Okay, for some reason I can’t leave that big comment on Sean’s great Seaguy 2 article — and I don’t even know why I’m linking to it, since anyone who reads this has probably read that already [EDIT: and it was such a hell of a long time ago too]– so okay, I guess today’s a posting day instead of a travelling day.
Here’s Devo, the Venture Bros., Seaguy 2, and Grant Morrison’s weird desire to go back to the land of mainstream corporate superhero crossovers…where as Sean notes, he just cannot seem to get any sat-is-fac-tion. So let’s start with that, and do a typical thing on it too: the Alan Moore connection.
So here’s Alan Moore, and if there’s one thing he’s all about it’s really getting into the best possible state of collaboration with his artists. Forget everything else: we may have all heard horror stories about the density or sprawl of his scripts, or we may admire his ambitions or shake our heads at ’em, but for me what makes an Alan Moore book worth buying is that I know when I do, I’ve got a VERY good chance of seeing a truly spectacular collision of a writer and an artist. (Well, obviously a writer and artists, but I don’t want to make this post bigger than it has to be, so like Newton I will approximate the centre of gravity…)
How does he do it? How do they do it? I don’t know, but it certainly gets done, and it must be quite something to see, if we ever were able to see it. So this is part of what it means to have a gift, one supposes: being able to settle, somehow, right into the specific requirements of the work you’re doing. Collaborations are exceedingly tricky things, they’re all process, and the process can very easily founder for some reason you never become aware of…but when it works, it bloody well IS magic, even if what it produces should happen to be unsatisfying to some ultimate enjoyer down the road. That clicking, that chemistry…it isn’t something that at the present moment we have the skills to investigate. Heck, we haven’t even figured out how to tackle questions like “what is music?”…and surely collaboration is a music of a kind? Just the other day there was a big pop-science program on PBS that was all about that question — what is music? — and even though it contained a lot of information that had me saying out loud to the living room “why, I don’t believe it, but…that’s actually true!“, it also was encumbered with a certain lack of direction, an experimental bias gone weak and rotten and subliminal…it was real “yesterday’s-paradigm” stuff, a lot of it, posing poor questions and therefore arriving at pointless crossroad-answers, much like an old “In Search Of” episode.
“Could these randomly-scattered stones once have been a landing strip for aliens who were mistaken for gods by the children of the survivors of the lost city of Atlantis?”
In many ways, that’s actually a better question than “what is music?”, if only because it’s more upfront about the basic flaw both those questions share. Because, we are not trying to set out on a re-enactment of The Blind Men And The Elephant here, are we? And yet just tossing neuroscientists, physicists, musicians, and child development psychologists into a room together is the very best way to do that. What is music? Well, one thing it is, is a question you’re not going to answer by surveying only ten, or twenty, or a hundred researchers from different fields. Because it’s a big mystery, is what it is — the kind that gets into everything.
So you can’t just “solve” it, or “find it out”; that’s a pipe dream. It’s not going to answer the bell of any one theoretical approach, not even any one set of theoretical approaches. Because it isn’t a matter of hitting on the right theoretical approach…!
…But rather it’s a bit more useful for testing whether any given theoretical approach is being both consistent, and honest. Like: if you hear someone say music is “hardwired” into human beings, better you should flick the channel on over to Jerry Springer — if honest investigation is what you’re looking for. Because that’s a metaphor, that “hardwired”, and it’s a pretty old and rusty one too; that’s an unexamined bias right there. That’s the computer model of cognition, and it’s no good for most things, in fact I do believe by the late Nineties it was wandering around with a tin can begging for gas. And you won’t get to music through that. Because music actually exists. Hey, I’m just here to let you know about it, so don’t shoot the messenger! As I said, there were many interesting things going on in that program; it was just that they didn’t add up to anything…
…Because obviously, they weren’t supposed to. What the world of science has to say about music just goes on and on and on, you see: it really does. You’d be surprised. So, are we going to get a show on the Discovery Channel or whatever that aspires to anything even so great as repeating the most interesting things science has to say about music? If we hit ten or twenty percent in that regard, we’ll be lucky…because these programs pull double-duty most of the time, in that they are made not just to examine their main topic, but also to provide the viewer with a primer for the various disciplines they sample. Which is why a lot of them are just flat-out shitty; which is why you should beware shows about Quantum Field Theory or string theory, or indeed anything with Stephen Hawking in it. I mean, Stephen Hawking, he’s a great physicist, but PBS isn’t where he does his work, you know? It’s just where he exercises his influence. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily; but it is a particular thing, and it’s good to bear that in mind. Because physicists are like comics fans, you see, they’ve always got some enthusiasm of their own that they’re trying to sell you…
…So if the buyer has to beware of such simplistic material as quantum mechanics’ mutant offspring, how much more should he beware when it comes to such stern stuff as music? And if music’s hard to explain (as hard as humour, we must think!), what happens between inspired artistic collaborators must be harder still, so, no…I don’t know how they do it.
