By Grant Morrison
Art by Frank Quitely
Where we get it on with the animals of We3. Discussing such delights as: Is sci-fi the best genre of them all? Is the writer’s job to get out of the way of the artist? And aaawwww – have you looked at the cute little animals?
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
The best book I read last year was The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts (book as in: “proper” no-pictures lots-of-words non-comic book). I feel like if I say anything about it I’ll spoil it. So instead I’ll just say go and read it (altho in terms of what I wanna say I get the feeling it’s going to haunt the rest of this… Namely: well – science fiction and how and why science fiction is good).
Animals in robot suits yeah?
The reason I picked up The Thing Itself is because I’d just finished reading Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by the same author (which I first heard of and had wanted to read thanks to this) and also because I saw this post by Adam Roberts himself (the guy who wrote the books) being shared around on the cyberspace: 2016: the Story So Far.
I mean: I’ll try and sum it up but I think that probably does it a disservice and actually you should just go off and read the whole thing (it’s not that long don’t worry) I mean – it’s v interesting and about lots of things that swim around my brain: being a success, dealing with disappointment. Things like that. But the thing that made it stay in my brain was this:
I’d boil this down to: don’t write novels that stray too far from the median of SF-Fan interest: don’t be too pretentious or clever-clever, don’t try to be too ostentatiously experimental or oddball.
And yeah: I mean shit – that made it sound like The Thing Itself (the book he was talking about) was going to be the opposite of my cup of tea (what’s the opposite to tea? Is it coffee?). Because urg – pretentious and clever-clever are very much not what it’s all about (back foul demons! In your black turtleneck jumpers and endlessly name dropping European Philosopher ways). But then – well – I saw The Thing Itself in my library. Just sitting there quietly calling my name (“Jooooel. Joooooooel“) and so I thought – well: what the hey. I’ll give it a spin. And then well basically – wow. It was like a TWACK to the back of the head (but in a good way). Which – damn it – going back to read his blog post again is kinda sad as it ends with this:
My next novel, coming from Gollancz in 2017, will be a lot less ambitious (a lot less pretentious, you might say).
To which I can only say: BOOOOOOOOOOOO!
But that’s not what I wanted to talk about (altho it also kinda is).
No – what I wanted to talk about was another writer that I found through reading Adam Roberts reviews and that’s a guy called Jonathan McCalmont who is also very much very cool (he has a blog here called Ruthless Culture that I’ve been slowly making my way through) but the thing that made the biggest impression was a thing he wrote about another Adam Roberts book (called New Model Army).
Here it is:
So, while the mainstream literary novel attempts to capture and communicate that which is familiar, universal and mundane, the science fiction novel seeks to foster a sense of intellectual alienation by describing a world and characters only tangentially related to the experience of the author and their readers.
I mean – shit. I feel like I’ve been trying to understand that most of my life and then this guy just comes and lays it out flat like that like it’s no big deal. And then he hits me again with this:
This desire for conceptual estrangement entails a substantial technical challenge: The modern novel is a product of the 16th and 17th centuries and while the form has evolved over the years, it remains firmly wedded to the principles of individualism, psychological depth and mundane realism that fuelled the growth of the novel, and the parallel growth of individualism as a means of describing human nature. In order for science fiction to explore other forms of being it must first find a way of communicating psychological and philosophical principles that are fundamentally incommensurable with the basic underpinnings of the novel.
And oops: now we get to the point because yeah: basically – comics innit?
Altho of course: not only comics. Especially because obviously the thing I’m lifting this quotes from is a review of a “proper” no-pictures lots-of-words non-comic book and well yeah: (don’t you know) there are lots and lots and lots of sci-fi books out there right? But still… I think this feeds into the stuff I was trying to describe when we were discussing Blankets – namely: different mediums have different strengths and to maybe bastardise a little what Jonathan is saying above: maybe novels are too tied into “the principles of individualism, psychological depth and mundane realism” and furthermore – because novels are now seen as being a serious and a proper grown-up art-form: comics want to ape them and do individualism, psychological depth and mundane realism as well? You know – like a little sibling striving to emulate their more successful older sister or brother or whatever. Instead of – well – exploring “other forms of being.”
