Opus 91:

Opus 91: ON THE NEWSSTAND (June 14). A couple Number Ones appeared in the last week or so. I suppose a carload lot of Number Ones have appeared in the last week "or so": Number Ones are the most available issues of funnybooks these days. More try-outs than keepers. Far fewer No. 100s. That means, on the one hand, that relatively few new titles actually last (whether because they're inferior products or because there are simply too many comics being produced for the marketplace to support gives rise to another question). On the other hand, a steady stream of Number Ones, which is what we've been subjected to in the last few years, betokens a healthy, even vibrant, industry, all the hand-wringing to the contrary notwithstanding. Small press entrepreneurs will probably say that the outlook is still dismal. No doubt. But it can't be abysmal or no one would be trying to enter the field with a Number One issue of a comic book. So a plethora of Number Ones is a good sign, I ween. But however many may have appeared in the last week or so, I picked up only a couple; to wit-The Filth and Guardian Angel.

            With my history as a DOMFOF (Dirty Old Man, Food on Face), you'd expect me to delay not a second in picking up a comic book called "The Filth." And you'd be right, too, even though I suspected, even as I leaped for it, that it wouldn't be about sex and the curvaceous gender. But, I was wrong. It is about sex. It's also about alien invasion, I think, although it's difficult to tell, for certain, from the cryptic treatment the opening sequence gets. As is now too often the case with a Number One, the narrative is telegraphic in its brevity, loaded, that is, with allusion to a larger universe than the one that is immediately apparent. Pregnant with possibility but unclear as to what, exactly, that possibility might be. Thoroughly baffling. And I don't mean that as a compliment.

            We are, unfortunately, in an epoch in which comic book scribes such as Grant Morrison, who does The Filth, seem to aspire to become screenwriters, and they therefore approach comic book writing as if it were screenwriting. But it isn't. A movie unfolds from beginning to end, right there-up on the big screen-while you sit in a seat in the dark for a couple hours. Then it's all done. All the mysteries of its opening sequence are solved in two hours. The same treatment in serial comic book issues will take months. In the case of The Filth, a whole year since No. 1 is the first of 13 issues. Although some may take the similarity in treatment as a good sign-as a sign, say, of the increased maturity in comic book fodder-I don't. I take it as a sign that the writer doesn't understand his medium.

            In No. 1 of The Filth, we meet a DOMFOF buying a stroke magazine at the curbside magazine kiosk, watch him pick his nose and eat it, then go home, feed his cat, masturbate, clean the litter box and go to bed and sleep. All this with a minimum of verbiage, and most of what there is, is cryptic and therefore only vaguely meaningful. The next day, he comes home to find an apparently strange female (who has his bald pate and "comb-over") taking a shower; she comes out dripping wet and promptly gives the old guy a blow job. By the end of the book, this old guy, who might be named Slade or maybe Greg Feely, emerges as, perhaps, an alien being who retired to Earth and who now is about to be recalled to his home planet or mother ship or whatever. "The Filth"? It may refer to the tribe of his origins? Or not? In any case, there are two of the old guy on the last pages of the book. Morrison himself, in a brief editorial, thinks "the filth" refers to bacteria-laden tap water, or other, similarly invisible, miniature populations. But he's just funnin' us.

            This might make a good sf movie, but unless you're turned on by depressing, emotionless sex scenes (pictures of old guys with comb-overs masturbating and getting blow jobs), you won't be thrilled by this comic book. Chris Weston's pencils, as inked meticulously-with an almost obsessive attention to the tiniest detail-by Gary Erskine, are tight and, as I say, copiously detailed. We're in the company of compulsion here, kimo sabe. The face of the old man is rendered in such microscopic detail that, if it weren't for the comb-over, we couldn't recognize him from one appearance to the next (unless, as sometimes happens, his expression and the angle from which it is depicted are virtually identical from one picture to the next).

