Politics in Warren Ellis’s Freakangels

Welcome to the fifth instalment of this little Labour Day series. Initially I wanted to write about a more recent Warren Ellis comic, but now that Freakangels (or FreakAngels) is going to be adapted as an anime, let’s return to its first volume from 2008, illustrated by Paul Duffield. The story is loosely based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos from 1957: a couple of children (twelve in Freakangels) are born in an English village on the same day with strangely colored eyes and telepathic abilities that allow them to control other people’s minds and to communicate mind-to-mind. Ellis then deviates from Wyndham in that the children, at the age of 17, somehow trigger a cataclysmic event that leaves London half in ruins and partially submerged, and probably kills quite a few of its inhabitants. The story begins six years later when the children are 23.

A few people try to get by in post-apocalyptic London, organised in different antagonised factions. Those living in Whitechapel are led by the aforementioned children, who are called Freakangels. Due to their supernatural powers, the Freakangels are able to protect and care for the ordinary inhabitants: Kirk, for instance, keeps watch on a tower for days without having to eat; Caz distributes fresh water with a steam-powered cart built by another Freakangel, KK; Jack is always out on a boat scavenging; and Sirkka operates a machine gun to defend them against invaders. It is not only the Freakangels’ proverbial great power, though, that makes them take on this great responsibility. They also feel guilty about bringing on the “end of the world” (unbeknownst to the ordinary people) and want to make up for it.

Not all Freakangels accept this role as leaders and guardians. Karl likes to keep to himself and shields his mind against the other Freakangels’ telepathic communication; Luke manipulates and exploits others for his own gain; and Mark has left London and the Freakangels altogether. Still, by and large, the Freakangels appear to be popular among the inhabitants of Whitechapel. On his way to the market, Kirk is offered milk and cheese by a farmer. “Anytime you need anything, you just let me know. It’s the least we can do for you watching over us.” Kirk replies: “Nice of you to say so. But, really, it’s the least we can do for you, all things considered.”

Note how they use plural pronouns, which tells us that their statements not only hold true on a personal level but also on a political: the society of Whitechapel is a typical oligarchy in which few people – the Freakangels – have power over many. Regardless of their popularity, the Freakangels were certainly not elected, but simply assumed the role of leaders because they could.

In a way, Freakangels is classic Warren Ellis: democracy has failed, and superpowered, self-empowered individuals wield great power. The only question is, in what light does he portray this oligarchy? While the majority of the Freakangels appear as benevolent or at least likeable characters, their interactions consist mostly of infighting – ranging from harmless bickering over fisticuffs between Kirk and Luke to outright hostility that almost turns lethal (between Mark and the others). Luke in particular is a threat to the status quo and is about to get either expelled or killed by the other Freakangels.

Thus the power structure in Freakangels is a fragile one that can only be maintained with much effort – and maybe only as long as the Freakangels’ terrible secret about their involvement in the “end of the world” is kept. But who could replace the Freakangels as leaders? It looks like the ordinary populace will always be at the mercy of greater powers. In this Warren Ellis comic, the core principle is once more: might makes right.


Flesch reading ease for stylometry?

The Flesch reading-ease score (FRES, also called FRE – ‘Flesch Reading Ease’) is still a popular measurement for the readability of texts, despite some criticism and suggestions for improvement since it was first proposed by Rudolf Flesch in 1948. (I’ve never read his original paper, though; all my information is taken from Wikipedia.) On a scale from 0 to 100, it indicates how difficult it is to understand a given text based on sentence length and word length, with a low score meaning difficult to read and a high score meaning easy to read.

Sentence length and word length are also popular factors in stylometry, the idea here being that some authors (or, generally speaking, kinds of text) prefer longer sentences and/or words while others prefer shorter ones. Thus such scores based on sentence length and word length might serve as an indicator of how similar two given texts are. In fact, FRES is used in actual stylometry, albeit only as one factor among many (e.g. in Brennan, Afroz and Greenstadt 2012 (PDF)). Over other stylometric indicators, FRES would have the added benefit that it actually says something in itself about the text, rather than being merely a number that only means something in relation to another.

The original FRES formula was developed for English and has been modified for other languages. In the last few stylometry blogposts here, the examples were taken from Japanese manga, but FRES is not well suited for Japanese. The main reason is that syllables don’t play much of a role in Japanese readability. More important factors are the number of characters and the ratio of kanji, as the number of syllables per character varies. A two-kanji compound, for instance, can have fewer syllables than a single-kanji word (e.g. 部長 bu‧chō ‘head of department’ vs. 力 chi‧ka‧ra ‘power’). Therefore, we’re going to use our old English-language X-Men examples from 2017 again.

