Hold the Front Page!

Posted: 28 September 2014 in media
Tags: , ,

Came across an old blog entry from my previous blog by a series of coincidences that are far too long and complicated to go into here. But it was interesting enough for me to repost below. Enjoy.


Well, that was interesting…

Spent yesterday evening at the British Library at an event put on by the Library, the media society and Newsnight, looking at the Front Page, an exhibitopn covering the best front pages from British Newspapers since 1906 (the earliest example on show was from The Daily Mirror from 1909.)

A fascinating debate with newspaper editors discussing what makes a ‘good’ front page, and the mistakes that can be made, as well as stories behind some of the great headlines of our time.

(And yes, although the debate and exhibition were solely about national British newspapers, they couldn’t let the classic New York Daily Post headline of “Headless Man Found in Topless Bar” go by unremarked.)

Eleven front pages were chosen (in my opinion, only a couple of them should have qualified for the ‘best ever front page’, and they missed out some absolute scorchers), and the winner was:

The others that were in contention:


The militant campaign by the suffragettes to get women the vote represents a major 20th century movement as women progressively sought equal rights. (22nd May 1914)


The seemingly miraculous escape of 300,000 British troops from Hitler’s advancing armies in an armada of “little ships” was greeted at home as proof that Britain could survive to fight the Nazis. (3rd June 1940)


Sport moves from the back page to the front (october 1968)


US astronaut Neil Armstrong’s famous “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” as the Apollo XI commander became the first man on the moon, was a defining moment. Note though how the picture is admitted to be a reconstruction… (21st July 1969)


News of the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, by a British nuclear submarine during the Falklands war, was greeted enthusiastically by The Sun. (4th May 1982). Interestingly, during the debate, Roy Greenslade revealed that – contrary to the legend that has grown up about this headline – Kelvin Mackenzie was never happy with it and as soon as reports came through that 1200 Argentinians had died, pulled the headline, replacing it with “Did 1200 have to die?” “Gotcha” was only ever seen on the Northern editions.


Don’t ask. I mean, really, don’t ask. (13th March 1986)


Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe has often been a fractious one, with tensions within and towards the European Union diving the main political parties. This Sun headline marked a new turn in an old argument. (1st November 1990)


The murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black student, in south London, was elevated to symbolic status when the Daily Mail accused a group of men of a racially-inspired killing. No convictions resulted, but the case was one of several that highlighted the stresses of race relations in a changing Britain. (14th February 1997)


The disgrace of former Tory minister Jonathan Aitken, who would be jailed for perjury, arguably represents the power of the press at its best, challenging those in authority. (21st June 1997)


Britain’s troubled relations with Ireland in the 20th century saw the Easter Rising, the birth of the Irish Free State – today the Irish Republic – and the Troubles. The Independent’s story reflects a potential turning point. (29th July 2005)

It’s not often I’ll cross-refer to GOING CHEEP, but the other day, I wrote about my different taste to most of my friends when it came to television series we respectively enjoy.

It occurs to me that in the list of things where people differ, I gave politics and religion short shrift.

I wanted to get the quote right, so I dug out my collection of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America and came across the following passages, taken from one of the letters from 1956 (apologies in advance for the length):

I have , for instance, a close friend, a merry, kindly and simple man, very able in his special field of finance. I feel agreeable in his presence and I admire his human qualities. At the shabbiest period in recent American history, when the fear of domestic Communists was most paranoid, this friend was a strong, even a devout, McCarthyite… You might guess, therefore, that my friend’s admiration for McCarthy marked the parting of the ways for us. Well, it was an embarrassment, but not to our affection or our continuing association. Of course, if by some convulsion of history, McCarthy had become an American dictator, my friend and I would probably have said goodbye and retreated to opposite sides of the barricades. Nobody has sharpened this point better, in my opinion, than the late Justice Holmes when he said that the purpose of civilised argument between friends is to arrive at the point where you agree that some day it might be necessary to shoot each other. Until that day is unavoidable, ‘the democratic process’ both in public and in private is no more but no less than an acceptance of the notion that in important issues, you may be wrong.

and

My first mentor in journalism in this country was a man who had no use for democracy at all, except in this crucial belief. ‘Democracy’, he once wrote, ‘is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.’ But he also wrote, ‘What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit… when he fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon.’ We had a tacit understanding that while I allowed him to shoot off his face about the fraudulence and guile of Franklin Roosevelt, I should then be allowed to go off and vote for him. This division never interfered with a friendship that was amiable at all times.

