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?


Duncan said...

Oy, never realised you were a Glasgow lad, David - thanks for the link; don't think we ever met at a Glesca Barbelith meet (you are the artist formerly kent as 'big sunny D' amirite?)

David said...

Yeah, I'm from East Kilbride originally, but I live in Glasgow these days.

I never made it to any of the Glesga Barbe-meets -- not deliberately, but because I'm a organisational disaster made flesh. So no, I don't think we've met, but I was bigsunnyd back in the day.

Nae worries on the link front -- your post clarified something that had been on the edge of my brain for a while now, so I might end up referring back to it again in the future.

I'm currently trying to work out whether or not I'm going to write about issue #9 of the Filth in exaggerated Glaswegian phonetics... perverse bastard that I am, the idea appeals to me right now, but I'll probably talk myself out of it sometime soon.

liamk said...

great post, as always. thanks for the creepy, disturbing name check. sincerely hope thats a coincidence.

David said...

Ha! Well, I was really just grabbing a quote that reinforced the lurid porno vibe of the series, but sure: think of it as my gift to you Liam!

For those who don't know him, Liam is the kind of super-nice guy who wouldn't get all giddy and delighted at the mention of some hardcore chess trophy action. Quite what he's doing associating with a known deviant like me I'm not sure, but he's a good friend to have so I'm not going to complain about it!

Also: to anyone who's got this far, thanks for reading this nonsense!

I've officially entered the "having doubts about the sanity of this project" phase, so it's good to know that someone's into it.

If anyone has any criticisms or suggestions then I'm very up for hearing them, by the way. Standard etiquette applies -- all constructive criticism is super-welcome, but if you come round and act like a dick then you'll be treated like one.

plok said...

Awesome! Now I can comment!

Looking forward to it!

But sleepy now.