Comics and Caius

Iron Man and Dr Doom reminisce in Tree Court, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Victor Von Doom bantering with Tony Stark in Tree Court, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge England. From Invincible Iron Man 13 (Marvel, 2016)

In fiction, Billionaire playboy industrialists are wont to lose sight of both their past and their future, with potentially devastating consequences. When Tony Stark, the Invincible Iron Man, is teleported (against his will) by reformed marvel villain Victor Von Doom, he finds himself standing in the Tree Court of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge.

Tree Court. CREDIT: Gonville and Caius College website

The former Caian then engages on a voyage of discovery from a past forgotten, dressed very casually as the sharply-attired Victor Von Doom (experimenting in heroism as the Infamous Iron Man) prompts a realignment of Tony’s moral compass.

Von Doom, himself expelled from State University in New York for performing unethical experiments, gives Stark a comprehensive tour around Cambridge. The industrialist returns to the MRC Laboratory where he had his first taste of research and academia prior to inheriting his father’s weapons-manufacturing business. He is in a contemplative mood throughout.

Stark is not alone. We all go through moments in life when we have to find ourselves again. Perhaps, whilst breathing in the pungent Wisteria flowers adorning the Tutorial Office of Caius, Tony reminisced about an age of innocence, before he had to make difficult decisions with world-changing implications.

The Tutorial Office covered in Wisteria

What is it about this quaint section of Gonville and Caius’ Tree Court which lends itself to a representation in the comics medium? It lacks the iconic postcard-selling grandeur King’s College Chapel or Trinity College’s Grand Court. This is a unique, Cinderella tower-like corner which can easily be missed when visiting Tree Court, famed primarily for the succession of unique hornbeams lining its avenue.

Hornbeams in Tree Court. CREDIT: Gonville and Caius College website

Perhaps, this specific corner of Tree Court simply evokes mystical connotations which are suitable for the illustrated word, and are a fitting place for Von Doom and Stark to do a tête-à-tête, and remember bygone times.

Whilst attending Caius, one wonders if Tony Stark spent any time talking to Professor Sir Stephen Hawking, who was based in Gonville and Caius for many decades and sadly passed away recently. Certainly, Professor Hawking’s advice about the nature of wormholes might have helped Stark in the first Avengers movie, which does not elaborate on how he managed to survive his experience.

A portrait of Professor Sir Stephen Hawking in the Dining Hall of Gonville and Caius College. CREDIT: University of Cambridge website

It is not only Marvel Comics which has set scenes in the Tree Court. The genre-breaking japanese manga “Pluto” also appears to use this corner in its story.

Tree Court, sans Wisteria. CREDIT: Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka

Despite being a story about androids, Pluto is arguably the most human of Japanese master storyteller Naoki Urasawa’s manga masterpieces, as he simultaneously builds upon and subverts Osamu Tezuka’s classic Astro Boy. Does this scene pay homage to famous Caians such as nuclear physicist and discoverer of the neutron Sir James Chadwick, Professor Sir Stephen Hawking or John Venn. Who knows?

Tree Court, circa 1870, CREDIT: Kimberly Blaker, New Boston Fine and Rare Books

Long may comics continue to include this mysterious corner in their illustrations.

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Unfollow – A comic book series for our times that you need to read.

Unfollow is a new comic series from DC’s Vertigo imprint, written by Rob Williams and illustrated by Michael Dowling.  11 issues in, so far it’s a game-changer.

The story starts with a social media tycoon with a terminal illness leaving his  $18,000,000,000 fortune to be split between 140 lucky people (i.e. the maximum number of characters for a tweet). These folk find that they have suddenly got an app called 140 on their smartphones.  However, there is a forewarning: Should one of the winners die then the relative amount received by the remainder goes up. At first the 140 people all seem to have been chosen at random, but it become clear that at least some of them were pre-selected. It sounds like an experiment to observe and judge human nature. But the dying billionaire knows exactly what he is unleashing….

So far, so Battle Royale/Hunger Games. But what makes this series special is characterisation. The cast are unique and complex, and even within the first 11 issues our impressions of their respective moral compasses flips back and forth. As in real life, there are sometimes blacks and whites, but more often than not there are conflicting shades of grey.

The closest character to an everyday protagonist is Dave, a black man from St.Louis who was involved in the 2014 Ferguson protests and struggles between getting by and keeping his sister safe.  He is fallible and makes mistakes, but seems the most intrinsically likeable character.

Rubinstein is the most fascinating from a visceral perspective. As the sharp-suited “number two” of the terminally ill billionaire Ferrell, his job seems to be to gather and monitor the 140, and he appears to be clinical in his efficiency. However he is also a psychopath who seems to be getting more and more consumed by a mask persona which leads him to do bad things. Which one is in control?

Courtney, we think at first as a Paris Hilton-esque airhead. Early on she uses young Dave on a flight for a mile-high quickie, which simultaneously excites and disgusts him. But we discover that she is not only cynical but revolted by wealth and we suspect, by herself. From our initial superficial dislike of her, we now feel much more sympathetic.

The strength of the research for this series is manifest in Ravan. A British-Iranian reporter who is both one of the 140 and tasked to film proceedings by Ferrell and Rubinstein. It is unique to have an iranian-origin character, let alone one from the overseas diaspora. Yet her character doesn’t seem tokenistic in any way. She just seems like a badass, and it makes you think “fair play to the writer for fleshing out a unique character from a complicated society where women achieve a much higher level of education than men and but have been oppressed over  last few decades”.  She gets the attention of Deacon, a second-amendment hillbilly who hears voices and who turns up to the party with a truck-load of guns, falling in love with her too.  Once again, our first impressions about him are challenged.

Williams does an exemplary job developing quite a big group of characters, though perhaps the weakest character in the ensemble is Akira – a zany Japanese artist and cult leader who wrote a book which paralleled the events of the series. Meta. The idea is good, unfortunately the character himself is rather annoying.

The art from Dowling is also very good, with the complexity of the characters’ emotions conveyed very clearly.   His backgrounds are beautiful and the colour palette draws you into the world that he and Williams have created.

It is still “early days” in this series but even despite its outlandish plot and characters, there feels an eerily powerful grounding in the real world.  The unique narrative has grabbed my attention in a way that very few other series have – Personally “Y:The Last Man”, “The Walking Dead” and “Chew” have done the same.

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