Wednesday, 27 August 2008

This is a Low

The Filth #4
"s**t happens"

Written by Grant Morrison; Pencilled by Chris Weston; Inked by Gary Erskine; Coloured by Hi-Fi; Lettered by Clem Robins; Cover by Segura Inc.

Almost seven thousand words into this project the doubts finally kick in: Why the hell am I doing this? What's the point? Who am I kidding? Who am I trying to fool? Who am I trying to impress? Swarms of little voices, babbling inside me; they won't stop with the questions, and they don't seem to have many answers.

I open up the comic and start to read issue number four, "s**t happens". Towards the end of the story our protagonist asks "So what, is there supposed to be some kind of stupid poetry in this nightmare?" and I have to cackle, just a little. Because there is supposed to be poetry here, clearly, but sometimes it's just best to let the text smother you and trust that the subtext will seep in through your pores. Maybe you'll be able to drown out the voices that way, but probably not -- more likely you'll just give them some more shit to chew on.

The plot? I've focused on the plot so heavily in my first three pieces to make a show of their relative simplicity. It's my contention that it's the details and the execution of The Filth that make it troubling to some readers, rather than the story itself. I don't think that I'm being too contentious here, but feel free to correct me if I'm wrong about that [1].

Anyway, the plot here in brief: someone has been aging people to death, so Greg Feely is called in to investigates this matter with a "self-consciously quirky" Hand agent called Arno Von Vernum. Things go wrong, as you might expect given this issue's title. Oh, and it's not really an investigation so much as a bungled assassination, since Von Vernum is the killer and the Hand knows it.

Vernum, you see, is a connoisseur of smells. In a bit of self-consciously clunky exposition he explains to both Greg that he has lost the ability to detect pleasant odors, and has therefore dedicated himself to becoming "a scientist of the vile" [2]. It occurs to me that this might be a bit of self-description on Morrison's part -- certainly The Filth reads like the work of a man who now doubts the uptopian promise of his nineties work, and Morrison and Weston's gestures towards putrid bio-horror seem like suitably "vile" counterbalance to the cosmic buzz of The Invisibles [3].

And so just as Vernum has taken to dragging infants and youngsters down into the Crack to watch them age to death in its accelerated time-stream, Morrison chooses to drag his readers out there too. More than any other issue of The Filth, "s**t happens" forces the reader to stare long and hard at the Crack -- to take in the sights, the sounds, and the smells of Chris Weston's artwork, however inappropriate they might be. My favourite page here is the one where the constant chatter of the word balloons drifts out as the Hand copter gets taken down by a flock of bizarre scissor-headed beasties [4]. Here's the page in question in all of its uncoloured glory, as borrowed stolen from the Crack!Comicks! website:

I'd severely recommend that you click on that image to see it at a bigger size so that you can fully appreciate its putrid horror. Lumpy faces screaming in panic, grotesque monsters crashing into hideous machinery... it's great, isn't it? These images, with their very physical sense of helplessness and devastation, sum up the early issues of The Filth perfectly [5]. I still like the page in its fully coloured form, but in black and white it's easier to appreciate the strength of its composition. That first panel is just hellish, with a wave of clutter crashing against the central image; the second panel continues from there, seeming to free our subjects from danger before the angle of the page shifts, our perspective switches and we find ourselves on a rapid-fire route to shit-central. The page is almost overridden with detail, but this ends up being effective rather than distracting.

The Crack itself looks like either the world in your carpet blown up or the worst parts of your mind made real, or maybe both. Its radical variations in scale (and time!) suggest that you're either journeying way out there or deep within. Indeed, looked at in the right light its giant landfills full of porn mags suggest the deranged imaginings of a very lonely man staring down at the floor and considering the fact that all around him tiny, hideous life forms are living and dying at an incredible rate. This is sci-fi as an expression of the protagonist's inner space, but it's also very suggestive of Blur's 'End of a Century', with its numbed horror at the "ants on the carpet" and "sex on the tv" (roll on issue #11, "a very english nervous breakdown"). Of course, recipient of Britpop damage that he is Morrison actually quoted these lyrics on that Crack!Comicks! site, but the connection's a fun one to make all the same.

The crash depicted on that page above kills the vehicle's pilot, which is a shame since she was supposed to kill Von Venrum once they'd established his guilt. As such, Feely and Von Vernum trek through the grotty wilderness, drinking each other's urine to survive while Feely susses his colleague out. When Von Vernum's babblings make it obvious the he is the killer, Feely switches into "hardcore "Ned Slade" mode" and kills the guy, drowning him in his own urine.

Before Feely performs this dirty deed, Von Vernum comes away with the following half-baked excuse:

The bacteria... those farting, putrefying germs made me do it.

