A Detective, A Man We Could Trust (The Last War in Albion Part 11: Roscoe Moscow)

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This is the first of seven installments of Chapter Three of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work for Sounds Magazine (Roscoe Moscow and The Stars My Degradation) and his comic strip Maxwell the Magic Cat. An omnibus of the entire chapter, sans images, is available in ebook form from Amazon, Amazon UK, and Smashwords. It is equivalently priced at all stores because Amazon turns out to have rules about selling things cheaper anywhere but there, so I had to give in and just price it at $2.99. Sorry about that. In any case, your support of this project helps make it possible, so if you are enjoying it, please consider buying a copy. 

Roscoe Moscow and The Stars My Degradation have been posted online, for free, with the permission of Alan Moore by 4 Color Heroes. Maxwell the Magic Cat was reprinted in four volumes by Acme Press in the 1980s. It is out of print, but used copies are available. 

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Seventeen-year-old Grant Morrison made his professional comics debut in the Edinburgh-based Near Myths #2 with a new wave-inspired run of strips including two introducing his Gideon Stargrave character. This venture, along with his realist superhero newspaper strip Captain Clyde faltered, and aside from occasional work on DC Thompson’s sci-fi digest Starblazer, Morrison found himself unable to advance particularly in a comics career. But at the same time, 340 miles away, in Northampton, events were unfolding that would change Morrison’s life, and indeed the entire British comics industry forever... 

"A detective, a man we could trust, even with our children." - Grant Morrison, Supergods


Figure 83: The first installment of Roscoe Moscow: Who
Killed Rock n' Roll
 (Alan Moore, 1979, as Curt Vile)
Grant Morrison is not a writer of near-misses and the merely competent. The depth of Morrison’s skill may not be obvious in his earliest material, but his ambition is. The conditions necessary for his ambitions to be realized were simply not yet present in the British comics industry of 1979, nor even of 1981. But everything began to change on March 31st, 1979 when Spotlight Publication’s national music weekly, Sounds published the first installment of Roscoe Moscow: Who Killed Rock n’ Roll. Less than five months later, on the 25th of August, 1979 the local Northampton paper the Northants Post began a weekly comic strip entitled Maxwell the Magic Cat. Sounds was paying £35 a week, while the Nohants Post paid £10, making a combined weekly of £45 a week - £2.50 greater than the unemployment benefits Alan Moore had previously been drawing, and officially marking the beginning of his career as a full-time comics writer. 

Figure 84: The cartoonist cryptically
reveals his identity (Alan Moore,
1979, as Curt Vile)
The revolution that this event heralded was, at first, wholly invisible. Roscoe Moscow was published under the name of Curt Vile, an obvious parody of German composer Kurt Weill, best known for his work with Bertolt Brecht on The Threepenny Opera, while Maxwell the Magic Cat featured the more obscurely punnish pen name Jill de Ray. The reasons for the pseudonyms are simple and rooted in Moore’s early biography. In 1978 he was an office clerk at a local gas company with vague long-term plans to get out of what he viewed as dispiriting and degrading jobs and make a career as an artist. Between the soberingly awful economic situation of late-70s Britain, which would eventually lead to the 1979 election of a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, and the impending arrival of his first daughter, Leah Moore, Moore took the risky decision to quit his job and live on the £42.50 a week of benefit payments while he tried to establish himself as a comics creator, reasoning that “I know the limits of my courage. I wouldn’t have been up for doing it after I’ve got these big, imploring eyes staring up at me.” His benefits - approximately £200 in contemporary costs - were described as “the bare minimum what we needed to live on - paying the rent, the baby, all the rest of it.” His threshold for success as a comics creator was both simple and pragmatic: if he could make more money than that, he’d succeeded.

The problem was that any money he made while trying to get to £42.50 a week would be illegal under the rules of his benefits, and so to keep that income under the table he adopted pseudonyms. (“I presume that there’s a statute of limitations upon these things and - hell, let them find me and fine me; I can probably pay it now,” he quipped in 2003, while explaining the ruse.) The result, however, is that these strips are treated as an oddly disposable artifact of Moore’s career that aren’t treated as “proper” Moore - not even published under his real name. Instead the start of his career is largely treated as his work for Marvel UK and IPC’s 2000 A.D, that having been the beginning of his work as a writer instead of as a writer-artist, and having been work in the sci-fi/fantasy genre style he made his name in. His Sounds and Maxwell the Magic Cat work is treated as the equivalent of Grant Morrison’s Near Myths and Captain Clyde work - a juvenile prelude to the main event.

