Saturday, 27 December 2014

Cradlegrave (2000AD #1633-1644)

"Welcome back to the real world" - Narration

Let me start this review thing with a short digression, which will become relevant I promise.  Well, a bit relevant. Slightly relevant anyway.  Between 1998 and 2004 I lived in what could be charitably described as a "right shithole".  But I lived happily in that shithole because it was the only way I could afford the rent to live in the area of Manchester I wanted to, which was Rusholme.  I may not have had hot running water for six years but I lived between two parks at the top end of the curry mile, and I was made up.  And the reason I felt good about that was because I could see what life was like in the area next-door to Rusholme.  Oh, I know some of you are nodding now and saying "ah yes, I have heard of Moss Side, it sounds bad."  Fuck no.  Moss Side is postively gentrified now compared to where I actually mean, that forsaken place being Longsight.  And I am happy to name it, because no one in Longsight will be reading this.  No one in Longsight can afford a computer.  The best way to sum up Longsight was one day when me and a friend were driving back to my place.  He took a short-cut through Longsight even though I advised against it.  At one set of traffic lights he suddenly said to me, very quietly - "roll your window up, lock your door and brace yourself, because when the lights change I am flooring this motherfucker."  A gang of youths bearing down on you with hoods up and armed with baseball bats will scare even an ex-army bloke into running away.
One panel sets the scene well.
The reason for that digression is to let you know that when I discuss the setting of John Smith's 2000AD series Cradlegrave, I'm know what he's talking about.  Now Longsight isn't quite the same as the estate in the series in that Longsight is more inner city than sink estate on the outskirts.  But I know the feeling of hopelessness that hangs over places like that, where the poorest in society are trapped literally from cradle to grave.  I never spent time in Longsight unless I absolutely had to (I had a course of therapy on my back at a medical centre there, where the windows where heavily barred, you were buzzed in through a metal detector and the receptionists sat behind bullet proof glass), and everytime I left the place it was like a pall lifted from me.  Cradlegrave activated a sort of Proustian sense memory in me, the stale smell of poverty and misery immediately came back to me after a decade of last experiencing it.  A definite achievement of the book, if not an altogether pleasant one.
Shane returns to the estate
When I reviewed John Smith's first comicbook work The New Statesmen for CRISIS in 1988 I was reminded of the quote by William Faulkner - “In writing, you must kill your darlings.”  The New Statemen simply had too many ideas and things Smith obviously wanted to say crammed into too small a page count to do them justice.  I still found much to praise it for, mainly it being unafraid to be highly political, something which can also be seen in the depiction of life as a member of the underclass on the Ravenglade estate somewhere in Lancashire.  The art by Edmund Bagwell is also praise worthy in this respect too.  It's heavily photo-referenced, but unlike say Greg "I trace from porn" Land's emotionless manniken people, here it helps add to the documentary style realism that makes it all the more shocking when horror intrudes upon the carefully depicted life of the main character Shane, a young offender back from eight months in a youth remand centre for arson.

The estate he returns to is suffering in the middle of a long, hot summer from a refuse collectors strike. He has dinner with his Mum who wonders where his brother has got to. She asks Shane if the place he was in did him any good.  He says it feels weird being out like he doesn't belong here now. His Mum says this is where he's staying and sends him out for some celebratory booze.
Shane's mate Callum
Outside the off-licence an old man called Ted is upbrading some younger teens for smoking.  They call him a perv, then Shane appears and greets him warmly.  Ted says he would invite Shane round to his house, but his wife Mary took a tumble and won't go to hospital.  He then leaves and Shane's supposed "bezzy mate" Callum appears.  He hands some booze he bought for the kids over to them then he chats with Shane. He asks him if he wants to "get monged out your case" round at Tozzer's.  But Shane says he just wants to go home and get his head down.

Back home, later that night Shane sits in his room and contemplates things:

Narration: "His room was the same. It was him who had changed. That's what being inside did to you. It shrank your horizons but opened you eyes to a different world."
Shane's sleep is troubled...
He tries to sleep but is interrupted by his brother Craig climbing in through his window, very drunk.  Shane hustles him out and goes back to sleep, having a nightmare about being burned alive in a coffin.

The next day he goes out, a young girl is selling stuff buy the roadside.  He buys some war comics off her.  He goes to Ted's house, smelling a horrible smell as he gets closer - "stale piss and something as sickly sweet as pear drops."  He finds Ted in the garden round the back and they chat for a bit then Shane leaves.  We get out first inkling of the horror to come when Mary says through the window:

Mary: "W-Will you hurry up Ted? Only it's foraging again... It's f-foraging for food."
Shane and Ted chat.
Back at Shane's house his pregnant dog, Lucky, is on the verge of giving birth.  His Mum and brother both upbrade him for not getting her fixed. Then Callum appears.  Chatting and sharing a spliff in Shane's room he invites him to a party round at his place that night as his dad with be away.  So Shane attends and takes a couple of E's while there is much drinking and spliff smoking going on there.  Then Callum's dad appears earlier than he should have, very drunk and says:

Callum's Dad: "S'look at the bloody lodya. All Cradlegrave's scallies unner one roof. One bomb an' we could wipe out crime in one go."

