27 February, 2012Issue 18.4FictionLiteratureVisual Arts

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Perpetuating the Myth

Alexandra Manglis

BritishGary Spencer Millidge
Alan Moore: Storyteller
Ilex Press, 2011
336 pages
£25.00
ISBN 978-1907579127

 


In 1988 Alan Moore committed retrospective comic book heresy by “fridging” Barbara Gordon, a.k.a. Batgirl, in the DC publication Batman: The Killing Joke. True to his reputation as a sociopolitically aware writer, and as an author unafraid of admitting to his mistakes, Moore later apologised for the story arc, “stating in several interviews that he felt the decision was shallow and ill-conceived.” Moore then recounted a discussion he had with DC’s editorial board on the subject of permanently paralysing the young heroine for the sake of a Batman plot line, saying that he was given permission, “as I remember it, [to] ‘cripple the bitch.’”

This short Alan Moore anecdote encapsulates much of the famous writer’s politics and of his fraught relationship with the comics industry, while also depicting how open Moore is to moving on and away from his past projects, no matter how proud or embarrassed he may be of them. We are reminded that Moore’s indisputable place as the godfather of the modern comic book has always been set against his idiosyncratic, progressive belief system (further coloured by his eccentric religious faith in the snake god, Glycon).

The work and the man have morphed together resulting in a giant Moore myth that fans and comic creators alike have difficulty surmounting, its tentacles sprawled out far beyond his small Northamptonshire home. The infamous Guy Fawkes mask, for one, created in Moore’s anarchist comic V for Vendetta, has been worn by protesters from Tahrir Square to Occupy Wall Street, and Moore is indubitably proud of the anarchist symbol’s use in real civil unrest. Yet the symbol’s popularisation is largely due to the comic’s adaptation into a Hollywood blockbuster, from which Moore removed his name and refused to take royalties. Moore’s stories have become bigger than the man himself; the images he has authored have grown beyond him and often, as in the case of V for Vendetta, in spite of him.

Gary Spencer Millidge’s Alan Moore: Storyteller brings the stories back to their author. And there is no doubt when one picks up this hefty, well-illustrated volume that Millidge is onto a winning topic. He sets about completing the ambitiously practical task of relating the entirety of Alan Moore’s movement through comics, from the very first strip, which he sold for pennies in primary school, through his notorious DC years, to the current, bimonthly, self-published Dodgem Comics. After all, Moore’s trajectory as a comic writer trailblazer, from his very first syndicated comic-strip “St. Pancras Panda” to the now infamous Watchmen to his unabashedly pornographic Lost Girls, is a story which so far has been told only in fragments. Millidge puts all the pieces together in a comprehensive chronological structure, thus mapping the development of Moore’s storytelling technique.

It soon becomes clear, though, that while Millidge’s Storyteller is successfully set up as an encyclopaedia of Moore’s work, it makes no effort to delve deeply into Moore’s biography; to find, in other words, the man behind the myth. The focus of Millidge’s writing is strictly located on Alan Moore’s stories and the comic industry, where external forces like Moore’s drug use, his unconventional marriage, his divorce, or his children are brought up almost incidentally, and passed over quickly.

Introduced by fantasy writer extraordinaire Michael Moorcock and split into seven even sections, the book details different phases of Moore’s career. Millidge’s chapters are short, descriptive, and filled with Moore comic-book trivia. The book opens on Moore’s younger years and his break into the comic industry through dedication and hard work. Then we are taken down memory lane as Moore’s relationship with Marvel UK and 2000 AD in the late 1970s is opened up to us: an era of Dr. Who and Star Wars, burgeoning with popular science fiction where the year 2000 promised anything from nuclear desert to technological utopia. This was the exciting, fertile ground from which Moore was to emerge. Before long, the monolithic American comic publisher, DC, had snapped Moore up, and so began his genre-breaking participation in the now legendary 1980s decade of comic book history, producing pieces like Swamp Thing and Watchmen in just a few short years. By the 1980s, if one is to take Millidge at his word, Moore was writing without any difficulties, his dark years behind him and his pen moving flawlessly.

