My rating: 4 of 5 stars
[The following review first appeared in the Spring 2017 print edition of Rain Taxi. (For ease of screen reading, I’ve added a few more paragraph breaks than appeared in the print version.) I was reminded of it the other day when I picked up Brighter Than You Think to revisit its title story, a short and comic-psychedelic biography of occultist and rocket scientist Jack Parsons.
Parsons was on my mind due to this summer’s discernible political revival of the occult/conspiracy-minded left in America—a development forced, I think, under the pressure of the appalling Jeffrey Epstein saga. Since my teenage tutelage by Alan Moore himself (oh say can you see Brought to Light?), I confess to having dallied over the years with this occult/conspiracy-minded left. Which is not to say that I believe all of history since the late 1940s was conjured up by Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard at the Babalon Working (which may be “where the flying saucers come from,” pace Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadore mythos), only that this is a strange world.
Incidentally, since I mention Moore’s long novel Jerusalem in the first paragraph of my review, you might be wondering if I ever finished reading it. I did not, unless skimming the last two-thirds counts, and it doesn’t. My attention drowned in its sea of prolixity. It is a novel by the writer who wrote those legendarily mammoth scripts: every imaginary element in the imaginary visual field is described down to its imaginary atoms. What ever happened to the telling detail? (Nathan “N. R.” Gaddis is good on this “picture thinking” element of the novel.) But maybe someday. In the meantime, please scroll below the image for my review of Brighter Than You Think, and enjoy!]
While Alan Moore made headlines in 2016 with the release of his gargantuan prose novel, Jerusalem, this new collection from Uncivilized Books focuses on the legendary English comics writer’s short fiction. Brighter Than You Think gathers ten of Moore’s short comics, originally published between 1985 and 2003 in now mostly out-of-print magazines or anthologies. In his introduction, editor Marc Sobel suggests that the diversity in genre, subject matter, and aesthetic among the stories (accentuated by the varying art styles of Moore’s collaborators) is the volume’s most striking feature: “If one didn’t know better, this could easily pass as an anthology featuring ten different writers” (8).
Within the collection’s variety, we can discern some patterns across Moore’s career. Some of these stories, for instance, are activist or occasional pieces that respond to contemporary political events. The brutal and somber “Tapestries” (1987) originally appeared in the anti-war series Real War Stories; an adaptation of the memoirs of Vietnam veteran W. D. Ehrhart, the story systematically juxtaposes his idyllic and patriotic small-town childhood with atrocities he saw and committed in Southeast Asia and those he was trying to stop as an activist in the mid-‘80s in Central America.
A more famous polemical piece is 1988’s “The Mirror of Love,” a poetic history of homosexuality written to protest anti-gay legislation passed in Thatcher-era Britain. Readers may be more familiar with “The Mirror of Love” in the lavish 2003 edition illustrated by José Villarubia, but the original black-and-white artwork by Stephen Bissette and Rick Veitch echoes Moore’s themes perfectly: grainy ink-wash panels across the top of each page narrate queer history’s cycles of atrocity and resistance, while below them androgynous Beardsley angels look on and embrace, embodying the transcendent power of love.
Finally, “This Is Information” (2002), Moore’s impassioned response to 9/11 done in collaboration with his partner Melinda Gebbie, is a still-relevant plea for an appropriately complex, self-interrogating, and compassionate approach to world politics.
Other stories are best characterized as satire—usually “in a jugular vein,” to quote Moore’s beloved Mad magazine. The volume’s strangest story, “The Bowing Machine” (1991), with disorienting art by the experimental cartoonist Mark Beyer, is set in the hyper-capitalist Japan of the 1980s and dramatizes a competition in servility between two white-collar workers. Lyrical and disturbing, “The Bowing Machine” can stand alongside DeLillo or Ballard as a late-twentieth-century portrayal of how capitalism distorts the human.
“Come on Down” (1988) is a nearly tasteless but finally moving comedy-horror tale about urban alienation and the psychological damage done by the media, while the Peter Bagge-drawn “The Hasty Smear of My Smile” (1998) is the absurdist and wistful reminiscence of the Kool-Aid Man, primarily focused on his days as a Beat poet and hippie burnout, providing a skewed and ironic view of the overlap between commodification and the counterculture in the postwar U.S.
The title story, reflecting Moore’s commitment to magic, closes the volume. A six-page biography of rocket-scientist and occultist Jack Parsons, beautifully illustrated by Gebbie, “Brighter Than You Think” (2003) suggests the ultimately comic and even utopian impulse of Moore’s work; it is, as Sobel notes, characterized by “eternal optimism for the future” (129).
Even so, the volume’s best piece, also a metaphysical meditation, is probably its darkest. “I Keep Coming Back” (1996) is a coda to Moore’s Jack-the-Ripper saga From Hell. Illustrated in what Sobel calls a “scratchy and surreal” style by Oscar Zarate, the story is a first-person recollection of Moore’s return to Whitechapel after completing his Ripper opus (111). As he drinks in a stripper bar near the site of the murders, Moore delivers an inner monologue that elaborates with startling psychological and sexual candor his own complicity, determined by London’s occulted past, in the misogyny that drove both the serial killer and those who have made an industry of his murders.
With so much variety on display in these stories, some unevenness is to be expected. “In Pictopia,” Moore’s 1986 lament over the “dark age” trend in super-hero comics that his own work helped to inspire, has not survived its context. (The almost unreadable murkiness of its coloring as reprinted in this otherwise beautifully-produced volume also does not do the story any favors.)
Another early tale likewise shows a lapse in sensibility: 1986’s “Love Doesn’t Last Forever” wastes its densely textured science-fiction setting, as well as artist Rick Veitch’s delirious layouts and 1980s Day-Glo colors, on a twist-ending tale of alien venereal disease that comes off as a crass, insensitive refraction of the AIDS crisis.
As Brighter Than You Think is an entry in Uncivilized’s “Critical Cartoons” series, each piece is accompanied by an essay by editor Marc Sobel. These essays make the volume a necessary addition to the library of even a Moore completist who already owns the stories. Sobel patiently explains the context of each short work in the history of the comics industry, the development of Moore’s oeuvre, and the relevant social and political background, while offering thoughtful critical interpretations.
Less compellingly, Sobel treats each story as an equivalent expression of what he calls Moore’s “genius” (8). The limits of this hagiographic approach to even the volume’s best stories is shown, for example, when Sobel glosses the historical references in “The Mirror of Love” without ever assessing Moore’s claims, as a more skeptical critic would. Is Moore correct to applaud ancient Greek pederasty, despite its ethical ambiguity considered in the light of today’s attitudes toward power disparities and sexual consent, or to demonize Judaism and Christianity as reducible almost entirely to homophobia, a simplistic judgment that would have come as a surprise to such major queer thinkers as Wilde or Auden? Probably not, but Sobel refuses to make negative judgments.
All quibbling aside, Brighter Than You Think is a superb collection that, in demonstrating the extraordinary range of Moore’s talent, also shows the versatility of the comics medium itself. These stories may be much shorter than their author’s most famous works—only two are longer than ten pages—but they prove, to cite a mystical principle the magician Moore might appreciate, that the infinite can be found in the infinitesimal.
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