Or what does this have to do with Promethea anyway?
Crossposted at Mindlessones.com, for reasons that will become apparent.
On March 7, 2007, I was at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre, which has been the scene of some of the most profound artistic experiences of my life — seeing Brian Wilson play his first two UK shows, seeing him premiere That Lucky Old Sun there and seeing Van Dyke Parks (and Wilson and Parks will both show up in these essays again, assuming we go the whole way with them) perform most of Orange Crate Art. It’s also the prison where the Doctor and Jo Grant were held in the 1973 Doctor Who story Frontier In Space, but that’s probably not so important.
But on that day I was there for something rather different. The writer Robert Anton Wilson had been one of the biggest influences in my life, the writer whose works finally showed me how to actually think, as opposed to glibly performing string manipulations and priding myself on my intelligence. I was sat there next to the woman I’d married a year earlier (and who is co-author of this series of essays), someone I would never have met without Wilson’s writing.
Wilson had died the previous January, and in his last months had, thanks to the American health-care system, become literally penniless. We were fairly close to penniless ourselves, but we’d still felt the need to Paypal him $23, a token amount, to help. Enough other people had done the same that he was able to die in his own home with money to spare.
The show in 2007 was a tribute to him, and to his work, and it was mostly for that reason that Holly and I had travelled down to see it. But it wasn’t just for that reason. There were three speakers there, all of whom I wanted to see. One was Ken Campbell, the great actor, writer and director, and one of my great heroes. The second was Alan Moore, of whom much, much more later. And the third was Bill Drummond.
Drummond was the one I was least interested in, because I was least familiar with his work. Oh, of course I loved Doctorin’ The TARDIS, had enjoyed 45, and The Manual is still one of my favourite books, but beyond that I knew nothing of his work.
Drummond’s first line was:
I’m a total fraud even being here. I don’t actually know much about Robert Anton Wilson, and I couldn’t be arsed to help him when he was dying.
So, you know, fair enough.
(And when I watch that video, I realise that I’m completely misremembering that, and probably remembering from this blog post rather than the event. Oh well. But it’s how I remember it.)
The reason I’m telling that story is so I can tell you this. A couple of months ago, the writer J.M.R. Higgs sent me a comp ebook copy of his new book, KLF: Chaos, Magic, Music, Money, because he’d liked my book Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. I said I’d review it, but I ran into a problem when actually writing the review, because I am precisely the wrong person to review this book.
You see, Higgs’ book takes as its starting point the day when Drummond and his artistic partner Jimmy Cauty (known variously as The KLF, The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu, The Timelords and The K Foundation) set fire to a million pounds, and tries to figure out exactly why they did this — something they admit themselves they are completely unsure of.
Starting from this, and in pursuit of an answer of sorts, Higgs explores a whole web of ideas and associations. He writes about Robert Anton Wilson, and sampling culture, describes the 1990s in a way eerily similar to the Ghost Point from the Faction Paradox books, discusses Doctor Who and the alchemical ideas that David Whitaker planted in it, the legitimacy of copyright, the Kennedy assassination, the work of Ken Campbell, Discordianism, the immorality of lending money at interest, Situationism, the Pookah and the wicker man in modern pop culture, Alan Moore’s concept of Ideaspace, and questions whether the K Foundation’s burning a million pounds was a magical rite which eventually led to the economic problems we’re seeing today.
My kind of thing, in other words.
Except that the book’s climax is when Higgs talks about the Festival Hall event I discussed above. He talks about how the event actually inspired Drummond to read the whole of Illuminatus! for the first time, and how Drummond (who had used tons of ideas and images from the first 138 pages of the book, which is all he’d previously read, in his work) was shocked to find that most of his life seemed to be in there in some way. Higgs then goes on to say:
I had written 90% of this book before I finally got round to reading Illuminatus! myself, despite having a copy on my shelf for twenty years. Upon reading it, I was startled to discover that it contained a number of subjects which I had already been writing about, unaware of their inclusion in Illuminatus! and unsure if I could justify their inclusion in this book. I had written about usury unaware that the founding reason for The JAMs was to destroy usury, and I had written about Lucifer unaware that a Satanic mass was the initiation into The JAMs. I had noted the surprising number of paedophiles in this story whilst unaware of the character of Padre Pederastia. Such is the way with this particular novel. Reading it almost seems superfluous; it is possible to be swept along just by the idea of it. It is a novel that is perfectly content to sit on a shelf for decades waiting for you to be ready for it.
