One year after their outstanding but all too short Moon Knight run from 2014, the team of writer Warren Ellis, artist Declan Shalvey and colourist Jordie Bellaire followed up with their own creation, the 15-issue series Injection. The following refers to its first volume which collects #1-5.
The backstory, gradually revealed in bits and pieces, is basically this: the “Cultural Cross-Contamination Unit” (CCCU), a British think tank, is tasked to predict the future, but they don’t like the predictions they come up with: “Everything slows down. Everything gets tangled up. Everything stops racing forward.” – “We reach a peak of novelty and innovation and enter a long trough.” – “The CCCU’s final finding was that innovation was going to flatten out and the future was going to be a slow and difficult time.” So in order to prevent the future from becoming “boring”, they decide to make it more interesting by designing a new kind of artificial intelligence and injecting it into the Internet.
But of course that goes terribly wrong. A few years later, in the present day, the AI starts killing and abducting people, and the former CCCU members try to stop it.
Which brings us to our protagonists: a typical Warren Ellis superhero team. Granted, they don’t wear masks and capes, but each of them has superhuman powers in a way. Robin is a John Constantine type occultist, Maria is a genius scientist who wields a sort of magical energy sword made by Robin, Simeon is a James Bond type special agent, Brigid is a hacker, and Vivek is a Sherlock Holmes type private detective.
So once more the fate of the world (or at least Britain) lies in the hands of a few people. However, in terms of politics, there is an interesting difference between the CCCU and other Ellis superheroes such as the Freakangels, Moon Knight, or Planetary: the former is co-funded by a fictional UK Ministry of Time and Measurement, a mysterious company called FPI, and the fictional Lowlands University (which could be either public or private). Thus the CCCU was created by an unholy alliance of the public and the private sectors, which continues to exert varying degrees of influence over the former team members. Despite the government involvement, however, the CCCU and its related institutions operate in secret, i.e. their actions are not accounted for to the tax payers who ultimately fund them.
In all of their interactions with the ex-CCCU members, the various government bodies and FPI come across as disturbingly evil and powerful (though not all-powerful – they still rely on the CCCU to fight the Injection). A more harmless example: when a victim of the Injection is found dead in Dublin and the Irish police can’t quite explain (or believe) how it happened, they decide to cover it up instead of publicly exposing the connection to the CCCU – “The boy in the computer room would be explained away as a freak electrical-fire victim or some such. There would be compensation and the like.”
A more drastic example: in the beginning of the comic, we are introduced to Maria as an inmate in a bleak mental asylum. We don’t learn much about her treatment there, except that she seems to be held there against her will, is tube-fed instead of given real food, and that the wardens wear masks. It soon turns out that the FPI is behind all of this: they are responsible for her being held at the asylum, and they let her out only to carry out work – investigating and neutralising paranormal threats – for them. And even then she is closely watched by another FPI employee.
Thus Injection basically combines the ‘weak government’ trope (in which self-empowered individuals such as superheroes pull the strings; see above) with the ‘abusive government’ (as seen in Ellis’s Dark Blue) and ‘evil corporation’ tropes. But there is more to this comic. It is also a parable of the power and danger of science. When left unchecked and supplied with opulent funds, a handful of scientists can create a global threat by bringing about the Singularity, i.e. artificial superintelligence that eventually rises up against humanity. This Computer Science based threat is new and perhaps even scarier than e.g. the classic fears of scientists building a super bomb, or creating a black hole in a particle accelerator, because these latter ones require more resources, resulting in more political involvement and public visibility.
Injection seems to suggest that anyone with the right skills and Internet access could build such a superintelligence, and they could be doing it right now without anyone noticing. This is a new twist in Ellis’s politics: the self-empowered individuals here are not fantastical superhero characters – at least the CCCU are not overtly using their quasi-superhuman powers when creating the Injection -, they could be scientists and hackers that exist in the real world. Ironically, by establishing the CCCU, the government unwittingly undermines its own authority, transferring the responsibility for the maintenance of law and order from democratically legitimised institutions to individuals operating above the law.
A related issue is the nature of the work that FPI does: they carry out archaeological excavations, a task traditionally associated with public research institutions or government bodies. But the FPI does it “to find new exploitable resources”, or, as Maria puts it, “poking at things for the greater glory of the bloody company”. Of course, private excavation companies are already carrying out archaeological digs in the real world, but they usually do so on behalf of the government who get to keep any culturally important finds (and openly publish the outcomes). The idea here is that ancient artifacts are heritage and as such belong to the entire populace, not only to the finder or the landowner. The FPI in Injection, being an evil corporation, obviously has different ideas. They are secretive about their operations, but at the same time the government appears to cooperate with them, so maybe this is a case of a public-private partnership gone wrong. Or is Ellis subtly critiquing the whole concept of the government outsourcing important tasks to private companies?
Welcome to the fifth instalment of this little Labour Day series. Initially I wanted to write about a more recent Warren Ellis comic, but now that Freakangels (or FreakAngels) is going to be adapted as an anime, let’s return to its first volume from 2008, illustrated by Paul Duffield. The story is loosely based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos from 1957: a couple of children (twelve in Freakangels) are born in an English village on the same day with strangely colored eyes and telepathic abilities that allow them to control other people’s minds and to communicate mind-to-mind. Ellis then deviates from Wyndham in that the children, at the age of 17, somehow trigger a cataclysmic event that leaves London half in ruins and partially submerged, and probably kills quite a few of its inhabitants. The story begins six years later when the children are 23.
A few people try to get by in post-apocalyptic London, organised in different antagonised factions. Those living in Whitechapel are led by the aforementioned children, who are called Freakangels. Due to their supernatural powers, the Freakangels are able to protect and care for the ordinary inhabitants: Kirk, for instance, keeps watch on a tower for days without having to eat; Caz distributes fresh water with a steam-powered cart built by another Freakangel, KK; Jack is always out on a boat scavenging; and Sirkka operates a machine gun to defend them against invaders. It is not only the Freakangels’ proverbial great power, though, that makes them take on this great responsibility. They also feel guilty about bringing on the “end of the world” (unbeknownst to the ordinary people) and want to make up for it.
Not all Freakangels accept this role as leaders and guardians. Karl likes to keep to himself and shields his mind against the other Freakangels’ telepathic communication; Luke manipulates and exploits others for his own gain; and Mark has left London and the Freakangels altogether. Still, by and large, the Freakangels appear to be popular among the inhabitants of Whitechapel. On his way to the market, Kirk is offered milk and cheese by a farmer. “Anytime you need anything, you just let me know. It’s the least we can do for you watching over us.” Kirk replies: “Nice of you to say so. But, really, it’s the least we can do for you, all things considered.”
Note how they use plural pronouns, which tells us that their statements not only hold true on a personal level but also on a political: the society of Whitechapel is a typical oligarchy in which few people – the Freakangels – have power over many. Regardless of their popularity, the Freakangels were certainly not elected, but simply assumed the role of leaders because they could.
In a way, Freakangels is classic Warren Ellis: democracy has failed, and superpowered, self-empowered individuals wield great power. The only question is, in what light does he portray this oligarchy? While the majority of the Freakangels appear as benevolent or at least likeable characters, their interactions consist mostly of infighting – ranging from harmless bickering over fisticuffs between Kirk and Luke to outright hostility that almost turns lethal (between Mark and the others). Luke in particular is a threat to the status quo and is about to get either expelled or killed by the other Freakangels.
Thus the power structure in Freakangels is a fragile one that can only be maintained with much effort – and maybe only as long as the Freakangels’ terrible secret about their involvement in the “end of the world” is kept. But who could replace the Freakangels as leaders? It looks like the ordinary populace will always be at the mercy of greater powers. In this Warren Ellis comic, the core principle is once more: might makes right.
