The Drums Stalk Up (Book Three, Part Nineteen: St. Swithin’s Day)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Grant Morrison found fame and fortune on the back of Arkham Asylum, becoming both rich and a major comics celebrity, though this would prove a poisoned chalice indeed.
The drums stalk up. It’s on me before I realize. -Kieron Gillen, Phonogram
Even as their wishes were being hideously granted in the American market, Grant Morrison kept one foot in the British market. On one level this was simply sound business; there was no reason to put all their eggs in the potentially volatile American market, where despite the massive success of Akrham Asylum they were essentially only working with one company (it would not be until late 1993 that Morrison published a comic with an American publisher other than DC, and they would not have an ongoing series outside of DC until the 21st century), meaning they were only ever one spectacular falling out from having to go looking for work; notably, the other major American comics company, Marvel, remained steadfastly indifferent to the British market. Remaining active in their home country was a sensible precaution.
Their highest profile contribution to the UK market was, of course, Zenith, which saw Phases Two through Four of Zenith released during this period. But this was an oddity in multiple regards. For one thing, it was a project that had begun almost a year before their American debut. For another, it was a marquee project in the country’s biggest comics magazine. Most of Morrison’s UK work in this period, meanwhile, was altogether more idiosyncratic, personal, and lower-profile. This makes the era a relatively unusual one for Morrison, who, while undoubtedly having varying degrees of success across their career, was not often drawn towards the deliberately niche or artsy in the way that Alan Moore often was.
This phase of Morrison’s career was aided by an unusual moment in the British comics industry itself. Long something of a backwater, the previous two decades had steadily grown it into a major scene in the global comics landscape. As with most of the late 1980s comics scene this was largely but not entirely Alan Moore’s doing. He had stood on the shoulders of giants, to be sure, but in the end he was the one who established the market for adult comics in the British industry, he was the one who had broken out in the American market and created a sudden demand for intelligent British writers, and he was the one who had put British comics on the global map. Now, in his wake, came a wave of ambitious comics magazines looking to trade on the demand for comics that combined a sense of intelligence and cool flooded onto the stands, more than a few of them featuring Grant Morrison.
In terms of Morrison’s work the most significant of these was Trident, a statement that could in no way be made about the magazine at large. Trident was the flagship project of Trident Comics, a Leicester-based outfit focusing on creator-owned black and white comics by up and coming creators. The first issue, in August of 1989, featured an impressive lineup. The lead and cover feature was The Light Brigade from Neil Gaiman and Nigel Kitching, one of the stories from the failed Borderline anthology that indirectly spawned Violent Cases. Also included was Bacchus from writer-artist Eddie Campbell, and St. Swithin’s Day from Morrison and artist Paul Grist.
In many ways understanding St. Swithin’s Day requires some account of the former. Not Bacchus itself—the tale of an elderly barfly who happens to be the Roman god of wine as he recounts his long ago adventures to various fellow bar patrons that began at Harrier Comics (publishers of Morrison’s aborted Abraxas) but eventually meandered through a series of other publishers as Campbell kept returning to it—a fairly normal state of affairs for his work. The work with which he made his name and reputation, however, was Alec, a series of autobiographical short comics that Campbell eventually self-published before moving to Paul Gravett’s Escape publishing.
The Alec comics focused (at least in their initial iteration) on Alec McGarry, an authorial insert introduced in the first comic lying in the grassy embankment behind a bus stop as cars drive through the night on the road above. “Danny Grey never really forgave himself,” Campbell’s hand-lettered narration explains in one caption box, “for leaving Alec McGarry asleep at the turnpike,” he concludes on the other side of the page-width panel. The story then cuts back, without any real explanation, to Alec meeting Danny at the factory where they both work. They talk about Alec’s reputation for being overeducated for the job, carry on the conversation at the pub for two and a half more pages. Finally in the third row of Campbell’s nine panel grid he cuts to a close-up view of Alec McGarry’s glasses as he wakes up beside the road. The final page sees him wander back to town, ending with a duck flapping around behind him for a few dialogue-free panels and a final note, above an all-white panel, that “Loneliness, he remembered reading, is not so much a longing for company as a longing for kind.”
It is an aggressively elliptical comic—much of the three and a half pages of dialogue between Alec and Danny go nowhere of particular interest—idle anecdotes and meandering discussions that capture well the sort of things two guys at the pub would actually talk around. Alec and Danny are both vividly characterized—Alec opens the pub section of the conversation by explaining, “I find it a good idea, when drinking in new company, to note down some possible conversation starters beforehand.” But there is a directionless mundanity to the entire proceeding—a story that does not go anywhere, but that captures something intensely and vividly human in its ambling. This is characteristic of Campbell, who quietly and in his own strange corner of British comics created a new mode of autobiographical storytelling—one that Gaiman cited as a close cousin of what he and Dave McKean did in Violent Cases, and one that is a clear antecedent of what Morrison does in St. Swithin’s Day.