And this is the thing about the book. Its conclusion is, to me, the stuff that I’ve been thinking about and discussing and writing about for my whole adult life (I read Illuminatus! when I was 18, and have more than a passing interest in most of the subjects mentioned in the book). It’s a book that goes from a premise that I know little about to a conclusion that is familiar, solid ground to me. And the parts that I found most interesting were the parts where Higgs talks about the KLF themselves, precisely because that was the least familiar part of the net of ideas he was talking about. Higgs is mapping out an area in IdeaSpace, but it’s a map that takes this reader from Fairyland to his own front room.
I doubt it would have that effect, though, on anyone without my own precise set of obsessions. Unless you’ve basically read the exact same books and comics I read between, roughly, the ages of 18 and 26, and you’re also a big fan of David Whitaker’s Doctor Who work, the parts that seemed familiar to me will seem unfamiliar to you, while if you pay any attention to pop culture at all the parts that seemed unfamiliar to me will be old news to you.
So…I can recommend Higgs’ book unreservedly to anyone reading this, but I can’t say you’ll be reading the same book I am.
But what does this have to do with Promethea, again?
Well, Higgs’ book is basically a map of a mental landscape, but a rather odd one — he’s trying to give an impression of why Bill Drummond thinks the way he does, by writing enough about Higgs’ own obsessions. It is, if you like, a map of the border between Higgs’ area of Ideaspace and Drummond’s.
About six months ago, Plok, of the blog A Trout In The Milk, was visiting us and practically ordered Holistic Tendancies to write a book on Promethea, because he wanted to hear what she had to say about it. However, she was unsure about this, because she’s never written anything longer than a couple of thousand words before, and doesn’t believe me when I tell her that if you write the material, it structures itself and practically writes itself. I had to take a break from writing my previous book about comics, An Incomprehensible Condition, because I was seeing patterns relating to the subject everywhere, and had to get back into a more rational frame of mind — that’s the extent to which this kind of subject writes itself. But Holistic Tendancies is unsure, so she’s asked me to help her. She wants to write the book with me, and I’m in charge of structure.
So what we’re going to do is, we’re going to write ten more essays. Some of them will be on my blog, and some will be on Mindless Ones. You can follow either blog and not miss out, because we’re going to do this in a Choose Your Own Adventure style.
We’re going to look at Promethea as a comic, the way Alan Moore writes and the way J.H. Williams and the other artists put pictures on the page. But we’re also going to look at the ideas floating around it in Ideaspace — the Kaballah, Wonder Woman, America’s Best Comics, causality, Aleister Crowley, Platonism, topology and more. A lot of it will overlap with the ideas in Higgs’ book, but we’ll be travelling from different directions.
By making it a Choose Your Own Adventure, and having it run over two different blogs, we’ll let you wander round the parts of it that you find most interesting, and do a bit of sightseeing. But even IdeaSpace needs a map, so here’s the one we’ll be using:
Next stop: Yesod.
And just to reinforce how all this works, literally as I was typing the last sentence I received an email from Plok, who I mentioned before, about another collaborative project, one we’re working on with Illogical Volume and others. The email heading? “topological order”. And the first sentence proper of the email?
Topological order, so I’m told, being what they call a way of classifying substances with identical symmetries — by measuring their interactivity in an entangled system. Thus, the helpful analogy for the layman goes, the topological order of New York City would not describe the buildings and the streets, but would identify the city more finely, uniquely by a catalogue of the phone calls being made inside it.
Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.
In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.
How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?
Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012
Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC
Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.
It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.
(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)
What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.
Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal
But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.
Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.
But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Diversion – Dave Gibbons
Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.
This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.
Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.
But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.
Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.
What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…
“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)
Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.
But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”
And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.
Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.
DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.
And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.
So it can be done.
So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?
There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.
Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.
Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.
Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.
But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?
The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.
So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.
(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)
Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.
But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.
Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.
The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.
Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.
These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.
Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.
But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”
And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.
Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.
If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.
But as for this?
I contributed to the Mindless Ones’ post on the Watchmen prequels, or at least my swearier alter ego Andre Whickey did. That post was put together from what started as informal discussions between us, hence the writing style for my bits is very different and swearier than my normal writing.