Which well yeah: We3 and animals in robot suits.
Except not only that. Well – not only telling a story about different ways of seeing the world but also telling that story in a different way. Like: not only having the subject of the story be different – but to be different in how you tell the story too. I mean – Morrison and Quitely could have told their little tale of animals in robot suits in a nine panel grid or whatever the standard is but even if you just flick through it’s pretty obvious that’s very much not the case. Instead they play around with the idea of how comics work like it’s a piece of taffy: stretching it and warping it into lots of strange new cool shapes. Is it redundant if I all I say is this is what comics can do / this is what comics should be doing? (Answer: yes).
But whatever. I mean – maybe I’m pushing too hard? Maybe I should just say that We3 is a cool comic and leave it at that? With a small mention about how a big part of what makes it cool is how you if you would never saw his name on the cover you’d probably never guess it was a Grant Morrison joint and that’s very much a good thing (an ending that isn’t just a big messy “huh? Hurrah!)?
But nothing exists in isolation – and well – damn it: we need to argue and praise the good stuff in the hope that it’ll inspire more of the good stuff to be made. The Adam Roberts blog post at the top underlines that in big heavy felt-tip I think. Unless you champion the good stuff – it will not be produced and it will die. And in it’s place will grow boring sickly weeds aka nothing “ostentatiously experimental or oddball.” And who wants to live in a world like that? (Sick feeling at the back of my stomach says: maybe that’s the world we already live in).
So yeah – hooray for animals in robot suits.
Like J G Ballard said: “I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring.”
But what do you think?
Crown on the Ground
Twitter / Comicosity
In that model, magical realism would be the genre that tries to synthesize those conceptions of the literary novel and science fiction, yeah?
I skipped out on Blankets so in my mind I’m coming to talking about We3 here fresh from Elektra Assassin, which is a nice frame of mind to come in on. One of the things that really drove the conversation the most about Elektra Assassin was trying to sort out just how combative the creative relationship between Miller and Sienkiewicz was, so it’s very appropriate to move on to a major turning point in Morrison and Quitely’s collaborations. The first Morrison penned comic I ever read front to back was Seven Soldiers of Victory: Zatanna #1 and the trade edition of We3 followed closely on its heels so I had little frame of reference for it at the time. All I knew was that it blew me away both visually and emotionally.
Looking back on it now, it feels fairly safe to say that it marked a gigantic turning point in how Morrison and Quitely, both individually and as collaborators, approached the comics page. Prior to We3, one of the most common and sustained criticisms of Morrison’s work was that he used too much descriptive language and surrealist exposition in what many critics would define as a medium that ought to be visually driven. It’s not something that marked all of his early work, but it certainly stands out in Kid Eternity and early issues of The Invisibles. Morrison was very explicit in interviews that his intent was to shift the focus to Quitely as much as possible on We3, joking that they’d moved to non verbal communication and that Morrison had succeeded in getting Quitely to bring him bananas and vodka using it.
The results really speak for themselves, not just in terms of how there’s decidedly little text in the comic, but in that how much of Morrison’s thought processes and perspectives on the medium shine through without needing his words to spell them out. The basic plot furthers a lot of Morrison’s ideas about animal rights and the then-emerging dominance of the superhero as soldier archetype, but it runs even deeper than that. During the creation of The Invisibles he talked a lot about conceiving of the comics page as being slices through time in connection to his perspective on time and humanity as a kind of collective organism. The idea that came together in the climax of The Invisibles, the notorious page that Cameron Stewart redrew from Ashley Wood.
That idea gets revisited in what I guess you’d call a more secular or prosaic sense in We3 with the sequences where the page is conceptually rotated so that we see the animals moving between panels. The way that modern comics look to communicate movement and action is to mimic keyframing in animation: set out the most important points in a range of movement in the most detail in preparation to fill in the gaps between them. Except in comics no one comes back to fill it in, we’re supposed to do that in our minds. What Quitely and Morrison do in these sequences show us pure motion rather than slices of it that imply a whole. They put Morrison’s captions and public speeches into action as pure visual spectacle.
