By Kirkland Ciccone
Counterculture in any form moves slowly but fiercely, building up the strength to shout loud enough so everyone can hear the message. Drag is a unique counterculture that spans centuries, and like other counter-cultural movements, it never walks alone.
You can find drag in the stories of punk, civil rights, feminism, and of course LGBTQ+ activism. In that respect, is it any surprise that Grant Morrison, one of the great countercultural icons of comic books, would centre their debut novel around a drag queen?
Luda tells the story of Luci LaBang, a label-defying diva who knows her place in the world, that place being centre stage, any stage, with a spotlight on her at all times.
When we meet Luci, she’s deep in rehearsals for The Phantom of the Pantomime, a postmodern pisstake of Aladdin, if the musical was made famous by Siouxsie and the Banshees instead of Walt Disney.
Set in a phantasmagorical version of Glasgow called Gasglow, Luda details the streets, people, shops, and museums so vividly that it feels like home. I know this place, even this version of it. Particularly effective is Grant Morrison’s depiction of the theatre where the panto is due to be performed. It might as well be The Pavilion.
While rehearsing Phantom, poor Aladdin (performed in drag by a girl like most traditional pantomime) suffers an accident and has to be replaced. Luckily, or ominously, there’s someone waiting nearby, lurking near the dark behind the curtain, ready to step into her shoes.
Her name is Luda and she’s a drag queen, just like Luci, though far younger, as she reminds Luci throughout the novel. Despite this, a friendship forms, one that turns sexual, then ultimately parasitic.
Luda wants to be Luci’s protégé, but more than that, she wants to learn the power of The Glamour, the “original name for magic”. Grant Morrison writes strikingly about drag as a form of magic, the ultimate power to shapeshift, a practical witchcraft that can be accessed not through wands or handwaves, but by lipstick, eyeliner, blush, and lashes. Luci knows it, Luda wants it.
Together, they fill the pages of this novel, with Luda always there even when she isn’t, her presence and arrogance felt from the first word to the last full-stop.
The dialogue is more arch than the McDonald’s logo, but it works because Luci’s voice is compelling, even when she’s showing her worst side – yes, a glamorous drag witch also has sides she doesn’t want anyone to see, and it isn’t just the crow’s feet and bingo wings.
Despite the dialogue drawing blood, Luda isn’t just a book full of remorseless bitchy one-liners being spat indiscriminately, sass for the sake of showing off. Morrison knows exactly when to relax the frenetic pace, setting the reader up for proper zingers that had me blowing tea out my left nostril.
For a book like this, it would be easy to focus on the style and ignore the substance of a drag queen’s life, but Luda isn’t a flimsy, one-dimensional portrayal. Instead, we’re served a satisfying arc full of madness, magic, and murder.
Luci’s life is laid bare, all her disappointments and bad choices exposed by a similar spotlight to the one that follows her across the theatre stage. Soon enough, despite being a tough stately queen, Luci resolves to help Luda become who she really is, unleashing her full potential. Unfortunately, that’s when performers in the panto start dying mysteriously. Will the show go on? Will there be anyone left to perform in it?
All this is answered, but not right away, because Morrison takes the reader down side-alleys (literally and metaphorically), part of the conversational style he uses to bring Luci’s voice to life. In between orgies, soul transference, brainwashing, rubber boobs, and a useful box cutter, there are concepts and ideas that other novelists might spend half a dozen novels working through.
Not Morrison He hurls everything at the reader, and though it could come off as self-indulgent, the writing never makes you feel like you’ve spent your time wandering aimlessly. In less assured hands, this book could have been meandering, but it avoids that trap.
Drag, the book tells us, isn’t just performance – it also frees people from the trap of being someone they don’t want to be, something both Luci and Luda understand from their respective lives, both of which were unfulfilling until they embraced glamour and broke free of their tepid existences.
For Luci, it took a while. Luda, on the other hand, runs screaming from her old life until she finds Luci. The main backbone of the book, of course, is the relationship between the old expert and the youthful ingénue. If Luda seems like it draws from All About Eve, let me assure you it’s even more camp, if that’s possible.
Unexpectedly, it also works as a love letter to the good old pantomime, an artform as quintessentially British as bad teeth. Luda, like drag, is many things. Wholeheartedly, I’ll say this is an exceptional debut, one that manages to the rare thing of being both fast-paced and thoughtful. If you want four hundred pages of wild sprawling, fabulous not drabulous fun, then you’ll want Luda. Let it be a start rather than an end for Grant Morrison as a novelist.
About our contributor
Kirkland Ciccone is the author of two novels published since 2020. Happiness Is Wasted On Me, set in ‘90s Cumbernauld, and Sadie, Call The Polis, which spans years in the life of a girl from Falkirk. Kirkland has been writing and performing for over a decade and has toured extensively around Scotland, appearing at theatres, schools, book shops, libraries and live events; including Edinburgh International Book Festival, ReImagination, Tidelines, and Paisley Book Festival. For stage, Kirkland recently contributed The Lady In Rid to Short Attention Span Theatre. His one-man storytelling shows include A Secret History of Cumbernauld, The Dead Don’t Sue, and The A-Z of Kirkland Ciccone. Kirkland has also appeared on BBC Radio Scotland and Scotland Today to talk about his books. He is currently working on his third novel, which is set in Dundee. You can find him on Twitter, @KirklandCiccone and Instragram, @kirklandciccone