Fearful Symmetry

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Captain Scarlet On Acid

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The sickness of Grant Morrison’s and Chris Weston’s comic The Filth.

(Originally published on the Ninth Art website as ‘The Filth And The Theory’.

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

‘A Dream Within a Dream’ by Edgar Allan Poe

The Filth - 1st issue

The Filth - 1st issue

It’s hard to be rational about the irrational; even harder to make the Surreal, real. Thus trying to bring some sense to The Filth isn’t easy. It’s a slippery eel of a text that writhes under analysis, defying explanation. You can bring some sense to it eventually but… well it’s complicated. In fact it’s hard to even know where to begin… Let’s try the old Six Form essay technique of ‘first define your terms’. Filth is defined by my dictionary as any foul matter that defiles, physically or morally; the obscene. It is also a slang term of abuse for the police. Morrison uses all these definitions but also expands to provide a positive spin on things – a bit of the nasty can actually be good for you.

As you read this your body is seething with myriad minute processes you are totally unaware of. Your immure system works hard to expel unwanted material – going to war against the poisons and illnesses that invade the body. Millions of ‘warriors’ are sacrificed in the battle. In fact, what most of think of as the ’symptoms’ of our ‘illness’ – the snot, the phlegm, the shivers, the aching joints, the headaches – are just the effects of the body fighting back, the dead corpses of all those warriors settling in the joints or being sneezed into a tissue or coughed up into the sink; we should welcome them.


We inoculate ourselves against viruses by deliberately injecting the ‘filth’ into our bodies so we can build immunity to it. That bit of nasty that is good for you – a bit of illness makes us well. As one man said: ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’. In fact it has long been a worry that children are living too clean an existence now, over-protected by mummy and daddy and not building up sufficient resistance. One of the things that makes The Filth so difficult to approach is that is it explicitly supposed to be having a similar effect to the reader on a intellectual, psychic and spiritual level. It messes with your head – but it does you good in the end.

Zoom out from the body, and we can see that our society at large has its own immune system to stop the poisons and diseases building up in the system. In the early morning while we sleep dustmen clear away our rubbish (’dust’ being an old euphemism for shit – now of course we have to call them “Waste Engineers”). The police remove troubling individuals from the system just like the white cells in our blood that smother bacteria. The Filth is The Invisibles for grown-ups; instead of young anarchists it is about those unsung heroes who clear away society’s mess.

This relationship of small to large, individual to society, is a recurring theme in The Filth. One obvious example is the I-life – a society of semi-intelligence microscopic Telly Tubbey-like creatures. They infect an android creating their own ’starship’ (it is implied that we are all ’starships’ to our microbes’). In the final episode we see a human being ‘piloted’ by little men in his head… is this a direct homage to very similar old Numbskulls comic strip from The Beano? Morrison:

“That was deliberate. The Numbskulls were a major influence on The Filth along with Gerry Anderson’s Captain Scarlet.”

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly. When he awoke he thought to himself, “Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”

At its heart The Filth is about two characters who are two halves of the same person … or are they?

We start with Greg Feely. Well actually we don’t; we start with a, at the time, totally unexplained page with a character going on about ‘Smoking is like violence’. The many sudden similar none-sequiturs are one of the things that makes The Filth’s plot so hard to grasp the first time around. Each issue we are thrown straight into the action (literally ‘without warning’ in the third.). Also like a lot of Surrealism much of The Filth works on the subconscious level After multiple read-throughs the plot eventually starts to make some sort of sense (although, like some drugs, multiple exposure has a lessening effect on its weirdness, its magical effect)

Anyway, back to Greg. We first see him through the post-modern framing device of the CCTV camera and he is surrounded by paranoia inducing whisperings – or is he just suffering from schizophrenia? On a seemingly typical day in his life we discover he is a sad tosser buying transexual pornography. “Good wank!” the newsagent advises him to Feely’s acute embarrassment – like the best Surrealism, The Filth is shot through with humour. But at least Feely loves his dying cat, one aspect of his personally that gives us some sympathy for the character. Greg Feely was an interesting choice of name… did Morrison realise that it was the moniker of a prominent US science fiction critic?

