Monday, 31 August 2009

Beyond the Garish Bed Sheet

Ok, so let's take the theme of Saturday's post a little further. If, as I claimed in a fit of hyperbolic madness, a set of patterned bed sheets that appear on one page of Batman -- Year One suggests other stories that could happen in Gotham, what would these stories be like?

Well, I think they'd look a little bit like this:

(The above images are from: Barton Fink, by the Coen brothers and various; Ai Yazawa's Nana; Batman - Year One by David Mazzucchelli, Richmond Lewis and Frank Miller; and The Birth Caul, adapted by Eddie Campbell from a performance by Alan Moore.)

Of course just last week two Batman comics came out that made Gotham City seem like a freakishly exciting theater of the mind, which is how I normally like to imagine it. First, there was Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Batman and Robin #3, in which two young men escaped a ride through a Lynchian fairground and one young woman wasn't so lucky:

Then there was the third issue of J.H. Williams III and Greg Rucka's run on Detective Comics, which showed how easy it is to mix baroque, monstrous horror...

...with scenes of dancefloor romance that suggest a particularly goth-friendly Disney movie:

So it's not like I'm actually desperate for DC to start publishing comedy-romance-horror stories about young people trying to make a mark on that particular fictional city, because honestly, those stories would probably be better without the constant threat of wonky Bat-cameos. But still, the pleasure of finding such ideas suggested (however obliquely or implicitly) in a Batman comic is one of the reasons I still bother to read comics. Quitely and Williams aren't quite doing that in their respective works, but I still love the way they amp up the theatrical madness implicit in the best Batman stories.

Hmmm... you know, looking back over this post it occurs to me that Sean Witzke really is a lot better at this sort of thing than I am. If I had the skills I'd make him the Liquid Swords/There Will Be Blood mashup album he imagines here, because (A) the battered hubris of Daniel Plainview's "I have a competition in me" speech makes perfect sense in the 'Cold World' that Liquid Swords documents, and (B) Sean's There Will Be Blood: Babycart to Hades post demonstrates just how fitting the substitution of Daniel Plainview for Ogami Ittō actually is.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Will There Be Blood on the Sheets?

The first thing I think of when I see the cover for Darwyn Cooke's adaptation of Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter... this page from Frank Miller, David Mazzuchelli and Richmond Lewis' Batman - Year One:

The scene is nothing new in itself -- you've got the lonely noir hero and the inert woman, trapped in the space between domesticity and dark adventure -- but the difference in staging makes me think of something Dan Nadel said while he was tearing The Hunter to pieces:
When I think of this work I think of what Mort Meskin would have done, with his vibrant, almost ecstatic brush marks; what Toth might have done with his sense of page design and the figure in space; or what the younger Mazzucchelli might have done with his figures weighted in space and rooted in fully imagined environments. I think of all that and wonder at such a missed opportunity. Those guys used cinematic set-ups, but they never allowed style to overtake content. Krigstein, for example, was a master of adapting filmic rhythms into comics. But at the heart of his experimentalism is a drive for clarity.
Now I enjoyed Parker: The Hunter way more than Nadel, but I can't deny that he has a point. While I like Darwyn Cooke's work, I've never enjoyed it on anything other than a surface level. When David Fiore panned New Frontier, some people reacted like he was crazy (hi ADD!), but you know what? I think he was on to something!

For me, New Frontier was pretty but boring. The Hunter is more exciting, but it's still a brutally functional work. Which is fitting, given that the title character is basically revenge machine. Tucker Stone riffed on this in his review of the piece:
Feelings--unpredictable, messy and useless when it comes to control fantasies--wouldn't it be nice if one could just turn them off when they get in the way? For Parker, the answer resounds as an unequivocal "yes", and that's what The Hunter circles around. A man who can do anything, as long as he doesn't make the mistake of loving a woman ever again. He tried it out. Didn't fit.
This nicely captures the thrill of reading the book while underlining its essential emptiness. As Stone notes, Parker spends most of the book in action, off-panel and in the shadows. Where Dan Nadel finds the character's generic blankness disappointing, Stone seems to perceive it as another indication of the character's brute efficiency, as encapsulated in this image:

All of which makes Parker: The Hunter sound like a Frank Miller story with a veneer of smoothness and sophistication, which seems about right to me.

Since it's scripted by Frank Miller, Batman - Year One is every bit as obsessed with tough men and tough choices as The Hunter. It's the art team of David Mazzuchelli and Richmond Lewis who provide the book with its extra luster, and the reasons for this can be found in that picture of Detective Jim Gordon perched on the end of his bed.

Both pictures set up varying levels of reality -- on Cooke's cover you've got Parker in the foreground, solid and real, and the dead woman beside him. The two characters seem to exist under spotlights, but while this makes Parker and everything around him seem darker and more defined, the light that bounces off of the corpse's head whites everything out into nothingness. The page from Batman - Year One establishes a similar dichotomy - you've got the bed, with its preposterously textured patterns, and the darkness outside of the bed, in which only tough-guy noir talk can exist.

It's the otherworldly weirdness of the Year One bed sheet that really takes that image over the edge though:

The situation is cliched, but the Gordon family bed is of another order to anything else in the comic. Sure, there are moments where Richmond Lewis leavens the purply black hues with dazzling hints of yellow and orange, or where one or two dashes of Mazzuchelli's linework give his characters a battered flexibility that's unmatched in Cooke or Miller's work (his Jim Gordon in this image approaches this state without quite reaching it). But seriously, what the hell is going on with that bed pattern?

