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    the filth by grant morrison

    The Filth is Grant Morrison's most recent piece of long-form comics narrative, a thirteen-issue series published by Vertigo and recently collected into a trade paperback. The Filth is a pretty trippy compound of provocative ideas and strange imagery, but it doesn’t really work as a story, and over the past two months I’ve been reading and re-reading the collection trying to figure out where exactly the flaw might be found. (The post that follows will contain minor spoilers (and postmodern theory), so beware.)

    In the book-length study Postmodern Fiction, author Brian McHale discusses the concept of "ontological oscillation": the way that postmodern narratives tend to set up two or more incompatible worlds and lets the text "flicker" between the different realities without necessarily establishing one as more-or-less "real" than another within the space of the story (although some may bear a greater degree of resemblance to our own "real" world than others). This model maps neatly onto The Filth: within the first three issues we're introduced to three distinct ontic worlds. The first of these is the world which seems (initially at least) to be fairly congruent with our own: the contemporary urban Britain where everyman Greg Feely works at his office job and buys pornography essentially functions as a stand-in for our own world's contemporary urban Britain. There are some minor inconsistencies—for instance, early on in the series we're introduced to a race of nanotech organisms evolved by a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist—but daily life in this first world seems like it would be more-or-less familiar.

    The second world is the one into which Feely is abducted, the world referred to as "the Crack," which houses the headquarters of a secret hygiene organization called the Hand. "Are we on another planet?" Feely asks, bewildered by the funhouse architecture of Hand HQ and the blighted landscape outside. "Am I in the future? Or in virtual reality?" The answer isn't exactly any of the above, but it's clear that the Crack is a kind of para-space where the normal rules of reality don't apply: monkeys speak, giant submarines are powered by cathedral-batteries, time and space operate in unusual fashion. And then we have a third world, the least real, introduced at the beginning of Issue Three: "the Paperverse," a comic-book universe that emulates the look-and-feel of old Marvel and DC comics, featuring cities like "Omnitropolis" and super-powered characters like "Alpha-Sapiens" and "Machine Girl."

    Morrison spends a lot of time exploring the permeability of the boundary between these three worlds: Hand agents covertly (and not entirely benignly) manipulate events in the real world; Feely is disoriented and troubled by the high weirdness of the Crack, mostly wanting to return to caring for his sick cat in his normal life; the Superman-like Secret Orginal cripples himself by leaving behind the action-packed but comparatively innocent world of the Paperverse and punching into the perverse, morally-ambiguous universe of the Crack. And for the most part, all of this works effectively as a means of bringing dramatic tension into The Filth (although the events occuring at Paperverse / Crack boundary never really amount to more than a tantalizing digression).

    But one of the difficulties with writing a postmodern narrative containing universes that lack a firm ontological basis is that events occurring in those universes begin to lose some of their weight and consequence. Ontological instablity is a condition with its own degree of tragedy, and Morrison has proven himself able to exploit this in the past (see Deus Ex Machina, the volume which collects some of his run on Animal Man, or the unsettling conclusion of his more recent three-issue series Seaguy) but in The Filth the pathos-generating events tend to be more traditional, and when they occur in a space like the Crack they have a tendency to feel featherweight: the death of Hand agent Cameron Jones from time-accelerated lymphatic cancer just doesn't seem to matter that much because the universe where it happens has already been established as a place where nearly anything goes.

    Pathos in The Filth functions more effectively in the "real world," at least for a while, but by mid-series the science-fictional elements of that world have begun to ramp up, which violates the terms of that universe: we’re introduced to elements like a floating nation-ship, the Libertania, in Issue Seven and a man who can manifest clouds of "visible thought" above his head in Issue Ten. With no recognizable reality left for the weirdness to orient around, the story begins to feel completely ungrounded, and events which seem intended to carry emotional weight begin to fall flat: it's difficult to feel like the death of a sick cat is "real" when it happens in a universe where events like the destruction of a nation of over 100,000 people and the mutilation and assassination of the President of the United States seem to have no notable consequences.

    There’s a lot to like in The Filth, but I’d stop short of claiming (as the Comics Journal claims) that "The Filth is the best thing Morrison has ever written." It strives for a certain degree of dramatic gravity at the same time as it systematically kicks out its own dramatic supports.

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    Sunday, February 06, 2005
    6:29 PM


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