Si Spencer’s Disjointed/Unified England in Bodies

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This weekend, synchronicity rules my selection of what to read and review. On Friday night, I watched Mike Leigh’s Naked, a spectacular masterpiece of English filmmaking and possibly one of the most English films to date. Then, on Saturday, after visiting Golden Apple Comics, I picked up Si Spencer’s Bodies, and to my surprise, when I arrived home to read it, I realized Tula Lotay of last week’s review of Supreme: Blue Rose illustrated a part of Bodies.

Now, how exactly do Naked, Supreme: Blue Rose, and Bodies tie together?

Most clearly, all three have English creators. All three take place in some form of dystopia, be it more of a realistic one in Naked or a futuristic one in Supreme: Blue Rose or both in the case of Bodies. Naked and Bodies center their narratives on forces perceived or known to corrupt the existence of English citizens. Bodies and Supreme: Blue Rose construct their protagonists and antagonists in fragments across time. Bodies contains the realism of Naked crossed with the time traveling and futurism of Supreme: Blue Rose.

All three tackle major political and philosophical concepts. Naked has a fiercely raw energy weaving throughout the film, which enforces its overwhelming sense of desperation and desolation in Thatcher’s England. Supreme: Blue Rose reinvents the Supreme mythology into a fresh new, time-shifting and complex exercise in understanding fundamental existence and persona. Bodies aims to construct a murder mystery across time in order to understand the history of England’s perceived internal enemies to English tradition and values. While Naked and Supreme: Blue Rose reach for ambitious concepts with underlying comments on politics and human existence and successfully execute them without ever stepping to the pulpit, Bodies reaches for the moon in its concept, but unfortunately, it only reaches the troposphere of the earth.

Cover for Bodies Volume One

Bodies divides its narratives into 4 timelines in London: 1890, 1940, 2014, and 2050. In each, a detective of the time discovers a mutilated body in Longharvest Lane in the East End of London. At a first glance, each of the detectives tie the body to Jack the Ripper, but upon further inspection, the corpse shows ties to something far more supernatural. Each detective possesses some quality which has been or will be rejected by the traditional English society. Inspector Hillinghead, the detective of the 1890 component of the story, is homosexual. Inspector Karl Whiteman, the 1940 detective, is a Polish Jew who escaped from Krakow. Detective Sergeant Shahara Hasan, the 2014 detective, is Pakistani and Muslim. And, Detective Maggie Belwood, the 2050 detective, is an amnesic rendered into almost a borderline infantile state from some unknown force.

Across each narrative arc, the corpse has wounds which bring about suspicions of some form of ritualistic killing. To make things stranger, as each detective dives deeper into the investigation, the corpse disappears and returns to life. In each incarnation, the corpse emerges from death as a slender blonde man with an eyepatch with a variety of names, but fundamentally, he encourages each detective to accept his or her own identity and past, coaxing each into an act which will allow them to finally incorporate themselves into the world they belong, whether that world is a past or future England or a void beyond the earth.

After unpacking all of the characters and the role of the revived corpse, Bodies studies the history of England’s disenfranchised people across time, addressing the conflicts each face and how they eventually assimilate into society. Unfortunately, Bodies does a disservice to its detailed discussion of different marginalized groups by incorporating a facile message of acculturation: “Know you are loved.” As a result, by the end, Bodies feels less like an intelligent discourse on England’s hesitance toward foreign cultures and lifestyles across time and more like a hippy peace rally filled with chants of love without a full understanding of how a conservative nation comes to accept once marginalized groups.

Ultimately, the detectives who do assimilate into English society with the help of the reborn one-eyed man accept their differences while still proclaiming their pride as citizens of England, revealing Spencer’s belief in patriotism as a unifying force. Then, to reinforce his thesis, Spencer closes Bodies with a sanguine salute to England that accepts all of its flaws, cherishes its strength, and aims to instill a sense of pride in the nation, a pride which allows each of the characters to become accepted by others, and a pride which Spencer hopes will allow future disenfranchised groups to feel unity with the people around them.

However, this belief that a common pride in a nation can create bridges between people of different gender, sexuality, culture, and heritage is one that is far too idealistic and far too removed from reality. Undoubtedly, patriotism can unify people to a certain degree, but understanding between people occurs at a much more personal level than pride in one’s own nation. Consequently, Bodies exists more as a manifesto of ungrounded beliefs and less as an observational argument on assimilation and mutual understanding.

Bodies lacks nuance and evidence to establish its thesis, and as a result, even the wonderful artwork and the fascinating idea to have different illustrators dedicated to each time period cannot save this series. After all of the time traveling and the rise from the dead are said and done, only the unfounded thesis is left along with many irritating repetitions of, “Know you are loved.” More of a comic book stylized kumbaya, Bodies contains naive politics mixed with an ambitious concept, thus creating an all too pretentious (and of course completely marketable) series.

With the rise of the xenophobic national front spreading across England and Europe, Spencer had an excellent opportunity to research and discuss the origins of the movement and its recent resurgence, but instead of asking, “What is the origin of the fear of foreigners in England? Why is this happening in mass again?” he asks “Why can’t we love each other?” making Bodies much less of an effective and galvanizing work.

If you’re looking for a work which studies the marginalization of England’s people, go watch Mike Leigh’s Naked instead. I promise you will not be able to look at media and its ability to comment on the fragmentation of a society in the same way again. You probably also will not be preaching a message of universal love at the end of it either…

Bodies is written by Si Spencer with artwork by Dean Ormston, Phil Winslade, Meghan Hetrick, and Tula Lotay and coloring by Lee Loughridege. It is available via Vertigo. 

