A Home That's Miles From Home (The Last War in Albion Part 101: Halo Jones Books One and Two)

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This is the second of five parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Eleven, focusing on Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones. An omnibus of all eleven parts is available on Smashwords. If you are a Kickstarter backer or a Patreon backer at $2 or higher per week, instructions on how to get your complimentary copy have been sent to you.

The Ballad of Halo Jones is available in a collected edition that can be purchased in the US or in the UK.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore and Ian Gibson created The Ballad of Halo Jones to give 2000 AD a rare female-fronted strip. In approaching the series, they decided to largely throw readers in the deep end, offering a lot of information about Halo Jones's world but very little context. 

"I wanna live with Halo Jones. I wanna home that's miles from home. I wanna drugs from the Twilight Zone. I wanna never never never never never never never say no." - Shriekback, "Malaria"

The result of this is that the first thing the audience learns about Halo Jones’s world is not what it’s like, but rather the fact that she wants to get out of there, and that everybody else in the world does too, but, as her friend Rodice puts it, “even if you do get out it’s no good, ‘cause no matter how far you get, they’ll fetch you back here and bust you to pieces.” Past that, as with American Flagg, the world is introduced more through the media playing in the background than through characters explaining it to each other. (Not that Moore avoids blatant exposition entirely -not long after the disorienting opening spread, for instance, Moore has several characters straightforwardly explain the Different Drummers to each other, despite the fact that all of them are seemingly familiar with the group and have no reason to describe their basic features.

Figure 801: Halo Jones explains her motivation in life. (Written by Alan Moore,
art by Ian Gibson, from The Ballad of Halo Jones in 2000 AD #376, 1984)
This continues throughout. Nowhere in Book One is there anything that quite serves as an explanation of the Hoop and how it works. This is not, to be clear, a flaw: The Ballad of Halo Jones is not a story about the Hoop and how it came to be. (In point of fact, it’s a scheme to move the unemployed - or “increased leisure citizens,” to use the preferred euphemism - out of sight and out of mind. This isn’t really established until Book Two, however.) It’s about what life on the Hoop is like, which is to say, about a soul-crushing dead end designed to serve as little more than a human landfill. In this regard it’s just an iteration of a trope that has already appeared numerous times in the course of the War, generally as an analogue for Thatcher’s Britain in some form. And Moore, by avoiding approaching the Hoop with any perspective other than the ground-level view offered by Halo and her friends, keeps the focus firmly on the experience of living in such a place. 

Figure 802: Halo and Rodice's
housemate Ludy having joined
the Different Drummers. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Ian Gibson,
from The Ballad of Halo Jones in
2000 AD #383, 1984)
And so Moore writes a story that is, for five of its ten installments, about a shopping expedition gone wrong. (As Gibson puts it, “I told Alan that the best way to get to know a place is to go shopping in it.”) The point of this is to highlight the material reality of living in the Hoop - the fact that even a simple shopping trip because you’re running low on food is a lengthy affair that requires careful planning to avoid the scheduled riots (another obvious debt to American Flagg). And this, in turn, serves to set up the final three parts, in which Halo and her friend Rodice return home to find that one of their two housemates has been brutally murdered and the other has opted to join the Different Drummers, which finally motivates Halo to stop just talking about getting out and to snag a job on the Clara Pandy (rescued by Lux Roth Chop after all) and get out.

Unfortunately, the strip ended up getting off to something of a rough start. For all that American Flagg belongs to the same satiric tradition as 2000 AD, its worldbuilding techniques, even in the considerably simplified forms that Moore uses them, are rather more technically sophisticated than the magazine usually goes for. The result was a lot of confused readers. On top of that, the aggressively low stakes of the story proved a turn-off, and although Moore and Gibson had outlined a nine-book epic in which Halo would bounce from adventure to adventure, nothing in the first book really gestured at that or gave much of a sense of where this story of a girl who wanted to get out of where she was might be going. The result was that, despite the prominence of its creators and a prominent place in the magazine, The Ballad of Halo Jones did poorly in IPC’s weekly surveys of readers to see what strips they were enjoying. 

Despite this, IPC decided to commission a second book, partly because Moore and Gibson’s reputation was sufficient to make a second chance worthwhile, and partially because, while the readers might not have been on board, there was still considerable excitement within IPC for the concept, and, as Moore puts it, the editors “were anxious to find out how it all turned out,” a wish that would ultimately be frustrated anyway. But although they commissioned a second book, IPC had some specific editorial notes for Moore and Gibbons. The first of these was that the book should be more violent, the lack of action being viewed as part of the first book’s poor reception. The second was an instruction “that the strip should be more intelligible.” Moore was, to say the least, unimpressed with both requests, and though he did not, as he had by then done with both Marvel UK and Quality Communications, sever ties with the company, it is clear that the development of Book Two of The Ballad of Halo Jones was not an entirely pleasant experience.