According to Dave B Cooper in this dusty old Barbelith thread, this effect wasn't present in the comic when it was originally serialised:
The colouring’s probably a subject of some variation – as Dan says, the subtle colouring’d be lost on newsprint, and indeed there was some recolouring done for the collected version, I believe – I don’t think it was entirely redone, but (for example) the bedsheets at the end of (I think) chapter three (Gordon sitting on the edge of the bed while Barbara sleeps, the gun heavier in his hands etc) was just a solid colour in issue 407 of the comic, but becomes a rather nicely painted patterned set of bedclothes in the book. Not knocking at all, but there were some changes made, IIRC – possibly to play on the upgraded paper stock and production values of the TPB, I guess.
This is amazing to me, and I'd really love to see a scan of the original page since I can't imagine the page (or, indeed, the comic) without this image as I know it. Which is interesting, because I think that this scene shows Gordon struggling to keep the family bed in mind, and tending away from it, towards the harsh action his story demands from him:

But -- maybe he should have paid more attention to the bed he was sitting on, in the collected edition at least...

But -- this page, like the comic it exists in, isn't built that way. The narration tips towards the bed and then slides right back off it again, returning to the hard black that makes up the rest of the page, just as Gordon's mind slips back into the noir stuff, the dark stuff, the words themselves becoming less important than their direction:

But -- still, for a moment that's either long or short depending on how long you spend looking at that page, that image, Mazzucchelli and Lewis open up the possibility of other stories happening in Gotham. The Gordons' bed is strange enough to survive and to generate its own narratives without the help of Batman or his enemies and derivatives.

But -- truthfully, I'm not sure how much of this work is done by Lewis and how much of it is done by Mazzuchelli. The shifting haze of greens is Lewis' work, and the body language of the two main characters is Mazzuchelli, but who's responsible for the patterns on the bed? I'll take a guess that it's Lewis and let a more technically astute commentator correct me, but even if that's the case I wouldn't downplay Mazzuchelli's contribution. Just look at the way the covers twist through Barbara Gordon's legs and back under her arm an over her chest:

She's not just a part of the scenery, but she is tangled up in these patterns, rather than the ones that her husband is currently debating as he sits on the edge of the bed.

But -- you might fairly object that I've just spent a thousand-odd words comparing a piece of sequential storytelling, a mix of words and text, to an image that was intended to work as a cover and nothing else. And you'd be right, up to a point. Because there aren't any pages in Parker: The Hunter that I would want to write about to this extent, while there are many panels and pages in Batman - Year One that point me in this direction. And I like that Darywn Cooke cover, as much as I like anything in the book -- it expresses everything it needs to express via starkly defined iconography, and I enjoy that, but I enjoy what Mazzucchelli and Lewis do with Frank Miller's work more.

But -- it would probably be fair to say that I'm just re-writing my Panel Madness essay on Criminal here, and what can I say, I've got a thing for these sort of moments. I like to get caught up in the crushing gravity of a good crime story, but I also like to get hints that this gravity might not be as indisputable as it initially seems. Speaking of that old Panel Madness piece, let's compare Sean Phillips' lively city streets...

With Cooke's equivalent:

But -- again, you might say that this is an unfair comparison, or that we're looking at two different types of intent here. Which we are, but that's exactly my point -- the image from The Hunter serves to break up the narrative, while that Criminal panel does the same thing while also suggesting a variety of other narratives, stories that we'll never get to see. The page from Batman - Year One has the same sense of added life to it, and it's this life that Mazzucchelli has taken to exploring on the page since he abandoned the world of corporate comics.

(A page from the Mazzuchelli/Karasik adaptation of City of Glass, chosen for the most highbrow of reasons)

I've not read Asterios Polyp yet, but I'm about to order it, and I can't wait for it to arrive!

Still, much as I love the mature Mazzuchelli, there's something to be said for the strange thrill involved in finding a page like this in a macho adventure comic. Maybe it replicates the excitement of hearing a pleasantly discordant note in a piece of music, or maybe it's got something to do with stumbling into a moment that seems ripe with forgotten possibilities. Maybe it's got nothing to do with anything! I don't know, the only thing I'm sure of is that it's moments like this/images like this/stories like this that keep me reading, watching, looking, listening. Ridiculous as it might seem, I might even go so far as to say that it's unexpected pleasures like this that keep me living, and as long as I keep finding these feelings I know I'll never want to stop.

But -- there's always another page to turn, isn't there? And who knows what that's going to lead to: new richness or mechanical precision or both or neither? Only one way to find out -- stop talking -- stop narrating -- stop rationalising. Just flip forward -- to here knows when!

Friday, 21 August 2009

"In my day, if a cat tried be a doctor we'd have had it shot...."

Off the back of yesterday's Bruno post, here's a very balanced and insightful Stewart Lee essay on political correctness in comedy.

If you'd rather watch Lee tackle the subject on his home turf while attacking Richard Littlejohn, please check this youtube clip:

Me and my pals are going to see Stewart Lee at the Fringe on the 27th August. The blurb for the gig is a little vague, but as this clip shows, Lee's a master at circling round a point until it collapses in on itself so I'm sure it'll be good. My friends and I are also going to see Lee's former comedy partner Richard Herring this Sunday. The theme of Herring's Hitler Moustache show is hard to ignore -- it's sitting there, right in the middle of the comedian's face, just daring you to look:
Reclaiming Chaplin's moustache for comedy, 'Headmaster's Son' star muses on iconography, the positive side of racism and why an innocent square inch of facial hair took the blame for Nazism.
Interestingly, Herring ended up having to defend himself in the Guardian recently, after an article on "the new offensiveness" in comedy made his current routine sound like a cheap shlock-fest. "You're taking what I said out of context!" is often the first defense of the weasel, but Herring makes a convincing case for himself:
I think that most reasonable people might assume from the article that I am racist, or at least pathetically confrontational. Indeed, some reasonable people did assume that. One blogger wrote: "Richard Herring is currently putting on a show called Hitler Moustache, where (and I haven't seen the show) he apparently dishes up straight-faced endorsements of racist ideas."

It is true that the phrase "maybe racists have a point" is in the show. It's an interesting moment: the awkwardness in the room is palpable; a core belief has been challenged (by a man with a Hitler moustache) and people are uncomfortable about where this might be leading. But the statement is followed by what is possibly the standup routine I am most proud of, one which examines our attitudes to ethnicity and questions whether the way humans choose to divide themselves is obfuscating their essential similarity. It challenges racism, but also liberal assumptions about cultural identity. It's funny, too. Comedy, it seems, can cover some complex issues much more effectively than someone blankly stating these truths.

