At the same time I'm sort of fascinated just a bit more with the kind of zeitgeist that was capable of producing an artist like Moore in the first place. It helps to understand that Moore was just one of several names to appear in a brief moment of artistic activity that may have started somewhere around the mid to late 70s, and gained it's peak notoriety during the 80s before disappearing into separate elements by the mid 90s. This activity consists of at least two discernible shared traits. The first was that most of it was centered in Britain, though I guess a few Americans were able to make some contributions here and there. The second was that it revolved around a kind of minor vogue in both the graphic, literary, and performing arts.
It's difficult to talk about this moment of history. Modern pop-culture is familiar with the names of the individuals associated with this creative explosion, such as Moore, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Terry Gilliam, etc. However I still haven't seen any attempts to look at these artists as a kind of semi-group which formed as parts of a bigger creative enterprise. This is explainable in that it was all fairly recent, and most of it's participants are still alive as of this writing. It could be that not enough time has passed for anyone to take proper stock of this historical moment. Still, the creative time span was there, however brief, and sooner or later some efforts should be made at trying to trace out the larger patterns of the artistic undercurrents that gave us V for Vendetta, The Sandman, and lesser known productions, such as Peter Straub's Shadowland, or Kim Newman's Diogenes Club.
I'm not sure this group deserves to be called a movement or anything like that. On the whole, they all seem too individualistic to be considered anything like a unified front. However, lack of unity doesn't perhaps rule out a certain degree of shared or thematic overlap. If it's at all possible, what I'd like to do here is see how far I can trace out any hint of these underlying patterns and themes by examining individual novels or comics from this brief period of time, along with exploring the lives of their respective authors, and seeing whether or not they help to form a greater thematic whole.
The Subject in Question.
The real difficulty of talking about a figure like Moore is learning how not to just repeat what everyone has known for a long time. The other pitfall to avoid is to go around thinking that all you need to know about your subject can be learned from soundbites during interviews. The key to Alan Moore is to realize that we're dealing with an artist of layers, and perhaps the mainstream audience knows just a small percentage of the real story.
On the surface you have a man who is the product of an English childhood during the 50s and 60s. This kid seems about average, maybe just a bit on the flighty side of life. He can be rowdy on occasion, though he mostly tends to avoid conflict and retire away someplace where he can be alone with his funny pages. The kid seems to have an obsession with American comic books, though surely he can't be all that serious about it...Right?
Meanwhile, there was a lot going on underneath the exterior of Moore's life. Perhaps his first major influence was his hometown of Northampton. The place of one's birth can have an enormous impact on how we view the world. Moore was placed at an interesting intersection between the modern world and that of ancient English folklore. This is most evident when Parkin grants the reader an idea of the locale Moore grew up in. He quotes from the work of oral Northampton history by Jeremy Seabrook.
"The portrait he painted was of a community only a few generations away from agricultural peasantry, locked into old rituals of speech, family (behavior), deference to their social superiors and plain superstition: 'The real fear in which their superstitions held them - and at least fifty common phenomena were considered certain forerunners of death - was a grim and joyless feature of their lives...Their irrational beliefs were like an hereditary poison, which, if it no longer manifests itself in blains and pustules on the surface of the skin, nonetheless continues its toxic effects insidiously and invisibly.' This is echoed in Moore's description of his grandmother, who had a 'nightmarish array of sinister and unfathomable superstitions...she managed through sheer force of will to involve the household in her system of Juju and Counter-Juju. Knives crossed upon the dinner table, as an instance, heralded the forthcoming destruction of the house and its immediate (neighborhood) by a rogue comet. To avert this peril, the catastrophically crossed cutlery had to be struck forcibly by yet a third knife.' Seabrook concluded that attitudes like this left people insular and ill-equipped to deal with a world that was changing rapidly..."(23).
While Parkin tends to not make much noise, one way or the other, about the importance of place, I can't help thinking that if Moore had never grown up in the Old World zeitgeist of the Boroughs of Northampton, then he wouldn't have been able to write with the signature blend of dark humor combined with a trippy sort of idealism that almost sounds medieval in places. This blended style is the key note to be found in almost all of Moore's writings, and it comes closer to the forefront in a lost of his post-Watchmen work.
