By Richard Marshall.
This is a fictional world that satirises fictional space as well as the actual world and presents a topsy-turvy version of both. Satire of course needs a foot in both worlds, the fictional and the non-fictional, if it is to carry clout. If the fictional cop world is largely a series of conventions using tropes and routines that valorise reactionary white cops, the real cop world is what the conventions implicate – an underfunded, distrusted institution working within a context of socially permissible white on black racism, Repug/ Tory right wing politics, Murdoch/Breitbart media jive and co-assertible sexist, Islamaphobic, stoopid crapola that rolls in with all that. In America the cops keep shooting black people, in the UK they have fewer guns so deaths come by different means. But in both places there are too many detectives and cops who are violent, pig-ignorant, xenophobic bastards who don’t have a problem serving a plutocratic right-wing hegemony and who wage a secret war on the coke-snorting, sexually promiscuous, revolutionary hipster groovy types that populate the creepy nightmares of Daily Mail readers everywhere – in other words those people the rest of call ‘poor.’ Of course the cop shows tone all this down and I’ve yet to watch one where the Trumpsters and Brexiteers, the fascists and the super rich are treated to a left-wing takedown by horny Muslim black lesbian Marxist officers of the law. And that’s a shame.
But do not despair. The crazy gang of yesteryear’s Skank comics has taken one small step to rectify this dismal state of affairs by resurrecting one of their best crazy gang characters and giving him a full run-out all on his own. Scotland Yardie is the black Jamaican ganja smoking cop who in this brilliant satirical one-off plays a decidedly Dirty Harry role to clean up the pig force and a scat London threatened by the aftereffects of all the cop shows you’ve ever seen from both sides of the Atlantic. They’re all there as background and landmarks to what’s happening, and in being there the well worn groove of buddy cop show narrative becomes fluid and sharp, hoving along a slick surface of visual and verbal jokes and knowing winks to smack down some critical thoughts and fat belly laughs.
These are caricatures by dint of their very likeness, tautologies of themselves, buckled to the fast dialogue and tic tac caustic critique, working a humour pitched towards a knowing affection for its sources and illustrious originals whilst simultaneously pointing pointingly to their defects. Knowing the detectives and their shows you’re ready for the shoe-horned well-known premises, the outsider cop and his sidekick buddy and all that jazz where a fast and hilariously layered plot makes its contrivance answer all purposes and understand each swift visual interruption and eruption that the ‘Scotland Yardie’ graphic novel represents. The character crashes the dupes, cheats, killers and gulls of his employers and calls out the institutional racism and corrupt spirits that roll from top to bottom. Throughout this cunning and super smart piece energies are eagerly occupied in dropping gall on the credulities of the fictional detectives. It’s the combination of cumulative detail, the triumphant simplicity of process and impeccable zest, its flash and style, the serious intensity of purpose that all comedy requires, a rascality and lurid distortion of what is brought to the readers’ table, that makes this a laugh fest from start to finish.
The prototypical cop show hero abstracts away from an institutional norm. The bureaucratic organisational nature of modern policing is often the background required to understand such heroes. The ideology served by the bureaucracy is rarely challenged even if it is taken to reflect the ideology of actual policing, or an ideal of such. The hero cop ignores the right wing hegemonic norm and rather rejects the constraints of bureaucracy as an evil in and of itself, regardless of what greater good (or evil) it serves. The Dirty Harry movies of Siegal and Eastwood of the seventies and eighties are prototypes of this approach. Dirty Harry is the eponymous hero cop who balks against his superiors and the bureaucratic hands- tying that results from adherence to ‘the book’. In this fictional world rules and paperwork inhibit the prosecution of evil. The good cop must work underneath or at the other side of the rules and regulations if evil is to be destroyed. Freedom is a key ideal and the good cop works as a primitive lone authentic agent to ensure that the devil does not ensnare the world in goddam red tape. The Calvinist soul inhabits this operation: the lone merciless vigilante stands before justice and God alone, forced to prosecute his version of justice with a conscience outside the law if need be. Only his conscience can validate what is done in the name of the law: like Martin Luther the lone hero cop stands before the world because his conscience dictates it. ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’ The appeal of all this is the appeal of the outlaw and the outsider, the kick against the regimented and the controlled, the sexy draw of every renegade and kick-ass individualist.