I believe this to be not only a sane approach to politics but essential to all things that lie outside politics.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a great deal recently, since I saw a column online from someone complaining – only semi-jokingly, I suspect – about all the things his friends do that irritate him. It made me consider friendships in general and specifically: where is the line drawn?

When a friend, acquaintance or whatever holds a view that’s not only in opposition to your own, but something that you can’t understand how anyone with the intelligence of a retarded slug could hold, or is something that you actually find offensive (personally or in general)… what do you do?

Do you accept that they hold the opposite view, or do you walk away?

Are you like Cooke, i.e. you allow them to proselyte their view to you, as long as they allow you to do the same? Or do you just agree never to discuss it?

As an example, as I’ve mentioned before, a friend I’ve somewhat lost contact with over the past decade or so genuinely regards the Jewish practice of circumcising male children as child abuse; we’ve kind of agreed never to discuss it. it didn’t affect our friendship that I know of. Another friend from long ago and I agreed never to discuss Cromwell; he may have let Jewish people back into England after 350 years’ worth of exile, but his policies towards Ireland made him not far short of a genocidal maniac. Again, it didn’t – at the time – affect our friendship.

On the other hand, there are others that hold views in opposition to mind where it undoubtedly has affected the friendship, lessening it. Only mildly in some cases, but noticeably nonetheless.

And now that I think about it, I’m damned if I know how I feel about it.

But back to the thing with which I started this piece; are there things that friends of mine do that piss me off? Well, my immediate thought was “if my friends are my friends, they already know what pisses me off about them… and there’s no reason to further piss them off any more than I already do, deliberately or otherwise.”

Moreover, on second thought, to a certain extent, I hold to that – if they are my friends, I don’t really want to piss them off any more than I already do, and if they’re not my friends, they won’t give a damn anyway.

However, on pondering the question, I figure I want to write a little more on the subject.

Well, there’s at least three problems with the question as stated.

The first is that ‘friends’ has taken on a whole new meaning over the past few years because of the whole blogging and social networking issue.

At one point, on Facebook, I had about 300 friends, before I reduced that down to 150 and then to a couple of dozen, and then removed myself from the site. When I had a Livejournal blog, there were over 150 people reading the blog, or at least people I’d marked as friends, and a similar number of people who’ve marked me as a friend. Were all of them actual “friends”? Hell, no- most of them I’d never met, and were never likely to; more than a few of them I wouldn’t have recognised had I walked past them in the street. There’s a large number of people who follow my Twitter account, or this blog where I genuinely don’t have a clue (nor have I attempted to discover) what their ‘real name’ is. There’s even quite a few where I have no idea what gender they are.

In most cases, these people aren’t friends; they’re acquaintances at best, and ‘online contacts’ (what a horrible phrase) in reality.

So now we come to the next thing: what is a friend? I’ve always been struck by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment of:

A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.

But does that imply that one can be completely open with a friend, or merely that one never has to worry about watching your words in front of them. Because I know many people that would qualify as the latter, but precious few that would fall into the former category.

And there are, to me, other attributes that seem inherent in friends, and friendship.

With friends, I kind of figure I should want to spend time in their company, and vice versa. Whether I do spend time in their company (and vice versa) is almost irrelevant; do I – and they – actually want to spend time with the other? Do I, and they, get pleasure from seeing the other person; is there a genuine welcome, or is it merely toleration of their (or my) company?

Can I rely on them (and them on me) in times of need, and not just in terms of presence; would I pissed off at them if they called me at 3am just because they needed to chat to someone? Am I sympathetic to their hurts, and they to mine? Even if I think they’re wrong (or they think I’m wrong), will either get upset/angry at that disagreement? If it matters to them, does it matter to me, and if not to the extent of what they would regard as callousness, isn’t there something seriously wrong there?

This is the thing I’ve come to realise – friendship (or at least the depth of it) isn’t always a two way street. Oh, I’m not saying that you can have two people where A regards B as a friend, but B regards A as his most hated enemy. Well, not outside soap operas. But the depths, and importance, of friendships, they vary in reality and in perception.

C considers D one of their closest friends, but D regards C as just “one of the crowd”. Or E considers F as someone so important to them that they’d do pretty much anything for them, while it doesn’t even occur to F that they owe E anything more than sharing a phone call or a drink every so often.

