Our Skullbabies (The Last War in Albion Part 100: Girls)

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This is the first of five parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Eleven, focusing on Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones. 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: Essentially the entire early career of Alan Moore was covered, save for one work.

"Our skullbabies will always tight the day for peoplekind." - Alan Moore, Crossed +100

Figure 794: The debut of Halo Jones.
This is The Ballad of Halo Jones, an ongoing strip for 2000 AD published in three separate runs. The first, published as Book One, ran for three months beginning in July of 1984, one month after Moore ceased work on Captain Britain, one before he ceased on Marvelman for Warrior, and alongside the publication of Swamp Thing #29, the infamous zombie incest rape issue. The second launched in February of 1985, the same month that Moore began work on American Flagg and that Warrior ended, and again ran for three months. And the third, Book Three, began in January of 1986, one month after Moore’s tie-in issue to Crisis on Infinite Earths and one month before Miracleman commenced in the US, running until April, two months before Watchmen debuted. 

The strip’s existence marks an obvious and in many regards overdue shift in Moore’s status within IPC’s roster of 2000 AD writers. Of the UK comics companies with which Moore worked, IPC was the last to give him an ongoing, waiting until after he was already writing Captain Britain and winning massive acclaim for his work in Warrior, and even then offering him nothing more interesting than “can you write us an E.T. ripoff,” an unpromising request that Moore shaped into the better-than-you’d-expect Skizz, alongside artist Jim Baikie, one of the many eternal journeymen of British comics. Subsequently, one of his Time Twisters, “D.R. & Quinch Have Fun on Earth,” done with frequent collaborator Alan Davis, got expanded to a series of recurring stories. But once Moore started making waves in the US market IPC, mindful of how it had lost both Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons to DC, finally deigned to offer him a relatively free hand to create a concept of his own design.

Figure 795: Call me Kenneth as Jack Kirby
pastiche. (Written by John Wagner, art
by Ian Gibson, from 2000 AD #17, 1977)
Teaming with Moore for the new strip was Ian Gibson, who had worked with Moore on his early Future Shock “Grawks Bearing Gifts.” Gibson’s style was distinctive, mixing a cartoonish and exaggerated sense of figure and facial structure with dense line work. The result was particularly well-suited to humor strips, and indeed, prior to The Ballad of Halo Jones Gibson was most associated with the ongoing Sam Slade, Robo-Hunter strip, chronicling the adventures of a humorously taciturn bounty hunter on the trail of various robots. But Gibson’s style had been a longstanding part of 2000 AD, and his career was far more diverse than just humor. Indeed, he illustrated two of the eight parts of The Robot Wars, the first major Judge Dredd story arc, including the final installment, where he got to show off another key aspect of his work, his skill at baroque futuristic tech in the grand Kirby Machine tradition. (Indeed, Gibson even includes a straight-up Kirby homage in the finale as the strip’s villain, the messianic carpenter robot Call-Me-Kenneth rants triumphantly, bathed in Kirby Krackle.) 

Figure 796: Chief Judge McGruder, one of three
female characters in Prog 374. (Written by T.B.
Grover, art by Steve Dillon, from "The Wreckers!
Part 1", 1984)
Moore and Gibson were both mindful of the fact that, although 2000 AD had an unusually large female readership, the magazine was overwhelmingly dominated by male characters. For instance, Prog 374, immediately prior to the debut of The Ballad of Halo Jones, featured exactly three female characters across the entire issue - Chief Judge McGruder in Judge Dredd, who appears for two panels, a woman who has her necklace stolen, also in Judge Dredd, and a background figure in a scene at a train station in a Time Twister. They get forty-nine words of dialogue among them. It is not that Prog 374 is a bad comic, nor indeed that 2000 AD in the mid-80s was; as Moore put it, “in my admiration for Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Robo-Hunter and all the rest I stand second to no man, feeling that the world in general and 2000 AD in particular would be a poorer place without them. Rather, I think I was motivated by a desire to fill in some of the holes left between those strips.” 

