Saturday, 26 July 2008

Faster Than The Speed of Wall

The Filth #1

“us vs them”

Written by Grant Morrison; Pencilled by Chris Weston; Inked by Gary Erskine; Coloured by Matthew Hollingsworth; Lettered by Clem Robins; Cover by Segura Inc.

There’s this story about a guy who wakes up from his mundane life to discover he’s really a super-important sci-fi guy, rather than just some douche with bad hair. Inevitably, he’s a little incredulous about the whole thing to begin with, but as one world crumbles away he soon starts to find himself more at home in his new reality.

And it is always his new reality, whatever complications may arise down the line.

Oh, and also, sexy ladies are normally involved – what better way to make sure the transition from the "real" world to another, more over-determined world goes well?

This story is called The Matrix, or maybe Star Wars, or the movie version of Wanted[1] It’s similar to any number of children’s fantasy stories too, though I’d actually argue that the better examples of that form are considerably more mature than the Hollywood equivalent[2]. It also happens to be the story we find in issue #1 of The Filth. Well, almost – it’s probably more accurate to say that it’s the kind of story that The Filth uses to jump off into all sorts of ickiness and uncertainty.

Our protagonist here, Greg Feely, lives a life that is several shades more desperate than, say, The Matrix's Neo – he’s a middle-aged bachelor whose only friend seems to be his cat, and who seems to be in complete denial about his propensity for pornographic magazines. Strangers seem to like to shout gnomic absurdities at Greg on the bus ("Slade. Don't fuck with the filth."), and early on in this issue we see a pair of teenage girls tittering at him as he buys a couple of suitably degrading magazines ("She-Male Nurse" and "Young Sluts", in case you were wondering). All of which is far less glamorous than having a group of pseudo-goths turn up on your doorstep to drag you off to a dodgy looking rock club, even if that's not your thing.

Enough with the snark though! My point is that The Filth starts off with a premise that could potentially be box office fodder, and then makes itself unpalatable through the strength and strangeness of its details; as always, the important stuff is in the sharpness of the execution rather than the blunt premise. Speaking of which, what a bizarre execution this comic starts off with! We see it twice: firstly in a series of four panels showing a bearded alpha male with a bloodied knuckle-duster, delivering a speech about how he hates smoking because it's like violence; then, the “camera” pulls back, and we see the same man depicted three times in the one big panel, with each representation giving part of the speech as he pours petrol on a beaten and bloodied scientist. We also get the end of the man's speech, wherein he says that what smoking and violence have in common is that they make him feel "quite... dirty."

The effect is disorientating at first, but it’s actually just a cunningly applied variation on the old action movie trick of showing you one cool move several times over. This scene might seem incidental, or at least perfunctory, but the way it’s played it hits on a couple of the key themes of the series. As acts of violence go, it’s terribly self-aware, with the bearded man taking obvious pleasure in the “dirty” nature of the task, and with the reader being presented with a brutal act in a way that seems designed to fetishise it. Morrison loves to play with perspective (a fact that Douglas Wolk had a lot to say about in Reading Comics), and here he’s doing so in a way that makes the reader complicit in the hyped up, pornographic nastiness in which this comic trades.

Which raises the question: do you feel "dirty" yet? And if so, do you like it?

David Fiore was right to say that Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls is much more in tune with the sorts exploitative (social) fictions it sets out to destroy than The Filth is, but that doesn’t stop the book from being rich with the sort of hideous details that characterise its targets. Indeed, both the mundane "real world" segments of this issue and the skewed sci-fi super-nonsense are permeated with a tone that I would describe as that of tabloid pornography[3]. When we see Greg at home in this issue, he's either looking at porn ("Hear Caroline scream as Mike shoves his eleven inch dick... in her dad") or watching the news ("Thousands dead... mourning continues"). In fact, in one scene he seems to be doing both things while masturbating; this combination might be there to hint at the laziness and squalor in which Greg exists, but it also serves to carefully unite the crude, screaming brutality of modern news stories with that of hardcore pornography rather neatly.

This strange note is only amplified when Greg is informed that he's only a "para-personality", a holiday home for Hand agent Ned Slade. His activation comes in the form of a sexual encounter with another agent, who has planted herself in his shower and given herself a decrepit comb over to match his (as you do, like). As Greg's existence as he knows it trickles out of his nose in a snotty rainbow, we're "treated" to a psychedelic sex scene where bodies meld together in an oddly distorted and uncomfortable haze. Later on in the issue, we see the bearded bastard guiding a young woman who announces herself to be "Simon's bizarre human camera" towards a tiny artificial planet. Simon, we're informed, is "the world's richest and most perverted man" (a label which most tabloids would kill to be able to apply), and he's interested in buying this world so he can despoil it. Well, despoil it further, since the world's creator (the scientist from its first page), has already been burned and thrown down onto her "beautiful bonsai planet" to die.