“Not until the comic came out – I don’t read science fiction or any other kind of fiction so I’d never heard of the guy. Greg Feely was a parallel earth version of me, where life didn’t work out, so ‘Greg’ means ‘great’ – as does ‘Grant’ – and Feely has the double meaning of touchy-feely and creepy -crawly.”

The secret identity has a long history in comics and Feely is also Ned Slade (or is Feely, Slade’s secret ID? Wait until the end to find out…) Ned is the top agent for The Hand, a secret organisation with its headquarters in the ‘crack of the world’. The Hand are a secret police force combined with cosmic dustmen (they even travel in dimension-hopping dustcarts) who eliminate ‘aberrations’ from the system. Ned’s world is stuffed full with surreal imaginary… as Morrison says, “The ’surrealism’ is just my acid-trip version of typical comic book imagery, included because I wanted the book to be visually arresting and fantastical as well as thematically dense and ‘realistic’.”

Grant worked closely with artist Chris Weston to achieve his vision. As Weston says:

“Grant sent me a rough sketch of the Filth Officer’s costume, and I slightly adjusted it to suit my vision. He’s a good artist. He also designed the Status Quorum characters.”

There is also some interesting examples of technology, harking back to science-fiction’s past. Weston again:

“I wanted to create science-fiction visions we hadn’t seen since the Seventies; to make it look like the sort of artwork you find on the covers of science fiction paperbacks. The technology was supposed to look pre-Star Wars, pre-Blade Runner; to get away from that bulky, lived in, used hardware look that has been done to death these last two decades. Grant asked me to make it look like ‘Roger Dean gone horribly wrong’! Clockwork Orange and Logan’s Run were also mentioned. I think I was only partially successful in realising this vision, and it’s something I want to pursue further on future projects.”

Feely is supposedly some sort of holiday for Slade, a ‘para-personality’ he has assumed to take time-out from his vocation, which was so stressful that it had induced a break-down. Slade is forcibly brought back from his holiday – Feely’s ‘para-personality’ stripped away – in order to combat the super-villain Sparticus Hughs. He was a former agent, and friend of Ned, who has gone bad and is now a ‘cancer’ in the system. The main plot consists of a number of set-pieces where Slade battles against several spectacular disasters unleashed by Hughs’ machinations. They are quickly resolved when each could be the basis for a much longer adventure – Morrison delights in showing off just how deep his imaginative power is when he can ‘waste’ such ideas. We have rogue nano-technology, an uprising on a massive ocean liner and the adventures of super-fertile porn film star Anders Klimaaks. This latter episode is by far the most controversial. As Weston says:

“Some of what I drew for the series was deemed too extreme and was hastily re-drawn; in particular, the Anders Klimaaks chapters. For example, the shot of Anders’ black jizz spurting over the porn actress’ face was removed!”

There was alo some deliberate censorship as a mad porn-film maker in the same episode has the world first ‘real pixelated penis’. This is just one example of a number of occasions where Morrison uses such post-modern devices to dismantle the comic book form (as Alan Moore did in a different way with Watchman). Later we have a character whose thoughts, in the standard (but now old-fashioned) comic thought balloons are actually ‘real clouds’. There is also a comic within a comic, Status Quorum, that illustrates the utter banality of the characters and plot from comics past compared to the cutting edge of now (ie The Filth itself) as the characters from Status Quorum interact with those of The Filth. It’s clear Morrison worked closely with Weston to achieve the spectacular and mind-dislocating first appearance of Status Quorum. Weston:

“The page layouts and storytelling decisions were my domain with the exception of that sequence in Issue 3 where the characters burst out of the comic reality. Grant sent me some roughs of the layouts he wanted for those double-page spreads”

Meanwhile, in the ‘real world’, in between Ned’s adventures, Greg’s life disintegrates – his neighbours outs him as a paedophile (’PaedoFeely’) and he is eventually arrested by the police. Here Morrison taps into one of the UK’s most prominent current urban terrors – the child molester – or even worse, being wrongly accused of such. In recent years we have had the controversial News of the World’s ‘name and shaming’ of paedophiles leading to marauding hordes on council estates going after any weirdo or oddball (or even paediatricians… ). The television comedy program Brass Eye created huge controversy examining this attitude and the media attitudes that fuel it.

