Lance Parkin has written the definitive biography of Alan Moore in the thick new hardcover Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, published by Aurum Press. Moore is one of the most celebrated figures in the history of comics, and many good books already exist that explore the man’s life and works. So I was pleasantly surprised to find how much insight and nuance Parkin brings to the subject.
Alan David Doane: Magic Words paints as complete and objective a picture of Alan Moore’s career as I have yet read, and I’ve been fascinated with the man and his work since around the time his Swamp Thing began here in the States. Tell me how immersing yourself so completely in his works, his life and his worldview has affected you as a writer and as a human being.
Lance Parkin: Thank you. I’ve also been following Moore’s work since the dawn of his career. And you’re right to identify that a project like this will affect me as a writer and the way I see the world. Scrutinising his life, I see parallels with mine. He had a very similar upbringing to my father. Moore and I have written a lot of stories set in shared universes. He’s British but married to an American.
Writing a biography makes you think about how your own biography would read, makes you realise that it would be a story, not a life. I’m not summing up the full life of a human being in 400 pages, I’m providing a narrative, one that’s hopefully insightful and sees things from a few interesting angles.
And his career begs interesting questions about any type of professional writing. When do you compromise? What fights are worth having? What’s important? What’s fair? These aren’t questions with easy answers, or necessarily the same answers in all circumstances. Alan Moore has always gone bold. Never accepted laziness or mediocrity in himself or others. Which isn’t to say that everything he’s done is 100% perfect in every way. But he’s never gone ‘oh, people are just buying it for the logo or because they already like the character’. He knows that a certain number of people – enough to make any project viable – will buy anything with his name on it. He’s taken that as licence to produce weird, new things, not cruise along singing his greatest hits.
You go to great lengths to explore Moore’s interest in and practice of magic, starting with his announcement that he was becoming a magician and then looking at how Moore’s magical worldview has informed his work ever since. How do you view the impact this development had on Moore’s writing?
I’m going to be honest, I’m not in any sense a spiritual or mystically-minded person myself. That’s not to say I dismiss or mock anyone who is, least of all Alan Moore, but writing that chapter was more like a mapping expedition than me preaching the gospel. My instinct is to dismiss it, to note that if you take hallucinogenics, you’re going to hallucinate. My ultra-rationalist interpretation says more about me than Alan Moore, though.
When Moore says ‘magic’ he usually means something most people would call ‘creativity’, or a gift of expression, of art affecting the way we experience the world. He’s summed it up as saying that art does all the things magic spells are meant to – want someone to fall in love with you? Write them a love poem. Want to conjure up a million pounds? Write Watchmen.
I find it very easy to gloss ‘magic’ as a strategy for Moore to shake up his writing techniques. Writing’s all about finding new ways to say things, or it should be, and it’s easy to fall into self-parody, to find yourself repeating yourself. Moore’s got a system to avoid that.
At the same time, there’s clearly more to it. Like Philip K Dick and others before him, Moore’s had mystical experiences that he can’t get his mind around, least of all describe in words. There’s something deeply personal – unique – in his head, it’s clearly something he believes. He, more than anyone, appreciates how silly it sounds. I do not have the gift of telepathy, and I’m humble enough to admit that if Alan Moore can’t find the words, it would be a fool’s errand for me to try. My arch rationalist side looks at the stuff he’s produced under the influence, and concludes that whatever he’s on, it seems to be working.
Promethea is gaudy, convoluted and based on a philosophy that seems to be the direct opposite of the way the real world functions to the point at times it insults reason? Well, yes, but if we’re counting so’s Captain America.
Moore’s iconoclastic personality and powerful ethical philosophy has led to his falling out with some publishers and colleagues, and yet other relationships creatively and business-wise have continued for many years. What do you believe is ultimately the deciding factor in whether a creator or publisher is able to stay simpatico with Moore and work with him again and again over time?
Trust him, and - for the love of all that’s holy - hope that he doesn’t lose trust in you.
Personally, I believe in editors. I’ve been lucky to have a handful of great editors, starting with my first, Rebecca Levene at Virgin Books and including Sam Harrison who edited Magic Words, who understood my books better than I did, who could read a manuscript and find things already in there I hadn’t seen, to help me draw those things out and polish them up. I see editors as being a cox or a boxing coach. Their job – at the creative stage, this is, which is the bit I see - is to make my book the best possible expression of my vision. Not to help throw the punches, but to get me to direct my punches more forcefully and accurately.
