Friday, 13 January 2012

Books: The Filth


The Filth
Written By Grant Morrison
Art by Chris Weston


Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Ok. The Filth.

Rule number 1: We learn something new every time we do crazy things - right? Well - ok then: then howsabouts I try to put into words exactly what this book does to me.

"Fiat Lux!" [1]

Way back when I first started up the Islington Comic Forum blog the first entry was The Filth. Of course it's not like that anymore: in fact if you looked at the blog now it would seem that it's here almost as an after-though (I mean Friday 13th January 2012? That means I'm writing this just a little over a year since this blog first started) - but that's down to the fact that the first twenty or so posts didn't have the right tag thingie and so... actually - forget about it: it's not important: what is important is that The Filth is important. What is important is how important this book is to me and how it makes me feel and how it affects me and that if you're looking for something strange and unique that's going to change the way you look at the world - then this is a book that you need to read. Of course getting out all the reasons and all the thoughts that swim around my head when I think of The Filth isn't easy (and like I've said elsewhere - it sure is a lot easier writing about why a book is so awful than why it's so great) - but - hell - I'll give it my best shot (you ready? Let's do this).

My first draft attempt [2] from way back when went like this: "There's an ancient Greek phrase [3] that is supposed to hold the key to all mysteries - and functions as the bedrock of all systems of magic. It tells you that the universe is the same as God, God is the same as man, man is the same as the cell, the cell is the same as the atom, the atom is the same as...and so on, ad infinitum. Be that as it may - I'd say it's the one thing you should try and keep in mind as you enter the hostile, entrancing and alien landscapes of The Filth: "as above, so below."" Back when I first wrote that it seemed like a deep insight and a good place to begin what I hoped was going to be some kind of intellectual Filth analysis that uncovered the depths of meaning that lay sunken inside (although "Riot Succeeds" / "Riot Fails to Happen"? - yeah I have no idea what that's about either) - but after having written lots of these little bite-sized quick capsule reviews [4] is that (for me) it's not really about trying to be too smart and popping open the hood like a English Literature student [5]: for me it's more about telling you what the drive was like: how a book handles, what sort of mileage you can get, what are the special features - so less like a professor and more like (as much as it causes me actual physical pain to write this down) - sigh: Jeremy frigging Clarkson [6].

So - let's start way back when - when I first fell in love: I had just finished university and was in that sorta comedown year when your mind is still trying to get used to the fact that you've fallen off the edge of the education system and you're now all alone and free to explore the world [7]. I reckon it had a long while since I'd read a comic and I had no idea who was hip, what was good and what the current state of well - anything was (that's the problem with studying - it doesn't leave you any time to not do studying). I walked into a bookshop near Wood Green Shopping City (I can't remember the bookshop's name - but I think its since closed down: so whatever) and was browsing around when I saw it: that stark, dangerous looking white cover with - what is that? - a nervous system? Feeding itself into the title: The Filth. And those two names: Grant Morrison and Chris Weston [8].

Like I said: it had been a while since I'd read a comic - but I knew who they were. Chris Weston one of my favourite artists since pretty always and Grant Morrison - well - I wasn't exactly a die-hard fan - I had tried The Invisibles but it had left me a bit cold - but back then I still had the feeling that was someh ow more my fault than the books. And hell - even if was just incomprensible twaddle - at least it would have pretty pictures - right?

I don't remember if I read the whole book inside the bookshop and then decided to buy it or (more likely) read the first part of it and then decided to buy it so I could read the rest of it in the (so-called) comfort of home and there was just something so - inviting about it right from the get-go. I mean - I guess yeah - the main part of that was the artwork which was all sorts of deliciousness: but I guess also it was the set-up: Greg Feely's tiny little life [9] that starts off so squalid and well - filthy - before it takes a nose-dive into waters unknown. The way that Chris Weston captures the everyday grimness of going to the newsagents and sitting on a bus made it feel so close to my reality that when things go science-fictional it felt like even more of jump - an exciting jump - a jump that I guess appealed to me [10]. Plus the fact that the first issue ends with the striking (and strangle haunting) image of a burning body lying on top of an artificial world suspended by symmetrical industrial-looking machinery certainly didn't hurt: like - how could I not buy this book? With Spartacus Hughes standing at the mouth of a gang-plank overlooking everything and gloating ("And they're all alone with nobody watching...") like it was a personal challenge: did I stop reading and leave two billion innocents to their fate or did I press forward and become a witness: become the person watching? (I realise that kinda sounds a little silly - but just go with it...).

