Paradise Lost

Harold Bloom is onto something when he describes how Paradise Lost reads today like science fiction. A lot of that is down to Milton's distinctively monist cosmology. For him, Heaven and Hell are not in separate parallel dimensions. He believed that if you get in a rocket and went past the solar system you will eventually hit the pearly gates. Angels are physical space-faring beings that eat food and excrete through their pores. God is an awesomely powerful alien. Imagine a benevolent Galactus sitting at the top of a giant mountain.

And what's interesting for the purposes of the poem (which the beginning makes clear is to explain the ways of God to men) is that our universe was not created ex nihilo. Rather, God fashions it using pre-existing materials. Philip Pullman may have fixated on these world-building elements because they indicate some limit on God's jurisdiction. The poem personifies Chaos as a grumpy grandpa that has to endure chunks of his realm being annexed by his more powerful neighbour, who builds Hell and then our world during the course of the narrative (and presumably Heaven as well before the action starts). So what if these materials exist independently of God? What if other awesomely powerful space aliens have built their own worlds?

Since Blake and the Romantics, it has been all too easy to get carried away with Satan and presume some subconscious subversion on Milton's part. On this re-read I did my best to stick to my university training and take Milton at his word, without being seduced by Straussian attempts to read between the lines. Fact is Milton was a deeply pious man trying to explain the problem of evil – an insoluble theological puzzle if ever there was one. What was important for Milton was that God freely chose to create – to share the universe with others. Likewise he left his creation enough freedom to dissent from his overwhelmingly obvious and necessary lordship. Although foreseeing the Fall, he allows it without interfering, preferring devotion that is freely chosen rather than mandated. The link with Milton's political liberalism comes through at the end, where he condemns religious persecution and a politicisation of religion that leads to citizens performing empty rites that do not express their internal convictions. The only royalty Milton submits to is God – kings are but men, and removable if necessary.

All that said, for me there remains an impression of God as a limited figure. He creates angels and then realises he needs the Son as a bridging device that will allow them to more closely identify with him (the Son will later fulfil a similar purpose for humanity). Needless to say, the plan backfires spectacularly. Adam and Eve are created in God's image, but they (like the rebel angels) are in some respects pre-fallen. Eve's pride leaves her open to temptation, like Satan. Milton is at pains to point out that Adam has all the knowledge he could possibly ask for and yet he still eats the forbidden fruit. God does not seem to have a grip on his creation – it spins away from him. His dark materials are wayward elements. There is still a little bit of Chaos in them. We're not too far away here from the atomistic 'mechanical' view of the universe that will become ever more prevalent during the Enlightenment.


"There are no doubt all sorts of reasons – climate, building materials – for the deep Japanese eaves. The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, and bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain. A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room. The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's ends." - Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows


Scott Pilgrim

My feeling is these books get less inventive and funny as they progress (some of the jokes in the last volume are pretty flat), but they become ~deeper~ instead. O'Malley may have always intended to cut his hero down to size, or he may have experienced a slow dawning realisation as the books found an ever-growing audience that Scott may not be the best person ever. But if reversing that impression is bought at the expense of a few wisecracks and some wild formal experimentation, I think it's a fair trade.

I had two misgivings when I read the first four volumes. Number one is that the portrayal of certain non-white, non-straight characters was caricatured and potentially offensive and alienating for some readers. True, we are always looking at everything through Scott's less-than-perfect gaze, so those portrayals may say more about Scott than anyone else. However: he remains the hero, and it's therefore too easy to become complicit in his unthinking attitude to the people around him, who are too often treated as joke-fodder rather than as people (in ponce: 'means' rather than 'ends-in-themselves').

Misgiving number two was that for someone reared on Buffy and with the expectation that the fantastical elements of a fictional world can be read metaphorically in some way, I found Scott's showdowns with Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends difficult to get a handle on. Especially as the exes were about as three-dimensional as the Gym Leaders in Pokémon. In fact, Scott's drama with his own ex-girlfriends took up far more space in the books, while Ramona's character remains difficult to figure out. She is the cool, American ('othered') femme fatale Scott is gunning down all the bad guys for, but her exes don't really shed any light on her history. Instead it's Scott's history we're working through, slowly exorcising past relationships on the journey to making the new one work.

