Posted by: Joe McCulloch on September 14, 2007
Hello to you all! I’d hoped to do it this week, but it seems next week I will begin slowly creeping backward towards the wee hours of Wednesday slot I’d originally planned for this column to run in. That’s a good sign of progress, in a sort of ‘supermarket having a sale to bump down the prices it just raised last month’ kind of way.
So, in the spirit of a thrilling triple coupon discount effort, I’m happy to announce a very special feature for this week only (until I do it again). No bonus card required! It’s a little something I like to call:
Involuntary reader participation!!
You see, back in the very first installment of this column, I observed that there were certain similarities between two Vertigo-released comics: the Peter Milligan-written Rogan Gosh (the subject of the column) and the Grant Morrison-written Flex Mentallo. Down in the comments section, Brian Nicholson pointed out that he’d picked up on similarities between another pair of Morrison-Milligan Vertigo works: Morrison’s 1995 Vertigo Voices one-shot Kill Your Boyfriend, and Milligan’s 1996 Vertigo Vérité miniseries Girl. I then conceded that I’d read neither work, and my credibility faded away in the manner of an enchanted coach turning back into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, and the pumpkin then getting hit by an oncoming truck.
However! I have since finally gotten around to reading both works, and I can only say that Brian was very right. And he’s apparently not the first to pick up on the connection – according to Girl artist Duncan Fegredo (in a now-vanished thread on the Engine; the best I can link to is a Barbelith post reacting to the original post), Vertigo itself had once planned to package the two works together in a single collection. Believe me, after comparing these two works I can understand the impulse.
But I also wonder what the ultimate effect might have been. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on between these works, and not all of it is docile.
Both stories concern the exploits of a young female protagonist who narrates directly to the reader as a means of exposing her private thoughts. Both narrators are unhappy with their place in life, and eventually become caught up in a wild adventure when they run into an attractive person of mystery that’s essentially them. Violent acts swirl around both of them, while they attempt a massive, burning act of destruction against a looming structure. Both play identity games, both wear a blonde wig at some times, both chafe against the expectations of society, both encounter semi-useless groups of misfits, both are chased by the police, both have their worst crimes attributed to their alter egos, and both eventually end up in much the same place as they started.
Yet, it’s the differences that stand out the most. The tone, themes, writerly outlook, visual style… everything is so different, so opposed, that the latter work, Milligan’s, often comes off as a scathing critique of the former, Morrison’s.
In a way, it might usefully highlight the differing worldviews of fiction that both writers possess.
One at a time. Spoilers, folks. Fresh eggs and new items at the hot bar.
A. Kill Your Boyfriend
As I mentioned before, this came out as part of the 1995 Vertigo Voices line of one-shot specials, four in total (incidentally, Milligan & Fegredo were behind another one of them, Face; the other two were Jamie Delano’s & Al Davidson’s Tainted, and Milligan’s & Dean Ormston’s The Eaters). Pencils were provided by Philip Bond, with D’Israeli assisting on inks, and Daniel Vozzo handling colors. It was later reprinted in the Prestige Format.
Initially, it’s a bit hard to separate Kill Your Boyfriend from popular works that directly preceded it. Surely the scent of the 1994 Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers (which Morrison seems to have enjoyed, or at least respected) can be picked up from the basic plot, concerning the romantic and bloody flight of two young people — a girl liberated from her domestic circumstances by a wild boy — eager to live free and wild.
Our Heroine in this comic initially lives a comfortable but boring life, addressing us with Disillusionment 101 musings on formal education (school just teaches us how to be robots, you know!), fantasizing about shooting her classmates to death, and feeling let down with her dull, chunky, pimply boyfriend, who’s less interested in despoiling her virtue than reading mediocre fantasy novels (“This is… well, it started as a trilogy and this is the seventh book. I suppose he just had so many ideas.”) and pretending to study while waching porn (“It’s so good, baby. Uh. Yeah… touch my tits with your claw…”).