I’m utterly convinced that for the sake of humanity, people should never – ever – discover exactly how reciprocal in depth and importance their individual friendships are… or are not.

Finally – for the moment anyway, I may add to this – there’s the small thing there’s no one thing that pisses me off in common about people I regard as friends. Different friends piss me off in different ways.

But what those ways are? Naah, I go back to what I originally said:

“if my friends are my friends, they already know what pisses me off about them… and there’s no reason to further piss them off any more than I already do, deliberately or otherwise.”

The chain

Posted: 29 August 2014 in internet, personal
Tags: , ,

I’m not sure how long I’ll let this run, but it occurred to me that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge gives a perfect example of a chain, and everybody’s contribution will be different…

I’ve heard the arguments against the challenge, but I still think it’s a worthy thing to do.

Anyway, my own personal chain started with my son Philip and his girlfriend, thus

and nominated me. So, twenty-four hours later, or thereabouts, I uploaded my own contribution…

One of the people I nominated was one of my closest friends, comedy song-writer and author Mitch Benn. And, in due course, he accepted the challenge in his own inimitable style.

Among others, Mitch nominated his wife, Clara… who, today, accepted the challenge like this.

Clara nominated… well, you’ll see who in the video.

More to follow…? We’ll see…

Mister Budgie Gets Wet

Posted: 27 August 2014 in Uncategorized

Not often I’ll take the opportunity to just re-post here some thing that happens elsewhere without a full explanation but pretty sure everyone reading this is aware of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Well, if you’re not aware, watch this…

Now you’ll see that part of the challenge is to nominate others.

And yesterday, my son did this:

and nominated me.

So, what else could I do? I am, has been mentioned very old, having celebrated my 50th birthday a little over a week ago. So, for that and other various reasons, the style of my own video is appropriate.

Mitch Benn, Tiernan Douieb and Alan Porter, over to you, gentlemen.

Haven’t done one of these personal ones in a long time, but for various reasons, I’ve been thinking about me today.

I think it might have been sparked by a number of tweetes, blogs and other writings on the propensity of people while at Edinburgh to retweet praise about themselves. Now, I’m fairly ok with that when people retweet praise about their work.

Robin Ince, in a piece yesterday, wrote:

I am not as zealous as Michael Legge in my loathing of compliments retweeted, though I worry for our sanity when authors and performers retweet someone saying that they seemed quite nice. I can understand the retweeting of a review when hawking wares, but RTing any semblance of a complimentary comment troubles me.

And that’s exactly what I’ve said before; that I have no problem when people compliment me on something I’ve written, something I’ve done, but have huge problems in accepting compliments for who I am.

(He finished off that paragraph, by the way, with

I am easily troubled, a perplexed scowl is my face at rest

But that’s just Robin being… just wonderful as always.)

And then Shappi Khorsandi, one of my favourite comedians – note that, ignorant people who say women comedians aren’t funny: not one of my “favourite female comedians”, one of my “favourite comedians” – tweeted the following:

imageI’m a huge believer in everyone being the sum of their own experiences; change the experiences, change the person. Had I never met Laura, I have no idea what my life would now be like, but it’d be very, very different. (To be honest, I’m struggling to imagine any scenario where it could have been possibly ‘better’ had Laura not been in my life.) But had I not gone to Manchester polytechnic, but instead gone to Birmingham, odds are I’d never have gotten the nickname ‘budgie’. And my life would have been very, very different.

So if ‘people’ are the sum of their own experiences, are ‘other people’ the sum of what they’ve done, and of which the observer is aware?

Hmm.

Anyway, given the above, it’s common for me to say what I’ve done, but less so – particularly in this iteration of the blog – for me to say who I am. Time to remedy that, if only a bit.

BACKGROUND
Full name: Lee Barnett. No, despite rumours to the contrary, my parents didn’t name me ‘budgie’. They may have been strange, but they weren’t that strange.
Nickname: budgie, and I’ve related the tale of how I got the name too many times. But if anyone reading is unaware of it, the story’s here.
Birthplace: Luton, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom
Heritage: There’s Polish and Russian a couple of generations back; three of my four grandparents were immigrants to the United Kingdom as children.
Places you’ve lived: Luton, Manchester, London and surrounding areas
First language spoken: Gibberish.
Last school attended: I guess Manchester Polytechnic.
First real job: define ‘real’. You mean full time, as opposed to summer vacation work? Working in a firm of accountants in London.
First relationship: daft question. what kind or relationship?
Parents’ current jobs: Mum works at an electrical retailers as a saleswoman; dad’s retired.

