Fresh from Thought Bubble 2014, it’s the one chapter preview of THE FUNCTION OF THE FILTH, my forever delayed book on Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s best comic, The Filth, to be serialised in five posts corresponding to the five positions of The Hand!

the fist

Whether you read The Filth in its original glossy single issue format, or in its collected edition – where the action takes place on paper that has the clinging consistency of toilet paper – the first thing you’re confronted once you make it past the immaculately executed packaging is a disorientating sequence depicting another sort of execution.

Chris Weston’s detail heavy, stiffly posed art is of a piece with the superhero comics The Filth shared shelf space with, and the actions depicted follow suit, albeit in a way that is almost absurd in its grotesque exaggeration of the usual villainous tropes.

On the very first page of the actual story you’re presented with four close-up images, all of them focused on an antagonistic aggressor, a bearded alpha male with a bloodied knuckle-duster delivering a speech about how he hates smoking because it’s like violence: a dirty habit.  The fact that he’s lighting a cigarette while he’s doing so provides these images with a thin film of irony that fails to distract from either the raw, horrid physicality that haunts every line of his face, or the blood that drips from his fingers like so much tomato ketchup.

As originally published in single issue format, the shine of the dark purple ink gives this a luxurious, decadent feel. In trade paperback edition, it feels rough, like it must surely have been purchased from a disreputable store in a run down street. These experiences both have their distinct pleasures, but they cast the events happening on-page in a different light.  The high resolution violence of the individual issues has the feel of absurd indulgence to it; while reading them,  I feel as though I am showing my enthusiasm for the process of refinement involved, for the elevation of the stupid and the barbaric to the status of entertainment, and maybe even art. Reading the collected edition, I feel that I am lowering myself to the level of the actions involved, basking in the coarseness.  The fact that the trade paperback is more likely to find a home in a respectable bookshop than the single issues were merely adds another layer or irony to the experience.

The potential glibness of this opening is disturbed even further when the camera pulls back – please note: there is no camera –  so that we can see the same bearded menace three times in the one big panel as he hovers over a the prone figure of a beaten and bloodied scientist, giving the same speech we’ve already read as he pours petrol on his victim.  The effect is disorientating at first – is it “his” Victim or “their”  Victim?  He or they?  Man or gangbang?

Given that this incident takes place in a chapter called called “us vs. them” it would make sense if we were dealing with a swarm of antagonists here, but this is actually just a cunningly applied variation on the old action movie trick of showing you one cool move several times over.   The grammar of cinema is being invoked – and you only need to look so far as my earlier terminological slippage for evidence of the effectiveness of this technique –  but one should always be careful not to mistake what’s being called up with what’s actually there, especially when dealing with a comic as committed to toxic fantasy as The Filth.

The fantasy in question starts with a doubled up money-shot, an overlapping torture scene in which a bearded twat in a tracksuit revels in his own brutality. Reading this,  do you feel “dirty” yet?  And if so, do you like it?  I like it, but I do not feel good about doing so.  This stuttering, instantly repeating simulation of action movie violence refers to something that I have grown up with, and which I have been duly trained to appreciate. I am the one who bought the tickets for these movies, who picks up the dvd boxsets, who would quite possibly pay good money to see you annihilated so long as your execution was suitably stylish.

One person who clearly didn’t derive much pleasure from this particular example of aestheticised violence is The Filth’s penciller, Chris Weston, who refused to draw this page as it was originally described and who seems to have experienced pangs of doubt as to the nature of the project upon receiving the script for the first issue. Weston’s interview, incidentally, is the only worthwhile thing in Tom Shapira’s time-wasting paperweight Curing The Postmodern Blues: Reading Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s The Filth in the 21st Century. While discussing the difficulties he encountered while drawing the strip, Weston makes the following confession:

In Grant’s script, Doctor Soon was depicted as being totally naked, with a petrol-filled funnel up her arse.  Spartacus Hughes was nonchalantly dropping a lighted match into the funnel.  So imagine that: I’ve agreed to draw The Filth, and the first page I get features the description of a beaten, naked woman, down on all fours, with a funnel up her arse, filled with petrol, with someone drawing a match into it. And I thought, “Oh my god! What have I agreed to!”

