*Just don't kill me before I set forthLAST WEEK'S REVIEWS!Comics Underground Japan
(excellent 1996 collection of alternative manga - get it!)Jack Cross #1
(none too pretty)Hip Flask: Mystery City (The Big Here & The Long Now - Episode One of Three)
And I also managed a movie review, of the recent Terry Gilliam joint, The Brothers Grimm
*And now, to further my endless Grant Morrison preoccupation:The Mystery Play***SPOILERS FOR A BOOK PAST ITS TENTH ANNIVERSARY***
Through the grace and generosity of several beatific souls (you all know who you are), I finally got to read Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s much-vaunted Flex Mentallo
over the weekend. It was quite an experience, and I’m still not certain how I feel about the work. I think I can safely say that it operates much better as a statement of purpose than as a coherent story, though nobody’s saying that (1.) stories need to be coherent to be successful or (2.) statements of purpose can’t be richly entertaining and enlightening. Sure, the folks who got all sweaty and ornery over the perceived incomprehensibility of JLA: Rock of Ages
will probably want to keep away from this one, lest they risk brain aneurisms, but I was impressed by how personal, how intimate the book was on a scene-by-scene level (I would not fall onto the floor in shock upon discovering that a lot of the childhood flashback material was autobiographical, let’s say). There’s a lot of beautiful sequences, a real sense of rigorous self-evaluation via multi-dimensional fiction masquerade; it’s practically Morrison’s Quimby the Mouse
, though I wonder how much of Quitely’s own life has been inserted into the proceedings. And it’s funny
! Riotously so at times - the prose bit involving wartime Golden Age publishers had tears in my eyes.
It’s heartening, then, to see that such a fine balance of personality, philosophy, critique, humor, and the general sense of being alive managed to hit the stands in 1996, only two years after the publication of The Mystery Play
, as portentous a work as Morrison has ever written, so self-consciously weighty and meaningful that no air can escape its amber walls (naturally I jest, in part - Morrison has been mixing cheeky pop enlightenment with alternate tones of execution for much of his career). Characters walk through this book with sober faces, their eyes often turned low, their hands often grasping their brows in consternation. Their world is one of harsh lights and saddened watercolors. This, my friends, is A Very Serious Comic, and if there’s anything Morrison has proved himself to be less than adept at, it’s precisely this phylum of brooding chamber piece. Expectations are thus duly met.
From my own conversations with fellow Morrison fans, it seems that the hallowed choice of ‘Weakest Morrison Work’ (excluding the collaborative likes of Skrull Kill Krew
) often comes down to either this book or Arkham Asylum
, and it’s impressive to observe how closely the two works are joined. Both are original graphic novels (Morrison’s first two), both sport ominous painted art by talented individuals (here it’s Jon J. Muth, while Arkham had Dave McKean). And both adopt a uniquely rigid storytelling structure, with some sort of dark event prompting an 'outsider' character to enter a curious world, hopping from party to party, engaging in wooden exchanges of philosophic posturing with each, an element of hallucination and fantasy permeating the affair along with the occasional blunt symbol or literary allusion, until we reach an unreal finale involving the outsider’s exit and the insiders’ reflections, both factions having presumably learned and/or taught something from the whole episode.
It’s just that the latter volume doesn’t involve Batman.
The sheer extent of such structural similarity certainly calls into question Morrison’s current claim that much of the darker-than-dark slog of Arkham was meant in a sense of industry satire (in Flex Mentallo, on that note, a pro-Hitler superhero publisher claims ‘satire’ as a means of avoiding the electric chair on charges of treason - it was funny). And if Morrison’s earlier, sorely underrated Kid Eternity
knowingly aped the surface characteristics of Arkham, offering a more interesting, successful narrative in the bargain, The Mystery Play is a truer sibling work - I honestly cannot determine which is worse.
The story is set in the English municipality of Townely, the Mayor of which has elected to spur a revival of the town’s famous cycle of Mystery Plays, allegedly to reaffirm the town’s cultural identity and attract valuable media attention, though the more cynical observer might posit that it’s all a means of diverting attention from that nasty sex scandal Hizzoner was recently embroiled in. A 'Mystery Play,' by the way, is an ancient dramatic tradition (perhaps the oldest
medieval European dramatic tradition), portraying noted scenes from Biblical origin, often with secular elaborations on the sacred text. Morrison has apparently named ‘Townely’ after the 'Towneley Cycle' (note spelling) of Mystery Plays, authorship attributed to the pseudonymous Wakefield Master, who allegedly resided in Yorkshire (hence the book’s reference to Townely’s participation in the 'Yorkshire Cycles'). It will come as no surprise to seasoned Morrison readers that the book itself acts as something of a contemporary Mystery Play, if heavily secular and thoroughly post-modern. Various characters are introduced, most notably Annie, the archetypical Ambitious Girl Reporter Who Can’t Wait to Get Out of This One-Horse Town, and our view fades from the performance of one of the plays itself to a more adorned Biblical Realist portrayal of the same scene, free of the confines of the stage.