The comics in question are: Astonishing X-Men #1 (1995) written by Scott Lobdell, Ultimate X-Men #1 (2001) written by Mark Millar, and Civil War: X-Men #1 (2006) written by David Hine. Looking at just the opening sequence of each comic (see the previous X-Men post for some images), we get the following sentence / word / syllable counts:

  • AXM: 3 sentences, 68 words, 100 syllables.
  • UXM: 6 sentences, 82 words, 148 syllables.
  • CW:XM: 7 sentences, 79 words, 114 syllables.

We don’t even need to use Flesch’s formula to get an idea of the readability differences: the sentences in AXM are really long and those in CW:XM are much shorter. As for word length, UXM stands out with rather long words such as “unconstitutional”, which is reflected in the high ratio of syllables per word.

Applying the formula (cf. Wikipedia), we get the following FRESs:

  • AXM: 59.4
  • UXM: 40.3
  • CW:XM: 73.3

Who would have thought that! It looks like UXM (or at least the selected portion) is harder to read than AXM – a FRES of 40.3 is already ‘College’ level according to Flesch’s table.

But how do these numbers help us if we’re interested in stylometric similarity? All three texts are written by different writers. So far we could only say (again – based on a insufficiently sized sample) that Hine’s writing style is closer to Lobdell’s than to Millar’s. The ultimate test for a stylometric indicator would be to take an additional example text that is written by one of the three authors, and see if its FRES is close to the one from the same author’s X-Men text.

Our 4th example will be the rather randomly selected Nemesis by Millar (2010, art by Steve McNiven) from which we’ll also take all text from the first few panels.

3 panels from Nemesis by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven

Part of the opening scene from Nemesis.

These are the numbers for the selected text fragment from Nemesis:

  • 8 sentences, 68 words, 88 syllables.
  • This translates to a FRES of 88.7!

In other words, Nemesis and UXM, the two comics written by Millar, appear to be the most dissimilar of the four! However, that was to be expected. Millar would be a poor writer if he always applied the same style to each character in each scene. And the two selected scenes are very different: a TV news report in UXM in contrast to a dialogue (or perhaps more like the typical villain’s monologue) in Nemesis.

Interestingly, there is a TV news report scene in Nemesis too (Part 3, p. 3). Wouldn’t that make for a more suitable comparison?

Here are the numbers for this TV scene which I’ll call N2:

  • 4 sentences, 81 words, 146 syllables.
  • FRES: 33.8

Now this looks more like Millar’s writing from UXM: the difference between the two scores is so small (6.5) that they can be said to be almost identical.

Still, we haven’t really proven anything yet. One possible interpretation of the scores is that the ~30-40 range is simply the usual range for this type of text, i.e. TV news reports. So perhaps these scores are not specific to Millar (or even to comics). One would have to look at similar scenes by Lobdell, Hine and/or other writers to verify that, and ideally also at real-world news transcripts.

On the other hand, one thing has worked well: two texts that we had intuitively identified as similar – UXM and N2 – indeed showed similar Flesch scores. That means FRES is not only a measurement of readability but also of stylometric similarity – albeit a rather crude one which is, as always, best used in combination with other metrics.


Politics in Warren Ellis’s Dark Blue

On this year’s Labour Day we’re going to look at a comic that was published at around the same time as Planetary but which is not nearly as well-known: Dark Blue (Avatar Press, first collected edition 2001; apparently originally published in 2000 as part of an anthology series called Threshold, the cover images of which are definitely ‘not safe for work’…). The black-and-white artwork is by a young Jacen Burrows, with relatively elaborate screentones for which no less than three people are credited, Terry Staats, Jason Crager, and Mark Seifert.

About halfway into this 60-page story there is a major plot twist that has some relevance here, so just this once I’m giving a spoiler warning: if you haven’t read Dark Blue but intend to, you might want to stop reading now.

The story starts out as a violent cop tale. Protagonist Detective Frank Christchurch is introduced beating up a suspect in custody in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of a serial killer, Trent Wayman. Frank’s partner Debbie stops him before he kills the suspect and Frank is told off by his boss, Lieutenant Abbey, but in the end Frank gets away with it. Abbey has problems of his own: he is a heroin addict who even shoots up in his office. The whole police department is morally depraved, to say the least. According to Frank, one police officer is “trying to sell me pills when I come in for my shift”, another “was raping a whore in the holding cell” while a third one looked on, “jerking off into a firebucket”.

So far, this seems to be the typical Warren Ellis motif of a failed democratic government with a law enforcement that not only is ineffectual at fighting crime but commits crimes itself. However, then the aforementioned twist happens when the entire city in which the police department is located turns out to be a drug-induced consensual hallucination shared by three hundred people. “Every person who takes the drug goes to that city and believes it to be utterly real”, explains Debbie, who in reality is a doctor at the hospital in which the drugged people are actually located.