The evil, facial hair-rocking motherfucker (Spartacus Hughes is his name, but we won't find that out until issue #2) delivers a vicious, titilatiory monologue on the subject in order to whet Simon's appetite:

" sexy Nobel prize-winning Doctor Soon lay for several hours, dying of shock in almost total darkness, she began to feel her artificial I-Life creation crawling all over her burned skin, like a billion angry, hungry ants."
We'll get more details as to what's going on with these I-Life creatures in the next issue. What comes through here is that heightened sense of pseudo-erotic cruelty that I've been describing for the past few paragraphs, finally revealed in its most overt and callous form.

The overall impact is as simple as the specifics are strange: upon opening the pages of the book you've opened yourself up to a world where ultra-violent despair is not only prevalent, it's presented to you as an avenue for cheap thrills and giggles.

And hey, while we're vaguely talking about the hysterical language of porn and tabloids, how about some punnish multiple-meanings? Here's a wee list of that Jack Fear posted on Barbelith back when this issue first came out:
Filth = dirt, garbage = entropy.
Filth = smut = pornography.
Filth = degenerate people, the criminal class = the agents of chaos.
"The Filth" = "The Fuzz" = slang for the cops = the agents of control.

Greg/Gregory. As in porn director Greg Dark? (now crossing over into "legitimate" cinema via his association with Britney Spears...)

Feely: a sexual connotation (copping a feel) but a non-pentrative, vaguely pathetic one. Also implying a sensitivity and depth of emotion--"touchy-feely"--much tender feeling towards Tony (the Tiger?) cat.

Many connotations of The Hand explicated or hinted at the Crack Comicks site.

All good points, all worth noting alongside the general harshness of The Filth's world as a key to what it's all supposed to mean.

There's another element of this issue that needs to be commented on here, and that's the bewilderingly Morrisonian stuff, the elements that are just plain odd. "Weirdness for the sake of weirdness!" Now there's a term that has been over-applied to Grant Morrison's work in general! I seem to remember checking some comics sites shortly after this issue came out, and finding that an inordinate number of people were confused by the bit of dialog where Nil (the agent who shagged Greg back into his superspy life) informs Greg that he doesn't need to worry about them crashing into a wall because they are moving into "ninth gear. Faster than the speed of wall".

Now in all fairness, the scene I'm referring to does feature two characters wearing eye-scalding orange outfits and ridiculous blue and green wigs, and they are flying a bizarro bin lorry into another dimension , but seriously? That's just a slightly less familiar version of the super-powered nonsense most comic fans catalog as easily as a fish swims through water. The same can be said for the "ninth gear" lines, which shouldn't seem that odd to a reader who's used to seeing the Flash vibrate through walls and into alternate realities on an almost hourly basis. But yet confusion ensued anyway, and possibly still does to this day.

This ties into one of Morrison's greatest strengths as a writer, his ability to suggest a whole series of long-running comic book stories through just a couple of strange gestures. I'll look at this aspect of his work in more detail when I'm discussing issue #2, but it deserves a mention here since it adds to the sense of wrongness that makes this story special.

Plus, also: the repeated use of CCTV footage to follow Greg's daily activities is persuasively creepy, and it also represents another play on perspective -- who is watching Greg, and why?

These oblique edges ensure that The Filth ends up feeling more similar to Cronenberg’s Videodrome than to anythingVerhoeven has ever created. It's still heavy on the nasty details, but it embeds these in an arty presentational style that makes the fact that it's ABOUT these things rather than an example of them slightly more obvious.

The art team of penciller Chris Weston, inker Gary Erskine and colourist Matthew Hollingsworth need to be given their due credit at this stage in proceedings, because they make this unlikely mix of toxicoloured costumes, desperately pandering violence and sci-fi strangeness seem every bit as grotty and physical as it needs to. Weston's figures have always had a bulgy, crumpled quality, and this is utilised to perfection here -- his figures are beaten down and out-of-shape, no match for the detail-heavy, deeply absurd world they live in.