So the lone psychotic white male of the Dirty Harry movie is the template for most cop show heroes that have followed. Occasionally you get a chance for a lone psychotic white female to play the role as in the recent Gillian Anderson vehicle ‘The Fall’ and the Saga Noren character from ‘The Bridge’, but on the whole it’s a white male role. This character is often partnered with another stereotype able to register and signal the rebellion at the heart of the hero cop’s performance. This partner buddy tends to be a conformist who is unwittingly drawn to the non-conformist rebellion of the hero. They tend to be initially suspicious, if not downright hostile, towards the nonconformist rebel. If the hero cop is a rebellious and romantic instantiation the partner is a foil, a straight who works by the book and is looking to fit in and succeed the conventional way. Even where the hero cop is part of a larger team, as in CSI shows for example, they tend to gain the admiration of their team of partners against their initial better judgments. The CSI cops tend to be like this: the hero cop is the psychotic lone male prototype in a gang that he only accepts once they accept his iconoclasm. Again, the prototypical way this works raises no question as to whether they are right to want such things: by definition, conformity and following the bureaucratic rules is bad. The partner always learns that he is wrong to do the paperwork and follow the rules and that the hero way is the right way.
These fictional universes are the usual predictive universes where once you understand the characters and their roles you know what the world will be like at the end of the story. These fictional worlds remind us that the moral insensitivity of the actual world is an empirical discovery. These are stories that exist in words that predict what will happen in order that the actual world’s insensitivity becomes bearable via escapism, or hidden. The good guys always win, the bad lose, crime doesn’t pay and virtue is rewarded. These are a kind of utopia with better nomic structures than ours. But of course the ideal of these worlds could be improved. We can imagine fictional worlds where bureaucracy itself is not the enemy. A whole set of wrongs could be the target of virtuous rebellion: racism, sexism, xenophobia, elitism, cruelty, bigotry, violence and anti-plutocratic capitalism etc etc could replace bureaucracy and rule-following as the enemy. These would be preferable fictional worlds serving the same purpose, to make the actual world more bearable via escapism.
These fictional universes are constructed so that the racism, sexism, xenophobia, elitism, bigotry, violence and plutocratic capitalism etc are largely hidden in plain sight. The reactionary realities of both the hero cop and the organisation he works against are not the focus of the narrative. Often it is the muting of the reactionary agenda that the rebellion complains about and works to overcome. Eastwood’s Dirty Harry wants to use more violence, mobilise more prejudice, assert increased levels of sexist and racist and homophobic bigotry into his work so that justice can be done. The fact that he does this with incredible hair and the coolest of mystic existentialist violence is a testimony to how great these films are and how seductive very bad attitudes can be. Clint Eastwood is one of my favourite film stars and I love many of his films even though I abhor the politics of the man and many of the characters he inhabits in his film. On days when I focus on benign and optimistic readings of my attitudes and behaviours I don’t believe that the films have a message so I don’t think I am corrupted by them. I tell myself that the mind-bending possibilities of fiction are not threatening but give me a safe space to consider different sensibilities, even repulsively reactionary ones, as found in cop show stories. It’s all just play.
But when pessimism strikes, I worry that this attitude is complacent and avoids problems. And then, ziz zagging as you do, I think perhaps I am being too hard on myself. Perhaps the belief that these stereotypical depictions of hero reactionary cops with their hair and violent zen don’t do me harm is not a full belief. I draw comfort from the crazyist philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel who says:
‘The best way to conceptualize “belief”, I think, is that to believe something is to steer one’s way through the world as though it were true’). He doubts that we are often in such states. He finds evidence that compels him to suppose we are more often in ‘in-between states’, saying ‘I think such in-between states are very common for the attitudes we regard as most central to our lives. Do you really believe that God exists? Do you really believe that family is more important than work? Let’s not look just at what you sincerely say to yourself and others but at how you act and how you react. Let’s look at your spontaneous valuations of things. Often, the match between sincere words and in-the-world reactivity is poor. And I doubt we have very good self-knowledge about any of this.’
