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.


Duncan said...

I'd excuse Seaguy 2, chronologically, for your vaunted book of never(?) because - and I know that at the very least the El Macho the bulldresser parts were - I think it was written mostly pre- or during Seven Soldiers by what, on reflection, I'd have to admit is a better incarnation of the author.

Plus, look, Seaguy 2 resonates like a motherfucker w/ The Filth, possibly eclipsing it in my mind, as - if not my favourite (because, really, I'm still deeply upset in an unquantifiable, at this juncture, manner by Sg2:SoME #1) - technically, artistically, whateverly, Morrison's premier statement.

David said...

Pssst -- don't tell anyone, but I think I agree with you about Slaves of Mickey Eye vs. The Filth.

I'd also say that our Grant Morrison is better than the one I imagined, but it was fun to think him up anyway.

Anagramsci said...

very nice work here--and I think it makes a whole lot of sense to place Seaguy en abyme with The Filth (and, for me at least, Animal Man)

in fact, I don't know that I want to write or think another word about the earlier texts until Seaguy 3 hits my head!


David said...

Thanks Dave! I think I'm going to keep on blabbing about these two stories in the build-up to Seaguy Eternal, if only because it releases some of the pressure from my head and stops me bothering friends with oblique/frantic emails!

Seaguy and The Filth are currently grouped with Flex Mentallo in my poor wee brain -- something to do with how these works condense Mozzers metafictional musings down into hard poetry instead of exploring them from gradually shifting perspectives as in Animal Man or The Invisibles.

There's something quite Dennis Potter about the three works I've mentioned, but that's fodder for another post in itself. Or maybe it's just that they all have really good art?

More soon on the Seaguy front, hopefully. I might looking at it through the lens of Adam Curtis' It Felt Like a Kiss, but then again I might not...

Thanks once again for reading!

David Golding said...

This post is overwhelming! Repetition, footnote 1's familiar but forgotten prose style, Kraftwerk, Beckett, Beyonce, faces! When I pick up my copy of the The Filth I see the art literally transforming before my eyes.

But let me share my current fixation, which got a hand from your post. Have you flipped the card I need in my game of solitaire? I too am currently linking Seaguy with The Filth---and Animal Man. My feeling at the moment is that The Invisibles and Flex Mentallo differ, planting two feet firmly on superheroes or Barbelith, while the former group are existentially ungrounded or eternally deferred.

I've been wondering about the Face/Off gap between Slaves of Mickey Eye #2 and #3: Seaguy sees things outside the comfort zones, but we are not shown. Compare this to Animal Man #18--19, where we get to see all of Animal Man's foundational revelation---only to have it ripped away. Perhaps this time the "truth" will not come as mysticism, useless to the material world, but as social expression, in Seaguy Eternal?

Until then, I will imagine, in the gap between Slaves of Mickey Eye #2 and #3, the last pages of The Filth #12. Thank you.

David said...

Glad you found the essay a little overwhelming David -- that's definitely part of what I was going for here. I think that the feeling of being overwhelmed is part of what I want from this sort of comic -- it's what Morrison, Moore, Casey etc do well, but it can also go very horribly wrong (see: most continuity-heavy comics, ever).

I take your point about Flex being more grounded than Seaguy or The Filth, though at the moment I still see them being little out-of-time snapshots of the same theme.

Also: I love, love, love your idea of The Filth's finale fitting into the gap between issues #2 and #3 of Slaves of Mickey Eye. This... this could fit in to what I want to do next very well, so thank you!

And yeah, for all the mysticism in his work I tend to feel that Morrison's been spinning towards the material world since at least Animal Man. David Fiore's writing on the subject means that I'm incapable of thinking of Morrison without thinking of Emerson talking about treating others as though they are real. Morrison's Animal Man avatar shows kindness towards his fictional charges, and by the time of We3 and The Filth Morrison seems almost obsessive about caring for “the ink” on the page. Will Seaguy Eternal solidify this into a pre-popped gum-layer of new social truths?

Only the good people of 2010 can say – join them, in Seaguy Eternal: There Goes Tomorrow! Or something…

Anagramsci said...

it's all very exciting!

re: Flex Mentallo -- I've actually only read it once (and not recently), so I probably haven't thought about this enough, but I do find its preoccupations somewhat different from those which run through (my interpretation of) the Animal Man, Filth, Seaguy line

David said...

Yeah, I think I'm going to have to take a closer look at Flex somewhere down the line to see if my rough thoughts make sense.

I might end up agreeing with my fellow comic blogging Daves, but if so then that'll be fun too!