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. 

Dimension Traveling at Its Finest: Warren Ellis & Tula Lotay’s Supreme: Blue Rose

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As I write this, I am in a post-4th of July haze induced by hot dogs, jazz, the sound of forbidden fireworks fired in the streets, and a long walk through what felt like an abandoned Los Angeles. In this state, I’m reading two works at the same time that lead me toward disorientation because I could not imagine two series more opposite in tone and content. The crazy two are Daniel Clowes’s The Complete Eightball and Warren Ellis’s Supreme: Blue Rose.

To heighten this sense of confusion, Supreme: Blue Rose may just be one of the most dream-like and ethereal comics for the masses I’ve seen in some time.

Cover for Volume One of Supreme: Blue Rose

Warren Ellis must never sleep. His sharp series, Trees, has progressed a few months after the first volume was released earlier this year, and simultaneously, another series, Injection, has begun this summer. And in addition to these two, he’s also managed to complete seven issues of Supreme: Blue Rose, which are collected into the first volume for the series that hit comic book stores this week on July 1st.

When Ellis actually sleeps between all of this work, his dreams must be filled with multiple dimensions and plenty of time travelling into places we will never see, but thankfully for us, he and Tula Lotay have materialized these forbidden foreign places in between the folds of the spectrum of time with Supreme: Blue Rose.

Diana Dane (yes, that’s probably the epitome of a superhero name) seems to have ties to some alternate universe. In her dreams, a man warns her about trusting a complete stranger named Darius Dax (and yes, that’s the epitome of a supervillian name), and a faceless man, cleverly named Enigma, stands on the shore staring into a bay where he claims a guardian of the future once descended and spoke to him as she surveyed the land one last time before it would change. And if things could not get any more ominous, the faceless man appears at a street corner as Diana travels to a meeting with Darius Dax at the National Praxinoscope Company for some reason undisclosed to her.

But let me warn you, despite the superhero names and some familiar archetypes seen in some superhero comics, Supreme: Blue Rose is far beyond a superhero tale. It is not really even an anti-superhero comic….

Diana has fallen from grace from her rising journalism career, and consequently, when Dax offers her a total of one million dollars to investigate the whereabouts of Ethan Crane, even under  far beyond ordinary, most likely supernatural circumstances, she has little reason to say no. One million dollars does not come without some level of grief, and Diana has quite a lot of it in store for her.

As it turns out, the universe resembles some giant, self releasing software development machine. It releases versions of reality and merges them into the time space continuum, creating multiple branches of reality that may or may not shift when a new version arrives. Unfortunately, a recent version has disrupted the separation of realities, and fragments of others are falling into the one Diana Dane and Darius Dax inhabit. The answer to the clashing of alternate realms lies with Ethan Crane, but he has seemingly vaporized, and his disappearance may be a sign of the end to come.

In parallel to Diana’s quest to find Ethan Crane, Ellis also presents the worlds of Professor Night, a television serial character, and Chelsea Henry, a professor turned dimension jumper. Professor Night battles his own enemy and lover in Evening Primrose in a decaying futuristic world, and Chelsea attempts to understand her own powers and the truth behind the universe. Both Professor Night and Chelsea wander through their worlds and also multiple dimensions in search of something, and as Supreme: Blue Rose unfolds, they both travel into Diana Dane’s world, all culminating into a final scene where the past, the present, and the future collide, shatter, and fold.

Supreme: Blue Rose feels like Ellis’s “fuck you, I can do it better” to the frequent use of alternate universes in superhero dynasties. Ellis expands that inherently human fascination with what ifs and regrets to create a whole series around alternate realities that constantly and cryptically twist and turn. With this series, in our post-modern world, Ellis proves that he shall remain as the king of futuristic, nihilistic concepts; every character in Supreme: Blue Rose has no control over his or her existence(s), and all of their perceived realities remain in a fragile state, ready to fall at any moment, rejecting any belief that we as humans can hold true power over our own reality.

Beyond the experiences of the characters, the instability of the worlds of Supreme: Blue Rose are most evident in the artwork by Tula Lotay. All of the illustrations have a looseness and haziness to them accomplished by pastel and watercolor techniques that blur the lines between dreams, pasts, presents, and futures, making us as the readers question what is real and what is not and if the concept of the real even matters. Lotay’s artwork paired with Ellis’s narrative makes Supreme: Blue Rose transcend above all other dimension shifting series.

By the end of Supreme: Blue Rose, Diana Dane may or may not have succeeded her mission, and Ethan Crane may or may not have helped change the universe, but alas, an exact answer may not exist because we have no idea which reality the events occurred in. A goal directed plot certainly exists, but the most fascinating parts of the series occur across dimensions with the reveal of different versions of a single character which can be pieced together to establish each character’s fundamental motivations and inclinations toward good or evil or nothing at all. With Supreme: Blue Rose, Ellis pushes the storytelling technique of fragmented character building into a new territory, all while reminding us not to get too swept up in our own fantasies of our own possible alternate realities, since after all, we have an essential character and spirit, and that will permeate all of the dimensions, whether you’re a desk clerk in one reality or a supermodel in another.

Supreme: Blue Rose by Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay is available now via Image Comics.