I think Moore sees editors completely differently. This isn’t an analogy he’s ever used, but I think he sees them as more like gallery owners, something like that. He’ll bring the completed work, their job is to provide a great space to display it to best advantage and to sell the tickets. He’ll do the art, they’ll do the business. And if a painter shows up to a gallery and discovers that the owner has altered one of the pictures even slightly or is selling postcards of it when the painter asked him not to, then that painter would be perfectly within their rights to never put on a show at that gallery again and to loudly and frequently express his displeasure. Particularly if the gallery never gave him his paintings back, like they said they would.
The way to reconcile those two models is just thinking of it in terms of a good editor being someone who has respect for the artist, and an understanding that a writer has made artistic choices and made those specific choices for a reason.
I was delighted to see you used a quote from my own 2004 interview with Alan Moore (available in Avatar’s Yuggoth Cultures trade paperback or download the MP3 version here) as part of what had to be an exhaustive research process. As I said earlier, I’ve been following Moore and his work since the early 1980s, and feel a great appreciation for his body of work and admiration for the ethical stances he’s taken over the years. I will say that as a writer about comics, seeing Moore’s side on ethical issues has often led to disagreements between myself and members of what I’ll politely call “comics fandom.” The acceptance of Before Watchmen by comics as a business and a culture for me was a real breaking point, in that I felt the utter wrongness of DC and the creators who worked on the project should have been roundly rejected and reviled by every thinking human being, and the fact that didn’t happen really made me want to distance myself from comics as a whole. While you present the issue fairly, I have to ask, what are your thoughts as far as what the existence of Before Watchmen mean for comics as an industry and a culture?
Yeah, there are a number of distinct issues and perspectives, there. Deep breath …
Alan Moore is hardly the greatest victim the comics industry has seen. I’m a freelance writer, and the idea of having a book in print for twenty five years, selling two million plus copies, on a 4% royalty, with a big movie version … I’d take that deal. (That said, when I interviewed him for Magic Words, Moore told me he wasn’t entitled to anything from Before Watchmen). I think in his specific case, the issue is that Watchmen started life as a creator-owned, self-contained thing. It makes it different from Superman or Iron Man – which were not stories, they were characters, designed to have a tale that grows in the telling. What’s a fair way to treat creators and their estates when it’s fifty or seventy five years later and those characters are global multimedia brands in their own right? It’s an interesting question, but not quite the same question raised by Watchmen.
Was Before Watchmen a conscious attempt to shift Watchmen from an authored work to being a much more nebulous ‘brand’, like Batman and Superman? Was the plan to be able to say ‘oh, there’s more to Watchmen than Alan Moore, he’s just one of the writers’? I don’t know. Whatever the case, Before Watchmen seemed to miss the main selling point of the original series, which was that you could just buy one book and read it, and that was that. And that it mattered who wrote and drew it.
I didn’t read Before Watchmen beyond a couple of preview pages, but I really don’t think ill of the writers and artists for taking a high profile gig. They made some comics, it’s not like they played Sun City.
I admit I felt the same way you felt there, though, that it was a step too far. ‘Breaking point’ is about right. It wasn’t the first blow. I’m a DC man through and through, but the New 52 is just too monotone and po-faced for me. Raising the prices and cutting the pages just means comics are terrible value for money. The other day I was reading a comic with my headphones on and got through a comic in less time than it took to listen to one song. It worked out at about $1.50 a minute. And, sorry, but as entertainment products go, that’s more than the going rate for a Pink Floyd concert. And, you know, I’m 42 years old, perhaps it’s healthy that I’m not all that bothered who the Joker’s Daughter is or about the final fate of the Blue Lanterns. I’m quite prepared to concede it’s my problem, not DC’s. At the same time, I love Mind Mgmt, East of West is great, I found Battling Boy utterly thrilling (and can’t wait to re-read THB next year). I love what David Liss is doing with The Spider. I can go back and endlessly re-read the Wolfman/Perez Titans or Nemesis the Warlock or Luther Arkwright and it’s not purely because of nostalgia. I still like good comics.
Eight Before Watchmen series, or whatever it was, a dollar more than regular comics, one a week for six months, just seemed like an unusually blunt cash grab. It felt like something the marketing department came up with. Yes, all comics are designed to entice me to part with my money. They’re usually a little more subtle than that, though. I don’t want to be fed an endless supply of Watchmen, I want to be fed an endless supply of challenging, well-made comics.
The ‘fandom’ reaction baffled me. I mean, obviously, it’s a subset of fans, it’s not all comics readers speaking with one voice. And internet debate polarises and exaggerates. There was a strain of fan almost gleeful that Alan Moore didn’t want it to happen. Is that tribal loyalty to DC? If pressed, I’d say I had tribal loyalty to DC. But there were people who were going ‘yeah, right, this’ll stick it to Alan Moore’. And … stick what? Again, I can’t speak for him, but he didn’t seem angry about it, it was more that he thought Before Watchmen was a little sad.
