July 24th, 2014
‘Six Degrees’ (music by BadBadNotGood, guest verse by Danny Brown):
I hope Ghostface keeps making music with live bands, because this collaboration with hip-hop/punk/jazz trio BadBadNotGood is like a signpost pointing to a better record yet to come, one where he’s allowed to follow his cracked muse down whatever back alleys it might take him, with a band fit to follow in hot pursuit.
Last year’s Twelve Reasons to Die album was lush as hell itself, and it had an unshakeable fatalistic logic with which to lead you there – when the album finishes and rolls straight into its instrumental mix, it feels like the natural conclusion to this story of ridiculous bloodshed, like a walk around the movie set except that it’s empty and you suspect someone’s had to bury a lot of bodies to get it that way.
Still, as glorious as Adrian Younge’s orchestration is, the overarching conceit – as a expanded in creaky, 90s style in the tie-in comic!- constrains Ghost’s talent as much as it showcases it. After all, this is a man whose best albums demonstrate that crack rap can sell any detail (Fishscale) and find a way to make any words work for its hustle (Supreme Clientele), and whose penchant for off-key singing can never quite obscure the ragged, soulful quality of his voice (as best displayed in the sudden mood shifts of The Pretty Toney Album). The catalogue of brutality Ghostface and his Wu-brethren provide on 12RTD isn’t without interest – lines like “Blow out your lungs/See you’ve been smoking for years” are crude and vivid and funny, and the fact that the gang war is prompted by the structural racism of the mob gives the story an edge it doesn’t quite make use of – but Mr GFK only really comes alive on the sweet-then-sour love songs in the middle of the album.
On ‘Centre of Attraction’ and ‘Enemies All Around Me’, Ghost’s voice cracks as internal conflict enters his world for the first time on this album – external conflict being something of a non-issue for a super-competent gang boss who can overcome death in order to take revenge on his enemies. These songs see Ghost’s character (Tony Starks, natch) wading through both his own deep reserves of sexism (“Bitches is sneaky, triflin’, and not to be trusted”) and the waves of suspicion that are coming towards him from his crew while trying to keep faith that his girl isn’t just setting him up for a fall. In typical Ghostface style, he is able to convince himself of this only by way of conjuring up a visual that’s as striking as it is unprompted: “That’s my lady, she would never backstab or double cross me/Standing butt naked in the storm, sipping the frosty.”
May 30th, 2014
Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell – ‘Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m.’
Back at the end of April the Guardian ran an experiment to see what would happen if real writers were involved with comics, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect, ranging as they did from the mediocre (Dave “David” Eggers’ ponderous buffalo comic) to the merely gorgeous (Frazer Irving’s whatever the hell it was that Frazer Irving drew) by way of the profoundly functional (Dave Gibbons and Gillian Flynn’s clockwork deconstruction of vigilantism).
As a showcase for a variety of semi-respectable comics art styles it was a success, but as a pop culture moment it lacked a sense of novelty or excitement.
The exception was Thursdays, Six to Eight pm, a modern romance comic with a faint hint of the gothic to it. A man and woman are in love and they get married, but she can’t stop worrying about why he wants two hours to himself every Thursday night. For his part, he keeps quiet about the details, so Ellen does what we all do unless we’re sinister enough to work for the NSA already: she calls in some spies.
The result of a long-distance collaboration between Audrey Niffinegger (The Time Traveller’s Wife) and Eddie Campbell (all the best comics), this strip stood out from the others by virtue of the fact that both of the involved parties contributed to the art. Well, according to the contents page Dave “Dave” Eggers was “collaborating with himself” but this does no damage to my argument: the lines on Eggers’ pages were the work of only one artist, while the Campbell/Niffenegger strip bears the mark of two “primary” artists.
According to Niffeneger’s write-up, she drew the Charles – the guy doing the proposal in the above panel – and the two spies his wife hires to investigate him, while Campbell drew Ellen, the suspicious wife and protagonist on the right hand side of the same frame.
