Notes from S.M.A.S.H.

A comics panel event at the Barbican Library, which was excellent – over 100 people listening to some great speakers on three themes: meaning, art and diversity. I left with a cloud of ideas buzzing around my head, which were dampened with rain and alcohol afterwards (everyone went to the pub, of course). Before my terrible memory dissipates the rest, here's what stuck out at me.


Although Crissy Williams helpfully dropped some McCloud-esque science about how the comics form creates meaning (your imagination filling the gaps between panels etc), much of the discussion went wider than comics itself. A lot of it was about where meaning happens – is it about the intentions of the creators, or is it about the response of the reader? Mike Carey was an eloquent champion of the latter view, suggesting that as comics are a collaborative medium, reconstructing a single set of intentions is futile. I'm a little sceptical of that line of argument. Comics are a part of history like everything else, and therefore you should be able to assemble evidence that can support particular interpretations of the creative team's intentions, and adjudicate between which interpretation is best supported by the available evidence (full disclosure: I did history at uni).

If Carey is right and the important stuff happens at the point where the reader responds to the work, does that mean that all interpretations are of equal worth? In some ways, yes absolutely. We're all people reading the same thing, why is your experience more accurate or valuable than mine? However, this made the presence of a critic and an academic on the panel quite interesting, as their interpretations of comics are (almost by definition) priviledged. What is the role of the critic or the scholar if all interpretations are of equal worth?

J. A. Micheline (the critic) said something interesting towards the end of the discussion that responded to this question. She said that it is actually quite exhausting to hold all sorts of interpretations of a work in your head. Eventually, you do look for a way through the maze by reaching for the threads of authorial intention. Always dangerous to do, but Micheline went on to read this development into the wider cultural conversation – postmodernism's assault on the modernist idea of the auteur is getting tired, and people have gone back to looking for some leadership and authority when it comes to the meaning of art.


This was a discussion about comics art, and particularly how to distinguish between what is 'good' and 'bad' art. There was a helpful intervention from an audience member towards the end who tried to separate the question in two. Firstly and most obviously, comics art is 'good' in a functional sense – it helps rather than obstructs the narrative. Mark Stafford was particularly useful in providing some examples of this (how an artist has to draw the reader's eye to things, how they can embellish or add texture to a story).

But then beyond the question of functionality, people do still have preferences. It's all a question of a person's taste, as Hannah Chapman insisted. But should we leave it there? David Allison was interesting on this – in his introduction he talked about encouraging and becoming comfortable with a 'Tower of Babel' when it comes to the language of comics art. I think this gets at something important, which is that taste isn't innate – you're not born loving Jack Kirby. Rather, taste is something you develop, and a variety of experiences with different styles and methods might overcome some of the pigeon-holing that occurs within the form.

Speaking personally, the role of gatekeepers in clueing you into or evangelising about things you would otherwise pick up and put down again is crucial. So much of my favourite music was initially encountered as a result of criticism, but with comics a lot of it has been me fumbling around in the library on my own.


This was probably the most interesting and important panel, but being less familiar with the issue, I have less to say about it. Alison Sampson did bring up the fear among some creators of causing offence, which can inhibit their creativity. Most of the panel disparaged the idea that only certain people should be allowed to write certain characters, although Ramzee (with reference to The Danish Girl specifically) insisted that creators should be knowledgeable about the cultures and issues they are representing. Was also interesting that Kieron Gillen ruled out certain stories as not his to tell, so there is some policing and self-policing going on. I think figuring out (or being aware of and highlighting) whether a work is cynical or exploitative is a valuable role for professional critics (of all mediums) to play, but I suspect many don't see this as part of their job description.