When Kieron Gillen or Matt Fraction talk about the writer’s job being getting out of the artist’s way, I would point to the shift in Morrison’s career that We3 found him at as the prime example of that idea in action.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
My head is filled with sci-fi. I think my head is always filled with sci-fi. It’s a permanent state of my brain.
I think this is a good thing.
Sunday I spent some time watching Alien3 documentaries. LOL. Because that’s just the type of guy I am / that’s how I roll. My friend had just broken up with his long-term girlfriend and came round for a bit of comfort and talking. He’d watched Alien3 the night before (discuss: Alien3 is actually an extended metaphor about the break up of a relationship) and he said he didn’t think much of it. And I started ranted about “Assembly cuts” and “damn studios” and “wooden planets” and then realised it’d just be easier to watch the making of thingies (expect – lol – oops: I’d forgetten just how many there were: *deep breath* Pre-Production: Development (concluding the story), Tales of the Wooden Planet (Vincent Ward’s vision), The Art of Aceron (conceptual art portfolio), pre-production part III featurette, storyboards, Art of Fiorina, Xeno-Erotic (H.R. Geiger’s redesign featurette) Production: Production part I featurette, Production Gallery (photo archive), Furnace Construction (time-lapse sequence), Adaptive Organism (creature design), ADI Workshop, E.E.V. Scan Multi-Angle Vignette, Production part II Post-Production: Post-Production part I, Optical Fury (visual effects), Music, Editing and Sound, Visual Effects (photo archive), Post-Mortem (reaction to the film), Special Shoot
But yeah – this stuff got me thinking about We3. (Oops still haven’t read it yet – altho I did read Vol 6 of Saga (I mean – well yeah: it is what it is). The first 3 volumes of Frederik Peeters’ Aama (omg – sci-fi coolness yes: particularly good at reminding myself that you know – life is a weird strange messy pulsating thing) and the first 2 volumes of Trees (which is totally excellent – like The Wire in how environments affect our minds – only you know: with epic sized alien trees n stuff)).
Re: Emma’s “In that model, magical realism would be the genre that tries to synthesize those conceptions of the literary novel and science fiction, yeah?”
I mean yeah – that’s right. But just to go into my own thoughts about magical realism (question: how many magical realist comics are there out there? I mean – there must be hundreds right? But some reason by brain can only think of The Satanic Verses which isn’t even a comic (or at least – as far as I know)).
But yeah (hopefully not sounding too much like a prick here LOL) but isn’t magical realism just kinda bullshit? Like a safe little halfway house between the shore of proper serious boring literacy realism and the deep bottomless ocean of actual well science-fiction. It’s splashing around on the beach. You can get your feet a little wet – but you don’t actually have to commit to anything. It’s just a frolic.
Back to Alien3 – I mean: the thing that struck me most watching all the how the sausage was made stuff (& apart from my only little head canon theory that it’s the Fantastic Four of it’s day: promising young talent gets taken for a ride by 20th Century Fox who smash his vision to pieces. Film is panned upon release. 3rd instalment of the series. Reshoots with the lead actressin a wig. I mean – come on! – The parallels are uncanny) was the – and this is super obvious sorry I know – but apart from being the perfect vessel for exploring ideas (like isn’t there a definition that a sci-fi story is basically just about the idea?) but it’s the frigging world building from all the way from bottom to the top. I mean – obviously that’s not true of all sci-fi films: you know – the ones set in our world just sprinkle a little bit of made-up nonsense on the top. But well with Alien3 everything single thing had to be dreamed and designed and made into real. The costumes. The locations. The alien. The backgrounds. The characters (how they made the Bishop cameo is particularly cool). I mean – well yeah: the whole film is set in a made-up neverwhere space: it doesn’t exist – so it all had to be created out of nothing.
