May 4th, 2011
Being: a speculative essay on the self-regulating limits of reality/a celebration of impurity/ a demonstration of the many sickening uses of human waste/ a manifesto for kinder, gentler wank fantasies/a failed attempt to write a feminist critique of The Filth/ and, finally, an embarrassed declaration that it’s time for something great …
1. In The End, Everybody Wins
There’s a moment in the last issue of Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s scatological sci-fi horror comedy, The Filth, which seems to me to perfectly capture the panic of the moment. Greg Feely/Ned Slade, negotiator for the covert organisation known as The Hand and weird, porno-drenched bachelor, has finally snapped. After twelve issues of black comedy and painful existential eruptions, Feely has had enough. His pet cat Tony has died, depriving him of the only love he knew, and now he’s taking his protest right to the very heart of things, to his superior officer Mother Dirt.
As he storms through The Crack, Greg is confronted by his fellow Hand agent, Miami, who reminds him that he has been recycled into the very system he’s rebelling against. Before he was Hand negotiator Ned Slade, she claims that Greg “wouldn’t want to know” what he was:
You, Thunderstone, Bemmer… the whole crazy gang of social activists… You were all gonna destroy the foundation stone of the world.
The system is perfect, Ned. It has to be perfect; it’s all there is. Attacking The Hand is like attacking your own immune system. 
Does this seem familiar to anyone else? As the foundations are shaken and explosions go off all around, a wide-eyed Miami tries to stop Greg by telling him, what… that there aren’t any other options? It’s a statement that would seem perfectly at home in our current political climate. Don’t like the way things are going? Think that terrible acts are being carried out in your name? Feel a bottomless pit open up inside you whenever you even think about Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron or Nick Clegg? Find yourself choking on your own sick when you hear Chancellor/arch bastard George Osborne give a speech to the Tory party conference in which he lays the blame for Moneygeddon (© Charlie Brooker & co 2009) purely on the (admittedly very guilty) Labour party, as though Blair and the boys weren’t just following Thatcher’s lead?
What about when he goes on to tell the poorest UK citizens that they’re going to have to pull their socks up, or claims that he “believes” in public services – does that make you feel like punching your own face off? Well, tough! This is the way the world works now, history has ended and there are no alternatives, so suck it up or go home. If you’ve still got one, that is.
Vote Labour or Vote Tory, hell you can even Vote Lib Dem if you like. This is what you’re getting, this half-cut shadow life. All other options have been deemed non-mutual, incompatible with life as we know it! And may the gods help you if you want to make any bigger changes – under the current system, your proposals cannot be countenanced!
And what’s Greg’s response to all of this? How does he react to this bold statement?
Well, he storms out, eyes blazing like a fucking demon:
But hey, wouldn’t you? 
 If you’ve not read The Filth and are finding youself a bt miffed by all of this Greg/Ned stuff him, don’t worry, that’s part of the fun!
Still, it occurs to me that I should probably give a brief description of the series for those hypothetical readers who’ve not yet read The Filth. Well, here it goes: The Filth is like on of those goofy old Gerry Anderson sci-fi serials, but with David Cronenberg and Michael Moorcock as the all-too-visible puppet masters. Imagine an episode of Captain Scarlet where the good Captain spent half of his time convinced that he was really Tam Shankley, a bedraggled bachelor from East Kilbride. Imagine if Tam spent whole episodes crying and wanking himself off with his crude puppet fingers — picture that and you’ve got some idea of how reading The Filth will make you feel.
 You probably would, though I doubt you’d look quite so good while you did it. Filth artist Chris Weston does a fine line in haggard faces, and his illustrations of Greg Feely’s face are amongst his best.
There’s a forlorn weariness to Feely’s expressions (emphasised by Gary Erskine’s dark, precise inking) that recalls the battered expressions of the 21st century Bill Murray.
If Murray’s performances in the first decade of the new century are viewed as a prismatic exploration of the life of the tired hipster, the many faces of Greg Feely can be seen as the grungy, un-hip counterpoint. Life’s disappointments show heavily on Feely’s face, but he never offers a wry smile in the way that the ever-bewildered Murray might, which makes him easier to pity but harder to love.
