Wu Ming: A band of militant storytellers

The Celluloid Liberation Front speak to the Italian literary collective Wu Ming, whose work draws readers in to exchange, sharing and confrontation.

A collective of militant storytellers opposing the toxic narratives that create fear, prejudices and inequality - Wu Ming is not your average literary phenomenon. At a time when the proof of our existence, relevance and worth is measured by how fast our virtual image(s) propagate through the media landscape, Wu Ming refuses to be photographed or filmed. No, forget the Pynchons or the Salingers, Wu Ming is anything but shy, quite the contrary. Its members in fact cultivate a very close relationship with their readers via numerous public readings and presentations, taking active part in political struggles and debates as well as through a "participating" use of their blog, Giap.

As to why they are not very keen on their own image being captured on film (or on file), Wu Ming 1 motivated their choice in a 2007 interview thus: "a picture witnesses my absence, it stands for distance and solitude. The picture blocks you, freezes you in time, denies your becoming something else, your unfolding." They prefer the dynamism of their voices that brings them closer their readers. Their public presence, both physical and virtual, avoids promotional proselytising and focuses instead on exchange, sharing and confrontation. Their blog Giap is not a place where the literary collective pontificate and the faithful readers gather in awe. The comments section often turns into a public square, a virtual street corner where the Wu Ming members (1,2,4 & 5, Wu Ming 3 having left the collective) engage in lengthy, sometimes heated, always critical debates with the blog visitors/readers (fascists not welcome, reads a warning on the homepage).

Their story begins in the 1990s when, under the pseudonym Luther Blissett, they engaged in cultural guerrilla warfare, semiotic sabotage and media pranks - all this, at a time when the World Wide Web was but a digital foetus. At the end of that decade, when according to the neoliberal ideologues history was supposed to be ended, Luther Blissett published Q, a historical novel that became a best seller and was translated into several languages. From then on, after having changed their name into Wu Ming ("anonymous" in Mandarin) this  band of novelists continued their literary militancy, publishing four novels collectively and many others individually or in collaboration with other authors.

We asked Wu Ming a few questions since their new novel, Altai, is published by Verso this week.

Through your blog, Giap (named after the retired Vietnam People’s Army General Võ Nguyên Giáp), you actively engage with readers by replying to their comments on your posts whose topics vary from politics to literature, cultural matters to personal musings. Can you explain the significance of your online presence and how it has impacted your work?

We started using computer networks (that's what they were usually called in those days) in the early 1990s. Back then, there were such international bulletin boards as ECN and Fidonet, whose Italian nodes were very active and populated by radicals and countercultural types. The World Wide Web came into existence - or at least entered our radar - a short while later, exactly at the time we got in touch with some  elusive UK characters, like Richard Essex aka the London Psychogeographic Association and Stewart Home, whom we contacted after reading the Neoist Alliance Manifesto on an Italian mail art 'zine. It turns out that that 'zine was edited by Alberto Rizzi, the guy who had the idea of pulling a prank on Chi L'Ha Visto, that famous missing persons' TV show... We invented an English artist, and invented his disappearance, and suddenly a state-funded TV crew was looking for him in Italy and the UK... However, that happened later.

In 1994 Stewart Home sent us plenty of material on multiple names: Monty Cantsin, Karen Eliot, Lt. Murnau... That's how we started the Luther Blissett Project. As early as 1995 we already had our own website(s) running. Our current website - wumingfoundation.com, of which Giap is the most important element - has been online since January 2000. As happened for many other groups of artists-cum-activists, the Net has shaped all our work and modus operandi. We used to talk about interactivity, social networking, online conversations and so on when most people still thought it was all a fad...

We're not on Facebook because we find it disgusting. We've been using Twitter - with some ups and downs - since 2009, with a blend of skepticism and experimental fervour. We stopped using it for a while because it was addictive, then we found a good way to use it: it's very simple, we're tweeting the comment feed from Giap, a tweet consists of the first sentence of the comment, which rouses curiosity and people click on the link. Giap lives in symbiosis with Twitter, but we keep being a little skeptical, you know, kind of inquisitive, self-critical... Social media can be dangerous, we started saying that years ago, now everybody says that but in a way that we don't like... We're neither net-enthusiasts nor net-pessimists.

All the novels you have collectively written so far are historical ones. History in your books seems to function on multiple levels. On the one hand it demystifies what you refer to as “toxic narratives” in order to critically explore the origins and causes of our current predicament. On the other hand there is a strong allegorical dimension. Why did you always choose to set your novels in past? And will you ever consider setting your novels in the present time?

