5 June 2019

Surf the rainbow

Dark Horse recently put out a chunky archive of comics drawn by Brendan McCarthy and written by Pete Milligan, which made a lot of current British comics art look like it was playing things very safely. All the rumbling vibrations of pop-art and esoterica and colour theory that show up in McCarthy’s style have their origins in plain sight in outsider art and elsewhere, but in his case the end result seems to push on into territory bearing no one’s name but his own. As with the titanic book collecting Shaky Kane’s Deadline work of similar vintage, it’s hard to see how the current cultural moment could handle a similar amount of tension in this particular art form without the comics business straining at the seams.

Rebellion has published a book of McCarthy’s recent Judge Dredd stories including Chopper: Wandering Spirit, a collision between nasty future-tech and some animist spirits of a much older past—a clash that suits the thread of anthropology in McCarthy’s art. There’s also more recent Dredd work that doesn’t shake the dust off your bookshelves like the old stuff does, but still shows how the artist’s grasp of colour as a drawing tool—which was always a mighty talent even before the digital world came calling—still hums with a few hundred volts of activity. He’s due back in 2000AD at some point to draw more Zaucer of Zilk, so we’ll see how those comics business seams are doing. I read the new Rebellion book here for Tripwire.

Also at Tripwire: Peter Milligan’s most recent 2000AD strip Counterfeit Girl, which doesn’t and probably couldn’t work at the same temperature as those old stories he did with McCarthy, but does instead show off the spiky cartooning of Rufus Dayglo, with all its own connections back towards the very British underground of Tank Girl. The suggestion that 2000AD still kicks the establishment in the nuts is fairly quaint, but at least Counterfeit Girl has the boots for the job.

12 May 2019

The dream life

Demonlover glued itself into my personal Top Ten Films on sight, and the only things in Olivier Assayas’s film now showing its seventeen-year vintage are the CGI pneumatic babes in bikinis described as the entertainment wave of the future—which indeed they were, although these primitives look like something from the fossil record. The rest of it makes a lot of other socially conscious left-ish film making, with its dreaded cause and effect and logic, seem too timid to get the job done at a time when the dust of 9/11 was still settling somewhere over the horizon.

So having started as a drama with Connie Nielsen striding around in power-suits and held on as long as possible, Demonlover stops making sense halfway through as a shorthand for all the nasty unreality brewing in every corner of commerce and culture and life. The standard theories are that this makes it the only Assayas film to really show his liking for Videodrome, which is true; and that he never went back to this approach again, which is more dubious. Carlos looks a pretty kindred spirit to me, just dealing with the weirdness of politics and violence rather than money and media. The Endings” column in June’s Sight & Sound magazine is a piece by me about Demonlovers final scene, which can’t really be described without writing about the rest of it too.

The same June issue also has me reviewing Holy Lands, a well intentioned film with tidal waves of sentiment, featuring James Caan and many voice-over speeches about old age and paternal anxiety and Israel’s appetite for pork. It decides that tolerance and love might have to coexist with instinctive prejudice, superseding it rather than erasing or reprogramming it; an almost radically humanist thought for a current film, in this case peeping out from under a substantial amount of sugar.

10 May 2019

The beast from the East

Octobriana rides again, again, in Octobriana: Hammer by John A Short and Andrew Richmond, which has the eternally out-of-copyright warrior nymphomaniac wandering into something like a 1960s Hammer film with walk-ons from Ingrid Pitt and Michael Ripper and other luminaries. Nothing in black and white can really feel like Hammer, but Richmond pulls in different styles of comics art instead; when Caroline Munro and the other two vampire brides turn up, they’re drawn like John Armstrong characters from Misty, since that was never in colour anyway.

The character’s first best destiny is still charging through underground comix in a cloud of pornography, although if anyone merited a nod towards the old Michael Reeves hammer and sickle gag from The She-Beast, it’s her.

