Wednesday, 31 December 2008
Well, that's my 33 1/3 proposal finally down -- and just in time, too! It would've been finished a month ago if a completely different (and hopefully better!) approach hadn't jabbed me in the eye while I was having a refreshing shower in the middle of November...
Anyway, I'm going to kick back and relax for a week or so. There are a few big posts on the way, but I'll get to them in 2009. In the meantime, here are a few links to keep you warm before Hogmanay:
*Matthew Perpetua's recent posts on Beck's (slightly underrated?) Midnite Vultures album have got me listening to that record again. And you know what? Matthew's right, there's a whole mess of confusing signifiers going on in that album -- it's make out music for the self-conscious kids in the room!
*The ever-entertaining Mike Barthel's posts on Beyonce's sexual politics and Kanye's aesthetics are also worth a read, if you're a critically minded pop fan.
*Those last couple of issues of Grant Morrison's Batman run have been pretty great, haven't they? Well, they're even better with amypoodle's annotations -- go read his posts on issues #682 and #683 now, if you haven't already. Oh, and hey -- his post on Final Crisis #5 was pretty damned good too! Is it wrong that I'm actually going to pick up that Final Crisis: Secret Files thing this week? Scripts by Len Wein and Grant Morrison, some sort of J.G. Jones art, a cover by Frank Quitely... sounds pretty good to me!
*Finally, here are four excellent Hercules & Love Affair videos to see you into 2009 in style:
Take care, bloggers! Let's make 2009 a good one!
Mike.This quote has been scrolling through my mind a lot recently, for reasons that will become obvious soon enough.
I don't understand the decision you've made. I don't even think this qualifies as a decision... Who ever said than an undergraduate Communications thesis had to account for every aspect of human existence? Or any thesis, for that matter? You say yours doesn't. Well, that's not exactly news Mike, but I was still looking forward to reading it.
The whole point of academic journals, and the larger community of scholars they feed, is that no one has access to the larger truths you're talking about. All we can do, as a discipline, is build toward a provisional understanding things, using the little discoveries each member makes each day.
(From Darkling I Listen, by David Fiore.)
And hey -- David Fiore has announced that his novella, Chimera Lucida, will be made "widely available" sometime in the 2009! I've had the pleasure to read Chimera Lucida -- it's an explosion of mental and emotional shrapnel, and on first reading it seemed to be even better than Darkling I Listen, so you should all definitely give it a read when you've got the chance.
Wednesday, 24 December 2008
Actually, come to think of it, I could probably have just posted this clip instead of writing that huge post about hard work and potential. Then again, even Fugazi the necessity of the occasional twitchy digression.
Also, this just in: 'Waiting Room' is a fucking amazing song!
Stern would like her next record to reflect current best-loved bands like Ponytail ("Cheery and uplifting") and U.S. Maple ("One of my favorite bands ever. You know, there's like a lot of dissonance going on. I'd like to go back to dissonance. I feel like the first record had a lot more dissonance"). But that's not all. "I don't know how I'm going to execute it, but it's a sci-fi record. It's like a Choose Your Own Adventure record. It happens to coincide with the fact that kids don't listen to a full album and it's all about the MP3. But I did like Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was growing up, so I thought, you know, you would go to different tracks for different types of stories. And I thought that that would be really fun. Mood, theme, everything.From My Songwriting Adventure With Marnie Stern, by Rob Trucks. (Via Matthew Perpetua.)
A better way of saying what I was trying to say here -- Marnie Stern's music reminds me of sleepless nights spent painting crappy abstracts in my bedroom. It brings back memories of page after page of try-hard lyrics, of tapes (and mini-discs!) full of overworked songs. It suggests far too many short stories that started out as genuine efforts then decayed into in-jokes for my friends.
Marnie's music reminds me of all of these things gone right, which means it's not memory we're dealing with at all, actually...
2. Copious Tape Hiss
Remember your musical masterpiece, which turned out to be The Verve's 'The Drugs Don't Work' in lo-fi drag? Still, that change from C to... what was that chord? You were never sure quite what you were doing there, but that bit of the bridge was nice.