            The artwork in Guardian Angel No. 1, on the other hand, is more to my liking-more linework and less shadowy feathering. Even though Aron Wiesenfeld's pencils are inked by an army of ink-slingers (Scott Williams, Kevin Conrad, and Wiesenfeld himself, from time to time), the result is a cleaner, less cluttered-looking page, often brilliantly enhanced by Jeromy Cox's coloring. Jonathan Peterson's story is amplified by breakdowns that time the action and page layouts that give dramatic emphasis to certain developments-as, for instance, when the vehicle being pursued by "our hero" dives off a cliff and, for a page with only two page-deep vertical panels on it, seems to float down the precipice. This is comic-book writing, not screenwriting (if you're looking for a revealing example of the former to compare to the latter as exemplified in The Filth). We find, however, that the entire opening chase sequence is make-believe-a motion picture in the making. "Our hero" turns out to be an actor named Christian Angelos. (Hey! "Angelos" and "angel." Could it be that handsome Chris will turn out, eventually, to be Guardian Angel? Wow. And "Christian" means-he's born again, right?)

            Anyhow, Chris has this girlfriend named Rachel who might be his agent or maybe just a scriptgirl on the set; and she's jealous of his attentions, strictly business we assume, to his co-star, a shapely blonde wearing nearly nothing at all named Denise. Chris takes Rachel to a party, and while they dance, alien monsters invade the movie lot and, subsequently, from the roof, the building in which the party is taking place.

            Notice how many plot threads there are here, each of which moves forward from mysteriousness to some sort of tentative resolution. An action-packed chase sequence to grab out attention and remind us that this is some sort of superhero title. Then a romance coupled to an extra-couple flirtation which moves from mild confrontation to happy resolution. Then an army of monstrous invaders who burst in upon our happily concluding romance. Okay, we don't know who the invaders are or how young Chris will become (or reveal that he already is) the Guardian Angel. But that's okay. Suspense in storytelling is the name of the game. Bafflement isn't. In short, there is sufficient storyline herein that we aren't in complete ignorance of what's going on. There are story hooks we can hang onto. In The Filth, by contrast, we have almost nothing similar. Only one apparent storyline, which moves forward but to no particular interim resolution, and nothing but the depressing solo sex of the ostensible protagonist as a hook to hang on.

ESCAPING CAGES. NBM Publishing is re-issuing the Kitchen Sink Press book, Cages, a monumental work of comics artistry by Dave McKean-500 8.5x11-inch pages in two colors; hardback, $50. This is the same production as the KSP effort, which I reviewed in the Comics Journal at the time. In making the book available again, NBM noted that the volume has "exercised considerable influence on the medium in the English language, raising the bar every since it first appeared in a series of ten luxury format comic books, starting at Tundra publishing." This is another elegant production. For all practical purposes, it is exactly the same book but with the NBM ComicLit imprint on it.

            The NBM press release neatly summarizes the so-called "action" of the book: Set in an apartment building, the narrative is focused on the interlocking lives of three artists, a writer, a painter and a jazz musician, each one struggling to balance the demands of creativity with the burdens of "real life." I say "so-called action" because, given the protagonists, the much of the book is a representation of the internal lives of these persons, not their external situations.

            Still, much of the storytelling is done in the conventional manner-panel-by-panel with inked images.  But key moments in the story convert the pages to canvasses of mixed media-drawing, painting, collage, photography-where color splashes across the pages in expressive sometimes abstract imagery.

            The more conventionally rendered sequences that constitute the bulk of the book are black-and-white drawings with blue-gray color added, sometimes as a tint, sometimes as a shape, sometimes as a solid patch.  But the graphic style is tortured, the shapes twisted, bent, distorted, underscoring the struggles of the seekers who are McKean's characters.

            McKean seems to be seeking what they are seeking: he seems bent on discovering for us the reason for existence, the very meaning of life.  He delves into the relations between God and man as well as the relations between men and women. 

            McKean conducts his search through his key characters, who interact throughout the book: a blocked painter who looks for inspiration, a writer whose book "Cages" so shocked and insulted the world that he is now forced to live like a prisoner in his own apartment, a jazz musician who can wring music out of stones, a botanist who grows a small forest in her room.  All are truth-seekers, the press release from KSP proclaimed-"through which McKean comments on mythology, art, God, creation, sex, love, and hate.  For McKean, Cages is 'the closest I've come to describing my world.'"

