Sunday, 20 July 2014

The New Statesmen (Crisis #1-14, #28)

Cover from a US reprint
Dalton: "...I've been thinking... this isn't much of a 'happy ever after' is it?"

Burgess: "No. No it isn't".

In 1988 the UK comics industry was in rude health, and the publishers of much loved sci-fi comic 2000AD decided to bring out another fortnightly anthology comic called Crisis, aimed at adult readers.  It ran for sixty-odd issues and was most notable for it's distinctly left-wing slant most obvious in one of the two debut strips - Third World War.  It's the other strip that ran in the first fourteen issues that we're talking about today though.  The New Statemen, written by John Smith and mostly illustrated by the fantastic Jim Baikie (both credited as co-creators), with a few issues done by Duncan Fegredo and Sean Phillips.  It's a complex tale of artificially created superheroes called Optimen, each one assigned to a US state, in the year 2048 that also sees England (and England alone) as the 51st US state (a common left wing nightmare scenario at the time). 

Frankly the story is so crammed full of detail it becomes somewhat inchoherent and is somewhat undisciplined structurewise making it hard to follow in places, squeezing too much detail in too few pages. In the following summary I've simply concentrated on the storyline following the three main characters, Dalton, Burgess and Meridian, stripping out all the side-plots and characters that only appear for a couple of pages overall. I know at the time, I was fourteen and mostly enjoyed the strip for Jim Baikie's art which I tried so hard to emulate and my interest dropped quite dramatically when he wasn't doing an issue as the writing didn't particularly draw me in back then.  The story really needed more space to expand, to understand it fully you had to read the densely wrtten text articles that began each issues story.  These provided historical background in the same way the text parts of Watchmen did.  Unlike Watchmen you really did need to read them to understand what was going on, rather than them being an optional extra.
Each strip opened with a text piece
What's interesting about the strip is it's yet another example of the suspicion British writers have for the concept of the superhuman.  Like Watchmen before it, and Marshall Law right up to The Boys after it, it gives us superhumans that can only operate legally as tools of the government or military-industrial complex.  The story begins with the introduction of five Optimen called the Halcyons, made up of Cleve (Ohio), Dalton (Georgia),  Meridian (Mississippi), Vegas (Nevada) and Burgess (England).  Burgess is alone in his room having flashbacks to torture they were undertaking under orders from the government.  The flashback continues to them taking on the ELA (English Liberation Army) at a place called Tariq Alley (a little in-joke, Tariq Ali is a well know left wing firebrand in the UK).  Burgess's powers went out of control and many innocent lives were also lost that day leaving him somewhat depressed and withdrawn.
Burgess, wracked with guilt
Meanwhile, Dalton has gone to a gay bathhouse to pick up a man but it is bombed by fundamentalist Christians with him the only survivor, he wreaks hell on them.  Meridian has to come downtown and psychically calm him down.  An assassin fires a bullet at her which doesn't hurt her and she psychically kills him.  Later The Halcyons are back in their rooms, and Dalton is super pleased when he sees a banner outside on an opposite building saying "Dalton We Love You".  On TV is an Optiman called Phoenix who is running for President and is a fundamentalist Christian (and is also the villain). He gives a speech ending with:

Phoenix: "Look in your hearts and you'll see a vision we all share.  The vision of a united America, where we have pride, where we have meaning...where our children have a future.  Where there are no more charlatans...where there are no more radicals... where there are no more liberals.. or liars.. or subversives...or revolutionaries.  We have had enough.  The future of this country is on your hands."
Later the Halcyons are on a boat, meeting a man called Irwin who they know from the past.  They are told Phoenix has Congress running scared as he has the support of all the churches, neo-cons and the Christian right.  After this the team are split up.  Meridian and Vegas go to investigate the gangs that seem connected to the Christian League. Dalton and Burgess are off talking to ex-League members.  They chat outside and Dalton confessess:

Dalton: "..You're the perfect Englishman.  Quiet, reserved, self effacing.  You've even got the funny accent.  And just between you and me, you're a lot better looking than Vegas."

He grabs Burgess's hand and his words peter out as they gazes significantly at each other.

Meridian, meanwhile goes to the dead body of the asasssin and reads whats left of his mind and discovers someone intefered with it to turn him into a killer.  She and Vegas break into a gang house and get the address of The Mission.  Waiting there are many more gang memebers.  Vegas kills them all, while Meridian finds the priest, who begs for his life saying they had no cboice about being affiliated with a gang and they didn't push their drugs to kids.  Meridian leaves Vegas to deal with him.
Vegas in action
Later Burgess "reads" some blood left inside the Mission and finds it was of a man connected with something called The Catrill Affair.  The League had tried to cover his existence up, but they are still engaged in dodgy shenanigans.  They blackmail the Governer to support Phoenix in his Presidental bid and Phoenix uses his psychic powers to kill a man called Ray who he consdered a traitor over the phone.  The Halcyons find a man trying to wipe some computers of records on the Catrill Affair and kill him.  The records are leaked to the press and implicate Phoenix in the prescribing of dangerous, performance enhancing drugs to soldiers active in South America.  This doesn't stop Phoenix carrying on his presidential bid.
Meridian composing a poem
Back with Meridian, she ponders how she doesn't understand how normal people work anymore and she has written a poem, that is unintentionally prophetic:

"I think I know
I think I am
I think I saw
The Burning Man
And in the night
And cross the sea
I think the Burning Man
Saw me."