Both of these misgivings – Scott's profound dumbassery and the fundamental metaphorical instability in the book – are to some degree worked out by meeting Scott's nemesis Gideon, the last evil ex-boyfriend. Because here the final boss (a bit like Ash's rival in Pokémon) does cast light on Scott's own character. Gideon flaw is that, like Scott in much of the book, he treats everyone as a means to his own ends. The most powerful moment in the book is a double page spread where Scott flashes back to moments he has been dumped and corresponding moments when he has done the dumping. He (finally!) puts himself in someone else's shoes. And that earns him the "power of understanding" that allows him to defeat Gideon.

That may sound a bit thin, and I would understand if some readers are not ready to forgive Scott's sins just because he learns so basic an ethical principle (when he's 24!). But I still like the book for the way it tries to deal with my second misgiving – the final boss adds an interesting metaphor to (some of) the fantastical elements that appear in previous books.

Ramona's head glows when she walls off her problems and refuses to communicate. We learn that Gideon has 'infected' her with this condition, and in fact her response to it has been to tunnel inwards and escape situations she finds impossible to deal with (hence her ability to enter hyperspace and teleport). Ramona is not as self-involved as Scott, but both of them are liable to run away from (or in Scott's case, willfully forget) their baggage.

What's intriguing to me (and I accept that I may be reading a bit into the text here) is that Gideon creates his virus as an entertainment industry arsehole. He embodies the worst aspects of the means-over-ends business, and you can take this in an anti-capitalist direction if you want. For me though the inference is more specific. A book so saturated in video games, manga and pop music nevertheless has within it an underlying worry about our ability to connect with other people, and perhaps a sense that these super-fun distracting things can be part of the problem.


The Kindly Ones

My contribution to the London Graphic Novel Network discussion, which is well worth reading in its entirety. As ever, my thanks to Joel for the marvellous job he does organising and steering these conversations.


OK so there are two things I like about The Kindly Ones, and both of them are about Gaiman beating himself up over what he has written.

The first thing is a short scene between Dream and Odin in the middle of the book, and apologies but I do want to put in a quote here:
"You puzzle me, dream-weaver. Are you a spider, who's spun a web of cunning and deceit and now waits patiently for his prey to come to him; or are you a deer, frozen by the light of a hunter's flame, as disaster comes towards you?
You're a deep one. But how deep? What's illusion? That's the question...
I am disappointed, somehow. I expected more from you, dream-weaver."
From the very beginning of these discussions of the series, I've gone on at length about how the book appears to be more profound than it actually is (cf. the 'muddled uncertainty' Joel mentions above). There is the ~sensation~ of profundity, without the content. He's a deep one, maybe. But how deep? Is it just an illusion? Shouldn't we have expected more from him? Isn't there a lingering sense of disappointment?

I take the scene to be a coded mea culpa from Gaiman, not only an admission that he has lost control of the sprawling plot strands in the series (which is what in context the quote above is about), but actually about what the book might mean as a result of that loss of control as well. As Loz's note about The Kindly Ones being longer than originally envisioned suggests, there is a sense that the series as a whole is being made up as Gaiman goes along – he's freestying with a character who is on the page supposed to be brooding, rule-bound and responsible. I think The Kindly Ones is partly about Gaiman waking up to his responsibilities as a writer, and finding that's he's fallen short.

And this leads me on to the second bit of authorial self-harm in the book. The Sandman's imperious and cruel treatment of Lyta Hall at the end of The Doll's House comes back to bite him here. The origin story of the Furies in #62 suggest their revenge is partly motivated by a reaction against the predations of the patriarchy. It is significant that the Sandman is undone not only by Lyta, but by Nuala and Thessaly as well – all women he has patronised and/or ignored. Reading these bits in a meta direction is much harder – I suspect there may be some personal stuff for Gaiman wrapped up in them. But there is a more general sense in which Gaiman is becoming aware of his responsibility as a writer, and his power to ~shape dreams~. As Delirium points out to Dream: he can sway people's actions and feelings even without intending to. In having the Sandman die by female hands, Gaiman is partly trying to de-romanticise (perhaps de-eroticise?) his hero (and himself?)

Loz shot back at my pet theory that the end of the Sandman is supposed to democratise his ~dream-shaping~ powers by noting that suicide is different to exile. Dream does leave a replacement behind him, but Death's suggestion that he could have done what Destruction did to the same end perhaps makes the distinction less important than Loz makes out. I still cling on to the theory, taking comfort from the final scene of the Kindly Ones, where the Furies read out their fortune: "you can be me when I am gone". The Sandman's (and the author's) death leaves the space open for new authors shaping their own new stories. Perhaps they'll do a better job than Gaiman has done.