The problem isn't so much what gets portrayed, in my view, as who gets to do the portrayal. And the comics industry still has a lot of work to do here. I think this is a rather dry process issue about the way the industry works (although some speakers preferred to go bigger and allude to the evils of capitalism). A member of the audience did introduce the idea of 'the underground' as being useful in this respect, but both Ramzee and Hannah Chapman were quite dismissive of the opportunities created by the small press scene. The general impression I got was that the most exciting stuff was happening online (tumblr, kickstarter and so on), but there wasn't time to get started on the impact of these platforms. Suspect gatekeepers upping their game and trawling these online communities is relevant here as well.

...feels like a lot of the above can be summarised as 'comics criticism is important, go critics', so I guess I'll leave it there.


"We have to transform the field of social institutions into a vast experimental field, in such a way as to decide which taps need turning, which bolts need to be loosened here or there, to get the desired change; we certainly need to undertake a process of decentralisation, for example, to bring the decision-making centres and those who depend on them closer, thus avoiding the kind of grand totalising intergration that leaves people in complete ignorance of what is involved in this or that regulation. What we have to do then is to increase the experiments wherever possible in this particularly interesting and important area of social life, bearing in mind that a whole institutional complex, at present very fragile, will probably have to undergo a restructuring from top to bottom." - Michel Foucault, 'A Finite Security System Confronting an Infinite Demand', Interviews and other writings 1977-1984


The Assassin

Plot and character are almost incidental to this wuxia from Hsiao-Hsien. I wonder whether the story is a bit like the Chinese equivalent of King Arthur or Robin Hood – so familiar that slicing away the exposition will still leave a recognisable film intact. Very little is made easy for the Western viewer. There are hints of contemporary tensions between Taiwan and mainland China in the conflict between the Tang dynasty and the province of Weibo. Nie Yinniaang has to choose between her allegiance to the imperial court (who have trained her to be an assassin), and an underlying connection to the place where she grew up, her family, and a buried youthful romance.

But leaving all that sort of ill-informed speculation aside, much of The Assassin feels to me like an exercise in style. It's no exaggeration to say that the film is painterly when it comes to composition, sumptuous when it comes to set-design, and dazzling when it comes to cinematography. Often it's left to the sound (seemingly diagetic – in that it's not always clear where it's coming from) to subtly build and release tension. The martial arts choreography is almost embarrassingly absent. Instead, the film is all about people in space, observing each other and deciding where their loyalties lie.


"Actually, I think I have real difficulty in experiencing pleasure. I think that pleasure is a very difficult behaviour. It's not as simple as that [Laughter] to enjoy one's self. And I must say that's my dream. I would like and I hope I'll die of an overdose [Laughter] of pleasure of any kind. Because I think it's really difficult and I always have the feeling that I do not feel the pleasure, the complete total pleasure and, for me, it's related to death.

"...I think that the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn't survive it. I would die. I'll give you a clearer and simpler example. Once I was struck by a car in the street. I was walking. And for maybe two seconds I had the impression that I was dying and it was really a very, very intense pleasure. The weather was wonderful. It was 7 o'clock during the summer. The sun was descending. The sky was very wonderful and blue and so on. It was, it still is now, one of my best memories. [Laughter]

"There is also the fact that some drugs are really important for me because they are the mediation to those incredibly intense joys that I am looking for and that I am not able to experience, to afford by myself. It's true that a glass of wine, of good wine, old and so on, may be enjoyable but it's not for me. A pleasure must be something incredibly intense." - Michel Foucault, 'The Minimalist Self', Interviews and other writings 1977-1984



Videodrome is ostensibly a comment on the fear that exposure to sexual or violent imagery can infect people's reality and influence their behaviour. Crudely, that horror films provoke murders, or that pornography encourages rape. The plot boils down to the protagonist watching a snuff film and becoming a schizophrenic, unable to tell reality from a hallucination. But the film doesn't stop there. It turns out that those hallucinations are 'directed' by two clandestine organisations at war with each other. One is a quasi-fascistic outfit worried that North America has lost its 'purity' and 'strength' and will be unable to withstand menacing foreign powers. They plan to broadcast the virus and exterminate those perverted enough to watch it. The other organisation is a cult fighting the fascists under the slogan of the 'new flesh'. Their ideology is less clear, but seems to involve an abandoning of the physical for total immersion in the artificial. Its prophet has died and made himself into a work of art, and something similar can be said to happen to the protagonist at the end – he is transfigured into the film we are watching.

