“Mary sticks to the alleyways, where the light and noise of the city is screened out a little”
-Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan #8, 1998
|Figure 12: "The Checkmate Man" features more marital|
strife than high-concept assassination antics - Near
Myths #5, 1980 (Click to enlarge)
It is in some ways very much like the Gideon Stargrave stories and “Time is a Four Letter Word” - full of jumps across time and space and an ever-shifting universe. But where those stories focus on the action, “The Checkmate Man” takes an entirely different approach. The only part of it that could be described as an action scene takes place on the first page, and the remaining nine pages consist of Conrad, the eponymous assassin, reflecting on the stress and horror of his job. It’s a surprisingly intimate character piece, miles from Morrison’s other Near Myths
work. There’s also a degree of thought that’s been put into the setting that isn’t present in Morrison’s other Near Myths
work - a throwaway bit about attempting to prevent the Lincoln assassination only to have him die in an accident the next day speaks volumes about the world of “The Checkmate Man” and the way in which the CIA program he’s a part of only changes the world through death and destruction. The result is that the closing page, where Conrad realizes that all the George Orwell books have vanished from his bookshelf before forgetting that he even cares about it, is haunting in its scope, revealing the real effects of Conrad’s CIA-backed sanitization of history.
While “The Checkmate Man,” which is, in fact, quite good, better foreshadows Morrison’s future career, it is also, oddly, the Near Myths story that Morrison has not meaningfully brought up in interviews. While he points to “Time is a Four Letter Word” as being “based around the simultaneity of time concept Alan Moore himself is so fond of these days” and returns to Stargrave in a number of ways, “The Checkmate Man” is, despite being the best of his Near Myths stories and the one that actually presents a credible case for the idea that Morrison was, in 1979/80, out ahead of the field, the one piece Morrison seems content to relegate to the status of juvenilia and trivia. It is, by all appearances, Gideon Stargrave who best captures the spirit of what Morrison was doing in Near Myths. And thus it is Gideon Stargrave that it is most important to contextualize in the larger comics scene of 1979. The Near Myths stories are, after all, a small rock in a larger formation, and it is at this point more helpful to establish some of the underlying conceptual strata.
|Figure 13: Gideon Stargrave makes a|
surprise return in The Invisibles #17, 1996
Morrison has, in interviews, gone back and forth on what his inspirations for Gideon Stargrave. His most common claim is Michael Moorcock. In a 1997 interview he said, of his reuse of the character in The Invisibles, that “King Mob's 'Gideon Stargrave' stories are direct quotes from the Michael Moorcock-inspired short stories I wrote obsessively when I was 17,” which is to say, his Near Myths contributions. He was blunter in the letter column to The Invisibles #17, the first issue featuring Stargrave, describing him as “a thinly-veiled ripoff of Moorcock’s ‘Jerry Cornelius’ character.”
Moorcock, while usually generous about the use of Jerry Cornelius, took particular exception to this, memorably proclaiming that his “image of Grant Morrison is of someone wearing a mask, a flat hat and a striped jersey and carrying a bag marked SWAG.” This, however, was in reference to the later use of Gideon Stargrave in The Invisibles, and not to the Near Myths material, which it would be unlikely that Moorcock read, at least in that form. Unsurprisingly, then, came to resist that claim, later specifying that the Near Myths stories were “heavily but not entirely influenced by Moorcock and J.G Ballard.” In this case his earlier declarations concur - in a 1988 interview he proclaimed that the stories’ style was “more akin to William Burroughs than Michael Moorcock” and that “Stargrave was originally based on the lead character in J. G. Ballard's 'The Day of Forever'; everyone thought he was ripped off from Jerry Cornelius, but it was Ballard.”
The Ballard story in question was written in 1966, four years into Ballard’s writing career, and begins with the memorable sentence, “at Columbine Sept Heures it was always dusk.” The story’s central conceit is that the Earth has stopped rotating, thus fixing every point in the world at a particular time of day forever, such that cities are renamed with their times: London 6 p.m. and Saigon Midnight. Its main character, Halliday, “found himself obsessed by his broken dreams” of an ancient town on the Mediterranean, and a woman there. Halliday thus moves from Norway to North Africa to seek this woman. The plot is existent but oblique - Halliday lives with a couple for three months, but they move because the dusk line is slowly shifting and they wish to avoid night. He meets a woman who he decides is the one from his dreams, they have a series of cryptic conversations, and finally gets shot at a bit as he flees in a car.
The similarities to the Stargrave material are limited at best. Ballard’s story is sparse character piece, where Gideon Stargrave spends much of the story in fast-paced action set pieces. Halliday is written as a cipher with few overt similarities the dandy action hero Gideon Stargrave, who is described in the recap page from Near Myths #4 as a “art time anarchist, raconteur, and wit.” To say that Stargrave is based on the lead character of “The Day of Forever” is thus puzzling. More might be said for the premise, which is based on a collapse of reality that bears at least some similarity to the idea of a world where time has become a geographic feature instead of an internal one. But even given that it’s difficult to justify Morrison’s claim of having ripped the story off. The most plausible explanation is that Morrison confused the short story “The Day of Forever” with some other story in the anthology by the same title, although were this the case it is difficult to see how such a hazily remembered book could be such an active influence.
