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Black Easter: The Trials of Savoy Books
b y P a u l A n t h o n y - W o o d s
Rapid Eye 2 (1995)
Rapid Eye 2 (1995)
C R U C I F I X I O N
At first glance, Savoy Books of Manchester seem unlikely material for a literary cause célèbre. Long reviled by their local constabulary for stocking erotica and softcore porn, they have also been responsible for a series of sex 'n' violence laden comic books. Lord Horror, their icon of amorality, made a simultaneous debut in both a novel and his own comic book. Kris Guidio's sleaze-dripping graphics presented an orgiastic, ultra-violent world populated with celebrity figures, from Jessie Matthews to James Joyce, Hitler to The Cramps. Their record label has puked out an ever more irreverent series of covers of rock's sacred cows. Many, like their take on New Order's Blue Monday, are credited under deliberately provocative names, like the Savoy Hitler Youth Band. Most of these sacred cows get stylishly slaughtered by faded '60s superstar PJ Proby (ask your parentsa beefcake crooner pitched somewhere near Elvis and looking not unlike the young Jim Morrison, he had a penchant for splitting his trousers and showing his balls). His deranged crooning has turned Love Will Tear Us Apart, Bowie's Heroes, Tainted Love and Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight into booze-fuelled psychodramas. Wonderful stuff. The producer of Jonathan Ross's old show was so impressed by him he sent the following message to Savoy in 1987: "PJ Proby is too rock 'n' roll for The Last Resort. We're trying to get Tom Jones, who's safer. The only way Proby will get on our show is when he's dead. Bring us his corpse, then we'll put him on."
As their track record suggests, Savoy have been consistently catholic in a way that would make the Pope toss his blinis. If this wilful isolation from the mainstream has drawn much enmity, it has also attracted support (very little of it unreserved, admittedly) for their surrealist-science fiction novel, Lord Horror by David Britton. Ironically, it is this very piece which has also caused a small but vocal group of public figures to call for their blood.
In August of 1991, Stipendiary Magistrate Derrick Fairclough took the unusual step, at Manchester Magistrates Court, of declaring Lord Horror obscene under Section Three of the Obscene Publications Act. As staunch liberal QC Geoffrey Robertson (defender of the OZ 'Schoolkids' issue and Niggaz With Attitude, to jump two decades) pointed out, in an appeal hearing almost one year after the initial judgement, this section of the act is only ever used against 'ideologically vapid trash'. Much was made by Savoy's original defence lawyer of the fact that this was the first time since Selby's Last Exit To Brooklyn that a genuine literary work had been deemed obscene in Britain. It cut no ice with the law. Lord Horror was, after all, confiscated during a raid on one of Savoy's shops, which also netted a certain amount of erotic publications and videos. During the appeal hearing, solicitor Ian Lewis admitted that the novel (along with Meng & Ecker #1, a related comic book) had been netted alongside many other works of much baser appeal. By this, we're talking porn, of course (apparently softcore, pornography itself not being intrinsically illegal). Once again, Savoy proved too eclectic an animal to define, all that Sex 'n' SF 'n' Rock'n'Roll under one roof. It's a strange brew that the Manchester police are none too keen on, and they've been letting Savoy know since the very early '80s.
