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The Filth
By Grant Morrison, Chris Weston, Gary Erskine and Matt Hollingsworth
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo

Upon first reading, The Filth arrived in my head as a narrative black hole, infinitely dense and powerful, but very hard to perceive by just looking at it straight on.

There's a sense that there's a whole other Filth graphic novel composed of scenes cut out of this one. It's clear that writer Grant Morrison understands everything that's going on, but for everyone else, the best you can hope for is an approximation of understanding. So much is going on, so much is thrown at you, that multiple readings are probably going to be necessary -- certainly, they were for me -- but the work is so entertaining and intriguing that that's a joy, not a problem.

There are many, many scenes, but they don't always transition into each other in a way that invites easy comprehension, and chapter to chapter things get even wonkier. That's not to say it doesn't work -- it does, and marvellously so. But anyone looking for the linear cohesion of Morrison's New X-Men (or even The Invisibles) is going to find something even more seemingly disjointed going on here.

Around the edges of the story, we see certain themes emerge. The minority existence of macrobiotic life in the cosmos, endlessly outgunned and overwhelmed by unseen viruses and bacteria, filth, if you will. Life at our scale, human life particularly, seems almost comedic in its arrogance in the face of such disproportionate opposition. You may feel pretty good today, Morrison seems to say, but uncounted millions of lifeforms occupying your space and influencing your actions indicate that, at best, we may only be particularly verbose and obnoxious passengers on a taxi-ride we only barely understand or can comprehend. Worse yet, there are forces that want to prevent your attempts at understanding or comprehension. It's a metaphor of power on many different levels, from government disinformation to the blatantly false "reportage" of Fox News.

This is one of the hard lessons absorbed by protagonist Greg Feely over the course of the book, as he discovers his entire other life as "Ned Slade," an operative of "The Hand," an organization whose job it is to clean up the dirty messes of the world, the ones that threaten the wholeness of society, the shit that happens on the margins. Greg just wants to live his bachelor life, happy in the company of his cat Tony, but duty calls -- and calls, and calls, and calls. And Greg learns just what a dirty world it is, battling the unmutualism of opponents of "Status: Q" when he discoveres Greg is really an invented life, a "parapersona" in which Ned can forget the stresses and horrors of working for The Hand. Or maybe, Greg is the real person and Ned is the created identity that The Hand tries to transform Greg into to stop him and his internet pals from disrupting Status: Q. You're presented a number of choices of what to believe -- just like life -- but by the end it's pretty clear who's who, if what's what is a little more complex an issue.

All the symbolism may fail to engage some fans of Morrison's more traditional corporate comics, but as the writer told Newsarama, "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." That last point is brought vividly to life in a brief exchange toward the end of the novel, contrasting the events in the life of Greg Feely and Mother Dirt at a particular, precise moment in their existences.

The art in The Filth is the best Chris Weston has ever delivered, with Gary Erskine and Matt Hollingsworth supporting him to create a holistic visual style recalls the chaos of the best of the '60s and '70s underground comix combined with the precision of the best of the 1950s EC artists such as Wallace Wood. Dense, richly detailed images are present no matter what the environment Morrison's script calls for, from the seedy to the surreal and back again. So many of Morrison's longform efforts (such as New X-Men and The Invisibles) have been injured by frequent changes in art teams. Seeing the impact of a single, complex graphic novel by a unified creative team headed up by Morrison has given me a new respect for his talent and a new understanding of his reputation.

The intricate scene-setting and costuming here calls for a larger format and a better grade of paper, making The Filth an ideal candidate for DC's "Absolute" slipcased, hardcover editions. The work is strong and infectious enough, though, that even in this less-than-ideal presentation, it overcome the limitations in paper quality and image size.

Ultimately, The Filth shows Feely/Slade's immersion/rejection/acceptance of the filth of existence as a double-edged metaphor -- you can either deny the existence of the filth and live a life of hollow denial, or you can accept and embrace the fact that life is a goddamned dirty thing, but that doesn't mean you have to forget such things as decency and love. Greg, finally, learns the truth of life, but he still loves his cat and cherishes the small pleasures of a life constructed as well as can be hoped for amid all this disgusting filth. And innoculated against the most shocking aspects of life, he seems to close out the novel well-prepared for the next phase of his existence. It's probably the best any of us could hope to ask for. Grade: 5/5

-- Alan David Doane



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