Sign of the Hammer!

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Mythconceptions - Spencer Nero in India

And that's just for starters.

Some time ago, I wrote a story in which the protagonist was a Nazi. I was always worried that someone might think I approved of his beliefs and behaviour, but he was a one-off character, and it was hopefully pretty clear that I was mocking both him and his ideology fairly relentlessly.

But what happens when you do something similar with a long-running character who's supposed to be the hero? 'Spencer Nero and the Misapplication of Karma', as featured in Spencer Nero Vol. 2, poses that question. It's always been pretty clear that Spencer is a mass of contradictions - a cheerful, educated, heroic fellow, who can behave in the most boorish, grotesque and petty manner imaginable. He is, in short, all that is good about the British pulp hero, as well as all that is bad. Nonetheless, despite his personality quirks, he is usually on the right side, and though his means may be suspect, his end is generally laudable.

Not in this story.

This was in fact the fifth Nero tale ever written, but it's been a long time in gestation. At this point, Nero seemed to be hanging out in a different country every issue (he seems to spend most of his time in Britain these days) and it seemed inevitable he should at some stage end up in India. But an agent of the British Empire enforcing colonial oppression in India is a problematic figure, to say the least, so I decided not to hold back, and make Spencer flat-out ridiculous in his self-superiority. However, the only way I could see it working for the character is if his reasons for looking down on the locals weren't what you'd expect. Spencer isn't a racial supremacist - he's a mythological supremacist. India worries and confuses him because he doesn't understand the various belief systems that exist there, and he thinks his own belief - in incestuous Roman divinities - is more straightforward and user-friendly.

True, there's a get-out clause for him - the runic magic from way back in the Olympics story - and for a while I did consider this might become Spencer's equivalent of Father Ted's "That money was just resting in my account!" In the end, I didn't pursue this idea, though it does feature in early drafts of 'The Pack', and is resurrected for Spencer's introduction to the collected edition.

The Compass Mantis went on to front a quiz show with Richard Osman.
Does the story work? In terms of script, I don't know - I'm not convinced I properly resolved the tension between playing with the 'Indiana Jones'-style representation of the subcontinent, and mocking the attitudes associated with that representation. In retrospect, I feel the story tries to have its cake and eat it, and there's a couple of panels that, if you took them out of context, could give completely the wrong idea about where I was coming from. On the other hand, I do like a couple of the jokes - Spencer's business card amuses me - and I like the Compass Mantis, despite his cheerfully punning name and his dreadfully stereotypical use of the phrase 'Infidel!' He is probably one of the most capable opponents Spencer has faced, and were it not for karmic complications, the fight might well have panned out differently. It's also interesting to see Spencer taking orders from someone who isn't Mr. Alabaster - Governor Anderson is a real historical figure, and the later namesake for WWII Anderson shelters. And finally, this is the story that establishes Spencer's talent for offending deities, something which becomes a recurring theme throughout the series. (See 'Spencer Nero Feels Your Pin', also by Scott Twells and Jim Campbell.)

And speaking of those two gents, as far as art and lettering go though, there's no question - both of them play a blinder. Scott delivers what may be his finest work on a Nero story to date, handling humour, characterisation and action sequences with the kind of aplomb that make him one of the most exciting talents on the small-press scene. I'm particularly fond of some of the stylish perspectives he adopts, which really make the characters leap off the page. Meanwhile, Jim's font for Durga is sublime, and his ability to render my excessive dialogue in a readable format is remarkable - plus, if anyone does a better piano-falling-on-an-idiot KCHANNNGGG sound effect, I'd like to see it.

And now, let's finish up, as is customary, with some random observations:

  • On page 3, Spencer's 'Oh... bother' is borrowed from Winnie-the-Pooh, which is the best children's book ever written.
  • Edward VIII is on the wall in Governor Anderson's mansion because this was originally written as a 1936 story - it was probably going to slot in between "...Goes South" and "Mrs. Simpson."
  • Punching out big cats really is Spencer's speciality - it was the first thing we ever saw him do in a comic strip.
  • The Compass Mantis's name was inspired by a line from an Ian Gillan / Tony Iommi charity single, 'Out of My Mind', whereas Spencer's line about 'Instant Karma' is a John Lennon reference, several decades before the fact.
  • The Compass Mantis's South-South-East Strike occurs at (more or less) a south-south-east angle. And Spencer's response, 'Pedicabo Ego Vos Et Irrumabo' is the most unpleasant thing he's ever said, though I don't think he intends to do it literally. And no, I'm still not translating it.

And on that refusal to co-operate (in the spirit of Ghandi, I'd suggest) we end.

"I'm playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order."