Sounds good to me! I can't wait to see how it comes off on stage, because I have faith in Herring's ability to make something out of these questions instead of simply saying something "shocking" and chuckling away in (relatively) safe company.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Clown Autopsy #435 -- This One Just Won't Shut Up!

Or: This essay is so 1998!

Hey, I've just figured something out!

Bear with me while I do the maths:

Sacha Baron Cohen


Cady from mean Girls (aka Li-Lo at her best)

No but seriously, let's check my working here.

When he's trying to pretend he's an actual comedian, Sacha Baron Cohen is one of the least funny human beings on the planet. I don't want to start a clown autopsy here, but seriously -- if you can watch him ham it up in either Talladega Nights or Sweeney Todd without throwing up in your popcorn then you've got a stronger stomach than me!


Fuck me! It's not that I'm particularly offended by Cohen's shtick, it's just that I have no idea how a supposedly hot shit comedian gets away with peddling this fifth rate 'Allo 'Allo nonsense in 2009. The only explanation I can see is that we're all stuck in a high school neverland where gay people and foreigners are so implicitly funny that merely exemplifying cliched assumptions about "those people" will earn you a round of applause.

This high school humour is Part (1) of the Mean Girls connection, though I should point out that Mean Girls is significantly funnier than any of SBC's attempts at conventional humour -- it's the teen comedy that looks like candyfloss and tastes like barbed wire, you know?

Also: "Danny DeVito I love your work!"

Part (2) of the Mean Girls connection comes through in the parts of Brüno that are actually funny (or at least half-funny), i.e. the bits where Sacha Baron Cohen stays in character and annoys or tricks people into amusing situations. Now sometimes this ends up being so "what the fuck?" that you can't help but laugh, like when SBC/Brüno tries to come on to Republican Congressman Ron Paul, but as Tucker Stone said in his review of the movie: seems like a waste of Sacha Baron Cohen's time considering that any of the reactions he got out of his dopey victims could have been just as easily achieved by running up to them and screaming "fuck you stupid asshole fuck you fuck you" while somebody else pointed a camera out them.
Which is where my dopey Mean Girls comparison comes in. By infiltrating a series of traditionally masculine settings and camping it up within them, Sacha Baron Cohen ends up looking like a shrill asshole amongst shrill assholes. His broad humour draws its power from the very attitudes it seeks to mock and expose, and watching him can't help but make me think of Cady in the middle section of Mean Girls. For those of you who aren't familiar with the movie, it's all about a previously home schooled girl who is dropped into an American high school full of all the usual cliches. Oblivious to teen relationship dynamics, Cady finds herself both befriending the "freaks" and becoming a pet project for the popular "plastics". After being burned by the head plastic, Cady agrees to embed herself in their group in order to destroy it. Of course, Brüno style, she ends up embodying most of the things she's out to undermine, but... actually, I've just spotted a couple of places where my points don't quite add up.

Firstly there's the fact that Cady is subject to the moral mechanics of Hollywood film making, in this case embodied by a big yellow school bus:

The vague gestures towards story that punctuate Brüno are so perfunctory as to be completely ignorable. Mean Girls, while snarky enough to literalise its machinations for all to see, still obeys the Hollywood laws that state that lessons must be learned and characters must grow.

Secondly, there's the fact that -- in Brüno, anyway -- Sacha Baron Cohen is a far less efficient operator than Cady. Sure, he convinces people that he is Bruno rather than Sacha, but what does he do once he's pulled this off? He crouches outside a hunter's tend with some condoms and pretends that he's covertly trying to sleep with the guy.

One of my favourite writers, Mike Barthel, wrote an excellent essay on Borat from which the following paragraph is taken:
This is why it's such a perfect political movie. Instead of creating fictional scenarios in which he can insert himself and create a comic meaning--which would of course be too easy, and make the meaning seem unreal itself--Borat is thrust into these real situations where he has to either work with their rules or ignore them completely. The process of finding out those rules is, of course, what produces the comedy. Borat--and please note here that I am explicitly talking about Borat the character, not any motivations that Cohen the creator might have had--genuinely thinks he is being as respectful as he should be with the feminists, and when he's at the rodeo, his escalating rhetoric about Bush and Iraq isn't a satirical attempt to provoke, but actually a rather careful probing of exactly what it is and isn't polite to say in praise of the President, whose power and strength Borat really respects. All in all, it's not so much the wrong way to go about it, it's just that Borat's image of America is so off-kilter that he fails to become part of it. Still, he's getting inside the joke and rooting around, trying to find a place where he fits, and it's that willingness to engage with his subjects rather than yell at them from outside that gives the film its power.
Now I'm no Sacha Baron Cohen fan, as is surely obvious by now, but could anyone honestly make any of these claims for Brüno? Seems to me that all Cohen does in this movie is stand outside and yell.

So, with these minor mathematical faults corrected, I once more present you with my findings:

Sacha Baron Cohen


Cady from mean Girls, only slightly less efficient and without the ability to learn

And now we say the forbidden sentence: Ah, isn't maths fun? Well, maybe not, but blathering on about Mean Girls in public is a laugh, for me anyway.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Your Hypothetical Questions, Answered

Q: Given a relatively level playing field -- i.e. an environment spooky and harrowing enough for a ghost writer to operate in but not so creepy as to cause a comics critic to freak/geek out -- who would win in a fight between Abhay Khosla and Bram Stoker?

A: Well, thanks to the wonders of modern science, we're finally close to obtaining an answer to this ancient brain-boggler:


Frightenend? Intrigued? You bloody well should be!

Go check it out:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

The fifth and final part of this epic saga is still to come. Maybe Stoker will bounce back to shock victory, but right now Khosla's got him on the ropes and he doesn't look like he's going to let up...