I don’t like the depiction of sexual violence to women. Had Doctor Soon been male, I may have considered tackling it, albeit with gritted teeth.

Weston’s instinct were good in this instance – The Filth has an issue with its depiction of violence against women as it is, but the problem would be much worse if the image described had opened the book – and his comments provide an insight into an experience of The Filth that is otherwise unavailable to us.  Whatever our feelings on the violent, sexualised spectacle that has been provided for our entertainment, our participation is of a different order to Weston’s. We only have to contend with the fact that Weston has drawn this horrible shit for our consumption; he has to live with the knowledge that he did it for us.  In other words, while we may consume the meat and appreciate the artful hand that made it, Weston is still very much the butcher. In the same interview Weston reveals that he didn’t understand what sort of time dilation effect Morrison was trying to describe in the script and that he doesn’t think the finished result works.  “It was confusing and alienating: not a good way to start a story.”  Here Weston’s concern for the reader is less well placed.  The event Morrison described in his script would most likely be too barbarous to keep the audience on-side, whereas the first page of the finished book provides a more obliquely voyeuristic experience than would have been generated by a “straight” version of this scene.

Still, not all of the violence in The Filth is as unpleasant as the opening. Later on in the first issue, when Greg learns that the Hand intend to provide a lookalike to keep his life warm, he ends up lashing out in a manner that breaks time without disturbing Chris Weston’s sense of moral decency.

The moment in question occurs midway through the first issue, when Greg is confronted with his grinning doppelganger, in whom the true(?) Greg Feely’s sense of constant, vocal bewilderment is replaced by an unnerving practicality.  This cruel, orderly instinct leads Greg’s double to announce that he’s going to replace his(/their?) cat with a newer, less sickly model.  When this imposter tries to administer the crucial injection, our Greg/Ned (his raw confusion aptly expressed by his outfit, which combines the unflattering top of a Hand agent with the shame-stained underpants of a middle aged man) violently interjects.   Rather brilliantly, he does so by using a toothbrush, and this action is depicted in a sequence in which the amount of time and space dedicated to the individual components of the on-page action slows down and shrinks in a way it hasn’t since the first page.

One tiny panel is dedicated to as the moment where the toothbrush connects with the “fake” Greg’s hand; a further two show the syringe spinning in the air; a fourth captures the moment where the “real” Greg’s catches it.  After this the action returns to its original pace, and the panels return to their usual size.

The significance of this flux is clear: something has happened that was so (s)exciting that it demanded another injection of action movie grammar.  But ask yourself, in all honesty: is there any item in the bathroom less suited to this snappy bit of James Bond action than a toothbrush?  Personally, I’d fancy my chances of turning a slippery old bar of soap into a better weapon, and the very absurdity of this skilful assault is the most persuasive bit of nonsense in the first issue.  The staging of this movement is so slick it’s almost painful to question its probability, but the details of the scene make it equally difficult not to do so.  So all the surface trappings that adorn this action sequence are just a slightly less familiar version of the super-powered nonsense most comic fans catalog as easily as a fish swims through water – even the radioactive blue and green wigs aren’t that strange in a landscape full of Aqualads and Novagirls – but the action at the start and the end of the first issue hints at the uncertainty that runs through the book like shit and piss through the pipes that flow through your house.

With this scene still scorching the back of their eyelids the reader is finally ready to blast through into the Crack with Greg, and the details they’ve been provided with are every bit as beguiling and as unconvincing as the words that take him there as his mobile waste disposal unity zooms towards a solid barrier at a harrying rate.

Say it with me now and say it true: “This is ninth gear. Faster than the speed of wall.” The truth is that Feely has been operating in “ninth gear” for the entirety of the comic so far.  Like the readers, he had been dragged along through the first chapter of the story, powered along his journey by familiar tropes whose seeming efficiency only serves to make the ride seem less safe than it might otherwise.