2. A Couple of Fists to the Gut for My Troubles
The question is, was Miami’s speech written for our amendment or for our approbation?
Attacking The Hand, we are told, is like attacking your own immune system – well, that sounds pretty stupid so it’s obviously got be a joke, right? Normally this would be an easy question to answer, but Miami’s statement is in keeping with Grant Morrison’s body of work as a writer – the idea that the smallest part contains the whole, “As above, so below”, is in itself embedded in comics as disparate as Animal Man and The Invisibles. 
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:
According to The Filth, whole universes exist inside your body. Cruel germs swarm you, telling you who you are and what you can do. Your every emission could be the end of someone else’s world. This might sound like typical teenage boy bullshit, or it might sound like the feverish imaginings of a sickly old man, but both perspectives are overly body conscious in a way that reverberates deep within the guts of The Filth.
This icky, gooey story is told by every line of Chris Weston’s artwork. You see, in WestonWorld, almost everything bulges with gross biological life. The stilted dullness of suburbia exists only as a thin layer of clothing under which the true story can be found – behind every closed door is another weathered, leering face. Round every corner is an obscene effigy just waiting for your eyes to feast upon it.
Indeed, in one of the later chapters (the aptly titled ‘A Very English Nervous Breakdown’), Greg pulls the screen off his television and discovers this creature waiting for him underneath:
In Grant Morrison’s previous work, the limitations of the body were routinely transcended through a mix of science, magic and imagination. The relationship between Cliff Steele and Crazy Jane in Morrison’s Doom Patrol was able to flourish only because as a robot, Cliff was no longer either man or woman; in The Invisibles, the transvestite shaman Lord Fanny gleefully adopts a female persona with no regard to what anyone might think.
This sort of optimism has no place in The Filth, which seems, more than anything, to suggest that you just can’t do the things that your precious body wasn’t meant to. 
Inherent in this is a reversal of the optimism that is implicit in Morrison’s usual obsession with structures and ultrastructures. Instead of representing a multiverse full of possibilities, the infinity of universes that are nested on top of and within our bodies is represented as a pointlessly brutal hell. We stand on the edge of the abyss and what do we see? Flesh abusing flesh all the way down.
 Animal Man is a postmodern revision of a silly 60s superhero with animal powers, while The Invisibles is an attempt to reframe hundreds of years of counter-cultural thought as the build up to one millennial money shot; despite that, they’re actually more similar than you might think!
Both comics are an attempt to immerse the reader in a fictional reality while pushing fictional characters further out of it, with the idea being that everyone ends up with a better understanding of the interconnected nature of reality.
As Sean Witzke once stated in an email, The Filth is the work of a man who has decided that these efforts are mere folly. Cruel parodies of Morrison’s previous works abound in The Filth: instead of becoming empowered when he breaks through into WestonWorld, the superhero known as Secret Original is crippled by the transition and spends his time bitterly plotting revenge and watching pornographic re-imaginings of his former life.
 There’s another monstrosity spying on him in the walls of his house – a human ear that was hidden behind a painting. While less overtly grotesque than the brain/eyes/ball sack combo that lurks in his television, the ear does transform Feely’s living room into an inverted skull in which he sits, watching over himself while he fawns over his cat and glumly masturbates.
This might actually make the whole situation more horrific. After all, it’s one thing to be convinced that “they” are watching us, and quite another to allow that we might be complicit in the conspiracy.
 Indeed, The Filth is full of reminders that your arms are too short to box with God. As Comrade Dmitri-9 tells Greg in issue #3: “You can’t run away from what you are… especially if what you are includes the legs you run with!”
The fact that Dmitri-9 is a KBG trained chimpanzee assassin could be taken as a reminder that we cannot escape our glorious simian heritage. Or it could just be funny, I dunno.