PERSONALITY
Right or left-brained?: Tch, if only you’d asked top-brained or bottom-brained.
How talkative/social?: Depends on the company and on how comfortable I am. If it’s people I know, I’m happy to chat away like a loon (and often do). If I don’t know the people or am uncomfortable, you won’t hear much out of me.
Introvert or extrovert? I always say I’m “introvert”… and then have to wait for the laughter to subside. Let’s just say that I’m not extrovert and leave it there.
Most common mood: Pissing others off.
What happens when you’re angry?: I get angry. What else?
Habits: Whinging.
Quirks: …genuinely not a clue what to write in response to this.

DESCRIBE
Your handwriting: When I’m writing something for others to read, neat and very legible. When it’s notes for myself, it looks like a spider on a bad dose of acid.
Your voice: Once described by an American friend as sounding like “Michael Caine on an off-day”.
Your speech/dialect: I don’t have a dialect. It’s everyone else that does. I do and say nothing that could identify where I come from, neither do I use any words specific to London. No, I don’t.
Your sense of humour: …yes, I have one.
Your room: Smaller than its been for the past eleven years.
Your friends: I have friends.
Yourself in two words: No. No.

LIKES
Name 3 songs you really like:
* Time In A Bottle – Jim Croce
* Piano Man – Billy Joel
* Monster Mash -Bobby Picket
Name 3 books you like: The Man, Imzadi, All The President’s Men
Name 3 movies you like: Cast A Giant Shadow, A Few Good Men, In The Line of Fire
Where are you most-often found?: At work or at S/Mimms.
Your perfect environment: Bright hot sunny day, with a fast cool breeze
Your perfect significant-other: Yeah, I’ll take the fifth on this one…
Your dream career: dreaming
Favourite way of travelling: Car, as long as I’m driving.
Favourite source for conversing [best way of talking to people]: depends on the person, but face to face speech takes some beating
If you could be physically attractive, what would you change?: the possibility of an entire body transplant.

DISLIKES
Most annoying sound: “I know I promised you that you’d have this by Monday, but…”
Least-favourite place: I don’t have least favourite places, I have least favourite things that happen at places, which tarnish my views of those places.
Worst habits in a significant-other: Again, for what I hope are obvious reasons, I’ll take the fifth.
Makes you feel uncomfortable: someone who obviously wants to tell me something, but isn’t sure how to.
Will make you go into a raging fit: being thought stupid.
Will make you hate yourself: my own cowardice.

THOUGHTS
On life: I’m waiting for the book to come out.
On humanity: It would be a good idea for most people to get some.
On sex: what is this “sex” of which you speak?
On gender roles and sexual orientations: I’m reminded of the comedian who suggested that it would be a great idea if homosexuality could be ‘cured’, because that would imply that anyone could ‘catch‘ it at any time as well… including bigots and prejudiced bastards who one day would be walking along the street, see a hunky male walk past, look at his backside and go “mmmmm… nice…”
On education: a great idea in principal.
On war: Should be respelled “whoooooar!” As in, “we’re declaring whoooooar”! No one would ever take the word seriously again.
On death: When your number’s up, your number’s up.

PHYSICAL APPEARANCE: (uh-oh)
Describe your body type: tall, slim to medium build.
Your hair: medium-brow, greying at the sides all over the bloody place, kept relatively short, it curls slightly when it’s longer.
Eyes: brown, decidedly non-greying.
Nails: Twenty of them.
Most often wearing: clothes.

RANDOM:
Current location: Work
Currently listening to: My tapping at the keyboard and the air-con which is making strange noises.
Last phone call: To one of my staff, asking them to bring some papers in to me for signing.
Any last words?:: “What bus…?”

Since I’ve just got back to Edinburgh after a lovely few days in (or is it ‘on’?) Skye, I’ve been thinking of satire. It’s difficult not to think of it in general, to be honest, having several stand up comedians as friends; not all of them would describe themselves as satirists by any means, but enough do.

Long time readers of this blog, and its predecessor, will know that in the dim and distant past, I used to write for – at that time – BBC Radio 4’s main weekly satirical show, WEEKENDING. Did I consider myself a satirist at the time? I’m not entirely sure I did; I just thought of it as a writing job, where part of the commission was to make a satirical point, and another perhaps larger part of the job was to make people laugh. Because that’s the difference between satire and comedy.

