Wednesday, 30 May 2012

New Statesmen

John Smith & Jim Baikie with Sean Phillips & Duncan Fegredo unfortunately New Statesmen (1989)
Ah... the late 1980s when dance music wore sharp pastels and was easily identified by the ocean of reverb added to its snappy Yamaha RX15 drum machine; and when industrial music was essentially the same with the addition of taped televangelists proclaiming that Jesus doesn't like bummers - a conceit which even Cabaret Voltaire had abandoned by about 1984. I was surprised that the understanding of all Americans being homophobic rapture-happy bible bashers didn't really creep into comics until much later, at least not until Garth Ennis first mistook Quentin Tarantino's burger anecdotes for dialogue. There was of course Pete Milligan's run on DC's Shade the Changing Man which taught us that if you're at the Klan rally chewing rib whilst debating whether the subject of the latest public execution is either some no good son of a bitch or a real all-American hero yes siree, then you're probably in Texas.

In 1988, the Mighty Tharg, extraterrestrial editor of 2000AD, launched Crisis, a fortnightly comic featuring John Smith's first major series, New Statesman. Smith was, aside from a few one off efforts, something of an unknown quantity in 1988 so New Statesman, roughly speaking a dissection of US politics, was a bold undertaking, and one that Smith carried off well, complete with psychotic televangelists and yet happily without presenting either America or Americans as inherently evil because hey... McDonalds mkay! This earns my approval because, having moved here, Texas as the land of serial killing Baptists has come to look somewhat embarrassing in 2012. Let the country that is entirely without  xenophobic sibling-marryers cast the first cliché.

John Smith's foreword apologises for New Statesmen being an early work, bogged down with purple prose and trying far too hard to out-serious Watchmen, but there's really no need. Whilst it's true that the narrative is somewhat elusive in places, this works in the book's favour, tantalising with evocative dialogue and a subtext requiring the sort of reader involvement more commonly associated with the written word than graphic novel - a term I've never liked, but one that is for once appropriate. What some may regard as murky plotting, whether deliberate or otherwise, serves to reinforce the realism of the story, having more in common with an anecdotal and interpreted experience of daily life than the ruthless jigsaw puzzle narratives of Alan Moore, to name but one obvious example.

The art by Jim Baikie is similarly beautifully suited - solid, atmospheric, and limber; so it's a shame that some of New Statesman was drawn by Sean Phillips and Duncan Fegredo, both turning in pages that look like they were given to the work experience kid whilst Jim was on his break. Both Phillips and Fegredo went on to better things, it could probably be argued, although Philips never really struck me as anything better than competent, and Fegredo always seemed too messy. Unfortunately what we have here appears to be their really early work. It's clumsy, ugly, fanzine level stuff at best, and chapter five, page four is in particular so painful that it should win awards.

Aside from a few chapters having been drawn by people who very much weren't Jim Baikie, New Statesmen remains rewarding two decades later, refreshingly short on clichés, and all that is good  is so good as to cancel out crappy art bringing down the average.

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