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Posts tagged: Lit

Collaboration and Sex: Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie

Ask the Brit comic book artist Alan Moore about his relationship with Hollywood or DC and he’ll slump back to Northamptonshire, grumbling that he’ll never cross the Atlantic again. He has every right perhaps. His labours of love such asV for VendettaWatchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been bastardised by film adaptations, resulting in Moore relinquishing all associated with what is still, essentially his writing.

Over the last few years, Hollywood has descended upon the colourful fields of graphic novels and comic books like a plague of locusts, stripping them of their depth and resonance to fly off to the box office ever fatter. Main stream movies, having once been made by men that love film, are now made by men that love money. So, reigning it back in possibly, with another type of collaboration and two fingers up to Hollywood, Alan Moore created a comic book (or graphic novel) that definitely can’t be adapted into 3D and marketed to every age group. Because it’s porn,  and unconventional porn at that. Denying the film industry of yet another comic book movie might not have been his intention, but I’m hoping that it crossed his mind. Lost Girls, a graphically erotic exploration into the sexual awakening of three very different, and yet familiar girls, was not made by him alone however.

If the film industry and Alan Moore are a match made in hell, that’s not to say there wasn’t a perfect partner, with one foot in the fantasy realm in which he dwells- for him to find eventually. Melinda Gebbie, a San Franciscan artist- who in the 1970’s was collaborating with the subversive, satirical illustrator Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez, was called to Northampton as Moore’s artist-for-hire when he had the premise for a new story. It began with Peter Pan and the Freudian notion that dreams of flying are linked to sex, but when Melinda Gebbie joined forces the project turned a corner. The couple soon shared a mission to rehabilitate pornography and to take away the associated furtiveness and shame. If sexual imagination cannot be policed, then a graphic novel is possibly a good forum in which it can be explored.

Lost Girls is set in a resort hotel on the Franco-Swiss border, in 1913. The girls in question are the now all-grown-up heroines from popular childhood classics. The silver haired aristocrat with a long list of scandal behind her is Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Into the Looking Glass, Wendy Potter, wife of a staid middle-aged businessman, is Wendy from J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Dorothy Gale, the free-spirited young American tourist seeing Europe for the first time, is the heroine from L.Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. All three come together in an exploration of sexual awakening that progress into pages of more graphic, and at times, relentless pornography.

But the book is rooted firmly in the fantasy world. And what a couple to create it: a man who in 1993 declared that he was a wizard, and a Californian feminist artist. Gebbie’s illustrations- all in a soft pastel pallet- match the sensuality of the material and are far from the brutal images of modern day pornography; and Moore’s narrative (as always) is a multi-faceted commentary- only this time on sex.

Many references are made to a literary tradition that dates back centuries, from the free-wheeling explicit cartoonist Robert Crumb, to Victorian erotica in England: Oscar Wilde and the British illustrator Audrey Beardsley. The book is layered with ideas about ‘childhood’ and the taboo, but also the sexuality of war. By the end of a rambling narrative, where the intimate sexual back-stories of each protagonist is unveiled, and we learn that their awakening has not just been erotic, but restorative and binding, the women escape the hotel as German soldiers storm through and blow everything up. World War one envelopes their journey and the mindless aggression of the soldiers defile the sacred space these women have shared. War, therefore, becomes the ultimate perversion of sex. And the lasting message that Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie wish to promote is to make love and not war- something their collaboration landed on during the process.

The project took sixteen years to complete and by the end of it? Moore and Gebbie were married. “I’d recommend to anybody working on their relationship that they should try embarking on a 16-year elaborate pornography [project] together. I think they’ll find it works wonders.” Moore said in hindsight, on a relationship and product that might last longer than any Hollywood budget.

Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out

It was a bleak day when I went to visit artist Rab Harling at the Balfron Tower in Poplar (East London). I have always been suspicious of Brutalist architecture and whether it serves as a happy environment for the people that live in the buildings, and staring up at the gargantuan concrete tower block set against a grey sky, I could see why Danny Boyle used it in his post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. It scares me. When I tell Rab that it looks somewhere between a large factory and something out of 1984, he disagrees. Firstly it was Battersea Power Station (another example of Brutalist architecture) that was the facade for Victory Mansions in the film of 1984, and secondly, because inside, he says, it’s beautiful. Rab is currently taking up residency on the second floor to create a large photographic installation about the building, its community and the idea of ‘happiness’ that an environment can either inspire or extinguish. Having just read Alan de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, I was intrigued to find out more about social housing like Balfron Tower, and those that live there.

Its sister building is the 31- floor Trellick Tower in Kensington, and both were designed by Erno Goldfinger in an attempt to solve the huge shortage of housing in the country following World War II. Goldfinger was known as a humourless man who would fire his assistants for being too ‘jocular’. When he heard that Ian Fleming had made him into the villain of one of his James Bond books, he contested it so much that Fleming nearly changed the character to ‘Goldprick’. Looking at the tower, I can’t help but think it is a mere extension of the architect’s character, which has been – and will be — inflicted upon many a generation. At 27 floors high, it houses hundreds of people — about half of whom are Bangladeshi (says Rab) and all of whom (including him) will be moving out as they refurbish it, not knowing if they can return.

Where we live and the buildings around us make up the foundations of our community and can have a strong hold on our sense of happiness in life. Oscar Wilde claimed that: “The wrong kind of wallpaper could upset him more than a death in the family.” As an extreme aesthete, I doubt he would have liked Brutalist architecture. The Balfron tower was built with socialist ideals of economy and community, but due to urban decay after the war and the stark alien presence of such blocks compared with the rest of the city’s architecture, Brutalism became quickly un-popular and synonymous with un-happy residents.

Photograph from Rab’s project

“I want to make a piece that sheds a positive light on the often negative associations people bring to social housing and celebrate the diversity of the community within,” Rab says as we reach his place, on the second floor. It’s the size of a small house with steps leading down into a large living room with big windows. It’s peaceful, quiet and light. A balcony spans the room and the kitchen next door and over-looks another estate, a children’s ‘playground’ (fit with strange concrete walls and a concrete slide), and in the distance, the grand glass HSBC towers, one of the richest areas in London. “This area,” Rab says, “is one of the poorest in Europe – but this building” — he thumps his fist against the living room wall — “is solid, well made so that you have privacy.” Rab’s work is a series of photos taken in the apartments looking out. To show the building from the other perspective, he’ll set them on a light-box and in essence turn the Balfron Tower inside out. By getting to know as many of the residents as possible and through their word of mouth, he is building up his own network and relationship with his fellow residents in the form of “a family tree”.

“Beauty is the promise of happiness,” quotes Alain De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness, but in Brutalist design there is no room for the indulgence of beauty, only that of economy. Form must follow function, which through the 70’s and 80’s was simply ‘low budget’. John Ruskin said: “Buildings should shelter us, speak to us of all the things that are important, and remind us of them on a daily basis.” Domesticity, comfort and protection are but a few of the feelings that I think a house must communicate and even though Balfron looks like a severe dystopian factory from the outside, inside, I agree with Rab that it’s beautiful. When he takes me to the 27th floor the view is mesmerising and inspiring. “But the residents are treated really badly. They’re in the process of erecting scaffolding over the entire block — to work on the building for six months — it’s cheaper to do this when the building is occupied rather than wait and do it when it gets refurbished. No one was told. The direct disruption of noise and blocking up the windows has caused major unhappiness.”

Social housing can often say more about the ideal of the architect or a council’s budget, which in turn can have a negative impact on those that live there. A community can turn sour and break apart, not just because it is a poor one, but because of the way it is regarded, the relationship it has with neighbouring boroughs, the police and each other within it. I’m writing this as vans of police shoot past my window and my neighbours board up their shops. The place, East London (right now) is the target of hatred. Instead of gangs fighting gangs, they’re fighting the buildings, the communities, and last night broke down walls on terraced streets in Tottenham and used the bricks to smash and loot local businesses and banks, and it started from the same Brutalist inspired estate that gave birth to major riots in the 1980’s.

This speaks of social problems that run deeper than whether a house is pretty or not, but what de Botton and Rab Harling are both promoting is that we pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture as it can have the ability to further alienate communities, and will always affect us all.

The Flow

With the death of the wonderful Amy Winehouse over the weekend, I am not alone in writing about addiction and the battle of the artistic mind to find its ‘flow’. Creative sensibility combined with addictive substances has extinguished many a talent. The work survives and is often glorified more when the star that produced it fades out. We are not invincible, nor do we use only 20% of our brains, but in our attempts to heighten an experience, life itself is often the sacrifice.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi founded this idea of ‘flow’: “an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness,” from which great art is produced. He hypothesised that these moments of flow occur because we’re simply activating too many neurological functions. We no longer have the capacity to be aware of which functions we’re engaging in. The ‘conscious me’ part of the brain shuts down, awareness slips away and one just does. The adage “learn the theory, forget it and then create” can be applied to most great works of art. Michelangelo is said to have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel until his boots had to be cut off his rotting feet. This is extreme, but you can’t get into any type of ‘flow’ if you’re thinking too much about the end product, the way you look or anything that your mind is trying to tell you.

There is a certain type of energy behind good art that makes it hit the mainstream without a zillion dollar backing and a store full of abstracted products. It separated Amy Winehouse from the X Factor winners, and the original trio of The Sugar Babes with what they are today. Over-conscious work is often contrived and ineffectual. But to tap into or maintain ‘flow’ can be a mind-altering experiment into obscurity.

Amy Winehouse’s album Back to Black, among many other great albums, was inspired and written in a burst of energy over heartbreak. The creative process is painful. But pain initiates the necessity to create. I doubt Tracy Emin’s recent show All You Need Is Love would have been made — let alone praised — if she was a happily married, clean living East ender.

The danger can be in association and habit. Schiller, on a less destructive trip, kept rotting apples beneath the lid of his desk when he was composing poetry. But if your breakthrough album was born from crippling heartache, then does some other catastrophe have to push you to the edge before another great song can be written? When there is none, how do you break the ennui and agitation of every-day life to access pure, energised inspiration?

An essential part of dancing is improvisation. Instinctive movements are as important as learning any routine; the two must marry for a great performance. The same goes for writing and painting. Off-loading your consciousness onto a scrap of paper before you start the opening paragraph can help focus the mind on the task literally at hand. The phrase “being at one with things’ is a metaphor of Csikszentmihalyi’s flow concept. Practitioners of the varied schools of Zen Buddhism apply similar concepts to aid their mastery of art forms. In yogic traditions, reference is made to a state of ‘flow’ as a way to access concentration.

Yet some of the greatest art has been produced in the meditative or lucid state brought about from substances. One of the most famous is Samuel Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, written after he had fallen asleep on a dose of laudanum. Considered as a fragment of a dream by many (as he only had time to write the first 50 lines of the 250 that originally came to him before being disturbed), it is also a poem about the fragility of inspiration:

“A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail…”

Changing our consciousness with drugs has a history as old as human kind itself. It seems we are always trying to heighten our experiences in the name of experimentation, inspiration or as a means to toughen a sensitive disposition. This of course can lead to addiction and disaster, tragically with those that now live on in the ’27 club’ (Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Amy Winehouse) or to more thankful losses explained away by those that survive, like Noel Gallagher: “We lost the album down the drug dealer’s”.

Don’t Upset The Chef

The Perils of being ‘nice’.

According to Amy Cuddy, a professor at Harvard Business School, when it comes to judging someone we do so on two main factors: warmth and competence. Warmth – whether they are friendly and well-intentioned, and competent – whether they have the ability to deliver on those intentions. She says: “We admire and help people who are both warm and competent and feel and act contemptuously towards the cold and incompetent.”

Yet by being ‘warm’ to one of the queens of pop-up hospitality the other day only incited rage and barking. By trying to diffuse the situation with more warmth, I was perceived as more incompetent- to the point of an airhead, and might well have done better if I had behaved cooler.

My friend is desperate to introduce me to the pioneer of the pop-up restaurant, the woman he’ll be working with at festivals and possibly in her kitchen while he stays with her. He has one of her business cards to show me when we meet off the train. I’m excited. We arrive at a gorgeous house with flowers blooming over the entrance; a handmade ceramic number is pinned to the door frame. Cute. Inside: beautiful wooden floors, a large open dining room half-prepped for guests and French windows that lead onto a lush garden with a small white summer house at the end of it – for private parties.

But the woman in question is on the phone. So we loiter in the corridor and read numerous testimonials taped to the wall. Half an hour later, we pop our heads around the kitchen door.

“I’ve got to go.” I hear her say. “There is a stranger in my kitchen.” She means me.

“This is my friend; I wanted you guys to meet each other,” my friend says.

A short, harassed-looking woman storms through the kitchen giving me more than just the once over. “Hi,” we say in unison.

“I love your house.” I chirp, “It’s so gorgeous. And you do a pop-up restaurant here?” My enthusiasm is genuine, but she doesn’t like it.

“Listen,” she looks like she’s ready to charge at me. “Do you really think I’m going to talk about- A,” she lifts a tiny finger to the ceiling, “my ‘fabulous’ pop-up restaurant. Or B how I make the fabulous effing food for it?” as a celebrity might bark down questions on their sex-life. “So don’t ask me about that.” But I’m not here to interview her. She turns to an open cook book on the sideboard. Silence falls.

“I’d love to have a place like this one day.” I’m now afraid. Maybe she could ask us a question?

“I’m making mustard,” she huffs. Should I respond to this? I could ask her what type? Why? How long it takes?  “Do you make all your own sauces?” I say nicely, searching for my bag.

