FILTH PLUS - The Questions
A HEALING INOCULATION OF GRIME: GRANT MORRISON ON THE FILTH
Interview by Matt Brady
Grant Morrison’s The Filth is into the home stretch now, with just four more issues of its thirteen-issue run to go. Like most of Morrison’s creator-owned work, The Filth is many things to many people, layered with subtext and shades of meaning within a much larger context. Newsarama spoke with Morrison about the book only to find out that he considers it one of his more straightforward works.
To bring everyone up to speed (and also exemplify how the series resists a quickie explanation), The Filth centers on Greg Feely/Ned Slade, a top-level agent of The Hand, which is a force that makes sure society continues along its prescribed path, the Status Q, by eliminating aberrations, whether they’re technological, spiritual, or even sexual.
To complicate matters a bit, Greg isn’t “real” – he’s a parapersonality created by The Hand wherein Ned could take time off from the organization following a particularly traumatic case. Ned was fully immersed into Greg’s life, which wallows in pathos. While Ned is perhaps the best agent of The Hand, Greg is a middle-age, fat, balding bachelor with an addiction to porn and an unwavering devotion to his cat, Tony. The event which got Ned placed into Greg was so traumatic that he needed to be deeply entrenched into Greg’s life, so much so that when he was purged from Greg in response to a crisis, Ned had very little idea of who he was. Even to the most recent issue, he cannot fully remember his former life, or what exactly happened prior to his being placed in Greg.
On the other side of the coin from Ned and The Hand in general is Spartacus Hughes, a former top-level agent of The Hand who’s gone bad. Really bad. As Mother Dirt, the head of The Hand explains, Hughes has set in motion a number of threats to social hygiene. Stopping and catching Hughes are two completely different things – as a sentient being, Hughes is little more than a collection of ideas which leaps from person to person, taking over its host, and spreading mayhem from there. Slade has been brought back to The Hand, in part, to stop Hughes, who he knew in his pre-Greg life.
Since the introduction Slade has been called on to stop nanotechnology from
getting into the wrong hands, stopped an uprising on the
Libertania, a city-sized ocean liner, halted the unbridled fertilization
of virtually every female by porn star Anders Klimakks,
survived an assassination attempt in The Hand’s refuse pile, where the junk of
society is thrown, and, as Greg, been arrested and brought up on charges by the
police for being a pervert and possible child molester.
Oh yeah – there’s a talking monkey and dolphins with prosthetic arms as well.
Basically, given it’s somewhat non-linear storytelling, The Filth feels like a trip through Morrison’s head, with any number of ideas bubbling to the surface with each issue, something that can produce a little unease as well as a determination to hang on and see just what he’s getting at with all of this.
That about covers it.
Newsarama: Just to
be clear, and make sure we’re not missing anything, in simplest terms, The Hand
is an extra dimensional police force whose job it is to make sure human
development and civilization follows a prescribed path, right?
Grant Morrison: Right. You don't seem to be confused at all, and you've pretty much nailed the function of The Hand organization. Although the Hand are closer to garbage men than policemen and they're not necessarily based in another dimension - a different scale might be closer to the mark.
The real weird thing about this series is the amount of people who think they don't get it when they clearly do. What's that all about? I must admit it's quite baffling to me - I've read reviews saying things like 'Yes, it's Art but why should we care?' and 'why should I care about an old guy and his cat?' ...and my only answer is 'why should you care about a fictional character who dresses up like a bat or a man who grows to giant size and abuses his wife?' Why should anyone care about any story and yet people clearly do, because fiction helps to illuminate life. Personally, I believe that if you can feel sympathy for a ridiculous superhero and not for an ordinary, lonely man tending a sick animal then there's something desperately wrong with your emotions and your priorities.
To help cure these emotional deficiencies, The Filth can be seen a healing inoculation of grime. I'm deliberately injecting the worst aspects of life it into my readers heads in small, humorous doses of metaphor and symbol, in an effort to help them survive the torrents of nastiness, horror and dirt we're all exposed to every day - especially in white Western cultures, whose entertainment industries peddle a mind-numbing perverted concoction of fantasy violence and degrading sexuality while living large at the expense of the poor in other countries.
