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?

I’m driving up to Skye shortly, to stay at an old friend’s house. And apart from walking around doing some aimless wandering and driving to the more distant parts of the Isles to do some aimless wondering, I’m going to be chained to my bluetooth keyboard. I’ve got a shedload of writing that I need to do, and there’s nowhere better to write than where I’m going to be, for lots of reasons.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s rare that I write about politics, and even then it tends to be more about the political process than my own politics and beliefs. But eight months out from the next election, I find I’m getting angrier and angrier about one thing in particular. Not the bedroom tax1, nor the tax avoiders2, not even the rank hypocrisy3 from all sides.

But since I’ve mentioned those three, let’s get them out of the way before moving on.

image1The bedroom tax
Yes, it’s a misnomer; it’s not a tax. If anything, the actual sickening nomenclature by which it’s referred to by the government is more accurate. Or at least it would be if it was an extra amount paid to those on housing benefit who live in social housing, what used to be known as council houses. But it’s not an extra amount. Neither, though, is it a tax; it’s a reduction in the benefit paid. But I guess that’s not snappy enough for a title.

Thing is, I don’t see anything wrong with the measure in principle. The government’s argument makes perfect sense. Now, before you jump down my throat or spit at the screen, I’m talking about the basic principle of the tax/subsidy/reduction in benefit, not how in practice it’s being implemented. Of course there should be exemptions for those who need a room solely for medical equipment; of course there should be exemptions for disabled people with carers; of course there should be exemptions for temporary situations. And, quite important this, OF BLOODY COURSE it shouldn’t apply in any situation where nowhere for the family to move to! It would be a controversial (though, as I’ve said, certainly arguably justifiable) if there was spare capacity in the [public or privately owned] housing market. But when there’s no spare capacity? It’s illogical, foolish, unfair and morally indefensible.

2Tax avoiders
Before I write anything else, let’s get it straight, there’s a world of difference between individuals and companies when it comes to tax avoidance. And even once those have been discussed (as I’m about to) I’ve changed my mind on whether or not tax avoidance is a good thing or bad. More about that in a moment.

imageOh, and if the government outlaws “aggressive tax avoidance” and makes it illegal, it’s no longer tax avoidance in any way that counts. At that point, it’s just “tax evasion”. It’s a simple rule: tax avoidance is legal, tax evasion is illegal. You can’t have illegal tax avoidance; it’s an oxymoron. (As opposed to just “a moron”, which describes quite accurately those who write about it from a wilfully ill-informed position.)

OK, individuals. First off, a famous law case, many years ago, is often said to be what kicked off tax avoidance as an industry. How long ago? How about 1934, when Judge Learned Hand wrote in a judgement:

“Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.”

However, one could argue that there is a moral duty, that it’s part of the civil contract, that people pay their taxes and that they do so in acknowledgement of what Elizabeth Warren, the junior Senator from Massachusetts, said when elected:

imageThere is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

None of which I’d disagree with. Because people have moral codes by which they live. Some may be immoral, some amoral, but there are morals the effect of which everyone lives under, through and with.

Now we come to Companies. I’ve found it almost amusing how the very people who loathe and detest the idea that companies could be people (see recent Supreme Court decisions, particularly the Hobby Lobby decision) are the very same people who say that Companies should have morals and should pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes. (More about that term in a moment.)

First off, companies don’t have morals, don’t operate under a moral code, and can’t possibly do so. Because it’s illegal for them to do so. Companies, depending upon in which jurisdiction they operate, are bound by territorially-specific legislation and company founding documents to act for the benefit of… who?

The government? No.
Their employees? No.
Their directors, then? No.

Their shareholders. Not individual shareholders, of course, but as a body. That’s it – that’s in whose benefit the company is obliged (note that, obliged) to act. It’s very possible, in fact I’d say certain, that if a company paid more tax than it was legally obliged to do, the shareholders could sue the company’s board of directors for giving away money that is properly theirs, as the owners of the company. After all, that money could have been used to pay out dividends to those very same owners of the company or could have been reinvested to increase the value of the business, and thereby the wealth of the owners.

image“Fair share”. Oh yeah, I said I’d get back to this. UKUncut among others have said that companies should pay their ‘fair share’ of taxes. I’ve always been irritated and puzzled in equal measure by the use of this phrase. Could someone please define it? And not by offering synonyms, but by actually explaining what they mean. Because it seems to me that it’s great as a slogan and utterly useless as a policy suggestion. Do they mean the company shouldn’t take advantage of reliefs specifically offered to companies to invest in certain industries? Do they mean that companies shouldn’t get a tax break on the money spent to research and develop medicines, or new technology? Do they mean that companies shouldn’t be able to write off assets over a period of time? Or do they mean that companies simply shouldn’t be able to… to…

No, what they mean is that companies should pay more tax. That’s it. That’s all. No sensible, practical suggestions how this should occur without overwriting company legislation and centuries of case law. Just that companies should pay more tax. Still it’s always easier to slogan paint than solve problems, eh?

I mentioned that I’d changed my mind on something to do with tax avoidance. And I have. For many years, certainly for all the years I was in the business of accountancy and then as a financial director, my view was that if it was legal, it was fine for a company to take advantage of reliefs and tax breaks offered. No matter how convoluted, if it was legal, it was ok.

I’ve amended my view on this for one simple reason: I realised that tax avoidance schemes fall into two simple categories: call them ‘considered’ and ‘cockup’.

Considered tax avoidance is, let’s agree, where a government has fully intended and deliberately put into legislation a tax break or a tax relief that they fully desire companies to take advantage of. An obvious example would be film production. Movie companies can choose to film in any number of countries. If a film is being made in a country, however, they’ll employ a number of people – cast, crew, etc. – and these people will spend money in the country; there’ll be payroll taxes paid to the revenue service. And all the associated benefits that come along with a production, direct and indirect benefits. So a government will often offer tax breaks to film companies in order to induce them to film in their country. I see nothing wrong with this in principle. As I say, the government fully expects the benefits to outweigh the money they’re voluntarily (and again, I stress this, deliberately) forsaking.

Cockups on the other hand are precisely that; a mistake in the drafting of the legislation that leaves it open for a smart accountant to take advantage of a gap in tax law just to save their client from having to pay their full amount of taxes. It could be a mistyped sentence, or an entire passage in the law. Or it could be that most horrible yet inevitable law: The Law Of Unintended Consequences. Either way, anyway, it’s an error, a blunder, a cockup. And no company, no individual should have the right to unfairly benefit from a mistake of government, just as no individual or company should be unfairly punished for a mistake of government.

