The Gap Between Panels / Comics as PowerPoint

Latest post on the London Graphic Novel Network gets a bit self-indulgent and tries to connect comics to my day job as a digital comms guy at a think tank. Basically, infographics and powerpoints tell stories too, and maybe comics can learn a thing or three from my grubby tinkering with Adobe Illustrator. Read it here.


Holy Motors

Anything described as 'impossible to pin down' is going to fire up those lepidopterology urges. Holy Motors is rather weird, sure. A portmaneau fantasy film in which the mysterious Mr Oscar is driven around to various surreal 'appointments', where he dons elaborate costumes and participates (or disrupts) wildly different pieces of theatrical or cinematic performance. None of it makes any literal sense. Rather, the film is about watching actors, plays and films – and its contention is that you can stretch these activities in all kinds of wonderful ways. One of the clues that point in this meta direction is that the film begins with a shot of the director waking up in a cinema. Another clue is the brief flashes of a silent film in which a naked man tumbles around, reminding us that cinema began with disjointed displays of human action, and that we're about to witness a return to such principles.

All that's very well and good, but it did strike me when watching the brief musical 'intermission' in the middle of the film that the individual chapters have the feel of high-end music videos. Music videos have a limited time in which to do something interesting, and therefore often spend it taking something familiar and giving it a twist. It's a formula Holy Motors is indebted to. A overworked father comes home to his family, who turn out to be chimpanzees. A mad vagrant crashes into a fashion shoot, abducts the model and covers her up in a full body veil. A father picks up his daughter from her first house party, and gets annoyed when he learns she spent the evening hiding in the bathroom rather than flirting with boys.

These examples are the best because the get at the real success of the film, which is that it is actually quite funny. Most of the surrealism is about attacking our expectations (it's the vagrant that is sexualised rather than the model, the man who is married to a chimp has a home-life much less drab than we are led to believe, and so on). The film is knowingly perverse, winking at and flipping audience expectations. But even then, British comedy like The League of Gentlemen, Big Train and The Mighty Boosh have done this kind of stuff before. Holy Motors is frequently spectacular, but it would only feel innovative if you haven't been paying attention to motion pictures made outside the feature film format.


Turkish Delight

The film that made Paul Verhoeven's name in his native Holland is a putrid affair – full of garbage, vomit, blood and spunk. The preternaturally handsome Rutger Hauer is our protagonist, an artist who cannot sit down at a restaurant without fomenting a riot. He is completely uninhibited, but also vain, vindictive, and more than a little violent. The film begins with the suggestion that he may be a murderer. After the love of his tiny life leaves him, he dreams up disturbing revenge fantasies, wakes up in his hovel of a studio, masturbates, and goes on to sleep with as many women as would have him (inexplicably, it's a lot).

Verhoeven shoots his main man in an improvised, twitchy way, apparently inspired by the French New Wave. He encourages his cast to ham it up, and on occasion it almost looks like you're watching a silent comedy – grotesque faces, clownish gestures, visual gags. Much of this is in the service of satirising the curtain-twitching, hypocritical society of small minded housewives, ignorant peasants and obsequious royalists that Hauer bulldozes through.

But for most of the film, Hauer's liberality is much more grating. He is obscenely self-involved, unrepentantly selfish. This is nowhere clearer than in his lovemaking, which is not reciprocal, and treats women as passive objects that are maneuvered to gratify the male gaze, and the camera. Verhoeven is never just a pornographer – Turkish Delight is more that just slobbering over sexually available girls. But for parts of this film he is entirely too close to Hauer's own pornographic view of Monique van de Ven, and of his freewheeling, responsibility-free attitude more broadly.

Thankfully, the film turns out to be about growing up. Hauer is the noble savage, playing in his own shit and humping anything that moves. He is an innocent, and if anything the film is a pointed lesson in how dangerous (and deranged) such people are. His fierce, clumsy, possessive love for Monique van de Ven brings out the worst in him. And when she's had enough, he dreams of murder and attempts to rape her. But she escapes, and in the intervening period before he encounters her again, Hauer matures, and ends up caring for her when she falls ill.

Even when dying, Monique van de Ven is as impulsive and insatiable as ever. In the one nod to the title, she stuffs her mouth with turkish delight until its fit to burst, even though she fears her teeth might fall out because of the radiotherapy. The film makes the suggestion that living this fast burns you right out. Drinking too deep from the cup of life will poison you. The film ends with the image of a statue made by Hauer of van de Ven holding a baby aloft, evoking the family that the couple were never able to have. For all of his provocative liberalism, Verhoeven ends up suggesting that some aspects of traditional society may be worth preserving after all. He's more conservative than he seems.


