Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Alan Moore Obscurities: AARGH - Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia

"My love.  The vain, malignant hordes are with us still" - Narrator ("The Mirror Of Love")

My intial plan for this blog was to review an Alan Moore Obscurity at the beginning of every month.  But I feel this is a little different from Alan Moore's usual work and so I'm dropping it in now.  The reason it's different is that this is an anthology comic of which Moore writes only the first strip, the rest being contributed by the cream of late 80's comic book artists and writers.  It was also one of the few things self published by Moore's ill-fated own publishing company - Mad Love.  This is in in fact a charity comic protesting a 1988 piece of UK Goverment Legislation known as Clause or Section 28.  This ill-defined act declared it illegal for Local Governments who "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as apretended family relationship".  I fully recommend you read the Wikipedia article on the history of the bill, which wasn't repealed until 2003 by the Labour party who had always opposed it, despite fierce opposition from many Conservative polititicians whose party had enacted it. 

If you just want the highlights there are a couple of things to note.  First, being gay in 1980's Britain wasn't a barrel of laughs. Blamed for the AIDS epidemic, gay men tended to be identified as indulging in a bestial perversion punishable by God's wrath, an attitude that drove much of the impetus behind Section 28 and that was still showing up in the popular press well into the noughties.  Lesbians suffered less outright hatred, but tended to be lumped in with the most extreme forms of feminism and were mainly laughed at, or considered ugly man haters who just needed a good man to bang some sense into them.  As wikipedia points out:

Wikipedia: "Rising negative sentiments towards homosexuality eventually peaked in 1987, the year before the legislation was enacted. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, 75% of the then population held homosexual activity to be 'always or mostly wrong', with just 11% believing it to be never wrong. As of 2012, those figures stand at 28% and 47% respectively."
Just Waiting by Dave Gibbons
On the upside, social attitudes started to change quite quickly, but on the downside, we got things like Clause 28, brought about because while Conservatives ruled nationally,  many local governments were run by the left and liberal wings of British politics, and the impetus for the Bill was bought about by an innocuous American book about a girl with two dads.  Although there was never any proof this made it into any school, it was seen as part of an agenda to inculcate the young into the twilight world of the homosexual by "loony" left-wing councils.  In practice, it simply made things a lot harder for teachers to, say deal with the homophobic bullying of teenagers in their care (my sister, who started teaching in 1999 confirmed this).  No successful prosecutions were ever bought under the act but it remained a powerful totem of intolerance on the statute books.  Oh and because I am feeling unfair about this, want to know what our current fuhrer David cameron thought about Section 28?

Wikipedia: "In 2000, David Cameron (at that time an unelected Conservative party member) repeatedly attacked the Labour government's plans to abolish Section 28, publicly criticising then-Prime Minister Tony Blair as being "anti-family" and accused him of wanting the "promotion of homosexuality in schools". In 2003, once Cameron had been elected as Conservative MP for Witney, he continued to support Section 28. As the Labour government were determined to remove Section 28 from law, Cameron voted in favour of a Conservative amendment that retained certain aspects of the clause, which gay rights campaigners described as "Section 28 by the back door". This was unsuccessful, and Section 28 was repealed by the Labour government without concession."
Clause For Concern by Kevin O'Neil
To be fair he has since apologised, and his government did end up equalising gay marriage, so I just about forgive him.  But it's instructive to see how long this Bill lingered into the 21st century long past the widespread acceptance of gay people into wider society and what kind of people were still championing it even then.

I have to say, reading about how high homophobic sentiment was in the late 80's makes me even more impressed that Fleetway, the publishers of Crisis allowed a comic depiction of an out gay relationship in The New Statesmen, which I covered last month.  Alan Moore decided he was going to uses his newfound, post-Watchmen clout in the industry to publish a comic that would raise awareness and raise money to oppose the bill (it raised at least £17,000 in the end that was passed onto a gay charity).  Moore wasn't opposed to the bill just because he is a decent guy; at that time he was living in a polyamorous relationship with his wife and their mutal, female lover. So he was part of a family directly targeted by the bill.  This experimental relationship didn't last, as his wife and their lover ran off together and set up home without him.  Moore being the classy guy he is still continued to write postitive depictions of gay characters into his subsequent work.
Real Dream by Art Speigelman
Contributing to ARRGH were the likes of included Robert Crumb, Howard Cruse, Hunt Emerson, Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Los Bros Hernandez, Garry Leach, Dave McKean, Frank Miller, Harvey Pekar, Savage Pencil, Bill Sienkiewicz, Keven O'Neil, Brian Bolland, Dave Sim, Posy Simmonds, Art Spiegelman, and Bryan Talbot.  Moore contributed the lead eight-page story called "The Mirror Of Love" which was illustrated by Rick Vietch and Steve Bissette.  Because many of the contributions were single page strips I am going to focus more on discussing the story-led multiple page strips, but I've include a few single-pagers as well for you to enjoy on their own merits.