Callum tells his sister Donna to deal with him.  Then he grabs some car keys he found and he and Shane steal a car to go get more booze.  On the way though they hit the young girl who had been selling stuff by the road. In a panic, Shane and Callum go to Ted's house saying a rival gang is after them.  Ted goes to tend to Mary while Shane and Callum discuss how they wiped their prints off the car and disposed of it.  Shane gets a call that Lucky is giving birth so he leaves Callum at Ted's for now.
The accident that injures Kiera
The sickly sweet smell is becoming overpowering and Callum takes a peek into Mary's room.  Off panel she says to him:

"Shut the door behind you.  There's a good lad. It's time for your feed."

The next day, Craig heavily implies that he knows Shane as party to the theft of Tozzer's car and the accident with the girl.  Then the police come round to interview Shane.  Callum wakes vomiting, still at Ted's house.  He doesn't remember what happened that night but feels like crap:

Ted: "Mary, my Mary.  She's taken a liking to you son.  She'll have you eating out of her hand if you're not careful."

He returns home and his Dad says the police have been looking for him in connection with the hit and run.  They pull up at the house before Callum can go get his head down.  No one on the estate will tell the police anything - "Cradlegrave code" - but Callum says they need an alibi and brings Shane and Craig to Ted and Mary's house.
Meet  Mary.
We finally see what Mary looks like, a horrific, lumpen, mess of a mutant. Ted says it's just cancer, but Shane says no way cancer does that.  But the smell is making it hard to think.  Callum pushes him closer to her and she takes a hold of him.  But then Shane panics and tries to escape.  The door is locked so he puts his hand through the window, slicing him arm up badly.  The amubulance arrive and take him away, while he is still freaking out.  Craig tells Callum that "you ran over Skully's kid.  You're in shit already."  Then he asks Callum to show him what he does round Ted and Mary's place.

Shane is in hospital for three days and Skully gets out and finds out who ran down his daughter using torture invloving superglue on Tozzer. Meanwhile Callum is suffering from withdrawals from something... he helps Ted home with his groceries and goes inside.  Then six more hooded figures appear outside Ted's house.  The next day sees Cal in his boxers, covered in sores, coming down from some unspeakable high.

Shane returns home, but his dog Lucky snarls and snaps at him and the pups are gone.  Thinking Craig might have something to do with their disappearance, he goes round to Ted and Mary's place to look for him.  He finds Ted's dead body, a bag over his head and pills in his hands.  He goes into Mary's room and is greeted by the grotesque sight of several youths suckling from her.  They are drinking her "black milk".
There's something about Mary..... *retch*
Craig: "You don't know the buzz bruv. It's better than drugs.  It's like shagging on 'E' only your whole bloody body's rushing with it."

Finally Shane gives in and drinks as well. The next day at breakfast his Mum tried gently, then bluntly to tell him his dog Lucky probably ate her pups after having so many litters. Shane is suffering withdrawals so goes round to Tozzer's to get some weed and finds Skully there, the drug supplier for the estate and man whose daughter they ran down.  He and Cal try to say they had nothing to do with it, but Skully threatens to torture them.  He say's it was fortunate it was only Keira they hit, as he isn't sure she's his and she's weird. But he still wants them to deal for him to make things up to him.
Poor Ted, fed to his own wife.
Later Callum and Shane wonder what to do with Ted's body, while Mary remembers her childhood, "her memories are like leaves in fast water she cannot quite catch."  Craig arrives at Mary's house with some food for her.  Then later recounts to some friends that he thinks he did a terrible thing that he can't remember.  We see him do it though, he cuts up Ted and feeds part of him to Mary.  All he knows is his hands are covered in blood he can't wash off.

In the evening Callum and Shane go out with the heroin Skully wants them to deal. The estate is going crazy. Cars on fire, fights, wheelie bins being thrown around.  Shane says he wishes he'd never come back to the estate and that he's not being Skully's bitch either.

Back with Mary, she rips apart at the "stomach" and starts giving birth to something.  Craig and two friends arrive to see her and find lots of little tumour like baby things on the floor round her. Meanwhile Callum and Shane are buying kebabs, there is a mob outside the takeaway.  Donna arrives and tells them the electicity has gone off in their street.
Chaos on the streets and an angry Skully bagging drugs
Skully is trying to track Cal and Shane down because they haven't done the job for him yet.  He is in the same room as Keira who wasn't killed in the hit and run, and she freaks him out with her staring.  Shane returns home and is attacked by his dog, he has to use a weight to bash in her brains in self defence.

Shane decides it's time to end all the bullshit.  We are shown more chaos on the estate, a murder, a possible gang rape, a cat being put in a microwave, a skewer of kebab meat bleeding and a gang of hooded youths taking away the tumour babies from Mary's house under their jackets.  Shane walks through the chaos of the estate armed with a molotov cocktail. He lights it and hurls it into Mary's house.
Shane deals with Mary the only way he can.
Narration: "He couldn't give a shit who was inside. They were part of the problem too. Part of the rot.  It's time to finish this."

