all that Warrior pushed the comparisons to British comedy, there are rather more obvious antecedents to The Bojeffries Saga. Many have pointed out the similarities to The Addams Family, which began as a series of cartoons in The New Yorker by Charles Addams before more famously receiving a television adaptation in the 1960s that ran for three years and sixty-five episodes on ABC, and to The Munsters, a fairly blatant knock-off on CBS from the same period. These similarities are, it’s true, fairly straightforward and obvious. All three are comedies focused on a supernaturally endowed family whose humor comes from juxtaposing the supernatural with the mundanities of everyday life. But they are far from the only three texts to mine that basic territory, and Moore, in interviews, has pointed to other sources, saying that “when thinking of influences, I’d have to include Henry Kuttner’s Hogben family stories,” and further admitting that “of course there were things like The Addams Family, The Munsters and all of those TV monster family shows, but the Henry Kuttner stories were probably at that point the predominant influence.”

Figure 688: Among Henry Kuttner's contributions to DC
Comics was "Doiby Dickles, the Human Bomb." (Written by
Henry Kuttner, art by Paul Reinman, from All-American Comics
#71, 1946)
Kuttner was an American writer who Moore elsewhere describes as “one of fantasy and science fiction’s most accomplished and intelligent voices, as well as one of its least celebrated.” This fact is not particularly hard to account for - his career only ran for twenty years before his death in 1958, and in addition to his own name he used seventeen separate pen names, a decision that makes Steve Moore’s in hindsight unfortunate decision to publish some of his best-known work under the Pedro Henry pseudonym look like a genius stroke of self-promotion. Despite the brevity of his career, Kuttner amassed a number of credits, both on his own and with his wife, C.L. Moore, who he met after sending her a fan letter under the mistaken assumption that she was a man, including a bevy of Golden Age Green Lantern stories. 

And Alan Moore is hardly the only writer to have a soft spot for Kuttner. Richard Matheson dedicated I Am Legend to him, Ray Bradbury credits him with a vital assist in one of his first stories, and dedicated his first short story collection to him, and Roger Zelazny cites his influence on his Amber series. More immediately relevant to the War, William S. Burroughs directly quotes Kuttner in The Tickert That Exploded, and Neil Gaiman, in 2013, took to Kickstarter to help fund a reprint of the Hogben stories that Moore cites as the major influence on The Bojeffries Saga. These consist of five stories - one in 1941 in which the Hogben family makes a small appearance, and then another four published over two years from 1947-49, one under his own name, and three more under the Lewis Padgett pseudonym he used for much of his work with his wife. 

Their premise is simple enough: they tell of the misadventures of the eponymous Hogbens, a group of genetically mutated hillbillies of somewhat mysterious origins, although it’s clear that they are centuries old based on Saunk Hogben’s narration whereby he mentions that “Maw always had a soft spot fer the man that helped us get outa London. Named Little Sam after him. I fergit what his name was. Gwynn or Stuart or Pepys - I get mixed up when I think back beyond the War between the States.” This sort of droll joke, trading on a narrator who understands the story he’s in less well than the reader, is the basic currency of the Hogben stories, which are full of vaguely implied jokes like the description that opens the second Hogben story, “Pile of Trouble”: “We called Lemuel ‘Gimpy’ on account of he had three legs.” (“Pile of Trouble” was, in fact, Gaiman’s first exposure to the Hogben stories, in Kuttner’s collection Ahead of Time. Gaiman recalls, “I don’t think I knew it was meant to be funny - all I know is that I loved it completely and utterly, that it became part of my personal mythology, and that the book vanished shortly after.”) It’s a style of humor that’s fairly similar to that of The Bojeffries Saga, with obvious similarities to, for instance, to Glinda’s casual declaration that “I can turn a cream egg into a diamond and then eat it anyway. I can arm-wrestle against the gravity-pull of a black hole. I’m infinitely powerful.”