Figure 85: Maxwell the Magic Cat strip from the same month as Swamp
Thing
 #34, "Rite of Spring" (Alan Moore, 1985, as Jill de Ray)
This is, however, nonsense. For one thing, Moore was not a juvenile. Although their careers and thus the War started at the same time, Moore is seven years Morrison’s senior, and when he began getting paid comics work in 1979 he was already twenty-five, not the seventeen that Morrison was when he sold “Time is a Four Letter Word.” More to the point, Moore didn’t take the early-80s sabbatical from comics that Morrison did. Roscoe Moscow and the Maxwell the Magic Cat strips are Moore’s earliest regular paid comics work, but they do not mark some discrete early stage of his career. The last Roscoe Moscow strip ran in the June 28th 1980 issue of Sounds. By that time Moore had already begun his work on Doctor Who Magazine. The first installment of Skizz saw print in Prog 308 of 2000 AD on the same day that The Stars My Degradation wrapped: March 19th, 1983. At that point, Moore was in the midst of his run on Captain Britain in The Daredevils for Marvel UK and had seen nine chapters of Marvelman and V for Vendetta come out in Warrior. (Indeed, the final strip of The Stars My Degradation contains a joke about Unstuck Simpson destroying the universe during sexual congress with Ginda Bojeffries of The Bojeffries Saga. Moore, apparently, had already created an extensive timeline of a future history alongside Steve Moore that linked Marvelman, V for Vendetta, and the Axel Pressbutton stories, which included The Stars My Degradation. This is a strong contender for the most bewildering shared universe in comics history.) The final Maxwell the Magic Cat strip, on October 9th, 1986, came out after Warrior had folded, with Marvelman already renamed Miracleman and coming out in the US from Eclipse. By then his Marvel UK and 2000 AD work had wound down (Halo Jones had been over for nearly six months), his run on Swamp Thing had just eleven issues to go, and Watchmen was well underway. 

Figure 86: Titles in buildings from Alan Moore's Roscoe Moscow and
Will Eisner's The Spirit
Roscoe Moscow and Maxwell the Magic Cat, in other words, are not merely Alan Moore’s first professional comics work; they are the beginning of an uninterrupted career as a professional comics creator. This, in other words, marks the point where the War stops being anything like a strict linear sequence of events. Everything for the remainder of the War happens alongside other events, and nothing happens in its own bubble, separate from other concerns. Nevertheless, his work for Sounds and on Maxwell the Magic Cat is distinct from the bulk of his career in that it forms the only substantial body of work that he’s illustrated himself. Moore never completely abandoned drawing - he did a one page for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour in 1990, and both a cover and a small comic called Astounding Weird Penises for Dodgem Logic. But like Grant Morrison, after an initial flirtation with being a writer-artist, Moore settled on simply writing. The reasons for this are similar to Morrison’s - as Moore puts it, he noticed that his friend Steve Moore (it is at this point traditional to say “no relation”) was doing just fine as a writer and that, unlike Moore, he “never worked beyond four in the afternoon.” But unlike Morrison, Moore acknowledges a second major flaw in being a writer-artist, which is that he, as he put it, “can’t draw very well.” He relied heavily on the technique of stippling - the use of tiny dots for shading - which, as he wryly noted, “editors loved.” But this only further slowed his production down, and was a fairly transparent ruse to cover the underlying frailties of his technique. 

Figure 87: Decades before Neonomicon Moore was putting subterranean
sex monsters in the sewers, this time with his David Bowie parody
"David Boko" (Alan Moore, 1980, as Curt Vile)
Still, for all that Moore self-deprecates about his art skills, Roscoe Moscow demonstrates an admirable determination to push himself. Early on in the strip he abandoned all notion of a consistent layout for the strip’s title. The ninth installment pastiches Weird Tales, the pulp magazine in which H.P. Lovecraft did the bulk of his work. The thirteenth is an homage to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and particularly to Eisner’s tendency to work the strip’s logo into an existing panel. Other strips involved detailed collages and intricate panel layouts. While there is admittedly something of an upper bound to Moore’s artistic skill, on the whole Roscoe Moscow is visibly the work of an artist trying to stretch himself, improve, and try increasingly ambitious things. Moore’s description of them as him “doing an apprenticeship in public, learning the ropes” is apt - they very much feel like the work of someone who is actively honing their craft. Moore visibly set stylistic challenges for himself and then attempts to meet them, already demonstrating the methodical focus on structure and technique that would come to characterize his entire career. 

