Portraits In Alienated British Youth Circa 1989-90, Part Four:

Way Too Calm Before The Storm

First off, apologies to those of you who may be following this series for the delay between our last segment and this one. I wanted to wrap up on my OMAC retrospective here at Sequart and between that, writing assignments for other sites, maintaining my own blog, and the ever-necessary day job, well—something was bound to get lost in the shuffle. Nevertheless, here we are back again, and I should be able to post continued entries in this ongoing trip down comics memory lane (or should that be the comics memory hole?) on a reasonably regular basis from here on out.

With all that out of the way then (necessary as it was), let’s have a look at part three—or two, as its “countdown”-style numbering would have it—of St Swithin’s Day, shall we? Grant Morrison and Paul Grist deliver a six-page strip that’s heavy with foreboding this time around, and while nothing much “happens” in the traditional sense of the word, the air hangs heavy with portents of doom as our nameless protagonist near-aimlessly shambles toward his fate.

Indeed, the outright resignation with which he goes about his admittedly dire business—do a lot of would-be assassins of world leaders start their day with a phone call to their mother? I dunno, maybe they do—is almost breath-taking to behold, but the thing that perhaps stands out most to a reader with a bit more years on him or her than the “hero” of this story is how frighteningly self-absorbed he remains the whole time.

I offer as evidence for this charge the simple fact that he doesn’t spend so much as a single moment reflecting on whether or not what he’s apparently about to do is right, just, or moral (that judgment presumably having already been made), nor does he offer readers of his internal monologue any sort of justification for wanting to wipe “Mrs. T” out—indeed, as he tosses his copy of The Catcher In The Rye and RimbaudComplete Works into (I’m assuming here) the Thames, his only thoughts are of how he would be perceived if he had copies of those paeans to late-teen angst and alienation found on his person when the cops inevitably hauled him in. When the Rimbaud volume lands in the drink, he even muses “wouldn’t want them to think I was queer—then again, maybe I am.”

On the very next page, though, as he leaps over a cemetery gate to do a kind of impromptu “dance to the dead” (or maybe it’s for the dead) he’s back to wishing he were less awkward with girls, so clearly the boy without a name is confused about a lot of things—except for one: he’s desperate for attention, any sort of attention, and this is the only means he feels he has left of getting any.

What made him this way? That’s a darn good question. We learn over the course of this installment that his father passed away, and obviously that’s going to be hard on a kid, especially since it’s a fair bet that his single-from-that-point-on mother probably had to take on extra work just to make ends meet and consequently wasn’t around for her son nearly as much as either of them would have liked/needed, but there certainly is a gap—shit, a gulf—between that and wanting to put a bullet in the Prime Minister not as a political act, but as a cry for help, and the fact that said gap—oh, wait, sorry, it was a “gulf,” wasn’t it?—is never really addressed probably was, and remains, Morrison’s single greatest storytelling “sin” as far as this comic is concerned. I know there’s only so much one can do in 24 pages total, but shit—Grist manages to makes three installments of a kid wandering the streets and doing a whole lot of nothing but thinking visually interesting against all odds with his well-considered, moody, and evocative artwork (I particularly enjoy how he employs slanted line-work and well-placed cross-hatching throughout), and Grant does a solid job of drawing us into his (I’m theorizing here, but believe it holds true) stand-in’s, thoughts, and feelings—surely a little more backstory would probably have gone some way toward making us, as readers, more fully involved participants in the proceedings rather than merely interested observers.

Unless maybe—just maybe—that’s the point. Morrison was too skilled a storyteller even at this early stage of his career to leave gaps—dammit, sorry, gulfs!—where he didn’t mean for them to be, and when you’re crafting a tale about somebody who you don’t even bother to name, then let’s be honest: you probably only want the audience getting semi-close to said character in the first place. One could even reasonably postulate that this narrative “distance” is employed in order to reflect how Nameless (hmmm—isn’t that the title of a currently-running series from this same writer? Why, yes, it is) feels about himself—that he wants to figure out who he is, what he wants, and where he’s going (hell, he obsesses over these things constantly), but doesn’t know how to go about doing so because he hasn’t learned how to let others, in this case us, in yet. Sure, we all like to imagine we can do it all alone when we’re 19 or whatever, but that whole “loner” shtick just doesn’t work after a while.