Figure 689: "Exit the Professor" appeared in
a 1947 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.
But perhaps the most obvious connection between the Hogben stories and The Bojeffries Saga is simply in the basic plots of their respective first installments. The first proper Hogben story, “Exit the Professor,” concerns an encounter between the family and “Perfesser Thomas Galbraith” (as he’s referred to throughout the story), a biogeneticist from New York who, upon discovering the Hogbens, who is taken aback by the implications of their existence and who proclaims that “you’ve got to be studied, for the glory of science and the advancement of mankind.” This suggestion goes down poorly with the Hogbens, particularly with their grandfather, who proclaims that “none of you may go to this New York. The moment we leave this haven, the moment we are investigated, we are lost.” This sets off a chain of comic misadventure as Saunk attempts to get rid of the professor without violating the family’s promise to Sheriff Abernathy that they wouldn’t kill anyone “for a while, at least,” which finally culminates in the Hogbens shrinking Galbraith and stuffing him in a bottle. The similarities to the plot of “The Rentman Cometh”/“One of our Rentmen is Missing” are obvious: both serve to introduce their eccentric families through the eyes of a meddling outsider who is eventually and unusually disposed of via a dramatic transformation. And, given that Moore is open about Kuttner’s influence on The Bojeffries Saga, this is surely not an accident. 

But it is equally important to note that, for all the importance that the Hogben stories had on the early development of The Bojeffries Saga, the series quickly drifted. Originally, Moore was “planning on giving a tip of the hat to Henry Kuttner’s original story. I think we ran a preview that included a character called Hogben Henry, as we were still thinking of it as an episodic, continuing story. I think he was some sort of American cousin who would have turned up for an apocalyptic showdown in the final end of the arc.” But plans quickly changed. “As the story went on,” Moore explains, “I realized it was influenced a lot less by things like Kuttner or The Munsters or The Addams Family, but by a lot of the British absurdist playwrights of the 50s and 60s.” 

But while Kuttner’s influence on The Bojeffries Saga may have waned after the comic’s initial creation it is an influence that came full circle when Steve Parkhouse was tapped to provide illustrations for the Neil Gaiman-fronted reprinting of the Hogben stories in 2013. In one sense this was an odd fit. Yes, Parkhouse illustrated the Hogben-derived Bojeffries Saga, and has done numerous other pieces of humor work over the course of a long career, but given the idiosyncratically American tone of the Hogben stories, the selection of such an idiosyncratically and specifically British writer to illustrate the project is, on the surface, slightly strange. But then, that sort of thing basically defines Parkhouse’s career, which is one that has constantly flitted about the edges of the War thus far. 

Figure 690: Mythic Britain in Steve Parkhouse and John
Stoke's's The Black Knight. (From Hulk Comic #1, 1979)
It was also Parkhouse who penned the Black Knight strip in Hulk Comic that bridged the gap between the original Captain Britain comic created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe and the Dave Thorpe/Alan Davis revival that Alan Moore eventually took over. Parkhouse, for his part, was proud of the Black Knight work, talking about how he “wanted to claim back the characters from the Americans,” and recalling a “holiday on the Isles of Scilly, famed for their prehistoric burial grounds” where he sat “on a hjeadland gazing out to sea, with nothing but the open Atlantic between me and the Eastern seaboard of America; and the whole story landed in my lap. It seemed like fate. I’m in love with Britain and the British myths. It’s my link to the traditions of storytelling. The landscape holds the secrets of so much Celtic lore.” 

It was also Parkhouse who co-created Night Raven, a he is less fond of, calling it “silly and ill-considered,” while admitting, “I don’t care much for genre entertainment - but I’ll do it if I’m asked” and acknowledging that “David Lloyd seemed to get some kind of buzz out of it,” which perhaps illuminates part of the electricity of V for Vendetta, the strip Lloyd and Moore co-created to fulfill Dez Skinn’s brief of a Night Raven clone for Warrior.

Figure 691: The surreal imagery of Steve Parkhouse
and John Ridgway's Doctor Who story "Voyager." (From
Doctor Who Magazine #90, 1984)
And it was Parkhouse who assumed writing of the Doctor Who Monthly lead strip after the Moores’ acrimonious departure following their falling out with Alan McKenzie over Steve Moore’s writing of Absalom Daak features - a job that Alan Moore has suggested he was tacitly being set up to inherit from Steve Moore. Parkhouse became in many ways the iconic writer of the Doctor Who Monthly (and later Doctor Who Magazine) comic in the 1980s, penning, among others, a memorable story featuring Peter Davison’s version of Doctor Who called “The Tides of Time,” in which he delighted in challenging Dave Gibbons with “the idea of starting a story with a village cricket match” before expanding out to “a potential epic, ranging through so much scenery, from one end of the galaxy to another,” and one for Colin Baker’s Doctor Who called “Voyager,” which gave John Ridgway an opportunity to draw a richly ornate dreamscape that became, in the eyes of many fans of the series (a group Parkhouse describes as “a generation whose predilections frankly mystified me” based on their fetishization of “power hungry aliens versus an emotionally challenged and sexually inhibited hero”) the greatest comic version of Doctor Who ever made. 

