Tag Archives: Alan Moore

Alan Moore Unearthing Lost Girls

Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie, Lost Girls (Knockabout / Top Shelf Productions 2012)
Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins, Unearthing (Top Shelf Productions 2013)

You know what I was saying the other day about superheroes? Well, same for pornography and illegible typographic design.

1lg One of my sons gave me Lost Girls for my birthday. I knew enough about it to say as I tore the protective wrapping from the deluxe hardcover, ‘This is a rude book.’ I opened it at random and after a cursory glance showed the spread to my yum cha companions. ‘That’s not rude,’ someone said. ‘It’s pornographic.’ She was right. And there aren’t many spreads in the book that that’s not true of.

The eponymous lost girls are Wendy (as in Peter Pan and Wendy), Dorothy (as in The Wizard of Oz) and Alice (as in Alice in Wonderland), all grown up. They meet in a decadent European hotel just before the first World War and tell each other pornographic versions of their respective classic tales, then go on a seemingly endless series of sexual adventures. It’s a bit like a cartoon I remember from my early 20s that shows a crowd of Disney characters having an orgy. Only this goes on for, oh, 180 pages.

I can’t say I read it all, or looked at every image. I don’t know who would want to. I don’t understand why the brilliant story-teller Alan Moore and the fabulously talented artist Melinda Gebbie made the book in the first place. Evidently they married each other during the making of the series, so it can’t have been as off-putting for them as it was for me. If you want a proper discussion of the book, Tim Callahan discussed it as part of his Great Alan Moore Re-read on tor.com.

1603091513At the risk of incurring the wrath of truly hip commenters, I am now going to say that Unearthing also left me fairly cold. According to the back cover it began life as part of an anthology about London, and ‘evolved through a series of live performances and recordings’, before being published as this book. It’s a kind of biography of Steve Moore, a friend but no relation of Alan Moore, enmeshed with an account of Shooters Hill in South London, Alan Moore’s text and Mitch Jenkins’s photographs combined in a design phantasmagoria. I did read some bits: Steve Moore is an occultist who seems to use a lot of recreational drugs and have shared hallucinations with Alan on at least one occasion. The prose is overwrought, and in order to read it one has to variously read tiny print, decipher weird Gothic fonts, follow text presented in a spiral, distinguish pale type from an only slightly paler background, etc. And when the physical effort comes up with, for example,

The bookshelves there behind him are the hexagram with six unbroken lines, Chi’en,the Creative, are a doorway where the brilliance bleeds through from a next room that’s not there, a warren of such rooms stretching away above, below, on every side, a Hyper-London, an eternal fourfold town of lights. This is it, this is real, this lamp-glow that’s inside the world like torchlight through a choirboy’s cheeks, the mystical experience as Gilbert Chesterton’s absurd good news and it goes on for hours, goes on forever

I’m afraid I just lose the will to continue.

These books made wonderful birthday presents – beautiful, luxury objects, that took me well out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if either of them actually expanded my world, but they did make me wonder if pornography and occultism don’t have a function in common: to provide distractions from real issues in the real world. Lost Girls could even be read as saying as much in its last pages where (SPOILER ALERT) the motif of the poppy is transformed from a symbol of dreamy erotic surrender to an emblem of the carnage of war.

Daredevil, Batman and Sacco

Mark Waid, Paolo M Rivera, Marcos Martin, Daredevil (Marvel 2012)
Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke (©2008, deluxe Edition 2012)
Joe Sacco, Journalism (Metropolitan Books 2011)

It’s roughly 40 years since alcohol touched my lips, and booze is right at the top of my list of Boring Conversation Topics, but I was recently held spellbound by a conversation about wine making. My dinner companion was infectiously passionate on the subject. He described the effect of a vineyard’s microclimate on the colour and taste of grapes, and so of wine, discussed the qualities of different grapes, told me about a famous episode in which Australian vintners who had thought for years they were producing merlot were informed by experts that their grapes were actually a variety of cabernet. Wine may be boring, but the minds that make it aren’t.

The experience helped me with a confusion about superhero comics: clearly many of them are created by brilliant people, and I’ve been bemused by my own lack of response. Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602? Technically, wow! Otherwise, meh. Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men? Meh. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight? I couldn’t bring myself to read it because I’d been so repelled by the sensibility of Sin City. Superhero comics leave me cold, or worse: they embody an ethos I loathe, that divides the world into good guys and bad guys and offers vigilantism as the solution to the world’s problems. What I have finally realised is that I should no more enjoy even the very best of superhero comics than feel compelled to drink the finest of champagnes. I’m just not into the thing itself.