Figure 88: Disturbing prophetic birds in Roscoe Moscow...
(Alan Moore, 1979, as Curt Vile)
Repeatedly, when reading Roscoe Moscow, one is struck by moments in which Alan Moore’s future work seems prefigured. Several of the more intricately laid out strips are technically complex in a way Moore’s work wouldn’t surpass until he partnered with J.H. Williams III for Promethea. The Weird Tales strip and depiction of David Bowie as a Lovecraftian horror prefigures an entire career of Lovecraft pastiches. Indeed, one could, if one was truly determined, argue that the revelation of “David Boko, the giant bisexual tentacled nightmare” lurking in the sewers late in the run was directly recycled by Moore to create the subterranean penis monster in Neonomicon, although it is possible doing so would reveal more about one’s self than about Alan Moore. A more immediate comparison comes in the 36th installment of Roscoe Moscow, which has Roscoe has a dream vision of Wiggy Pulp full of grotesque imagery of the sort he’d lean heavily on in Swamp Thing.

Figure 89: And in Swamp Thing #48
(Alan Moore and John Totleben, 1986)
On the surface this makes Moore’s claim that his Sounds work “will probably remain unpublished” as “to put it out as a piece of work by Alan Moore, it would be crap, because it wouldn’t be the Alan Moore that people are expecting” sound odd. But this claim requires context - Moore has never done anything like renounce his early work. Rather, it reflects an characteristically complex ethical calculation on Moore’s part. The actual claim that Moore makes when asked about republishing his Sounds material is “I don’t want to make any money out of it because I don’t think it’s good enough.” This claim was, admittedly, made in 2008, at which point Moore’s Watchmen income made self-sacrificing ethical stances more viable. In the same interview, Moore talks about Steve Moore having “sold the rights to the Pressbutton computer game, which is fantastic. It’s some much needed income for Steve.” (Pressbutton is Axel Pressbutton, an excessively violent cyborg created by the Moores.)

So Moore’s position is based in part on the luxury of not having to try to make a profit from his old Sounds work. Indeed, the occasion of his commenting on it is Pádraig Ó Méalóid checking with Moore that his practice of preserving arcana of Moore’s career online is OK with Moore, specifically The Stars My Degradation. Moore’s response is that “It’s nice that it’s out there on the ‘net… I’m really glad that it’s out there, so people can see.” Moore’s position, in other words, is not that there is anything wrong with his Sounds work as such, but rather that he simply doesn’t see it as appropriate to profit off of it given that he was still learning how to do comics. (Moore made a similar stand much earlier in his career, in fact, when he donated his proceeds for Acme Press’s Maxwell the Magic Cat reprints to Greenpeace, joking that “the guilt at having been paid twice for this stuff would honestly be more than I could bear, and I would almost certainly burn in hell forever.”)

Figure 90: Intricate page layouts in Roscoe Moscow
(Alan Moore, 1980, as Curt Vile)
In many ways the process of “learning to do comics” amounted to learning a degree of stylistic flexibility. The central joke of Roscoe Moscow, so to speak, is not just its many Mad Magazine style musical parodies like Rafiawerk, David Boko, and Brain One (Brian Eno), which Moore explains by saying, “I was suffering under the naive impression that a strip in a music paper might be required to actually be about music. Consequently I included lots of terribly unfunny parodies of musicians that would have been better excluded.” Instead the basic humor of Roscoe Moscow came from the wide variety of subject matter that it might parody in a given week - that it would parody American high school sex comedies of the Grease and Happy Days style one week, and then drop in a parody of Jack Kirby’s cover to Sgt. Fury and his His Howling Commandos #1 the next. It was, in other words, a strip in which Moore learned range as a creator. There is a profound sense of tactical nous in Roscoe Moscow - it’s difficult to imagine a savvier choice of first pieces of work in terms of getting a career started. The estimated distribution of Sounds means that this work is actually some of the highest selling of his career, and meant that Moore could make a credible case for his ability to tailor his work to any brief. On the other hand, Sounds was a place where he could safely experiment as opposed to having to fit into a clear structure himself; Moore has commented that “Sounds didn’t care what I did as long as it was funny and looked okay,” a satisfyingly low bar to clear.

