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
Viagra.
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.

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