In my days of youth, people took the piss out of me relentlessly for reading comic books, and I can’t say that I blame them. There is no way around the simple truth that comics in general are for rejects, and no amount of high-handed talk about ‘depth’ and ‘dark subject matter’ will ever really find a way around this fact. Savage, however, is one of those rare works which genuinely has a saving grace in terms of its presentation and philosophical subject matter, and in this case I believe that if the story had been presented to the British public in almost any other medium, there would have been a lot of pressure for it to get banned.
Savage is a return to the storyline of an ancient strip called Invasion which first appeared in 2000AD Magazine in 1977, prompting calls from Guardian journalists for the story to be discontinued. The reason for the affront was that it dealt with a Russian invasion of Britain and a heroic resistance movement, and people were worried that children reading the Invasion strip would be liable to develop a biased and aggressive view of the Soviet Union. Each week, the plucky Brits of Invasion cheerfully worked out amusing ways to kill and maim Russians, such as infiltrating circuses and letting the tigers out, hijacking the Channel Tunnel, and generally causing havoc for the occupiers’ military regime. During this time, the magazine also began printing Judge Dredd, a story which quickly established itself as one of the best things ever and which made even shorter work of the Soviet Union – at one point the square-jawed rascal nuked something in the region of 100 million people to preserve America’s freedom.
In 2004, the plot from Invasion was updated for the magazine, and has resulted in an overlooked classic. One of the most frequent suggestions made in defence of comics is that they are ‘subversive’, but this time it is actually true. Indeed, the first few pages of Savage present a man travelling through Essex whose family have been killed, and he has inoperable cancer which he believes was caused by depleted uranium shells. After a few handshakes and slaps on the back, he drives his car into a checkpoint run by collaborationist English soldiers and blows himself up. This clearly represents a direct challenge to the reader’s views on privilege and morality – is a suicide attack always unjustifiable?
The resistance leader, Bill Savage, is introduced shortly afterwards in a dingy flat in inner-city London, conversing with a friend who mentions there have been recent terrorist attacks on the national power grid, going on to ask Savage to remind him of what his line of work is. Bill smirks and replies, “I work for the gas board.” These opening scenes set the tone for a snide, incisive run through the politics of violence, asking deep and serious questions about where people are headed in the twenty first century. The title of the comic is appropriate, mocking as it does the aspirations for the British ‘role in the world’ of certain bastards in high places. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta placed its anti-authoritarianism in a bleak, tragic future political environment steeped in fascism, but in my opinion Mill’s work is considerably closer to the bone. The unfortunate citizens of England moving through the comic tread a fine line between having a clear mandate for their resistance to occupation, and being oblivious to the history of how things got so bad in the first place, and events are peppered with ironic reflections on the public face of the war on terror. In one lucid moment in the story, Russian soldiers are seen throwing sweets to children from a tank, prompting speculation amongst onlookers that a human shield is being constructed.
Pat Mills is an excellent author who has worked on many famous comics including Batman and Punisher. Savage more or less sticks to the 2000AD template of rough, concise characterization and hyperbolic humour, yet the strip is punctuated by a subtle, at times moving run through various ideas and polemics. It is to Mill’s credit that the plot does not lionize resistance movements – much attention is paid to the depressing contours of geopolitical grand strategy, and the manner in which powerful nations’ hesitance and secrecy can make or break an armed insurrection. At various points in the story, parallels and allusions emerge to both the grisly mechanics of command-and-control operations in Afghanistan, and also the harsh realities of life for the global working class under the neoliberal microscope. Mills also takes a hatchet to Churchill’s violent, oppressive legacy in an unforgettable scene of confrontation with a Russian general who decries the history of British foreign policy.
By the standards of the recent, pathetic ‘guidelines’ on extremism which have floated to the surface of our national shitheap, Savage is arguably extremist literature. If you are not going to read it because it’s a comic – well, that is a smart move and you are to be congratulated for your prudence. However if you gave up all hope of a normal life the day you picked up a suspect package from one of those excruciating nerd galleries known as comic shops, Savage is about as good as it gets. People need proper fiction at times like these, and given that since his knighthood David Hare can only manage garbage like Gethsemane, someone in the culture industry has to adopt a properly critical voice. If that means a lot of exclamation marks and pictures of explosions, so be it. Just mind you don’t get arrested under the Terrorism Act on the way to the shops.