It was into to this old/new milieu (which sounds a lot more mixed and eclectic than perhaps Seabrook gives it credit) that the second biggest influence came along when a 12 year old Moore picked up a copy of a Mad Magazine parody of DC's Man of Steel.
"(It's) a resonant chronological coincidence that simple arithmetic places Alan Moore's conception around the February or March 1953, the very time that Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood produced the parody comic strip 'Superduperman' for Mad magazine. Human beings tend not to have the same neat 'secret origins' that superheroes do. Few of us have our lives transformed by a single event that galvanizes us and leads us to destiny. That said, the summer's day when a young Alan Moore first read a British reprint of 'Superduperman' was hugely formative,...transforming the superhero genre and providing a successful template for revitalizing a long-running series that spread from comics to television and cinema. If we understand what it was about this eight-page comic strip that engaged Moore, what he understood about its contents and what his response to it represents. we'll be closer to understanding Moore himself.
"As the name suggests, 'Superduperman' is a parody of the Superman comic, and at one level it now looks a little hackneyed. Some of the targets are obvious, such as the spoof of Clark Kent's penchant for changing into costume in a phone booth, while the substitution of the names 'Clark Bent' and 'Lois Pain' for Clark Kent and Lois Lane, or 'Captain Marbles' for Captain Marvel, is not something most adults would find terribly witty. There is far more going on in the strip than that, though. Clark Bent's fawning devotion to Lois and his compulsive desire to sniff her perfume is far from innocent, while echoing the creepiness of the relationship of the real Lois and Clark. By changing the 'camera angle' slightly, the fight between Superduperman and Captain Marbles involves everything a similar sequence in the original comics would, while portraying its 'heroes' as vain, stupid and violent. (13 -14).
This revelation at the beginning of Parkin's book is fascinating because of it's implications. To start with, the artist who inspired Moore was none other than Mad's Harvey Kurtzman. Kurtzman "was the father of a style of comedy now familiar from TV series like Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and The Daily Show. As actor Harry Shearer put it, 'Harvey Kurtzman taught two, maybe three generations of post-war American kids, mainly boys, what to laugh at" politics, popular culture, authority figures (14 -15)". This is an observation Parkin follows up on when it comes to tracing the influence of this satirical tradition on Moore's most famous work. The most important element about Watchman according to Parkin is it's subtle and sardonic sense of humor.
"Thanks in large part to Watchmen, the word 'serious' appears a lot when Alan Moore is discussed. Moore, we're told, creates stories where superheroes are 'taken seriously'...By treating Watchmen as a work of great solemnity, this scholarly attention, the subsequent imitators, and the movie version have almost universally missed the point: Alan Moore was joking (183-4)". "The whole of Watchmen is soaked with a brand of black comedy that's distinctly recognizable from Moore' more overtly humorous work (186)". "Moore has accounted (for this particular sense of humor, sic) by saying 'it's the equivalent of the sick but understandable jokes that kind of spring up like a rash when there's any public disaster'. Around the time he was writing Watchmen, Moore added that he was worried his audience wasn't getting the joke: 'I started to question the ethics of doing humor based upon nuclear weapons because i wasn't sure that my audience was understanding it with the heavy irony that was intended and, in fact, sometimes I wasn't even sure that I was understanding it with the heavy irony that it really needed (187)".
Parkin's excavation of this hidden sense of humor disguised as "respectable seriousness" is at it's best when he points out how superheroes, by their nature, can't be taken seriously as the main subjects of a fictional work. The biographer cites the words of critic Carter Scholz:
...as...Scholz's review of the graphic novel put it, 'the superhero genre was never made to take the strain that he [Moore] puts on it...he has taken an untenable concept absolutely as far as it can go'. Critics who raise objections to Watchmen's 'serious tone' seem to think that Moore was oblivious to the idea that superheroes are inherently childish and open to ridicule. This, though, is a misapprehension. When Moore embarked upon the project he did so in the belief that a relatively inexpensive, direct-sales-only comic had no appeal except for existing comics fans, and deliberately played to that fanbase. But in the introduction to the original hardback edition of Watchmen, he noted that, once the series started receiving wider attention, what 'started life as merely a more cynical and baroque take upon the Justice League of America and their ilk suddenly found itself standing in the public marketplace of mainstream fiction, dressed in only a cloak and a pair of brightly colored tights' (192)".
