My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Well, this is a strange book. Billed as a collection of “stories,” Illuminations is, rather, as Neil Gaiman concedes on his back cover blurb, “a sort of camouflage, or frame” for What We Can Know About Thunderman—which, at 240 pages of a 450-page book, is not a story or even a novella but a full-length novel. Gaiman describes it as “a scabrous, monstrous, often hilarious unmasking and reinvention of the people who made the comics, and the lives destroyed by the four-color funnies.”
With that in mind, I will be focusing in what follows on Thunderman. As for the rest of the book, it opens with “Hypothetical Lizard.” Formerly “A Hypothetical Lizard”—note the article—this is Moore’s first published piece of long-form fictional prose, initially printed in 1988 as part of an anthology set in a fantasy world shared among a number of speculative-fiction writers. Ahead of its time in its sociopolitical concerns, it narrates the slow sexual doom of two prostitutes—one of them transgender, one with a severed corpus callusum—in a fantastical brothel catering to magicians. I read it once before and confess I didn’t reread it in Illuminations; perhaps illustrating Moore’s limits, Anthony Johnston’s mid-2000s comics adaptation, which I prefer to the story proper, mutes its ornate verbosity and clarifies its central conflict. The rest of the stories in Illuminations, written more recently, are mostly fantastical inventions in the vein of Bradbury, Ellison, Gaiman—there is a rationalist twist on the ghost story, a time paradox tale about a paranormal society, a comic apocalypse with a vaping Jesus, a fictive Beat poem with fictive annotations à la Pale Fire, and more—and I’m sure I’ll pay them all the attention they deserve someday; but today, with controversy raging over Moore’s bitter farewell to comic books and his claim that the superhero genre is inherently a fascist one, I would like to examine What We Can Know About Thunderman in detail.
Superhero fandoms of both the political right and the political left now enjoy a rare moment of unity in summarily rejecting Moore’s fascism thesis, while observers point out that Moore has been claiming this for years—since, in fact, his earliest works in the genre, Miracleman and Watchmen. Writer Zack Budryk virally Tweets, for example,
Every couple years Alan Moore, a man whose best-known work is about how superheroes are fascist, pops his head up to confirm that’s something he believes, and people conclude he went crazy in his old age
Like saying Romeo and Juliet warns against immoderate eros or Fight Club censures masculinity, this clever argument only persuades if the best way to read a work of art is to discard its dominant affect as so much tinsel and regard only its overt rhetorical self-justification as its sole legitimate meaning. But as I hope I have shown exhaustively in my past writings on Moore, his greatest graphic novels in and out of the superhero genre can hardly get their narratives started without Moore’s investiture of generative man-gods, fascist perverts, and misogynist murderers with visionary authority, no matter what bien-pensant self-congratulation he blathers to the credulous readers of the Guardian. In the course of pursuing an only superficial anti-fascist polemic, Moore’s superheroes are more fascist than anything you’d have found in the same period in the average Marvel or DC Comic.
This ambiguity need not trouble us, either. Only pop-culture fandoms insist that their objects of aesthetic interest must possess political and ethical rectitude. High culture in modernity understands its role differently—as a repository for all that enlightenment represses. But Moore, from the depths of the English working class, has always aimed his ambition at the attainment of high culture. His punishment for this desire, should he achieve it, will be to leave behind, down in the Marvel Bullpen, the merely conflicted liberalisms of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the much more exalted slopes of Parnassus, where figures as troubling (and as obsessed with heroism) as Blake, Nietzsche, and Yeats will tell him what Walter Benjamin long ago told us all: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
Is this knowledge, however, included in What We Can Know About Thunderman? Insufficiently, as I will show. First, a summary. The novel, in 20 time-scrambled chapters ranging from the 1950s to the present, gives a mosaic history of the American comic-book industry, its flashbacks and flashforwards encompassing everything from Siegel and Shuster’s sale of Superman to what would become DC Comics to the Congressional inquiries and institution of the Comics Code in the 1950s to the burgeoning of superhero movies and the decline of superhero comics in our own moment. But rather than dealing with this material in a journalistic or realist mode, Moore gives it a hyper-stylized magic-realist gonzo treatment that owes much, as does the alternately slangy and lyric prose style, to Thomas Pynchon.