All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant
One of my favourite comics of all time is Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore and Curt Swan. Its opening is still one of the most powerful bits of writing Moore has done, in a career with thousands of them, and it as much as anything else inspired this series of essays:
This is an IMAGINARY STORY
(which may never happen, but then again may)
about a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.
It tells of his twilight, when the great battles were over and the
great miracles long since performed;
of how his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in
the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights;
of the women he loved and of the choice he made between them;
of how he broke his most sacred oath, and how finally all the things
he had were taken from him save one.
It ends with a wink.
It begins in a quiet midwestern town, one
summer afternoon in the quiet midwestern future.
Away from the big city, people still sometimes glance up hopefully from
the sidewalks, glimpsing a distant speck in the sky… but no: it’s only a
bird, only a plane — Superman died ten years ago.
This is an IMAGINARY STORY…
Aren’t they all?
But strangely, despite this attempt to turn the Superman story into a universal myth, the story then turns into one that is very, very specifically based in then-current DC continuity. This made perfect sense at the time – it was a ‘goodbye’ to thirty-plus years of stories, characters and situations. But it meant that it was rooted in the specific, rather than the universal.
This had benefits, for example this sequence:
The first time I read that, I don’t mind admitting I broke down in tears. It’s an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing, and its force is made more powerful by being drawn by Curt Swan (inked by the great George Perez) – this still looks exactly like the simplistic stories of the 1960s, even though there is a lot more going on. These simple children’s characters are being asked to carry a weight they were never designed to carry, and are only doing so precisely because they remain the characters of our collective childhoods.
But it’s only powerful if you have background knowledge. Depending on your familiarity with the Superman ‘mythos’ of the time, this could be anything from near-incomprehensible (though I think Moore gives enough information to give you some context, because he’s a wonderful craftsman) through to heart-stoppingly beautiful. But ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ only comes if you know that, for Superman, this had already happened:
Supergirl had, in the comics, recently sacrificed herself to help save the universe (and this story was so powerful she stayed dead for twenty years – almost unheard of in superhero comics). But this had only happened in the comics – it had obviously not happened in any of the films, TV series, cartoons or other interpretations of the Superman story.
So while Moore is obviously trying for the mythic and universal, in a myriad ways (I think I’m the only one to have noticed, for example, that he has Superman die ten years to the day after Elvis, so when Superman turns out at the end not to be dead, but just living a normal life without his powers, he ties it to the ‘Elvis working in a Burger King in Des Moines’ tabloid stories of the time, as well as to one of the most potent of what can only be called the 20th century’s ‘real-life myths’), to make this the capstone of ‘the Superman story’, what we have is, by necessity, only the end of a Superman story. There’d be another one along in a minute.
[FOOTNOTE the one that came along in a minute was John Byrne's Man Of Steel reboot. This originally looked more exciting and 'modern', but has badly dated - and Byrne's changes can sometimes look pretty unpleasant in retrospect. The original Siegel and Shuster had Superman sent to Earth as a baby. Byrne had a 'birthing matrix' sent, landing on Earth before Superman was born, thus ensuring that someone who had previously represented the Jewish immigrant experience to the US was now born in the USA - a reflection of Reaganite anti-immigration ideas that is very odd coming from a writer/artist who was himself doubly an immigrant (born in the UK, Byrne moved first to Canada before becoming a US citizen).]
Moore’s story is rooted in specifics of place and time – it takes place in a flashback to 16 August 1987, with a framing sequence on 16 August 1997. Even its future is now fourteen years in the past. That doesn’t remove its power for now – I first read the Crisis issue where Supergirl died when I was eleven, so Moore & Swan’s work still has the power to affect me. But Crisis is ephemera – at best it will last in the same way Sexton Blake or Billy Bunter stories from the turn of the last century have. If it’s read in a hundred years at all, it will be as a footnote to Man Of Tomorrow [FOOTNOTE - or maybe Animal Man], and Man Of Tomorrow will only be read by scholars of Alan Moore’s work.
By contrast, I think Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant’s All Star Superman will (possibly along with the first two Christopher Reeve films, and maybe Siegel & Shuster’s original origin story ) be the Superman story that lasts as long as the human race are interested in stories of superheroes.
