Thursday, 14 March 2013

Book: Crécy


Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Raulo Cáceres

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You ever see Goodfellas? No? Really? I mean - come on. At this point everyone's seen Goodfellas - right? "We were good fellas. Wiseguys." "No more shines, Billy." "What am I? A schmuck on wheels?" etc. Come on.

Well - ok. If you haven't seen Goodfellas then I suggest you turn away now - because I'm about to talk about the ending. Ok? And I don't wanna spoil it for any of you unfortunates who haven't seen it. And if that means you - well - just skip all the next five paragraphs and we'll see you at the point where it says "But anyway"... (But do me a favour - and go and watch it as soon as you possibly can - ok? Yeah. Ok. Good).

...Ok. So - the thing which has always bugged me about the end of Goodfellas [1] (and this is something that has somehow lead to - well - colossal arguments between me and my esteemed literary-minded flatmate as well as a few others who were unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire) is the way that it breaks in the fourth wall in the last - what? - five minutes. You know the bit I mean right? When they're in the courtroom and all of a sudden Ray Liotta is talking directly to camera (""Didn't matter. It didn't mean anything. When I was broke, I'd go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges." etc) as he jumps down from the witness box - walking past everyone else - none of who notice that this guy is (for some reason) talking to an invisible audience [2]. And god - everytime I see it - the aesthetical muscles in my brain (that's a thing right?) just start to spasm. It's like - god - I dunno: the rest of the film has been this beautifully constructed temple of pleasure: the Sistine Chapel with better dialogue - and there's this bit that's like it's been lifted from a school play. I can't stand it.

And I mean - it's not that I don't get what it's doing: yeah - it's the slow disintegration of the mobster dream: and by breaking the fourth wall it's breaking the spell that the film has managed to cast over you: but - damnit - it's just so ugly and well (summing up all my feelings in two words) - tonally inconsistent with the mode of storytelling set up by the rest of the film: and (slight understatement) - it bugs me.

It's not that I don't like a little bit of talking to the camera here and there [3]: in fact - yeah: really it's not that at all: I guess the best way to put it is that - in storytelling terms only: I just don't believe in miscegenation [4] so late on in the proceedings (because yeah - like I said: it's literally like the last five of the film): I mean - if it had opened with some fourth-wall breaking or had it lightly smattered around the place then I wouldn't be fussed at all - but (damn it) it's the fact that it happens in the closing moments makes it feel such a (as silly as I know it sounds) betrayal.

I mean: as I write all this stuff down I can a second voice in my head going: but come on man: Scorsese is a smart guy - he knows what he's doing: and if that ending left you feeling somewhat deflated - well: you know - maybe that's the point: to give you this wild rush of a roller-coaster ride for a couple of hours - and then to dump you off at the end unceremoniously: like a sack of rubbish being thrown in the bin - that's why it feels like such a shift in gears and so incongruous [5] with all that came before. Because fourth-wall breaking (or whatever you want to call it) isn't just a little sprinkle of extra storytelling off or whatever (like having a new character coming in wearing a top hat or whatever): it's a whole new mode. It'll be like if the film ended by switching to animation for a scene, or they switched to being shadow-puppets or suddenly a laughter track popped up [6]: it's just not right damn it.

And yeah: it's not as if I don't appreciate stories which can upend themselves in interesting ways: there's a 2002 Japanese film called Ping Pong [7] which kinda blossoms into a whole strange new creature in it's last third in a way that you won't really see coming: but then that's a film where the strange new creature was the point the whole time (yeah? [8]): which isn't really the case with Goodfellas (or at least - it doesn't feel that way to this chump: I dunno).

But anyway.

All this stuff is really besides the point when it comes to talking about Crécy. There's no incongruity to worry about here and there's no rug pulling of any type to be scared of. I mean: I did kind of think that maybe this was the wrong place to dump all my Goodfellas musings: but then I guess if I spoke about in connection to a book that did have a final little twist in the tale - then that would constitute (for me anyway) a spoiler - so (yeah) it's better to do it here where you don't have to worry about knowing things that you shouldn't.

So why even mention Goodfellas at all? Well - I guess the reason all this stuff sprang to mind is that Crécy (unlike the vast majority of it's comic peers) is brave enough (or foolish enough maybe?) to employ a tactic that all of this has been circling around: breaking the fourth wall - and addressing the audience directly (like this: hello reader! How's it going? Yeah - I'm talking to you! Hope you're having a good day out there. Make sure to check out the site once you're done here: lot's of good stuff to read.)

For me: I guess the most natural place to address the audience is in plays. I mean - there the level of artifice is at it's highest: it's people standing around acting and pretending not to notice all the other people sitting around watching them: so - when you do break that spell: well - it can be almost a relief (no? Just me?). Which I guess is why they've been doing asides since Shakespeare times (which is the oldest in times you can get - right?). After that tho: well - things get a little more tricksy. I mean - it works in films mostly: but it feels a little strained - it's no longer about acknowledging reality: it's more like - swapping one format for another (like I guess I've already said). And then (leaving aside books which I guess fall somewhere in between plays and films? And then after all of them: comes comics.