My favourite observation on the subject of satire remains that of the late Peter Cook, who said that:

“the purpose of satire isn’t to make the audience laugh; it’s to make them uncomfortable.”

which is very similar to what’s been said by others, about both satire and journalism: that its purpose is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

(On a tangent, it’s always struck me as similar to what Warren Ellis said about horror: not a direct quote, but something along the lines of great horror doesn’t scare you, but it makes you feel as uncomfortable as hell… Anyway, tangent over. Back to satire.)

During the London run of Beyond The Fringe, it was reported at the time that portions of the audiences walked out at two points; the first won’t surprise you, the second may well do.

One sketch dealt with the futility of war and the necessity, it was felt at one point, for a meaningless sacrifice. Given the relative nearness of the Second World War, it’s perhaps no surprise that some felt angry and upset. However, another sketch poked fun at then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. In a memorable line, Cook-as-Macmillan, said “I have been around the world on your behalf… and at your expense.” And some of the audience got up in disgust at the very idea that it was acceptable to have a pop at the Prime Minister.

However, despite the success of satire, Cook was sanguine about its long term affects and satire’s ability to influence politics. When he opened The Establishment in London, he was asked whether he thought it would have an effect on the politics of the day. His reply?

Oh, I think it will have as great an effect as the Kit Kat Club did in preventing the rise to power of The Nazi party.

I think that everyone agrees that good satire, like good comedy, punches up. Punching down, taking a pop at those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious, is seen – quite correctly – as lazy.

When I write “lazy”, I’m not necessarily talking about “playing to the crowd” nor being a “crowd pleaser”. It always puzzles me when comedians are thought of as less valid because their style is popular and when “crowd pleaser” becomes a perjorative criticism. As I wrote above, I’m fortunate enough to know a number of professional stand up comedians. Pleasing a crowd is hard work and if anyone thinks otherwise, they’re welcome to prove to me how easy it is.

But if you agree that satire should always punch up, then how do you decide what constitutes “up”? And who should be entrusted with that decision? There’s the one-size-fits-all description I used a moment ago:

those who are already disadvantaged in and by society, and at those who are already the targets of the ignorant, the stupid and the malicious

However, what about someone in a position of privilege who is unable to punch back? One can argue, for example, that politicians are always fair game; indeed, if you take a look at James Gillray’s cartoons and caricatures from the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, they’re at least as vicious and just plain nasty as anything Spitting Image ever produced. And his weren’t the only ones…

Take a look at this cartoon. The subject? Our first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole.

And this, from the time of William Pitt the Younger, about the Bank of England policy to do with the bank only circulating paper notes from then on, instead of honouring amounts in gold coinage. Rumors circulated that the Bank’s coin was merely being held in reserve to send to the Continent in support of and to finance the war.

The bank, portrayed as an elderly virgin, says:

‘Murder! Murder! Rape! Murder! O you villain! What, have I kept my honour so long to have it broke up by you at last? O murder! Rape! Ravishment! Ruin! Ruin! Ruin!!!’

Where did you think the nickname of the Bank of England of The ‘Old Lady of Threadneedle Street’ came from?

So, politicians are fair game, and banks and bankers always have been. Each of those, and individual examples of those, can hit back, of course. It wasn’t unusual, in the times of Spitting Image, for the politicians to comment that the puppets of course, of course, were wonderful, but the scripts were peurile and just flatly inaccurate. Such responses were always common when Yes, Minister and its sequel were broadcast. Politicians always said that the series got the civil service spot on but were unfair to politicians. And those civil servants who would comment, usually off the record, of course said the reverse, that Yes, Minister got the politicians exactly right, but were woefully inaccurate about the civil service. The same comments once again came to the fore when The Thick Of It was on television.

So, what about the Royal Family? They are surely fair game; exemplars of privilege, the epitome of inherited privilege in fact. And from the eighteenth century onwards (maybe before) satirists have been taking a pop at them. But is it punching up to do so… when they can’t hit back? Constitutionally, I suppose, there’s nothing actually stopping them doing so, but they don’t. They can’t. They just… can’t. And on the rare occasions when it’s let slip that a cartoon or a piece has been received with great hurt, there’s something faintly icky about both the piece and the reaction.

