Norman Mackenzie: Editor, teacher, writer . . . spy?

Remembering the former NS staffer, who died on 18 June.

At Sussex in the 1960s, the historian Asa Briggs – who is still going strong in his 93rd year – recruited a motley crew of maverick dons. Their brains and personalities secured his new university’s reputation as an interesting place to be.

The art historian Quentin Bell, for example, sealed a lasting connection between Bloomsbury and the university. The publisher Peter Calvocoressi, like Briggs a veteran of Bletchley Park, was recruited to teach international relations. Neither would have mentioned Hut 3 outside Briggs’s office and yet another unorthodox recruit had connections with the security services that few colleagues could have suspected. Norman Mackenzie, the former New Statesman staffer who died on 18 June, no doubt boasted a file in MI5’s archives – but as suspect or agent?

Briggs considered Norman’s 20 years as Kingsley Martin’s assistant editor a suitable apprenticeship for teaching politics. Norman retained close links with the NS and became an authority on the paper’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. In the great Fabian tradition of marital and intellectual partnerships – the Webbs, the Hammonds, the Coles – he and his first wife, Jeanne, wrote a fascinating group portrait of the worthiest progressives in late-Victorian London. They followed up their biography of H G Wells with a history of the early Fabian Society, after which they began editing three volumes of the Webbs’ letters and four of Beatrice’s diaries.

The Mackenzies took pride in their monumental act of scholarship and praised Norman’s secretary as the one person able to decipher Beatrice Webb’s scrawl. Regrettably, I can’t recall this woman’s name but I can remember that her regular job was supporting the now Professor Mackenzie in his role as director of the School of Education.

Norman oversaw teacher training at Sussex for a decade and his appointment was a shrewd move by Briggs. Sussex operated a model ahead of its time, with postgraduate teacher trainees spending four days a week in school and one back on campus. The director adopted a hands-off approach to all matters vocational, leaving his suitably qualified staff to get on with supervising their students and conducting classroombased research.

Norman’s role, given his long-standing interest in education policy, was to advise the Labour government and, in particular, the then education minister, Shirley Williams. After the Conservatives’ victory in the 1979 general election, his Whitehall days were over and he spent more time in his office. That office was where I had spent much of the previous year working on my doctoral thesis. Norman was extraordinarily generous and supportive as I researched the history of the fledgling NS, mischievously planting ideas (“Go to Kew and see if Clifford Sharp was a spy” – like he was, perhaps?) and allowing me open access to the Webbs’ transcribed correspondence.

He was great company and my one regret is that I was so preoccupied with the paper’s early editors that I didn’t ask more about his own experiences. For example, now that I know that he trained at Osterley Park with George Orwell in late 1940, I wonder how seriously he took Tom Wintringham’s vision of the Home Guard as a revolutionary people’s militia.

At the start of 1980, Norman offered himself as the external examiner for my PhD and it was a sign of the times that nobody suggested a conflict of interest. The night before the viva,my interrogator telephoned to say that the thesis was fine so I should relax and enjoy the day, at the end of which he would provide the celebratory champagne – again, a scenario inconceivable today but a measure of the man.

In the magazine's leader the week after Norman Mackenzie's death, editor Jason Cowley wrote:

Norman Mackenzie, who has died aged 91, joined the New Statesman as assistant editor in 1943, having been recommended to the then editor, Kingsley Martin, by Harold Laski at the LSE. Norman worked on the paper for nearly 20 years before becoming an academic at Sussex University. He helped found the Open University, edited the diaries of Beatrice Webb and was the author of biographies of Charles Dickens and H G Wells. His political journey from the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party to Labour and then the Social Democratic Party was complex and fascinating.

I got to know him only at the end of his life, when he was in poor health and knew he had a few months to live. I found him lucid, witty, acerbic and generous in his advice and guidance. He told me he stopped reading the NS when it embraced what he called the “silly left”. He had recently become a subscriber again: “It’s like coming back to the place after 30 years away to find someone has been polishing the doorknobs.”

Norman lived to read the centenary issue and kindly sent the editorial team a congratulatory card: “Was there ever such a progressive magazine!”

He was a last, cherished link with the old world of Orwell’s London and Kingsley Martin’s NS. His friend the historian Hugh Purcell said: “He died in the morning, having said to Gill [his wife], ‘Death is a swindle if a man cannot have a whisky in his hand.’”

Norman Mackenzie.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.