This is the history of Octobriana mentioned at the link, written by me for one of Comic Scene magazines early issues in 2018:

In superhero circles there are outlandish exploits, and then there’s Octobriana. Born in the vicinity of Denmark several thousand years ago, granted her powers by radiation, and prone to cycles of sexual aggression and murderous violence so severe that she retires back into a live volcano for a spot of purging and rebirth, Octobriana once took part in the Battle of Stalingrad wearing only a helmet, an approach which might have damaged Wonder Woman’s diplomatic credentials.

Or so the story goes. And with this character, the story is flexible. Created by an underground collective of writers and artists in 1960s Kiev, Octobriana was designed to represent the true character of the Russian people chaffing under the rule of Khrushchev and Brezhnev, a tempestuous free spirit with no time for totalitarian control or sexual restraint. Strikingly underdressed, busty, monobrowed, and with the red star of communism tattooed upon her forehead, Octobriana’s first published adventures include her fighting a giant mutant walrus, kidnapping Chairman Mao, and masturbating with a large yak horn—a pattern of unlikely encounters, political engagement and strenuous self-pleasure she has pursued enthusiastically ever since. Those stories appeared via a Czech writer named Petr Sadecký, who smuggled fragments of Octobriana strips into the West in the early 1970s and wrote a book called Octobriana And The Russian Revolution. The heroine is intended to be all passion and emotion” says the author, while hinting at the licentious lifestyle of the radical group that created her and into which Sadecký fell, among them his alluring comrade Lydia who knows 23 different ways to delicately deflower a virgin.

But that’s not it either. Sadecký’s story started to unravel as soon as it appeared, when Czechoslovakian artists recognised versions of their work in the Octobriana strips, and it emerged that Sadecký had taken their art to a Western publisher without consent, modifying the drawings and removing their names from the work. Firm facts are hard to come by, with Sadecký’s motives and intentions impossible to be sure of, the extent of his profit unclear. But by accident or design, he had pushed Octobriana out into the public domain while muddying her creators’ rights beyond recovery, her copyright as unrestrained as the character’s own urges. From then on, Octobriana was loose.

As mapped out by John Short, author of Octobriana: The Underground History, the character’s path has roamed far and wide since then, her appearance and behaviour modified to suit an author’s needs. Bryan Talbot was first out of the gate, using Octobriana as a supporting character in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in 1978, where she asks Luther for sex soon after saying hello. She made another high-profile appearance in 2000AD, inserted into a 1998 Nikolai Dante story by Robbie Morrison and Andy Clark as an erotic dancer-cum-spy, her physiognomy smoothed into something more conventionally fetching. There’s a tattoo of her on Billy Idol’s left arm, flaunted on the cover of Sweet Sixteen,” and you can’t get much more mainstream than a song hitting number 17 with a bullet.

But the mainstream is the wrong place for Octobriana, a character born of communist suppression and capitalist enterprise, an avatar of hedonist rebellion not to mention self-reinvention. In fact, she made a beeline for the underground and the California coast as soon as Bryan Talbot was finished with her. In 1992, shortly after Luther Arkwright concluded, underground cartoonist Larry Welz introduced Octobriana to Cherry, the busty star of Welz’s own erotic comic, and sent the pair up against the corrupt owners of a nuclear power plant—this just as opposition to the real-life storage of nuclear waste in California surged. Rolling up in a rickety Trabant, Octobriana leads Cherry and her follow environmental protesters against the evil Mutant Bolsheviks From Chernobyl who have infiltrated the Golden State’s electricity infrastructure, and eventually replaces the nuclear plant with a geothermal geyser. She then joins her allies in a hardcore victory orgy so physically demanding that she’s the only one left standing. Bold, populist, anti-nuclear and omni-sexual; this you feel is the kind of thing Octobriana was born for. Was most excellent good fun having sex with the group of you,” she says. Now I must be leaving.”

Writer John Short has played a large role in Octobriana’s recent tales, as one of the creators behind a series of stories published by Revolution Comics, and author of another couple appearing recently from Kult Creations and drawn by Gabrielle Noble. And it’s in these that Short pits Octobriana against the current incarnations of those repressive political forces she first emerged to combat in the 1970s. The Birth & Rebirth Of Octobriana, as well as playfully tying several of the wildly incompatible threads of the character’s previous adventures into a single timeline, has her face off against a killer robot with a hammer and sickle on its forehead. Remote controlled by some impotent little squirt,” she divines. Watch your mouth,” says the voice of Vladimir Putin, for it is he doing the controlling. Octobriana destroys the robot in a crushing bear hug.