Figure 797: The predictably miserable slaves of War Orphan Farm.
But the problem Moore identifies runs deeper than just 2000 AD. 2000 AD was published out of the Youth Group within IPC, which launched comics with strictly delineated demographic targets. 2000 AD was a boys comic, along with Action and Battle Picture Weekly. Girls, on the other hand, were meant to read things like Misty, Tammy, and Jinty. These were not, to be clear, bad comics. Indeed, compared to many gendered divisions among children’s entertainment the gender division within IPC was solidly not awful; girls comics were not devoted exclusively to romance strips and advice on doing your nails or anything like that. Misty, for instance, was primarily made up of supernatural/horror strips such as Journey into Fear, about a pair of siblings being manipulated by an evil car yearning to return to its days of being owned by a gangster; Tammy largely offered over the top stories in the grand Victorian tradition of awful things happening to children, with titles such as the frankly astonishingly named Slaves of War Orphan Farm; and Jinty was largely stories with a sci-fi bent, including the Pat Mills number Girl in a Bubble, in which a girl is kept in a plastic bubble, ostensibly because she has no germ resistance, but in fact as part of a sinister experiment. (Jinty also included The Blind Ballerina, a strip Moore fondly recalls for a cliffhanger in which the eponymous ballerina pirouettes, unaware that she’s on the M1 motorway with a lorry barrelling towards her.) Nevertheless, there was a clear division. 

More to the point, however, the girl’s line had largely been decimated - Jinty got merged into Tammy in 1981, with Misty following suit in 1984, before Tammy was finally merged into Girl a few months later on the insistence of Youth Group director John Sanders, who cancelled it despite its high sales as an act of revenge against the editor, a prominent activist within the National Union of Journalists who had just been involved in a strike. But it was not as though the rapid dwindling of female-targeted titles was being made up by a broadening of the boys titles. Instead girls were effectively being shut out of the medium entirely. And so Moore and Gibson’s desire to introduce a strip that featured female characters in the lead roles was a pointed and necessary course correction.

Moore and Gibson were further invested in making sure they wrote about the right sort of female character. As Moore puts it, “I didn’t want to write about a pretty scatterbrain who fainted a lot and had trouble keeping her clothes on. I similarly had no inclination to unleash yet another Tough Bitch With A Disintegrator And An Extra ‘Y’ Chromosome upon the world. What I wanted was simply an ordinary woman such as you might find standing in front of you while queuing for the check-out at Tesco’s.” In this regard, at least, Moore had obvious prior form, having done much the same thing with Roxy in Skizz, but this time instead of focusing on a woman in contemporary Britain Moore focused on a woman in the sort of exaggeratedly grotesque sci-fi world that might be described as “typical 2000 AD fare.” 

The other major creative decision going in - and one that would prove in some regards a problematic one - was that the strip should be done without caption boxes to provide narration. Exactly whose idea this was is not entirely clear. Gibson, certainly, takes credit, saying in one interview that “Skizz had had so many caption boxes! I said I don’t want any explanations in Halo Jones, any kind of thought balloons or caption boxes telling everybody what’s going on.” But a second interview, in which Gibson also takes credit for suggesting the idea of him working with Alan Moore, suggesting doing a comic focusing on a female lead, and coming up with the first story, Gibson gives a somewhat less credible account, saying that “I told Alan that I thought we could get away with making the story ‘self explanatory’ in the way that we figure some things out (in our lives) only after the event. I never see any panels floating in the sky to warn me that ‘I’m in for a big surprise’ or any handy ‘little did he know’ notes attached to the lampposts. And Alan agreed that it would be a nice change in comics.” This is somewhat harder to swallow, not least because of the suggestion that Moore was likely to write such crass captions in the first place. And indeed, while Skizz did use caption boxes in Skizz to provide free indirect speech narration for both Skizz and Roxy (mainly for Skizz, and in the early portion of the comic when he’s wandering alone and hasn’t learned English, so as to highlight the alienness of his perspective on the mundane world, such as when he watches a wrestling match on TV and reflects that “the ape creature’s primitive vu-box displays more of the madness, fills his head with more of the harsh, raucous cries”), Moore was by this point most of the way through V for Vendetta, where he used the same caption-free style Gibson was requesting, making Gibson’s suggestion that he was in some sense making Moore work against his instincts tenuous at best. 