At the Optimen reunion, Burgess drunkenly laments how he was chosen to fight the ELA and how the Royalists sold his country down the river.  Later we get a subtle look at Dalton and Burgess's growing relationship with a frame showing Dalton tenderly kissing Burgess's hand and telling him he's always cared about him.  Meanwhile Meridian is having a premonition that something is coming and it's going to kill Cleve.  She carries on probing and has a terrifying visions of a burning skeleton asking who she is.  After a flashback through her life, she goes to Dalton's room and finds him in bed with Burgess.
The Dalton/Burgess/Meridian love triangle
After the reunion, thugs and protestors in San Francisco start rioting and committing bombings and atrocities, throwing the whole city into chaos. Irwin and two other scientists discuss using something called "The Abort" on him, but decide not to after a case when it was used on an Optiman called Atlanta and he went berserk.  They call in an assassin called Burbank instead.  Burbank flies to the middle of the disaster area, where Phoenix is holding the dog of a murdered child.  He tells Phoenix he is going to kill him and Phoenix rather anti-climatically makes his head explode.
BOOM. Headshot.  Phoenix takes out Burbank
The Halcyons are sent in, and Burgess and Meridian wait together.  Meridian, reading Burgess's mind says he is being unfair about her and they both should stay away from Dalton until the love triangle is resolved. Meridian tries to find Phoenix using the special connection they had when she and him tried to sleep together but he couldn't perform.  He is throwing out too much "psychic chaff" though.  Phoenix finds Vegas eating in a diner, he is completely insane by this point.

Phoenix: "I've been chewing the innards of this city. Imagine that.  Before today only a handful could boast that they'd lived through such an atrocity.  Now everyone will have their story to tell."

He says that the Halcyons exposing his involvement in South American atrociites "set him free".   After beating down Vegas, Phoenix is attacked by Dalton, who then tries to escape, but Phoenix is wating for him.  After he is beaten up, Burgess and Meridian arrive.  Meridian cradles Daltons battered but still living body.  Burgess attacks Phoenix, but stops when Phoenix says he can make Dalton love Burgess.  Burgess stands back and allows Phoenix to smack Meridian and goes to Dalton, who mumbles for Meridian.
Bad luck Burgess
Phoenix: "Oh dear.  What's this? No pleas? No forgiveness? No breathless declarations of love? No happy-ever-after? He doesn't want you Burgess.  Now you know what that's like."

Phoenix and Burgess then fight in the water, while Meridian tries to get Dalton to a safe place.  Recovering a bit they return and join minds, attacking Phoenix together and frying him, turning him into the Burning Man Meridian had a premonition of.  And this ends the main storyline, though there is a two issue epilogue.
Meridian with help from Dalton kills Phoenix
Cleve is at Blanch's place, ruminating on how he'll never see another day, due to an internal cut-off all Optimen seem to have.  He goes to a gun shop and shoots himself in the mouth, but this doesn't kill him.  He travels north and winds up in a snowy landscape on a frozen pond.  He tries to break the ice but can't and is found dead the next day.

In the final issue it is revealed that Vegas is still alive, though on life support.  The rest of the Halcyons are at Cleve's funeral and the love triangle has been resolved.

Dalton: "I never got any of this crap from Burgess."

Meridian: "Go back to him then if you want someone who'll fawn over you, see if he'll have you back. Burgess might be a little screwed up, but I'll think you'll find even he's got more self-respect than that."

In the garden of the building the wake is being held in, Meridian encounters the strange white-faced, eyeless man Cleve saw before he died.

Meridian:  "I want to know what happened to Cleve."

Man: "They crucified him.  I'm what he died for. I'm what he became.  I'm the little piece of machinery that keeps all you States people goin' an' when you die, all the pieces fit together to make me.  I am the Angelus... I am the future, and the future is me.  And the future is red with my blood."
The Mystery Man
The storyline finally ends with the announcement of the Optimen III. "I've no doubt it'll be worth it in the long run."  And that was it for The New Statemen.  It feels like plotlines were being laid in for a second series, but that never happened.  Critically, it has to be said there are massive flaws in the story.  We never really get much in the way of characterisation especially of anyone who isn't in the Meridian/Burgess/Dalton love triangle.  Phoenix suddenly turning evil after a minor political setback doesn't make much sense either.  While we get some fantastic artwork of riots and devastation and superbeings punching each other, the reasons why are flimsy and ill explored.  But there are good points to the series as well. 

Most notably, the respectful treatment of male homosexuality.  First though, lets check out what was going on with the depiction of gay men in mainstream US comics.  In 1988 DC introduced the shortlived comicbook The New Guardians.  One of them was a gay man called Extraño.  And he was a walking gay sterotype, and not just one gay stereotype, he was all gay stereotypes rolled into one. He was a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.  And he was also fucking HIV postive.  So, not a great step forward for representations of gay men in comics.  Now there is nothing wrong with being a flamboyant gay man.  Indeed John Smith himself would go on to write the very camp Devlin Waugh.  It was more the fact that the first mainstream comicbook representation of gay male sexuality was so crammed full of all the worst gay signifiers that it resulted in the most homophobic gay character ever created by people who genuinely had good intentions.
Pictured: Gayness, apparently
Marvel wasn't much better.  Their first gay male character was Northstar, who "came out" a few years after Extraño, by basically stating "I am gay!" in the middle of a battle then going back into the closet for a number of years.  And bisexual characters were non existant.  So it's somewhat pleasing that The New Statemen, also published in 1988 took such a bold and unvarnished look at gay male characters without falling back into screaming queen charicatures or closet cases.  Burgess, the Stateman for England is homosexual and while Dalton is shown to have physical homosexual leanings - the first scene showing the raw power of a Statemen is when the gay bath-house Dalton is flirting with a man in is blown up - he is also having a relationship with the black female Statemen Meridian, making him another rarity in comics, a bisexual man.

Crisis wasn't some top shelf adult comic you had to go to a specialist comic book store to buy like The New Guardians.  Nor was it plastered with "For Mature Readers" labels either.  I bought all my copies of Crisis from my local newsagent where it was filed alongside 2000AD and the various other anthology comics out at the time.  The best thing about Burgess was he was as normal as a superpowered metahuman could be.  He was thoughtful, handsome and sensitive and refused to partake in a lot of the most dubious activities the Statesmen undertook and felt overwhelming guilt about his part in an atrocity while other Statemen don't seem to care about normal people as collateral damage.  He's definitely the one who has the audiences sympathy in the early parts of the comic, coming the closest to a viewpoint character the strip has.  Showing him and Dalton in bed together either about to have sex or having just had it is something I doubt you'd see even today in a mainstream comic book, the same goes for Dalton trolling for casual gay sex in a bath-house.
There are no euphemisms, this is clearly stated to be a gay bath-house
So, The New Statemen is one I'd recommend with reservations.  A trade paperback of the strip was collected in 1990 and a five issue prestige format repackaging for the US market as well.  I don't know if that book contained the extra background articles the original comics had which might make the story even more confusing for some.  It's definitely the work of a young, untested writer with a lot to say and not enough room to say it all properly.  Yet again though I must praise the inclusion and depiction of gay male characters (Burbank is heavily implied to be gay as well) that weren't awful stereotypes and making the gay character the most likeable of a pretty unpleasant bunch was a good decision as well as having a powerful black female as a main character is another point in it's favour. The subject matter is pretty dark and somewhat prefigured the ascent of the "asshole" hero that was to infest US comics in the early 90's. Still it's worth a read for anyone interested in the late 80's period of UK comics and it's something of a shame it didn't get a sequel that ironed out some of the structural problems of the run and fleshed out the characters to a greater degree.

[ADDENDUM:  There was actually an epilogue to the series I missed first time I posted this as I hadn't read the rest of my CRISIS collection yet.  In issue #28 we get a look at the world seventeen years on from this which seems to have lapsed into chaos linked to the third generation of Optimen being created and only seven of the ones left at the conclusion of the main series still alive.  Most notably it covered the history of the creation of the Optimen including a couple of things that would crop up in later superhero stories such as a normal woman being killed by carrying superpowered babies (The Boys) and whales being used to carry the foetuses to term instead (Batman Incorporated).  It feels a bit like several ideas for planned sequel series were crushed down into one single chapter and coming over a year after the series reached a natural conclusion, feels a bit superflous.  Still lovely Jim Baikie art and that's always good to see]


  1. Hmmm... out of the two magazines, I think I'd pick 2000 AD over Crisis. The former has a sense of humour, and I think I am tired of grim 'n' gritty superheroes. I prefer a take on the superhero genre that knows it's ridiculous and therefore doesn't take itself too seriously, like in the Avengers movie or 'Texts from Superheroes' or the JLA books I read as a kid when they were all taking the mickey out of one another. Heck, even Watchmen has humorous moments.

    Fortunately I don't think we'll ever become the 51st state because the USA hates the NHS and we would never give it up.

    What powers did they actually have?

  2. The New Statemen is exeptionally humourless. I haven't reread every issue of Crisis but seem to recall as they added more strips there was some more light-hearted stuff. I have no idea how or why just England became the 51st state, it's not really expounded on further apart from allowing one of the New Statemen (Burgess) to be English.

    The powers of the New Statemen seemed to boil down to mainly telepathy, telekinesis and super strength. Both Dalton and Phoenix go on rampages that take out large portions of the city they are in, and Burgess accidentally killed about 800 people when his powers went out of control. None of them fly though.