In the days when God's own emissary to the law enforcement business, Chief Constable James Anderton, was running the show, Savoy notched up an impressive tally of about sixty raids. "There was a period when our shops were being raided every other week," remembers Savoy director Mike Butterworth. In the autumn of 1980, a police raid utilising about 25 uniformed officers swooped on all the Savoy outlets. Among the mass of material confiscated, seven softcore erotic titles were found to be obscene at the subsequent trial. Titles such as No Place For A Lady, Mama Liz Tastes Flesh and Secret Sisterhood, available quite legally in other bookshops around the country at that time. Many of the 'dirty seven' were published by respected American publishers Grove Press, whom Butterworth contacted for a statement of support, to be met by a resounding silence. Nineteen months later, Butterworth and David Britton stood trial on a charge of selling obscene material for gain. Both pleaded guilty, as recommended by their defence lawyer, and Britton was rewarded with a 28-day prison sentence by presiding Judge Hardy. Britton recalls that even the guards who escorted him to the cells were appalled at the severity of the sentence. Among the many books confiscated (but not prosecuted) were The Tides Of Lust and The Gas, both published by Savoy. The Tides Of Lust is a purely erotic work by gay, black science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. The Gas, by Charles Platt, is more representative of the type of SF Delany is associated withmildly outrageous, with a strong streak of eroticism and social satire. Of course, people who think in Manichean, black & white terms, such as the police, may find it hard to accept that any work of erotica may have literary value, let alone be a work of genuinely imaginative fiction. The knee-jerk, Pavlovian response to anything which challenges this view continues to dog Savoy, as is illustrated by the seizure of Lord Horrora novel which Colin Wilson calls 'an exercise in surrealism [that] compares with some of the best work that came out of France and Germany between the wars, for example Georges Bataille.' These days, Chief Constable Anderton has gone, but the holy crusade he instigated continues. At the recent appeal hearing, Ian Lewis stressed that the erotic material was kept in a sealed-off section of the shop, whereas both the novel and the comic were on open sale among items that came mostly from the science fiction genre. What actually constituted 'obscenity' in this case was an immediate bone of contention. The novel contains no explicit sex, and its violence, though appalling, is well within the parameters kicked at by literary bloodfests such as American Psycho. instead, the magistrate's ruling was justified by charges of anti-Semitism, a much harder aspect to defend. Very few of the great and good are likely to rally to the cause of free speech for the venomous and bigoted. All the same, the charge was an incongruitythe Race Relations Act is already in statute to allow the prosecution of those who publish material designed to stir up racial hatred. The novel was sent by the police to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who declined to take action. This is unsurprising, according to author Britton and publisher/editor ButterworthButterworth claims their intentions were anything but to cause racial tension, while Britton testifies he is of half-Jewish parentage (only a few steps from saying "some of my best friends are...", perhaps). To understand the controversy the novel has caused, it becomes necessary to step into its nightmare world.
Horror, the malevolent anti-hero, is a mythic recreation of 'Lord Haw-Haw', alias William Joyce, the wartime traitor hanged in 1946 for his infamous 'Germany Calling' radio broadcasts. The novel concerns his post-war search for Der Führer. Hitler, like his disciple, is now adrift in a surreal, post-modern world where art collides viscerally with trash culture and creates a world of insanity and anachronism. Both figures are pursued by M. Future Time, a French airman who appears to have stepped straight from an old pulp magazine. Future Time's purpose is to reflect the lunacy of the main characters onto a screen of relative sanity. "it is not mere chance that Hitler, like his predecessor Wilhelm II, was an enthusiastic disciple of 'kitsch'," he informs us, inferring that the rise to prominence of this basically absurd figure was a triumph for philistinism. But Hitler is shown to have pretensions. During one of the novel's discourses on art and philosophy, which frequently interrupt the surreal and ultra-violent narrative, Der Führer name drops the artists Paul Klee and Marcel Duchamp, Schopenhauer, and, inevitably, the much-misinterpreted Nietzsche. The reader may be reminded, at this point, that the artistic iconoclasts of the early 20th century were often every bit as reactionary in their attitudes as they were radical in their worksDali's support of Franco; Pound's lionisation of the Italian Fascists; Céline's insane love of the Nazi occupation, which made his brave treatment of Jewish patients so much more dangerously perverse.
Just as Hitler's pontificating starts to wear, up pops Old Shatterhand, his giant, autonomous penis, to bite him in the arse. At the appeal hearing of 30 July, 1992, opinions were divided as to just what the anthropomorphised dick was supposed to represent. Geoffrey Robertson, for the defence, claimed that its presence showed Hitler to be a ludicrous, grotesque figure, much in keeping with the novel's tone. Expert witness Michael Moorcock, prolific SF author and '60s radical turned '90s liberal, testified to his twenty-year involvement with Savoy (they published an early graphic novel version of his The Jewel In The Skull, almost published his novel The Brothel In Rosenstrasse before going temporarily bankrupt due to the '80s obscenity case, and have just issued Death Is No Obstacle, a book-length interview / overview of his career). In his opinion, Shatterhand was a symbol of "the beast within man". This seemed to be accepted by the court, until the reading of a passage where the phallic beast ejaculates over precious manuscripts by Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein. "What is the purpose of this ?" asked presiding Judge Gerard Humphries. Robertson replied that it was a statement about Hitler's shallow attempt to weave together an ideology. No one said satire had to be subtle.