Mary bursts out of the flaming house and when the estate denizens see her, they immediately attack and kill her, as she dies she remembers her childhood in Belfast.  Then for Mary it's all over.  But at Skully's place he opens the door to a gang of youths holding the toothy, tumour babies.  They set them upon him saying there's "a new gang in town" and Skully is eaten in front of Keira.
Skully is about to get horribly killed...
The story ends with Shane saying goodbye to his Mum and leaving the estate.

"She feels a swell of pride as he leaves.  Her boy heading out into the big, wide world. It's all she ever wanted for him.  Shane didn't have the words, in the end. He'd never been good with either. But that was alright.  He was out. He was going to stay that way."

Cradlegrave is an immensely powerful piece of work.  It doesn't demonise the underclass, it has a quiet, controlled fury about the people society has failed running through it though it doesn't overwhelm the narrative and become overly polemical.  The horror aspects are handled extremely well, it's perverse and sickening and as a metaphor for heavy addiction works extremely well. I'm a horror fiend, I love films, books and comics about horror and this made even a hardened horror nut like myself feel queasy, so good job! The lives of the people on the estate are shown with compassion and in a non-exploitative fashion with Edmund Bagwell's art giving it the verisimillitude I spoke of in the introduction.

Shane departs for a better life. Hopefully.
A place like the Ravenglade estate traps young and old in it's cycle of poverty and yet that becomes such a way of life that it's hard to take the step Shane does at the end and leave for good and it's fascinating that it was time spent in an institution that helped him make the decision.  Rarely are prisons seen as the forces for rehabilitation they aim to be both in real life and in fiction.  But there is no triumph in his departure, he's left an estate even worse off than when he arrived at the start, with the weird community that has sprung up around Mary's "babies" set to cause more hardship and horror.  The former top dog Skully may be dead, but what's going to replace him looks so much worse.... This was the first "recent" (published in 2011) 2000AD story I had read since I quit the comic in 1994 and I was amazed at how edgy it was, in content, storyline and dialogue.  It's made me want to start checking out more recent 2000AD collections to see what I have been missing.  And that's got to be an achievement of sorts too.


  1. oh dude.. that is one messed up comic!!

  2. First off, I'm sorry for the comment from 'Unknown' that's just a full stop. That was totally me. Apologies. You see, normally I post a comment that's just a full stop because then the browser gives me the option to log into my Google account, but this time it just straight up posted it. That might be because I'm currently on my dad's computer, or something.

    Love your anecdote about Longsight! That's hilarious. My brother Frankie has lived in Manchester for ages, but he only got racially abused (by an Asian man) once, so that must show that Manchester is 99% non-racist, right? Or something. I feel I may have lost the thread somewhat. Anyway, comix.

    I think everyone has a 'living in a scuzzy neighbourhood' horror story. For me, it was Horwich in Bolton.

    The receptionists sat behind BULLET-PROOF GLASS? In ENGLAND?!?

    I think I would literally rather be in prison than be in the Ravenglade estate, because in prison there are more educational opportunities and better law enforcement. This isn't hyperbole: I mean it.

    That's the thing with John Smith. You see it in all his writing, from the earliest 2000 AD work onwards: he has approximately ninety trillion ideas for every story. Sometimes that doesn't work, and sometimes it does. It's how he rolls.

    Which war comics does he buy?

    See, this is why one shouldn't ingest cannabis and/or ecstasy and then try to drive a car. Cars scare the heck out of me. When I'm in them they make me feel sick, and when I'm not in them they look like huge metal bullets whizzing down the road. Driving a car while not stone cold sober is like trying to ride a tiger while blindfold.


    When you really have blood on your hands it doesn't look like that: it collects in the lines on your palm.

    Why isn't Skully using a 'look at me, I'm so important' phone like an iPhone?

    A CAT BEING PUT IN A MICROWAVE?!? (Must be a pretty small cat.)

    I'm gonna lend you some of my 2000 AD trade paperbacks.

  3. No worries about the mispost, I'd get rid of it if I wasn't worried I'd accidentally delete your proper post as well!

    Yes, bulletproof glass in a medical centre. Now I was used to seeing it in banks and off licences but a medical centre with no drugs on the premises? Well, that was Longsight in a nutshell.

    You are of the same mind as Shane when it comes to prison versus Ravenglade, as I said in the review, nice to see prison shown as a way of helping people not just punishing them.

    I'm definitely up for checking out more John Smith stuff now, when he keeps the narrative tight and focused he does great stuff.

    Of course Shane does kill it with fire. I think Craigs bloody palms look the way they do because he has been trying to scrub them clean.

    Actually it's a kitten being put in a microwave, it reminded me of a similar set of one panel looks at evil spreading in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run. That too saw a poor kitten put in a microwave as well. Upsetting.

    I look forward to checking out some more recent 2000AD stuff now!