Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows, Providence

Providence Act 1Providence Act 1 by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is with hesitation that I write anything about Providence. This recent three-volume graphic novel—a prequel/sequel to the earlier works, The Courtyard and Neonomicon—represents Alan Moore’s meticulously-researched and carefully-arranged synthesis of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos, whereas I am only the most casual reader of Lovecraft and a mild skeptic of his new eminence in the literary canon (I attempt, in the voice of an imagined devotee, the best case I can make for Lovecraft in my review of At the Mountains of Madness). But I wrote this summer about Moore’s earliest comics opus, Miracleman, so for symmetry’s sake I will essay on his latest, Providence.

Moore is, in any case, skeptical of Lovecraft too. While a number of Providence‘s allusions no doubt wriggled tentacularly over my head, I think I got the book’s point. In this narrative, set mainly in 1919, Lovecraft is the unknowing channel used by an occult conspiracy to influence both popular and high culture so that the immemorial dream-world, vanquished at the founding of human civilization and populated with the creatures envisioned by Lovecraft (and kindred writers like Poe, Bierce, Dunsany, and Chambers), can triumph over the earth again. Not for nothing does Borges appear in its penultimate chapter: as a commenter at the Providence annotations site points out, Moore is in essence retelling “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” only with figures from Lovecraft’s life and work. 

But is it a good thing that Lovecraft’s visions triumph? The final chapter of Providence stages a philosophical debate among the characters—including real-life, living Lovecraft scholar, S. T. Joshi—about just that. As we know, Lovecraft and many of his precursors and successors, from Poe to Burroughs, held illiberal views, while our present literary culture, ostensibly including Moore, is ever-more militantly liberal. 

Moore addresses this question through Providence‘s protagonist: Robert Black. Black is a closeted gay, Jewish journalist from Milwaukee, rather than being the WASP scion Lovecraft was. He travels from New York to New England investigating signs of the aforementioned occult conspiracy. When at the narrative’s first climax he meets the man himself in the eponymous Rhode Island city, he lets Lovecraft borrow his journal, in which he’s both reported on his experiences and written down story ideas and literary criticism. Both Black’s record of what he’s seen in his travels and his theorization of the need for a new kind of fantastical literature inspire Lovecraft to write his most important works. Black, meanwhile, realizes he has been the pawn of the occult conspiracy all along, engineered as the “herald” (in fact, he writes for the New York Herald) to Lovecraft’s “redeemer”—a John the Baptist for the Cthulhu mythos’s Incarnation.

This narrative arrangement leaves us with two possible interpretations of Lovecraftian politics. On the one hand, despite Lovecraft’s own abjection of the non-white, of the queer, and of much of modernity at large, he actually owes his visions to these social forces; much of his own inventiveness must be credited to these prevailing conditions allegorized through the figure of Black (and communicated through Black’s understanding of how much “weird fiction” as theory and practice owes to the various social and artistic avant-gardes Lovecraft scorned in favor of the 18th century). 

By contrast, insofar as the Lovecraftian lifeworld, not only inhumane but inhuman, colonizes culture then its collaborators, including real and made-up marginal figures from Robert Black to Burroughs and Joshi, may have something to atone for. (Moore makes clear the grisly methods of coercion it uses, for which rape, as in so much of his work, is here again the metonym.) Perhaps we ought not to have so hastily thrown the realist novel—the “literary fiction” Black anachronistically complains about to his journal—in the historical dustbin.

Providence never quite resolves this conundrum over the worth of Lovecraft or the weird for which he serves as figurehead. When earth becomes Yuggoth at the novel’s conclusion (or perhaps, per the fictionalized Joshi, realizes that it always was Yuggoth), the violated mother of Cthulhu herself says, “I think we should learn to dwell amidst wonder and glory forever.” Moore makes heavy reference to Freud on the unconscious and Jung on dreams to suggest that such a return of the repressed, such a habitation of the dreamworld, is true and inevitable. Yet it was purchased with lies and bloodlines, wrought on the bodies of prostrate women by metaphysical fascists. Can you have magic and ethics, even magic and everyday decency?

We are back in the dilemma, if dilemma it is, of From Hell: the character who speaks for Moore’s occultism is a misogynist murderer, the character who speaks for his humanism the only victim to survive. But perhaps this Yeatsian tension between spirit and humanity, between the work and the life, is preferable to the fantasies of their resolution that we were getting from Moore a little over a decade ago in the not-entirely-convincing polemics of Promethea and Lost Girls.  

Added to all the foregoing to give it an extra savor: Providence is Moore’s love-hate letter both to comics and to America (and maybe they are the same thing for him). Providence is only part-comics. The comics part is drawn in the painstaking ligne claire of Jacen Burrows, avowedly influenced by Hergé and Otomo. Burrows must have once seen that interview where Eddie Campbell called Bill Sienkiewicz a prima donna for not finishing Big Numbers, because he seems to have devoted his life to doing whatever Alan Moore tells him to do. Yet Moore gives over a third of each chapter to the prose of Robert Black’s diary—too often undistinguished prose, alas. The occult paraphernalia Black inserts is usually better, my favorite being the weekly circular for the church in Moore’s Innsmouth stand-in, written all in piscine puns beginning with a hilarious Gospel misquotation: “I will make you fishes of men.” The book itself, then, is divided between Moore’s devotion to comics and his desire to escape into literature.

Likewise, through Black’s speculations on how to write romances for the modern age, we hear Moore’s tribute to American literature: he carefully roots Lovecraft’s achievements not only in the fin-de-siècle avant-garde but in the American modernity of Poe and Hawthorne. It all made me consider for the first time in literally 30 years of reading him (I read The Killing Joke when I was six!) how odd it must be to be Alan Moore: to have spent so much of one’s career writing for and about a country you don’t live in, a country whose culture has—shades of Providence‘s Cthulhu cult—semi-colonized one’s own, even if part of one welcomed it as a liberation from one’s overly familiar everyday world. Comics, pop culture, America: Moore must love and loathe them in equal measure. No wonder he writes fiction of such tortured ambivalence, in contrast to the sometimes unwelcome certitude of the interviews he gives.

Should you read Providence? You probably have to come to it already caring about Lovecraft and Moore. You should also be willing to deal with the nastiness Moore uses to emphasize the inhumanity of his cultists. Providence isn’t as bad as Neonomicon, with its outright attack on the audience, and its most disgusting scene is partially penitent, as it represents a Moore surrogate assaulting the reader (i.e., a character placed in the reader’s point-of-view position). Still, it’s not for faint of heart. (As for the often raised question of Moore and rape: he writes about it as much as he does for the exact same reason as second-wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin or Adrienne Rich talked about as much as they did: both think it’s the foundation of all human hierarchy.)

Providence does contain much too much relatively lifeless prose from Black, all given in annoying cursive handwriting. I understand Moore’s goal in dividing the narrative, but I remain convinced the man who often included three strands of narrative in a single tiny panel of Watchmen could have told almost the whole story in comics form. 

Black’s characterization is also seriously flawed. Moore can’t seem to decide if he’s an aw-shucks hayseed or an experienced habitué of the queer demimonde who is au courant with the avant-garde. He’s naive when Moore needs him to be, not when Moore doesn’t; therefore, he never comes into focus as a character.

But for all that, I enjoyed Providence, particularly the time-jump audacity of its last two chapters. For personal reasons I love that the spread showing Yuggoth as it overcomes urban space takes Pittsburgh as its victim city. And the ethical debate at the end—accept sublime change, whatever form it takes; or fight for humanity and for humanism?—is one that our technological condition will never let rest. I admired Burrows’s heroic feats of drawing and Juan Rodriguez’s distinctive grayish-greenish digital palette.

Finally—a test of the most powerful works—for all its flaws, I have lingered in the disquieting mood of Providence for days after finishing it.

Screen Shot 2018-12-24 at 2.08.13 PM
Borges’s appearance in Providence #11

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Alan Moore, Miracleman

Miracleman, Book Three: OlympusMiracleman, Book Three: Olympus by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the 1980s, Alan Moore, the most celebrated writer in the history of mainstream Anglophone comics, made his name by telling the same story four times.

In Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, and Watchmen, a commanding male figure, superior of intellect and sometimes even god-like, remakes the world, or at least part of it, into some version of utopia.

In two cases (V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing), the reader is invited to celebrate this transformation, generally because Moore keeps the ideology of the hero and his utopia within the remit of the political left; in two cases (Watchmen and Miracleman), the reader is invited to question this transformation, generally because Moore surrounds the hero and his revolution with echoes of fascism.

In each case, including the more positive ones, doubts dog the utopian narrative; even the anarchist V and the environmentalist Swamp Thing trample ordinary people and democratic institutions, and all these utopian men, whether metaphorically or literally, attempt to control or fall to degrading women, with the female body seeming to stand in Moore’s imagination as a metaphor for ungovernable reality.

Evidently grasping the problem of his attractions to inhumane and even inhuman utopianism, Moore attempted a correction in his opus of the 1990s, From Hell: here the utopian hero is Jack the Ripper (AKA royal physician William Gull), his victims working-class prostitutes. Surely, we are not asked to sympathize with this vivisectionist-misogynist-revolutionist?

Yet Moore himself was quite literally ensorcelled by his hero-villain’s rhetoric, persuaded by his creature’s own monologues to become an occultist. In the final chapter but one, Gull ascends the Tree of Life into the white blankness that is God while his final, escaped victim Mary Kelly remains below with only those human appurtenances of flesh, family, and nation (to be more politically specific, female flesh [her murder-spared body], female family [her daughters, named for Gull’s other victims], and colonized nation [Ireland, occupied by the English power Gull served]) to console her.

The balance of Moore’s career shows his increasing efforts to synthesize magic and revolution with democracy and humanity, some more persuasive (Promethea) than others (Lost Girls), even if rather severe problems remain (why in the name of Glycon is the figure of love at the center of the universe in Promethea an image of Pan raping Selene?), and I’ll certainly get back to you if I ever finish Jerusalem.

My goal today is to account for Miracleman, which I have just re-read in part and in part read for the first time. As an adolescent I was never able to assemble all the out-of-print back issues and graphic novels, so I have only now read the whole saga in Marvel Comics’s recent reprints.

Miracleman was originally titled Marvelman. Marvelman was a 1950s English superhero created by Mick Anglo (whose Anglicized surname sounds like that of an English superhero) modeled on Captain Marvel, AKA Shazam. Both characters are boys gifted a magic word by a wizard, a word that when spoken transforms them into superheroes.

Marvelman spent the 1950s having adventures with his companions Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman, and then went into publishing dormancy. Moore, an ambitious up-and-coming writer, was given a chance to retool the character in the early 1980s for the British comics anthology Warrior (in which his anarchist dystopia V for Vendetta also appeared).

Upon publication in America, the series’s title was revised to Miracleman under legal threat from Marvel Comics. The publication history of the series is dispiriting and complicated, with Moore publishing first in Warrior in Britain, then in an American series published by the indie company Eclipse. Moore turned over the series to Neil Gaiman after he completed the story he wished to tell, and Gaiman managed to publish six issues with Eclipse. Then the series and characters got caught up in an unfathomably complex legal entanglement, the result of which allowed Marvel to republish Moore and Gaiman’s work only in the last decade, with the anti-corporatist Moore’s name removed at his own request. His work is now credited to “The Original Writer.”

The difficulties of publishing the series means that it took almost a decade to get Moore’s whole story out, with a changing crew of artists. The story, though, was evidently planned from the first as cohesive whole by the meticulous Moore, and showcases his brutally realist-revisionist approach to superheroes in the 1980s.

Miracleman, according to Moore, is not really a 1950s superhero; his Mick Anglo–penned adventures were a Matrix-like delusion fostered by the crypto-fascist intelligence program, headed by one Emil Gargunza, which created superhumans by repurposing the technology found in a downed UFO. Once Miralceman learns this truth, defeats the corrupted Kid Miracleman, dispatches Gargunza, and has a baby with his mortal wife, the aliens return to discover what earthlings have made of their tech.

This alien incursion draws Earth into the Cold War between two rival interstellar empires who eventually agree to make our planet the staging-ground of their détente. Meanwhile, Miracleman and his fellow superheroes (now including a newly-discovered Miraclewoman as well as his own daughter, Winter), transform earth into a utopia without money, poverty, disease, war, or oppression. Such transformation is all the more necessary after the aforementioned Kid Miracleman returns to destroy London in a gruesome episode before his final defeat.

Moore’s story ends not only with miracle people but with a miracle world, even as the hints that this utopia is really a dystopia from the perspective of ordinary mortals become increasingly hard to ignore.

Completed between 1982, when Moore was just starting out, and 1989, when Moore was at the height of his powers, Miracleman displays extreme variations from beginning to end in the quality of its scripting. The early episodes are clumsy, with corny comic-book narration a cut below even that of contemporaries like Marv Wolfman or Chris Claremont. I am being cruel, but here is one egregious narrative caption:

A can of worms has been opened. A can of worms called “Project Zarathustra.” And every time you open a can of worms…you need a bigger can to get them all back in. (ellipses in original)

Why would you need a bigger can for the same amount of worms? This is prototypically bad writing: choppy, portentous, clichéd, and nonsensical.

Moore’s style improves exponentially, though; the final chapters, making up the narrative’s third division, Olympus, are almost an illustrated text as much as they are comics, with Miracleman himself narrating retrospectively in an epic (some say purple) prose-poetry that one might compare, among writers of the 1980s, not to Marv Wolfman but to Cormac McCarthy or, in the SF genre, to Ray Bradbury or Ursula Le Guin.

Consider this passage, which stunned me when I was 14; it is Miracleman’s elegy to a fallen alien warrior, its fantastical imagery passing into a sighed diminuendo as binary code becomes the mourner’s cry:

And Aza Chorn, so swift that by compare the thunderbolts crept earthwards with the speed of stalactites…? Why, Aza Chorn is dead. Just dead. About his monument, the ghosts parade, the zephyrs shriek and howl and tear apart the clouds, rail uselessly at death and in frustration snatch up blossoms shaped like human lips, and fling them like blood-red confetti from Olympus to those mortal pastures far below, a rain of angry kisses showering down upon those tiny, distant lives…[11010000]: the And/oroids use this term to denote the sorrow that is felt on realising sorrow is a thing one can no longer truly feel. One one, oh one, oh oh, oh oh. (ellipses in original)

The art shows similar variations. The first artist, Garry Leach, is an excellent but rather literal illustrator, while the final artist, Moore’s Swamp Thing collaborator John Totleben, provides a moody, mixed-media extravaganza, often applying legendary pulp artist Virgil Finlay’s psychedelic pointillist technique to provide a visual corollary to Moore’s high rhetoric.

So what can all this mean? Is Moore on the side of his miraculous utopian revolutionary? Despite the unevenness in quality and the pains of production, is Miracleman a cohesive statement worth reading as political speculation?

Despite the overused term “graphic novel,” the novelistic texture of the work is thin. The characters are flat archetypes, except for two disruptive figures of the early episodes, Miracleman’s fascist “father,” the scientist Emil Gargunza, and the black assassin (with sapphire teeth) Evelyn Cream.

Art: Alan Davis

Gargunza is a Mexican displaced by the Revolution and its aftermath; he later sojourns in Germany and then comes to England to birth superheroes by mingling alien technology with captured orphans. Physically unattractive, intellectually brilliant, and wishing for immortality, he is a genuinely poignant figure. The chapter where he tells his life story (which oddly takes its title from Warren Zevon’s “Veracruz”) is more successful than anything in V for Vendetta in humanely and anti-fascistically rooting fascist ideology in actual human fears and needs.