What Shatterhand most readily brings to mind is Steely Dan, the atom-powered dildo created by William S Burroughs in Naked Lunch. Butterworth, speaking both on his own behalf and for the publicity-shy Britton, acknowledges their deep debt to Wild Bill. When Hitler is tracked down by Horror, he has become a mugwump, one of the misshapen creatures also featured in Naked Lunch. in fact, the whole book is best described as being in the dystopian post-'60s mode of science fiction begun by Burroughs, Ballard and Ellison. Brian Stableford, SF/dark fantasy author and editor of the Dedalus Books Of Decadence, told the court that the book "relates to a tradition running from the Decadent and Symbolist fiction of the 1890s, through to the Surrealist movement." Counsel for the defence kept pursuing the more accessible SF angle, however. The court heard how Horror journeys deep into the traditions of pulp fiction, travelling to New York to find the comic artist Burne Hogarth, creator of the Tarzan strips. An analogy was drawn between the verbal depiction of Hogarth's strip cartoon monstersthe Ononoes, "shark-mouthed heads without bodies, filled with eternal hatred and genocide" -and the corroded soul of the man Hitler. Similarly, the fantastic context of the book was said to illustrate the way in which the Jew, the perpetual outsider, has been maligned and distorted in order to create archetypal folk mythsthe vampire, the werewolf, all of the creatures defeated by Christian, Aryan heroes. Moorcock also felt that the text made an implicit criticism of American 'hard' SF, its Heinleinian fascistic and militaristic themes. The judge was clearly unimpressed by such allusions. "You're blinding us with science fiction," he complained, enjoying playing up to the role of the common man, expressing ignorance about such luminaries as Kurt Vonnegut.
The sole interest of the court was whether the novel could be said to deprave and corrupt any of the handful of post-mod SF enthusiasts who picked up a copy (with £l0.95 hardback retail price on a short run of 500 they would be few and far between, especially as the police had confiscated 30% of the run). The accusation may sound ridiculous, but some of the passages make for especially uncomfortable reading. In the first chapter of the book, Horror admires his collection of 'body jewellery', made from the corpses of Jewish women. In the chapter entitled Jewkiller, there is an unflinchingly nauseating account of Horror assaulting a Jew as his victim leaves a synagogue: ' "God, my face has left me!" the young Jew exclaimed, staring in grim fascination as his left cheek slid away over his chin. He watched it fall for what seemed an age, until the white flesh flopped idly onto the wet pavement between his feet.' Nowhere near as graphic as any number of crime books which make the bestseller shelves, but its anti-Semitic context is clearly meant to disturb. The effect of this, according to Robertson, is that Horror and Hitler are seen as "no more than ordinary, banal psychopaths." Not everyone perceives such satiric intent. The Jewish Telegraph, which had (perhaps rather misguidedly) been sent a review copy, initially demanded that legal action be taken. They have since then, Butterworth assures, become more tolerant of Savoy's actions, realising that the equal degrees of imagination and disgust are used to reveal and attack, rather than applaud and condone. After all, the current conventional wisdom among neo-Nazis and lrvingites is that the Holocaust was a fictional spectacle directed by Hitchcockany work which lingers long on its horrors surely cannot be said to further their cause. Julie Burchill also added her name to the growing list of objectors, via a guest column in the Spectator. When the paperback edition hits the racks, she promises us, she will be out there on the streets, organising violent demos and attacking the police. Obviously, she's contrasting tolerant Jewish rationalism against the antics of the 'kill Rushdie' brigade (and she wrote of the novel's 'barking mad' narrator, indicating that she recognises the context), but some will take her at face value, just as they have the novel itself. In his argument against the 'anti-Semitic' tag, Robertson quoted Kafka to the court: 'It is the duty of the writer to wield his pen like an icepick, to smash the icy wastes within.' He argued that Lord Horror does not exploit its subject matter"there are no enticing pictures, no swastikas, nothing lurid on the cover, no come-on."