The story’s events are over the top: when an editor dies, for example, his colleagues enter his apartment to settle his affairs and discover a wall-to-wall ocean of pornographic magazines. Their wading and swimming through this obscene matter occupies 15 pages’ worth of Moore’s virtuosic, clever, and eventually tiresome riffing on the absurd scenario, as when he catalogues the magazines’ titles: “Saucy. Frill. Bordello. Fisting Manicurists. Vaginado. Lesbian Insolvency?—with an incorporated question mark, as if astonished by its own existence.” And despite Moore’s largely sour assessment of superhero comics, he wrings genuine comic pathos from the midcentury American longings that gave rise to the genre. Passages like these are much the novel’s strongest and most affecting:
So as Worsley whimpered in his sleep, up there over his head, over the bedroom ceiling and the roof tiles and the TV aerial, up near the moon, was where the Russian space-dog sat above the sky in judgement. It looked down on the United States and had its head on one side like they sometimes do, with eyes of caramel regret, and very likely nobody would ever know what it was thinking, because everything that it was thinking was in Russian, and in Dog.
Other chapters, in Joycean variation, take the form of interviews, comic-book scripts, congressional testimony, and capsule movie reviews. The whole performance, if occasionally stretched thin by Moore’s laboriously thorough exploration of his own conceits and crass Underground Comix sense of humor, is undeniably entertaining—at least for someone like me, who grew up as a second-generation reader of superhero comics and who spent years in adulthood teaching a college course called “The History of Comic Art.” I’m not sure what anyone else will make of it, though.
For Moore’s novel is not just a Pynchonian fantasia but a roman à clef. He writes not about DC and Marvel but about American and Massive, not about Superman and Batman but about Thunderman and King Bee, not about Siegel and Shuster but about Kessler and Schuman, not about Lee and Kirby but about Blatz and Gold. The common reader might discern these identities from the popular controversies about who created what in the early days of DC and Marvel, but how many readers not marinated in the industry’s lore will recognize that Jim Laws is William Gaines, that Julius Metzenberger is Mort Weisinger, that Sol Stickman is Julius Schwartz, that Denny Wellworth is a blend of Denny O’Neil and Archie Goodwin, and so on? And how much work does Moore do to communicate to readers unfamiliar with this context what he means to suggest by invoking it? Here is a typical passage, from a scene where two characters who will be crushed in adulthood by the comics industry attend an early convention in their 1970s adolescence:
Despite their mutual antipathy towards King Bee, they both went to hear Davis Burke talk in the hotel basement’s other big room, and we glad they had. In his mid-sixties and now doing highly paid commercial work for grown-up magazines, Burke was a self-effacing little guy who seemed pleased and surprised that there was anybody interested in the comic books that he’d done ten or twenty years ago. He talked about his influences, mostly Lester Gentle’s Flatfoot Floyd, with what Burke called ‘its stylistic and dramatic balance between black and white’, which left most of the teenage audience not even puzzled. He secured his biggest laughs with candid anecdotes—Burke was a naturally funny storyteller—about his time on King Bee for American. When asked about King Bee’s ‘creator’ Richard Manning, Burke was smiling, twinkly-eyed and devastating.
I enjoy this passage because I know that Davis Burke is Dick Sprang and that Lester Gentle is Chester Gould. I can easily call to mind the child-like psychedelia of Sprang’s 1950s-era Batman art and what it owes to Gould’s criminal menagerie in the old Dick Tracy strips. I draw these visions from my own childhood spent poring over my father’s brittle and yellowed old comics fetched down out of my grandmother’s dust-hung attic—my father being the exact same age, give or take a few months, as Alan Moore. But if you don’t have this knowledge—or, perhaps more to the point, these nostalgic memories—of working- and lower-middle-class American mass culture, then the passage consists only of lifeless words on the page. I can’t imagine a non-comics-reader getting much of anything out of Thunderman.