"And Watchmen addresses the most familiar absurdity of the genre head on...In some later attempts to tell more grown-up superhero stories (including the movie version of Watchmen), 'brightly colored tights' give way to more practical solutions like leather and molded body armor; others, like the television series Smallville and Heroes, would give their superheroes ordinary clothes. Yet, rather than thinking Superman would become more plausible if only he wore a jacket, Moore and Gibbons turned the 'real world logic' on its head and asked who would pull on a cape and tights: 'It wouldn't always be be a terribly healthy person. Some people would be doing it purely for the sexual excitement of dressing up, others for the excitement of beating somebody up. Some are doing it for political reasons, many are doing it for altruistic motives, but there would certainly be a percentage who would have rather odd psychological afflictions in their make-up...There's just something about anybody who would dress up in a mask and costume that's not quite normal'.
"Any adult - and every vaguely thoughtful small child - understands that you don't fight crime by putting on a leotard, and this inevitably short-circuits any attempt to treat superheroes 'realistically'. Moore and Gibbons understood this. The New York Times may have hailed the series for its 'staggeringly complex psychological profiles' but this is not a claim that survives contact with the book. As Grant Morrison noted, it deals in stock action-narrative types:
"Dazzled by its technical excellence, Watchmen's readership was willing to overlook a cast of surprisingly conventional Hollywood stereotypes: the inhibited guy who had to get his mojo back; the boffin losing touch with his humanity; the overbearing showbiz mom who drove her daughter to excel while hiding from her the secret of her dubious parentage; the prison psychiatrist so drawn into the dark inner life of his patient that his own life cracked under the weight. The Watchman characters were drawn from a repertoire of central casting cyphers (194)".
"The character", Moore's biographer says, "are a series of different punchlines to the same joke (ibid)". Parkin doesn't highlight the line stretching from Kurtzman to Watchman, and it's to his credit that he doesn't need to make the connection. The Mad Magazine influence is almost self-evident for those readers who have been paying attention. It also goes without saying that this type of approach can be utilized with the more traditional line of superheroes. In addition, this satirical introduction to the superhero genre might be instructive in a more real life way. One of the major complaints lodged by Moore revolves around just how far DC, Marvel, and the fans, have gone in taking all the wrong lessons from his works. In a recent interview Moore made a statement about superhero comics that sounds at a complete 180 from everything he's ever done, labeling superheroes as "culturally catastrophic":
"To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children's characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence...It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite 'universes' presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times (web)".
Sentiments such as these may sound out of character, however, taking Parkin's revelation of Superduperman into consideration as the main starting point for Moore's entire aesthetic makes the artist's words in the interview less of a self-contradiction, and more of an ironic, self-fulfilling prophecy. It makes sense if his basic take was always in the more satirical vein of Kurtzman, and less straight-forward without a touch of irony. In this sense, perhaps it's better to view Moore as always having held a more skewed view of superheroes than his fans.
The third biggest influence seems to have been the Art Labs. This is where the underlying theme of an artistic zeitgeist comes into play. Moore's place in this aesthetic climate is perhaps best mapped out in relation to a particular feature of the 1960s counter-culture. The Arts Lab movement began as the brainchild of Jim Jaynes, a former journalist for the underground newspaper, the International Times (42). The Labs themselves are best described as a series of open forums for new and potential talent. They were, in essence, a mixed brew combining a traditional theatrical troupe with a Hippie commune. David Bowie was a beneficiary of the movement, and so was Moore (43).
"The beauty of the Arts Labs was that they truly were open to all, a precursor in many ways to punk rock - or the equivalent of an open mic night in Los Angeles, except they encompassed all the arts, and not just music. The guiding principle was that all art was valid; the organizers, at least, regarded the 'doing' to be of far greater value than the actual accomplishment. There was no 'quality control' button - if someone claimed to be an artist, a performer, a sculptor, an orator, then that was what they were, and some phenomenal talents emerged from the scene (43)".