St. Swithin’s Day tells the story of a nameless young boy in the days leading up to July 15th, the Feast of St. Swithin, notable mostly for being the subject of a piece of weather lore that says that if it rains on St. Swithin’s Day it will rain for the next forty days. The first installment sees him wandering through a simply rendered black and white world, recounting its mundanities. “DINNER: A WIMPY spicy bean burger in the pissing rain. ‘EAT IN or TAKEAWAY?’ She said. I hate the light in Wimpy, and the plastic plants, and all those mirrors that show every spot, and wet people with the steam coming off their clothes. So, I said ‘TAKEAWAY.’ She looked right through me. I suppose that’s part of the training. Or maybe it’s just me,” he recounts while sitting on the steps in the rain. Gradually, as the first installment comes to a conclusion, it becomes evident that the boy is planning the assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
This, however, never really becomes the focus of the story. A few pages here and there continue to allude to his plan, but for the most part the comic is not so much about planning the assassination of Margaret Thatcher as about a kid who plans the assassination of Margaret Thatcher in the idle moments between his meditations on angst and alienation—the bits where he walks down the street staring into a restaurant at the happy couples dining within and thinking, “I hate being 19. I want to be 19 forever. I wish I had an address book full of addresses. Sometimes. Sometimes I could just scream.” Many of these moments, as Morrison notes, were “lifted from my teenage diaries. I actually found the greatest ever line in comics in one of those diaries. It’s the first time that a character has ever just sat down and said, ‘Why am I such a wanker?’” Indeed, Morrison recycles one such line in a different context in Supergods, where they describe getting the Thoth Tarot as a gift for their nineteenth birthday, noting parenthetically, “‘Soon I’ll be twenty! Thirty! Dead dead dead’ my diary entry wailed.”
For all their later revisionism of the period as the Moore-preceding beginning of their career in Near Myths and Starblazer, it is clear that nineteen was not a particularly happy time for Morrison—they describe in an interview how they went on “this journey round the world. I only got as far as Cornwall, then gave up. It was supposed to be the journey to find myself. I found myself and realized that I wasn’t worth looking for. So I just went home again… It was really a traumatic period, crammed with adolescent horrors.” And yet out of this period Morrison was able to mine some of the most vibrantly touching and well-executed moments of their career—a section where the boy visits Karl Marx’s grave, reflecting that “I can only dance to one song—‘There She Goes’—and only in the bathroom. I don’t even need a record player. Sometimes I can just shut my eyes and HEAR it. Guitars like Church Bells. And then the drums start. And the singing comes in and I want to cry,” he explains as he starts to dance. “And I’m going to die. I’m going to die tomorrow. I’m going to die and I don’t CARE! I’M GOING TO DIE!” He dances for one more silent panel, and then, over a white background, notes, “You know what they say—you’re only young once. And that was it.” It’s a scene good enough that Kieron Gillen mined an entire six-issue miniseries out of little more than its tone and Jamie McKelvie’s capacity for formalism and facial expressions.
Morrison would mine their own history and inner life repeatedly, of course, and with more vigor than many writers who work from their own experiences. And it was a clear favorite of theirs—they described it in 1990 as “possibly the only piece of comics work that I’m truly happy with,” and in 2007 still listed it as one of their favorite works. And yet it is almost entirely unique within their ouvre. For all that they loved it, this would be their only piece to be so ostentatiously indebted to Eddie Campbell and his understated style. For all their future glories, they would never again offer something as small, fragile, and simple as St. Swithin’s Day. A look at the other works on that 2007 list—some Doom Patrol issues, Flex Mentallo, Kill Your Boyfriend, The Invisibles, and The Filth reveals the degree to which it is an outlier, with only Kill Your Boyfriend even vaguely adjacent to St. Swithin’s Day.
Eventually St. Swithin’s Day has to face up to the full weight of its premise and deal with the mooted assassination of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, of course, has been a presence looming over the entire War to date. All but the first two of Morrison’s Near Myths pieces and a handful of the first Roscoe Moscow strips were produced under her premiership, and she’s made a small smattering of textual appearances—it is her government Miracleman overthrows in Moore’s 1st issue on the title, and her 1987 reelection that provides the backdrop for Jamie Delano’s third issue of Hellblazer. But she also simply provided the political backdrop against which Moore, Morrison, and the other writers of the era rebelled. When Moore imagined a fascist England in V for Vendetta it was Thatcher’s Britain he was extending; when he elegized the vanishing working class life of the terraces it was Thatcher’s Britain that was obliterating it.
Margaret Thatcher was born to a middle class family in 1925. She was a strong student interested in science, studying chemistry at Oxford, although even at university she had her eye on politics, quickly adopting a conservative view heavily influenced by the Austrian School economics of Friedrich Hayek. She worked as a chemist for a few years before entering politics in pair of losing runs for Parliament in Kent. She married Dennis Thatcher, an heir to a paint company who bankrolled her studies to become a tax lawyer. In 1958 she returned to politics, this time running in the Conservative safe seat of Finchley in Greater London. Her ascent from there was swift; she joined the frontbenches in 1961, and the Shadow Cabinet in 1967, entering the Cabinet proper with the Heath Government in 1970 as Education Secretary. Through all of this she cultivated a reputation for a hard severity; she broke the party whip in 1961 to vote in favor of birching as a judicial punishment, argued against expelling Enoch Powell for his famously racist Rivers of Blood speech, and as Education Secretary cut a free milk program to earn the nickname of Thatcher the Milk Snatcher.
In 1975, following Edward Heath’s defeats in the two 1974 general elections, Thatcher successfully challenged him for the party leadership and, in 1979, defeated Labour’s James Callaghan in the wake of the famed Winter of Discontent to become Prime Minister, winning reelection in 1983 and 1987. [continued]
August 24, 2021 @ 1:31 am
Oh god. Please talk about Billy Bragg as part of this sequence. Please please please.
I’m listening to No Pop, No Style, No Roots while reading this. Not coincidentally. I remember finding this book on the shelves of the comic book store in Ithaca, NY in 2002, meeting Paul Grist at Page 45 in Nottingham in 1996, listening to my first Billy CD in Georgetown at Christmas 1993.
This blog is special to me because its concerns are my concerns. I am constantly amazed that someone is writing about this stuff so thoughtfully and so passionately.