Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Ghost Rider 2099 and the mysterious phenomena of pre-TOR, pre-2chan undernets.

Way back in 1994, before I even knew there was such a thing as the internet, I got sucked in by the metallic cover of issue one of Spiderman 2099. A country boy in a country town, I had never seen such an exciting use of colour. The bold, exaggerated and irresponsible style of Rick Leonardi forced my hand: I simply had to have it.

Over the next few months, I spotted a number of titles in Marvel’s 2099 series. None of them resonated with me in the same way as Spider-man. I preferred (and still do, Peter David’s “Mr Fixit” run was superb) the then trash talking, mafia affiliated, moon-phase grey Hulk to his sci-fi re-boot. The Punisher felt so much cooler and grittier in a noir version of the present. Fantastic Four were never particularly interesting to me and I simply could not muster the enough interest to wave in the general direction of another “X” related title.

One title, however, advertised within the comics but not available locally was Len Kaminski’s Ghost Rider 2099. I have always had a bit of a thing for horror, skulls and the occult (Just writing that sentence makes me realize just how custom built I am as the audience for Electric Wizard). First, a derive.

Before the 2099 series was launched I frequented a used book store across from the salon where I had my ear pierced as a child and where my mother cut her hair in an arcade in a small rural town. Like many of its kind at the time it traded books for in store currency. Thanks to that store I was introduced to a world of monochrome pulp horror at twenty cents a pop. The stories were so deviant and spooky to me that I eventually traded them back for other more mainstream comics. Nevertheless, they had a profound impact on me. Ghost Rider 2099 checked all the right boxes, it rode the rising tide of Gibson-esque cyberpunk, virtual reality and the infant state internet, it had flaming skulls and motorcycles and more importantly it was dark.

The problem is that I never got to read it. Until I started earlier this month. The 2099 series, like many of my favorite things never really got the recognition it deserved and suffered an abrupt, unsatisfying end. Unlikely to ever experience a reboot the one thing it has in its favour is an incomplete mythology. A mass of loose ends.

What sparked this article was a very minor part in the story around issues nine and ten where the Ghost Rider is mulling over otaku and the mischief they make on a seamy underweb. As I read this I thought, “wow, this sounds like 2chan, Kaminski was really had a finger on the pulse.” A few minutes later, it occurred to me to check the timeline and ask a few questions: just when was 2chan born and where does Ghost Rider 2099 fit into this? So you need not do the leg work, I will tell you: Ghost Rider 2099 was first published in 1994. 2chan was born in 1999. An underground internet is not a particularly exclusive idea, nor is the borrowing of the word otaku to describe. Yet the coalescence of both and the future they point toward was perfectly realized. What piques my curiosity is the extent to which Kaminski was or was not familiar with Japan at the time. After all, more than ten years had passed since William Gibson’s genre making Neuromancer was published, time enough for its images of Japan to be absorbed by the Japanese, internalized and reconstituted, recreated and redeployed. During this postmodern paradise many of the standard tropes of cyberpunk from dense urbanization to fully wired societies were set. Just as Japanese writers and artists had re-imagined cyberpunk so too had artists in the west re-imagined cyberpunk Japan. Was it the case that Kaminski had first hand experience or was he simply using what was current at the time?

The final curiosity relating to Kaminski and his book is that this is a man who has written high tech, cyberpunk comics (including a long run on Iron Man) but remains virtually anonymous on the internet. He has no wikipedia page and his Marvel wiki page is bare to say the least.

As for the comic itself? Ghost Rider 2099 is positively archaic in its ability to imagine the future yet paradoxically not far off the mark. Caught up in the cyberpunk zeitgeist of the times its language sounds by today’s standards rather dated and reeks of trying-too-hard. However, when regarded from a distance, the substitution of certain profanities with tech based words (shock, glitch) and the ability of Kaminski to turn zeitgeist jargon into meaningful strings of communication is nothing short of great. This language works well with subdued colours and Leonardi’s confusing, flowing drawing style. And I have a major soft spot for the character name “Warewolf”. Why has this not been put to use yet outside of 2099? Like Mindfunk, Only Living Witness and Tumbleweed an abrupt end ensures enough open ends and a sense of irresolvable pain for the reader making this truly a lost gem.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Self Medication Blues: Opiate Aesthetics


Back in 1999 Ministry's Dark Side of the Spoon made me so angry. Not angry in the way that Pantera or Lamb of God make you angry. It was an anger born of betrayal. I loved Filth Pig, in fact, I still do. That album is such a defiance of expectations yet is coherent and paradoxically satisfying as well as making you want more. Spoon on the other hand to me simply sounded like shit. Like a few guys in a studio with too many drugs enjoying a few too many in-jokes that had nothing to do with me.