Evelyn Cream is even more compelling, his complex character one key to the meaning of the whole book. At first, the reader fears he will be a dire racist stereotype out of James Bond, but his rich inner monologues provide much-needed political reflection on the meaning of Moore’s fable. Here one aspect of his psyche accuses the other in an instance of racial double consciousness:

Really, old horse! These antics smack of the daubed face and the ostrich plume. It seems one cannot take the jungle out of the boy after all. What do you say, Mr. Cream? Educated at Rugby. Trained at Sandhurst. You read the untranslated novels of Collette [sic] and own an original Hockney. Good God, sir, you are practically white! […] And yet you follow this white loa, this Miracleman who leaves a trail of dead and fisheyed fellows in his wake! Can it be that you have gone native, Mr. Cream? Mr. Cream, do you at last believe in juju? Great grandfather, pass me down the gris-gris and the pointing bone, for I have opted at this late stage to become another crazy n—–.

I believe, by the way, that the last word, censored by Marvel, was spelled out in the original publication. But this linguistic whitewashing cannot conceal Cream’s ambiguous assessment of Miracleman as a survival from before modernity, the white atavism the Nazis often dreamed of. Moore’s words above perhaps don’t pass racial-justice muster today, but note, in mitigation, Moore’s (or the letterer’s) own poignant failure of upper-class white-imperialist cultural-capital mimicry signaled by the misspelling of “Colette.” Race is obviously not the only variable at work here, and Moore is as little superhuman as are his human characters.

In Cream’s second and final major monologue, he reverses the meaning of the first and finds in Miracleman not a white atavism but a white ultra-modernity, even a kind of ultra-colonialism, as he laments his own postcolonial compromises:

I wanted the white miracle. I wanted to touch the pale god that they had birthed in their machinery. The thing they had which we had not. And thus I reached out for that ivory promise, as did my father, as did his father before him…and I learned that thing which I must tell: That whiteness which we pursue through the dark trees of our inner continent…it is not the whiteness of hot steel, or of sanctity…it is the whiteness of bone. It is death. (ellipses in original)

So is Miracleman (or Miracleman) pre- or postmodern, emancipatory or oppressive, anti-fascist or fascist? Cream’s confusion, or Moore’s confusion about what a man in Cream’s subject-position would actually say and think, extends to the whole tale. One of Moore’s weakest major works overall, Miracleman is nevertheless productively confusing. It brought to my mind many conflicting political philosophies, all the “smelly little orthodoxies contending for our souls,” in Orwell’s words.

I thought, for instance, of the Marxist theorist Christian Thorne. In a sharp essay occasioned by the carnivalesque and French-Theory-infused elements of the various alt-right subcultures that helped bring Trump to power, Thorne warns that fascism is not merely cultural conservatism or political authoritarianism. Thorne implores the American left to reckon with the bohemian, anti-bourgeois, avant-garde, and even authentically multicultural and queer commitments of historical fascism lest the fascism in the left’s midst, in its very anarchist pedagogy, be overlooked:

Does anyone really think that the fascists were right-thinking squares who always did what they were told and wanted to punch queers in the face? The German catastrophe was an awful lot weirder than that—uncomfortably weird if weird is what you like. A critical theory that preemptively declares itself a Zona Antifa gullibly deeds over its stances to the very movement it opposes.

Faithful to Marxism, Thorne doesn’t make the other half of the argument, which I have done in my writings on, for example, Lukács and Camus: namely, that Marxism often just is, like the stereotype of fascism Thorne repudiates, a disturbing doctrine of political authoritarianism and cultural conservatism.

Both of these befuddling ideologies, a radical fascism and a reactionary Marxism, came to mind as I read and re-read Olympus. Miraclewoman introduces polymorphous queerness into the erotic life of the general population as a prelude to her superman-breeding eugenics program, which, while more democratic, is not a lot different from what Gargunza had intended. Is this sexual emancipation or sexual domination?

Miracleman, for his part, abolishes money and takes central control of the economy. When a frail-looking and sympathetic Margaret Thatcher protests, he curtly implies that, in her own words, “there is no alternative.” Thatcher here briefly occupies the position of Rorschach in Watchmen: in both books, written by an avowed leftist who at the period of composition liked to be photographed in a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, conservatives and conservative ideology come to stand in for nothing less than humanity’s free will.


By contrast to these evocations of fascism and communism, Peter Y. Paik, in his brilliant (conservative) study of superhero and science fiction narratives as political philosophies, understands Olympus to prophesy the triumph of liberalism after the Cold War, and liberalism’s becoming in turn an unaccountable hyperpower. On Paik’s view, Miracleman is not Hitler or Stalin but rather an amalgam of Bush and Obama, smugly insisting that their reign of surveillance and imperial global dominance is on the right side of the end of history:

Miracleman: Olympus, completed shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, envisions the predicaments and crises that would follow when an interminable stalemate gives way, when the sources of catastrophe become more elusive and thus more alarming and ominous. Moore’s shattering of the geopolitical taboo accordingly serves to give flesh to the ineluctably revolutionary dream of an unconstrained expansionism and unlimited power that has been dreamt—and become magnified—within liberal democratic society.

The value of Moore’s Miracleman as political speculation, then, is that it can support Thorne’s anti-fascism, my anti-Marxism, and Paik’s anti-liberalism, not to mention Evelyn Cream’s anti-colonialism, because its real philosophical function is to warn of the severed head at the base of every capitol and all capital, the et in arcadia ego of every utopia, the murderousness of every politics, even as it also, through Moore’s soaring rhetoric and Totleben’s visionary illustration, refuses to deny the gorgeous attractions of our revolutionary dreams.

Roaming the preserved killing fields of London, ravaged by his former sidekick, Miracleman considers just this theme:

These charnel pastures serve as a reminder, a memento mori, never letting us forget that though Olympus pierce the very skies, in all the history of earth, there’s never been a heaven; never been a house of gods…that was not built on human bones. (ellipses in original)

And while Marvel Comics trolls Moore by printing in the back of Olympus a never-before-published Miracleman story by his rival and nemesis Grant Morrison (whom I read as a crypto-moderate in politics), Morrison’s story is slight. The true repudiation of Moore’s radicalism comes in the work of his hand-picked successor, Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman’s Golden Age is a collection of short stories portraying (via the intelligently mixed-media artwork of Mark Buckingham) the private lives of those in Miracleman’s imperial utopia. I find it to be gimmicky and precious, as much of Gaiman’s work, so impressive to me in adolescence, reads to me now.

In the interests of critical fairness, I will quote eloquent praise for what Gaiman does in The Golden Age from Samuel R. Delany’s introduction to the original collected edition (not reproduced in Marvel’s reprint, but available in Delany’s Shorter Thoughts):

The last movement of the previous Miracleman book [i.e., Olympus] was a raging panegyric, a dithyramb, a jeremiad dancing, hot and searing, right up off the sizzling griddle of language. There was no place to go—so Gaiman threw the whole machine into reverse. His six entwined tales here come like sapphires afloat on a supercool liquid, like shards of sea-ground glass, shadow-cooled; these understated stories almost hide their theme: For Miracleman is a book that is largely, generously, compassionately about mourning.

Delany’s sentences, which I am tempted to call better than anything actually found in The Golden Age, repay the tribute of Gaiman’s own allusion in the book to Delany’s classic short story, “Driftglass.”

The highlights of The Golden Age are two. One is a Dick-style tale about a city populated entirely by spies, overseen by the resurrected Evelyn Cream, a homeopathic dream-world meant to bring spies out of their mirror-halls of suspicion so that they may enjoy an honest life in the perfect state of the superheroes.

Art: Mark Buckingham

The second highlight is based on one line in Moore’s series (Balzac’s praise of Stendhal for writing entire books on single pages might apply to Moore). A resonantly mythological feature of Miracleman’s Olympus is its underworld, where the recent dead are resurrected using alien technology. At the conclusion of Olympus, Moore mentions the arrival to this underworld of Andy Warhol, which Gaiman takes as an occasion to do a comic-book rendition of “A Dream” from Lou Reed and John Cale’s Songs for Drella, a Warholian monologue on the meaning of this science-fictional world. Considering Miracleman’s abolition of money, Warhol laments:

He stopped [money]. Said it was bad. That’s fine, I suppose, but how do you know if you’re more successful than anyone else? How do you know if what you’re doing is working? You’ve got to keep working.