Would you believe...

...I'm still just clearing my throat right now?

With any luck I should be able keep posting regularly for the rest of the week. After that I'm going to slow it up a little in order to finish a couple of bigger pieces. Hopefully you'll stick around to see what's coming, but if not then please take the time to enjoy Marnie Stern and her band blasting the hell out of 'Steely' live:

"I'm hoping it's true/ I'm hoping for you, you you!"

A Real Deep Peek Into One Man's Crack...

If anyone was wondering what the hell I was blathering on about at the end of last Thursday's post, I bring you a very inward-looking kind of hell: Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York.

(David Allison, looking at his notes for his next Filth essay)

Kaufman's scripts have always tended towards solipsism, but before Synecdoche this had always been partially offset by the showmanship of his director-collaborators Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Allowed to direct his own material, Kaufman plunges deeper and deeper into his protagonist's decaying mind and body with little regard for either plot or audience.

("What's this say? 'Self disgust is self-obsession honey and I do as I please' -- what does that even mean?")

This is a good thing, in some ways. I've never seen a movie which takes you quite so far up one man's back passage, which... wait, was I supposed to be complimenting the movie here?

Seriously though, it works, or it worked for me anyway. It's the kind of project that'll either win you over on the strength of its details or completely alienate you on the same terms. The high concept is very high concepty, as has always been the case with Kaufman's films -- Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a hypochondriac theater director whose sense of hearing/reality might be slightly suspect. He wins a massive wad of grant money and sets about losing himself in an ever-expanding and perpetually untitled play, a mini city full of muted drama and decay. As in Morrison/Weston's The Filth, the decomposition of mind and body are linked in this environment, which ends up functioning as a sort of Ballardian inner space.

What's the point of all of this? Well it's all about death, innit, or at least that's what Cotard says:
I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That's what I want to explore. We're all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we're going to die, each of us secretly believing we won't.
I realised that I was genuinely enjoying the picture, as opposed to just appreciating it, when Caden's mother turned to him at her husband's funeral and said: "There was so little left of him, they had to fill the coffin with cotton balls to keep him from rattling around." Did I say that Kaufman showed no regard for plot or audience? Maybe I overstated a little. There's a lot of dark humour on display, and the movie is deliberately constructed to take the viewer down the rabbit hole with Cotard, which is why it sometimes seems like it has no regard for time or causality.

Like I said, if it works for you it really works, as Jog noted in his review of the movie:
It seemed to work on the audience I was with. By the time the city-within-a-city becomes a ruined wasteland, as a metaphor for an old man (so worried about an early death!) outliving all his friends and acquaintances, left with nothing but memories and shadows of old loves, actors playing people, don't ya know, and Wiest, now likely dead and fused completely with Caden's soul, launches into another knock 'em out monologue about how we're all essentially the same useless, ineffective bits of walking nonsense in the face of universal time, the crowd became totally rapt, sitting in shock through the closing credits.
So, if it's good movie why have I been circling round it like I want to take a piece out of it? Well, I guess I feel like Kaufman has taken us down this rabbit hole in pretty much every script he's ever written, and I was hoping that he'd do something beyond show us quite how far into ourselves we can go.

On that note, I can't help but think that the ending of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind was a lot more cutting than Synecdoche's finale precisely because it pushed its protagonist out of his solipsistic panic and back out into a more socialised reality. Here's what I said about Eternal Sunshine back in 2004:
The final section of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is nothing short of spectacular. It's a headlong rush of uncomfortable awareness for the two main characters, and, in an odd way, what it reminds me of more than anything else is Donnie Darko. Now, before anyone shouts "what the fuck", let me unpack that one a little. While I know that stylistically and thematically there's a lot separating the two movies, what it seems to me that Donnie Darko captured so well was a feeling of confusion that gradually transformed into some sort of weird mixture of knowledge and acceptance in the face of overwhelmingly deterministic forces. Something similar happens at the end of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, with Joel and Clementine facing up to the reality of how their relationship is likely to work out, and deciding to go with it anyway.

It occurs to me that the garbled theories I've just spent several paragraphs constructing may not immediately seem like the best argument in favor of the idea that this is, above all, a simple movie. But... well, lets just put it this way; the ability every one of us has to accept the distance between what we feel we need and what we know that we will end up getting from any given person is both sad and wonderful, and I can think of no more eloquent and poetic expression of this than the final looping segment of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
If I remember correctly, quite a few people found the Donnie Darko reference in that post a bit confusing at the time, but I stand by it. The movies are miles apart in terms of subject matter and theme, but I made the comparison because the last act of ESotSM had a Darko-esque sense of bewildered discovery to it. Anyway, what makes Eternal Sunshine more engaging than either Donnie Darko or Synecdoche, New York is the fact that it applies its mopey philosophy to a "real" human relationship. Also, Michel Fucking Gondry, but we'll come back to that another day. Synecdoche, New York makes a good case for us being a species of lonely, disconnected minds trying to make sense of the chaos around us; Eternal Sunshine shows two people trying to maintain a relationship in full knowledge of the fact that they'll never truly get it to work like either of them want it to. Like the honorable Mr Attack said to me in a 2004 email:
In some ways, I can't help shake the feeling that they've managed a brilliant job of making everyone think it's this sweet, romantic movie, and it's actually this terrifying psychological horror movie. Job's a good un!
And like I said response: actually, it's a sweetly terrifying romantic horror movie, and that's why I love it!

Because seriously? Sometimes this relationship shit is scary hard work, but I still think that it's worth every brain-frazzling second -- or at least, it bloody well can be!

