Sunday, 21 December 2008

(Man-)Meat Is Murder

The Filth issue #6
'The World of Anders Klimakks'

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

So: this is the issue of The Filth in which EVERYTHING COMES TOGETHER. Not coincidentally, it’s also the issue where THINGS FALL APART. Funny how this fiction stuff works, eh?

The first half of this issue follows on from the diseased fantasy of issue #5, but instead of bringing our focus back to Greg and his problems, the comic starts of by overwhelming the reader with viewpoints and fragments of information. Greg bumbling around in the bloodied and semen drenched mess that is LA, but on top of that you’ve also got a couple of the Paperverse operatives from issue #3 gooning it up while Tex Porneau, Agent Nil and Anders Klimakks vie for the readers’ attention. Oh, and there are also odd narrative captions in which LaPen (the sinister she-gimp from issues #1 and #2, remember?) plots out the story you're currently reading:


Of course, we couldn't have that -- there's no story here without bloodshed and madness after all -- so we move on to other outcomes, other (more entertaining?) possibilities.

You could claim that these captions further complicate the question of how “real” any of this action is, but the truth is that they’re mostly just more noise in a very noisy sequence. This isn’t meant as a criticism, by the way: this issue is brutally amusing, and that's largely because of the ridiculously Morrisonian noises the story makes. [1] I mean, sure, you can point to several influences, like I've been doing in all of my essays so far. [2] You can do that, but you've got to bear in mind that all of these samples are there to better define the song itself.

Want to mix some metaphors? Yeah, let's give that a go.

The Filth uses a hall of mirrors structure, just like All Star Superman does. Both works make excellent use of their episodic format to show different aspects of their respective protagonists while pointing the reader very gradually towards the exit. In All Star Superman, Morrison uses the weird, glimmering contours of Superman's mythology to make the man in blue shine even brighter; in The Filth, Morrison uses whatever mental detritus he can find to distort and re-contextualizethe story of a lonely man and his cat. Like I've said before, there's a huge difference between the tone of the two works, but it's only as big as the difference between the simple grace of ASS penciller Frank Quitely's artwork...

...and the knotted tension of Chris Weston's illustrations:

Anyway, we'll come back to exactly why Morrison is doing this shortly. Right now, what's important is the fact that all of this madness almost overloads the reader and characters alike. Sure, the issue starts off with a splash page that could come from a particularly pervy issue of The Authority, but it doesn't take long for the pages to become swamped with baroque details and genuine idiosyncratic dialogue:
'Creepy to think a man's balls are filled with countless monstrosities just like this one.'

'A hundred million of 'em every day. Smaller usually, thank god. Much, much smaller.'

'What is this? A fucking hair salon? Synthesise a weapon response from this fucker's DNA, and do it yesterday.'
Just another day in the office, eh? Well, I guess it is if you're a Hand officer, or a half-decent comic book writer. Needless to say, OUR HEROES come out on top (fnarr![3]), but the way in which they do so says a lot about the tone of this series. You see, Miami defeats Tex Porneau by one-upping his gonzo logic. Tex's motto is "Fuck or be Fucked", so of course she has to don a translucent green strap-on to best him. Even more dispiritingly, once the major threat of the issue has been dealt with, it becomes obvious that the real story doesn't quite match the one we've been reading. You see, the Hand agents were really sent out to 'neutralise' Anders Klimakks. Turns out Klimakks is a bio-engineered solution to increased rates of male infertility. As Hand agent Moog Mercury explains, the problem is that there's a new and improved version -- 'one with no mind at all.'

The meaning of this half of the story? Well, Tex Porneau wanted to leave that to 'the fairy-boy critics and the feminists', but he's a dead fictional character so fuck him! [4] The moral of this part of the comic seems to be that there can be no progress that doesn't embrace the worst excesses of the problem, in all its forms. This might seem like a hideously depressed worldview, probably because that's exactly what it is! So Anders has been replaced? No problem. Who cares if he's a nice guy? Let's just kill him so the new model can do its job, yes?