If only there was a way to know what a government intended when they introduced legislation.

Oh wait. There is. In the UK, it’s Hansard; in the US, I believe it’s called the Congressional Record? And there are briefing documents by the truckload issued by government departments. It’s not difficult to discover what the intentions of government were.

So here’s where I stand at the moment. And I remind you that ‘illegal tax avoidance’ doesn’t exist; it’s legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion.

Considered tax avoidance is tax avoidance; perfectly legal, perfectly justified in my view. Cockups are tax evasion from the moment it’s discovered it was a cockup. I’m not sure – I’m willing to be persuaded on this one – that someone taking advantage of a cockup should be retrospectively punished; mere payment of the tax avoided (avoided, yes) should be sufficient, and the loophole closed. Future attempts to use any ‘closed’ cockup are flat out evasion and should be punished to the full extent of the law.

3Rank hypocrisy
Yeah, I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago. Not about to repeat myself, so you can read my views on it here.

So, if you remember way back when, I said I’m angry. If it’s not about the above, what am I angry about? Well, it would be nice if the official opposition was making those arguments, and holding the government to account for once. The more I consider the current state of the Labour Party as our official opposition, the angrier I get.

imageI’ve no brief for Labour – I find many, but not all by any means, of the policies they espouse to be ones with which I fervently disagree. But then I could honestly say that about any and all of the major political parties in the United Kingdom. No, what pisses me off is that for all my faults, I tend to believe in the value of a strong opposition. Not “to keep this Government honest”; I think that it would require several torture chambers, daily enemas and being hooked up to portable lie detectors to achieve that, same as with any government.

But a more than halfway decent opposition is important to ensure that the public knows at least some of what the Government is up to. It’s been some time since a Government has treated the House of Commons with any respect, as anything other than a necessary duty. But successive executives have so emasculated Parliament (with their fawning acquiescence) that unless and until there is serious Parliamentary reform, nothing will change. The current Speaker has gone some way, some little way, to helping MPs in the chamber of the House of Commons at least try to do this, but it’s very little, very late.

It was no different almost fifty years ago when Richard Crossman wrote in his diary:

Cabinet. The Prime Minister had decided to take my procedure package of parliamentary reform. Actually it took nearly two hours and was a ghastly discussion. How ghastly you certainly wouldn’t get an idea from the Cabinet minutes . . . The moment I’d finished George Brown said, “Well, it’s asking a terrible lot of us, Prime Minister. We’re busy men.” . . . He was followed by Minister after Minister round the table simply saying how busy they were, how they were harassed by all these Cabinet Committees and how they simply couldn’t be burdened with any more work by the House of Commons.

imageMost of these Ministers were individually as well as collectively committed to parliamentary reform. Yet, after two years they’ve become Whitehall figures who’ve lost contact with Parliament. And of course what they’re saying is pure nonsense. The Executive rides supreme in Britain and has minimum trouble from the legislature. Perhaps it’s because Parliament is so entirely subordinate to the Executive that my colleagues were saying, “We can’t allow this Parliamentary Party to bother us.”

And what, after four years in power during which a coalition Government has enacted legislation from a cobbled together coalition agreement instead of a manifesto with a mandate, does the Official Opposition party spend the majority of their time doing?

Well, it seems to me to be an even split between defending their leader to those who dislike him intensely, and briefing the media against that very same leader.

This should be the time when the official opposition should be challenging the government every bloody day. And they’re not. At all. They should – less than a year out from the next general election – be ripping the Government a new hole daily.

Do I want a Labour party in power? I don’t know – show me their next manifesto and I’ll tell you.

Until then, I’d be content with them proving they actually bloody want the job.

Time on my hands

Posted: 19 August 2014 in comics, fiction
Tags: ,

Let’s talk about Time Travel. And comic books.

Time travel stories in monthly comic books featuring continuing characters always suffer from, and always will suffer from, a huge limitation, when compared to opposed to any other form of fiction. That limiting parameter, which is of course, the necessity for characters to survive, is precisely what led to What If…? and Elseworlds tales being so popular. Because what is a What if…? other than the consequences of a time traveller going to the past and changing a crucial event?

So I’m a sucker for time travel stories; always have been. Doesn’t matter whether it’s novels like There Will Be Time or The Time Patrol tales, both by Poul Anderson, movies like The Philadelphia Experiment or the numerous comics books stories over the years, I get sucked in; and of course, my guilty not-so-secret is that despite the script always having at least one character warning the others against changing anything in the past “in case it changes the future”, that’s why I read the damn thing: to see what the consequences are of such meddling.

With rare exceptions though, time travel stories set in the past tend to concentrate on “a character learning something”, one of the classic “there are only five/six/seven* [*delete as appropriate] stories”. Whether it’s a character learning something about his origin, or solving a long forgotten but unsolved crime, the temptation to ‘mix in’ is strong for characters, sometimes too strong. Could any of us blame Bruce Wayne, given the opportunity to travel back in time and save his parents, if he did so? Or Peter Parker saving Uncle Ben?

However, while the past is already written and a change in the timeline requires an overt act of commission or omission, the future is an open book, blank pages ready to be written on. I guess it’s a pity then that so many of these stories are dystopic in nature. (c.f. Marvel’s Age of Ultron most recently, and Age of Apocalypse a wee back further in subjective] time and DC’s Armageddon 2001, even further back.)

I infer from this, unfortunately, that most super-hero writers don’t think that super-heroes will eventually make a difference. Or at least one to the benefit of humanity.

The first comic book time travel story I actually recall reading was from a British reprint of Fantastic Four #19, wherein the team go back in time and encounter Rama Tut. This turned out to be quite a popular time to visit, since the story has been reproduced from other characters’ points of view, including Doctor Strange and the West Coast Avengers, each of them in their own books visiting this critical (!) time. In the latter, the writer obviously decided to have a bit of fun with the whole ‘chicken and egg’ scenario, since he had Moon Knight create the very weapons that, a couple of thousand years later the character would discover and use as a super-hero.

However, the multiple visitors thing do remind me of the classic science fiction story Let’s Go To Golgotha by Gary Kilworth. In this startlingly original story, a group of time travelling tourists visit the village of Golgotha only to discover that all of the massive crowds witnessing the crucifixion are time travellers… the natives are sitting at home instead, not caring about yet another state execution of yet another criminal.

Time travelling has been a staple of super-hero storytelling since at least the 1950s, with Batman regularly using “hypnosis” (and sometimes a “time ray”) to travel back in time, via the offices of a Professor Nichols. For some reason, despite the hypnosis, Nichols quite happily sent back Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson… and then on other occasions Batman and Robin… and didn’t learn of their identities. Lord, people kept themselves to themselves back then.