(If you’re curious about this stuff – then I’d recommend you start with the funniest bit which is Giger talking about redesigning the alien and sounding like an evil mad cartoon scientist)
I mean – I don’t want to get too ranty but one of my biggest bugbears about the cultural landscape as it exists at the moment is the paucity of actual real honest-to-god imagination. Yes yes blah blah sequels and reboots and superheroes and all the rest of it. But it’s bad not just because it’s boring – but also because well – imagination is a form of thinking (the best form of thinking maybe) and if you can’t imagine and can only see the tracks that have already been set down then we’re kinda all fucked: because pretty much all of the assumptions that we’re given in our society are – well – wrong. And only really exist because the serve the needs of the powerful (LOL puts on silver foil tin hat). Like: in Philosophy – trying to imagine things differently to how they really are is called a Thought Experiment and well: it’s really hard to understand our thoughts without them. Because to see how your thoughts are just contingent you need to realise how they could be otherwise. How all the thoughts that we all have in our head are just a result of being born in this certain place in this certain time. And how (FACT): if we lived in a different place in a different time – the things you believe to be true would all be very different.
So yeah – fuck your assumptions. Go deeper. Think about why you think what you think and etc.
So. Started reading We3 today (gosh – it’s a slim book isn’t it?) and was more than a little bit “uh oh” that everything I’ve been gabbing about has nothing whatsoever with what Morrison and Quietly are up to. Except oh yeah – look at that:
What is it that I’m trying to mean?
I mean – there’s obviously lots of white-bread science-fiction out there that doesn’t attempt to be much more than boring spaceships and blasters: but hey (call me crazy) – but isn’t there somesort of ingrained link between science-fiction (which mostly people tend to think about in terms of the genre trappings: the technology and the aliens and robots and whatever) and – what should we call it? – experimental storytelling? You know: stuff that pushes the boundaries of how things are usually done. It’s like the sci-fi iconography stuff are the ingredients: but equally important is how those ingredients are cooked and served.
(I’m sorry if this is obvious to everyone else: but I feel like I’m just working this out for the first time).
To use a bunch of examples from films – it’s 2001 jumping from the Dawn of Man to The Future. Inception jumping from scenes moving at different speeds of time. Pretty much everything in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Or – ha! – the examples of the other comics I read: Trees with it’s location jumping. Aama with it’s flashbacks and Saga – well – erm – Saga looks really pretty.
I mean: it’s not a necessary condition or anything (mentioned Alien3 up above and it might be a bit of a stretch maybe to say that any of the Alien films do anything that interesting in terms of their storytelling…) but I do think that I’m on to something here… And my current best working theory is that it’s because in opening up to new possibilities of what a story can be about (stuff that doesn’t yet exist) – it also opens you up to new possibilities of how a story can be told.
Which I guess is a long-winded way of saying why I don’t like “literacy fiction” LOL Because mostly it’s pretty conservative. It deals in what already exists and what we already know and modes of storytelling that we’re already comfortable with – and the underlying message is: the world is fine as it is. While sci-fi (or at least the type of sci-fi I like more LOL) is a challenge to this.
Or to put it another way: panels as security cameras. Words as numbers. Animals in robot suits yeah?
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
Can someone tell me if the correct way to revisit WE3 is a decade later on a cracked smartphone?
Okay so this response, I realise is a mess but there are some cool thoughts flying that I wanted to pick up on and also my stuff. Cool?
That is devastating. And it’s not just because Morrison and Quitely jammed a cute animal in your face – it’s the details. The PS2 and Ikea-di-kit TV stand, the tray of tobacco, rolling papers and decidedly little else, the childrens felt tip “neat” writing. You’ve seen exactly that scene before, odds are, most of the people reading it have lived out that particular scenario.
But that panelling though? It’s brilliant.
I mean the obvious thought it how it uses those disparately but logically connected set of mini square panels to give immediacy to the primal instinctive perspective of an animal. It’s like an evolution of those brilliant TV box panels Miller put to work in TDKR, but there’s a weird spatial sense to them, some rapid short term instinctive logic that we ascribe to animals.
