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

This is laughably late. Back in November last year there was another S.M.A.S.H. event at the Barbican, a three-hour, three-panel discussion on comics, with excellent guests and topics. I wrote up some notes for the one in March, so I thought I'd do the same for November. I've only just now got my act together and managed to complete them. This is all unedited jottings, with lots of potential confusions and contradictions. But S.M.A.S.H. does work by filling your head up with ideas, and the below is hopefully an accurate reflection of that. The event was recorded, and I've added the links to the audio below.


My main memory of this is Simon Spurrier's discomfort with having comics reduced to one or two word explanations, and therefore his ambivalence about genre. He described genre as a list of ingredients rather than a recipe, in that most stories combine ingredients from many different genres into one unique mix.

I'm not sure that's the best way to think about genre, however. Another panelist mentioned that genres set up expectations. And expectations are about what happens next, i.e. they are a combination of elements rather than a disparate selection of elements. I think genres are recipes, in that they have rules you should follow. Creators use the expectations inherent in them to achieve their effects. Some comics are straightforward genre exercises. The ones I tend to be interested in are those that break the rules in interesting ways. But you have to know the rules in order to break them.

And actually, I think there may be a bias towards genre in comics, because contrary to what you might think, the form is actually less liberating than prose. Visual storytelling is more immediate, but it's harder to use images to convey complex information. I speak from (limited) experience – whenever I create an infographic at work, I find I'm always simplifying what has been written in prose. It's pretty clear to me that you can convey more raw information in a page of a novel than you can do with a page of comics.

Comics therefore inherently have to compress information. And genre is often a good way to do so. The audience already know the rules, and can lean on a set of expectations when being introduced to a story. A creator can therefore leave a lot of the background world-building to one side, in order to have time to get the narrative going. Given that most comics are periodical, I wonder whether there is something structural about the use of genre – creators tending to lean on genre at the beginning before spinning away from it. I think The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S might be a good example of this.

The panel went on to discuss the creation of genre classifications – and I started thinking about who gets to do this, and the fact that genres in comics tend to be quite fixed. This is in sharp contrast to genres in music, where terms are coined far more rapidly, particularly within a genre (think of all the subdivisions of metal or dance music, for example). If you had left that to labels and shops, you'd be stuck with the overarching definitions – functional labels to guide the consumer to what they want to hear.

The multiplication of genres in music is mostly the work of fans and critics, who often compete to be the first to define a new genre (see for example the various terms floating around before chillwave and grime were consolidated into genres). It feels like that multiplicity of genres is what some on the panel were hoping for. But you can only generate that kind of discourse when a fan or critical community achieves a certain size, and comics are (for good or ill) still a minority interest.

And that might not be a bad thing. A lot of shops and libraries classify genres by publisher (thankfully separating the Vertigo stuff from the DC stuff). That essentially segregates everything that isn't a superhero comic in one place, and within those shelves of Vertigo / Image / Dark Horse / Avatar comics all kinds of genres jostle together, awaiting the open-minded browser. That's not a bad state of affairs to be in, and it's not too far removed from the ideal comic book shop the panellists started to fantasise about at the end of the discussion.


The most difficult topic to say anything about, and the discussion ended up looking at the position of comics within culture, whether it will grow or remain a 'black sheep'. I think most in attendance were attached to the idea of comics as an insurgent, underground or inherently anarchic medium. But actually that contradicts the adage that you can and should do everything with comics – including drab narratives about middle class people having affairs. Also, given the incredible complexity involved with breaking a story into panels and 22 pages, you could argue that comics need a good deal of discipline to make properly. I for one would be curious about what would happen if comics became a mass market phenomenon, like they are in Japan. I suspect the amount of dross would grow exponentially – but you will also get more experimentation rather than less (the number of strange manga niches is quite something).

There were worries also about piracy, and how creators can be compensated for their labour. That's a question that applies to all creative endeavours, and although I love the idea (put forth by Rob Davis) of libraries as the solution, I suspect something like a Spotify for comics may be the best outcome for everyone (streaming services may be on the cusp of reversing the massive loss of revenue music labels have seen over the last 20 years). That said, eReaders need to figure out a way to display images in colour before I start going digital.