“You know what; I’ve answered these questions to death. I,”  - she waves her soiled spoon in the air – “have been interviewed by everyone and I,” – she sticks it into the magi mix – “write a blog! Read the effing blog that I spend hours on if you want to know about my restaurant! Read the fucking interviews if you’ve got any questions!” She’s not joking. She’s not even playing the role of ‘drama chef’ but something similar to a bride yelling abuse in her wedding dress. She’s a host-zilla.

And the warmer I am to her the more horrid she gets.

When researching the idea of warmth and competence, the psychologist Nicolas Kervyn performed a study on two groups of people, one ‘warm’ and one ‘cold’ and his findings showed that people regarded the colder group as more competent. The upshot: “Your gain on one [trait] can be your loss on the other.” As if people who are actively warm to others must be concealing what they lack. Maybe that is true. I conceal my nervousness by asking questions that she doesn’t want to hear.

“Do you know the book Like Water for Chocolate?” I ask.

“Think I watched the film.” She says.

“When the girl cooks, all her emotions pour into the food, and the people that eat it go wild.”

“So, I should make my mustard with less bitterness?”

“Well, it is mustard, so maybe it’s OK.” She sort of laughs so I turn to leave before I say something ‘nice’ again.

“Well, you should come to my restaurant if you want to know more!”

Judgements and prejudices are far more complex and subtle than the ‘warm/competent’ theory. And I only disliked her so much because she hated me, not because she was ‘cold’ and certainly not incompetent. She later referred to me as ’posh’ and a ‘bimbo’, without knowing anything about me, so I guess that ties in class and hair-colour. I was an unexpected guest in her kitchen when she was tired. But why go to so much effort creating a brand of cute, retro chic – down to the font on the business cards – when you’re a nasty, barrel shaped woman who wields mustardy spoons at people. Maybe by plugging this warm, welcoming image since the scene started, has made her repel her own branding – and those that liked it.

The Great American Graphic Novel

It was a sad moment for my dad when I stayed with him recently and he caught me in bed reading Judy Annual, 1976. It had enraged him when I was sixteen, as he sent me to a “good school” and I “should be reading proper books!” But after studying a whole other world of classics at school and university, I am still like a magnet to comics, annuals and – now the biggest money maker in the publishing industry – the graphic novel.

Words are an imperfect medium. How can we faithfully translate emotions into words when consciousness is infinite and words are finite? In the late 1970’s, Will Eisner created a biography of Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx and “the ethnic and social changes of its stream of occupants”. In the hope of enticing the patronage of a main stream publisher he called it a ‘graphic novel’. The book , A Contract with God , is a series of stories – “some are true, some could be true” – about “life, death, heartbreak and the never-ending struggle to prevail… or at least survive”.

Eisner wrote it after his sixteen year old daughter died. And it’s not a comic nor is it The Year of Magical Thinking. The tales are caught with a cinematic approach to images and a literary economy of words. It’s a man in a metropolis, his head bowed; with “the sewers overflowing and the waters rising over the curbs of the street” exorcising his rage at a deity he believes has violated his faith. The stories are told in the same multifaceted way that they were experienced.

As a dyslexic, maybe it’s only fitting that I deal better with images than straight narrative. Words don’t always suffice. There’s no excuse for Judy Annual- apart from the fact that I just love it. But there’s no excuse for not seeing how skilfully clever a book like Asterios Polyp (by David Mazzucchelli) is. In it, form becomes function. The arrogant anti-hero Asterios Polyp, an architect teacher and womaniser, is at times drawn in red cylinders when arguing with his wife (drawn in blue etchings). And when he asserts his character the make-up of his students physically changes. But Asterios is introduced to us first “standing in the rain watching his home burn up, thinking one thing: Not again.” I am as fazed as he is, trundling through five pages of New York terrain with only the clothes on his back. Sodden and alone in the subway, a small bird flies out of the station (and the page); a woman sits on her suitcase at the bottom of the escalator vomiting on her shoes. Neither is explained. They don’t serve as metaphors but are shown as random happenings, the backdrop to Asterios’ first steps on an epic journey of discovery. Asterios stares out the bus window watching the American landscape shoot past. And it’s the same land Jack Kerouac described- the same fields of dreams and ash heaps from The Great Gatsby, brought to a new audience.

Before Asterios Polyp, Mazzucchelli had the painful, arduous task of working with Paul Auster, adapting City of Glass into a graphic novel. The story is packed with strange metaphysical happenings. A lone man gets mistaken for a detective, decides to play the role, follows a jittering old man through New York, and ultimately disintegrates into the very foundations of the city. Frame-by-frame we see this little figure turn from man to brickwork, literally becoming the wall he leans against.