A Misfit Among Misfits in the 1980s: Deadly Class

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Note: This post is going to be a little more of a traditional review. Please bear with me for the length of the narrative setup. Thank you! 

Marcus is a vagrant outsider.

Marcus is hell bent on avenging the premature deaths of his parents.

Marcus is a pupil in a school for assassins.

Cover of Deadly Class Vol. 1: Reagan Youth

Marcus Lopez is the primary protagonist in the Image Comics series, Deadly Class. At the opening of Deadly Class, we meet Marcus as he wanders the streets of San Francisco. Life has not been kind to him; his parents were accidentally and gruesomely killed when a former psychiatric patient jumped off of a bridge and landed on top of them in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s allowance for the de-institutionalization of state mental health facilities from the late 60s to the mid 70s during his terms as governor of California.

After the loss of his parents and his sinking into severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Marcus becomes a homeless vagrant whose constant, overwhelmingly nihilistic thoughts continue to prevent him from moving forward. Despite the intense pessimism of most of his thoughts, Marcus has a bizarre optimism at points that he ties back to the last words about life that his father told him and continues to wander about looking for some meaning in life with a small amount of faith that there may be some deity or being to help him. This optimism and faith in the midst of the Marcus’s dour, miserable world is the beginning of the strange contradictions in Deadly Class.

During a street parade, a mysterious Yakuza affiliated girl rescues Marcus after a series of detectives and police officers chase after him. She takes him to an underground world where a teacher appears who has the semblance of any old, wise master from a karate film. After explaining to a group of students that Marcus was chosen because he has the undying motivation of revenge, the teacher invites Marcus to become a student of the Kings Dominion of the School of the Deadly Arts, a school that marks the humble beginnings of the world’s best assassins. Marcus’s prayers for help to find a path in life may have been answered.

On Marcus’s first day of class, he quickly realizes that he is yet again an outcast, even though all of his classmates are the major outcasts of society, and we, as the readers, are quickly thrusted into an archetypal world of high school but with a little more thirst for bloodshed. For those who went to high school in a place where clique divisions were more dogmatic than the dress code as I did, we are quickly reminded of our experiences, for better and most likely for worst. In the School of the Deadly Arts, the students go through the same issues around perceived image that most teenagers experience, except that image at this school includes one’s propensity to harm others. Who is dating the popular girl is important in this world. Who is the child of who is important in this world, but most of all, who is (or seems) the toughest is important in this world. The first two issues of the series create an interesting setting for the narrative, but there are some peculiar decisions in the progression of Deadly Class.

Although the projects that the students have to complete are outrageous and sensationalistic and the characters that we encounter are handpicked from various arch criminal groups, Deadly Class is mostly a coming of age story, and being so, has some maudlin and, dare I say it, sanguine moments that destroy the dour tone that it worked so hard to set up at its beginning, which confuses me a bit. I’m not entirely sure about the author’s intent on this one. Is it supposed to trace the rise of the outcast from the bottom of the feeding pool to the top? Is it supposed to be a bildungsroman with an assassin training school wrapper? The first volume opens up with an introduction from David Lapham, the author of Stray Bullets, about how he was a nobody in high school in the 80s, and how he met his wife there, who was a member of the popular clique, giving a sense into the motivations of strange optimism embedded in the narrative of Deadly Class: the adolescent mindset of the 1980s instilled by John Hughes films.

As the series unfolds, it becomes a story almost too close to the Breakfast Club, which feels like a betrayal to the intricate and interesting concept of a school for assassins. Marcus tries to get the girl from one of the more popular cliques. He and representatives from some of the major cliques work together to execute Marcus’s revenge on Ronald Reagan, which is the same plot as a group of kids trying to take over a school from an oppressive principal at a larger scale. And in the the most betraying twist of all, Marcus, upon being accepted, has an excitement for life.

Personally, I never really identified with any John Hughes film, where a social pariah rises in ranks by adopting a set of expectations and suddenly loves life, and it seems like writer Rick Remender, identified with them just a little too much. Perhaps I’m a bit of a grim person myself, but I really would have preferred for Deadly Class to be an investigation into the psychology of Marcus. As I continued to read, I kept asking myself, “Why does Marcus, who has some questionably psychopathic and sociopathic tendencies, have such traditional teenage motivations?” I would have loved for the series to wallow in the darkness of Marcus’s internal world and the malice and disregard for societal standards in the school. The story could have explored some interesting frontiers in a sullen, macabre setting, but it sadly does not.

Nevertheless, I do not think that Deadly Class is a horrible graphic novel. I think it simply plays it too safe. I think it is trying to shock its readers with the setting of the School of the Deadly Arts and the consequent events of violence, but it’s core story is far too traditional and suffers from the same fantasy optimism of the films and culture of the 1980s that I think the author may have originally hated but secretly desired. It is still worth a read for at least the artwork; the colorist Lee Loughridge and the illustrator Wes Craig create beautiful sequences, including a fantastic neon, two-dimensional acid trip that Ken Kesey would be proud of. Take a look at Deadly Class, just do not expect a groundbreaking narrative behind its sensationalistic facade.

Deadly Class is published by Image Comics and is currently up to issue six with issue seven to be released in mid-September.