Spoken like Margaret bloody Thatcher: without signals from markets, how can you know your art is good or your society free?

Gaiman, whose early work did so much, by affirming marginalized identities, to portend today’s social-justice revolution in comics, never pretended to be an anti-capitalist or a radical. He aspired to, and after writing Miracleman ascended to, the Olympus of the bestseller list. His watchword was “the personal is the political,” which is true, but not true enough for the philosophical ambitions proper to Moore’s Miracleman.

As for the Original Writer, he always was aware that the market, no less than those utopians who would overthrow it, might err. We are left, as ever, with his second thoughts, imperfectly expressed. This is, in its way, as it should be, since with his second thought, if not his first, he cautions us in this flawed epic against the pursuit of inhuman perfection.

Art: John Totleben

If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

Watchmen: The Annotated EditionWatchmen: The Annotated Edition by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[The following essay is divided into two parts: my critical analysis of Watchmen in general, and then a review of this particular edition, a black-and-white oversized hardcover reprint with annotations by Leslie S. Klinger. If you want my assessment of this edition right away, please scroll down to the image dividing this post in two.]

Should Watchmen be the only superhero graphic novel on your syllabus? My own answer is a qualified “yes.” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s 1986-7 serial-turned-graphic-novel brings a European perspective as well as the techniques and the politics of the postmodern novel to this quintessentially American pop culture phenomenon.

But it is possible to overrate Watchmen on the question of its revision to the superhero archetype, as most actual superhero devotees will point out: at every moment in the history of the genre, from Superman’s disruption of domestic violence and US imperialism in his very first appearance in 1938 to Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s 1960s road trip to the polysemous queerness of Marvel’s mutants in their grand-soap-opera phase of the 1970s and ’80s, writers and artists have always brought a political awareness and a critical edge to their ambiguous narratives of characters who try to align morality with power in an often hostile, corrupt society.

Moore and Gibbons, though, carry their revision of the superhero to the point of metafiction. In Watchmen‘s world, men and women become costumed vigilantes because they are influenced by comic books, just as Don Quixote becomes a knight-errant because he is influenced by chivalric romances. In both cases, the results are the same: the heroic idealism our heroes picked up from their reading matter gets besmirched by the mud and blood of the actual: their sublimated motives, their desires for sex and power, cannot be fully repressed. Moore, like Cervantes, shows heroic idealism to be determined and constricted by material circumstance. (Is it a coincidence that the two works often hailed as the first great novel and the first great graphic novel make this same de-idealizing critical gesture?)

Watchmen‘s ultimate joke in this vein occurs when an actual super-powered being appears in its world, the atomic demigod Dr. Manhattan, and immediately enters the service of the US government at the height of the Cold War as a kind of superior nuclear weapon. With more secular critical tools at his disposal than Cervantes had —Marx’s attack on ideology, Nietzsche’s insistence on power, Freud’s exposé of desire, and the broad second-wave feminist awareness of misogyny—Moore is able to reveal the material underpinning of the genre by political and sexual realities. This move to the meta is what sets Watchmen apart from most prior critical superhero comics (an avowed precursor, Kurtzman and Wood’s “Superduperman” of 1953, excepted).

Moreover, it is not possible to overrate Watchmen as a work of formalist genius. Aesthetically, Watchmen is inflected not only by the social critique of prior European rebels—Marx, Nietzsche, Freud—but also and more so by that of America’s own artistic counterculture too, the nightside to Stan Lee’s Silver Age New Frontier optimism, as found in Moore’s admired forerunners Burroughs and Pynchon. Like these writers, Moore insists upon the dense layering of narrative information, the elaborate use of symbolism and motifs, and the deliberate deployment of carefully contrived structures. Watchmen‘s nine-panel grid page layout is a kind of poetic meter, allowing the reader to keep time in this time-obsessed novel. Within the grid, Moore and Gibbons set up a limited series of repeating images—the smiley face, the bloodstain, the pyramid, the clock, the Hiroshima lovers, mirrors and reflections, and more—which turn the book into the very clockwork that is one of its images for itself. All the pieces move in concert.

Yet Watchmen is also a critique of linear, measurable time: comics, unlike cinema, does not progress in time but rather in space. In fact, it turns time into space. Watchmen is as much a metafictional reflection on its medium as on its message: Dr. Manhattan’s perception of time as a simultaneous object in space is instantiated on the comics page when Moore and Gibbons tell Dr. Manhattan’s story as a discontinuous and non-linear array of panels that are chronologically displaced but artistically placed perfectly. When Ozymandias compares his multi-screen TV viewing to Burroughs’s cut-up technique—both of them like comics in that they spatialize and juxtapose multiple information channels—Moore can be heard defending comics as an avant-garde artform, superior to film or literature as a way of halting time and inspecting the clockwork of the universe.

Across multiple dimensions, then—political, sexual, and aesthetic—Watchmen presents itself as the return of America’s repressed. If there is always an element of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement in such a gesture (doesn’t this go to explain the always worrisome appeal of Marx and Nietzsche not only to rebel poets but to totalitarian dictators?), Moore’s postmodern sense of the limits to knowledge save him from this trap.

For what we find when we inspect the universal clockwork is far more chaos and mess than the deists promised. Consider the bravura chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry,” a chiasmus wherein each page echoes its counterpart across the divide formed by the middle of the issue (the “staple” to avid comics readers). Yet, as a critic on the Internet long ago pointed out in a reference I can no longer find, this is not the middle of Watchmen itself; being twelve chapters long, with each chapter of equivalent length, Watchmen has no narrative middle or center—its middle is a gap or absence. There may be fearful symmetry, but no perfect symmetry. Likewise, chief among the novel’s motifs is the smiley face with a bloodstain occluding one eye: what could be a better image for the human disorder that prevents ideal happiness and obstructs symmetrical vision?

Are all of these themes within the control of our watchmaker-authors? I suspect not. Famously, the character of Rorschach slipped out of Moore’s control: meant to be a caricature of a right-wing lunatic, Rorschach grows into much the most complex character as we explore the traumas that made him who he is and watch him deepen and change; think of the astonishing silent panel in chapter 10 wherein he plainly recognizes his own plight in that of his landlady and her children and ceases to threaten them. Moore and Gibbons themselves palpably come to admire Rorschach more, and to mute his worser tendencies, thus creating their most compelling character.

Rorschach’s ethical stature is helped by the fact that the book’s villain, Ozymandias, is its ostensible spokesman for the political left. His technocratic utilitarian utopianism is presented without passion or charisma, as a fervorless murderous calculus redolent of fascism, just as his plan to stop the deaths of millions by killing hundreds of thousands participates in the very brutal logic of the nuclear planners. For a book plainly intended as a left-wing critique, Watchmen gathers itself into an essentially Burkean argument—or would Moore just want to see it as anarchist, Pynchonian?—against any and all centralized control schemes and systems, even in the best of causes.

More troublingly, Watchmen‘s emblem of what man cannot control is woman. At the narrative level, this expresses itself controversially in Sally Jupiter’s relationship with The Comedian, which begins in rape and progresses to love. As verisimilitude, this might be persuasive: that Sally could respond in such a way to The Comedian is possible given her class, generation, and character; her daughter, possessed of a post-feminist consciousness, would certainly not have made such a choice. At the symbolic level, Moore gives us multiple images of the vagina dentata (initially pictured on an activist poster advertising “Gay Women Against Rape”), culminating in the genital visage of the “alien” that attacks New York at the novel’s climax. Moore’s figuration of ungovernable reality quite simply takes the form of the feminine, even the monstrous feminine. (It should be said that Moore pursues the same argument consciously, and thus more critically and humanely, in From Hell.)

Watchmen would not be as compelling as it is were it merely cynical about human possibility. Rorschach’s unforgettable nihilism—

The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone. Live our lives, lacking anything better to do. Devise reason later. Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves, go into oblivion. There is nothing else. Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us.

