[The post on the Morrison/Quitely story a few posts down is another entry in our Morrison Reading Project.]

Preamble:

I got a multi-faceted treat when I asked my comicshop hold Vertigo Resurrection (The “Shoot!” issue) a few weeks ago.  There was a lot of good things in it.

The title story was excellent.  It had originally been sceduled to be a regular issue of Hellblazer, but it was pulled from publication as it dealt with schoolyard shooting rampages and yet another real-life one happened just shortly before it was due to be published.  A comicbook <i>about</i> something for a change,  I thought Ellis used a single issue horror comic quite well to make a valid little point about what modern society might be doing to our children.

But then again, like both Ellis and Constantine, I’m not from the US, so commentary that seems logical enough to us from outside might be less easily received in the USA.  The final jarring twist works well as a sort-of-shock ending, and ties in nicely with the title of the story, but it obviously would have been offensive to the families of children hurt and killed in one of the schoolyard shooting sprees.  DC was definitely right not to publish it at the time.  It wasn’t just the subject matter of schoolyard killings, but the implication in-story that the teenage victims were so nihilistic about life that their reaction was to urge their killers on.

I’m surprised they didn’t publish it during the summer holidays though, which would have hugely decreased the likelihood of some student going all Second Amendment on his fellows in the week or two before the publishing date.

The other stories were all pretty strong, certainly making up in art for any weaknesses in the storytelling.  Bruce Jones, in particular lucked out on getting Berni Wrightson to illustrate his sex-and-death ghoulfest.  It is great to see creators working on these self-contained short stories.

Too bad these anthologies don’t sell, but then again, although I did enjoy reading Flinch, one of the anthologies from which most of these stories are taken, I always got it from the bargain bins a few months after it came out.  (One issue of Flinch had a memorably brilliant story about the Chinese practice of foot-binding that was true horror without ever straying from an account of what really happened.)

 

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I really liked Shoot -- but to my mind, the most excellent thing it does is something technical -- something I've never seen before or since in the comics form.

BIG SPOILERS HERE -- not so much for story concept (though that's there too), but for its brilliant execution.

The climax of the story hinges on a videotape. A kid is pointing a handgun at another kid, and the victim says something right before he's shot. There's no sound on the recording, but Constantine urges the investigator to concentrate on the victim as he speaks, to see if she can see what he's saying. The panels zoom in for a closeup (for our benefit, since the videotape can't), as the investigator tries to read his lips.

And then we turn the page, for an tight closeup to the victim as he speaks one word. It's the last page, and it's the title page.

And the title is "Shoot."

It's a masterful way of letting us read the victim's lips, and realize with horror what he's saying, but not presenting it as sound, and not presenting it as a third-person realization of the investigator (as in "oh my God.. he's saying Shoot... oh, God..." or something like that.) This is the title, so it's "out" of the story ... but it's essential information, conveyed in the most immediate way possible for the reader.

There are a ton of things Ellis has written that I like a lot... but the staging of this page is the most brilliant thing he's ever written.
When you are right, Rob, you are - invariably - right…

As will surprise precisely no-one, the real reason I got Vertigo Resurrection was for the Grant Morrison story, New Toys, which had originally appeared in Weird War Tales #3 in 1997.

New Toys

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Frank Quitely

On the trade descriptions criteria alone, I’d give Grant 10/10 for this weirdest of weird war tales. I mentioned above that there were many things to enjoy in this collection, but this one story had multi-faceted pleasures itself. As well as being beautifully drawn by Frank Quitely, and exploring some of the more fascinating corners of Morrison’s mindscape, this little story unexpectedly hit me in a very emotional spot.

You see, it starred one of my very best friends of all time.

Or rather my favourite toy when I was 8.

Which is much the same thing.

This guy:


Action Man has a very particular place in the childhood of British and Irish guys of a certain age. His heyday was from the late 60s to the early 80s and as a high-quality toy of the time, he did constantly evolve. By the time my turn came to own one, he was available with ‘flocked’ (ie realistic close-cropped fuzzy) hair, rubbery gripping hands and (best of all) eyes that swivelled right and left when you tweaked a lever at the back of his head.

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As I’ve noted before, growing up in roughly the same part of the world, I share quite a few cultural touchstones with Grant. Although Action Man is obviously one of them, he is perhaps a decade older than me, and thus his Action Man was an earlier model to mine. I noticed the Action Man in this story didn’t seem to have the ‘Eagle Eyes’. In each scene he is staring soulfully straight ahead!

