So, it seems our notes on issue #639 of Journey Into Mystery went down quite well (thank you, Tumblr). Which is nice, because we only really did them to give us the excuse to go on and do issue #640. Which naturally, of course, will mean that these ones will turn out to be shit and no-one will like them, but hey ho.
Loki (teenage reincarnated spirit of dead Asgardian god of mischief now trying to be a bit nicer and stuff) and Leah (teenage handmaiden of Asgardian goddess of death never trying to be nice to anyone, ever) are secretly helping out their British chums in Otherworld, who have been besieged by new-fangled working-class spirits of urbanity. Weary of sitting back and watching people hit other people with heavy things, Loki now contemplates whether there’s a subtler way to win the war…
Page 1, Panel 1:
Camden, London – Located at the bottom end of what’s generally considered North London, Camden Town is an area within the London Borough of Camden. For some people, it’s the centre of the universe. For others, it’s a slightly scummy high street topped off with a noisy traffic junction, an overcrowded tube station and an array of street and covered markets designed to do nothing other than part tourists and silly teenagers with obscene amounts of cash in exchange for horribly-designed slogan t-shirts, “goth” wear and marijuana-based paraphernalia. Both points of view are right and wrong at the same time.
Its use as a location in this story is far from accidental. As an important area in the development of London’s railways (it’s just up the road from King’s Cross) and canal network, as well as being the spawning-ground of a notable cultural scene (in this case, Britpop), the comparisons with Manchester are manifold.
The World’s End is an enormous pub on the main corner junction referred to above (the panel here is drawn from a perspective looking directly out from one of the exits of Camden Town tube station). It’s a very convenient place to meet up with people – because it’s huge and everyone knows where it is – but not necessarily somewhere you’d want to spend any great length of time. Already immortalised in comics in Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s earlier series Phonogram: Rue Britannia, it’s also giving its name to the upcoming third film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s “Three Flavours Cornetto” film trilogy.
Page 1, Panel 2:
We were going to do a “hilarious” joke about how we didn’t recognise who two of the people sitting around a table on the left-hand side of the panel are – until we realised that actually, lots of readers genuinely won’t recognise them. So, the girl with dark hair and the shaven-headed bespectacled gentlemen are Emily Aster and David Kohl respectively – major characters in Phonogram. We’ve, er, mentioned Phonogram a few times on this site already. We don’t really need to talk about it very much more for the moment.
The guy sitting in between Aster and Kohl is (we think) John Constantine. This would make sense, because Hellblazer was an obvious point of reference not just for that first Phonogram series, but also for Gillen’s take on Daimon Hellstrom, who makes his second Journey into Mystery appearance in this very panel. Given that Manchester Gods is essentially a Phonogram story being told in the Marvel universe, this would appear to be Gillen acknowledging his influences.
Daimon Hellstrom, incidentally, is the Son of Satan. In the Marvel Universe, that’s not quite as simple a title as it sounds. As JiM previously established, there’s one throne in hell that’s reserved for Satan, and the Satan-wannabes who rule the divided Hell (of which Hellstrom is but one) are generally too scared to sit on it because it would invite the others to test their claim. Hellstrom is one of the more morally ambiguous lords of Hell, in that he’s been known to do some good on occasion.
Page 2, Panel 3:
“toe-rag” – A mild British insult. A toe-rag was originally a cloth that tramps wore around their feet instead of socks. It then became synonymous with tramp, and thus used as an insult. Notably for this arc, it’s based, as many British insults are, on denigrating the recipient’s class and wealth.
“tosser” – A bit more pejorative, this is a primarily British insult meaning “a male who masturbates”. Or, to put it more concisely, a male. Synonymous with “wanker” but slightly less rude-sounding.
Page 3, Panel 3:
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, Hogwarts is the school from Harry Potter, the structure of which heavily based on pre-war British Public Schools attended only by the wealthiest tier of British society. Hence, “posh mages”. As some of the oldest establishments in the country, they’re famed for producing vastly more than their fair share of politicians and businessmen (yes, men). Even though they’re what most countries would call “private” school, they’re called “public” in the UK because they were among the first to admit any student, rather than those aligned with a specific church or trade guild – assuming their family could pay the fees, of course. From his disrespectful tone here, we can see that Hellstrom isn’t exactly a fan of the upper classes.
Page 4, Panel 1:
It’s perhaps worth noting that all of the “classic” British touchstones mentioned here relate to authority in some way: monuments to higher powers, fortifications to keep the unwanted in or out, and the home of royalty. This is in stark contrast to places of power that relate to “the other side”, as we’ll come to see.
Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell!