A big thing about WE3 that I enjoyed was that sense that a bad ending was inevitable throughout – seriously how the fuck were these lil guys meant to go on? It’s the genre expectation – this breathed darkness. They could fight and fight – but eventually the government would win. Everything about this piece screamed tragedy throughout. And then Morrison does one of those things that make him one of my favourite writers. A genuine, simple honest happy ending.
I mean I get that those are overly pervasive, and that as humans we should be willing to escape and engage in the dark and the sadness. I get that. But what I loved here, was that Morrison looked at a genre, a world and a reality that axiomatically commanded bloodshed, gave a wry smile and said “why?”. Why wouldn’t love work? AND IT’S WITH CUTE LITTLE GUYS. Fiction delivers this kind of message constantly, it’s the bulwark of popular media – rarely does it earn it so surprisingly.
Also – Morrison, for all his warts and foibles as a writer, deserves kudos as perhaps the best writer of awesome comic book animals ever. I mean, there are tomes that you could (and others have) written about all the mad new ideas and innovations he’s brought to the medium. But to me, Morrison’s most personal and powerful stuff has either come from either – his nostalgia fuelled odes to the power of imagination and FUCKING AWESOME ANIMALS. Unsurprisingly, the latter is more relevant to this discussion.
And the language?
The weird, punchy emotive way those animals talk to each other? It just works right? And it says a lot about how we think animals brains works (admittedly, I have no idea, even after killing like 18 cats to fanny around with their brains. But I’ll get there – lord Grayling help me I will) and a layman would think a computer would translate those primal mental beats. It’s also of its time, a 2005 ode to the rush of text (UW0TL0LM8) text speak that everyone went apeshit over as the new millennium settled in.
I mean – in a technical way, Loz is right, it’s a slight story. They’re robot animal ninja weapons (or whatever), they escape, nasty G-men come after them with a dangerous foe, they beat the foe, happy ending. If stories are a mystery box then this box is another svelte Amazon parcel- but this box is crammed with so many brilliant, weird, heartfelt, thrilling things that you don’t care. It’s like complaining that all you got for Christmas was stocking stuffers, even if said stocking was jammed with two new games consoles, a theme park and Roger Ailes head autographed by Bernie Sanders.
In terms of commentary or deep ideas, I could see why you’d shrug it off as shallow fun, it’s G-men being mean to animals who ultimately escape. It’s not explicitly about warfare or animal rights or the moral ills of the US weapon development approach. The exploitation of animals are treated as obvious, there’s no debate to be had. (I mean, you could, but please…don’t?). But it’s deeply affecting and a lot of that comes from Morrison’s deep understanding of how we love animals.
He doesn’t simply demonstrate the abuse they suffer or their puppy dog eyes. He shows the loss of a relationship most of us have had with them – man and beloved pet. The covers of the original issues were their owners handmade “Missing” posters. For all those that have loved and lost, it rings deeply true. It’s a Morrison trope – he’ll make you remember that dear departed pet or at least the feeling of what will happen when it’s time for them to stop waking you up for food to make the story truly poignant. He did it in Animal Man #18 (possibly the single best issue of anything ever written – it will rewrite how you view fiction, do it, do it now!), he did it in The Filth, he did it with Damien Wayne saying goodbye to Batcow before he dies and he does it here.
I loved the stuff about the collaborative/dictatorial tension about Morrison’s relationship with artists.
It feels like it’s a matter of whether you woke up as a pessimist or an optimist – does Morrison find weird new artists who are uniquely in sync with him or does he just get cheap ones who have no way of saying “no this” back at him. It’s probably a bit of both, Morrison IIRC is known to do pretty specific rough thumbnails about how his stories visually playout.
But to me, it feels a bit like a Jodorowsky who simply remembered to write all his mad shit down. Instead of sitting in a room gesturing wildly at Moebius, he gives a plan and trusts a relative unknown with a uniquely wild perspective to execute it. I mean Tony Daniel and Chris Burnham both went on to do writers work on Batman after pencilling for Morrison, it feels like he’s quite good at picking artists that are not only in sync for the specific notes he’s striking with a story, but ones who have a decent sense of how to tell the story in the first place. I mean, he always goes back to Quitely and I’d have been surprised if McKean would have been willing to tolerate Morrison dictating brushstrokes to him.
