Friday, 24 September 2010

Nic's Sticky Notes: The Ballad of Halo Jones

The Complete Ballad of Halo Jones: Books 1 -3

Script: Alan Moore
Art: Ian Gibson

“Where did she go? OUT. What did she do? EVERYTHING…”

The Ballad of Halo Jones began in 2000AD in the mid-eighties. At first it tries to have you believe it is just another light-hearted, semi-satirical future romp of the kind 2000AD excelled at. There are the usual trappings, stylish punky clothes, future-speak, invasive media (well, that was still a fiction back then), in-jokes about mass unemployment and other British eighties concerns …don’t believe it…it is a trick!! I mean, if someone had asked you if wanted to read the “first feminist space opera” what would you have said?

But, like with all good misdirection, by the time you realise you’ve been had it’s far too late. There is no way to back out now, but you’ll find, in fact, that you don’t want to leave. We should have looked at the title. How many run of the mill comics can you think of that have “ballad” in the name? Even though this is quite early work for him Alan Moore already has a very large bag of tricks. He gets to use most of them.

Once past the first 50 pages or so of, albeit well written, standard “sci-fi chick goes future shopping with a grenade launcher, ha ha” Moore launches into a sweeping story of an ordinary girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and in doing so slyly offers a treatise on rebellion, promises, friendship, loyalty, war, experience and innocence, humanity, love and morality that is a fantastic and beautiful read.

“Halo Jones left earth with a robot dog for company…and never came back. That’s the whole story.”

We follow Halo from her existence as a bored teenager living in “the hoop” with her flatmates, out across the stars and in to the depths of her soul. When we leave her, or should that really be when she leaves us, it is as a damaged, desensitised and yet strangely hopeful woman in her thirties. Actually she may be much older than that, technically, as there are odd things done with space, time and gravity, but we’ll get to them in a minute.

The whole thing has a haunting, bittersweet note, and I would be tempted to call it a tragedy, but that’s not quite right. Things can, and do, go catastrophically wrong, there can be unendurable pain and loss, but there is no sense of predestination, no hurtling towards an unavoidable doom. The very terrifying randomness of the world is what allows for the possibility of miracles, and often it makes it worse that there can always be hope.

That sounds so sad though, and it’s not the whole picture. The story is so multi-layered, and the layering so subtle, and the story and character development so clever, that it’s difficult to really give the right impression. This is, after all, a story that ran in an action comic for boys. There are gangs, heavy weaponry, robot dogs, Rat Kings, speaking dolphins, invisible women, amazons, murder, warfare – it’s an exciting ride. There is no shortage of Tharg’s Thrill Power here.

Speaking of the warfare there is a combat in this book that is one of the most innovative things I have seen in any fiction, in any medium. I won’t describe it as it needs to be read, and is quite a major spoiler, but it has to do with time passing differently on a high gravity battlefield to the “standard” gravity base and what this means for the officers planning the war and the soldiers fighting it.

There is often criticism of how women are portrayed in comics, particularly when they are written by men. In fact there is lovely flash forward to the future when Halo has become a legend and her story is being discussed in a college class studying “The Halo Jones myth in modern Concordian folklore”. The students learn “that at one time it was even claimed she was a man”.

Halo is no gun-toting sex-object of any stripe. She is not a Barbarella or a Vasquez. You will fall in love with her though. She is adventurous and fascinating. Sometimes she is brave, sometimes she is kind, sometimes she is selfish or gullible or weak. Mostly though, she is real. One of my favourite lines is her explanation of why she fell for a murderous alien general: “Because you scare me…because you have nice hands…because I knew you were going to be bad news and I wanted to be with you anyway. You think that means I've got an unhealthy attitude?…” But then she wasn’t written by a man so much as created by a comics god!

Ian Gibson is one of my favourite artists. His work is simultaneously very stylised and very realistic. That is, the accentuated nature of his character design allows him to express a “realism” in their attitudes and poses. It is very “pouty” art, everyone has killer cheekbones and beautiful eyelashes and strikes just the right poses with their jutting hips and aggressive shoulders to throw the perfect stark shadows. There is a strutting confidence that gets across a lot about the hardness of the world and the characters that live there.

Halo Jones is a masterpiece. Writing a character of his own invention Moore’s work is vivid, witty, daring and heart-breakingly brilliant. The way that plot threads come together books later than when the seeds were first sown is nothing short of amazing. The structure is intricate, but not confusing. I can’t really think why this is not listed alongside V for Vendetta and Watchmen as some of his best work - probably only because it was never picked up by a big American publisher. It deserves to be as widely read.

Halo is not a hero in the traditional sense. She didn’t try to change the world, she left it behind. Instead she changes herself, and this is the message of the book as I read it – the most important revolutions are on the inside.

“She wasn’t anyone special. She wasn’t brave or clever or strong. She was just somebody who felt crammed by the confines of her life. She was just somebody who had to get out. And she did it. She went out past Vega, and past Moulquet and Lambard. She saw places that aren’t even there anymore. And do you know what she said? Her most famous quotation? “Anybody could have done it.”.”

The only downside is that we don’t get to the end. This may be called the “complete” Ballad of Halo Jones, but it is only 3 volumes out a planned 10. The idea was that the books would follow Halo right up to old age but “differences of opinion” between Alan Moore and the 2000AD editorial staff over copyright ownership mean that it was never finished. That is not to say the story does not come to a satisfying conclusion. Moore is too great a craftsman for that. It is open enough that more could be written. Hoping against hope, keeping my fingers crossed.

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