Partly, this is because it’s simply a better work. I don’t think Morrison’s quite the writer that Moore is (though I don’t want to get into a Moore-vs-Morrison argument, quite possibly the most tedious discussion it’s possible to have about comics. Both men are superlative writers, and I would rather read even a minor work by either above almost anything by almost anyone else in the medium), but Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? doesn’t play to Moore’s strengths. Moore is Apollonian – he’s a formalist by nature, whose greatest strengths come from rigorous plotting, structural innovation and intellectual bravado. The best example of Moore as writer of a single-issue comic book is probably Promethea #12, which (with the help of J.H. Williams III, Mick Gray, Todd Klein, Jose Villarubia and Jeromy Cox) uses the comic page the way Bach used the keys of the harpsichord, to create stunning contrapuntal effects that no-one else could ever create. Having Moore write a two-issue Superman story to be drawn by Curt Swan and edited by Julie Schwartz is a bit like asking Bach to write a twelve-bar blues. You’d probably get something pretty great, but it would still be a waste of his talents.
By contrast Morrison, while he’s also interested in formal experimentation, is more Dionysiac (for all that All-Star Superman is an Apollonian myth). He works in a more improvisatory way, leaving far more to his collaborators, and seems to be far more interested in emotional effect than in process. If Moore is Bach then Morrison is John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, improvising wild ideas around the core of a pop song and playing off his collaborators’ work.
And luckily, in All-Star Superman Morrison had the pefect collaborator in penciller Frank Quitely. While I would never hear a word said against Curt Swan’s work, his greatest strength was (as Calamity Jon Morris described later Superman artist Dan Jurgens) “The things he drew sure do look like the things they’re meant to look like”. That’s not quite the damning with faint praise it sounds like – in the comics industry that bespeaks a level of professionalism and craftsmanship that would probably put an artist in the top five percent, sadly. But it’s not a quality that is necessarily suited to making lasting art.
Frank Quitely, on the other hand, is one of the most intelligent, sensitive artists working in ‘mainstream’ comics. While he’s not as innovative as some would have it (many of his innovations come from European or indie comics that many of his readers haven’t read), he is able to use the comics page in a way that few others would be able to. Just consider this panel, for example:
(That image can be clicked through to if it isn’t displayed at full size on your screen)
The interesting thing about this is not just the multiple-images-in-one-frame thing to indicate motion – this had been done before, and was probably invented by Carmine Infantino in Flash stories in the 1950s, though it’s rarely been done so skillfully and gracefully, but the thought that’s been put into it. It’s a cliche to say ‘there’s not a line out of place’ but in Quitely’s case it’s simply true. Quitely uses fewer lines per page than most comic artists will use in a small panel, and as a result philistines accuse him of ‘laziness’ and ‘not drawing backgrounds’. But every line in every Quitely panel is placed to illustrate one of plot, character or environment. And there’s far more detail there than appears at first glance. Take this, for example:
That’s Cat Grant’s shoe, poking out under her desk. And precisely the kind of shoe the character would wear. Most readers will never notice that, but tiny details like that add to the impression that this is a real, living world, where things happen ‘offstage’ and characters have lives away from the protagonist. In fact a huge amount of this story only takes place by implication, in the gutters and what is left unsaid.
And this is the reason why All-Star Superman will be read long after Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? is forgotten. Because whereas the latter depends for its (incredible) power on being part of a specific continuity, All-Star Superman only depends on you knowing the outline of the Superman myth – “Doomed planet, desperate scientists, last hope, kindly couple” and we’re into the story. It doesn’t matter what shape the rocket he landed in was, or whether there was an Eradicator in it, or whether Super-Horses live on Krypton, or whether he was born Kal-El or Kal-L. All that matters is that he’s Superman.
And it takes aspects from every version of the Superman story to have been published – ranging from an updated version of Jack Kirby’s version of Jimmy Olsen, to Steve Lombard from the 70s stories, to Cat Grant from the 90s soap-operatic comics, to Qwewq The Infant Universe and Solaris The Tyrant Sun from Morrison’s own JLA stories. The Kent/Superman distinction is pure Christopher Reeve – you can hear Reeve saying the Clark Kent lines – but he’s drawn in pure Wayne Boring style. These are incorporated to precisely the extent that they serve the larger story being told, and no more, but all are given their own remarkable stories (Steve Lombard goes from being a blustering bully early in the story to an almost heroic figure by the end).
The story itself is possibly the most audacious ever told in a superhero comic, and probably only escaped right-wing outrage by being so ludicrously good – Morrison doesn’t just turn Superman into a Jesus-figure, like the awful Superman Returns, but actually makes him the personal God that created humanity on the Earth on which we live, pretty much in passing as part of an even larger story.