—is answered in the book, as in the balance of Rorschach’s life, by a commendation of kindness. The symbolic bloodstain is not merely the effluvium of the murdered but corresponds to another of the novel’s motifs, the Hiroshima lovers—the shadowed shape of lovers embracing left by the atomic flash. These two images converge at the conclusion of chapter 11 when two minor characters both named Bernie—an old man who runs a corner newsstand and a young man who frequents said stand to read comic books—run into each other’s arms as New York is destroyed. The ultimate force that spoils symmetry, that runs to excess, that can never be calculated, is love.

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 1.36.41 PM
Now to the matter of Leslie S. Klinger’s annotations and the overall quality of this edition. I confess I find it promising but disappointing.

First of all, there aren’t enough annotations: sometimes pages pass without Klinger’s comment. This is an expensive book, and most people (like me!) will be buying it as a second copy of a work they already own, so in this case a lapse in quantity—of the one extra item justifying this book’s existence and expense—is a lapse in quality.

Second, Klinger’s annotations seem arbitrary: for instance, at times he will explain the provenance and context of each chapter’s epigraph extensively, as with Blake (chapter 5) or Jung (chapter 9), while he has little to say about others (e.g., the Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello quotations from chapters 1 and 2). Why does the idiom “see you in the funny pages” get a long annotation, while “here’s looking at you, kid” goes without a gloss? Klinger shrewdly notes that AIDS seems not to exist in Watchmen‘s world, without explaining that Ozymandias probably prevented its spread, as is subtly implied in the prose supplement to chapter 11. He mentions Woodward and Bernstein early on, without observing that The Comedian is intimated to have murdered them in chapter 9. Etc.

Third, there are a handful of errors, some just typos (“thtink” “Alan Ginsburg”) and one fairly egregious mistake of interpretation (he confuses a reference in chapter 8 to the Nuremberg rallies for an allusion to the Nuremberg trials, thus reversing the import of one line of dialogue). I generally incline toward forgiveness on these matters—we all make mistakes. But then again, we aren’t all charging fifty dollars for them in the form of what ought to be a scholarly text!

Fourth, Klinger often provides contextual information without showing any consideration for how Moore or Gibbons might have come by their facts and ideas; annotations to canonical literature—to Milton, say, or Joyce or Pynchon—will not just gloss the author’s allusions but will often comment on where the authors acquired their learning, precisely because these means of transmission make an interpretive difference. Now Moore refused to collaborate on this book, and he is not a long-dead author whose papers and personal library can be accessed by a researcher, which makes the aforementioned task of interpretation more difficult. Still, it could be useful and informative to speculate: for example, can’t we be reasonably certain that Moore learned about Kitty Genovese from Harlan Ellison’s “Whimper of Whipped Dogs”? and isn’t that a case of literary allusion, itself in need of a gloss, as much as of historical reference?

On the other hand, I thought of including the fact that Klinger at times editorializes (as when he defends expenditures on space exploration from the “Whitey on the Moon”-style argument made in Watchmen itself) as a flaw, and I even considered making a nasty remark about Charles Kinbote, but on reflection I think Klinger’s incorporation of his own views and sensibility actually makes the book richer and more various—in short, more fun to read. If anything, I might have preferred more of it, just as I would prefer more of the annotations generally.

Likewise, Klinger’s quotations from Moore’s notoriously verbose scripts (still in Gibbons’s possession) are very entertaining, as is his charting of the book’s repeating motifs (smiley faces and the Hiroshima couple especially); he also catches a few important allusions, particularly a near-climactic one to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that I had never noticed, and that expand the novel’s range of reference.

Finally, I was at first put off by the subtraction of John Higgins’s coloring from this book’s reproduction of the artwork. Higgins’s palette does so much to set the book’s tone, and, more broadly, color should no more be regarded as detachable from comics than music should be from film. Even so, everyone will come away from this book with a new appreciation for Dave Gibbon’s work, his incredible deep-focus, his delicate brushwork, his enchanting braid of three dissimilar elements—US Silver Age superhero art, European ligne claire, and a ruthless gritty de-idealizing sensibility that, though it has antecedents (Wood’s “Superduperman,” Ditko’s Spider-Man), is largely his own.

All in all, Watchmen: The Annotated Edition is the kernel of a great book, but I wonder if it would be too much to hope that future editions of this particular text might add more material, expanding on Klinger’s qualities and correcting its flaws.


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Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta

V for VendettaV for Vendetta by Alan Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Along with never meeting our heroes, we should also, and for the same reason, probably not re-read adolescent literary favorites. Even so, since Watchmen more or less stands up to adult scrutiny, I thought perhaps V for Vendetta would as well—hence my choice to use it in a class this semester.

Alan Moore’s noir dystopia of late-twentieth-century Britain, which pits an anarchist terrorist against a fascist state, certainly conveys an enveloping mood and develops an intricate plot. V takes place after a nuclear war between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. has left a damaged, chaotic England under the control of a genocidal Nazi-like party that consolidates absolute control through a surveillance state. This fascist government comes under attack by V, an escaped inmate of its concentration camps. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask and rebels not only with bombs and bullets but also with the vital and anarchic culture that fascism represses—everything from Shakespeare to Motown. Because V is less a character than a symbol, the narrative dwells more with ancillary figures, such as V’s protégé, Evey; the detective investigating V’s crimes, Eric Finch; and the increasingly desperate widow of a government official killed by V, Rosemary Almond.

V is an early work of Moore’s, but already many of his celebrated formalist techniques are on display—particularly rapid cross-cutting between scenes and a separation of visual and verbal narratives, as when V storms a TV studio under word balloons full of sitcom and action hero TV dialogue; and this is not to mention every chapter title’s beginning with the letter V or the musical number that comes a third of the way through the book. Moore’s erudition also shows in V’s learned and allusive quasi-Shakespearean monologues. David Lloyd’s shadowy, gritty drawing and the moody coloring (done by a variety of hands during the book’s checkered publication history in two countries and over seven years) have as much to do with the book’s success as Moore’s story.

But V’s anarchist philosophy is never persuasively elaborated, aside from some hand-waving distinctions he draws between chaos and anarchy. How are “the people” to rule a complex modern society directly, especially after V, with the twentieth-century revolutionary’s characteristic distaste for “bourgeois legal formalism,” has literally blown up the institutions of representative government? By the middle of the book, when V is torturing Evey to teach her a lesson in liberty—omelettes, eggs, etc.—I began to wonder if this were not a pamphlet covertly advertising moderate liberalism, given how unattractively it portrays the mirrored extremes of fascism and anarchism. While V and Evey debate the ethical status of revolutionary violence, V remains the only articulate character with a fully-developed non-Nazi ideology in the story, so Moore gives readers little option but to agree with him or to dismiss the whole conflict. V would be immeasurably improved if it had only one character of V’s intelligence who could argue with him on behalf of something other than anarchism or fascism.

I am aware of the argument that Moore subverts his own worldview when he shows V as morally compromised, but this renders pointless the novel’s whole enterprise of justifying anarchism by fantastically confronting it with fascism. If neither ideology is worthwhile and Moore is simply exposing the faults of both without presenting any alternative to either, even though very few British or American readers, whether in the 1980s or today, are avowed fascists or anarchists—well, why bother?

As for Moore’s depiction of fascism itself, it is often remarkably silly. He shows the leader, for one thing, to be literally in love with the supercomputer he uses to administer his government. The idea, presumably, is that totalitarian governance is machine-like and loveless, with a suggestion, typical of midcentury left-Freudianism, that fascism is a sexual perversion. But showing the leader on his knees kissing the computer or masturbating before it is cartoonish, not rising to the level of serious political or psychological analysis. Other fascist characters are portrayed more effectively—some are shown to go along with genocide or totalitarianism from fear or ambition rather than conviction, and these seem to be the book’s most redeemable figures, especially Finch. As for the other power-hungry schemers in the tottering government and in the criminal class who dominate the last third of the book, Moore simply shows them to be creatures of pure selfishness and will. What role they will play in an anarchist society is not explained; Moore seems to assume that they will devour each other and leave the rest of us in peace, but this may well be wishful thinking. If the drive to attain power over others must be extirpated from the human psyche before the anarchist millennium comes, then the millennium is never coming.

