Comics

Security Blanket: Previewing Robert Venditti's 'Homeland Directive'

The Teaser: At once a solid political thriller and a powerful meditation on life and liberty, Homeland Directive promises to be a clear example of the best of Robert Venditti.

Robert Venditti has always managed to use his narrative art as a staging area for wrestling with deeper issues around identity. PopMatters was afforded a rare sneak peek at Robert's forthcoming Homeland Directive, which promises to exceed even the sublime The Surrogates: Flesh & Bone.

Is it possible to have enjoyed 2009's Surrogates a little too much?

There certainly is a younger, blonder Bruce Willis filling up much of viewers' screen time. At least he seems younger and blonder. And for those moments when an older, grittier Willis is made to look even scruffier than usual, there's a leaner, lovelier and somehow even blonder Radha Mitchell. So it really is hard not to keep watching. The visual tennis match between blonder and grittier (both persons and locations) is intensely engaging, emotionally captivating even. But even more engaging is the idea that lies at the heart of the original graphic novel conceived and scripted by Robert Venditti--that a coffin can become a lifesaving device.

The idea carries through to the 2009 motion picture flawlessly. The idea that technology can extend sociocultural rather than biological longevity. For all any of his colleagues might know, Greer, the younger, blonder, scruffier hardboiled cop played by Willis in the film, might be bed-ridden and waiting for his last bell finally to toll. Or a hyper-intelligent 12-year old who graduated cum laude, only the detection elements of police training at the academy.

What makes Venditti's The Surrogates so completely engaging, whether in graphic novel or on silver-screen, is the question of what 4chan founder m00t refers to as "persistent identity". It is the model that Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook espouses, a model where your "true" identity (it's not really your "true" identity of course, it's just a place-marker, in practice you can still be differing things to different people) persists over the course of your web-browsing. But is this really an improvement on the model espoused through the earlier sensibilities of the Net?

The BBSs of the '90s were of course completely different. The pragmatics of a then only-emerging technology prevented widespread use of such techniques as IP traces and identifying specific users with specific user-names. Internet Relay Chat was more of an Old West Medieval Kingdom. The real trick to navigating them was forging sustained and credible online personae and relationships. If you were going to be 'Wild Bill the Thane of Storm-On-Sea', it would befit you to do so in a logical and consistent way.

Art from the forthcoming 'Homeland Directive'

Venditti's genius, subtle, but stark once it is noticed, is to afford his collaborator on The Surrogates and The Surrogates: Flesh & Bone (the sublimely gifted Brett Weldele) an opportunity to interpret the dilemma of persistent identity, visually. The dilemma being that persistent identity, rather than solve the dangers frequently decried by '90s internet commentators, simply ushers in newer, perhaps even uglier dangers.

The problem, Venditti alludes elegantly to in his closing, is more basic, more biological. Perhaps even evolutionary stemming from the strange shift that aggregated our species into super-large groups far exceeding Dunbar's Number. Venditti seems to evoke a sense that while our biology is hopelessly under-evolved to deal with super-large social groups, all we've actually done with technological evolution is re-map the same dilemma.

It's with this cogitation that Venditti breaks free from even the meditative classics of science fiction like H.G. Wells' The World Set Free or PKD's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Like Matthew de Abaitua's Red Men or Salvador Dali's Essays on Immortality (or his sketches of Don Quijote, for that matter), Venditti transgresses into the realm of pure philosophy; Hobbesian, Humean, Cartesian wrestlings, but set against a backdrop of fiction.

Art from the forthcoming 'Homeland Directive'

Venditti's The Surrogates and The Surrogates: Flesh & Bone is that rare thing then. That moment when, out of nowhere, the artist excels, producing a work their audience could rarely have thought skilled enough to do. It's Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Marty Scorecese's The Aviator, Shakespeare's Hamlet. But in a cruel twist (think of Eliot Ness never being able to earn money off of an authorized biography of his days in Chicago), success often hems its authors in. How does Robert even begin to approach, let alone surpass, the magnificent scope of The Surrogates?