Max is caught between these two forces, manipulated by each of them in turn. Both should be in the dock for treating human beings as puppets. The irony is that their mindless minion is a television executive, the sort of creature we imagine is there to manipulate us. In fact, Max is rakish but rather likable. He's just looking after his crappy station's bottom line, and is adorably weirded out by the S&M sexuality Debbie Harry reveals in him. I think Cronenberg is suggesting that we shouldn't worry so much about TV sex and violence, but we should be paying closer attention to the twin powers of politics and religion – particularly in their more extreme manifestations.


Paul Pope worked in manga before pitching this miniseries to Vertigo, and the decision to focus on interpersonal relationships while keeping the science fiction setting in the background feels very Chobits. The plot was weaved together from several standalone shorts at the insistence of the publisher, so there is a little bit of Brian Wood's Demo in there as well, not least because the themes invariably come back to love and self-actualisation.

That second bit is important, even if unacknowledged in the author's postscript. Pope may have compromised with Vertigo on the structure of his story, but his character Kettlehead refuses to kowtow to the demands of his patrons to change his art. Several other characters are chasing, or abandoning, some life-project, whether it is opening a coffee roasting company or competing in a fighting tournament. The need for transcendence (in an existentialist sense) bubbles under much of 100%, undoubtedly because the rocky road to artistic fulfillment is a concern close to Pope's heart.

The title alludes to Kettlehead's art-project – tuning 100 kettles to whistle a single note and creating a sense of harmony from disparate objects. His patrons want him to tune his kettles to produce discord instead, as they think that's a more interesting artistic statement – but he sticks to his guns. There is a reflection here on the process of storytelling. Creating a mess is easy, but means little. Creating something that fits together, something harmonious, is harder, but ultimately more worthwhile. While the sexy sci-fi details are diverting, it's Pope's clever interlocking character-driven narrative that makes the book a keeper.


Jamón, Jamón (A Tale of Ham and Passion)

Reading the director's notes for the film, you get the sense of an anarchic sensibility trying to cram a heap of Spanish signifiers together, without seeing a need to string them into a pattern that can convey lucid meanings. Instead, it's all about images and associations. A wealthy, terrible mother who turns into a whore, and a poor whore who is the best mother in Spain. An absent drunk of a father who frightens his daughter away, and a rich, aloof one who steals her from her lovers at the end. Then there's the proud and spoiled son wanting to kill the meathead sex-machine who has seduced his fiancée, and ending up dead instead. I imagine Bigas Luna is happy to arrange these contrasts, and hang his hat on the irony created by them.

I think the surrealist touches and the pot-shots at materialism are better developed in Golden Balls. That film also benefits by having Javier Bardem firmly in the leading role – and with a more confident troupe of actors around him. In Jamón, Jamón Bardem is spared the full force of Luna's satirical instincts – the director is still a bit too enamoured of his hunky hero and the "dishy girl" he pursues.

Where the film excels is in the evocation of place – a poor rural part of Spain dominated by the highway and the trucks that blare across it. The soil is acrid, the jobs are horrible, the bars are cheap and the decor is tacky. Everywhere is overrun with animals, from Penélope Cruz's semi-domesticated pigs to the parrot with a filthy mouth in her mother's bar. The final pietà shot, held as the credits roll, has a herd of sheep coming past the frozen actors, as if to bring their tragedy down to earth. These are human beings with torrid and devastating passions, but they are not that far removed from the animals around them.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Feel like the first line of the film must be a dig at Lucas – it's an awkward bit of dialogue in the context of the scene itself. No wonder he's a bit grumpy. Say what you like about the prequels, at least they were trying out something new. Episode VII just lifts the plot points and character arcs wholesale from Episode IV. You could almost call it a remake. Giving the fans what they want, but not what they need.