I suppose if we all had mentors to torture the fascism or the complacency out of us, as Evey has in V, we would all be anarchists; but how anarchic, how free of power and domination, is such tutelage really? I do not expect one comic book to solve the longstanding problems of the political left, though I do expect an explicitly anarchist text, especially one this didactic, to stray a bit farther from the Leninist concept of the enlightened vanguard leading the inert masses to revolutionary consciousness. The sad fact is that super-hero and detective/noir thrillers incline toward glorifying glamorously violent and charismatic heroes, not celebrating ordinary people and everyday life; the genre that does the latter, I am sorry to tell you, is the good old realist novel.

As always, though, aesthetic problems outrank political ones. Aesthetically, this book’s problem is that V is a symbol and Evey an empty vessel to be filled with a revised version of his ideology. Since the protagonists are uninteresting characters, Moore seeks interest elsewhere, in a vast company of secondary and tertiary figures, “types” borrowed from crime fiction (such as the roguish mercenary thug or the domineering femme fatale). They fill out the book’s largely extraneous thriller plot with their complex machinations. Moore organizes this plot with so much mounting tension as he cross-cuts between his various players that you can almost forget how little you care about them or even that you can barely tell one static character from another.

The best things in the book are not moments of bravura storytelling formalism or political disquisition; they are rather the simpler and more emotional passages—the final confrontation between V and the camp doctor who had conducted medical experiments on him, the long and ugly sequence in the cabaret that shows the degradation of private life under fascism, the letter from the imprisoned actress that inspires V and Evey in turn in their own captivity. (This is generally true of Moore’s work overall; those fictions that give him the most room to explore the emotions his story evokes are his most affecting [Swamp Thing, From Hell], while those overly consumed with his will-to-formalist-closure and with his desire to educate the reader fall short [Promethea, Lost Girls]. As the work most perfectly if precariously balanced between these tendencies, Watchmen is likely to remain Moore’s masterpiece.)

Screen Shot 2018-11-18 at 7.56.57 PMAll of the above might come as a disappointment, if he could understand it, to the boy who read V for Vendetta one hot, sweaty summer night in 1994 or 1995, at first turning the pages breathlessly to find out who V was and then startled but gratified to understand that it did not matter—who learned, that is, the important literary lesson that there are higher values than suspense and the important political lesson that there are bigger questions than identity. It would no doubt also disappoint the friend he soon let borrow the book, who after reading it redrew the “ideas are bulletproof” panel and kept it taped to his bedroom wall for the rest of middle school. The lesson here is not that V for Vendetta is no good but rather that it is a very good book for people of around age 12 or 14 to read—it invokes complex political ideas, with hints toward their proper complexity, in a generic idiom adolescents can understand while also nudging the audience, through flagrant allusion, to more sophisticated artistic fare and political discourse.

The point of the novel’s final third is that V and his terrorist methods must be superseded for a truly free society to come about. Similarly, I can say that I would probably not now be the writer who finds V for Vendetta so wanting had I not read V for Vendetta itself in my formative years. Maybe we can regard it as a worthwhile contribution to revolutionary dialectics after all.


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Greg Carpenter, The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book WriterThe British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer by Greg Carpenter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes, not often, I see a non-fiction book that makes me want to slap myself because I wish it had occurred to me to write it. This was my reaction on learning about The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer, Greg Carpenter’s study of the three British writers who, beginning in the 1980s, permanently altered American mainstream comics, not only aesthetically and institutionally but also with respect to their connection to the culture at large. Though other factors and other important creators were and are at work during the ongoing careers of these men, it can nevertheless be said that without these three writers, there would probably be less academic and literary respect paid to comics in general, fewer regular female readers of mainstream comic books (as opposed to indie or manga), and fewer if any serious or adult-oriented movie/TV treatments of certain generic material originating in such comics, to name only three developments led by the authors of Watchmen, From Hell, Sandman, Mr. Punch, Doom Patrol, and The Invisibles. Because the influence of Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison extends so far beyond comics to film, literature, and academia, a book on this topic was necessary, and Greg Carpenter has in general done an excellent job.

The British Invasion is not quite literary criticism and not quite biography, though it contains elements of both; its focus is less on close reading (and much less on the personal lives of its three subjects) and more on their negotiation of the world of comics. It traces their professional fortunes and examines how those fortunes informed their writing. Carpenter’s signature move is to suggest comparisons between the authors themselves, considered as striving and occasionally beleaguered working writers, and their fictional characters—Carpenter reads Gaiman’s Morpheus, for example, as a surrogate for Gaiman in that both writer and character struggle with performing their duties while remaining grounded in authentic human emotion.

This method reminds me of one of my other favorite books on mainstream Modern Age comics, Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why; Klock tends to see the characters of Moore, Morrison, and other comics writers as sharing their authors’ fight to create a space for their visions in a world already crowded with other people’s meanings. But whereas Klock’s study is a psychodrama influenced by Harold Bloom’s poetics of influence, Carpenter neglects psychology and the weight of tradition in favor of sociology and the institutional factors (the market’s demands, as interpreted by editors and publishers, above all) that made Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison the writers they were; a corollary in academic literary theory to The British Invasion would not be Bloom’s work, then, but Pierre Bourdieu’s studies of the development of autonomous art in nineteenth-century France in The Field of Cultural Production or The Rules of Art—appropriately enough, since the revolution carried out by the British invaders aimed to turn comics away from profit-driven sensationalism and cliche and toward such aesthetic values as realism, formalism, and experimentalism.

But The British Invasion is, for better and for worse, not an academic book. Carpenter writes in a loose conversational style modeled on the type of public pop-culture criticism that flourishes on the Internet. He also assumes an audience mostly already familiar with comics history and lore, as when he makes knowing references to No Prizes or casual deployments of McCloud’s taxonomy of panel transitions. Despite the occasional solecism (call me stodgy, but the misuse of “begs the question” causes me to squirm), this is mostly to the good, as it allows Carpenter to stress events and circumstances that may well be beneath the awareness of many academic critics, such as the rise of Image Comics and the creator rights’ movement, the speculator bubble of the early 1990s, and the major editorial role of Karen Berger in these writers’ careers (in an appendix, Carpenter interviews Berger herself).

Relatedly, Carpenter is at his best in analyzing not such much-criticized works as Watchmen or Sandman but more minor and overlooked works in the three writers’ oeuvres, to include such flotsam as Moore’s early Star Wars stories and Gaiman’s Future Shocks shorts, texts I was not even aware existed; I doubt the dreck Moore wrote for Todd McFarlane, which I recall tossing aside in disgust when I was thirteen, will ever receive such a nuanced critique again! And I especially appreciate Carpenter’s emphasis on three crucial, neglected early-’90s graphic novels by his subjects: Moore’s A Small Killing (with Oscar Zarate), Gaiman’s Signal to Noise (with Dave McKean), and Morrison’s The Mystery Play (with Jon J. Muth).

All in all, The British Invasion is an informative and intelligent approach to these three writers, who (along with their American counterpart, Frank Miller) did more for mainstream comics than anyone since Stan and Jack. The following qualm, then, should not be taken to qualify my recommendation—anyone interested in this subject should certainly read this book. What I am about to say is more in the vein of those rambling, irritating comments at academic conferences whose subtext is, “Why didn’t you write the book the way I would have written it?”

An invidious question: is Alan Moore really on the same artistic plane as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison? Twenty or even fifteen years ago, I probably would have said yes, but this century so far seems to have clarified matters, as both Gaiman and Morrison have in different ways capitulated to commercialism, with Gaiman’s becoming a kind of YA lifestyle guru and Morrison’s success as DC Comics company man.