Remember that afternoon you spent jamming with Parky in your bedroom? All you know for sure is that it sounded like My Bloody Valentine killing reggae, and that this was not a good musical direction now matter how you tried to spin it. Again, though, that bit at the end of that song where you let that effect-bolstered chord hang in the air while he played some sort of weird Running Man/Terminator style riff on his keyboard... that bit really worked.
Except, and here's the important bit, Marnie Stern's music doesn't suck. In fact, it rocks. Intensely. So... it sounds precisely nothing like your formative efforts, I suppose. There are no 'bad parts' here, nor any faux-reggae adventures. Which makes you wonder: if you'd worked far harder on those songs, would they have ended up being this good? Were you ever capable of crafting something that was all good part? I mean, sure, you might not have ever written a song with quite as many good parts as your average Marnie Stern song, but still... a boy can dream, right?
3. Reveals Something Beautiful
This is what I was trying to get at when I said that 'nothing sounds easy on a Marnie Stern record'. Her music is the sound of hard work paying off, and there's a relentless giddiness to her frantically interconnected guitar and vocal parts that induces both great nervousness and great excitement.
My favourite Marnie Stern moment so far = that bit in 'Steely' where the stuttering loop of hammer-on guitars breaks down into a dual guitar/vocal melody as Marnie sings 'I'm like a raging animation/I wonder how it feels to be one'. This line clears the way for what might be the most naked and expressive moment on the album, which... that sounds really lame now that I've just said it, but listen...
The drums stop, and the guitar noise pares down to one fading note while Marnie sings the words 'I'm hoping it's true/I'm hoping for you! you! you!' in the most cracked and delicate voice she can muster. The music kicks back in on the first 'you!', but it has been transformed into something joyous, triumphant even. 'Nothing can stop me' she shouts, and it doesn't sound like a boast, even though it probably should. In fact, it sounds more like a discovery than anything else -- 'Nothing can stop me!' Oh shit! No, really -- 'NOTHING CAN STOP ME!'
4. Again and Again
Of course, everything reminds me of something else, and what I've written above reminds me of Brian Chippendale's Maggots. Like Stern's music, Chippendale's cartooning is almost too busy. His scratchy little figures dance and twist and screw down one page and up the other, finding strange rhythms in the grind:
Chippendale's book makes the fact that it has been worked on part of its style -- it was drawn on top of a Japanese catalog, fragments of which can provide texture to both individual images and whole pages. It's a work of streaming consciousness, rather than stream of consciousness, a portrait of the artist as a randy, frustrated young man.
Karen's first comment on the book: 'Why are there so many cocks in this comic?'
The answer: 'Because the artist is a boy, silly!'
The really amazing thing about Maggots is that it sometimes rages its way into real, honest-to-fuck beauty. Sometimes a single image will be repeated with an almost hypnotic frequency, with tiny variations announcing themselves along the way:
[This scan stolen from Derik Badman]
At other points the constant barrage of panels will stop so that you can actually appreciate the beauty of the moment... the way Chippendale has made something wonderful out of something perfunctory:
That's a kind of discovery too, isn't it? I'd say so, but make sure you pause over each of these images for a sufficient amount of time, because once you leave it them behind it's easy to get lost in the constant buzz of black and white images and to forget why you were so mesmerised in the first place.
5. There Is A Difference
Brian Chippendale makes music too, of course (and who could doubt it when they read his rhythmic comics in full flow?!). He's best known as the drummer/vocalist for hardcore noise-machines Lightning Bolt, but I believe he's involved in a number of other projects, none of which I'm even slightly familiar with.
Sticking to what I know: Lightning Bolt's music is far more frantic and avant-garde than anything on the first two Marnie Stern records, but I can't say I'm a huge fan. Which is to say: there's a lot going on in there, but I don't get that much out of it.
Check out the band in action, if you haven't already, and see what you think:
Much as I admire Lightning Bolt's relentless intensity, I can't say I've ever managed to find any moments of mad beauty in their bass/drum freak-outs. Your experience of the band might be different, of course, but I'm afraid that I hear an impressive cacophony and little more.
Oh, and before anyone says it -- I know that I'd probably enjoy Lightning Bolt a lot more live. If the opportunity ever presents itself, I'll definitely check them out in that environment.
