Book Review: Magic Words


At this point the overlap between Lance Parkin's interests and mine is downright unsettling. How am I ever going to get anywhere with my interests when I have to compete with someone as good as him? It's not enough, apparently, that he be one of the best writers of Doctor Who auxiliary material and a damn fine scholar of the show, as evidenced by his marvelous volume of the Time Unincorporated series. He's got to go write about Alan Moore as well. Actually, he's on his second, having written a quite solid introduction to him for the Pocket Essentials series. But Magic Words is something else; a landmark, definitive tome that immediately establishes itself as one of the absolutely essential works for anybody interested in Alan Moore.

Before we get to any of that, however, let's start with the fact that the book is absolutely gorgeous. This is a sumptuous, lush book. Its cover, a green-tinged photo of Moore staring out at the reader through the smoke of the almost certainly not tobacco cigarette in his hand, is augmented by a bellyband proclaiming the title. The edges of the pages are inked black, giving the exterior a sleek elegance. Inside is similarly well-designed, save for a frustrating decision to use a cod-comics lettering font for chapter headers. Still, it's one of the nicest physical objects of a book I've laid hands on this year.

That bit of geekery aside, the book itself. It is, to be clear, a biography. It is not Gary Spencer Millidge's (very excellent) Alan Moore: Storyteller, nor George Khoury's The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore. The former is an overview of Moore's work; the latter an extended interview. This, however, is an attempt to grapple with Alan Moore the man. This obviously involves a lot of looking at his work, but mainly in terms of how it explains his evolving career.

This is, to be sure, an interesting subject. Moore's career, after all, is a fascinating litany of brilliance and idiosyncrasy. First of all, there's the somewhat puzzling matter of him worshipping a snake puppet. Second, there's the stark litany of fairly explosive feuds he's had with various people. Third, there's the fact that his life is simply full of idiosyncratic and extreme beliefs, positions, and courses of action, most of which are backed up by complex and nuanced explanations.

Complicating Parkin's task is the fact that, up until the very end of the writing process, Moore wasn't participating in the biography. Moore was shown what was at the time intended to be the final draft, and was impressed enough to both give a charming blurb ("In Magic Words Lance Parkin has crafted a biography that is insightful, scrupulously fair-minded and often very funny - a considerable achievement given its unrelentingly grim, unreasonable, and annoying subject. Belongs on the shelf of any halfway decent criminal profiler.") and what Parkin has described as the most wonkish Alan Moore interview ever, as it consisted of no questions regarding well-trod subject matter, and instead consisting entirely of issues like sorting out Grant Morrison's claim that Moore had written him a threatening letter in response to Morrison's unsolicited submission of a Kid Marvelman script (Moore says it never happened, and Parkin backs the claim up with a Dez Skinn interview) and why Moore decided to do his ABC work as a work-for-hire such that he doesn't own Tom Strong or Promethea (still unclear, actually, though I have my speculations for a few years from now). 

For the most part the distance Moore kept from the book helps Parkin. Moore is uniquely well-suited to this approach - he's given a large number of interviews, and is one of the best interview subjects around, prone to lengthy answers that are in equal parts witty and informative (there's a lovely and deliciously throwaway joke in which he describes "a five-or-six page strip about Darth Vader," a joke that is hilarious to a vanishingly small number of people). But it means that Magic Words is breathtakingly well-researched. (The footnotes in the final version aren't numbered, but the draft Parkin sent me in June had 1046) It also means that Parkin gives plenty of weight to Moore's critics. Moore requested that Parkin not bother his family or friends, and so the only interviews Parkin did for the bulk of the book were with people who had fallen out with Moore. This doesn't make the book a hit piece - it's obviously not, since Moore endorsed it in the end. But it means that Parkin's take on Moore is fair-minded. The book is not a hagiography just as much as it's not a hit piece. Parkin's deep love of the subject matter shows through, and he's clearly broadly speaking on Moore's side.

Particularly impressive, given Parkin's limited access to Moore himself, are the early chapters, which provide tremendous detail about Moore's pre-professional life. Parkin somehow got ahold of some properly astonishing sources; his tracking down of Jeremy Seabrook's The Unprivileged, a sociological study of Moore's area of Northampton written by Moore's first-form French teacher, is the sort of thing that makes other scholars drool with envy. The casualness with which he describes the plot of Another Suburban Romance, meanwhile, is the Moore scholar equivalent of a mic drop. So thorough is Parkin's account that, reading the book, one does not realize that this section deals with a wildly less well documented phase of Moore's life. 

All of this is bound up in the neat, well-organized package of Parkin's overall insights into Moore and his life. The book does not advance any sort of singular argument, but Parkin is deftly deductive, frequently grabbing bits of information from two or three sources and making a solid and compelling stab at explaining how it all fits together. The result is a detailed portrait of Alan Moore that is sympathetic, thorough, and yet put at enough of a remove to invite further engagement and discussion. Magic Words is in no way the definitive book on Alan Moore. But this is a good thing. Parkin believes, with good reason, that Moore has a real chance of being a writer who is still talked about centuries from now. It would undermine this claim horribly if Parkin had the last word. Rather than being definitive, Magic Words is something far more wonderful: essential. 