It's hard to believe without actually reading it first (that's a pleasure you'll have later this year, come May), but Robert actually manages to exceed the precedent he set with his Surrogates series. Where do you go after persistent identity? To the present, to the post-911 condition, to the grapplings between the State and the Self for control of identity.

Art from the forthcoming 'Homeland Directive'

Homeland Directive is a lush, sleek thriller that expands on Robert's engaging philosophical cogitations around human agency in relation to power and its structures. It is the story of Dr. Laura Regan, the dissolution of her world and her incapacity to interdict the spread of a virulent virus she may have been the designer of. This last turn is especially distressing for her, as her position at the CDC has always been more of a calling than a profession.

But more than the story itself, Homeland Directive is pure performance art. This is Robert thinking in public, like a one-man theater show, and it is wildly seductive. The overall design of the thriller-vector itself is flawless. Once you get through with the actual story, you're going to want to reach for something to help you understand the innovative method used to disperse the bioweapon. Reach for Thomas H. Greco Jr.'s The End of Money and the Future of Civilization, it will help. But more than the innovative storytelling and the white-knuckle thrill ride into fear, the notion of post-surveillance society is Robert's true contribution with Homeland Directive.

Core to the graphic novel is BOCA, the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy. BOCA, according to the conceit of the graphic novel, is a federal agency that tracks every trace you've ever made in this world. Applied for credit and got rejected? There'll be a paper trail of that and BOCA will have a copy. That girl you weren't actually dating but took to the prom anyway? BOCA will know about her relation to you by way of the cash slip for the corsage you bought her.

Art from the forthcoming 'Homeland Directive'

Homeland Directive's narrative arc closely resembles in tone the recent and superbly immersive AMC show Rubicon. And going further back, 90s-era movies like Enemy of State and the Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Net. And going even farther back, the impeccable Redford masterpiece Three Days of the Condor. But in Robert's immensely capable hands, these become something else, simply a starting point, simply the entrance exam. Sure our band of heroes is on the run from unseen powers, but that's just how the scene opens. What's really at stake here is BOCA and how to outwit it. What's really at stake is how human beings break with biology and reconstitute power at the site of the Self.

Actions speak louder than words.

What BOCA actually is though, Robert seems to articulate, despite the agency's immense command of highly detailed information about the nation's citizens, is ultimately a security blanket. Warm and pacifying, it is theatricality that gestures at security.

Distraught over the effects of articulating the science behind the atom bomb, Einstein often lamented not having become a watchmaker. The internalizing of responsibility, the outpouring of grief in this way is also the suspension of leadership. President Kennedy, in the speech he did not give, suggested that today we find ourselves watchmen on the walls of freedom "by destiny, rather than choice". The two men offer diametrically opposed views on identity and culpability. If Robert offers readers anything with Homeland Directive it is their own elevation, showing in-depth the great complexity that underpins the seemingly opposed views of Einstein and President Kennedy.

Homeland Directive goes on sale in May and is up for pre-order today through Diamond. At first glance you'll push it back until later. You'll pick it up around Labor Day weekend and you'll start reading slowly. You'll take your time. The story will be good, some unexpected plot twists. You'll put it aside. You'll begin to forget about it. Then everything will begin to change. You'll feel unsettled, warm, in love, at peace for the very first time in your life perhaps. You'll become unraveled in your day-to-day. You'll sleep early or wake early. Something is gnawing at you. Loose ends about the story itself. Then you'll pick up Homeland Directive again and you'll begin to read it like an essay on free speech and the pursuit of happiness. And liberty. And life.

And that's the ball-game. Homeland Directive will stay with you, and grow with you. It will make demands of you. And it will allow you a rare glimpse not of what can be, but what ought to be. Homeland Directive changes things, and it will change you too.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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