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.

A lot of people feel differently, of course.

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.)

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!

Read some thoughts on what David Lynch and American movies of the 90s have to do with the return of Stray Bullets after the cut!

Hype Williams – One Nation
Clams Casino – Instrumental Mixtapes #1-3

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. [1]

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. [2]

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.” [3]

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’. [4]

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…

Click here to read the footnotes!

Franco “Bifo” Berardi – The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance

More thoughts on time and money, after the cut!

Über #0-10, by Kieron Gillen, Caanan White, Joseph Silver, Kurt Hathaway and Digicore Studios

Kieron Gillen let the mask slip a little at the start, when he positioned this comic as the anti-ASS, as a refutation of Superman’s central place in 20th Century history, in a spiel designed to mark Über out as being a comic free of the sort of self-commentary that defines so many modern superhero comics.  “It’s probably the least ironic book I’ve ever written,” he said:

It has nothing to say about superhero comics. In fact, its utter negation of that genre-criticism may be the closest it comes to commentary. I’ve read many books which seem to labour under the delusion that the conception of Superman was the most important moment in the 1930s. This isn’t one of them.  My only interest is in how I can use this genre’s conceit to create metaphors to explores aspects of WW2…

This comment, buried as it was in the mix of metatextual soul searching and historical gamesmanship of Über #0′s backmatter, provides the key to understanding the uncanny dynamics of this comic.  In attempting to ward off irony and meta-commentary, Gillen negated any possibility of this comic escaping the superhero meta-conversation. Which, it turns out, is actually quite fitting in the end.  Carefully researched as Über might be, with everything from troop movements to weather conditions having been taken into account, this WW2 with superheroes fantasy is still a superhero fantasy, and as such it manages the odd trick of destroying both history and genre conventions and reinforcing them at the same time.

In contrast to the carefully composed alternate reality of All Star Superman – with its suggestion of a world where greed, imperialism and mortal panic exist but are never the only options – Gillen and White present an alt-modernity in which the foundational horrors of the mid 20th Century era are all there but louder.

A little less Stalingrad, a lot more Wahammer 40K.

Revenge of the Giant Face

March 12th, 2014

Ah, let’s indulge in some time travel shall we? Let’s go all the way back to September 2009, when Sean Collins had this to say about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds:

It is, in other words, a deliberate assault on the facts surrounding the deaths of millions and millions of people, including the systematic genocide of six million Jews in the Holocaust… It’s morally monstrous and its practitioners are moral monsters.

Oh, wait, shit. That’s not quite right. That’s what Sean C. had to say about Nazi-sympathizing turd-monger Pat Buchanan. Sorry everyone, but problems like this tend to occur when you start to mess around with history, you know?

In order to find what Sean actually thought of Inglourious Basterds we have to go back even further, to August 2009 no less! It was a kinder time, a gentler time, a time where a man could read an essay on the cathartic, history rupturing violence of Tarantino’s latest picture without any danger of stumbling onto this long winded response.

Here’s what Sean actually said about the film:

Inglourious Basterds may be the punkest movie I’ve seen in I can’t even think how long. Maybe ever. It’s about nothing less than the power of art to destroy evil. It’s about how important it is to love film more than the likes of Hitler hate life. It’s about how movie violence, art violence, art designed as a FUCK YOU, can help you deal with the violence that so terrified Chamberlain’s cohorts and to which Hitler and his cohorts were so indifferent. It’s Woody Guthrie’s “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” guitar slogan made literal. It’s a lingering closeup on the bloodlust-saturated eyes of Eli Roth, the beautiful Jewish torture-porn poster boy and enemy of good taste, as he empties a machine gun into the bodies of members of the Third Reich. And it’s a total fucking fantasy. Yet that’s what makes it so vital.

Collins then went on to compare the release he finds in Inglourious Basterds with the traumatized euphoria of a Nine Inch Nails concert. It’s a good essay — so good, in fact, that it almost had me convinced that I felt the same way. Except that if I’m honest, I didn’t find any release in Tarantino’s spaghetti-western-war-punk-fantasy.That said, Inglourious Basterds didn’t bother me the way it bothered David Fiore! Still, I get where Dave’s coming from, because it’s a deeply strange movie — the mix of stomach wrenching tension, goofy comedy, expressive violence and defiantly “Tarantino-esque” banter makes it hard for the viewer to know how they’re supposed to react. Even the film’s first chapter, which Sean correctly describes as being loaded with real danger, has at least one absurd laugh in it. It’s not easy to keep a straight face when Landa pulls out his massive comedy pipe, is it?