Now (whew, almost done!) it takes a couple of issues for the heart of this comic to fully reveal itself, a fact which could be more problematic than any amount of technobabble. Indeed, there's only scene in this issue that really clues you in to where this book will find its emotional centre-point, and even that is full of baroque sci-fi strangeness. The moment in question comes near the end of this issue, when Greg learns that the Hand intend to provide a lookalike to keep his life warm. Now, this scenario is disorientating enough, but when the doppelganger tries to replace Greg's cat Tony, Greg finally cracks and lashes out. Rather brilliantly, he does so by using a toothbrush to knock a needle out of his replacement's hand and into his. Anyway, it's agreed that Tony won't be replaced, despite his apparent ill-health, but the important thing here is the look of sheer sunken dismay on Greg's face when Tony goes to his counterpart instead of to him at the end of the scene. That cat represents Greg's one genuine connection in the world, as well find out as the story progresses, and this moment provides something sentimentally endearing in the middle of all the madness.

And really, the madness is just beginning here, but at what a pace!

What's that up ahead? Don't worry, just say it with me now: "This is ninth gear. Faster than the speed of wall."

[1] I'm no fan of that particular Mark Millar comic, but Sean Witzke is right when he says that the book attempts to savage the very "heroes journey" story structure that I'm taking a shot at here. If you want a reasonably well articulated argument as to why this strategy might not be successful, go read Geoff Klock's take on the first and second issues of the comic.

[2] When I'm talking about the best examples of the children's fantasy genre, I tend to be thinking about authors like Alan Garner (whose characters grow up by discovering their own place in a brutal history), or Ursula Le Guin (whose creations often have to confront the fact that their dreams and desires can be as destructive as they are liberating).

[3] I wish I had a copy of some of Angela Carter's non-fiction writing to hand at the moment. There's an essay in Nothing Sacred that touches on the very particularly British language the tabloids use to describe sex that would be useful here, and I think a re-reading of The Sadeian Woman could inform some of the points I want to make later in this series. Ah well -- that's two more books added to the endless list of potential purchases.


liamk said...

this was awesome man, I enjoyed reading it, looking forward to more.

sean witzke said...

This is great. I'm wondering if you're gonna talk about the "neurotic boy outsider" aspect of the book in the other entries? I remember reading an interview with Joe Casey talking about Automatic Kafka and how he and Morrison came to the same point at the same time.

Anagramsci said...

I think you're right to draw attention to Morrison's defamiliarization strategy with the usual superhero/phantasmagoric adventure tropes David... after all, "faster than the speed of light" doesn't make any more sense, to the non-scientist, than "faster than the speed of wall"... light is just there, like walls...

and so too, in the superhero genre and subculture, are costumes and pathetic lusts and self-lionizing losers (how else could Rorschach emerge as the most important character amongst Watchmen's readers?)

Morrison does an amazing job here of amplifying the "Walter Mitty"/daydream aspect of these stories to the power of supreme desperation--but, unlike most of the genre's "deconstructors," he comes to praise that desperation (as a kind of madness maddened), not to tsk it--and without ever resorting to the even worse delusion of "heroism"

and that's what makes most of his work--and certainly The Filth, read in tandem with Animal Man, is right at the top of that list--so wonderful.


David said...

Liam K -- thanks mate!

Sean -- I'm going to cover the "neurotic boy outsider gone to seed" vibe of the series in some of the later entries, I think.

Right now the plan is to look at a different aspect of the book for every issue, with the last few entries bringing my thoughts on the series as a whole together.

Of course, all of that could get derailed since I'm rereading each issue before writing about it, but yeah -- that stuff's coming.

Also: any idea where that Joe Casey interview was? Cos I'm definitely up for hearing Casey's thoughts on Kafka and The Filth. Actually, I almost ended up writing about Automatic Kafka as part of this project, but I didn't want to stretch myself too thin. Maybe later!

Dave -- I definitelt get what you mean about desperation in Morrison's work. Sometimes I think he writes like Karen O sings, you know? There's a lot of noise and surface glamour, but you can always make out the damage and desperation underneath, and that's a good thing!

The line about light and walls both just being there hits on one of my thoughts about Morrison's style, but... I'll save that for my post on issue #2!

sean witzke said...

I believe it was in the old Casey vs. Fraction column on CBR that I can't really find right now. But I'm not 100% on that.
On A.K., I think it's really interesting to compare the two, as Morrison seems harsher at first and finishes with this really forgiving and loving attitude. And Casey seems nicer to begin with and in the end really means it.