The gap between panels / Rehabilitating Red Sonja

The London Graphic Novel Network has a new website, which is much flashier that the old blogspot version. Begs the question of why I still haven't switched to wordpress (or tumblr) yet – to which the answer is: I'm old and set in my ways. Latest column deals with the Gail Simone / Walter Geovani fun and uninhibited reinvention of Red Sonja, and the contrast with the Michael Avon Oeming version, which was dark, troubling and a bit crap (although Mel Rubi's artwork was stunning). All done through the prism of working out the different justifications for that ridiculous chain-mail bikini. Read it here.

The Filth

I wasn't really able to write about The Filth the first time I read it, but the London Graphic Novel Network online book group spurred me to read it again. Reposting my (slightly edited) take from the conversation, which is well worth reading in its entirety:

If we have to pick sides on the Moore/Morrison beef, I’ll probs back the latter. Never really understood the argument that Morrison is a fraud or a copyist, since his comics feel like some of the most sui generis I have read. To try and unpack that a little, I picked up The Filth from my local library just as I was getting started with comics, got about half way through and gave up. It’s now one of my favourite comics ever, but I really had to persevere with it and basically learn how to read it. This applied to a lot of Morrison’s books, actually. And it seems to me that The Filth makes fewer concessions to a broad audience (unlike something like New X-Men and Doom Patrol, which still have something of the Chris Claremont style superhero soap-opera feel to it). So I agree with David (and against Joel?) that it’s more Morrison that most Morrison books.

Trying to remember why I gave up on The Filth back then, I think it may have had something to do with my inability to deal with the compression. I was into a lot of Bendis comics at the time, and I think a lot of that was because his books had the feel of great American TV (West Wing, Ally McBeal, Buffy etc), which I had grown up watching and was already comfortable with. Bendis is like TV in panels – one six issue trade reading like one 45 minute episode, with character-building bits, action bits, quips etc. For someone working his way into the comics form, it was familiar – easy to get into.

Morrison comics were therefore a massive challenge, as the compression requires you to focus on every stray detail in order to understand the plot, never mind anything else. I remember finding Final Crisis tough for the same sorts of reasons. For some people this might be a flaw. I prefer to see it as a different way to use the form, one that’s ultimately more interesting than the serial, unflashy competence you find in most big two comics. The Filth stretches conventional plotting to breaking point. Watching a creator confident enough to warp his narrative in every direction they want, and demanding that the audience follow them, is in its own way just as captivating as a pro-storyteller carrying you all the way through a story so expertly that you don’t realise or care how the magic is made.

Why is it worth reading? I’ll have a go. The Filth is founded on the opposition between the filthy things we dream about (Morrison apparently consumed a lot of porn when writing it, as David attests) and how we repress those things – ‘the filth’ being slang for the police. In that respect it’s a lot like Blue Velvet, whose villains cannot control their desires, and whose heroes are tempted by that freedom, but ultimately manage to pull away from it and live happy American apple pie lives. The Hand literally personify the processes by which we stamp out the antisocial (or “anti-person”) urges that will make living with each other impossible. For someone who unabashedly celebrated anarchic freedom in the face of ethical and political authority in The Invisibles, that’s an curious little turnaround.

That would be interesting enough if it was that simple, but the book also contains a lot of rage against that repressive (civilizing, if you like) figure of authority. Ned Slade is an artificial “parapersonality” imposed on the unassuming Greg Feely (or maybe it’s the other way around?). That sense of being manipulated by external forces (all those CCTV cameras) is prevalent. For me, that’s a metaphor for the way we are conditioned by the things around us, and pick up 'the rules' of morality by observing and monitoring each other. For me, Greg Feely is raging against an inevitable process. Society and its demands will never leave him alone, no matter how much he would like to seal himself away from it. That final metaphor: it’s a filthy thing, authority, but the peace it creates allows for beautiful things to grow. (tl;dr: The Filth is about abandoning anarchism for liberalism discuss…)

Just to pick up on one of David’s questions RE the art team: I’m in the process of becoming a bit of a Hollingsworth devotee, and on this read through I did pick up on how drastically the colours change as Greg turns into Ned. I own the toilet paper trade, and perhaps that dulls the impact a bit (although the cheapness also feels somehow appropriate for the ugly smutty subject matter…) In any case, the garish pinks and reds, the vomity yellows and greens, used as the background to the panels in the fantasy world add up to quite a big part of the look and feel of the book Imo, so for me Hollingsworth is a bit of an (unsung?) hero for the work he did on it.