Magic Words is out on November 7th in the UK. Americans have to wait until December 1st. Those in the UK will be further enticed by the November 26th book launch in London, which Alan Moore himself will be at. Tickets for that are here.


Allyn Gibson 7 years, 2 months ago

why Moore decided to do his ABC work as a work-for-hire such that he doesn't own Tom Strong or Promethea

I thought the reason for that was well-known — Moore received higher pages rates on the WFH ABC books. Moore made more money on the front-end than he would have otherwise, and Wildstorm stood to make more money on the back-end.

At least, that's what I was under the impression was the story. Could be that I've been taken in by an urban legend in the comics community.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 7 years, 2 months ago

That's the ostensible reason, but it's still strangely out of line with Moore's usual attitudes and approaches.

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Nick Smale 7 years, 2 months ago

At this point the overlap between Lance Parkin's interests and mine is downright unsettling.

And to underline that point, here's Parkin's review of A Golden Thread.

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timber-munki 7 years, 2 months ago

Given that Moore famously wrote Neonomicon to pay a large tax bill it's not beyond the realms of possibility that he'd be in a situation where he had to get a large amount of money quickly.

What is strange is that one of his most personal statements of belief and formally complex works, Promethea is owned by his bette noir DC along with (at least part of) League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen the thing that he appears to enjoy making the most.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 7 years, 2 months ago

The money wouldn't have been quick for the ABC stuff, though - he was getting a higher page rate, not an advance or anything. (Neonomicon happened specifically because William Christensen was willing to give him an advance on the royalties. And I suspect the large tax bill Neonomicon was settling was due to the sales bump the Watchmen movie caused, and was not just a random thing.) But yes, I agree that it's odd that Promethea isn't creator owned. Though I suspect the reason for that is that what Promethea became is not entirely what Moore originally intended it to be.

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Jordan Murphy 7 years, 2 months ago

This sounds like a book I'll have to check out. I haven't commented much on your Eruditorium entries, as I feel others have far more to say than I about Doctor Who, and I've mostly refrained from commenting on Last War in Albion because, as an American, I'm not too familiar with the material covered thus far. But once M&M hit the states you'll be getting stuff I know very well, that I bought with my own hard-earned dollars in comfortably dilapidated comics shops as they happened. Stuff I have long-considered opinions on dating back 30 years. I suspect I'll have more to say on Moore (and Morrison, and Miller, Gaiman, Delano, Wagner, Sienkiewicz, the Hernandez Bros., Spiegelman, Clowes, Bagge, etc.) in the months to come.

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Kit 7 years, 2 months ago

"That's the ostensible reason, but it's still strangely out of line with Moore's usual attitudes and approaches."

It has, in part, always been the reason Rick Veitch has given, since 1999, and he's a man not known for dissembling when it comes to discussing creative or financial decisions of his own or of publishers. And he was the closest to Moore as co-creator at the time, when the line was conceived in the wake of the collapse of Extreme/Awesome. (The other part of course being that Moore wasn't just trying to get himself the extra upfront money, but had created the entire line because artists he'd recruited for Awesome were now out of work, and he was trying to help them out as fast as possible.)

Remember, the titles were all meant to only run for a year under Moore before being handed off to other writers, too. He simply wasn't that attached to the creations at the time he made the decision over ownership.

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Kit 7 years, 2 months ago

(Obviously, I haven't read the Parkin book, so I don't know what other mysteries are stirred into the mix, per Phil's allusions. But I'll be arriving in London two days before the launch, and have my tickets already.)

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Wm Keith 7 years, 2 months ago

I don't know much about comics.

It's interesting that five out of the first eight comments on this post relate partly or wholly to intellectual property rights.

Is the ownership of ideas a recurring theme in Moore's work or only in his career?

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Joe Bowers 7 years, 2 months ago

Ownership of the characters and work is a pretty big deal in comics, particularly the difference between creative work for hire, where the rights stay with the company, and other arrangements where the rights stay with the creators. During the period that Dr. Sandifer is covering, it was the source of a lot of conflict and change in the industry, and also showed up as a common theme in the comics themselves.

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Kit 7 years, 2 months ago

I've read this part of the book now, and several bits and pieces of the rest of it, and it seems that any apparent holes in the story may be attributable to holes in Parkin's knowledge or telling of the story; he makes various small errors of fact (here and in other sections), including repeating uncorrected a self-aggrandising falsehood from noted oaf Don Murphy.

(League was never intended to be an ABC book at all; it was part of the Homage line, which was Wildstorm's creator-owned imprint. Its rebadging on moving to DC was an unfortunate byproduct of Firewall, but the different approach to design, different letterer, different copyright notice, and the fact it was set in a completely different universe all remained plain.)

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Elizabeth Sandifer 7 years, 2 months ago

Do you know of any sources that cover it more thoroughly? It's a moment I'm going to be terribly interested in when the time comes.

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Kit 7 years, 2 months ago

Argh, spent ten minutes typing a reply, then hostel wifi cut out and ate it. Drop me an email.

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