I think it comes down to ownership – I think fans believe they have some sort of stake. You see that around V for Vendetta a lot. A lot of readers have taken the politics of the book and the (different!) politics of the movie to heart. So when Alan Moore says the movie script sucked and he doesn’t have the graphic novel in the house any more, to those fans it sounds like he’s saying he rejects them as human beings. I don’t know. I think it’s common across a lot of fandoms. I think ‘Star Trek fan’, ‘Star Wars fan’, ‘Doctor Who fan’, these are functionally the equivalent of ethnicities at this point, in the sense that it can be at the core of how some people identify. I’m 3/8ths Scottish. I don’t feel Scottish, I don’t feel the urge to return to the Highlands every seven years to mate. I am a Doctor Who fan. I would be a very different person, with a different career and social circle if I’d never been one. And it sounds silly to say that, it sounds like I’m trivialising, but something like comics demands an investment of time, of money, of intellectual energy, you need somewhere to store all those boxes. But it provides a common culture, and a community. When Alan Moore ‘rejects comics’, there will be people who take it personally.
What are your five favourite Alan Moore works, and why?
Thank you for this question, because I think at heart the most important thing about Alan Moore is his writing.
THE BALLAD OF HALO JONES still does it for me. It has energy, it’s clearly had so much thought put into it, but equally clearly it was written week-by-week so a lot of the time it’s just finding ways the move the story along. It was originally meant as a counterpoint in a very male, very violent anthology comic, so it’s almost a different thing as a standalone. You can see Moore straining against the limits of the form, and Ian Gibson’s art just rather effortlessly keeping it all together.
BIG NUMBERS is the great ‘what if’? Only the first three parts of it have (or will) ever appear, we also have Moore’s giant chart plotting out what would have happened and a couple of long interviews about it. I think it’s the one point where Moore bites off more than he can chew. It’s this entirely new kind of thing, but wrapped up in a story that looks entirely mundane. And we only have the beginning of the story. So it’s something that’s very hard to grasp. It feels like an example of what Iain M Banks called an ‘excession’ – something that appears one day that just shatters all your assumptions, but is so big and weird and advanced there’s not much you can do about it.
The performance piece the BIRTH CAUL is available (kind of, it’s hard to find) on CD and much more readily as a comic strip adaptation by Eddie Campbell. What I like about Moore is that he can take visceral, hindbrain stuff and connect it up to an almost Vulcan, crystalline structure and you can’t ever see the join. Birth Caul is Alan Moore at his most personal and intense.
Controversial one, here, but WATCHMEN’s good. I’d read it countless times in the past, I read it three times during the course of writing Magic Words. Every time, I’ve seen something new or something’s taken on a new resonance for me. And it’s funny, which I spend a chapter trying to convince people of in Magic Words.
If I had to pick one thing, again, it would be something very obvious – the Valerie chapter of V. That, to me, should be required reading for … well, I was going to say anyone making comics, but any human being, really. The subject matter and the moral … yes, they’re weighty and important, and emotionally affecting. It’s self-explanatory, which is good, it’s always nice to just hand something to someone and say ‘just read this’. But just look at the way Moore and Lloyd compose it. Look at what they convey and how. It matters who wrote and drew it. It works because of them.
Buy Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore from Amazon.com.
Secrets & Mysteries: So what does a gal have to do to get into The Comics Journal anyway? -
Last week, Frank Santoro and Sean T. Collins engaged in a discussion of contemporary comics criticism, that raised several issues on the lack of in depth criticism of newer cartoonists and the lack of outlets for the same. This is related to my own call for critical and cultural…
This is a terrific piece by Heidi. Sometimes, anger can cause one to write at too high a pitch, causing the reader to pay attention but miss the finer details, kind of like blaring a speaker in their ear, but this one is nicely controlled. A couple things it makes me realize is that never once in the thousands of reviews and columns I wrote did I try to really focus on female cartoonists, which I think is a failing. I could rationalize that some relatively well-known ones like Hope Larson and Lilli Carre I find pretty overrated, but honestly, I find most cartoonists overrated these days. It’s hard to name any work that arrives without flaws or deficiencies, regardless of gender. Lisa Hanawalt’s book was one of my favorites this year, a laff riot but also honest and uniquely weird. I do think comics criticism is barely into adolescence, at best, and the relatively small impact comics as a medium has on the culture means appreciation for female cartoonists will be slow-going. Even in the huge film industry, there are few female directors getting their shot, but no doubt the likes of Kathryn Bigelow has inspired many young women to make their own films. In a sense, I’m more worried about the comics industry and comics medium themselves first, the state of criticism second. At the same time as I’m acknowledging my own foibles, I have to say, in this context Marc Sobel’s line about a “distinctive female perspective” seems awfully patronizing. It sort of reminds me of a comment I read last week on Facebook where a guy took issue with my use of “African-American” just because Morgan Freeman on The Today Show said he prefers to be called “black.” I guess Mr. Freeman provided the distinctive black perspective and there are no others.