Where the banshees live and they do live well!
Stonehenge! Where a man’s a man!
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan!
Discussed last issue, obviously.
The Tower of London – We’d expect our American readers might know more about this place than our British readers. Anyway, it’s a castle in Tower Hamlets (East-Central London), founded in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest. It’s where they keep the Crown Jewels, and it’s where they used to imprison (and, occasionally execute) the treasonous.
Avebury – Great big prehistoric stone circle in Wiltshire. Hugely significant historically, but not as iconic as its neighbour Stone’enge.
Buck Palace – Daimon is trying to be cool, here, so he’s left off the “ingham” of “Buckingham Palace”. This is where the Queen lives. You’ve probably seen it.
Hadrian’s Wall – A wall built under the supervision of the Roman Emporer Hadrian to protect the northern border of the Roman Empire in Britain. Contrary to popular belief, it’s entirely within England, and nowhere near the modern Scottish border for most of its length. Even at its closest point, the border is still almost a kilometre away. Used to be a great big bloody thing (it remains the most heavily-fortified border in Britain’s history) but it’s now somewhat smaller…
… er, except for in Otherworld, apparently, where Hadrian’s Wall still stands high and mighty and serves as a fortfication for “the Highlands”.
Is Gillen here making a comment on how the march of industrialised progress has spread throughout England, but has yet to reach our cousins in the North? As the country is most notably responsible for the invention of the television, golf and the deep-fried Mars bar… we’re betting yes.
Cragside – remember last week when we said Gillen likes to spoil the fun by doing his own annotations? Well, this page basically tells you everything you could ever want to know about this really quite astonishing country house in Northumberland. Er, except for where it is. It’s in Northumberland.
Page 8, Panel 2
“The other side’s places of power” – Yeah, so this panel is basically the reason we thought to do these annotations in the first place:
The Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol – Magnificent feat of engineering, designed by the incomparable Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Opened in 1864, placing it right at the centre of the thematic history of this particular story.
Some guy with an awesome beard’s grave in Highgate – We’re sure lots of men with awesome beards are buried in North London’s notable Highgate Cemetery, but we’re equally sure that in this case Loki is referring to either famous communist philosopher, Karl Marx or infamous TV funnyman, Jeremy Beadle. Who can say for sure?
The Cavern Club in Liverpool – Not actually the venue the Beatles first played at, but easily the most significant of their early haunts. Found on Mathew Street in Liverpool’s city centre, the club still exists, but is actually now based across the street from the original location (which was demolished/filled in for an underground railway extension). Although it does still host live music gigs, it’s perhaps more notable as a place for tourists to come and have their picture taken with a statue of John Lennon.
Oddly, some greenhouse in Northampton – We’re not sure what’s more staggering, here: that Gillen has snuck a direct reference to Alan Moore into a Marvel comic, or that he’s snuck in a reference to Moore’s taste for, ahem, herbology. What would Stan Lee say?
Page 8, Panel 3
“bally” – We explained the meaning of this one in the last instalment, but because we’ve now established that this is a story that uses class as a significant theme, we should point out that “bally” is the sort of word only used by the upper classes. The fact that Captain Britain is using it draws a clear line of distinction between him and – for example – the kind of person who might call you a tosser.
Page 9, Panel 3
Starkphone – Loki’s favourite toy. To be fair, if we had a smartphone invented by Tony Stark, it would almost certainly be our favourite toy, too.
The Haçienda – The narration here explains that the Haç is important, without really going into detail as to why. It was a nightclub, founded and funded by the Factory Records label, and particularly their figureheads Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson. For much of the 1980s, it was notable as a hugely influential live music venue – acts ranging from The Smiths to Madonna played there – but it became “the cathedral of a cultural revolution” when it was almost entirely responsible for the “Madchester” scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The fact that it’s now so revered as a cultural touchstone hence makes it entirely appropriate that, having never actually made a penny for its founders, it closed down in 1997 and is now a block of flats.
Page 11, Panels 2-3
“My British guidebook the merchant ensured me is both comprehensive and inexpensive” – We’ve got no idea. Our immediate thought was a Rough Guide, however…
“A Rough Guide” – A line of popular travel guides originally aimed at low-budget backpackers, but now aimed at a more general audience. Although Leah’s clearly not a fan.
Stephenson – George, English civil engineer of the 1800s. Didn’t exactly invent steam trains, but for the manner in which he was instrumental in their impact on the world, may as well have done. But you knew that.