They make us angry and crazy to keep us from seeing...
Seeing what? "Our lives as they see them" apparently. Of course, all of this was set up earlier when Von Vernum said:
The bacteria in our bellies are responsible for the farts which shame us. Tiny monsters shitting in their billions all over our pure skin create the acid reek of "our" sweat.

And Slade: when the "inner voices" tell us we're unworthy or instruct us to "love" and "hate" despite our best instincts...

Are these incessant, distracting thoughts our own?
This is some seriously ugly stuff here, but it's definitely in tune with the recurring themes of The Filth so far. When you look around you, or deep inside, and all you can see is horror, it's ridiculously tempting to look for an external factor to blame. On the one hand, Von Vernum is almost right: no one is pure in this world, since we are all subject to a myriad of social and biological influences. On the other hand, this clearly doesn't excuse Von Vernum's ultra-violent behavior, but if we must cast blame let's do so equally -- to what extent is Greg kidding himself by attributing his ability to kill to Ned Slade?

While we're on the topic of multiple personalities, let's talk about Greg's stand-in, who Greg unties at the start of this issue. For all Greg's bluster ("I'm warning you: don't break my life!") the doppelganger still makes a bit of noise about harming Tony the cat in Greg's absence, which again raises the question of whether the fantasy component of this series can be reduced to the feverish delusions of a painfully normal man.

And what's the cause of these little acts of self-deception? Nothing less than a very Morrisonian shift in perspective. Von Vernum claims that his brutal actions are an attempt to see humanity from a more distanced point of view, and if Greg is using his various personae as a way to act out some of his less noble urges then isn't that a far more sinister take on the use of alternate personae than Morrison's comics usually provide?

This is a continuation of the recycling process I was talking about in my post on issue #3, with Morrison finding horror in the themes that normally inspire him. Which brings us to another of Morrison's recurring tropes -- the protagonist's love of the animal kingdom. In this issue, it's only Feely's (conscious) affection for his cat that gets him home, but for all the overt sweetness of this gesture it almost lands like a punchline at the the end of this grotty, unsettling issue:

I promised him...

I promised.

I promised Tony I'd be back with his tea.
Yeah right!

But actually, you know what? Sometimes, when all you can see is what's wrong with both people and the world, a punchline might just be all you can find to build your hopes on. Is this thought supposed to be silly or comforting or just slightly ironic? Don't ask me: the voices made me say it. Never mind what I said earlier about them being a bad excuse -- they're real, and sometimes you're going to give in to them...

Hey, like the title of the issue says: "s**t happens".

[1] Certainly I would understand if some readers found that Morrison was pushing the main story too much to the side of the page. I've blogged about this tendency in Morrison's recent work twice recently, and I find it to be as compelling as it is frustrating. To be honest, I also reckon that the far reaching spy-fi plots of The Invisibles are more layered and complicated than anything in The Filth, but The Filth is told in a much harsher, less forgiving style than that book so it maybe that's why it caused so much bafflement when it was first released.

[2] Greg's response ("I only asked what brought you here") is a sly wink at the reader, sure, but in broader terms moments like this serve to reinforce the pornographic tone of the book. Here we get confessional pornography, the stuff of daytime chat shows and misery memoirs -- the worst feelings in the world rendered as cheap entertainment for a dull afternoon in the house, on your own.

[3] Somewhere in the back of my head I can hear the reformed Pixies singing "I can hear the buzz of modulations of the universe/But you're the first to make me feel it". I'm glad they didn't make new albums together, but I'm also glad that they wrote that one 'Bam Thwok'. It's a stupid giddy song, and as such it's the perfect antidote to toxicolour nastiness of The Filth. I'm really glad to be able to listen to it right now.


[5] Catch me in the right mood and I'll tell you that comics criticism that focuses on the art gets at what's really going on far more effectively than any number of writing-centric posts. I'm thinking of Forager's thoughts on Watchmen and some of Geoff Klock's pieces on Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant here, but as this blog shows, I'm far more confident dealing with words and story so that's what I normally talk about.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Dirty Thoughts From Other Peoples' Comments Sections 2 -- The Quickening!

*I don't seem to be able to get my response to Plok's "what's your favourite blog post? " entry to stick on his site, which makes me giggle since in that very comments thread Plok notes that he can't comment on my blog. [Update: Plok's fixed the problem. Apparently my comment looked a lot like spam to his comments filters, which is understandable!] Anyway, here's the comment I've been trying to leave there:
Oops--I thought I'd changed my blog's setting so that it would take anonymous/name & url comments, but obviously not. That's been changed now, so feel free to jump in!

Sean, I'm blushing my face off at the company you've (potentially) placed my Filth posts in -- there's still ample scope for me to make a mess of that project, so... here's hoping I don't do that!

Anyway, I've not been tagged by this, but Sean urged everyone to jump over, so my answer is -- David Fiore on Animal Man! That piece was a huge influence on me when it appeared on the web, and it continues to do wonderful things to my brain to this day (thanks Dave!).

