(Part 2 of these annocommentations can be found here)
Words that you might have seen used rather a lot elsewhere in relation to this comic:
All fine words I grant you, but sadly they all too often help to close down critical discussion rather than open it up. Hopefully we can do a bit better than that.
Zom: Why are we annocommentating Seaguy you might ask? It’s not as dense as yer Final Crisises or yer League of Extraordinary Gentlemens (expect us to annocommentate vol 3 later this month). Well for a start as we’ve said time and time again, annocommentations aren’t annotations, they’re not predicated on explaining the significance of assorted reappropriated cultural artifacts, etc… they’re just our random thoughts, that may or may not have anything to do with that stuff.
Secondly, after rereading Seaguy vol 1 the other day I trawled the Internet for a few worthy reviews. Oh dear. Of the reviews I read, I think Jog offered up pretty much the only take that actually attempted to engage with the text on anything other than a very superficial level. It’s like people couldn’t get beyond the idea that Grant Morrison had decided to turn his hand to comedy, and were blinded by whether or not they thought Seaguy was funny or whether they liked the delivery. That the book drips with pink, gooey subtext seemed to be missed entirely, and it’s garish tonal syntheses, particularly its idiosyncratic blend of horror and absurd humour, was subject to the usual grumblings from those unwilling to give any surprising new flavours a try.
Personally I think Seaguy ranks among Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart’s best work. It’s innovative, highly unusual, smart, brimming with imagination, funny as fuck, tightly plotted, and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever come across ever.
Amy: When I was making my way to Dave’s comics today I bumped into a couple of friends who don’t understand it’s cool to read comics (because they’re losers) and after a few minutes conversation and a bit of curious peering at what I had in my hand, they proceeded to quiz me on the free copy of Seaguy the very generous Tymbus had just given me (don’t worry Grant and Cam, I’ll have some money next week and I’ll fork out for a copy. double promise!!) . ‘What exactly is it?’ they asked. Now, I hate this question – it makes my brain itch – because how the wank do you explain Seaguy to the uninitiated? Is it, as Zom nods to above, a comedy? Is it horror? Is it a superhero book? Is it Disney for Mature Readers? Is it all that guff Grant spouts about Heroic Narratives? Well, it’s probably all of it, but that’s not the point is it? That’s not what’s interesting about Seaguy. No, what’s interesting about Seaguy, the thing that makes it stand out in the racks, is its indefinability – there’s nothing out there like it – and it’s the fizzing tensions it sets up between the different genre/narrative conventions that comprise it that make it so enjoyable and give it so much personality.
So what did I tell my friends?
Nothing. I changed the subject. I couldn’t be bothered. We talked about a weird bloke I know. Saved myself the headache. They didn’t really give a shit anyway, let’s face it.
Amy: Okay then. So you’re a child of a kindly blacksmith in Atlantis and through a series of plot contrivances I’m too lazy to conjure up here, you find yourself on a quest that necessitates you visit the King’s castle. You’ve heard a great deal about its grand banquet hall and the lavish feasts and colourful dances they throw there, the turrets festooned with luminous seaweeds and garlands of undersea flowers, the golden lights emanating from every window and a great deal about the King’s daughter, who, it is said, is more beautiful than the rarest pearl. That kind of thing. And so, after many weeks of fighting your way through shark infested wastelands, bargaining for your life in the jewelled caves of the octo-people, flying on the backs of great manta-rays miles wide, etc., you arrive at the castle only to find it silent, greying, abandoned, all the windows black and empty, the royal pleasure boat rotting and wrecked in the now dismal canyons of the overgrown and untended rock gardens, the King’s prized pet, his beloved Golden Fish, filleted on the steps, a terrible warning to any unwary traveler who might have failed to pick up on the news that the Royal Court has long since fled this place and an evil witch has taken up residence somewhere in the stony, pitch-dark gloom.
Of course Seaguy feels terrible.
The first page is a great example of exactly the kind of nightmarish imagery Seaguy does so well. It doesn’t shout about itself. It’s not grisly, ostentatious or obvious. There are no vampires, zombies or, *yawn*, freshly drawn spinal cords here. There’s just a drowned fairytale castle, a symbol of romance and adventure, substituted by a nasty plastic replica, complete with whirring bubble motors, a dusting of uneaten, garishly coloured fishfood, and the decomposing carcass of a dead fish who it was all wasted on anyway because of three second memory spans and all that. I don’t think it’s going to far to say it’s Lynchian – Mulholland Drive set in a fish tank. It wasn’t the glorious sunken kingdom you thought it was, but a tawdry diversion for a bored stay-at-home superhero, desperate for love and adventure – something to care about and make him feel alive again.