But then - well - none of this gets us any closer to the meat. To the things that make The Filth such a compelling read and why it continues to have such a hold on me.

This might be me trying to be a little bit too smart (like I know I promised I wouldn't - but what the hey): one of the principles of homeopathy is something called "the law of similars" (otherwise known as "let like be cured by like"): the idea is that if you have a disease that you want to cure - then the best way to do it is to take something that creates the same sorta symptoms. So if you have a rash say - then you should take something that also creates something that's like the rash (I think this is right - I might be describing it all wrong - I dunno): the idea that the artificial symptoms will stimulate the "vital force" in your body causing it to neutralise (or something) and then that will (hopefully) expel the disease. Basically the theory is: a little bit of what ails you does you good. I have no idea if Grant Morrison is "into" homeopathy (I mean - it wouldn't surprise me either way [11]): but it feels like the big idea behind The Filth is exactly the same of thing: it's mission is to infect the reader with all the nastiness and foulest stuff out there (I would say - but I wouldn't want to ruin it all for you) so that your psyche / inner vital force (whatever) responds by curing itself and growing stronger ("She wondered if, instead of trying to kill diseases, we could befriend them"). And while - for me - the law of similars isn't really something that I'd advise for sick people (you know: modern medicine has a much better track record): I do like the idea that maybe let like be cured by like is something that could work on a mental level on a (dare I say it?) a "spiritual level" (even for someone like me that don't believe in spiritual stuff: confirmed atheist / rationalist and all that): but every time I sit down and start to read The Filth I can feel it's griminess start to seep into my brain like a disease slowly infecting an organism - and then - by the end: I feel (hell - we've come this far - why not go all the way with the flowery metaphors?): born again [12].

But - let's stop dawdling outside and actually move into the book (yeah - come let's do it). Rereading if for - what - the seventh time maybe? - I noticed this bit right near the start where Greg Feely is sitting at the back of the bus and there's snatches of random conversation happening around him: and the first one we hear is: "So what's so good about James Bond?" Now like I said above - I don't really consider myself well equipped enough to offer any type of rigorous intellectual analysis: and frankly I guess I've always been a little bit envious of the type of people that could pick a line from a book and use it to illuminate everything else that happens (I remember someone once telling me all the reasons why "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."was such a genius opening line and how it set up all themes and things for the rest of the book or something [13]): but hell: "So what's so good about James Bond?"got me thinking and opened up a few things in my head (and yeah: some moths fell out: whatever): because what's so good about James Bond is that - no duh - for those men in the middle of the 20th Century when he first appeared (and yeah I guess for a certain type of guy nowadays too): he was the pinnacle of certain type of fantasy figure: he was the suave and sophisticated guy who could get any woman he wanted to etc (do I really need to spell this all out - we all know all James Bond is - right?). And well - it lots of ways it seems like a telling figure to bring up - seeing how The Filth (in lots of ways - and apart from all the rubbing your nose in how - erm - filthy the world can be) is about the conflict between the fantasy and the reality. Hopefully not to give too much away: but very early on Greg Feely finds out that he is actually a kinda 21st Century version of James Bond [15]: and well his reaction isn't what you would quite expect: and it's a struggle that defines the book: what happens when your fantasies start to come true and how much room is left for your "real life"? And - yeah yeah - what do these concepts even mean anyway and how much can we swap them around and mix them up before we start to do some serious damage? Or hell: put it another way: "So what's so good about James Bond?" I mean - yeah - sure: I'm sure he's a nice place to visit - but I don't know if I'd want to live here.

But - wait - this is all getting too much like I'm an English Literature student: I thought I was supposed to be Jeremy Clarksoning? Ok then: let me try my best to hit you with a few words about why exactly this is such a desert island book for me:

First off: I just love the feeling of the whole damn thing - that strange sort of underwater dreaminess that's halfway between being totally surreal and actually making sense. There's a small scene where Spartacus Hughes and Sharon Jones (or Barbee or Simon's "Bizarre Human Camera" or whatever her name is) are walking from a plane that's just parked out in the middle of nowhere walking towards a building that looks like half a mollusc shell and there's still awful sort of emptiness that's just hanging over everything (I mean - it looks like quite a big facility - so where are all the people? (all dead obviously)): and it's just the sort of ominous image my brain loves to smack me with when my eyes are closed in the middle of the night - and that sorta spookiness just sort of pervades everything - like you're glimpsing a world where there's something just out of sight that's not quite right that's wormed it's way into the core of everything (is this getting a little bit purple? Sorry): and then when Sharon Jones turns around and talks about her slow transformation into a mindless living machine - I mean the back of my skull starts to itch: because that sort of Cronenberg-nastiness always manages to make me feel a little bit sick: and Chris Weston's art I guess because it's so detailed and well rendered has a way of making me believe in the reality it depicts - so I don't just take it in on a - oh-that's-an-interesting-idea way - but in a: oh-god-I-don't-want-to-believe-that-this-could-be-real way.