All of this makes perfect sense when you read the final half of this issue, in which all of the spy-fi action clears out and we get to see Greg Feely up close and personal. The density of Weston's panel composition in this issue is as important as the jarring shifts in perspective in issue #4 (it's all about tricks of the eye, baby, which is why my earlier attempts at expressing this via musical metaphor were doomed). [5]

Take that aforementioned opening splash page, for example. It's full of killer giant sperm, but it still serves as a traditional establishing shot:

Eleven pages later the events depicted in that page have reached a kind of toxic overload as the slithering monstrosities drown Tex during the course of three nasty, post-sundering panels:

Note how the woman in the first panel is reaching out into the panel gutters, desperately trying to escape imminent death. In context, it's a fairly desperate gesture, but in other Grant Morrison comics (Zatanna, say) it could be rewarded with bewildering transcendence. It's interesting to note that Tex also leans out of the panel and into the gutters in the second sequence I've sampled above -- his defeated confusion makes a nice contrast with the fate of his many victims, doesn't it? I don't think he ever expected to find himself on the receiving end on that treatment, do you?

The sections of the comic that focus on Greg and his cat Tony feature relatively little in the way of visual detail, which is as it should be since this part of the story sees Greg questioning whether he's a Hand agent or just another deluded asshole:

I love how the bottom of the page opens up, with Greg and Tony lost in the open space of those sour-yellow panel gutters. If I was Scott McCloud I might claim that this technique was designed to affect the amount of time the reader assigns to that last image, but I think it's a sense of endless space I get from this trick, which isn't quite the same thing. To my eye, it looks like Greg has even less chance of reaching Tony in this panel than either Tex or the woman from the first page had of escaping their fates. It's a trick of the eye, sure, but I've already claimed that that's what this series is all about. Look at the image and tell me: do you find it hard to believe that Greg's just about to fall on his arse and tumble backwards through infinity?

Which brings us, somewhat belatedly, to the heart of this piece. Why does Grant Morrison use this elaborate hall of mirrors structure? Why does he have Chris Weston and co draw such impossible things if this is all about one man and his cat?

The cheap answer would be "because he's Grant Morrison!", but that's only part of the truth. I've already written about how Jack Kirby uses old school superhero plots to suggest something far bigger and less easily parsed in The Eternals; what I'm suggesting today is that Grant Morrison does something similar in The Filth, except with a slightly different focus.

It's not quite true that Morrison uses the fantasy stuff to explain Greg's mental state, though there's certainly a connection between Greg's porn-addled depression and the misogynistic violence of issues #5 and #6. It's also not quite enough to say that Greg's adventures with the Hand represent an escape from his bleak, boring life, because these queasy romps always threaten to provide a sense of higher purpose without ever actually delivering. After all, whether Greg's deluded or not, he's still left at much the same point at the end of this issue -- nothing much makes sense, but there's a lot of suffering going on in sense's name. Like, maybe Greg is a Hand agent and he's just been involved in some 'sick, body horror shit' on their behalf, or maybe he's just some guy who's been ignoring his pets for the sake of an un-fulfilling inner life. Either way, he's just a useless lump of man-meat, right, so where's the release? Where's the sense of escape? Where's the sense of possibility in any of this?

To answer that, I need to show you another mirror. In the middle of all the ranting and confusion that greeted the end of Morrison's recent 'Batman: RIP' storyline, amypoodle talked some profound sense (ZOMFG: SPOILERZ!!)
The Black Glove really is just an amorphous architecture of evil. He’s anything that’ll HURT Bruce Wayne: the Anti-Mum/Dad/Alfred. The comic isn’t insisting we literally interpret him as the Devil, although, given all the satanic referencing (and not just in the dialogue; in the comic’s iconography, its mise-en-scene, its themes, its tone, and the gothic genre conventions that Morrison has deliberately brought into play), and, ostensibly, supernatural shit that’s come pouring out of this book since day one, we could quite confidently endorse this take, but that’s not really the point. True to form Batman 681 refuses to pick a side. It denies conclusivity. Anyone that says otherwise does not understand Morrison’s writing. That might annoy some of you out there, but it’s a fact.
Like 'Batman: RIP', The Filth denies conclusivity. Just when you're stating to focus on the idea that this is all about one man and his cat, the police burst in and Greg's life becomes a proper tabloid horror story. Or, as one of the cops puts it to Greg:
'The neighbours hear gunshots. They see graves being dug... tiny, pitiful little coffins...

