Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Everybody Be Cool: Crossing The Line

Continuing his dissection of cool, Kieron Gillen looks at the relationship between credibility and transgression. Plus, unimpressed by Christmas, Kieron starts a new religion. Heaven help us all.
30 December 2002

Christmas is never cool. In fact, Christmas is the anti-cool.

Carol Singers. Advent Calendars. Trees dropping needles on carpet. Kissing aunties in a no-incest way. Mince Pies. Being grateful. Santa-fucking-Claus. Giving and receiving. Tinsel. Actually - put aside tinsel. Tinsel, reappropriated by glittergirls the world over, is all over cool, but that just goes to show how easily cultural objects can be reappropriated.

Love and fellowship is never cool. Obviously. Otherwise we'd have all the kids hanging around corners in the Estate dressed up as Ben Kingsley in GANDHI rather than in SEXY BEAST. What's cool is breaking shit, metaphorically or otherwise.

We dealt with the aboveground level of cool last month, with its relation to fashion. That's certainly one definition of cool - in the seasonal twitch of consumerism's beating heart. But it's a cool that's resting upon deeper waters. Beneath the frosty surface of fashion lie the dark cold depths of transgression.

Because murder's always in fashion.

At the core, almost everything that can be described as cool is so because it breaks the commonly accepted boundaries of society. It's only a matter of degree. Don't go far enough, and it's pointless and everyone can immediately tell it's so. Stride further, and the number of people who consider it cool rather than just gross increases. Though, tellingly, there's always someone who'll dig it, as the housewives writing love-sick notes to serial killers will confirm - and, equally notably, in a culture that's having its taboos remixed twice-hourly, the boundaries are marching ever onwards.

And cool always happens on that demarcation between what's too much and what's commonplace.

Where this links to comics is that it's a form that, at its best, hits transgressive ideas every couple of seconds. In fact, even in the most comics-mainstream form drowning in its tropes, it thrives on it. A superhero comic needs - and I don't think this is going to take over from "Mad, Beautiful Ideas" as phrase of choice for describing it - crazy shit.

Equally, it's the visual storytelling medium that requires the fewest individuals to create: a single brave soul in the case of artist writers. Even in the biggest teams, the numbers are still far fewer people than required to make a comparably professional movie. The worst editorial interference is still less than rows of producers spray-painting the whole thing beige.

Let's take the most widely discussed censored comic in recent years: THE AUTHORITY. The standard description of our favourite photogenic fascists is as a Bruckheimer action film on paper. Bruckheimer wishes.

In a major action film, you wouldn't get people punching through other people's faces every couple of minutes, as Bryan Hitch lovingly detailed. Even though some of Frank Quitely's line turned too brutal for DC's taste, something genuinely horrible still happened every couple of pages. And that's on the graphical front alone. From the freewheeling, thoroughly modern sexuality of the members, to its choice of - admittedly simplistic - political acts, THE AUTHORITY, even in its published state, transgressed in all sorts of places that any celluloid comparison could only hope to go.

Never happen in Hollywood. Comics, between the purity of vision of a creator and its freedom as a fringe medium - can do it, and do it violently.

(As an aside, consider THE INVISIBLES versus THE MATRIX in terms of how similar material is approached with different levels of transgression. While THE MATRIX has clearly gone for a degree of mass appeal which THE INVISIBLES, by its complexities, precludes, it's also equally clear that, due to producer interference, THE MATRIX couldn't have gone further even if the Wachowskis wanted to.)

Yes, THE AUTHORITY isn't high art, but that's really beside the point. The exact same freedoms and powers that allowed Jack Hawksmoor to turn heads' insides outside allows Joe Matt to turn his insides outside to alternately hilarious and depressing effect in THE POOR BASTARD.

Because transgression is more than just what-viscera-are-you-wearing-this-season. Speaking the unspoken is just as extreme - and therefore, cool - an act as whatever fascinating new orifice Warren Ellis has thought up for Avatar this month.

(As a second aside, compare SCARS' treatment of serial killers to anything that the movies has thrown up.)

The traditional home of this sort of transgression has, at least for the last century, been the novel... and the novel's a form with, on average, even less editorial interference than comics. Written prose has got away with acts above and beyond other forms for a host of reasons, the first of which is its aura of intellectual respectability, caused by it being the longest extant pop-form, its participatory - i.e. you have to read it - nature and, finally, the fact it's non-visual. It's also the form that has had no attempts to have classifications added to it. I could have read 40 DAYS IN SODOM when I was eight, if I could have been arsed to fight my way through the turgid prose.

But anyone can be offensive. It's a little tiresome. What's far more interesting is someone who fearlessly writes What They Think Life Is Like, and so gathers people who consider it cool that people are saying what they've always wanted to. Take you pick from the litany of teenage classics - your BELL JARs, your smattering of Camus - and you'll find a transgressive thought, beautifully expressed, so cool. Alternatively, turn to GHOST WORLD, JIMMY CORRIGAN, or your own particular slow-burning hard intimacy for something similarly cool.

Then there's comics' strength that every hormonal child with a biology book understands at a genetic level - the potential of transgressive comedy. It's not by random chance that the most popular comic in Britain is the ever-ripe fountain of juvenilia that is VIZ. Equally, only the purity of expression that comics allows could lead to ARSENIC LULLABY's zombie babies or RED MEAT's ever-cheerful litany of misadventure and horror. Yet again, as a visual medium that can be produced by a single creator, we allow all the rules to be broken for comedy.

(Or broken for the joy of breaking. See Al Columbia, THE BIOLOGIC SHOW, for comics transgression in its purest form).

To close, however, an anecdote. It was a lazy Wednesday afternoon and Sinister Jim Rossignol and I, having nothing better to do, decided to found a new movement. You know how it is.

Our analysis of society's critical mores focused on what we considered an artificial dichotomy created between what is credible and enjoyable and what is not credible but enjoyable. The former leads to the rule of good-taste, which is by definition counter-revolutionary and formalist. The latter consists mainly of what's labelled kitsch or cheese - what's purely pleasurable, hence a bit stupid. We believed that the only way to break this was to form a group that focused on the joys of things that are literally unbelievable and beyond the mortal ken, expressed at a pitch of genuine insanity. Our highest compliment would be that something is "Ludicrous".

We declared a Ludocracy, and positioned ourselves as chief Ludocrats, making a list of past and future heroes. We hailed Burroughs, and noted the nu-prose flow of Noon. We gave respect to the lightning-in-a-bottle flare of DEAD AND ALIVE and BATTLE ROYALE. Our favourite game was Sacrifice. Our favourite shouting rapper was Busta Rhymes. We would dance to the KLF.

But, like all good new dogmas, we needed a new religious text.

Yet again, thank comics. The only thing that expressed the qualities we were extolling dramatically enough was METABARONS.

Not just cool: Also holy.

Kieron Gillen is an award-winning videogames journalist.

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