Target 2012

May 12th, 2020

Paul Jon Milne – Guts Power #1-6

Dan Cox and John Riordan – Hitsville UK

The gospel was told, some souls it swallowed whole
Mentally they fold and they eventually sold
Their life and times, deadly like the virus design
But too minute to dilute the scientist mind

Wu-Tang Clan – ‘A Better Tomorrow‘ 

Spacing (notice that this word speaks the articulation of space and time, the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space) is always the unperceived, the non-present, and the non-conscious. As such, if one can still use that expression in a non-phenomenological way; for here we pass the very limits of phenomenology.

Jacques Derrida – Of Grammatology

Two comic book series, both started before the world ended in December 2012, both completed some time after the apocalypse.  So far so standard. What makes them both remarkable is how prescient they are about all the ways the world has continued to end and about how we might continue to live regardless.

To be brief: they reek not just of knowledge but of foresight.

The sixth and final issue of Paul Jon Milne’s Guts Power spends most of its time getting ready to go out for the party.  When I last reviewed this series, only the first four issues had been published but the mood of the comic was well established, its grimly eroticised kitchen sink misery distinguished from all the other neurotic indie comics out there by virtue of Milne’s seeping imagination:

I’m stuck on Milne’s style, on the use of that old fashioned alt-comix grossness not as a mode for outrageous straight white guy funtimes, but as a way to genuinely queer the Sex-Men experience.

With its tentative dance floor adventures, “Pepto-bawbag particles” and alluringly grotesque cast, Guts Power manages the rare trick of making one man’s whims, stray thoughts and fancies seem like a genuine delight, probably because the combination feels fresh and true; would that the same could be said of all such ventures.

By the time issue #6 starts, death and romance have already happened and everyone is gearing up for some sort of revolution.  You can practically feel the wee white dots form around you in the air, feel yourself being drawn back into the radiant possibility of a blank page, right up until the moment your cat farts and you’re left sitting on your couch alone with your own misery.

Having sprinted through enough dodgy deals, guilty secrets, Beatific visions and nazi incursions to fill 23 issues of a normal comic, Hitsville UK crosses the finish line of its seventh issues with a sense of perspective that’s bound to baffle all traditional metrics.  Last time I checked in on the comic, I found myself racing to keep up with its evolution, with the way that it had left my initial concept of the series as a referential but not reverential pop fun somewhere way off in the distance:

What I will say is that the issues of Hitsville that have been published since then have had an increased sense of urgency to them.  The boys may not have set out to create a fantasy of communal resilience in an age that seems increasingly under threat by undead attitudes, shambling zombie racism, and the endless monetization of your every passing daydream, but fuck me if they didn’t do it anyway!

The conclusion of Hitsville UK gives you some sense as to who’s pulling (or should that be playing?) the strings and some idea as to why.  We still don’t know why the world ended in 2012, or why it persists in this form, why even blogs have somehow been allowed to continue, but all of this prompts a question: why did the children of The Invisibles decide to persist in their endeavours, knowing that the end would come before anyone could finish their stories?

Did our fellow agents harbour any illusions that they could somehow stop the world from ending?   As previously noted, Hitsville UK seems to have become aware of itself as it went on.  Early episodes are well attuned to the freemixed culture of the apocalypse in approach if not in underlying ambition – a clever hybrid of forms and tropes that would be familiar to archons and audience members alike, with references to the extant world pop music (from the shady svengalis to the shimmering Beatscapes of a different era), comics (style from Deadline, vision from The Invisibles), fantastic fiction (precious Gwillum) and the exploitative fantasies of our very own post-crisis world.  If the speed with which the comic introduces these elements leaves you seeing stars, well, maybe that’s just the way the world feels when it’s building up to the break down.

As the series goes on, it begins to show the influence of one of the ripples in reality™ that have manifested since the crash – in this case, Brexit – or perhaps its more prophetic aspects, the little echoes of the world to come that were implicit in its pre-apocalypse collision with the world, only became recognisable after the big splash happened.  These disruptions, packed so densely into the first couple of issues, reveal a plan that may have remained hidden even from Cox and Riordan at the time.

In those last few moments of life as we knew it, they were probably just riding out the rush, lobbing rocks into the water just to see what would happen:

Towards the end, the melancholy persistence of these twice rotted fictions becomes impossible to escape.  Shuddering monsters that once seemed like a fine parody of your grandad’s skinhead past are rendered freshly terrifying when you start to recognise them from the headlines, your home/phone screens, and the racist assault you saw on the street last week.