And now it’s filled with fish crap and it stinks.
I don’t know if any of you people out there have seen a funnyfun! fish-tank go to shit inspite of your best efforts, but I have, and it’s a deeply disturbing, disgusting experience. Like watching a body cancerize or something.
This is a more banal, everyday, and resultingly DEEPER, horror than that seen in your Vertigo books of olde. Like the Semi in volume three of the Invisibles – an environment it shares more than a few superficial similarities with – it speaks of empty, hopeless lives. The dark suburban spaces where the twin demons of existential angst and alienation crawl in. And in that it serves as a brilliant metaphor for the concerns of the entire series. A seemingly perfect, white-picketted world that, behind the scenes, is really a prison for the characters’ souls. Betsy in Mad Men and Seaguy would have a lot to talk about.
Pages 2 & 3
Zom: Love the juxtaposition of the muted brown-green of the cabin with the lurid pink of the… er… entertainment (I’m assuming that stuff is taking place on the television screen). Morrison claims that this Seaguy is, in a figurative sense, a teenager, and here we have him moping around in his murky room, while on the tv completely batshit horror goes entirely unnoticed by the protagonist. And that’s the thing about Seaguy, all his talk about how boring everything is, how nothing happens, completely misses the point that the world he lives in throbs with bizzaro life. It’s the fundamental absurdity of the text, and one suspects it points with a big thick finger towards the book’s broader preoccupations with our culture of consumption.
Amy: The themes I mentioned above continue to be explored over the following pages. I don’t know if it was in the art direction or if it was a a contrivance of Cam’s* but the inclusion of Neptune’s Trident and a lilliputian submarine (okay, so it’s not actually described as such in the text, but it does *feel* magical) reduced to nothing more than wall ornaments underscores the idea that Seaguy’s world has successfully hijacked, packaged, resold and inevitably neutered its own fantasy life; that its dreams and myths have been reduced to nothing more than ornamentation and window dressing.
In this sense, then, the cartoony art echoes the book’s thematic content. Grant has talked a lot in interviews about the disneyfication of culture and the way in which our global mega-culture is leeching the strangeness, charm and wonder from the world – I know, I know, perhaps this egg needs a bit more salt – but regardless of whether or not you subscribe to this view, it’s what Seaguy’s about, and in that it shares a common concern with Woodring’s Frank and, probably unknowingly, employs similar visual/narrative tricks to get its point across. The first of which we arrive at within this double spread.
One of the elements that makes Frank a successful horror comic (like Seaguy, it’s much, much more than that, but it is scary) is the tension between the soft, pliable cartoon body and its fleshy, breakable counterpart. Seeing Mickey Mouse’s face shatter, his body tear, age or rot, serves to in some way reaffirm our physicality, our meatiness, precisely because he represents a space where this simply does not happen. It forces us to appoach gore, viscera and violence with new eyes and is all the more upsetting and sickening for it. Bizarrely enough, it’s through seeing a cartoon body deformed that we are brought closer to a deeper feeling for our own. Morrison and Woodring are attempting to resensitize us to the world around us by – say it with me super team – detourning the Dream Factory. Just take a good look at 1/2 an Animal on a Stick. It’s a pink blob of pure, squelchy, bubblegum toon-matter. Fun, yes? No. Not fun at all. It’s the cartoon grown old and decrepit . Its wacky antics and zany idiosyncracies replaced by senility and Alzheimer’s. Its bendy, endlessly morphing body hobbled by the brutal symbol of physicality that it hangs limply from, the policeman’s baton. It’s as though the cartoon tself, its cells, has caught a disease (or always was diseased) and it’s infecting everything from the root up. This is the Mouse’s infected heart hiding behind the curtain, always there, always ready to give your brains a lick. Like the haunted castle in the first page, 1/2 an Animal manages to invert a traditionally fun, childish symbol, in this case candyfloss, and turn it into something threatening. The fairground snack that eats you.
The TV sequence also neatly describes, though in slightly more condensed, literal terms, the situation in Seaguy’s living room: the temptations of authentic experience and adventure, represented by the apple, that Seaguy wrestles with daily, and the State’s repressive mind control tactics used to put these nasty, messy, volatile urges well and truly down – our hero reduced to a happy slave, just another fitting in his lounge, while a demonic, crawling, spider-parrot patrols his soul, keeping tabs on his every move and making detailed reports to his dark masters.
We might not notice it at at first but this is our first warning that Lucky el Loro is not all he seems….