|Figure 14 - The Atrocity Exhibition, published in 1969|
Nevertheless, Morrison’s larger debt to Ballard is obvious - just not his debt to that particular story (although a case could be made for “The Checkmate Man,” a story that feels altogether more Ballardian). A more probable source is Ballard’s 1969 book The Atrocity Exhibition, republished in 1990 with illustrations by San Francisco-based underground comix artist Phoebe Gloeckner. This book shares “The Day of Forever”’s fascination with the idea of a reality that has in some sense collapsed. In “The Day of Forever” it is that time has effectively ceased, whereas in The Atrocity Exhibition it is that a number of ghoulish concepts have become conflated - in particular the precise machinery of cars and weapons and the extremes of human bodily experience. The book contains such memorable sections as “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” which does precisely what its title suggests. “The course,” it explains, “ran downhill from the Book Depository, below an overpass, then on to the Parkland Hospital and from there to Love Air Field. It is one of the most hazardous courses in downhill motor racing, second only to the Sarajevo track discontinued in 1914.” It then pauses for a paragraph break before noting, sardonically, that “Kennedy went downhill rapidly.”
|Figure 15 - Gloeckner's precise, clinical illustrations|
highlight The Atrocity Exhibition's disturbing
equation of sex and violence within the visual image
What is crucial about the collapsed world of The Atrocity Exhibition is that it is conceptually collapsed. Where Halliday is living through a collapsed psychic life, the main character of The Atrocity Exhibition, whose name shifts from chapter to chapter, lives a life where his outside references have collapsed. “‘Sixties iconography,” the book commences in one of its characteristic lists or inventories of objects in its strange exhibition, “the nasal prepuce of LBJ, crashed helicopters, the pudenda of Ralph Nader, Eichmann in drag, the climax of a New York happening: a dead child. In the patio at the center of the maze a young woman in a flowered white dress sat behind a desk covered with catalogues,” the paragraph continues, seamlessly altering its style, “her blanched skin exposed the hollow planes of her face. Like the Pilot, Talbot recognized her as a student at his seminar. Her nervous smile revealed the wound that disfigured the inside of her mouth.”
This aggressively experimental prose style, very much unlike “The Day of Forever,” which feels more like the lyrically magical realist tales of Jorge Luis Borges than like the harsh cuts of The Atrocity Exhibition, resembles nothing so much as the clever dialogue trick on page one of “Time is a Four Letter Word.” This, then, is at least a plausible influence on Grant Morrison’s mash-up of pop culture detritus into a violent action conspiracy story in which the structure of time has spilled chaotically out over the world. And it’s miles from Halliday’s plight of a completely static world. “The Day of Forever” is a vast, silent structure of a world that’s come to a halt. Its outbreak of violence at the end stands as a blurry smear on an otherwise completely still textual landscape. The Atrocity Exhibition is brash, loud, and over-saturated in the way that Grant Morrison’s world and style clearly is.
It is also closer to the work that Ballard is remembered for. At least as a sci-fi writer, Ballard is remembered for 70s work like High Rise, a novel in which a luxury apartment community reduces to brutal and animalistic savagery. Its style is altogether more collected than The Atrocity Exhibition, but the same sense of strange hybridizations persists. Consider the odd fusing of action hero and domesticity in the passage, “Wilder watched her with respect. He had tangled with these crones more than once, and was well aware that they were capable of a surprising turn of speed. Without moving, he waited as she leaned over the landing rail and emptied the slops from the champagne bucket. The cold grease spattered Wilder and the dog, but neither made any response.” This is Ballard to a tee - a cracked mirror of our own material culture used to show us the cultural practices of another culture.
Ballard is part of the so-called new wave of science fiction that arose in the 1960s and 70s in both the US and UK. In the US major figures included Alfred Bester, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Harlan Ellison, but in the UK the major names were J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock, about whom shortly. Like almost any literary movement new wave science fiction was diffuse and leaderless, although in the UK Moorcock, editor of its New Worlds, the magazine most associated with the approach, at least came close. Still, Ballard was a leading light, and his views on what science fiction are for are as reasonable to quote as anyone.
For Ballard, at least, the goal of science fiction was to abandon outer space in favor of “inner space," which he defined in 1968, saying it’s “an imaginary realm in which on the one hand the outer world of reality, and on the other the inner world of the mind meet and merge. Now,” he continued, “in the landscapes of the surrealist painters, for example, one sees the regions of Inner Space; and increasingly I believe that we will encounter in film and literature scenes which are neither solely realistic nor fantastic. In a sense, it will be a movement in the interzone between both spheres.” This sense of eccentric spaces in the margins of things again evokes the odd fused worlds of Morrison’s initial stories.
Another way to approach understand Ballard and the new wave is through William S. Burroughs, an American writer who provided a preface for The Atrocity Exhibition, declaring, much in line with Morrison and Ballard, “the line between inner and outer landscapes is breaking down. Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind. The whole random universe of the industrial age is breaking down into cryptic fragments,” though it’s unclear whether he’s talking about the book or the world around it. William S. Burroughs was the craggy end of the Beat Generation in America. People picking only two Beat writers select Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, but when the list gets extended to three the third name is William S. Burroughs.
|Figure 16 - Howl was released as a small,|
affordable volume in 1956 and, like
The Atrocity Exhibition, found itself the
subject of an obscenity trial.
The Beats marked the first wave of postwar counterculture in America, self-identified by Kerouac in 1948. Somewhere between brilliant and screwed out of their heads with drugs, the Beats were joyfully narcissistic middle class rebels. Ginsberg self-identified as seeing “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high up sat smoking in the supernatural darkness,” and continued in a similar vein for long enough to make “Howl” a mainstay of Intro to Poetry syllabi from English teachers looking for a work that “connects” to their late teenage students.
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Burroughs provides no such easy access route, and is beloved less by the academic consensus than by generations of committed counterculture figures who, like Ballard and Moorcock, “weren’t so much influenced by him as inspired by him.” At times not so much a writer than a stunningly competent criminal, Burroughs effectively hit on the brilliant scheme of supporting a drug habit by writing about it. [continued]