Emanata: Something Something Oranges Something

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Here’s the flip side of what I wrote about last week: there are certain serial comics I adore that I’m happy to see ended and don’t ever want to continue. Comics readers are used to the idea that any character or scenario they like can go on forever–that there’s always another first-rate story to be told about Earth-X or Blue Beetle or Donald Duck. In some cases, that might be true. But it’s not necessarily the case, and it’s worth considering the idea that there’s a middle ground between an endlessly fertile concept and a self-contained story that would only be cheapened by a sequel. Some great premises, in fact, have a limited shelf life.

Exhibit A here is The Complete D.R. & Quinch, newly reprinted in America: a collection of a 1983-1985 series by Alan Moore and Alan Davis that ran in the British weekly comic book 2000 A.D., with a bit of related ephemera. For its first eighty pages, it’s one of the funniest comics I’ve ever read; after that, it’s not.

Moore and Davis were on a roll when they started the project: they’d already been collaborating on more serious strips like “Marvelman” and “Captain Britain.” Davis notes in David Bishop’s history of 2000 A.D., Thrill-Power Overload, that he’d found himself “categorised as a gritty, realistic artist. I really wanted to do something different, just to show that I could do it.” They ended up doing a six-page, one-off story about (alien) teenage ne’er-do-wells on a rampage, “D.R. & Quinch Have Fun On Earth,” which went over so well that it soon became a regular feature.

“D.R. & Quinch” began as a riff on National Lampoon‘s “O.C. and Stiggs” stories about a pair of delinquent teenagers, right down to its diction, but quickly became much broader and daffier, although Moore kept some of his inspiration’s rhythms in his dialogue: “We will also need a monstrously huge government loan in order to fund this utterly heart-wringing venture.” “‘Sright.” This edition includes a couple of pages of Moore’s typically demanding script: one of his instructions to Davis begins “Big panel, with just about everything in the whole world in it.”

Davis came up with some brilliant character designs–D.R. with his permanent snarl and ’50s greaser hairdo, Quinch with his cheery demeanor, tusks and downward-pointing antennae–and crammed his panels with little sight gags. But the chemistry between writer and artist is what makes these stories. In the opening courtroom scene of “D.R. and Quinch Go Straight,” the appearance of stern, eagle-beaked Judge Thorkwung is pretty funny on its own, and so is the list of the protagonists’ crimes that he’s rattling off (“…transmuting base metal into gold, genocide, spitting…”); together, they’re indelible.

The fascinating thing about The Complete D.R. & Quinch is that it’s possible to see exactly how much life the concept had in it. Moore and Davis collaborated on four increasingly hilarious D.R. & Quinch serials; the climax of “D.R. & Quinch Go to Hollywood” is actually the most enduring gag in the whole book (it would give away too much to explain it here, but there’s a reason the phrase “mind the oranges, Marlon” has close to ten thousand Google hits).

And then Moore and Davis’s soufflé abruptly collapses. There’s one more six-page story, “D.R. & Quinch Get Back to Nature,” which slogs along without a single decent gag we haven’t seen already. Moore and Davis’s partnership reportedly fell apart around that time. The characters were revived a few years later by Davis with co-writer Jamie Delano for a series of one-page mock-advice columns (also reprinted in the new collection)–“D.R. & Quinch’s Incredibly Excruciating Agony Page”–by which point their comedy potential was exhausted, replaced by feeble schtick.

Looking at these stories again after having lived with them for a quarter-century, “Go to Hollywood” actually seems to have been a natural terminus. The joke of the initial story is that these characters are agents of chaos. In “D.R. & Quinch Go Straight,” they’re told to suppress that tendency, and the joke is that that only inflames them more; in “D.R. & Quinch Go Girl Crazy,” they try to suppress that tendency, and the joke is that they can’t; in “D.R. & Quinch Get Drafted,” they find themselves in a violent setting, and the joke is that they prevail through chaos; in “Go to Hollywood,” they find themselves in a chaotic setting, and the joke is that they prevail through superior chaos. That’s the whole cycle; there are no more fresh sequels possible.

And if, improbably, Moore and Davis were to reunite and (even more improbably) return to “D.R. & Quinch,” what would happen then? There’d be an audience for it, naturally–the fact that this slim book keeps coming back into print attests to that. I’d be bummed about it, though; I can’t imagine it would add anything but a little more nostalgia to the canon. (I also can’t help but think that that’s true of a lot of other comics franchises going on long past the point when it’s possible to do something powerful with them.) I love these characters’ adventures too much to want to see any more of them.

Want more Emanata? See all of Douglas’ columns here.