François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, Brüsel

Brüsel (Les Cités obscures, #5)Brüsel by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my third visit to Franco-Belgian creators Schuiten and Peeters’s Cités obscures. The series of graphic novels is currently difficult or impossible to read completely in English, as it has passed between several different publishers, leaving many of the volumes out of print and prohibitively expensive. (Only my rather scattered academic employment and my urban living situation, which together give me access to three good library systems, has allowed me to get this far into the series!)

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Brüsel is the volume that introduces both the character of Constant Abeels, a genial and quietly romantic florist, and the titular Brussels-like city, both of which will later feature in The Theory of the Grain of Sand, my favorite entry in the series so far (I also wrote a very brief review of the first volume, Samaris, at Goodreads). This volume is a fantastical polemic against the modernization of urban centers, an activity it depicts as driven by crass profiteers, on the one hand, and starry-eyed speculators who have lost touch with human needs, on the other.

As the old Brüsel is demolished and replaced with ultra-modern skyscrapers, the city begins to sink under the weight of this misguided utopia. Meanwhile, Constant hopes to join the modernization process by turning his business to the sale of plastic rather than organic flowers on the principle that the former will not decay and die. But, harassed by unreliable municipal services and suffering from a tuberculosis-like illness, he goes on the journey that structures the novel through the bureaucratic and medical apparatuses of both the old and new Brüsel.

Both versions of the city are shown to be flawed, particularly through the depiction of two hospitals: the lazar-house-like Catholic hospital run on medieval principles of bloodletting and its modernist replacement staffed by bickering and absent-minded “projectors” out of Swift’s Lagado. The real principle of health, Schuiten and Peeters imply, is to be found in love and fellowship, embodied in Constant’s amorous encounters with the Luddite-like rebel, Tina (a character admittedly undeveloped, except for her rather flippantly-portrayed porn-scenario sexuality).

Comics has a privileged relationship to the modern city: it is an art form whose modern development, whether in Europe, Asia, or North America, grew in tandem with the urban masses the first newspaper strips and comic books were made to entertain. That makes it a thematically rich topic for graphic novels to explore, and Schuiten and Peeters’s ambivalence about urban development is ideal for the medium, whose own formal features often resemble architecture as much as any other form of art.

Artistically, Schuiten’s detailed work here is superb, especially when he transitions to more vertical page layouts with the transformation of the city; likewise, the two authors’ depiction of various social spaces is a droll use of near-fantasy or magical realism to revivify familiar urban experiences. But the characterization is very thin and the polemical point made a bit simplistically; the craft and artistry of the creators aside, I prefer the subtler mysteries of Samaris and The Theory of the Grain of Sand.

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François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Theory of the Grain of Sand

The Theory of the Grain of SandThe Theory of the Grain of Sand by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Theory of the Grain of Sand (2016; originally published in 2007-2008 in France) is the 13th entry in Franco-Belgian collaborators Schuiten and Peeters’s series of graphic novels, Les Cités obscures. It is the first I’ve read, so there is much that is still, appropriately, obscure to me. Even so, this book impressed me as a thoughtful, subtle, charming narrative, with stunning art in a mode that may be unfamiliar to newer American comics readers used to the more cartoonish style favored by “literary” graphic novelists like Ware, Satrapi, Clowes, Bechdel, or Drnaso.

As the Calvino-esque title of the series implies, The Obscure Cities offers a kind of catalogue of distinct and quasi-fantastical urban spaces that are nonetheless refractions of this-worldly realities. As Wikipedia summarizes, “In this fictional world, humans live in independent city-states, each of which has developed a distinct civilization, each characterized by a distinctive architectural style.”

The architectural emphasis suits artist François Schuiten’s graphic approach: a style of remarkable grace and precision, not only in building design and backgrounds, but even in figure drawing, a beautifully rendered ink-swept romantic realism so evocative of the old cities that the march of  universally leveling commerce are removing from the world. On this theme, Wikipedia elaborates: “An important motif is the process of what [Schuiten] calls Bruxellisation, the destruction of this historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality modernist office and business buildings.” Lovers of the urban romanticism, whether in its utopian or dystopian guises, that characterizes certain older European literature from Balzac and Baudelaire to Woolf and Benjamin will admire this book.

The Theory of the Grain of Sand tells the story of Brüsel, a fantastical city much like Brussels, that undergoes an escalating series of strange events: rocks, each weighing exactly the same, begin appearing in an old man’s apartment; a single mother’s apartment is slowly filling with sand; a chef weighs less and less each day until he levitates into the air.

These odd happenings coincide with the appearance in the city of a warrior from the Bugti, a desert people, who attempts to sell a religious artifact captured from the chief of his tribe’s rivals, the Moktar. His prospective buyer is a woman who lives in the Horta House, an Art Nouveau marvel, and she too is drawn, this time by guilt rather than happenstance, into the mysterious plot.

Mary von Rathen, apparently a recurring character in the series, comes to the city to investigate. With the help of the afflicted citizens (and the man who runs the Gallery of Distant Worlds), she helps to solve the mystery while warning that not everything can be explained. The conclusion involves a journey out of Brüsel and into the desert, there to replace the Moktars’ plundered artifact and end the chaos.

While the above summary makes the book sound a mystery or adventure, even a colonial adventure, the pace is leisured, like a stroll through a walkable urban core of Old Europe, and the tone, characterized mostly by gentle and precise dialogue, is droll, even when the city is literally being crushed under the weight of sand and stone.

Thematically, Schuiten and Peeters implicitly criticize imperial blowback for destroying the irreplaceable aesthetic of the European city: the wars fought between Bugti and Moktar in the desert are revealed to have been escalated and goaded by arms trading from Brüsel, so that the metropole’s own partial destruction via magic from the periphery is logical and even just.

Moreover, the book’s writer, Benoît Peeters, is also the biographer of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, so we can expect that a point is also being made about the permeability of all boundaries. The damage wrought in the city by sand and stone even inspires a spirit of collectivity and produces some changes in the citizens’ lives that are not all bad. Inside and outside interpenetrate, like speech and writing, like self and other.

But Peeters leaves behind his deconstructionist commitment to inherent alterity when his narrative sets out from his fanciful Europe for the frontier. At the graphic novel’s denouement, the replacement of the Moktar’s stolen artifact in the center of a desert citadel restores peace. Not all centers are as arbitrary as Derrida famously suggested, apparently. In a more cynical mood, we might accuse Peeters of upholding a typical patronizing postcolonial penitence that is not so different from the colonialism it purports to supplant: deconstruction for me, stasis for you. An enliveningly dangerous supplement for the citizen is the immobile totality of the natural order for the native.

Let’s saunter over the quaint cobbles to a happier subject, then: Schuiten’s extraordinary artwork, which I have already mentioned. It is very different from what we see these days in the most acclaimed graphic novels. Literary aspiration or even just the aspiration toward a mainstream audience in the Anglophone graphic novel has come to be associated with a cartoonish style relying heavily on abstraction and, often, cuteness.

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We can trace this fact to a number of influences: the roots of the non-superhero American comics tradition in the great comic strips like Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts; the increasing importance of manga, a national aesthetic often reduced in loving stereotype to a cutesy style; the hyper-canonization, especially by those outside the superhero tradition, of Jack Kirby as almost the only artist in that mode worth discussing; the belief, derived from Scott McCloud’s theories, that an iconic style of facial and figure drawing enables reader identification; and the desire to appeal both to non-comics-reading audiences who are familiar with cartoons and to critics who have absorbed the art world’s century-long loathing of mimesis.

A style aiming at precision, a gift for realism, however heightened or stylized, becomes associated merely with the superhero slums. The idolators of Kirby barely ever even mention Wally Wood or John Buscema or Neal Adams; the stylistic effect of sad economic necessity, the need to churn out pages in a hurry, is unjustly elevated to the dignity of an aesthetic principle; and work that looks like it was produced by Charles Schulz on quaaludes is up for literary prizes in England.

Another factor at work in the demotion of styles like Schuiten’s is the belief that detailed art slows the reader down. But what is wrong with that? Comics is not cinema or animation, not meant to be read like a flipbook. The whole advantage of comics over cinema is that it provides a visual narrative whose pace is controlled by each audience member rather than passing at a fixed rate. Artists or even writers who make us linger by favoring the high style are not betraying the medium but exploiting one of its greatest potentials. My point is not that only work like Schuiten’s should be celebrated, but that such work deserves higher esteem in general than it usually ever receives from serious critics. Even in crude economic terms, you might think that a fast-paced style would sell better, but, as I see it, artists who give us more to look at are offering better value for our money.