Other contenders -- Jog and Marc Singer are ridiculously good, as has been noted. I'm particularly partial to their pieces on Arkham Asylum, Seven Soldiers and The Wire.

Sean and Plok -- you guys write the two most entertaining blogs I know, but I wouldn't know where to start listing your best posts.

Also, for music blogs, I have to recommend Clap Clap on Amerie, and so many posts on both Said the Gramophone and Church of Me.

Plok: that Olsen The Red post kills, and reminds me that I need more humour in my Internet diet.
*Over on Andre Hickey's blog, I posted the following little ramble in response to his typically sharp thoughts on the first three issues of Final Crisis:
It occurs to me that Final Crisis is the most extreme application of this form yet — Batman, Seven Soldiers and 52 all hint at a bigger picture that is just outside of the reader’s perception, but they have clearer focal points for reader identification (Animal Man, Will Magnus, Batman, any one of the Seven Soldiers). So far Final Crisis has taken the decentred madness of Seven Soldiers #1 as its starting point and went nuts from there. I love it, but I can see why it’s not for everyone…
*Much as I'm enjoying the pulp modernism of Final Crisis, the comic from last week that really got me going was Kyle Baker's Special Forces #3. I was too busy working away at my upcoming post on issue #4 of The Filth to write anything about Baker's book myself, but here's what Jog said about it in the comments section over at The Factual Opinion:
I love the hell out of Special Forces. It's the meanest, maddest comic around. And it pulls off a really fine balancing act, I think, in that it's as much a parody of a catastrophically stupid war-action comic as a satire of current events... all the weird, quasi-superhero stuff going on, how it's carefully synched up with the story's cites to macho foreign policy tidbits... "AXIS OF EVIL MUTANTS," leading into that whole thing with mutilated children vis a vis vows against killing, tough guy 'honor'... never mind where the narrative paradigm Baker's working from obviously originates, which just adds another layer... it's kind of an astonishing work, really deeply clever but just frothing with this immediate rage... and there's jokes! Funny ones!
He's not wrong! I remember reading that bit at the back of Eddie Campbell's Alec-how to be an artist where Campbell notes that for all his talent Baker sometimes lacks a substantial theme, and thinking "yeah... sounds about right". Recently, I've had to revise that opinion, which has been... interesting. Between Special Forces, The Truth and Nat Turner, Baker's been making some very overt gestures at big meaning, sometimes in the context of his trashiest and most mainstream work. I mean, Special Forces reads like modern Frank Miller comic with proper punchlines, while Baker's art on The Truth channeled Jack Kirby's blockiest impulses into something new. Nat Turner's a much more softly textured, less mainstream work, but I really need to read it again before I attempt to comment on it in any detail.

The real exception here is The Bakers, which seems unconcerned with doing anything more than capturing some of the more amusing facets of everyday family life.

Anyway, this is turning into something bigger than it was supposed to, so I think I might come back to this topic when I've got the time.

More soon!

Monday, 11 August 2008

Frank O'Hara -- 'Sleeping On The Wing' -- Commonplacebook

Perhaps it is to avoid some great sadness,
as in a Restoration tragedy the hero cries, "Sleep!
O for a long sound sleep and so forget it!"
that one flies, soaring above the shoreless city,
veering upward from the pavement as a pigeon
does when a car honks or a door slams, the door
of dreams, life perpetuated in parti-colored loves
and beautiful lies all in different languages.
Fear drops away too, like the cement, and you
are over the Atlantic. Where is Spain? where is
who? The Civil War was fought to free the slaves,
was it? A sudden down-draught reminds you of gravity
and your position in respect to human love. But
here is where the gods are, speculating, bemused.
Once you are helpless, you are free, can you believe
that? Never to waken to the sad struggle of a face?
to travel always over some impersonal vastness,
to be out of, forever, neither in nor for!

The eyes roll asleep as if turned by the wind
and the lids flutter open slightly like a wing.
The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible!
and was and is, and yet the form, it may be sleeping
too. Those figures etched in the ice of someone
loved who died, you are a sculptor dreaming of space
and speed, your hand alone could have done
this. Curiosity, the passionate hand of desire. Dead,
or sleeping? Is there speed enough? And, swooping,
you relinquish all that you have made your own,
the kingdom of your self sailing, for you must awake
and breathe your warmth in this beloved image
whether it's dead or merely disappearing,
as space is disappearing and your singularity.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Be Your Own Pet -- 'Becky'

Because like I said when Sean posted this video, if I made a mixtape right now this would be every second song.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

How To Manage Your Own Personal Concept Farm

The Filth #3
“structures and ultrastructures”

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

For all their choppiness and abundant weirdness, the first two issues of The Filth told a relatively linear story: miserable schlub Greg Feely discovered that he was actually a secret agent Ned Slade, rogue assassin Spartacus Hughes did terrible things, they fought, the end. It was good, old-fashioned comic book action gone wrong, in other words -- nothing more, nothing less.