The fact that Savoy, as grown-up children of the pop culture age, have produced visceral comic strips connected to the novel would prove to be a problem. In the novel's graphic counterpart, the Hard Core Horror series, Kris Guidio's artwork lavishly depicts the grotesquerie and violence that is only glimpsed through the dense language of Britton's text. By the end of the comic series, as with all its companion pieces, a moral stance finally becomes discernible. New Horror artist John Coulthart provides a devastating end to the narrative in King Horror: Zero (Guidio's lurid talents are now employed on the blackly funny Meng & Ecker). 'Arbeit Macht Frei' reads the maxim above the gates of Coulthart's death campa place of grim, semi-gothic architecture, derelict machinery, and broken humanity. Surely the sentiment behind this work is only too apparent, even if most of it is too harrowing to witness? In stark contrast, the novel's black cover only features quotes from La Bruyére ('All the wit in the world is lost on him who has none'pre-empting the attack, perhaps?), and the high priest of absurdism, Pirandello ('I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery.'
"Unlike The Sunday Times' publication of Goebbels' diaries," Robertson contended, "this work has no appeal to neo-Nazis... No Nazi-skinhead type would get past page two. The Holocaust cannot be excluded from the literary imagination on his account." He went on to recount a passage wherein Horror is interrogated as to the whereabouts of his Führer. '"What price?"' Horror replies. '"Surely Hitler is worth something?"' "He certainly is," came the non-fictional retort of Geoffrey Robertson, "as Mr. Murdoch and others have discovered... The book", he announced, "has a discomforting and challenging messagethat Hitler has become a scapegoat for the endemic racism of Europe." Moorcock agreed. '"Lord Horror", he said, "is in a tradition of lampoon, of exaggeration. Its purpose is to show up social evils, and the evils within ourselves. The book tries to identify the ways of thinking that led to the Holocaust, and could yet lead to another one." Of the defence witnesses, only Guy Cumberbatch, Professor of Communications Research at Aston University and contributor to Home Office reports on the effects of mass media, stated he "wouldn't wish to argue that it has social worth regarding informing the people about the Holocaust." He did, however, reject all accusations of implicit anti-Semitism and incitement to violence.
Still, give a dog a bad name and it tends to stick. The Independent, in its leader of July 31st, the day after the trial, referred to the novel as an anti-Semitic fantasy, with nothing to indicate that the anti-Semitism occurs deep within the context of the work, and is not its guiding philosophy. Though the editorial accepted that Lord Horror might just prove an exception, we were further warned that 'those who seek greater freedom of expression should realise that they are, by and large, defending the right to publish filth, not works of art.'
Accusations of 'filth' came closer to home for Savoy regarding the comic Meng & Ecker, a second graphic companion piece to the novel (M & E, named after Mengele and Eckhart, are Horror's cronies, his 'creep boys', as introduced in the novel). Drawn in Guidio's sleazily explicit style recalling the horror comics of the '50s and the black & white glossies of the '60s and '70s, such as Vampirella, it depicts its main characters as vulgar grotesques, despite M & E bearing satirical resemblances to author Britton and the gaunt Butterworth. They run riot in the local Coffee and Cocaine Rooms, indulge in Paki-bashing, and offer up the flesh of Jews and Asians as fare on their restaurant menu. The targets of the comic are many, having a wild scattergun effect, and the satire is of the sledgehammer variety. But, as Savoy's defence insisted, satire it still is, with a huge surplus of Spitting Imagery. Referring to the comics, the defence was on much more slippery ground. Stableford referred to Meng and Ecker as grotesques who "spout rhetoric which can be heard on our streets everyday. Placing such rhetoric in the mouths of these characters is condemnatory." Despite such assured defence, a reference to satirizing characters from the Beano left the abiding impression that comics are still just kid's stufftrash entertainment for malleable minds. Moorcock, under questioning by the Crown, replied that he thought "it could be seen as a glamourisation of violence, by someone who didn't know the context." Through such creditably honest equivocation was a battle part-lost. After an adjournment, during which the bench decided whether they could put the circumstances of the raid out of their minds (the relevant documents were never intended to be submitted as evidence, being prejudicial to consideration of the book as a singular entity, but copies of the police report had mysteriously turned up in front of the two adjudging magistrates), Robertson tried to impress upon the judge that he was now upholding European standards of free speech.