'The kids come in but they don't come out again, you fucking nonce!'
Before you can fully take in what's going on here (is Greg a paedophile? No, those are just dead cats in his Garden. But who the hell is Max Thunderstone?) a man with a strained Euro Trash accent starts chatting in your ear:

Forget the puritanical disgust of this one guy..!

Feast Your eyes on the future:

That ain't just a random giant baby-face closeup! That's the spawn of Anders Klimakks -- one of many, if the story we hear is to be believed. The issue ends by presenting us with a sweaty utopia, 'The World of Anders Klimakks' as promised to us in the title of this issue -- a world populated by Anders' fuck-happy children, in which 'The lonely and the suicidal will be gang banged back to sanity'.

It's an uneasy attempt at optimism, but it unbalances the tone of this story one more time, so... what's the point of all this? Why put the reader through the hall of mirrors at all?

Preparing possible answers, dot dot dot:
  • Because there's always a bigger, stranger picture hidden somewhere in the smaller one.
  • Because there's always a mundane root to even the craziest fantasy.
  • Because escapism is always tainted by the exact things it seeks to escape from.
  • Because it's not always about us, you, him or even her.
  • Because something is wrong with all of this.
  • Because none of this is true, except when it is.
Sometimes it's easy not to see any of this, to get stuck in one (un)reality. That's why you need to read something like The Filth every now and again... to see clearer, creepier and more unlikely truths, even as the possibilities narrow down around you. What do you do with this vision? Well, I don't know about you, but most likely I'd feel the urge to start smashing some mirrors. And what do you do with all that broken glass? Well, that's a question that's half-answered in the latter parts of this series.

Right now, all I know is that I've still not mentioned my favourite part of this issue, this wonderful cordon tape:

You might recall that I had a similar realisation when I got to the end of my post on issue #2 of The Filth. That's the problem with reading/writing about this series: there's always more in there. Hey, like the Hand agent in the above image says, 'There's nothing to see! You're imagining this and you need immediate psychiatric help!' He's probably right, but man, sometimes it feels good to let yourself get lost in the confusion. Sometimes you just want to take in every bit of detail before losing yourself in the transition from one panel to the next, you know?

[1] And hell, Morrison even starts to let loose with the phonetic Glaswegian patter in this issue, which is a sure sign that's he's having fun within his own boundaries by this point.

Yes, that’s right: I just claimed that phonetically transcribed Glaswegian banter is a 'ridiculously Morrisonian' stylistic tick. Or, wait, did he actually rip it off from Iain Banks in The Bridge? This postmodern literature can be damned tricky you know!

I'm joking, of course, but one of my friends does get slightly aggravated when American’s read his short stories as Irvine Welsh riffs when they’re actually riffs on Scottish language and culture so… YOU YANKEE BASTURDS ARE NEEDIN TELT, is the basic jiist of what I'm saying. GET IT SORTED OR THE KRAZY YOUNG VIBRO WILL GET YOU SORTED, AWRIGHT?!!

[2] The first half of this issue continues the Blue Jam/Brass Eye/League of Gentlemen influence from issue #5; the second half reads like that bit in a Philip K. Dick novel where the artificial reality you've immersed yourself in first starts to question itself, and so on.

[3] Should I stop making these sniggering asides? I probably should, but I'm trying to maintain a continuity with the tabloid tone of the comic, so... yeah, I have no idea whether to keep this joke going or not.

[4] What can I say, I'm quite combatiative for a fairy-boy feminist.

[5] If only someone would write an excellent post about the role perspective plays in our understanding of, well, everything. Oh, hey -- thanks plok!


sean witzke said...

Goddamn man! You hit it right on the head with the smashing mirrors. Fuck thats good!

plok said...

De rien, David -- glad you liked it!

I liked this.

David said...

Thanks guys!

I stayed up way too late to finish this through a flu-addled haze so... thanks for reading it, and for commenting so quickly!

Oh, and Sean -- 2009's Filth posts are going to be all about the mirror smashing, so stay tuned!

More when I can think in something resembling a straight line.