Saturday, 18 October 2008

Twisted Brainwrongs and One-Off Man-Mentals

The Filth issue #5

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

If The Filth is a desperate fantasy, then this is the point where the dream takes on a life of its own; if it's all 'real', then this is where we get a glimpse of the bigger, grubbier picture. As such, I should probably note that some of the images and videos in this post are not safe for work.

Our protagonist, Mr Gregory Feely, appears in a mere handful of panels in issue #5, when he and his colleagues in The Hand fly in to make things less ugly. Quite how they're going to do that with their toxic toupees and viciously toothy bin lorries will have to wait 'til issue #6, because 'Pornomancer' is more concerned with the victims and perpetrators than with the clean-up crew. I mean, a Hand officer called Genesis Jones is on the scene throughout the issue, but she doesn't fare too well. It's no coincidence that this widened focus brings with it a sense that the book is bottoming out -- the adventures of Greg Feely have been hopelessly absurd and full of ugly close-ups and this story hits even harder, because it pulls right back out so you can see how horrible the full-frontal truth is.

Hardcore pornography is Morrison's primary target and means of expression here, and it's a good fit, given Greg's predilection for the odd bit of one-handed entertainment (as showcased in issues #1 and #3). Of course, with The Filth being the kind of book it is there's no room for a more balanced critique of the porn industry here. [1] So instead we have Tex Porneau, a Max Hardcore send-up with a penchant for brutality and nature's first digitally obscured genitalia. His moto: 'FUCK OR BE FUCKED'. His grand plan: to grow a swarm of gigantic hunter-killer sperm with which to terrorize the women of Los Angeles.

To do this he has tricked a porn star called Anders Klimakks into contributing his jet-black semen, but... we'll come back to Mr Klimakks later.

Oh, and there are also a couple of frazzled detectives wandering around the edges of the story, questioning Klimakks and paying Mr Porneau a house visit. One of them spends most of his time smoking crack and reminiscing about his dad's 'creepy old buddies' (i.e. old-school policemen who knew about the existence of The Hand), and neither of them seem particularly up to the job.

What we have here is a portrait of sex and entertainment stripped of any function or context and turned into a force of hateful misogynistic violence. [2] This serves both to underline the connection between Greg's taste for crude pornography and the actions of the various "anti-people" he's met during the previous four issues, and to intensify the sense of grotesque biological scale-shifting that's characterised the run to date. Of course, none of this thematic resonance would be worth a damn if it didn't also resonate on an emotional level. As Sean Witzke has made clear, it's relatively easy to make a story mean something, and a lot more important (and difficult!) to make it connect meaningfully.

Thankfully, Morrison and co are more than up to this task, with Chris Weston providing some of his most impressive imagery for this story. Like I said during my piece on issue #2, Weston's art can be stiff at times, but that's not always the case. Indeed, there are many, many moments throughout this series where his framing and depiction of body language is just right. Check out this panel, for example:

Are the detectives (who have been captured, gimp-masked and leashed up by Porneau and his goons, natch) willingly going along with their humiliation now? They don't seem to be struggling, but is that just a slip-of-the-art or have the detectives got caught up in the a bit of porno? This logic takes hold again towards the end of the issue, where a plumber delivery boy comes to Porneau's house, only to be drawn into the demeaning violence of Porneau's world, which (alongside a brief comment from issue #6) makes me think that this bit of character acting is intentional. [3] If so, then Weston's depiction of the detectives squatting submissively at the centre of this image is just right, and it lends the scene an eerie ambiguity as to how compulsive Tex's logic is.

That big ball of trash and sex in the background? That's the background to the whole series compacted into one inexplicable image that is.

Elsewhere in this issue, Weston really cuts loose, providing a vivid sequence of gurning facial expressions and odd-textures as he introduced the reader to Anders Kilmakks. Here's the first page of this issue:

Anders is an amnesiac porn star: all he knows is what he does. We're talking about a man who has been reduced to one crude function, which makes him another neat reflection on the debased nature of he modern erotic entertainment/living, though Anders' naive enthusiasm is almost charming in the context of this story:

Hey, say what you will, but at least Mr Klimakks seems to be enjoying himself! Plus he doesn't seem like he's out to harm anyone, not that he could ever live a consequence-free life in this comic!

More than anything, what Weston's art and Morrison's dialogue here remind me of is Chris Morris' Blue Jam derived works, particularly this Jam sketch:

Notice the mention of black semen, the use of grainy video footage, and the deliberately crass approximation of Euro-trash speech patterns -- the fact that Morrison and Weston are riffing on Morris' work is hardly a secret, but re-watching this sketch I'm amazed at how closely this issue of The Filth resembles it.

The connection makes a lot of sense. Blue Jam and its many subsequent adaptations represent Morris' attempts to move beyond the satire with which he had made his name and into more morally ambiguous territory. The best of these works come off like polite sketch shows, except that all the details are wrong. Cast against a backdrop of subdued musical violence, the sketches' subject matter and dialogue both glory in a sort of blank depravity, absolute horror and despair presented as just another commonplace lark. My favorite example is the following sketch, which takes this detached attitude to the worst things in life as its topic:

It's to Weston's credit that he manages to take this kind of nonchalant debasement and adapt it to fit a comic book adventure story. Instead of Aphex Twin, you've got background ambiance of cocks and fucks; instead of Morris hamming it you've got Weston providing some wonderfully crinkle-faced characters and Morrison giving them suitably warped dialogue. It's over the top, but in a funny way. It's entertainment -- just like Nightwing, but with less sex and violence. [4] Because that's what issue #5 is all about -- horrible lumps of flesh doing horrible things to each other for your amusement and their economic gain. [5] In the context of this issue, even a cheerful chap like Anders Klimakks can't help but get involved in the production of widescreen bio-weapons, so what chance do you have? [6]