In The Theory of the Grain of Sand, Schuiten creates a city and citizens so detailed and solid I felt like an authentic flâneur, and Peeters’s script gave me much to think about as I meandered over the stone flags. The book’s titular theory, by the way, holds that one grain of sand, one tiny detail, added or subtracted, is enough to change everything: a daring proposition for a book so rich with details as to resemble the vast and rolling desert where it comes to its climax.

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Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart, Seaguy

SeaguySeaguy by Grant Morrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to all my regular readers who come here in search of slightly more traditional essays on the “classics,” however defined, for holding on tight through my now year-long re-reading of comic-book writer Grant Morrison.

My own perhaps too hasty disparagement of Morrison in my review of Greg Carpenter’s The British Invasion was my initial impulse to revisit his work, and I have had another powerful stimulant in the Morrison discussions going on at Dave Fiore and Elise Moore’s excellent podcast. Dave and I were discussing Morrison back on the comics blogs in 2003 (“bliss it was in that dawn” etc.), and I’ve enjoyed hearing his and Elise’s considered responses to Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Flex MentalloThe Filth, and now Seaguy. It makes my own re-reading feel like what our friends on BookTube call a readalong, and it has helped to change my perspective on the writer, or changed it back to what it was when I was younger.

As I wrote earlier this summer on Tumblr: in the middle of the 20th century George Steiner tried to explain modernity and modern literature by asking, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? I wonder if by the middle of the 21st century some critic will try to produce a book-length investigation of postmodernity by positing a similarly rival pair of powerful imaginations: Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? While my heart will probably always rest in the end with Moore, I have had periods of my life where I was more interested in, or persuaded by, the worldview of Morrison, and this is one of them. Something in his wilder style, his refusal of neat artistic formalism or political formulae, his odd mixture of aggressive experimentalism and grotesquery with no less flagrant sentimentalism, speaks to me now.

Even so, I was hesitant to revisit Seaguy, a projected trilogy of three-part miniseries, two of which have so far been published by DC/Vertigo, the first in 2004 and the second in 2009. Not only didn’t I grasp Seaguy at all the first time around, I was not alone; it sold poorly and was received mostly with bafflement. I seem to recall Morrison in interviews around 2004 berating the bewildered audience for not understanding it because they had not read Chrétien de Troyes or someone like that—this from an author who these days likes to tell interviewers he doesn’t read anything and is only influenced by TV!

Seaguy is set in the (imaginary) city of New Venice in a dystopian—or, more accurately, falsely utopian—future. The eponymous hero, along with his comic sidekick Chubby Da Choona (a floating cartoon tuna fish who talks like a character in a gangster movie), is one of the few remaining superheroes after the cataclysmic defeat of Anti-Dad, a cosmic villain whom the world’s superheroes took down in an apparently pyrrhic victory. This apocalyptic liberation parodies DC/Marvel’s habit of using regular crossover catastrophes (or crises) to reboot their continuity as well as (note Dave and Elise) the geopolitical projection of the post-Cold-War “end of history.”

In the wake of Anti-Dad’s defeat, the pacified world is now a consumerist pseudo-paradise under the corporate control of Mickey Eye, a cross between Disney and Big Brother. Artist Cameron Stewart’s superb art evokes the disquiet of this seeming utopia, the uncanny unease of a bad normality, most unforgettably through his scary-funny illustrations of anxious adults and traumatized children shuffling through an amusement park.

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After this set-up, Seaguy becomes an essentially unsummarizable sequence of bizarre adventures, involving sentient food-stuffs, a mummy on the moon, and a first shot at liberating the Mickey-addled world. 

In keeping with Morrison’s ingenious crossing of two very different genres, the medieval romance and the modernist dystopia, the themes that emerge from Seaguy’s sojourns are twofold and at odds: first, Morrison demonstrates through his naive and brave hero a constant need for heroism, a refusal of the merely given, even when the given entertains or pacifies, just as the romance hero is urged ever onward toward the transcendence embodied by the Grail; on the other hand, every exercise of heroism in Seaguy’s world seems to generate in its turn new forms of authority and control, from the mummy’s tale of his own overweening performance as Pharaoh to the new normal brought about at the conclusion of the second miniseries, where the restored superheroes who have defeated Mickey Eye speak of protecting the status quo. 

As a political polemic, Seaguy might be considered an attack on corporate monopoly and its mask of benevolence. The mask has been growing ever more benevolent since Seaguy‘s first publication—Benetton was once more of an outlier, but all the tech monopolists now parade as “woke,” whatever their actual labor practices, environmental impact, or stultification of culture—so Morrison can be credited with prescience.

The narrative is probably better read biographically, though, than as some kind of political statement. It was Morrison who was counseling his audience in the early 2000s to accept the fact of corporate dominance and to use it to disseminate counterculture aesthetics and ideals; by the middle of the decade he was one of DC Comics’s chief writers, a development that would have been unimaginable in the ’80s or early ’90s.

Seaguy, also published by DC though a creator-owned property, reads to me like an expression of bad conscience in the midst of this success: it suggests that, despite Morrison’s hopeful rhetoric to the contrary, heroism in collaboration with the powers than be will always find itself compromised, will always function as a ruse of control. Reverting to my allusion above to the Morrison vs. Moore feud, this Pynchonian or Dickian or Foucaultian paranoia powered by wistful ’60s anarchism is a characteristically Moore-like point (as with the false utopias that conclude Miracleman and Watchmen), not one we associate with Morrison, whose insistence on interpersonal love generally overpowers the political as such to provide an image of redemption in his work.[1]

Seaguy gives us two moving relationships in this vein—that between Seaguy and his animal sidekick Chubby and that between Seaguy and his love interest She-Beard—but the tone of the book remains, from first to last, alienating and ungraspable. Maybe this is itself the point. Morrison is a writer often accused of perpetrating “weirdness for weirdness’s sake”—but what is the sake (that is, purpose) of weirdness?[2] I suggest the surplus of the inexplicable and incomprehensible in Seaguy, its extraordinary weirdness that so put off the initial audience, is a desperate and wishful demonstration that even in corporate comics sheer unbridled imagination can do its best and its worst.

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[1] One more Moore/Morrison observation: Moore has resentfully and accusatorially noted points of convergence in the two writers’ careers, which he interprets as vindictive imitation. Seaguy, then, may be read as a response to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If that series came out of Moore’s desire to trace the superhero archetype back to its roots in 19th-century popular fiction, Morrison in Seaguy goes Moore one better by finding the roots of superheroes in 12th-century Arthurian romance.

[2] There is also the dispiriting possibility that the weirdness in Seaguy has precise meaning available only to occultists. Early and late in his career, from Arkham Asylum to Nameless, Morrison has used various magical systems to structure the meaning of his stories, which he has then elaborately explained in afterwords, interviews, or published scripts, like Eliot annotating his own Waste Land. I dislike this artistic practice; as Coleridge explained 100 years before Eliot and 200 years before Morrison, the symbol is preferable to the allegory because both more grounded and more open-ended. A story you have to read a grimoire before you can understand is not a very good story; Eliot, anyway, was in his rather dryly macabre fashion being ironic, which many subsequent writers failed to understand.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

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Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.

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By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

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Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

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Art: John Totleben

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Grant Morrison, Sebastian O | The Mystery Play

Sebastian O/Mystery Play by Grant MorrisonSebastian O / The Mystery Play by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the one hand, the best audience for this book might be Morrison completists, those willing to hack through the wilds of the author’s varied oeuvre to find rare specimens and paths not taken.

The 1993 Vertigo miniseries, Sebastian O, originally conceived for Disney’s never-realized adult-comics Touchmark imprint (along with Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo’s similarly queer-themed masterpiece Enigma), reimagines Oscar Wilde as a super-assassin in a steampunk setting. The literary style is an amusing pastiche of fin-de-siècle Aestheticism and Decadence, the amorality of the narrative faithful to its Wildean and Huysmanian inspirations. The art by Steve Yeowell is magnificent when it comes to architecture, but an artist who could have done a tribute to Art Nouveau, similar to what Morrison does with late-Victorian literary style in the narration and dialogue, might have served the project better. All in all, very entertaining, and recommended for all lovers of Wilde and Co.