This is a sentiment that Moore pretty much agrees with. According to Moore, "the ethos of Arts Lab was that you could do whatever you wanted, that you didn't have to limit yourself to one particular medium, that you could jump about, you could blend media together and come up with new hybrids". Moore continues: "That was where I first started writing songs, or song lyrics at least, working with musicians, which sometimes gives you a certain sense of the dynamic of words that you don't get from any other field of endeavor. It was where I started writing short sketches and plays, which, again, is very, very useful. It teaches you about the dynamics of setting scenes up, resolutions, stuff like that. All of these things - poetry teaches you something about words and narrative; performing plays; creating different characters, different voices; writing songs...although they seem miles away from comics, all of them taught me things that have been incredibly useful since, even though I didn't know it at the time. He concludes that 'none of the art we were producing was wonderful, and so I can't say that I learned at the feet of any great masters. What it did teach me was a certain attitude to art, an attitude that wasn't precious, that held that art was something you put together in fifteen minutes before you went on stage and performed it...it was messy - no lasting work of art emerged from it. What did emerge from that period was a certain set of aspirations, feelings, an idea of possibilities more than anything (43 -44)".
I said at the start that part of my goal in this post was to examine whether or not there was a greater literary context in which Moore forms a part, along with the efforts of several other writers. I think Parkin's reveal of Moore's time in the Arts Lab movement provides a possible first clue to help us understand this idea of a shared artistic climate. Part of the value of a work like Magic Words is that it can give the perceptive reader enough clues to allow a clearer picture to emerge of this proposed literary-historical phenomenon. If Parkin's biography does nothing else, it gives us a decade to mark as the earliest possible starting date for the zeitgeist, and an author to go along with it.
Like a lot of the authors I intend to examine, Moore is a product of the 60s. This is an artistic debt that Parkin highlights as dear to his subject's heart. This explains the emphasis on the surreal underground newspaper aesthetics found in 1963 and The Bojeffries Saga, or the trippy mysticism at the center of From Hell. It's just possible that the 60s are the ultimate explanation of one of the most perplexing aspects of Moore's work, his exploration and performance of "magic".
Sometime after the the success of his big titles like V and Miracleman, Moore perplexed his fans (and raised more than one skeptical eyebrow among the critics) by claiming to be a magician. The comics wunderkind just added to the confusion by launching a series of live performances billed as The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theater of Marvels. This consisted of a series of poetry recitals before live audiences. These readings were supplemented by music from singer David J, along with some mixed media elements to provide a bit of visual flair. I guess the best terms in which to think of it is like a late 60s psychedelic rave party minus all the big bands. Moore wound up producing a number of these shows, and was able to get at least 5 spoken word albums out of it. The most notable of these is the aforementioned Moon and Serpent CD, which features passages that are illustrated in Moore's Jack the Ripper saga, and Snakes and Ladders, part of which details the connections between various points in London's history with the writings of horror author Arthur Machen.
The trouble is it's difficult to see what any of this has to do with putting on a conventional magic show. The real puzzle is Moore's scattered statements throughout his career on the nature of magic. To hear him tell it, he sees himself as not just an entertainer, but more like an actual wizard able to cast spells through his writings. It all sounds too weird and unreal to be true or believable, and perhaps it is.
Magic Words spends a surprising amount of time trying to plumb the reasons behind Moore's greatest eccentricity. The length of page space devoted to just this one aspect of a much larger field makes it hard to tell sometimes whether Moore is in fact serious about it all. My own take is that he is being a deliberate showman with a purpose. If the 60s do in fact play as big an influence on his thinking, then it makes sense to view Moore's purpose as always trying to shake his audience out of it's own complacency. This perspective is at least able to make some sense out the various creative choices the comics scribe has made over the course of his career. Whenever he felt his readers were nearing a point where they could pin and catalogue him, Moore would switch gears. We begin to see him as the man who made superheroes serious? He drops it all and pens a volume like Lost Girls. The minute we start to settle on calling him a premiere graphic novelist he begins to call himself a magician.
This offers a limited kind of sense to the trajectory of the artist's life. However, it still doesn't answer one question. If this pose of being a magician is just another convenient disguise, then what is underneath the mask. Is there anything like an all encompassing idea that links together each phase of Moore's work? I think there is, although it is not a connection that Parkin ever makes explicit in his biography. It does factor into the the bio a semi-implicit feature.
