''This is Theremin Four:'' A Review and Interview with Curt PiresA comic review article by: Keith Silva
A few months back I talked with writer and former editor at Marvel Comics Ann Nocenti. Our conversation turned to her run on Katana for DC and specifically artist Alex Sanchez. Nocenti praised the indie sensibilities Sanchez brought to her scripts. She then discussed the difference between writing superhero comics at Marvel and DC versus creator-owned work where there tends to be much more leeway. I'm paraphrasing, but what she said was: ''Daredevil can meet God or Satan over drinks in a bar once every twelve issues or so, the rest of the time somebody has to get punched in the face.''
I. The review (proper)
Curt Pires takes chances and Theremin #4 is like playing five finger fillet with spent nuclear fuel rod. My gut tells me to call this issue what it is a one-off, a standalone; however, with a writer like Pires I'm inclined to go with my head and write that how he may have cracked this series wide open. It's like Varla -- and every other sexually confident B-Movie seductress, ever -- says in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, ''The point is of no return and you've reached it!''
Theremin has been a sharp series from the jump: time travel, historical characters, the pitfalls and ecstasy of invention, cloak and dagger, Russians, sentient simians, the future, the past, groovy tech, and now metafiction via authorial interruption. When form follows function and the author becomes an actor in his own play 'there are two paths you can go by' (as the song says): pure solipsism or an E ticket ride through the fiction of fiction, either way it's deeply personal.
The character who stars in Theremin #4 is either Curt Pires or some other bearded white guy who answers to 'Brother Wolf,' doesn't mind if he drops trou outside in a back alley for a bit of the 'ol' in-out' with an old flame, checks Twitter along with some big booty porn and tries to get over what's keeping him from writing Theremin Four. So, yeah, could be anybody.
Pires prides himself on being a subvert-ist. He delights in playing on expectations. So in some ways writing himself (or someone very like himself) into his own story comes off as almost normal. When metafiction is on target the audience gets Arrested Development, Adaptation or The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and when it misses you get the last two movies in the Scream franchise, too clever by half without the quaint charm of their predecessors. Theremin #4 tempers the 'hey-look-at-me' reflexivity of metafiction with heartfelt emotion. All the writer wants or needs is an in(spiration).
The cleanliness of Dalton Rose's line gives this metafictional detour from the main narrative the style it needs to keep from getting too insular and esoteric. Rose's figures sometimes leave me cold and take me out of the narrative. He draws female characters in an androgynous way I can't grok -- less Annie Hall or Grace Jones and more like a 1970's 'roided-out East German wundermadcen competing in the 200m butterfly. Where Rose shines is in wide shots and cityscapes. In Theremin #4 he outdoes the image he drew of Moscow at night in the first issue with an overhead shot of a dream city of sublime angles of near perpendicular perfection. And the colors? Oh, kids, Rose knows how to use color to tell a story, to evoke emotion and give substance to style, he's that good.
So, how's the date end? Does comic book-Curt get the girl? Does comic book-writer Curt break out of his funk and finish the damn story? Hmmmmmm … it's a process. What Pires does with Theremin #4 is take what was a modest sci-fi action/adventure story about a little-known Russian engineer turned spy and give it another dimension, a place for the story to go and expand. Theremin was on a treadmill, it was moving, but it wasn't going to go anywhere, more mucking about with time, more cameos from playboys in American history, more of the same. This approach works fine (for some) -- hell, it constitutes almost the whole of serialized fiction -- but for an idea monster like Pires, it's not enough. Theremin #4 marks a course correction for this series and proves futility can be fun, sometimes.
II. The Interview (a way-station for inspiration)
I had had that dream about Curt Pires again. I finished reading Theremin #3 and was slowly sliding down into to sleep when I suddenly woke back up and thought: Upstream Color. I'd seen Shane Carruth's mindfuck of a movie prior to reading Theremin #3 and the two seemed built from a similar architecture, an experimental approach to narrative that asks the audience to figure it on their own. Watching Upstream Color is like a SEAL training exercise where you're dropped off in a swamp with only a busted jackknife and told to find a way back home. This kind of complex storytelling approach, albeit frustrating, pays off when the penny drops, it's the 'ah ha moment' of ah ha moments.
