Sunday, August 22, 2010
"Something Trying To Tell You Someone..."
I'd been meaning to do it for quite some time, I even began several quickly-aborted attempts. However after burning through Grant Morrison's mind-bending run on the Batman titles recently I found myself in an interesting synesthetic-crossroads: my aural leanings coalesced with my thirst for more comics, more old school Vertigo comics and I found myself popping in Meat Is Murder by The Smiths and opening the first issue of Grant Morrison's Gothic storyline that ran waaay back in 1990 in then third monthly bat-book Legends of the Dark Knight. I had only recently begun to expect that these two works, both on the surface intended for different senses, would work together in a very symbiotic relationship. The Headmaster's Ritual a perfect audio-accompaniment to following a young Bruce Wayne into the hellish inner-workings of an upstate New York British-style private school, the echoes of Morrissey's musings on life and loss the perfect condiment for the unraveling of an ancient, heretical plot that would, in retrospect, seem far more Vertigo than regular DCU. After Gothic I needed more. Naturally I moved toward the place on my shelf where Morrison's award-winning Arkham Asylum sat. Then I stopped myself. I changed discs to The Queen Is Dead and cracked the spine of Neil Gaiman's Preludes and Nocturnes and vowed I wasn't coming up for air until I'd finally re-read the entire Sandman series, something I'd never done before. I wasn't sure what to expect exactly, this time through with The Smiths as my guide, but I knew I was bound to unearth even more fleeting associations and hidden messages, as I realized Sandman is most definitely the work of a Smiths fan.
I'm relatively new to Smiths-obsession land. Not quite a year ago I tumbled head over heels into addiction after flirting with fandom for the better part of a decade but never quite moving beyond the admittedly lame, 'yeah, How Soon Is Now is great and everything else I've heard is pretty cool too...' Then I got it. I don't really know what exactly happened to cause me to 'get it', but I did. I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that I suddenly found myself around their music a lot more because new co-workers played them obsessively. But through repetition the tunes began to work their magick on me. I asked to rip a disc or two*. I received Meat Is Murder. I began to explore...
Also around this time a good friend of mine who had taken a leave of absence from work to deal with 'health issues' resurfaced – on his death bed. I clung to Morrissey and the boys for bitter support as my friend withered away, drifting in and out of contact with those who would eventually inform me of his death. I'd lost a lot of friends before, but something about this one... it was very difficult in what felt like a decidedly more profound way. I can remember the symbiotic relationship the lyrics to The Joke Isn't Funny Anymore's refrain developed to my own interaction with and interpretation of Death. The shimmering guitars and lilting bass drifted over the entrancing drums as Morrissey's voice echoed the perfect arrangement of langual dress for an archetypal human experience/fear/event. And somewhere in it all I thought of Neil Gaiman's Sandman and realized that I had heard this music before. That I had seen, as a third person voyeur, this magnificent sorrow somewhere else.
This was because Neil Gaiman had no doubt heard it too; been a massive fan most likely, as had Grant Morrison, maybe Jamie Delano – the old Vertigo crew. I realized that just as I had experienced a synesthetic-rush with The Cure and Joy Division when reading Sandman back in high school, or James O'Barr's The Crow, or Hellblazer, or Swamp Thing, the same was happening now with The Smiths as a new lens to reveal hidden facets to these stories from the post-Reagan/Thatcher era - the time of AIDS and Looming Nuclear Obliteration and MDMA. I was a kid in the 80's so I didn't quite get what was going on – for many years afterward the 80's was a decade best left in the past. This was because as a kid my associations with it were hyper color clothes and dana carvey, lisa lisa & cult jam and other such atrocities that I was exposed to as a pre-teen without an older sibling, left to establish my tastes on my own, sifting through the garbage spoon-fed to the masses on the radio and tv, until I was first able to pick up the trail that led me to any kind of an 'underground'. I didn't find The Smiths, or The Cure or any thing else like them until high school. My earliest underground was metallica and the satan-streaked roads of heavy metal, long since sullied and exposed for the douche baggery that it was (for the most part). But I eventually found this stuff and realistically it was because of its influence on comics and comics influence on me.