Action Man was a very distinctive toy. He was jointed in a particular way (with 17 points of articulation, including swivelly ball-and-socket type joints), wore ‘real’ clothes rather than the painted on sort, and had a very particular high-cheekboned face. Every Action Man had a trade-mark scar on his right cheek. Looking at his face now, I can see it has a sort of soldier’s stoicism and resoluteness. There’s character in that blank look. Quitely uses this unchanging plastic face to great effect in the story. The poor main character has to deal with all the horrors of war without displaying any great breadth of emotion. Much like we kids in the 70s believed real soldiers did!

Before going on, I have to pay tribute to my erstwhile buddy. I hadn’t thought about him in years, but Toy Story 3, about the cherished toys we leave behind as we grow up, dredged up some guilty thoughts. The truth is I’m not sure what became of him. Perhaps he’s tucked away in a corner of my parents house somewhere, dreaming of his days as Special Forces operative, happily married to my sister’s Cindy doll and occasionally moonlighting as a superhero (of course!). Or maybe he got thrown out or onto a bonfire during some purge or other. Grant’s tale of the horrors our cherished toys are put through has me even more conscience-stricken. Researching this post, I had an almost visceral reaction to seeing that picture above of the actual box and model of Action Man that I got from Santa in 1978! It’s so strange to suddenly recognise those exact clothes and accessories after all these years.

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The story itself is about the tragic wartime experiences of a toy soldier who gradually starts to realise that there may be more to life than the constant plastic-mangling warfare that he and his comrades are doomed to suffer through, seemingly without end. Quitely illustrates it all perfectly, getting the weird twisty stance of the actual toys just right. In every frame they are posed just the way a kid would stand them, or leave them lying on the ground…

The idea of our toys suffering through a life of their own has been a part of Morrison’s work for a very long time. Some of his earliest mainstream work for Marvel from 1986 was an epic storyline about the Zoids ‘Battling Machines’ toys. One of his last chapters tantalised the reader with revelations that the Zoids we’d been reading about in the comic were mere playthings of higher beings – toys if you like - and the humans who’d become caught up in their story were much the same. Alas, Zoids comic was cancelled shortly after this.

Toys were used in a slightly different line of thinking in The Invisibles. We are told there that the universe talks to us through our toys when we are very young. Hearing the long animated conversations my 20 month-old daughter has with her cot toys some mornings, I have to wonder if there might be some truth in that?

Actually, the life that we invest in the toys is used in this story to illustrate Grant’s eternal preoccupation with our - perhaps faulty - perception of reality. In the story, the toy soldiers believe they have a life of their own and they are fighting their endless meaningless wars with some purpose. We recognise Action Man and his mass-produced fellows straight away and we can begin to surmise that they are in fact being put through the motions by children playing violent and destructive wargames. Of course, the soldiers don’t see themselves as being manipulated. They rarely perceive the ‘godlike’ beings that ‘play with them for their sport’.

However, just as visions come to real soldiers at the extremes of pain and anguish on the battlefield, Action Man does at one point perceive that he is being lifted from the field by something like an Angel.

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Of course we know it is a young girl who wants to bring a ‘boyfriend’ home to her Sindy doll and act out the motions of domestic bliss. (I’m sure that the female doll in this story is Sindy, the UK equivalent of Barbie.) Even though Action Man feels that he really does love his Sindy, and can even rationalise his sudden penchant for wearing pink ball-dresses ("Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder", if you must know!) we can see that it’s just the little drama that the girl is acting out with him.

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The story arouses the suspicion that our own lives too, are perhaps just a function of the play of higher dimensional beings, so we are back in Invisibles territory. Again and again Grant dramatises these Gnostic conjectures, so that we begin to see and feel them ‘from the inside’ – showing us rather than telling. The toy analogy is a subtle one though. The toys have no life at all, except for what the children invest in them. The toys ‘lives’ and 'reactions' are a function of the children’s play…


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In Animal Man, a few of the characters start to realise that they mightn’t have an existence ‘between the panels’. Here the toys don’t see that they are being manipulated by ‘superior’ beings and think that what they know is everything and that they have free will.

The soldier gets sucked back into the war and the final twist adds even more horror to what’s already been doled out. If we can’t see that our lives are being manipulated by the ‘higher beings’, what if they, in turn, are somehow the dupes of other beings?

We wouldn’t know.

Like the sleeping child in the closing scene...

(This post dedicated to Pvt Arthur Action, wherever you are, old friend...)

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