And there, working away in the background while these full Morrissey wank fantasies get all up in your face, are the forces who have made this unholy assault possible.  Murderous newspeak, the sense that you’re toiling away in a theme park run by media barons for their own amusement, the knowledge that satire serves the court even when it plays at mockery… none of this went away in December 2012, did it?

You know this face.  Even if you don’t see it in the mirror every morning – and dear reader, I truly hope you don’t! – you’ll have heard the voice.  You might even find yourself mumbling some of the greatest hits in your sleep.

The linework does a good job of selling you on the state of things, with its clear line heroes gone all crumpled in the rain, their gorgeous faces worried by frown lines, subtle dark rings around the eyes.  More than that, though, it’s the colouring that will shape your headspace when you read the whole story at once.  When I read Hitsville UK in single issues, I thought it was a bright and poppy thing but that was just the covers, with their immaculate pastiche of existing album cover art. Sitting down with the collected edition, I found myself lightheaded, queasy even.  The real colour palette of the series became clear to me then, all those sickly greens and purples, the mouldering browns, the undernourished blues.

In terms of comics, the only comparable colour palette I could think of is the one you get in the first few issues of The Filth that were published when Matt Hollingsworth was still on the team.   Both comics gives us an England where everything looks like damp wallpaper, and I love them for this insight but let’s be real – when I look at them, I want to get out!

When I started writing this piece, it was late November 2019 and I was going to write about how all of that felt like life in the UK after the Brexit vote.  I wanted to publish on the week of the UK general election, and to end on a positive note.  I thought those gross wallpaper curtains might pull back to reveal a different scene, a new set of connections and possibilities, maybe even friends.

When the exit polls came out on the evening of Thursday I was out on the town with some great humans, most of whom I barely knew.  I wanted to feel free but all I could see was the wallpaper.

***

Like the Cox/Riordan experiment, Guts Power also begins with a flourish, and with intimations of the coming rapture.  As in the early stages of Hitsville, some of these signs are found in the rhythm of the story:

Others, meanwhile, are truths shouted through that rhythm and straight into the willing face of the reader:

Some of the visionary intelligence of this comic feels merely organic, a result of Milne’s aesthetic commitments. A product of pre-apocalypse culture, Milne presents the reader with that most stubborn of things: an undeniable personal vision. In Guts Power this comes through not just in his character design – loving muscle memories that have been turned gloopy by exposure to dickheads and time – but also through the layout of the land around then. Whether the story is taking place in “Slurkaldy en Ecosse” or “Deadinburgh”, it presents us with a world full of glam posters and glum portals, a slow crawl through grim bedrooms, lifeless call centres and self-dilapidating social service spaces.  When our heroes step outside, the buildings around them look a little bit like they’ve been scraped out between the clammy bulges of one of the characters’ thighs:

Again, the immediate cause of this state of things is easily identified, with issue #1’s action revolving around BéBox and LoveLaffs1820’s trip to the D.O.L.E. office, freshly kitted out with BoreCore™ enhancers “which stop citizens taking advantage of any extra-temporal perception they may have.”  We’re in the post-financial crisis landscape again, in other words, with that “undeniable personal vision” that belongs to both Milne and his characters struggling to find a sustainable form in a world hell bent on making you into a willing subject conscious of costs. That prophetic energy, that awareness of time existing all at once we talked about is alive in the pages of Guts Power – otherwise LoveLaffs1820’s magic Whyball wouldn’t be able to deprogram D.O.L.E. employee Dearth, to show them that other selves are still possible – but its radical possibilities are shaped by other forces, a fantasy curdled through exposure to several decades of end time politics.

Like I said already, time and dickheads, they’ll fuck you up.

The Scottish Question is not a product of the 2008 collapse, of course, but its recent expressions – the narrowly avoided break in reality circa 2014 and the ensuing psychic backwash – are shaped by that context every bit as much as the actions of the characters in Guts Power.  Despite the fact that his comic spans an alternate history of the UK/IEPU from the “Body Riot” in 2002 until the year 2009, echoes of events from our timeline still find their way into Milne’s comic.  Some of these eruptions speak to a casual skepticism about the commodifiable nature of Scottish identity – “Robot Burns”, Scotch-Australian claymore enthusiast and tat salesman Graveheart (above) – while others concern the power dynamic between the parts (Deadinburgh’s ParLament, which we’re told looks “a lot smaller in real life”) and the totality of the nation run by Professor Oppressor (“who took clumsy advantage of the newly-fluctuating state of reality to somehow claim victory”).  Note the dates here ride the wave from one rupture to another, and how the conclusion to the series seems to be racing towards its own version of the 2014 event.