The story flips between Ned and Greg until both threads reach their climax in the final episodes with many reversals in tone and plot along the way. In the final issue it is not exactly obvious what is going on as several new themes and ideas are introduced (including the ‘Numbskulls’ as already mentioned). We have to develop new paradigms as the plot undergoes several quantum shifts. However the main themes are worked out – a little of the nasty does you good; good comes things come from bad – for instance flowers from the muck; even Life itself coming from the primeval mud. On Morrisons’ Crack Comics website there are a number of quotes for each episode, one for the final issue being particularly apposite:

“University of Glasgow chemist A. Graham Cairns-Smith…suggested that the present essential elements of biology – nucleic acids and catalysing proteins – evolved on a kind of prebiotic scaffolding. Ultimately the scaffolding disappeared, leaving behind the biochemistry that now controls the processes of all living things. The vanished supporting structure, in the view of Cairns-Smith could have been clay.”

And in the end, his memory of cat guiding him on, Greg disappearing underground as he continues to bring light to the darkness, the flower’s blooming around him.

So what is actually going on? The obvious interpretation is everything is happening as we are presented with it … Greg really is Ned. Another interpretation is that Greg is a having a breakdown and everything, including Ned’s adventures, is his experience of the world as filtered through his damaged psyche. Or is the whole story just Greg’s dying hallucinations after his overdose (strongly reflected by the death of Ned’ nemesis in issue 2)? All these and more are equally valid. Morrison:

“It’s like any piece of music or painting. I have several interpretations of the story running simultaneously in my head. In the literal interpretation, the story actually starts at the end when Greg takes the pills. Those five pages, the only ones to feature Greg as a narrative voice, are the ‘real’ world and everything else is a Bardo experience, rippling out from that moment. When Greg says ‘I’m coming…’ he’s having a kind of deathgasm, you might say, and reaching a blinding understanding of the universe all at the same time. In the I-life immune system interpretation, it becomes the sci-fi story of the creation, fall and evolution of a microscopic robot species programmed to heal. Greg’s experience of the hand is a kind of ’sickness’ – the presence of nano-life replacing the bacteria in his body is experienced as feverish hallucinations. Illness and then recovery. And so on.”

The Filth - Last issue

The Filth - Last issue

But is it magic…? What is magic anyway? It’s easy in our ‘rational’ world to immediately dismiss it. But think of this… Every night millions of people sit down in front of a ‘magic box’ and watch their soap operas and other dramas. The fictional characters are as ‘real’ to them as their own friends and families – they can talk about them like they are real people. For some they are more real. The actors received fan mail addressed to their characters asking for work and offering marriage proposals. Actor’s playing villains are physically attacked in the street by members of the public. But even if we are not soap fans we all care about fictional characters, fiction can deeply effect us. We are dragged into Greg and Neds world (Greg being a highly sympathetic despite his negative character traits) we become concerned for them and other characters due to Morrison’s Writing and Weston’s art. We are affected by what we read. Someone’s imagination is projected into your brain leaving you changed… that is magic.

Each person approaching a text will bring with them different previous experiences that will affect how he perceives the work. For me, but maybe not for you, The Filth was deeply effecting. Some things I took out of it were not even intended by the authors…Whilst reading I became convinced that the inclusion of a pair of artists who enjoy playing with filth may be a key to unlocking the text. I asked Morrison why use Gilbert And George for Man Green/Man Yellow? Morrison

“They crawled up out of my subconscious in that form. It just seemed right.”

Ah, well…

Let’s leave Morrison with the last word, could reading the Filth really have changed my whole outlook on life. Has the magic worked?:

“I’d like to think so. Your immune system should work better after reading it.”

The Filth is available in Trade Paperback

Many thanks to Chris Weston and Grant Morrison.

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

June 23, 2009 at 5:05 pm

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