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Grant Morrison and Jon J. Muth, The Mystery Play

The somber 1994 graphic novel The Mystery Play could not be more different in tone and style. An early Vertigo graphic novel reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s collaborations with Dave McKean, The Mystery Play features a Yorkshire town trying to revitalize by staging medieval mystery plays until the actor playing God is murdered. Enter Detective Frank Carpenter (his flagrantly allegorical name is typical of Morrison’s lack of subtlety here), who begins a hallucinatory investigation into the death of God within the postmodern world. Jon J. Muth’s spectral watercolors are perfect for this graphic novel’s tenuous grip on reality. If Morrison’s allegory is far too transparent (“The house is empty,” says Carpenter, peering into a replica church on a miniature golf course) and his tone too dour, his slowly-paced script and Muth’s haunted paintings are unforgettable, to me anyway. Not subtle enough? Not as zany as Morrison’s other work? Well, I first read this book at some excessively young age, 13 or so, and I fear it permanently affected my sensibility. Zaniness and subtlety are overrated.

So, to finish the thought with which I began, the question of audience: on the other hand, these two projects might work best not so much for fans of Doom Patrol or The Invisibles, but rather for those curious about experimental approaches in the comics medium to the classics of the literary canon.

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Grant Morrison and Chris Weston, The Filth

The FilthThe Filth by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book is full of life—not like a man, but like an ant-heap.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (trans. Peter Winch)

Wittgenstein was a bit of a Tolstoyesque puritan in matters literary—Shakespeare was too wild and dream-like for him—so I imagine he did not mean the above as a compliment. He also lived before developments in microscopy revealed “a man” to be “full of life…like an ant-heap”: the human body is a biome for bacteriological processes constituting much of what we think of as life. In the delirious and ingenious graphic novel The Filth (2002-3), writer Grant Morrison and artist Chris Weston have one of their villains spell it out to the protagonist:

[W]e are only angels weighed down by filth, free of guilt[.] The bacteria in our bellies are responsible for the farts which shame us, tiny monsters shitting in their billions all over our pure skin create the acid reek of “our” sweat. And Slade: when the “inner voices” tell us we’re unworthy or instruct us to “love” and “hate,” despite our best instincts…are these incessant distracting thoughts our own? Or do we only hear the voice of the eternal germ screaming in our heads?

The Filth, like most of Morrison’s work, is essentially impossible to summarize because the story itself is left open to so many interpretations and moreover occurs in multiple realities, at multiple scales, and in multiple genres.

An attempt at a summary would begin like this: a middle-aged English bachelor named Greg Feely lives a lonely life caring for his cat and addicted to porn. One day, via a literal seduction in his bathroom, a mixture of sexuality and scatology that will characterize the book, he is suddenly taken into the world of The Hand. The Hand is a secret police force based in The Crack—a bizarre locale made of toxic landscapes littered with the remains of modern culture and overseen by grotesque science-fictional architecture (“Think of it like you just got swept under the sidewalk of everything you ever knew”).

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The mission of The Hand, with its many occult divisions and its crew of odd personae including communicative dolphins, is the protection of Status Q, or the stasis of health, from the invasion of antigenic disruption in the form of anti-persons: “Ours is the hand that wipes the arse of the world, remember?”

Feely, in his Hand persona as Ned Slade, goes on a series of adventures against these anti-persons, but he remains obsessed with his sense that Feely’s commitments, especially his love of his sick cat Tony, are his real life. Complicating matters further is a sequence of attacks on the Hand by a figure of many guises named Spartacus Hughes, who is devoted to corrupting ostensibly utopian communities (notably a nanotech biome of experimental healers called I-Life and a libertarian seasteading ship) to draw out our heroes.

Is Hughes part of a rebel force that once included Feely? Is Feely’s persona a cover inside a cover for a radical subversive trying to overthrow The Hand’s authority? Or is the whole thing the sick hallucination of a desperate man dying from an overdose on his kitchen floor and envisioning his immune system as a sci-fi body horror nightmare?

Plot-wise, then, as well as in publishing chronology, The Filth picks up where The Invisibles left off. The Invisibles concludes by revealing its anarchist heroes to be involved in a mission not of revolutionary violence but of holistic healing. By the turn of the millennium, Morrison had come to believe in the futility of an adversarial political radicalism that only incites polarization and creates spiraling vortices of violence.

With his cosmic-occult perspective, and inspired by the pop-Hegelianism of Ken Wilber, Morrison advocates an englobalizing perspective that seeks to advance the consciousness of society as a whole by integrating all of its elements, including those considered disgusting, regressive, reactionary, etc. Morrison pursues this insight through the metaphor of inoculation: rather than seek to avoid illness or injury (or their sociopolitical corollaries), he instead sees all evils as necessary goads to immune response and thus future health. Accordingly, in this book, he shifts perspective: we now look out through the eyes of the status-quo defenders rather than the anarchist attackers.

Here Morrison ably exploits the several meanings of the word “filth.” “Filth” includes not only literal dirt and detritus but is also, by conservative social application, a label for society’s and morality’s refuse, both commodities and persons—porn and pornographers, the drug and the dealer.

But “filth” is also, as many commentators note, British slang for “police.” On the one hand this ironic label is linguistic turnabout, a transvaluation of values: the policed—considered “filth” by those tasked with rounding them up—return the compliment by calling the police filthy (cf. “pigs”). On the other hand, labeling the police “filth” is a recognition of the familiar problem in political philosophy—and superhero stories—that to enforce the law might necessarily imply inhabiting a position outside the law. In practical terms, the police and the criminals are drawn from the same social class and, perhaps more importantly, the same personality type, a principle that applies at every level from the beat cop who busts his drug-dealer cousin to the global meetings of the criminal sovereigns who rule the planet.

So it is in The Filth, with the police who populate The Hand coming from the very classes of anti-person they are set out to neutralize. They appear as a company of artistic, sexual misfits somewhat resembling the incipient counterculture prosecuting psychological warfare in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

By taking this socio-political quandary of law’s extralegality to the biological level, Morrison reminds us of the necessity of dirt and disease to the production of health. But “Status Q” should not necessarily be understood as the social and political status quo, as if Morrison wished to preserve forever British life in the early 21st century. In fact, he portrays early 2000s society as deeply damaged, a paranoid and judgmental surveillance state addled by a debilitating mix of permissiveness (that is really exploitation) and an answering puritanism (that is really hatred of the other), each feeding on its opposite.

The Hand exists not to perpetuate this society but to keep it from being destroyed so that the pockets of potential it contains can grow; likewise, The Filth, with its own unsettling tone of cruel comedy and pornographic violence, exposes us to these cultural pathogens only to immunize us against them so that we come to value kindness and beauty instead. (Which isn’t to say that Morrison doesn’t have an enormous amount of illicit fun riffing on porn and its increasingly gonzo 21st-century configurations: “Hear Caroline scream as Mike shoves his eleven-inch dick in…her dad,” Greg reads in a magazine at one point.)

As for utopianism, which by definition rejects ecosystemic wholeness by trying to exaggerate one social element over all others, it takes a thematic beating at the hands of The Filth. Morrison mercilessly mocks libertarianism with the Ballard-like tale of the Libertania, a ship whose crew and passengers are devoted to libertarian principles, that decays first into violent anarchy and then into cultic collectivism. 1960s-style sexual utopianism, of the kind advocated in the nearly contemporaneous (porno)graphic novel Lost Girls written by Morrison’s magical nemesis Alan Moore, is shown to be a thin veneer over a misogynistic reign of terror in the disgusting story of Tex Porneau and his attempt to “fuck Los Angeles.” Marxism appears in the guise of a Hand member named Dmitri, a nihilistic talking money cosmonaut who assassinated JFK and who speaks an amusing patois of scatology and midcentury Soviet jargon; this is perhaps an allegory of a debased materialism, though another way to read it from animal-lover Morrison’s POV is as a destructive distortion of animal life.filth3

It is The Filth itself that circumscribes and transcends all these reductions; they are parts of a whole no one of them can perceive alone. The Filth is moreover a metafiction. Among other things, The Hand is involved in harvesting ink from a pen grasped by a giant severed hand in The Crack; with this ink, they create a Paperverse, a 2D micro-world based on superhero comics, which they use as a concept farm by cruelly manipulating the the characters. One of the heroes escapes into the 3D world of The Crack, but is deformed, mentally and physically, but the pressures of the transition. We, too, of course, are reading a 2D ink universe characterized by cruelty, and Morrison asks to reflect on what damage may ensue in turn.