As this moment of potential change gets closer, however, Milne’s art style starts to become denser.  This is in keeping with the broader evolutions in his style that have taken place since the end of the world, but this doesn’t make this shift any less significant – quite the opposite! As the cast organise against Professor Oppressor, the grotesque architecture of the world starts to seem massive, all-consuming.

Those great towers of discarded flesh, those screaming mounds of ex-self that once sat quietly in the background… when did they get so huge?  When did it get so hard to breath out here?  When did I?

***

Skip to the end.  On this occasion, it happens not in December 2012 but in November 2019.

Back in another world, head still full of other troubles, we asked the creators of these comics whether they has ever considered the fact that they might just help us make it through.

You may note that when we asked the question of art’s culpability in our rolling collapse, we received no response.

The temptation to take this as confirmation of guilt is there – this is a blog post, after all, and what’s the point in writing one of those in 2020 if you’re not going to make some stupid reaches, if you’re not going to take it too far in the hope of making some sort of connection?

That being said, there’s another answer, and I think it’s the right one.  I think no one answered because, while they might recognise that they can’t save the world alone, they’re not to blame for any of the endings we’ve encountered so far.

***

Anyway, let’s talk about comics eh?  Guts Power and Hitsville UK are the sort of comics that cry out for cast lists.  For rosters.  For one line descriptions under an ever-growing array of headshots.  They’re comics about characters, not a new notion but one that’s yet to be exhausted.  Thankfully, Milne, Cox and Riordan are savvy enough about the medium to provide these simple pleasures, with Hitsville UK‘s playing it relatively straight while Guts Power takes the opportunity to have a little fun with its own narrative contrivances:

Back in the middle of another crisis, I dabbled with the idea of writing a post about Hitsville UK that was composed entirely of fan letters to various characters.  Had I gone ahead with it, the result would have been like that gallery above but with less of a sense of wit and precision.

See, the thing is that while neither of these comics is about character in the high dramatic sense where we become finely attuned to the contradictions of their soul, nor in the sense of the social novel with its dense web of social connections.  Instead, the characters here are vividly drawn, their dreams and difficulties vibrating on the page in their every fleeting appearance.

I’ve never seen a Gwillum or a Pastis in real life, but fuck me do I know that they’re real!

I care about the fuckers in these books, in all their greatness and their depravity, their desperation and their petty rage.  Same goes for LoveLaffs1820 and BéBox and Dearth and the gang.  The shape of their lives, having been so ably captured on the page, will be stuck in my mind until the beer rots the thinking parts out.

So if  these books are all about characters, why have I spent so long blethering on about the end of the world?  Well, (1) I’m a prick, and (2) it’s all one and the same here, right?  Both of these books treat their characters and the world that’s made them with the same attitude, the same mix of tenderness, rude humour and well-earned contempt.  Having started just before the apocalypse, they provide us with an opportunity to see there from here and vice versa, and with the tools to see it all clearly.

What does it mean, then, that Hitsville UK ends with the promise of escape, of new connections and new possibilities, despite the fact the whole thing had previously seemed like a dark pact in action?  How to take the fact that Guts Power retreats to the bedroom just when it seems like things might be about to change?

I had a clever way to answer these questions in late November 2019 but Reality™ soon got in the way of that idea.  For now, I’ll just close by observing that both of these comics spend a lot of time keeping their wonderful casts of characters apart.  The musicians of Hitsville UK are like characters from different comic strips who cross over at record label events and gig nights.  The hot freaks of  Guts Power, meanwhile, spend half their time dead or otherwise dissipated.

The comics themselves, though, contain all of these fragments along with their ruin.  In doing so they show us how we might fear we live now and how we might hope to live despite it all.  Too distracted by their cast of merry fuck ups and hard pressed heroes to give in to mere editorialising, they show us the ways in and out why we might take them.  One comic feels the pressure of other realities a little bit too strongly in the end, while the other finds a more hopeful and collaborative expression for these same anxieties.  Like the characters in both comics, these perspectives on the world feel real to me despite the unreal times.

Perhaps we could still feel real too, despite the stories trying to sell us on a different sort of value.  We could even try to believe in our ability to collectively co-author our existence again, at least until the next time the world ends.

Maybe there’ll be dancing.  Maybe there’ll still be time to make it to the gig.  Who knows?  I’m sitting here writing a blog post seven years after the world ended.

Any number of things may still be possible.

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