During one of these stories, Batman travelled back to the Old West and managed to inspire a Batman in the 1800s. In fact, given the number of other Batmen he discovered over the years, it’s quite astonishing that Bruce Wayne’s eventual appearance in the cape and cowl was anything other than inevitable.

Batman was, of course, far from the only character to indulge in time travel. Superman, and especially Superboy had a number of time travelling adventures, and even Jimmy Olsen was transported back in time and space, in one story, ending up on Krypton before the explosion. And neither was this limited to the “goofy” tales of the 1950s. In the not too distant past ok, twenty-odd years ago, a storyline entitled Time and Time Again had Superman bouncing around the time stream, suffering from amnesia (a common story device for time travellers) and a darkened costume (a less common story device, I’ll admit).

Even leaving aside John Byrne’s version of OMAC, (OK, well, I liked it) it seems at times as if almost every major character has indulged in time travel at one time or another: Superman, Batman, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Avengers, The X-Men… hell, even Green Arrow got in on the act; in a 1946 story, Date With Diana, both he and Speedy end up in the ancient past, where they meet Diana, the legendary goddess of the hunt.

All of these stories are of course, in complete contradiction of Hawking’s Rule: If time travelling was possible, time travellers from the future would already be here.

And we know they’re not here… Unless, of course, that’s just what they want us to think. No matter: some of these stories worked superbly, some weren’t too bad at all… and then there were the others.

Without making a long list of which stories ‘worked; and which didn’t, and despite my love for the very concept, I do wonder whether on occasion, they’re a crutch for the writer upon which to rest. Going forward in time is easy. Readers love speculative fiction in comics and as upmteen (a technical writing term, you understand) story arcs prove, you can do pretty much whatever you like to the future version of characters… precisely because the characters will never be allowed to get that old. Being fair, it’s not exactly an original concept: teenage heroes in particular see a dystopic future and don’t like what they see.

The first team time travel story that addressed the ‘darker versions of themselves’ issue involved, I think, The New Mutants; in issues #48 to #50 of their book, published in 1987, the team was split in two and scattered forward in time, both sets of characters ending up some thirty years in the future. One set of kids ended up in a post-Days of Future Past New York, where they discovered mature versions of those that hadn’t made the trip with them, battle-hardened, battle-weary soldiers. Simultaneously (if you’ll forgive the use of the word) the younger versions of these characters had travelled to an alternate future, one which seemed a paradise to them, having come from a world that at best tolerated mutants; here, the mutants ran things and the humans were oppressed. Of
course, it was the grown up versions of those that had not travelled with them that ran that so-called ideal society.

When the children were reunited, the awkwardness each set of kids felt around the other was palpable. Well, how at ease would you be with a friend, if you’d seen an adult version of that friend as a cruel veteran of a decade long war? Or as the fascistic leader of a totalitarian society?

Going into the past is trickier, but other than giving the writer a chance to get some retroactive continuity into canon for his own pet theory or story, there are almost none I can recall that genuinely accomplished something that couldn’t have been shown another way.

I say “almost”, because there are three “visiting the past” storylines that I still remember very fondly, and that did accomplish something unique in each case.

The first occurred during Grant Morrison’s run on Animal Man. After his family has been killed – don’t worry, they come back later – Buddy Baker is distraught and borrows a time travel unit from Rip Hunter to visit the past. Although he knows that he mustn’t interfere, the sight of Baker, hidden, watching his daughter play while a tear runs down his cheek is still, years later, very moving. Morrison doesn’t rest there, though – he ensures that Animal Man encounters immortals during the trip. Of course, this being a Morrison book, the have coffee while discussing the nature of time. An intelligent, moving tale. And perfect art by Tom Grummett, as opposed to the earlier issues’ Chas Truog. (I’m sure some enjoyed Truog’s work but it had the awful effect for me of always being aware of the art… in a bad way; it always made me think ‘urgh, maybe it’ll get better next page. It never did.)

Rip Hunter pops up again in Time Masters, a wonderful eight issue mini-series that deals with a group of characters’ attempts to stop a multi-thousand year old conspiracy. The very scope of the story could not have been achieved without time travel and it’s a damn pity that Bob Wayne didn’t write much else, concentrating instead on his Marketing and PR career for DC. There’s just nothing wrong with either the story, the art, the emotional beats hit during the series. Just nothing at all.


The other story is the entire run of one of my favourite comic books DC ever published: Chronos. Addressing multiple paradoxes about time travel (including what happens if due to your meddling, you don’t exist?) the book had one of the best concepts and best endings ever. Instead of a time traveller ensuring that he didn’t interfere with time, Gabriel Walker would interfere… because, according to the one major conceit of the book, he was always supposed to. So for example, he introduces Thomas Wayne to a young socialite named Martha in the Silver Age of DC Comics; he also works on the Kent Farm in the 1880s.

Talking of the Kents, and the ending I referred to a moment ago… on the final pages of the final issue, Gabriel Walker turns up in Kansas and begs a ride from a childless couple driving past. He directs them to a field not far from Smallville and then, thanking them for the ride, he leaves them… He’s planned it so that as they drive home, they’ll pass near Kal-El’s rocket ship as it plummets to Earth. As he says at the end of the book, he has ‘a front row on history’.

Given the quality of those and other stories, I guess that what gives me a headache about time travel stories isn’t that they’re done at all, but that they’re done well so infrequently. Often, the plot can’t survive the weight put upon it by logical inconsistencies… that are there just to make the story “work” as in the convoluted – to put it mildly – history of Kang. On other occasions, the characters act… well, out of character. That could be explained by the different social mores and culture of the time period, but it never is.

And yet time travel stories still retain that certain something that gets readers interested. I suspect part of the reason is that time travel stories in which the established past does change have what you might call “inherent suspense”. No one reading a story in which, say, Peter Parker went back to ‘save’ Uncle Ben would believe for a moment that by the end of the story, Ben would be anything but dead. The interest is seeing how.

I’ll end with my favourite quote about time travel, from the most well-travelled of time travellers, Doctor Who: “That takes me back… or is it forward? That’s the trouble with time travel, you never can tell.”

Well, I’m 50.

To be precise, I was 50 yesterday and those of you who’ve been following the countdown on this blog may – with some justification – have expected a blog post from me before lights out last night. And, to be fair to myself, I’d actively and positively intended to post something before I crawled into bed and pushed the light switch into the off position.

