Amateur Escapology

I’ve announced this on the tinyletter, but not yet on the blog, so: on December 9th I am performing a work-in-progress show, Amateur Escapology.

As someone reminded me, this is actually my second one-person show, since I did a single performance of Vindaloo Stories back in 2017. That was very well-received, but for various reasons I haven’t developed it further (although I will one day). Amateur Escapology is a much more personal show, and one I want to do now.

Preparing a one-person show is weird. How do I justify the time I’m expecting the audience to give up to see it? One of the first things I decided was: no projector. A lot of the spoken word I’ve done has had slides behind it, and it’s easy to get a laugh from the right image, or to use the transitions between slides as a beat. But I wanted to push myself beyond that, to hold the audience’s interest without them. And I also wanted to make sure to produce a performance and story that justified having people in the room. It couldn’t be something that people could have just listened to as a podcast while they prepared dinner. Which means preparing a couple of extra elements that would only work in person – the title of the show gives a clue to what I’m planning.

I’m not sure how it will turn out, although I’m working hard. I’ve almost finished the script, weaving together performance, my own stories and great tales of escape. There are 84 days to go. I’d better finish the script, as I’ll have about 9000 words to commit to memory…

Tickets are £4.50 from eventbrite and the show takes place at the Brunswick in Hove, at 7:30pm on Monday December 9th.

Eazy-E: Pilgrimage to Newhaven

I first heard Eazy-E around 1990. His verse on Gangsta Gangsta stood out, even on a record that sounded like nothing I’d heard before. Of course, part of it was the edginess of the language – but more than that was the anger and energy. Ever since then, I’ve loved hip-hop. I think that love is more nuanced now, and these days I find misogyny hard to listen to; but no art since has blown me away like those three tracks from Straight Outta Compton copied onto a C-90 cassette.

Yesterday, I made a pilgrimage to the English seaside town of Newhaven, where there is a bench in memory of Eazy-E. There’s an element of hipster prank to the whole thing (and the tedious Lancing/Tupac thing plays into this). But there is also a genuine love at the heart of it.

I donated to the bench crowdfunder because I loved the incongruity of it. Another thing I liked about hip-hop from the start was the sense of place. Hip-hop is rooted in locations and neighbourhoods a long way from Sussex. NWA would speak about their neighbourhood of Compton, a city about half the size of Brighton. But hip-hop has reached out from the US round the world. And I remember my first visit to Brighton’s Slip-Jam B night, where someone promised to “tear through Sussex like the Norman conquest“, the first time I’d heard someone rap about places I know.

Even in Brighton or Henfield or Newhaven there were people listening to Eazy-E, feeling a connection to Compton, as ridiculous as that might sound. And a bench memorialising the man who spoke about that city, in a quiet riverside park… that seems right.

It was a good walk, along the cliffs from Brighton, in glorious weather. I have some September sunburn on the right side of my neck.

It’s been an odd weekend for musical memories, with a Tori Amos tribute night on Friday. At the same time I was listening to misogynitic hip-hop I was also obsessed by female singers such as Tori Amos, Courtney Love and PJ Harvey. The Tori night was incredible and I need a little more time to think about it before writing anything. But I will.

My favourite superhero comic: Mister Miracle

I’m a man in his 40s who reads superhero comics. Alan Moore has been clear about his opinion of this. “I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults… delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.” And, a lot of the time, he’s right. Most of these stories, even the ones for ‘mature readers’, are male empowerment fantasies which demean teenage readers, let alone adults.

But I keep panning for gold in this river of shit. Sometimes, something great comes along, like the Vision, or Gwenpool or The Wicked and Divine; but a lot of the time it’s tired stories where ethics are debated by punches. Superhero comics at their best move me more than any other art form (Enigma! Animal Man! Flex Mentallo! Doom Patrol! Promethea!). But, as I get older, I think I’ve seen all the best tricks, and should stop buying new series.

Miracle Man came out in 2017 and is the best superhero book I’ve read. It’s based on an old Jack Kirby series, part of his Fourth World mythos, which set out to invent a new group of gods. His story tells of the eternal war between the Highfather and Darkseid, the embodiment of all that is evil. The Highfather’s son was sent to the planet Apokolips in an exchange of children with Darkseid. There he grew up in the fearsome X-Pits, raised by Granny Goodness in one of her orphanages. He was given the name Scott Free for his attempts to flee Apokolips, his failures slowly teaching him to be the greatest escape artist the universe has ever seen. He finally escapes to Earth, where he later joined by Big Barda, one of the people he knew from his horrific childhood and they are later married.