Once again, who decides what punching up actually constitutes? Would satire written by someone with fewer advantages in life be inherently more satirical than something written by someone from a solidly-middle class background? Are there targets that would be considered ‘punching up’ by some but not ‘punching up’ if someone from another background wrote exactly the same piece?

Because that would imply, horribly, that there’s a class structure to satire beyond the targets themselves; that the quality of satire depends upon the origins and lack of privilege of the satirist. And that’s something I suspect Peter Cook would have had problems with… and not for the first time, I’d be in complete agreement with him.

It’s been said that all fiction starts with the words “What if…?” Now this is patently untrue, since of the hundreds, if not thousands, of novels I’ve read, not one of them started with those words.

Just at random, a novel I recently read, for example, commenced with the words:

Feeling the gun against the nape of her neck, Joan Bowden froze.
See?

But I can understand the sentiment of the old saw, since at one point or another, the author of the novel must have thought “what if there was someone called Joan Bowden, and what if she had a gun against her neck?” Of course, the process is more complicated than that, since the opening words, despite setting the tone for the novel, and foreshadowing a later traumatic event in Balance of Power by Richard North Patterson, only form a periphery to the main thrust of the book.

It’s convenient that I thought of that novel, and double-checked the opening line, as it plays into something that’s been on my mind a lot this week, especially since I was chatting with some comedians in Edinburgh about different takes on the same essential centre of a joke.

This novel is the third in a series of novels featuring a recurrent cast, including a President of the United States, his family and the members of Congress with whom he exists and battles.

But if I wanted to look for a series of novels featuring a regular cast, it’s not as if I’d have to look far. From the pulp novels of the early part of the last century, through Leslie Charteris’s Saint novels through to JK Rowling’s happy cast of young wizards and witches, there has always been a segment of the novel publishing industry that has brought out books containing a cast of characters from previous books. It’s easy to understand why: familiarity with the characters breeds loyalty towards the characters. Moreover, even when the subjects are franchised out to different authors, as with the Remo Williams, Destroyer series of novels, the loyalty still often remains.

Sound familiar?

Take a look at the comics on the shelves next time you’re in your comic shop. The vast majority will feature the same characters as the previous month. The vast majority? Almost exclusively is more realistic.

I believe it was Warren Ellis who, when once railing against the predominance of the super-hero genre in the field of comics once gave the analogy of walking into a bookstore and seeing hundreds of novels, 90% of which were nurse romances.

However, the difference in this respect is that despite there being many examples of novels being merely one in a series, in a brand, most novels published feature original characters. Even where an author writes and is known for writing an ongoing series of works of fiction containing a repeating cast, they often write books featuring other characters.

There’s one other major difference between the comics featuring repeating characters and novels doing the same. No one seems to want, expect, demand or even request to see different versions of the characters. No one asks to see, for example, what Harry Potter would have turned out like had You-Know-Who only managed to kill Potter’s mum. Now before anyone jumps up and down on me, I’m deliberately excluding the ‘alternative history’ novels, such as those by Harry Turtledove, since they ostensibly deal in the ‘real’ world, not extrapolations of event changes in a pre-existing fictional environment

imageIt’s difficult to identify precisely where this kind of comic book story started. Despite Marvel turning it into a brand in its own right with the title What If…? (of which more in a moment), by the time the first issue was published in 1977 containing the story What if… Spider-Man had joined the Fantastic Four?, it was merely part of a long tradition.

imageIt could be argued that DC started the trends with their ‘imaginary stories’ in the Batman series, wherein first Robin dreamed of a future where he was Batman, with Bruce Wayne’s son as ‘his’ Robin and then later, Alfred Pennyworth would write an extrapolation into the future, with Dick Grayson as Batman II with Bruce Wayne Jr as Robin II. You think I’m kidding? They actually had the II on their costumes (see cover of Batman #145).

Is that cheating? Including ‘future’ tales as alternative takes on current continuity. I don’t think so, because with the occasional exception of a device that didn’t exist at the time, the stories could have been set at the same time as the ‘real’ stories were set. This is markedly different, for example, from Kingdom Come and Earth X, wherein the fun for the reader was seeing what would happen to the characters in 20 years or so.

But does that tradition of playing with current continuity and situations go back beyond those ‘imaginary stories’?

(A sidebar, if I may: I’ve always thought that Alan Moore’s opening captions to Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, the last Superman story before John Byrne’s revamp in 1985, were about the best there could be: “This is an imaginary story. Aren’t they all?”)

