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The ambassadors: Satan, male bliss, and The Filth.

Two recent studies of the black arts, Henry Ansgar Kelly's Satan: A Biography (Cambridge UP, 2006) and Murat Aydemir's Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning (Minnesota UP, 2007), serendipitously serve as cosmogonic clues to the unwholesome characters and subplots that populate Grant Morrison's 13-issue comic book series The Filth (co-created with artist Chris Weston and inker Gary Erskine). The common theme that runs throughout these three books concerns simulation and dissimulation, principally the role of bedevilment in underscoring divine agency.


When asked during an online interview whether or not Vertigo (a division of DC Comics, owned by Time Warner) censored anything from the final edit of the series, Morrison replied, "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 pixellated penis [of Tex Porneau] was there from the start." Included among what Morrison refers to as making the cut are: a coke-snorting U.S. president who is forced under the knife to receive a tit job; a misanthropic, talking chimpanzee cosmonaut (who apparently was the lone gunman on the grassy knoll); clandestine correspondence via a blood-soaked tampon; maladjusted, foul-mouthed dolphins with cybernetic arms; Tex Porneau, a Los Angeles pornographer who concocts a horde of watermelon-sized sperm to destroy the fertile wombs of women along Rodeo Drive; and a pair of secret society dudes who look a lot like the art duo Gilbert &George. But the aforesaid omitted cum shot was to have been the dark seed of devil-costumed porn star Anders Klimakks, who is blessed with the ability to "fire the black juice."


Morrison's comic book resists easy formulation, but the overarching plot goes something like this: Greg Feely leads a dull bachelor lifestyle, most of which is spent worrying about his cat, Tony, and watching too much porn. Feely is, or fantasizes he is (Morrison keeps the reader guessing) Ned Slade, a top-level agent of "The Hand"--a shadowy organization that endeavors to keep society on the path to "Status Q" by eliminating all technological, spiritual, or sexual aberrations. There is a lot to be absorbed here, not only because of Morrison's meta-fictional take, but also because of Weston's detailed, "Easter egg" art style, jam-packed with symbolism, illusionism, and hidden leitmotifs. It is easily the sort of rubbish that gains respectability in direct proportion to its perceived underground status, which is the very opposite of what confronts the very respectable undertakings of Kelly and Aydemir, whose academic stance is geared toward dressing up socially provocative ideas in the guise of dispassionate exegesis.


In brief, Kelly's Satan examines historical portrayals of the Devil in various readings of the Bible and other Christian texts. His basic argument is that Satan, were it not for Christian reformers, apologists, and painters, would be viewed today not as the embodiment of pure evil in the Hollywood or symptomatic sense, but as having a much more practical and respected role. Kelly connects the modern binary view of Good versus Evil, God versus the Devil, with what he calls the "New Biography of Satan"--the cliched Lucifer with red tights and pointy horns. Scrounging through innumerable Christian and apocryphal canons, Kelly unveils the "Original Satan" as (multifariously) tempter, judge, accuser, adversary, even the Son of God and His brother. In fact, as Kelly goes on to show, this sort of floating signifier of evil has kept the Church in business for two thousand years.


Like Kelly, part of Aydemir's aim in Bliss is to present a thorough examination of another consistently loaded diabolical sign, male ejaculation. In the process, he recounts past scholarly examinations of semen, including Aristotle's ethereal view of these frothy swimmers, as well as Andre Serrano's Blood and Semen (1990) photographic series, Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533), Leonardo's John the Baptist (1513-16), hardcore pornography, and specific texts by Bataille, Barthes, Derrida, Proust, and Lacan. Related issues of entropy, expenditure, projection, and dissemination are placed under the microscope and brought to the party. Aydemir succeeds in both destabilizing established notions of semen and reminding us that the meanings of ejaculation and masculinity are much more profound and pervasive than one might think.


The identity of the male subjects in The Ambassadors has long been disputed. But the anomaly that will forever fix this painting in the pantheon of obscurity is the anamorphic skull shooting across the lower portion of the frame, whose explanation typically extends from the standard memento mori, to a peek-a-boo stairwell surprise, to an exercise in pure bravura. Recently restorers discovered that the skull's nose bone does not fit the correct anamorphic projection, and in fact conceals a number of other, equally incorrect attempts, none of which seem to be by Holbein. "To meet the challenge," according to Aydemir, "the investigating team brought in a real skull and painted in a (...) correctly distorted nose bone from its example, facilitated by photography and computer-generation techniques." Seemingly missing from the ambassador on the left is also a codpiece, designated by extant folds and creases in his crotch area, but which the team finally declined to add in.


Contrarily, not unlike the way that The Filth impishly unveils Tex Porneau's penis as a pixellated veil, Aydemir establishes the inclined skull/arrow as pointing to the veiled (Lacanian) phallus of the ambassador on the right, as if poised to pull aside his ornate gown and flash onlookers. This throwing aside of the curtains of earthly vanity and propriety is exactly what Greg Feely, like Dorothy confronting the Wizard of Oz, decides to do to bring down "Mother Dirt" and the entire Hand clan. Indeed, Holbein's ambassadors, with their cool fashion sensibility, are just like operatives of The Hand, who wear Day-Glo bio-suits with neo-codpieces intentionally "designed to remind folks of Freudian sex urges they prefer to deny." But their underlying mission is to "make people feel dirty so they don't mention operatives of The Hand in the company of other people" (The Filth, 185).

In such "filthy" company as this, it is easy to see the diagonal slash or flash of head erupting from the bottom of Holbein's painting as a divining rod pointing not only to the threat of exposing the perversity of power, whether for good or evil, but also to a threadbare Faustian pact with the Devil. The skull even looks like liquefied bone or a "boner," which is exactly how Aydemir describes the worm like thread of ejaculate in Serrano's Untitled (ejaculation in trajectory) (1989). Death, or as Kelly points out, the "New Satan," is a rather recent satanic personification, traditionally operating as a bolt of lightning or gush of sperm. Rather like the hellish fall of Venus the Morning Star, The Ambassadors plunges and twists from blissful jouissance into the cavernous chute that comprises the failed Devil's Wager. The question here that Holbein and Aydemir via The Filth enigmatically pose concerns the flaws or inherent flaccidity of all maintained, upright power, suggesting even that the rod of Satan is ultimately shot through with holes. In other words, the ambassadorial vale of shadows is nothing but a veiled, misfired penis, unable to complete or get itself off.


In The Filth, Adam and his alienated sweetheart Eve inhabit a 2-D comic book universe known as Status Quorum. Adam eventually escapes to the "real," 3-Dparallel world of "supercleansing operations," where, as impotent superhero "Secret Original," he oversees the morals of his former existence, with which he is naturally very familiar. But the price Adam pays for his transmigration to this other realm is that he ends up like Stephen Hawking, croaking in a wheelchair and wearing a loose-fitting costume.

The counterpoint to Adam's antiheroic impotence is the synthetically enhanced "Max Thunderstone," the world's first superhero, variously described as a "man-made god" and "anti-person." According to the text, Max is "what happens when you cross stupidity, a love of science-fantasy fiction, and blind idealism with humongous amounts of money," the result of "electromagnetic experiments, surgery, training, and therapy." He even has "a consciousness so focused and disciplined, it can actually manifest words in a cloud above [his] head" (228-230), whose bubbly and frothy fumetti, transparent to the comic book reader, resemble veiled squirts of semen.


In a lavish Book of Hours by the Limbourg Brothers known as Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (ca. 1415) is a folio titled The Devil in Hell, which presents an early fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone depiction of Satan and Hell, but which in fact Kelly attributes to the "New Biography" of the modern era, even going so far as to make it the cover of his book. Another example of this recent rise of the fallen Lucifer is the reappearance of Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights (ca. 1504) in Metallica's video Until it Sleeps, shot in and around Los Angeles for their 1996 album Load.