Then some bastard up and kills God. Damn it.
This, of course, prompts the entrance of the obligatory outsider, a vision-prone detective by the name of Carpenter and - you know what? Stop.
Stop right there. That first impression you just got as to where this story is going? It’s absolutely right
. That’s exactly
what’s about to happen. For any of you with any
grounding in New Testament scripture, you seriously do know precisely what’s coming up, even before Morrison has the fellow suddenly sporting a stigmata. It’s all a matter of how we get there.
And it’s none too smooth a ride. Basically, Jesus H. Police Detective wanders around conducting his investigation, drifting in and out of reverie, which conveniently causes characters to speak largely in declarations of theological intent, albeit accompanied by Muth’s pretty colors. For example, the actor playing Satan actually transforms into Satan (a distinctly Nietzschian one at that), and taunts Carpenter with the notion that all is chaos, and that order is only imposed via man’s will to power, and that the statute is not the stone’s potential but its submission, etc. etc. The meeting is punctuated by the corpse of God being eaten by hogs, those Biblical carriers of demons. Other characters become less specific: the Mayor becomes a symbol of exploitative lust, the local priest one of the hollow spirituality of the contemporary cloth. This isn’t much of a guess on my part, by the way - Morrison has the character explicitly say:
“We’re dumb, frightened animals, petitioning the empty sky, and if I can help ease the fear of my fellow creatures by lying to them about Heaven, then I shall
And since that’s obviously not enough, Morrison resorts to the howling blunt image of Carpenter peering into a model church on the miniature golf course on which the pair are playing and solemnly intoning:
“The house is empty
Tragically, the priest doesn’t retort with a spirited “Well yes, of course it’s empty, since we’re on a goddamned miniature golf course you blithering fuckwit
!” Instead, the conversation drags on, the reader presumably meant to nod and scratch his or her chin at the terribly meaningful depth of it all. But I can’t, and I expect many other readers won’t be able to. It’s arid, self-satisfied, yet oddly over-explained material, a hallucinatory story that’s not a story, but not a particularly enlightening allegory or insightful comment on spirituality or theology or man’s positioning in the universe or anything of interest. That’s the key - it’s uninteresting
. I might be missing volumes of deeper significances, I readily admit, but I’m not exactly inclined to dig further, and I have to wonder if everything is perhaps simply as blunt as Morrison often leaves it. And this is a surprisingly blunt work, eager to offer ready explanations for much of its content.
Even at the end, in the big crucifixion sequence (oh come on, you knew
it was coming - give yourself more credit!), when Carpenter is cruelly betrayed by his Judas, Annie the reporter (who handily fits into another, far more secular stock role: the ambitious woman who sells out that which is good to further her career, boo, hiss), reacting to charges of child molestation levied against Carpenter, who’s actually an escapee from the local loony bin, things remain decidedly soggy. Carpenter, his garments suddenly bathed in white, manages to escape the cross, leaving only his jacket behind, nailed up real good. This would have been a more enigmatic image had Morrison not had a character from earlier in the book explicitly identify ‘a hanging coat’ as an artificial apparition that terrifies the childish, which sort of dials down the mystery, you‘ve gotta admit. We then get an epilogue involving Annie, now a successful reporter yet still haunted by those events, being literally handed a similar coat to wrap herself in, which she does, eyes downcast and spiritually chastened. The (Very Serious) End!
I realize I’m coming off as a bit flip in this review, but it’s only because I know
Morrison is capable of better than this, and indeed, he’s since created
better things. I just don’t think he’s particularly inclined toward excelling at this sort of too-rich passion (er, mystery) play. St. Swithin’s Day
did manage to mix a realistic milieu with ‘human fantasy’ elements fairly well, but it’s interesting that Morrison keeps it simple. Here, he’s in over his head, resorting to face-to-face talk and endless wheel-spinning to make his points, his reach exceeding his grasp. He has help on the art side; Muth (just as Dave McKean and Duncan Fegredo did before him) serves up some lovely images, though he’s basically kept to a near-photo realist simmer for much of the book. Even the more visionary sequences are presented through intensifying sources of light on realistically rendered figures, with only an autopsy scene allowing Muth to really cut loose on the visuals, and even then only briefly. The rest of the book resembles attractively smeary scenes from a well-staged television play, though Muth’s art is more fluid and page-friendly than most heavy realists.
I’ve done a disservice, perhaps, by reading this book so close to Flex Mantallo. I think that’s it. Both works strive for meaning inside and outside of their respective universes, both become examples of their own subjects (Flex Mentallo is about
superhero comics as much as it is
one, after all). But the later work is so alive, so crackling, so kaleidoscopic and bravura! The Mystery Play is leaden, ponderous, sitting there like God’s corpse on the slab. It’s a good thing Morrison himself has a tendancy to spring back to life, up from the dead again and again.