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.)

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