Actually some of our novels are set in the present time, and some of our books are not novels, they're what we call "Unidentified Narrative Objects", by which we mean a sort of... non-fiction novel... gone awry. Anyway, the books that were translated into English are all historical novels. Now we're writing a novel on Terror, we mean the real thing, 1793 Terror, Robespierre and all that. Most likely, it will be our last "ordinary" (just kidding) historical novel. After Sleepwalking Army (that's the title), we're thinking of writing a communist science-fiction novel set in the 1970s. Of course the 1970s are history as well, but we're going to work on the sources in a different way. In plain words, we like history because it provides us with countless stories to (re)discover and tell, but there are many ways to use history.

You have claimed that your most recent novel that has just been translated into English is not a sequel of your first work, Q (published under your previous pseudonym Luther Blissett). That said, chronologically Altai begins where Q had ended and the two novels also share some characters. Why did you feel the need to go back to those times and places?

In 2008, due to personal reasons, Luca aka Wu Ming 3 left the group after about 13 years of writing together, and 18 years of collaboration on other projects. All of a sudden, the quintet became a quartet. It was disorientating, to say the least. There was a crisis. A crisis of... balance, because the collective had to found a new balance. It was a question of learning how to work, write and interact among us in a new way. Ten years before, in 1998, we had delivered Q to the Italian publisher. It was published in March 1999.

It dawned on us that 2009 would be Q's tenth anniversary; what better occasion to find a new balance? In order to digest Luca's departure, we went «back to the crime scene». Our detractors think that publishing Q was nothing short of a crime, so... What better way to irritate them even more than writing a follow-up? It isn't a sequel, it isn't Q 2... It's a very different book, because after 10 years we were very different. When we started to write Q the oldest member of the band was 31, the youngest was 21. Now the oldest is 49 and the youngest 39. That's what we did in 2008: we wrote a novel that at some difficulty reachable level was also a meditation on ourselves. Thanks to Altai, we managed to start over.

In both your two latest novels, Manituana and Altai, “the female side” has a stronger creative and emphatic role within the stories you narrate. Do you agree? If yes, why do you think it is?

We went further then that in other books and short stories, such as New Thing and Arzèstula, whose main characters are women. It is difficult for male writers to depict convincing female characters, that was the problem with Q, the way we described women was... lame. We're very self-critical about that. We've been trying hard for so long, because we think one is not a good writer if she can't depict convincing characters of all existing genders, and also because  there are already more than enough novels written by men for men about men and male bonding. One of our models is Stephen King, WM1 translated two of his latest books, Full Dark No Stars and 11/22/63. King is pretty good at creating believable female characters... for a man. 

Recently you have produced a significant amount of critical material, analyses and commentary regarding the Beppe Grillo’s phenomenon in Italy. Some of it made it onto the pages of the British press; can you explain why you felt it was important to dissect and debunk this particular phenomenon? How do you see it developing?

We're too tired to talk about that. It's so boring to see things go exactly as you predicted...  The Five Star Movement played an important role in keeping the situation stable, and now they're suffering a deep crisis, with a lot of internal conflict. Grillismo only rippled the surface of the system, which created an impression of turmoil and instability, but it was all phoney, it took place only in the arena of national news media. Movements like that serve to stabilise the system: by pigeonholing anger and unrest into simplistic discourse (ie they're against politicians but not against the bosses and the ruling class), they prevent social protest from erupting, they make struggles against austerity more difficult, and they impair the development of anticapitalist movements.

The result is that, people in Spain are taking to the streets again, they're preventing evictions, they're engaging in radical praxis like escrache, ie targeted harassment of politicians and bosses, whereas, what are Grillo's people doing in Italy? They sit in parliament, where they don't have any detectable influence on national politics, and they're losing local elections one after another. In the towns and cities where they managed to elect a mayor in 2011, they're administering austerity like everyone else, no difference. Very often, key representatives of the movement (but it isn't really a movement, it's more a politico-commercial franchise) take racist positions on migrants and citizenship. Some of them are nothing other than fascists. Many people are getting disillusioned about Grillo's potential for change.

Are you working on new projects? What are your future plans both as a collective and as single members?

We already told you about the novel on the French Revolution, and the sci-fi project we'd like to work on after that. We just got a new book out in Italy, it is entitled Point Lenana. It's one of those unidentified narrative objects, it is both a narrative biography of Felice Benuzzi - the author of No Picnic on Mount Kenya, a minor classic on prison camp escape and mountaineering in Africa - and a non-fiction novel on Italy in the 20th century: Fascism, Italian colonialism in East Africa, mountain climbing and many other things. Research and writing took exactly four years. Wu Ming 1 even climbed Mount Kenya himself, in order to follow Benuzzi's steps.

No photo: "A picture witnesses my absence, it stands for distance and solitude. The picture blocks you, freezes you in time, denies your becoming something else."
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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.