2000 AD: A British institution

For British comics week, we'll be looking at a pair of creators from a different tradition each day. Today: Colin Smith speaks to Al Ewing and Henry Flint.

2000 AD artist Henry Flint still recalls the excitement of encountering the first issue of the weekly SF-adventure comic. It was, he says, "nasty, brutal. Parents hated it. The morality of the heroes was questionable. After the Beano, I was a little scared. I loved it."

It's hardly surprising that his seven-year-old self would feel that way. 2000 AD was nasty and brutal and purposefully so. A long-pent up snarl of frustration and ambition from creators weary of profoundly conservative comics, 2000 AD featured the grimmest of anti-heroes in absurdly amped-up, fantastical tales with more than just a taste of radical agitprop. An America devastated by nuclear war and ruled over by one-strike-and-you're-executed blackshirts! Giant intelligent dinosaurs warring with time-travelling cowboys sent back to slaughter them from an environmentally-depleted and meatless 23rd century! Like so much of the best pop culture, 2000 AD took a generally dismissed form and infused it with innovative storytelling, challenging politics and a gleefully taboo-busting sense of the transgressive. "As a kid, 2000 AD was a friend, it was my secret," remembers Flint. "I felt like I'd been accepted into a secret club."

Writer Al Ewing, a frequent collaborator of Flint's, was similarly impressed by the copies which his elder brother brought home every week:

"2000 AD taught me the first lessons about how deft and intelligent comics could be, while at the same time being a thrill-ride suitable for all ages. After that I kind of stopped paying attention to the people trying to teach me that comics were inherently junk."

The past year has been a remarkable success for 2000 AD and its publisher Rebellion Press. The transformation of the entertainment landscape means it's no longer able to rely on a mass audience of young readers inculcated with the habit of reading comics. But Rebellion has responded by nurturing new markets for its huge library of characters and stories through book collections, digital distribution, films, gaming, audio plays, and more.

Even while the movie adaption of its flagship character Judge Dredd topped the British box-office earlier in the year, the comic itself continued to focus on ingeniously-crafted "thrill-rides" (the comic has its own joke vocabulary – stories are "thrills", issues are "progs", and the whole thing is "edited" by an alien from Betelgeuse called Tharg). The content itself is typically a touch more measured now, aimed at an older audience. But the comic's never lost its signature fusion of out-there excitement, ever-ambitious craftsmanship and smart, challenging content. As Flint says, "It can't be what it was in the 80's, but it's evolved into something relevant for today. It seems to have settled into a new identity which still delivers the pathos and humour while offering a mirror to the modern world."

Whether working together or with other creators, Flint and Ewing's contributions to 2000 AD are marked by a determination to be both accessible and innovative, populist and experimental. There's nothing precious or pretentious about their pages, but there is a fierce conviction that empty-hearted retreads of past features and complacent narrative shortcuts are to be avoided at all costs. (Ewing: "When you look at your work and think how perfect it is, that's the start of the long decline.") As such, their body of work together is notably versatile and entertaining, packed as it tends to be with a willingness to hybridise 2000 AD's strips with a broad range of cultural influences. Their recent, claustrophobic noir-tinged take on Judge Dredd – the future's most fascist super-cop – unexpectedly drew from the paranoia and scheming of John Le Carre's spy novels. In contrast, their horror-comedy Zombo mixed precisely calibrated farce with broad political satire, as they lashed out at reactionary politicos, 21st century celebrity culture and slack-minded genre clichés alike.

Both men are quick to praise the way in which the current regime at 2000 AD under longtime editor Matt Smith supports their ambitions. Ewing refers to Smith as "one of the best editors you could possibly have", and Flint lauds the "freedom to experiment, change style, pick and choose who you want to work with and which projects you'd like to work on." Ewing values the fact that "once someone creates a new strip, it's generally understood that nobody else will be working on it, so I won't open the comic one day and see my character taken over by someone else."  Some writers and artists working elsewhere in the comics industry on company-owned properties may find such a fundamentally respectful situation difficult to believe in. But it's certainly paid dividends for 2000 AD and its monthly sister title, the Judge Dredd Megazine.