But I was given two excellent superhero comics for Christmas, so I was in duty bound to read them, and I did it with hope in my heart.

0785152385 Daredevil is a superhero with a disability: he’s blind, though all his other senses are of course incredibly acute, and he has one or two extras. He also suffers a lot – everybody, including other well-meaning superheroes, wants to attack him. He’s socially awkward and apparently sex-obsessed in a fairly harmless way. Apparently comics about him have been around for a long time, and this is a reboot. Much fun is had in finding ways to convey visually the world as perceived by a blind man. But in the end he’s a superhero, the story moves from violent confrontation to violent confrontation, and my world is not expanded by reading it.

1bkjAlan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke is by all accounts one of the great Batman comics, often mentioned in the same breath as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and in this ‘Deluxe Edition’ the colours are printed as Brian Bolland intended them to be. Alan Moore is a brilliant story-teller (his Watchmen is the exception among superhero comics that has kept me reading them until now), and this may be the first Batman story where it’s explicit that superheroes and supervillains are two sides of the same coin – both, in the Joker’s words, ‘had a bad day and everything changed’. But the hallucinatory world of this comic, though brilliantly created and with added ‘psychological’ complexity, is still at base, to me, boring and even obnoxious.

0805094865I was going to blog separately about the third comic I got for Christmas, Joe Sacco’s Journalism, but Sacco belongs here because he is a bit of a real-world hero. He takes his pencil and notebook into dangerous places, asks awkward questions and keeps his eyes open, then turns what he has heard and seen and thought into powerful journalistic comics (the language is problematic – comics in this context have nothing to do with comedy, but what else can you call them?).

I haven’t read his most celebrated book, Palestine, but his Footnotes in Gaza deals with a 1956 massacre – not a footnote to anything, but an exploration of deaths and beatings that usually remain mere footnotes to history. Journalism collects disparate shorter pieces, so it doesn’t have the same concerted power, but it shines a powerful light in a number of dark and dangerous corners of the world.

Endnotes to each of the six sections – ‘The Hague’, ‘The Palestinian Territories’, ‘The Caucasus’, ‘Iraq’, ‘Migration’ and ‘India’ – give brief accounts of first publication in Time, the New York Times, the Guardian Weekend and so on, managing to hint at the uneasy status of this kind of journalism. The last two sections, consisting of one longer piece each, represent a blow struck for respectability, the first being published by the Virginia Quarterly Review, described on its web site as ‘a haven—and home—for the best essayists, fiction writers, and poets’, and the second in the French magazine XXI, which Sacco says is ‘the publishing industry’s greatest champion of comics reportage’. (The Indian piece, ‘Kushinagar’, has appeared in the VQR since its publication in this collection, and you can read excerpts on the New York Review of Books site, here. Part of the other longer piece, ‘Unwanted’, about ‘irregular immigrants’ to Malta, is available on the VQR site, here.)

Sacco is a journalist: he identifies his sources and is punctilious about giving more than one point of view. When he describes the appalling destruction being visited on Palestinian communities by the Israeli Defence Force, he seeks comments from Israeli spokespeople. The incredible hardships endured by Chechens in refugee camps are weighed against the policies described by the Russian authorities. In Kushinagar, we hear from the desperately deprived Dalits, but also from the Rajahs’ descendants who exploit them and a government official who cites the laws that are in place to protect them. But, even more than a photo essay or a TV documentary, both of which derive a dubious objectivity from our lingering belief that the camera never lies, comics journalism is unavoidably personal. IMG_0112Sacco may draw from photographs, but every image in the book is made by his hand and therefore personal. He makes no pretence at omniscient objectivity: a cartoony version of himself is omnipresent – awkward, responsive, questioning, dogged, alert, engaged.

So, does comics journalism have more than novelty value? Well, Sacco takes as long as four years to create a book, and has spent years living hand to mouth in order to commit himself to this work, so clearly it has value for him. And it does for me too. I doubt if I would have read a conventional article on African asylum seekers in Malta or extreme poverty in the Kushinagar District of Uttar Pradesh in India – too far from home, too many other claims on my attention. Presented as comics, the stories become supremely accessible. It’s a lot easier to follow a complex analysis while keeping sight of details when the material is presented in what the French call récit graphique.

I found ‘Unwanted’ particularly resonant. Malta has a population of 400,000. By August 2009, 12,500 people desperate to reach Europe ‘have washed up on the island’s shore’ as ‘irregular immigrants’ from Africa, mostly sub-Saharan Africa. That’s three percent of the population compared, say, to the minuscule proportion of Australia’s population that arrive here as asylum seekers. The two situations are very different, but the similarities are striking.