Second: I really just dig the constant live-wire onflux of information that it spits out on every page (hell: in every panel): internet dark sites, cathedral-batteries, not to mention that strange little robot thingie that's nothing more than a brain and phallus (satire!) etc etc etc. It's like the perfect point in Grant Morrison's development where he's still acting like he has something to prove - but isn't so eager that he's unleashing fireworks on every page: taking that Spartacus Hughes and Sharon Jones interaction again: I mean if you wanted to be boring and strip it down to it's barebones - it's just one person saying to another person: hey - do you want to buy this thing? But it's not barebones: rather - it's thick pulsating red meat stuffed with lovely images in the words (like: "Tell Simon to hold that lovely image when he's ejaculating into the ecosphere") and in the flesh (Sharon pointing at that thing in her neck) - (hmmm on second thoughts maybe "lovely images" wasn't the right choice of words to use (oh well)) - and there's the nice back and forthing between them that makes you feel like they're both real people rather than plot points delivering handy bits of exposition and (yeah) I even like the evil harshness contained in Spartacus Hughes' offhand remarks about his Dad (trust me: you'd rather not know [16]).

Thirdly: "Answers are something you want, not something you need." Although in the usual course of things I generally have very little patience with Grant Morrison's general messing about and scatter-shot approach to plotting - the thirteen issues is the perfect size for him. Restrained enough so that he doesn't have the chance to wander off and let things get too baggy (see: The Invisibles - but be warned - there's a lot there to get lost in) but loose enough so that he doesn't have to wrap things up too quickly and there's plenty of space to muck about in and try out a few different flavours of craziness so that it's not just all one thing.

Fourth. Wait - what's fourth? Oh yeah: well - I guess this is related to the "it's not just all one thing" thing: but one of the things that keeps me coming back to The Filth is the lovely (and very cool) way it's structured. Because even tho all 13 parts add up to tell one big story (I mean (just to be clear) The Filth isn't a short story collection or anything like that): each issue is clearly - well - delineated is a good word: cut out and clearly defined from the ones around out and kinda able to act and exist as it's own individual entity. So: if you only had one random copy of a single issue of The Filth then - even tho you'd feel like there was something missing (and no doubt you'd want to read the others) - you could still get all the entertainment you'd need and even (depending which issue it was) a sense of closure (even when things end on a cliffhanger - it does it in quite a satisfying way: so it's not - omg! I need to find out what happens next! But more: well - that was cool) - yeah? They all start ("Without Warning!!!) and end ("I quit!") on a clearly defined note (I thinking like that last track ("The Tourist") on Ok Computer that ends with a small bell (or is it a triangle?): sharp and yet sweet at the same time). And the over-arching story (because yeah - there's a big story that's happening above) slowly coming together and taking shape almost accidentally [17].

And then yeah - the ending. I had almost forgotten how much I loved the ending. I realise how wanky this sounds but in all senses of the word existential Die Hard only much more intense than that sounds [18] and the way that it builds and builds and builds until we get what is (probably) one of my favourite denouements: I mean I know that there's nothing worse than someone building something up before you've read something (because - hey no matter how good it is - it'll never be as good as you hoped [19]) but how many books have you ever read that have given you an answer as to what to do with your life [20]?

But then speaking to a few of the folks who come to the Comic Forum meetings (only a few mind you: the everyone else is all: "The Filth? Yeah: I love that book" - which you should know hopefully by now is the correct answer - ok?) they shuffle from foot to foot with the book out-stretched saying something like: "Yeah - It was rubbish. I tried to read it - but I didn't really get it." or "I wanted an explanation wanted it all to make sense." or "They were just making stuff up as they went along - do you have any Mark Millar?" To which I say: wrong, wrong, wrong (at least I say that here - at the time I normally just smile and nod politely and hand them The Ultimates or something). Word of advice: if you're asking how to read it properly: well - there are those instructions for use at the start [8]: but really it doesn't really matter if it doesn't make sense - the main time is just to enjoy the stupid thing. I mean: I get that you want to ask questions like: why is there a talking Russian monkey assassin? But mostly the answer to things like that is - because talking Russian monkey assassins are fantastically entertaining and should be in everything [21] and if in the end it's just a quick succession of grand and beautiful images, wild and wonderful ideas and snatches of semi-incomprehensible conversations well (can you see where this is going?): so is everything.

