11 December 2007

Heroes and Monsters

The very first issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen bore a quotation on the back cover from Moore himself, attributed to the pen of Campion Bond, the intermediary between the League and their shadowy spymaster 'M'. The quotation, which in many ways acts as a manifesto for the series, observes that 'The British Empire has always encountered difficulty in distinguishing between its heroes and its monsters.'

Lest we'd forgotten this line, Moore makes sure to include it afresh in Black Dossier, this time placing it in context in 'Shadows in the Steam: 1898, and the Genesis of the Mark I Murray Group', a supposed extract from Memoirs of an English Intelligencer, Bond's 1908 memoir.

In case you're curious, the two gentlemen in the sequence above are, to all intents and purposes, Allan Quatermain and James Bond. Granted, Quatermain looks like no Quatermain that you might know, while Bond is never identified as such for copyright reasons, but he's clearly him. You can tell by the long scar on his right cheek, by the casual lock of hair falling over his right brow, and by his having ordered a vodka martini just a little earlier, asking for it to be strirred rather than shaken, just like in the books. And his grandfather, it is clearly implied, is the Campion Bond already mentioned.

I'm not even going to get into explaining what Allan Quatermain is doing in 1958, let alone looking so young and spruce; you'll have to read the books if you want to find out. For now, though, take a look at 'The Mark of Batman', Moore's 1986 introduction to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which I've referred to previously:
The fictional heroes of the past, while still retaining all of their charm and power and magic, have had some of their credibility stripped away forever as a result of the new sophistication in their audience. With the benefit of hindsight and a greater understanding of anthropoid behavior patterns, science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer was able to demonstrate quite credibly that the young Tarzan would almost certainly have indulged in sexual experimentation with chimpanzees and that he would just surely have had none of the aversion to eating human flesh that Edgar Rice Burroughs attributed to him. As our political and social consciousness continues to evolve, Alan Quatermain stands revealed as just another white imperialist out to exploit the natives and we begin to see that the overriding factor in James Bond's psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women. Whether most of us would prefer to enjoy the above-mentioned gentlemen's adventures without spoiling things by considering the social implications is beside the point. The fact remains that we have changed, along with our society, and that were such characters created today they would be subject to the most extreme suspicion and criticism.
One of the things that League tries to be is a history of the popular imagination -- I'll come back to this tomorrow -- and in connection with that its first two volumes analysed the Victorian mind, the assumptions and repressed fears of which were embodied in such characters as Allan Quatermain. Dossier moves the clock forward sixty years, through two world wars to a time when the Empire was being lost, when the Cold War was being fought, and when Britannia was increasingly playing second fiddle to her colonial daughters across the sea.

This manifested itself in the popular mind in the paranoid form of spy fiction, which Moore brilliantly parodies and dissects here through the nexus of his Greyfriars' old boys network and through his unsparing portrayal of Her Majesty's most devoted bootboy, Her Majesty here being -- presumably -- Queen Gloriana II.

The depravity and brutality of Moore's Bond may seem shocking to those of us who know Bond only through the movies, but in his original form his sheer nastiness is far more blatant than in any of his cinematic incarnations; Judi Dench's 'M' in Goldeneye was only scratching the surface when she called him a sexist, misogynist dinosaur and a relic of the Cold War. Fleming's Bond, so eagerly adapted for the screen and still being reinterpreted so many decades later, sees women as nothing more than objects and is cruel and ruthless to the point of amorality.

The Bonds of the screen may be charming, suave, and sexy, but we never see what's going on behind their cold eyes; Fleming shows us that, and he shows us, whether he means to or not, that James Bond is a monster. But is he a monster because he serves his Queen, or does he serve his Queen because he's a monster?

Is this what the British adventure hero has come to?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bond is Fleming and Fleming was Bond. They were both monsters because they went through the British public school system, rooted in military traditions.

The British live in a less militaristic culture. While we continue to engage in military adventures, they aren't on our own doorstep anymore, seem distant from daily life and the mechanics of power, which are now more to do with "emotional literacy." (Old Etonian, Tory opposition leader and likely next Prime Minister David Cameron cycles to work to save the planet and feels our pain at NHS cuts).

It is good to be reminded that popular icon of masculinity from not so long ago is a racist, woman-hating thug at his kernel. Moore is right that we have changed, but not much: as is evinced by the lamentable and continuing popularity of Bond in the movies. (Though the current depiction - of a sociopathic boot boy for the Establishment - is more honest than lounge lizard know-it-all of before).