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.