Putin and Octobriana meet in hand-to-hand combat in The New Amazons, with the President of the Russian Federation having bestowed super-strength upon himself with a secret serum—realising too late that it was made from Octobriana’s own blood, as female physical characteristics manifest themselves in this most avowedly masculine of politicians. Octobriana shoos him away, emasculated, and then frees the prisoners languishing in Putin’s cells: Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the two members of Pussy Riot who were in prison when the comic was published. Short and Noble’s breezy comedy and lithe bodies are a long way from the spotted blacks and scratchy figures of the original stories, but tying Octobriana explicitly to Pussy Riot returns the character to her original role—or the one history provided, after her involuntary birth. It’s been a long strange trip back and forth to that volcano, but whenever she’s punching Vladimir Putin it seems as if Octobriana has come home.

1 May 2019

End times

Brie Larson gets two hairstyles during the time-travel shenanigans of Avengers Endgame but Scarlett Johansson gets three, and that’s what star power looks like.

The old saw was that comics’ advantage over everything else came from an artist’s ability to draw what no screen could show, and Endgame might mark the point where that theory finally skulks away under mocking laughter from the offices of Weta Digital. But showing is not the same as creating. Discussing how digital images tend to flatten empathy rather than elevate it has to be done quietly or you get a visit from the fashion police, even though the scholarship is clear; but at some point advocates of film as The Empathy Machine will have to properly address what actually happens in the brainpan when looking at three dozen tiny digital archetypes fighting on a ruined landscape under a vomitous digital sky, every processing filter cranked up to Moodiest Mood. Whatever that sensation is, it’s not empathy. Expert dopamine delivery from the Mouse House skunkworks, yes; empathy no.

It’s emphatically not radical either, repeating traditional conservative business under the thinnest possible layer of progressive drama. Endgame has two characters make peace with their dead parents so that they might Move On, necessary if your stories are going to be about personal identity and epiphany. (Nobody noticed, but Aquaman actually was radical and ended with the parental unit reformed so no one had to cry about anything.) And the biggest messages of all have been rooted immovably in place since 2008, if not 1908: resets, reboots, origin stories.

Umberto Eco and Marc Singer know the score:

Cyclical stories threaten to impoverish the reader’s awareness of time, causality, and responsibility. This type of story is one of the pedagogic instruments of society and the destruction of time that it pursues is part of a plan to make obsolete the idea of planning and social responsibility. The way repetitive serial fictions present time is implicitly political. A limited temporal imagination stunts the political imagination.

Stan Lee knew the score too, at least at first. All the sticky issues of creative credit and Lee’s personal welfare that gathered over his cameos in these films have defied definitive praise and scorn for nearly 20 years, so his final one could hardly clarify things at this late date. It might be appropriate though, given that those cyclic reinventions were in Lee’s blood and in his nature, that he signs off disconnected from analogue reality altogether, driving down a non-existent highway at a non-existent age under non-existent skies and non-existent hair, off towards some digital nirvana created by people who weren’t born when he retired and adored material he hadn’t created alone, or indeed at all. Whatever endgame of entertainment the original Lee had in mind back while playing that ocarina, it surely could not have been this one.

18 March 2019

Come as you are

There’s a hair-raising sight in Climax when a pregnant woman gets kicked in the belly and another when someone’s hair actually gets set on fire, but Sofia Boutella’s freak-out is a special effect all of its own. Less confrontational than some other Gaspar Noé films, in that it only lingers in the memory like a kick in the knee, Climaxs claustrophobia eats painfully away at the freedom of the dancers in the story, whose physical exuberance makes them seem as free as the wind. They’re not; the allegory of violence and prejudice and modern France that Noé’s cooking up won’t let them off the hook. If you buy into the film’s purpose then it’s a political dance film—much rarer than its cousin the political musical, but potentially more humane.