(For more behind the scenes info on The Function of the Filth, keep an eye on the website I’ve set up for it here.)

12 Responses to “The Function of the Filth – Preview #1”

  1. Filthy Friday #1 | The Function of the Filth Says:

    [...] Filthy Friday posts will give more details of this method, but for now you can CLICK HERE to read an excerpt from the first chapter, the castle made of flesh that was [...]

  2. NA Says:

    I’m so very glad you unleash this five-parter !
    Really a great read, already
    on that filthy little book,
    that made its way into Paris
    through dirty hands and well-intentioned family members.

    What a book, assuredly.

    And cheers to all Mindless ones & things.

  3. David Wynne Says:

    “…like shit and piss through the pipes that flow through your house.”

    Fucking great.

  4. Illogical Volume Says:

    Thanks folks, there’s a lot more where this came from – please let me know if there’s anything you think needs fixing!

  5. Turkey Day and Stuffing: Jeff Talks Various | Wait, What? Says:

    [...] of work, The Filth, but the digital color gives it an extra level of wallop.  How this ties into The Function of The Filth’s observations about experiencing the work, I really can’t say for sure: the issue seemed much funnier than  I remembered it being?  [...]

  6. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » The Function of The Filth – Preview #2 Says:

    [...] last week’s instalment of THE FUNCTION OF THE FILTH, we skipped straight to the “violence” part of [...]

  7. Filthy Friday #2 | The Function of the Filth Says:

    [...] of work, The Filth, but the digital color gives it an extra level of wallop. How this ties into The Function of The Filth’s observations about experiencing the work, I really can’t say for sure: the issue seemed much [...]

  8. Terrence Moreau Says:

    Thought I should at least do the proper thing and give some feedback here. Hopefully as less of a little shit this time.

    It’s the visual critique that first grabbed me in all this. The intent thing is a mugs game of course, but I’d love to know if the juxtaposing of action tropes to bring absurdity to the fore is a Weston thing or a Morrison thing, or if it started with one of them and they just riffed…? Was each little occurrence just a lucky evolutionary fluke? A one-off? Until one of them noticed and built it into something?

    Is there formal grammar to how the action absurdisms recur? I don’t want to cheat and just dive back through the trade to check, but Weston has never struck me as having the most formal visual grammar to begin with.

    He’s an unparalleled designer, “actor”, and visual stylist, yes, but a metronomic understanding of the page with similarly recurring visual dynamics is something which I don’t think he’s ever really concerned himself with.

    For my part I never thought of those moments as action movie tics. That’s probably because I’ve never really watched many action movies. The heightened absurdity certainly comes through, but that makes me think then more about the visual techniques used by Weston to get that tone across and how often that sort of thing appears across this and all of his work.

    Who’s talking to us with that slow-downed tooth-brush? And in what tone of voice, precisely?

    I seem to remember (I may be entirely making this up) some interview with Weston where he said there was little communication between him and Morrison. That it was mostly just the scripts. Morrison has said similar about most of his working relationships.

    I seem to also recall that Weston had said that after awhile he just decided to kinda say fuck it, I said I was gonna do it, let’s see it through. Or something similar.

    The visual grammar of The Filth is all over the place. The discontinuity being part of the point, of course. There are times when it seems to be Morrison’s script callouts (the tv cameras) and times when it seems to be Weston (background texture effects, etc) and times where it’s really fucking hard to tell (the goddamn photoshop transform tool effect to signify getting squeezed into the crack, or getting your personality fucked with in psychedelisex).

    But it’s all incredibly garish, which is to the point Jeff made about the colors and whatnot. And it heightens the dizzying effect of the book, to be sure.

    I’m probably barking up the wrong tree in attempting to apply formal visual standards to the analysis as I’m about to, but I’ve never been much a fan of noise as signal in a visual medium. The hard part in writing a visual critique of The Filth is that Weston is such a min/max sort of artist and Morrison such a cavalier writer when it comes to the visuals that there is often an odd dissonance in The Filth other than the garish one they’re after.