6. In The Every DayHmmm... in thinking about how to close this piece, I'm tempted to start judging these various works of art by talking about their covers. I want to make a crude comparison between the way the cover of Maggots places a harsh, leering caricature at the centre of a technicolour explosion...
Bella Foster distributes an equally bold array of colours in a more subtle fashion, using little explosions of white to give a sense of calm to Stern's record sleeves:
This comparison needs to be thought through far more thoroughly, but still, there's something to it. And is it just me, or do these covers seem genuinely representative of the art they contain? One threatens to sweep you away in the madness, while the other promises equal parts chaos and order. Both of these artifacts are hard work, their covers seem to say, but in a good way!
And aren't they both worthwhile, in the end?
In everyday life, the appeal of 'hard work' can seem elusive. Don't we have enough of that to do already? Well, yes, but sometimes it's the goal that matters, and sometimes that's where 'difficult' art can come in extra useful.
This is why I don't listen to Lightning Bolt very often, while Marnie Stern is always on my headphones. I've put a fair bit of effort into Chippendale's music without getting much back, whereas I find myself overwhelmed by how much This It It... and In Advance... have offered to me so far.
Maggots falls somewhere between these two poles for me. It can be hard going, sure, but that makes the moments where it becomes genuinely rewarding all the more satisfying. Sean Collins recently wrote about the book, highlighting the sense of anxiety that the book generates, and praising it for its build and release structure:
The tension is maintained by Chippendale's art, which feels like a peak into a hermetically sealed limbo of endless black, occasionally interrupted by secret trapdoors, ladders, and at least one food stand. Panels are tiny, cramped, filled in as much as they can be, careening wildly from one end of the page to the other. Even the white space is busy, showing the text of the catalog underneath. No matter how much our hero Hot Potato and his comrades and enemies run, jump, climb, crawl, and even fly, there doesn't seem to be any way out for them. Of course, this makes the moments when Chippendale pulls back for a dazzling spread--a field of flowers, the arrival of that sorcerer guy, a massive staircase--all the more impressive. That's the oldest trick in the book, but there's a reason for that: It works.He's right, of course. When they're used well, the most well-worn tricks can be enough to draw you in, to make you see patterns and possibilities in the middle of even the most frighteningly abstract routines.
Marnie Stern's songs are built out of some pretty basic musical elements (catchy melodies, catchier riffs, tweedly guitar parts and MASSIVE drums), but the way she puts these things together... shit, you'd think she was serious about trying to make sure they worked or something!Right now, I'm listening to the way she battles her way through every note of the two songs in this video ('Shea Stadium' and -- yes! -- 'Vibrational Match'):
These songs sound twisty, noisy, beautiful, alive. They sound triumphant, despite the fact that they're constantly on the verge of overloading themselves. They sound like how I want to feel today, and isn't the kind of hard work that's worth it?
Sunday, 21 December 2008
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:
LaPEN RESPONDING... THE STORY SO FAR DOT DOT DOT: PORNOGRAPHIC ALCHEMIST TEX PORNEAU HAS PERVERTED THE TECHNIQUES OF THE ANCIENTS TO CREATE MONSTERS...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.
PLOTTING: POSSIBLE NARRATIVE OUTCOMES BASED ON CURRENT SITUATIONAL VECTORS...
OUTCOME ONE - NOTHING HAPPENS AT ALL AND EVERYONE GOES HOME.
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.  I mean, sure, you can point to several influences, like I've been doing in all of my essays so far.  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.'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!), 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.'
'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.'
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!  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). 
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...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:
'The kids come in but they don't come out again, you fucking nonce!'
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.
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?
 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?!!
 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.
 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.
 What can I say, I'm quite combatiative for a fairy-boy feminist.
 If only someone would write an excellent post about the role perspective plays in our understanding of, well, everything. Oh, hey -- thanks plok!
Saturday, 6 December 2008
And just in case those clips have left you feeling disconnected from reality, here are a couple of informational videos on "The World That's Already Here!!" from an earlier incarnation of the same show:
Friday, 5 December 2008
More razor-sharp, self-cleansing rage from the Manics at their best.
And hey, while we're talking about the Manics, Sean Witzke's posted links to documentaries on the making of The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go over on his blog. Go check 'em out, and be sure to watch the Top of the Pops performance of 'Faster' over on Sean Collins' blog when you're done.
