23.8.09

Sebastian O

There's gonna be a little Grant Morrison season unfolding on the Hothouse, while I try and make sense of the most original voice in comics since Alan Moore.

This 3-part miniseries is a Victorian steampunk fantasy drawn by Steve Yeowell. The pencils are very fine and delicate, and convey the pampered, decadent world of Sebastian O well. (Just look at the clothes everyone is wearing!) Morrison reigns in the multiple-personality-disorder writing of The Invisibles. Instead, he focuses on getting the particular language of this alternate historical reality right. And he succeeds admirably. Take a look at the blurb on the back cover, almost as impressive as the book itself:

'Stay a moment yet and know ecstasy! Gentle reader, we implore your indulgence! Do you dare deny yourselves this opportunity to amaze your jaded sensibilities in a manner to which -- we dare fancy -- they have never before been thrilled? Stay but a moment, and discover between these covers a tale of dandyism, vice and revenge unique in the annals of graphical entertainments: SEBASTIAN O, a romance unequaled in wit and esprit, with enough decadent asides to generate the most agreeable of frissons in every civilized peruser!

'Buy quickly, now! And repair to your scented boudoirs, newly armed with this volume of madness and mauve, there to enjoy its sweet diversions in surroundings befitting your unquestionably high status and shameful criminal appetites. Be assured that the actions set forth herein by Messrs. GRANT MORRISON and STEVE YEOWELL are without equal in both originality and craftsmanship, and that the perverse narrative machinations from which they spring are incontrovertibly the flowering of a morbid and Plutonian genius.

God Save the Queen... for someone must!'

Morrison can do the voices, and his plotting is similarly accomplished. In the first issue there is a brilliant set-piece, where our hero is bathed and dressed by two topless maids, completely unfazed by the police storming his house in search of him. Morrison is a master at building these moments of tension and release. In terms of character, there is the usual crowd of the intriguingly grotesque and weird. The dentist assassin deserves special mention, attacking victims from the teeth in. In all, the book has the slight feel of Tarantino doing the 19th century.

Except that Tarantino won't put all this meta stuff in his work. Sebastian O is a member of the Club de Paradis Artificiel, a society which abhors 'Mother Nature's primordial, oozing squalor' and seeks to 'imagine in Her stead a world of perfect, flawless artifice'. Hence you get the Abbe's completely automated garden, where you only need to 'wind the trees once a day and reset the flowers', avoiding 'all that dreadful rot and decay and procreation'. The real world is flawed, but humanity can create artificial worlds which are perfect and true. That's partly what creating art is all about. Except that it isn't. What Morrison is trying to show is that the authoritarian impulse in artistic endeavor is dangerous, and closely related to political authoritarianism. The automated garden is a ludicrous invention, motivated by the desire to subjugate nature and have it under complete control. The villain of the book wants to go much further, controlling the weather, the Queen and the destiny of nations, in order to make 'a world of pure, undying beauty'.

This is what Sebastian O is fighting against. His quick retort to this statement of aims is that 'the essential component of beauty is mortality'. By that he doesn't just mean that things are beautiful because they will eventually decay and vanish, but that they are beautiful because they are made by mortals, and so reflect our helpless, fallen nature. We look at art and see not some perfect God, but ourselves.

The authoritarian impulse in art and politics is essentially a product of pride. I know what's best. My art/political control will show you the way. At the book's climax, the villain becomes delusional: 'This is my world and you cannot kill me. For I am God!' Sebastian calmly replies, 'But haven't you heard? God is dead.' before shooting him off a bridge. There is no one in control. Life is what we, as individuals, make it.

But Grant Morrison has one final joke to play on his hero. At the very end of the book, the dead villain's prediction about the weather turns out to be true. Someone is controlling events. It's not the villain, who's dead, but Grant Morrison himself. The author admits that his craft is authoritarian. He is also telling you what's best. But in showing his hand, Morrison at least confesses his sins, and emphasizes that the art he offers is subjective. He is telling you what he thinks is best. Sebastian O is a book written by a person. You don't necessarily have to agree with what it says.

6 comments:

  1. Can I ask what do you study?
    (I will understand if you prefer to keep your privacy).

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  2. Hi friend..me Deen from Golden Sand, Malaysia. Great blog. Greeting from Malaysia.

    Deen

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  3. Hello Deen. Welcome to the madhouse.

    Claudia: Haha, not at all. I'm just about to begin my third year BA in History. Not a lot of that stuff on the Hothouse. Here I like to talk about interesting things...

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  4. It is just that you inspire so much respect... (talking as such a mindless slave of yours as I am).
    I hoped you to say something like "I want it secret..., yeah I'm a mysterious one"

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  5. Huh? Really? That makes a change...

    Saying "Yeah I'm a mysterious one" will automatically make me the biggest cock in the world, I feel. Really not that guy. I'm the guy dancing badly in the middle of the room.

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  6. mmmh, it seems I'm always mistaken about you.

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