Figure 798: Cannabis
All the same, it’s notable that Moore does not claim any credit for this decision in the course of discussing the strip’s origins in the introduction to the first Halo Jones collection, instead describing it as a mutual decision between him and Gibson, who he openly credits with “providing as many of the main concepts and the small touches as I myself,” and so the strong sense that Gibson is embellishing the tale (a sin that Moore is, to say the least, well-acquainted with) ought not be taken as evidence that Gibson did not push for this. Indeed, the process for The Ballad of Halo Jones was on the whole particularly collaborative, with Gibson visiting Moore in Northampton for a several day long cannabis-fueled brainstorming session of the sort that makes any attempt to delineate who came up with what fruitless.

Figure 799: Ian Gibson's expansive sprawl of sci-fi tech, opening
The Ballad of Halo Jones. (From 2000 AD #376, 1984. Click to enlarge.)
Moore, in any case, took to the approach with gusto. Although this was before his time writing for American Flagg, it was well into Chaykin’s monumental first year on the title, and Chaykin’s influence is clear, both in style and substance. Moore did not merely avoid explaining the story via caption boxes, he largely avoided explaining it at all, forcing the reader to piece together the nature of the world as the story goes. The opening two-page spread, done as the two color pages of Prog 376, featured a vast tableau of futuristic technology, all rendered in Gibson’s characteristically Kirbyesque style, with a voiceover from an unseen media personality named Swifty Frisko, who reports how the “Algae Baron Lux Roth Chop” is considering but leaning against preventing the E.S.S. Clara Pandy, “last of the famous Krupp-Corona ’S’-Series” from disassembly, and how the arrival of said ship is likely to cause “ozjams around east-am for the next hour,” as well as reporting how the Proximan “Mr. Bandaged Ice That Stampedes Inexpensively Through a Scribbled Morning” will henceforth be known as “Procurator Bandaged Ice That Stampedes Inexpensively Through A Scribbled Morning Waving Necessary Ankles.” The page ends with a close-up of the eponymous Halo Jones.

Figure 800: A Proximan. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Ian Gibson, from
The Ballad of Halo Jones, in 2000 AD #376, 1984)
But for all that is revealed in this first page, there is surprisingly little sense of what it means. None of the future technology is contextualized or explained. And this is true not only in the sense that the reader does not know precisely what an Ozjam or a Krupp-Corona ’S’-Series ship is - these, after all, are the sorts of sci-fi terminology that a 2000 AD reader can reasonably be expected to make sense of without any context. The question of what, exactly, the reader is looking at and what sort of world this is are largely avoided. The reader is given detail but not context. The first installment continues in a similar vein, introducing things like the Different Drummers (who apparently all nod in unison, rather unsettlingly) and the Proximans (armless lizards who are apparently an immigrant population, with all the prejudices against them that implies), but never really explaining what world holds all these strange things. Tellingly, the name of the place, the Hoop, appears only once in the entire first installment, and then only in the context of the phrase “hoop-scoop,” which is apparently a thing that “Rumble-Jacks” do. [continued]

Comments

Daibhid C 2 years, 6 months ago

(Jinty also included The Blind Ballerina, a strip Moore fondly recalls for a cliffhanger in which the eponymous ballerina pirouettes, unaware that she’s on the M1 motorway with a lorry barrelling towards her.)

ICBW, but I'm pretty sure that was a humorous exaggeration of the kind of cliffhanger "The Blind Ballerina" had, rather than something that actually appeared in the strip.

If I'm wrong, I'd love to see it.

(Also, I wonder how many people got the Clara Pandy joke?)

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Daru 2 years, 6 months ago

Great to see Halo Jones getting covered. It's been so long since I read this when it first came out that I have almost forgotten the story - I do have the originals in my parent's attic I think.

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