Monday, 4 April 2011

Wider Reading | That Nasty Little Thug

In his 1958 League of Extraordinary Gentlemen spin-off, Black Dossier, Alan Moore introduces a suave, suited super-spy fellow, who for copyright reasons is only known as 'Jimmy'. Jimmy tries to pick up a girl by the name of 'Oodles O' Quim' in a bar, deploying some pickup techniques that people who read and enjoy Neil Strauss' The Game probably think are super awesome. He then leads her down to a deserted building and attempts to rape her, but is surprised when she swings her handbag at him (which contains a brick), before calling him a 'nasty little thug'. An immortal Allan Quartermain then turns up and proceeds to kick the living shit out of Jimmy, all the while lecturing him in surrogate-author mode; "Is this what it's come to? The British adventure hero? Pathetic."

I'm torn about 'Jimmy's' inclusion. On one hand, Moore doesn't let his obvious contempt for James Bond get in the way of making some good points - later on, Bulldog Drummond complains that Bond's reliance on 'tricks' and gadgets during combat is cowardly - and the character works because neither Fleming's Bond nor the character of the movies are miles away from being a sex pest anyway. But on the other hand, if you're going to tear an existing character to pieces, it really is queering the pitch to make them a rapist. If I were to write a satirical version of Rorschach, for example, and I had him try to murder a small lollipop-carrying child in a fit of lust and rage ("The child is the emblem of the city. Of the hateful, impure thoughts, running through the rivers of blood like a cat running away from an axe-wielding, spit-drooling dark God."), I'd be addressing the existing dark aspects within the character, but I'd also be ignoring the boundaries its creator drew up in order to make my own argument. "Is this what it's come to? The Raskolnikovian alienated urban anti-hero? Pathetic."

Meanwhile, the more affectionate variety of James Bond spoof has become tired and played-out. This is fairly self-evident. What would be your response if, tomorrow, you saw a big trailer for Austin Powers 4: The Man With The Golden Phallus, proclaiming, 'He's Back! Yeah, Baby!' as if the film-makers carried the mistaken and hubristic belief that we'd be pleased to see him? Would many of us really shed a tear if it turned out that Johnny English 2, in spite of the presence of Rowan Atkinson, Pierce Brosnan, Tim McInnery, Rosamund Pike, and Dominic West (hang on, all of the other actors are themselves tired and played-out. What the fuck did Dominic do?), would never see the light of day?

This is why it's going to be difficult to convince you that Archer is the funniest and sharpest show on television right now.

Archer is an animated US show, made by Adam Reed, that guy who keeps making animated shows online, about a spy called Archer, who works for a spy agency called ISIS, which may or may not be owned by the US government, in a peculiar alternate universe that uses the visual style of the 60s (and a Mad Men-style opening sequence, as well as flat, Hanna Barbera-style animation given a modern twist) while riffing off modern tropes. Archer himself (first name Sterling, played by a gravelly H. Jon Benjamin) is a marvellous monster of a character. Lazy, dry-witted and callous, who breaks out into raptures of boyish, self-loving enthusiasm whenever he ices a baddie or performs a cool stunt ("I know, right? Totally McQueen!"), Archer also bullies his co-workers and friends, shoots innocents, tattoos babies and requests in the middle of firefights that people give him a moment to come up with a better quip. He is Alan Moore's Jimmy...without the rape bit. And oddly likeable, as well, in the way only an anti-hero who sets fire to the bodies of murdered prostitutes can be.

He's supported by a cast of supporting characters that run the gamut of dark, off-beat comedy; his mother, played by Jessica Walter, essentially acting out a more extreme version of her Arrested Development character Lucille Bluth, her secretary, played by fellow AD alumnus Judy Greer, as a secretary with a fetish for being choked to death, a genuinely mad doctor named Krieger (he used to spend his evenings taping homeless people fight, but now he's into something...darker), and his butler, Woodhouse, a doddering old Englishman with a heroin problem, who was the one who really shot William Burroughs' wife that time.

Now, I'd never suggest that Archer is in any way influenced by Alan Moore's depiction of Bond, or by The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as a whole, but the two certainly have a fascinating amount in common. Archer, despite its name, is not about one ubermensch saving the world so much as it is about a gang of loose allies, each of them with their own motivations and bizarre hang-ups, dealing with the realities of life as well as more colourful adventures. Archer is also occasionally a little too extreme and a little too 'how far can we push this?' for its own good, but it makes up for it with a wealth of smaller references, often literary, often arcane (a joke about a lemur, for example, mentions that it's called Babou - Salvador Dali had a pet lemur by the same name, and when Archer's mixed-race ex, Lana, played by Aisha Tyler, yells at him for describing her uncertainly as 'black-ish', he snaps back, "Well, what am I supposed to call it, Lana? You got mad when I said quadroon!" which is a joke as obscure as it is appalling as it is funny.) And, much like The League, the gang live in a pastiche world - a place where the Cold War still rages on, but everybody has mobile phones and can reference current affairs.

But it did occur to me while I was watching it what was wrong with Moore's 'Jimmy' Bond - he didn't take into account the sense of humour that's come to shape the established character of Bond through the films. And sure, he is very obviously working off Fleming's blueprint and not, say, Connery's. But if you're going to have Mr Hyde as a hulking giant - handwaving an explanation for this - then you are working off the collective impression of a character, and not off the author's original work. And the collective impression of Bond is not as a 'nasty little thug', but as a douche; a wonderful, alpha-male douche who endures in our imagination because he's just charming and funny enough to carry his essential douchality. And Moore - who does have a sense of humour, I think, but maybe not a taste for conventional zingers - could never have come up with the ultimate exchange, in terms of the disparity between how a Bond character sees himself and how others would see him in reality;

(Archer and Lana are on an airboat. Archer is enjoying himself.)


LANA: How can an airboat be selfish?

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