Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #4.2: Triple Trouble (feat. Michael Eckett)

This time round, a third handsome face appears, as we are joined for night one only by special guest star Michael Eckett. Aptly enough, Michael is here to writing about Urðr, she who is three-in-one, kicking off a fans-and-creators special here at Tim + Alex Get TWATD.

Spoilers up to the very last drop of The Wicked + The Divine #11 below. Read that, then come back and read this. Please come back. Please, it gets so lonely in here...
Triple Trouble
                  
Three Cheers for Sweet Remorse
Michael's face Time to sound entitled.

There are elements of performing that can be profoundly awful. Moments that go beyond making you want to throw in the towel and become a data analyst; ones which fill you with the dread that either you or the world is broken and you’re not even sure how to distinguish. It’s not the moments you’re prepared for, like trying to do a show whilst a stag party loudly plans what buffet they’re going to, or performing to a room of four people, whilst a snow storm goes on outside, only to be interrupted by a fire alarm. (Always stay in character, even if that character is the personification of an abstract concept. Or a tree.) The times that really break you are the ones can be the times when people cheer.

Issue #10 sees Cassandra, now one of the Norns, finally taking the stage with a willing audience ready to hear her message, that truth which she sees and has been dying to deliver. The moment is chilling and stark as their performance shatters the riot and their words cut through the silhouettes. Then there’s a beat. And then the crowd cheers. And we’re left with a broken person who cares too much.

Urdr Performance

In the past I’ve written plays with my suicidal thoughts and depression as metaphor, and people have laughed and clapped. I wasn’t sure how to react. I’ve made shows philosophising about life and death with monologues of existential angst and ennui because I’ve been lost, confused and scared and the only way I knew how to process it all or get help was reach out and hope someone else felt the same way. And they fucking cheer.

Writing can mean spending months contemplating how to craft the nebulous feelings into something simultaneously true and entertaining. It’s hard to go out and speak personally and vulnerably, hoping to connect to people because you have something important to say (whether that’s because it’s important to you or Important because you’re going to save the world).

The pain that follows the cheers is a selfish one. It’s hard to be too angry with a crowd who have been conditioned to show praise in a certain way, or who are polite and interested enough to ask what you’re doing next. (Turns out you can’t say “I just did a thing. You saw it. I poured myself into it and it nearly killed me, isn’t that good enough for you?”) But you have adrenaline pumping through you and at the same time you’re berating yourself for not being good enough to get the message across. Caring hurts, trying is hard and your successes can feel as bad as your failures. You feel like a prick for wanting more from people.
 Urdr

But sometimes you have something to say and you truly believe in it, and all you can do is hope that someone will hear it. The moment where Laura consoles Cassandra/Urðr works really well; there’s some excellent composition and framing and the message is sweet and true. Some people get it, sometimes a critic will treat your comedies seriously and will nail your themes and reference points, and sometimes your piece will inspire someone to write an essay because of how it made them feel.

I guess I write so that people can understand me better or to show that I could understand them; for a while it was all I had and there was an urgency to it. A performance isn’t necessarily entertainment – and even when it’s didactic, it’s mostly an attempt to connect.
                  

The Crowd + The Congregation

When I read Issue #10 and the moment that Michael describes, I was also struck with a desire to write about it, although from a very different angle.

Everything Michael says is true. I’ve been on his side of the equation, although not in kind of public way that someone writing, directing and performing in a play has. I’ve known the feeling of laying yourself bare only to have people not ‘get’ it, or to be blandly appreciative in a way that makes it impossible for you to tell if they actually engaged with the emotions and ideas you were putting forward. It’s frustrating and saddening in a way that can make you question everything you’ve been doing. But I want to talk about the other side of the interaction – the audience.

So far in The Wicked + The Divine, we’ve seen a variety of audiences, but they have all tended to act as a mass. From the initial waves of ecstatic adoration at the Amaterasu concert to the goth riot at The Morrigan’s underground gig. At Dionysus’ rave, we find a crowd literally made one, united by the spirit of the god and surrender to the beat. Even more recently, we’ve had the Glastonbury-style gathering at Ragnarock that so disappointed Urðr and the writhing mass of bodies that comprised Inanna’s residency.

Ragnarock
In each instance, the crowd is a single entity, with only Laura’s insights there to give us an occasional individual perspective. It’s both a telling element, and a truism. Anyone who’s been swept up in the euphoria of a great night on the dancefloor, chanted along with thousands of others or been carried on the waves of a mosh pit will concur – sometimes you cease being a person and become part of an audience. In those moments, considered nuance is surrendered to visceral reaction, and thought to instinct.

When, in issue #10, Urðr/Cassandra despairs that “they fucking cheered”, it begs the question, what else could they do? I’ve been at gigs where artists have poured their hearts out on stage, in songs about heartbreak, depression, suicide and loneliness, and at the end, when the last chord fades, the question stands. How do I show my appreciation for this act? How do I relay to this person that I have felt what they felt, that they have spoken of my pain in words I could never find? But then the crowd instinct takes over, and all you can really do is clap.
Urdr Crowd 1 Urdr Crowd 2
Like Michael said, we’ve been conditioned to show praise in certain ways, and at most situations where a crowd is involved, you have clapping, cheering or shouting in the hope you are heard above the din. None are particularly subtle, nor do they carry the weight of feeling we sometimes need them to.

There are some interesting exceptions to the rule though. Let us wander away from the realm of pop music and comics briefly, and consider the other great art form of the 20th century – professional wrestling.

Crowd reaction is a huge part of pro wrestling. One writer once described it as “a LARP where the wrestlers are playing athletes and the audience is playing the audience, and everybody’s in on it”, which gives you some insight into both the theatricality at work, and the importance of interacting with, and playing to, the crowd.

In pro wrestling, the lines are very clear cut. You cheer the faces and boo the heels. While that’s simple once they’re in the ring, entrances (often the best opportunity for a wrestler to convey their persona or hook) can complicate this – and one in particular, Bray Wyatt, is a great example of this, and how a crowd has adapted to it.


Wyatt, like many wrestlers, has cycled through a number of different roles, but currently plays a sort of demonically-possessed Southern preacher character. Most definitely a heel, but an intimidating, awe-inspiring villain, rather than an ostentatious one you could easily boo. His entrance consists of him walking slowly into a darkened arena, the only light a gas lantern he is holding aloft, while Mark Crozer (formerly of The Jesus and Mary Chain) plays.

It’s a fantastically atmospheric bit of showmanship, but not one that easily lent itself to the crowd showing their appreciation. Booing didn’t fit it, and while slow, measured claps worked for a while, they also took away from the power of the moment. Then, at some point, fans realised that if they held their mobile phones aloft in the darkness of the arena, they looked like a sea of fireflies, a silent mark of respect for a great wrestler, and entirely in-keeping with his character. Of course, before too long, the WWE were selling tiny plastic Bray Wyatt lanterns that lit up in a slightly more ghostly manner (and earning them some nice merchandising money), and the entrance was entirely transformed.

Of course, this sort of evolution of fan behaviour is dependent on the way professional wrestling works – the serial nature of character building, the ritual of the entrance, and most importantly the central nature of the crowd to the whole event. But maybe, just maybe, we can find some way to import some of the ethereal majesty of a spectacle like this into how we react the next time we’re in a crowd.

Or maybe we’ll just have to rely on something like this…
                  
Material Girl
As we're talking about the relationship between audiences and performers this time out, I thought it was time to focus on The Wicked + The Divine's main point of intersection between the two: Persephone.

We only get a dozen panels of Persephone before [SPOILER REDACTED], and most of what's communicated about her in time relies on the comic's visuals.

The cigarette she's had between her fingers all arc finally flares into life, phosphorus-bright. It's a vivid realisation of Laura's story-long dream but implying, pages before the other boot drops, a sudden end. It's not the kind of flame that fades slowly; it's the kind that burns out.

Persephone 1
It's another great McKelvie design, obv, and those few panels have inspired an explosion of fan-art tributes. But her look is less cohesive than most of others in the series, in a way that feels intentional. Our Persephone is a patchwork god, her influences showing through in this first performance.

Not in the way some of the other gods are, cribbing from real-world pop stars – there's a dash of FKA Twigs in there, particularly her nose ring, arguably a pinch of Madonna in a certain mode,
but no direct reference point – but from the Pantheon themselves.

The white streak in her hair recalls Inanna. The heavy black boots and the skulls strung on her necklace tie her to the Underground gods, Morrigan and Baphomet. The asymmetrical triangle of markings on her face refers back to her Amaterasu-inspired make-up in the first issue, mixed with the harder angles of Morrigan in her Badb form.

The cigarette, of course, is a link to Luci – a bad habit picked up from a bad friend – but it flares with the trademark purple-pink of Inanna. In fact, the colour run through her entire outfit, having apparently become Persephone's own trademark, possibly in the wake of Inanna's departure a couple of pages earlier. (Is that too cruel even for Team WicDiv? I actually hope I'm reaching here.)
Persephone 2
But at the same time, Persephone is very recognisably still Laura. The lettering and colour of her speech bubbles stay the same – something that was par for the course with the initial gods, but not true of the last four we've met – and her physical transformation is less marked than the other before/afters we've seen.

Her asymmetric hair remains almost exactly the same as the one Laura wore pages earlier, except flipped from left to right, and with that streak of white. It's not the haircut one she started the series with, notably, but the one she picked on her way to godhood. Along with the make-up and the cigarette – symbols she's picked up along the way – perhaps this is a sign that Laura's has been a gradual transformation, rather than leaping fully-formed from the brow of Ananke.
                  

Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: Shit, the next arc's nearly here! The format of the story is changing, so obviously we'll be following suit.

For more of Michael's handsome face and words, find him on Twitter @meckett. The plays he mentioned were put on through Sigil Club, the production company he co-ran. He's not writing at the moment, as far as I know, but if Grant Morrison taught me anything about sigils, it's that sufficient focused masturbation can solve anything. So get wanking. For Michael.


You can find Tim's blog at trivia-lad.blogspot.co.uk, where his piece on the semiotics of TW+TD's finger snaps first gave us the idea for this whole thing, on Twitter @trivia_lad, and even, if you think you can handle the sexiness, on Tumblr.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.