Furthermore, Frank isn’t a police officer either, but a CIA agent who was “gathering intel in the former Yugoslavia”, as Debbie reminds him. “You got caught outside when shelling started and you ran into the nearest big building. It was a schoolhouse. And some fucker shelled it anyway.”

The story continues with Frank returning to “narcospace” and continuing to chase the murderer, Trent Wayman, but the really interesting questions are left unexplored. What kind of hospital treats traumatised intelligence agents by administering experimental “shamanic” drugs for several months on end? What kind of government operates such hospitals? Is it morally justifiable for a government to lie to its citizens and entrap them in an illusory world, even if this is intended as mental health treatment? Is the risk acceptable that they end up permanently confusing their real life with their illusory one (as happens to Frank)?

One could also ask what exactly a CIA agent was doing in Yugoslavia in the first place. What are the interests of the CIA (or of the American government, or of the American people) in the Yugoslav Wars? As Debbie tells the story, it seems to be clear who the good and the bad guys are: Frank was only peacefully “gathering intel” and becomes the victim of an attack, whereas the attacker is a “fucker” who stops at nothing, not even killing schoolchildren. Debbie doesn’t say which of the factions of the Yugoslav Wars the attacker belonged to, or where the school was located. Ellis’s vagueness concerning Frank’s backstory is particularly regrettable in the light of a certain conspiracy theory according to which a “Former CIA Agent claims: They gave us Millions to split up Yugoslavia”.

In any case, in contrast to what it seemed like in the beginning of the comic, Ellis presents a vision of a government that is very much in control and doesn’t need any help from superheroes: apart from minor problems with individuals such as Frank Christchurch and Trent Wayman, the United States have total control domestically (as exemplified by the hospital) and a strong influence abroad. Civil rights and democratic legitimization, however, fall by the wayside once more. Thus Ellis’s view on democracy in Dark Blue is yet another cynical criticism.


A sad anniversary: Review of Moon Knight #194-200

Language: English
Authors: Max Bemis (writer), various
Publisher: Marvel
Publication Dates: June – December 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

Another year has passed in which Moon Knight was largely ignored by critics. Rightfully so? The last story arc by Max Bemis and Jacen Burrows, collected in a trade paperback titled “Crazy Runs in the Family”, showed great potential. What came afterwards, though, was quite a mixed bag:

#194, drawn by Ty Templeton, is seemingly a one-shot which introduces Uncle Ernst, a supervillain from Marc Spector’s childhood.

#195-196, with brilliant artwork by Paul Davidson, is a weird and charming little story about The Collective, a new supervillain (or group of villains?).

#197-198, drawn by Jacen Burrows again, seem to tell a very similar tale about another group of adversaries, the Société des Sadiques. Their leader turns out to be none other than Uncle Ernst, which in hindsight makes #194 the first part of this story arc.

Although the story appears to be finished with #198 (which is also the last issue to be collected in the TPB, “Phases”), #199 (art by Davidson again) continues it with another face-off between Moon Knight and Ernst.

#200 (still drawn by Davidson), finally, brings back the supervillains from the previous arc, Sun King and The Truth, the former allying with Moon Knight while the latter has been corrupted by Ernst.

Thus, with the interruption of #195-196, we basically have a five-part finale, the cohesion of which is futher damaged by the change of artists. Bemis has injected a lot of clever and darkly humorous ideas into these issues, though their connections to the Nazi Holocaust are sometimes bordering on tastelessness. Still, the cancellation of this series after this anniversary issue is a remarkable marketing failure, even for Marvel. Usually, such an anniversary would be used to invigorate and generate new interest in a series at least for the next couple of issues (which has recently worked well for e.g. Action Comics at DC), but Marvel didn’t even seem to have had that much faith in Moon Knight. The 200th issue itself is not that flashy either: a slightly increased size (30 pages) for an increased prize ($5), some guest artist pages (one each by Jeff Lemire and Bill Sienkiewicz), and an action sequence of two double-page spreads by Davidson – that’s it.

What remains in memory of this Bemis/Burrows/Davidson run is a number of whacky characters, stunningly drawn panels, witty lines of dialogue, and ways of storytelling that at least feel fresh. And three comic creators to watch (although Bemis seems to identify more as a rock musician). However, the lack of success of a rock-solid series such as Moon Knight also says a lot about the current state of American superhero comics in which such a vast amount of material is published each week that the comic books are cannibalising each other in their competition for reader attention.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Article “Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?” published

Earlier this year I gave a talk at MSU Comics Forum, and now a journal article based on that talk has already been published:

Has Akira Always Been a Cyberpunk Comic?
Arts 7(3), https://doi.org/10.3390/arts7030032

Here’s the abstract again:

