If you don’t read comics, it’s a bit like that Time Out Dance Special they did a while back. You know that there’s a whole ‘nother art form out there, that’s mystifying and heartbreaking and wise and terribly, terribly beautiful, you just don’t know anything about it, and fucked if you’re buying tickets to the ballet.
Well hold up there pilgrim: there’s something you can do about it, right now, and you can do it in the privacy of your own home. You can go buy some Alan Moore, and get on. STML, shamed by the upcoming moving pictures version, got hold of a copy of V for Vendetta from Gosh Comics, just one of the fine sequential art venues littering our fair city.
If you don’t know Moore, he’s one of England’s great bearded visionaries, and even though he lives in virtual hermitage in Northamptonshire, he loves London. From Hell and V for Vendetta carve up the capital in Sinclair-ish ways, butchering it in the former, dynamiting it, with unpleasantly contemporary resonances, in the latter.
What the graphic art format allows is an utter disregard for genre, style and the accepted version of history. Their pariah status in the literary community means that they can knowingly step outside both critical pronouncements and popular expectations, borrowing furiously from both the mainstream and the underground, from art high and low, from painting, pop music and pornography. From Hell takes from Sinclair the magical city aligned by Hawksmoor and the Dyonisiac architects, from Sickert the dark imagined murder rooms of Camden Town, from Hogarth the vaudeville of the rookeries, from Blake their hidden divinity. The well-worn path of the Ripperologist is, in his own words, “strip-mined to provide material.” V for Vendetta picks up and runs with Pynchon’s endless enigmatising; Orwell’s all-seeing, all-hearing, government; and the earthy English legend of Guy Fawkes, who Moore seeks to restore from the pyre to his central place in English self-mythology. There is no plagiarism here: simply the riffing on all frequencies of a joyously disturbed, unfettered mind. In the afterword to V, Moore describes a crucial stage in its development, before he and David Lloyd ran down the central image of the Popish Plotter:
One night, in desperation, I made a long list of concepts I wanted to reflect in V, moving from one to another with such a rapid free-association that would make any good psychiatrist reach for the emergency cord. The list was something as follows:Orwell. Huxley. Judge Dredd. Harlan Ellison’s “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman.” “Catman” and “Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World” by the same author. Vincent Price’s Dr. Phibes and Theatre of Blood. David Bowie. The Shadow. Nightraven. Batman. Fahrenheit 451. The writings of the New Worlds school of Science Fiction. Max Ernst’s painting “Europe After The Rains.” Thomas Pynchon. The atmosphere of British Second World War films. The Prisoner. Robin Hood. Dick Turpin…
Any writer who can move from Bowie to Max Ernst via Batman in seven “free associations” deserves an audience. But Moore’s interest is not only in literary and cultural illusion: he wants to score politically too. For Moore, England is a corrupt state, enslaved to a despotic, decrepit Queen in From Hell, enthralled by a fascist dictatorship and its pervasive media in V. From Hell rages against the inequalities of class unchallenged in the Victorian era and embodied, literally, in the Whitechapel murders (while bemoaning the loss of history’s visceral reality: Gull, Moore’s ripper, time-stumbling into a modern, computerised office, asks of its occupants: “Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?”). V is more explicit, condemning Justice atop the Old Bailey for having “an eye for a man in uniform” and the population en masse who encouraged and voted into office “a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars and lunatics,” citing an all-engulfing anarchy as the only solution to impassive, craven and cruel governance.
Watchmen, Moore’s fantastical rewriting of the All-American Masked Crusader, does similar things to American history and the canon of the Golden Age. That it has been his most critically successful work and is cited as the first instance of a comics ghetto-buster highlights the US bias of the comics world (David Lloyd, in a sarcastic aside during V‘s genesis, suggests calling the strip “‘Good Guy.’ That’s how he signs his name: ‘Good Guy’. Good for US appeal, right? Logical.”) and its inherent conservatism (Watchmen, unlike From Hell and V has not made it to the big screen, on grounds of narrative and, some suspect, political complexity). But even writing within the constraints of the genre, as in the groundbreaking Swamp Thing or in his additions to the Batman legend in The Killing Joke, Moore gets away with murder.
All of these books are excellent reads, as is his series of linked stories The Voice of the Fire (described by Iain Banks in The Guardian as “a neglected masterpiece”), and his (even more) experimental graphic works: A Disease of Language, a new collaboration with Eddie Campbell, the artist on From Hell, is out in January: a graphic rendition of Moore’s “visionary, highly personal magic based performance art pieces,” according to Gosh!. Get on.
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