Another tidbit was the recognition that the production of comics is extremely inefficient relative to their consumption – Rob Davis was particularly rueful about spending months making a book that takes a couple of hours to get through.


The panellists dived into the knotty problem of how you can compare tastes if taste is subjective and a product of your subjectivity. Are all tastes as good as each other, or are some better than others? If everyone is equal, what's the point of comparing opinions? I remember Mazin tried to resolve this by suggesting readings of the formal qualities of a work can be compared (and ranked). But once you stop talking about the work as a work, and start talking about how it resonates with your own experience, you've stopped talking about the work itself.

That's a recipe for rather dry critique, I suspect. And while some creators are interested in craft exercises, that's not the starting point for everyone – most are trying to communicate something as well. Criticism for me is a bit like a conversation where you try the best you can to understand what the creator is saying first, and then reflect on the resonances that has to your own experience. Interpretations of what an author meant to do with a work can also therefore be ranked. Whether your tastes align with those of the author you are reading may help you gain insight into what they are trying to say, but it's not essential. The versatility or range of a critic's tastes may determine whether they are specialists or generalists.

But this is taking us away from what for me is the more interesting issue around taste, which is how it's basically a proxy for your identity. And as such is often public and demonstrative. Dave McKean mentioned top 10 lists – which is a good example of this. Creating a list of your favourite comics artists is a statement about who are (or want to be) as a person. It is bundled up with all kinds of claims about the things you think are important.

Thinking about taste in terms of identity helps to answer the question of why people find it difficult to change their minds on things. If your taste defines who you are, it's difficult to renounce favourite works, even if you don't turn back to them now, or even think they are that good any more. Julia Scheele was quite eloquent on this when describing the discomfort of starting to have misgivings about Transmetropolitan, given how big an impact the book had on her in the past.

Taste as identity also sheds light on the dynamics of group-creation, and how groups tend to consolidate in opposition to other groups. You like something partly because those people over there don't like it. And that makes bridging the taste divide quite difficult. This works in comics all the time – 2000AD fans can be pretty disdainful of any comic that gets reviewed in the Guardian, for example. The danger is that your taste becomes ossified by refusing to countenance the stuff that doesn't fit within it, not least because sticking within the narrow bounds of what you know can burn you out. I've been feeling this way with anglophone comics as a whole for a while now, to be honest. The best tonic for that is to dive into alternative views and new experiences, as Dave McKean suggested. But that means being less tribal – and if taste is wrapped up with your identity, that's always going to be a tough thing to do.


"There is no authentic human essence to be realised, no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations, no organic wholeness to be achieved. Alienation is a mode of enablement, and humanity is an incomplete vector of transformation. What we are and what we can become are open-ended projects to be constructed in the course of time [...] This is a project of self-realisation, but one without a pre-established endpoint. It is only through undergoing the process of revision and construction that humanity can come to know itself." - Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work


The Third Man

I saw this at the Prince Charles Cinema just now and it really does deserve to be seen on a big screen. Not only for the fantastic (in every sense of the word) location shots of Vienna in ruins, but also for the ornate set designs, and to feel the full impact of those Dutch angles. The film is a visual treat, but it's also fast paced and carefully written. Graham Greene makes the protagonist an American writer of pulp fiction, who is under no illusions about the extent of his talents. At one point he gets asked about his opinion of James Joyce and stream-of-consciousness, to which he cannot offer a meaningful reply. Some of that may be Greene reflecting on his own inadequacies as a writer. But he tries to redeem his hero nonetheless. His pulp fiction is all about brave men setting an example – something very difficult to do in the moral cesspit Vienna has become. The choice the protagonist has to make is between sticking up for his friend, or ensuring that he faces justice for his crimes. Both are honourable choices, and while he chooses the latter, the femme fatale he falls in love with chooses the former.