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Let's Call it Love

Amazing footage of Sleater-Kinney playing at the Big Day Out festival in 2006:

Sleater-Kinney -- 'Jumpers' (live at the Big Day Out 2006)

Sleater-Kinney -- 'Wilderness' (live at the Big Day Out 2006)

Sleater-Kinney -- 'Rollercoaster' (live at the Big Day Out 2006)

Sleater-Kinney -- 'What's Mine Is Yours' (live at the Big Day Out 2006)

While we're talking about Sleater-Kinney, I really should point you all in the direction of Tim O'Neil's epic posts on Sleater-Kinney's last album, The Woods. You can read part 1 here, but it's the 2nd essay, with its copious samples from Jack Kirby's New Gods that's really got me excited. This is exactly the kind of silly/wonderful juxtaposition that this blog is built for, and I truly wish that I'd got there first!

Now, thinking about it, the pre-Woods Sleater-Kinney strike me as more of an old-school Marvel comics proposition -- their songs were sometimes bombastic, sometimes angsty, frequently agitated and often humorous, but they always felt like part of an ongoing indie punk story. The Woods, meanwhile, is definitely more like a solo Kirby comic -- the drums and guitars and vocals all rumble and howl with the brute force of a pure Kirby creation:

(Big Barda in action in Mister Miracle. Is Barda the only person other than Janet Weiss who could have played drums on The Woods? I think so.)

That said, I wouldn't have invoked quite the same Fourth World material that O'Neil does in his piece -- instead of the apocalyptic cleansing of the New Gods story O'Neil riffs on, I would have probably went for something from Mister Miracle. I think the root of this (minor) disagreement can be found in the penultimate paragraph of O'Neil's second post:
Even after everything has fallen apart, there is still life enough to fill a universe, hope enough to rage forever against the brutality and ignorance of the worst evils. The Woods is both life and anti-life, the will to fight and the desire to die. It's everything nasty and gorgeous, beautiful and scarred. You can't hope to escape unscathed, but you can't escape without feeling wonderfully alive for every harrowing minute.
Now this is stirring stuff, and it's almost right, but it doesn't quite match what I get from the record. The stuff about harrowing escape is dead on, but I just don't hear "the desire to die" anywhere on The Woods. Even when the band channel Black Sabbath via Joy Division in the brutalised rumble of 'Steep Air', I can't hear anything in the music which makes me think that the band actively desire this state.

O'Neil discussed this song back in his first post on this album, and here's what he had to say about it:
...unlike most examples of dark pop music, there's nothing theatrical or histrionic on display here. It's real, it's earned, it's heartbreaking.
I booked my ticked
Packed my bags
Flight is leaving
Our time has passed.
I'm tired of knocking on a door that just won't budge,
Locked out of the engine, It's a wheel that you have spun
But who's to say I don't have wings?
The problem is that the "wings" which present the only glimpse of hope at the end of "Steep Air" fly for the briefest of durations - that is, the four seconds it takes to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge in "Jumpers".
What O'Neil fails to take into account is that sometime four seconds of hope is enough. Sure, it's the time it takes for the speaker in 'Jumpers' to hit the ground, but in that song as in 'Steep Air' the vocals strain towards the escape O'Neil mentioned, towards something better than the world they exist in. Anti-life is invoked constantly, but only so the band can show how to beat it, which is why Carrie's frantic screams of "You're not the only one" in the middle of 'Jumpers' are more important than either the blanked-out devastation of that song's verses or its final destination.

The desire for death? Creation through destruction? Nah, that's not what The Woods is all about, not for me anyway.

(A young Mister Miracle escapes anti-life to "find the universe!!!" Sorry for the crappy scan -- those big Fourth World books like to play rough, you know?)

What is it all about then? What do I hear in the mighty fucking racket of 'Let's Call it Love' if I don't hear universes collapsing? Well, it's a raw/sweaty/exhausting celebration of life, isn't it? It's all about working up the desire to face the horrors of your political, personal and musical history and live to do so again another day. That's what The Woods sounds like to me, and that's what Mr Miracle's all about, one ridiculous escape at a time:

(Ah, now that's romance! Image via Chris's Invincible Super-Blog.)

Friday, 14 August 2009

Strange Transmissions from Planet X

Weird -- I woke up this morning and found the following mini-essay blinking away on the computer screen, just waiting for me to find it:

In/on Planet X, Grant Morrison began his work on Wildcats, The Authority, 52, All Star Superman, Batman and Final Crisis, but never managed to complete any of these projects for reasons both personal and editorial. The Planet X Morrison completed one issue of Wildcats, two issues of The Authority, eight issues of All Star Superman (four of them set on Bizarro world), thirteen issues of Batman (ten of which starred the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh), and five issues of Final Crisis. The book reports that Morrison used these works to explore his obsession with creating a “state of permanent crisis” in which everything and nothing mattered all the time — a striking if unsubtle comment on the nature of modern living.

The book on Planet X describes how this style was so unpopular that it led to the Morrison being kicked off of 52 after twenty issues, though it also concedes that his contributions to that title were maybe a little too obviously disruptive. Apparently, in every issue of Planet X’s hypothetical 52, Morrison asked the artists to draw Animal Man ogling Starfire and mumbling on about “groovy space tofu” while Adam Strange pondered some sort of cosmic absurdity in the background. Strange’s dialogue was largely interminable, apparently, but book notes that this very quality occasionally hinted at a queer sort of transcendence: "The glazed melons of Yeown5: how ripe they smell… how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe how ripe…” being one of the stranger examples cited.

Planet X’s author remains highly enthusiastic about these indulgences, however clumsy they might seem. The book’s final chapter focuses in on the last page of Final Crisis #4 (which is, of course, the same final page that graced issues #2 and #3 of the title, though most fans agreed that it felt much more poignant on the third time round). With the multiverse in ruins, the golden Superman at the heart of the sun blows his noses, blasting what’s left of “reality” to pieces in the process. Looking at the abyss and feeling its non-existent eyes staring back at him, Superman forces his body to explode, restarting the universe in his own image. The problem being that the “better yesterday” he imagines ends up being much the same as the one he’s just destroyed. Indeed, Planet X explains that issues #2-4 of Final Crisis are almost-indistinguishable — apparently this gave the series an “uncomfortable sort of zen glamour which the fanboys hated and the comix fans loved”.