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest in the cyberpunk genre peaked in the Western world, perhaps most evidently when Terminator 2: Judgment Day became the highest-grossing film of 1991. It has been argued that the translation of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira into several European languages at just that time (into English beginning in 1988, into French, Italian, and Spanish beginning in 1990, and into German beginning in 1991) was no coincidence. In hindsight, cyberpunk tropes are easily identified in Akira to the extent that it is nowadays widely regarded as a classic cyberpunk comic. But has this always been the case? When Akira was first published in America and Europe, did readers see it as part of a wave of cyberpunk fiction? Did they draw the connections to previous works of the cyberpunk genre across different media that today seem obvious? In this paper, magazine reviews of Akira in English and German from the time when it first came out in these languages will be analysed in order to gauge the past readers’ genre awareness. The attribution of the cyberpunk label to Akira competed with others such as the post-apocalyptic, or science fiction in general. Alternatively, Akira was sometimes regarded as an exceptional, novel work that transcended genre boundaries. In contrast, reviewers of the Akira anime adaptation, which was released at roughly the same time as the manga in the West (1989 in Germany and the United States), more readily drew comparisons to other cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner.

Read the article online for free at http://www.mdpi.com/2076-0752/7/3/32.

Fun fact: this is my 10th publication (not counting reviews, translations, and articles related to my library ‘day job’)! Find them all here: https://www.bibsonomy.org/cv/user/iglesia


Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 3: Hellblazer #20-22

Here’s one more brief review of a current comic in which music is represented.

The Hellblazer #20-22
Language: English
Authors: Tim Seeley (writer), Davide Fabbri (penciller), Christian dalla Vecchia (inker), Carrie Strachan (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Publication Dates: March – May 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: https://www.dccomics.com/comics?seriesid=396186#browse

The music: In this Hellblazer story (“The Good Old Days”), John Constantine’s ex-girlfriend Margaret Ames is possessed by the soul of a criminal that has escaped from hell. John tries to magically locate Margaret through an object, a t-shirt that she had worn. It is a band shirt from John’s old band, Mucous Membrane, and this shirt is the only representation of music in those three issues. But it works remarkably well: not much is disclosed about Mucous Membrane (the members of which were last featured in Hellblazer a couple of issues earlier) except that they hadn’t been particularly successful, as evidenced by John having had “fifty of [these shirts] sitting in a moldy box” and having stayed at “rot holes” at that time. But from our knowledge of John’s background as an angry punk in late 70s England, and from their name, we get a pretty good idea of what their music must have sounded like. Interestingly, the band logo looks slightly different in each issue, event though it’s supposed to be the same shirt and it’s the same art team on all three issues…

The rest: It is a sick joke that DC cancelled Hellblazer just in time for its 30th anniversary special. But the writing had been on the wall for some time. While Tim Seeley (and his predecessor, Simon Oliver) nailed the dialogue more often than not, DC assigned a string of artists to this book who were mediocre at first and then gradually became worse. Which makes me wonder why they bothered to “rebirth” Hellblazer in the first place.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○


Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 2: Black Science #35-36

This is the second short review blogpost (of three) in which representations of music in current comics are surveyed.

Black Science #35-36
Language: English
Authors: Rick Remender (writer), Matteo Scalera (artist), Moreno Dinisio (colourist)
Publisher: Image
Publication Dates: May – June 2018
Pages per issue: 22
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: https://imagecomics.com/comics/series/black-science

The music: Dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay and his ex-wife Sara are stranded at the ‘Interdimensional Institute for Marital Restoration’. In issue #35, said Institute sends Sara to another dimension in which her dream of becoming a musical actress on Broadway has come true. Sara is shown performing in her musical on three panels; musical notes around her speech balloons (plus her dramatic poses) indicate that she’s singing. It’s hard to tell what the music is supposed to sound like – if it is being performed by an orchestra or band, we don’t get to see it. Which says quite a lot about Broadway musicals and the end to which they are invoked here: to Grant and Sara, it doesn’t matter which genre the music belongs to, what the lyrics are about, or whether it is good or bad; the only thing that matters is that Sara has made it to Broadway.

In issue #36 there is another instance of music being performed. Grant and Sara are in a dream-like world in which they attend a wedding party. They meet old friends there, except everything and everyone looks like it’s 1920. Once more the music is depicted in three panels: the first two show wedding guests dancing, and in the background of the third we see the musicians playing; apparently a four-piece jazz band. Interestingly, there are no floating musical notes here, and before the musicians are shown, the only things that indicate music is being played are the dancers and a character prompting Grant and Sara to dance too.

The rest: The series is already announced to end with issue #42, which is a pity. Still, having the same creative team (except for the colourist) create a story of almost 1000 pages is a rare treat nowadays, and it makes for a coherent and homogeneous comic. Black Science is a complex and finely crafted psychological science fiction story – perhaps one of the finest in comic form.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○