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.

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge