Friday, 17 April 2015
LGS #6: "A Snake Coils..."
('84 in '86)
We reach the final issue of a title I've thoroughly enjoyed up to now. Each one of the first five issues has included some lovely ideas riffing on the nature of stories, whether comic-book tales or fiction in general.
With the need to bring the series to an end, however, opportunities for such cleverness are harder to come by, even with 41 pages to play with. Giving something thematic heft is hard. Writing a satisfying ending is hard. Trying to do both at once must be like juggling mercury.
And yet Nocenti hits a home run here . The issue is perhaps slightly fractured, with lots of good ideas thrown in without all of them necessarily getting time to breathe, But there's a through-line here, and that to my mind is what matters. It starts with having Longshot team up with the terminally pessimistic Quark, another resistance fighter from Longshot's dimension. Quark came over with the slave-hunters as an undercover agent but is now having major second thoughts about joining up with Longshot's rebellion. At first glance Quark's endless complaining and conviction in his cursed luck seem overly reminiscent of Jinx in issue #3, but the focus is subtly different. The tale of Jinx was all about how people can blame endless bad luck as a way of refusing to both take responsibility for their actions and accept the ways in which they've been dealt a much better hand than plenty of others. Quark's miserable attitude is born of something different; whilst Longshot suffers from near-total absence of memories, Quark suffers from having far too many.
Frankly, given the way Quark describes the struggle for freedom from Mojo's tyranny, I have a hard time blaming the guy for being sick of it. I've mentioned before how unnerving and twisted Mojo's zaniness is, and Nocenti keeps it up here as Quark describes how many of his and Longshot's comrades have been "turned inside-out by wizards", an image at once deeply silly and profoundly disturbing. The result has rather understandably left Quark an embittered, hopeless wreck, which of course contrasts with Longshot's almost unhinged positivity. There's a certain irony in Quark being the grizzled veteran to Longshot's wide-eyed rookie considering as best as we can tell it was Longshot who first recruited Quark, but things go deeper than that. The idea here seems to be that too much memory can distort your view of the world just as much as too little. For every one of us who hasn't had lessons to learn from, there's someone who attended the lesson, but learned the wrong thing from it. This again nods to poor old Jinx, whose famed bad luck comprised in large part of him making conscious decisions he later came to regret.
But let's be fair to Quark, he's got better reasons for sulking than Jinx could claim. Not only is he clearly suffering from his time spent fighting a horrific war, but he's also stuck with a goat's head in a world where goats get fenced in and forcibly milked every day, and that's if they're lucky. It's this, more than anything else that takes place in the series, that makes it feel like an X-Book; though there's more to Quark's issues than simply the standard conflict a mutant feels when being asked to save those who oppress them. Quark is a slave who first fought simply to be free, but now is being asked to fight to save people who hate and fear him because he reminds them of creatures they have already enslaved. Little wonder he's not convinced he wants to risk his life taking on Mojo.
Speaking of which: the spineless sultan is on great form here. Once again Nocenti writes his dialogue as coming from the exact midpoint of a desperate stand-up comic and a narcissistic serial killer. This latter characteristic comes to the fore here as he demands Spiral and multiple mind-controlled humans construct a cathedral to himself, from which he can draw power. Fame, it seems, is not just the goal or the coin of the realm in the Mojoverse, it's how one generates power, and potentially immortality.
Which is a little like how it works in real life, I suppose, and has been standard operating policy in fiction going back at least as far as J.M. Barrie, but it's rather more sinister when it involves a murderous villain. This is always the risk with writing, that you'll unleash something that lurks in the shadows forever. How many innocent actors have had to pretend to die at Dracula's fangs alone? Thousands? Tens of thousands?
(Besides, what demonstrates the immortality of popularity better than comic characters? They get to outlive their titles, their times, even their creators; living forever for as long as people demand it. It's in this context that I note when Fliss flicked through this book to see what I was up to she asked why a a blob with spider legs was fighting Ziggy Stardust,)
But Mojo's long-term prospects aren't nearly so concerning as what he's up to right now. Already he has the power to turn cats to skeletons and turn dog's heads the wrong way round. But as Longshot points out, the dog's head looks like it was always on backwards. Mojo isn't just killing, he's rewriting lives out of existence. Longshot - already having had his memory overwritten, at least in pencil - isn't just fighting for his life, he's fighting to avoid being written out of his own story.
This demands an appropriate response, and fortunately Longshot can remember just enough of his creator Arize to know he already provided it: you simply tell the slaves they're not slaves any more (say, what does "Arize" sound like anyway? What does building one's own legs imply?). As a literal piece of advice, this is surely insufficient, perhaps even insulting. But what matters is the philosophy the suggestion carries with it. Slavery is an abomination, a brutal parade of broken bones and bleeding skin, death and worse than death and degradations I cannot possibly even imagine. But is also a narrative, a story told not only to the slavers but also to the slaves. This is what you deserve. This is all you can be. This is for your own good.
Tyrants are also storytellers, turning fiction into a weapon. Which means stories can be weaponised against them, too. This is what Longshot ultimately learns here; victory will come not by slaying Mojo on Earth where his people cannot see the dictator humbled. Instead he must return to his own lands and spread the story that the tyrants are vulnerable. Orwell always knew this: what the powerful fear above all else are the stories that say the powerless can have access to all the power they want. You defeat a vile, damaging story by choosing to write a better one.
Which, if nothing else, Nocenti has without doubt achieved.
 If you'll forgive the mixed metaphor. You can't hit a home run in mercury juggling; the metal would wrap itself around the bat.
This story takes place over a single day. Since Mojo makes a point of greeting the sunrise as this issue begins, we'll place it on the day following the conclusion of LGS #5.
Thursday 1st November 1984.
Natalia Tena - everyone's favourite Order of the Phoenix member/raccoon-channelling Wildling - is born.
"Hallowed be his fame!" - Random Mojo worshipper.