*Zom: Er, we know Cameron through Barbelith hence “Cam”. This sort of over familiarity can squick, so I thought I better explain.
Zom: Despite being the first and only poodle to draw my attention to the following fact, Amy hasn’t mentioned it so I feel compelled to point out that half an animal on a stick pretty neatly describes Chubby da Choona’s rotting corpse in vol #1. Nicely resonant regardless of the intent.
See what I mean?
Pages 4 & 5
Amy: Lucky’s dialogue is so arch that it dives headfirst into racism only to emerge out the other side again. He’s a proper cartoon, comedy Spaniard. The kind of Zany foreigner we thought was dead on our screens before Borat (who only serves to remind us it’s *not* that we’ve gotten less racist, just that the Spanish punching bag was exhausted through overuse). This stereotype is now so familiar, so loaded with cliche, we could almost speak all Lucky’s dialogue for him if only we knew how the plot was going to play out. Seaguy is full of these kind of alienating, Brechtian devices, that invite us to keep our distance, to see through the action, the cardboard cutout world to the clanking gears and pistons lurking off panel, powering the thing (all this thanks, I should add, to Cameron Stewart’s incredible sense of place and detail. He goes to such pains, like Quitely before him, to get the layouts right, to make them feel like solid locations. May other artists learn from their example…. You know who you are….). Lucky is insubstantial, a lie, a shadow of Seaguy’s Chubby (fnur), and his friendship and companionship potentially as inauthentic as the *pleasure* the inhabitants of New Venice get from their Xoo ready-meals, their creepy theme parks and TV shows.
Another, perhaps this time slightly heavy handed, layer of symbolism Seaguy goes in for is the conflation of the unconscious with the submarine, and on page 4 this is made about as explicit as it can be. Seaguy isn’t just the ineffectual hero of the watery depths, he’s the ineffectual hero of our dreams also. But not for much longer. This is where he escapes the maze of rock pools, strides manfully into the surf, swims out beyond the shallows and into the….
I too feel as though I must mention the ‘bony things. You know your pecky things. The ones you like.’ because it was my first laugh out loud moment reading the book. I played it back to myself as many times as Gary Lactus’s ‘I look like I’m having a good time but I’m not because I’m with Tymbus.’, and that’s saying something. The image of Lucky feasting on a pile of thrush’s shin-bones or the like is at once immensely grotesque and disturbing and somehow very funny, especially when they’re characterized as pecky things. The sense of humour that runs throughout Seaguy is very British, and might go some way to explaining why the book only ever achieved ‘cult status’ during its first run, drawing from that rich seam of surreal comedy that’s always bubbling beneath the surface of the evening TV schedule, from Python, through Reeves and Mortimer to The Mighty Boosh. In fact our comedy and our horror conceivably emerge from the same place. The Absurd is always a hair’s breadth away from veering either way, and, well, the American kids of the 80s grew up on a diet of Care Bears and Transformers, whereas we were terrorized by Noseybonk, had our souls crushed by the banality of Cockleshell Bay, were introduced to death by Bagpuss and generally put upon by a raft of weird scheduling decisions made by adults who’d long since forgotten what it was to be a child. Far from educating, edifying and entertaining us, these shows saw a whole generation, maybe two, screaming to the kitchen for our mothers.
Zom: “bony things…” There’s something about that dialogue and the look on Seaguy’s face which rams home the idea that Seaguy is talking to a bird. Not an anthropomorphised bird. A proper birdy bird with a tiny brain, made from feathers and claws and all those bits that you’re not made from, and that eats bony things that you don’t like, but it likes because it’s a bird. An animal.
Pages 6 & 7
Zom: “…Crazy, crazy, crazy!”. Like those guy at the office, the one with the poster that reads ‘you don’t have to be crazy to work here… but it helps!”. That wacky guy. The crazy one. Crazy times.
This is “crazy” with all its power sucked out. It’s that all too common way of using the word that confers special status to everyday banalities like your colleague’s penchant for… I dunno… frappuccinos BEFORE BED! Or alternatively to bring genuinely complex and complicated concepts, experiences, artifacts and ideas down to size, to make them more palatable, safe – explained by a word built from two easy to use syllables.
This is the Mickey Eye approved use of the term.
The thing is, though, Seaguy actually does have genuinely crazy times. He just doesn’t remember/notice.
Amy: Action fans might find themselves scratching their heads with regards to this two page spread. It’s not as though very much is happening is it? Morrison perhaps could’ve reduced the page count by a margin of one by hammering all this into one page, afterall.