"Am I to be forced to accept Amsterdam standards?" he protested. "No, Your Honour," clarified Robertson. "Strasbourg standards." Slightly perversely, the magistrate's original obscenity verdict on the novel was reversed, while the comic (which inhabits similar disturbing territory) was held to be obscene. "No-one is prepared to read this work unless they are willing to digest large amounts of philosophy and complex argument," announced Judge Humphries. "We give this book no accolade, no approval." But neither did they find it to be obscene. Little attention was paid during the proceedings to a minor character named Chief Constable James Appleton, who befriends Horror and makes a speech about "Jews swimming in a cesspool of their own making." Not the most controversial detail of the trial, sure. But consider how often caricatures of Savoy's pious arch-enemy have turned up: an exploding face from the SF / schlock-horror movie The Stuff was retouched to resemble Anderton, the words 'Fucking suckarse nigger Jew' and 'White nazi cunt scum' emanating from its mouth and cranium respectively; the bearded, decapitated head on the cover of Meng & Ecker No.1 is also very familiar. Incitement to anti-Semitic hatred is a legitimate concern (though misplaced, in this case), but is this any more offensive to a police force than the constant ridicule of their former leader? In this light, the whole thing seems to take on the tone of one of those legendary hillbilly feuds, which go on for half a century after everyone's forgotten how the whole thing began. Meng & Ecker No.1 was found to be obscene on the basis that it is "more luridly bound, and is of a far less literary nature. Furthermore, it may be gloated over by individuals who consider violence attractive." Despite having won a minor victory with the book, Savoy intend to take the entire Meng & Ecker series to the court of appeal once again. Should the verdict be upheld, then a new precedent is set: the artistic f reedom which is granted to an old perennial, largely respectable medium will not be applied to its more recent descendants. It has grave implications for an evolving artform, not least for Britton and Coulthart's forthcoming Reverbstorm, an intense study of the love affair between Lord Horror and Jessie Matthews(!). Neither is it certain the book will meet with no further opposition. On Radio 4's Today programme, on the day after the verdict, Michael Winner, director of the Death Wish films and self-appointed guardian of the public conscience, was heard telling Frances D'Souza of freedom of speech/information pressure group Article 19 that Lord Horror was exactly the kind of thing that should be banned. At the end of his address to the court, Robertson gave great prominence to a passage largely written by Butterworth, where Hitler begins to fade from the memory of the universe: 'A motionless sargasso of stars suddenly appeared. They seemed so close, the rings off the gems off the fingers of all the dead girls... It took him most of the night to realise they were laughing at him. A few were crying. He felt the vibrations of their laughter shaking him...' As Robertson emphasised, Hitler is ultimately depicted as "a simple man, laughed at and sometimes cried at."a creature of laughter and tragedy.
R E S U R R E C T I O N
David M Mitchell
For the last ten years, Savoy books and records have been stirring up the mud. David Britton, Michael Butterworth, Kris Guidio, John Coulthart and others have been performing the dangerous and thankless task of showing us (through their books, comics and other products), the true face of the Beastruthlessly and mercilessly slicing away at the powdered mask in the vomit-stained mirror to expose the wriggling grub of fascist hate and emotional emptiness at the heart of British (and Western) culture. No prisoners are taken in their onslaught, no heroes unslain, no icons left standing, no altars left unbesmirchedfor we are, after all, living in an age where there are more idols than realities.
Their pedigree has been impeccable. They've published many incredible books, several of which have attracted a fair degree of controversy in their own right, including Samuel Delany's Tides Of Lust and Jack Trevor Story's Screwrape Lettuce. But the real shit started to fly in 1989, when Savoy published Dave Britton's own surreal and picaresque book Lord Horror, a Burroughsian, Swiftian satire recounting the exploits of various persons in the form of distorted caricatures of actual historical persons such as Cosimo Matassa (who ran the New Orleans studio where all the great black Rock'n'Roll records of the '50s were cut: Little Richard, Fats Domino, etc.), Hitler, and the eponymous British wartime traitor 'Lord Haw Haw'William Joyce, here embodied as Lord Horror.
The acrobatic and pyrotechnic prose contains savage and obscene flights of sadistic excess and surreal passages of lyrical brilliance comparable in effect to Rimbaud and Lautréamont. The most controversial element, however, has been the racist dogma spouted by the book's characters. Reading it now, long after the initial fuss and furore has died down somewhat, I'm amazed at the hysterical reactions to the book by both right-wing upholders of 'decency' and by the liberal defenders of human rights and freedom of expression who were offended by the book's politically incorrect or unfashionable elements when taken out of context.