The latent theme of City of Glass is the word itself. So what better way to discuss our severance from language, our inability to connect feeling with the tool on the tip of our tongue than images? In my eyes, the genre of ‘The Great American Novel’ is all about the dream, the hope and possibility of a new life in ‘the land of the free’ and the loneliness which pays for it. What better way to tell this than through pages of un-narrated frames of a man moving from one disaster in his life into the unknown? Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp and his adaptation of City of Glass force the reader to slowly reflect on his characters and the epic adventures they embark upon. We get to see them wander through inexplicable dreamscapes, shrink in the vastness of the city, or literally become the bricks and mortar which built it.

Graphic novels are not just about girls with blonde pigtails flirting with the neighbour’s son over the garden fence. It’s a medium where anything seems expressible. And if I was to send one to my dad, he might just come round to the idea.

Front Window

 Summer brings the NOISE

In New York Max Neuhaus campaigned for police sirens to be less of an offence.  I think we need a Neuhaus in Dalston.  From my desk I am getting more and more rattled by the wheeping of police- zooming down Dalston Lane below me. They are set to give me a heart attack, or a twitch. I shut the windows, sit here and slowly poach until I’m a pale pink. Still the noise prevails. It seems worse now than it did a few months ago. Could it actually be noisier in summer than it is in winter? On a day like today (hot) engines sound raspier, more strained, all dried up and on the last rev before burn-out- which will probably happen just outside my window. Right now- it sounds like someone has crashed down there.

“What the f*** are you doing?”

“What- I was just crossing the road mate!”

“Look wha you done. Look!  F****** scratched my f****** car!”

Natasha (my Canadian flat mate) stomps into my room. “What’s going on? Is that a fight happening?” We open the window, fold our arms over the ledge and look below. A small blue Citroën is now straddling both lanes. The driver’s door flung open. A black body builder in a florescent T-shirt is furious. A small, wispy haired white guy is looking scared.

“Oh my god. He’s carrying a telescope.” Natasha says. We both giggle.

“I was just trying to cross the road!”

“You want some?”

“Whoa- where did that come from. Hey, dude, stop fighting!” Natasha yells. Despite being ten metres above them, they don’t hear this. Hippie man foolishly places his telescope on the ground in front of Angry Driver; a sacrificial offering, a buffer maybe? A booby trap to either trip or bewilder his assailant? None of these. Driver hops over it, swings his legs at Hippie’s heel. He crashes down, gets up swiftly, biffs Driver’s enormous bicep and gets biffed back. They jump in circles around each other, fists clenched, swiping the hot air. Sweat pours down Driver’s forehead, Hippie turns a deep pink. Driver’s passenger gets out the car, slams the door and storms down Dalston Lane without looking back. The traffic is now at grid lock. I can feel the accumulative throttle vibrate through my body, through Natasha’s.

“Hey! I said stop fighting!” Natasha yells.

 “Stop fighting!” I yell.

“We should call the police” She says. I’m on the verge of saying no. I can’t handle any more noise, any more action. But then a ripping WHEEP cuts through the commotion. Natasha and I nearly fall off our perch- struck down by the din. Hippie scoops up his telescope. He wields his tripod at Angry Driver who- in his last bout of rage- kicks his own car. And the whole debacle folds in on itself.  No one’s a winner. Hippie is now full steam, hot footing it down Dalston Lane, whipping round, hair flying, punching at the sun with his tripod. Angry (most likely at himself) Driver speeds off to find his now angry passenger. Police reach the scene- which is now just loads of cars parked up on the pavement to allow them through- and fail to shut down their sirens. Wheep wheep wheep. The noise is deafening. Revelry at The Three Compasses has stalled.

“Yo- in Canada- police sirens are not that loud!” Natasha yells at me.

We resume places in our respective rooms. I read online that warm air is ‘stiffer’ than cold. The molecules are (as I’m typing this) moving around with more energy.


“Watch where you’re going,” screams another angry man on this hot afternoon.

The air is not as elastic when warm, I read, molecules are bumping into each other.  I can’t help but compare this crashing of molecules to the crashing around of people below me, moving faster, creating more ruckuses. Then there’s global warming. “For each degree rise in temperature, the speed of sound in air increases by 0.6 meters per second.” Does this mean that ‘peace and quiet’ will soon become a fossilised notion? A few generations forward and silence may be a thing of the past. There is no aural rest in the heart of Dalston. There may be less and less to come. Everything- from this moment right here- seems to be heating up. I like peace, and the quiet.

Should I/we be scared?