I didn't buy this comic during the time it was first out.  I was 14 in 1988, and although I knew I wasn't straight, I wasn't gay either then, having as I did a very misanthropic attitude towards the whole human race.  When it finally clicked that I was gay in 1993, being gay was already being seen as less of a tragic burden and more a legitmate part of one's identity.  Having the good fortune to have liberal parents who didn't care and going to University in a city which had a large gay "village", I never have experienced direct homophobia in my life, for which I am very grateful.  Anyway, enough with the background, lets look at some of the strips.
The Mirror Of Love by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch
The book leads with Moore's "The Mirror of Love" a lyrical journey through the history of homosexuality in society, its ups and downs.  Beautifully illustrated by Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch who he had worked with on Swamp Thing.  It takes in early matriarchal societies, the anti-gay rethoric of Leviticus, the ancient Greek's and Spartans,  Sappho, more potshots at Christianity:

Narrator: "Yet this tolerance could not endure the rise of Christianity, which quite ignored Christ's love for outlaws and instead embraced moral severity. Defining sex as base. St. Paul named same-sex love, for the first time, as a sin ."

The journey then continues through the executions of gay people during the dark ages, the smearing of the Knight's Templar as gay, themore liberal societies bought about by the Renaissance and the famous gay/bisexual artists it laid claim to.   Further on it places the first link between homosexuality and the theatre to Shakespeares time,  he also tells us a bout a lesbian community at Llangollen, then on through qwriters and dramatists placing coded words to same-sex lovers through the ages. 

Narrator: "Elseqwhere in Leipzig, 1869, One K.M. Benkert first referred to 'homosexuality'. Industrial Englands view that all must be explained by science prompted dotors to declare us ill.  Not friends or sinners anymore."

Then we travel through Oscar Wilde's trial and disgrace to nascent homosexual pride movements, but then WW2 breaks out and homosexual are placed in concentration camps.  But post-war the push for homosexual equality gathers pace.  The Uk decriminalises it, while gays in the US riot at Stonewwall.  Just as it seems a more tolerant soceity is in sight, AID's arrives.

Narrator: "Policemen claimed to speak for God, describing persons with AIDs as swilling in a self-made cesspit, while councillor Brownhills, a conservative, recalled an earlier Final Solution, and offered to 'gas the queers'.  Margaret Thatcher praised them for their forthrightness."

Those are not made up quotes.  The Chief Constable of Manchester, James Anderton was the anti-gay policeman who made the "cess-pit" remark and made life hard for the growing gay community in that city for years.  The story ends with Clause 28 being passed into law.

Narrator: "While life endures we'll love. And afterwards, if what they say is true, I'll be refused a heaven crammed with Pope's, policemen and fundamentalists, and burn instead, quite happily with Sappho, Michelangelo and you my love.  I'd burn through eternity with you."
The Mirror Of Love by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch
If it seems a little unfair that Moore is taking so many shots at Christianity here, it's a sad fact of life that the fundamentalist right-wing Christian movement, emboldened by the conservatism of Thatcher sought ways to influence public life further and I'm afraid Clause 28 was one of those things they whole-heartedly supported.  Of course, there must have been plenty of liberal Christians horrified at what was being done in the name of their religion and I know many prominent Christians spoke out against the Clause and a few years later at University, I ended up with some Christian friends who were totally cool about gay issues.  But at this point in time, the gay community and fundamentalist Christians were "enemies" and Moore is only reflecting upon that.
From Homogeonous To Honey by Neil Gaimen, Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham
Neil Gaiman had formed a close friendship with Moore in the mid 80's.  He'd enjoyed a pretty fast rise to fame in the comic's world, working for 2000AD and taking over from Moore on Marvelman/Miracleman.  His contribution to AARGH comes roundabout the same time he was hired by DC to do his most famous comic work The Sandman.  He takes a slightly different tack from Moore in his strip here. At the time of the Clause's vote into law, there were people in local government who saw it as a way to retroactively erase all homosexual influence from public life and culture.  Gaiman takes a satirical look at how this translate in practice, all trace of difference and "perversity" gone from history would make for a very bland and homogenous life now in a strip drawn by Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham.