Looks like we've got a mild Borges infestation round my way. The question is do I call in pest control or let the little buggers be?

Your Weekly "What The Fuck?!"

* Ever wanted to see the lyrics to Frankie Goes to Hollywood's 'Two Tribes' framed in Jack Kirby-style text boxes? Me neither, but I'm glad that these pictures exist anyway (images created by Al Ewing and brought to my attention by Tom Ewing):

* Related: Tom Ewing covers 'Two Tribes' as part of his ongoing attempt every UK number #1 since 1952.

Meanwhile, over on This Recording, Brian Deleeuw writes a nippy wee piece on Vibrational Match's favourite satirist, Chris Morris. While he's at it he also brings this bit of immortal tabloid hypocrisy to the Internet:

That's the Daily Star at its finest, folks, reacting to Morris' 2001 Brass Eye 'Paedogeddon!' special and underlining Morris' point in fine style.

* Anyone who hasn't already checked out David Fiore's new fiction blog really should do so as soon as possible. My favourite story so far is 'Le-charme-discret-de-Madame-Bourgeois', which erupts off the screen in a haze of champagne bubbles that dissapate before you have the time to taste them:
“The world is so beautifully mysterious,” Madame Bourgeois sighed.

Yes, I thought to myself, and mysteries are so much more beautiful when the plumbing works.

The other stories on the site are pretty great too -- there are no little epiphanies here, just brief but vivid accounts of Montreal life from a narrator who's apparently not Dave.

* Have you ever wanted to watch Radiohead cover Joy Division's 'Ceremony'? Well now you can:

(Thanks Sean!)

* Your crazy Quentin Tarantion quote/pic for today:

"Suddenly it was like, what the fuck? Am I too big for movies now? Are movies too small for me? I mean, what's that about?"
That's old QT there talking about his post Jackie Brown hiatus with the Observer magazine, which... is it just me or does this seem like a strange comment for a man's who spent the past decade publicly exploring his own trashy genre-fetishism? Please bear in mind that I ask this as a man who has a lot of love for Death Proof.

* Did you ever wish you could watch Marnie Stern and her bass player talk about John Cusack, Kill Rock Stars, AC/DC, coffee and romance while they do their laundry? Well now you can, through the magic of the Internet:

Oh yes!

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Déjà Vu

If I was going to write another one of my Filth essays, it would start like this:
Issues #7-8 of Grant Morrison and Chris Weston's deranged sci-fi series The Filth don’t tell a story so much as they show one wearing itself out. Events from the first two issues recur on a different scale and no one seems particularly unsettled by this queasy, stuttering duplication. Let's watch the gears grind down: Spartacus Hughes hijacks a pocket utopia and subjects it to his kinky shock doctrine... Greg Feely is dragged from his shameful little life to stop his former co-worker... Comrade Dmitri 9 ends the show by blowing Hughes’ head smooth off... Yeah, we’ve been here before.
The problem is that, yeah, we have been here before – as anyone who's read my first six essays on the topic would surely have noticed. The repetition in the story was provoking laziness in my writing, with each echo suggesting its own shortcut. I managed to incorporate this into the end of my essay on issue #6, but when I started writing about issues #7-8 the temptation to say the same damned things over and over again became a little too powerful.
Know that I can't get over you
'Cause everything I see is you

And I don't want no substitute

Baby I swear it's Déjà Vu

Know that I can't get over you
'Cause everything I see is you

And I don't want no substitute

Baby I swear it's Déjà Vu

(Beyonce, ‘Déjà Vu’)
So I've chosen to do something different, as you already know. I'm sorry if this has disappointed anyone, since these essays were always one of the most popular features on my blog, but much as I love The Filth I needed to get away from it for a while. I’ve definitely typed my way to a much better perspective on Grant Morrison’s comics, but that issue by issue thing? It certainly works, but that's the problem – there was no excitement in it for me anymore, just a slow, semi-analytical slog. It had started to feel like a job to me, basically, and a pretty goofy one at that.

That’s enough about me for now though -- let’s get back to The Filth, for the last time until the next time!

Repetition haunts the book, particularly in its middle section. As the checklist of replayed moments starts to stretch out, the dialogue draws red circles around these blatant repetitions (‘Bastard! He always deliberately misses first time.’) – just in case you thought that this breakdown signaled a failure of the imagination. That said, even once you accept that this is deliberate, you’ve still got to work out what Morrison and Weston are actually doing with this technique. It isn’t an attempt to take the reader down the information saturated autobahn with Kylie and Kraftwerk, though anyone who’s read Paul Morley’s Words and Music could probably create an alternate history in which Grant Morrison’s comics explore the degradation of pop culture by breaking up an recombining pop icons over and over again in the same but different ways. [1]

It's not repetition like Beckett used it either, though there’s something of Beckett’s sensibility in the sense of exhaustion that permeates the story from the start. [2] Which is unsurprising, really -- The Filth is all about the shit and waste of our lives, so it makes sense that it would have a sirt of bloodied weariness about it.

What stops The Filth from being an example/full-blown examination of cultural decay is the effect that this repetition has on the story. Greg Feely spends the first half of the series stumbling through a hall of mirrors, but when it becomes obvious that the mirrors are reflecting themselves, he bugs out and smashes the whole thing. [3]

For the reader, the sheer brazenness of Morrison and Weston's recycling is jarring enough to make you want Feely to trash the mirrors. Superhero readers are used to following formulaic stories, but even the most addled fanboy would do a double take at the start of issue #7, in which we watch a young woman buy tampons in a convenience store. The context and characters are different, but it’s such an overt replay of Greg’s embarrassing attempts to buy “specialist” magazines in issue #1 that you find yourself jarred right out of the narrative -- in a good way! [4]

As is made clear in 'SCHIZOTYPE' (aka issue #12 of The Filth), there's every chance that Greg's fantasy adventures are exactly that -- Greg's fantasy! Of course, Morrison being Morrison, this "twist" is instantly undermined by the last and final issue -- or is it?!