A comic that's approaching its 36th year in print might be expected to be heading for heritage status, safely churning out approximations of old glories for an ever-diminishing audience. But no one could hold on to such an assumption after interviewing Flint and Ewing. Both speak enthusiastically, for example, of their involvement in the recent Trifecta crossover, in which a trio of apparently quite separate strips by entirely different creative teams were slowly revealed to be telling the same story from multiple perspectives. The equivalent of three prime-time cop shows reaching mid-series before unexpectedly beginning to merge, Trifecta presented the reader with an unusually complex and inventive cross-narrative about a coup in Judge Dredd's beloved Mega-City One. An experiment the likes of which the comic had never seen before, it's been greeted with unanimously positive reviews.

Yet no matter how enthused by that experience Flint's been, he's still playfully sure that the next Zombo series will be, all "modesty set aside… brilliant". But then, as Ewing argues, "the best thing we've done together is always the newest thing".

The last word should perhaps go to Ewing, a novelist as well as an author of comics. When asked whether 2000 AD was still an important comic in 2012, his response was unequivocal:

"It's always been an important comic."

With thanks to Henry Flint and Al Ewing for their aid.

A slice of the front cover of 2000 AD #1812. Image: Rebellion Press

Colin Smith is a comics critic who writes the blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.

ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG FOUNDATION, NEW YORK
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"Someone was screwing here": the cryptic art of Robert Rauschenberg

Dense with allusion and synecdoche, Rauschenberg's art work reveals an extraordinary “stream of unconsciousness”.

Before he was established, Robert Rauschenberg had the following jobs. He was a neuropsychiatric technician in the US navy at San Diego. (Unsurprisingly, he preferred the patients when they were insane.) He worked for Ballerina Bathing Suits as a packer and at the Atlas Construction Company in Casablanca, where he conducted inventories of stock for $350 a week. As he made his way in the art world, he was a janitor at the Stable Gallery. He did window displays at Bonwit Teller on Sixth Avenue, as well as Tiffany & Co and Reynolds Metals. (When window-dressing in penurious tandem with Jasper Johns, they used the pseudonym Matson Jones.) Rauschenberg was also stage manager and lighting designer for the Merce Cunningham dance troupe. He was an occasional emergency choreographer (Pelican). You see? Hand-to-mouth, improvised, a “career” made from whatever was ready to hand.

Then, in 1964, he took first prize at the Venice Biennale and arrived. The jobs are, in their way, a perfect emblem of Rauschenberg’s art – unrelated, aleatoric agglomerations of items that happened to stray into the force field of his personality. In Alice Oswald’s long poem Dart, we hear at one point the voice of a stonewaller: “. . . you see I’m a gatherer, an amateur, a scavenger, a comber, my whole style’s a stone wall, just wedging together what happens to be lying about at the time”. This, too, could be Rauschenberg, ransacking the junkyards, with one eye on the gutter, for the found object, the overlooked, the discarded, the down-at-heel detail of daily life. In the Tate catalogue (but not in the exhibition) is a work called Hiccups. One visual burp after another, it consists of separate, one-size, totally heterogeneous items silk-screened and zipped together. Rauschenberg was said by Jasper Johns to have invented more things than anyone except Picasso. A slight exaggeration. Rauschenberg’s central inventive coup was the combine: that notorious stuffed goat with the automobile tyre round its middle will serve as an example.

For the New Yorker critic Calvin Tomkins, this was the legacy of the European surrealists – Breton, Duchamp – who took refuge in America during the Second World War. Rauschenberg’s combines are as arbitrary as the unconscious. His scrolls, his late work The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece, are a kind of stream of unconsciousness, works of instinct and intuition held together by his assumed authority. (He once forgot to make a portrait of the Paris gallery owner Iris Clert, so sent a last-minute telegram: “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so – Robert Rauschenberg.” The French loved it.) The results are a deliberate unconscious chaos, which, like dreams, give off the sensation, but not the substance, of reason.