[1] Yeah: It means: "Let there be light." And there was me thinking it had something to with cars or something.

[2] Actually - if we're going to be completely honest (which is always obviously a fatal mistake for all relationships - but what the hey) my first draft went more like this: "Pornography. Anti-Persons. Para-Personalities. And a talking monkey assassin. Yep. The Filth is not like other - better-behaved - comic books. With artwork that looks so tasty it makes me want to eat it The Filth is the story of Greg Feely a middle-aged loser and his cat who soon finds out that the world (once again) is not what it seems. Subjecting the reader to a series of extreme situations all caked in various forms of filth and nastiness (dirty magazines, rubbish trips, paedophilia, suicide) infused with surreal ideas and twisted concepts (mutant semen, extra dimensional secret agents and bio-ships). It is all at once: funny, shocking, nasty, sad, exciting, horrific and very very cool. Like the introduction says: "contains the active ingredient metaphor": this is a comic that represents so far out and intangible ideas."I mean - it sounds more like a catalogue entry than anything else - but that was back when I hadn't been overtaken by the sound of my own voice (and this crippling addition to footnotes).

[3] See here for more.

[4] Yeah: that's a Bill Hicks reference. Google it if you have to (I'd feel bad putting a link to it seeing how it has swearing and stuff in it).

[5] And hey - if you are looking for that sort of expert-style analysis then I very much recommend The Mindless One link below (in fact - reading all their stuff now I realise that they make the whole "as above, so below" connection way much better than I do: "In The Filth, this worldview is intensely linked to the physical world, and more specifically, to the workings of the human body from the microscopic level up. Jarring changes in scale occur from page to page and panel to panel; one minute you’re watching gigantic sperm rampage through Los Angeles, the next you’re staring down into a germ-riddled floor and realising that what you’ve been reading is nothing more than a war between tiny scissor-headed monsters.").

[6] Oh. How I despise that man and everything he stands for.

[7] Or - to put it another way: Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!

[8] Not to mention all that crazy stuff written on the back cover and in the introduction (a concept blatantly stolen from the "Patient Product Information"inside Spiritualized's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space - but no matter, no matter): "Are you: Troubled by persistent nagging soul-aches? Unable to sleep in old-fashioned three-dimensional space? Exhausted from supervising worlds that only you can see?" "Please read this introduction carefully before you start to use The Filth. If you have any questions or are not sure about anything, ask your doctor, pharmacist or comic book dealer." and (in what I'd argue is the Rosetta Stone needed to help you make sense of the whole thing): "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. Metaphor combines two or more seemingly unrelated concepts in a way that stimulates lateral thought process and creativity. Patients using The Filth are required to participate in the generation of significant content by interpreting text and images which have been deliberately loaded with multiple, overlapping meanings and scale." In other words: you can't just read it passively. If you want the full effect - once you've decided to inject it (like all good things) you need to work with it in order to make it work for you. But yeah: best comic book packaging  I've ever seen (that's not by Dave McKean).

[9] As he's so aptly described on The Filth's wikipedia page: "a bachelor whose main interests are his cat and masturbating to pornography." (and wait - is it just me: or does the angle give him Mickey Mouse ears when he walks out of the newsagents right at the start? Just an accident? Or somekind of metaphor that I'm not quite getting?: maybe somekind of proto-Mickey-Eye-Seaguy reference or something? I dunno).

[10] Although it's kinda depressing to ascribe such obvious motivations to my younger self - it kinda seems to fit.

[11] Ha! Reading back through the book - in the first issue they make a big deal about Tony's homeopathic diet ("Homeopathic, you bastard!"): so obviously this isn't just me being completely crazy and seeing things that aren't there - right? In fact: it's most probably Grant Morrison that has put these thoughts in my head in the first place (maybe I need to get me one of those toupées with the special fibres in?)

