Technicolour dimensions: John Smith and Edmund Bagwell's Indigo Prime

Anthropocalyptic.

Indigo Prime: Anthropocalypse
John Smith (W), Lee Carter (A), Edmund Bagwell (A)
Rebellion, 160pp, £14.99

The British comics weekly 2000 AD will always be primarily identified with its anti-hero Judge Dredd, the rugged cop of the fascist, futuristic Mega-City One. In addition, the title hosts a couple of other series which, while not reaching the same iconic heights, are certain to summon a wistful smile in comics fans of a certain age – Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine, to name just a few.

But one of the strengths of the magazine's anthology format – each week, it features six to eight pages each of five different stories – is that it can bank on those core properties while also taking the sort of risks that are uncomfortably rare in mainstream genre comics.

One of those risks which paid off is Indigo Prime. The original series, which ran on and off from 1988 to 1991, detailed the exploits of the eponymous extra-dimensional agency, which is charged with maintaining the multiverse. Written by John Smith, with the majority of the art by Chris Weston, the series was a frenetic introduction to the organisation and its agents, climaxing with a ten-part story called "Killing Time" involving a journey on a time travelling train with a variety of Victorians including Jack the Ripper.

It was odd.

Over 20 years later, Smith has resurrected Indigo Prime – the agency and the series – in two stories collected in the Anthropocalypse paperback. But, as always with the writer, it's not quite that simple.

The first story, Dead Eyes, initially appears to have nothing to do with Indigo Prime at all. Described by Smith as an attempt to write "cavepunk" (think hi-tech neanderthals), and illustrated by Lee Carter, a new (at the time) artist whose highly textural work would later be put to better use drawing the religious horror Necrophim, Dead Eyes is conspiracy-theory-as-fiction.

A young soldier wakes up in Porton Down, where he's subject to horrific medical trials designed to unlock some latent ability in him. He escapes, and, evading a masonic conspiracy, finds his way to the underground city of Cthonia, the home of a race of Neanderthals who mastered advanced technology and escaped the rise of humanity.

It's imaginative stuff, but Dead Eyes flunks the execution. Carter's artwork looks muddy after the colouring, with whole pages the same hue. Detail gets washed away, and it can get hard to work out what is actually going on. That's a fault shared by Smith, whose plotting this time falls just the wrong side of inventive. Ideas are thrown at the wall on every page – "Down's syndrome orphans moulded by Masonic mind-control techniques into post-modern metrosexual killing machines for the state", reads one description – but the success rate is low, and too frequently the ones which work are also the ones cast aside by the next panel.

But everything takes a turn for the better on the last page of Dead Eyes, as the world melts around our protagonist and he wakes up in a clone-grown body in the recruiting bay of Indigo Prime.

Recontextualised by that last page, Dead Eyes is still sub-par, but is also an important introduction to Danny Redman, our viewpoint character as we return to a world last seen, if at all, two decades ago. And from there, everything gets much better.

The second story, presented in two parts as Everything and More and Anthropocalypse, pushes Smith's strengths in exactly the right direction. Partially, this is achieved through being paired with an artist far more suitable to the story at hand. Edmund Bagwell's high-contrast colouring and detailed linework allows for a level of detail in each panel which Carter couldn't match, and clarifies a story which rests on rapid shifts in location and time.

But it's also because the world of Indigo Prime itself is intrinsically suited to Smith's writing style. An agency working to repair the multiverse naturally drops into a a lot of parallel universes, and that lets Smith visit for a second the sort of ideas which other writers would turn into a ten-part miniseries.

"A XENOCIDE-CLASS SPAWNBROKER DREADNOUGHT FLEEING THE BABY PHARMS OF JEZEBEL'S MAW CRASH-WARPS INTO PARIS"

"THE JURASSIC GATECRASHES THE HOLOCENE IN A RIOT OF FEATHERS AND FLESH"

"LOVESICK FREEDOM FIGHTERS STRANDED ON THE SHORES OF THE MAMRE ENTROPY REEFS AS MASS WARHEADS DETONATE"

Each is shown for a fleeting panel, illustrated in glorious technocolour, and then abandoned. But rather than being distractions, dragging down the plot, they are almost the point. Anthropocalypse begins with a hunt for a bewilderbeast, a cross-dimensional herbivore, which dizzyingly spins through dimensions. It's the same trick used in the opening of Everything and More, but it hits even harder the second time. And as that story ends on a cliffhanger, I hope there'll be a third.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Show Hide image

Can we morally justify rape dramas like the BBC’s Three Girls?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives.

Last week, over three consecutive nights, the BBC aired Three Girls: an unflinching drama based on the 2012 Rochdale Grooming Case, which exposed and prosecuted nine men for the trafficking, prostitution and rape of children. It is, of course, a terribly bleak story – one that is important not to shy away from. And yet when I first heard about the docudrama, it made me instinctively uncomfortable. TV has a wider social purpose beyond sheer enjoyment, but is the repeated rape of children appropriate material for primetime entertainment?