3. Violence She Solved Everything
So what role do The Hand play in this socio-biological mess? Well, they’re loosely framed as anti-bodies whose job is to destroy anything that threatens Status Q: “The Way It Is”. If that’s the case, doesn’t this have worrying connotations for the body politic? You could definitely argue, as Susan Sontag does in Illness as Metaphor, that “The use of cancer in political discourse encourages fatalism and justifies “severe” measures.”
Naomi Klein makes damning use of this Sontag quote in The Shock Doctrine, where its resonances with the rhetoric used to justify everything from bloody coups in Chile to the invasion of Iraq are obvious and chilling. The premise of Klein’s book is that free-market ideologues have used the techniques of shock therapy to break whole cities and countries down and rebuild them for profit. This hypothesis allows Klein to draw sixty years of history into her narrative, and while some of her arguments are more convincing than others, this central conceit underlines the callous brutality of the events Klein documents.
Sontag’s quote strengthens the link between Klein’s arguments and the argument that Morrison and Weston slip into every crooked line of The Filth, and into all of the gaps between lines, panels, pages and scenes:
“The concept of disease is never innocent,” Sontag writes, and attentive readers of both The Filth and modern history would be hard pressed to argue.
As Klein notes, the “doctors” behind these shock interventions like to posit their cure as the only viable option – and if it fails, or makes things worse as it often does, then that can only mean that the cure wasn’t pursued vigorously enough. 
Back in WestonWorld it’s rogue Hand agent Spartacus Hughes who comes closest to articulating the Shock Doctrine that Klein rails against. As a seaborne utopian community tears itself to pieces due to his intervention, Hughes finds himself in a reflective mood: “I’m an expert in social erosion techniques, martial arts as applied to whole societies,” he says.
Taming and breaking a culture is the same as brainwashing a human being. But it’s what happens after that interests me… The citizens of Libertania are in soft, raw, pliable state of shock… ready to implant new rules and a new purpose.
The Hand eventually stops Hughes, but they don’t seem too concerned for his victims. “We recycled all the ones worth saving,” Miami says as she and her colleagues escape the exploding wreckage of the Libertania, but when Hughes rejoins The Hand in a subsequent chapter it’s hard not to feel like he’s part of the system rather than an aberration.
What kind of worldview would allow you to walk away from catastrophe content that nothing had been wasted? I’d like to think that such an attitude that was pure science fiction, but I’m afraid I can’t really pretend that that’s the case.
 The implications that this argument has for my interpretation of The Filth are written all over this essay’s “face”, but… by now you’re probably a little tired of all the references to other books and essays, I keep making, right? Hey, what can I say – I’m nothing more than a crude leftist jukebox, a tired lump of flesh that can’t help but spout this kind of shit whenever I consider the state of the world. Or maybe I’m just a regular Tam Shankley, sitting alone in my house, reading reports full of abuse and torture and trying to rub one off with my crude puppet fingers. This seems particularly disturbing when you consider the fact that so much of the violence of The Filth is violence against women, which might say worrying things about my view of gender roles in this biological metaphor.
Then again, perhaps what I’m really doing here is recycling my own mental detritus – trying to make something new and useful out of some of my bleakest and least noble thoughts. Maybe, just maybe, this essay is my attempt to make something out of all the shit in my head. I’m not saying that this thunderingly basic structure will be of any use to anyone else, but it’s a possibility, and right now that’s more than enough justification for me.
4. Loosen Up and Tie Your Legs to the Handrail
Still, at this stage it’s hopefully evident that if The Filth contains a model of human biology or politics in it, then it’s a profoundly reduced caricature of the real thing. This is what cartooning is, after all: a series of gross simplifications that still somehow resemble the worlds we see inside and around us. Which brings us to another one of the themes of The Filth – pornography! (You see, in The Filth the metaphors come pre-mixed, just to save us commentators a little bit of difficult. For example, I’ve only not mentioned the fact that The Hand are also cosmic bin men because it would give away too much of my overall theme!)
