Thirty years of The Ballad of Halo Jones

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If you were reading the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 20000AD, thirty years ago this month, you would doubtless have noticed a new character.

The Ballad of Halo Jones written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Ian Gibson first appeared in July 1984. 2000AD, which had started in 1977, already featured many of its best known science fiction and fantasy strips notably Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine. Ian Gibson had, in fact, drawn many Dredd episodes as well as the more humorous Sam Slade: Robohunter.

Alan Moore is a legend in the world of comics today. This was less true in 1984, but he was hardly unknown then either, having already penned both the futuristic drama V For Vendetta and Marvelman (later known as Miracleman) for Warrior, a title Moore had largely dominated but which was on its way out by 1984. He was also doing Swamp Thing for DC and had produced the extraterrestrial fantasy Skizz and D.R. and Quinch for 2000AD.  He had also written many Tharg’s Futureshocks; the Twilight Zone-style one off stories which many 2000AD staff first get established on. Moore had worked once with Gibson on one of these, “Grawks Bearing Gifts”.

But the first Halo Jones story wasn’t a hit. Lance Parkin in his biography Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore writes: “Now, Halo Jones is regularly cited as a high point of the magazine’s long history. Then, it was a different story. Every week, the magazine polled its readers on their favourite strips, and Halo Jones was notably unpopular during its first run (#376-385, July-September 1984)”. What was the problem?

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Was it because most of the characters were girls? Halo is introduced as a teenager, one of a group of female friends (plus Toby, a robot dog) who live on the Hoop, a large crime-infested artificial population centre constructed off Manhattan Island. It was fairly unusual for 2000AD to have a female lead character at this time but it is probable a few factors conspired against the strip. Readers complained of a lack of “action”. Moore assumed they meant a lack of “violence”. Cynical but perhaps accurate, there is little of either in Volume One (at least, not until the end). The story also features a fair amount of futuristic slang which may have alienated some readers. Although to be fair, the slang “Squeeze! Squeeze with a bare arm!” isn’t that unusual bearing in mind the strip is set in 4949, nearly 3,000 years in the future. Another possible point against it is that there is also little interesting to mark out Halo at this point. She is just another one of the girls.

Volume Two which appeared in 1985, however, was much better.

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For one thing, the intriguing prologue features a lecture, set even further in the future which not only updates us but hints for the first time that Halo might be destined to become a figure of genuine historical import. Halo also develops more as a character, working as a stewardess on a space cruise liner the Clara Pandy during a year long voyage and leaving her less ambitious or unlucky friends back on the Hoop.

The ship turns out to be a perfect vehicle for all sorts of great stories, many working as stand alone strips. Toby, Halo’s companion reveals a ferocious dark side while a particularly strong story concerns The Glyph, a soulless sad character rendered invisible after countless sex changes have robbed him of his true identity.

Volume Three, is by Alan Moore’s own admission, the best of all.

Although it appeared only a year later, in 1986, ten long years have passed for Halo and she has become a more cynical, harder and more interesting figure. Washed up, she bumps into her old friend Toy Molto (a giantess) and the two decide to join the Army.

Predictably, this ends badly with the two becoming involved in the encroaching war in the Tarantula Nebula, a Vietnam-style conflict, periodically alluded to in the strip since Book One. Funny, ingenious and at times, moving, (one episode sees Halo talking for some time to a wounded colleague before realising with total horror that they have been dead for some time), Halo experiences the full indignity of combat. The war on the planet Moab, particularly leads to a memorable battle in which the strong gravity of the large planet leads time to be distorted leading the conflict to literally be appearing to pass either in slow motion or sometimes even accelerated speed. Halo also becomes embroiled in an unwise love affair with the monstrous General Luiz Cannibal and loses her innocence in more ways than one.

Adverts for the Titan anthologies of the story at the time hinted at ten volumes of Halo even suggesting she became a pirate queen. But, in fact, Volume Three would be the end. Moore fell out with 2000AD and went onto The Watchmen and phenomenal comic success. Only Neil Gaiman has come close to his status amongst contemporary British comic writers.

The Ballad of Halo Jones remains his overlooked masterpiece. I urge you to seek it out.

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Thirty years of Spitting Image

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John Major was entirely painted in grey. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker was a slug. Future Prime Minister Tony Blair was portrayed as a wayward child while Edwina Currie was a malevolent Cruella Deville figure. The puppet-based comedy Spitting Image first appeared on our screens thirty years ago in 1984 and ran until 1996. There had never been anything like it before and has been nothing like it on British TV since.  It made its mark on the times in a way that no other comedian, TV show or satirical cartoon of the time could ever have managed.

Perhaps it could only have started in 1984, a time when the forces of conservatism seemed perilously close to absolute victory. Margaret Thatcher, simultaneously the most loved and loathed Prime Minister of all time, had won a second landslide election victory the year before and was now taking on the miners, a battle she would ultimately win. The unions were in revolt, unemployment was sky high. People were angry and yet the Opposition which was split between Neil Kinnock’s Labour and the Liberal-SDP Alliance had never looked weaker.