Aaaah, but the action fans would be missing the point.
It’s telling that earlier on when I was on the phone to Zom and we were discussing this post, that we’d both reached similar conclusion with regards to what this scene is selling us, what it tells us about New Venice. I think to anyone raised on a diet of proper weirdness, the hotel complex vibe it emits can be easily identified as pure Port Meirion. New Venice is designed to pacify, to send its residents to sleep. It’s a picturesque playground, but, like the Village and its lurid colour scheme, with a sinister edge. It’s got everything you could ever want: themed pubs, an endlessly expanding theme park, themed lives…. All of it precision engineered to distract Seaguy from the gaping hole in his life. From real, lived experience. The ‘Salty Sailor’ sign says it all. The place does a good impersonation of a ye olde worlde tavern, but it’s olde worlde via the Epcot Centre and Centre Parks. The sign’s too plastic, too clean. The Salty Sailor is just another brand in a branded community.
Grant makes a big thing out of this moment (literally), not just because the silence and the stillness highlights the pathos, but also because he wants us to fully drink in and absorb the sterile, Holiday Inn atmosphere.
But not before we’ve been initially slightly seduced by it. I know it made me want to go abroad. You could practically hear the crickets, if the world hadn’t been wiped clean of them.
Pages 8 & 9
Amy: How touching: the first sign that She-Beard shares Seaguy’s affections. And also, and this is what really makes them soulmates, his refusal to prostitute his sense of self-worth, his desires and his identity to New Venice’s dark masters. Like Seaguy, She-Beard believes in adventure and will never trade her armour, broadsword or beard for a life of pampered, deadening luxury. In fact, and I have no idea if this is intended and neither, as usual, do I give a fuck, but her ‘fabled virginity’ in some ways positions her as a child. She’s still playing, and she refuses to give it up for anyone who won’t get in the sandpit with her. But, tellingly, her sense of play is potentially violent, potentially bloody, a universe away from the soul-numbing merry-go-rounding of Doc Hero. She wants to feel the blood pounding beneath her skin. She wants to fight and LOVE.
And that’s the last thing Lothario wants her to do.
Amy: I think I may have mentioned before, how creepy I found that city beneath the Pentagon in the third (?) ish of The Invisibles vol 2. I wondered what it would be like to live there, amidst that forest of gleaming white, pristine buildings, perfect, clipped parks and virally replicating office spaces. Well now I know. This is the world the Outer Church made when they won the war and conquered our dreams. It’s a familiar theme of Morrison’s, of course, but I think Seaguy sells it very well. I love the nightmarishly dreamy vista of the construction site behind the set (afterall, that is precisely what New Venice is), the paranoid fantasy of workmen hammering together the street moments before we take our morning stroll, winding up the clockwork birds and nailing them to ply-board trees…. The distant thrum of heavy machinery while the world sleeps. The scaffolding beneath the tectonic crust.
Everything manmade. No rough edges.
Amy: That butterfly’s the enemy’s weak link, you betcha. Lotharius probably is too for that matter. Shades of Sir Miles.
Believe it or not, I hate spurious, fanboyish Invisibles referencing, but I think it’s appropriate here. It may give us a feel for the narrative’s trajectory.
Pages 12, 13 & 14
Amy: Even Death, in this brave new world, is reduced to a slightly creepy but relatively ineffectual shadow of his former self. Death and Dying, the ultimate big deal, the adventure par excellence, proximity to which should make us feel more alive than ever, naturally can’t be tolerated by a state that wants scrub the world clean of highs and lows in its attempt to perform a kind of weird, anti-alchemy, where the lead of our lives is transformed into pure plastic, pure bubblegum, non-biodegradable and eternal.
On page 12 and in the following pages, Grant continues to run with the idea that Mickey Eye park, like all this world’s entertainments, is a far from pleasurable experience. The rides and the funny Mickey-Guides more often than not see the children in tears. New Venice is pretty much exactly how I imagined smack would be when I was younger after watching Zammo’s fevered attempts to hoover up the dregs of his perforated baggy from the school bog’s floor. Smack seemed to me, at that time at least, pre-Trainspotting, to be an altogether horrific proposition. The high didn’t look fun – in fact everything about it looked terrifying – but you just couldn’t escape the stuff once it had got a foothold in your soul. ‘Just say NO?’ Shit, I had no idea why anyone would say ‘yes’. I suppose I imagined the mechanism worked something like the scary rollercoasters and ghost trains in this scene. Heroin served to make one feel so oppressed, so defeated, it crushed and mangled the soul to such an extent that it was left raw, vulnerable and stupefied, eager to reimbibe the lies Heroin promised the first time around – the good times, the fun, the escape – and inevitably the drug itself. Perhaps the reason the children are sobbing is because they’re undergoing the conditioning process for the first time, and it’s more violent for them. Their hearts and souls aren’t as blunted as their parent’s.