But they do it; and in the fact of the doing are probably some things we can recognize about their strengths and weaknesses, even if we don’t know the how of it. For example: Moore’s best ideas, I’ll hazard the guess, are the ones he gives to his artistic partners to improve upon…so good at the flourish that empties the rabbit from the hat, nevertheless he needs a rabbit and a hat to get him there, and a stage, and a wand, and a tuxedo, and a theatre…so he sketches out what he figures they’d all have to look like, and he passes it over. And:
“What is all this, Alan? Where are you going with it?”
“Oh, it’s gonna be great…! See, it goes like this and this, draws on this, mentions that, then out of nowhere BANG! It all comes together in a great big understanding…!”
The artist thinks for a minute, hand on chin; sees that Moore has concocted the most wonderful version of a Campbell’s Soup recipe imaginable, with the freshest and most exotic ingredients — meat from the flesh of the horses that pull the chariot of the Sun, stewed with the stalks that stood mute when Horus was got on Isis by her dead husband; seasoned with peppers harvested from the Underworld, from under the very noses of the dead, DON’T LOOK BACK! — but that it’s still, basically, when you get right down to it, just Campbell’s Soup. And therefore it won’t work: it isn’t going to be as good as it needs to be. So all the fine ingredients, and the trouble it took to get them and slice them and dice them, will have been wasted…
The artist retires to his studio, searching for what isn’t there, but what must be there. Pounds away at aether with the mortar and the pestle for a time, and then triumphantly delivers what is probably the ONLY way it can all work, in the only dish it can be served in…and then it’s Moore’s turn to pause, and put his hand on his chin: “All right, that’s brilliant,” he rumbles finally, head all a-nodding. “So, new plan…
“…The hat comes out of the rabbit.”
And then they’re off to the races, somehow, bags of mixed metaphors in hand!
Rushing towards the finish line!
Don’t ask me how. But Alan Moore is an exceptionally playful writer, so I don’t think it’d be too crazy to suggest he needs someone to play with, in order to get a real game going…so, I humbly theorize, he makes it the most interesting game for them that he can.
But, it’s a particular kind of game. Grant Morrison’s playful too, but his kind of game’s a bit different. And here’s where the Devo comes in: because Grant’s not really that interested in what you, the average comic-book reader, are interested in. Alan Moore is interested in what you’re interested in, as it happens! But Alan’s pre-punk and Grant’s post-punk: Alan’s great at hitting the beats, even Gene Krupa-style, but Grant wants to mix ’em all up on the turntable. It’s sort of similar to Devo, maybe…they were just not interested in doing the things everybody else was doing, so if you wanted to like Devo you had to go along with Devo, you had to catch them on the hop. You had to be into it. This is (obviously) a bit of Venture Bros. too, or even Farscape: what you want to see is not what you’re going to see, because the episode stops once the stuff that matters gets done with. And yet it isn’t just a joke, it’s serious stuff too: it isn’t only funny, and although it doesn’t stoop to anything like continuity it’s got plenty of, ah, subsequence to it. Dean and Hank die all the time, and there’s how this thing all goes down in a nutshell: subsequence is only important for what it gets used for, and it’s all very decently controlled, sublimated to what matters, like a clock designed for the primary purpose of stopping on time. Watch Arrested Development, and you’ll see much the same principle in play: it doesn’t really care about the stuff it’s supposed to care about. It’s over that already: “next time on Arrested Development” never comes, nor does it need to — because even though it still does matter, that stop-and-start and never-seen business also cuts another way, by telling you what kind of show you’re watching…
Which is great!
Provided, that is, that you’re into it.
And just about everything Grant Morrison writes is just like this: you get whiplash from the scene-changing, the beats are buried beneath the bass, it’s all interested in different stuff, and as Grant says there are lots of gaps left for the reader to tumble into and fill. Moore doesn’t operate this way: he controls everything with astounding precision, and you never fall into a hole he hasn’t carefully pre-dug for you. In fact mostly you don’t even know you’re falling ’til you’ve landed, so carefully does he load each panel, each page, each line of dialogue with meaning fated not to become apparent ’til the whole thing crashes together, in perfect ass-tumbling choreography. But Morrison’s much happier to let his freak flag fly, and let almighty Chaos reign over all, improvisationally; in Morrison’s books, you’re always falling, and you know it the whole time…except you’re really not, and never really did know. In Moore’s oeuvre, simple things are always more complex than they seem at first glance: so when you finally realize what’s really going on, you’re stunned. But with Morrison, the complexities are just what he uses as building blocks for the familiar. See? he says. You can make this stuff out of anything, anything at all, and it still works! Moore shows you what can really be done with this wonderful toolbox in terms of construction, if you’re really working it as hard as you can. You can build cathedrals with it. But Morrison demonstrates precisely the reverse: that you can use any old toolbox, or a combination of a whole bunch of different toolboxes, to build what anyone would call a house.
You can use bazookas to build it.
Or even cans of Campbell’s soup.