Think of the way a human immune system works to regulate processes within the body. Think of Status: Q as the body's natural temperature and threats to Status: Q as fevers or illnesses which have to be contained by our own natural defenses. The 'body' in this case being Society and the immune system being the Hand.
The underlying story structure of the series is based on the human body's responses to an invading agent - the fever builds to a peak in issue #9, where everything is explained but in a heightened, sickening rush of barely-understandable images and words - most of the revelations in issue #9 are delivered in a thick Glaswegian dialect because I wanted them to seem deliberately febrile, bizarre and disconnected, like human thought processes at the peak of a viral assault - non-Scottish readers will, however, find a helpful Standard English translation of this material at our website crackcomicks.com, which has a lot of background material on the series. One way to read the series is to see it all happening inside Greg Feely as he slowly loses his mind, his job and his health over the course of the 13 issues. From this perspective, the Hand can be conceptualized as Greg's own immune system and their adventures can be seen as fantasies produced by his own deranged brain as it tries to survive a mid-life nervous breakdown.
NRAMA: Ho-kay. That said, who's in charge of The Hand, and where are they located?
GM: Mother Dirt is the Commanding Officer - what she is and where she came from will be revealed in #13. and The Hand headquarters 'exists' in a cosmic dumping ground known as The Crack. The precise location of which will be revealed in Issue #12.
NRAMA: How long has The Hand been around?
GM: Since 1952, as explained in Issue #9, hence the old fashioned 'Dan Dare' technology and uniforms.
NRAMA: Overall, given your other works and your explanation above, how experimental is The Filth for you, conceptually, process-wise, and all?
GM: Conceptually and thematically it's quite experimental but the story-telling is fairly straightforward - it all happens in real time and doesn't have any of the flashbacks or temporaral shifts seen, for example, in The Invisibles. I was trying to keep it all very clear, which seems typically to have confused people.
NRAMA: Speaking of The Invisibles, while that series was about rejecting what we've been told and rebelling against the status quo, The Filth is on the other side of the coin, taking it from the opposite side, those that enforce Status: Q, albeit you're telling it from a jaded perspective with Ned. What motivated the change of sides?
GM: The Invisibles was all about taking sides only to discover that there are no sides on a Mobius strip. Both stories are about living within the System that is human culture and society, with an emphasis on Western culture and society; The Invisibles rebel against the System only to discover that rebellion itself is an essential component of the System. Ned Slade and The Hand are policemen, not rebels but they too are necessary for the vital function of the System. There is no change of sides as there are no sides.
NRAMA: Okay, then, sticking with The Invisibles in comparison for a moment, at the surface, that series had an, at times hard to see, run of almost optimism running through it, because you knew, on some level the "good" guys were going to win. With The Filth, there's almost a pessimism, a sense of, if not outright despair that the world is s shithole, and there are people charged with picking up the garbage, not necessarily making it a better place. Thoughts?
GM: As anyone can see by looking out of the window, our world is both a sunlit tree-lined annex of Heaven and also a stinking shithole. It seems impossible to have one without the other. We eat juicy fresh fruit and then excrete styrofoam packaging, plastic bags and steaming turds into the environment. Our homes are only clean because filthy garbage trucks arrive every week to take away the disgusting, maggot-infested remnants of food and human waste which we all leave behind us every day. This analogy may make it easier to understand the necessity for people like the Hand and why The Filth is every bit as 'optimistic' as The Invisibles. Someone has to clean up the mess the rest of us leave just by living - if we didn't have saintly, selfless creatures like flies, policemen and garbage men to tidy up after us, our whole world would actually be a steaming global cesspit of refuse, disease and rampant victimization of the weak.