Violence against women and girls is often read as “gripping” or “compelling” in both fiction and non-fictional narratives. Child abuse, too, is something our society condemns but has an uncomfortable obsession with reading about in detail - you only need to walk into your local Waterstones to see a true life section crowded with children’s sad faces staring up from bestselling misery memoirs. I’ve written before, at length, about our cultural fixation on murdered, abused and kidnapped women and young girls, and the ethical questions they raise. Do we want to know the specific brutalities of this case because it is important to reckon with the reality of the situation, or because the shock factor fascinates us? Is it inherently unethical to treat the real traumas of children as spectacle? Aside from general distastefulness, what impact does making a drama about these assaults have on the real-word victims? What function does this particular story – with its narrative of the police officers too afraid of being labelled racist to bring the criminals (who were mostly of Pakistani descent) to task – serve in the current political climate?

Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who first exposed the Rochdale case and spent years facing its horrors head-on, had concerns over such a topic being turned into television. “When I first heard that the BBC had commissioned a docudrama, my initial shock that the corporation would choose to tackle such a controversial subject was swiftly replaced by wariness,” he explains. But his concerns were not that such a programme would become voyeuristic. “I feared that innate squeamishness would result in a sanitised exercise that shied away from uncomfortable realities.”

“More fool me. Three Girls pulls no punches. It tells a raw, harrowing story in a way that makes for searingly compelling drama,” he goes on, adding that the writers succeeds in turning “such bleak misery into three hours of gripping television drama”.

Norfolk, of course, has first-hand knowledge of the show’s source material, as well as the experience of trying to open the public’s eyes to unspeakable crimes. Viewers will never have this. As someone removed from the reality of the Rochdale case, those familiar words “gripping” and “compelling” make me squirm, especially when paired with such unimaginably damaging experiences for the real life young victims.

The first episode of Three Girls explores the actual abuse at the centre of the Rochdale case. It follows Holly, who meets the headstrong Amber and her vulnerable younger sister Ruby, and starts hanging out with them at a take-away shop, where an older man known only as “Daddy” plies them with free food and vodka to gain their trust. It’s not long before we witness Holly being raped in a grim, long scene. We then see her assaulted again, before watching her perform a “prozzy dance” for her horrified father. It’s unbearably sad watching.

It’s certainly true, then, that Three Girls is “harrowing”, but why is “harrowing” as a concept read as automatically valuable? The Daily Mail called it “spellbinding”; many other outlets saw the first episode’s brutality as “brave”. Some headlines were far more discomfiting: the Huffington Post rounded up the “most disturbing moments” from the drama in a sensational listicle, while the Telegraph and extreme right-wing sites took the opportunity to push their politics with headlines like “How poor white girls were sacrificed on the altar of multiculturalism” and “BBC’s Muslim Rape Gang Drama Skirts Religion Issue”.

But the makers of Three Girls seem more aware than most of the troubling potential for sensationalism a drama about Rochdale might have. In a blog post for the BBC, Head of Drama Hilary Salmon explains how they justified their decision to explore the violence of this particular case due to the story’s capacity for social change.

“There are many true stories that an audience might be interested in reliving through drama but the ones that really resonate and arguably deserve to be made are those which can change an audience’s perception of the victims because, for all the media noise, their true voices haven’t yet been heard.”

“The voices of the children abused and exploited in Rochdale had not been heard,” Salmon continues. “How did they feel while all this was happening to them and how do they feel now?”

She adds that public perception of the young victims was disappointingly regressive:

“[Whistleblowers] worked tirelessly to change the perception of these young girls in the eyes of the authorities just as we have tried to do for audiences through the drama. A perception that the girls were simply displaying a lifestyle choice and didn’t need or want protection. Never mind that they were 13, 14, 15 years old at the time and had such low self-esteem that free chips and alcohol would turn a grubby room at the back of a kebab shop into the equivalent of a clubhouse.”

The first hour of Three Girls asks the audience to confront the realities of the assaults on these young victims. Then it puts its most shocking moments to good use. The following two episodes explore the aftermath of the case: how a culture of disbelief silenced the victims at its centre, and how forcing the children to repeatedly relive the acts, only to be ignored, traumatised them as they became adults. How victim-blaming attitudes saw abused children officially declared criminals, and the babies they bore taken away by child protection services. How it was a culture of demonising working-class teenage girls, rather than the fear of racism, that saw the victims belittled and dismissed again and again.

We see explicit discussions of all these complex problems. The adult moral hearts of the show, NHS sexual health worker Sara and police officer Maggie, constantly condemn the culture of misogyny and classism that allowed this abuse to flourish. There are whole scenes dedicated to exploring how the race of the perpetrators does not reflect Muslim culture as a whole. And, most importantly, the perspectives most frequently and sensitively explored are those of the victims themselves, retrospectively giving them a voice. The script manages to do this without veering into preachy public service announcement territory.

Three Girls a masterclass in how to explore violence against girls without objectifying the victims - an area in which other modern TV series and films are lagging depressingly behind. (I’d still advice viewer discretion in watching the first episode, but the more brutal scenes in the programme serve a specific purpose.) I only hope other writers can hold the same aims. Three Girls shows how you can move beyond just “gripping” and “compelling” to find stories that shift social narratives by changing audience’s beliefs, before they’ve had a chance to look away.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496