Now "structures and ultrastructures" isn’t a super-complex piece of work, but it is constructed slightly differently. Again, there are two major plot threads, but here they run in thematic parallel without directly meeting up[1].

Our focus here is split between the adventures of a group of Hand agents in the paperverse (a 2D comic book universe within the world of The Filth), and on observing Greg Feely as he tries to go about his normal life.

The paperverse sections of the book continue the dizzying, constantly egressing madness of the first two issues, introducing us to both the paperverse's caretakers[2] and its superheroic inhabitants. This plot thread kicks the trash management theme into ninth gear[3], with Morrison providing us with a meta-fictional superhero story that is perfectly in tune with some of his earliest work on titles like Doom Patrol and Animal Man. As I noted in my piece on issue #2, The Filth recycles Morrison's themes in a very literal way, with the author striving to make something new out of some of his most well-worn material. So while Animal Man ended with Morrison himself appearing in the comic and ultimately undoing many of his own plots out of kindness, here we have Secret Original, a comic book character who has broken into the "real" world, and who is now physically and mentally shattered as a result. The indignity of this situation becomes even clearer when it is revealed that The Hand uses the paperverse as a source of new technology. Or, as Secret Original puts it in a hopeless monologue to Eve, his love interest in the paperverse:




Note the all-caps melodrama of this speech: as Morrison introduces another new world to his story, he finds a language to distinguish this world from what we've already seen without disrupting the lurid tone. Similarly, Chris Weston gives the paperverse heroes a look that has more to do with the straight-faced absurdity of old-school DC comics than with, say, Thunderbirds.

Meanwhile, in his half of the book, Greg looks after his cat Tony, watches some hardcore porn ("UNNH FUCK ME WITH YOUR CHESS TROPHY, LIAM"), and buries a stray cat he's been looking after. This is where the heart of the series really kicks in -- in issues #1 and #2 any emotional connection is largely situational, with the reader sharing Greg's horror and confusion as to what's going on. Here, we finally see the full extent of Greg's almost ridiculous attachment to animals, a sentimental plot-thread that nevertheless serves to make Greg sympathetic without making him seem any less desperate. Midway through this issue Dmitri goes round to Greg's house to convince him that his attempts to give look after the "little things" are in fact a pathetic hangover from his life as Ned Slade:

When someone makes a mess too ugly to look at, who is it who arrives to carry it away, bone by bone, hair by hair?
Writers are born to write and doctors to heal.

We are born to bury the smashed bodies and cremate the bloody abortions of the world, so no sensitive human pig has to be sick at the sight of them.

Here is proof. You can't run way from what you are, Slade.

Especially if what you are includes the legs you run with! WWHUOOOOP [4]

Those last two lines make clear the link between Secret Original's fate that of our porn-lovin' hero. The moral is clear: escape is impossible, so you might as well stop wallowing in your own filth and accept your place in the scale of things. All of which would all be rather depressing if a closer reading of this issue didn't reveal a pretty convincing counter-argument. Sure, Secret Original's affection for his former life may lead him to waste his time watching pornogaphic remixes of his life with Eve, but does that mean that all attachment is wasteful?

This question brings to mind a dialogue exchange from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's We3 #1, as blogged by David Fiore back when it came out:

Dr Trendle: Are you alright? You know it's best not to get attached to things.

Dr Berry: But isn't that the point of it all?

Dave was quite right to say that the sentiment expressed by Dr Berry is fundamentally anti-gnostic (which is a good thing since "The material world is the part of heaven we can touch," as Morrison put it in The Invisibles). In the context of The Filth, Greg's love for Tony is the only thing that stops him from being totally pulled apart by the vortext of destructive fantasies that's swirling around him. It also disrupts Dmitir's whole argument that Greg is just "a bad smell from an imaginary asshole"; or, at least, it insinuates that there's more to Greg than that.

I mean, it's obvious that Dmitri's just tugging at Greg's strings, trying to make him do the Hand jive all over again[5], but isn't the whole Greg/Ned divide a little too neat? Doubling is dramatically satisfying, sure, but everyone has more than two facets to them, which is why the Prismatic Age of superhero comics can be so damned compelling sometimes. For example, if Greg's a boring holiday home for Ned Slade, where does the line between them occur? Why the love of pornography? Why the miserable existence? Why the love of cats? Dmitri proposes an answer to that last question, but it doesn't really hold up. After all, what we've seen of Ned's role as a Palm negotiator hardly indicates that selfless care is part of his job description.

And within the context of these first three issues, Ned Slade is defined as a role above anything else. Sure, he apparently has sex with Miami sometimes, but even that seems perfunctory the way it's presented to us. Which is to say: Ned Slade's life is a fantasy, but it's a fantasy that only serves to amplify the horror of the world it rejects.

