Across The Pond: Aussie Rules!

Did you ever wonder what John Wagner and John Fowles have in common? Neither did I until very recently. John Wagner, of course, is first and foremost the writer who created Judge Dredd. He is also responsible for Johnny Alpha, the Strontium Dogs, Button Man. He wrote the Balls Brothers and I was a Teenage Tax Accountant, neither of which was successful, but both of which I loved. He has been hymned often enough in the world of 2000AD fandom, so much so that any more from me would just be embarrassing. I’d forget whether Wagner wrote the soppy girls comic ‘the blind ballerina’ before he wrote the war comic “Darkie’s Mob” or after and show up my lack of detailed comic knowledge. People who don’t know who he is and who want to know more should look him up on where he no doubt has a ridiculously scholarly and detailed page. Or they should go to the 2000 AD message board and start a thread titled “So who is John Wagner?” and see if anyone answers.

John Fowles, likewise doesn’t need a lot of introducing. He is a writer whose books were very hip in the 1960s. Several of his books have been filmed, although ‘the French Lieutenant’s Woman’ seems to be the only decent movie to come out of his writing (so he’s ahead of John Wagner and Alan Moore there). He wrote “the Magus”, “The Collecter”, “the French Lieutenant’s Woman”, “A Maggot” and a book of letters (which seem to show him to be a self-centered misanthrope who likes ogling women through telescopes). I’ve always meant to get around to reading him. ‘The Magus’ had a vaguely sexy cover when I was a kid and I wanted to find out if the contents lived up to this promise. Also Gore Vidal, whom I revere, says that Fowles is brilliant and overlooked, and if Gore says that, it’s good enough for me. What actually started me reading The Magus, was that a friend of mine, Jacqui Ross who is an actual published writer, recommended it in no uncertain terms. So did her sister. “Read ‘the Magus’ or die horribly” was the gist of the spray and I dutifully borrowed a copy from my library and started. So far the book is well-written, a bit snooty and only a little sexy. However, I found the unexpected point of similarity between the two Johns in the second chapter. Can you guess?

No, John Fowles didn’t invent a future lawman who patrols a dystopian future Mega City. John Wagner does not stare at women through telescopes (not that I know of in any case). Fowles has never used a robot with a lisp to liven up his work. Wagner has not had Jeremy Irons portray one of his creations. Fowles has never had Sylvester Stallone portray any of his characters.

What the two Johns have in common is a tin ear for Australian English. In Fowles, this really stands out because the rest of the book is very painstakingly written. You have the feeling that every sentence has been sweated over and re-written a few times, by someone who really knows what he’s doing. Then the Australian character up and says “it’s enough to make the wallabies weep”, straight out of the Private Eye/Monty Python book of made-up Strine (‘strine’= Australian English. Mimics the sound of an Aussie saying ‘Australian’ very quickly). In Judge Dredd, the Australian characters are always saying things like “I couldn’t give a roos poo”.

I don’t mean to be precious about this. If I was, I’d hardly have my anglophile reading habits. As it is, I’m used to crude misrepresentations of my country, which, if they were applied to Jewish characters would have the writer tarred and feathered. Anyway, it’s not as if there’s so much Strine to begin with. Australian English is for the most part like British English with bits of American. Its’ distinctiveness is hugely overrated, not least by defensive Australians. But the similarity got me thinking about voices in comics.

In writing dodgy Australianisms, Wagner has a lot of company. Pretty much all comics resort to stereotyping of other countries. There is a running joke on the 2000AD message board about the sensitive representations of Judges from other countries. The sleazy moustache-wearing Latin Americans, the fanatical, hari-kiri-prone Japanese. Weirdly, since 2000AD is British, the Poms get stereotyped as thin, monocle-wearing snobs who say “I say”. Must be all those Scottish writers. In fairness, the Scots of comics tend to overdo their Scottish slang, saying ‘jings’ and ‘crivens’ an awful lot. Hell, I grew up reading the Hulk fighting cartoon Russians who were just like the movie Russians (that is, a lot like Nazis). Even Alan Moore, whom all revere, did a very lazy Suth Ifrican villain in Skizz. Part of me wants to wonder if it matters. After all, the writers don’t have much time in which to show us realistic people; fun and action are supposed to be the priorities.

By the way, the best use of actual Australian speech I’ve come across in comics was in a Garth Ennis story, one of the ‘Chopper’ stories. He uses actual Strine but conjugates it wrongly, suggesting that he knew some Aussies but didn’t get them to proofread the script.

By far the worst sin against nature isn’t the misuse of ‘bonzer’ or ‘teufel’, it’s the designer bleakness of cool young people in over-written cool comics. I’d rather see a bloke with corks on his hat any day, than another Mohawk wearing chick with attitude.

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