Breeding, Darling (Book Three, Part 23: Drivel, Steed and Mrs. Peel)
CW: Sexually explicit imagery
Previously in The Last War in Albion: The comics/pop culture magazine Deadline proved one of the most successful publications of the early 90s British comics renaissance on the back of the massively popular Tank Girl.
“What makes you such a bitch, Emma?”
“Breeding, darling. Top class breeding.” -Grant Morrison, New X-Men
Initially the character took off in the British queer scene—Tank Girl made a number of appearances in anti-Clause 28 protests. Deadline editor Dave Elliott successfully got the magazine US distribution under Dark Horse, who launched it in 1991, just in time to catch on with the emerging riot grrrl scene, where it took off, making Tank Girl into a latter day feminist punk icon. One of its fans was the stepdaughter of director Rachel Talalay, who gave her stepmother a copy of the comics. Talalay pursued the film rights, which publisher Tom Astor was actively shopping, and in 1995 a movie came out starring Lori Petty and Malcolm McDowell. The movie was a flop but a cult classic with an enduring legacy, not least that several of the Spice Girls met in line for the auditions to play the lead character.
Another significant publication in terms of sitting in the comics/pop culture intersection was Speakeasy, a fanzine that gradually drifted upwards into being a professional publication before it went under in May of 1991. Its last eighteen months, however, featured a monthly one-page column from Grant Morrison called Drivel. As described by Morrison, Drivel was “a monthly, scurrilous, humour, gossip, and opinion column” that they wrote in the voice of “an exaggerated caricature partly inspired by the Morrissey interviews I enjoyed reading. The whole point of the column – which was one of the magazine’s most popular features, incidentally – was to take the piss out of the comics scene at the time.” It’s not entirely clear what Morrissey interviews Morrison is talking about and whether they included his interview two years prior to Morrison’s first Drivel column in which he proclaimed that “Reggae, for example, is to me the most racist music in the entire world” and alleged a black conspiracy to keep the Smiths out of the charts, but the point is clear enough: Morrison was engaging in an exaggeratedly catty and inflammatory performance.
In practice this meant talking shit about other people in the industry—in their first column, for instance, they tartly bashed Howard Chaykin for his claim that “just because he wrote about and drew deviant sexual acts, it didn’t mean that he actually indulged in them. (Deviant? Forgive me if I snore more loudly than usual.)” Later on they take aim at Gary Groth for his Eros line, describing “the entire tawdry exercise” as “a cheap and none-too-cheerful money-grubbing scheme, which is rendered, doubly, triply, and even quadruply odious by the fact that it’s been initiated by one of the most self-righteous, holier-than-thou editorial voices in comics.” Their most infamous moment, however, came in a column in which they first launched their previously discussed suggestion that Moore substantially ripped off Robert Mayer’s Superfolks in various works.
This was not the first moment of Morrison sniping at Alan Moore, but it was by far the most substantive broadside they’d fired at Moore. And it would eventually lead to one of the most significant actual exchanges of fire within the War when, in 2012, Pádraig Ó Méalóid discussed it in the context of his larger analysis of the claimed links between Moore’s work and Superfolks, while also quoting Alan Moore’s answer to a question about his opinions on Grant Morrison that some malevolent muckracker or another asked during a webchat earlier in 2012 in which Moore noted that “there started a kind of, a strange campaign of things in fanzines where [they were] expressing [their] opinions of me, as you put it. [They] later explained this as saying that when [they] started writing, [they] felt that [they weren’t] famous enough, and that a good way of becoming famous would be to say nasty things about me. Which I suppose is a tactic – although not one that, of course, I’m likely to appreciate.” This essay prompted journalist Thal Fox to get Morrison to annotate the piece with a rebuttal, which began a series of potshots back and forth that culminated in early 2014 with Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s incendiary “Last Alan Moore Interview?”
Morrison’s response to Moore’s comments in the webchat was startlingly thin-skinned, beginning with a lengthy and somewhat desperate complaint about Moore’s description of them as an “aspiring writer”on the grounds that they’d already written things like “Algol the Terrible” for Starblazer. Within it, however, they took particular aim at Moore’s characterization of the Drivel pieces, claiming that, “I don’t believe I ever tried to get ‘famous’ by insulting Alan Moore. It doesn’t seem the most likely route to celebrity.” And while this is a largely valid point as phrased, it raises the question of what exactly Drivel was supposed to be.