This is another link between Greg's fate and that of Secret Original, another neat moral: breaking free of your normal life is not necessarily a good thing, cos how you act when you're out of there is more important than the act of "escaping" could ever be.

But enough of neatness and morals, I want to to talk about the Crisis of Infinite Gregs! (As opposed to a Crisis of Infinite Greggs, which is what we have in Glasgow city centre. Seriously, how many sausage rolls does it take to keep a city turning?)

Like I said above, this issue does a lot to make Greg sympathetic, but still... did anyone else notice that Chris Weston is at his best here when he shows Greg acting in a weird or sinister manner? Like when Greg's grinning perversely as he turns the volume up on the porn movie, I know he's doing it to drown out a cold caller, but still -- what's going on with the look on his face? Another example: during the scene where we see that Greg has beaten the shit out of his replacement and tied him up in his cupboard, Weston's grasp of body language seems to improve wildly. The trussed-up doppelganger's hunched posture sells the ridiculousness of the moment, but the following panicked close-up renders it genuinely unsettling. Is there something to be said here about the way that Weston's fleshy, bumpy figures make such moments more disturbing? I think there is, but on a narrative level it interests me that these sections have so much life, because they raise further questions as to who Greg really is.

One more question before we bring this to a close: Greg complains that his stand-in hasn't been feeding Tony properly, and that Tony's health has suffered as a result, but what if he's just using this whole crazy breakdown as a way to sever his one tie with reality?

Round my way we call this the issue where Grant Morrison sorts out his rubbish, and you know what? We're only half-joking, cos he does take out the trash here, but he does it in a weirdly loving way. Which is important, because the question of what you make of the materials you've got -- be they pet themes, fictional universes, or the relationships in your life -- is absolutely central to this series. The resonance of this theme is amplified by the fact that "structures and ultrastructures" is a total masterclass in managing affection and responsibility. By making something new and affecting out of all these bad feelings and old ideas, Morrison demonstrates that comics don't have to be sinister concept farms for Hollywood, which is obvious, but sometimes the obvious things are the hardest to express.

This issue closes with Greg asking Dmitri to shut up while he goes about his work. At this stage, we still don't know what that really means, but we've been given a much better idea of why we should care.

[1] Well, in this issue anyway. Characters from the paperverse plot will start to filter into Greg's story from issue #5 onwards. You could say that this makes issue #3 exactly like the first two issues in structure, but I'd disagree: the two plot threads in those issues were designed to collide, while the two stories here are placed together for resonance more than anything else.

[2] Who dive down into the paperverse using yet another crazy, Gerry Anderson-ish vehicle.

[3] And how cool is it that this is a comic about psychedelic bin men? Cops? Soldiers? Fuck that, I want to read about the Lynchian adventures of my local cleansing department!

[4] If you're wondering what the deal with that last bit of dialog is, remember: Dmitri is both a KGB assassin and a vicious ape bastard, and as such he's allowed to whoop aloud whenever he wants to.

[5] These rotten puns doing anything for ya?

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Music is Magic/Cuts Through Silence Like a Knife

Love it or hate it, Hellblazer-meets-Simon-Reynolds comic book Phonogram is coming back:

(Make with the clicky to see the above preview properly.)

I loved 'Rue Brittania', the first Phonogram mini-series, so I'm properly excited about this. If you haven't read that first story yet, go check out this 10 page preview and see what you think. I'm not sure if it was music criticism as drunken anthropology or vice versa, but it was full of woozy, mournful regret, and Jamie McKelvie's modish (pop) art was like a fanzine dream come true, so... yeah, it was ace!

Here's how series writer Kieron Gillen described the upcoming 'Singles Club' arc to the denizens of Barbelith:
“The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball…”
The Duke of Wellington

Our second mini-series is seven issues long and picks up just over a year after Phonogram: Rue Britannia. It’s a somewhat different beast.

It’s on a single night. To be precise: December 23rd 2006.

In a single nightclub. To be precise: Never On a Sunday, a all-girl-music nightclub in a tiny room above an ancient Bristol pub.

And each of the part follows the evening of one of the seven, single phonomancers – or, at least, people in the world of phonomancers. Some you’ll know from the first series, but most will be unfamiliar. David Kohl’s in it, but isn’t one of the lead characters – though Emily Aster and Kid-with-knife are.

Oh – and while there’s interlinking events and similar structural fanciness, each of the stories all stand alone as a single chapter. If you’re familiar with comics and want a reference… well, while the first series was Hellblazer’s protagonist-on-quest, the model here is Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan’s Demo. In fact, I’m a little annoyed Wood got “Demo” as a title, as it’d have been a good title for this series. Most of the cast are much younger than Rue Briannia’s. While Kohl’s problem was identity related to the past, most of theirs are wrestling with the problems with identity and the future.