It’s a hokey story, and the Miracle Man graphic novel opens with a retelling of the story so far, in a simple 6-panel grid. Every sentence ends in an exclamation mark! Then we find a double page spread of Scott Free, lying on a bathroom floor, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds to his wrists. After that, the hospital, Big Barda in a waiting room’s plastic chair, oversized, out of place, sobbing.

The book follows Scott Free and Big Barda as they try to come to terms with Scott’s depression while living in a suburban LA condo. The characters have always tried for a normal life, but cannot renounce their lives as New Gods and superheroes. They try making their home a refuge from the madness, but the war with Apokolips intrudes, sometimes with diplomatic meetings on their cramped sofa. Being gods is their job, the slaughter of sci-fi battles becoming drudgery, the Highfather an annoying boss. Scott and Barda know things between them aren’t good, but cannot fix them while their work life is so hectic. They struggle to maintain their domestic routine, discussing ‘Michelle feeding the cat’ as they head to battles on other worlds.

A lot of stories that merge everyday life with fantasy play on what is real or imaginary (a great example here being I Kill Giants). Mister Miracle’s text has ambiguities, but not intrusively. I prefer to read it as a straightforward superhero narrative whose hero is also struggling to escape depression.

Scott Free’s superpower is escape, but this isn’t enough. Scott and Barda are both struggle with the trauma of their childhood on Apokolips (as Barda tells Scott, “If you’re escaping the box, you’re still in the box”). Scott’s depression is linked with the fictional Anti-Life Equation, a mathematical formula that can take over the will of any living creature – playing on the way that if someone has full control of you, then you are not alive. This becomes a metaphor for Scott’s depression, while being treated as a straightforward piece of comics lore.

The book is impressive. PanelXPanel magazine discussed how the 9-panel grid is treated as a cage, trapping the character. Repetition and distortion are used to great effect; black panels intrude, proclaiming ‘Darkseid is…”, breaking up the flow. Captions are taken from the original Kirby series of Mister Miracle and placed against this more serious story, to jarring, mocking effect.

Superheroes were invented for young boys in the 50s, but maybe they do have something to say to middle-aged men in their 40s. How does fantasy survive alongside the parts of our lives that are boring or disappointing we hate, with feelings of doubt, exhaustion and sadness? The only problem with Mister Miracle is how hollow so many other comics feel in comparison.

More on gnostic movies

Following Wednesday’s post on gnostic movies, Cat pointed me towards some articles they had written for weaponizer as the Mason Lang Film club. These articles are exactly what I was looking for, and contained some interesting thoughts and ideas:

  • Most of these films also contain an idea of love as a transcendent power. Some also share an image of the seashore as a “place of transformation or apotheosis”, notably in the Truman Show and Dark City.
  • It’s a long time since I’ve seen Thirteenth floor, but the noir set-up seems very similar to that in Dark City, with amnesiacs waking up in bathrooms after murders.
  • Apparently, the Matrix and Dark City were filmed on some of the same sets
  • The Matrix, while inspired by the Invisibles, is very different, since it focuses on the dualistic good-vs-evil plots that the Invisibles tried to dissolve

It’s been a while since the last post in the series, but hopefully it will be finished one day. I particularly want to read the Dark City entry.

The most interesting thing in Cat’s posts was the discussion of Neo’s trip ‘down the rabbit hole’, which he compared to Chapel Perilous, the stage of development where people have to face everything they fear. “And the worst thing about the Chapel?,” asks Cat. “You never really know if you’ve actually left it.”

Another question from the Matrix is whether the fake world is better than the real one. The character Cypher is desperate to lose all enlightenment and to be happy in the real world once more:

The Matrix – as opposed to the Desert Of The Real which Anderson is forcibly awakened into – is so fucking cool, it hurts. In the Matrix, you dress exquisitely, you can kick all sorts of ass, you can even fly. In the Real, all you get is grey knitwear, killer robots and lumpy porridge.

Someone suggested another film for my list, Being John Malkovich. I’d not seen that since around the time it came out. It’s an interesting movie to revisit, and looks a little tired and wacky in comparison to Charlie Kaufman’s later movie Synecdoche. The acting is fascinating, with John Cusack and Cameron Diaz almost unrecognisable. Although I do think it’s a shame that the film was not made as Being Tom Cruise, as some potential producers suggested.