Why she remains loyal to Orson Welles's Harry Lime is difficult to answer. Welles gives little indication that his character is capable of love. He is the mercurial nihilist willing to put a price on poisoning children. But Anna is capable of loving such a monster. Perhaps she is simply hoodwinked, and wishes to preserve the false happy memories of her affair. The shattering of her illusions might explain the final scene, in which she ignores any further romantic entanglements and walks out of the film. She describes Harry Lime as a child caught up in a grown up world. That better describes the protagonist – who clings to boyish ideals of male heroism. Welles on the other hand has already learned to swim with the sharks.


You Can Count On Me

The BFI is showing all of Kenneth Lonergan's films at the moment, and given that Margaret is is an all time favourite of mine, I invited my mum along to see his debut feature. You Can Count On Me also focuses on a single mother (superbly played by Laura Linney), but the wayward child here is her younger brother – an awkward and volatile Mark Ruffalo. The siblings are orphaned at a young age, and each reacts in contrasting ways to their bereavement. Linney stays in her parents' house and tries to build a stable environment for her son. Ruffalo gets out as soon as he can, and ends up drifting around the United States.

The film is a compilation of scenes prodding at this dynamic. Like Margaret, you get the sense that a lot more material was shot, with the strongest sequences edited together. Sometimes the seams show through – occasionally you can tell that a scene has had bits sliced out of it. But that extra bit of shooting probably allowed the actors to spend more time inhabiting their characters – and we get to see several sides of them. Ruffalo has to become more responsible when living with his sister. And Linney reveals that she's more reckess than she at first appears.

The one big discordant note for me was when Lonergan appears in his own film as the village priest giving counsel to both Lilley and Ruffalo. The wise religious figure is a cliche anyway, and casting yourself as the authoritative font of wisdom feels a tad adolescent. The message itself is interesting however – and echoes some of the current debates around 'post-liberalism' in the UK. Ruffalo's rejection of religion is part of a general abjuration of the parochial community he grew up in. But leaving behind your roots makes you rootless – unable to navigate through relationships or jobs. The only reason Ruffalo survives is because he is anchored by his sister. He knows that wherever he he ends up, he can rely on her to be where she's always been.

In fact, this is Lilley's film to carry. Lonergan (as the dog-collared chief interpreter of his own film) is there to coax out Lilley's confession that the relationships with the men in her life are based on pity. She goes out of her way because she feels sorry for them. It's a revelatory admission. Lilley is more together than her brother, lover or boss. She wants to be able to count on them, but they all end up counting on her.


Favourite songs of 2016

As usual it's Kieron Gillen rules – one song per artist, with the rest of the body of work pushing things up the list. This saves me from doing a separate albums rundown, although interestingly this year most of the songs below have an album behind them. I'm not on trend – for a couple of years now it has been assumed that YouTube and Spotify (as well as a general pop culture shift away from rock music) will kill off the album. Perhaps that's still to come, but for now it looks like artists are still finding value in presenting their music in 30 to 50 minute suites – they still want to control the context in which an individual song is experienced. As someone to prefers to look at the intentions of creators rather than the way a work travels through the culture when it's released, this is welcome. I'm still suspicious of algorithms and playlists ordering music for me. It's better to trust the producers.

20. Martha - 11:45, Legless in Brandon

This just in, because I only heard of these guys a week ago. A pop-punk four piece from Durham – a bit like Los Campesinos! without the anguish, or blink-182 if they grew up with a sense of British irony. And like the latter in their prime, mostly singing about teenage love, which is more like a mixture of lust and idolatry. 'Legless in Brandon' is my current favourite from their album, because the hook is timeless: 'you’re good for my mind, but not my productivity'.

19. Kero Kero Bonito - Trampoline

Another future classic from these guys. This one a confidence boost, the trampoline as a metaphor for picking yourself up when you're down, and being able to jump higher next time. As with the best KKB, the seemingly silly and trivial becomes a manifesto for better living.

18. Kamaiyah - I'm On (prod. Drew Banga)

Another pick me up. Kamaiyah says her mother was absent and her father did drugs, and money was a constant source of stress growing up. Living debt free ('I don't have to finance') is therefore a source of celebration. And that celebration is inclusive – witness all those people singing along to Kamaiyah's performance in the video. And it's warm and inviting, thanks to the gentle swing of Drew Banga's production.