The camera prowls in long tracking shots around the studio where this group of dancers is enduring a collective bad acid trip, which requires some silent mummery on cue from cast members glimpsed in the background. But for the sequence following Boutella as she dances through her own LSD-driven mental meltdown in an infernal red gloom, you’re not going to be looking anywhere else. Like all dancers who act, Boutella can walk across the carpet in ways that make her co-stars look like their shoelaces have come untied—and do it under prosthetics—but her crack-up of screaming and tumbling and flailing and at one point doing the straddle splits face-first against a wall with her legs in perfectly opposite directions is a sudden leveraging of modern dance in the service of something like a horror film moment, two artistic bare wires touching. (Ever the wag, Noé begins the film with a prominently displayed VHS of Possession, the arthouse-horror where Isabelle Adjani does some fine flailing of her own.) Whether or not dancers really express psychedelic trauma through the medium of dance might be a question to ask them; but this one does, making it an act of character too. Climax is full of character, so much so that you can still detect it even while the film pummels you.

More lovely movers in Fighting with My Family, the loose biography of wrestler Saraya Paige” Bevis which defies all known statistics by being a British comedy-drama and entertaining and leftist. Stephen Merchant has clearly now been in or around Hollywood long enough to absorb the local knack of being sincere and breezy at the same time; but the stuff that looks easy never is. Dexter Fletcher, lovely bloke in the same line of work, has been around the US scene longer and played several Americans, and when he made his UK working class sports comedy Eddie the Eagle it felt like he was holding the script upside-down. Merchant also lucked into Florence Pugh on the way to wherever her career is heading—when she appeared in The Falling I wrote Who’s That in the notebook and it was only four years ago—and the sight of her busking with Vince Vaughn is a team-up so eccentric you wouldn’t even have written it on a whiteboard. The cameraman has to lie in a trench to get them both in the frame. But Pugh has a knack of her own, the one about appearing to be actively high on life.

The film has activism of another kind too, a quiet left-of-centre politics that buoys the film up like a kite. British cinema’s faith that working class stories should deploy council estate aggro and miserabilism has been a dead end for years, one side-effect of Lottery funding that should have been foreseen before it started. And Fighting with My Family has no truck with it. Quite apart from being droll, Paige has no intention of transcending her origins; her path through showbiz is to celebrate her own abilities and her family, who are pulled right along behind. Her talent is explicitly framed as a skill with a use in collective endeavour; when she forms a new collective among the other female wrestlers, it doesn’t supplant the original one bit, and they move forwards together. Working class life is deftly celebrated (allowing for the moment when Merchant and Julia Davis play more aspirational twits, but even they are allies); the family strife between Paige and her brother always floats over shared roots of history and blood that aren’t going anywhere. And this is wrestling, a sport in which the human body is both sold and revered, which Marx somehow wasn’t talking about in that phrase about the physical body being a commodity made up of material provided by nature and labour expended to create it. The film is progressive and feminist and funny, which is more than you can convincingly say about Captain Marvel.

11 March 2019

Nothing if not critical

The Comics Journal resurrected its print version in January, if not quite Back By Popular Demand then maybe a recognition that TCJ had a presence while it was around that no one else has wanted to emulate during its absence. The history of TCJ is what happens when a pop-culture criticism self-starts in a field with no academic scholarship around to corral the undomesticated animal and it proceeds to maul the grandparents, and that book has already been written; which leaves the question of what it intends to do here and now, when pop-culture scholarship is everywhere. An editorial says TCJ will focus on letting artists speak, and be motivated by giving the comic creator [this] missing platform.” Whether the problems of the business have really been made worse by a lack of platforms for creators to speak might be debatable—a lack of collective action perhaps, but that’s not the same thing, and the Entertainment Industrial Complex rolls on. But I’m working on the principle that there should be more venues for arts criticism on paper, rather than fewer.

And then, among the fishes, a whale.