Ah, the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, especially when numerous examples of what Alistair Cooke used to call the wine of Scotland are involved.

I mean, it’s not even as if I’d planned planned on coming up to Edinburgh this year; like the past few birthdays, I fully expected to spend the day on my own and just wandering as on any other Sunday. However, the opportunity to (a) come up to Edinburgh for a few days during the Festival, and then (b) to travel onwards for another few days to stay at an old friend’s house on the Isle of Skye was too good to pass up.

So, I arrived Saturday morning in Edinburgh after a couple of hours driving; I’d come up with Clara Benn and the girls but once I’d fallen asleep after the first stint, surrendering the driving to Clara. She very foolishly kindly let me sleep and drove the rest of the journey.

A nice pleasant, relaxing Saturday afternoon followed before we headed into town for my first Fringe experience of 2014, seeing the most excellent Nick Doody in his show: Nick Doody vs The Debonair Assassin. Nick’s a funny, clever man with a clever, funny show in part discussing the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. Brilliantly incisive and superbly funny. Highly recommended. No, sod that; I’m telling you to go see him.

Although we got out early enough to see another show if we fancied, to be honest, I was enjoying just soaking up the atmosphere of the Fringe; Nick, Clara and I then visited several bars and caught up with other comedians, most of whom I knew and chatted away, passing the hours in a very pleasant manner.

At one point, we found ourselves at the abattoir bar, with an amusingly appropriate wifi password, and although the place was packed with comedians, and there’s no way whatsoever that I should have felt comfortable – since I’m obviously not in the business – I didn’t. It took me about ten minutes to realise why: the atnmosphere, sounds, and sights were almost exactly the same as that at a comics convention (comics in the meaning of comic books) after the punters have gone home and it’s just the pros and hangers-on* remaining.

*(e.g. me.)

The same tone of stories were being told, the same age range was there, the same relaxed comfortable nature of professionals catching up in a social environment with other professionals in the same industry.

It’s funny – I’ve always thought that it’s amusing that comics can be taken as meaning comic books and comedians, especially since the bile thrown at women in both industries is distressingly similar: the vile insinuations as to how they got their break, the ludicrous assertions that there’s something inherently and qualitatively better about the work of men, and the flatly outrageous sexism online.

Somewhere in the very wee hours, my phone buzzing with texts, emails and twitter notifications wishing me happy birthday, we headed back to the house in which we’re all staying, old friends of Mitch Benn and Clara.

And so to bed.

Woke up mid-morning and then quickly into the city centre to meet up with Emma Vieceli and her husband Pud for lunch. Emma’s up here in Parade; I’m hoping to see it when I get back from Skye; you should see it now if you can. Lovely to see Emma and Pud; they’re always great company, and Emma genuinely is one of the nicest people in comics, as well as a fascinatingly wonderful artist. You should be reading Breaks by her for a start…

After lunch – delicious! – headed off to The Stand 3 to see Mitch Benn Is The 37th Beatle; although I’ve seen several versions of this show, this was a new one to me, as although it’s returned to the hour length of last year’s Fringe version, there’s at least one new song (from the 80 minute touring version), and a few minor differences and new jokes I couldn’t recall hearing before. Lovely show, as always though; it’s my favourite of Mitch’s recent shows, but of course, I haven’t seen this year’s show yet…

Bumped into Andy Salzman as I was leaving Mitch’s venue; Andy’s a lovely bloke, and he very kindly supplied a challenge for last year’s Comic Relief 24 Hours of Fast Fiction, this one. Confirmed with him when his shows are this year, Satirist For Hire in the afternoon, Political Animal at night. I’ve plans to see both if I can. You may know Andy from The Bugle podcast, or from Radio Five Live’s 7 Day Saturday. Or you may not have heard of him at all; if it’s the latter, I highly recommend you remedy this loss in your satirical needs.

Thinking of Andy reminds me of John Oliver (Andy’s partner on The Bugle) and his new venture, Last Week Tonight. Anyone who saw him sub for Jon Stewart on the Daily Show knew that John was ready for his own show, and I’m more pleased than I can say that not only has Last Week Tonight been a roaring success so quickly, but also that it’s established with astonishing rapidity its own, very different, identity from that which most people thought it might be, i.e. The Daily Show on Sundays. That the show has managed to do that is fantastic for all involved but especially for its audience which if there is any justice in television is sky rocketing week after week.

Anyway, back to me. When you left me… (ok, ok, that was a long digression, I know), I had just left Mitch’s gig and was on my way to The Pear Tree wherein I intended to reside for the rest of the day, enjoying friends, acquaintances and possibly one or two people I didn’t know, stopping by to help me celebrate my 50th birthday with chat, stories and alcohol.

Now I don’t want to spoil the story but… that’s pretty much exactly how it worked out. Too many people to list everyone but it was so bloody lovely to see Carly Smallman, if only briefly, as well as Kirsty Newton and Nick Doody; Jay Foreman dropped by, which is always a pleasure, as did Tiernan Douieb and Matt Blair. And the gorgeous Pippa Evans popped by as well… (Loretta Maine promised to come, but strangely couldn’t make it.)

Can’t thank Mitch and Clara enough for organising it; was a lovely day, and a lovely evening.

Managed to get to see Al Kennedy and his missus Cariie, as well as their six-week old daughter, who was cuter than any child has any right to be. Despite me merely wanting people’s presence, rather than presents, I must mention two presents I got.

I already mentioned Clara buying me a first edition of my favourite novel, The Man by Irving Wallace.

Al and Carrie’s present was a tad more recent, but it involved one of my favourite writers and one of my favourite artists, Kurt Busiek and Stu Immonen respectively. Somehow, somehow, I’ve never reasd ShockRockets, their 2000 book.

So, I was particularly delighted to receive a hardback collection of the entire series. Really looking forward to reading this.

When I returned home, suitably relaxed, suitably chilled, and not shaken at all, let alone stirred, Mitch presented me with the following:

As the more sharp-eyed of you will see, the pen has the words MAKE GOOD ART engraved upon it, a worthy sentiment most often expressed by our mutual friend Neil Gaiman, but one which I commend to everyone reading this.

And that was my birthday, leaving out the hour or so during the evening when Clara and I nipped out for a bite to eat, which I didn’t quite realise I needed as much as I did until the first bit of food hit my stomach….