Sorry, where was I? Oh yes, that tradition and how long it’s been around. Well, I’ve only anecdotal evidence, but I recall reading a British reprint of a 1950s Lone Ranger comic wherein, while recovering from an injury, the masked hero reflects upon his life and wonders how different it would have been had the events that caused him to become the Lone Ranger not occurred.

I’d welcome even earlier examples, by the way.

The point being that for at least fifty years, say, there has been a ‘reserve’ story in the back of the minds of many comics writers, best summed up as “What if things had been different for this character?” It’s easy to appreciate why this story comes out every so often: it allows the writer to do whatever they like to the characters, and by means of simply ending the story, leave the characters precisely as they were, while hopefully telling a story that resonates in some way with the audience.

Sometime in the mid-1970s though, someone at Marvel Comics realised that, as long as the stories were good enough, they didn’t need to break the regular run of a title to run one of these stories which were popular with the comics reading public. Instead, the stories could appear in their own title.

And that’s precisely what they did, with the aforementioned What If…?. Now it has to be said that some of the stories were pretty dire, but some of them did exactly what they were intended to do: to tell an entertaining tale. The only problem, if problem it was, was that it ran a coach and horses through Stan Lee’s oft quoted reason for recaps in dialogue: “every comic book is someone’s first.”

The stories only really worked if they played against the readers’ expectations, knowing the title from which the story was drawn. Whether it was what If…Phoenix had not died? or What if…Captain America had been elected President?, the fun for the reader came from seeing what would happen to familiar characters when one pivotal event was changed. On the whole, as I recall, the heroes usually had a harder time of it in the alternative history than they did in the ‘real’ Marvel Universe. Only rarely (as in What if… Spider-Man’s clone lived?) did they end up happier as a result of the changes.

After a respectable run (47 seven issues over seven years), the first series ended. It was to reappear a couple of times, including a 100+ issue nine year run in the 1990s (including an incredibly good tale by Valentino and Leifeld: What If… Wolverine was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.?) probably my favourite of the run.

Despite their head start with the imaginary stories of Batman and Superman, DC Comics got into the game relatively late. It could be argued (in fact DC would argue) that the first of their alternative histories was The Dark Knight Returns, but later books carried a special brand: Elseworlds. To quote from the blurb that accompanied each bookshelf edition – DC went the whole hog on these, on the probably correct assumption that playing with the histories of characters established for 50+ years would be bought to keep:

“In Elseworlds, heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange times and places — some that have existed, or might have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t exist.”

In other words: imaginary stories.

Some of these tales were incredibly good (I recommend without hesitation Alan Brennert and Norm Breyfogle’s Holy Terror), while others, to put it kindly, stank.

Over the past few years, both DC and Marvel have slowed publication of these alternative takes on their established characters, reasoning, I presume, that after Kingdom Come, The Kingdom and The Dark Knight Strikes Back from DC and Earth X, Universe X and Paradise X from Marvel, the comics reading public needed a break. (Or, to put it perhaps more accurately, that after being deluged with expensive books, the public wouldn’t buy any more.)

When the two of them re-entered the market, DC in particular did it in a very different way releasing Detective #27 written by Michael Uslan, an extra-ordinarily clever book conceived around the concept of Bruce Wayne being Batman without actually having to become Batman.

The fascination with seeing what would have happened to favourite characters had one thing changed in their history appears unique to comic books, though no less fascinating a concept nonetheless. Even Dark Horse got into the act with their alternative continuity of the Star Wars universe. Now, you might think that this contradicts my statement that it only happens with comic books. Well, no – despite the fictional universe being created in the movies, look where the alternative history appeared: in a comic book.

Those who are fans of the alternative continuity lark often defend their liking by saying that the stories allow the writer to explore, and the reader to appreciate, new facets of the characters, ignoring both that (a) the moment the history changes, so do the characters, and also that (b) if the story is set back far enough, the character back then was markedly different in most examples, from the character of the same name that’s being published now.

My own take on that is simple, and recalls the no doubt apocryphal story of a famous politician (I’ve heard it that it was variously, Mao Tse-Tung, Henry Kissinger and British Prime Minister Harold Wilson) being once asked what would have happened if Soviet Premier Kruschev been assassinated instead of President John F Kennedy. “Well,” comes the eventual reply, “I seriously doubt Aristotle Onassis would have married Mrs. Kruschev.”

What If…?

Elseworlds.

Imaginary Stories – don’t ya love ‘em?