Ah, days of Empire! Gunboat diplomacy! Wiffle waffle! The World under Victoria’s steely heel! Pip-pip! God’s Will, doncha know! Opium wars! Bringing them civilisation, isn’t it now? Tip top stuff, what! Like little children without us! Doing them a favour! “All the people like us are We/and everyone else is They.” Kipling? Not ‘arf, darling! Halcyon days, brings a tear to the old eye and all that. More sherry? Ah, with the Glory Days of Empire re-cresting the horizon as BREXIT delivers back unto us our sovereignty(!?!) what could be more timely than a look at this book, this EMPIRE OF BLOOD. Anyone for tiffin? Clip round the ear for the kids; never did me any harm! Never, never, never shall be slaves! Top hats in the air! Last Night of the Proms! Churchill! The Bulldog Breed! EMPIRE! EMPIRE! Yah! Yah! Yah! Huzzah! And a tally ****ing ho we go! EMPIRE OF BLOOD by Alcatena, Gaind & Bidikar
EMPIRE OF BLOOD #1 to 4 Art by Enrique Alcatena Written by Arjun Raj Gaind Lettered by Aditya Bidikar EMPIRE OF BLOOD created by Arjun Raj Gaind Graphic India, £1.99 each (2015)
“Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also — since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself — unshakeably certain of being in the right.” George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism (1945)
George Orwell talking us in there. What a guy, if he was ever wrong about anything he probably changed his mind later and ended up being right in the end. George Orwell; got to be in the running for The Greatest Englishman Who Ever Lived, eh? Shame he was born in Motihari in Bengal. That’s right; the same place Ghandi first practiced Satyagraha (the policy of passive political resistance against British rule in India.) Don’t choke on your cucumber sandwiches, pal; they’re just facts. Inconvenient things, facts, eh? No wonder people tend to ignore them these days. I mean, don’t panic, because Orwell was indeed English because he was born in British India, but as a name “Orwell” doesn’t immediately conjure up “Motihari” does it? Chingford maybe. Of course by the same token that does mean Arjun Gaind and Enrique Alacatena could be old schoolmates from Margate; after all it’s the 21st Century and there are plenty of folk with “funny names” and a pallor a tad more colourful than a blue-veined cheese who are as British as, say, binge drinking or failing to pick up after your dog. Turns out though, Arjun Gaind is “is one of India’s best known comic book writers” (so the Internet says), the author of proper books for Harper Collins (India) and a bunch of comic works for Graphic India/Virgin Comics/Westland. Had I known all that beforehand I would have also known he wrote a comic called THE MIGHTY YETI, and we’d be talking about that right now. There being a distinct dearth of yeti comics, in my opinion. But I didn’t know any of that, and in fact only picked this particular book because the cover art snagged my attention as I scrolled through The ‘Ology, looking for something a bit off the beaten track. Ah! A monkey in a turban attacking Britannia! Ah! Enrique Alcatena! Just the ticket! A few clicks later and I was reading this book.
Got a soft spot for the Alcatena touch, having had my taste primed for his Argentinian art by all those chaps in The Tribe. Seems a bit racist in hindsight but that’s how they were known, those artists The Big Two used as cheap labour (mostly) from the Philippines during the ‘70s. And like many a foreign workforce they, rather embarrassing this, were better than a lot of the homegrown talent. Anyway, Alcatena, like those guys has a very illustrative approach, in short; with not a lot of concern for conveying motion but with some fabulously ornate detail, often verging on the rococo. Flash Johnny foreigner, eh? Wouldn’t catch a Brit going rococo; I should bloody cocoa! Actually Alicante’s work here is not unlike that of Bryan Talbot (a Lancashire lad; good solid English stock), which is apt as his ‘Luther Arkwright’ stuff also does a job on the Empire via an Alt-Future version; wildly different approaches they may be, but both ‘Arkwright’ and EMPIRE OF BLOOD are quite steampunky in look. Quite why Alcatena & Gaind’s book is steampunk isn’t altogether clear. Unless it’s implicit that if the Empire never fell then it would just go on merrily using steam, but I would have thought steam would have been phased out anyway no matter who was on the throne. I…I’m thinking too hard about this aren’t I?