    Obviously this has more to do with how I read comics than anything else, as it’s often not dialog or other silliness that yanks my head back into the real world so much as visual… inelegance, if that’s the right word? (There’s a lot of rhetorical landscape to be explored here, and plenty of territory to be stolen from those dirty natives the art critics.)

    Essentially, I find The Filth to be textually rich, garishly colored, expressively acted, disgustingly rendered and more. But comparatively poorly composed. I think there are too many components fighting for interplay. And while that’s part of the larger point, I think a little less noise and little more signal would have heightened the contrast between the two much better.

    (I mean, god, the whole thing feels claustrophobic and nervous, which is part of the point, but shouldn’t riding on the bus have a different visual feel than ramping up to the speed of wall? I find there’s too much consistency to create much effective visual dissonance, if that makes sense. A great deal of this has to do with the consistency of staging and framing Weston gets due to relying on photo ref. Everything is shot, framed and presented way too similarly. Shit, I believe more in the crazy of that world than I do in the normalcy of it. And not in the cool way where I feel like I’ve lived and breathed there and been in that place with those people, in the shit way where I feel the artists haven’t tricked me properly, and so have something to answer for.)

    More consistent compositional mechanics across the whole work are always what I want more of in comics. It’s why we love Quitey and Parlov and such. And examination of precisely what makes the art flow or not is always what I want more from in comics criticism. That’s part of why I’m kind of excited to see how you’ll be engaging with that shit. To what level of scrutiny will you hold the work? What are your standards for visual appeal in comics? What works for you and why? What does the artist seem to do well and why?

    Do the action absurdisms recur with consistent compositional mechanics? Why or why not? What other things recur consistently to make a point? Do they recur with a high level of consistency or a low one? Do they seem to come out of what is known about how Morrison approaches visuals or how Weston approaches them? Can we tell? Can make an educated guess?

    There are times when there’s a visual flow to this book that’s sublime. And others when it gets so choppy as to be nigh-unreadable. And like I said before, not always in the good way where it coincides with shit happening in the narrative to warrant that. In the way where the thing of using the pictures to catapult your imagination catapults it to place other than where the artist was prepped for you land and you break a leg from the fucking cognitive dissonance.

    And it’s that dynamic that I think is most worth exploring, complete with visual diagramming to aid in the explanation if possible.

    There’s so much to say about that stuff, and so little of it ever is. I try not to think that’s because people are so into the internal auditory mode that they apply no thought, unconscious or otherwise, to the art. I try not to think that people just lack the critical training or personal experience with visual arts such that they simply cannot comment. Or that critics somehow genuinely believe that art is unable to be engaged with in any structurally meaningful critical sense, that it really is all just poeticisms. There’s something oddly slumming about that. I’m not saying you feel this way or are saying such yourself, of course.

    Obviously this is all horribly inside-baseball, craft, guesswork shit, and has a minor appeal at best, even within the tiny world of comics criticism, but it’s kinda the only fertile place left to take the comics crit game, I feel.

    Anyway, I apologize again about exploding your comments section. I very much look forward to the book and the visual part of it most of all. I hope I wasn’t too much of a dick before and that I was able to contribute something useful, or at the very least divertingly entertaining.

    I do that fool clown shit, son. Watch me dance.

    Everybody laugh.

    Yeah… time to go inoculate with some proper real world hoo-mahn interaction. I’m out.

  9. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » The Function of The Filth – Preview #4 Says:

    [...] we have already seen, The Filth makes use of these conventions itself alongside strategies designed to [...]

  10. The Failure of The Filth | The Function of the Filth Says:

    [...] Filth is a disgusting, slippery mess of a book. As Terrance Moreua said in the comments to one of my preview posts: The visual grammar of The Filth is all over the place. [...]

  11. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » The Failure of The Filth Says:

    [...] Filth is a disgusting, slippery mess of a book. As Terrance Moreua said in the comments to one of my preview posts: The visual grammar of The Filth is all over the [...]

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