This important and vibrant show at Tate Modern usefully complicates this accepted narrative – with its implicit emphasis on the artist as magus, performing a kind of magic, of visual hypnosis. To give one example, there is a big billowing work called Glacier (Hoarfrost) (1974). It is an emperor-sized sheet, with solvent transfer of newsprint on satin and chiffon. There is a pillow underneath, more or less invisible, to create the billow. It is a work of straightforward representation, of realism. It is a glacier in which the illegible newsprint serves as shadow, as a great and exact donation of texture. There is an Elizabeth Bishop poem, “Varick Street”, which describes a factory at night: “Pale dirty light,/some captured iceberg/being prevented from melting.” All the grime, all the dereliction and detritus of the glacier is captured in the Rauschenberg.

Leo Steinberg, a shrewd but not uncritical supporter of Rauschenberg, rejected the idea, first mooted by Robert Hughes, that Monogram’s stuffed goat forced through a tyre referred to anal sex. Steinberg preferred to think of the work as “funny”. Indeed, just behind it is a brown tennis ball like a (large) goat dropping. I thought of Alexander Calder’s chariot in his Circus: when Calder started to improvise performances around the work, he would scatter then sweep up droppings behind the horses. Here the tennis ball’s appearance is prompted by the representation of the tennis player Earl Buchholz on the hinged platform supporting the goat: providing an alibi. There is also a rubber shoe heel, which has trodden in something – bright-blue lapis lazuli – another ambiguous allusion to excrement, here transfigured and glorified. Here, too, a man is crossing a gorge on a tightrope (signifying danger), and there is a high-ceilinged room with several pillars (easily read as phallic). “EXTRA HEAVY” is stencilled in one corner, a touch not without ­significance, to nudge us away from frivolity. Goats are a traditional byword for lechery. Two more possible indicators: we have to ask why the tyre isn’t whitewall but painted white on the tread of the tyre, a deviation from the norm. Is it prurient to wonder if this represents sperm? The second touch is a man with his arms akimbo, casting a long shadow – a doubling at once different but identical and therefore perhaps a figure for homosexuality.

We are used to the idea that Rauschenberg was interested in eliminating the artist’s presence and personal touch. At the beginning of this show, we have Automobile Tire Print, the black tyre track on 20 sheets of typing paper that was laid down by John Cage driving his Model A Ford; it is an artwork whose execution is twice removed from Rauschenberg by the driver and his automobile. There are, too, the dirt paintings, as arbitrary as Warhol’s later piss paintings – which produce, in Dirt Painting (for John Cage) (1953), very beautiful, random, blue-grey mould. These are works in which the artist cedes agency to natural process. Nevertheless, it is impossible, I think, to look at the Cage dirt painting and not be forcibly reminded of the marginalised artist and his palette with its attractive, accidental accretions of pigment.

Despite this posture of disavowal, Raus­chenberg’s work isn’t devoid of same-sex iconography. For example, he is drawn, time and again, to Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus and Rubens’s Venus. Both are quoted several times, reproduced in silk-screen. Why? Partly an act of magisterial appropriation and a demonstration of self-confidence. (An act of felony itself stolen from the Picasso who repainted Velázquez’s Las Meninas, part of a sustained campaign of annexing the overbearing classics. No false modesty in Picasso.) Rauschenberg’s Monogram goat is also an attempt to replace Picasso’s signature goat – said by Picasso to be more like a goat than a goat – by a monogram, a sign of ownership, like a pair of monogrammed slippers or shirts.

The other reason for the quotation of Rubens and Velázquez is that both nude women are contemplating and presumably admiring themselves in mirrors, mirrors that in both cases are held up by cupidons. The perfect topos of self-love – and therefore of same-sex eroticism. Originally, the stuffed goat (stuffed!), with its horny horns, was set against a painting called Rhyme (a not insignificant title, suggestive of sameness and difference). Rhyme (1956) has an actual necktie on the left. On the tie are grazing cows and a four-bar corral fence. In the centre of the picture are dense squiggles and squirts of colour – again like an artist’s palette, but which here represent a pallet or bed. Above the bed is a bit of lace and adjacent to the lace a red ball. What we have here is an aubade, dawn through lace curtains, and the tie as an indication of (male, out-of-towner) undress. Of course, nothing is explicit. Yet the self-censorship, the furtive and necessary concealment, is represented – by some kind of structure that has been removed, leaving behind trace elements. And what are they? Angular outlines and screw-holes, a sexual metaphor you can find in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami. Someone was screwing here.