NRAMA: Given the sheer volume of ideas and concepts you’ve introduced throughout the run of The Filth so far, is the series a place for you to develop new concepts or more of a place to explore further nuances and the evolution of ideas you've already brought out?
GM: It's a little of both - most of my work tends to include references to the themes and images of previous work, while simultaneously pushing forward into new ground. The Filth is a very meticulously constructed work, unlike the more improvised Invisibles, and makes deliberate references to areas I've approached in the past.
NRAMA: Speaking of approaches that you’ve used in the past, you've made something of a habit or writing yourself into your stories, literally and, well, literally. How is Greg/Ned you this time out? Or is there more of you in Spartacus than Greg/Ned?
GM: There's something of me in all the characters. Greg Feely, Ned Slade's 'secret identity' is based on how I felt during a 10 month period in 1999 when I was at a low ebb, celibate, miserable and home alone tending to one of my cats as she lay dying of cancer. Instead of just feeling sorry for myself, I decided to turn the whole hideous process of loneliness and decay into some kind of purifying - or putrefying- poetry. Hence Greg and The Filth'
My theory was a simple one - I'd read about how antibiotics were actually contributing to the degradation of the human immune system and how some doctors had begun to inject house dust and dirt into children’s bloodstreams in an effort to strengthen nature's own defenses again. I liked that idea as a metaphor for the state of apathy, fear and violence - which has gripped America and Britain in particular - and used it to construct this story. The Filth is an attempt to 'inject' into my readers a healing concoction of vile ideas, hurtful emotions and unacceptable images.
The five specialist divisions or gestures which comprise the Hand organization - the Fist, the Finger, the Horns, the Frequency and the Palm - each represent a different type of white immune cell. The Palm are like Helper T cells, the Fist are Hunter/killer cells etc. Check out any book on the human immune system and you'll see how perfectly it all fits together.
In addition, there's a whole level of Qabalistic symbolism which runs through the series. As a practicing magician for over two decades now, I reached a point over a year ago where I felt it was time to take the terrifying 'Oath of the Abyss' and ascend to the 'grade' of ipssissimus - as it's known in the Aleister Crowley Golden Dawn hierarchical system of magical attainment. This requires undergoing an ordeal, the nature of which amounts to a personality-shattering meditation upon and encounter with the incoherent forces of 'the Dark Side' of the so-called Tree of Life, that is, all the negative states of consciousness available to us as human beings - fear, guilt, shame, hatred, loneliness, sickness, pain etc.. The 7 Dwarves of Horror basically.
the twelve months of actually writing The Filth scripts I was so
overwhelmed by these 'dark' forces that I almost committed suicide on several
occasions and spent most of the year in a state of intense psychological and
physical distress. I can happily say that the ordeal is now over; I was able to
process all this negative energy into my writing and emerge from the Land of
Shadow changed forever and having attained the highest possible grade of
Ceremonial Magic. Big deal. The Filth, then,
is also a diary document of my willed descent into the Abyss of the
Qabalists and readers with a passing knowledge of
occult correspondences will recognize the Hand as a 'qlippothic'
or 'dark side' agency - even the colors of the uniforms are significant as they
represent reverses or negatives of the traditional symbolic color schemes of the
Tree of Life - instead of the color yellow to represent Communication, we used
its photo-reverse color i.e. purple for the uniforms of the Frequency - the
communications division of the Hand and so on.
NRAMA: Given that then, place Spartacus Hughes into the mix. Is he one of the infectious agents that ultimately make the “body” stronger?
GM: Spartacus Hughes is a rogue parapersona - which means that he is a artificial, viral personality grown in a test tube form and able to occupy any human body, just like an illness. In the cell metaphor, Spartacus Hughes is a cancer.
In doing that though, even with the Vertigo label, was there anything that was
too extreme and removed? Was the pixilated penis throughout the Anders
Klimakks arc always supposed to be pixilated, for
GM: The only thing that disappeared was a jet of black sperm across a girl's face, which was considered a little too strong an image even for Vertigo. Otherwise, everything else made it onto the page. The pixillated penis was there from the start. I'd seen a horrible documentary on television about porno director Max Hardcore during which Hardcore wandered around with a hard-on sodomising women at random. The show in question was careful to pixillate Max's arousal and I thought I'd use the effect as a joke visual in the comic.
