On Nice Versus Nasty

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I’ve just finished reading the excellent and immensely ingenious Anansi Boys by  Neil Gaiman.  It’s a book which plays a very clever game – drawing on the ancient myths of Anansi the Spider God, and mixing it in with an entertaining contemporary drama/comedy.  It’s a warm, lovely, feel-good kind of a book, as one would expect from the warm-hearted, kind-spirited Gaiman.

But fortunately, it’s not too nice.  In fact for my money, the book really gets into its stride when a ghastly and horrific murder is committed.  Yay! Bring it on! my inner demon yelled at that moment.  Now we’re cooking with vitriol and bile…!

In an interview published as an afterword to the book, Gaiman admitted that this twist in the story came as a surprise to him (ah! so I’m not the only writer who doesn’t plan his bloody stories in advance…)  and it forced him to totally rethink the rest of the book because, ‘I didn’t want anything quite that dark to happen to any of the characters.’  But I’m glad he took the left hand fork in the road, the one that leads the dark side; because a novel that’s all nice is an oyster shell with neither grit nor nacre.  

Gaiman is, of course, an absolute softie – all his main characters, even the wicked Spider in Anansi Boys tend to have a heart of gold.  But Gaiman’s malicious streak is a joy to behold.  Take this little section from Neverwhere, in which the evil hitmen Mister Vandemar and Mr Croup are pursuing a young girl, with intent to murder:

        ‘Bless me, Mister Vandemar, she’s slowing up.’

        ‘Slowing up, Mister Croup.’

        ‘She must be losing a lot of blood, Mister V.’

       ‘Lovely blood, Mister C.  Lovely wet blood.’

       ‘Not long now.’

       A click; the sound of a flick knife opening, empty and  lonely and dark. 

 That last phrase is poetry from the quill of Lucifer – bleak and menacing and ghastly.  And in a later scene, the evil Misters commit gory and gruesome torture and murder, sending streaks of darkness through Gaiman’s light, witty prose, and creating rich chiaroscuro.

While reading Anansi Boys, I was niggled by a sense that there was something familiar about the story.  It’s a classic tale of course – an ordinary Joe turns out to be the son of a God, with god-like powers himself.  And it reminded me strongly of The Eternals, the graphic novel re-make of Jack Kirby’s original, which Gaiman himself wrote (all the best writers steal from themselves!)  But, as I mused about the need to have nastiness mixed in with niceness, I then remembered another graphic novel with a similar premise – the brilliant (and truly truly nasty) Wanted by Mark Millar. In this story Wesley Gibson, an ordinary Joe, discovers that he is in fact the son of – not a god, but a supervillain, called The Killer.  And he has also inherited his father’s super-powers – which basically consist of the ability to kill, very very well.  Wesley is cajoled into taking up his father’s mantle (cape?) and becomes a super-villain, with bloody consequences.

It’s gripping stuff, a perfect setup for a classic character journey/twist, in which Wesley realises in the nick of time that supervillainy is not for him – he is going to be a superhero after all!   Thus, achieving redemption, etc etc, and setting a moral example for us all.  This, as I say, is what I was expecting….

I won’t spoil the story by going into more detail; but suffice to say, this story shocks because it starts nasty and it stays nasty.  I remember reading it in a state of stunned incredulity  – surely someone will turn out to have some redeeming qualities?

Nope, they don’t.  It’s dark, bleak and nihilistic from start to stop.  But it’s not, I would argue, immoral or amoral – hell, it’s  a story, not a rampaging mob in your local pub!  And it’s a story which plays with ideas about good and evil in a complex way. It is written with wit and brilliant satirical edge, and it openly mocks our assumptions about how a comic book story ought to work.  (It has a supervillain called Fuckwit, and an even eviller supervillain called Shit-Head, who is made of ‘one hundred per cent excrement…the collected feces of the six hundred and sixty-six most evil human beings that ever walked the earth.’)  If Jonathan Swift had written graphic novels, he’d be jealous of that line…. 

It intrigues me to see how two writers can take essentially the same story premise (ordinary Joe, father a god/superpowered being, son turns out to have the father’s powers)  and yet can create two such radically different stories.  Both Millar and Gaiman write with wit and verbal flair, and both of them have a morally sophisticated approach to their material.  But Millar shocks us with his nastiness, while Gaiman charms us with his niceness. 

I don’t know either writer – but I’m sure that in real life, Millar is as nice as they come.  But he writes like a Tequila Slammer, in sharp intoxicating bursts; while Gaiman is a glass of Pimms on a hot summer’s afternoon.

Interestingly, many friends who know me as a person, and as a teacher, are genuinely shocked when they read my screenplays and prose – because my writing is way nastier than I am.  In the Nice V. Nasty spectrum, I’m closer to Millar than Gaiman. 

Although, some would argue, and have argued, especially after seeing that sinister photograph at the top of this blog, that the ‘Nice Palmer’ is just a facade…I’m evil through and through.  I’m the Cheo, not Flanagan…

Hmmm..trouble is I do like that idea. Who wants to be Superman – when you can be the Killer!

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