17. Britney Spears - Private Show (prod. Tramaine "Young Fyre" Winfrey)

One of the best things about Glory is the way Spears experiments with her voice throughout the album, nowhere more so than this song, which understandably proved divisive (a friend of mine thought it was 'horrid'). I think it's great, and betrays a sense of confidence and optimism after what has been a rough ride of a career. The gaucheness of her delivery in the pre-chorus ('wrrkit, wrrkit, boy watch me wrrkit') feels like a cheeky wink at the listener – daring them to accept the song in the way Spears wants to sing it.

16. Dinosaur Jr. - Goin Down

I'm just glad these guys are still around, 30 or so years after You're Living All Over Me, which many regard as their crowning achievement. 'Going Down' kicks off their new album with a monster riff and a blistering guitar solo, the heavy metal theatrics softened by J Mascis's unassuming, slightly flat vocal. It's a variation on the same formula, but that's OK by me. Long may they continue.

15. Katy B - Honey (prod. Kaytranada)

Katy B's latest album is a mixed bag, and doesn't quite work as a showcase for Rinse in the way On A Mission did. The most successful song is rightly put at the top. 'Honey' plays to Katy B's strengths – describing in microscopic detail the moment when a connection between lovers or dancers is made. The charged atmosphere finally erupts with Katy B's vocal overdubs in the final chorus. Slightly over the top, yes, but Kaytranada's hypnotically steady beat needs some kind of release. In that sense, it's a perfect evocation of female desire.

14. Junior Boys - Baby Give Up On It

Junior Boys's latest album works on similar principles to the Katy B song above – utilising the regular rhythms of house and techno to explore the workings of desire. Big Black Coat feels slightly older, and perhaps a bit sadder – Jeremy Greenspan describes how he took inspiration from lonely-looking guys walking around his town, who he imagined were frustrated by life and women. This track's lyrics reflect those concerns ('I don't want you anymore'), but sonically it still sounds like a come on. The ambiguity of a phrase like 'give up on it' encapsulates that tension perfectly. Whether the cut up vocals at the end signal a release from a fragmenting relationship, or its renewal, is impossible to work out.

13. Jammz - Just Eat (prod. Anz)

Jammz is usually all about serious issues, which is why having him sit back and tell a funny story is a good look for him. For sure, we still end up with a tirade, because Jammz is Jammz and his flow always conveys a sense of escalating stress-levels. That bottled up frustration is pure grime, but so is a sense of the quotidian and absurd (cf. D Double E in a cab below).

12. Levelz - Rowdy Badd

Much of the beginning of my 2016 was spent with the debut mixtape from Manchester rap and production supergroup Levelz, which served as a useful corrective to Mayoral hopeful Andy Burnham's laments about the state of the city's music scene.

11. Dej Loaf - Bitch Please (prod. DDS)

Imperial nonchalance on top of another sparkling production from DDS – so great Dej doesn't even bother with a chorus. She says she doesn't eat pie but wants you to bake it anyway. I'm not arguing.

10. Jeremih feat. Stefflon Don, Krept & Konan - London (prod. Soundz)

Obvious biases apply, but this is the best track on Jeremih's Late Nights Europe mixtape, mostly because you can actually dance to it. It's London by way of Jamaican dancehall, with a stellar performance from up and comer Stefflon Don.

9. The Hotelier - Piano Player

I found this year's followup to NoPlace a bit underwhelming, but given that NoPlace might be the best emo album since Cork Tree, perhaps that shouldn't be surprising. Goodness leaves behind the disintegration and despair, and reveals the band to be hippies at heart. 'Piano Player' employs a little bit more studio trickery, Holden sounds a little bit more like Michael Stipe, and the chorus drives through the imperative to 'sustain' by repeating the word over and over. And all of that propelled by an urgent drumbeat bashing all the way through the song's five and a half minutes.

8. Trim - Up to Speed (prod. Asa & Sorrow)

Asa & Sorrow's muscular production spurs Trim to get back on the warpath. This is high definition grime, with weighty bass squelches and horror film strings, and it adds authority to Trim's boasts of drowning out the competition. There is a nod to the insecurity that has permeated his work of late ('no matter how irrelevant I might have been'), but 'Up to Speed' is a needed reminder that Trim is at his strongest when fighting from a position of weakness.