NRAMA: Some have commented that in reading The Filth, it's almost as if the story is secondary to the message - for example, after putting an issue down, it’s easier to remember tones and feelings, but still be hazy on specific story points. Is that the goal?
GM: Not exactly. The story is every bit as important as the message but since this is a comic book I wanted to fill it with wild, colorful outrageous images - because I believe that's the kind of material comic books can and should deliver. I'm tired of comics trying to be like movies at a time when movies are becoming more like comic books. This should be our cue as comic creators to get more imaginative, more cosmic and awe-inspiring, not less. The Filth may seem a little out there but that's only because we're living in a very conservative time, filled with very conservative books.
NRAMA: By that token, and given what you've said about The Matrix and The Invisibles, are you in any way being more protective of the ideas and concepts in The Filth, by making them so “out there” and possibly in a place where only Terry Gilliam could possibly think of turning it into a film, and only then, after smoking some serious crack?
GM: My ties to Hollywood are a lot closer now than they were when I was doing The Invisibles - I'm writing the answers to these questions in our apartment in West Hollywood - so if by some miracle this obscene epic hits the screens it'll be with me attached. Chris and I own the concept and I'll be shopping it around as a movie pitch shortly after the comic's done.
I'd love to do a Filth movie with Bruce Willis as Greg/Ned and Mickey Rourke as Spartacus Hughes. Think about it.
NRAMA: Well yes, but would it even be possible for The Filth to be a movie with a budget of anything less than the GNP of the United States?
GM: No problem. I have it all worked out.
NRAMA: Fair enough. Back to some more specifics with the series. With everything up to and including issue #8, we've still got Ned in a moral quandary - it's hard to sympathize with him, given his job and what he represents, while Spartacus is becoming more alluring. Did you account for that happening? Readers sympathizing with Spartacus, despite the atrocities he commits, because he is an agent of change, standing up against the man?
GM: Spartacus is only alluring because he seems pro-active and willing to change things but the truth is he's a dangerous, ego-driven loon who only ever makes things worse. Ned Slade is equally trapped in his role, with little hope of change.
The real hero is Greg Feely as we shall see.
NRAMA: When will we learn what traumatized Ned/Greg so badly, and what his connection to Spartacus is?
GM: We'll learn his connection to Spartacus Hughes in issues #10 and #11.
NRAMA: Through it all, Greg/Ned's connection with Tony has remained constant - but why? His love for his cat seems to be out of place, given his day job…
GM: This aspect of the story is the key to the entire plot. What would you do if you wanted to neutralize the ultimate, unassuming anarchist?
And what would you do if his stubborn love for a little animal got in the way of everything you were trying to achieve?
NRAMA: Can you sketch out the cosmology of the Hand and the Beyond/Crack a little?
GM: This will be revealed as the series wraps up. I don’t want to say too much here.
NRAMA: Okay then. Winding up, The Invisibles had a very clear message by the end. What if any message, would you want readers to pick up from The Filth?
GM: The message of The Filth is very clear and manifold - I'd like readers to realize that even the most mundane existence - even the shabbiest, shittiest life you can live - can be redeemed into glory by the power of imagination.
NRAMA: At the conclusion of the series, will things be drawn to a close, or will this be a multi-volume story?
GM: The series ends fairly decisively with issue #13. Having said that, the nature of the conclusion leaves the way open for more stories although it's unlikely that I'll ever tell them. I'm sure Slade and King Mob will eventually return and appear together with the Preacher and Lucifer in some future League of Extraordinary Gentlemen one hundred years from now when the copyright runs out and the only readers left are weird dome-headed cyborgs.
FROM : NEWSARAMA - 7th March 2003 (reproduced with permission)
UPDATED : 07/12/2003