And in the end, almost everyone is redeemed. Even Lex Luthor, the only person presented as actually evil, has a moment of enlightenment:
Luthor Einstein failed to unify the gravitational force with the other three but he… he had no experience of this…it’s so obvious. I can actually see and hear and feel and taste it and… the fundamental forces are yoked by a single thought.
Nasthalthia Lexie? How do I get this hat to work?
Luthor It’s thought-controlled! Hmm? Sorry… sorry, these new senses…I can actually see the machinery and wire connecting and separating everything since it all began… this is how he sees all the time, every day. Like it’s all just us, in here, together. And we’re all we’ve got.
Nasthalthia Uncle Lex! You’re literally embarrassing me beyond all therapy with this behavior!
Superman No, he’s just trying to articulate how gravity warps time and how I forced his metabolism to accelerate to compensate.
How gravity warps time? I think I might just have something to say about that, and so might Grant Morrison…
Taken as part of a larger work, Neonomicon 2 may turn out to be worthwhile. However, as a single issue of a comic book – which is, after all, how it’s being sold – it is a vile, vile thing.
Alan Moore’s use of rape in his comics is well-known at this point, as are the arguments over it. One side says, with some justification, that having rape be a plot point in every single major work for 30 years suggests a possibly unhealthy fascination with the subject, while the other side argues that in most cases it’s justified and making a point, not just to shock or titilate.
I’ve tended to side with the latter, because Moore is, firstly, the greatest writer the medium of comics has ever seen, and possibly the greatest writer in any medium the English language has produced in the last fifty years, and secondly someone who is a very outspoken feminist. But my patience with this trope in his works has been getting ever thinner.
But what I want to say, and something that unfortunately hasn’t really been said explicitly in the reviews I’ve read of this, is this:
If you are a rape victim/survivor, even if you do not normally mind too much about ‘triggering’, please think very carefully before you read this comic
I say this because there are at least two people I know of who read this blog, read comics, and have been raped. There may very well be more – those are the ones who have chosen to let me know the fact.
The use of rape here is qualititavely different from anything Moore has done before. Even From Hell, for all its explicitness, showed a certain amount of restraint, but while I would never say that anyone should absolutely refrain from reading anything, still less that someone should avoid any subject, I actually think that this comic could seriously upset and possibly mentally harm vulnerable people.
What Moore and Jacen Burrows, the artist, give us here, is an extended, six-page, explicit depiction of someone being brutally gang-raped. I found it disturbing and mildly sickening, and I am both an insensitive clod and someone who’s been fortunate enough never to have experienced sexual violence myself. This is several orders of magnitude nastier than anything Moore has put in any of his previous work – this isn’t just a couple of panels, with a close up of the victim’s face looking anguished, this is something altogether worse.
Now, it may be that the comic as a whole will be so good, so profound, that it justifies this – I suspect not, but it may be. I certainly wouldn’t rule it out – Moore at his worst is a better writer than most writers at their best, and Burrows is a very underrated artist, primarily because he mostly works for Avatar, not a company known for putting out good work. But as a single issue of a horror comic, this feels closer to something like the issue of Tarot with the haunted vagina. The difference is, Tarot is not something that anyone will pick up unless they’re actively looking for sexualised violence. Neonomicon, by virtue of its writer, is.
Someone needs to sit Alan Moore down and talk to him about this, because while for each individual occurence of rape in his work you can make excuses, it is something that makes his work, when taken as a body, have the effect of trivialising rape – when I’m absolutely certain that the whole reason he includes depictions of sexualised violence is because he thinks it’s an important, awful issue.
My bet is that when Neonomicon is completed, it’ll be an important comic – imagine Moore doing The Filth but in a Lovecraftian vein and without the humour – but taking this issue on its face, without giving Moore the benefit of doubt, it reads like something written by the worst kind of nasty misogynist, like the arsehole who once found my blog by googling “supergirl rape stories”.
But I’m becoming increasingly worried that getting Moore to write a story without a rape scene is like getting Frank Miller to write a female character who isn’t a prostitute, and then I start to think about Dave Sim, and then I start to worry if there’s something intrinsic to this medium that I love that does this to people, and then I think about “supergirl rape stories” again, and I wonder if I should get a different hobby…