Masked Man:  "Today the world is a simpler place.  We've taken out all the complications.  All the square pegs and the painful and the strange.  In Utopia, lacking cultural relevant for deviancy all are happy with their lot.  Everybody is exactly the same.  Isn't it sweet?"
From Homogeonous To Honey by Neil Gaiman, Bryan Talbot and Mark Buckingham
Of course Gaiman is using extreme exaggeration to make his case, but it must be remembered that this was countering the extremisim on the other side as it were, people who quite openly said they wanted gays herded into gas chambers to prevent the spread of AIDs and who saw lesbian mothers as unfit to raise their children amongst other things.

Dave Sim's contribution uses characters from his long running Cerebus series, which I covered extensively when I kicked this blog off.  It was a comic about an Aardvark who lived in a parody of Conan the Barbarian's world, before spinning off into a satire of politics and religion.  Cerebus himself doesn't appear in this strip, instead we get the Wolveroach and his two sidekicks.  The Roach was a character who shifted identities all the time, lampooning one popular super-hero character after another.  What's an interesting little joke about using his character was that Dave Sim dropped little hints now and then in early arcs that at least one of his split-personalities was gay. 
An Untold Tale Of The Super Secret Sacred Wars by Dave Sim
The Roach then strikes me exactly as the kind of character, with his buttoned up sexuality to be fascinated with exposing gay activity while having gay thoughts himself. Sadly, while this strip is dedicated with love to Moore's wife and girlfriend (who he later openly insulted in one of the 90's Cerebus books, tsk tsk), Sim would undergo a quite radical shift in opinion and by his last book in the Cerebus series was including homophobic diatribes in his work equating homosexuality with paedophilia and other such nonsense.  I'm not sure if his friendship with Moore survived that, but at least here I get to enjoy some extra Sim artwork from one of the best run's in the series (Church & State).
An Untold Tale Of The Super Secret Sacred Wars by Dave Sim
Frank Miller might seem like a surprising inclusion, given his politics now.  His rant about Occupy Wall Street being a bunch of rapists and theives and most notoriously, his virulently Islamophobic book Holy Terror all combine to give the impression he's something of a right wing nutcase.  And even Alan Moore himself called him an idiot for his comments on the Occupy movement.  But back in the 80's he and Alan Moore had a lot in common.  Both wrote books that redefined the comicbook genre; and indeed Moore himself wrote the introduction to The Dark Knight Returns.  They both fell out with DC over issues regarding a ratings system for comics and both went on to have critically acclaimed success in creator owned comicbooks, Sin City and 300 for Miller; From Hell and Lost Girls for Moore. 
The Future of Law Enforcement by Frank Miller
And what people tend to forget is The Dark Knight Returns is a coruscating attack on Reaganite America, he was by no means a right-wing nutcase back then in his writing at least.  His contribution is the amusing tale of a boorish, queerbashing heterosexual, who after an accident is rendered a paraplegic attracted to men (hilariously, he is rendered gay by an accident where his car is "rear ended!").  So he allows himself to be rebuilt as "Robohomophobe" playing off the then popular film hit Robocop.  Miller wrote and drew his contribution and it's very recognisable as his work, great charicature of Thatcher as well. Nice one Frank.
The Future of Law Enforcement by Frank Miller
AARGH is a great compilation of politically savage comic strips, which was assembled for a good cause and functions as a brilliant snap-shot of Who was Who in the UK comic's world in 1988. There's plenty more stuff in the collection, but I decided to focus mainly on those still well known today.  The coup of getting international contributions from the likes of Art Speigelman (Maus), the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets) and Frank Miller shouldn't be underestimated either and really shows how powerful and influential post-Watchmen era Alan Moore was.  If there were any postives to come out of the Clause 28 debacle, it was that it radicalised the UK LGBT community in the same way the Stonewall riots had done for the US community in the late 60's.  If you want to see an awesome example of anti-Clause 28 protest in action, follow this link to a Youtube clip of a gang of lesbians invading the live BBC 6 o'clock news broadcast!
Back cover by Los Bros Hernandez
As society and acceptance moved on, Clause 28 became something of an embarressment.  An outdated relic that many conservatives wished to do away with as Labour and the Liberals did (though we musn't forget some on the left did support the Clause as well).  In the much more tolerant society we live in today, it seems hard to credit that such a deliberately homophobic piece of legislation was ever passed into law.  But thankfully we live in more enlightened times now, and while homophobia in public life hasn't completely vanished (thanks to the likes of UKIP and the BNP) the chances of such anti-gay policies being enacted today are practically zero, and for that we can be truly thankful.

4 comments:

  1. I like the picture on the back cover.

    Were any of the people who contributed to this book actually gay themselves?

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  2. Ah now there's a question.... truth is I don't know. There are a couple of stories that come across a biographical from a couple of the lesser known contributors. But I think generally people were just more closeted in life back then. In the comics industry as much as any other sadly.

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