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A year ago I reviewed Alasdair Gray‘s Lanark on my former blog. Instead of insisting on the post-modern content of that novel, or for that manner the religious themes, with references to Gnosticism and the inherent conservatism of the church as an institution – I compared the book to a comic by Grant Morrison named Animal Man.

Perhaps some might find that offensive? Personally the medium of a story has no categorical importance – it’s the content that interests me and I have no problem with raising this piece of popculture up on the same critical pedestal as Lanark.

Of course, and some of you may have realized, there was a small problem in my making the comparison – I had not actually read Animal Man. The page illustrated above was my sole reference. So to amend that little hiccup, I’m reviewing the final collection of Morrison’s run on the title today.

Animal Man is a minor superhero named Buddy Baker, who has been operating for just under a year. He has a wife, Ellen, and two children, Maxine and Cliff. An accident involving an alien spaceship has granted him the ability to borrow traits from animals, hence his superhero moniker. Unlike most other superhumans, Buddy’s heroics are more politically sensitive, such as environmental activism, agitating against animal testing and fighting against Apartheid in South Africa.

However, Buddy’s family has been under surveillance from a mysterious figure, seemingly able to appear at will. Unable to protect his wife and children from the ‘weirdness’, in his life, the everyman superhero has also recently undergone unusual experiences, hinting at some outside force manipulating his life for the purpose of entertainment.

Then tragedy strikes. Ellen and the children are assassinated.  The killer, no supervillain but an ordinary gunman , was hired by a group of businessmen affected by Animal Man’s actions. Buddy hunts them down and avenges his family, but is left broken by the experience. Desperate to save his family, he travels back through time – but finds himself sucked into a conflict with a number of other heroes who have been erased from the timeline. He is just a character in a comic book, and it is the writer who is responsible for all his suffering.

“Who are you? Who did you say you were?”

“Me? I’m the evil mastermind behind the scenes. I’m the wicked puppeteer who pulls the strings and makes you dance. I’m your writer.”

The final encounter between Animal Man and ‘Grant Morrison’, is thankfully not just an example of po-mo nonsense. The culmination of year’s worth of dangling plot-threads, it allows the writer to wrap up the storyline with a flourish, while also addressing the central concern of the book. As a comic that did not shy away from political themes, Animal Man was principally about the defence of the helpless – lab animals, slaughtered dolpins, South Africans suffering oppression.

In a neat inversion, Morrison proposes that the superhumans of DC Comics are themselves helpless victims – of us and our changing tastes in entertainment. The creations that were enjoyed by readers in their childhood have become tarnished, grim and violent vigilantes. Their suffering is the stuff of modern entertainment. Their moral values are irrelevent. The Morrison that Animal Man encounters is unapologetic about this. He is after all only one writer among many, who vented his frustrations with the world through the medium of this comic book, but in the end he is as powerless to change the world as Buddy is.

Confronted with this seemingly uncaring demiurge, we really begin to sympathize with Buddy’s plight and care about the lives of these characters – who are only, lest we forget, commercial products. At one point one of these ‘erased’, creations exclaims: I don’t care what I am. I don’t care if I’m just a minor character in a bad story…I’m not going to let this happen. You hear me? I’ve still got my dignity!

There is even a page where Morrison conjures up some random foes for Buddy to fight in the background, while he addresses the reader and says his thanks to the editors and artistic team that worked on the book. He apologises for the preachy tone of the book – while at the same time making one final attempt to sway the audience to the themes addressed in Animal Man. For this cynical Morrison is just as much a fictional creation as Buddy, whose defeatism is rejected on the very last page.

Emotionally personal and intimate. A classic.

When I was a teenager looking for weird and interesting facts to talk about during lunch at school, Richard Metzger‘s Disinfo show fit the bill perfectly. At times seeming like a more media-literate, cyberpunk version of Fortean Times, it delivered a mixture of social commentary and conspiracy theory. It also introduced me to Grant Morrison‘s The Invisibles.

In fact, as far as I can recall, the more buoyant and fun US-set issues of The Invisibles were supposedly inspired by a meeting between Morrison and Metzger himself. The other writer I first discovered through the show was Douglas Rushkoff. Still active as a media commentator (just have a gander at this piece on the ‘demise of Facebook‘) Rushkoff is notable for his ability to recognize the potential in open source projects and online culture.

In fact with this book he proposes that the Bible, and the Torah that preceded it, was one of the earliest open source works in our culture. It just so happens that he has chosen the medium of comics to elucidate his theories.