            They are all creative personalities.  Of one sort or another.  And McKean, too, is an artist.  He is a graphic artist.  And he is a writer.  He is also a musician.  So we have a book drawn about artists by an artist, written about a writer by a writer.  And one of McKean's epiphanies about the meaning of life has to do with rhythm, a musician's understanding; another explanation involves pattern, a graphic artist's understanding. 

            There is a tendency in works of this sort-large, all-embracing metaphysical works-towards self indulgence.  The graphic artist lapses into the obscure visual lingo of visuals, the symbolism of which is not readily apparent, rendering the narrative itself opaque and mysterious.  The writer resorts to pretentious poetry, the meaning of which is either too obvious or wholly unfathomable.  And sometimes, I think McKean trips into one or another of these pitfalls.

            Mostly, however, this ambitious work is engaging and provocative.  And, ultimately, satisfying.  McKean shows us the cages in which we exist; and then he suggests a way out.  It is the Laurentian way-love, and sex as an act of love.  It is the musician's way-life as rhythm (of which the act of making love is a dramatic example).  It is pattern: rhythm rendered visible.

            There are layers of internal references throughout the book.  Despite this complexity, McKean's answers are simple: search for the meaning of life in life.

            The book is a skillful exercise in cartooning, in blending (and sometimes alternating) the verbal and the visual.  Over-all, the pictures create mood and set the pace but offer little narrative substance compared to the task allotted to the words, which carry the story, as the dialogue in a play does, and offer McKean's answers.  In effect, McKean deploys pictures to create metaphysical angst, the puzzle of existence-the tedium of daily life, its frustrations, its incomprehensibility.  Then with words, he supplies solutions to the puzzle. 

            Still, for particular moments, McKean resorts to pictures alone to tell the story, and when he does, he does it with great skill.

            In the complexity of his method and the vast embrace of his ambition, McKean has produced a work of Joycean dimensions.  He fumbles occasionally.  Sometimes he too readily employs paradox to suggest philosophical profundity.  That's too easy.  (But it's fun, too-to do and to read.)  And images without words are too imprecise for philosophy, it seems to me.  Finally, the work seems sometimes overwrought with a lurking nihilistic spirit-"shit happens," as one character says.  Or is it merely fatalism?

            The luxury of length allows McKean to ramble on occasionally-in one instance, prolonging a sequence of expressionistic imagery beyond its usefulness.  When the artist and the botanist first engage in serious conversation, the resulting ten-page sequence of abstractions is probably six pages too long for any useful narrative or expository purpose. But McKean is dealing in sensation as much as in thought, in feelings as well as ideas. 

            Taken as a whole, this huge work is a successful achievement.  I not only liked it, but I'll probably read it again.  It was good enough for more than one reading.

            Like Joyce in Ulysses, McKean takes a long and meandering time to make his point.  Sometimes, as I said, too long.

            Where McKean might indulge a moment of his story with an extravagant expenditure of two, three or four pages, another cartoonist, faced with some sort of page limitation (as most are), will edit as he composes, pruning his pictorial storyline to a terse and telling  minimum that makes the most economical use of panels and pages.  The resulting condensation increases the possibility for melodrama, which results when a single picture is crammed with too much emotion.  The wastrel McKean, in contrast, fills page after page with wordless panels that can serve to do little more than dramatize the unyielding ennui of his characters. 

            Instead of selecting crucial revealing moments to depict in single panels, one at a time in the fashion of most serious comics recently, McKean extends such moments, depicting everything that leads up to the critical instant.  McKean's approach avoids the narrative shorthand that can turn pathos into bathos because in McKean we dwell on the slowly evolving visuals, pausing and reflecting as we go, submerged, as it were, in the ambiance of the scene.  But he risks boring the reader by moving developments ahead so slowly.  And as our attention wanders, our feelings wane and our understanding falters.

            In attempting to grasp the meaning of the universe, McKean diffuses his effort and blunts its force.  Instead of impact, McKean produces reverberations. But by indulging his aspiration, he proves that serious literary achievement is possible in the medium of cartooning.  And we are indebted to Kitchen Sink for publishing this and to NBM for keeping it out here where others can get to it.

            Meanwhile, since I managed to get two of these on my shelf, I'm happy to offer the NBM edition to the first who e-mails me for it. Merely $20, including postage. And if you miss this spectacular offer, try the NBM site: www.nbmpublishing.com

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