The Comics Forum conference in Leeds is around the corner again (21-22 November), and this time I’m going to present a paper. It’s titled “Early manga translations in the West: underground cult or mainstream failure?”, and it will cover some aspects of my PhD research on manga reception primarily in the 1980s. I hope to publish the paper soon after the conference – more information to follow.
Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is well-known for his landscape photography, but what I didn’t know before seeing his current exhibition in London (National Maritime Museum, until April 28, 2013) is that he also did sequential art. On display is a five-part series of photographs from 1940 (pictured e.g. here), each showing waves breaking on the same patch of a beach, from the same point of view. The interesting thing is, it’s not only a series, it’s intended by Adams to be a sequence. Whether this work can be considered a comic, following Scott McCloud’s definition, depends on how it is displayed, i.e. whether the five images are juxtaposed (as they are on the wall in the London exhibition – not pictured here) or not (e.g. in a folder). Another problem is that their order doesn’t seem to be clear, judging from the different images found on the web. On the other hand, the individual titles sometimes contain numbers, e.g. in this collection at the University of Arizona Libraries.
Fascinating, at any rate, are the differences between Adams’s sequence and the average panel sequence in a comic. Whereas a comic sequence usually implies a chronological order of events (with the exception of flashbacks, or even rarer non-temporal panel relations), I find it hard to hard to recognise a chronological order in the Surf Sequence. The shadow of the cliff suggests that the pictures were taken at roughly the same time, but the wet area of the beach is not constantly growing or shrinking, so if the images are ordered chronologically, Adams must have witnessed several waves between the first and the last picture he took.
Maybe Adams ordered them by another criterion, e.g. by formal-aesthetic considerations (such as the relation of lighter images with more spray to darker ones?), thus deliberately disrupting any chronological order. Then again, he called his work a sequence, not a polyptych. A sequence implies a viewing order: the first image should be viewed first, then the second, etc.
The logic behind this sequence escapes me. Maybe Adams explained it in one of his writings or interviews, but I’m not sure if I want to know. For me, this mystery is part of the appeal of this work. I wish the comics produced today were more daring and, only every once in a while, incorporated such ambiguous and enigmatic sequences.
The poster (PDF) advertising the exhibition “Lost Paradise: Blumenbilder in der Fotografie der Gegenwart” (“Flower pictures of contemporary photography”, Mönchehaus Museum Goslar, 11.8.-23.9.2012) shows an arrangement of flowers in front of a black background. Now if that isn’t by Sarah Jones, I thought. Jones’s series The Rose Garden (or Gardens) is exactly that: brightly lit rose bushes standing out against an impenetrable darkness. When I learned that the photograph used for the poster was by one Luzia Simons instead, I was even more intrigued to go to Goslar to see the show, amazed that two different but contemporary photographers could come up with such similar pictures.
Of course, flower still lives with black backgrounds have a long tradition – in oil painting. Simply recreating such paintings in the medium of photography isn’t what Jones does either: her roses are not arranged in vases or on tables, but blossom on living shrubs, which she encounters in public parks, apparently. In the Goslar exhibition, where six works from Simons’s Stockage series are displayed, it becomes clear that her approach is different from both the old masters and Jones. Simons doesn’t just shoot photographs but makes scanograms: she places cut flowers (tulips, not roses, by the way) on the glass of a customized scanner, which then produces a digital image of them.
One of the results is the luminosity of the flowers in contrast to the completely black background, just as in Jones’s works. Other effects mark a clear difference: you can see where pollen has fallen on the glass plate, petals and leaves bend against it, and the arrangement of the flowers is unlike that in a bouquet or shrub; they seem to grow into the picture from all directions, leaving the beholder puzzled about whether the laws of gravity are still in effect here.
Both Luzia Simons and Sarah Jones draw attention to their respective production process. They make the beholder wonder how they could achieve this contrast in lighting, and at the same time they manage to create beautiful pictures. The “Lost Paradise” show (which Jones isn’t part of, unfortunately) is an impressive proof that flower still life is a genre of surprising timeliness.