Well, but having said all that…it’s really much the same thing they’re doing, so these grand pronouncements of mine are a little bit fatuous, inevitably. These two gentlemen write comics, that’s all, and comics is a big tent. None of that is really my point, because my point’s about the nature of collaboration. Morrison, the chaoticist, needs different things from his collaborators than Moore needs from his, to the extent that his methods are different. Lots of holes! Holes everywhere! Gaps between instigation and conclusion! This is pretty much key, as Morrison pursues a level of allusiveness comparable to Moore’s, but the allusions are all pitched outward into new conclusions, rather than focussed to the centre of the matter of meaning as they are in Moore’s marvellously revelatory dissections. And, is it useful to suppose this, for the sake of the argument? Hmm, maybe…of course we’re leaving every other comics writer out of this discussion, and that doesn’t make much sense. After all, everybody has aims and concentrations! Everyone collaborates!
But Morrison’s collaborations seem rather erratic, don’t they?
When they work, boy do they work. Morrison and Quitely, as everyone knows, are practically mirrors for one another — one is tempted to say that they share a common methodology, that’s how crazy the pairing is. Quitely embeds much and explains little in the same way Morrison does, leaving lots of room for the reader to muck about with re-readings and find unexpected keys. Of course Morrison also leaves room for Quitely, and that’s important too…
But Quitely didn’t draw Seaguy, so why are we talking about him?
…Because we’re on our way to Cameron Stewart. Start with Quitely’s remarkable simpatico with Morrison: I don’t think anyone would deny its existence, even if science can’t explain what makes good artistic collaborations. But even among artistic collaborations, it seems like a one-off lightning-flash…
…Until you get to Cameron Stewart.
Morrison’s actually been easily as lucky as Moore in his most impressive collaborations — and there have been a lot of enormously impressive ones! — but unlike Moore there seems to be something in his collaborations, some thread of collapse, that sometimes makes them go wrong. I don’t know what it is, and I bet he doesn’t even know what it is. Maybe Moore knows. Maybe the answer is to get out of the superhero rat race, even though that’s where a lot of awfully good artists are working.
But here’s my theory.
Grant Morrison was born to be a subversive comics writer, in the style of all the old guys who did this for no money back in the old days, and grew up irrepressible. Well, this is what superhero comics are supposed to be: slightly subversive, lessons from kids who haven’t grown up, to kids who are yet to grow up. Anarchic fun, a feeling of “you could do this”: somewhere out there is a kid tracing Seaguy’s expression looking into the aquarium, somewhere out there is a kid tracing (the fucking hilarious!) “Maxim tie-rack” El Monstro — God how I laughed when I turned that page, and God how I’d like to send the kid money for proper pencils, who’s tracing it now! But the point is: every time there’s a Grant Morrison comic, it’s sending that EC message to kids somewhere…
…To make it all work, it’s got to be fabulously modern, as modern as Kirby and Sinnott. Well after all that’s the point: because Morrisson’s work is a work of its time, and it has to look like its time. And that’s what makes it so incredibly delicate; that’s what makes it so special.
He’s been lucky. Even Howard Porter made Kyle Rayner look like a guilty, sweating kid — you knew hw whipped up ring-replicas of Wonder Woman and Power Girl in his spare time, that just teased the edge of what could be printed in a mianstream comic. Hell, well God knows what would’ve happened if they gave the ring to R. Crumb, eh? BAD SHIT…
…But I digress.
Actually they should’ve given it to Crumb. Can you imagine a Vimanarama drawn by Crumb?
But then that was the point: you don’t honestly think Philip Bond wasn’t influenced by Crumb, do you?
And neither was our good friend Mr. Stewart uninfluenced by our other good friend Mr. Quitely. is all I’m saying.
I mean, for heaven’s sake…just look at those Disneyesque paving-stones in Seaguy 2 #1, eh? It means as much as anything seen in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude…it’s every bit as solid and awful. Detail, people. It’s all about the detail. And lack thereof: our pal Cam leaves every bit as much to the imagination as Quite Frankly does, and maybe even more: the fish float in Seaguy’s aquarium. His wife’s belly swells and bursts in the land out of which Arthur once brought the Cauldron of the Underworld, the land where the Neutral Angels once deposited the soiled Grail.
Let’s think seriously, folks, about what Grant Morrison’s scripts involve.
He isn’t Alan Moore.
But maybe he has a lot in common with him. Moore’s scrripts get tossed by his collaborators. Maybe Morrison’s do too?
Except he plans for them to get tossed. Morrison’s scripts aren’t two hundred pages describing the Atom’s face; they’re probably two lines describing it. “The Atom looks down on the microsphere he’s approaching — an unnameable expression comes over his face.” HTT. The artist doesn’t know any more than we do, I bet.
Both Moore and Morrison get the best out of their artists.
It’s just that Morrison’s more meta about it.
Moore locks his artists down.
Morrison lets them swirl around.
And if you ask me: outside The Invisibles, when he does, his work suffers for it.
But do we blame him for it?
Hey: to date…only on The Invisibles do we blame him for it.
But whenever somebody like Cam Stewart’s on his side, there’s nothing whatever to blame.
Holy Christ, did you see his work on Seaguy 2?
Guy’s a genius.
And I can’t remember where I was going with this all. Can’t remember what my complaint was.
Bloggers, help me fill it in. ‘Cause I can’t get me no.