And trying to get off with each other, obv.

There’s more to the mini-series than the main arc, however. The main story is a sixteen-page Fell-sized story. We’re having back-up stories every issue from artists who we’ve talked into contributing to the project. Clearly, these stories will stand alone too, and we’ll reveal who’s doing them nearer the time. The remaining pages of the issue will be packed with the usual rants, letters, glossaries and even – assuming we have room – interviews with some of the bands who inspired certain episodes.
There's more info on the new series back in the rest of Gillen's post.

Consider yourselves warned!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Evens -- 'On The Face of It' and 'Mt. Pleasant Isn't'

Man am I ever pissed I didn't listen to The Evens sooner! Their music sees Ian MacKaye complete the gesture towards minimal, intimate protest music that he started on Fugazi's last album. I know less about Amy Farina's musical history, but I do know that her vocals and drumming increase the oddness and melodic simplicity of these pieces exponentially. Plus, as these live clip shows, MacKaye still rocks really fucking hard even when he's trying to play softly!

The Evens -- 'Vowel Movement'

Okay, I officially [Heart] Ian MacKaye now.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Starting To Kick

Tricky -- 'Council Estate'

This is: unexpectedly upfront, a bullet fired back through time, a bassline, a mess of drums, a kick to the throat, a punk rock song, a shout-a-long, a trite sentiment, a beautiful lie, a message of hope, an unexploded bomb, a faint fizzling sound, something ridiculous, something honest, something true.

Tricky -- 'Tricky Kid'

And yet, for all that 'Council Estate' is determined to fill the powerless and despised with knowledge of their own potential, its central refrain can't help but call back to this song. In 2008 Tricky sings the words "So remember boy you're a superstar", and he sounds like he means it. He's looking back, trying to see the past, to relate to kids on modern council estate, to drag them up with him. Flashback to 1996, Tricky's spitting on the same theme from a totally different perspective:
They used to call me Tricky Kid
I live the life they wish they did
I live the life, I drive the car
And now they call me superstar
So far so boastful, but this swaggering rhetoric only rises out of the murk as a periodic hook. The rest of the time Tricky slurs and croaks a series of almost incoherent threats, drops biblical illusions, and sounds generally disgusted with the air he's breathing. There's something about Tricky's voice here that makes me want to call it diseased, and when it emerges from the lurching guitar loop it sounds like the voice of a man who means to do harm. And hey, Tricky certainly sounds dis-eased on this song: he's a poor kid done good, and as everyone wants to be him, everyone's out to get him, everyone's on coke, "Everybody wants a record deal/Everybody wants to be naked and famous".

Worse, there's another voice on the song, an almost cartoonish jabber that throws Tricky's words back at him with hideous enthusiasm. Everybody wants to be naked and famous you say? Well, the voice says back -- "NAKED AND FAMOUS!" What could be better than that? The voice hovers round the hook, almost like some part of Tricky's ego run wild, pushing him, egging him on. Or maybe torturing him -- "Tell me what you see/When you look into those mongrel eyes?"

And what does he see? "Long as you're humble/Let you be the king of jungle" -- this isn't triumphalism, but it isn't the moaning of the mega-rich either. It's a song about crossing the class barrier, "making something of yourself", and finding yourself both proud and disgusted with what you've become. Proud and disgusted, but not unaware of the fact that you've moved from a small cage to a bigger cage, not unaware of race or class or context. The Tricky of 1996 sounds drunk on the truth and full of aggro, and he chew through each word like he can't wait to get the taste out of his mouth.

The Tricky that sings 'Council Estate' seems to be un-bothered by such concerns, and that's great. But for all the righteous kick of that new song, the sickly, conflicted Tricky of 1996 has a warning for any future superstars out there. Cos hey, guess what? Ain't no such thing as an easy road; people are always going to fuck with you and look down on you, and you might never be able to stomach who you really are. "Same as it ever was", right?

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Like A Puppet On A String

The Filth #2
“perfect victim”

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

In this issue we get a taste of the exposition that was missing from the first issue. True to Morrisonian form, we get a series of frazzled theories as to what’s really going on for each flustered explanation Greg receives. Here’s our hero in full flow near the middle of the issue:
Just tell me; I can take it.

Am I in the future? Or in virtual reality? Am I in a state ward, wanking in front of relatives?
All of this chat reminds makes me think of the chapter on Grant Morrison's JLA run in How to Read Superhero Comics and Why where Geoff Klock waxes poetic about Morrison’s ability to present the reader with an ever-egressing series of realities without ever placing them in a strict hierarchy. This effect is central to Grant Morrison’s work and worldview, particularly with regards to the unification of form and meaning in his stories. Here, we are confronted with several possible theories as to what’s really going on, but they're all kicked aside by Miami's harsh rejoinder:
You wish.

