Fantasies in the Here and Now (The Last War in Albion Part 35: Skizz and E.T.)

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This is the first of six parts of Chapter Six of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work on Skizz and D.R. & Quinch  for 2000 AD. An ebook omnibus of all six parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from Amazon, Amazon UK, and Smashwords  for $2.99. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help ensure its continuation. The Last War in Albion now also has an imageblog on Tumblr

The stories discussed in this chapter are available in the collections Skizz and The Complete D.R. & Quinch.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore wrote numerous short stories for 2000 A.D., but the holy grail of comics assignments in early 80s Britain was an ongoing series. In March of 1983, he finally got a crack at one...


"Best bet is to set your fantasies in the here and now and then, if challenged, claim to be writing Magical Realism." - Neil Gaiman


Moore finished his time doing shorts for IPC the way he began it - by trying to learn new storytelling techniques. In this regard his comments about “doing an apprenticeship in public” and using short stories to learn “to do all the things that you will have to do in a bigger work but in a much more constrained space” are very much on target through and through. He used his time at IPC to learn his trade and craft. That not all of his experiments came off is, in many ways, proof of this fact. But notably, many of the experiments that did come off demonstrate techniques he would later make considerable use of, up to and including his confidence in purely visual storytelling that he was clearly trying to build in his last few strips. The effect is not entirely unlike the old story about Michelangelo creating the David by taking a block of marble and removing everything that wasn’t the David. The figure that is Alan Moore visibly emerges into the narrative, and comes ever more into focus over the course of these dozens of short stories.

Figure 261: 2000 AD's humorous conceit that its
comics were produced by robots under the command
of the alien Tharg the Mighty did not always result
in the most dignified of public portrayals of its
employees. (From 2000 AD #322)
Indeed, it’s clear that by the time he was done with his Future Shocks that he had, in practice, emerged. He visibly stopped doing Future Shocks in order to focus on his new and much higher-paying gig doing Swamp Thing at DC Comics. There is no serious way to describe Alan Moore in the autumn of 1983 as a tentative journeyman. Indeed, as we noted, even within the period working on Future Shocks for 2000 AD there is a clear dividing line in March of 1983, when Moore began writing his first ongoing for 2000 AD, Skizz. Within the standard mythology of these things, Skizz is part of Alan Moore’s apprenticeship - where he cut his teeth learning to tell stories. Much of this is simply the fact that 2000 AD and their current owners tell this story in a particular way. The trade paperback collection of Skizz boasts that “2000 AD was the proving ground for a host of A-list British writers and artists, now recognised both sides of the Atlantic. Luminaries to emerge from under the wing of Tharg the Mighty (2000 AD’s alien editor for the uninitiated) include Brian Bolland, Garth Ennis, Alan Grant, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and many, many more.” Which is, of course, a good marketing line - 2000 AD is where Moore’s career began, in this telling. 

This is, of course, nonsense. Moore’s career began in Sounds, and then in Doctor Who Weekly. The bits of his 2000 AD that can be described as early, prototypic work consist of a handful of Future Shocks in 1981 and 1982. But at  any point after March of 1982, when Warrior #1 hit, containing the first installments of both Marvelman and V for Vendetta it is ludicrous to suggest that Alan Moore is a developing talent who was still learning the ropes. As of that month he was producing two iconic, career-defining works, each of which can make credible cases to be the most important, influential, and transformative comics in the world at the time of their publication. So when, a year later, he began writing Skizz for 2000 AD he was not emerging from the wing of Tharg the Mighty - he was a major talent at the top of his game. 

Figure 262: Skizz debuted in prog 308 of 2000 AD
(Art by Jim Baikie)
As noted, in fact, 2000 AD was oddly reticent to give Moore an ongoing strip. Skizz was the fourth ongoing Moore worked on, after V for Vendetta, Marvelman, and Captain Britain, and by all appearances it was only given to him to mollify him when he started to (correctly) reason that he was perhaps being wasted on an endless progression of Future Shocks. It is, in other words, firmly the work of a mature talent. On the other hand, Moore has generally been disdainful of the strip, referring to it just eight months after it started as a “horrible” strip. It is not a strip he talks about at any significant length, and indeed can be described with reasonable accuracy as his first real flop of an ongoing. From this perspective, 2000 AD’s quiet rebranding of it as part of Moore’s self-described apprenticeship in comics is wholly sensible, because there’s just not another good way to reimagine this as a major piece of work worth buying. It is a historical curiosity, and thus its historical bonafides must be bolstered somehow. 