There was something of a political comedy void too. Mike Yarwood, a huge star in the Seventies, was far too gentle (and troubled) an impressionist to continue through the Eighties. By 1984, his career was in freefall, perhaps partially because he was unable to convincingly “do” Margaret Thatcher. Yes Minister, meanwhile, was a brilliant political comedy, but it was set in a fictional and non-partisan political landscape (Jim Hacker was never identified as belonging to any existing party). Meanwhile, Not The Nine O Clock News which had lampooned many public figures during the early Eighties (while rarely actually impersonating them) had ended in 1982. Smith and Jones had begun their own largely non-political sketch show while Rowan Atkinson was now in Blackadder. NTNOCN producer John Lloyd would be instrumental in launching Spitting Image for the ITV franchise Central in 1984.

The project was hugely ambitious: it was the most expensive light entertainment show of the time. In retrospect, we should be less surprised that the results were patchy (and they were) than by the fact that Peter Fluck and Roger Law’s puppets were nearly always easily recognisable and that Spitting Image not only managed to be produced so close to transmission time (some scenes were even broadcast live) but that the show was so often on the mark, highly topical and frequently very funny.

Some public figures will be forever linked with their puppet counterparts. To some, Norman Tebbit will always be a leather jacketed yob, Michael Heseltine a swivel-eyed loon vocally denying any intention of standing against Thatcher for the Tory leadership while simultaneously wearing a sign saying “Vote for Heseltine” on his back while, for many, Kenneth Baker, as mentioned, will always be a slug on a leaf.

Some caricatures required less imagination,  however, with US president Ronald Reagan (voiced by Chris Barrie, later of Red Dwarf and The Brittas Empire fame) always portrayed as a moron, as in this fireside chat with Soviet premier Gorbachev (whose distinctive birthmark always took the form of a Soviet hammer and sickle):

Gorbachev: Ron, do you know what I see when I see when I look into those flames? I see our two nations living in peace and harmony… what do you see?

Reagan: I see a little doggy, a bunny wunny and a big hippo on a broomstick. Hell, this is fun!

Margaret Thatcher herself, meanwhile, was usually portrayed (rather sexistly) in a man’s suit (something which may actually have helped her image). John Major, her successor, initially appeared as a robot being secretly controlled by Thatcher before becoming the totally grey figure he is now remembered as, complementing wife Norma on her peas (“Very tasty”) while secretly nursing a childish crush on colleague Virginia Bottomley (prompting Major’s cabinet colleagues to taunt him by chanting “John loves Ginny!”).  Major’s earlier affair with Edwina Currie was, of course, at this stage not known to the general public or to Spitting Image’s writers.

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Currie, in fact, undeniably benefited from the publicity her puppet generated. She was, after all, a junior minister and never in the cabinet. How many junior ministers can you name today? This was not solely Spitting Image’s doing, but it surely helped. The same is true with Labour frontbencher Gerald Kaufman. He was never exactly a household name but got attention simply because Spitting Image claimed he went around saying creepy things such as (inexplicably) “sweaty palms”.

Others liked the attention less, though many like to pretend otherwise. Liberal leader David Steel  openly claimed that his image was harmed by the impression he was in SDP leader David Owen’s pocket. It is doubtful Roy Hattersley (who has a genuine speech impediment) enjoyed his depiction spluttering spit everywhere (notably spitting out the words “Spitting Image” during the title sequence) either.

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It wasn’t just the politicians, of course. The portrayal of the royals was always controversial. An early episode saw the Queen “christening” Prince Harry (who had an unflattering puppet from birth) by smashing a bottle against the side of his pram. Elsewhere,  Jeremy Paxman (one of the few figures still in the public eye both now and then) memorably began every broadcast with a sneering “yeeeeeeeeeeeeesss” while the late newsreader Alistair Burnett was seen as being in love with the Queen Mother. Rupert Murdoch, meanwhile, was seen as a crude figure constantly breaking wind while all journalists were routinely portrayed as pigs.

It had to end one day, of course, and in 1996, it did. Tony Blair was initially portrayed as a schoolboy because of his relative youth. He soon became a super hyperactive figure on becoming Labour leader in 1994. But while both he and successor Gordon Brown had puppets, the show didn’t get to see New Labour in power.

The programme never received much critical acclaim but effectively launched a thousand careers with Ian Hislop, Clive Anderson, John O’Farrell, Ben Elton and Red Dwarf’s Rob Grant and Doug Naylor (authors of The Chicken Song) amongst the numerous writers and Chris Barrie, Steve Coogan, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Rory Bremner, John Culshaw, Alistair MacGowan, Steve Nallon and Hugh Dennis all amongst the vocal talent.

Could it happen today? Animated copycats like 2DTV and Headcases both proved failures although Round The Bend, almost a kids’ version of the show with puppets by Fluck and Law enjoyed some success in the Nineties.

But in the age of Boris Johnson and Nigel Forage perhaps we need a Spitting Image now more than ever?

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