Gatiss, what have you done?

The Vesuvius Club

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It’s a hackneyed turn of phrase – we’ve all heard it, whether directed at ourselves in moments of deep personal opprobrium, or, later, jesting with friends, bonding over the fact that we are all of us imperfect beings – but, Mark Gatiss, I’m not even mad. I’m disappointed.

I picked up The Vesuvius Club: Graphic Edition from the local library a while back. The comic version of Gatiss’ 2004 novel of the same name, the work is a condensed version of Gatiss’ text coupled with Ian Bass’ art. Black and white, the depiction is a blend of real-to-life and caricature, stark lines with negative space in solid fill. Far from the worst I’ve seen, it remains perfunctory – there isn’t much here that benefits a second viewing; it’s all surface.

The volume covers a single arc, and runs to 100 pages, as well as character splashes and newspaper-style adverts on the inside covers. It’s here that the frustrations set in. The design, at least to my mind, sets you up for something similar to Moore and O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – both series cover the same period, the late Victorian/Early Edwardian, both have a puckish reverence for the aesthetics of the era, both blend the mundaneity of the period with the fantastical. It’s a bit of a difficult comparing much of anything in comics to Moore’s work – there is almost always a clear divide in quality, in depth, in novelty, etc., etc. What little I’ve read of Gaiman’s work sometimes comes close, but I’ve seen little else. Which is all to say that it might be a little unfair to compare this, an adaptation of a work, from a writer of various media, to that of a focussed effort from a master of the form. The failure to achieve greatness, however, is not what I’m so frustrated by.

Better story. Better art. Better politics.

Better story. Better art. Better politics.

Moore, as a story-teller, is definitely not without fault, and League, for all it’s depth and detail, is a flawed work that, at least in the main run, collapsed under its own weight. While clearly riffing off the period each issue was set in – it was, after all, an effort to blend all of literature – the whole arc was steeped in Moore’s particular style of progressivism. Though the characters themselves may have been constrained by Edwardian values, the narrative itself didn’t play to those rules – indeed, so much of the story is driven by Mina Harker’s efforts to assert herself in a “man’s world” playing a “man’s role.” When odious, racist depictions surfaced, they were almost always undercut and inverted; acting, rather than as signifiers for themselves, to show off why these caricatures were wrong in the first place.

To its benefit, Vesuvius is not totally without this – the protagonist is bisexual, and one of his accomplices gay, and this is not treated as morally reprehensible by the tone of the narrative, if not always their fellow characters. However, I fear that Gatiss may have played it too straight in his appreciation for and representation of mores of the period. Characterisation of other elements in the story are lifted almost whole-cloth, without any evidence of satire or nuance, from the racist and bigoted tropes of the era. There is a stereo-typical ‘mandarin’ looking awfully a lot like something Mickey Rooney may have played who, inevitably, runs the Opium Den, and then the villain, in the reveal, turns out to be a transvestite. And mad. ‘Cause nothing’s more twisted and evvilll than a mentally distressed person with a penchant for women’s dress.

Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in the literary world at the moment, what with Lionel Shriver’s recent key note pushing back against what she feels is political correctness gone mad, and the inevitable blow-back she received as others circled the wagons (for my part, I think both parties are wrong). Vesuvius, though, is obviously not a case of appropriation as much as it is stale tropes that were rankly offensive when they first surfaced, let alone more than a century later. What is worse is that we all know Gatiss is better than this – his work in Doctor Who and Sherlock (“The Abominable Bride” aside…) are some of television’s better efforts, so it’s not as if the man is a serial offender or endemically prejudiced.

I can only hope that this is a singular misstep in an otherwise reputable career. Evidently Vesuvius has been in production for the small screen for a while. Hopefully they clean it up a bit.

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Posted on September 27, 2016, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Freeinkers James

    Reading that damned book (in novel form) and its sequels put me off Mark Gatiss’ writing in a very severe way. Not just the transphobia but the rampant misogyny too, a combination that made my skin crawl (which it does in Moore too but at least there I appreciate that the skin crawling is usually a deliberate effect).

    The problem is as you intimate, an inability to be critical of nostalgia for the past (not entirely my own opinion, see http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/pop-between-realities-home-in-time-for-tea-54-the-league-of-gentlemen/). And in spite of your praise for his contributions to Doctor Who, his scripts there often as not fall headlong into that trap too. ‘Victory of the Daleks’ is bits of Power of the Daleks bolted on to the bland goody/baddy narrative of World War Two where Churchill was a lovable rogue. ‘Cold War’ is entirely built around how awesome the Ice Warriors were when you were twelve, dollops of the actual Cold War nostalgia and a lot of noble warrior guff. At least ‘The Crimson Horror’ has Diana Rigg’s glorious OTT turn to carry it along; ‘Sleep No More’ is a botched together mess of horror cliches lumbered with another carbuncle of sexism and transphobia (potentially fears about mental health as well, I’m honestly not sure what it was going for).

    And he stirred up a lot of rage with ‘The Unquiet Dead’ with people interpreting it as an attack on immigration – but the problem was really that he’d recycled a Pertwee era Doctor Who plot without bothering to do anything about the politics of the most politically awkward era of the show’s history. He just seems to have an enormous blindspot for any of the downsides of the things he looks back fondly upon.

    of course, I could just be bitter because a book about a bisexual Victorian James Bond so severely disappointed me.

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