Even though Campbell apparently modified Niffenegger’s line work to make it look of a piece with his own, my eyes mostly confirms that these characters are not made out of the same materials. This plays into a classic romantic conceit, suggesting as it does that while these two characters may share their lives with each other they’ll always be fundamentally distant. Charles’ thin, defiantly two-dimensional features provide an impermeable barrier between the contents of his mind and the blown out, fuzzy world he lives in with Ellen – being an Eddie Campbell character, she is made out of the same fuzz and clutter as everything else.
The fact that Campbell was also responsible for the lettering and page layouts will be immediately obvious to anyone who is familiar with his autobiographical comics.
This comment from Niffenegger struck me so forcefully that it left me with a mental scar I’d now swear I was born with:
Eddie always begins with the lettering, so there was an early stage of panels and lettering but no images, which I found intriguing. He letters by hand, and already the pages looked like a true Eddie Campbell comic.
More than any other comics artist I can think of, Campbell makes a casual mockery of the idea that the manner in which comics combine words and pictures needs to be policed to maintain the purity of the form. While works such as Bacchus and From Hell shows that Campbell is perfectly comfortable telling a story visually, in a comic like Alec - how to be an artist the continuity of the narrative can be found in the prose, with the visuals reacting to and reiterating the words in exactly the way we’re told they shouldn’t.
The Wind Rises – Hayao Miyazaki, 2013
Before we start, a warning: this is probably not a fun night at the movies for your eight-year-old, unless said child is prematurely obsessed with flat-head screws. I mention this not out of a new-found commitment to providing consumer advice but because my friend Adam was frustrated by the apparent inability of movie reviewers to clarify this matter for him.
Studio Ghibili’s long standing trust in the ability of children to stay interested in quiet moments and make sense of the senseless is admirable, but The Wind Rises seems to have been made in a different spirit from, say, Howl’s Moving Castle (which combined frantic scene-shifting with portraits of stark devastation to great effect) or Princess Mononoke (which grew slowly, steadily monstrous in front of the patient viewer).
This film is realised with the lush, painterly attention to detail that characterises Hayao Miyazaki’s other movies, but this is definitely a film of and about our world. Its magic is not of the kind likely to intrigue a child into attentiveness: its wonders are the result of late night meetings as much as they are the product of dreams, and even its most hard won miracles taste of ashes.
Zadie Smith – The Autograph Man
For someone with my particular literary damage, reading this novel for the first time in 2014 was a lot like having the arguments of 2001 all over again. If literary critic James Wood’s attack on what he deemed “hysterical realism” has a fitting target it is this over-eager, initially likeable but ultimately tiresome second novel from Smith.
The story of “twenty-something Chinese-Jewish autograph dealer” Alex-Li Tandem’s frantic, free-wheeling attempts to lose himself in the search for his pop culture obsession, The Autograph Man spends its four hundred plus pages tilting after a curiously overdetermined sort of oblivion. To mangle a Samuel Johnston quote most boys of my age know by way of popular wise guy Hunter S. Thompson, Tandem acts in the belief that he who becomes his hobbies spares himself the pain of being a man. The novel follows suit, hence the ever-egressing framework of Kabbalistic associations, Zen progressions, verbal tics (“the popular” and ”wise guy” chief among them), Rabbinical comedy routines and generally excessive detail. All of this by way of keeping Tandem from dealing with the world’s tendency towards impermanence and disorder: these events take place in the build-up to the tenth anniversary of his fathers’ death, and in the aftermath of a destructive trip that seems like it might cost Tandem most of his established relationships, and also his car.
The overlapping structures of this novel are all fine and sturdy, and have elsewhere proven themselves more than capable of supporting, variously: an Oscar Wilde aphorism, an essay by Walter Benjamin (“wise guy” and recipient of the novel’s worst punchline), the occult adventure comic Promethea, and an excellent graphic novel by Eddie Campbell. There’s nothing to say that they couldn’t provide the framework for an excellent Zadie Smith novel too, but the difference between The Autograph Man and all of the aforementioned works is that Smith’s imaginative scaffolding seems to exist around very little that was worth supporting in the first place.