Because I had grown up with comics it was there that I did my first experimenting. Even while still imbibing the music of the masses I was slowly breaking away from the GIJOE and X-men components of my comic book taste, my mom often waiting outside Heroland comics in Worth, Illinois where some days I would spend over an hour browsing – looking for something new, something I'd not yet experienced. Vertigo as a housing apparatus for the darker tales was still a few years off and I remember titles like Watchman and Stray Toasters teasing me with dark, jagged art the likes of which I was not yet experienced enough to appreciate (fuck you rob liefield) but nonetheless still endlessly enthralled with. Not enthralled enough to fork out the $3.50 or whatever cover price the 'Prestige Format' books commanded then ($10 allowance? $5? I don't remember but it had to be stretched in that comic shop and as such risks were rarely taken in those days). In retrospect I believe it was a few years later when the Batman books first brought me into my appreciation of that darker, more urban tone that I am still obsessed with today. Around the release of that first Tim Burton Batman film DC really ramped up the output, leading up to the hullabaloo of the film with many one-shots and Prestige releases, many portraying an increasingly darker atmosphere for the character. You can say this began in 1986 with Frank Miller's classic Dark Knight Returns, but from there we received Batman: The Cult, Gotham By Gaslight, Morrison's Arkham Asylum and soon after (and to tie this back around to the beginning of the post) Morrison's Gothic, originally published in Legends of the Dark Knight issues 6-10.
This was a story I read monthly, and re-read over and over again for years. To this day I believe it is the best Batman story in existence as well as the template, in my own personality, that flipped the switch and suddenly made me understand something about the potential of comic books as a medium, not just superhero exploits or serialized adventures. Gothic is every bit the epic Gothic Romance it shadows; a literary work of visual art that takes one of the most iconic American superhero characters and transmutes him into an occult figure worthy of Marlowe, Blackwood, Chandler or William Hope Hodgson. Whats more, Klaus Janson's art was the perfect template for me to perceive comic art as something more than explosive, rippling perfection. There is a scratchiness to Janson's art, especially in Gothic, that serves to create a darker, more urban and horrific sense of ambiguity that allows the reader's own nightmarish associations of fear to creep in and finish the pictures for them. You don't need everything blue-lined and outlined and rendered shiny and perfect. Leave that to traditional comic narratives. Janson's art, like that of The Sandman's Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and later Kelley Jones, is rough and dark because to a degree it carries with it that unfinished nature that helps it haunt you.
And that's what I found, last Autumn as my friend was dying and my own mortality seemed ever-so-much more impending, that The Smiths music does.
And suddenly I understood all of those Smiths and Morrissey obsessives - the people who only listened to The Smiths in High School (because a lot of them were probably exposed to it at developmentally difficult times by older siblings); the folks at the Morrissey conventions; the punks in 1989 that I just didn't understand as they popped Naked Raygun out of the cassette deck and fired up Louder Than Bombs. They were haunted.
And now I am too. And I have a lot of wonderfully creative people to thank for it. Thank You Neil Gaiman. Thank You Steven Patrick Morrissey. Thank you Robert Smith, Ian Curtis, Simon and Klaus Janson, John Ridgway and Jamie Delano and all of the other creators that established that beautifully dark world I can still evoke with the right combination of your music and pictures, words and melodies.
Most of all I am moved to say thank you to my mom and dad, for waiting so patiently all those evenings I spent hours investigating what else the comic shop had to offer besides Adamantium claws and Cobra Officers**.
* I only had The Queen is Dead and Rank, which I'd purchased in the earlier part of the previous decade during the period of two ro three years where I worked an ongoing and fairly elaborate Magickal Ritual that entailed my buying two records a week as an offering to the Music Industry as a God, Egregore, whatever. The end result of that ritual is still, to some degree, in question.
** Not that there's anything wrong with Cobra.