Either way, the sense that we've just watched Greg Feely spend far too much time staring at his own filth is hard to shake, particularly when artist Chris Weston literally rubs your face in it:

("Oh my god... it's full of shit!" You really need to click this one to see it at full size!)

Just before Feely falls over into a pile of rubbish, he writes a suicide note of sorts which includes the following passage of extreme self-doubt:
...they're coming to have me sectioned now.

I tried to explain about The Hand but all I got were blank stares and frantic scribbles in Department-issue notebooks.

They've got psychiatrists to say I'm the type who turns violent at the drop of a hat and I have to admit that, following the incident with the firearm at the chemists, they might be right.

They say I killed Tony with neglect and came up with the hand as an excuse for being an alcoholic pervert deep inside. I couldn't stand it if that were true... I'd be so ashamed of myself...
If Greg Feely's eye really has been so distant and inward turning (and seriously, just look at that fucking image, just look at that fucking eye!), isn't it a good thing that he starts to rage against Status Q, and that we're there with him?

Imagine if Beyonce finished singing 'Déjà Vu' only to realise that it wasn't about Jay-Z or anyone else except her. [5] What do you think she'd do then? She could Sasha Fierce it, of course, and she's certainly got the right a(r)mour to make a go of it (that glove!). But sometimes that's not enough (see lena on Beyonce in this post), and sometimes your 'Freakum Dress' is no good either, so you've got to try something a little bit different.

What does this mean for Greg Feely, given that even his best armour turns rotten against his skin? Well, it means kicking against the pricks, for better or worse. It's only a start, but that counts for something, because the alternative -- continuing to stare at your own shit for all eternity -- is a particularly ugly way to let the fear win.

[1] This attentive reader of Morrison and Morley would write a book on the subject, which they would call Planet X. This book would imagine a Grant Morrison very similar to the one we know, except that once he’d completed Seven Soldiers of Victory, this fictionalised Grant Morrison would never complete another comic book story again. Weirdly, this means that the Planet X Morrison never wrote Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye, which is a shame because it has a lot of that Grant Morrison's key themes in it.

[2] You know, I really can't pass up this opportunity to ask you all to watch Beckett's Play again and again and again and again and again and again.

[3] For all my bluster, I'm still repeating myself here. I started talking about The Filth using broken mirror metaphors in a post I wrote back in December, where I said:
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.
My justification for this? Well, you've got to set the mirrors up just right to get the most out of trashing them! Why else would issues #9 and #10 of The Filth take such strange diversions before the full-on assault on Status Q that is issues #11-#13?

[4] Thankfully, artist Weston always keeps his eye on the needs of the story, so you don't have to.

Seriously though -- for all its occasional stiffness Weston’s work is full of the right details, the artist’s efforts well applied rather than squandered on meaningless squiggles. Take, for example, the two corner shop scenes I previously mentioned. The first one introduces us to Greg, the main character of the piece, but it paints and uncomfortably creepy picture in which our protagonist is more of a suspect than a hero:

The scene which mirrors this introduction is carefully constructed to align our sympathies with a doomed background character called Peri:

The contrast in the staging is simple but effective, from the choice to frame Feely in CCTV-vision onwards. Instead of tittering school children, you’ve got masked men in the doorway. Instead of pornographic “essentials”, you’ve got basic sanitary products. And instead of an almost archetypal creepy, middle-aged bachelor, you've vague but inoffensive young woman.

Still, this vagueness is the key to the real distinction that’s being set up here: no matter how much effort has been put into making Greg look gross, even more effort has been put into defining him. Those thick, inky crags on his face are practically half the story, and not matter how dodgy the story makes him look, Weston never stops inhabiting every line of Greg’s face:

The importance of this sort of basic attachment can’t be understated. Morrison’s fantasies trend to overwhelm the reader with quick changes of perspective and wonderfully absurd details, but when he's on form he never takes his eye off of the emotional details. It helps when the artists help the reader do the same, instead of hindering the process like some of Morrison’s lesser collaborators do.

[5] If you're wondering why the hell I keep mentioning hyped up pop starlets, try thinking about it this way: a little bit of Kylie, a little bit of Beyonce and a whole lot of alcohol and I'm convinced that I'm invincible until my body decides to remind me that I'm not.

Required Reading: Andrew Hickey on the NHS

Because someone needed to make these points and Andrew Hickey has made them very well:

An Open Letter To My American Friends About The NHS

By Andrew Hickey


Many of your politicians and journalists have been saying things like “Ted Kennedy wouldn’t get treatment for his brain tumour in the UK because of his age” (a Republican senator called Chuck Grassley said that). Sarah Palin said that in the UK babies with Down’s Syndrome would have to go before a ‘death panel’. And so on. I’m sure you’ve all heard many claims like this yourself.

These claims are lies, pure and simple. They’re not ‘opinions’ that people can disagree about, they’re not things that can be debated, they’re not honest mistakes, they’re out-and-out lies.

Please go read the whole thing if you haven't already. Unlike most of the things I talk about here this issue is actually important.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

"Oh shut up Owen, you hot mess..."