However, a handsome young man catches her eye with his casual disregard for common decency. He steals a man’s cigarettes, and whistles at her as she passes by. Late, after arguing with her parents over a condom she has little hope of unwrapping, the girl storms out of her house and runs into the boy again. She gets drunk for the first time. She watches him vandalize a dopey three-wheel vehicle for invalids – meaningless and unfair destruction is fighting the world on its own terms! She throws a rock though a dozing elderly couple’s window – to wake them from the deathly nap their boring lives have lulled them into! And for lack of anything more interesting to do, they head over to that awful fucking sensitive mild-mannered bookish shithead boyfriend’s house, and she watches as the cool boy unloads seven gunshots into that horrible nerd until he is dead, dead, dead.
And she falls in love.
One might be tempted to view this chain of events as satire on Morrison’s part. After all, the boy’s constant parade of justifications for his cruel acts has a hint of absurdity to it – upon giving an older man a fatal heart attack after breaking a vodka bottle over his head, the boy instantly assumes that he had a bad ticker, and probably would have lost control of his car at some point, thus causing a deadly accident, so really they’ve saved lives in aggregate! Then again, it might just be the character cracking a little joke. And Morrison tosses in a little too much bloviating about good morals from the television and the police for his story to leave any doubt about who’s on the side of the angels (if you will). Why, that dead older man soon turns out to be a well-off fellow with an apartment full of sexy outfits and drugs and stuff! Secrets behind the closed doors of the respectable– have you heard?!
So what is it with this book? Simple nihilism? A fart blown in the direction of the writer’s fanbase, some of whom he must be aware resemble the killed boyfriend a hell of a lot?
Ah, but this is very much a Grant Morrison story, so it’s redolent with that career-spanning obsession: transformation. Which is maybe even more potent than usual due to the lack of superheroes and the like. Our Heroine, in the dead old man’s closet, changes into a slinky red dress and a blonde wig. She addresses the reader:
“Why should I study for exams when I could be the girl dancing in the studio audience of some late-night tv program for the under-25’s?
“I want to be the girl the boys all fancy.
“The one with the big tits and a big smile and nothing in her head.”
She then smiles and acknowledges the anxiety most readers are probably having over such an… unprogressive means of self-exploration. She asserts that she’s become a wholly fictional person, a figment of the boy’s imagination, and is thus no longer personally responsible for any ills she causes. Her persona is dissolved into story, into imagination, or archetype. Maybe even myth; after all, Morrison does allude to the tale of Dionysus and the Maenads (and by ‘allude’ I mean ‘have a schoolteacher directly face the reader and detail the story’ – in the interests of storytelling grace, Morrison does not have ALLUSIONS TO MYTH IN COMIC BOOKS, SUCH AS THE ONE YOU ARE HOLDING written on the chalkboard). I expect the focus of Morrison’s interest in the Maenads is on their wild violations of social and moral norms, and appealing and appalling freedom from boredom.
Of course, you could say all that really amounts to, by the terms of the comic, is ‘freedom’ through total supplication to the male gaze. On the other hand, Morrison’s emphasis on fiction and fantasy and melting into the heads of other people renders the boy less the ‘boss’ of the girl than an extension of her, and she of him. Duality is another Morrison fave. If she is what he dreams a girl to be, he’s just the gun-toting stud she needed to break out of her dreary life. Morrison even inserts an incest theme into the story – by the end of the book, we learn that our lovers are probably brother and sister, reinforcing both the mythic aspect and their status as two-of-one.
And it’s funny. The book has a lot of funny lines. It’s eager to draw comedy out of bucking the expected. The pair take Ecstasy and go clubbing, then fuck wildly back at the apartment:
“All the books I ever read had scenes where the girl has sex for the first time and it’s a big disappointment.
“Why did they lie to me? This is brilliant!”
Fantasy is what powers the work. Bond’s character art compliments this, with lots of bright expressions that sort of nudge at realism but back away. It’s like a world of candy. I can’t say the art infuses the work with much extra zip – it’s broadly appropriate, as were most of the hand-picked Seven Soldiers artists, and is clearly illustrative of the action. But Morrison, as is usually the case in his comics, is the dominant party.