Figure 803: Why deal with meddling editors when you
can write psychedelic vegetable sex? (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing #34, 1985)
Moore can hardly be faulted for some measure of frustration. In the US he was making far more money and working under the long editorial leash of Karen Berger, who was willing to back him against the Comics Code Authority and to let him do an issue of psychedelic vegetable sex. Whereas IPC was giving him grief over the fact that The Ballad of Halo Jones was slightly less hand-holding in its exposition than its readers expected, and he was being given directives that he surely viewed as little more than demands that he dumb the strip down just because it had not been an immediate smash hit. For all that The Ballad of Halo Jones represented IPC’s belated recognition that Moore was a-list talent, they were still visibly unaware of the caliber of writer they had and eager to micromanage. It was plainly disrespectful of the sheer degree of talent that Moore had demonstrated by this point in his career, all the moreso coming after the belated and mildly insulting offer of Skizz long after Moore’s abilities were clearly established.

Nevertheless, he persevered with the project. It was, of his UK jobs, the best-paying, and he did have a longstanding affection for the magazine, so this is perhaps unsurprising. But more even than he cared for 2000 AD, one suspects that Moore cared for Halo Jones. It is worth recalling that his initial motivation in starting a comics career was the impending birth of his eldest daughter, Leah, who was by 1985 seven years old, with his younger, Amber, four. And it’s clear that his sense of parental responsibility was a fundamental part of his decision. As Moore put it, “if I didn’t make the jump now, once the baby was born I’d never have the nerve to do it. Once I’ve got a pair of hungry eyes staring up at me saying, ‘Feed me,’ then, you know, I’d probably stay where there was security. And also, if I did that then, this is what I’d be teaching my children. I’d be teaching my children that there was a ceiling to what they could do or what they could be.”

Figure 804: Alan Moore reading one of his Time Twisters to
his daughters Amber and Leah.
And with Leah now around the age he’d been when he started reading comics, and his awareness of the way in which the comics he loved were hopelessly skewed towards male readers was surely something he’d thought of in terms of his own daughters and the options they had and, more importantly, didn’t have to read comics that might inspire them as the ones of his youth had him. (Tellingly, when filmed in 1987 for the “Monsters, Maniacs, and Moore” TV documentary he did a sequence where he read “A Cautionary Fable,” his twisted Hilaire Belloc riff, to the girls.) The editorial structure at IPC that so frustrated him was also, with its rigid delineation between “boys comics” and “girls comics” and its subsequent abandonment of the female audience, the entire point of The Ballad of Halo Jones as a project.  And so despite the insult, Moore continued.

Moore handled the editorial injunctions cleverly. For the violence, he incorporated a hostage situation into the second installment, and an extended action sequence after Halo’s robotic dog Toby turns out to be a murderous stalker in the arc’s denouement. Neither are intrusive, and were sufficient to mollify Moore’s editors. Whereas the issue of complexity was mostly going to solve itself. In Book One, Halo was in a world she was familiar with, and so Moore, in telling the story from her perspective, declined to offer much exposition. But in Book Two, and indeed, for the remainder of The Ballad of Halo Jones, Halo would be in new and unfamiliar settings that she would have to understand, and that the reader would thus discover alongside her.  

Figure 805: The Institute for Para-Historical Studies. (From The Ballad of Halo
Jones Book Two
 in 2000 AD #405, 1985)
To further clarify things, however, Moore wrote a prologue to Book Two in which Halo Jones’s adventures are discussed in a lecture at the Institute for Para-Historical Studies 1400 years after her death. This conceit allows Moore to recap the events of the first book in a straightforwardly exposited manner, describing the abject poverty of the Hoop via an explanation of the government policies that created it, as opposed to by just depicting it. More to the point, however, it allows Moore to abandon any pretense of subtlety in terms of the strip’s main theme. An entire page of the prologue is turned over to allowing the lecturer to explain how the entire point of Halo’s story is that “she wasn’t anyone special. She wasn’t that brave, or that clever, or that strong. She was just somebody who felt cramped by the confines of her life. She was just somebody who had to get out,” and how her most famous quotation was her claim that “anybody could have done it.” 

Figure 806: The crushing isolation of
Glyph. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Ian Gibson, from The Ballad of Halo Jones
Book Two
 in 2000 AD #408, 1985)
But the innovation for Book Two that would have the most impact was the addition of the character Glyph, Halo’s cabinmate. Introduced mainly in the third installment of Book Two, “I’ll Never Forget Whatsizname,” Glyph explains that as a side effect of repeated treatments to remake their body as they continued to vacillate over whether they wanted to be a boy or a girl, they reached a state where their entire personality had been erased and people simply stopped noticing them entirely, to a supernatural extent. “Finally, my landlady forgot I was living in my apartment,” Glyph narrates, “and leased it to another family. I protested, but they didn’t notice. Eventually, I moved out. I walked through the crowded streets and nobody even looked at me… they just stared straight through me. It was as if I’d somehow slipped beneath the threshold of human awareness.” Although the story relies unpleasantly on the stereotype that transgender people are prone to regretting their transitions (the first of many questionable depictions of transgender people over the course of the War, although one that has to be taken in the context of being written in 1985), it’s tremendously effective, with Glyph’s narration trailing off as they tell Halo and Toy, her other cabinmate, that they’re “just grateful to you for taking a moment to listen… I don’t ask for much - maybe you could just say ‘hello’ every once in a while, or ask me how I’m feeling. You could say things like ‘nice day, Glyph,’ or ‘hi there, Glyph!’ Or, uh, I could tell you some jokes… or, uh…” only to realize that Halo and Toy have long since wandered off from the conversation to watch holosoaps, forgetting all about Glyph, who slowly slinks away as Toy boasts that she’s “just naturally interested in people.” 