Toward the end of The Filth, the hand holding the pen appears to be that of Greg Feely, fallen in an overdose to his kitchen floor and seeing as he dies not The Crack but the microword of bacteria in the scum of the garbage can he knocked over. The Crack is just our world, reproduced by the hand of the artist.

More promising, as the foil of the Paperverse, is the nano-tech world of the I-Life at first manipulated to dystopia by Spartacus Hughes but by the end of the book a force of healing and regeneration. Morrison clearly points, by counterposing the enlightened I-Life to the superheroic Paperverse, toward a more humane conception of comics’s most characteristic genre and of the arts in general. Just before the book’s beautiful ending, when Greg, bearing the I-Life, walks around his neighborhood, suddenly overrun with flowers, as a healer, we read in a mysterious word balloon:

Only humans could make something kinder and better than themselves that makes them smarter than God in my opinion

But Morrison is clear that the way to make a kinder and better world is not through the path of world-making historical violence posited by the revolutionary cell that created Spartacus Hughes. It is rather Greg Feely who points the way:

Greg takes care of the little things; he feeds the birds and buries them when they get hit by buses. He gives them a bit of dignity.

The meaning is encoded in their very names: Spartacus vs. Feely, or the revolutionary vs. the sentimentalist. Orwell, contrasting Dickens with Marx, lays out the conflict in his essay, “Charles Dickens”:

I said earlier that Dickens is not in the accepted sense a revolutionary writer. But it is not at all certain that a merely moral criticism of society may not be just as ‘revolutionary’ — and revolution, after all, means turning things upside down as the politico-economic criticism which is fashionable at this moment. […] Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem — how to prevent power from being abused — remains unsolved.

It still does. But precisely because Morrison urges us not to take sides and only to “take care of the little things,” it is clear which side of the moralist vs. revolutionary debate he takes. Around the time he was writing The Filth, Morrison was discussing the attractions of what he called “Zen Fascism” (see his graphic novel Marvel Boy); but that was, I think, just a shock tactic. His politics might be more aptly defined as (while we’re inventing labels) “sentimental anarcho-moderation.”

filth4Or “sentimental atheist-feminist anarcho-moderation,” because, when Greg finally takes his complaints to the top of The Hand and confronts its boss, Mother Dirt, another dimension of meaning appears. The orchestrator of The Filth‘s universe, pictured as a columnar tangle of egesta and tendrils and tumors, is not the transcendent and bodiless male intelligence posited by monotheism (arguably the source of all global radicalisms from Marxism to libertarianism) but rather the material and in this case fecal female body monotheism has always scorned, as in Augustine’s famous encapsulation of maternal anatomy: “We are born between piss and shit.” When Greg holds up a pile of excrement to her and asks the oldest question of theodicy, this dialogue ensues:
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GREG: What am I supposed to do with this?

MOTHER DIRT: Spread it on your flowers, Greg.

The Filth is a brilliant work, a self-contained and tonally-consistent fictional world with all the authority and confusion of a dream even as its manifold relevance to our own world is clear. Weston’s meticulous art and Morrison’s idea-laden dialogue holds attention to each panel and page despite the puzzlement of the plot, which never quite comes clear even after several readings.

A formalist analysis of the storytelling style would note that Weston’s layouts, full of bleeds, images overrunning panel borders, and panels overlapping other panels, literally fails to contain the story; it is a riot of imagery bursting out of the frames that would encompass it. Every inch of the pages is full of ink, full of life. Form meets function.

But this dizzying style of narration makes the book all the more difficult to read, if in an amusingly and dazzlingly disorienting way. The Filth is not meant to be clear: it is a defense of mess and murk, a brief for their necessity if we want to build up our strength, and the artistic/literary corollary of mess and murk might just be difficulty. Morrison and Weston create a number of readerly obstacles, from flagrantly nasty content to confusingly non-linear form, but they, in making us run this obstacle course with them, hope to make us healthier. The introduction to the graphic novel edition is written as a parody of prescription instructions; it contains this admonition, which might be the motto of every serious artist and writer:

Metaphor is one of a group of problem-solving medicines known as figures of speech which are normally used to treat literal thinking and other diseases.

“Scale’s the next big frontier,” we read in the final chapter. The Filth is all about scale. Faithful to the occultist’s axiom, “As above, so below,” Morrison pursues the story and its themes at every level from the infinite to the infinitesimal. Taking leave of the postmodern problem that we don’t know what’s real, The Filth treats everything as real, and every real thing a metaphor for every other real thing, and all necessary to the whole. That is the essence of its intelligence, why it might be, as the blurb from The Comics Journal on the back of the book says, “the best thing Morrison has ever written.”

Unlike The Invisibles or Doom Patrol, though, The Filth doesn’t really contain characters. Plenty of archetypes and stereotypes, but no rounded personalities for us to fall in love with or care for. Our affection, like Greg’s, mainly goes toward the cat. This needn’t be seen as a flaw; not every “graphic novel” has to be a “novel” in the conventional sense. The Filth is a spy and superhero adventure story infected with body horror and black comedy and told as a luridly-lit porno-cum-modernist-poem. When it ends by praising humanity for being able to transcend itself morally through its creations, even as we are the creations of the germs that populate us, it elevates kindness and care by demoting humanity as such. The Filth is alive like an ant-heap, and so are we.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Grant Morrison, The Invisibles

The InvisiblesThe Invisibles by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This will be a pitch. You should read The Invisibles. Certainly those of you who have been reading some of the other things I write about here: not only Alan Moore, but also Herman Melville, James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Grant’s alt-universe sister, Toni Morrison.

I had not read The Invisibles all the way through since about 2001 or 2002. I assumed, because it was so timely, almost reading at moments like a journal Morrison was keeping about 1990s cultural trends, that it could not possibly hold up. But rereading it over the last month, I was surprised to find that its time has come round at last. So what is The Invisibles? Why should you read it?

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First, its author: Grant Morrison, a Glaswegian working-class magician, punk, and failed pop star, became one of the most notable writers of American comics during the late-1980s British Invasion. He wrote a metafictional treatment of Animal Man and an avant-garde superhero saga in Doom Patrol; most consequentially on the material plane, he wrote the delirious Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, which, coinciding with Burton’s Batman movie of 1989, made him rich. He traveled the world, took all the drugs he had theretofore avoided, got abducted by aliens in Kathmandu in 1994, had the secrets of the universe explained to him, and began a new creator-owned series for DC Comics’s adult Vertigo imprint about a cell of anarchist terrorists called The Invisibles who war against evil insectoid Archons bent on controlling the world.

Morrison’s series begins when The Invisibles need to add a new fifth agent to their cell, which consists of the glamorously violent Englishman, King Mob; the fragile psychic waif Ragged Robin; the former New York City cop, Boy; and a trans magician from Brazil, Lord Fanny. This quarter tries to recruit a Liverpudlian teenaged delinquent named Dane MacGowan, who may be a new Buddha.

The 1500+ pages of the series narrate how Dane’s becoming an Invisible coincides with the mounting crises leading first to the millennium and then to 2012. On this date, humanity is due to ascend into what Morrison calls “the Supercontext,” or a matured experience of spacetime as an integrated simultaneous totality to which terms like good and evil will not apply. invisibles2.pngEarly in the series, Morrison reveals that what looked like a “war” in the first few chapters, a cliched fight between rebels and empire, is in fact a “rescue mission.” Images of medicine and midwifery abound: our heroes aim not to kill but to cure and to convert the enemy, to turn the enemy into a friend. Evil is just misrecognized good, usually misrecognized by itself.

While The Invisibles is, in practice, about as didactic as I’ve made it sound, its moral is nonetheless dramatized through a compelling and often very moving story: it is the tale of Dane’s growth from aimless violence to supernal serenity; of King Mob’s seduction by and then weaning from the habitual practice of brutality; of Boy’s quest for revenge against the racist powers-that-be who murdered both of her brothers and her slow realization, like Dane’s and King Mob’s, that force is not the solution; of Fanny’s endless initiation into her family’s matriarchal magical practice; and of Ragged Robin’s (bear with me here) composition of much of the tale we’re reading in a sensory deprivation tank in 2005 and her subsequent (or is it?) travel through time. invisibles3.png

(Time travel is an important image for Morrison, since the time-suit Robin uses to navigate the temporal rapids is just a picture of ourselves as we would look sub specie aeternitatis, not only an extensive body but an unfolded life.)