Figure 263: The primary inspiration
for Skizz is well-known.
There are two points of inspiration that everybody agrees upon for Skizz, and these usually serve as both the starting and ending point for discussion of the strip. The first fits in with the longstanding practice within British comics of imitating popular media. Just as Action’s star feature, Hookjaw, was an unsubtle rip-off of Jaws, Skizz is, by everyone’s agreement, a rip-off of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.. In his interview on the subject in the 1984 annual, Moore, tongue visibly in cheek even through the mass of beard, describes how “the Mighty One noticed all of the recent books and films about aliens on Earth,” which, in the context of the mega-hit that E.T. was, is thoroughly unsubtle. Moore elsewhere was more explicit, describing it as a “horrible E.T. rip-off,” and the comic’s readers were scarcely kinder, commenting on the similarities for the letters page and suggesting that 2000 AD was “losing its touch” and “could have come up with something much better.” And yet for all this criticism, Moore is well-insulated from plagiarism charges through a clever strategy on his part of simply not actually watching the film. This was, however, as much by necessity as creative integrity:  Skizz was offered to Moore in the period between its June 1982 debut in the United States and its UK run six months later, and was well into production when the film finally did see UK release, which meant that Moore was stuck writing an E.T. imitation without actually having any ability to watch the film he was supposed to be ripping off. 

Lacking the ability to actually rip off his intended source material (a setup that speaks volumes about the degree to which Skizz was a minimal sop to Moore’s desire to expand his work), Moore improvised, instead lifting from the then-popular BBC Two drama Boys from the Blackstuff, which is the second major and agreed upon influence on Skizz. Moore, as is typical when dealing with instances of overt inspiration, is open about this, saying that “there’s an awful lot in there that owes far too much to Alan Bleasdale,” the writer of Boys from the Blackstuff, and that while “Skizz wasn’t an Alan Bleasdale-ripoff, one character in there and some of the atmosphere owed a lot” to the writer. “It was derivative,” Moore concludes, and “a case of admiring something and not having the taste or tact to know when I was going too far,” although not, he stressed “evil or wrong” (and thus unlike, say, the Lafferty lift in the second Abelard Snazz story). 

Figure 264: The communication barrier between
Skizz and Roxy is finally overcome. (From Skizz,
written by Alan Moore, art by Jim Baikie, in 2000
AD 
#311, 1983)
In hindsight Moore’s vocal debt to Bleasdale seems like a necessary corrective for the fan audience that has spared Skizz the obscurity of other short-run 2000 AD strips. The truth is that almost anyone who picks up Skizz because Alan Moore’s name is on it - which is to say, anyone who picked up Skizz after 1983 - would immediately recognize the influence of E.T. in a way they might not a BBC Two drama about working class Liverpuldians. Despite having not seen the film, Moore ended up writing something with a broadly similar plot. Both stories feature an alien stranded on Earth who befriends a young human. Both feature major scenes in which the alien begins learning English, scenes in which the alien is overwhelmed by sensory input, and sequences where the alien falls ill. They use the same basic antagonist - government agents investigating the alien - and culminate in a chase sequence followed by the alien successfully escaping the planet after a sentimental farewell. Superficially, at least, it is only the fact that Moore wrote Skizz without seeing E.T. that stops this from being a lift on the scale of “Return of the Two-Storey Brain.” But a closer inspection reveals that Skizz does precisely what “Return of the Two-Storey Brain” does not: use the basic components of a story to tell a substantively different story.

The most significant difference between Skizz and E.T. comes from their basic perspective. Skizz opens with an entire first installment from the perspective of Skizz (still referred to as Zhcchz at this point) as he crashes his ship and escapes from the wreckage. No human characters, or, indeed, characters at all appear besides Skizz and his ship’s computer, and it is not until the final panel that any sort of hint is made as to actual setting of the story. It’s not until the third installment that we actually meet Roxy, the human protagonist of the strip, and not until the fourth strip that we actually see Skizz from Roxy’s perspective instead of the world from Skizz’s perspective. And even that comes in a divided episode - the first two pages of the strip show Roxy from Skizz’s perspective, and then we get two pages of Skizz from Roxy’s. This makes sense given the context in which Skizz appeared, which is to say, in a comics magazine dedicated to science fiction. What’s really telling is the first installment. From the first page, the focus is on Skizz, with a narration that displays a casual confidence in an audience familiar with sci-fi jargon. Within one page Moore mentions plasmotors, polarized gravity buffers, the sacred equations, shield-fungus, prysms, hydrocircuitry, luxate, formalhaut ore, and lymph-batteries. None of this is explained in any detail - the reader is expected to just accept that this (wholly invented) sci-fi jargon makes sense in the same way that gamma grenades and chem-swap, to take two similar bits of jargon from elsewhere in Prog 308, make sense. Instead the twist in the first installment of Skizz is that the alien has landed in a place mundane as Birmingham. 

Figure 265: Eliot reacts to E.T. throwing his baseball back at him in one
of Spielberg's signature shots.
This is the exact opposite of how E.T. approaches it. The opening sequence of E.T. does focus on the aliens, but from a removed distance, and as objects of wonder. The opening shot is of a starry night, the camera panning down past the tree line and to a glowing spaceship nestled among the trees. The aliens are first seen occluded and in the distance - the camera peers at them through trees, and it is not entirely clear what they look like. Once this establishing sequence is done, we approach the aliens from the perspective of the story’s main character, Eliot. A key scene comes when Eliot tosses his baseball into the shed and it is thrown back out at him - instead of seeing any glimpse of E.T., we get one of Spielberg’s trademark shots: a closeup on a human face reacting to something. The same basic shot is used when Eliot first properly encounters E.T. in the cornfield - we get shots of E.T., but they’re interspersed with Eliot’s reactions so that the focus of the scene becomes the human gazing upon the alien. The final shot of the film, similarly, is a close-up on Eliot’s face as he watches the alien ship depart.