It almost feels like cheating to talk about today, but since it’s got a link to the above, why not? It was Kirsty Newton’s dad’s birthday today (as well, coincidentally hers as well) and she’d organised a ‘flash mob’ to sing Happy Birthday to him at half-three this afternoon. Since she wanted unique things to happen for and to him today I offered to write him a short story, an offer which she accepted. So, this morning, I typed out a short story written specifically for him. And then… I hand-wrote the story, using the my new fountain pen, onto Basildon Bond paper, sealed it in an envelope and presented it to him this afternoon, a story no-one else will ever read unless he chooses to let them read it.

I think it’s nice and appropriate that the first thing I wrote with a pen engraved with MAKE GOOD ART was a story written specifically for one person.

As for the next thirty-six hours (I’m leaving for Skye on Wednesday morning), I’ve plans to see Salzman, and tonight, Jess Robinson in her four and five star reviewed Mighty Voice. As for the rest, I’ll see what occurs… it’s not as if I’m short of choices, is it?

50 minus 1: Q and A

Posted: 16 August 2014 in personal
Tags: ,

It’s about time I did something like this on this version of my blog; in the last blog I had (from 2002 through to 2010) I did it fairly regularly.

Tomorrow, the countdown reaches zero – and if you haven’t noticed the countdown, you really haven’t been paying attention.

But anyway, every so often on LiveJournal, I asked folks to ask me questions. Not the ‘coffee or tea?’ or ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ type questions but a tad more personal and hopefully more interesting. Well, there’s been a lot of changes in the past few years, and I was reasonably curious as to what my answers would be now to questions I was asked the best part of six or more years ago.

So, preface over, here are some questions and answers:

What was your favourite toy as a child?
No contest: Lego. Loved playing with it, and there were apparently tantrums when a single brick was taken away, whether or not I was using it.

If you could choose your neighbours (on either side of your imaginary house on the imaginary street), who would they be and why?
I’d have empty houses either side. I don’t think (other than when I was a kid, and on one other occasion) I’ve ever actually got on that well with neighbours. Quite happy not to have any. When I lived in the flat in Barnet, I had four sets of neighbours in seven years and I don’t think I exchanged more than a few words with any bar one set. I’m quite happy, once the door shuts, for it just to be me and to shut the rest of the world out, Internet notwithstanding.

What’s your favourite swear/curse word?
Bugger. The softer I say it, the more serious the occasion.

Do you like to dance? Can you dance?
No, and no. Even when I was physically able to dance, I loathed it, hated it with a passion; I’m way too self-conscious to be able to “lose myself” in the music. These days, of course, about the only silver lining in the cloud of the buggered up foot is that I’m not ‘expected’ to dance. I seriously don’t like it, although as a general rule, I quite enjoy watching other people dance.

If you could have your own restaurant, what would it serve and what would be your signature dish (and why)?
Health foods… as healthy and nutritious as possible. I’d find it amusing to be running a successful restaurant that only serves healthy, nutritious food… while I’m stuffing myself with cheeseburgers.

How do you feel when street beggars ask you for money?
Uncomfortable that we have a society that forces people to beg.

What are you reading at the moment?
Star Trek: New Frontier | Restoration by Peter David. I’ve a dozen or so books lined up to read after that, though, two in particular I’m very much looking forward to. One I’ve been recommended by several people: 5 Days in May by Andrew Adonis, a recounting of the negotiations that led to the UK getting a coalition government after the 2010 general election.

Are there any books you want to read but suspect you never will?
Oh, several; War and Peace, Doctor Zhivago and the original Count of Monte Christo among others.

Favourite prose book?
No contest; it’s been my favourite novel since I first read it in 1982: The Man by Irving Wallace. Set in the late 1960s, the Vice-President of the United States is dead by a heart attack as the novel starts. No big deal, the US has been without a VP at several times in its history. Then the President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives die in an accident. (A building in post-war Berlin collapses during a summit.) The President pro-tem of the Senate, a man only given the mostly nondescript (as far as the populace is concerned) position as a sop to appease a section of the electorate, is catapulted into the White House. The kicker comes at the end of the first chapter as the Chief Justice wishes him well “as the first Negro President of the United States of America.” And all hell breaks loose.

The novel was written in 1964, and end up with him being impeached and being tried on the impeachment articles… three of which are or could be seen as racially motivated and one which is most definitely an attack on the Presidency itself.

And this is the ‘not a birthday present; just pure coincidence I’m giving it to you within a week or so of your 50th birthday’ present I just got from Clara Benn: a first edition of the book itself.

Isn’t that nice…?

How do you feel when strangers, someone next to you on the train or bus etc., start talking to you?
An urgent need to move away or change seats. I’m not the most social or sociable of people in general but definitely (but not exclusively) with people I don’t already know or haven’t been introduced to.

What’s your favourite smell?
Will have to give several: citrus (particularly lime), that “new leather” smell, freshly baked bread and freshly cut grass.

What’s your favourite of the fast fictions you’ve written?
Honestly couldn’t say; I’ve some I like more than others, but that’s usually because there was a specific thing I was trying to achieve with the story and in that case, I felt I’d done so. I’ll always have find memories of the one I wrote in iambic pentameter, as I will for the one that was entirely alliterative. Then again, I always enjoy writing stories for friends. And the twenty-four I wrote in twenty-four hours raised about two thousand pounds for charity, so those are very special to me.

Which would you rather: a country where it never got dark, or a country where it was dark all the time?
The former; I can always close the curtains and recreate dark; switching the light on isn’t the same as daylight. And I like light, a lot of it.

What did you watch on TV when you were a child?
According to my family, ANYTHING. I was a tv addict, watching everything I could from a very early age. But stuff I remember liking? Thunderbirds, H R Puffnstuff, Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People, Catweazle, The Freewheelers, §, Ace of Wands and Magpie all spring to mind… Re that last: I was never a Blue Peter kid; much preferred Magpie.

If you were to choose a religion to practice, based entirely on entertainment value / general interest (basically, anything but actual belief), which would you choose, and why?
I honestly don’t think I’d choose to follow any religion if it wasn’t for faith; can’t really see the point.

What, if anything, do you collect?
Well, it used to be comics… could still be, I guess, but more in trade paperbacks than the monthly comics. These days? I collect painkillers on an ongoing basis.

Did you ever consider becoming a hairdresser instead?
No. I did work in my dad’s salon on Saturdays and during summer holidays, but permanently? Not a chance; I fairly quickly learned I didn’t have the skills, the temperament nor the artistic appreciation. A good hairdresser can teach anyone how to cut hair; that won’t turn the student into a hairdresser. In the same way that I can teach anyone to keep a set of books; that won’t turn them into an accountant. Although, I’ll admit to enjoying the atmosphere of a hairdressers. I did then, and I do now.

