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Thirteen going on fifty: Julie Burchill finds her teenage self in Jackie the Musical

People can be sniffy about jukebox musicals but in my opinion they are infinitely preferable to overblown and pretentious middlebrow stuff.

Stepping inside the Theatre Royal, ­Brighton on a frisky Friday night, I swear I got an ­immediate contact high from the fumes of Prosecco and HRT: I don’t think I’ve been to such a thoroughly good-natured gathering since the opening night of Banksy’s Dismaland last summer. About 90 per cent of the audience were women of a certain age – old enough to know better, but young enough to throw caution to the Aqua Manda-scented breeze should the fancy take them – smothered in sequins, lathered in Lurex and out for a good time recalling their Fruit Salad chew days through the medium of the era’s toppermost of the poppermost. I was proud to be one of them.

Though Jackie was launched in 1964 – by Gordon Smart, an ex-RAF engineer, for “go-ahead teens” – and folded in 1993, its golden years marked the time of my teens, from 1972 to 1979. At the start of the decade I was a shy provincial child who saw the sooty-eyed, storm-haired girls of the cartoon strips as unimaginably sophisticated; by the end of it, I was a leather-clad teenage reporter who saw them as hopeless hicks.

My colleagues at the IPC-owned NME delighted in telling me that Jackie was the product not of fevered London-flat-sharing teenage girls’ imaginations, as we readers had somehow convinced ourselves, but rather was cobbled together by a bunch of bitter, middle-aged men at IPC’s rival publisher D C Thomson. But cynicism can be a real buzz-kill, and for one night only I was happy to be wearing my short-sighted head.

People can be sniffy about jukebox musicals but in my opinion they are infinitely preferable to overblown and pretentious middlebrow stuff such as Sunset Boulevard, where the only slightly memorable refrain turns up every 20 minutes and you’re so desperate for a tune, you’re grateful for even a slight respite from the ongoing tedium. The songs here were a cracking selection, beautifully driving the plot – in which a divorcee, Jackie, is given advice from Jackie magazine by her teenage self – from the opener, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, to the closing number, “I Can See Clearly Now”. Janet Dibley, who plays the eponymous heroine, can really sing, has a wonderful face that would be equally at home smoking a cigarette through an ivory holder or suffering over a kitchen sink, and was totally believable here as both the wined-up ex-wife and the starry-eyed senior sexpot. She is familiar from EastEnders (playing Lorna Cartwright), and the casting of the one-time Walfordian Nicholas “Dr Trueman” Bailey as her internet-dating love interest lent a pleasing air of parallel universes to the proceedings.

There were just one or two numbers – 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love”, to be precise – that had Dibley and Bailey looking briefly baffled, the puzzlement on their faces indicating perchance that they were wondering whether death by strangulation or shotgun might be more suitable for their agents. However, the dirge soon died a merciful death and we were straight into the evening’s crotch-grabbing, air-punching, show-stopping number, T Rex’s “20th Century Boy”.

It was during this astoundingly lively routine – largely performed by a dry-humping youngster atop a bar – that the evening caught fire, and the sheer immortal, visceral power of the very best pop music made ­itself known in the building.

We were suffering something of a collective hot flush after that and the evening soon came to a satisfyingly non-syrupy close. You know you’re having fun when having your seat kicked rhythmically by the overexcited matron sitting behind you fills you not with annoyance, but rather with a further intensifying of that oceanic feeling. Looking at the gangs of happy, statuesque, singing women around me, wigging out in the aisles with my two bezzie mates, shouting back at the ensemble the words of “Tiger Feet”, I felt as though I really was living the teenage dream.

I always found it freaky to think that my grandmother was alive in Edwardian times, but the world before the internet and Islamofascism – rocked in the bosom of Cold War security – seems equally foreign now. I’d expected there to be a somewhat maudlin mood among the audience, but detected none at all; instead, the overweening feeling was one of relief, not just that we’d made it this far, but that we weren’t young now, in these desperate days. I left the theatre quite tipsy on just two gins, pleased I’d come through and looking forward to more. For inside this fat, fiftysomething, much-married matron, the go-ahead teen survives. 

“Jackie: the Musical” is on tour across the UK until 30 July

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

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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.