Do Anything: An Island Tale?

Do Anything? What does that mean? Can anyone ever really do anything? Is it more a matter of thinking or feeling that you can do anything, or, more to the point perhaps, acting as though you can? If so, what does it take to think, feel or act that way?

Do Anything. (2010) is also the title of a short book by the English writer Warren Ellis, based on a series of columns written from 2009 for the comic book website Distilled into book format, Ellis’s reflections afford a backward glance both at a fast-receding twentieth century and at one of its characteristic art forms — namely, the comic book.

The end result is exuberantly resistant to classification — part memoir, part collage, part cultural history and part fabulation of alternate realities. It all begins with — and repeatedly re-converges upon — a robot replica of the head of Jack Kirby, sitting on the author’s desk. For those who (like me) didn’t already know, Jack Kirby was one of the most influential, prolific and widely published comic book artists of the latter half of the twentieth century, whose work inspired both his contemporaries and subsequent generations of comic book artists and whose credits include Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Fourth World series.

Stuffed with fragments of the work of, interviews with and anecdotes about Jack Kirby and fed on a diet of Cuban cigars, the head’s oracular pronouncements set the itinerary for a journey traversing time and space and encompassing the late twentieth century world of comic books, along with those who draw, write, publish and read them.

It is a journey composed both of abrupt spatio-temporal shifts — from New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s and ’30s (where Jack Kirby grew up) to the Viking Museum in present-day Oslo; from a Parisian hotel suite off the Champs Elysées to the Japanese film industry — and of a succession of often random but nonetheless productive encounters — Ellis meting the French architect François Roche in the course of being interviewed together for Icon magazine; William Burroughs and Arthur C. Clarke introduced to each other by Michael Moorcock; David Bowie, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Tony Visconti gathered together in a studio 500 yards from what was then the Berlin wall to record Bowie’s track “Heroes.”

Fast forwarding from 1977 to the present, the book ends with “Heroes” — understood as a sort of Do Anything anthem — blasting from Ellis’s desktop speakers as he writes. In fact, the phrase Do Anything — or variants on it — recurs throughout: Stan Lee, the future editor of Marvel Comics, complaining that his then employers won’t allow him to produce the kind of comic books he wants to produce and being told by his wife that he should go ahead anyway; the Japanese film director Takashi Miike claiming that the absence of a mass audience could, in fact, be a creative advantage “if audiences don’t go to the cinema, we can make any movie we want”; Brian Eno recalling his time at art college in England in the 1960s: “Everybody thought they could do anything”; or the American composer and sometime free jazz improviser Anthony Braxton — “a non pareil Do Anything case” — who has likened his compositions to space vehicles, intended to relay signals from distant galaxies or to transport the listener into the cosmic ‘idea space’ of the music.

The lateral shifts and transverse linkages that organize Ellis’s account of the comic book medium afford at the same time a series of glimpses of alternative possible futures (SF writers, Ellis notes, use the phrase “Jonbar Hinge” to refer to such a point of divergence between timelines). In one of these, the editorial staff of DC Comics, deranged by hallucinogen psychosis, commission a series of re-drawings of Superman by, amongst others, John Lennon. In another, the British comic book artist Bryan Hitch directs a remake of Star Trek, starring Samuel L. Jackson as Captain Kirk, who “plays classical music on a baby grand piano in his quarters while the Enterprise phaser-strafes the Klingon homeworld from space.” (Hitch did in fact supply designs and artwork for J. J. Abrams’s highly profitable 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise).

Yet if such excursions into the might-have-been create a sense of augmented possibility by pointing out that things could always have turned out otherwise than they did, the fact that the possibilities thus envisioned were not actualized serves as a reminder too that it’s not always possible to Do Anything.

Jack Kirby, moving in 1970 from his long-term employer Marvel to DC Comics, found that he couldn’t Do Anything. He couldn’t, for example, draw Superman’s head the way he wanted to. Kirby had been hired by DC ostensibly to update and reinvigorate their visual style. When it came, however, to the head and face of their best known and most lucrative product, DC’s editors decided that the demands of continuity and brand-recognition overrode those of stylistic innovation and one of their house illustrators was brought in to redraw Superman’s head — but not the rest of him — in a style familiar to his audience.