Because you can, if you want to, take “Master Wilson” entirely at face value. It probably helps if you understand the elements of Marxist philosophy that go into him, but aside from that, there’s no harm to the story if you understand him as an entirely new creation, a “contemporary druid” who represents the spirit of the Industrial Revolution and progressive, urban modernity.
But there also just happens to be the fact that he looks like, sounds like, and shares a name with, Anthony H. “Tony” Wilson.
Impresario, TV presenter, journalist, record label boss, club night promoter, band manager… Wilson did all of this, and more. He fell into music by presenting Granada’s showcase series “So It Goes” (yes, it’s a Vonnegut reference), gave the Sex Pistols their first TV appearance, and was hugely responsible for thrusting Joy Division (and, consequently, New Order) into the world. Inconsistency was his very essence: from a working-class background, he took a Cambridge education back to Manchester and stayed there while the rest of the media was looking squarely at London. He was egotistical and self-deprecating in equal measure. At the same time as running the Haçienda by night, he was presenting local news in the North West by day. And his personality and demeanour were far-removed from just about everybody else around him in the music industry – which is why most of them thought of him as, in his own words, “a prat”.
Yet his fervent love for his home town of Manchester was unparalleled (he was nicknamed “Mr Manchester by some, and the flag on Manchester Town Hall was lowered to half mast on the day of his death), and as the two major political beliefs he held were regionalism and socialism, this makes him the perfect figure on which to base a so-called “High Priest of Manchester” and druid of Marxism.
He was played by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s magnificent film 24 Hour Party People. If you want to know more about him, see it. Even if you don’t, see it anyway.
So, yes. The major figure of a story in a mainstream Marvel superhero comic is a fusion of Tony Wilson and Karl Marx. You couldn’t make it up. Except Kieron Gillen has done. Blimey.
Page 14, Panel 3
“Ah, ‘Pretentious’. A lovely word. A verbal tick of the dull and slovenly, a whip to last those who have ideas above their station. I don’t have much time for people being stuck at their stations.” – Yeah, see, this sounds exactly like the sort of thing Tony Wilson would have said. ‘Pretentious’ is also a label frequently applied to the author, which explains his familiarity with its linguistic function.
Page 16, Panel 2
“They say Britain is fundamentally rural…” And here we find one of the story’s major themes spelled out for us. Rural Vs. Urban. Cities Vs. The Country. The impoverished workers Vs. the wealthy land-owners. Rich Vs. Poor. What is Britain, and who does it belong to? We suspect every character in this storyline has their own interpretation, but Loki’s, in particular, will shift noticeably before the issue’s out…
Page 16, Panel 4
“Manchester was the first city of the future, anywhere.” – You could argue until the cows come home whether Wilson is in any way correct with this statement, but the fact that it’s so contentious is entirely in keeping with his character. After all, there’s a moment in 24 Hour Party People where Coogan-as-Wilson interrupts the narrative – having just told a not-actually-true story of catching his wife in a nightclub toilet with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks – to (mis)quote John Ford and say “If it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.”
(credit to Abigail Brady for that one)
Page 16, Panel 5
“There’s no future in England’s dreaming.” – A line from the Sex Pistols’ 1977 hit “God Save The Queen”, a record released to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebrations (and the subject of a great many conspiracy theories surrounding its placing at #2, rather than #1, in the singles chart of that week). It’s a damning indictment of the United Kingdom’s insistence on clinging on to the Royalist system of hereditary privilege. Hmm.
The “real” Tony Wilson could probably just about claim the Pistols as “friends” – he was one of the few people to claim to have been at their infamous gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 who actually was there, and as a result (as mentioned above) he booked them for their first ever TV performance.
Oh, and given that the phrase has cropped up, we should mention that Gillen cites John Savage’s history of punk, England’s Dreaming, as a major influence on him and his work. Given that punk was (you guessed it!) as much a class movement as a musical one, it’s probably worth having a look at in the context of this story.
Page 18, Panel 2
“Change is good. I’d thought that some gods would understand.” – Readers will no doubt be aware that the reason Journey into Mystery exists at all is because a god realised that he must change or die, and made his choice.
Page 18, Panel 5 (+ others)
Aristocrats have portraits and fine art on their walls. Wilson has blueprints and engineering diagrams. Makes sense, if only because you could convincingly argue that engineering is as much an art as a science.
Page 20, Panel 5
“We’re on the wrong side.” – Is Loki (a) genuinely sympathetic to the cause, as someone whose life has been dominated by an authoritarian monarch who gets to do that “because that’s how it works”; (b) successfully swayed by the power of a charismatic orator; (c) being his inherent unfathomable trickster self; or (d) all of the above?
We’ll find out in the concluding chapter, but our money’s on (d)…