There is more to the story even than the above, though, since Morrison creates an expansive and global story with a multitude of characters. He affectingly tells villains’ tales. The rueful story of a foot soldier shot by King Mob in the first chapter even becomes a kind of moral compass for the series and is the first episode in which we hear, albeit garbled, the crucial advice to call on the Buddha of compassion. Then there is Sir Miles Delacourt, an occultist who succumbs to the lust for power and control precisely because he, as he belatedly understands, lacks the compassion urged upon us at intervals throughout the whole epic.

Most movingly is the story of Quimper, a character who first appears as a nightmare villain; I might compare him to Robert Blake’s character from Lynch’s Lost Highway. Yet we learn that he was originally a kind of angel fallen into our dimension of matter and tortured and abused until he became evil. His plaintive whisper, “Once I was a little light,” is for me the most moving line in the whole series (because weren’t we all?), and the climax of his tale, wherein he is redeemed by a kiss, saved by love, is the climax of Morrison’s evolving ethics.

Morrison recommends an evolution beyond politics, beyond violence, beyond us vs. them. This, like postmodernism in general (or even Romanticism in general), might be described as the internal conservative critique of the radical left: a warning of where the way of Robespierre and Lenin leads. (Hence the unsoundness of now-fashionable pronouncements that postmodernism is “cultural Marxism.” It would make far more sense to call it “cultural anti-Marxism”!)

Early in the narrative, The Invisibles travel back to the French Revolution and meet the Marquis de Sade as Byron and the Shelleys debate freedom and necessity. Sade is the hero of this tale insofar as his epics of degradation allegorize reason at its limit and thus tell the truth about the revolution’s sadism, while Percy Shelley’s idealism is humbled by the suffering of his family. At the end of the book, Sade reappears as a kind of Wilhelm Reich figure, trying to engineer sexual liberation, and he is rebuked in his turn for what we can only assume is a lack of love by another of the series’s heroes, Lady Edith Manning. Edith is an occultist of the modernist era who meets King Mob in 1988 and then later (yes, later: time travel, remember) in 1924. Morrison historicizes his own aesthetics when he shows the future to have begun with modernism, even though he already showed it to have begun in 1792. Every era that opens itself to change prepares the way into the supercontext. King Mob tells Edith to tell Robin to call on Buddha, a message intercepted in infancy by the soldier King Mob kills, a plea for peace echoing through time and unheeded until the conclusion.

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My pitch so far has been narrative and thematic, but what about aesthetics? How is this as a reading experience? I won’t, like other ad-men, lie to you: the quality is uneven, for reasons that have everything to do with the exigencies of comic-book serial publishing. The Invisibles has a revolving cast of artists, wildly distinct in quality, and even two different letterers, one of whom is the comics legend Todd Klein and the other of whom is, putting it politely, not.

Because Morrison writes in such various tones and moods, from Pythonesque farce to Lovecraftian horror, and even parodies with Joycean aplomb a host of comics storytelling styles, it is not necessarily a problem to have multiple artists. It only detracts from the book when they are not all as good as Jill Thompson, Phil Jimenez, and Frank Quitely, who are the standout artists of the series’s three main divisions. Thompson’s sketchy somberness matches the brooding tone of the first third, Jimenez’s superhero art via fashion spread echoes the middle third’s themes of the temptations of glamor and violence, and Quitely’s lived-in Eurocomics futurism makes for a plausible conclusion in 2012. The rest of the many artists aren’t bad, and in fact Chris Weston is in his way positively good (though more appropriate, because disgustingly inappropriate, for Morrison’s later work, The Filth); but they aren’t quite up to realizing Morrison’s extraordinary literary ambition.

The narrative, as well, is spread too thin in places: whatever anxiety of influence Morrison is working out with regard to British detective TV shows of the 1970s is lost on me and feels like an absurdly lengthy digression, for instance, though maybe it works better for British readers. In general, Morrison writes in a kind of cut-up style, raining content down on readers’ heads in what sometimes feels like random order, much of it cynical and ugly, and half the addictive pleasure (and I’ve always found Morrison a very addictive writer) is sorting through it all to find the moving lyrical grace notes that occur and then recur: the story’s threads, heart-red, binding it internally even when it seems to be a meaningless collage. Hence my recommendation for fans of Pynchon and Joyce. For all that, though, a tighter narrative might not have been amiss, especially when without it great characters like Boy and Robin disappear for far too many pages.

All that said, I will, speaking only for myself, never understand people who think the recent spate of “literary” graphic novels from Chris Ware to Richard McGuire is the best the medium has to offer when they don’t seem aware that something like this, which recreates the whole universe to explain it anew, even exists. The Invisibles has not been without influence, but its influence has been too confined to an in-crowd and coterie, and their recent productions (I have sampled some of the Young Animal material as well as the works of Aleš Kot) seem to me like the attempts of a later generation to recapitulate an artistic revolution without having thought through whatever made it necessary in the first place and without trying to make their own advance; Victorian poets in relation to Romantics, for example. Whatever the equivalent of The Invisibles in the present or future will look like, it will probably not look all that much like The Invisibles, except that it will be audacious and irresistible and a mess. But maybe this is too harsh; I leave it to you to decide.

Let’s end with politics. The Invisibles is a story about the necessity and irrelevance or immorality of revolution. It is also about conspiracy theories. I have not emphasized the latter enough yet, but Morrison does explain in the course of his book what crashed at Roswell and why the establishment killed Princess Di, among other things. Perhaps “this hasn’t aged well,” as the Twitterati like to say. Aren’t conspiracy theories the province of the MAGA/Brexit crowd nowadays? Doesn’t the present state of things necessitate a redoubled attempt at revolution?

One Youtube personality who began on the left and who now retails exegeses of QAnon flatters his audience by hailing them as “the conspiratorium clerisy.” He is friends, moreover, with Roseanne Barr, herself an adept of the same baffling oracle. On Roseanne in the mid-1990s, an Invisibles poster hung on Darlene’s bedroom wall, just as one was taped to my own. Who could have foreseen where we’d all end up? Then again, The Invisibles hasn’t aged a day, give or take a Kula Shaker reference; it is odd to read a book prophesying a future that is now past, when its depiction of the past as a time of befuddling and agitated complexity still feels like the present, only a bit heightened, a bit degraded, and, for now, less optimistic. “Future proves past” after all.

invisibles7What if the comrades are correct and the simultaneity of time is not a timeless philosophical proposition but just a description of cultural arrest under the reign of the corporation? At the conclusion of The Invisibles, King Mob prepares the way for our ascension to the supercontext by the release of a game that is, transparently, The Invisibles itself. The allegory is plain, and Morrison in interviews made it clearer: we can get free not by fighting the power but by becoming the power. While the Battle of Seattle raged, our author told us to enter the boardroom rather than fighting in the street. He was surely wrong—I think we see this now—to imagine liberation through the counterculture’s seizure of corporate control, to bank everything on feedback rather than opposition; this countercultural control is what has happened, and the results are mixed to poor, with liberal democracy hollowed out by Silicon businessmen and frightful insurgencies rising in reaction. DC Comics, in any case, isn’t publishing any new stuff this interesting, unless I’m missing something.

invisibles8On the other hand, the comrades must be wrong, or else shooting one’s way out of this problem would have worked the last hundred times it’s been tried. If you fight the forces of repression, you become repressive; this is not a childish moral equivalence but a description of reality. War itself is the ultimate force of repression. Promulgators of salvation-through-arms from Marxists to neoconservatives rage so fiercely against “moral equivalence,” in fact, because acts that are phenomenally equivalent often are morally equivalent. It isn’t better or more justified when we do it, unless there is no such thing as universal ethics and/or unless they are not people. (This need not be a strictly pacifist credo, just an ethically rigorous one when it comes to violence of all kinds.) Despite superficial dissimilarities, Albert Camus is an author very like Morrison in that both oddly end up redescribing anarchism as the essence of political moderation; as the philosopher explains in The Rebel, once you have embraced a politics that postpones the ethical until after the millennium you are, for all practical purposes, already committed to the guillotine and the gulag.