But that, I take it, is part of Ellis’s point. The possibility of doing anything rarely, if ever, amounts to a condition of pure, unrestrained freedom. More often than not it needs to be looked for and seized upon in the face of apparent — even apparently overwhelming — constraint. The important thing, Ellis suggests, is to believe in the possibility of a future — not a future that is predetermined, scripted in advance, but one yet to be imagined and made — a Do Anything future.

Are there then particular times, places or circumstances in which it really is, or seems, possible to Do Anything? The short essay “Desert Islands” (1953) was an early work by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995), who would go on to become one of the most influential thinkers of his generation, both on the basis of his own writings and of his collaborations with the radical psychoanalyst and political activist Félix Guattari. Deleuze is interested in islands primarily as a source of creativity, of new beginnings, demanding as such a particular kind of attunement to one’s environment on part of their human settlers.

According to Deleuze there are two kinds of islands — ‘continental’ ones, broken off shards of existing landmasses — and ‘oceanic’ ones — the result of the petrification of coral reefs or of magmic up-wellings from beneath the ocean floor, rising, cooling and solidifying to create new formations.

Both kinds of islands testify that the elemental ‘strife’ of land and sea is not yet at an end (much as humans residing in more settled and stable localities like to pretend otherwise). They thus serve as a reminder that nothing is settled, that the forms of the existing world are not definitively fixed and that it is, therefore, is still possible to Do Anything.

The strife of land and water is one that precedes and will continue beyond the limited time-span of humans’ presence on earth: “Islands are either from before or for after humankind.” In this sense, for Deleuze, all islands are, in effect, desert islands, belonging to a time that is at once pre- and post-historical.

Human imaginings about islands participate in and carry forward the movement that gives rise to islands themselves. The arrival of humans, whether as refugees, colonists or castaways, does not put an end to the desertedness of desert islands but rather completes it, brings it to consciousness of itself.

But the individual human imagination is not capable on its own of immersing itself fully in the movement — the élan — that produces islands. To do so requires the engagement of the collective imagination, as revealed most profoundly in the guise of ritual and mythology, the very mythology that Kirby, in his later years, saw himself as attempting self-consciously to revive through his comic book art: “I felt that we ourselves were without a mythology. Even the Saxons had their own mythology, and I thought that there was a new mythology needed for our times.”

Crucially, for Deleuze (I can’t speak for Kirby), mythology was not an explanatory framework imposed upon reality, not something simply “willed” into existence, but a human creative act participating in and giving expression to the other-than-human creative energies and forces that give rise to desert islands as privileged sites of new beginnings.

Last February I attended Papay Gyro Nights, a weeklong arts festival held on the island of Papa Westray in Orkney. Papa Westray (or “Papay” as it is usually known locally) is the second smallest and second most northerly of the Orkney Islands, an archipelago lying 16km north of the coast of Caithness on the Scottish mainland and comprising around seventy islands, twenty of which are inhabited.

The islands of Orkney are of Deleuze’s second, ‘oceanic’ type. Not off-cuts of an already constituted Europe, they are, rather, the remnants of a mountain chain formed between 400 and 600 million years ago by a collision between long-since dispersed prehistoric super-continents — the great southern continent of Gondwanaland and the great northern one of Laurasia. As the continents were forced apart by magma welling up from the earth’s core — present-day Europe separating from North America and the Atlantic ocean opening up between them — the mountain ranges were eroded by sea to form the present day island chains of Orkney and its northerly neighbour, Shetland.

Today, Papay is home to around seventy people, some of them recent arrivals, some the descendents of families who have lived there for generations. The organizers of the festival were Sergei Ivanov and Tsz Man Chan, two artists who moved to the island five years ago and established a studio and arts center. The festival drew inspiration directly from Deleuze’s essay but also, equally importantly, from the history, geography and folklore of Orkney, Gyro (or Grýla as she is known in other Nordic countries) being the name of a giantess or ogress figure commemorated both in a nocturnal children’s game once played on the island at the end of winter and in a variety of folk tales and performances recorded across the North Atlantic region.