Taken as metaphor, Kill Your Boyfriend is a celebration of excellence, with excess as its synonym. Mildness and ‘morality’ are equated with mediocrity, and thus the boyfriend must be killed. Trust me folks, if Brad Bird ever stops making all-ages movies, we’re gonna see a cartoon just like this. Society and its hypocritical rules are always in conflict with excellence, and teenage rebellion rules the day.
On the run, the girl and the boy fall in with a group of would-be art terrorists who want to blow up the Blackpool Tower, the gun and the bomb being the only true art objects in today’s age. Fluid identity and sexual experimentation is the norm (the inevitable same-sex encounter is actually between the boy and another man). But it turns out the artists and the thinkers aren’t ready to take it all the way – they’re just pretentious boobs nattering over inaccessible nonsense, as opposed to the pure pop glory of knocking down a tower through a terrorist act. Right?
On its own terms, in the midst of such broad metaphor, this shot at conceptual art carries all the resonance of a Nancy strip, while the story’s heroic suicide bombing climax will probably inflate the message past the eye-rolling limit for many readers. There’s only so much you can do broadly with a not-very-complex fantasy of teen violence as burning pop soul before you accidentally start to reinforce the pleasures of the middlebrow, and that has a way of weakening Morrison’s play with transformation.
Still, he trudges forward. The final page sees Our Heroine as a mother and housewife, slowly poisoning her husband to death. He probably reads Terry Pratchett anyway!
Look. The comparison can begin instantly. Look at the titles.
Kill Your Boyfriend is assertive. It is an order. A demand. Action must be taken.
Girl is descriptive. It denotes an emphasis on what is, not what must be done. It gives us a subject, not a plan of action.
Shit, look at the publishing labels! Vertigo Voices suggests a booming sound for you to hear. Vérité, meanwhile, is “truth.” It is a status.
This all makes sense. If Grant Morrison’s #1 theme is transformation, Peter Milligan’s may well be identity. Which does not guarantee change, just knowledge.
Girl is three issues long, and has never been collected. It was released under the Vertigo Vérité label, which was a 1996-98 attempt to promote new Vertigo projects devoid of the supernatural qualities that had gotten to define the publisher (four other works were released: David Wojnarowicz’s & James Romberger’s one-shot Seven Miles a Second, Peter Kuper’s three-issue The System, Terry LaBan’s & Ilya’s & Ande Parks’s four-issue The Unseen Hand, and Jamie Delano’s & Sean Phillips’ Hell Eternal). As I mentioned before, the artist is Duncan Fegredo. The colorist is Nathan Eyring. For the record, both this and Kill Your Boyfriend share letterer Ellie de Ville.
Visually, this work is very different than that from the year before. Fegredo’s lines are scraggy and vivid. You can all but smell his environments. Eyring’s colors are rich and deep. The feeling is not ‘candy.’ It is hyper-reality. Characters bristle on the edge of caricature, but retain a great liveliness that I don’t quite get from Bond’s flatter, more iconic figures. If the visual approach of Kill Your Boyfriend shines as pure fantasy with a wink toward realism, Girl presses realism into blur of daydreaming.
And god, are daydreams necessary. This story is a big downer. You might not even notice at first, since Milligan pumps it up with visions and jokes and rueful, witty narration, but studying the plot for more than a few seconds reveals that the laughs are only there to keep us from breaking our own necks over the tragedy of it all. Which eventually gets to be the whole point of the work, but let me back up.
The narrating heroine of Girl is Simone Cundy, who is fifteen years old.
“I don’t believe in God but I believe in the Holy Trinity.
“My head, my heart and my hymen.
“All three remain unbroken, and I intend them to remain so.”
Like the heroine of Kill Your Boyfriend, she is unhappy with her lot in life. But unlike the general teenage malaise that settles over Morrison’s character, Milligan places his focus firmly on class and economics. While comedic and exaggerated, Simone’s family is rooted in a firmly working class rut, with specific problems in opportunity. The biggest employer in town is a lottery ticket factory, juxtaposing hard work with wild dreams of riches. Education isn’t taken very seriously, and not in the cool, fighting-against-becoming-robots way of Morrison’s work, but in the ‘no hope of betterment’ manner.
Hey, I won’t pick on Kill Your Boyfriend for that. It’s total fantasy. Girl involves fantasy, but places it in the context of a vivid reality. Simone has a very active imagination. For a stretch of issue #1, we’re led to believe that she’s killed herself (with rat poison, the weapon at the end of Morrison’s work), and her body is displayed in a coffin in the family television room, a scene that eventually gets wild when it looks like they’re all going to hit the lottery, and then the family dog pisses on her, causing her bloated belly to explode, her enrails ruining the winning ticket. And after we see that it’s all a dream of hers, we observe the little details added in, like how a local sewer worker is folded into the dream as her boyfriend.
Eventually, adventure awaits, and two men are killed! Again! With an enchanting stranger involved! Of course, this time the first man is a would-be rapist who’s assaulting another woman when Simone cracks him on the head with a brick. And the woman’s the enchanting stranger, a blonde doppelganger of Simone. In this way, Milligan effectively defuses the hint of paternalism that hung around Morrison’s work, while hitting on the theme of duality even harder. It won’t take a genius to figure out that the blonde Simone literally isn’t real (as opposed to being a fictional persona of a real person) – but Simone doesn’t know that, and Milligan exploits that nicely for the second death, the death of the older man: Simone’s father, who slaps her mother around and just killed the family dog. Motive!
Killing isn’t much fun in Milligan’s work. It’s scary when you don’t quite know if you did what you did, and people take a long time to die. Nevertheless, Simone has her adventures, guided by her new friend into an effort to break out of her dreary life. Implicitly, and upon comparison, Girl becomes quite the bruising nipple twist of Morrison’s work (and it’s not all implicit – some bits read like direct lampoon, like when blonde Simone details a ridiculous story about how she was given away at birth to “childless explorers and cultural anarchists,” thus making the pair… siblings!), with Simone — wearing a blonde wig, even!— undergoing just the underwhelming loss of virginity that Morrison’s heroine read about. Drinks and dancing make her puke. She’s quickly suspected of murder, and running away is no lark.
On its own terms, Girl is a very elegant, bracingly funny and tragic work. It helps greatly that Simone is a lively character, and that Milligan smartly poises her all-consuming daydreams as a way of escaping the dead end she was born into. I mean, her father is killed, her sister’s boyfriend is abusive, the dog dies, a baby is stillborn… it’d be crushing if it weren’t for the verve of Milligan’s characterizations, the expressive zip of Fegredo’s lines, and the poignancy of the story’s use of fantasy as both horrible and thrilling, and probably needed to cope with life itself.
And even for comparison’s sake, Girl isn’t just a parody or critique or ‘response’ to Kill Your Boyfriend. It seeks to absorb just that type of fantasy into itself, and demonstrate both how it doesn’t quite apply to a more realistic life, and how it can nevertheless be a salve. If Morrison leaps directly into play, Milligan stands back and wonders how such play might interact with those playing. As a result, Morrison’s heroine/narrator is eventually a simple vessel for ideas and themes, while Milligan’s seems like far more of a developed person, even if she can’t embody the pop appeal of archetype. She has to deal with archetypes inside her own head.
This is played out nowhere better than in Girl’s endgame. Simone plans to burn down the lottery factory, going out with just the bang that would have rewarded Morrison’s teen heroes. But dammit – the sprinklers come on, like they often do in life. Her alter ego/thrill-seeking friend just fades away, with no bang. Her problems kind of solve themselves – even the murders affect no substantive change. She’s back where she started.
The finale of the work is, to me, similar to that of F.W. Murnau’s silent film classic The Last Laugh, which used its one and only proper intertitle to point out how it was going to give the otherwise bleak as hell movie a big happy ending, because movies need happy endings, fake or not. And at the end of Girl, Simone and her mom win the lottery! They climb into a limo in front of a silly line of angry neighbors, and flip them all off as they ride away into the sunset. If Morrison’s heroine can’t stop killing, Simone can’t stop dreaming, though Milligan never tells us if this last bit’s really a dream. I think the rest of the story more than plays that out. For Girl, wild teenage fantasies, like pop singles, are all right. They help you cope. Comics like Kill Your Boyfriend can be healthy enough, when considered as escape.
But holster that gun, miss. It’s not taking you goddamned anywhere.