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the grey area
The Grey Area - letters to The ZONE                                                           email: editor@zone-sf.com
Pigasus Press, 13 Hazely Combe, Arreton, Isle of Wight, PO30 3AJ, England
selected correspondence and comments received...

November 2001
I was interested to read Sivier's comments re: Alan Moore. I think he makes valid points regarding the changes wrought by Moore's work in the 1980s, but I don't think that the original target market for superhero comics was ever really pre-pubescents. If you look at the early Lee/Kirby Marvel, these books are clearly aimed at an adolescent market, with the core readership being 12 to 16-year-olds. The issues of being an outsider, dealing with power and transformation (from Banner to Hulk pretty much symbolizes the transformation from child to adult, and a further layer is added if you consider that the Hulk seems to be composed entirely of erectile tissue) speak directly to those in the throes of puberty.
   The British tradition stemming from Boys Own, Valiant, Eagle and the like, is far more childlike than the American tradition that has its roots in the pulps. British comics of the 1950s and 1960s never had any romantic storylines. When did Dan Dare ever have a girlfriend? Superman had Lois Lane right from the start.
   If there is a problem with Moore-inspired dark comics, it is not that they are too adult, but that they are immature. The 'outsider angst' they deal in is pretty much the same stuff that's been around since Spider-man and Bruce Banner, just with extra gore and T&A. While the it appears more adult to those of us that grew up in more innocent times, the essential content is the same. As I mention in my feature, I think that Moore has realised this himself and his current work reflects that.
- Patrick Hudson