Certainly a column in an elevated fanzine that was a year from going under was not an attempt to get famous in the way that, for instance, writing the best-selling original graphic novel DC has ever published. But it is perhaps more productive to compare it to Moore’s own quasi-fanzine period writing essays like “Blinded by the Hype” and “Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies” in The Daredevils. Neither these nor Drivel were attempts to raise their writer’s profiles per se. Rather, they were attempts to define their public personae—to establish themselves not merely as people who have written some popular comics but as comics celebrities, known not simply for what they’ve done but for who they are. This process would prove a Faustian bargain for both of them, but was also a fundamental part of their ability to wage the War; magic can be done privately, but magical warfare must, in the end, be conducted in the public sphere.
In this context, then, Morrison’s picking a fight, however jokingly, with Moore is a fairly straightforward move. Morrison describes Drivel in straightforward terms of provocation, and this makes sense within the context of the brash and transgressive scene that was the late 80s/early 90s renaissance in the British scene. These were times for enfants terrible, and Morrison was happy to play the role. As they put, “My public persona was punk to the rotten core. Outspoken and mean spirited, I freely expressed contempt for the behind-the-scenes world of comics professionals, which seemed unglamorous and overwhelmingly masculine by comparison to the club and music scenes. My life was rich, and my circle of friends and family was secure enough that I could afford to play a demonic role at work. Reading interviews from the time makes my blood run cold these days, but the trash talk seemed to be working, and I was rapidly making a name for myself. Being young, good-looking, and cocky forgave many sins, a huge hit British superhero strip did the rest and proved I could back up the big talk.” But there was simply no way to play this role in 1988 without coming after Moore. You can’t be an enfant terrible without rebelling against the father, after all.
But while Morrison would eventually come to reject the ostentatious contemptuousness and refine their public persona into something more carefully crafted and that did a better job of living up to their claim that “The main target of the satire in Drivel was myself,” it’s hard to read this performance as entirely insincere either. Their work was often deliberately confrontational, whether with the louche pastiche of British comics history in Zenith Phase 3, the self-righteous politics of Animal Man, the impish mischief of The New Adventures of Hitler, or the effort to have the Joker do a Madonna cross-dressing routine in Arkham Asylum. Morrison wanted to be a comics rock star. Within the framework of their chaos magic, this performative trashing a few metaphorical hotel rooms was part and parcel of that becoming. They played the contemptuous asshole rock star precisely in order to become one. They made later revisions to the character, yes, but it was still a transformation they sought out, and one they achieved.
In which case it is hard to argue too emphatically that Moore’s irritation is unearned. Indeed, Moore’s irritation was very much part of the point of the exercise. Morrison wanted out from under his shadow. Rebellion is an obvious way to achieve that, even if it ultimately backfired. But it’s a mistake to treat the whole of Drivel as an attempt to troll Alan Moore, who was after all not mentioned in far more columns than he was. The character Morrison used Drivel to craft had more depth than simply trashing Moore—it was funny, sarcastic, often righteously angry about all the right things, and gloriously cool. However Morrison would evolve their public persona, and for that matter themself, it was clearly the persona of a star writer.
Speakeasy was, at least when Morrison first started writing for it, published by Acme Press, a comics publisher that worked with Eclipse Comics in the US to distribute another one of Morrison’s projects of this era, Steed & Mrs. Peel. This was a very different project to Morrison’s other projects of the era, and highlights the degree to which this period in the British market was fundamentally a transitional phase for them, much as the period from 1983-86 was for Moore; he’d gotten Swamp Thing and was without question a hot talent, but not yet so hot (and more to the point well-paid) that he wasn’t still writing Captain Britain for Marvel UK and doing D.R. & Quinch and Halo Jones for 2000 AD. These were not idiosyncratic personal projects for Moore, but jobs clearly taken for the money, a fact that’s evident in the fact that they conclusively dried up once Watchmen made it clear that his financial security did not depend on generating intellectual property for IPC. And while much of Morrison’s UK output in this period, especially after Arkham Asylum, amounted to artsy personal projects, they also continued taking gigs with more mercenary goals. Drivel was undoubtedly an example of this—a project that existed, on a fundamental level, to continue getting Morrison’s name out there. Smaller scale projects with licensed characters of the sort they’d done in the long gap between their first meeting with Berger and Giordano in February 1987 and the publication of Animal Man #1 in May 1988 continued, even if these projects were now likely to be sold with Morrison’s name at the forefront. Dare was an example of this; Steed & Mrs. Peel was another.