Rushkoff chooses to draw parallels between the Biblical accounts of Abraham and Lot, and near-future events in a technocratic fascist America. Jake Stern’s father is heavily involved in a military project designed to implant chips in American citizens, ostensibly to track the locations of soldiers during wartime. The draft has been reintroduced and the US  is involved in at least six wars simultaneously. Jake has friends involved in an underground movement that believes the chips can be used to control people’s minds, create instant perfect soldiers. Caught between his father and his political sympathies for his friends, he tries not to get involved in the rising tensions between activists and the government.

Jake’s father is trapped in the same test of loyalty to his ‘God’, or his family as was Abraham, with his employer urging him to ‘sacrifice’, his son by implanting a chip in him. Jake is equated with Lot, attempting to save his friends from the disaster he knows is coming, even as his Biblical counterpoint was singled out following the search of Sodom for innocent souls.

Just as these stories repeat themselves throughout history, the same forces who were involved in the events described by the Bible, the agents of Yahweh and the pagan gods arrayed against Him (identified here as Astarte and Moloch) are present in Jake’s time. In fact, from their point of view, these events are all occuring simultaneously. The Jewish god Yahweh is involved in constant battles with His rivals for the souls of the ‘chosen people’. Jake and his underground pals are merely acting out yet another iteration of this conflict against a monolithic evil force.

Rushkoff takes full advantage of the comic-book medium to present his argument, using split-panels to draw out the comparisons between his two chosen narratives, as well recurring associations of select phrases and images. At one point he even appears in the book as a college lecturer explaining the concept behind the comic-book, arguing that our contemporary stories are achetypal echoes of ancient myths. As he says this, a slide depicting the reincarnated Egyptian superhero Hawkman is presented in a neat piece of visual shorthand.

While I admire the audacity of the concept, the material is overly familiar, having quite a few points of similarity to Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. In its favour though, Rushkoff’s take on the material is far less obscure. The Morrison comparison’s continue as Liam Sharp artwork resembles frequent collaborator Frank Quitely. However, I fear I am doing Testament a disservice by saying that, as Rushkoff’s intent is quite brilliant. Liberate the Biblical myths from the dry, neutered interpretations we have grown up with and forge them into an exciting conceptual thriller. Moloch and Astarte are personified as very literal forces of violence and sex, with Yahweh a god of revolutions, a liberator from these baser instincts.

This take on the meaning of the Bible proclaims it as stridently anti-authoritarian, the very opposite of Nietzsche‘s assessment of Christianity as a religion of slave-morality.

Testament excites in its scale of ambition and association of ideas. On that basis I would recommend it for those who like their comics to do something quite different.

 

Corporate Cannibal, Boarding Gate, Southland Tales and Gamer have almost nothing in common – except for the fact that they all belong to, and they all express, a common world. This is the world we live in: a world of hypermediacy […]

Writing this review is a real treat for me. I have been following the career of Steven Shaviro for almost a decade now after discovering his online work Doom Patrols one evening while browsing the internet for information about Philip Pullman‘s Galatea. Not only did I discover Shaviro and his own particular brand of pop cultural critical theory, I emerged buzzing with curiousity about My Bloody Valentine, Grant Morrison and a renewed enthusiasm for the films of David Cronenberg. His blog The Pinocchio Theory is also well worth investigating.

Post Cinematic Affect presents a series of essays on a selection of movies and videos that in Shaviro’s view describe emerging new media forms that are as yet theoretically unrepresented. The book itself is not only concerned with film theory, but the post-Marxist absorption of the public in the entertainment industry. When discussing critical flops such as Richard Kelly‘s ambitious Southland Tales, or Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor‘s Gamer he is not so much interested in defending their reputations as cinematic works, as he is in demonstrating how they describe our evolving relationship with media. What might be said to be transgressive about these films is the way in which they have abandoned traditional presentation of plot, genre, camera style.

They also indulge our culture’s fascination with celebrity. Cinema inherited much of its form from stage productions. Actors played parts, that allow the audience to engage with the story being performed. Yet celebrity has outdistanced any possibility of engagement with the characters being played in contemporary films.  Boarding Gate‘s protagonist is played by Asia Argento, an actress who has been violated and murdered onscreen multiple times in films directed by her own father. The controversy cemented her early fame, creating an identity that could overwhelm any flimsy fictional character. Director Olivier Assayas avoids this by having Argento play a woman who is constantly having to reinvent herself. Only through this continual renewal can Argento be subsumed into the story. Grace Jones similarly has a twin existence, as the music performer who must shapeshift with each appearance and as an individual woman who is quite conscious of the importance of maintaining that other self. Shaviro infers into the lyrics of Corporate Cannibal – “I’m a man eating machine, – a recognition not only of her sexualised alter ego, but her necessary existence as corporate product.

