Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
2000AD Prog #1791 came out last week, and it’s a big one. As well as having the last-ever installment of the 15-year saga of “Nicolai Dante,” and containing the first Judge Dredd strip since the post-movie premiere buzz took off in earnest, it also features the finale of “1947” by writer Kek-W and artist Mike Dowling. Kek has originated many classic thrills (to use the official Tharg-sanctioned vernacular) for 2000AD, including “Kid Cyborg,” “Rose O’Rion” (my personal favorite), “Second City Blues” and, most recently (and to great critical acclaim), “Angel Zero,” with John M Burns. I spoke to Kek about the three-part thriller, which has reimagined Britain’s post-World War II years in a way that evokes, and invokes, plenty of iconic U.K. science fiction. The first part of the strip ended on a shocking reveal: In this the year of his centennial, the leader of the resistance to an invading race of fascistic aliens was real-life computer pioneer Alan Turing.
Robot 6: So, using Alan Turing as an action hero seems almost ironic bearing in mind the turns for the tragic his life took after World War II.
Kek-W: Well, Turing was treated appallingly by the authorities in the 1950s over his sexuality. It’s quite awful what they did to him, especially when you consider that his work in analytical cryptography may well have changed the course of WWII. He’s now, quite rightly, acknowledged as one of the pioneers of modern computer science; he coined the expression “Artificial Intelligence”, as well as devising a possible (self-named) test to recognize it. So, along with Philip K. Dick, he could arguably be considered to be one of the godfathers of cyberpunk — his work has had as big an impact on SF writing as it has on mathematics and computer technology. Towards the end of his life, he started looking at biological mathematics – really exotic stuff. There’s no guessing where he would have ended up if he hadn’t committed suicide.
In my mind, Turing was a unique thinker and a true British hero. A one-off. He should be celebrated today on postage stamps and bank notes along with Newton & Co. So, when the story needed someone to crack an alien language and translate it, then Turing was an obvious and immediate choice. Turning him into an unlikely comic book hero was an unusual, but pretty cool way of celebrating the centenary of his birth. Also, it was fun to invert the traditional idea of “heroism”: In “1947,” Turing’s strengths are his compassion and empathy, as much as his intellect; whereas Jonny Wiltshire, the archetypal Dan Dare / heroic Spitfire-pilot type, turned out to be a bit of a self-serving, self-entitled twat (laughs).
Dowling’s pretty good, isn’t he? As a non-reader of CLiNT, I hadn’t really come across his work before.
Yeah, I really love Mike’s work. He was an absolute joy and pleasure to work with, a complete dude. Mike’s an artist to watch — seriously!
Would I be wrong in saying the two of you managed to capture a certain Quatermass-quality with this strip?
Well, I threw a bunch of images at Mike as we went along – not to tell him what to draw, but more to give him a feel for the sort of flavor I had in mind for the strip. I’d send him pictures of Brutalist architecture and post-war Modernist design; a sort of combination of Bauhaus and militarism: the idea was to imagine a Britain that was rebuilding itself as a sort of “softer” version of the Nazi culture that the Coalition had just defeated. A sort of Fascism Lite, if you know what I mean; a nation that was slowly drifting towards becoming a quasi-Orwellian society, but one that was still wrapped up in the language and the idea of democracy, even as it was betraying it. Mike soaked all this stuff up beautifully and put his own inimitable spin on it. I loved the muted, but adventurous color schemes he came up with – the whole look of 1947 Britain. He did a fabulous job – art, coloring and design – really pushed the boat out. Quatermass wasn’t a conscious/deliberate reference point – though I love all that Post-War/Cold War English SF, etc. – but I think we kind of ended up in a similar Twilight Zone by default, probably because of the sorts of technology, ideas and architecture we were referencing.
