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.


liamk said...

don't lose heart my friend, these posts are great, you have an admirable skill and insight.

sean witzke said...

I remember reading an interview with Morrison where he said writing New X-Men he was listening to hiphop and dance music, and when he was writing The Filth it was Blur, Pulp, Julian Cope, The Smiths... just english miserablism.

David said...

Liam -- thanks mate. I was dramatising my worries a little to emphasise a couple of facets of this issue, but my writerly confidence is low at the moment so your support is definitely appreciated!

Sean -- yeah, I remember reading that interview too. This points to one of my favourite things about The Filth -- the way it's so obviously influenced by British pop miserablism, British New Wave sci-fi, Cronenbergian body horror and Chris Morris style comedy but still ends up being almost definitively Morrisonian.

Morrison is one of those artists, like JH Williams or James Murphy, who finds their own voice by borrowing and reworking the vocal tics of others. How does this fit in with Morrison's alchemical musings on the transformative power of pop? Shit, as always with Morrison, the style and the theme are one and the same!

Of course, as books like The Filth show, Morrison's all too aware that this DIY pop fantasy living can be dark and delusional too!

Off to Connect now -- be back on Monday!

Thanks for reading.


Tucker Stone said...

i'm loving these. rock fucking solid.

Danoot said...

Yeah, I'm very glad you're writing these! I've been meaning to re-read the Filth for some time, and this will inform that reading. Thanks!