Working with Dirt

The following is an introduction to a comics short fiction meant to appear in the academic journal Arisa, published by the Center for Contemporary Islam at the University of Cape Town. The short story, “Rubble,” was specifically written for the journal’s theme, “Ten Years of Democracy,” an anniversary that took place in 2004. While the artwork (finished by Andrew Donaldson) was delivered in a timely fashion, consistent failure on the part of the Arisa editors and a disagreement around the values placed on freedom of speech eventually led to Andrew and myself opting to withdraw our contribution. Julian Darius, the webmaster for, has graciously allowed a republication of this material. –sQMore graciously, Shathley Q has allowed to host “Rubble” so that you can read the original short comic book story as part of this column! To view it online, click here (PDF format, 6.6 megabytes). If your browser has trouble integrating with Adobe Acrobat Reader (as so many still seem to), and you might want to right-click on the link and save it before opening it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! — Julian Darius

Working with Dirt – an introduction to Rubble

James Joyce expresses a particular notion of freedom in a letter to his brother, dated 1905. He writes: ‘I am sure the whole structure of heroism is, and always was, a damned lie and that there cannot be any substitute for individual passion as the motive power of everything’. He speaks in some ways to the dawning of a new era, one enunciated later by James Ellroy and later again by Hiroaki Samura. It is an era he will not live to see.

With this sentiment, Joyce opposes traditionalist loyalties to ideological structures, with a kind of highly mobile atomic theory. It is the structure of heroism that is to be done away with, failed in the same sense that all concepts are already failed concepts. In its stead we find an offering of personal resources and a strangely mobile power that courses through ‘everything’. It is perhaps this moment that is the conception of Ulysses; a strangely powerful work that re-produces the mythic as the corporeal, destiny as the shockingly mundane of the inevitable.

After an effect this is the same notion that Ellroy expresses in his opus, American Tabloid. He writes: ‘It’s time to dislodge [Jack Kennedy’s] urn… It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time’. Or again with Samura in On Silent Wings; …We live in a peaceful age, and yet the number of sword schools continues to grow. But that has nothing to do with the flowering of the way of the sword. Far from it! Their schools exist only to pad their pockets… When I think about this system I’m torn by doubts. And that’s why we… we of the I don’t give a damn… as long as it’s you against them… one on one… We do not lose our warrior souls!Â’

Each of these writers find themselves confronted with a society awash in a flood of demolition of their ideological structures. In response they offer up the inner resources of the self. ‘I was much stronger than I realized’, Arnold Schwarzenegger said upon his inauguration to governor of California. What Joyce sees as ‘individual passion’, Ellroy names as ‘bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time’. While for Samura the warrior soul is only perfected once it…is driven by the simple desire to destroy [its] enemies’.

In many ways, the true heritage of the September 11th attacks in New York City is this exchanging of the ideological for the personal. After the demolition of ideological edifices of military and finance, and immediately following the event, we see the rise of the personal. Lovers jump to their death from the North Tower, holding hands as they attempt to escape the collapsing wreckage. A woman in headscarf is attacked while walking to her university campus in California, as is a Sikh in Times Square. Firefighters race into the South Tower, their bodies will never found.

In some senses this exchange of the ideological for the personal can already be seen here in South Africa, ten years after. The shift in foreign policy from gunboat diplomacy in Zaire in 1998, Lesotho in ‘99 to non-interference in Zimbabwe since 2002 can be read as a marker of exactly this exchange. More and more the stories that reach us, are stories of individual South Africans; as human shields in Baghdad before the hail of missiles, as collaborators in a coup attempt to overthrow a sovereign government, as prisoners taken on foreign soil in the so-called War On Terror, as pioneers in spaceflight.

‘Rubble’ explores precisely this link, between the sudden explosion of the ideological, on the one hand and on the other, the rise of personal identity. What happened in New York is anthem for what is already happening. It is integrally tied to the production of dirt of what was the monolithic and its reproduction as canvas for the minor, but also the highly mobile. This is perhaps what Walter Benjamin saw in his Angel of History.

In this regard, Samura’s work is the most pressing. Not only because it reaches us like Shakespeare’s and Dumas’s, over a great distance, speaking of earlier worlds that have a historical bearing on their own, but also because Samura reaches by the medium of comics. In a very real sense comics is built from the rubble of former ideologies. It is no longer sacred, as it once was in classical Egypt, nor is it historicist as it was to the Aztec of meso-America, nor religio-instructive as it was in Feudal Europe. Today the genre of comics greets us as an element of popular culture already receding from popularity, in a time when popular culture is already the trash-heap of literature. Dirt is no longer to be read merely as the result of a clash of cultures, rather we approach it as the healthy product of a necessary receding of ideologies.

In this sense, Working With Dirt is not a return to Signification in any Freudian sense. Instead it is a creative process of the highest order. The words with which Alan Moore closes V for Vendetta apply here; ‘Anarchy wears two faces, both creator and destroyer / Thus destroyers topple empires; / Make a canvas of clean rubble where creators can then build a better world. / Rubble, once achieved, makes further ruins’ means irrelevant…’. Or perhaps Eliot, at the very end of ‘The Waste Land’, …these fragments have I shored against my ruin…’.

shathley Q
Cape Town, 2004

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