Friday, July 10, 2009

New Timeframes?

Sunday gaming was cancelled a couple of weeks ago due to an impromptu daytrip to Dundee, my old home town. The visit was occasioned by my discovery, from his twitterfeed, that Warren Ellis was due to appear as a headline speaker in Timeframes, the comics programme of the Literary Dundee festival (as fB friends and tweetfellows might remember). Warren Ellis' Wildstorm superhero series The Authority was instrumental in reviving my interest in contemporary comics after a layoff during the 90's, and I set off thereafter on the familiar completist's quest: to get my hands on as much of his work as possible.

Alan Grant's name in the programme was just the icing on the cake. Grant wrote many of the seminal comic stories of my youth, Judge Dredd being the best known. On top of that, I'd bumped into Alan Grant once in a comics store in the old Dens Road Market in Dundee back in the early 90's. He proved to be genial, interesting and generous.

The journey to Dundee was uneventful, although finding the venue for the event wasn't quite so straightforward. I grew up in Dundee as I said, and my dad was a university lecturer, so the area in which the event's venue was located was quite familiar; or, at least, it used to be. As I doubled back in search of what, inevitably enough, turned out to be the first likely looking building I'd seen, I was amazed at how much the area had changed in the past decade: new buildings were everywhere; none of which had anything in particular to recommend them.

I arrived late. At this remove from the event it is impossible for me to give more than capsule impressions of the talks I sat through.
The throng of fans descends upon the stars!
The programme
The first programme item I attended - under the 'British Science Fiction Comics' heading - was Bill McLoughlin and Keith Robson's talk about DC Thomson's Starblazer, a comic of which I was only vaguely aware during its 1980's heyday, and which I never read. The pair weren't the best speakers but their subject was interesting and they came to life when, their individual contributions done, they began to bat the topic back and forth. An interesting snippet was how many of the writers and artists who went on to enjoy fame on both sides of the Atlantic in the 80's and 90's began their careers on Starblazer. There was an open hint of resentment on the part of McLoughlin and Robson at how little this has been acknowledged.

There followed Peter Hughes Jachimiak's lecture:
' Days of Future Passed' [sic]: 1970s Britain, Economic Downturn and Utopian Futures in Children's Science Fiction Comics.
The academic styling of this title was matched by the tone and poor delivery of the speaker. It was a real shame that Jachimiak apparently can't tell the difference between being scholarly and being academic because his subject was fascinating, and one that I hold close to my own heart (cf. eg. 'A Parcel of Rogues' - tangential I'll admit, but germane I'll avow). All I can here add is that Jachimiak at least succeeded in awakening in me an interest in the literature of comics' studies.

Jachimiak's lecture left me with no appetite for another taste of comics being drained dry of their abiding thrills by the inappropriate register of the academic text. This was a bit of a shame really, because the subsequent item sounded promising:
David Bishop, 'Time Twisted': A look at Alan Moore's treatment of time frames in 2000AD.
In any event, I don't know how Bishop's session went, because I spent it in a nearby pub.

Alan Grant signs my Batman/Judge Dredd: Vendetta in Gotham graphic novel
Keynote #1: Alan Grant
I returned in time to hang around awaiting the first keynote presentation of the day, by Alan Grant. Billed as 'My Adventures in Comics', Grant began by announcing that the intellectual standard of the preceding lectures had led him to rethink. And so we were treated to a cogent and highly stimulating cri de coeur appealing for story, a case made by the grandfather of 4 young children (11 years and under) who also just happens to be equipped with the insights of a lifetime's writing in comics and multimedia.

It is obviously impossible to give more than the briefest of hints of the themes of Grant's half hour talk, especially at a week and a half's remove. The best I can hope to do is to pick out a few of his key themes:
  • Grant's central bete noire was the role of corporate marketing and branding in reducing stories to bland, conflict-free narratives where they're not removed altogether (ie. in puzzle/activity books).
  • Thus we find that young readers aren't being exposed to essential features of the role of story in character building; that is to say, narratives dramatising:
  1. Morality.
  2. Hope.
  3. Rebellion, and the irresistable lure of the ever-necessary challenge to authority.
  • The consequence of all this Grant argued is that we are seeing a young generation grow up who lack the frames of reference that'd enable them to avoid being swept along with what Grant called the 'Platonic stories' of the powers that be; eg. the drive to war in Iraq in 2003, to note just one example cited by Grant.
There was a lot more to the talk than this, naturally enough, but that's the gist of the key themes. I have to say I didn't agree completely with all of Grant's points; but he was never less than interesting. I'd really like to hear more of what he has to say on this subject.

Warren Ellis with my copy of Planetary, Vol. 1: All Over the World and Other Stories
Keynote #2: Warren Ellis
Warren Ellis' style stood in sharp contrast to Alan Grant's, beginning as a rat-a-tat-tat of aperçus and anecdotes drawn from what is obviously a wealth of material, and woven together with biting wit into a whole which became increasingly greater than the sum of its parts as the talk gathered momentum. The naturally meandering style of the born raconteur meant that there was less of a definite theme to grab hold of in Ellis' talk than there had been in Grant's. So I really can't comment all that much on what Ellis said, other than to note that it was never dull, often provocative, and well worth the price of entry. I'd be keen to hear him talk again.

No comics event featuring star writers and artists would be complete without signings, which duly took place. I also made an effort to talk to other people there. I particularly enjoyed meeting some young GW fans, with whom I shared a pleasant chat about all things Warhammer- 40K especially, naturally enough.
Who's watching who? The official photographer and I share a wee jape
Final thoughts
Timeframes was the 2nd comics programme to feature at Literary Dundee. My caveats notwithstanding I enjoyed a stimulating day out; my complaint wasn't so much the scholarly approach to understanding the place of comics in culture as it was the overly academic way in which this scholarship was put across. In any event, I was pleased to be in such an intellectually challenging environment, and hope to be able to return next year. A palpable hit then, I guess. ;)

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