Shaviro impressively claims that Kelly is attempting a revolution against the very basis of Eisenstein montage with Southland Tales, where associations between images in and of themselves constitute meaning, without any broader context. The rapidly cut action scenes of contemporary movies demonstrate our ability, as an audience, to be viewers of multiple sources of information simultaneously. Our awareness of the action on screen is played with, such as the entertaining sequence when Justin Timberlake lip-syncs to The Killers. Here the character played by Timberlake, Pilot Abilene, is experiencing a hallucinatory drug trip. Yet our attention is drawn to Kelly having a celebrity singer ‘perform’, music by another act, music which it just so happens is far more evocative of his character’s crisis than the bland material he himself produces. Timberlake also breaks out of sync by drinking and carousing with the other performers, reminding us of the falsity what we are seeing (not to mention the drug-impaired perspective of Abilene).

It’s an excellent analysis of the levels of meaning sought by Kelly with this film. In Neveldine and Taylor’s Gamer, he finds a sarcastic parody of subversive cinema. Viewers are deliberately made complicit with the insensate voyeurs of this dystopia. In engaging with the film’s genre staples, we become a reflection of the media depravity here vilified. The film also anticipates developments in MMORPGs, online games that require live interactions between players and game content.

Shaviro touches on multiple sources for his post-Marxist critique, including Spinoza, Fredric Jameson and Deleuze. His analysis identifies markers for our evolving relationship with new media, but no definite outcome. This book presents an excellent overview of the changing shape of cinema and our engagement with film.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

“I am a vampire and a murderer. Whatever else I do in this world, nothing will change that. I can fight on the side of the angels until doomsday, but I’m still damned.”

Some months ago I spotted this book on the shelves of a bookstore in Wollongong. I knew I had to read it, for the title alone. However, I was not prepared to pay thirty dollars for the dubious pleasure. I am a bad taste nut. Two of my favourite shows are Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. I have my limits though. So it was with great relief that I spotted this book in my local library.

Nathaniel Cade was a sailor on a whaling vessel in 1867. Upon reaching America, he was found in the ship’s hold feeding on the bodies of two other crewmen. He was arrested and sentenced to death, only to be pardoned by the then President of the United States Andrew Johnson. Cade was committed to an asylum for the rest of his days. This, believe it or not, is a story not too dissimilar from actual events.

However, in this universe, that was only the official tale. Cade was instead pledged to serve the office of the President and defend the country itself from threats both internal and from ‘out there’. He has acted in this capacity for over a century and his existence is highly classified.

Now Cade’s services are being called on to protect America from a new threat, an army of unstoppable soldiers created by a conspiracy between Muslim extremists and a familiar foe from the days of the Third Reich. His new partner, Zach Barrows, is a brash and overconfident White House staffer with a lot to learn. The cocky young man has been drafted in to replace Agent Griffin, the vampire’s liaison with the White House for over thirty years and his only friend. Griff has been diagnosed with cancer, leaving Cade to break in his new handler while also looking to prevent the greatest terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11.

This is a very silly book, but also a readable one. Partly this is due to Christopher Farnsworth dropping various easter eggs for fans. Zach comments that Cade’s lair resembles the Batcave;  the two carry recognizable aliases such as Agent Cushing and Agent Lee (although for the joke to really work, the names should have been reversed); there is an enemy operative named G. Morrison; and the evil Nazi scientist at the centre of the plot is a pastiche of Victor Frankenstein and Herbert West.

Also, in fairness to Farnsworth, the plot does race along at a steady pace, retaining the reader’s interest until the climactic finale. By then several problems have already sprung up though.

Firstly I find the post-9/11 references somewhat offensive. The Muslim extremists behind the plot to attack America are not just Islamofascists – they are Satanists also. Cade berates himself for not stopping 9/11 from happening, as he was delayed by an opponent with a flaming sword. This is nonsensical, as the attacks on the Two Towers were due mainly to a failure to properly monitor intelligence on the activities of Osama bin Laden. Implying that an otherworldly force of some kind was acting in concert with the terrorists both excuses the failures of that administration, as well as offers up the basic fantasy that America’s other war, here named the War on Horror, supersedes the current conflict in the Middle East. The mixing of fantasy with this very real tragedy is, to my mind, inexcusable.

