The year was 94. Or thereabouts. It was a slippery time; I dig out my old diaries from the attic and discover that some of this happened in 89, and some of it in 96. But I think of it as circa-94, around the time that Vertigo comics entered me and I entered them. I was living in a tall house with two or three other girls.
This is what it looks like now, on a digital map. But that isn’t how I remember it. I remember it more like this: like the scene of Rose Walker arriving at her new home in Gaiman’s second Sandman story arc, The Doll’s House. (Looking it up now, I realise it was first published in 1989. You see what I mean?)
This was my bedroom, or part of it. It was on the top floor, and at night a beacon on the top of the newly-built Canary Wharf tower winked through my window There was a water boiler in the corner that heaved, breathed and gurgled. The room was maybe ten feet by ten, as big as the walk-in wardrobes in the hotel rooms I now occupy. But I loved it. I painted Molly Bloom’s last lines from Ulysses on the wall, in affirmation. It was, in the words of Shade The Changing Man #9, my pink heaven.
It was on that top floor that I and my co-editor Alice Constance Ballantyne put together Deviant Glam, a fanzine about comics and cosmetics that was informed by, steeped in, swayed by, and segued into the approach and aesthetic of the Vertigo comics of the period.
Yes, a fanzine. It was printed out, photocopied and sent out by post. This was a time of inbetweenness: between the days of analogue and the early internet, when mix tapes were starting to feel quaint and clumsy, but long before Napster. It was a time when cut and paste meant scissors and clue, not control-C and control-V. It was a time when a folder meant a cardboard wallet, a desktop was where you typed your letters on a clunky machine or wrote them by hand, when file was the first syllable in filofax, and wallpaper referred to the collage – tickets, snapshots, pin-ups and posters – you stuck above your bed to make your space your own, as I did with that line from Ulysses above my mirror.
And looking back, that’s another line from Ulysses: stolen from chapter 11, Sirens, with Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy in a Dublin bar.
—O wept! Aren’t men frightful idiots?
You wonder why every comic book and graphic novel cover by Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz and their imitators between 89 and 95 was a mixture of postcards, pebbles, photographs and shells, with bits of lace laid over the top? Because our bedrooms looked like that. Because our diaries looked like that. It was a time of scraps, of bits and bobs. The Psychedelic Furs had a phrase for it, in their song Alice’s House (Mirror Moves album, 1984): ‘it’s a mess of souvenirs… there to remind you, telling the time.’
But Deviant Glam wasn’t just about comics (and not just about cosmetics). It was also – as the Fall put it, in their song Glam Racket, ‘entrenched in suede’. Brett Anderson’s indie band, dubbed ‘the last big thing’ by the music press, had released ‘The Drowners’ and ‘Metal Mickey’ in 1992. I bought all their singles, on vinyl, the day they appeared. It was a time of objects and physical artefacts. I was about Brett’s age. I became entrenched in Suede. The lyrics echoed and entered my diaries, which, I now admit, I often wrote when I was drunk.
‘I see you’re moving, see you’re moving
Moving in with her.
Pierce your right ear, pierce your heart, this skinny boy’s one of the girls.’
By coincidence, I’d bought my first Fall album (I Am Kurious Oranj, 1988) because of this frame from Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s superhero epic Zenith, where minor character Penny Moon wears their badge on her leather biker jacket for a moment in Prog 606, December 1988. The panel is barely the size of a postage stamp, but it stuck with me.
I probably bought a leather biker jacket because of Penny Moon, too.
Or maybe it was because of Zenith himself. Fiction had a way of blurring into fact, after a few drinks. And drinking had a way of blurring into sobriety. And the week had a way of blurring into weekend. There was a constant, low-level sense of party that segued into hangover and back to party, up and down, midnight to midnight. In May 1991, I borrowed the title of an REM song to describe the mood.
‘Carnival of Sorts’ was included on Dead Letter Office, REM’s compilation of B-sides and rarities, their rummage through the attic, their archiving of old files. I bought it to celebrate finishing my finals. (I’d gone out to buy the Cure’s album Mixed Up, but I got mixed up, and came home with REM instead).
All letters are dead now – antique museum pieces – but that was our means of communication not so long ago: not mails, but letters, with pen and paper. Straight boys sent handwritten letters to other straight boys, and added love and kisses at the end. I’ve kept them.
For a while, I looked a little like Zenith. That’s me reading Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s Sebastian O, near Comics Showcase in London, in 1993.
For another while, I looked a bit like Penny Moon. At another point, in another place, I looked a little like Kid Eternity, from the Grant Morrison and Duncan Fegredo reboot of 1991.
Grant Morrison and Richard Case later introduced a character named after another REM song, ‘Driver 8’, as one of Crazy Jane’s multiple personalities in Doom Patrol. The number on his or her cap was turned to one side, and the eight became infinity.
Lines from Ulysses escaped my diary and spread across my bedroom wall, above the mirror.
At the same time, James Joyce’s style was also shaping Grant Morrison’s prose, in Zenith.