SO! Steampunk it is! But that’s not all! As if fearing today’s audience require an abundance of high-concepts in order to retain their skittish interest, Alcatena and Gaind chuck in vampirism to boot. Instead of Good Queen Vic, we’ve got vamp-lit staple Elizabeth Báthory (so memorably portrayed by Ingrid Pitt’s tits in ‘Countess Dracula’ (Hammer, 1971)). Herein she’s called the Blood Queen and The British Empire has (quite correctly, HURRAH!) retained its grip on the world due to the Brits being a bit superhuman (i.e. even more superhuman than the British naturally are, natch) due to regular infusions of the mysterious ‘Aqua Vitae’. Obviously if your ruler is called The Blood Queen and the ‘Aqua Vitae’ is red and gives you little fangs and an aversion to sunshine it’s not the most mysterious mystery is it now, Agatha Christie? But it doesn’t have to be does it? The Empire thought it was Right and so that’s why it existed, and it existed because it was Right that it do so. Very few people in the street gave it much more thought than that. (And it should be noted that back ‘ome things were still pretty shitty for the working class, so they didn’t have a lot of time to dwell on rights and wrongs; that was for their betters. And quite right too!) As a mystery ‘Aqua Vitae’ is a bit lacking but perhaps that isn’t what Gaind is after. If I may be even more reductive than usual: The Empire was a massive engine of subjugation and exploitation cunningly powered largely by those it exploited. No matter what you put in their tea, the British have never been numerous enough to control an area the size of the Empire without a bit of aiding and abetting on the part of the locals. The mystery isn’t what ‘Aqua Vitae’ is; it’s where it comes from. Our hero, Tom Lawrence, is sickened to learn that it is the Indian populace who are the source. The British are parasites, which is news to him but to Indians, ehhh, probably not news as such to them. So, ‘Aqua Vitae’ isn’t a mystery it’s a symbol. And not a bad one at that.
Tom Lawrence? Who he, John? He’s a Brit, in fact there is none more Brit than Tom Lawrence, our fair–haired, square chinned Caucasian hero. His almost cartoonishly Aryan features are clearly part of a crafty manoeuvre the book pulls. Tom is admonished at one point that this “isn’t a Boy’s Own adventure”, which is true enough after a fashion. (Boy’s Own here refers to the Boy’s Own Paper, a British story paper filled with ripping yarns aimed at young boys, published from 1879 to 1967. No, I’m not old enough to have read it. Cheers.) But at the same time it kind of actually is a Boy’s Own adventure…if Boy’s Own Adventures sought to promulgate worthwhile values, rather than further entrench the repressive values of the Establishment. Everything about the story comes from the Boy’s Own manual - a plucky hero, a love interest, a struggle against the odds, giving the natives what for, manly bonding, secrets revealed, thrilling near-death escapes, a fateful destiny. But at the same time Tom discovers everything about his reality is built on other people’s suffering (yes, like ours. Merry Christmas!) and his Heroic Journey takes a drastic, and dramatically final, twist away from the restitution of The Status Quo such Boys Own narratives dealt in. There’s some nicely understated humour in it too. Gaind has the British live in the shelter of domes, under the curves of which are miniature reproductions of British suburbs; which subtly skewers the tendency of the British abroad to quietly terraform wherever they grace with their sublimely insecure presence; the British are forever rebuilding Barnsley under strange suns. When we as a race get our shit together and all act for the greater good and go to the stars, it’ll be about, oh, three days before a pub with guest beers, SkySports and a Sunday Lunch appears on Mars. After all the rousing antics which barely pause for breath it is a bit jarring how suddenly the book ends, but this is obviously so that it can do so on a hopeful note; in much the same way that it’s preferable to dwell on the fact that India gained its independence, rather than disinter the atrocities of Partition which preceded it. Basically, never go out on a downer, kids! Alcatena is firmly in cahoots with Gaind’s whole subversion via imitation business. His work here is wilfully archaic and presented in a kind of tinted monochrome, in which more than one colour may be present at a time but it never approaches full colour. It’s a creative gamble that runs the risk of being judged stale and dated but it worked for me. And that’s what matters: me.
See, hah, yes, but the thing is, how should one put it, hmm, ab irato perhaps, but still, it may well be, aheurrghhh, 2016 but we in Britain currently have a Foreign Secretary who has been known to use the word “pickaninnies” and the phrase “water melon smiles”. All just jolly japes and harmless larks, I’m sure, but the man’s still a pernicious disgrace; one which represents us on the world stage. So even if EMPIRE OF BLOOD were not a thrilling adventure comic which harnesses and subverts the tropes of Imperialist entertainment, it would still be a necessary, and timely, corrective to the bizarrely jingoistic mind set currently at loose in England’s green and pleasant land. EMPIRE OF BLOOD was GOOD!
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