As far as the Santoro/Collins piece, I had a very different reaction, more about why criticism has stagnated a bit and what factors drove me to mostly abandon writing about comics in favor of writing about other media at my own blog, even if it’s a much larger pool. I wrote to Santoro about this and he replied that he wanted to get back to me on some of it, so I’m waiting for that response before I publish that rant.
(Source: natamala, via ungoliantschilde)
The history of DC Comics, like the history of the comics industry
in general, is the history of creators being cheated and mistreated
by publishers. — Tony Isabella, writing about DC’s move out of New York City.
For most of the first four decades of my life comics and graphic novels gave me a great deal of pleasure. From the ages of 6 to around 14 or 15, nothing occupied my time more happily than running off somewhere quiet (usually my bedroom) with a stack of new comics, in the pages of which I would lose myself in the imaginations of writers and artists far more creative than I was, or likely ever would be.
Since the ascension of celebrity fan-fiction writers like Geoff Johns, Mark Millar and others, superhero comics have become an imagination-free zone of ever-escalating violence with no thought, theme or theory in evidence anywhere. The apotheosis of this dire state of affairs was the publication of Before Watchmen. Wretched in intent and criminal in execution, its existence, and worse, acceptance in the marketplace, definitively ended my interest in superhero comics as an ongoing enterprise. The disgrace of it prompted some badly-timed comments about one of its creators at a time when all of fandom was in grief over his passing, and I regret the incident, but do not deny the truth behind my foolish utterance. The people who worked on Before Watchmen, from the writers and artists to the editors, publishers, even the “journalists” who “covered” it — all are complicit in a betrayal of whatever ideals superhero comics might once have laid claim to. The existence and acceptance of the books — now sickeningly available in hardcover, like bronzing a momentous bowel movement for posterity — is a scorched-earth moment in comics history from which there is no going back. And it killed my interest in superhero comics as if that had been its very intent. Perhaps, in broad strokes, it was. After all, the industry has little use for independent thinkers who question authority and call bullshit when appropriate. I was just one little comics blogger, but I’m sure I’m not the only one driven away by the horror implicit in the publication of Before Watchmen.
The thousands of dollars a year I once spent on comics will now be spent on other things. Rent. Groceries. Maybe the occasional movie. I still crave works that fire my imagination. I am as fascinated by the process of creating art as I am the art itself. Moreso, really. The mysteries of imagination seem like a puzzle too complex for human minds to ever fully decode. I can’t just watch a movie or TV show and lose myself in it, I am constantly pondering the process of its creation. There aren’t any superhero comics anymore that beg that question the way Kirby’s did, or Ditko’s, or whatever genius you think of when you think of the gods of comics creation. I do know that few walk the earth anymore. Fewer still seem to aspire to the heights those gods once reached.
— Alan David Doane
SPX Presents HEIDI MACDONALD at the LIBRARY OF CONGRESS!!!
OK, as you may or may not know, Heidi, the Goddess of The Beat and other realms of the comic world, graciously donated her entire mini-comics collection to the SPX Collection at the Library of Congress.
As part of of this act of deified munificence, she is going to give a lecture there this Friday September 13 at Noon.
Here is all the info you need.
I will be there, hope to see you!!
Congrats to Heidi on this. Very cool.
I may be crazy, but it seems to me that there are more absolute BARGAINS this year than in any of the previous Top Shelf $3 Sales. Click over to Top Shelf’s site and order as much as you want — this is the one time of year your budget won’t mind.
Seriously, here are a few sale prices that strike me as absolutely bonkers; as in, you would have to be nuts not to buy these great comics and graphic novels at these prices:
* ALL of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century, each volume is five bucks, so the whole awesome story for 15 dollars.
* Alan Moore’s Unearthing softcover — normally $29.95, just $3.00. That’s 90% off for Moore’s latest work!
* The Surrogates Owners Manual is $10.00. This was originally published at $75.00 if I recall correctly, and provides hours of intense science-fiction entertainment (and also inspired a movie).