Morrison makes this point not didactically, but through narrative structure: he first incites the reader to swoon at King Mob’s reign of terror by having it surrounded by pop culture and erotic imagery, all conveyed through Jimenez’s deliriously slick linework. But eventually we are repulsed and learn to love the arts of peace: King Mob becomes defined as Robin’s lover more than as a lone assassin, and we thereby find ourselves rooting for love not war. Such an investment in the personal pries us from our desire to be members of anybody’s clerisy. Horizontal, not vertical relations. “Once I was a little light.” How to be so again? Morrison mistook the economic for something other than war by other means (and I am sufficiently non-doctrinaire to think the question remains open, though I am also hostile to corporate monopolies and see no salvation whatsoever coming from that quarter). But he had the end (as in purpose) right, and was moreover correct in his warning that violent means will corrupt the end itself.

“Edith says to call on Buddha”: the moral buried in the heart of this vast, exhausting crypt and cryptogram, like those similarly encoded/entombed in the labyrinths and pleas for peace crafted/coded/cried by Joyce and Pynchon: “Love, says Bloom”; “They are in love. Fuck the war.” If that does not make you want to read The Invisibles, I don’t know what will.

invisibles9

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Moto Hagio, The Heart of Thomas

The Heart of ThomasThe Heart of Thomas by Moto Hagio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Consider two articles published within the last week. In one, Marie Doezema explains the role played by the philosophers of 1968, who tutored several generations of intellectuals (including my own), in legitimizing pedophilia in late-twentieth-century France:

After May 1968, French intellectuals would challenge the state’s authority to protect minors from sexual abuse. In one prominent example, on January 26, 1977, Le Monde, a French newspaper, published a petition signed by the era’s most prominent intellectuals—including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze, Roland Barthes, Philippe Sollers, André Glucksmann and Louis Aragon—in defense of three men on trial for engaging in sexual acts with minors. “French law recognizes in 13- and 14-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish,” the petition stated, “But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned.” Furthermore, the signatories argued, children and adolescents have the right to a sexual life: “If a 13-year-old girl has the right to take the pill, what is it for?”

Meanwhile, Katie Herzog observes that an opposite but also repellent phenomenon transpired in late-twentieth-century America, the Satanic panic, a broad and largely baseless outbreak of social paranoia over widespread ritual child abuse, fueled by religious fundamentalism and pop-psychology:

In total, the recovered memories and satanic ritual abuse phenomenon lasted for about 15 years. At the time, Talmadge says, questioning the dominant narrative was akin to heresy. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence backing up these claims; everyone believed, and those who didn’t largely kept quiet.

Looking back on it now, it seems almost impossible that millions of Americans would blindly believe that satanic cults were stealing away with kids during the night, but this was not the first strange wave to hit the U.S., nor will it be the last. From the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare, moral panics, as they are frequently called, pop up.

In these two episodes from recent history, we see an almost comic fidelity to national stereotypes: the French intelligentsia advocates troublingly amoral libertinage, while the American populace loses its collective head over the threat of witches’ sabbaths and black masses. And both of these stories take on a new relevance today, with the just exposure of sexual abuses, and the potential for this exposure to overreach and become unjust, consuming so much of our cultural attention. Is there any way out of this impasse, any intelligent and humane approach to the complexities of desire, any safe course to chart between the Marquis de Sade and Cotton Mather?

All of these questions came to my mind as I read a brilliant, thought-provoking, and troubling masterpiece of a graphic novel from beyond the borders of the U.S. or France. Moto Hagio’s The Heart of Thomas is a manga that was serialized in the early 1970s and published in an official English translation (by Rachel Matt Thorn) by Fantagraphics in 2013. As a work of shojo manga, it was addressed to an audience of adolescent girls. A complex and melodramatic tale of love in a German boys’ boarding school, The Heart of Thomas is widely credited with beginning the “boys’ love” subgenre of manga, as this Atlantic article explains:

The Heart of Thomas is, in fact, one of the seminal works in the boys’ love subgenre of shojo manga (manga for girls). Boys’ love manga are manga that feature male homosexual romance, written (mostly) by women, (mostly) for women. Today in Japan, the genre is well established and popular…

The Heart of Thomas opens with the suicide of a student named Thomas Werner. He has killed himself due to anguish over his unrequited love for his classmate, the dark-haired prefect and perfect student, Juli; Juli is desired in turn by his roommate Oskar (a clear Wilde analogue), as well as by a host of underclassmen. Complications ensue when a transfer student, Erich, arrives at the school—Erich, it happens, could be Thomas’s twin, and much of the plot depends on suspense over whether or not the tragic missed connection between Juli and a smitten classmate will replay itself.

Along the way—and a long way it is, at a novelistically satisfying 500+ pages—a host of psychological and symbolic complexities present themselves, from Erich’s oedipal attachment to his mother (he wears an engagement ring in her honor) to the cruel abuse Juli has suffered at the sadistic hands of the rebel-atheist upperclassman Siegfried (his Wagnerian name echoing the fascist racism of Juli’s other abuser, his grandmother, who scorns him for his Greek patrimony and dark hair). While the narrative is melodramatic and theatrical, it also manages to be measured in pace, with languid adolescent yearning its dominant affect. Hagio creates a little world, an Occidentalist fantasia of European queerness, and lets her cast wander through it, and through their own psyches, on their own time; the effect is absorbing and mesmerizing.

But what can it all mean? The Heart of Thomas in particular and boys’ love in general has no corollary that I know of in contemporaneous American pop culture, comics or otherwise (and it should be said that American comics of the same period, mainstream or underground, offer nothing to my mind as long or complex as what Hagio accomplishes here). The aforementioned Atlantic article concludes that boys’ love manga allows its young female audience a panoply of potential identification beyond what was customarily allowed girls:

The boys’ love genre, then, freed Hagio and her audience to cross and recross boundaries of identity, sexuality, and gender. The reader can be both sexual aggressor and victim; both self and other; both gay and straight; both male and female. Bodies and character flicker in and out, a sequence of surfaces, tied together less by narrative than by the heightened emotions of melodrama—jealousy, anger, trauma, desire, friendship, and love in the heart of Thomas.

Likewise, James Welker, in a 2006 article for the feminist journal Signs, theorizes thusly:

Nonetheless, through…the deliberate ambiguity of the beautiful boy, the reader is encouraged to see not just a girl but herself within the world of boys’ love and, ultimately, is encouraged to explore homoerotic desire, either as a beautiful boy or as herself, either alone or with others, either as her fantasy or as her reality.

In support of these theses in feminist and queer theory, I note that Hagio draws on the traditions of aestheticism and decadence, especially in the decorative splash pages that introduce each chapter, each reminiscent of Beardsley, Mucha, and the Jugendstil movement. Images of angels and roses abound; when Erich learns his mother has died, he is pictured, Sebastian-wise, with a breast full of arrows.

All this classic queer iconography aside, though, The Heart of Thomas feels like a book of great chastity, a word several other Goodreads users have astutely used—a work almost of asexuality. It is Platonic in the most literal sense as Juli comes to understand his physical attraction toward the base and brutalizing humanist Siegfried as a fall into sexual degradation, while his love for the ethereal beauty of Thomas/Erich is in fact a desire for the good as such. Hence the book’s denouement: he becomes a priest, espoused not to man but to God. In what I take to be an explicit allusion to the Phaedrus, Juli even describes what his abuse by Siegfried has cost him as his wings, and he moreover says that he sees all the children in the school as bearing invisible wings, just like the soul as Socrates describes it to his young disciple in the course of his caution against the consummation of desire between men, between tutor and pupil:

Ten thousand years must elapse before the soul of each one can return to the place from whence she came, for she cannot grow her wings in less; only the soul of a philosopher, guileless and true, or the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy, may acquire wings in the third of the recurring periods of a thousand years; he is distinguished from the ordinary good man who gains wings in three thousand years:-and they who choose this life three times in succession have wings given them, and go away at the end of three thousand years.