Sadly toe-curling chauvenism is evident with the female characters that appear. There is also the issue that this is derivative of other franchises, such as Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Farnsworth’s epilogue to Blood Oath sets up a number of plot-threads for a sequel, but a movie is apparently also in the works. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the Zach character’s role is identical to that of Agent John Myers in Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of Hellboy.

I would have preferred it if Griff had been the main character and narrator of the story. He vanishes for large sections of the book and his relationship with Cade struck me as a more interesting one.

To sum up this is a perfect book to read on a plane journey. Keep your expectations low and your brain on silent.

Midnight Kiss is a densely plotted, cleverly written and beautifully drawn tale of mayhem and mystery in fairyland. These fairies, however, use some pretty heavy artillery and most of them make the Hitler gang look like a teddy bear’s picnic. Add fabulous references to a Land of Oz fighting a vicious civil war, a bunch of fabulous creatures being hunted for their hearts and minds (literally) and you have one of the richest, most original, engaging and fast-moving graphic stories of the new century.

The above quote is taken from Michael Moorcock’s introduction to this comic book collection. I chose it as this fulsome praise convinced me to buy the book. Moorcock was approached by Lee for permission to use his dimension-hopping anti-hero Jerry Cornelius for this book. One of the most popular of Moorcock’s creations, one that he has in the past allowed other New Worlds authors such as M. John Harrison to use, Cornelius is a devious, dimension-hopping anarchist, perfectly suited for Lee’s story of a multiverse of fantasy realms. Given that this book had Moorcock’s stamp of approval, I bought it without hesitation.

The story begins with a boy named William being confronted by a gang of gun-toting Unseelie Fae, mistaken by him for vampires. Moments before he is captured, Matthew Sable and Nightmare De’Lacey arrive and decimate the heavily armed fairies. The mystically empowered duo explain to William that he is what they call a ‘rational’, someone who believes that one world and reality exist. Sable explains that millennia ago an event called the shattering occurred, with each realm of faerie separated into different dimensions. What normal humans, rationals, assume are fictional worlds or fantasies are actually each unique threads within the multiverse.

William has become the target of a conspiracy to create a demonic demiurge due to his own mysterious parentage. A series of assassinations are being carried out against different creatures of fantasy across a number of worlds. Now that William is under the protection of Sable, two murderers for hire called Jonny Cool and The Flickman, are contracted to recover him. They slaughter their way through several dimensions in pursuit of their quary. A third story thread concerns a police investigator known as Einhorn trying to discover what is behind the series of murders relating to the conspiracy. Each of the protagonists are drawn to the Land of Oz, torn apart by a civil war between the forces of the evil Scarecrow and President Dorothy Gale.

I am sorry to report that I found this to be a bleak and dispiriting story. Despite the warm introduction from Moorcock, Midnight Kiss resembles a derivative, grim ‘n’ gritty take on Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. The excellent blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics recently proposed a dark take on Robin Hood for satirical purposes. Wouldn’t you know it, the Sherwood Forest archer appears here, consumed with feelings of revenge towards Matthew Sable (for reasons too silly to go into). Our heroes use their magical abilities to sprout dayglo guns and swords from their arms, slaughtering their opponents with impunity. At times I was confused as to what distinguished them from blood-thirsty antagonists Jonny Cool and The Flickman. Of course the break-neck twist in the final issue addresses just that ambiguity with groan-worthy results. Poor William is also just another derivative messiah-child, being dragged along in a state of constant confusion until the plot demands that he suddenly assert himself.

As to Jerry Cornelius’ role in the proceedings, well he’s basically a bag-man. His ability to cross dimensions is here employed to run errands on Sable’s behalf. I found this especially amusing as Moorcock cites Lee as having ‘got’, Cornelius’ function as a character. Tony Lee’s afterword mentions that other writers had misused the character in the past, without consulting his creator. I assume this is a reference to Grant Morrison’s attempt in his seminal book The Invisibles, there named Gideon Stargrove. Ironically I thought the unauthorised use of the Cornelius concept was far more successful than the fully approved one in Midnight Kiss.

Ryan Stegman’s art may suit the material, blood clotting on the panels and breasts thrusting outwards, but once again it reminded me of the bad old days. If you look at the cover image below you will notice a huge robot. Yes, that’s The Tin Man.

A huge disappointment.

Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.

The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.

With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.

Hunters send in

Expeditions

Radio back

Their positions

Still, we’ve lost

A dozen there

Lost inside

My crazy hair.

Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.

Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues –  McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.

In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article

“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”

What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.

In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.