Glyph’s tragedy (they ultimately sacrifice themself to save Halo and Toy from Toby’s attack, with neither of the two noticing or remembering them after they’re gone) serves in many regards as a mirror for Halo’s own arc over the course of Book Two, which tracks her voyage on the cruise ship The Clara Pandy. Halo plans to meet Rodice on the planet Charlemagne after a year’s journey, a meeting that hangs over the entire arc from the first installment, which is narrated in the form of a letter from Halo to Rodice as she passes Pluto on her way out of the solar system. But upon reaching the appointed meeting place at the story’s end she discovers that Rodice changed her mind after Halo’s departure and is still back on the Hoop. [continued]

Comments

Tom 1 year, 8 months ago

As well as the American Flagg influence, the last time I read the "letter to Rodice" chapter it reminded me a lot of the "Mechanics" segment of Love And Rockets, where Maggie is off in Africa with Rand Race and writing back to her friends in Hoppers. Moore was certainly reading that too - around the time of Watchmen one of the things I liked about him was how eagerly he'd evangelise for some of the great 80s independent books: it definitely worked on me.

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Daru 1 year, 8 months ago

Man, Love & Rockets was one of my absolute favourite books in the 90's when I was reading graphics heavily. Loved Maggie and Hopey so much and what a brilliant diversity of story-lines and characters too.

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Daru 1 year, 8 months ago

Yes it is pretty sad that IPC just didn't get Moore and what he was capable of and trying to do. Well done on Moore for carrying on, one thing I always appreciated about him was, barring conflict, the way he would get on with work and his ethics related to working.

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Shane Cubis 1 year, 8 months ago

As much as we all love the narrative of suits keeping the visionary creator from making his art with their narrow-minded corporate demands, it's not unreasonable for editors to have input on what they'd like to see more or less of in work they've commissioned.

Irrespective of what other clients are letting you get away with, you're being paid to provide a specific, bespoke product. I'm speaking mainly about the tone taken about editors in this chapter more than Alan Moore's specific experiences, but IPC was a different company to DC, with a different audience. Their primary goal is to maintain and grow that audience, so artists keep a place to share their stories.

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Tony Morris 1 year, 8 months ago

Calling the actions of Steve McManus (2000AD's editor at the time) "plainly disrespectful" seems a bit overstated. At the time that Moore was writing Future Shocks for 2000AD it was written almost entirely by Pat Mills and the team of John Wagner & Alan Grant (with Rogue Trooper scribe Gerry Finley-Day the last of the old-school 70s writers, and he'd be gone before book three of Halo Jones saw print). Considering those three are generally considered the best writers 2000AD's had, and giants of the UK comics scene beside, there probably wasn't a whole lot of pressure to ease them out in favour of new writers. Especially as Wagner / Grant were productive enough to also be writing large swathes of IPCs other titles at the time.

It seems more likely that it was recognition of Moore's obvious talent and ability that enabled him to successfully break into what was at the time basically a very successful closed shop - especially considering he was up against more established and (arguably) equally talented writers.

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Carey 1 year, 8 months ago

From my understanding at the time, the criticism's of Halo Jones book 1 came from the readers, not from editorial. 2000ad in at least it's IPC days took account of the readership reaction, and had a cut out survey form in each issue asking you to list your favourite stories. IIRC, Halo Jones wan't favourably exceed to begin with, and it was, as you correctly say, editorial that gave it more support and commissioned the second series. For all that accusations may be made of editorial interference, it was during the second series that came out of those recommendations that Halo Jones became a success.

I'd also agree with Tom that Love and Rockets was a huge influence on Halo Jones, with Moore in conteporary interviews saying how much he liked the series. The relationship between Halo, Rodice and Toy, as well the mother figure of Brinna, very much echoed that of Maggie, Penny Century, Hopey and Izzy from the earliest Love and Rockets stories.

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Carey 1 year, 8 months ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Carey 1 year, 8 months ago

Blogger hates iPads. Sorry.

That should read "Halo Jones wasn't favourably received, btw.

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Dialectomitch 1 year, 8 months ago

Glyph - just remembering that particular Halo Jones storyline tears me up. Halo Jones was a real gateway comic for me - Bojeffries, V for Vendetta, Cerebus, Charles Burns, Maus/Raw and of course, Love and Rockets were all to follow, but it all began on the Hoop and the Clara Pandy.

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Karl Thomasson 1 year, 7 months ago

Huh, I just realised how much the ball of design in the lower half of that Swamp Thing page reminded me of the initial evolutionary sequence in Light Comitragedies (http://i.imgur.com/HPLcKGM.png). More specifically it put me to mind of an alternate ending from the rather bleak place that comic goes to.

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