REVIEWS: The Phippsian Reader
twopointthreefivefilmwerks at yahoo.com
Sat May 14 07:58:33 PDT 2005
THE PHIPPSIAN READER
"There are no works, only authors."
For some time, I've wanted to write a nice, in-depth sort of review of a Martin Phipps story. As we all now, comments, compliments, and criticism are the lifeblood of a writer, especially a net writer: with no sales figures to chart, it makes one feel that you're not writing in a void. I've always enjoyed Martin's work, his sense of humour, and (since a positive in-depth review-thing is always more tolerable than a negative one, which at length will smack of a grudge) I've just been waiting for the perfect story to review, the one that's the most archetypical Phippsian, shows the man I consider the definitive LNH writer at the height of his powers.
One problem with waiting for that perfect story is that Martin's work is usually a bit on the short side, and while it's not a problem with the writing-- brevity, Dr. Johnson told us, is the soul of wit-- it makes an in-depth review kind of difficult (or maybe I'm just lazy: there are doctorial dissertations on "A Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose"). And, in my wait, it began to occur to me that I should review a body of work-- an entire series, perhaps, or an "era" in the prolific doctor's work.
Then I came across the Giraudoux quote-- or, actually, Truffaut's film-oriented variation on it-- and realized that to review an individual story, arc, or period of Martin's writing is as futile as re-evaluating a W. C. Fields film. The films by themselves are somewhat underwhelming, but taken together, as one work, one realizes that it's comic genius at its pinacle. Such is the case with Phipps.
I'd like to take a moment, then, to talk about the ouvere of Martin Phipps.
First off, Martin is a very, very funny man. I can count on no other writer to consistently deliver a quick, funny, and simple gag every twenty or thirty lines of text. Much of his humour derives from that staple of meta-fiction, breaking the fourth wall. Martin doesn't just wink at the audience, he doesn't just chip a bit of this brick here and that one here. No cutesy, subtle post-modernism. He *breaks* it. Violently. Unrelentlingly. Joyously.
In his most recent tales, the LNH-Asia stories "Week After Next" and "2 Slow 2 Serious", you find this in marvelously good form. In the latter story, "2 Slow", Acraphobe (who himself is an intertextual joke) wonders if his powers will be any good, and he is told that maybe he'll find a silly villain to cancel out. Quips Deja Dude the Younger, "Sounds like foreshadowing to me." In another scene, Utraman and his villain discuss the purpose of a young woman being in the scene, deciding that she will have no outcome on the battle what-so-ever. Utraman than numbers off the reasons she is there, including that he needs someone to talk to before the villain appears.
Some might try to fault Phipps for simplistic, parallel-heavy plotting, but then they fail to see that the plot itself, in many cases, *is* the joke. Some might try to fault him for relying on an overly-large cast of characters whose personalities are archetypical at best and bland at worst. But they fail to realize that most super-hero fiction, online and off, featuring overly-large casts of characters whose personalities are archetypical at best and bland at worst. And that's the joke.
Phipps, you see, is probably the only writer who has remained true to the concept of the LNH at its purest: parody of superheroes and the internet at its silliest. In fact, his insistence on using "net-names" for every geographical location is testement to the man's devotion and zeal. New readers might get lost meeting ten or fifteen characters in a single story, not a one of them fleshed out more than a line here or there, but that's only if they're reading for convincing characters and dramatic plots.
The work of Phipps is different, though, than most serial fiction. His stories more resemble episodes of Saturday Night Live (only Phipps is funny and, I'd argue, SNL *never* was). Not that the plots are piecemeal or non-existent, for his stories are plotted, but that the plot exists, like that television show does, to provide a forum for the gags. I think if you took Martin Phipps and put him on stage at Wizard World, he would be the first superhero-oriented stand-up comedian.
If you're reading for the gags, for the jokes, for the silliness and pure level of invention, then Phipps is really the most accessible of LNH writers: the familiarity of the plots and sheer number of characters become meaningless. And, should you start reading and keep reading, then you get to know the characters. Phipps is one of those writers, like Proust, who require the reader to meet them half-way, at least initially.
My next point is best illustrated with a couple of quotes. The first is the opening scene from "The Epic of Google.mesh":
(Warning: Acraphobe. Although no more so than Arthur or Saxon's stuff or
the original source material.)
One day in Heaven, God got bored and decided one species of humans wasn't
enough. So he created angels. He made them bigger and stronger than
ordinary humans so that they would live longer. Otherwise they were pretty
much the same as ordinary men.
"What's this?" one of the angels asked God, refering to his penis.
"That's your penis," God answered.
"What's it for?" the angel asked.
"Well, you can use it when you take a piss. You'll be able to aim so you
don't make as much of a mess."
"Great! Can I use it for anything else?"
"Well," God admitted, "ordinary men use it to have sex."
"Sex?" the angels wondered. "What's that."
Gold turned slightly red. The angles weren't sure if God was angry or
simply embarassed. "I've created you angels to all be male. You're not
going to have sex with each other. I forbid it."
"But it is okay for humans to have sex?" they asked.
"Humans I created male and female," God answered.