Well, some how *he* manages…

Talking Comics #2

March 11th, 2014

Talking Comics is a highly irregular feature where I try to review a few new(ish) books with the help of my phone’s voice recognition software.  It’s just like a regular comics review post except that it takes more mouth than fists to get it done on time, and is therefore far sexier than your average bloggy night on the town.

It’s also sort of like a bit of tech writing, except it’s even less useful to my future career as a failed magazine writer grumbling about social media in the corner of a pub on a cold Thursday morning.

 

Anyway, that’s enough warm-up for now.  Onwards, to the reviews!

The Deleted, by Internet Villain Brendan McCarthy and Darrin Grimwood

Sex Criminals, by Chip Zdarsky and Matt “Matt” Fraction

LOEG: Nemo: The Roses of Berlin, by Kevin O’Neill and Alan Moore

Battling Boy, by Paul Pope and Hilary Sycamore

Multiple Warheads – Down Fall, by Brandon Graham 

Dungeon Fun, by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance

That’s all we’ve got time for this week folks – don’t know if there’ll be any SILENCE! this week or not yet, but keep your eyes peeled because you never know what that amiable auld space god is capable of!

George Eliot – Silas Marner

Despite its sentimental, Dickensian cover and premise – an outcast weaver is drawn back into society by the arrival of an orphaned child in his life – this short novel is yet more evidence of Eliot’s ability to create the impression of distance in her fictions. Eliot’s mastery of the bourgeois novel is of a similar kind and order to Milton’s mastery of the epic poem; the devil, as always, is in the details and how they’re relayed.

It’s worth comparing Marner’s transition over the first part of this novel with Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol in order to better understand Eliot’s method.  Dickens is one of the all time great narrators, and he trusts that the effects he has conveyed so spectacularly throughout his ghost story will linger with both his notorious outcast and miser and the reader even after he’s allowed the illusion to collapse in on itself:

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the  year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

Compare the drama of Dickens’s line to the ever-shifting emphasis of this paragraph from the final bloom of Silas Marner‘s first volume:

Silas began now to think of Raveloe life entirely in relation to Eppie: she must have everything that was a good in Raveloe; and he listened docilely, that he might come to understand better what this life was, from which, for fifteen years, he had stood aloof as from a strange thing, with which he could have no communion: as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm. The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of satisfaction to arise again at the touch of the newly-earned coin. And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.

In Eliot’s hands a seemingly romantic conceit – a child’s improving effect on an alienated adult – is nevertheless established to be effective only inasmuch as Marner’s continued obligations to the child necessitate a continued interaction with society as a whole.  This is typical of Eliot’s approach, which emphasises connection and consequence over the triumph of kind hearts and stirring rhetoric.

This comparison is, however, not offered in order to disparage Dickens, whose busy narration looks simultaneously backward to the jarring shifts of the best English poetry and forward to the juddering machinery of modern comedy.  And if it’s true that those same novels are premised on a call to individual kindness that overlooks the necessity for any broader or more systematic change then that does not diminish their effectiveness in making vivid the muck and dirt of unreformed reality.

The simple truth is that Eliot’s talents are slightly different in nature, and their magnitude does not need to be exaggerated by the disparagement of other novelists even if they may be better understood in light of the comparison.

Staying mindful of the example of Dickens, it occurs that the subject of the novelist vs. the social order that produced them is a curious one when applied to Eliot’s work.  The form of the bourgeois novel she so excels at may in itself may replicate bourgeois values by way of its sheer confidence, but Eliot interrogates these conventions through the startling depth and clarity of her narrative judgements, which contrast with the narrative itself in a way that can’t help but provoke quiet inquiry.

The introduction to the edition I read makes up for any awkwardness its cover may engender by virtue of an astute introduction by R.T. Jones (an Honorary Fellow of the University of York, apparently), in which Jones tracks some of the juxtapositions that exist in Silas Marner‘s framing story, arguing that for all Eliot’s narration chides Godfrey for foolishly hoping that all would work out well when he didn’t claim his secret child, the story bears out his actions more than it does her words:

…the novel leads us to conclude that if Godfrey had done the right thing, acknowledged his first wife and her baby as his, Nancy would not have married him; Eppie (under a different name, of course) would have grown up in the Red House with no mother and a resentful father; so Godfrey, Nancy and Eppie would have had very little oppotunity for happiness, and of course Silas Marner would have remained an exile from human society.

Silas Marner ends on a statement of total happiness that somehow fails to ring false, but the novel never once lets you forget that fairy-tale conclusion has been built on a series of disappointments, lies, and betrayals, and it is Eliot’s ability to keep both of these seemingly contradictory positions in perspective that gives the truest account of her peculiar genius in this short novel.

Read more reviews of books without pictures after the cut!