The Ballad of Halo Jones

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Read 11/06/2016-12/06/2016

Rating: 4 stars

Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s sci-fi comic about a future everywoman trying to find her place in the world first appeared in 2000AD in the mid-80s. I was a teenager at the time and more interested in Tolkien, literary fiction and listening to pop music, so I’d given up sneakily reading my older brother’s copies of 2000AD. What an error of judgement, because I missed out on Halo Jones first time around.

One of the reasons I didn’t wholeheartedly embrace comic book reading in my teenage years is that my reading brain prefers the freedom of text alone on the page that I can then visualise the way I want to. I know, comic books are a completely different format to novels, and the story telling is different, so the reading experience is different. I am learning to read differently so that I can animate the frames in my head. Similar to the way I take the script of a novel and cast it with my imagination’s actors and imagine the real life action.

After a gap of around 30 years, I’ve been reading more comic books recently. My husband reads some interesting comic books, some of which I’ve borrowed, and I’ve read a couple of manga that I’ve loved over the last couple of years. As with novels, there’s too much out there, so I’m being selective in what I read. I’m not just reading things because people say I should. I’m only reading what appeals to me.

I’d heard about Halo Jones recently, I can’t remember why, so when it was prominent in a display of comic books at my local library, I brought it home.

I liked the story immediately. I liked being plunged directly into a new world and learning about it as the story unfolded. I enjoyed the social commentary on materialism, media inanity, wars off stage conducted for bad reasons, and the demonisation of the unemployed. The comic first appeared in the ultra materialist Thatcher years, but it feels very relevant still. The characters were all believable, and there was a good mix of action, tension and pathos. I felt sympathy with the character Glyph. Anyone who has had the experience of being talked over by the ‘cool kids’ who think what they have to say is funnier, more profound, more significant than your opinion will feel the same.

Glyph was also interesting as a study (albeit brief) of someone with gender dysphoria. I looked up the first published reference to gender dysphoria and it was only 4 years before Halo Jones came out, although the condition had been recognised and treated as Gender Identity Disorder for many years previously. I thought Moore could have been more sensitive about it (he writes Glyph as someone indecisive about what their gender is and who has access to repeat gender reassignment surgeries, which made it seem to me as though Moore thought it was a faddish thing rather than an actual condition), but was impressed it was in the story.

Halo is an intriguing character. I liked her because she was normal, average, unremarkable in so far as she was aimless in her boredom, innocent of the worst aspects of other people, liked shopping and clothes but wasn’t that bothered about shopping and clothes, and was gauche around men, unfazed or oblivious to celebrity. I liked her because she realised that her life on The Hoop wasn’t enough and she took control of her life in order to change it. I liked her because she was true to herself, even when she didn’t know she had anything to be true to and was stumbling through life. I liked her because she startdd to wake up to what was going on around her and because, even when it seemed that she’d lost everything, she didn’t give up. She still saw that she had a future. She never had a game plan. Her only ambition was to live, and to live to the best of her ability. I like her most of all for that. It’s what we all should do, whatever circumstance we find ourselves in.

It was really obvious that Moore and Gibson had put a lot of work into creating the world that Halo inhabits. The story builds gradually, and drops in hints of what has gone before without laying it all out on a plate. With each new plot development, too, just enough is said to allow links to be formed and anticipation for the next chapter to build. It’s such a shame that legal wrangling with the publishers meant that Moore and Gibson stopped after three books, rather than completing the nine they originally intended.

I struggled at first with Ian Gibson’s illustrations, though. Drawing style is one of the things that dissuades me from reading some comic books. Too much detail makes my brain hurt with the need to look at everything. Gibson’s style is very angular and brutal. It’s very 80s stylistically, too. There’s no colour in the illustration and visually I found it difficult to tune into. It felt noisy, with lots of elements clamouring for my attention. Thankfully the story was strong so I kept reading and got used to Gibson’s style. I came to love his use of black and white, particularly the way he achieves the feel of a woodblock print. My favourite frame in the whole story comes in chapter 7 of book 2, when Toby gouges his way into the dark maintenance corridor. It’s simultaneously 16th century, 20th century and 50th century. Stunning.

There’s also the thing of women being pneumatically breasted and wasp-waisted with inflated backsides in comic books. Almost as though the female characters are the sexual fantasies of the predominantly male artists. I’m speaking generally, but it has put me off reading comics in the past when images on the cover of the book and the pages within have included such an unfeasibly bodied woman. The women in Halo Jones, including Halo herself, have elements of the pneumatic but there are other body shapes present, too, and each female character has her own personality. As is the case in the real world, Halo and other characters allow themselves to be objectified in the workplace in order to escape from an unwanted existence. The story makes it clear that they are exploiting opportunity as much as they are being exploited, and the angularity of Gibson’s drawings makes them look the opposite of sex kittenish.

This was my first encounter with Alan Moore and I really liked it. I’m going to borrow Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from my husband. However, I’d also be interested to read a comic with a similar sci-fi feminist story, but written and drawn by women. If anyone knows of anything, please leave a comment.

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