Then a few months ago I finally got around to watching the Ministry documentary, FIX. I now feel like I understand something about Ministry that I never really grasped as a teen: Al Jourgensen is/was a straight up junkie. I mean, songs on Psalm 69 such as "Just on Fix", the accompanying video and embedded samples are not exactly opaque opiate references. I watched scene after scene of a rapidly diminishing (body mass, hair) Jourgensen shoot up, rant and rave was a fantastic disillusioning event. It was obvious, Spoon was made by a drug fucked junkie. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I recently re-visited Spoon and while it sounded exactly as it did fourteen years earlier, post-FIX I noticed that it was much easier to hear the heroin. The strung out melodies, slumbering vocal performances and jarring instrumentation (banjos, saxophone) all evoke a drug fueled cognitive fog, total pleasure and willful absurdity. Underneath is a coherent neurosis, paranoia and claustrophobia so out there on the fringe as to make one wonder just how this album even got released, let alone on a major label (Warner). Hats of to Jourgensen for getting this malformed ugly little baby out into the world. While it still sounds the same, does it still make me angry? Is it as bad as I had originally thought?

It is not. In fact it is actually quite good. In a way it is the perfect execution of Jourgensen's muse, it is the point where he had given himself to the drug. Opiates had underpinned Ministry for a long time but it was not until Spoon that they came to dominate. The sense of physical and psychological decay is immense and a perfect explication of what had always been obvious yet implicit.

Alice in Chains

I have written elsewhere (perhaps that was an earlier version of this blog?) about Alice in Chains' Dirt. My opinion has long been: as an album, Dirt is less grunge and more metal and doom than its zeitgeist fans and critics positioned it. Rarely moving beyond a gentle gallop, the guitars are thick and the vocal style morose and eerie. It also happens to be a perfectly produced suite of love songs to heroin. However, where Dirt is essentially still in the infatuation phase, the follow up Alice in Chains (the self-titled with the three legged dog cover) is the saga of a man stuck in a vortex of codependence where non-opiate reality is steadily dissolving. With Dirt, Layne Staley was still in control, on Alice in Chains he was out (of it).

How far, indeed how bad did things get before Staley's death by overdose in 2002? Numerous people have pointed to the MTV unplugged set where Staley sat almost motionless in longsleeves (to cover up needle marks, scars) and sunglasses. If it was the case that he was virtually crippled by smack at that point then it was truly an amazing performance. He would have had to have dug deep. Or just be jonesing, dopesick for another fix with his eye on the prize to get it. This is not praise but neither is it condemnation.

Post-Staley Alice in Chains is to me a disappointment. While I am quite a fan of Jerry Cantrell's solo work, especially Degradation Trip (it maintains a twisted soul darkness carried over from the former band), Black Gives Way to Blue while a perfectly fine alt-rock record holds very little interest for me. Ultimately and most distubingly, what made Alice in Chains such a compelling listen for me was the opiate stained and scarred defiance and desperation of Layne Staley.


Now we come to the reason why this article was written. Blake Judd's Nachtmystium are/were one of the main reasons I was drawn to black metal several years ago. The nihilism and spite was tempered by a musical progressiveness, incorporating psychedelia, electronics and atmospherics. Furthermore, where most black metal tends to be (anti)religious, Nachtmystium is entirely urban, modern and bleak. Opening the sleeve of the Addicts vinyl reveals a young woman shooting up. The monochromatic picture is stark, she might as well be naked.

Earlier this month metal news sites all over the internet apparently misconstrued information about Nachtmytium, claiming the band were over. Delving into the comments of these articles revealed that many people held rather negative opinions of Judd. Particularly common was the experience of claiming to have been "ripped off"by him in mercantile transactions. The man seems to have a severe shortage of friends in his native Chicago. The reason for all of this supposedly being heroin.

Judd brings a third perspective to this riff on dope. Jourgensen in addition to being somewhat smart, was on a major label for a long time and had a reliable entourage of friends and folk with money invested in him to keep him in check even as he ran off the rails. Jourgensen had vision and was also an addict. And is also a survivor (and still an addict?). Staley was a straight up dope fiend, an artistic type with a personality perfectly configured to the drug. Perhaps lacking the determination of Jourgensen, he was burned alive by his addiction. Judd, meanwhile seems to be a mixture of the two. Here is a businessman coloured by opium. His product, his method, his execution are less entwined with dope as born from it. This makes his method somewhat dependent on it too. Yet like Jourgensen, here is a junkie with a will to survive, he keeps pushing through even as he burns those around him. How far can it go? The man is clearly inspired and smart but somewhat too cunning for his own good. With as many enemies as he supposedly adds, could he be a puncture wounded dead body in an alleyway?

So where does it all end? Inevitable overdoses? Prison terms? Rehabs and finding Jesus? There have yet to be significant numbers of successful careers founded on opiates. However, when combined with the traditional user/self-medicator, the rise and spread of the peculiarly American pharmaceutical company facilitated opiate addiction industry, who can say just where this will lead? I think I will just consult my oracle for answers...

Walks away and puts on Eyehategod's Self Medication Blues and wonders is smack was the primary reason for the utter suffocating nihilism of Pantera's Great Southern Trendkill.