Moore then famously broke up with DC over problems of pay and copyrights, and so he moved on to an independent, non-superhero comic writing spree, supported by the publishing company his wife and their girlfriend had set up, where he collaborated with Eddie Campbell on From Hell and worked on other small-press publications. By the late ’1990s, however, Moore had grudgingly returned to DC’s embrace to create new superhero characters like Tom Strong, Promethea, and the Victorian heroes of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Millidge’s main talent in Storyteller is a keen ability to indicate and point out all the different projects on which Moore worked, be they in the cultural forefront of society or in the hidden nooks and crannies of secondhand bookstores. And since each project is located in chronological order, the varying stories take on the context of Moore’s ever-developing storytelling style so that we are also exposed to Moore’s own intellectual progress. In the wake of his 1980s superhero days, for example, Moore collaborated with Argentinean illustrator Oscar Zarate on the short, beautifully drawn, non-superhero story A Small Killing. Millidge makes a point of directing the reader to this less well-known comic, marking it as a key moment in Moore’s career and taking care to quote Moore himself on it: “It is one of the most important works for me as a writer, because I was entering a new territory, I felt that I was attempting an unmistakably adult work, after all the superheroes I had written before.” The accompanying pictures and Millidge’s careful, spoiler-free summary of the tale leave the reader intrigued, wanting to read other work by Moore.

It is admirably clear that Millidge has extensively interviewed Moore and gone to much trouble to collect and collate extensive pages of artwork, sketch drawings, comic scripts, and photographs spanning from Moore’s childhood to the present day. Furthermore, Millidge’s penultimate chapter gives an equal amount of space to Moore’s musical and magic-focused performances, some of which were later turned into comics by Campbell, and some of which were, incredibly, performed with illustrious musicians like Patti Smith. Accompanying the book is a CD with 19 collected tracks of Moore singing in his bands (The Emperors of Ice Cream and The Satanic Nurses) or giving readings of magical texts like Birth Caul. Listening to Moore’s voice in song and chant adds yet another dimension to the book’s content, turning it into a complete treasure trove of rare Moore paraphernalia. Storyteller stands as a testament to the writer’s works and career, firmly locating Moore as the single author of a range of wonderful stories, his pen and voice behind each and every one of them, regardless of where those stories might have ended up.

Nonetheless when one grows accustomed to the glare of all the shiny treats in Millidge’s book, Storyteller’s shortcomings start to come to light. Perhaps predictably, Millidge’s attempt to make Alan Moore: Storyteller an all-encompassing reserve of Moore–related information results in an adulating accolade that often passes blindly over possible weaknesses in the Moore oeuvre. Grant Morrison, in his recently published Supergods, has been cruelly realistic about Moore’s return to superhero comics, writing that Moore’s failed attempts at experimental comics in the early 1990s left him with no option “but to go back to the place where everybody knew his name…it was clear that he needed money to back up his small press experiments.” Millidge, on the other hand, makes no mention of Moore’s financial difficulties as Moore’s motive for returning to superheroes and DC, preferring to depict it as some kind of benevolent compromise reached by Moore with the weighty comic publishers in order to protect and support his collaborators.

Nor, for example, does Millidge allow Alan Moore to get away with much self criticism:

I think [my story, Batman: The Killing Joke] put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it… in terms of my writings, it’s not one of my favourite pieces

“The Killing Joke”, loyally states Millidge in response, “is one of the most definitive Batman stories ever written, no matter what Moore thinks of the character himself.” Millidge never mentions the controversy over Barbara Gordon’s fate. It is in moments like these that Millidge comes across less as a Moore scholar and more as a Moore fanboy, too caught up in the act of painting Moore as a singular man of genius to realise that he may actually be doing the man himself a disservice. Moore emerges out of Storyteller as a prolific, gifted writer, but Millidge refuses to fault him on anything or locate tensions between Moore and his stories, not least those stories which spiralled away from him.

And here perhaps lies the greatest problem of Millidge’s Alan Moore: Storyteller: the book falls into the trap of perpetuating an Alan Moore myth; the eccentric, prolific, wise man of the comic book world whose work, even at its worst, supersedes anything that came before it. It is a myth all Moore fans like to believe in. It gives us some strange comfort to think of this bearded, hermetic, weird, and well-respected autodidact watching over the genre we have always been ridiculed for loving. If we are to begin to take him seriously, however, a different kind of book needs to be written: a truly comprehensive book which would uncover the real difficulties of the comic marketplace, would detail how tricky it was for Moore and other artists, writers, inkers, editors, and publishers to collaborate on projects, and would trace where our beloved writers and artists, like Moore, have tripped up. Otherwise we risk a future line of comics that will simply stand forever in awe of Moore’s mythic shadow, when in actual fact we might be better off inheriting the Moore method of sucker-punching myths in the stomach.

Alexandra Manglis is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Linacre College, Oxford.

 

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