[12] More Bill Hicks stuff? Ok  why not: For whatever reasons the phrase "Born again" always reminds of this bit from American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story: by Cynthia True: "The other thing was this. My favorite record at the time was Van Morrison's Astral Weeks. His first solo one from 1968. I decided that was the greatest record ever made. I played it for Bill and I said, "This thing goes through the whole movement of life,and the record is a circle so that when you play it you can have it repeat over and over again. The record ended and Bill all of a sudden looked really disturbed, really bummed out. I said, "Well, it ends depressing on this weird note. But then you play it  again and it completes the cycle." Because the first verse of the first song is 'To be born again / to be born again.' ' "Bill goes, 'Well, start it over.' So I did and everything lightened up again. I listened to it later after he died and the last line in the last song is, "I know you're dying and I know you know it, too."" (Of course The Filth opens with someone dropping a match on someone covered in petrol and then someone else saying "Nothing like a good wank, ih" - so maybe we shouldn't read too much into things? Then again: see [13]).

[13] The first word of the Filth is: "See..." because: yeah - it's a comic and it's only all going to make sense if you open your eyes and take in all the details (or maybe there's a version available in Braille? I dunno): and also - it's all about the things which are right in front of your face than your life has trained you not to notice: all that stuff about people being conditioned from birth to disregard the activities of the hand - hell yes - that's a metaphor (or something) that's basically on the level: hey - look around you and check out all the great stuff that's going on around you: only it's much more fun and interesting to say it via fluorescent multi-dimensional [14] rubbish trucks with teeth coming out from behind. (The bit after that opening "See...": "Smoking's like violence" I'm not so sure about. Maybe he just thought it sounded cool? (Grant Morrison = someone who would be awesome writing songs for indie bands)).

[14] Ha. And I have - at just this moment - realised the double-meaning contained in the idea of "multi-dimensional."

[15] Or maybe I'm mixing him up with Spartacus Hughes? "Educated at Eton, Magdalen College, Oxford Honors Graduate, Superb Marksmen, Martial Arts Expert, Sex God." (And - am I reading too much into this but Dmitri-9 is the best James Bond villain that never was: "Brain-fucked by rays in Earth orbit. Then educated by KGB behavioral science bastards as hunter-killer chimp assassin." I know that he's on The Filth's side: but then one of the major threads that ties everything together in this book is the way (yeah dude it's like a matter of perspective and stuff yeah?) that the good guys that so easily turn into the bad guys and back the other way ("One of them who become one of us."): best example of this I guess would be Noxinnixon - (incidently: the last President they trusted to have a mind of his own).

[16] "There's a reason they call us The Filth." (Just the one?)

[17] I realise that this might be a little strange to say - but in that respect it kinda reminds me of Channel 4's Peep Show and the way that each episode of that woud be happy to run around madly and scale awful awful heights from which it feels like there's no coming back from ("Well - I'll just leave my new idea in your desk: give you time to think about it") only for the next episode to start from a place of (relative) normality. It's not The Simpsons style "Don't worry, Bart. It seems like every week something odd happens to the Simpsons. My advice is to ride it out, make the occasional smart-alec quip, and by next week we'll be back to where we started from, ready for another wacky adventure." constant resetting to the Status Quorum: it's more storytelling that looks more like it's prioritising the parts rather than the whole: but then shows you that at the end: the whole can take care of itself.

[18] As I was reading it I was trying to work out what song I could hear playing in the back of my head before I realised the day after it was the lead track on Godspeed You Black Emperor's Yanqui U.X.O.: 09-15-00. Which - I'll have you know - is the first choice soundtrack for the final part of my epic sci-fi trilogy of deep space films starring a messed-up astronaut who's found out that he's been cloned but that he's also God (or something). (Note: I've been having trouble getting the funding to make this happen). (Addition note: my second choice would be Megalomania. "I know that underneath it's me." would be the moment that the messed-up astronaut pulls off God's mask and... but - well - I digress...)

[19] Have you ever had something in your life that someone has hyped up to you before you saw it (a book or a film or whatever) that then ever turned out to be as good (or even better) than you hoped it would be? (I asked my literary flatmate this and after thinking about it for a while he gave the jaded reply: "Probably nothing longer than a youtube clip.")

[20] Yeah it's put in a metaphorical way: but come on - that just makes it better.

[21] The only real exception to the monkey rule ("monkeys make everything better") is the Wachowski's Speed Racer which is a totally amazing film apart from the stupid monkey (I know - I was as shocked as you are).

Links: Vibrational Match Articles, Grant Morrison answers questions about The Filth, Mindless Ones The Filth Analysis, GraphiContent Article.

Further reading: Flex MentalloDesolation Jones, The Invisibles, The TwelveBlack HoleThe Adventures Of Luther ArkwrightSeaguyDoktor Sleepless, Transmetropolitan, No Hero, Hard Boiled, Supergods, Joe The Barbarian. The Bulletproof Coffin.

Profiles: Grant MorrisonChris Weston

All comments welcome.

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