ANYWAY my curiosity was piqued so I emailed Pires. If nothing else, I figured I'd point him in the direction of a movie I thought he might enjoy. He'd seen it (of course) and wrote back: ''the way [Theremin] #3 is structured is actually really inspired by the way Upstream Color is cut/edited … it's a move towards a more 'liquid' approach to narrative that I've been craving/wanting to do in my stuff for a while … I actually had a couple drafts where it was linear, but it felt too boring and safe for me.''
I knew it. Never boring. Pires is a romantic, a dreamer and a man in love with stories. For someone like him, comics, movies and music are way-stations, places for inspiration and incorporation. If the reader wants to know what books Pires reads, the movies he sees, the music he listens to and (most important) what sticks, read his comics. Sometimes his influences are obvious and he puts them in plain view on the page -- The Invisibles, American Flagg!, Casanova -- and other times it helps to have memorized (or to be able Google) lines of dialogue from movies or song lyrics.
My initial email kicked off a conversation with Pires about influences (a topic he writes about at length in the backmatter of Theremin). These essays are entertaining, at times a touch over-indulgent, but it's his ball, so play on playa.
Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: In the backmatter, you're candid about how fascinated you are with the influence of influences. Is this a chronic condition or a mere obsession?
Curt Pires: The influence of influences thought is an interesting one -- one I sort of touch on in the back matter for issue two. I talk about the idea of haunted artefacts extended across the idea of both music and comics (musically I talk about the recording console Phoenix used for Entertainment, which prior was used by Michael Jackson). Comics to me seem to perpetually and relentlessly haunted by the ghosts and legacy of our fore-fathers (and mothers). It's getting back to the idea of post-post-post (etc.) modernism, the idea of sampler culture. Almost the first thing you hear about when someone starts working on a new book is "I was really inspired by this Kirby jam -- or this Gerber jam or this (insert amazing old comic here)." So, in the back matter I'm taking ownership. I'm waving my flag and saying here's the shit that lead me here, but being confident enough in saying I've made this my own thing, this is an artefact uniquely its own.
CB: How do your influences inform your storytelling process?
Pires: I'm always looking at comics and cinema and literature for inspiration. Reconstructing fiction, rebuilding it in my head, seeing what works what doesn't and where the failure happened and looking at where I gave up on the media and started thinking about my own stuff. Influence always informs my storytelling, but never overwhelms it . Style can never be greater than substance; [that] doesn't mean I don't like seeing how far I can push that envelope.
CB: How do you quiet those influences and channel them into something creative?
Pires: That's an interesting question and I think it's one every artist has to answer for themselves. We fall in love with other creators, other writers or artists work, but eventually, you have to realize everyone is just human and you have to develop that little chip on your shoulder that makes you want to push things a little further, makes you want to burn down the effigies of those who inspired you and tread your own path.
CB: Do you know the scene in A Clockwork Orange when Alex is in a record shop and you can clearly see the 2001 soundtrack? I've heard this 'Easter Egg' described as evidence Kubrick was no longer being inspired by others and had become his own inspiration. That's a big pretentious slab of B.S. You're not Kubrick, sorry, but for a writer what's personal and what's trivial and how do you use it?
Pires: I am the reincarnated Stanley Kubrick getting high snorting John F. Kennedy's ashes while dancing to Miley Cyrus's 'Wrecking Ball!' [O.K.? – KS]
The idea of a conflict between the personal and the trivial is an interesting one. Every single comic I've ever made has loosely concealed autobiographical materiel. A lot of times it's hidden, other times maybe not so much (it's hard for me to judge), but comics, to me, have always been a means of processing reality and communicating. My comics almost always include some sort of allusion or hidden reference to other works of art or narrative that inspire me [or] make me feel things. I do that to almost lead the reader on a journey and share this culture that has led me to this place. I don't really think they need to come into conflict -- but if it's ever a choice between being referential and an emotional punch, I go for emotional punch.
So, Nocenti was correct, sooner or later in comics (?) somebody has to get punched. Perhaps it's only a matter of who gets to throw the punch.