May 7th, 2014
A collaboration with Edinburgh based artist and ghost merchant Lynne Henderson, Cut-Out Witch contains twenty five pages worth of lost souls and lo-fi monster magic – imagine a teen goth Terminus and you’ll be on the right track. Lynne provided the pictures, I added the words, but if you want to cleanse yourself with holy water after reading then I’m afraid you’ll have to bring your own bottle.
“Cut-Out Witch is really good… Lovely creepy stuff” – Twitter’s own James Baker
“Almost every page made me laugh or smile or feel things” - comics’ own Ales Kot
“You do seem to be able to dash such things off quite easily, I kind of wish I could do that…” - A Trout in the Circus’ very own Plok
The original print run has sold out, but Cut-Out Witch is now available in PDF format for 50p!
If you already bought the print version, please feel free to email me at bigsunnyd @ yahoo dot co dot uk and I’ll send you the PDF for free.
May 7th, 2014
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie, brought to you by the power vested in me by the great state of Wyoming
While I will surprise approximately no one by saying that the action in this movie was nowhere near as inventive and exciting as the violence that gives The Raid 2 its reason to exist, this movie still confounded my expectations by impressing me more with competence than raw thrillpower.
May 4th, 2014
The interesting thing about the free, original comic that Rian Hughes and Grant Morrison created for the BBC’s freedom2014 season is that the very qualities that make it such an effortless, immediately accessible read are also the ones that leave it feeling quite trite in the end.
They don’t hand out Comics Critic Oscars to anyone who still feels the need to point out that Hughes’ art is heavily and beautifully design based in 2014, but Morrison makes expert use of this aspect of Hughes craft throughout this strip, artfully reducing ”big ideas like freedom, meaning, what we’re all here for and why” down to a brief flurry of scenes and images in which the fate of a hooded figure inspires the general public to collectively realise their individual agency:
The Key, then, is not a story about freedom but an advert for the idea of freedom. The BBC quoted this line on their website, and sitting on its own it carried the vague air of approval, so to be clear: in saying this, I meant that it had about as much to do with actual freedom as the famous 1984 Apple advert. All the craft on display here is put to the purpose of making sure one Key fits all readers, and while the counterargument would surely be that this smooth quality allows the reader to project their own meanings on top of this scenario I would argue that this immaculate surface would absorb all light that shines its way without giving much of anything back.
And what use is a dystopian fiction if it doesn’t disturb, reflect or challenge our present reality in any meaningful way? The Key Morrison and Hughes have created here doesn’t refer to any actual map; if we recognise the symbols in it, then that’s only because they look like the mental shorthand we’ve created as a guide to other stories on the same theme.
To put it another way: the masterful evocation of The Key would be perfectly at home in an issue of Seaguy, but it would never be an issue of Seaguy.
I’m surely not alone in having bemoaned the fact that much of Grant Morrison’s best work requires a prior investment in comics to be fully engaged with. With considerable help from Hughes, The Key builds out any such issues, but in doing so it also removes any of the struggle that makes so much of Morrison’s work worthwhile.
(This article was originally posted at the end of March, in a slightly different form, on my Tumblr.)
April 5th, 2014
Still fired up from February’s discussion of what’s worth watching on American TV, Mindless twinset Mark (Amypoodle) and Adam (Adam) have written an Experts Guide to HBO’s ‘True Detective’ and weird comic book fiction for Comic Alliance.
There’s a lot of great stuff about Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti in that post – if you’ve read any of Mark or Adam‘s stuff before, you’ll know what to expect, and if not you’re going to enjoy finding out!
These recordings represent the point where the tastes of the Brighton Mindless meet with those of their Scottish counterparts. The Brighton boys generally like to listen to recordings of ghostly mops being thrashed till they whimper, while their friends in the North prefer a mix of hip-hop and rock that can only be described using words that start with the letter “A” – arty, angular, American, or just plain old arsey will usually do the trick. 