In a very real sense, in fact, it’s obvious that it’s not working for the kid too cool to tell us his name, either—it’s certainly very important to him that other people know what he’s thinking, feeling, and experiencing, but it’s equally self-evident that he’s not yet at the stage where he can trust anyone enough to let them know why he thinks, feels, and experiences things as he does. Quite probably because he doesn’t fully understand that “why” part of the equation yet himself. That’s youth for ya, I know.

And, of course, he’s more than willing to toss all that self-discovery-yet-to-be-done out the window, isn’t he? As he performs his impromptu graveyard boogie on the last pages of this segment, the soundtrack in his mind building to a crescendo, he exclaims to himself “I’m going to die!” with so much out-and-out-glee that you know he can’t possibly have figured out what, if anything, he has to live for yet—otherwise he wouldn’t be nearly so gung-ho to throw it all away. Or, as he says to himself in the final panel, which sees him sanding completely alone, the tombstones and graves behind him now completely and deliberately erased from view, “You know what they say—you’re only young once. And that was it.”

Next up, we’ll take a look at the fourth and final part of this story, but I’ll leave you for the time being with the above image of the cover to Oni Press’ 1998 reprint volume of St. Swithin’s Day in case you’re sufficiently motivated to hunt it down at your local comics shop or convention/trade show. If you’re not “playing along at home” with this series of articles/essays, now would be a good time to start given that, as they say, “the shit’s about to hit the fan,” and this (usually) modestly-priced collection is probably the easiest package to find this long-out-of-print little gem in. See you back here in a handful of days!

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Ryan Carey maintains a B-movie (with occasional comics-related content) blog at trashfilmguru.wordpress.com, and writes about films and comics for sites such as unobtainium13.com, dailygrindhouse.com, geekyuniverse.com, and now Sequart. You can follow him on Twitter @trashfilmguru.

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1 Comment

  1. leslie smith says:


    Just stumbled across this on January 1st, 2016.

    I was interested to read this as, although I missed this at the time, I feel a very personal connection. I was 19 years old in 1990 and born on St Swithin’s day (July 15th). It certainly is evocative of that time!

    I thought I’d comment to add a detail I think you might not have been aware of, that’s reasonably well known in the UK. There’s a myth / tradition that whatever the weather is on St Swithin’s feast day it will continue for 40 days and 40 nights after that – usually seen as a dualistic split between a rainy or sunny day. There is a British weather lore proverb that goes like this:

    St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
    For forty days it will remain
    St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
    For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

    As mentioned in passing in the comic, this stemmed from when (cutting and pasting from wikipeda now) . . .

    “Swithun was initially buried out of doors, rather than in his cathedral, apparently at his own request. William of Malmesbury recorded that the bishop left instructions that his body should be buried outside the church, ubi et pedibus praetereuntium et stillicidiis ex alto rorantibus esset obnoxius [where it might be subject to the feet of passers-by and to the raindrops pouring from on high], which has been taken as indicating that the legend was already well known in the 12th century.

    In 971 it was decided to move his body to a new indoor shrine, and one theory traces the origin of the legend to a heavy shower by which, on the day of the move, the saint marked his displeasure towards those who were removing his remains.”

    For those of us who were 19 in 1990, 971 was exactly one thousand years before our births(1971). Make of that what you will!

    My thought on reading the two possible readings of the story was that it may have been deliberately tied to the myth and the implications of the rainy day, and the sunny one. Possibly interesting to note that the panel of Thatcher is without rain, while the protagonist hold up his fingers in the rain . . .

    The actual summer of 1990 was a heat wave ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1990_United_Kingdom_heat_wave ) and the late eighties to early nineties period felt like a momentous period breaking out of the heavy Thatcher / Tory individualist spell through the rave and D.I.Y spirit breaking into the mainstream – although much of that ideology was still present of course . . . that would have been a British Rail train the nameless protagonist was on (and more so the fondly remembered compartmented ones) which by 1997, and the story’s re-release, would be privatised, and the policies of the current Tory government a quarter of a century on sadly makes a climate that again feels far from sunny.

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