The promise of their early masterpieces seems largely unfulfilled, as Gaiman opted for fans in lieu of readers sometime after American Gods and Morrison’s commitment to pop magic justified his almost total absorption by the corporate machine. In Morrison’s case, even the early work looks diminished in the rear view mirror; on the back of the final Invisibles trade paperback, Warren Ellis compared that series to a set of pop songs, and, like pop songs, Morrison’s work (in my experience) makes an intense initial impact but can only be nostalgically revisited rather than critically reinterpreted. That initial impact was enormous and sensibility-shaping for me (I first read Arkham Asylum when I was eight!), but the work does not to my mind meet the gold standard of endless re-readability. Gaiman’s Sandman perhaps does meet that standard, but does much else in his corpus? I suspect he sought too much contact with his audience, which made him (as it would probably make anybody) less tough-minded and independent than a visionary needs to be. Drawing inspiration from Carpenter’s taste for musical metaphors*, we might say that Gaiman and Morrison began as Radiohead and finished as Coldplay.

By contrast, Alan Moore’s much-decried self-isolation from the mainstream currents of Anglo-American culture, his obsessive pursuit of his own worldview, lends his work, even today, an intricacy and autonomy that beg for close reading and will not leave the mind. Moore has not finished experimenting or unfolding the implications of his nature and experiences, whether readers like it or not (and readers do not have to like it, as I do not like the nastiness of Neonomicon or the sheer tendon-straining weight of Jerusalem, a novel I will likely finish reading in about the year 2020; we need only be possessed by it in spite of ourselves).

Throughout his book, Carpenter expresses impatience with Moore’s old-fashioned (and sometimes personally and professionally divisive) concern to make a distinction between art and commerce, finding Gaiman’s and Morrison’s creative adaptations to the market more to his taste; but the actual careers of these authors may testify to the rightness of Moore’s uncompromising idealism. Pragmatism, as somebody once observed, is well and good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.

* Carpenter structures his book by an analogy between comics’ British invasion and the best-known British invasion of American pop culture, that of rock bands in the 1960s. Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison are likened to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, respectively (if not quite consistently), and each chapter is accordingly named for one of those bands’ songs when focusing on their counterpart writers. Leaving aside the aptness of the comparisons (while the Moore/Beatles and Morrison/Who conflations make sense, is there anything of the bluesy, dirty Stones in the more genteel Gaiman? I am not a music expert, but perhaps his analog should be The Kinks—isn’t he a dues-paying member of the Fiddler’s Green Preservation Society?), it is either an amusing and witty device or far too cute. I never did decide which!


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Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on EarthJimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In lieu of an essay, some notes (with spoilers):

1. I both intellectually acknowledge the brilliance of this book and viscerally dislike it.

2. I bought it and began reading it in late 2000; I set it aside after about 100 pages and only took it up again—a library copy; I have no idea where mine is—two days ago. Back in 2000, when I was all of 18, I remember being immensely moved by some of those first 100 pages; Jimmy’s fantasy of being murdered by Superman, in particular, overwhelmed me. But the quality of pastiche—the design and visual storytelling echo early twentieth century comics and commercial art, from Winsor McCay to art deco—put me off, as I myself had no investment in those earlier aesthetics.

3. (Nor did I share Ware’s generational relation to Superman. The Superman of my youth was a sensitive, vulnerable, and humane citizen, a man of impeccable liberal sentiment in a romance of equals with a professional, feminist woman—he was not a punitive patriarch. But this is hardly Chris Ware’s fault; we were simply born in different years and grew up reading different iterations of the Superman character.)

4. Jimmy Corrigan, I thought, was a highly intellectualized exercise in self-pity, its ironic sneer at the past masking its wounded longing. My gut reaction has not changed in 15 years; I hope I have a language for it now.

5. Jimmy is approaching middle age, but looks at once like a baby and like an old man. The book he is caught in is, in its intricate straight-line grids, both puzzle and cage. It is with Jimmy Corrigan as with the other big generational statements by the men of that moment—PTA’s Magnolia, DFW’s Infinite Jest: the elderchild blubbering in the labyrinth of the text.

6. What is Jimmy Corrigan about? It’s about 400 pages. Aside from that, let more impartial observers tell you, in this comprehensive summary that opens an essay by Juda Bennett and Cassandra Jackson that I will quote again later:

Jimmy Corrigan traces the history of the titular character from a childhood characterized by an absent father and overbearing mother to his life as a middle-age white man whose isolation is represented by the cubicle in which he works. He is the novel’s Everyman. Contacted by the father he has never met, Jimmy travels from Chicago to a small town in Michigan. In Waukosha he meets Amy, his father’s adopted African-American daughter and – unbeknownst to them – a distant relation to Jimmy. Though the figure of the Everyman never completely understands himself in the context of a racialized America, the audience is aware of this complicated genealogy.

The narrative is interrupted periodically by the story of Jimmy’s great-grandfather and grandfather, which is set in 1893, and this narration focuses on the great-grandfather’s abusive relationship with his young son, whom he beats and eventually abandons at the top of one of the largest buildings in “The White City” at the Chicago World’s Fair. This narrative section also reveals that Amy is not only the adopted daughter of Jimmy’s father but a blood relation descended from Jimmy’s great-grandfather’s relationship with his African-American maid. Reduced to its barest bones, the narrative is built upon Jimmy searching for himself through the lost father and finding a much more (racially) complicated family. At the same time, the reader learns of a more complicated backstory to that diverse family (blood, and not just adoption, link Amy to her half brother). Given that the protagonist never discovers this history that the reader is privy to, the novel refuses a simple conclusion in which the protagonist finds or even fully knows himself.

7. I cannot now find it, but I recall that a critic at the time compared Jimmy Corrigan, with its complicated racial genealogy and its aesthetic formalism, to Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. Absalom, Absalom!, yes, but as adapted by Wes Anderson. Or E. L. Doctorow. Most of my criticism of Jimmy Corrigan would, with allowances for the specificities of graphic storytelling vis-à-vis prose narrative, echo my criticism of Ragtime. Both Doctorow and Ware formally appropriate a past style or ideology, in implied quotation marks; Ware’s use of 1890s advertising and comics iconography is the graphic equivalent of Doctorow’s “There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants.” It is a premature and adolescent disavowal of the past rather than an honest struggle with it. “That’s not me!” you say by way of mocking imitation, like an insult comic. You want to say, “The past is dead. It is even past.” Braver to go forth as the heir to your tradition that you in fact are. Your father’s sins will be visited upon you, yes, but petulant denial in the guise of formal mastery cannot in any case prevent that. Faulkner was not performing a pastiche of Shakespeare or Melville; he was writing as best he could in their tradition about his time and place.

8. Upon their father’s death, Amy violently rejects Jimmy; she literally pushes him over when he reaches out to her. This is less a Faulknerian gesture than this graphic novel’s Forsterian “not yet,” as at the conclusion of A Passage to India. Not yet, but when? I recently saw the statement, not made by a cishet white man, that “the voices of cishet white men are not necessary.” Well and good, but have cishet white men sent any other message than that very one in their major fictions of the past century? Since Forster ended his final novel with “not yet?” Since Faulkner raveled out Sutpen’s genealogy? Since Joyce, with whatever irony, founded the New Bloomusalem?

[Edited, practically half a day later, to add this: Forster was not het; and Joyce, born and reared a colonial subject, was not really white in the contemporary American sense of that word. Why did it take half a day for this to occur to me, even though of course I “knew” it when I wrote the above? For the same reason that some may be suspicious of generalizations such as “cishet white male” in the first place: because they often seem not to refer literally to what they refer to ostensibly. Rather, they are synonymous with power.]

9. (Ware, I observe, is a Joycean, as am I. Though we are different kinds of Joycean. I think I am a Proteus or a Hades to his Wandering Rocks or Oxen of the Sun. Sorry to be cryptic, but other Joyceans will catch my drift.)

10. Nobody means a self-canceling statement, though. Nobody who denies their will-to-power should be believed, as their denial is a mere ruse of their will. (I am a Nietzschean as well as a Joycean, you see.) Bennett and Jackson, praising Ware’s formalism from the perspective of critical race theory:

…Ware sets up a reading practice that challenges the ability to read and interpret race through simple chronologies. As the reader attempts to follow both Jimmy and his sister Amy’s stories, no simple narratives of racial origins emerge. Instead, the reader is left to actively piece together the narrative, making errors and corrections along the way. Ware reminds us of this reading practice at every step in the novel. For example, the novel withholds page numbers, deemphasizing a traditional narrative sequence and encouraging a reading practice that may move freely backwards and forwards and across the page in numerous directions. As if to complicate this practice even more, Ware’s hardback and paperback editions of the novel participate in this notion of errors and corrections in that the latter adds visual material not included in the former edition.