I guess the key litmus test to me is the finished work and Morrison’s back catalogue is one of succesful, iconic, visual risks. And if you were a penciller starting out, handed a Grant Morrison script, it would take alot for you to type out “I don’t know Grant, I think the fans would rather see what I was thinking the cosmic BNP vampire would choose as his cheat day snack”.
(Have to pick this up, “magical realism is bullshit”, well so are broad brush statements on the validity of genre and statements. I know I’m being a dick here, but uuuuuurgh, come on. It’s the story itself that makes or breaks – not the genre. The writer makes something sing to you, not that they’re working in genre X or medium Y. If describing the secret mystic history of Bank tube station – it’s shit if you’re a shit writer, not if you’re working in a “shit” genre/medium. Which basically sums up my theory of “medium” racism.)
(I think I’m playing contrarian asshole to this particular chat – please feel free to point out why my words are in fact bullshit. I won’t believe you and will tell your friends that you photoshop Michael Gove onto topless lifeguard photos. You know you do.)
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
re: “magical realism is bullshit”, well so are broad brush statements on the validity of genre and statements.
(just quickly like)I mean yeah ok – a good writer can do anything. And genres are there to be played around with. And hell if *my favourite writer at the moment* wanted to do some magical realism or lit realism or whatever then cool – colour me interested. But as much as I used to be all like: “yeah man – let’s not judge things in generalizations it’s all about the individual” etc I mean well – that’s my philosophy with people but less so with everything else – and I kinda feel like you’re not engaging with the substance of what I said. 🙂
I mean – genres and whatever all have different biases. And I think it’s important and useful and interesting to get into and pick apart what those biases may be. One of the main tricks pulled by the world and our great system is to make everything awful and evil seem normal and obvious (Most recent example that stuck in my head was Aziz Ansari on SNL talking about a George Bush where he said some pro-Islam stuff and the quote from Aziz was something like: “It wasn’t about politics. It was about basic human decency.” (ARGH! REPEAT x1000 = “EVERYTHING IS POLITICAL”). And well yeah – genres are interesting in terms of the assumptions they contain – and mostly: mostly those assumptions are completely awful.
Just to pick the most easy example of the shelf – I mean yes: some superhero comics can be pretty cool but the idea that one person with powers can save the day and restore the status quo (which is of course a v good thing) is erm – a little problematic – no?
And well yeah – magical realism. Also kinda bullshit. Because well you know – reasons.
I came back.’
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum
Loz – Those panels are amazing, as amazing as when Morrison monologues as he star gazes. It shouldn’t work, but it fucking well does.
Joel – On superheroes, I guess that take on it is a good way to sum up the core appeal of the early stuff and why it initially became so popular. I mean if you look at what’s beloved now – it’s not really about utopian souls bringing back the right societal result. It’s about characters that embody various interpretations of “social good X” and the fucked up breakdown routes they take trying (and oft failing) to get there. It’s the conflict – Batman got good when you faced him off with a murderous mastermind called The Joker. No one really talks about the chemical king. (Also you brought up superheroes – not me, i won’t be judged for Batman outburst #5565.) Put simply, the most beloved Superman stories are by Morrison and Moore. They both end with Superman dying. He stops the bad stuff, but he also flys away for good too. For many it’s arguably about that status quo comfort blanket – but it’s reductive to reduce the entire body of that genre to that base assumption, especially when so many incredible, mind opening story experiments were spilled out in that genre.
I guess I don’t really understand your hang up with magical realism, I mean without it, we wouldn’t have Daytrippers or that bit in Annie Hall where he brings out the actual author to shut up the annoying professor in the cinema queue. It’s like hyper reality, just grounded enough to be directly emotionally relatable and just nutty enough to let loose some mad description.
(Actually does Mieville’s Kraken count as magical realism?)