Final Fantasy live @ the Classic Grand, Glasgow, Wednesday 5th August 2009

Ten steps to achieving Final Fantasy with Owen Pallett:
  1. Accept that these things take time. Like Pallett says, his one man + violin + keyboard + looping pedals show is “50% preparation, and then 50% money shot; just one of the ways it’s like a porno.”
  2. Understand that the build-up is often every bit as good as the payoff, which is why Pallett’s joke doesn’t quite ring true.
  3. Acknowledge the fact that, actually, Pallett is a bit of a tease, and that his habit of cutting off his songs just as they peak is cheeky but cute.
  4. Watch ‘He Poos Clouds’ come together in front of you and realise that Mike Barthel severely underrated Pallet’s music in his otherwise excellent review(s) of the second Final Fantasy album.
  5. Hear the connection between the sawing climax of 'This Lamb Sells Condos' and the overwhelmingly specific combination of arrangement and emotion that characterises songs by artists like Joanna Newsom and Marnie Stern.
  6. Stop yourself from thinking about how the He Poos Clouds material is all about the way we use pop trash to understand our lives. Stop comparing Pallet's obliquely literary treatment of this theme to the relative naturalism of Scott Pilgrim or the more bullish approach of Phonogram. Music is magic, just like Jem said, but this ritual won't work without an attentive audience.
  7. Appreciate the many new songs that Pallett performs, which are “Experiments in extreme polyphony,” apparently.
  8. Laugh when a violin loop recorded during one song is accidentally activated during the next.
  9. Understand that chaos is part of the magic tonight, as Pallett all but admits when he jokes that his ultimate fantasy is to be described as "hot mess" on stage.
  10. Watch a member of the audience jokingly throw Pallett's words back at him (see: the title of this post); watch him request suggestions for an encore only to debate the quality of his own songs with a woman in the front row ("I actually think that 'The Butcher' is secretly a terrible song," he claims); watch all of this and realise that Pallett has made his low-key geek music seem far sexier and sillier and more charming than you would ever have imagined possible.
If you want you can even watch some videos of the performance in glorious side-on-vision afterwards, but don't mistake that for part of the ritual. You really did have to be there to get the full effect, as is so often the case with these things...

Dirty Thoughts from Plok's Comments Section

Okay, so I've not quite got back into the swing of this whole blogging thing yet. Right now I'm still clearing my throat, so when Plok put out a call, I just had to respond!

Trouble is, I ended up singing along to a slightly different tune! Plok imagined a bunch of comic book collaborations made possible by sinister technology and asked people to fill in the details; my response was sort of in line with the premise, except when it wasn't:

I was going to hold off from doing this, but it’s too much fun!

Let’s take this too far, shall we?

Ditko/Morrison – a psychotic early 60s New York period piece starring a lousy, fourth rate Jackson Pollok rip-off artist. Ditko would think of it as being a brutal morality tale wherein his protagonist’s gloopy, technicolour amorality is crushed by a series of encounters with the AA-Agents, who break him down and make him see the world AS IT REALLY IS (i.e. in harsh, jagged black & white). Morrison’s scripting would subtly amplify the horrific absurdity implicit in this premise — the queasy nature of which is already clear in every line of the artwork.

Unfortunately, Ditko would soon clock Morrison’s agenda, and the work would most likely remain unfinished, never to be reprinted again.

Gaiman/Kochalka – this requires a little bit of that “what if?” flavour, I think.

What if Gaiman’s post Sandman career had been one slow trip round the u-bend?

What if his attempts at becoming Neil Gaiman: Gentleman Novelist had been if not a complete disaster then something close to one? And what if his return to comics had been even less successful, to the extent that Marvel and DC were unsure if they wanted to touch his work, Image were weary of him, and even Avatar were starting to feel burned after a couple of quiet failures.

This is fantastical stuff, I know, but bear with me while I make it even more fantastical!

Let’s say that while all of this has been going on, James Kochalka has become a genuine, massively unlikely SUPERSTAR, and that his TV show (James Kochalka Superstar) is pulling in Hannah Montana numbers. Yeah, madness, I know, but let’s all just keep going and see where it takes us. (Count yourselves lucky that I’ve not described the Richard Linklater directed feature movie — which would be the missing link between School of Rock and Waking Life, naturally!)

Despite his newfound fame, Kochalka’s still churning out those sketchbook diaries, and he still has some pals in the comics world, including Eddie Campbell, who lets him know about Neil’s plight.

Kochalka’s sympathetic, but there’s an evil whimsy in him, so this is what he proposes: Marvel will publish a comic written by Gaiman and drawn by him: this comic will be a potential big seller, due to his name and fame, but it will also be a hard sell, because Kochalka will insist that it’s called CUNTS!.

The story itself will be pretty fucking Gaiman, but with a twist: it takes place in a city within a glass bottle that’s tucked into the back pocket of a Glasgow youth, a magical world of freedom and possibility, where everyone poos out sentient clouds of purest hate. It will star George Bush and Tony Blair in exile, but will eschew direct political satire in favour of scatological excess.

Every issue will end with one of the two exiles saying of the other: “Fuck me, what a CUNT!”

Biggest comic of all time? I think so.

Shame I needed to push past the guidelines to make it happen!

These next few are a little less filled out, because my batteries are draining fast today:

Veitch/Steranko – these chaps could collaborate on creepy modern spy story called Ghost World, in which a cute, disaffected young woman carries out vicious, horrible acts in the name of her masters and tries (half-successfully) to stave off the rapprochements offered by friends and family members from her previous civilian life. Think Grosse Pointe Blank crossed with Spook Country, but with lots of unnecessary formal pyrotechnics going off all over the page.

Byrne/Sim — yeah, I think this pair could have a blast disrespectfully adapting China Mieville’s Iron Council. Or, shit… could I handle their version of The Left Hand of Darkness? Could I handle Dave Sim’s post-comic essays on the topic? Probably not, but the evil part of me would like to see how it turned out.

Englehart/Adams — I’ve got to admit, this one has me stumped, probably because I’m not too familiar with their work.

Can I suggest that Steve Aylett and Duncan Fegredo’s Kafka biography instead? Or how about Mike Allred and Ursula LeGuin’s Wonder Woman? Too obvious? Maybe, but I’d still read ‘em!

Miller/McCarthy/Conway — this trio could happily butcher Moorcock’s multiverse of fantasy characters, I’m sure. It’d be a mess, naturally, but it would have waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay more life in it than any comic book universe out there at the moment.

Plus the existence of a Miller/McCarthy Elric would echo back through time and make an eleven-year-old David very, very happy indeed!

There are lots of other good responses in that comments thread -- go check it out, if you haven't already.