Sometimes these characters go dancing in Shoreditch or Clapham – but they never enjoy it. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty
Show Hide image

Check your privilege: satire is lacking in Left of the Bang by Claire Lowdon

A “cast of two-dimensional, middle-class bores” prevent this debut novel becoming the “Vanity Fair for our times” that it promises.

Left of the Bang
Claire Lowdon
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £14.99

The blurb on the debut novel by the young critic and editor Claire Lowdon promises “a ­Vanity Fair for our times”, capturing “the foibles, hopes and difficulties that characterise a strata of young Londoners today”. If you’d like to know which “strata” we are dealing with, let me paint a picture. They have names like Tamsin, Serena, Bertrand and Ludo. They eat “supper” in gastropubs in Holland Park or Herne Hill. Sometimes they go dancing in Shoreditch or Clapham – but they never enjoy it. Among their set, the following can kick off a steamy first date:

Hearing in each other’s voices the same expensive educations, he confessed, a little shyly, to Rugby (“but on a bursary, you know”), she to St Paul’s . . . They ascertained that, aged 14, they had both been to the same teenage charity ball.Hearing in each other’s voices the same expensive educations, he confessed, a little shyly, to Rugby (“but on a bursary, you know”), she to St Paul’s . . . They ascertained that, aged 14, they had both been to the same teenage charity ball.

An ideal target for satire. But as the caricatures continued to mount – one character plays “the incredibly rare oboe d’amore” while another wears “brown deck shoes, and Aertex polo shirts in navy blue and racing green” – I became less convinced that the necessary skewering would come.

Take the arrival of “Big Mac” Ollie Macfarlane at “an old south London pub that had recently been subjected to a trendy makeover”. “Big Mac was a consultant at Deloitte,” the narrator explains. “He had a fine bass voice; at Cambridge, he had been a King’s Scholar. His intention had been to work at Deloitte for a few years to build up his savings, then make a go of it as a singer – a plan he talked about with decreasing conviction as each year went by.”

This is pretty much all we learn about Big Mac. He is nothing more than a type. Left of the Bang (a military term for “the build-up to an explosion”) is saturated with these kinds of detail. It is not a revelation of souls but of CVs.

Much of this gossipy material is excavated from the snobby, bitter mind of Tamsin Jarvis, a floundering 26-year-old pianist who has refused to speak to her well-known conductor father, Bertrand, after discovering that he was having an affair when she was 12 years old (her comeuppance at the end of the novel, after perpetrating a betrayal of her own, is that Daddy buys her a flat).

Tamsin is in love with Callum, an arriviste – he is, spit, from Glasgow. She fancies Callum because, as we all know, princesses like a bit of rough. That is, unless the rough isn’t actually as rough as expected (Callum teaches classics at a private school and loves it). He represents a “vague yet unequivocally positive concept” that Tamsin calls “the Real World”. He chides her slummy affectations – socialism, Stravinsky, cigarettes – while she resents him for his regional accent, a “social advantage” that “won him un-worked-for respect”.

Complicating things further is the Rugby boy (bursary, you know) Chris, who shows up one evening at a fancy-dress party and is now a second lieutenant in the army, preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. (What is it with posh people and fancy dress?) There’s a lot of sex. Actually, there’s a lot of agonising about sexual stuff. Instead of the crescendo to infidelity that the reader expects – the bang? – what follows is a 300-page discussion of two couples’ sexual problems: those of Tamsin and Callum (the usual guy thing) and of Chris and Callum’s flatmate, Leah (the usual girl thing).

One further problem is the way the narrator insists on doing the reading for us. For instance, when Callum delivers a stilted line – “It’s good to have you around,” he tells Chris; “You’re a great guy” – the narrator informs us that this is a stilted line. When a squaddie makes a joke about a test tube and a female lab technician, the ­“banality of his humour” is noted. It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to like or loathe these people – which is fair enough but presumably we should find them interesting. Just because a poor joke has been signalled, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It makes the reader less likely to identify the subtler writing in the book, as when, the day after Chris’s return, Tamsin watches Callum “running a hand over his khaki-coloured hair, which immediately sprang back to attention” – a line that would be ruined were it followed by: “Tamsin had a bad habit of making occupational metaphors to remind the reader who it was she really fancied.”

Lowdon makes the most of Afghanistan, using that military catastrophe to contrive romance and excitement in an era defined by millennial apathy and fatigue. Left of the Bang is a competent stab at the contemporary social novel, marred by a cast of two-dimensional, middle-class bores.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Show Hide image

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.