What’s the weirdest/most uncharacteristic song you like?
I’m not sure what would qualify as weirdest, although I’ve a fond affection for many pop songs, the lyrics of which I learned in childhood.

In which newspaper (or associated site) do you put the most faith for lack of bias/find yourself agreeing with the bias of the most?
Probably The Grauniad these days. I used to be a faithful reader of The Times, but simply got bored by the writing in the end. And to my genuine surprise, I found myself agreeing more and more with the slant taken by The Guardian. And despite many people thinking the BBC is biased, I don’t.

Marvel Comics comes to you and says you can write any one character in the Marvel Universe; who do you pick?
Although my heart says Union Jack, simply because I think he’s been wasted as a character, my brain says a bigger name. I’d like to write a Kitty Pryde mini-series. She’s a character that’s met most of the Big Names in the Marvel Universe and has rarely (certainly the past few years) come away fazed by the experience. I’d love to write something where she needs a team… not physically there, but to solve a mystery or to save a life, she has to call in favours from people she’s saved or worked with over the years. Most of the names would have cameo parts or small guest roles; the focus would be on her. In some ways, she’s my generation’s Rick Jones, in that she’s worked with loads of people and very, very few of them actively dislike her.

DC Comics comes to you and says you can write any one character in the Marvel Universe; who do you pick?
Well, I said recently why they’d never let me write Superman… so he’s out. I’d like to write a series for them that dealt with the consequences of being close to a super-hero; say Alfred Pennyworth teaming up with Lois Lane,

However, in answer to both of the above questions, what I’d really like to write is my own characters, thanks. It took me a long time to realise that, probably longer than it should have done.

Have you ever done anything that you still feel embarrassed about even to this day?
Oh, Lord yes, so many times, work related, personal and to do with comics. Some funny, some just embarrassing and some just purely unprofessional. Tell you what, just because I’m being brutally honest today, you get one from each.

Work related: I once took a major client’s VAT Records home to work on… and left them on the tube. These weren’t copies – these were the originals. And, as I changed tubes at Camden Town, I just got off the tube train… and left them there. I realised about ten minutes later and had the next two hours from hell as I tried beyond hope to get them back. With an incredible amount of luck, as I was heading back to the office (my boss was pulling an all nighter) to offer my resignation, I stopped off at Euston and asked… and they’d been handed in at Hampstead. I picked them up an hour later. Yes, I told my boss, and asked him whether he’d have accepted the resignation. He grinned and said, “Luckily, you’ll never have to know.”

Personal: Years ago, a friend asked me to look after her younger sister when she came to London to study, just take her out and show her around; that kind of thing. Rarely for me, she didn’t need a plank for me to realise that she made several passes at me. And, despite the fact that it was the younger sister of a good friend, I eventually thought “Oh, hell, why not?”. Except of course, I’d entirely misread the situation – a pass, let alone several, had not been made. It took years for me to even look at her without blushing, and even today, were I to see her (she’s married now) I’d cringe with embarrassment.

Comics: Yeah, this is one where I acted like an idiot, and the person concerned still thinks I am one, and that’s putting it kindly. When I was first attempting to break into Marvel, Dave Gibbons put me in touch with an artist in a similar position and he pencilled five pages of a script. He sent me the original pages and I got them photocopied to submit them. I submitted them, and it went nowhere… The ‘idiot’ thing was that despite promising to return the pencils on several occasions, I somehow never quite got around to it. Almost a year later, at the first Bristol (maybe the second), I gave them back to him, with profuse apologies that were – understandably – less than convincingly accepted. If we see each other these days, we nod politely to each other, but inside, even now, my insides turn to water.

If you were an alien visiting Earth today what would you do?
Leave. Hurriedly.

Do you think people going to look back on Tony Blair as a great PM who made some bad decisions/policy choices (as with Maggie) or as a bad PM who made some appalling decisions/policy choices?
Somewhere inbetween. He was never going to be a great PM, but following Maggie and Major, I think he hoped that he’d be grouped with them as Blair | Maggie | Major, the fabled The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. But saying that he was better than them is a bit like saying that I’d be a better violinist than Abu Hamza. True, but not something upon which to build a legacy. Blair made some good decisions, and some bad ones, but he’ll be remembered most, I suspect, for wasted opportunities.

What’s your favourite film?
I don’t actually have a favourite film. So I’ll pick one that I like, one I can quite happily rewatch again and again: Fiddler On The Roof.

What are your middle name(s)?
Despite many people thinking ‘budgie’ is my middle name, in all seriousness, I don’t have any. My older brother did, but my parents decided against it for me and my younger brother. I do wish I had had a middle name; I’d have stopped using Lee years ago.

What aspects of Judaism do you practice?
Fewer and fewer as time goes by. I kept the flat relatively kosher (and yes, I know that’s an oxymoron) because Phil lives with Laura most of the time, and I promised her I’d do so at the flat. I rarely go to synagogue, only for Yizkor (A memorial prayer for my brother). I don’t and won’t eat pig or shellfish, but almost everything else is open to option… or it would be if I actually, you know, ate occasionally. This is a question that’s far easier answered with a “do you do… this?” yes/no type response.

What’s the best story you’ve ever written/the one you’re most proud of?
The best individual thing? You’ll Never Believe A Man Can Fly. The one I’m most proud of? Last of The Midnight Screamers. The first you can buy, the latter you’ll have to ask for…

5) What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?
Apparently, roughly 11 meters per second, or 24 miles an hour., or 8.8 meters per second, or 20 miles per hour.

How old do you wish you were?
I’m actually content with the ancient age I’ve so far reached, or will have done tomorrow, anyway.

If you were to get a tattoo, where and what would it be?
I wouldn’t. And ‘having’ to get a tattoo makes me think of stuff I’d rather not…

Do you follow your horoscope?
Not at all. I think that along with numerology, fortune telling and palmistry, it’s utter, wholly unmitigated, nonsense. There’s one more but I can’t think of it…

What are your phobias?
Bees, wasps… dentists.

How do you feel about interracial couples?
Nothing different to what I feel about non-interracial couples.

What’s your life motto?
“Life is a series of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time.’ “

What’s your main ringtone on your mobile?
Theme to Catweazel.

What is your secret weapon to lure in the opposite sex?
People have secret weapons? Damn, why was I not told this? Because they’re secret? Damn.

Worst injury you’ve ever had?
Busted foot, never fully healed.

If you could go anywhere in the world for a holiday, somewhere you’ve never visited before, where would it be?
Probably Sidney, Australia.

