Coincidences where pop culture reflects real events are unpredictable and fascinating. I finished last week’s column before the riots in London escalated and spread north, but it seems the riots weren’t about to leave my head alone for a few days yet.
Watching the news footage and hearing the wildfire-spread of the riots beyond London had an apocalyptic vibe, oddly familiar from a lifetime of dystopian Science Fiction stories and movies. British TV drama has always been preoccupied with the possibility of social unrest and riots. Dystopian Science Fiction in Britain has dealt with it since the 1970s, all the way to 2000AD where Judge Dredd had riots to put down every few months. He still does. DREDD may be set in a future America, but the writers are British and they’ve always really been writing about Britain. Rioting and chaos dominated the final QUATERMASS miniseries in 1979. There’s of course V FOR VENDETTA. I doubt there’s a single British Science Fiction or comic book writer who doesn’t have visions of social unrest swimming in their heads at some time or other. The riots last week felt like all the dystopian social uprising stories happening at the same time.
For me, there was a weird kind of serendipity in how I saw that uprising allegory RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES the night the riots broke out, and then I proceeded to meet the creators of the self-published graphic novel DARK AGE: DOMINION that same weekend. Entirely self-published and self-generated, DARK AGE is part of a proposed trilogy of graphic novels created by twin brothers Nick and Adam Hayes, Londoners who work in graphic design, photography and Fashion now based in New York. DARK AGE: DOMINION is set in a near future where fascist corporations have herded the outcasts and the underclass into gated crime and gang-ridden ghettos controlled with private military troops keeping them boxed in their hopeless ghetto. The plot of DOMINION takes place over the course of one night where a charismatic rebel plots to unite the warring gangs to rise up against the corporate rulers and declare independent rule with a new, more powerful drug they plan to sell to create an economy to support their new order. This revolution of course leads to a violent conflagration whose imagery is more than reminiscent of the riots that would continue to rage through London and the following Monday.
I was reading through DARK AGE on Monday even as I commiserated with the Hayes via email where we spent the day glued to the BBC newsfeeds and checked in with our friends and people in London to make sure they were all right. Even the Hayes noted that the images coming through the internet were eerily similar to panels in their comic. DARK AGE: DOMINION itself is quite impressive in its conviction. It’s one of those angry, ambitious political comics about discontent and insurrection even more hardcore than Brian Wood’s excellent DMZ, whose hero is a middle-class journalist who could use his social standing to keep an emotional and intellectual distance from the balkanized New York he chose to stay in so as to chronicle its stand against a corporate fascist regime. The main characters in DARK AGE: DOMINION were born, bred and trapped in their future ghetto, their only choices to use the violence and criminality they grew up in to their advantage. The art is along the lines of Bryan Talbot and Geoff Darrow and even though the setting is a kind of every city, the anger, attitude and patois read very much of London to me, including some fairly specific slang words. The Hayes are very much tapping into a tradition of angry, underground political agit-prop comics that were around in the Sixties all the way to the Eighties but seem to have fallen by the wayside until this book came along. It’s yet another type of comic that Marvel and DC probably wouldn’t publish and one that could only be independent, even self-published.
The fantasy of Social Unrest Fiction tends to be much more orderly than reality, of course. Most of the stories, as in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, V FOR VENDETTA and DARK AGE: DOMINION, involve characters or groups that manage to organise into a politicised group with an active agenda while the rioters in Britain last week were only out to loot and destroy things in a chaotic and unarticulated expression of their anger and hopelessness, a rare chance to give the finger to the police and, they think, the rich, even though nothing they destroyed belonged to the rich or oligarch class that has taken up residence in 21st Century London. When I heard about the kid who looted a laptop computer from a Dixon’s and then wandered around looking for someone to buy it off him for twenty quid, I thought that was the tragically perfect example of how clueless and uneducated these kids were – he could have kept the laptop, taken it home and learned how to use it. He might have become a successful computer person or criminal hacker, but he didn’t even have that kind of savvy. He lacked the education. Instead, he’s probably just headed for jail and drugs.
I’m probably being pessimistic, but I don’t expect the politicians to have the right idea or the right answers, let alone the right social policies to counteract the simmering anger and hopelessness that sparked off the riots, and images of riots, looting and burning buildings will continue to swim in the zeitgeist for the foreseeable future, always a few steps away from bursting again into reality like a magical summoning.
You can find DARK AGE: DOMINION from its homepage.
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