To the discerning reader it should be obvious that neither the book, the publisher, nor the author and editor endorse or encourage any of the racist, pro-fascist hatred articulated by any of the novel's characters. One should remember that Savoy grew out of Michael Moorcock's New Worlds stable in the '60s and evolved in the company of writers such as M John Harrison, JG Ballard and Samuel Delany. Savoy was born from the period of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, Philip José Farmer's Image Of The Beast, Blown and, more importantly, The Jungle Rot Kid On The Nod (stylistically, content-wise and intent-wise), Philip K Dick's psychotropic nightmares and other books such as Norman Spinrad's Men In The Jungle, The Iron Dream and the intensely disturbing Bug Jack Barron, which Savoy acknowledge as a predecessor of Lord Horror in terms of the controversial status the novel achieved outside the Houses of Parliament.
From the first ten pages alone, one can see that Lord Horror is an SF novel of an 'alternative universe' where all the events, characters and scenes are metaphorically playing out philosophical and metaphysical abstractions in a sequence of symbolic forms. This is Dave Britton's Pilgrim's Progressor at least his Childermass.
In a manner similar to the discourses of De Sade's Philosophy In The Boudoir, the dialogue consists of contrived argument and counter-argument, encapsulations of every major train of thought and belief that has made the 20th century the horror we see todaythe characters voicing all the insane dialectic which has fuelled the nightmare of Western culture. Lord Horror himself is an extreme aesthetea psychopathic/neuropathic dreamera cross between Des Esseintes and Darth Vader. He is here likened, in this respect, to Hitler, who also (the book suggests) dreamed of higher things, of beauty, purity and glory divorced from reality. Horror is the epitome of Hitler's version of the Übermensch amoral, physically powerful and ruthless, agonisingly hypersensitive and mystically inclined, with a violent scorpionic sexuality. He is a Byronic anti-hero, his goals superhuman, his actions subhuman.
The exaggerations, the surreal imagery, and the distorted misappropriation of historical characters actually define a vision closer to the truth than mere 'social realism' would ever be able to, revealing the corrupted inner life of characters, things and eventsthe dreaming reality of the historical process. The dialectic gets under the skin because the nightmares put on display are shared, common to us all.
'Fascinating Fascism' (as Susan Sontag termed it) has an appeal which originates in the atavisticthe beserker animal, the werewolf. The Nazi mentality is sado-masochistic. Hierarchies of degradation, as in a Bosch painting, tier upon tier of trapped bureaucrats each shitting on the tier directly below them, until the shit stops at the bottom on the socially despised racethe Jews, niggers, spics, gypsiesall those most reviled by 'pure' society (and those most secretly desired). Annihilating sex! A body without emotions, fucking itself until it bleeds to death; Reich's personality armour, cranked so tight that the inner life has strangled and rotted away! When that sexual core, the feeling, human centre, has gone bad, all the manifestations become cold, extreme, brutally destructive and violent. Rockabilly would be the ideal muzak for death camps.
The two polar extremes of Western schizoid mentality led ultimately to the death camps, unable to resolve the contradictions inherent in their existence. Extreme analytical discourse, whether couched in psychological, political or sociological textbook talk, or even in the glib, easily digestible pseudo-analysis of women's magazines, encourages people to become more and more out of touch with their emotional core and deep inner convictions. On the other hand, visceral spontaneity as displayed by the 'human' herd leads to the abandoning of any form of genuine conscience and the blind following of animal impulses which arise through mere biological friction. Both extremes lead to and embody ultimate nihilism.
Lord Horror was followed by the comic book exploits of the character in Hard Core Horror issues 1 to 5, the first four issues being drawn by Kris Guidio and executed in a Beardsleyesque 'yellow' mannershowers of blood and offal mingling deliriously with art nouveau backgrounds; eroticism and elegance merging seamlessly with ultraviolence and sadism. The key point in the series occurred in issue 5, illustrated by John Coulthart, where bleak and rigid depictions of death camp architecture are both terrifying and beautiful, the lines and planes of the Art Deco designs shouting repression and annihilation. After several pages of beautiful Maldororian prose from Dave Britton the reader is confronted by shocking photographs of dead bodies, murdered children, and we realise that we've reached the bottom line! This is where all the rhetoric and philosophy has led us.