What do you consider to be your best quality?
Oh, hell, I dunno – I always find it incredibly hard to answer that one, since I think that it’s very tough to answer it without sounding arrogant, especially since I don’t think I have that many wonderful qualities from which to choose a ‘best’. I guess “determination” would be one answer, though others might inaccurately call it stubbornness.

How long do you bear a grudge?
If I hold a grudge, there’s a damned good reason for it; iIt’s rare for me to fall out with someone permanently. With the vicissitudes of life being what they are, life’s too short. If you screw up, or offend someone, then unless it’s of crucial importance, or permanently changes your opinion of someone for the worse, it’s not worth falling out with them forever. (I’m reminded of the comment that “it takes more muscles to frown than to smile… but it’s worth the extra effort.”) However, on those rare occasions, I don’t fall out with someone for the sake of it. And yeah, I bear grudges. Hard.

If you had to choose between being Lee or being Budgie, forever and retroactively, which would it be?
A very difficult question, because most people who know me as “Lee” don’t ever think of me in any way as Budgie and vice versa. I guess, if I had to choose, I’d take “Lee” if only because having “Budgie” up on my office door above the words “Director of Finance” would have been just silly.

Given the time and resources to become the world’s leading authority on any subject, what subject would you choose?
Again, a difficult question, because I can’t think of anything off the top of my head in which I’d be that interested in being the world’s leading authority. Oh I dunno – “the world’s leading expert on not turning up for drinks.” How’s that?

Have you ever considered running/standing for public office?
No, and I wouldn’t. I value my privacy too much. And yes, that is the main reason.

What is your favourite word and why?
My favourite word is poltroon. It just trips off the tongue and conveys so much.

What’s the craziest word you have ever heard?
I remember being thrown the first time I heard the word Triskaidekaphobia.

Will science solve every problem?
I tend to agree with Laurence J Peter who said:

“Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well-informed just to be undecided about them.”

If you could give me one piece of advice, what would it be?
Carpe diem, every bloody diem.

If you read super-hero comics, sooner or later, in a day-dream or seven, you’ll wonder what you super-powers you’d like to have.

The best answer to this, of course, is “America”, but leaving aside the political satire for once, what super-power would I actually want.

Well, I’ve an extra bone in my foot … at least I did have until I had it removed some years ago, and its removal and a few other problems with it have been well documented here and elsewhere.

So, no adamantium feet for me, dammit. But if you do wonder what powers you’d like to posess, even if you’ve only a semi-decent knowledge of super-hero comics over the past few years, you’ve a few hundred powers to choose from.

Running down the most obvious:

Flight: This is the power that most egregiously springs to mind. The power to lift off, fly anywhere you want to and, presumably land safely, although I suspect that landing is probably far more difficult than it looks. Getting up in the air is one thing, but landing? As David Gunson said in his incredibly funny What Goes Up Might Come Down, A good landing is defined as one after which you walk away….

Add to that problem the small but inconvenient fact that I have no sense of direction and would just as likely go in the wrong direction to my destination. Furthermore, given the current state of the world’s media, and the ghoulish fascination the public has for anything different, I suspect that this power would be one which would be difficult to keep to yourself. And what’s the point of a super power that you never get to use, eh? So, flying’s out.

Telepathy: Sorry, you couldn’t pay me enough to have this power. I know my own limitations and I don’t think I’ve got the willpower to be able to only read in people’s minds what I want to discover. I suspect that if telepathy genuinely existed, i.e. the power to ‘read people’s minds’, anyone with such a power would be quickly driven insane. No, not from the ever present background psychic buzz that would be around, but from the overload of trivial information that would of necessity be attached to the important information. Say I want to discover whether or not I’m getting a pay rise, so I take a peek inside my boss’s noggin. And, immediately, I’ve faced with the knowledge that he needs to get the car fixed at the weekend, because there’s a nasty knocking sound under the bonnet and he really hates the latest song released by that band that he loved when no one knew them but they’ve sold out and does his daughter really have to eat in the car and leave the wrappings on the backseat and who’s been smoking in the back room and now that the election’s been called he really should decide who to vote for and… and… and…

You see the problem?

So telepathy is out, unless it’s a very defined and refined telepathy, about which more in a minute…

Next up?

Well, Invisibility is tempting, I’ve got to say. The knowledge that I could discover what’s going on around me when no one knows I’m there. Probably the best way of living up to Robert Burns’

O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us!
But you know what? I’m not so sure I’d want to know that necessarily. Surely there are times when ignorance is bliss. No, despite the obvious temptations, I think I’ll pass on this one as well.

Super-speed is another one that I don’t think I’d really like, to be brutally honest. So I could run fast? Who needs that? I’ve a car when I want to get somewhere beyond walking distance, and anyway, from what I’ve seen from Flash or Quicksilver, it’s only objective time that’s affected. Subjective time isn’t affected at all. Peter David nailed the problems of speedsters for me in an issue of X-Factor when he had Doc Samson interview the team members and the following dialogue ensued:

QUICKSILVER: Tell me doctor… Have you ever stood in line at a banking machine behind a person who didn’t know how to use it? Or wanted to buy stamps at the post office, and the fellow in front of you wants to know every single way he can ship his package to Istanbul? Or gotten some counter idiot at Burger King who can’t comprehend “Whopper, No Pickles?”

DOC SAMSON: Well… yes… I suppose…

QUICKSILVER: And how do you feel on those occasions?

DOC SAMSON: Impatient. Irritated. A little angry sometimes.

QUICKSILVER: Precisely. Because your life is being slowed to a crawl by the inabilities or the inconvenient behavior of others. It’s not a rational or considerate attitude to have, but there it is. Now, Imagine, Doctor, that everyone you work with, everywhere you go your entire world is filled with people who can’t work cash machines.

OK, so if I’m dumping super-speed, how about super-strength?

Well, to be honest, I can’t imagine a more useless power to have… unless you’re fighting super villains. Seriously, so I’m incredibly strong? What can I actually use it for? Opening tough pickle jars? Finally managing to tear open the wrapping on a blank video cassette? Nope, I can’t think of a single solitary use of super-strength, beyond possibly feeling comfortable holding The Complete Bone at arms’ length; and since I don’t like Bone, that’s probably where I’d put it – at arms’ length.

Magneto’s powers? The power to control metals? I take it back, there is a more useless power than super-strength.

Thinking further, the number of super-powers that exist in the world of comic books that appear only to exist so that they’re there to use to fight super-powered beings of another persuasion are legion. John Byrne, in a column in John Byrne’s Next Men freely admitted that when he created Alpha Flight, the primary consideration as to what powers they had was that they group had to be able to be convincingly hold their own against the then group make-up of the X-Men.