Bed (1955) features the famous stolen (and very beautiful, subtly patterned) quilt. At the point where the sheet turns back and the pillow is on view, both are liberally stained with paint. The paint is both fluids and (deniable) paint – paint as itself and a synecdoche. Leo Steinberg wants to restrict the combine to a self-referential aesthetic statement – the flatbed horizontal as opposed to the vertical hang, which he sees as Rauschenberg’s primary revolutionary innovation. But while Steinberg is right to dismiss ideas of murder and mayhem in Bed, the action painting mimicked here is also surely mimicking action in the sack.

None of this is certain. The illegality of homosexuality in 1955 made explicitness out of the question. But I think it unlikely that something so central to Rauschenberg’s identity – his sexistentialism – should be completely absent from his work. Even aesthetically programmatic work such as the very early 22 The Lily White (1950) has references to homosexuality. It is an off-white painting with outlined sections like a street map, each of them numbered. The numbers are sometimes upside down. Steinberg believes this is a strategy to subvert the accustomed vertical hang, because it is not clear which way up it should go. I think the numbers are upside down because they are inverted, with everything that adjective denotes in the sexual context. And the shapes are revealing, too: it is made up of extended interlocking jigsaw shapes that mirror and fit into each other. The title refers to the lily-white boys of “Green Grow the Rushes-O”.

Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953) can be dismissed with Harold Rosenberg’s ­famous quip: “The less there is to see, the more there is to say.” Rauschenberg, the junior artist, persuaded Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he would then erase. De Kooning chose a drawing that used oil crayon so that Rauschenberg would have a proper task. It took him a long time. And actually, though no one says this – they are too interested in the sacrilege, in the idea of erasure, in destruction, in the concept – the erasure isn’t complete. It  isn’t the promised blank that you don’t need to see to understand. You have to see it to see the Wunderlay.

What does it mean? Partly, obviously, the picture is Oedipal, an act of aggression against a prior master by a junior. Second, the end product is “poetry”, according to Rauschenberg. You can just make out the ghostly marks so that the surface is like a veronica – or like a romantic fragment. It brings to mind Coleridge’s imitation of fragments of antique poetry, creating an aura of irresolvable suggestiveness. On the surface are extra marks, 12 of them, whose provenance is uncertain, but whose presence is as indisputable as the vague but redolent under-image.

Suggestion is the ground note you take away from this show. In Untitled (1955) there is a sock and a parachute – the combine of paint and actuality, somewhere between painting and sculpture – but also to the left, some crumpled paper, overpainted in white, that reveals an eye, nostrils and a retroussé upper lip with phantom teeth. There is painted cloth, taken from pillow-slips or bedlinen, with a decorative milling effect, which makes this Rauschenberg’s bed scene, a long time before Tracey Emin. Similarly, Short Circuit (1955) incorporates work by Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg’s ex-wife, Susan Weil, hidden behind doors. It is a work all about concealment, reveal and suggestion.

There are many, many beautiful things on show here, exemplary energy, and a few empty failures. Don’t miss Untitled (1958) which hangs, from two tarnished safety pins, a khaki handkerchief, treated and soaked, so that you can make out the pattern in the weave. The humble snot-rag transfigured. Its square is a warp of frail rust, a tuille. Above it is a frame of grey-painted cloth, showing a trouser loop and that milling effect again. It is stunning. And so are his majestic cardboard boxes – Nabisco and Alpo for Dogs – makeshift sculptures that read as solid wood, charismatic brand-name Brancusis.

“Robert Rauschenberg” runs until 2 April 2017. For more details visit: tate.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage