Wellington shelters from the storm

The Perishers have long been one of comics' best kept secrets: but they are, at last, emerging from obscurity: they now have an official home at the Authentic Perishers Website, and live in hope of great things happening elsewhere on the web. And, as Wellington says, it's about time!

I've always said that it was reading comics in the early days that gave me my training as a medievalist. Following a story through fragments of texts, different versions, variant manuscripts, none of that bothered me: I'd had my training when American comics arrived in Britain as ballast. That was the story, anyway, and it is consistent with the erratic pattern of what was available - as Kev O'Neill remembers: "Actually searching down sequential runs was nigh on impossible and you'd see adverts for things that never came over - Justice League and things like that." Some things were unavailable, others appeared several times with different covers: old stories were reprinted in special, giant-size issues and the X-Men (and I know this may be hard to believe) avoided cancellation only by reprinting a run of some 20 issues with new covers.

Even now, when comics appear more regularly and most addicts buy their supply from specialist shops and distributors, the normal pattern of publication is periodical, which can lead to some non-sequential reading patterns. I discovered Shade the Changing Man quite late in its run, and, since it is only now, at last, being republished in trade paperback, read it in single issues or handfuls of issues, as I got hold of them. It was a revelation when I acquired my last (not "the last") issue, and was able to read the whole narrative in sequence!

With this sort of background, reading the medieval Tristan romances was no problem. Four early versions, two German, two French, representing two traditions in the treatment of the story (the original version commune, and the version courtoise, influenced by fashionable ideas about courtly love) allow the reader to piece together some idea of what the original story must have been. But you never get to see those missing episodes, not to mention "lost" versions of the story, like the Del roi Marc et d'Ysalt la blonde to which Chrétien de Troyes refers in his Cligès.

This demonstrates a similarity between comics and medieval romance which appears to be external - the similarities are to do with how the texts reach us, and how we read them - but reflects some genuine common features. Both genres are ephemeral - comics because they are (or were) viewed as cheap and disposable, to be read by children and passed on until they fell apart, romances because in the days before printing, only a few copies of a book might ever exist. What's more, romances were not real books: real books were written in Latin, for learned men to study, while romances were written in the everyday "romance" languages, for mere entertainment.

Does this sound familiar? There's more. Comics doesn't have to mean "superheroes", but it usually does; romance, likewise, doesn't have to mean "King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table", but the chances are good... So both genres deal with heroic characters, who are not only larger than life, they are also larger than any given telling of their story. Tristan and Iseut have become the symbol of impossible, unlawful love, and they have found their way into the imagination of creators from Marie de France to Wagner. King Arthur and his court represent an ideal of disinterested justice and freely accepted adventure, and writers from Chrétien himself to T. H. White have built on the framework laid by Geoffrey of Monmouth - and that's without mentioning such directly Arthurian comics as Brian Bolland and Mike W. Barr's Camelot 3000 !

One of the reasons why some stories do not survive in their original form is not that they were unpopular, but the opposite: the stories were so popular that versions felt to be old-fashioned were updated, re-worked to suit a modern taste. Verse tales about individual heroes were compiled into massive prose cycles, which attempted to iron out inconsistencies and tie up loose ends: you could regard Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, (printed by Caxton in 1485, and among the very first books to be printed in Britain) as a "Year One" or "Ultimates" revision.

The origins of Arthur himself are uncertain, and the subject of much partisan debate. Do the stories refer, however indirectly, to a historical figure, or is the hero a faint reflection of some forgotten deity? The earliest surviving references are non-narrative: that is, they refer to Arthur as someone who is known to the audience, but they do not tell his story. But underlying all the romances about him is Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae - History of the Kings of Britain - of which the largest part is devoted to Arthur: his conception, his birth, his reign and his death. Even more than Superman and Batman, whose origins are fixed but whose deaths are uncertain, Arthur imposes certain constraints on any story which centres on him. But any young hero can use the court at Camelot as a base from which to spin off on adventures of his own. The indefatigable Jess Nevins sees what he terms "this syncretism of myth" as a precursor of the comics crossover; but where the modern - and post-modern - reader derives a particular pleasure from recognising the insertion of one fiction into another, for the medieval audience, the introduction of a new hero into the Arthurian canon involved setting the new tale against a historic background. There was little distinction between history and story, and the title of Geoffrey's Historia can be translated as both the story and the history of the kings of Britain, Arthur chief among them.

Nonetheless, the Matter of Britain (as the Arthurian material, in its broadest sense, is known) does function in much the same way as the established "universe" of the comics companies. Chrétien's Perceval is a unique work in many respects, but it is also representative of a plot structure which tells of the hero's development from unschooled youngster to worthy companion of the flower of chivalry. In the case of Perceval himself, there is a point in this process when Perceval has begun to understand the obligations of a knight (for, as we know, with great power comes great responsibility), and, as if by chance, his wanderings bring him back to the court of King Arthur. But he does not realise this, for he has noticed traces on the snow, where a falcon has killed a dove, and the red blood fading into the white snow reminds him so intensely of the woman he loves that he falls into a reverie from which nothing can rouse him. This is an opportunity for that favourite motif "due to a misunderstanding, two good guys fight, allowing us to discover which is the stronger". First the generic knight Sir Sagremors is dispatched to invite the newcomer back to Arthur's camp, but Perceval unhorses him as unconsciously as if he were brushing off a fly. Then Sir Kay, despite his sharp tongue one of the senior knights of the Round Table, fares no better. Finally, Sir Gawain undertakes the task, but since Gawain is the best of all Arthur's knights (Le Conte del Graal was written at the very end of the twelfth century, before Lancelot supplanted Gawain as Top Knight), and Perceval the hero of this story, neither can be allowed to defeat the other, so as the blood dissipates into the snow, Perceval emerges from his thoughts and the two greet each other fondly. Perceval's acceptance at Arthur's court marks the completion of his education, and the romance restarts as he and Gawain set off, each on his own designated quest.

This is only one of a repertoire of plot devices, some more plausible than others, employed by the romances for testing the relative strength of two heroes. No true knight, for example, can ever resist a challenge, so a warrior who wants to display his skills need only station himself by a ford and let no-one cross it. In Chrétien's Yvain: Le Chevalier au Lion, the challenge is more elaborately constructed: whenever water is poured from a fountain onto a stone, a magical storm is provoked, and the knight of the castle emerges to demand compensation for the disturbance it causes. The promise of this adventure draws in a stream of knights, until eventually Yvain, being the hero of the tale, defeats the Knight of the Fountain - and then finds himself persuaded to marry his widow and take on his duty of challenging all comers.

The situation here is double-edged; chivalry obliges all passing knights to accept the challenge and fight the Knight of the Fountain, but the Knight of the Fountain cannot withdraw his challenge if a knight arrives whom he does not want to fight. Yvain has committed himself to an undertaking whose implications he may not like: he has achieved an effect more often engineered by the plot device known as the rash boon. A classic rash boon story opens with a stranger arriving at King Arthur's court, and asking the king to grant an unspecified request. The King, ever the soul of generosity, agrees, and the stranger then names the required favour, which might be "let me elope with your wife" or "let me play beheading games with one of your knights". Celtic scholars see this motif as a vestige of the geis, a compelling enchantment; in story terms it serves as a wild card in much the same way as red kryptonite, breaking the constraints of the story to set up new situations.

And if all else fails, there is always the tournament. Comics plotting could not pit heroes, those who are on the side of virtue, against each other on so flimsy a pretext, but the conventions of romance seem able to accept the tournament both as a genuine battle in which there will be injuries and may be fatalities, and as an enjoyable social get-together. An article about The Unknown Knight at the Tournament gives several examples in which the champion of the tournament fights incognito - including one in which this motif is so central that it actually provides the title of the romance: Le Bel Inconnu (The Fair Unknown). Chrétien gives this motif a twist in his Chevalier de la Charrete: Lancelot attends a tournament, but fights incognito, each day in different coloured armour, since no-one would be prepared to risk his life against this acknowledged champion. But Guinevere recognises him, and to test his devotion instructs him each day to fight, not his best, but his worst for her sake. Doing so, he is universally derided. Only on the third day of the tournament does she relent, and Lancelot easily defeats all contenders.

Such episodes make clear the extent to which armour functions in the same way as the superhero's costume - not to mention Iron Man, the superhero whose costume is a suit of armour. Suit of iron or suit of spandex, both have a practical function - armour offers physical protection; a costume may do the same, by some magical or pseudoscientific means, or at the very least provide a utility belt full of bat-gadgets and spidey-tracers. But more importantly, both define heroic status: a chivalric hero is a knight in armour, just as a superhero is a costumed superhero. To wear the costume and perform the role of a particular hero is to be that hero: Yvain becomes the Knight of the Fountain, just as Hal Jordan and then John Stewart succeed Abin Sur as Green Lantern. The individual identity within the shell is a secret identity, simply by virtue of being concealed. Peter Milligan remarks, in a Sequential Tart interview, that identity is one of the central themes of comics, and with good cause:

It's true that it's a theme I return to. The funny thing is, you're not always aware of it when you're developing a new story. It seems a central issue: who are you? What makes you you? Comics is a good medium to explore all this being as they are obsessed by secret identities, masks and assumed names.
- and the same applies to the chivalric romances.

The other half of Peter Milligan's question: "who are you? What makes you you?" invites an examination of the "secret origins" of the hero, and this is another interest that the two genres have in common. The story of Gareth recounts how the hero arrives at Arthur's court, but refuses to give his name, concealing his noble birth and fighting abilities and accepting menial employment in the kitchens. Kay, the eternally sharp-tongued, plays the Flash Thomson rôle, jeering at the hero in his nerd disguise, and giving him the nickname Beaumains ("beautiful hands", because Gareth's white hands reveal that he is not accustomed to manual work). But although social standing and chivalrous fighting skills can be concealed, nobility of character cannot, and, since the medieval audience knew that these things always go together, the Top Knights are not fooled; Lancelot defends Gareth, who is ultimately revealed to be the brother of Sir Gawain. Where the original material does not include an origin story, one can also be supplied retrospectively: Chrétien invented Lancelot for reasons of his own, but by the time of Malory's writing, Lancelot had supplanted Gawain as the best of King Arthur's knights, and had been retro-fitted with a detailed back story. Just as there is a recognised motif in comics known as the secret origin story, so the romances return to the theme of the enfances (literally, the childhood exploits) of the hero. There survives a thirteenth century Latin version of the Enfances Gauvain, and Robert de Boron's L’Estoire du Graal, which identifies the mysterious dish seen by Chrétien's Perceval with the chalice of the Last Supper, has been described as "the enfances of the Grail"!.

The greater the hero, the greater the threat they must defeat: as well as fighting each other, the heroes of chivalry fight dragons, Spider-man fights the Green Goblin. When a comic concedes that in the real world, the enemy is smaller, and more complex, it is a sign of a shift away from the heroic mode, in which the very existence of heroes generates threats on their own scale (a characteristic satirised in Robert Sheckley's short story, Protection). This is true of both genres, and sometimes the echo is striking: in Geoffrey, Arthur is challenged to single combat by the giant, Retho:

Retho had made himself a fur cloak from the beards of the kings whom he had slain. He sent a message to Arthur, telling him to rip his own beard off his face, and when it was torn off send it to him. Since Arthur was more distinguished than any of the other kings, Retho promised in his honour to sew his beard higher up the cloak than the others...
who is clearly an ancestor of Grant Morrison's Beard Killer.

Do these similarities indicate some causal connection? Was King Arthur really Superman in one of his time-spanning adventures? Or maybe an alternate reality, or red kryptonite effect? Possibly, but it's more likely that, despite the passage of eight centuries, the same causes continue to produce the same results. As Diana Wynne Jones remarks, in an essay on the subject: "the big, heroic things which we respond to are exactly the same nowadays as they always were..." We continue to want to know the same things about our heroes. Given a narrative about a heroic figure meeting colourful opponents, we continue to ask how he (or, increasingly, she) fits in with all our existing heroes: are they friends, what if they were to fight? And how do they fit in with us: how do you become a hero? what if someone apparently ordinary were secretly one of these glamorous figures?

These recurring narrative motifs demonstrate parallels between two heroic literatures at a superficial level: and Sturgeon's Law applies, most of what is produced in both genres is superficial, trivial and of no lasting interest. But there are exceptions, which take the subject matter and make it into something fresh and vital. It is a commonplace to deplore the monopoly of superheroes, and as long as the industry is dominated by hack retreads of the same material, thinly disguised attempts to duplicate what has been successful in the past, it is indeed deplorable. The same is true of the Matter of Britain - there are plenty of third rate hack-and-slay questing-by-numbers adventures. But the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2002 went - deservedly - to Gwyneth Jones's Bold as Love, which weaves Arthurian themes and resonances into something entirely new and moving. If the dream of Camelot can still spark fires after all this time, perhaps there is hope for the superheroes yet!

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