The aim of the festival, however, was not to preserve or revive ‘folk tradition’ but to use an established repertoire of stories and performances as a spring board for experimentation and invention. In doing so, it sought, at the same time, to draw upon the environmental resources that the island made available. As the organizers put it on their website: “[The] Island is a special place where impossible assemblages are created by a blend of isolation, routine of the seasons, stories brought by travelers, strange objects washed on the shore — where history and folklore are personal creations as everyone and every rock has got a name. …and every [piece of] road-kill is amending the eco-system.”

The festival sought to explore and manifest a vision of islands — and of the island of Papa Westray in particular — not as places decisively cut off from communication with a wider world but as zones conducive to encounters of a singular and unforeseeable kind.

Across the centuries — and millennia — such encounters have taken a variety of forms. They have included the clash of continents that provided the impetus for the formation of the islands themselves and, later, the arrival of successive waves of migrants, including the early Neolithic settlers (builders of, amongst other things, the village of Skara Brae and the chambered tombs that dot the Orcadian landscape) and the Norse sea raiders turned farmers and fishermen who came, from the eighth century onward, to form the majority of Orkney’s population (and who account for the continuing preponderance of Norse personal and place names in Orkney).

In all of these comings and goings, the surrounding water has played a decisive role, determining, for example, the fate of the driftwood, wreckage, ships’ cargoes and, occasionally, human castaways deposited over the centuries on Orkney’s rocky shores. Its influence was to be felt too during the festival, as rough seas necessitated the cancellation of ferries to and from Orkney Mainland and the neighbouring island of Westray, and continues to manifest itself in the guise of the marine erosion that constantly re-sculpts Orkney’s shorelines and that will, eventually, cause the islands to disappear beneath the waters from which they first emerged.

A further series of encounters was materialized in the artworks, some local, some from as far away as Argentina and China, brought together for the festival and exhibited at a range of sites across the island.

These drew on a variety of media, from paint on canvas to video to the oral tales of the Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir.

Some sought explicitly to forge links beyond the geographical confines of the island.

The Papay Night Sky project, for example, created a live artwork by staging an encounter between festival audiences and members of Drawn Together, a London-based group of artists known for their live action performance drawing projects. A camera in Papa Westray, pointed at the night sky, transmitted video images and atmospheric sound live via SKYPE to London. These sounds and images were then projected in a gallery space where the group made spontaneous drawings charting the night sky in Papa Westray. These were recorded by a camera in London and a live video feed was sent back to Papa Westray, again via SKYPE, where it was projected onto a wall in front of festival attendees. (My own presence at the event was, of course, another such encounter — one that has thus far resulted in this and one other piece of soon to be published writing).

The story Ellis tells appears, at first glance, to be far from insular, spanning as it does decades, continents and time zones, along with the aftermath of global conflict, in the form of the Second World war, in which Kirby and others served as combatants. Nonetheless, much of its action does, in fact, take place on an island, the island of Manhattan, home to the offices of both Marvel and DC Comics, the principal US publishers of comic books during the postwar decades and the employers at various times, not only of Kirby but of many of the most influential comic book artists of the period. Manhattan also provides the setting for many of Marvel and DC’s productions, appearing as itself in Marvel’s publications or in the pseudonymous and stylized guise of Gotham or Metropolis in those of DC.

For all its eclecticism and world-historical reach then, it is perhaps not too fanciful to consider Ellis’s narration of the comic book medium and its multiply entangled histories as an island tale. After all, islands are, at least according to Deleuze, the quintessential Do Anything places.

Deleuze makes the point that the creativity exemplified by islands is, more often than not, a matter of re-creation, of beginning again rather than beginning from scratch. Ellis too begins with an act of re-creation — the head of Jack Kirby in fact began its existence as something else, as an android head of the science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick, designed by Hanson Robotics, stolen by Ellis from an aeroplane and refashioned by him into a likeness of Kirby. Papay Gyro Nights too was, not least, as testament to the efficacy and inventiveness of insular recycling — an upturned, abandoned boat becoming a painted sign, a disused kelp store converted into an exhibition space and, not least, a mythic Norse giantess recast as the pretext for a series of contemporary artistic explorations.

The point is an important one for Deleuze because the second creation, the act of re-creation, affirms creativity itself as an ongoing and endlessly open-ended process, a capacity not to create ex nihilo, nor simply to repeat what has gone before, but to repeat and differ (Difference and Repetition being the title of one of Deleuze’s best known philosophical works). The notion of such a second beginning finds one of its most forceful expressions, for Deleuze, in the myth of the Flood, in which the Ark, as the crucible of a new beginning, finds its resting place on a de facto island, a solitary mountain peak protruding above the otherwise ubiquitous waters.