Pleasures of the Flesh

Another early Oshima feature – the noir plot is loopy and more than a little contrived, but it ultimately results in the antihero spending obscene amounts of money with the catch being that he'll have to die after a year. Would you do it? This million dollar question is less interesting than the sexual politics Oshima gets wrapped up in. His protagonist is a pretty straight kinda guy who goes around the bend when the love of his life marries another (richer) man. He starts his spending spree to change his life from a comedy in which he is always the dupe to a tragedy in which he can at least play the hero (he literally says this out loud – Oshima is perfectly happy to interpret his film for you).

So the poor guy decides to spend the money on women. The first is a courtesan, who he gallantly but unsuccessfully tries to rescue from her pimp and then a gang of corporate mafiosi (Oshima is fond of chivalry, it seems). The second is a masochist who he gives up on when he discovers she she cannot abandon her useless husband and their children. The third is an independent-minded doctor who he finds sexually repressed (a rather blinkered view of empowerment on Oshima's part). The fourth is a mute, nympho streetwalker who he is most sympatico with (again, Oshima proves no friend of feminism). You can imagine this last pairing as slightly older versions of the Bonnie & Clyde Romeo & Juliet of Naked Youth. She even helps him kill her pimp. But by then the money has run out.

All of the women are bought in some respect, and three of them are also "owned" by others – all pimps of some description, selling women's bodies to live. Oshima seems grimly fascinated by this dynamic. Perhaps he believed all relations, even the most intimate, were being reduced to the cash nexus in his 1960s Japan. The conclusion of the film is especially finger-wagging. The protagonist learns that he didn't have to die, he could have kept the money condition-free. And it's all gone by the time he really needs it to rescue the love of his life again. She, however, only wants money, and it's heavily implied that she's been selling herself as well in order to get it. And she betrays him to the police when he confesses his crimes.

Is a sillier picture that the incandescent ferocity of Naked Youth, and its women are less sympathetically drawn. But it further illuminates Oshima's obsessions with people burning out, women being sold, and the recurring image of doomed men biting into poison green apples.


Naked Youth: A Story of Cruelty

A scrappy, nihilistic Japanese film from 1960 about teenage delinquents, made by Nagisa Oshima – he of In The Realm of the Senses fame. Naked Youth is only his second feature, and I liked its energy and honesty a lot more. Angela Carter felt betrayed by the willful inexplicability of Senses, but here Oshima is disarmingly direct. His Bonnie & Clyde Romeo & Juliet say precisely what they mean, and what Oshima means through them. And as a result you get a very clear portrait of the times – where a younger generation strains not only against the conformity of their parents, but the idealism of their older siblings. Instead the central lovers believe in nothing but their desires, and even that is crushed out of them by the necessity of selling yourself to live.

Because the only way Kiyoshi, a violent student, can survive is by selling his high-school girlfriend Makoto. They meet when he saves her from being raped by a man driving her home from a jazz bar. The man pays them for not going to the police. Later they make money by engineering the same scenario – Makoto leads men on and then Kiyoshi assaults and robs them when they go too far. The beautiful Makoto admits to feeling uncomfortable being objectified and operationalised in this way. But Kiyoshi sells his beauty as well – sleeping with an older woman who employs him at a hotel. Both youths are rescued from prison not by each other, but by their older lovers. That experience teaches Kiyoshi what objectification means, and he dies trying to save Makoto from that fate.

The tragedy is that Makoto cannot escape Kiyoshi. The most arresting and memorable shot of the film is when Kiyoshi breaks Makoto and rapes her. Makoto agrees to a date because she is grateful for her rescue, and attracted to her rescuer. But after a fun ride on a speedboat, Kiyoshi throws her into the water. A long tracking shot follows Makoto as she tries not to drown, with Kiyoshi (head out of frame) walking calmly beside her, kicking her hands away from the bank. She has no choice but to give in. Stockholm Syndrome sets in and she falls in love with her captor, despite his cruelty (ironically, some of their sweetest scenes together are by the water). At the end of the film she is willing to prostitute herself again for him. When he refuses, she has no meaning or value left and kills herself.

That level of masochism feels like a pointed rebuke at the valorisation of female suffering in Ozu and Mizoguchi. But the same elegaic tone is inherited from the two masters – an older generation lost for words at the out-of-control desires, broiling rage, and uninhibited individualism of the 1960s. It's an arresting vision, far more so than (what I've seen of) the contemporaneous French 'New Wave' it is often compared with.