And why is that water spunk?
Zom: Given that the final episode of volume #1 ended with Seaguy’s continuity being reset, it’s unsurprising that this episode should look a lot like vol #1 issue 1. So here we have Seaguy, Death and the possibility of a chess game, just like in the first issue. Things play out differently here of course, but the question of just how thematically and narratively similar this volume and the first one will end up being has to be asked. Jog makes a great case for Seaguy being about or at least inspired by Morrison’s experiences on New X-Men – the horrible corporate reality that meant that all his good work got ejected the second he left the book, and the forces that work against superhero comics reaching their full potential – and given the power of his reading and the fact that Morrison has been working with these themes for some time now it’s fair enough that some people are wondering whether the world needs more Seaguy. Are we just going to be digging over old ground?
I’m hoping not. Seaguy certainly has broader, less genre bound themes lurking in the background: art and culture and its relationship to consumerism, the end of history and the power to recreate the world/see the world afresh through the power of the will and imagination. Morrison also claims that this volume is about adolescence and that the series as a whole will chart Seaguy’s trajectory towards adulthood (in a figurative sense, one supposes – Seaguy is clearly an adult), so I’m hoping the book has enough on its thematic plate to justify another round, although obviously on the strength of this first issue it’s impossible to tell.
That said, when getting into critical discussions we would do well to remember that stories aren’t simply about themes and even plot – they’re also about less tangible things like atmosphere and tone, and how well the storytellers do their jobs page by page. Does it makes us feel? Does it make us care? Do we laugh? Do any of the images sear themselves onto out brain (yup, BIRDEYE AM DUK! Er, no!) and prevent us from sleeping? Certainly from where I’m sitting Seaguy’s blend of humour and horror, its well executed surreality, and its highly idiosyncratic efforts in worldbuilding add up to a reading experience which I’m keen to have more of.
Pages 15 & 16
Amy: I think every interview with a comic creator should contain the question: ‘who/what was the weirdest supervillain you invented before you were nine?’ Zom and I had a bunch of them, but the weirdest was, without a doubt, something called the Dragon’s Lair. A berserk hybrid of Dungeons and Dragons (the dungeons as well as the dragons), Cloak (of Cloak and Dagger/Disco Horror fame) and, well, the Tardis. The Dragon’s Lair came back to plague Top Hat time and time again. I loved him. So what was his deal? Well, he looked like a big, hungry, mechanical dragon, and he was scary enough in that regard, but the really scary thing was that, when he ate you, you found yourself in a sinister world, which, although bounded, would take days to traverse and was home to all sorts of freaky beasties, like the sinister Owl Men (riffing on some aliens from the old Space Adventure action transfers you could buy in, it seemed, every corner shop in the land) who lived high, high up in the rafters, amidst the deep thickets of gears and machinery that powered the beast, or the terrible villain only known as the Hand (a giant, floating hand) who sometimes took up residence in the dragon’s innards, not to mention the fact that the place was littered with all manner of death-traps….to the point that death-trap was bordering on a new landscape, like sea, jungle or city. I think what brought me back time and time again to the Dragon’s Lair was the pleasure I derived from the way he confused location, space and organism. Was he alive? Was he just a clanking, fire-belching elaborate death trap? Was he both alive and dead? Part fortress, part Smaug, part small country, twinned with Luxembourg, he was an enigma, a puzzle I conjured from my various childhood obsessions that would never yield up its secrets. He was occult. Mysterious. His true nature frightened and fascinated me in equal measure.
And why am I waffling about him now? Because of that dragon’s mouth entrance to the hall of monsters.
As usual intentionality is difficult to pin down, but it seems to me that Cameron’s image contains an awareness of this tension – an inert, unreactive maw, somehow seething with life. Unlife – I think that’s the best way to describe it. I suppose it’s easier to summon up this strange, ambivalent energy out of a cartoon universe, because, as I noted in my Frank essay, it’s harder to separate out subject and object in the Magic Kingdom. But, whatever, it’s really horrible. I wouldn’t step inside that thing. It’s camouflaged as a funhouse, but that’s just how it gets its dinner.
We’ll be back in a couple of days for Part 2!
Looks like the critical landscape might be more interesting this time around.