Yet Thuderman is a relentless attack on the readership of comics. With drubbing thematic insistence, Moore portrays superhero fans—especially those fans who became the second generation of comics creators in the late 1960s and after—as stunted men, impotent and porn-obsessed, culturally illiterate and politically sheltered, akin to drug addicts in their compulsive need for a harmful fix of their favorite reading matter, their personalities reduced to the same two dimensions as the characters they obsess over.
Moore dwells on the mafia’s role in founding American comics, making it symbolic of the field’s endemic corruption—i.e., superheroes and the executives who publish them are little better than gangsters—as well as an element of the novel’s plot, improbably reaching into the second decade of 21st century, as if anyone were still in much danger of being killed by a capo these days. Moore portrays his lightly-disguised Stan Lee stand-in, Sammy Blatz, as a vain fool given the idea for the Marvel heroes in a diner by an old OSS contact from his World War II days (now CIA, naturally). Though Moore also allows the possibility that Blatz is hallucinating—not compromised, in this case, only crazy—this secret agent explains to Blatz that just as the CIA promoted modernist art against socialist realism, so they also require popular representations of the nuclear age as utopian and heroic, hence his idea for cosmic rays and gamma rays and the like giving rise to marvels. (I will leave aside Moore’s outdated satire on nuclear power—an old ideologeme that may not survive Europe’s coming winter.)
This theme of superheroic political corruption reaches its crescendo, or nadir, when Moore juxtaposes superhero comics with the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol—a wholly irrelevant connection exposing the stay-at-home Briton Moore’s sadly attenuated “feel” for American culture. Superhero comics and their creators, like the CIA itself, have long been liberal, not far right. The CIA for all intents and purposes collaborates with Marvel on feel-good cinematic parables that have the liberals shouting “Ruthkanda Forever.” Meanwhile, the comics industry has spent the last decade assiduously recruiting creators (and readers) who aren’t straight, white, or male, an obvious fact missing from Moore’s present-day sequences.
Moore’s need to exaggerate and misrepresent this genre’s ideological coloring suggests that his ideas, too, have been flattened into two dimensions by the passage of time, by excessively nurtured personal grievances, and by his current interests. The Alan Moore of the 1980s, an anarchist incongruously dressed in a hammer-and-sickle shirt and a participant in fringe or counterculture, at least stood far enough outside the liberal-conservative binary to see the limitations of and the complicity between both sides. Even the Alan Moore of the 2000s, who complained that the V for Vendetta filmmakers corrupted his anarchist critique of fascism into a liberal attack on neoconservatism, would recognize the political cartoonishness of the Alan Moore of 2022, perfectly indistinguishable from Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the rest of the neolib-neocon media-intelligence convergence he used to be sharp enough to mock.
Now that he’s made the mainstream publishing big leagues as a literary novelist, he must not offend the liberal hegemony by hinting that it might share any responsibility for the cultural infantilization he quite rightly decries or for creating the dislocation and alienation that generated the populist backlash he loathes. Meanwhile, even as he mocks Trump’s base as rubes at nativist war with reality, Moore in all his political self-righteousness seems never to have given any critical thought to caricaturing the comics industry as an unrelievedly corrupt affair of Italian mafiosi and Jewish shysters.
Moore’s personal imprecation against comic-book creators as perverted and stunted souls, porn-addled freaks incapable of normal social intercourse, is even more outrageous. What right has Alan Moore of all people to sit in judgment on the abnormal?—a man whose Nazarene hairstyle, diabolical predilections, radical politics, and pornographic literary productions hardly bespeaks the bourgeois way of life Flaubert famously recommended to the artist. A writer who (for example) showed a 15-year-old Dorothy feverishly masturbating through the Kansan tornado and Peter Pan gleefully molesting Wendy’s child brothers in his pornotopic Lost Girls should perhaps hold his tongue before he waxes moralistic over anyone else’s sexual imagination.