All-Star Superman

Realised I haven't written anything on the blog in a while. I have been participating in a few London Graphic Novel Network discussions, which have been a lot of fun. The convo on All-Star Superman was particularly interesting. My contribution is below – mainly fleshing out the stuff I wrote back in 2011, but interesting for spurring this take from David Allison over at the Mindless Ones...

Not sure if Morrison uses the analogy himself, but superheroes have been described as modern myths. Just realised while writing this that the Roger Lancelyn Green retellings of Robin Hood, King Arthur etc I read as a child rather nicely highlight the proto-superheroic nature of the source material – the same cast of characters in the same setting going off to have adventures and coming together in world-historical crossovers. My sense is that Morrison is in that myths and legends headspace. For example the second issue feels to me like a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy-tale (albeit with a benevolent twist). Likewise issue 5 seems to have a Dante's Inferno flex – Kent being shown around hell by a demented Virgil before being carted off by an scary S&M Beatrice (or maybe that's just me seeing things that aren't there).

The point of that simulation in issue 10 was to show that if Superman didn't exist we would have to invent him, and in fact have been inventing different versions of him (e.g. that panel of Nietzsche's Superman) throughout history. The premise being that people create their gods as symbols of what they themselves aspire to be (some more German philosophy about that here). My sense is that there's a religion to science move in the final issue – Lois believes that one day Superman will return, while Leo Quintum goes off to try and solve the problems of the universe on his own. Maybe Quintum isn't just Luthor (first time I've seen that theory and like it a lot!), but the Superman of the future. That is to say: the representation of our collective 21st century aspirations.


Mad Max: Fury Road

I haven't seen any other Mad Max films, but suspect there may be some subversion of the macho motor-head iconography going on in this update/remake/sequel. For one, Max doesn't seem to be 'mad' as in 'angry' so much as mad as in 'mentally ill'. A hero haunted by a daughter he couldn't save is nothing new, but at least the writers tried to work in the idea that avoiding psychic collapse involves setting goals, whether it's political hope for a more equitable and peaceful society, or a personal quest for redemption. Max's arc in the film involves the exorcism of the child he couldn't save, and a return to sanity.

And he's aided and abetted by a Ripley-fied Charlize Theron. Furiosa and Max become surrogate parents to a group of teenage girls forced to bear children by a patriarchal warlord. The storyline is ripe for feminist interpretation, although its credentials on this score have come under criticism from two angles. One (brought up by Mark Kermode) is that the girls are rather pretty, and there may be some having and eating of cake involved when it comes to portraying their objectification. Mileage (ha!) may vary on this, but I personally didn't detect much leeriness in the camera when they were revealed. More important perhaps is whether the girls have agency. This is where the second objection comes in – what is so feminist about women being (scarequotes!) "saved" by some dude? The writers try hard to differentiate the girls and give them at least a semblance of a personality in amidst the driving and shooting (they even manage a couple of frags towards the end). More tellingly, I think Furiosa's character was created to deal with the problem of Max swooping in and taking over their story, in that she deals out just as much whup-ass, and is instrumental in everyone's survival. There are women here with agency, even if Max is the principle agent (he is the one with his name in the title, after all). If the film doesn't entirely resolve this dilemma, it is at least aware of it, and I'm inclined to be charitable.

I think I mentioned somewhere up there about the driving and shooting? There's actually quite a lot of that, and it's all glorious.


Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

"Why trap us in a world where power is enforced by the owners of so ludicrously finite a resource?" asks the hero of this short Warren Ellis steampunk yarn, where the steam is replaced with electricity. Captain Swing is leader of a commune of "natural philosophers" who believe science and technology will liberate humanity. I'm sure that similar ideas circulate in the wilder regions of Silicon Valley today. Which is why Ellis chooses a policeman as his hero, someone confronted with the worst aspects of humanity on a daily basis. As Captain Swing admits, this copper is "unable to see the world as anything but an ugly, unfair, unsaveable zoo".

Ellis keeps returning to mad scientists in the same way Scorcese keeps returning to macho gangsters – they are both seduced by dangerous powerful charismatics. Captain Swing may be an egalitarian, but his disciples are too enchanted to question his goals. In the end, Charlie Gravel (like most of us) walks a middle way between law and anarchy, the corrupt magistrates and the idealistic pirates.