Saccopage153

The strength of the piece lies in the stories told to Sacco by the African immigrants: stories of why they left home, of what they hoped for (mostly to make their way to mainland Europe), and the reality of what they faced in detention and then as ‘freedoms’, released into the community – and in the juxtaposition of these stories with the responses of Maltese people, ranging from virulent racism (a small minority), through degrees of intolerance and discomfort, to compassion and advocacy (another minority).

Sacco created this piece on Malta partly because he comes from there. It turns out he spent most of his childhood in Australia before moving to the USA. One can only wonder what he would make of the dark but not so hidden features of our landscape.

The Swamp Thing

Alan Moore, Steve R. Bissette and John Totleben, Saga of the Swamp Thing (Vertigo 2009)

I’m not a horror aficionado, but my younger son knew I enjoyed and admired other Alan Moore comics. He gave me From Hell for my birthday, and this for Father’s Day.

Having read it, I’m still not a horror fan. Demons and monsters aren’t my bag unless they’re funny like Bartimaeus, theological like Milton’s Satan, or … actually, there are quite a lot of exceptions. Still, I respond too literally to things like children becoming autistic as a result of major trauma and then institutionalised and preyed on by stray demons, and when a plot hinges on some plants speeding up their production of oxygen at night, I want to give a lecture on the difference between plant respiration and photosynthesis. Maybe pedantry protects me from the horrors of the unconscious mind.

Still, Alan Moore is a story-telling genius. In 1982, he – and illustrators Bissette and Totleben – took over the Swamp Thing comic series created ten years earlier by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson. They collaborated on something like 45 issues – this book collects the first eight of them, of which the very first busies itself tying up loose ends from the previous 19 issues, and the second redefines the nature of the eponymous monster. So we are plunged in medias res, but know we won’t be given the detail of what went before. We can tell something is being rebuilt, not quite from the ground up, and forward impetus is well established.

This book interested me as early work by the creator of Watchmen which, like Neil Gaiman’s  Sandman, won my engagement by sheer brilliance. I don’t feel compelled to read on here, though anyone with a love of horror would certainly be hooked.

From Hell

Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell, From Hell (Top Shelf Publications 26)

Each of my sons gave me a big comic for Christmas. I’ve already posted a note about R Crumb’s Genesis. From Hell, in which Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell tackle Jack the Ripper, makes an interesting companion read. Both books have ample sex, violence and uncanniness. Both deal in multiple versions of the same events. Both feature self portraits by the illustrator that are charmingly at odds with the rest of the book (Crumb on the dust jacket flap in his ‘lounge pants’; Campbell in an Appendix as a gangly stay-at-home dad). And both have notes up the back that exert a fascination of their own.

I’m not particularly fascinated by Jack the Ripper. In my teens I read what must be one of the few books on the subject not mentioned in the appendices of this one, The Identity of Jack the Ripper by Donald McCormick (what’s the good of keeping these records if you can’t trot them out occasionally), in which Jack was revealed to be the Prince of Wales, and that was enough for me. Alan Moore, by contrast, has immersed himself in Ripperology and hammered it into a vast, complex web of story, incorporating court records, newspaper accounts, speculation, rumour, architectural history, literary history, Masonic ritual, unexpected historical connections and just plain invention, with appearances by Queen Victoria, William Blake, William Morris, Aleister Crowley, Hitler’s parents – the list goes on. I can’t say it was a pleasant read, but it’s a very impressive one. Likewise Eddie Campbell’s art (in this book) is rarely pleasant, but it’s darkly powerful. There’s a lot of hatching, and it’s often hard to tell exactly what is being shown – which at he more grisly moments is a great blessing!

I started out reading the main narrative in tandem with the notes that constitute the first appendix, but gave up about a third of the way in, because the plethora of information about sources was slowing the story down terribly. However, it’s good to know how little of the narrative is pure invention on Moore and Campbell’s part, and I’m reasonably sure that without the notes some bits of the story would have remained completely mysterious to me. And there’s one fabulous twist in the tail that would certainly have bypassed me if the last couple of notes (I skipped to the end) hadn’t first told me that the ‘scene on page 23’ was cryptic, second told me to work it out for myself, and third given me a big hint that transformed the meaning of one of the many subplots into something almost redemptive.

In the first few pages, a convenient warning to parents to put the book on a high shelf, there’s a sex scene that exemplifies Eddie Campbell’s genius by managing to be very explicit (by which I mean anatomically specific), not at all soft-focus prurient, and also joyful. This scene is what sets the whole ghastly plot into action, which according to one school of Biblical interpretation brings me back to the similarities to Genesis.

In short, I don’t know who I’d recommend this book to, but it’s very good.