Think of it like you just got swept under the sidewalk of everything you ever knew.
The point is clear: whatever the truth is, Greg’s got to deal with what’s in front of him, just like the rest of us. Still, he can't stop himself from theorising:
You see... I keep thinking Greg's died, I've died.

This has to be hell or some Tibetan Bardo experience...

And I keep thinking... if I was going through some sort of weird afterlife purgatory?

Would I know it?
Well, that's most of the potential reader theories covered[1], aside from a couple of the more literal interpretations -- which are still totally valid here. You might wish that Greg would just load himself up on some Emerson ("Let us treat men and women well; treat them as if they were real. Perhaps they are.") and get on with it, but it's hard not to sympathise with him. After all, the reality he has to deal with here is pretty fricken weird by anyone’s standards! In the first twelve pages of this issue we see ill-tempered anthropoid dolphins, a belligerent communist space-chimp/assassin and a building complex that rises out of the ground and then hangs upside down like some hideous, man-made flower. Some of these details are all conveyed in the open-paneled “widescreen” style popularised by books like Planetary and The Authority, but the lush grandeur of this form is wonderfully undercut here by the dinginess of the subject matter. The art team deserve some serious kudos for their work in this issue, cos without them the neon-tinged world under the sidewalk (the Crack) wouldn’t have half of its sickly anti-charm.

I mean, just look at this stuff:

I want to say it's gorgeous, but it's way too grotty for that particular adjective!

According to Chris Weston, Morrison's scripts called for the world of the Crack to resemble "A Roger Dean landscape in decay... the seventies Utopian dream gone horribly wrong". Weston also notes that this reference would have been clearer if he had coloured the comic; he's probably right, but I like the way it worked out even better. Weston's bustling, pseudo-organic dreamworld is given a suitably murky sheen by the book's super-modern textures, so... much as the Roger Dean influence adds to the bad taste feeling of the book, it works better with a filthy twist to it.

There's also a strong Gerry Anderson influence at work throughout this series, especially with regards to the design of costumes and vehicles. This plays to Weston's strengths as a slightly stiff but detail-heavy artist, and also reinforces that feeling that bad taste has gotten worse[2]. I mean, there were a lot of cool costumes and vehicles in Anderson's TV shows, but there's also a lot of really goofy crap -- like the day-glo toupees from UFO, which Morrison and Weston riff on here. Plus, there was always something creepy and disjointed about the way the puppets moved in Anderson's "supermarionation" shows, and I think that The Filth draws on that stiffness in a way that is deliberately disturbing. These connotations serve to surrealise stock comic book tropes, and combine with the overflow of idiosyncratic details to suggest something alien to the reader's sensibilities, something abundantly other.

Anyway: while Greg's trying to get to grips with this intensely detailed world full of horror and absurdity, he is presented with two sets of (relatively) hard data regarding the story he finds himself in.

The first of these info-dumps concerns the Greg apparently works for, the Hand. As LaPen (a gimp-suited communications officer who re-writes the news with giant fountain pens!) tells him:
The Hand has jurisdiction over all other Earthly agencies. The Hand gives and takes. The Hand strikes. The Hand signals. The Hand caresses.

The Hand invokes.

We enforce Status: Q. "The way it is," officer Slade. We enforce it by removing and safely destroying all that is not Status:Q.
Greg/Ned is then reminded of the various positions/devisions of the Hand: The Frequency (communications), The First (warfare), The Finger (venereal arts), The Horns ("the science gestapo") and The Palm (negotiations). Ned Slade is a Palm officer, and as such he's about to be dispatched to take care of that bad bastard Spartacus Hughes, a former Fist agent who has gone rogue.

All of this is super-compressed and super-suggestive, partly because of the great design work I mentioned above, and partly because of Morrison's ear for a jarring turn of phrase. Indeed, reading this issue it's easy to imagine an alternate-world Mark Gruenwald writing entries like this one in a giant guide to the Crack! Comicks universe. And what a fun series of comics that would be to read, full of long-running stories of eye-scorching decay...

Anyway, before I set off the unexploded bomb full of tangents that is this issue, let's get back to the plot.

The second info-dump Greg receives in this issue has to do with the I-Life creatures that populate the "bonsai planet" from issue #1. Greg is shown footage of the cell-sized creatures, which look like tiny Telletubbies[3] and were created to befriend and pacify malignant cancer cells[4]. Of course, that's all went to shit now since Spartacus Hughes has let Simon and his gang of perverts wreck the planet up, so Greg is informed that he has a lead a team in to clean up the mess.

Greg is still having a hard time finding the motivation to perform as Ned Slade, and who can blame him when he's getting pep talks like this:

Spartacus Hughes, educated at Eton, Magdalen College, superb marksman, martial arts expert, sex god.

He was better than you at everything there is, Slade.