I’ve been spending a lot of time round at Kirby’s recently, and my favourite Kirby is the chatty, energetic old guy who’s perpetually setting up a big picture with the intention of hinting at an even bigger one. I'm talking about the Kirby who's always happy to sit you down, offer you a drink and ask how you’re doing before he brings the crazy. You'll find this Kirby in The Eternals, of course, as well as in his Fourth World stories, and it's hard not to love the guy.
Thursday, 4 December 2008
You always said you liked The Holy Bible best, but I never believed you. It was another perfect example of how condescending I could be, and we both knew it, but you always seemed more like an Everything Must Go girl to me. You even enjoyed This Is My Truth… for fuck's sake! I’m still not sure what to make of Richey’s disappearance, but his family have declared him dead now, so maybe it’s time we let go? The Holy Bible demands as much, after all; it’s an album that cuts through thoughts, words, books, icons and feelings just to show that it can. It’s as hard and clean and functional as a knife, but the problem is that a lot of its users don’t know when to stop. I didn’t, once, but you always did. Sometimes I feel like maybe that album should have been called Everything Must Go, rather than the next one. Maybe people would have understood the music better that way. Maybe they would have used it rather than romanticised it, you know?
Does this make sense?
Do we even care?
Anyway, it’d be cool to hear back from you cos I’ve got no idea what you’re up to these days. I’m still painting, but I’ve got an office job on the side now, which sucks. “Frankly Mr Shankly…”, and so on. I hope you’re well. I hope you're still having more fun in Dublin than you ever had in Glasgow. I hope we never meet again.
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
The Eternals #3-6
'The Devil In New York!'; 'The Night of the Demons!'; 'Olympia!'; 'Gods and Men at City College!'
"Originated, Written and Drawn" by Jack Kirby; Inked by J. Verpoorten and Mike Royer; Lettered by John Costanza, Irv Watanabe and Mike Royer; Coloured by Glynis Wein; Consulting Editor: Archie Goodwin.
My first post on this series was all about gigantism, so let's start this one off with a quote from Michael Barthel on the subject:
We turn to music not for a depiction of the unknown, because we can experience that any time we like. We turn to music for an ordering of the unknown, an abstract explanation of vastness beyond our comprehension. The low end rumbles and one hundred people slowly build up a roar, controlled precisely by a person with a small stick. On a giant screen, one hundred people have worked for months to create a sequence that takes our breath away. That order rubs off and stays with us. And it's not just limited to that.In the essay I've just quoted from, Barthel argues that without the cute, kawaii characters Spirited Away's hugeness wouldn't be contextualised for the viewer. "Even hugeness accompanied by an expression of awe doesn't help us grasp it," he says, and I can't help thinking about those early scenes in The Eternals, with their constant exclamations from passive observers.
(From Barthel's Clap Clap essay on Spirited Away and hugeness in art)
And now here's the interesting thing: issues #3-6 of The Eternals should be far less awe-inspiring than the first two, since they fall back on several stock superhero tropes. But actually all of the villainous schemes and dramatic face-offs end up making the cosmic stuff seem even bigger in comparison. This is an odd trick, but it works, partly because the generic nature of the main plot is regularly punctuated with glimpses of the Celestials, whose completely unreadable faces and high-Kirby designs loom over our costumed heroes and villains in a suitably bewildering way:
It doesn't hurt that these issues are also about the actual process of myth-making and myth-distortion. In these comics, Deviant warlord Kro decides to attack New York City in the hope that his classically satanic appearance will terrify its human occupants, leaving them fearful of the Celestials and prepped for destruction.
Like the man says, "Give the humans a real devil and they'll destroy the galaxy to be rid of him." The fact that Kro dresses up in a space-suit while leading this attack, and announces himself with the words "Tremble, humans! I've returned from space to reclaim this domain!" is intended to further the possible connection between Kro's attack and the spacey Celestials, but it's also goofy as all fuck. Similarly, the running gag that the names of various mythic figures' are mispronunciations of the names of individual Eternals (Makkarri=Mercury, Sersi=Circe, etc) is both stupid-cute and another neat example of the theme I'm talking about.