In The Devil in Hell, fiery brimstone spews from the entombed Satan's mouth like a mixture of blood and semen--a veritable orgiastic cleansing ritual of "squigglies and claret" (as Metallica foreman Kirk Hammett once described Serrano's Blood and Semen III, which the band used as their album cover). By some accounts, Satan's role is to tempt deviant souls or "anti-persons" from the world above while remaining himself imprisoned for eternity in Hell, which needless to say presents something of a conundrum. Kelly, by way of explanation, points to the overall heterogeneity of Holy Scripture, and how over the centuries many similar and dissimilar figures from diverse sources came to be lumped together under the general rubric of Satan, eventually becoming fused into the divided or cloven Christian entity we recognize today--at once human and divine, fallen and risen, beast and angel.

Not surprisingly, The Filth's "Landfill Station XXX" also takes a leaf from the Limbourgs' Book of Hours, except that here agents from The Hand's "Crack" division dispose of cum-stained porn and the bodies of dead junkies. This is a wasteland inhabited by "razor birds," dinosaur-like "macro-mites," and "mega-scorpions," and whose environment is so toxic that The Crack must wear protective suits to avoid instant dissolution. At one point, Ned Slade and fellow operative Arno Von Vermun become lost in the sulfurous Landfill. Just when their suits are about to dissolve, Slade discovers that Von Vermun is the very "anti-person" he was assigned to eliminate, and so switches the latter's waste tank pipe with his air intake and drowns him in his own refuse.

Kelly, for his part, also seems bent on eradicating a case of mistaken identity, mainly by substituting "New" for the old, "Original Satan." If only we could wrest the Satan function from the grasp of religious fundamentalists, he seems to say, then we might be able to recuperate him. According to the current accepted logic, the more shenanigans we attribute to this Satan Crucified, the less there is to blame on mankind overall. Today Satan is the West's quadricornous scapegoat, not the "secular machinery of [divine] justice" he once was.


A similar turnaround occurs in The Filth when Greg Feely learns that all agents of The Hand are merely run-of-the-mill hosts for bionic "parapersonas." In the first issue, we see Feely's colorful parapersona, Ned Slade, start to leak out of his nose, thus unveiling his newfound, ectoplasmic super-masculinity.

Referring to Jesus healing "a man in an Unclean Spirit" in the Gospel of Mark, Kelly explains that, "this Filthy or Contaminated Spirit is [actually] an invisible Parasite, dwelling inside the Man" (81). Internalized demonic possession is another means to link Satan to the themes of Bliss and The Filth, both in terms of his all-too-human multiple personality disorder and his modern-day reappearance or ongoing retrofit under cover of key Biblical passages (like the commonly held assumption that the serpent that possesses Eve in the Garden of Eden is really Satan, a convenient Christological stretch perpetrated by Justin Martyr around 150 AD).


Enter Morrison's own alter ego or suppot, La Pen, a cyberpunk Hand operative specializing in the so-called "Mercurial Arts," who is charged with ensuring the story's continuity thanks to her eight-foot-high ballpoint. In fact, Morrison is one of the very few exponents of mainstream comics today who actually challenges the medium in its own terms, taking established tropes like word and thought balloons and exposing them to polysynaptic analysis. Hence The Filth is already so much more than the usual lowbrow filth or fall from literary grace, which is to say that it takes this admittedly diabolical profession at its given word, as a form of high-low exculpation.


NATHAN DANILOWICZ is an artist based in Los Angeles. The Filth 1-13 was originally published separately by the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics (New York) over 2002-03, and then published again as a single collected volume in 2004 (whose page numbers are quoted above). Credits for The Filth should also include Hifi and Matt Hollingsworth (coloring) and Clem Robbins (lettering).
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Title Annotation:Book Passage; Satan: A Biography, Images of Bliss: Ejaculation, Masculinity, Meaning
Author:Danilowicz, Nathan
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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