But you were always funnier, that's what we all miss.
Still, he goes along on the mission with Miami and Dmitri (the commie killer ape mentioned earlier), too dazed to truly opt out. When he arrives he discovers that the I-Life creatures have started attacking and "idiotizing" Hand agents and debauched party goers alike in response to the violation of their planet. We get a brilliant scene where Hughes taunts Simon as a swarm of I-Life creatures take their revenge on him. As the tiny creatures destroy Simon's body from within, Hughes sneers:
You were like some evil god there for a bit, weren't you? Fucking a whole world up. Turning a sugary heaven into a sexy hell.

But they've had
generations to plan revenge on their gods...

They're inside you now, ripping electrons off your molecules to make
free radicals.

Maybe there's still time for
This scenario is pure Morrison, with creatures from a smaller scale of existence rising up to take control. It's also quite a creepy twist on this theme, even more so when the I-Life creatures hijack the body of Sharon Jones (the "bizarre human camera" from issue #1), and use her to engage Hughes in a bit of the old hand-to-hand combat. Or they try, anyway -- they don't seem to have a good handle on human movement yet. Nevertheless, this act of literal puppetry ties in nicely with the way the rest of this plot resolves.

Greg/Ned blunders into the chaos and tries to negotiate with a frankly indignant Hughes. The two of them end up wrestling on top of the bonsai world (talk about your battle of the gods!), and before Dmitri blasts Hughes skull open, Hughes is able to utter the following cryptic revelations to Greg:
Don't you see what I'm trying to tell you?

All of this is shit... we're all shit...

Anyone can be Spartacus Hughes...
There are more variations on classic Morrison themes here (anyone can be a superhero, etc), but again it's all couched in a darker sort of rhetoric -- "we're all shit" could be the tagline for this series, but I'll get into that when I review issue #4.

With regards to puppetry: Battered and bewildered as all of this has left Greg/Ned, it only gets worse for him during his debriefing session (no, in-your-endo![5]), where it is revealed to him that the Hand were counting on his amnesia-addled stupidity to confuse Hughes -- "You played your part perfectly. You must see that now", he's told. His decision to quit the Hand in the light of all this bullshit is understandable, but there's more to this scene than mere anger breaking. When Greg asks "Before I joined the Hand... Who was I?" he receives yet one more question in response: "What was your face before you were born?" On one level this is just another deflection, and you can certainly dismiss it as a pretentious gesture to nothing in particular. But yet... somewhere in there, there's a connection with the tangled web of puppet strings that we've seen in this book so far... a suggestion that it's almost impossible to trace back who you were before you entered the endless mess of questions, lies, confusion and manipulations that is your life at any given point.

As LaPen tells Greg: "Answers are something you want, not something you need."

That's true enough, but when you feel like your strings are being tugged for all the wrong reasons, it's only natural that you'd want to cut all ties and head for the exits. You might not find truth that way, but you might as well try to be aware of who's trying to make your life even more tangled, and why.

Shit, 2000 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the world’s kitschiest, most Christmas-light strewn bathroom yet! Is it any wonder that this issue starts with the words “What the f**k?

[1] Morrison recently used a similar technique in the second issue of his current 'Batman: RIP' story, though there it served more to play with the readers’ expectations as to the book's central mystery. That said, the overarching conceit of Morrison’s Batman run is that all of the different versions of Batman are one and the same, so theme and form remain linked here. This was even more obvious during J.H. Williams’ brief tenure on the title, as I mentioned way back when.

[2] I'm not having a go at either Roger Dean or Gerry Anderson here, by the way. I'm not huge fan of either of them, but I can see the appeal, and Dean's work has a certain nostalgic effect on me since my dad used to have quite a few posters of his work. My point is that many of the most obvious influence on The Filth are anti-iconic by most modern considerations.

[3] The fact that they have little eyes for stomachs makes me think of the role of perception and observation in this series again -- it's associated with kindness and reformative behavior here, but that behavior turns nasty when the I-Life are mistreated and lash out. If you want an easy moral then I guess it'd be that you can't help or destroy someone without first observing them. Personally, I'm happy enough to note this theme's occurrence, cross-reference it with the psychedelic spy-tech LaPen uses to record Greg's actions, and then move on.

[4] This idea calls back to a throwaway line in volume one of Morrison's Invisibles, in which ones of the characters read a news article about a man who had made friends with his tumor. The Filth is full of callbacks and counterpoints to The Invisibles, and I'll discuss this fact in more detail in a later entry.

[5] The sub-pornographic tabloid pun-fest is still very much ongoing in this issue, it's just not what I've chosen to focus on this time round. Still, there is one bit where blaring Hand alarms scream the words “We have a hot zone! Status: V alarm! Prepare for hot zone injection!” which is pretty classic. Actually, it's more Judd Nelson than anything else, but it's still worth a mention for all that.