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. [continued]

Comments

BerserkRL 2 years, 2 months ago

Back in the 90s I met a guy in Chapel Hill's late lamented Second Foundation bookstore (I think he also might have working as a waiter in the restaurant next door to it) whose favourite author was Kuttner.

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Chris Gonzalez 2 years, 2 months ago

Is this the first time that the opening quote has been repeated between entries? Or is it on purpose and there's a thematic reason I'm currently overlooking?

I'm going to have to look into Kuttner. The brief overview given here has piqued my interest. I may also need to look through Parkhouse's Doctor Who comics, which I was always meaning to get around to, but now that he's come up in the War, I may as well do it now.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 2 months ago

No, just the first time I forgot to update the quote and title the post. :)

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Eric Gimlin 2 years, 2 months ago

The four Hogben stories in Thrilling Wonder Stories were actually all published under the Henry Kuttner byline; even if they shifted to the Padgett name for later reprints. It would be extraordinarily unusual to shift a series to a different pseudonym for later installments in the pulps; the only exception I can think of off the top of my head would be a few Captain Future stories when Edmond Hamilton had to briefly leave the series due to the WWII.

Thank you for pointing me at these; I actually have "Exit the Professor" and "See You Later" and enjoyed digging out the magazines to read them. Now to see if I can find the others; the 2013 reprint seems to be a collector's item of its own at this point. I don't think the series could really sustain itself much longer than it did, but like The Bojefferies Saga what little there is is quite fun.

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encyclops 2 years, 2 months ago

I can't remember ever reading the Hogben stories, and yet I wrote something in college that sounds almost exactly like what you describe here. Either I read Kuttner in my youth and forgot about it, I read someone who ripped him off, or magic is real!

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 2 months ago

Yeah, you'll note my conspicuous failure to have any of the Parkhouse illustrations for Hogben as an image, which ought give a clue about the ease of finding them at a sensible price. :)

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Eric Gimlin 2 years, 2 months ago

Can't help you there. If you want the original magazine illos for "Exit the Professor" or "See You Later" to supplement the cover that shows a totally different story I can scan those for you, though.

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Mark Pontin 2 years, 2 months ago

Eh. Kuttner & Moore's stature and influence remain a little more prominent than you indicate here -- to the extent that in 2007 a Hollywood film called 'The Last Mimzy' based on their 1943 novelette 'Mimsy Were the Borogroves' could still get made.

In general, unless it's Stanislaw Lem, if you've read good science fiction it was written by writers who were in some degree, however small, influenced by the Kuttners since they were, with A.E. van Vogt, the mainstays of John Campbell's ASTOUNDING science fiction magazine during the 1940s (at the time, they were in fact more prominent than the much-overpraised Robert Heinlein).

They were a large influence on the SF writers who emerged during the 1950s, most obviously early Philip K. Dick -- who takes the Kuttners' themes of androids/robots/what-is-reality and runs with them -- and in the early 1970s the Science Fiction Writers of America issued an anthology, edited by Robert Silverberg, which collected some two-dozen SF stories that the members of the SFWA had collectively voted the best American magazine SF stories. Kuttner and Moore's "Vintage Season" was voted into Number One place as best SF story.

And what killed off Kuttner's career -- besides the fact that he planning on moving out of pulp-writing and was going to school to become a clinical psychologist -- was simply the fact that in 1958 he died from a heart attack at the age of 42.

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Joe Bowers 2 years, 2 months ago

That bookstore was amazing.

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Eric Gimlin 2 years, 2 months ago

Heinlein only wrote one story specifically for Astounding after 1942; although he did have a couple books serialized in the mag as well. So yeah, he wasn't nearly as prominent other than that 38 month run from 39 to 42 where he had his first flurry of stories. As you say, Kuttner and Moore were some of the very visible writers in that era; even if you couldn't always tell given the number of pseudonyms they used. A quick glance amazed me with just how often their names showed.

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Daru 2 years, 2 months ago

I love the Tides of Time Doctor Who strip. The rare story along with Douglas Adams and the Dalek Masterplan that has ever made cricket interesting to me. Or should that be krikkit?

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Jesse 2 years, 2 months ago

That's one of the bookstores I grew up haunting, going back to when it was the Foundation Bookstore. (Given what blog I'm on, I should mention that when I was 11/12/13 years old I bought Doctor Who books and comics there.) Sorry to hear it's out of business.

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