It was one of my Southern friend who first introduced me to Hype Williams’ One Nation, a collection of electric dreams that sometimes sounds like the work of a mind trying to think its way out of existence. If the strangely absent sound of the instruments on album opener ‘Ital’ provide a suitably morbid build-up to this concept, then the pitched down narration that runs through the second track ‘Untitled’ literalises it:
The people who are still alive when you die might hurt because you are gone. That is okay. People love other people and usually it hurts when people we love die. We even comfort ourselves with those stories that the dead person is… not really dead, and that is okay too.
But of course everyone dies, and you will too…
There’s something of the live band about this, a sense that these songs are happening in the moment, the work of minds and bodies that are reacting to their immediate situation. A lot of this has to do with the halting, tentative quality of the synth playing – set against the generally spacey, metronomic thud of the beat, the melodies have an uncertain quality to them, a sense that they are being recorded before they have finalised. Consider, in contrast, the work of some of Hype Williams’ contemporaries – most Burial tracks aspire to the condition of field recordings in their attempt to chronicle the long, dark club night of the soul, while Actress tracks are more often than not are conceived like static landscapes, revealing detail through time and close examination rather than movement.
The tracks on One Nation are similar to those on Ghettoville or Rival Dealer in that they provoke the sense that you’re listening to something that is almost not there, but where those other artists strive through this effect primarily through tricks of texture and structure that elide the distinction between different sonic elements, Hype Williams do so through a mix of texture and performance that maintains their distinction.
To state it another way: ‘Come Down to Us’ and ‘Skyline’ sound like places that you may or may not have come into contact with, while the songs on this album sound like interactions that may or may not be happening now, in real time. This approach isn’t necessarily superior to ones deployed by Burial or Actress, whose distinct approaches I’ve come painfully close to blurring into each other here, for shame – their work is perhaps more immersive than Hype Williams’, but while you catch site of various Others on the edge of your perception while dealing with their work, listening to One Nation feels a lot like an encounter with a specific Other. 
Sometimes, this Other seems tranquil about its own potential absence, such as on the aforementioned ‘Untitled’ track, but my personal favourite run of tracks comes near the end of One Nation, at the point where ‘Mitsubishi’ immerses distressed, backmasked sighs into its in-out backing track, before exploding out into the wild whistle call of ‘Jah’, which recalls Archie Hind’s description of the death twitches of freshly killed cow in The Dear Green Place, “the possible moment of consciousness, when the head loosened and the animal took that last great breath through the chittering windpipe.” 
Stripped of the rap vocals for which they were (mostly) originally composed, the tracks on Clams Casino’s three Instrumental Mixtapes create a similar effect.
Strangely, given their origins as rhythms for rappers to ride, Clammy Clams’ production has perhaps more in common with the soundscapes of Burial or Actress than it does with Hype Williams’ snap and echo. Clams Casino beats tend to rise and fall as part of the instrumentation around them, with the snap of the drums sounding like the thud of a human heartbeat, an intimate part of the ragged exhalation that accompanies it.
Take, for example, the song ‘Hell’ from the third mixtape, which sounds so much louder and more distorted here than it did when A$AP Rocky and Santigold sang and rhymed on top of it, and which nevertheless has a gentle, organic feeling to its rise and fall – an effect not entirely dissimilar to the one produced by Hype Williams’ ‘Mercedes’. 
Other tacks like ‘Palace’ (from the second Intrumental Mixtape; also originally composed for A$AP Rocky) and ‘Numb’ (from the first Mixtape; otherwise unreleased) literalise this organic effect by drawing out samples of human voices beyond their usual span, and making killer beats out of human breath. Listen to these songs on your headphones while commuting to work on a hungover Monday morning and you’ll find yourself looking over your shoulder to find out who’s been whispering away at it – and trust me, I’m speaking from experience on this front!
The texture of these mixtapes matches the fleeting, performative quality of One Nation for the sense of fleeting individual mortality that’s evoked. And if it seems unlikely that such fragile records should draw so many rappers to them, just listen to the remix of Janelle Monae‘s ‘Cold War’ from the first Instrumental Mixtape and ask yourself what you hear. Me? I hear the sound of a lone voice, calling out in the darkness, demanding a response…