Juli has “the soul of a lover, who is not devoid of philosophy,” i.e., an orientation toward the ideal, and so we can presume that his metaphorical wings are budding again by the novel’s final sequence. The Heart of Thomas is in this way not about desire or gender or sexuality at all, but about eros at its most abstract, even eros at the very threshold of agápē, give or take a stolen kiss in the dark.hagio1

I am not the only critic to come to the conclusion of spiritual asexuality in the case of Thomas, according to Welker, by the way, and he diagnoses us as suffering from “lesbian panic”:

In spite of the connections drawn on the pages of these magazines, the possibility that these narratives might be seen to actually depict homosexuality remains broadly denied. To allow that the narratives might truly be about homosexuality—between these girls-cum- beautiful boys—would be an apparently unthinkable invitation to read the narratives as lesbian.

While I take the point, and also appreciate the rhetorical necessity for a queer-affirmative cultural politics to redeploy the language of pathology against its pathologizing enemies, I also reserve the right to query the secular sacralization of the sexual as such, whether straight or gay or bi, our total commitment to desublimating love into desire in every last circumstance, even when confronted with narratives that plainly have metaphysical or spiritual aims, as Hagio’s narrative does.

The Heart of Thomas, therefore, is one answer to the question with which I began: how to address eros artistically, in all its gender and age complications, without either foreclosing complexity (like American puritans) or promoting exploitation (like French libertines). This masterful piece of fluid comics storytelling, visual beauty, and literary artistry, charts the middle way with consummate intelligence. Hagio’s spiritual flight burns the unseemly out of the book; what could have been disturbing—an adult’s erotic reverie over the entanglement of early adolescence, perhaps as commended by the philosophers of cultural revolution—becomes a hymn about the journey of every soul amid the violence of time, desire, and death. And because these latter inevitabilities are unflinchingly acknowledged in the story, Hagio’s work is as free from puritanism as it is from libertinism. The Heart of Thomas is a book of and about love.

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Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

Watchmen: The Annotated EditionWatchmen: The Annotated Edition by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[The following essay is divided into two parts: my critical analysis of Watchmen in general, and then a review of this particular edition, a black-and-white oversized hardcover reprint with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger. If you want my assessment of this edition right away, please scroll down to the image dividing this post in two.]

Should Watchmen be the only superhero graphic novel on your syllabus? My own answer is a qualified “yes.” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1986-7 serial-turned-graphic-novel brings a European perspective as well as the techniques and the politics of the postmodern novel to this quintessentially American pop culture phenomenon.

But it is possible to overrate Watchmen on the question of its revision to the superhero archetype, as most actual superhero devotees will point out: at every moment in the history of the genre, from Superman’s disruption of domestic violence and US imperialism in his very first appearance in 1938 to Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s 1960s road trip to the polysemous queerness of Marvel’s mutants in their grand-soap-opera phase of the 1970s and ’80s, writers and artists have always brought a political awareness and a critical edge to their ambiguous narratives of characters who try to align morality with power in an often hostile, corrupt society.

Moore and Gibbons, though, carry their revision of the superhero to the point of metafiction. In Watchmen‘s world, men and women become costumed vigilantes because they are influenced by comic books, just as Don Quixote becomes a knight-errant because he is influenced by chivalric romances. In both cases, the results are the same: the heroic idealism our heroes picked up from their reading matter gets besmirched by the mud and blood of the actual: their sublimated motives, their desires for sex and power, cannot be fully repressed. Moore, like Cervantes, shows heroic idealism to be determined and constricted by material circumstance. (Is it a coincidence that the two works often hailed as the first great novel and the first great graphic novel make this same de-idealizing critical gesture?)

Watchmen‘s ultimate joke in this vein occurs when an actual super-powered being appears in its world, the atomic demigod Dr. Manhattan, and immediately enters the service of the US government at the height of the Cold War as a kind of superior nuclear weapon. With more secular critical tools at his disposal than Cervantes had —Marx’s attack on ideology, Nietzsche’s insistence on power, Freud’s exposé of desire, and the broad second-wave feminist awareness of misogyny—Moore is able to reveal the material underpinning of the genre by political and sexual realities. This move to the meta is what sets Watchmen apart from most prior critical superhero comics (an avowed precursor, Kurtzman and Wood’s “Superduperman” of 1953, excepted).

Moreover, it is not possible to overrate Watchmen as a work of formalist genius. Aesthetically, Watchmen is inflected not only by the social critique of prior European rebels—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud—but also and more so by that of America’s own artistic counterculture too, the nightside to Stan Lee’s Silver Age New Frontier optimism, as found in Moore’s admired forerunners Burroughs and Pynchon. Like these writers, Moore insists upon the dense layering of narrative information, the elaborate use of symbolism and motifs, and the deliberate deployment of carefully contrived structures. Watchmen‘s nine-panel grid page layout is a kind of poetic meter, allowing the reader to keep time in this time-obsessed novel. Within the grid, Moore and Gibbons set up a limited series of repeating images—the smiley face, the bloodstain, the pyramid, the clock, the Hiroshima lovers, mirrors and reflections, and more—which turn the book into the very clockwork that is one of its images for itself. All the pieces move in concert.

Yet Watchmen is also a critique of linear, measurable time: comics, unlike cinema, does not progress in time but rather in space. In fact, it turns time into space. Watchmen is as much a metafictional reflection on its medium as on its message: Dr. Manhattan’s perception of time as a simultaneous object in space is instantiated on the comics page when Moore and Gibbons tell Dr. Manhattan’s story as a discontinuous and non-linear array of panels that are chronologically displaced but artistically placed perfectly. When Ozymandias compares his multi-screen TV viewing to Burroughs’s cut-up technique—both of them like comics in that they spatialize and juxtapose multiple information channels—Moore can be heard defending comics as an avant-garde artform, superior to film or literature as a way of halting time and inspecting the clockwork of the universe.

Across multiple dimensions, then—political, sexual, and aesthetic—Watchmen presents itself as the return of America’s repressed. If there is always an element of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement in such a gesture (doesn’t this go to explain the always worrisome appeal of Marx and Nietzsche not only to rebel poets but to totalitarian dictators?), Moore’s postmodern sense of the limits to knowledge save him from this trap.

For what we find when we inspect the universal clockwork is far more chaos and mess than the deists promised. Consider the bravura chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry,” a chiasmus wherein each page echoes its counterpart across the divide formed by the middle of the issue (the “staple” to avid comics readers). Yet, as a critic on the Internet long ago pointed out in a reference I can no longer find, this is not the middle of Watchmen itself; being twelve chapters long, with each chapter of equivalent length, Watchmen has no narrative middle or center—its middle is a gap or absence. There may be fearful symmetry, but no perfect symmetry. Likewise, chief among the novel’s motifs is the smiley face with a bloodstain occluding one eye: what could be a better image for the human disorder that prevents ideal happiness and obstructs symmetrical vision?

Are all of these themes within the control of our watchmaker-authors? I suspect not. Famously, the character of Rorschach slipped out of Moore’s control: meant to be a caricature of a right-wing lunatic, Rorschach grows into much the most complex character as we explore the traumas that made him who he is and watch him deepen and change; think of the astonishing silent panel in chapter 10 wherein he plainly recognizes his own plight in that of his landlady and her children and ceases to threaten them. Moore and Gibbons themselves palpably come to admire Rorschach more, and to mute his worser tendencies, thus creating their most compelling character.

Rorschach’s ethical stature is helped by the fact that the book’s villain, Ozymandias, is its ostensible spokesman for the political left. His technocratic utilitarian utopianism is presented without passion or charisma, as a fervorless murderous calculus redolent of fascism, just as his plan to stop the deaths of millions by killing hundreds of thousands participates in the very brutal logic of the nuclear planners. For a book plainly intended as a left-wing critique, Watchmen gathers itself into an essentially Burkean argument—or would Moore just want to see it as anarchist, Pynchonian?—against any and all centralized control schemes and systems, even in the best of causes.

More troublingly, Watchmen‘s emblem of what man cannot control is woman. At the narrative level, this expresses itself controversially in Sally Jupiter’s relationship with The Comedian, which begins in rape and progresses to love. As verisimilitude, this might be persuasive: that Sally could respond in such a way to The Comedian is possible given her class, generation, and character; her daughter, possessed of a post-feminist consciousness, would certainly not have made such a choice. At the symbolic level, Moore gives us multiple images of the vagina dentata (initially pictured on an activist poster advertising “Gay Women Against Rape”), culminating in the genital visage of the “alien” that attacks New York at the novel’s climax. Moore’s figuration of ungovernable reality quite simply takes the form of the feminine, even the monstrous feminine. (It should be said that Moore pursues the same argument consciously, and thus more critically and humanely, in From Hell.)