7. Radwimps - Zenzenzense

This is another recent discovery, and a new departure for me, given that I listen to almost no music in a language other than English. Radwimps are a phenomenon in Japan, and this is taken from their excellent soundtrack to Your Name (my favourite film of 2016). The song is used to convey a sense of youthful, almost vertiginous, exuberance – where sensations and emotions pile up faster than your ability to process them.

6. Chance the Rapper feat. Saba - Angels (prod. Lido & The Social Experiment)

Chance sometimes feels like a latter day William Blake, chatting to angels in his back garden, sometimes like Walt Whitman, expounding on his own supreme excellence. No wonder the video for 'Angels' casts him as a superhero flying over the skies of Chicago, charged up with God's grace. With Saba's timpani backed pre-chorus leading into Chance's horn-fuelled chorus, the feeling of elevation is palpable.

5. Dawn Richard - Lazarus (prod. Machinedrum)

I'm still digesting Richard's final installment of her 'heart' trilogy of albums, which are as technically impressive and emotionally involving as anything put together by Radiohead. Redemption suggests a happy ending after the epic warfare of Goldenheart and the angst of Blackheart. 'Lazarus' suggests it, anyway, playing with images of ascension and appropriating traditionally male metaphors of the wolf's hunger and the king's ego. Every album review has picked up on this song's line: 'I didn't change, I became'. It's a highlight, in other words. And it might be what settling into your identity sounds like.

4. Ariana Grande - Into You (prod. Max Martin)

Dangerous Woman is a return to form after Grande's muddled sophomore effort, and it's biggest single is its most immediate entry-point. Max Martin can probably churn these out in his sleep by now, but the scale of this production's chorus is well matched by Grande's powerful voice. It's a deserved hit, and hearing it played on the radio and in shops around London goes to show that good pop can still find an audience.

3. Capo Lee feat. D Double E - Mud (JD. Reid Remix)

It's been Sir Spyro's year as far as grime's concerned. My 2015 favourite 'Topper Top' finally got a release, and his productions for Ghetts, Stormzy and P Money have all become anthems. This one for newcomer Capo Lee is my favourite, however, utilising the traditional grime technique of rhyming each bar with the same word and inflecting it with different meanings. Unfortunately for Spyro, I've fallen a little bit harder for JD. Reid's remix, which gives the ominous original a shiny makeover, and proves a better fit for D Double's cartoony rant at his cabdriver in the second verse.

2. Beyoncé feat. Jack White - Don't Hurt Yourself (prod. Derek Dixie)

I found the happily-married Beyoncé of the self-titled album strangely uninvolving. Tellingly, the most interesting song on that album for me was 'Jealous', which was the one that hinted at the double-standards and double-shift that still structures many marriages. So when Lemonade took that song and made an entire album out of it, I got right on board. Unlike 'Jealous', 'Don't Hurt Yourself' no longer redirects the rage at marital injustice inwards – it lashes out at the source: 'tonight I'm fucking up all your shit, boyyy'. That line, with the full force of Beyoncé's voice behind it, sends a shiver down the spine.

1. Johnny Foreigner - The Worst of Us

I liked the last album, but did wonder if the band were doubling down on a successful formula rather than trying to move beyond it. Turns out I needn't have worried. Mono No Aware is more adventurous with its song structures – melting together JF's pop punk influences into new forms. 'The Worst of Us' is a jagged thing, speeding up and juddering to a halt when you least expect it. It sounds like running down a series of dead ends – which is exactly what the song is about. The band sing about being trapped in grey cities, 'proxy the beach' and the sense of possibility that entails. Settling down like your parents means the world closing in around you, all escape routes shut off. But perhaps that's inevitable – 'I'm convinced I need you to stabalise'. Adventure entails risk – dropping out of your life is hard. 'The Worst of Us' is about finding that point of stability from which you can go and find those 'white mountains and silver seas'. I got married this year, and all of that rings very true. And it goes to show that JF are also a band to grow old with.