Much of this is due to the nature of Sounds as a magazine. It is, of course, primarily a music magazine, which means that its comics section was largely an afterthought. [continued]

Comments

Neo Tuxedo 3 years, 6 months ago

and the second issue of Watchmen was out.

As somebody who was 16 in 1986, I'm here to put before you that, actually, at least the fifth issue was out by then. October was just Chapter 2's cover date. (Since the interwebs also rely on cover dates, and since DC's then-house organ DC RELEASES doesn't seem to be adequately archived online, I'm having trouble finding the actual release date for Chapter 6.)

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Spacewarp 3 years, 6 months ago

Well I'm definitely old enough to remember Sounds (we always called it "SPUNOS") It was the magazine of choice, far more "street" than the elitist NME and the elderly musos' Melody Maker. Good to see that Roscoe and Dempster have been collected online, but sadly Brendan McCarthy's excellent reflection of mid-punk Britain "The Electric Hoax" is harder to find.

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C. 3 years, 6 months ago

I was 14 in 1986, and can verify Neo Tuxedo. First issue came out in May or June, ch. 2 sometime mid-summer and by October No. 4 at the least was out. (the distribution got wonky later: i actually saw No. 10 before No. 9, and of course the last issue took forever to come out)

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Wm Keith 3 years, 6 months ago

I'm probably a million miles behind the dustcart here, but...the giant bisexual tentacled Face of Boko?

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 6 months ago

Jeez, the cover dates were that far ahead? I usually assume a cover date is two months ahead, but because Watchmen was infamous for delays I decided to just go by cover date. Stupid comics dating questions. I'll see if I can find a proper release schedule somewhere, or just update it to some vague wording like "Moore was well into Watchmen.")

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 6 months ago

Nearly imposible, so far as I know. But you'll be pleased to know that I just tracked down a thorough collection of Milligan/McCarthy material (not just the recent and wonderful best of), and they'll be getting a good bit of attention.

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 6 months ago

Reworded with appropriate vagueness. :)

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 6 months ago

No, the Albion/Eruditorum crossover is next chapter. Actually, I think the chunk where I talk about Doctor Who specifically is likely to go up within a week of the anniversary.

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timber-munki 3 years, 6 months ago

The Best of Milligan & McCarthy is a stunning book. hats off to McCarthy, Justin Couch & Dark Horse for the design (I am a sucker for blown up comic art, particularly with Ben-Day dots) . I was a couple of years too young the first time around with their material but Rogan Gosh just makes you stop even now and go 'wow'.

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Unknown 3 years, 6 months ago

Watchmen was only infamously delayed by the standards of its time. By the standards of a decade later up to the present, it was as regular as some of Doctor Manhattan's clockwork. Comics cover dates are just way ahead.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 6 months ago

Glad to see Albion getting into the analysis of Alan Moore, of whom I've always been a much bigger fan than Morrison anyway. I wasn't familiar with the content of these earliest of the early comics work in the Moore catalogue, though. The earliest work I've read is V for Vendetta and Swamp Thing.

A main reason why I love Moore's work as much as I do is how he injects humour into his work, which you can see even at this early stage. He has this grotesque yet wry and dry sense of humour, which speaks to me more deeply than many other writers of action and superhero comics. Kind of similar to my own sense of humour as well, which might be why I enjoy it as much as I do.

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Eric Gimlin 3 years, 6 months ago

It got fairly ridiculous in the late 80's, Phil. To the point where, between cover date December 1988 and January 1989, DC released two issues. If I recall correctly, one was "holiday" and the other was "winter". Even with that they were still a solid couple months ahead.

I'm pretty sure they did it exactly when they did so they could have the 50th anniversary of Batman's first appearance coincide with Detective #600, but it needed to be done in any case. (It also left us with the rather odd artifact of Detective #598- which would have been the anniversary issue- being an oversized issue for no clear reason.)

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Kit 3 years, 5 months ago

One example of Moore cartooning between American Splendour and Space Penises that comes to mind is the one-pager in Visions Of Omaha, drawn by both him and Gebbie.

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Paul T McDonnell 1 year, 8 months ago

A good point ! So good that I've written a quick blog outlining this technique. See rewording online

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