Like Jam, this would all be too unpleasant if it wasn't also so funny. Then again, it's also possible that the humour is the most disturbing thing about 'Pornomancer'. One of the many things that The Filth is "about" is how we cope with the gibbering madness of our day-to-day lives. Black humour is a big part of that, and while 'Pornomancer' doesn't have any big points to make about this (Morrison saves those for issue #6, 'In the World of Anders Klimakks'!) it's definitely a full-on example of it. For this issue, Morrison and his collaborators are content to just show you the madness, make a couple of crude jokes, and leave you to sort out how you feel about the whole thing. Like I said at the start of this essay, this is either a bad dream run wild or a look at the world outside of Greg Feely's head, but whichever way you take it you'd be forgiven for puking till you laugh, laughing till you puke and then starting all over again.

So... did I miss anything? Ah, that's right: Genesis Jones, the Hand agent I mentioned way back at the start of this piece? As a woman in a comic book about hardcore pornography that's bustling with potential viewpoint characters, she was always in danger of being reduced to a victim (a process that this post is now complicit in). As the issue progresses, Jones tries to interrogate Anders Klimakks but gets seduced by his "maxi-pheromones" (i.e. by more porn logic); unfortunately, this logic also extends to her gruesome death on the final page of the issue:

So is this a critique of sexist entertainment or an example of it? Maybe it's both. Maybe that's why it feels so fucking harsh and dirty when you read through it and on to the next episode.

Cumming soon, 'In The World of Anders Klimakks'.

[1] For a good outsiders-eye-view I'd recommend both David Foster Wallace's 'Big Red Son' (reprinted in Consider The Lobster) or Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends documentary on the topic. Of course, if you're allergic to either Wallace of Theroux (or both!), then these recommendations are no good to you, but I'm simply not well read enough on the subject to provide you with any other references. Perhaps some, ah... further research is required?

[2] Well, violence and commerce, I guess. One of Tex's minions is shown videotaping the carnage at the end of issue #5 (while being violated by the man himself no less!), and he keeps talking about 'These new kids... with their sleazecore heroin vomit porn'. To compete with them, Tex is going going to raise the stakes or the city or both. Which is, of course, another part of the equation between violence and enjoyment that this issue is attempting to solve. Or, as Porneau would have it: 'SEX = DEATH = BIG BUCKS'.

[3] I'm referring to the scene in which one of the detectives wonders: 'How do I tell my grandchildren that I like it up the ass Thai-ladyboy style?', another bit of quality tabloid realism from Morrison. For more evidence, check the speech Tex gives to the aforementioned delivery boy:

Don't give me this unprofessional bullshit, honey.

I get a thousand girls through here who manage to do what they do without
bleating like losers.

See, in Porneau's world, everyone's just an extra just waiting for their chance to take part in his productions -- it's gonzo pornography as an all encompassing worldview.

[4] To quote Tucker Stone on Nightwing #149:

Goddamnit, there's a good portion of comic readers, non comic readers, male and female alike, who dig on some low-cut gowns and some cleavage--but what, exactly, does it add to this particular story? The fight scene? It doesn't add to sales, because it's not like Nightwing has enough in the T & A department on a regular basis that anybody is going to add it to the wank file next to a stack of whatever Aspen Entertainment is offering. It's not even there for enough of the comic for it to get a good session finished, which means you have to go find that "Blackout" Superman cross-over where he married an island girl and she kept taking off her clothes. It's just Poison Ivy pulling a rumpshaker for a couple of panels, and it's Don Kramer drawing it (and brother, Don Kramer ain't no Adam Hughes.) Oh well. At least it ends with an innocent women getting shot in the stomach, and then dying in pain, so that there can be a turgid little scene where Nightwing is crying in a torrential downpour, played completely seriously.
[5] See [2] above. Of course, this has been one of Morrison's key themes since at least as far back as Animal Man. David Fiore is still probably the most enthusiastic (and best) untangler of the knotted meta fictional ethics of that series, and I can't recommend his writings on the work highly enough.

Also recommended, on a similar theme, is Kimberly Bohman-Kalajah's Reading Games: An Aesthetics of Play in Flann O'Brien, Samuel Beckett and Georges Perec. The first section is a little heavy on games theory, but once Bohman-Kalajah gets into the specific texts she's definitely worth reading. Her book traces a line of ethical enquiry through the overtly playful metafiction of O'Brien co, and there are points where I think her theories and Dave's meet up. That said, those with a low-tolerence for academic lit-talk should bodyswerve this one, because while it's far from the worst example of the form it's definitely in genre, if you know what I mean.

[6] There's actually a twist on Klimakks' role in all of this, but again that's something I'll discuss when I get around to writing about issue #6.


sean witzke said...

My favorite thing about the Filth is when someone asked Morrison about coming up with Anders Klimakks at last year's NYCC. He smiled, started yammering in an Amsterdam accent and then says he saw a documentary about Max Hardcore and started miming forced blowjobs like a 14 year old kid.

sean witzke said...

Oh, and by the way this is the best piece yet. Worth the wait.

David said...

Sean -- That's quite an anecdote! I've never heard that routine before, though I do like Morrison's goofier public outbursts.

Also: thanks man, this post was particularly tricky to write since issue #5 is so Feely-free. Hope I got the balance right -- issue #6 is providing its own challenges! That issue is crazy, but... yeah, more on that later!