However, Being John Malkovich didn’t fit in my original list as the fake world has not been created to entrap the characters. Possibly Open your Eyes/Vanilla Sky would fit the theme (if not the Hollywood-in-98/99 constraint) – although Cat excludes them on the basis he can’t stand them.

Another interesting question is why these stories work so well as films. I’m guessing that the visual changes between the two worlds make them more effective. Or maybe we are more receptive when we’re in a dark room, staring at images cast on a wall.

I’ve added Altered States to the list of films I need to see soon. And a second-hand copy of Valis has just arrived, so I’ll be starting that soon.

The turn-of-the-century boom in gnostic movies

Around the start of the 21st century, there was a sudden flurry of mainstream films with gnostic themes. By which I mean, they showed people living within a reality that had been faked, trying to get through to a ‘real world’. Hollywood has often had similar movies in development at different studios, but this seemed to be almost a movement:

(Any other examples that I’ve missed?)

It’s not to say there is necessarily some huge significance to a list of 5 films over 2 years, but they had great similarities beyond anxieties about technology and the rise of the Internet.

It’s also interesting that these movies about rebellion were all produced as mainstream cinema, setting up an interesting tension with their themes of rebellion against authority. These films were released alongside a number of hugely commercial yet anti-consumerist films like as Fight Club and American Beauty. A recent Guardian article asking whether 1999 was the best year in cinema suggests this might be because “DVD sales began in 1997 and flooded studios with extra cash… Studios invested the windfall in a generation of upstart directors“.

There have been other films on these themes in the years since, but this strange simultaneous knot doesn’t seem to have been repeated.

Doomsday Clock: the world’s most dangerous comic

Crossing over Watchmen and Superman is an objectively-terrible idea, but so wrong that I had to look. And, I can tell you, Doomsday Clock is the ultimate act of vandalism against the DC Universe. It might also be dangerous.

Watchmen is the classic superhero book, appearing on several lists of the 20th century’s greatest novels. Its success has come at a cost. As Moore has said: “there has been, in the 15 years since Watchmen, an awful lot of the comics field devoted to these very grim, pessimistic, nasty, violent stories…. I’d have liked to have seen more people trying to do something that was as technically complex as Watchmen, or as ambitious”.

Instead of other great works, we’ve had the Dark Age of superheroes, which has been cursed with crossovers and reboots, while strip-mining every last idea Moore ever had. But, even then, a crossover between Superman and Watchmen was unthinkable. Until now.

At the end of Watchmen Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandius, had unleashed his scheme to save the world at the cost of thousands of lives. The omnipotent Dr Manhattan then left the universe to look for new ones. Doomsday Clock begins in the Watchmen universe, where the unravelling of Ozymandius’ scheme is leading to international tension, and nuclear war is imminent. In an attempt to fix things, Ozymandius sets out to find Dr. Manhattan, following his trail via the magic of quantum tunnelling into… The DC Universe!

My first response is that a lot of this is competent. The book looks likes Watchmen, using the basic rhythm of the nine-panel-grid, although it doesn’t contain anything like Moore’s wonderful formalist experiments. The scenes involving Marionette and the Mime are superb – they are the character finds of 2017 (which is when this series was first published – it’s running very late).

But there are also a lot of crass notes, such as the resurrection of the Comedian. Or the promotional pancake mix – DC have no shame. And the whole thing feels a little over-weighted with meaning, like how the TVs in the background only seem to play one old movie, whose dialogue reflects what is happening to the nearby DC characters. There is also a lot more punching in Doomsday Clock than there was in Watchmen.

One of the best things about Watchmen was that it was ambitious. The book deconstructed the medium, pushing the limits of both the comic book form and the concept of superheroes. But it wasn’t just about comics – if you knew little more than the basics of comic books, you could still enjoy the murder mystery, or the philosophical questions about fate, or the subtle background details.

Doomsday clock, like most modern crossovers, feels like creative book-keeping, attempting to tidy up continuity errors. Since 1986’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (designed to prune the DC Universe’s confusing parallel worlds) we’ve had a torrent of ever-more extravagant crises, which devalue their credibility: zero hour, final crisis, Flashpoint, and so on. This book ties up some problems between the ‘New 52’ from 2011, and the ‘DC: Rebirth’ from 2016: it turns out that all these continuities are Dr Manhattan tinkering with the universe.

