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Trouble with Comics

Five Questions for Lance Parkin

imageLance 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?

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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.

Five Questions for Box Brown

I first reviewed some Box Brown comics about a year ago, when it seemed like no one had much heard of the emerging cartoonist. I had became aware of him on James Kochalka’s message board, and in the year since I looked at Everything Dies, Brown has fairly exploded into the consciousness of people interested in comics, not least because of his efforts with Retrofit Comics. On Friday over on our new spinoff blog Flashmob Fridays, the [FMF] team weighs in on Brown’s latest effort, The Survivalist. — Alan David Doane

Who are you?

I’m Box Brown. I’ve been making comics of all kinds since 2006. Lately, I’ve been working on a lot of non-fiction comics but The Survivalist is pure fiction so that was an exciting change for me.

What led to the creation of your new book The Survivalist?


When I set out to create The Survivalist I wanted to put a specific character type in the center of the story. Noah is a conspiracy theorist. He’s the type of guy who’s highly influenced by the stories of the Bilderberg Group and the Illuminati and he believes that “big pharma” is to blame for a lot of the world’s troubles. As a skeptic, I’ve become interested in these types. It’s so opposite my own thinking that it just fascinates me. I’ve listened to countless documentaries and podcasts about conspiracies. It was through these podcasts that I became interested in all of the weird products that are advertised to conspiracy theorists (tent, dehydrated food, urine-to-water systems). The book really started out with that character and his things. I really wanted to get into the mind of a person like that.

What is the fascination?

What would motivate someone to become this extreme type? How true to their convictions are they? Ultimately, I think Noah isn’t much different from anyone else really. I still find those types interesting.

Not to give anything away, but it seems like there could be a sequel to this work.

Not sure if Noah will ever reappear, but his favorite podcaster “Dick March” probably will. He was my favorite character to write, even though he appears only as a disembodied voice.

How do you fit The Survivalist into context with your previous comics?

I think people who haven’t read the story though would be surprised that while drawing it, it reminded me more of my old webcomic Bellen! than Everything Dies. A lot of the dialog is between these two major characters, male and female. It’s not a romantic relationship as it was in Bellen! but their dialog is kind of similar. I’m hesitant to get deep into the plot as most people haven’t read it yet.

Buy The Survivalist from Amazon.com or directly from Blank Slate. For reviews of The Survivalist, visit Flashmob Fridays this Friday.