The gap between panels / A perfect moment

Latest column for the London Graphic Novel Network tries to talk about how comics can freeze moments in time in order to study them, using some rather obscure graphic novels to make the point (including a bit of borrowing from last year's post on Yukiko's Spinach). Meanders into the question of whether such behaviour inherently carries a voyeuristic or erotic charge, and how to cope with or redeem it if so. It's probably the most pretentious one yet, in other words. Read it here.


Captain America: Civil War

Marvel's gamble on the Russo brothers continues to pay off. Mainly known for cult TV comedies, they handle the massive budgets and expectations of superhero action films with aplomb. Much like Age of Ultron before it, Civil War needs to pack a lot in, and the hyperactive plotting of Arrested Development and Community turns out to be good training for making all the pieces fit together. An example: Spider-Man is introduced in something like five minutes. They also manage to craft the sequence where the Avengers finally start fighting each other into something genuinely engaging. It's of little surprise that they've been handed the keys to the Avengers films due for release in 2018-19.

Civil War only very loosely follows the framework set by Mark Millar's crossover, where superheros have to decide whether to register and become agents of the U.S. government. In the film, S.H.I.E.L.D. has been discredited, and the pressure comes from the United Nations, who wish to licence and legitimate Avengers interventions in sovereign countries (echoes of recent adventures in the Middle East and Africa are muted). Cap's reasons for resisting 'the Accords' is a bit woolly, and boils down to an intuition that he's more likely to call the shots right than the UN. Conveniently (given that it is his film) in the case of Bucky Barnes he is right.

The instrumental question about whether private citizens are better able to exercise their superpowers effectively than democratically-elected governments is a side-issue. More important is the debate about accountability. Superpowered interventions, even if they end up saving lives (or the world), nonetheless kill civilians. The villain in Civil War is after revenge for the death of his family by superhero activity in 'Zarkovia' in a prior film. It's a motive shared by the Black Panther in this film, and in the end the latter proves to be the true hero by letting go of the thirst to take an eye for an eye – something Tony Stark is unable to do. That said, Cap preference to be held accountable only by himself and his friends is troubling. A brave creative team would challenge it in future films.


Wild Strawberries

Although his issues with his cold and severe father are mixed in, Bergman admits that Isak Borg is a self-portrait (they share the same initials). The name suggests 'icy fortress' in Swedish, and the beginning of the film makes clear that the cause of the malady is a willful severing of contact with other people. Borg finds the endless discussions people have about other people tiring, and settles for his academic study of bacteria in splendid isolation.

That icy metaphor is contrasted with the wild strawberries of the title. In the pivotal scene in which they are introduced, they are associated with youthful exuberance and sexual frission. There is something of the Fall myth in the way a kiss spills the basket of strawberries on the ground. Borg watches on as his crush is seduced by a rival, who is vibrant and flashy rather than solemn and wise. The scenario is repeated towards the end of the film, where Borg watches on as his wife makes him a cuckold. His magnanimous superiority has always made him difficult to relate to – a distant God among mortals. The women in the film prefer men who are less accomplished, perhaps even a bit foolish, but human.

It is a fabulous performance by Victor Sjöström, who has a dry kindliness about him which inspires sympathy even when he is being berated for his grouchiness by his daughter-in-law and housekeeper. Bergman's use of memories and dreams to explore aspects of Borg's personality feels conventional now, but was groundbreaking then. Even so, the complexity of the character that emerges is still impressive. It feels like quite a modern film, even though it's half a century old.


"One difficulty in understanding just what Marx thought a society based on rational cooperation might look like is his insistence that there would be no sacrifice of individuality when we all contributed as we should to the productive efforts of us all. The thought seems to be that we so internalize the desire to do what we rationally must do for the benefit of the whole community that we feel no tension between our desires and the community's needs. This is either implausible or alarming; it is at least very hard to believe that work as the free expression of our creative natures will always coincide with work as our optimal contribution to the rationally organised productive mechanism that underpins our society.


"Full socialism imagines a form of collective economic rationality that makes sense only with an omniscient and omnipotent directing intelligence at the heart of the economy, and imagines that intelligence replacing the coercive apparatus of law and government; that comes close to self-contradiction, and if it did not, it would still presuppose an unlikely degree of spontaneous consensus on the merits of a central plan" - Alan Ryan, On Politics: A History of Political Thought from Herodotus to the Present