"What does that mean?" one of the angels asked. "Female?"
"Women. Half of the humans are women."
"How are the women different?" they asked.
"They are prettier than men," God told them. "And they don't have
penises. They have vaginas."
"And what are the vaginas for?" the angels asked.
"The human males insert their erect penises into the human female
"Mainly because the human female vaginas are warm, wet and quite
"Sounds like fun," the angels said.
Then God really did get angry. "Oh no no no. You're not going to have
sex with the human females either! I forbid it! For if you did, you would
create a mongrel race that was neither human nor angel and that would go
against the natural order that I have created!"
"Um, no problem!" they all said.
The second comes from Martin's response to this author's Speak! # 2:
I'm trying to imagine how Greggory robbed the bank.
He smiled. "I'm robbing the bank."
She laughed. "Am I supposed to just hand over the money?"
"You're not carrying a gun. What makes you think--?"
"Whoa. What did you do?"
"Okay. Okay. Enough. Take it all." >>
(Some might say, hey, you're doing a semi-scholarly essay on the guy's work. What does this post have to do with it, it's not one of his stories, it's not "canonical". Well, like I said above, it's the gags that count. All he needs is a forum to let those gags loose, and so I would include discussion threads and give them the same weight, at least as far as the gags are concerned, as the stories.)
Martin is the best RACC writer to go to, I think, for a good racy gag. And, even when he's being satirical, like the second quote's withering-John-Houseman-in-Paper-Chase-meets-Russ-Meyer wit, he is never, in my opinion, mean. Even his sexually-oriented humour is good-natured, almost fun-for-the-whole-family. I even think he's a little embarrassed by it at times, that he had something of a puritanical upbringing. You'll notice, for example, that when one of his characters uses a minor curse word, it's almost always followed by "so-and-so swore", not "so-and-so said". Also, his warning at the beginning of the Google.mesh quote-- and this one posted in his notes for Net.heroes... with Children:
Actually, I'm not completely happy with the way Net.Heroes... with
Children #'s 2-3 turned out. Net.Heroes... with Children was intended as a
satire of the sitcom Married... with Children so I knew I'd have to throw in
some sexist jokes, fat jokes and sexual inuendo but I think I might have
gone a bit too far in #2.
Actually, his material here is really quite tame, and I take these examples as a simple proof that, even at his most satirical, Phipps is never bitter or nasty. Tom Russell and Jesse Wiley might find human suffering a joke at times, but there are some lines Phipps will never cross, because he is too gentle, sweet, and giving (and forgiving). His gags, like I said, are pure, simple, and never at the expense of a human being.
Phipps doesn't have an over-inflated opinion of himself as an author. You'll find no pretentions in his work. He is a humble artist, but, like the great Ray Carney says, that's the way to be: not flying above your work, a god lording it over your little people, but a fellow being loving them and learning from them, letting your work teach you about you.
Now, what about his dramatic work? His Lagneto epic, for one, or the more recent "Week After Next"? Since I still have some Lagneto to catch up on, let's look at that LNH-Asia story for a moment.
What starts off as a parody, of sorts, to Day After Tomorrow (which was certainly better than the average Emmerich film) become something... different. It's not so much a gag-fest, though there are gags, or even a story as a meditation on life, and suffering, and art.
There is nothing the characters can do.
There is nothing the characters can do.
This is the way the story feels. Here you have characters (and their author) grappling with the enormity of disaster. Just a few scenes, the character split up into groups, where they talk about their very impotence.
Then, Deja Dude the Elder goes to Eddy Tony Al Presence, son of Arthur E. L. Presence, and asks if there's anything they can do. Well, they can't take it away, the suffering's there, but a solution is presented: the characters use their powers to miminize the damage and prevent any further disaster. The Ice Age is averted. It's a happy ending.
But it doesn't ring false, because the fourth-wall "jokes"-- while not funny or meant to be-- are still in place. Deja Dude-- Martin's author character, Martin's avatar: Martin himself-- uses art to provide a lie that a human being can believe, one that minimizes the hurt. This is one of the purposes of art. Is it the deepest one, the hardest one, the one that's the most fulfilling? No. But it's the one that's the most basic, and, in times of tragedy, the most needed.
I think this marks "Week After Next" as the most mature work, thus far, in his entire body of fiction. But it's not a betrayal of who Martin is or what we've come to expect from his work. The Phippsian themes and obsessions are still in place; an unforgiving and close-minded reader can take one whiff of the fourth-wall breaking and say, it's not serious enough.
But it is. There are two ways the ending could have been different, and neither would have worked: either, a, Ice Age comes and life sucks, or b, the heroes achieve their victory but without Deja Dude-- Martin-- consulting with Eddy Tony Al. Both might have been serious enough, but neither would have been Phipps enough.
What makes it such an interesting story is that it is both serious enough and Phipps enough. He achieves something great without leaving behind who he is, the primary complaint lodged against Dickens when the Boz of Pickwick because the Chas. of Oliver Twist. Phipps has proven that the Bozs of the world have value.
More than any other work-- and certainly more than any "serious" work in the imprint-- Phipps's work is what validates the LNH as a living, breathing, and important venture.
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