Moore’s pulpit-pounding moralism interacts in strange—possibly actionable—ways with his aforementioned à clef approach to this historical subject matter. When he represents American Comics’s Vice President Mimi Drucker as a criminal nymphomaniac who fornicates in a public elevator, sleeps with an entire basketball team in her office, and treasures a photograph of her father golfing with General Pinochet, Moore surely knows that the informed reader will be able to supply the name of Jeannette Kahn as the corresponding real-life female DC executive. Alan Moore owes his career to Jeanette Kahn’s broad-minded innovations in her role as DC president. Still living, she hardly deserves to be slimed as a fascist sex fiend by a man who is, by the way, very likely exaggerating his maltreatment at the hands of both DC and Marvel Comics and just as likely obscuring his own professional maltreatment of others, as this useful video persuasively documents. I don’t usually like to go into these kinds of personal details in my essays, but Moore, larding his fiction with unmistakable gossip and innuendo, is the one who brought it up; therefore, it should be answered in public.
If all Moore wants to say is that adults who aspire to culture should not devote their lives to shallow corporate commodities for children, then he’ll get no argument from me. Comics industry business practices likewise deserve critical attention. But the rest of it—the political and personal animus and the mean-spirited farce it inspires—is a waste of 240 pages. Like many raging moralists before him, Moore doesn’t own up to the darkness in himself. He projects it onto others instead. Moore is the one invested in heroic idealism and fascinated by godly charisma; his work, including this very book, is drenched in gore and pornography; his preferred literary modes tend toward a cartoonish flattening of reality. But no, all those other people, Jewish nymphomaniacs and the like, must bear the blame. Relatedly, we find no Alan Moore character in this book, nor any “British Invasion” creator at all—as if Moore were at pains to disavow his and his cohorts’ own role in the corruption he assails.
In one chapter, Moore puts Thunderman editor Julius Metzenberger (i.e., Superman editor Mort Weisinger) on the psychoanalysts’ couch, there to discover his own unconscious motivations in caring so much for the superheroic property he manages. The themes disclosed are boilerplate—Superman as refracted image of Jewish peril and immigration—but we can easily scrutinize Moore with the same lens. Isn’t the real reason for his outsized loathing of his former profession (and colleagues) likely to be not a high-minded qualm about fascism but rather class-based shame for an early publishing career whose initially lowly status mirrored his own early obscurity? Speaking as someone who traveled roughly the same cultural path, I find it an undignified, bathetic display.
The closest Moore gets to this insight is a passage where one comics writer humorously guides readers through Thunderman film adaptations, thus allowing Moore to poke fun at onscreen Supermen from the doomed George Reeves to the digitally altered Henry Cavill. Commenting on the Essler Brothers’ Thunderman cartoons (i.e., the Fleischer Studios’ indeed glorious Art Deco Superman animation from the early 1940s), Moore’s writer observes of their superiority to all live-action renditions of the character:
If you’re interested in my bullshit theory as to why this should be, then for my money it probably has something to do with the character’s ontology, ontology being the study of what can be said to exist, as opposed to epistemology, which is the study of what we can know. The only Thunderman that can be said to exist is the perfect and ideal one, who is made of nothing more than lines of paper or acetate, and Essler shorts are the purest and most glorious expressions of this: the true imaginal essence of this fictional character in a moving, speaking, unbounded form. It’s when you materialise Thunderman as a flesh-and-blood human being with pubic hair and a rental agreement that you start to run into trouble.
In other words, Moore can’t deny there is something to the superheroic ideal—something, as a practicing occultist, he presents at the novel’s sublime conclusion as a metaphysical reality, one as spiritually disquieting as anything more-than-human would be if we were ever summoned into its presence. With the these poetic final pages—where Thunderman stands revealed as “this frightful gnostic demiurge,” amusingly printed in Comic Sans—Moore may well (and then again may not) earn his place on Parnassus beside his occult precursors Blake and Yeats. But in the balance of the book, we find not the synthesis of culture and barbarism bequeathed to us by the old masters, whose works knew themselves at once civilized and barbarous, but rather the unconscious barbarism of one all the more crude and vicious for fancying himself the epitome of civilization.