Across The Pond: War of the Rip Offs

Have you ever wondered which was the worst use of H.G Wells in fiction?

I was going to go for a Colin Baker Dr Who story called ‘Timelash’, in which H.G is a complete drip who marvels at everything, gets in the way and, despite being H.G Wells doesn’t go the grope on any of the women. Then I remembered the 2000 AD story ‘House of Time’. If you can’t remember this, I envy you. It was a smirking, jokey, wildly unfunny story in which a group of trans-temporal aristocrats built the 20th century and bumped into Shakespeare, the Beatles, H.G. Wells, Orson Welles, Einstein and so on. In that one, there were two H.G. Wells, one of whom snuck off in a time machine to go to a drive-in. You’d think any story with a cast like that would be kind of interesting, but you’d be wrong. It was excruciating. Probably because it didn’t really have the famous cast, just listed them. It was like a comic version of Madame Tussauds; a character who didn’t look very much like John Lennon made lame jokes to a character who didn’t look at all like Shakespeare.

I was plumbing for the Dr. Who Wells as the worst ever, but it struck me that there must be a gaggle of other fictional versions of the old goat. If readers can think of a lamer one than the Dr Who story, do please write in and describe how.

All of which leads me on to a topic I’ve been wanting to have a bash at for ages now; the re-animation business. It seems to be booming lately. Sherlock Holmes has been brought back yet again, this time by Michael Chabon in ‘The Final Solution’. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was filmed not long ago, pretty badly but adding Dorian Grey to the cast (super-power; being shot while his painting bleeds). Gordon Rennie did a very similar thing in Necronauts, with Conan Doyle, an annoyingly smug Charles Forte, Harry Houdini and H.P Lovecraft dealt with hideous Things From Beyond. Oh and Dr Who is back again, recently giving us a somewhat spirited Charles Dickens.

The appeal of reanimating is obvious; in business terms, your characters have instant brand recognition. No need to strain to create a new personality, to make a character vivid for your readers. Just have Fu Manchu wave a wizened fingernail at the punters. The character comes ready made, but you can have a bit of fun with them, daringly suggesting that they were sexier than those dopey Victorians thought at the time.

What makes this practice all down is whether the long-dead characters have a voice of their own or not. One thing that makes them have less of a voice is anachronism. The temptation to make long dead characters or people more sexy and street-cred than they’ve been until now is strong but it produces a lot of anachronism. This problem is right in your face in Titanic where the characters used expressions that would have sounded out of place in the 1970s, let alone on the Titanic. High culture is not immune to the problem of anachronism. Culture doesn’t get much higher than Pat Barker who has won the Booker prize. She wrote a trilogy of books, the Regeneration trilogy, about World War I, practicing some high-culture re-animation on Seigfried Sassoon and the psychiatrist who examined him when he was invalided out of the Western Front. In many respects it’s a fine book and very readable. A lot of research has gone into it. But one of the characters is an energetic bisexual. Now, I’m sure there were energetic bisexuals around during WWI, but this bloke runs rampant in a way that makes the late Freddie Mercury look timid. I kept thinking it would have been a bit more difficult for him.

Less glaring anachronisms involve speech patterns. Try reading a book written before, say 1950 and see how different the speech is to ours. I heard a drama set in 1782 the other day. A character said ‘that means a lot to me’ and I immediately thought it was false. Like Alan Moore and Gordon Rennie, Pat Barker obviously cares about the characters she’s reanimating, which is a good start, setting her reanimation apart from ‘House of Time’ and all those other stories in which the thought process seems to have been ‘A time-travel story. Put H.G. Wells in it’. I bet Ms. Barker has never worried about being different to 2000 AD stories but if she is she can relax.

Comics are a derivative medium, so there’s no point expecting them to give up reanimations or even lazy ones. Do let’s have more reanimations, but lets have some done with love. Alan Moore’s From Hell being a prime example. He shoves the research into the reader’s face a bit, but he really something to be proud of (and most of the shoving is done in the notes which can easily be skipped). More of the same would do much to restore the honor of reanimations.