Watchmen would not be as compelling as it is were it merely cynical about human possibility. Rorschach’s unforgettable nihilism—

The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

—is answered in the book, as in the balance of Rorschach’s life, by a commendation of kindness. The symbolic bloodstain is not merely the effluvium of the murdered but corresponds to another of the novel’s motifs, the Hiroshima lovers—the shadowed shape of lovers embracing left by the atomic flash. These two images converge at the conclusion of chapter 11 when two minor characters both named Bernie—an old man who runs a corner newsstand and a young man who frequents said stand to read comic books—run into each other’s arms as New York is destroyed. The ultimate force that spoils symmetry, that runs to excess, that can never be calculated, is love.

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 1.36.41 PM
Now to the matter of Leslie S. Klinger’s annotations and the overall quality of this edition. I confess I find it promising but disappointing.

First of all, there aren’t enough annotations: sometimes pages pass without Klinger’s comment. This is an expensive book, and most people (like me!) will be buying it as a second copy of a work they already own, so in this case a lapse in quantity—of the one extra item justifying this book’s existence and expense—is a lapse in quality.

Second, Klinger’s annotations seem arbitrary: for instance, at times he will explain the provenance and context of each chapter’s epigraph extensively, as with Blake (chapter 5) or Jung (chapter 9), while he has little to say about others (e.g., the Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello quotations from chapters 1 and 2). Why does the idiom “see you in the funny pages” get a long annotation, while “here’s looking at you, kid” goes without a gloss? Klinger shrewdly notes that AIDS seems not to exist in Watchmen‘s world, without explaining that Ozymandias probably prevented its spread, as is subtly implied in the prose supplement to chapter 11. He mentions Woodward and Bernstein early on, without observing that The Comedian is intimated to have murdered them in chapter 9. Etc.

Third, there are a handful of errors, some just typos (“thtink” “Alan Ginsburg”) and one fairly egregious mistake of interpretation (he confuses a reference in chapter 8 to the Nuremberg rallies for an allusion to the Nuremberg trials, thus reversing the import of one line of dialogue). I generally incline toward forgiveness on these matters—we all make mistakes. But then again, we aren’t all charging fifty dollars for them in the form of what ought to be a scholarly text!

Fourth, Klinger often provides contextual information without showing any consideration for how Moore or Gibbons might have come by their facts and ideas; annotations to canonical literature—to Milton, say, or Joyce or Pynchon—will not just gloss the author’s allusions but will often comment on where the authors acquired their learning, precisely because these means of transmission make an interpretive difference. Now Moore refused to collaborate on this book, and he is not a long-dead author whose papers and personal library can be accessed by a researcher, which makes the aforementioned task of interpretation more difficult. Still, it could be useful and informative to speculate: for example, can’t we be reasonably certain that Moore learned about Kitty Genovese from Harlan Ellison’s “Whimper of Whipped Dogs”? and isn’t that a case of literary allusion, itself in need of a gloss, as much as of historical reference?

On the other hand, I thought of including the fact that Klinger at times editorializes (as when he defends expenditures on space exploration from the “Whitey on the Moon”-style argument made in Watchmen itself) as a flaw, and I even considered making a nasty remark about Charles Kinbote, but on reflection I think Klinger’s incorporation of his own views and sensibility actually makes the book richer and more various—in short, more fun to read. If anything, I might have preferred more of it, just as I would prefer more of the annotations generally.

Likewise, Klinger’s quotations from Moore’s notoriously verbose scripts (still in Gibbons’s possession) are very entertaining, as is his charting of the book’s repeating motifs (smiley faces and the Hiroshima couple especially); he also catches a few important allusions, particularly a near-climactic one to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that I had never noticed, and that expand the novel’s range of reference.

Finally, I was at first put off by the subtraction of John Higgins’s coloring from this book’s reproduction of the artwork. Higgins’s palette does so much to set the book’s tone, and, more broadly, color should no more be regarded as detachable from comics than music should be from film. Even so, everyone will come away from this book with a new appreciation for Dave Gibbon’s work, his incredible deep-focus, his delicate brushwork, his enchanting braid of three dissimilar elements—US Silver Age superhero art, European ligne claire, and a ruthless gritty de-idealizing sensibility that, though it has antecedents (Wood’s “Superduperman,” Ditko’s Spider-Man), is largely his own.

All in all, Watchmen: The Annotated Edition is the kernel of a great book, but I wonder if it would be too much to hope that future editions of this particular text might add more material, expanding on Klinger’s qualities and correcting its flaws.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!

Back to School: Literature Springs Eternal

springbooks

Most of my reading matter for the spring semester is above. (You can find the syllabi here.) As with ordering from a new and affordable menu, the digestive organ may be too small for the appetite: in other words, perhaps too many books! Extracurricularly, I am currently reading a long, dense book, Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March (1953). In the midst of it, Bellow’s hero, acquainting himself with literature, history, philosophy, and science, dispenses with forced reading, such as school might require:

I never blamed myself for throwing aside such things as didn’t let themselves be read with fervor, for they left nothing with me anyhow…

You’ll never get too far into an immense, plotless, sometimes even aimless, willfully stylized, and at times utterly wearying (also at times breathtaking) picaresque novel like Augie March with that attitude! Yet the passage is complex: “let themselves be read with fervor.” The implied metaphor (a disturbingly timely one) is sexual consent. The metaphor is not so inapt: there is no such thing as forced reading, not really; you can always put any book down, even one on the syllabus, as every student (but don’t tell the teacher!) has done from time to time. In reading as in any type of relation, once the relation is consented to (“let”) by the other, the fervor on your side is up to you. If you decide to keep reading, you (we, I mean) have to bring something to the books if the books will give anything to us, as one tutelary spirit of the Bellovian enthusiasm advises in his manifesto for American scholarship (the following, with reason, appears as the epigraph to my early American literature syllabus):

There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

But because a syllabus is a list of books you are required (at least notionally) to read, it fills you with the overmastering desire to read something, anything else. Please let me, then, make my semiannual appeal: if you want to go AWOL from the prescribed texts, to play literary hooky with a novel intended, over and above its other intentions, to be absorbing, to give pleasure, I recommend what else but my very own Portraits and Ashes.

A relevant excerpt: one of my protagonists, an unemployed architect in a broken marriage wandering the public library during his empty days, decides (just before an erotic assignation for which he will be paid) to do some serious reading, a mission I both strongly believe in and lightly mock:

Self-improvement, then. When he wanted to read something serious, Mark mostly read non-fiction, books about architecture, history, science, or philosophy, books that would make him more intelligent and knowledgeable, while he only perused fiction very occasionally, without taking it at all seriously, for the sake of entertainment or consolation. He had once heard an old professor on TV holding forth to the effect that an acquaintance with the classics of literature fortified the mind and disciplined the passions by subjecting them to the scrutiny of controlled intelligence, as manifested by all the historical varieties of rhetorical eloquence mastered by the great authors. The graybeard had gone on to observe that nothing in popular culture, still less in so-called new media, could match this passion-regulating function of the best that had been thought and said. While this old man, with his wisps of white hair at the sides of his head and his wrinkled chambray shirt, which looked as if years’ worth of pipe smoke must have been caught in its folds, had obviously gone on TV to promote some conservative agenda, Mark, a pragmatic liberal who thought it worse than useless, even cruelly obtuse, to scorn the needs of one’s own time and to protest or try to resist historical change, and who could moreover only imagine the professor emeritus’s scornful reaction to [his wife] Melissa’s web series with its zippy sarcasm and outbursts of profanity and proliferating pop-culture references, nevertheless saw the benefits in his present circumstance of both acquainting himself with a variety of passions and learning how they might be controlled.

He went in search of the classics. In the literature section on the third floor, he found many guides to them, some advertised for resentful truants and morons, others for solemn aspirants to high culture. He noticed that the former usually had some kind of school motif on the cover, the title made to look as if it were written in chalk, for example, while the latter tended to have reproductions of Michelangelo or Vermeer or Waterhouse on the front, some rippling-muscled Biblical hero or attractively pensive and stolid Dutch bourgeoise or perishingly sad-eyed English waif, all suggesting what literature might do for your sensibility if only you’d follow the guidance of the books’ authors.

Happy reading to all!

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!