So perhaps my intransigent belief about the harmlessness of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry cop and all the others is just an in-the-world reactivity, an in-between state that doesn’t commit me to a full-time belief in the harmlessness.
But the X Phi philosopher funkster Josh Knobe draws attention to studies in cog science that feeds a more pessimistic picture. In an article about the outrageous behaviours that Trump and his supporters have unleashed he suggests that the normalising of morally bad behaviours and thoughts can occur simply by placing such thoughts and behaviours in mind. At the core of this research is the observation that minds use the normal/abnormal distinction to rule out many options in advance. In choosing between voting for Clinton and voting for Trump, for example, the mind has already ruled out other choices available. Voting for one of the two candidates is a normal option. Not voting at all is another. Shooting one of them is an abnormal choice the mind has already ruled out. It doesn’t occur in the mind. Unless someone brings it to our attention that it is an option. Once Trump started talking about his supporters shooting Clinton then suddenly an unthinkable abnormal choice became thinkable and normal. In a paper by Knobe, Thomas Icard and Jonathan Kominsky evidence was reviewed finding that ‘People appear to have a systematic tendency to focus on the possibilities they see as normal and to ignore the ones they see as abnormal.’ So as changes in what appears normal and abnormal occur, new possibilities are considered and new actions are taken.
The pessimistic thought follows that by constantly drawing attention to the reactionary hero cop this genre normalises reactionary policing. Once an option has become normalised, Knobe claims the evidence shows, people are more likely to choose it. The problem is that when unthinkable things are candidates for consideration then it has already gone too far. Knobe says this when discussing the way Trump’s rhetoric is shifting the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. ‘When we see something as bad, we feel there are specific reasons not to move forward with it. This is the attitude that liberals typically take toward tax cuts. They think people should think critically about fiscal policy, see what is bad or wrong about tax cuts, and then fight to resist them.
But this does not seem to be an appropriate response to the sorts of things Trump has been doing. When a candidate faces a challenge from a college student, we do not want the candidate to be thinking: “Should I start tweeting out insults about her? No, that would be bad because…” On the contrary, if we get to the point where candidates are thinking about whether behavior like this would be good or bad, things have already gone too far. This is the sort of possibility that should be ruled out before the process of considering different options has even begun.’
What is difficult to know is what to do in such situations. In some cases we can stop informing people of the bad stuff, and then the tendency to see it as normal diminishes. But this is hardly possible, as Knobe rightly points out, in the case of Trump’s antics. ‘Trump is our president-elect, and there is no real way we can refrain from informing people about the things he does. Whatever else we might decide to do, we can’t just agree to stop talking about him.’ And the reactionary hero cop stereotype is also a well-established fixture with no sign that we are getting bored of it anytime soon.
Some may ask for it to be banned. Others that it be ignored. The satirists’ option is to modify the stereotype so that its multi-layered offensiveness is diminished. The satirist has options. She may exaggerate the offensiveness so that it becomes hyper real. If Knobe is right this is likely to reinforce the normalcy of the offensiveness rather than shame it into retreat. Another option is to recalibrate some of its features whilst allowing less offensive parts to remain. In this way what is seen as normal remains normal but in a more benign guise. This is what Scotland Yardie by Bobby Joseph and Joseph Samuels have achieved. Clint becomes Scotland Yardie, Jamaica’s top cop brought over by Boris Johnson as a cynical PR excercise but who takes down the white corruption and drug-loaded chicken shops of London with his partner, the best black cop in London. It’s a brilliant transformation. The great hair and zen violence of the original remain firmly in place but now it’s the white racists who are being punked. The writing is sassy and pivots from gag to gag at speed whilst the illustrations are sharp, knowy and detailed. This is a book that requires concentration so that the jokes and references aren’t missed. Each picture references some pertinent character from tv/film cop lore or associated influence. The humour is pitch perfect, surreal at times and limned with an edgy charge that smart bombs its targets. The normalised routines of the stereotype become burlesqued, pranked, upended and rerouted.