I'm one of those weirdos that rather likes the prequels, which may just be down to the fact that they came out when I was at prime Star Wars age (i.e. 10 to 15 years old). I still think the pile-up of lightsaber duel, laser shoot-out, pitched battle and space battle at the end of Episode I was an ambitious and well executed set-piece (even if the "I am Queen Amidala" stuff flew over my head). Plus don't forget podracing and Darth Maul. And Episode III had some cool church vs state, order vs liberty currents running through it. The problem wasn't that Lucas didn't have ideas, it was that he had no sense of character, making the love story in Episode II embarrassing to watch.

J.J. Abrams is a pastiche artist, but at least he can give his actors lines they can deliver without wincing. The Strong Female Character is becoming overused by male directors trying to do feminism (they need a personality as well, guys!). But Rey is still an improvement on the complete lack of prominent female Jedi thus far in the films. And the co-star is not only black but a renegade stormtrooper rebelling against fascist oppressors – although he is occasionally pushed into comedy sidekick mode.

Oscar Issac's reheated Han Solo and Adam Driver's one-man Darth Vader fanclub are also very watchable. And when Rey starts pushing into Kylo Ren's mind, and finally whups his ass at the end, it's difficult not to get a little bit excited. There's enough there for the new Star Wars to sink its claws into you for one more trilogy, but I'm hoping Rian Johnson can come up with something a little more novel for Episode VIII.


The Life of Adèle – Chapters 1 & 2

I'm using the original French title of the film, because although it's adapted from the comic Blue is the Warmest Colour (which is great), this is a different beast. Abdellatif Kechiche combined the source material with another story he was developing, about a teacher who stoically sticks to her duty despite her turbulent private life. So while chapter one remains quite close to Maroh's outline, chapter two goes down a different road.

Have to say I found the second half a lot more interesting, and I don't think it's just because I was already familiar with the first half. For all the endless takes and improvisation, Kechiche isn't shooting a documentary. His frames are carefully composed, as are his scenes – and much of the sexual awakening stuff at the beginning feels like heightened high school drama, removed and idealised away from the awkward, messy reality.

The film is notoriously long, and I think some of it is bloat. It tickled me to learn that Kechiche worked with several editors when cutting – I imagine he rather enjoyed the divide and rule opportunities this created. But the most fraught editing choice I agree with. Some critics found the explicit sex scenes dragged on into the gratuitous, but I think they are necessary. I'm oversimplifying only slightly when I describe Adèle and Emma's relationship as being built on their physical passion for each other, and destroyed by everything else. Part of this is class – while they live in the same town they are drawn from different cultures. But they also make their own destinies, and the film makes clear that their interests and goals diverge.

But understanding that iron grip of sexual obsession is crucial to justifying the extraordinary scene in the bar towards the end – the first time they see each other after the break-up. It is heartrending because both women are desperate for that intimacy once again. Adèle is delirious and collapses into grovelling, but Emma is mature enough to tear herself away from temptation. She loves someone else – Adèle is no longer the centre of her story.

This is a blow the comic could not deliver (it goes in a slightly forced bereavement direction instead). Adèle is hollowed out at the end of the film, giving even a potential race for your love the slip. The French language title provides the only source of comfort: this is only chapters one and two. Adèle walks away from her first relationship, and into a life comprised of many other chapters.

The closest parallel here is probably Boyhood, which I managed to see in the cinema and felt like I could watch it go on for an entire lifespan. Linklater's film also isn't a documentary – it is suffused with affect. But it tries to present the development of a character as completely as possible. Likewise we see Adèle eating, dancing, working, sleeping, cleaning, showering and cumming. We get a picture of a rounded personality (thankfully less privileged than the one in Boyhood). But at some point the film has to stop and the credits need to roll, even if we don't want them to.