Grant Morrison likes pantomime. Not the biggest surprise on the menu. The British panto jams satire and ribaldry and drag together, then plants them in the exact layer of UK showbiz where national treasures can be national embarrassments by next year. It binges on ironic overstatement, which already fuels British culture like the ominous heat from a nuclear pile. Roughly no one professes to love it and the sector trundles on anyway, immortal. Danny La Rue is gone but Widow Twankey abides. Why would all this not appeal to someone with Morrison's consistent dislike of rigid categories, their enthusiasm for hands-on mystic ceremony? How would this not be up their street?
Plus, they've already said so. Morrison, in 1990, enthusing about the camp theatrics of pantomime to Amazing Heroes magazine (issue #176): "There's not enough of that in art or real life. It's the sort of thing I'd like to do more of. Boys dressing as girls, girls as boys, and a false cow..." All of those things feature in Luda, Morrison's novel set in and around a staging of Aladdin which unpicks the philosophy of pantomime with very small tweezers while presenting a bumper selection of allusions to the writer's established canon - so many that noting them as they pass by might be part of the shared ritual that Morrison and the reader are engaged upon.
This Aladdin's pantomime dame, one Luci LaBang, calls the story a tale of "fashion, deception, illusion, trickery," although the book's first-person narration means we have only Luci's word for anything. Three different plotlines unspool, one involving rehearsals for Aladdin in the Scottish city of "Gasglow" at which Luci will essay the part of Widow Twankey. Luci is not looking to rock anyone's boat, or march in the culture wars. Although no paragon of virtue, the only struggle Luci fights is the one to reach a ceasefire with yourself. "I never felt trapped in the wrong body," says the drag queen. "In truth, at the secret heart of me dwells something attenuated and alien, a long-limbed genderless flame if I had to be precise." Appearing in panto alongside an online influencer of no evident talent, a self-obsessed TV star, and a racist Shakespearean actor–new, old and older media all pallid in the shadow of panto's ancient shamanism–Luci's main interest is in the symbolic power of the dame herself and the ethos of a well-tempered drag act.
Plotline number two is that this particular production of Aladdin is a full-scale postmodern deconstruction. The producers have folded Aladdin into The Phantom of the Opera to create a show called "The Phantom of the Pantomime", in which the in-story cast are killed off onstage by a masked figure until only this Phantom remains. ("Aladdin meets Beckett," sighs Luci.) Morrison's dim view of such revisionist palaver, of the pointless urge to dismantle entertainment rather than let it go about the business of illumination, ensures that a permanent thundercloud hangs over this enterprise. The show attracts its own doom by not letting panto be panto, and seals the deal when it hires the beguiling Luda, who walks in off the street to become the show's principal boy. Luda adds an additional layer to the already dual nature of that role by being a boy playing a girl playing a boy, a swirl of gender flux that Luci senses like static electricity. Doubled by name and by nature, Luci and Luda get swept up in a sexual melodrama of camp cruelty that occupies the third and primary plot of the novel: their conjoined rise and fall, inevitable as two witches go to war.
Gasglow is Glasgow with added eyeliner, the names changed to protect the boring. Morrison sets the novel in a version of their own home city, which lines up an autobiographical reading, one to consider alongside comments to The Comics Journal back in 1995 (also issue #176): "I hate the whole Glasgow writing scene. I hate the fact that that anyone who lives in Glasgow is somehow required to write about 'my life in the tenements'..." The glam prism through which Morrison writes about those tenements in Luda recasts them as places where free thinking and acceptance of difference can germinate and perhaps not be snuffed out - which might simply mark the difference between a writer in their 30s and a writer in their 60s. An air of closure hangs over Luda, with characters discovering what Gasglow was up to without them noticing, and what lies beneath. Luci and Luda attend a costume party in the company of pantomime cows and characters in crows-head masks, at which an occult map reveals the hidden contours of the city like one of Guy Debord's maps of Paris.
And "Gasglow" is only the start of the wordplay, Morrison dishing out mangled names and portmanteau puns as if from the panto stage itself, with audience groans encouraged. The book creates a Scottish architect named Murdo McCloudie (Murdo MacLeod played soccer for Celtic when Morrison was a teenager). A missing character is named Kenny Trace (as in 'without a...'). The capital city to the east is named Dunedin and includes a red light district called the Pubic Triangle (which exists, this being the token true fact planted in the froth, an Edinburgh location just swept clean by councilors boarding the UK's puritan train.) And Aladdin is being staged in the "Vallhambra" Theatre, a gimcrack pun with the word "Valhalla" poking out from behind it. Which might make the seat of the production's postmodern dimension not an opera house after all, but a paradise... does Grant Morrison by any chance rate Phantom of the Paradise, the most abrasively glam of Brian De Palma films, in which other performers are murdered on stage while another masked Phantom lurks and some more characters in crows-head masks mill around?
The comics references are numerous, deliberate, scratching the author's metafiction itch. Morrison knows that you know that they know that when Luci's childhood illumination into the power of the cross-dressing shaman comes via a department store mannequin, there's a nod to Morrison's and Dave McKean's Arkham Asylum where Clayface had similar figures as familiars. Luci attempts suicide but ends up taking an overdose of placebos; shades of the overdoses in Flex Mentallo and The Filth, plus Morrison's on-the-record discussion of their own darker moments. A brand of vodka called Watchtower dulls the senses of a few characters - plausible deniability for an Alan Moore reference. The wondrous mannequin that puts Luci on the righteous path is located in a store called Levitz Bros., but a pair of sinister characters are named the Marvells - after the 17th century poet, it says here. Morrison's prose–or Luci's–is primped and pampered, florid and catty; but also claustrophobic, interior. Comics drawn from Morrison's scripts have dealt in grand cosmic gestures, but in words alone Luda goes on a fantastic voyage in the other direction, descending into the character of Luci on a staircase that goes down and round and down again.
Some other novels come to mind when Morrison gets to Luda's denouement, plus a couple more films too, and the author is for sure aware of them. "The Phantom of the Pantomime" might be postmodern, but Luda is panto-noir, with noir's sense that something somewhere has gone wrong. The something, the central wrong squirming in Luda's story, involves involuntary change - a conversion of someone from one thing to another. Morrison's comics, their metafictions and multiverses and blurred allegiances, are about the value of variation on a sliding scale, with dreary absolutes smeared into irrelevance. Binaries are to be rejected and continuums embraced, because one of those implies a more meaningful approach to human advancement than the other. With no scope for a comic's visuals to say so, it's on distinctions between the refined and the coarse, between people who are supposedly important and the ones considered expendable, that Luda deflates with words alone. The crime at Luda's core is arrogance and certainty, and the author disapproves. Luci coins a phrase, or borrows it: "This confidence we're qualified to play God leads the best of us astray." Whether or not the teenage Luci LaBang was sat watching the golden age of BBC2, Luci's creator is recalling an identical sentiment from the series The Ascent of Man in 1973, spoken by Jacob Bronowski while standing in Auschwitz, mud up to his ankles: "This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods." Grand panto and British public service television, their borders irrelevant, broadcasting on the same wavelength. As above, so below.