Friday, November 30, 2007

The Ragged-Trousered Army Men

I've been pondering the holes in the uniforms of illustrated American soldiers (doesn't everyone at this time of year?) Here's the thing. In US war comics, it's notable how the heroes sport uniforms that are ripped and torn. DCs Sgt Rock has always been something of a tatterdemalion:

whilst over at Marvel Sgt Fury is no Beau Brummel:

(You'll have to trust me that the characters go around like this most of the time; wearing a smart uniform signifies a story set on leave, or a Court Martial. British war comics, such as the Commando line, tend to have less holey protagonists.)

Why might this be? Some thoughts:

Approximating long underpants

Muscular bodies bursting out of the uniforms makes the characters look a bit more like superheroes, whose tight outfits present them in a kind of decorated nakedness. (The look also relates somewhat to pre-comics pulp hero Doc Savage, in his trademark ripped shirt.)

So the visual style may be a way of saying 'these comics are a bit like the more popular superhero ones, fanboys - get your money out.'

Beat warfare
During the Silver Age of the 60s and 70s, war comics were a pretty downbeat affair. The classic Sgt Rock stories by Bob Kanigher, with covers and sometimes interior art by Joe Kubert, showed a weary crew of grunts slogging their way across theatres of war - hard-bitten survivors rather than glory hounds or paragons. The stories all ended with the 'Make War No More' slogan, and other titles such as The Losers showed an interesting ambivalence. In this context, the battered torn clothing contributed to a kind of beat(up) atmosphere and a sense of the men being abraded victims of larger forces.

Natural Bare Killers
The GIs in their ripped-up gear contrasted with the depictions of Nazis and the occasional allied serviceman who would appear in smart uniforms. Perhaps the idea was to show the Americans as more natural, individual, virile and human. Or simply as harder fighting, judging by the wear-and-tear on their outfits.

All of the above would make sense: a nexus of forces (Our Fighting Forces perhaps) shaping an artistic choice...

But! What about this picture by Norman Rockwell, predating the comics?

This guy's uniform is ripped to buggery as well. (What is it with GIs? Could they not issue a needle and thread?) For what it's worth I think the Rockwell image has some other drivers. The gun is very much the centre of the picture, and the pristine white fabric ammo belt spooling through it contrasts with the dirty, torn uniform. (This is heartbreaking, when you ponder the message - we're meant to stitch together his ammo belt rather than sew him some clothes that will cover his flesh.) This creates a sense of sacrifice - by the gunner who has abandoned civilised clothing and cleanliness to feed the weapon; by the munitions workers back home (eg Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter) putting in extra hours to get those shining cartridges produced.

I can't relate the two - perhaps there some artistic tradition of ragamuffin soldiery within which all of these images fit?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

memory basement

Last week I attended the launch of the Zap Archive, a book+website celebrating '25 years of Cultural Innovation'. For me it was in the nature of a reunion with former colleagues, as my first full-time job was there as reminisced on earlier. I deliberated long and hard about going, fearing that this particular time-machine journey might end in a wreck - but a poll on my Facebook page yielded some good advice about such events ('treat it as a gathering of interesting strangers'; 'eat something first') and I decided to do it. I'm very glad I went as it was a unique occasion - moving, funny, absurd - and I encountered friends old and new.

It wasn't in the (former) Zap Club but in a gallery-type venue called the Basement. As I arrived a procession of performance-type people with temple bells, torches and fireworks was closing in on the doorway. I realised that I actually knew many of these - for some reason wearing hats. Then I was talking to Heather who used to run the bar and < install_unavoidable_cliche > the years rolled away and it was like being back there; I wouldn't have been surprised if she'd asked me to change a barrel or bring up a case of mixers.

So re-met tons of people, drank wine, mourned the passed. I was both touched and amused to be recalled by Ian Smith in the book -

My strongest recollections are not so much of particular acts, but rather of the general running of the place. The constant banter in the lobby, or behind the tiny bar, was as good as anything happening onstage. Everyone had their own style, from Roy Bayfield’s janitor persona (based on Bukowski’s Factotum), to cashier June Bain’s ‘Headmistress’ – scolding ticketless punters, then erupting into outbursts of filthy raucous laughter as she sized up young boys in need of a bath.

(Perhaps I should adopt a 'Charles Bukowski' persona in my current job - but which text should I use this time? Perhaps The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills...)

There was a slot for performances, people such as Sian Thomas, Roger Ely, Desperate Men and Mark Waugh took to the stage in short pieces, reminiscent of the open performance slots that used to take place on Tuesdays (where live art met care in the community.) Mine was based on my 'cleaner' role... I now have a nice new pair of rubber gloves left over from my comedy moment. It seemed to go well - a surreal but actually pretty factual listing of items I had cleared up between 1984-6, some recycled from my earlier blog post; some new that I wrote in a pub on the way there (relishing my Weekend Pass to Bohemia) - wrapped up with a wish that I had kept some of the physical detritus, with which to construct a mystic rune to resurrect those times, daubed in Clown White makeup, smelling of candyfloss, to the sound of stage maroons.