I understand, intellectually, the focus on error, but all the same: Ware tells, the readers learn, the characters never find out. They err, we err—but does Ware ever err? Are not even his corrections obsessive evasions of errancy? (Apologies, like claims to injury, can be assertions of authority.) Who’s in charge here again? To say “error” is to imply that the right way is known. Who is it that knows if Ware flattens time into space to draw us a map?

11. Ware errs, of course. Jimmy Corrigan, by the way, has a little idyll in which Jimmy’s grandfather leaves his loveless household to sojourn with an Italian immigrant family in a house full of warm cooking smells presided over by a gentle, loving, old-world craftsman father. This is silly and mawkish, if I may say as a child of the class and the ethnos specified.

12. Ware’s depiction of black characters does not sink quite so far, though the 1890s maid character is awfully close to an uninterrogated stereotype, i.e., mammy, as I read it. Amy is more complex, which perhaps shows what a crutch—a metaphor the book invites—it can be for the artist to dwell in an aestheticized and flattened-out past rather than dealing with the irreducibly complicated present. Still, Bennett and Jackson observe that, even with Amy, “Ware falls into myths of blackness as a present and secure signifier and whiteness, in contrast, as unstable”—or, to put it with a bit less jargon, he gives us something like the “strong black woman” of well-meaning cliche.

13. But there are the errors the author commits unwittingly—the repetition of cliche is their hallmark, as with Ware’s down-to-earth Italians and his strong black woman—and the errors the author allows himself out of self-trust—of which awkward or embarrassing but undeniable revelations are the sign. Is Jimmy Corrigan not a book suffocatingly without error of the latter kind? Compare Watchmen, which I will be thought a philistine for preferring, though I do prefer it. Watchmen is a similar exercise of the obsessive will to form, a similar conversion of time to space, a similar critique of the Superman archetype. Even a book similarly about race in America, though more subtly, and at the margin. Let us accept for a moment the perhaps dubious psychoanalytic postulate that when men such as Moore and Ware pursue the kind of rigid formal closure that Watchmen and Jimmy Corrigan achieve, a fear of the feminine, construed in the masculine imagination as flesh and disorder, is operating. Jimmy Corrigan is fairly overt about the fear of the feminine, in that sad-sack post-Crumb alternacomics fashion that I have always disliked. Watchmen, by contrast, touchingly seems to understand itself as a feminist statement. And yet Watchmen puts its fears viscerally and and violently and vitally onto the page; it stains its phallocratic grid, so twists its crystalline narrative that Zack Snyder, otherwise immobilized by literalism, had to straighten the thing out for Hollywood. There it is, for all to see, chapter twelve, page six: the vagina dentata that ate New York City. A sublime vision (the sublime, as an aesthetic mode, always expresses the fear that mother [nature] doesn’t love us combined with the confidence that we have something she lacks with which we can best her). Ware, wanting to annul himself, trusts himself too little to give us such a vision. But he doesn’t annul himself in consequence, after all. Here he is, acclaimed a master; here I am, writing about him, wishing I liked his book more.

14. The artist cannot simultaneously annul himself and make and publicize the artwork. No matter how unnecessary you or others find you for whatever local and contingent sociohistorical reason, your compulsion to create and share the creation is a fundamental human drive. So you might as well own up to it and get on with it.

15. But can any narrative this intelligent, this emotional, really be disparaged or dismissed, even if the intelligence and the emotion seem to be in the wrong proportion, the wrong relation? Maybe that is Ware’s error, of the text if not in it. Maybe I will be writing about again in 15 years. Maybe they will be writing about in 100 years. Neither would surprise me at all.

View all my reviews

Goodreads Reviews September/October

My Goodreads reviews for the last month or so, novels and poetry and comics.

Daniel Clowes, Ghost World

Les Murray, Dog Fox Field

Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, All-Star Superman

J. M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

Charles Brocken Brown, Wieland and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist

Alan Moore at Length

Alan Moore finishes million-word novel Jerusalem

Quoting Harold Bloom (on a hypothetical production of Faust, Part Two) quoting Lorca (on the body of the dead bullfighter): I do not want to see it!

Well, actually, I do, but I can’t promise I’ll finish it.  A friend of mine, decrying Gaddis’s The Recognitions (she finished, but didn’t much care for it, and found it needlessly, aggressively long), coined the term “gentlemanly length” for novels of the scope of Coetzee’s or Sebald’s, which are undeniably profound without trying to stun you with sheer mass.  I like “gentlemanly length” because it implicitly accepts the feminist thesis* (cf. Carole Maso on “Thousand page novels, tens and tens of vollmanns—I mean volumes”) that endlessly long books written by men are merely dick-swinging maneuvers, gross sexual displays, but then recuperates a sense of honor among men, to persuade them to avoid such excesses.  ”We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun,” says Virginia Woolf; such empathetic realism, the definition of intelligence, is missing from every aspect of our political dialogue—its absence is the clue to the identity in this cursed and constricted century of our neoconservative warmongers (back again, I see) and our social justice partisans, both of whom ideologically commit themselves to not reconstructing reality through their enemies’ perspectives (because the enemy is simply evil, simply oppressive, all too easy to explain), which damns both groups to enact indiscriminate and unintelligent hostility endlessly in the name of permanent revolution and an absolute political righteousness.  But I digress.  (Only slightly—there is an Alan Moore connection to these observations.)

Anyway, the aesthetic flaw that mars so many of Alan Moore’s works is a superstitious investment in structure for its own sake.  This has a genuine philosophical dimension—the demonstration of order in complexity, a refutation of the nihilism of his less savory characters (e.g., Rorschach, the Comedian) and an attempt at articulating a forgotten spiritual outlook (as in Promethea).  But formally speaking, once he figures out what he’s going to do and for how long, he goes ahead and does it.  This can make for an excruciating readerly experience: who among the readers of Watchmen don’t calculate to themselves midway through the book how many more pirate sequences they’ll have to suffer?  It utterly destroys Lost Girls, in my opinion, which is visible from the first as mechanical and schematic in its narrative design, the epitome of empty virtuosity, despite the beauty of Gebbie’s art.  Hence my preference among Moore’s works for Swamp Thing—which is I think genuinely haphazard in conception owing to the constraints of monthly publication—and From Hell—which has to make room for the disorders of history and which moreover thematically associates the desire for absolute order with a murderous patriarchal and economic elite.  (And both of these projects featured collaborators [Bissette/Totleben and Campbell, respectively] who favored a wilder style in the art.)  Someone should write—maybe someone has written—an article on the attraction of this self-proclaimed anarchist to the most rigid aesthetic forms.  So my fear, encouraged by Moore’s comments in the article and elsewhere, is that Jerusalem will come to feel like the automatic running of a pre-scripted program rather than the free exercise of imagination.  A million words of that will be hard to swallow.

Alan Moore, though, has earned his eminence the old-fashioned way, by writing books that people can’t forget, that influence the next generation of writers and artists, and that outlast—so far—their time of production.  So I believe in my anti-mercantile (gentlemanly?) way that he is essentially owed publication of this book as he sees fit, and I look forward to heaving my copy home eventually, even if it rests unread on my shelf.

*As with other examples of feminist culture critique, this one has more than a grain of truth but tends to ruin it with reckless exaggeration.  How does the Maso complaint account for Lady Murasaki, Mme de Scudéry, George Eliot, Dorothy Richardson, Marguerite Young, Leslie Marmon Silko, Eleanor Catton, not to speak of J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, and all our other female authors of doorstoppers, triple-deckers, commercial serials, and romans-fleuves?  It’s almost as if people write with implements other than the reproductive organs.