Patrick is absolutely right when he says that American comics were, by and large, written for a largely teenage audience of between 14-16, though the restrictions of the comics code also meant that it couldn't contain material unsuitable for a child of seven. As a result, there was some very clever writing which did try to explore some aspects of human sexuality without frightening the horses or producing outraged letters from the morally indignant. He's also right in that `adult' does not necessarily mean explicitly sexual or brutally violent. The classic Soviet SF movie, Solaris, is an adult movie in its exploration of human relationships and encountering the truly alien and incomprehensible, despite the fact that, true to Soviet prudishness, there is no explicit sex and the violence is confined to the hero shoving one of the alien invaders into a rocket and launching it into space, and the recreated heroine drinking liquid oxygen to kill herself. Unfortunately, though, sex and violence is very much the consttuction immediately placed on any material that now declares itself 'adult'. You could have a nice semantic discussion about the difference between 'adult' and 'mature'. Although the two terms were used interchangeably, especially after the censor's decision that all comics aimed at the over-18s should have a sign declaring that it was 'for mature readers only', the adult-oriented comics did indeed still deal with predominantly adolescent themes, though in far more extreme and explicit way than would have been permitted a few years previously.
   Having said that, I'm not sure how successful much of the avowedly adult material act usually was. Heavy Metal, for example, the pioneering adult oriented comic, should have experienced a boom, as it was there long before the rest. It had an influence, of course. Marvel's Epic Illustrated and similar anthologies issued by the Distinguished Competition clearly owed something to Corben and his fellow delinquents. Despite that, while Heavy Metal's still going, Epic has long since passed into comic Valhalla, accompanied by a whole load of budding titles whose promise remains unfulfilled. My personal favourite was Epicurus the Sage, which combined 'history, philosophy and two-fisted action from the 3rd century BC'. If you can imagine ancient pre-Socratic Greek philosophy being given the Asterix treatment, and in which Alexander the Great is prevented as a knee-high, ultra-violent blonde uber-brat, whose obsession with bloodshed is barely tolerated by his mentor, you've got some idea of the strip. It dealt with some fairly explicit sexual themes - Zeus' punishment of his wife Hera by hanging her from the sky by weights is described as nothing more than an S&M love game, but most of the magazine's mature content came from the erudite nature of the material Meissner-Loebs and Sam Kieth, the strip's creators, chose as their subject: Greek philosophy. In a way, it's not surprising that it had such a limited run - I don't think the promised third volume of the series ever emerged. Nevertheless, its death, and those of dozens, if not hundreds, of similar books are a sad reflection of the limited appeal of mature comics, which did try to explore something other than adolescent angst.
   The title that most conspicuously profited from comics' new, adult direction was Batman, which stressed the character's vigilantism, violence and borderline psychopathy, qualities which DC had previously been keen to play down. There were genuinely adult comic strips like The Sandman, which did prosper and acquire a cult audience of their own, but most of the adult material in comics probably consisted of mainstream superheroes acquiring a more explicitly sexual and grittily violent treatment, rather than magazines purposely written for a rnore mature audience. I realise that the latter tended to suffer from protracted disputes over ownership and editorial direction - Mills' and O'Neill's Marshal Law moved from Eclipse to Dark Horse and then vanished precisely because of disputes with the publishers. Having said that, Marshal Law, although an anti-superhero strip that contained some very stinging criticisms of the genre's limitations was sufficiently like mainstream, traditional superhero stories to appeal to the same type of readers. It had, after all, arisen from a discussion one of the American publishers had with Pat Mill's about creating a Judge Dredd-type character for San Francisco. Also, even if American comics were traditionally written for the 14-16 age group, the comic's code meant that these magazines were suitable, and therefore included, a sizable number of pre-pubescents, an age group that was increasingly ignored as comics became more adult. Marvel recognised that Spiderman's readership covered a very wide age range by producing three separate titles for the character, one of which was written explicitly for a much younger audience than normal. While the development of adult comics has produced some very good material, I do feel that by concentrating too much on explicitly adult themes of sexuality and all-too realistic human brutality during the boom years, the young and the not-so-young looking for more innocent entertainment were neglected to the industry's detriment. Fortunately, comics do seem to be recovering their readership of all ages, and at the moment at least it seems that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.
   I was sorry to read the press release concerning the proposed War of the Worlds movie. The stills shown seemed great. While I'm not really a fan of updating classic novels and placing them in an American setting, that version did hold real promise. It's sad that that approach has now had to be abandoned due to the terrible events of 11th September. I hope though, that the producers will still use the same sensibility when filming it in its original, 19th century setting, and avoid pressure from the studio to put in more 'dramedy'. It's certainly one of the rnost genuinely frightening SF books ever written. Stanislaw Lem, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland, considered it truer in its description of 20th century total war, including the deliberate extermination of non-combatants for their racial inferiority to the invaders, and the way the subjects of the invasion were at times prepared to collaborate and betray each other to the aggressors, than many proper histary books devoted to the war and the invasion of Poland. It's paradoxical that a work of science fiction, set very much in another time and place - Victorian London - should have more verisimilitude than works of historical fact, though fiction is obviously better at conveying subjective impression of reality than clinical discussions of cold facts.
   Of course the real tragedy is not that War of the Worlds, and a number of other promising movies will how either never be released, or will suffer cuts and alterations to make them acceptable in the changed palitical climate, but that 5-6,000 innocent people died in an atrocity designed to plunge the world into a ferocious and apocalyptic religious war, and which did result into the world's poorest country suffering another brutal war thanks to the intolerance and fanaticism of its ruling clique. Some of the comics' professionals working for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and others were in Manhattan at the time of the attack on the World Trade Centre. My brother and one of his friends managed a little while ago to get their stories for an edition of the comics' newspaper, Borderline. Needless to say, some of their experiences, like those of the other witnesses and survivors, does make harrowing reading. The industry is, though, producing a number of special editions celebrating the heroism of the police and emergency services in the atrocity, the profits of which will go to charities supporting the families of those who perished. While this obviously can't bring the dead back to life, or restore the disabled back to health, it will do something to alleviate their suffering. Hopefully, too, the diplomacy produced to support the war in Afghanistan will result in a fairer, safer world in which no nation has to suffer similar atrocities. Considering the human capacity for cruelty and violence, I wouldn't bet on it, though.
- D.J. Sivier, Bristol

My brother forwarded your site to me, great to see Ayreon in your space [music] top 10! And also some of my favourite bands of all time; Hawkwind, BOC and Rush.
   I'm happy to tell you that my new album under the moniker of 'Star One' (not Ayreon) will be another SF concept album. All the songs are based on space movies. The album will be called 'Space Metal'. And it will contain a medley of one of my favourite bands featuring their original singer: Hawkwind and Dave Brock!
- Arjen Anthony Lucassen