On Friday 2nd April 1993, David Britton was jailed for four months under the Obscene Publications Act in Manchester. This was a result of the seizure in 1989 of Lord Horror by Manchester Police. An attempt was made to ban it but at a Crown Court appeal 31st July 1992 (brought by Savoy), the order for its destruction was overruled. An issue of the comic Meng & Ecker was, however, found obscene and bannedthe first case of this happening to a comic in the UK For reasons that they failed to make clear, the police continued to mount raids on both the Savoy office and a retail shop owned by David Britton. As a result of this harassment Britton was convicted for material sold from his shop and, by a strange coincidence, the raid was conducted three days after the initial ruling that Lord Horror was obscenethe search warrants signed by the very same magistrate who had originally adjudged the comics obscene. Savoy's case elicited some respectable, though cautious, response from the mainstream press but we've seen no repeat of the public outrage at the Salman Rushdie incident. Mr Rushdie, after all, was attacked by a culture other than our ownone with which we do not feel immediate complicity.
Despite these tribulations, 1994 saw the launch of a 'New Wave' of Savoy materialpivotal to which is the comic series Reverbstorm, which develops the current started by the Lord Horror novel and comic. Most of the art is by the brilliant John Coulthart, with Kris Guidio contributing picaresque panels as contrast to John's dark intensity; the result is a rollercoaster ride to the end of our collective night, a delirious, erotic and unbridled display of literary savagery and artistic terrorism. Reminiscent of all the darker works of the Western imagination that have wound their way to the present via the likes of Bataille and Artaud.
The concerns for the future of this comic hinge around the possible misinterpretation of its inherent message by potential readers. As in the previous works there is no clear-cut political code or ethical interpretation, because Savoy is leading us, as usual, into frighteningly unfamiliar waters. Reverbstorm certainly displays none of the vulgar Viz-style humour of the Meng & Ecker comic (and Hitler is conspicuous by his absence!), yet there is a strong misleading and dangerous element now present in the seductive form of Rock'n'Roll.
Rock has always been a double-edged sword; one capable of liberating the mind and emotions, but equally of dulling the intellect with vapid and superficial sentiment, glossy sexual hedonism and self-aggrandised egocentric bigotry. The traditional 'rock' lifestyle, for instance, consists of a futile stimulation of libidinous and materialistic desires in a way which can never be fulfilled. The resulting cynicism and frustration more often than not lead to self-destruction. Rock's message enters the awareness below the navel, side-stepping the intellect, giving it instant mass-accessibility and thus making it the ideal propaganda device. Reading Reverbstorm, one remembers the Nazis' condemnation of jazz and blues as degeneracy, Kubrick's appropriate choice of classical music as the backdrop to the ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange, and wonders at this strange juxtaposition, in the new Savoy oeuvre, of what was essentially black music, with fascist ideology. Of course, on examination one can see that rock has always followed two divergent paths since its birth at the hands of poor blacks in Americaone of liberation and love, the other of cynical dominance and unbalanced power. Since Elvis hijacked the sexual core of rhythm and blues music and hung a sneering face of white power on it, that whiteness has prevailed through the 'sex and drugs and kicks' lane of rock, right down to heavy metal, 'New Order' and the lobotomised, jack-hammer pulses of rave. There is a definite link here with the point in the Lord Horror novel where Future Time expounds Hitler's advocation of kitsch as the natural culture of the massesthe best way for totalitarian regimes to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. Avant-garde art, literature and music being too difficult to be conveyed by propaganda techniques is therefore, by its very nature, subversive to the control machine.
Rock mentality eschews analytical processes, reviles introspection as weak and irrelevant... popular Volk music now has no need of intent or contentrave music for instance being produced on computers by company executives with no need to consider the intentions of artists or the dignity of the publica far cry from the idealistic aspirations of early acid-house as a spiritual and psychic liberation from cultural conditioning.
Lord Horror embodies Rock'n'Roll (white Rock'n'Roll, that is). The white power rock spawned by Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and carried down through a long line of 'hard-rockers' ever since. No wonder Savoy have 'adopted' PJ Proby. Power music! Imperialism! De Sade showed us the corrupting nature of sex and power and the interplay between the two and, like David Britton, he was persecuted and misunderstood. Mr Britton asks us to stare into the sun with him. Some of us do and, after winding our way through the tortuous labyrinth of western philosophy, rhetoric, and political, artistic and scientific theory expounded in the text (theory with which our culture feels so self-satisfied), we finally confront the minotaur at the centre, crouched atop a pile of human skulls, and recognise ourselves with a sudden, jarring shock. David Britton does not point his finger and say "those are the guilty ones," he says "yes, we are guilty!" and it is this accusation of complicity which hits the nerve and stirs up so much shit!