And yet… and yet… after due consideration, I keep coming back to the one super-power I’d really want, and it comes from a character in an X-Men story, or to be more precise, in X-Men vs. The Avengers.

The series, written by Roger Stern and drawn by Mark Silvestri (apart from the final issue which was credited to Tom DeFalco/Jim Shooter as writers and Keith Pollard/Joe Rubinstein as pencillers), saw print in 1987 and featured a character that I don’t think ever appeared again. A pity, since the power The Light had was simple, discreet, and just about perfect.

He had the power to instantly know whether or not someone was telling the truth.

Simple as that.

And you know what, that’s a power I’d like to have.

It’d made dealing with some submissions editors a whole lot easier for a start…

I’m pretty sure no-one reading this can be unaware of what’s been going on in Israel and Gaza the past few weeks, or – to be fair – the past few years.

And something I’ve noticed, even more so than ever before is the astonishing levels of mendacity and venom in discussions; the passionate fury and nastiness has leaped out and smacked everyone around the face and relatively few seem to notice.

I’ve said before that criticism of Israel isn’t inherently anti-Semitic. Of course it isn’t, any more than criticism of how the UK behaves is inherently anti-British.

Indeed, there’s a wonderful, simply wonderful, post that’s been doing the rounds recently entitled How to Criticise Israel Without Being Anti-Semitic.

Read the piece; it’s superb. I’m not going to repeat its contents here except to make one point that comes up regularly, usually – funnily enough – from anti-Semites. “But Arabs are Semites too!” Don’t deny it, but “Anti-Semitic” has exclusively meant ‘Jew hatred’ for well over a century now. Let’s stick to anti-Semitism, rather than anti-Semanticism, eh?

So, yeah, criticism of an individual Israeli government, an individual Israeli government policy, an individual military action, hell, even a specific Israeli minister, soldier, or person isn’t inherently anti-Semitic. But sometimes, some would argue often, such criticism is a cover for pure, naked, unfettered anti-Semitism. And those that allow the latter to go by without comment because it’s criticism of Israel have no right to complain when they’re viewed by Jewish people as enabling anti-Semitism. (As a friend of mine said, attacking something Israel does is fine, but when they talk about the abolition or destruction of Israel, he smells ovens warming up. I couldn’t agree more.)

A few cartoons did the rounds this week. Let’s see whether they’re anti-Israel or just possibly anti-Semitic.

OK, now I think they’re fair comment; hard but absolutely attacking Israel (and the US), and not in any way anti-Semitic.

What about these?

Anti-Israel? Anti-Netanyahu? Yes. Anti-Semitic? Yes, of course they are; they rely upon classic anti-Semitic tropes, and the Netanyahu one plays upon the blood libel. Oh, and by the way, sticking “zionism” on an anti-Semitic image – say, the octopus with tentacles covering the earth, or a puppet master wearing a Star of David – doesn’t stop it being an anti-Semitic image. At all.

Now all the above cartoons are from outside the UK. As is the following banner carried at a ‘pro-Palestinian’ march in Paris:

By the way, I don’t doubt that many people marching and protesting, the vast overwhelming majority in fact, are doing so out of a genuine heartfelt empathy and sickened well-meaning motive; they’re not anti-Semitic in the least. But don’t try and tell me that such marches and protests don’t contain some unrepentant anti-Semites. Just don’t. Because they do.

In the UK? I’ve got a Star of David necklace; it was a 21st birthday present from my late grandparents. Self-designed, it’s something I like a lot, and the following pic is a fairly common sight.

Well, I say “is”; it’s more accurate to say “was”, since for the past few weeks, I’ve been ensuring that it’s kept hidden under my shirt. Not because I’m scared per se, more that it’s to avoid a shout-out to idiots wanting to have a pop at someone who identifies themselves as Jewish.

I did wonder whether I was just being daft and over-careful… until earlier this week when it slipped into view and I had to deal with some… aforementioned idiots, an unpleasant experience to put it mildly.

In Brighton? Well, this was what happened to Brighton synagogue:

And when it was publicised, the following two tweets appeared:

Perhaps even more horrible was what appeared on the door at Kingston synagogue, half a dozen miles from where I live:

“CHILD MURDERERS”. Bloody hell. Shades of the blood libel, indeed, especially when you consider that on Arab television, the libel is alive and kicking, with audiences being told that Israeli forces have been instructed by rabbis to harvest childrens’ blood.

Moving to the BBC and the Jeremy Bown conspiracy that doesn’t exist. After a long time as a Middle East correspondent, the accusation that either he or the BBC was pro-Israeli would surprise many Israelis and indeed many Jewish people. However, Bowen’s last tweet from Gaza (after he’d written a piece for the New Statesman casting doubt on the Hamas use Human Shields’ story) was 22nd July. When asked about how come he wasn’t tweeting from Gaza, Bowen himself replied “Because I am on holiday.”

Didn’t take long for the conspiracy nuts to start spreading the following graphic on social media:

Fairly quickly the BBC denied the allegation, as did Lyce Doucet, one of Bowen’s colleagues. Didn’t matter, the story spread and two weeks’ later, despite lots of places, including The Independent, and even The Hollywood Reporter debunking it, the story continues.

Lots of people believe it, lots of people defend it by saying “prove he wasn’t”, the classic ‘prove a negative’. I felt like replying “he’s been abducted by aliens” and then challenging those who rebutted it with “well, prove he hasn’t been!”

It struck me – I suspect it struck anyone with experience in this – quickly that this was the classic “Jews control the media”; so I stuck up the following:

I didn’t think that was a particularly difficult thing to understand. But apparently not, whether it was the responses from someone who refers to Jews as “puppet masters”, someone else who called me – as well as everyone Jewish or in political office – a “Rothschild Zionist” or the following messages:

The same “gentleman” went for another trope when Ed Miliband came up…

I linked to the following yesterday; I’m doing it again here.

The Guardian’s editorial: On Gaza and the rise of anti-semitism

Owen Jones’ superb piece: Anti-Jewish hatred is rising; we must see it for what it is

And – behind the Times Paywall – Hugo Rifkind’s masterly piece: Suddenly, it feels uncomfortable to be a Jew

So, when Jewish people you know say they’re feeling uncomfortable in the UK for the first time in their life, when they suspect that some attacks on Israel are anti-Semitic in motive, when people start calling anti-Semitism to a comment or an article or a response, maybe, just maybe, for once… they’re right.