Of course, the shadow looming over all Post-War U.K. SF is Orwell’s 1984, and you’ve managed to slip in a few Easter eggs there to Orwell and that novel, too.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Orwell’s real name was Eric Blair, and he worked as a journalist himself around that era, so it was fun to speculate that, as an individual, he would have seen the human-alien coalition for what it was and be agitating against it himself in some way. 1984 was actually written in 1948 – Blair just reversed the numbers – so calling the strip “1947” was a playful reference to all that: the year before 1984, so to speak. Orwell wrote a piece called “The Freedom of the Press,” which was a preface to Animal Farm, I think, so Weitz’s rant about “… democracy and the freedom of the press …” when he clobbers that soldier is a cack-handed reference to that. By the way, Eddie Weitz is Frank Weitz’s father; Frank being the press-photographer protagonist in the strip “Armoured Gideon” that ran in the 1990s in 2000AD.
The “3hriller” format Matt (2000AD editor Matt Smith, current wearer of the Tharg mask) created is a good one, and a little under-used, really. Did you pitch this as one, or as a Future Shock, or as a longer strip? Is there the chance to continue this if the public reaction proves encouraging? ‘Cus I’d love to see a return to this world.
When we talked about doing something, Matt suggested I design a 3hriller three-parter, so off I went. My original strap-line was something like “An SF version of a Graham Greene thriller. Man on the run against impossible odds. Aliens. 1940s.” That kind of thing (laughs). We had a couple go-rounds with the idea; the original pitch was a bit more like The 39 Steps, but with extraterrestrials, then we shifted the emphasis and it all suddenly came into focus for me. Matt’s a really cool and patient editor – very subtle, very good at gently nudging me towards stronger story material. I really enjoyed the three-part format – it worked well for me, personally. I think I prefer writing something around the three-, four-, five-episode size; it’s nice and compact. It was a lot of fun adding little layers to this story, but the 3-part format helped keep it lean, linear and relatively fast-moving. So far – touch wood — the reviews have been very kind. Mike and I are chuffed with the general reaction. Whether we return to this world remains to be seen, but I think I’d prefer to maybe keep this as a one-off self-contained story-bubble and move onto the next thing, hopefully something quite different.
Is there one lingering image that defines the series for you?
I really like this image from Part 3. There’s this thin film of lies that sits over the world of “1947” — that nothing is quite as it should be, as it was meant to be — and this image, this one panel, kinda sits at the heart of that side of the story for me; for a brief second we see a glimpse of the ugly hidden truth, of what lays beneath the surface of things. I was into making the aliens seem a little different, so I was thinking about teratomas and tissue cultures and biology gone wrong — like you do (laughs) — and Mike riffed beautifully off of that on the reveal. I love the triangular lens he put on the camera — it’s genius.
The rest of the story is about Weitz, of course. Just as history has somehow become displaced, so has he. He’s a reporter who’s not allowed to report. Like a lot of men from my father’s generation, he saw and experienced stuff that he couldn’t talk about – that he couldn’t emotionally process without appearing weak or un-manly. So, this is about him “re-purposing” himself — rediscovering value in himself and finding some sort of truth that he is able to believe in and finally express.
You’re a musician as well as a comic-book writer, Kek. What do you recommend as the soundtrack to “1947”?
Well, I recommend listening to the haunting music of doomed 1940’s crooner Al Bowlly while reading this. He was killed in a bombing raid in 1941. And after you’ve got the hang of his other-worldly songs of love and loss, then check out my friend James Kirby’s spookily warped electronic reinterpretations of Bowlly and other assorted 1940’s haunted-ballroom crooners. James is one the U.K.’s most talented but underrated electronic artists – he records under the name The Stranger and The Caretaker. Check out his uniquely melancholic, crackle-shrouded music-for-78rpm-players on albums like An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. It’s beautiful, haunting stuff.
Cheers, Kek. For U.K. readers, Prog #1791 should be still available in newsagents. I picked mine up this morning. Progs 1789 and 1790, which contained “1947” parts 1 and 2 are probably still available from your local comic shop, but also digitally. For Americans, these are available digitally, and will physically probably arrive bundled together in your local comic shop at some point.