Reverbstorm, like Lord Horror, displays an absence of feeling-tonea kaleidoscope of gruesome and coldly beautiful images and texts, presented clinically in a similar way to that used by Ballard, Burroughs, Selby and Warhol. In the first issue we are wheeled through scenes of Lord Horror butchering policemen, as lover of Jessie Matthewsimages guaranteed to appeal to disaffected youth, drawing them into a feeling of gratified complicity, only to reveal at the end that their anarcho-fascism leads to no goal but a sterile nothingness.
We can also expect more issues of the vile Meng & Ecker comic, which recounts the misadventures of the mutant twins of Dr Josef Mengele. Gross (but not obscene) and warped (but not corrupting), each issue seems to wind in and out of a timeless realm of metamorphic incidents. The twins wreak havoc and carnage, indulge in impossible sexual exploits and throw out hilarious one-liners all the more hysterical for their nihilistic gratuitousness and political incorrectness. The extravagant rhetoric of Lord Horror is replaced here by the crude vulgarity of the Volk. The danger with this comic is its accessibility. Lord Horror was admittedly a difficult work, whose philosophical content and postmodernist format demanded a certain amount of intellectual muscle even to read it at all. One was already automatically on guard. Meng & Ecker, on the other hand, is dangerously disarming and easier to read, even passively. Although irony is still the most important element, it could here be misconstrued as gratuitous slapstick.
This comic was said by the appeal judge to be likely to upset "right-thinking people", yet in a High Street newsagents I recently counted no less than seven magazines, on the bottom shelf, devoted to serial killers and gruesome murder. In one was a 'whodunnit' quiz based on a real murder, with real-life victims. A scratch-away panel revealed the name of the killer.
Another publishing milestone for Savoy is the launch in 1995 of the new Meng & Ecker novel, demurely entitled Motherfuckers: The Auschwitz Of Oz. The novel differs from the M & E comics in several important ways. Firstly, the characters are depicted as having an interior lifetheir thoughts are revealed to us directly, and the bleak motives for their actions make them simultaneously more sympathetic and less superficially attractive. The crude 'splatter' violence of the comic is replaced by a harrowing and degrading horror which depicts the misery of the victims, whom the comic relegates to the stance of cardboard cut-out props for the twin protagonists. The humour is blacker, and more surreal in its juxtaposition with the events occurring.
Meng is still a ludicrous figure but is here more lethal, destructive, deranged, and yet in some strange way pitiable because lost to himself. Ecker, although less destructive, is equally lost. The sadness he feels at the carnage surrounding him is cerebral, aesthetic and schematic. He has become inured to the unspeakable, hence is more horrible. The twins are metaphors for the two poles of human alienationequal halves of the same single being, forever bound to each other, yet unable to become whole, they remain emotionally uninvolved with their environment.
Through the most despairing of landscapes and shocking of visceral scenarios wander incongruous cartoon charactersFudge and Speck, Mickey Mouse, Mr Toad from Wind In The Willows. We encounter the 'Afreet of Dachau' who turns out to be Elvis Presley, delivering an incredible monologue to Herbie Schopenhaueran intelligent Volkswagen Beetle. These characters appeared in the comics, but only as wallpaper. Here they partake actively in the atrocities, perpetrated mainly against Jews. The grotesquery reaches a peak in the chapter 'Oi Swiney', which must be seen as David Britton's personal vision of Helllike a Bosch painting animated by Merry Melodies. All the psychic debris of our doomed culturethe idiocy, the hate, the banalityamalgamated into a dreamlike post modern bardo. Dave Britton's Book Of The Dead. And we are the dead; the writing is on the wall.
Perhaps, with this book, we will see a reappraisal of Mr Britton's work and Savoy's publications in general. Doubtful, but we live in hope.
Meanwhile, Savoy continue to produce CDs. The amazing Savoy Wars will be followed by another collection of the early Savoy PJ Proby recordings originally released on vinyl. Also to look forward to are T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land read by Proby with a musical accompaniment, and a reading of Lord Horror by (you guessed it) PJ Proby.
Only death can stop them. •
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