I think it was a coincidence – that I was into Ulysses anyway, rather than that I read Joyce because of Zenith – but at this distance, it’s hard to be sure.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes I said yes I will Yes.
At around the same time, Peter Milligan (author of Shade the Changing Man) and Duncan Fegredo released a Vertigo miniseries simply called Enigma. Again, I was more taken with one of the minor characters: in this case, Victoria Yes. The Envelope Girl.
Victoria’s pages were the colour of manila. She could transport her victims across time and space, from one time to another place. That was her one power. I was entranced by her.
It was a time when the boundaries between producer and reader, author and fan blurred a little more than they do now. Grant Morrison published reviews alongside mine in Fantasy Advertiser magazine. I spoke to Alan Moore for hours at the theatrical adaptation of Halo Jones, and published our conversation as an interview in one of my earlier fanzines, Frisko (itself named after the Halo Jones disc jockey). I wrote comics, and without even meeting the artists who drew them – we communicated by letter, of course – I seemed also to appear in comics.
I became part of a small-press network, pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace, pre-Friendster. We wrote and drew comics, and circulated them by post.
My first script was called ‘Vertigo’. It wasn’t very good. I found my style writing stories about a man who, like Victoria Yes, had a girl somewhere inside him, an envelope waiting to be opened. And when she came out, he saw stars.
When I re-read those scripts now, I cringe a little – but perhaps not for the reasons you imagine. They are texts of their time: the year was 94, and I was raw. I didn’t have a better word than ‘transvestites’, and — because I was so young — I thought it was all about passing on the outside, not how you identified inside. These are stories from before LGBT was an acronym; before I had anything more than a sparse, inadequate vocabulary and a briefly-glimpsed community.
I didn’t have the words, at the time. The right word would come later.
But meanwhile, pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace, pre-Friendster, how did we all find each other? Through pamphlets, through fanzines, through comics: through postal addresses in the back pages of magazines.
I wrote a letter to Shade The Changing Man every month, and it was printed every month: almost a regular column. And once, Shade wrote back to me. Artist Gavin Wilson sent me an original print of Shade, from his photoshoot for issue #23 (May 1992), ‘An Illusion of Real’.
So Shade was a real man, and we fans were a little like comic book characters. We were all so pretty, so seemingly-immortal. So young, so gone, as Brett Anderson put it in 1993. We’ll scare the skies with tiger’s eyes, oh yeah. (The opening lyrics to ‘So Young’ aren’t listed anywhere: Brett simply cries ‘Seeker! Star!’ a euphoric yell of yes.)
The Vertigo titles reflected us like a looking-glass. They showed us we could be a certain kind of superhero: shades, suede, leather, boots and buckles, broken parts and mosaic minds. Teams like Morrison’s Doom Patrol offered a gang of misfits we could all join.
I even performed in a Suede covers band. Funny, at the time I didn’t realise everyone in the house, everyone at the party, was gay.
But then, the boundaries were slippery. Brett Anderson claimed to be bisexual. Everyone I dated turned out to be bi. The binaries blurred. Shade the Changing Man woke up one morning as a woman, and went into a word-panic worthy of Molly Bloom: why man, woe man.
Milligan’s self-conscious wordplay – Joyce himself even featured in one episode of Shade – climaxed in a particularly slippery trick towards the end of Enigma.
‘Michael remembers the first time he stood naked in front of a strange girl…
Because that’s what he feels like now.
A strange girl.’
Like Shade, I was sharing a house with two or three other girls. I couldn’t always count them. That’s the kind of curious house it was: like Morrison’s sentient transvestite real estate from Doom Patrol, Danny-the-Street, things seemed to shift and move when you turned your back. I didn’t have the words, at the time, to describe the scene, the house, the carnival of sorts we were all part of – but later, I realised it had been starring me in the face all along, on the cover of a comic book.
Enigma, part 8, the final issue. A face stared straight out at the reader, with the caption ‘queer’.
Enigma is a remarkable comic: it seems obscure now, rarely-remembered, out of print. It’s astonishingly similar in its themes and approach to Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s later four-part series, Flex Mentallo (1996), but it’s not been examined or obsessed over to anything like the same extent.
It tells the story of an ordinary man called Michael who meets a superhero – a gorgeous, larger-than-life superhero called The Enigma, who comes to life from the pages of a childhood comic book. But where Flex only implies the homoeroticism of the relationship between fan and icon, reader and character, civilian identity and costumed alter ego, Enigma faces it full-on.
Enigma makes Michael gay. And then, in the last episode, offers to turn him back. And Michael says ‘NO.’ But it’s a no as positive as Molly’s final yes.
And as for me? I put the envelopes in the attic. I moved out, I moved house, I started a new life, I sold out.
I left everything behind and got a room in Cardiff, and began a PhD about Batman.
But that’s another story, for another time.
Will Brooker is the Director of Research in Kingston University’s Film and TV department. He is the author of several books on popular culture and fandom including: Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon (2001); Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (2002); Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture (2005); and his latest book, Hunting the Dark Knight: Twenty-First Century Batman (2012). On January 1st 2013, Will will become the first British editor of The Cinema Journal.