Spielberg, in other words, is very careful to make sure that nobody misses the point that this is a story about Eliot’s childlike wonder at the marvels of the universe and not about aliens as such. E.T. is consciously and deliberately a movie in which the science fiction concepts are firmly and carefully embedded in the real world. Its blockbuster success can hardly be called a surprise - 1982 is the third year in a row that a genre film was the number one in the box office, following on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the trend would continue for several years to come (Return of the Jedi, Ghostbusters, and Back to the Future were the top films of the next three years). It came at a time when sci-fi was huge, in other words. But for all that its success rode the wave pioneered by Star Wars in 1977, as a film E.T. continually resists the sci-fi approach. E.T. is instead, in effect, a piece of magical realism. 

Figure 266: Angel Flores identifies the
publication of Borges's Historia universal
de la infamia
 as the start of magical realism.
As a literary genre, magical realism is most associated with Latin American writers of the mid-20th century, with its iconically major practitioners being Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. The first major attempt to formulate a definition of the genre came with the 1955 publication of Angel Flores’s essay “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction,” where he identifies the genre as beginning with the publication of Borges’s 1935 short story collection Historia universal de la infamia, generally translated in English as A Universal History of Infamy. The genre as Flores describes it is defined by “the amalgamation of realism and fantasy” so as to produce the “transformation of the common and the everyday into the awesome and the unreal.” The same year that Flores defined the genre Márquez published his short story “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes,” typically translated as “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings,” which has been widely anthologized and serves as the standard representative text in teaching the genre in high school and university level literature classes.


“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” tells the story of a winged man who crashes to ground in the courtyard of Pelayo and Elisenda. But the story focuses resolutely on Pelayo and Elisenda’s experience and not on the nature of the winged man in their courtyard. Its memorable first paragraph carefully holds the titular detail back until the end so that it becomes just one of a host of details about their lives. “On the third day of rain,” Márquez writes, “they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench.”

Comments

Callum Leemkuil 3 years, 6 months ago

Excellent essay as usual! Loving the stuff on magical realism. Just one quick correction - Gabriel Garcia Màrquez's last name isn't Màrquez, it's Garcia Màrquez.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 6 months ago

I love that the robot-writer conceit leads to a poster of an advanced android toiling away on a red Selectric.

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Alex 3 years, 6 months ago

I've always had a huge fondness for Skizz, partly for the story itself (I always choke up a bit at the end, and proto-Constantine "Loz" is great, plus it captures the period and working class life in the 80s with atmosphere) and also partly for how I came across it (aged 17, in a charity shop, never heard of it, etc). Needless to say, I was quite disappointed to learn of Alan's disdain for it!

Skizz is also notable among Alan's work for joining Marvelman and Top Ten in being continued by another - in this case the artist Jim Baikie, who gave us Skizz 2 and Skizz 3. I've only read the second, and while it's nice to revisit the characters it doesn't quite have the same punch as the original. Plus, the addition of colour somewhat dilutes Baikie's gorgeous, sooty artwork.

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storiteller 3 years, 6 months ago

I really don't understand Màrquez. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and hated it, and then just read the story you mentioned above. While I rather enjoy the concept of the story, the characters' behavior just seems so inhuman, a trait shared with One Hundred Years. People say his work demonstrates "universal truths about humanity" but it doesn't connect with me at all.

I find this particularly odd, because many of the people he influenced, such as Neil Gaiman, are some of my favorite authors.

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Adam Riggio 3 years, 6 months ago

I understand magical realism as using the techniques of modernist literature and implicitly politicized content (hence, the realism) to craft narratives that work more like myths and fables for the contemporary era (hence the magical). Think about the weird imagery of ancient Greek and Roman myths, or the religious stories of the Hindu Mahabharata and the Old and New Testament. They all have that same subtly strange flair. But Garcia Marquez's and Borges' stories all take place largely in the modern era. One Hundred Years of Solitude tell the story of Colombia's decades of civil war through the type of imagery usually found in mythological storytelling.

That's where the 'universal truths about humanity' appear. Magical realism takes modern, realistic situations and describes them in mythic terms and imagery. Now, that doesn't necessarily work for everybody, myself included. (I've come to prefer Bolano, who always had something of a hate on for magical realism. I can understand why, because it's a style of literature that, when it's done badly, is absolutely horrible.) But when the style was first being developed and gaining in international popularity, it was revelatory.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 6 months ago

formalhaut ore

I assume that should be "Fomalhaut," but is that Phil's typo or Moore's?

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