There is one figure that Moore keeps circling back to eventually in all his writings, whether for comics, performance, or traditional print. In From Hell Moore brings up the poet William Blake as a form of neglected prophet. Blake is linked in that graphic novel with a form of esoteric thought running through history and encoded in the architecture of London. Moore returns to Blake and his thought again in the Moon and Serpent stage show, and the traditions of which Blake forms a participatory part is the under-girding concept of works like Snakes and Ladders or The Birth Caul. There is one other possible connection between the would-be magician and the temperamental 18th century poet. Again, this is a connection that never features in Parkin's book, yet I think it's an interesting fact that in his otherwise unrelated volume, The Making of the Counter-Culture, Theodore Roszak chooses to nominate Blake as something of a guiding spirit for the Sixties as a whole.
It may be that the real truth about Alan Moore is that he is best thought of as an inheritor. Whether by accidental or deliberate choice, Moore seems to both mimic and mirror a lot of the concerns of many of the great names of the Romantic Movement in literature. He even went so far as to signal the influence of Blake's work on his own career. Parkin check-marks Blake as an influence at one point (291), yet perhaps it's a mistake to treat the poet as just one influence among many. Suppose for a moment that Moore can be viewed as a latter day Romantic? What would the implications of that be?
In terms of his work, Moore shows a constant concern with that particular point at which an artistic trope turns into a conventionality. It's almost like he possesses an inner radar that can detect the abuse of a cliche and turn it to good use. The use he puts it to also happens to fit with an overall goal of shaking up the conventional expectations of his audience. In this regard, Moore shares a great deal with Blake in terms of both thematic concerns, and his artistic practices. If Moore can be thought of as taking up the mantle of the Romantics, then the idea of him being a sort of inheritor begins to perhaps make just a bit more sense. He is able through his work to forge a series of thematic links in a chain that stretches from guys like Blake and Keats up to his own life. In that sense, perhaps Moore is onto something in trying to trace the lines of history that run through England like an underground current.
At the end of his study, rather than finishing with the traditional profile of his subject as the Avatar of Graphic Novels, Parkin instead situates Moore within the context of the Arts Lab Movement.
"Comics fans have a nostalgic streak. Moore's deconstruction of the superhero genre in the eighties is now as fondly remembered - and longer ago- than Lee and Kirby's revolution at Marvel was then. But Moore outgrew his warmth for superheroes. He has the advantage of a childhood that resists romanticism. Where his nostalgic streak kicks in, his Rosebud, would seem to be the Arts Lab. Throughout his career, Alan Moore has clearly hankered for another place where he and his mates just get on and make art. Warrior, DC, Mad Love, ABC...Moore seems to have started out seeing each one as an Arts Lab with a marketing arm. He agrees that 'Arts Labs thinking has been an underlying factor in a lot of my subsequent work, it is how I do tend to organize projects; let's have fun, let's experiment...I'm basically still at the Arts Lab, it's just an incredibly enabled Arts Lab with whatever contributors I want. With the Arts Lab all of my needs to express myself, all my urges, had an outlet'. With Moon and Serpent - and Top Shelf, Knockabout, Avatar, the revived Mad Love and Orphans of the Storm - Moore has finally found a way to do his own thing, enjoy doing it and pay the bills (379-80)".
This makes sense if Moore is seen as taking a Romantic inheritance and putting it to good use. In that sense, his work is perhaps best viewed as an ongoing attempt, sometimes despite his own statements, to come to a greater understanding of his own literary and artistic influences, and how that past can help to shape both the present and the future.
At this time of writing, the artist has made a gradual transition from comics to traditional print. His latest work has been the gargantuan novel Jerusalem. It's hard to tell where he can go, what his creative options are, or just how much time he has left to accomplish any of it. What I can say is that he has managed to fit the role of an artist and a Romantic with both skill and tenacity. His work is one of a kind, and stamped with his own creative sensibilities. Because of this, it is a certain guarantee that it can never be duplicated. Perhaps that's a blessing, as it means the work will always stand as a testament to one man's attempt at making the world look at itself from a more creative perspective. Parkin's Magic Words is a useful resource to help readers begin to gain a better understanding of it's subject.