As well as featuring a villain who is a purveyor of hardcore movies and a porn-obsessed protagonist, the style of The Filth reflects Angela Carter’s concept of pornography:
Pornography involves an abstraction of human intercourse in which the self is reduced to its formal elements… the probe and the fringed hole, the twin signs of male and female in graffiti, the biological symbols scrawled on the subway poster and the urinal wall … a language we accept as universal because, since it has always been so, we conclude that it must always remain so.
(Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History)
Compare this to the philosophy of one of The Filth’s villains, the aforementioned brutalist pornographer Tex Porneu:
The existentialists faltered on the brink of the gaping void. “Nausea”… that’s what those limp dick intellectuals felt. They were afraid of the big black pit. Scared of losing their weeny-weeny dickelts in the asshole of being. Not me! By god, not Tex! I’m gonna fuck the abyss raw!
Actually, perhaps Carter’s version of pornography isn’t debased enough for the Internet age, with its glut of wannabe Porneus. Reading Sade’s work, Carter finds a particularly uninhibited strain of satire, but the world The Filth presents is beyond satire. In WestonWorld it’s too obvious that people are meat; you can see it on every line on every face. As for the fantasies we dress ourselves up in, the creators of The Filth know just how obvious they are – the uniforms that Hand Officers wear are designed to remind members of the public of “Freudian sex urges they prefer to deny”, which has the effect of rendering them innocuous. The presence of this grotesque fantasy world isn’t worth commenting on because everyone already knows that it’s there and is slightly embarrassed by it!
So what does this leave us with? What’s the function of The Filth if it’s too bleak to work as a satire? Greg asks a similar question when he finally comes into contact Mother Dirt, an abstract anti-womb that Angela Carter would surely have raised an eyebrow at.  Scooping up two handfuls of the fertile shit that makes up this oozing mess of an authority figure, Greg asks the crucial question – “What am I supposed to do with this?”
The answer he receives is as stupid as it is profound: “Spread it on your flowers Greg,” Mother Dirt says, as though this simple gardening tip could ever be enough to keep a human being going.
 This piece was originally supposed to be an extended feminist critique of The Filth that would take the comic to task for the role that women played in its reductive porno-biological metaphors.
Unfortunately, being a male, middle class asshole, I ended up writing about everything except that – such distraction being just another way that the current “system” reinforces its bullshit limits.
5. The Hope That House Built
From this perspective, The Filth looks like a cryptic statement of a simple fact. Perhaps only after considering the horrific, meaningless brutality of the world can we move beyond “The Way It Is”. Despite what he’s seen and done, Feely still loves his pet cat, and this almost-meaningless act of dedication becomes a sentient virus that infects aspects of the world around him (I know!). Transpose this into the body politic and what you have is a refreshed argument for the ability small levels of reality to affect the large ones – change is possible, but it needs to start on the smallest scales imaginable if it’s going to present a true alternative.
In the final moments of the series, our shared biology is reframed not as a trap, but as the foundation for something better, something new. An un-attributed voice tells us that “Only humans could make something kinder and better than themselves… like anti-bodies in the great big body of nature except anti-bodies don’t get sad because they know their place.” This is a mutant strain of the ideology that Terry Eagleton suggests in After Theory; a worldview that recognises the big black pit at the heart of existence not as something to be fucked, but as something that needs to be acknowledged before we can work out how to treat each other. In other words, a worldview based on “an awareness of human frailness and unfoundedness”, as Eagleton puts it.
This isn’t another dose of the “love conquers all” bromide, or a call to find purity through pain. It isn’t ‘All You Need Is Love’ either, beautiful as that particular lie might be. This is an admission that there is life beyond the porno-biological complex. It’s a seemingly invisible argument that turns out to have been staring you in the face all along. The Filth is a piece of abstract propaganda that argues that we have bodies and that “We have love”, but that what we do with both of them is very much up to us.
This essay was originally published in issue #1 of Andrew Hickey’s PEP! magazine – I had to make a few minor changes to bring the political stuff up to date, and I had to reformat the footnotes which originally bounced from one side of the page to the other, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same.
Life… don’t it go on?