Because yeah - total statement of the obvious here: but comics are pictures on a page. The people there aren't real flesh-and-blood people - they're two dimensional lines and shadings: I mean - yeah - ok (most) films are 2-D - but they're capturing something that's three-dimensional [9] (and alright - yeah: if you wanna get picky - I know that drawing are pictures of three-dimensional objects etc: but it's not really the same thing is it?): comics aren't even close to being real - which I guess is the main deciding factor (for me anyway)  why it's strange to pick up Crécy and find the main character (William of Stonham) staring straight at me and talking like we're best friends (not that he's someone that you'd want to be best friends with - like he says himself: "I am, of course, a complete bloody xenophobe who comes from a time when it was acceptable to treat people in the next village like they were subhuman."). But even tho there's a part of my brain that rebels against a picture doing the breaking the fourth wall thing: well - it's a bit like when you're a kid and you don't want to get into the swimming pool because (well - because) but then once you make the splash - hey wait a second: it turns out that the water is warm and enveloping (although maybe that's because - to stretch the metaphor a little - it turns out that it's not a swimming pool - but a blood bath: albeit a lovely warm and enveloping one).

So - yeah: now we're on to it - what is this Crécy comic actually - you know - about?

Well: as I tried to work out which other comics to link to at that "Further reading" bit at the bottom I realised that there's not really any other comics that are like Crécy [10]. I mean - yeah - there's war comics (and Crécy is built around a pretty big battle - which I guess counts): but most of the war comics out there tend to  concentrate on the big two: you know WW1 and WW2 (you know: in much the same way as absolutely everything else [11]): but Crécy isn't even in the same century. Nah - as Mr Marsellus Wallace would (surely) approve: this comic right here is downright medieval.

I mean - yeah: from that cover with the two fingers and the bloody St George's Cross you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was a pamphlet for the National Front or something: but fret not - I mean - yeah: ok - this is pretty much the only comic I can think of that I could imagine Al Murray The Pub Landlord owning a copy of: but it's written in such a way that it never makes you feel complicit in all the French-bashing (not to mention the Scottish and the Welsh): rather there's a nice all-prevailing sense of detachment which means that you get to gawk at all the unpleasantness: mud and gore and guts without - well - without having to worry about getting your hands dirty. In fact the one example that leaps to mind is the Horrible Histories books [12]: there's the same sense of revelry in - boy: look how they did things in the past! - that basically keeps Crécy surging forward: only the swearing is much more extravagant (one of the tamer examples being: "If you say one word to me again I'm going to turn your bollocks into a pocket and sell your wife to the butcher.": but then - this is war: what did you expect?) and the detail is much (much) more - well - unsanitary (check the bit where William of Stonham tells you what to wipe on sword).

Raulo Cáceres - who's on the art duties - has a lovely detailed style (presented here in black and white) that - for me - felt like it was only a few steps up form a wood carving: but it's the perfect match for a story that feels like it's been beamed directly from 1346. The only downside to it all in fact is that it's only 48 pages long (in fact I would not be at all surprised if someone told me that I'd written more words here than there are in the book): but - what the hell - that just means that once you get to the end: you want to go back and start again.

In sum: it's a good little comic. Nasty, brutish and short - but sometimes that's just how I like them. Or (to end with a Goodfellas quote): One dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy's sayin' "Whadda ya want from me?'

[1] And don't get me wrong: I totally adore the rest of it. This is just a small fly in an otherwise completely delicious (sweary) soup.

[2] No? Not ringing any bells? Well - it's up on youtube if that helps.

[3] Films which spring to mind: Fight Club, Amélie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Wayne's World: and specil mention to the most excellent House of Cards (the Ian Richardson version and the Kevin Spacey one: both of which I'd highly recommend): which has the best audience asides since frigging Shakespeare. But yeah.

[4] Disclaimer: I realise that's a pretty fraught word to use: but what the hey right: it sounds kinda good when you smash it round your mouth - but if anyone is feeling anxious - well: speaking as a mixed breed mongrel myself who wouldn't exist if it wasn't for a whole bunch of people sleeping with people that they weren't supposed to: if anyone wants to miscegenate then - well: you have my blessing and all the rest of it. I'm just talking about stories not people - yeah?

[5] Definition of incongruous: "Not in harmony or keeping with the surroundings or other aspects of something; not in place." Which - yeah - is the perfect word for what it is that I'm trying to get at.

[6] And don't get me wrong at this point either: I usually love films that can stand to be this playful. Natural Born Killers? Hell yes. I will defend that film to the death. Although - the important distinction between Natural Born Killers and Goodfellas - is that the former announces it's playfulness from the start - while Goodfellas (like I've said in several different ways already) pulls it's switcheroo right at the end.

[7] Which if you haven't seen: then - well - it's another one that I would very much recommend. "Enter the hero!" etc.

[8] Or as Film Crit Hulk would put it: THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT.

[9] Animation is obvious the big gaping hole in this theory: especially so in how there's been so much good animation (I'm thinking of Bugs Bunny and the Animaniacs especially) have made that small (fourth-wall breaking) glance to camera one of their best strengths (which - ha! - makes me think of that priceless Eddie Murphy moment in Trading Places in this scene here).

[10] Of course - as you can see: then I got going (and just thought - I'd throw in anything even tangentially related) and then it was easy.

[11] And if you wanna dispute the idea that the World Wars still have a firm grip on the collective unconscious (or whatever) on Western society - then please come and pay a visit to my library and I'll show you the relative paucity of books from other historical periods compared to the shelves and shelves and shelves we have given over to (pretty much) every single aspect of 1914 - 1918 and 1939 - 1945 (hell - there's an entire rack given over to D-Day: which I think must make it one of the most written about days like ever).

[12] Which I only mention here with the proviso that you understand that the guy who wrote them (it turns out) is a bit of an idiot.


Further reading: Sláine: The Horned GodAlan's War: The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope, Battlefields, Northlanders, 303GoliathMezolith, War StoriesThe UnwrittenLast Day in VietnamDoktor SleeplessLogicomix: An Epic Search for TruthMinistry of Space.

Profiles: Warren Ellis.

All comments welcome.

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