Watchmen didn’t require readers to know decades of continuity, but Doomsday Clock relies on it. I didn’t get the significance of the sub-plot about Saturn girl being corrupted by the dark age of superheroes; and a huge part of the plot depends on caring when the Justice Society of America was created, whether it exists and if Superman was a member. As usual with DC’s crises, the Flash is at the heart of it, but I can’t be bothered to keep up with that character, and I am so fed up of continuity. Most of what happens in Doomsday Clock is an obscure debate about canon and continuity, of little interest to most people. Issue 1 ends with Superman talking about his parent’s death when he was at high school. I have no idea whether this was meant to be a shocking revisionist twist or not.

The most interesting thing about this book is the way it tangles universes together – and that is where the true danger lies. Superman exists as a comic book in the Watchmen universe, where he was the inspiration for Hollis Mason, the first Owl Man. And our world has often been folded into the DC Universe as Earth Prime.

Obviously, the comic book universe is affected by the publishers in our world, but comic books also affect this world. Grant Morrison has given the example of people’s lives being changed by the inspirational scenes in All-Star Superman; and I know people whose political views were formed by Marvel comics such as X-Men and Black Panther. There have also been physical interactions between comics and the our world, such as real-world sightings of the magician John Constantine, or the time when Grant Morrison nearly died after writing about injuries to a character he’d based on himself.

Interactions between comics and the real world are strange but they are there. It’s not surprising – the DC Universe is one of the most complicated structures in our world, more complicated and densely networked than the human brain. Grant Morrison was obsessed with the idea that this is sentient, and we have to ask what something like Doomsday Clock does to a living story like this. It is not far off torturing it – and it is inevitable that such things will have an effect on our world in time.

Even if I am wrong, Doomsday Clock is still a book you shouldn’t read. It’s not intended for regular people anyway. Alan Moore once dismissed The Killing Joke by saying “The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn’t about anything that you’re ever going to encounter in real life… [it] had no real human importance. It was just about a couple of licensed DC characters that didn’t really relate to the real world in any way.” Doomsday Clock has nothing to say about the real world. And that’s OK for me, because I care about this continuity, but it’s a waste of time for almost everyone else.

But as far as Watchmen goes, this work is on the  level of getting Duchamp’s moustache drawn on the real Mona Lisa.. It’s audacious and it’s vandalism and I cannot take my eyes off it.

Re-reading the Invisibles

I’ve just set up an online forum for Re-reading the Invisibles. It’s almost 25 years since the first issue of The Invisibles came out, and I wanted to invite people to re-read or (read) the series in real time, issue-by-issue, 25 years after they were originally published. This will take us into 2025. If you’d like to join the forum, anyone is welcome. Just sign up at invisibles.orbific.com.

There are three obvious questions:

  1. What is the Invisibles?
  2. Why re-read it?
  3. What stops this being just an exercise in nostalgia?

The Invisibles was a three-volume, 59-issue comic book series, which ran from 1994-2000. It was an attempt by the author, Grant Morrison to talk about everything: conspiracy theories, magic, and the secrets of the universe. The book is also designed as a magic spell, what Morrison referred to as a ‘hypersigil’, with the intent of making the world more interesting. The series was published by Vertigo alongside other classic series such as Preacher, Sandman and Transmetropolitan. Despite being loved by its audience, The Invisibles teetered close to cancellation, and hasn’t had the same post-publication life of graphic novel sales or adaptations.

So why re-read it? Because it was one of the biggest influences on my life. Because it never got the response it deserved at the time. Because a lot of people I know want to read it, but haven’t found the opportunity or a way in. Because it’s interesting to revisit a work that was so intentionally futuristic and see how that future has aged. Because reading things as part of a group is more interesting. Because everyone I’ve met who has read the Invisibles has been fascinating.

But what stops this being just nostalgia? Just this week, I was complaining on twitter: “This week the Guardian has had articles on: The Abyss at 30, the Sixth Sense at 20 and the reboots of the 25-year old Matrix. Nostalgic journalism has so little to say. Is my future just reviewing things that happened a certain number of years ago?

I’m not re-reading the Invisibles to relive my youth. I mean, it’s connected to the parts of my past that involved sitting in a room by myself reading comics – there are more exciting bits to re-live. Instead, I think this is a book that connects directly to things that are currently happening in my life. The book has references to magic, Robert Anton Wilson, Philip K Dick that seem even more relevant than they did back then.

But, more than that, this is a book about a conspiracy of people coming together to make the world a better place; a group of misfits struggling in the face of an overwhelming reality of ordered boredom. And that part of the book very much speaks to today.