September/October 2001
It's a superb site.
- Jack McDevitt

..the site looks great. I spent yesterday morning prowling around and it really does look excellent. The other bonus is I can send links to my friends who can read my terrific work! I've read most of the reviews (always good) and David Sivier's excellent article on mutants - I've read his previous articles and he really is very good: interesting, insightful, manages to tease out meanings and implications, all the the things I struggle to do...
   ..also enjoyed the piece on Space Rock as well - I went to see Hawkwind one halloween a couple of years ago and they were terrific...
- Patrick Hudson

I wish you every success with The ZONE. It's a great resource for SF fans.
- Jeanne Cavelos, New Hamspire USA

I had a look at The ZONE homepage and was really impressed, especially with the cover art. I am a little sorry to see the end of the old, non-cyberspace hardcopy version of the magazine, but I guess we have to move with the times. I was particularly interested in Andrew Darlington's interview with Patrick Moore. I'm a fan of the big man, and The Sky At Night, and can remember reading his SF stories, including the Martian adventures and one about an antimatter asteroid, Wanderer In Space, when I was small. I'm glad someone else remembers then with affection, even if they were dismissed as boring in a 2000 AD review well over a decade ago. I have, unfortunately, also heard rumours about his involvement in far-right politics. The para-political magazine Lobster claimed that he had founded a small right-wing political organisation called the One Country Party, which eventually merged with another similar group called the Unity Party or some such. It came as a real shock and disappointment after reading the strongly antiwar message in his books, in which he strongly criticises the folly of humanity for allowing such atrocities to occur. Still, despite this he is an inspiring figure and valuable populariser of astronomy and science. Without him, and the low-tech joy of The Sky At Night, British space science and broadcasting would, I'm afraid, be very much the poorer.
   Reading through the review of Alan Moore's career to date, I'm afraid I have to regard his influence on comics with very mixed feelings. Yes, he's certainly one of the brightest creators working in comics, with intelligent, witty scripts and a sure touch for the human drama underlying the violence and heroics. However, the grim and gritty realism, which he pioneered, amongst others, did very nearly kill off the comics industry. I can remember the female translator (into English) of the 'Asterix' books stating, at UKCAC in 1990, that she was very interested in seeing what would happen with the development of adult comics in Britain and America, as when they appeared in France the comics industry eventually collapsed. Children simply ceased buying comics, because they were things mummy and daddy read, not children. Of course, comics were also threatened with competition from the emerging computer game market, which has nearly killed off traditional role-playing games, but the ruthless pursuit of the adult market did, I feel, lead to the neglect of the industry's future: the prepubescent and early teenage kids who want a bit of innocent escapist fantasy. I have to say that I stopped reading comics, except for the odd issue or two, in the late 1980s as I did find that the innocence and idealism had gone, and that they seemed to be too brutal and overtly politicised. 'Brigand Doom' and 'Dead Meat' in 2000 AD had very explicit political messages, which got in the way of entertainment. Nobody reads comics to be preached at, and I did feel that even if you agreed with their message, it got in the way of the simple fun of the four colour papers. I also found that much of the sexual material appearing in the adult strips was a bit too sordid for my taste. Yes, childhood sexual abuse does, tragically, occur, along with prostitution and a taste in some individuals for the brutal sexual humiliation of the unwilling. While I don't see any reason why some comics shouldn't explore these themes, they aren't the only issues in the world, and their inclusion in a storyline doesn't necessarily make it better or even more adult. There should also be space for innocent fun, wild speculation and escapism, and even, dare I say it, a little whimsy? When comics and SF provide the writer and artist with universes of possibilities to explore, the single-minded pursuit of the most sordid aspects of real society can become a prison, rather than a liberating pushing of the creative envelope. I am glad to see that comics are actually recovering, and reports of the industry's death are exaggerated.
- David Sivier, Bristol

..just wanted to say I really enjoyed Andy Darlington's interview with Patrick Moore!
- Andy Sawyer

Checked out the link to The ZONE... The site is very fast loading, sleek looking & the content is excellent! The entry page graphic is superb too... Keep up the good work!
- John Ratcliffe [editor, Cold Print]
Previous letters pages - The ZONE #9

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