The beginning anew associated with desert islands in effect usurps the privilege of any single, unique and self-identical origin. Creativity is not the act then of a transcendent creator god or other higher power (an authority figure commanding obedience and respect) but is rather a generative, transformative power that inheres in the very stuff, the material substance, of the world as it already exists, a power that predates (and will outlast) the arrival on earth of the human species and that is exemplified in the ongoing and unresolved strife of land and water through which islands — all islands — are called into being.

For Deleuze, it is the water, the ocean or sea surrounding the island that embodies a principle of segregation necessary for such second creation to begin: “as though the island had pushed its desert outside.” In order to begin anew, he suggests, it is necessary, at least provisionally, to separate oneself from what came before.

Ellis too invokes the ocean, but for him it is less a principle of segregation than a medium of interconnection. He suggests that what Kirby’s work and Kirby himself gesture toward is an aqueous realm of ideoplasm” — “A place where everything connects to the same central ocean” — and where, equally importantly, you can perceive that everything is connected and that you too are a thing full of connections.” For Ellis, and he claims, for Kirby, comic books — words and pictures — are the quintessential art and medium of connection. Indeed, considered in this way, comic books are everything and everything is comic books: cave paintings, the Bayeux Tapestry, woodcut novels, army maintenance guides, airplane safety cards (to list a few of Ellis’s own examples): “Comics are everywhere, the ideoplasmic universe of human culture from is dawn to one second ago and up to the time when the sun goes dark.”

Juxtaposing Ellis with Deleuze’s reflections on desert islands and the events of Papay Gyro Nights allows us perhaps to go a step further. Could not only human ‘culture’ but also what we are accustomed to think of as ‘nature’ be understood in similar terms, that is, as a generative and proliferating power of interconnection (and, as Deleuze would insist, of self-differentiation) that is continuously producing new things and dissolving existing ones? Realization of this is, perhaps, part of what it takes to Do Anything.

Certainly food, shelter, lack of censorship and freedom from political persecution are important, but to avail of all that such fleeting and historically contingent spaces of opportunity make available demands also the affirmation of a Do Anything world, a Do Anything cosmos — even, or perhaps especially, in the face of the myriad obstacles placed in the way of the same by, amongst others, bureaucracies, employers and financial, political and religious institutions.

To do so requires, arguably, both the imaginative act of separating oneself from the seeming restrictions imposed by one’s present circumstances and a willingness to forge and experiment with new connections. The challenge and urgency of locating the possibility of such an affirmation surely appears all the greater at a time when the voices of power assert, not only a narrowly entrepreneurial vision of human creativity, but also the non-negotiable givenness of existing political and economic realities and their associated imperatives — the ‘need’ for public spending cuts, the ‘necessity’ of work, the unquestionable authority of market forces etc. etc.

Ellis finds such a possibility of affirmation in comics and in the example of Jack Kirby.

Deleuze found it, in part, in desert islands and the human imaginings to which they have given rise.

The organizers of and participants in Papay Gyro Nights found it in the demographic histories, ecological vicissitudes and tidal contingencies of their own island environment.

And, finally, it is through the connections he himself has established, or attempted to establish, between these apparently disparate dreams and undertakings that a glimpse of the same appears to a forty-something, US-based, British academic (a stranger to comic books since adolescence and, latterly, acutely embarrassed by the fact), nearing the end of a sabbatical year spent in Scotland, as he sits in a rented apartment in Edinburgh’s (mostly eighteenth century) New Town and wonders if and how in the perplexing here and now of the early twenty first century, it might indeed still be possible to Do Anything.

Stuart McLean is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted research in Ireland and, more recently, the Orkney Islands. His interests include historical memory, perceptions of environment and landscape, and the relationship between the living and the dead. He is the author of ‘The Event and its Terrors: Ireland, Famine, Modernity’ (Stanford University Press, 2004) and is currently completing a book of essays on the topic of creativity. We at Silo404 are thankful he took the time to review Warren Ellis’ ‘Do Anything’ for us.

Originally published 29/04/2012

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