Now we see the absent reactionary values of the original. The viewing conditions for absences are inherited from those of the original. This is important so that the absence is perceived rather than there be an absence of perception. The humour checks that we’re on the right side of that distinction. What we spot now is the whiteness of the cop routines. As I said, the humour checks this out: so when Edris Elba is portrayed he is both the black cop Luther and the Wire’s Springer Bell gangster. In Samuels’ sharp drawing we’re given Elba arresting himself. When we are given Starsky and Hutch, they are arresting Huggy Bear. And so it goes. Each gag is timed perfectly to illustrate the absence of the reactionary whiteness.
Readers are given a double entertainment. They are given the new sight of the black Clint character tearing a hole in the previous stereotype. They are also (if inclined) to view the absence of the white stereotype. Seeing that this isn’t Clint is part of the satirist’s repertoire, alongside seeing Scotland Yardie. This is why the story punks up a stereotypical Dirty Harry story. To have gone off with a different kind of narrative may have shown the absence of some aspect of the white reactionary cop but wouldn’t have shown the absence of all of it. The fact that the satire uses the standard narrative ensures that we are in a position to see the complete absence. An original storyline refusing the tropes of the original would allow us to imagine what the absence might be, but that’s not the same as seeing it for ourselves. ‘The perception of absences is highly dependent on memory cues and competition between those cues,’ writes the philosopher of enigmas, blindspots and paradoxes, Roy Sorensen. If right then we have another reason for the heavy load of film and tv cop references in the book. They work as memory cues to load up our knowledge of what is absent. This exploits a truth about memory, that it decays and lags behind change. This accounts for change blindness and why memory requires environmental stability. There has been a pervasive stability in the cop show routines and stereotype for over half a century at least. The changelessness of this has been a matter of proliferating variation of the same rather than any continual reinvention of the genre. The reactionary white hero cop is an overwhelming presence in culture everywhere they are shown. Readers who have been with the genre from the seventies, like me, may see some absences clearer than younger readers who haven’t. What we recall is helped by present conditions closing in on those of the past. The plethora of references in the book works to exploit the environmental reinstatement effect, the same effect that ensures that students recall their lessons best if they are in the same room in which they learned.
But the perception of the absent white reactionary cop doesn’t rely totally on recall. This makes the perception rather like seeing a hole or a shadow. And of course, when we do see such things, it is often unclear to us whether what we are seeing is something negative or positive. Scotland Yardie requires that we learn to read the whole. A naïve reader without the references would not see the absence. What we recognise as we laugh is that the white reactionary hero cop isn’t there. And the insanely brilliant gallery of all the other characters reminds us of what isn’t there and has been replaced as well as what is there. As I’ve already noted, this is a Dirty Harry story. It edges into the vast and ever-growing police fiction with a sly knowing humour wrapping its alt-vision all tight and spry with a great narrative line, cracking jokes and art to die for. It is one hell of a ride. Scotland Yardie is a spliff smoking Jamaican cop with a dislike of youth culture but an even greater hatred of oppressive bastards. The story snaps around with several Dr Whos, Inspector Frost, Poirot, the Sherlocks, Luther (arresting himself), Starsky and Hutch (in a second panel arresting Huggy Bear), Jack Reacher (Scientology secret serviceman), De Niro and the Heat crew, De Niro as Travis Bickle, the Beatles, Alan Rickman’s Snape, Schwarzenegger’s Kindergarden Cop, Tom Selleck’s Magnum, Easy Riders Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, Peter Parker – oh my, there are so many to identify – and that’s part of the joy of reading this, spotting the references and puzzling out the ones you don’t get straight off. I spent hours trying to work out one of the panels and drew a blank – it turned out the face I was desperately trying to identify was a relative of the artist or something! So no shame!
Anyhow, all of these allow us to see what isn’t there. And in so doing we’re left laughing whilst also feeling that a familiar genre is getting a long-awaited and welcome overhaul. Brilliant.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 20th, 2017.