Marc Singer’s book Breaking the Frames also calls for more criticism, by very politely surveying the field of comics criticism and taking the current crop of practitioners to the cleaners. In the process, parallels with other departments of arts criticism and discourse in general are laid out on display. Singer calmly presents the opposing position to some choice bits of common dogma, noting that too much current pop-culture scholarship hardly amounts to criticism by the actual standards of that word at all; and that critics might consider holding a conversation not carving a position statement; and that using art to confirm the hidden wickedness of the people who make it leads to anti-art behaviour; and that critics who only talk about art in terms of art should perhaps not be critiquing art in the first place; and another half-dozen positions from the list of those currently in retreat but which absolutely should not be. The only thing he skirts around is the basic question of art’s political effect in the first place, as per Robert Hughes, walking this path decades ago. Singer’s book is essential, not least for the network of people currently tutoring early-career film critics, who should all read it and take a prompt sabbatical, filleted by the slow knife.

Some items on the slab:

Basic knowledge and scholarship:

The approach taken by academics who identify as fans: that good criticism has to be aspirational…Many of the authors of these pieces remain woefully and sometimes wilfully ill informed about the art, industry, and criticism of comics, as they often have not bothered to familiarise themselves with their subjects…Certain strands of cultural studies limit their focus to a narrow and self-affirming set of theoretical positions, while they neglect economic and historical contexts that can’t be explained through textural interpretation alone.

A radically undisciplined discipline left only with an unquestioning affirmation of the popular, and an equally vapid condemnation of a nebulously defined elite.

Considering pop-culture artefacts as if they were manufactured in isolation of the economic and historical factors that surround them is part of the current limbo, where every opinion is isolated from every other and freed from the terrible burden of consequences. Where, say, film critics embrace the low barriers to entry into criticism and the resulting open-ended workforce, but are silent about the basic economic consequence of downward pressure on wages all the way to zero and no career ladder worthy of the label.

The tyranny of training courses and the writers running them:

We are all MFAs now. Writing programs have often been criticised for producing formulaic paint by numbers fiction and promoting an assembly belt aesthetic. Investment in established notions of literary value contributes a new set of challenges.

Why are film and comics criticism treated as traditional conservative humanities disciplines in the first place, and taught as if they must remain so? Singer makes a good case for why rigorous academic language might be necessary, but the uses found for that language are the standard comfort blankets of literature studies and the hunt for The Exceptional Work, sieving aspirational self-expression and personal epiphanies from the silt. And that’s in the scholarship aisle; in the consumer-facing world, the adoption of humanities language beyond its natural borders has nearly killed the art of rhetoric stone dead.

Leftist critics praising art that is in fact conservative:

Individualism is perfectly amenable with the foundations of neoliberal policy. Any political movement focused on individual freedoms is potentially more compatible with neoliberalism than with social justice. Any mode of autobiography or life-writing is potentially consonant with the political quietism and social atomisation of neoliberalism.

It’s perfectly clear why, say, Captain Marvel should cause unease inside critics who sense friction between the ubiquitous and essentially conservative Chosen One narratives of most superhero origins, and the supposedly leftist ethos of the average pop-culture fantasy, even when blatantly delivered by the Entertainment Industrial Complex. But the discussion of what critics should do in response never begins, since it would need to recognise the lack of authentic leftist stories and why they are absent, alongside detecting how identity politics might actually suppress stories of collective action and crises of principle, rather than encourage them.

That art reveals the hidden wickedness of artists:

The demystifying debunking sensibility that approaches every text as a set of problematic assumptions waiting to be revealed. Scepticism as dogma.

Unlike some of Singer’s other topics, there are plenty of people pushing back against this, which hardly makes it less important. Of all the bad habits in arts criticism that need to cease, the one whereby critics proscribe art based on its surface level alone and look no deeper is the one that needs to be reframed first, on its way into the dustbin. At the very least, no one walking out of a Lars von Trier film at a trade show has any business claiming to do so as a liberal progressive.

The critic is not the one who debunks but the one who assembles.”
Bruno Latour, 2004.

We cannot afford to be quite so cavalier about the differences between finding things out and making them up.”
Rita Felski, 2015.

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