The Last Port Eliot Festival

I’ve met some interesting people at festivals over the years, but this weekend I met by far the strangest. There’s a photo of him below. If you look closely, you can probably make out a hand in the middle of the image.

Someone hiding in the bushes

I spent last weekend at the final Port Eliot festival. I didn’t see a lot of performances, preferring to spend the days talking to the fascinating people I met. About the only programmed talk I did saw was an interview with fellow pilgrim Ru Callender (described by one mutal friend as ‘the King of Totnes’). I learned a lot about funerals and eel fishing (do NOT add water to a bucket of captured eels). Ru also mentioned an interesting aspect of the KLF burning a million quid. A lot of people still don’t believe that actually happened – but further proof is provided by Cauty and Drummond having paid £400,000 tax on the money.

The person in the photo at the top of this article spent much of the weekend hidden in bushes, occasionally rustling. I stopped to chat with them and they said they were having a great time hiding, seeing who spotted them. They’d bought a ghillie suit for Halloween, and had been wanting another opportunity to wear it. I love how festivals provide space for that sort of thing.

Another highlight was meeting a friendly kitten early on Saturday morning:

This was the final ever Port Eliot festival for the time being, which is a great shame. Like pretty much everyone else, I’m hoping the festival can return in a few years time.

Some other Brighton

This is not the only Brighton. There is a city called Brighton on every continent. There is even a bar of that name in Antarctica (it is little more than a cupboard with a fridge of beer, but it does have a reputation).

There is a New Brighton in the Wirral. And there is a Brighton Beach in New York, on the Coney Island peninsular. There are Brightons on the shores of Australia and New Zealand, places linked only by their haphazard naming.

But the mystery is the landlocked Brightons, the ones without a seafront, where the name seems like mockery. Places with no piers, no beaches, and no waves. But sometimes, in the heart of the night, a lonesome seagull can be heard crying in Brighton, Illinois.

Re-tracing the Pennine Way with Simon Armitage

I started reading Walking Home, Simon Armitage’s book on the Pennine Way, just before Armitage was appointed Poet Laureate – and I considered giving up on the book right then. Benjamin Zephaniah has already explained why honours in the name of the British Empire are a bad thing:  Armitage has compounded the shame of his CBE with his recent appointment as a paid flunky.

Still, Walking Home is not a bad book. At the start, Armitage slightly oversells the toughness of the walk – I guess he’s trying to add some drama – but I’ve seen some fairly unfit people get by just through persevering. The book that follows is a gentle description of the people he meets, the scenery and his poetry gigs along the way.

The best thing about the book was reliving the trail. Armitage does it in the less popular direction (i.e. into the wind) and was unluckier with the weather than most people – his experience of Pen-y-ghent was as rough as mine. There are some great descriptions, particularly an early one of the Cheviots – “The view in every direction is delicious: a solar system of summits, majestic but benign hills overlaid with lush grass and the odd rectangle of planted conifer., And, somewhat incongruously, in the far distance to the east, the sea.

While Armitage says he wouldn’t walk the trail again, the book made me want to go back, not least because of things I’d missed. For once, I didn’t realise that Jodrell Bank was visible from the Pennine Way. And I’d love to walk the Cheviots again.

There’s something interesting about how walkers can have such different experiences of the same path. It reminded me of the way we interpret texts differently, based on what we bring to it ourselves, and the conditions at the time. The route might be the same, but the walk is different – just like we have different readings of the same text.

And there are similarities too. Armitage had the same sensations of space as I did, the amazement that our ‘overcrowded island’ contains areas so wild, so barren. Armitage also wonders about the flagstones, a thing of controversy for some walkers, since they make difficult paths accessible in tough weathers. Armitage points out that these huge stones are sinking and will, in time, disappear into the moorland.

The most disappointing thing about the book is that Armitage does not actually complete the trail – he abandons the final day for the comforts of home. I’ve spoken before about how we pick our own rules for hiking. But when you’ve chosen the terms of your walk, you have to complete it on those terms. Armitage’s failure to complete the last stage is only mentioned at the end of the book, where he tries to frame it as something that doesn’t really matter. This seemed dishonest.

Not completing the route is something of a trope in successful books about hiking, as Robert Moor pointed out in a 2015 New Yorker article, Why the Most Popular Hiking Memoirs Don’t Go the Distance. Discussing Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Paul Coehlio’s The Pilgrimage, Moor asks “why are the three most famous accounts of hiking three of the world’s most famous long-distance trails written by people who did not hike the whole distance?” It’s a good question, and Walking Home provides further evidence that this is indeed A Thing.