Steed & Mrs. Peel was based on the license to The Avengers—not the Marvel Comics Justice League knockoff that Morrison’s protege Mark Millar would do a high-profile take on in the early 21st century, but the 1960s ITV adventure serial from Doctor Who co-creator Sidney Newman. In its original conception the series saw a bereaved surgeon played by Ian Hendry teaming up with a mysterious stranger, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, to avenge his fiancee’s death and, subsequently, solve other crimes. Hendry departed the show after one (mostly missing from the archives) season in pursuit of a film career, and after a few experiments the show refocused on a setup where Steed, now the main character, worked with a female assistant. The first prominent one of these was Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman—a leather-clad judo-fighting anthropologist while Steed was retrofitted from a trenchcoat-wearing hard man into a slightly self-parodic English gentleman wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella concealing a sword.
The iconic period for the show, however, came for the two seasons that followed Honor Blackman being poached by the James Bond films to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, resulting in the casting of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. The result was one of the most legendary examples of on-screen chemistry in television history. Peel, whose wardrobe was designed by John Bates, one of the names suggested as inventor of the miniskirt, was among the definitive icons of mod fashion. Paired with the exaggerated dapperness of Macnee, the combination was one of the most basic stylistic elements of the swinging sixties, and a clear influence on the exaggeratedly mod styles that Morrison had favored during their Fauves days.
Morrison’s story saw the pair, reunited after the capture of Tara King, who played the Gale/Peel role in the series’ final season, attempting to unravel a spate of murders of prominent British figures that turn out to be connected by their membership in the mysterious Palamedes Club, a group of people united by a love of game design. The culprit, it turns out, is a frustrated game designer whose attempt at a cooperative game was rejected as “virtually unplayable” and who has instead envisioned a game based around the thread of nuclear annihilation—“a game so complex that its rules cannot be understood. A game whose outcome canot be predicted or even comprehended. A game in which every man, woman and child on Earth is a player! It is the grand game, the game of life and death, the game of games!” It’s unquestionably a minor work, but Morrison has evident love of the material and builds an elaborate metaphor around the notion of a game that takes advantage of The Avengers inherent tendency towards the rococo when it comes to villainous schemes. And the comic is further enhanced by the presence of Ballad of Halo Jones artist Ian Gibson. Gibson gives the comic an exuberant cartoonish look that firmly fits in what Morrison called the tradition of “English Surrealism” when describing the original show. More to the point, Gibson’s presence turns the book from being a throwaway licensed title to a charming team-up in which two major talents in British comics offer a take on an iconic British property. This doesn’t make the result a major work, but it does at least make it a deeply charming one.
The last of Morrison’s projects in the British market, Bible John: A Forensic Meditation, came in Fleetway’s Crisis, which had already been the venue into which The New Adventures of Hitler and Dare had been parachuted when their respective first publishers went under. Crisis began in 1988 out of two motivations. The first was a fundamental part of Fleetway’s business model, which divided its comics into age brackets with the idea that readers would “graduate” from one comic to the next. The development of a “mature readers” market meant that there was newfound space at the top of the ladder for readers who were outgrowing 2000 AD. The second was an attempt to figure out how to interface with the growing American market. Crisis was designed as a biweekly comic that would have two stories per issue, each one running fourteen pages, with the intention that it could then be repackaged as two twenty-eight page American monthlies.
Bible John came quite late in Crisis’s run, and indeed quite late in the brief flourishing of the British industry, long after the original structure of the magazine had been abandoned and it had regressed to a monthly release—the final installment came just two issues beforethe book folded entirely. Late in the era as it was, however, Bible John was one of the most fascinating and intricate works of Morrison’s career. [continued]