BY Tom Morton in Profiles | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67

Ordinary People

The Ballad of Halo Jones

BY Tom Morton in Profiles | 05 MAY 02

For most cultural historians the comic's awkward adolescence ended in 1986, with the arrival of Alan Moore's Watchmen. Inked like a Martin Scorsese movie, the series was a noir-ish unravelling of the idea of the superhero, shot through with politics, sex and intertextual games. Published on expensive paper and bound between sombre covers (a Rorschach blot, a clock striking midnight, a smiley yellow logo flecked with blood), Watchmen was the genre's Ulysses and its Demoiselles d'Avignon, a high-gloss paradigm shift that changed the business of making comic books for ever.

So the story usually goes. The problem is, like Punk historians waxing lyrical about Malcolm McClaren and Situationism, the academic canonization of Watchmen ignores its roots in favour of instant revolution. Canny Punks point you in the direction of The Stooges. Comics fans - if they know their stuff - hand you a copy of The Ballad of Halo Jones. Recently republished as a graphic novel, Halo Jones first appeared as a weekly strip in the British sci-fi title 2000AD. Perhaps best known for the cordite 'n' carnage exploits of neo-fascist future cop Judge Dredd, 2000AD seemed like an odd home for Moore's downbeat story. This tale of shopping, cocktail waitresses and unrequited lesbian love was a big gamble for the editors of a mass-market boys' comic. Surprisingly, Halo Jones cleaned up.

Maybe its futuristic setting tilted the odds in Halo Jones' favour. The story opens in 4949 AD in New York, where 18-year-old Halo and her flatmates while away their time obsessing over the holographic soap opera Existential Romance in a secluded community reserved for the long-term unemployed. For the overwhelmingly female population the only other leisure pursuit on offer is running up a bill on their state-provided credit cards. Shopping's dangerous - you need to pack a weapon - but the girls are out of noodles, so Halo heads to the mall. That's pretty much it for the first nine chapters: the girls tease each other about their childhood crushes on a dolphin pop idol, one of them joins a Gothy teen cult and their landlady is murdered, apparently for the kitschy junk that clutters her apartment. This last event prompts Halo to take a waitressing job on an outward-bound star cruiser, swapping life on the dole for a chance to see the stars. When her contract's up she hits the bottle, joins the army and goes AWOL after an affair with a senior officer. The end.

Halo's world is full of dead-end jobs and postponed sex, New Wave pop groups, shoulder pads and military jingoism. Published in 1984, Moore's comic presented a fresh critique of post-Falklands Thatcherism at a time when most cultural commentators were looking to George Orwell's futurology to provide a pertinent social allegory. The strip's pretty funny too - at one point Halo serves a cocktail dubbed the 'Schrödinger's Cat' - and has a nice take on the morphology of consumer objects, with bliss-inducing grenades cluttering shoppers' pockets and beefcake holo-porn brightening Halo's all-female barracks. But The Ballad of Halo Jones' really special quality is its extraordinary ordinariness. In a neat foreshadowing of Watchmen's celebrated intertextuality one sequence sees a history professor deliver a paper on Halo's story, 2000 years after the fact. Concluding his lecture, the professor comments: 'I've spent 15 years researching this woman - and do you know what I've found out? It's this ... She wasn't anyone special. She wasn't that brave, or that clever, or that strong. She was just somebody who felt cramped by the confines of her life. She was somebody who had to get out.' Halo's strand of heroism - about making do and getting by, about somehow believing in a brighter future - made pumped-up supermen seem silly and unpaid overtime far scarier than Dr Doom.

Reading Halo Jones as a kid, I can't say I realized that it represented a sea change in the comics medium. It did make me look at my babysitters in a different light, though, with their Cure albums, Silk Cut and A-level revision. Pretty soon they'd be stepping out into the world, applying for jobs or credit cards or income support. In mid-1980s Britain, with three million people unemployed, that ordinary struggle seemed heroic enough.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.