As the story plays out you see people both panicking helplessly and standing up to Kro and his army, and once all that wonderful kicking and punching and energy-throwing is over (via an intervention from the Eternals, of course!) our heroes make a deal with Kro. Y'see, our man Kro believes that the "Devil game" he's been playing has been enough to turn human society fighty and destructive, while the Eternals believe they can amply explain the situation by holding a Q&A with some Anthropology students(!).
The results of this little session are variable, which suggests a couple of things: that truth is difficult, sure; that it can be manipulated for an agenda, or misconstrued so frequently that a distortion becomes accepted as truth; that that Jack Kirby could draw the hell out of superhero action, but that he also had an acute eye for strange drama. Of course, as I've already indicated, he could also push all of those crazy lines together into something far less easily graspable too, and I love him for it. Because hey, if you find this story too old-fashioned then that's cool, but if you don't think that it doesn't serve a purpose (just like the kawaii stuff in Spirited Away) then we're going to have a disagreement on our hands!
The overall impression this story gives is not that there are some truths that can't be understood, but rather that there are some truths that are so big that you have to find another way to talk about them. Sometimes this means that you need to craft a goofy superhero story in order to suggest something far stranger and more unsettling, and I'm all up for that if it means more joyously busy pages like this:
Sorry for the crappy scan. Once again I fail to do Kirby justice! Please take this as an excuse to go read Kirby's Eternals stories, if you haven't already.
Next stop -- The Filth #6, 'The World of Anders Klimakks'. Can anyone see the bigger picture emerging yet? Or has it been crushingly obvious all along?
Tuesday, 2 December 2008
The following ramble was originally posted in the comments to this Factual Opinion post. It's addressed to a chap called Kenny, who had stated that Grant Morrison's comics were "all big ideas and weak execution" and that this made him "the anti-[Mark] Millar".
A lot of people seem to think that Morrison's all ideas and no execution, but... I just don't see it. On a bad day, maybe, but I'll let you in on a secret about Grant Morrison's best ideas: they normally belong to someone else. What he's good at is finding a new way to make some old Jack Kirby/J.L Borges/Michael Moorcock idea sing, and in that way he's actually way closer to Mark Millar than you're making out.
See, they make a pretty neat couple, Morrison and Millar, as Plok neatly pointed out in this recent post. The main difference between them is that Morrison wants to show how much you can still do with these old ideas, where Millar takes a great deal of joy in rubbing his cock on them*. Both valid approaches, for sure, but... yeah, in both cases, execution's the thing.
Now, I've ran out of patience with Millar recently, so I can't comment on his Fantastic Four or 'Old Man Logan' or whatever, but honestly? His execution is AT LEAST as on-off as Morrison's... probably even more so.
What's the difference between 'Batman: RIP' and All Star Superman, or Morrison's whole Batman run and Seven Soldiers? It's probably about the same as the difference between Kick Ass and Wanted, right? The ideas involved are similar, but there's a huge difference in the quality of the execution.
(Of course your opinion on the relative quality of these series may differ from mine, but that's only to be expected.)
And this isn't a new phenomenon in Morrison's work either: Arkham Asylum renders boring many of the same themes that seem super-exciting in his Doom Patrol run, for example.
So... yeah. You're wrong about Morrison's strengths as a writer, is basically what I'm saying, though obviously if his work doesn't do it for you it just doesn't do it for you.*There are exceptions though: Morrison's Dare would make much more sense if Monty Millar had written it, but so it goes...
Also: Big Beardy Alan Moore has a similar interest in other people's ideas, though unlike either of the two young rogues I'm waffling on about here, Moore's more interested in building a huge structure out of this junk in order to show how clever he is. Which is awesome!
I've changed the formatting a little, and have edited out the bit about me wanting to give Kevin Huizenga special man-hugs, but I stand by the rest of it. And in case anyone thinks I'm being flip with that last Alan Moore comment: I'm not! I really do think Moore's work is awesome, and some of it is even hugely affecting (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, The Birth Caul..). It's all really perfomative, sure, but that's a quality I really like in my comic book authors. Moore's showy like an old school stage magician, while Millar's showy like a drunk bloke in a bar. Morrison? He's somewhere between the two, which is probably why he's my favourite British comics writer.
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