* Eddie Campbell’s excellent The Playwright is just a buck!
There are many, many more prices, so low it’s nuts. Buy some for friends, get some great reading for yourself. Top Shelf is an advertiser on this site (and I’m grateful for that!), but I’m telling you about this sale because it’s your one chance to sample some of the greatest graphic novels of the past 15 years or so without having to worry about how you’ll make the rent or pay for groceries. Click on over, get yourself some awesome graphic novels, and sleep well knowing you’re helping one of the best publishers in the industry keep doing what they do so well. And sure, if you like, tell ‘em Trouble With Comics sent you.
— Alan David Doane
So last week, there were two different DC Comics-related news items that received instant scorn and outrage. First, Batwoman writers J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman quit the series as of issue #26, citing DC’s decision not to allow the long-planned wedding of Batwoman Kathy Kane and her girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. It was seen by many as an anti-gay marriage stance. Since then, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio has explained, at a comics convention, that DC is very committed to the character of Batwoman (and challenged the audience to name a publisher who has shown more commitment to a character, before he quickly answered his own challenge that there was none), but that superheroes should not have happy personal lives, so it’s more of a general policy against marriage for superheroes in the New 52. As with most things DC, there are inconsistencies, as Aquaman is currently married, but if this is now their stated policy I suppose it’s fair to accept this as true for the moment and see if they live up to it. Personally, I think their superheroes would be a lot more interesting if they were more diverse, and I don’t just mean having more ethnicities represented. How about a married superhero, a superhero with an adopted kid with M.S., a superhero with a deaf boyfriend, a superhero in couples counseling? Of course, superheroes can’t have endlessly joyous lives and still be fun to read (although on second thought, DC sold its most comics back when that was the case, but I know there were other factors), but aren’t the traditional personal life problems of the single superhero (girlfriend in distress, girlfriend suspects you’re a superhero, no time for romance because crime fighting) pretty well played out by now?
The other item was a kind of tryout to be in an upcoming Harley Quinn comic, where prospective artists would illustrate four seemingly unrelated panels, most consisting of Harley in suicidal situations, the fourth panel also describing her as nude. So people complained that it was exploitation, sexist, and hey, since when has Harley been suicidal? Psychopathic and murderous, yes. Suicidal, not so much.
Co-publisher Jim Lee had damage control duty on this one, tweeting examples of how panels taken out of context can appear very different than their intent, and that this wasn’t exploitive and the writers were actually poking fun at themselves, or something. Fair enough. But both of these stories illustrate how poor DC’s PR department is doing at anticipating negative reaction and getting in front of a story. Obviously a big name like Williams III quitting a book over an editorial decision is going to get out—why wasn’t DC letting people know about their anti-marriage thing, and pointing to their, um, one other gay superhero character as proof of their LGBT friendliness? Why announce a contest that makes drawing a female super villain naked a requirement? That seems like a case where they mentioned the nudity precisely to get a reaction, but it wasn’t the reaction they wanted. After all, they certainly aren’t really going to show Harley Quinn naked in one of their comics; it might be suggestive, but undoubtedly most of her naughty bits will be submerged in bathwater. So even if the original intent was tongue-in-cheek, the announcement ends up being skeevy. And note that in neither case does anyone at DC apologize. No, it’s the fans who misunderstood what they’re doing. For his part, at least Lee acknowledges his writers, though when he talked about the Batwoman debacle, he basically said the talent has to follow the editorial direction laid out for them, no matter how late in the game, tough shit, creators. He said it in his affable Jim Lee way, though.
It’s a bad situation for fans of DC’s characters these days. There’s still some talent there and despite everything, some good stories will make it through relatively unscathed. But look, I’m currently reading nothing from DC, and I tried over 90% of the initial New 52 titles, and several that debuted after that first wave. With Before Watchmen and their treatment of many other creators, and retrograde decisions like this anti-marriage thing, how can anyone feel good about buying these books? I feel bad for someone like Marc Andreyko, a decent writer (I really liked his Manhunter in the pre-New 52 days not long ago) who is stepping in as the new writer on Batwoman. It should be noted that Williams III, a co-creator of the character, started writing her when original writer and co-creator Greg Rucka abandoned DC and their interference. Andreyko is inheriting maybe the only interesting, well-designed character in DC’s stable in the past decade, and yet she’s been sullied and abused, an important part of her cored out. I was joking (bitterly) to a friend the other day that it was “about time she (Batwoman) got back to her roots as a superhero not in a loving, committed relationship.” Sounds fun, huh?