I Don't Have to Have a Cat Die in Order to Produce a Good Work (The Last War in Albion Part 15: Alan Moore's Pre-Professional Work, Children's Comics, Maxwell the Magic Cat)

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This is the fifth 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 AmazonAmazon 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. 

PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: Moore's earliest professional work was in a style heavily indebted to the American underground comix scene. But this scene influenced him on more than just a stylistic level - the movement's fondness for iconoclasm and a locally produced, self-published mode of production appealed to Moore too, and in fact described the environment in which he worked prior to selling Roscoe Moscow to Sounds...


"I don't have to have a cat die in order to produce a good work." - Grant Morrison, 2013 interview


Figure 114: Alan Moore, under his Curt Vile pseudonym, did
a set of humorous cartoons for Marvel UK's 1979 Frantic
Winter Special
.
In many ways the most obvious precedent for Roscoe Moscow from this earlier period is the series of eleven comics he did for the Back Street Bugle, an alternative newspaper out of Oxford, entitled St. Pancras Panda. Conceptually, St. Pancras Panda is a straightforward parody of Michael Bond and Peggy Fortnum’s Paddington Bear, although, like Roscoe Moscow, the parody does not bother staying narrowly focused, and the strip is instead an opportunity for Moore to cram in a wealth of gags, allusions, and parodies of institutional power. Stylistically, like Roscoe Moscow, it’s a straightforward imitation of the underground comix scene. More broadly, if Roscoe Moscow is Moore visibly working out the stylistic and storytelling skills that define his later work, St. Pancras Panda is Moore working out the skills he’d need to start Roscoe Moscow. It is, in every regard, a slightly more primitive version of the strip - the art is scratcher, the storytelling is less clear, the jokes are less sharp. But it demonstrates that the underground comix style affected for Roscoe Moscow was not just a one-time thing selected for a specific job. To some extent it may be a matter of basic convenience - Moore is endlessly self-deprecating about his artistic skills, claiming that “I was barely capable of drawing even simple objects in a way by which they might be recognized… I wasn’t really sure how many ribs people had or where the muscles were in the arms and legs.” This is, as is characteristic for Moore, an overstatement, but it is the case that Moore is not a first rate artist. The underground style’s affinity for the grotesque meant that it was a style in which Moore’s artistic frailties were, if not erased, at least minimized. Certainly the amount of work he’s done in the underground style that he’s not drawn himself is minimal. The biggest problem, in many ways, was simply that the opportunities for a second rate underground-style cartoonist in the late 70s/early 80s were limited. Yes, he sold work to Sounds and a few one-panel humor strips to a 1979 Marvel UK winter special, but at this point he’d basically saturated the UK market for work in that style.

Figure 115: Nutters Ruin, submitted to the Northants Post
under Moore's Curt Vile pseudonym, was to be a macabre
parody of soap operas. The paper was unimpressed, and so
Moore instead wrote a macabre parody of children's comics.
(Click to enlarge)
The focus on the local community scene that his work within the arts lab scene (broadly considered) also provides vital context for his other early professional gig, Maxwell the Magic Cat. As with St. Pancras Panda and Roscoe Moscow, there was precedent for Maxwell the Magic Cat in Moore’s earlier work, specifically in his five strips of Anon E. Mouse for ANoN, the Alternative Newspaper of Northampton in 1975. Anon E. Mouse is not particularly good - Moore hadn’t figured out how to work around the limitations of his drawing ability yet. He was also, apparently, running into aggressive editorial interference, such that his entire time on the strip was not a particularly happy one. But in 1979 he tried again, under relatively bizarre circumstances. In short, a representative from the local paper, the Northants Post, informed Moore that the paper wanted a regular strip. It turned out that this was in no way even remotely true, and that the representative had already been sacked for being a serial liar, but the paper graciously looked at Moore’s work anyway. His submission, a parody soap opera called Nutter’s Ruin was rejected, as the paper was apparently not particularly enthused by a parody of The Archers that featured a serial killer vicar and “Adolph Hilton, a kindly old Austrian gent who moved to Nutter’s Ruin just after the war” and who helped out with the public speaking society, instead asking for “something geared more towards children, perhaps a strip about a little cat.” 

Figure 116: Gilles de Rais was later used as a demon in the
anime and manga series Makai Ouji: Devils and Realist.
The result was Maxwell the Magic Cat, which ran from August 1979 to October 1986. Moore bristled demonstrably at the editorial mandate, and decided against using his “Curt Vile” pseudonym (which he’d signed Nutter’s Ruin with) in favor of Jill de Ray. This choice goes a long way towards explaining his thinking and goals with the strip. Gilles de Rais was a 15th century French nobleman and ally of Joan of Arc, who, over the last eight years of his life killed upwards of eighty children by hanging them from ropes, masturbating on them, and slitting their throats. Towards the end of his murder spree he experimented in demonic summoning, offering a demon named Barron assorted body parts of children in a glass vessel, but was apparently unsatisfied with the result. After an ill-advised kidnapping of a cleric in 1440 Rais was investigated by the Bishop of Nantes, who concluded that he was, in fact, a horrific child murderer, and he was simultaneously hanged and burnt at the stake in October of that year. Clearly Moore was not planning on being child-friendly in the conventional sense of that word.

The obvious points of comparison for Maxwell the Magic Cat are not as helpful as they might appear. Gary Spencer Millidge’s Alan Moore: Storyteller claims that the strip was conceived in opposition to Jim Davis’s Garfield. This is, however, dubious. Garfield launched in June of 1978 in just forty-five US papers. Its ascent was rapid, but not so rapid that a jobbing comics artist in Northampton would be likely to be defining his work in overt opposition to it just fourteen months later. In many ways the early strips, which focus on the young boy Norman Nesbitt interacting with his talking cat, and which quickly introduce Mangler Mullins, a thuggish school bully, more resemble what Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes might have looked like if Watterson wasn’t one of the best cartoonists of his generation, but, of course, given that Watterson’s strip debuted in 1985, that line of influence seems even more chronologically unlikely. Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, suggested by Millidge alongside Garfield as an influence, is certainly more likely, though the similarity is more in the wry fatalism that the strips affect and less, as Millidge would have it, in the visuals. By and large, however, Moore’s strip seems to have been mainly of his own invention - it is not, after all, as though “humor strip with a funny animal” is the most blisteringly original concept in history - Maxwell the Magic Cat is, in fact, Moore’s third attempt at it, after Anon E. Mouse and St. Pancras Panda. Talking cats of various forms have a history in comics and animation going back to Otto Messmer’s 1919 creation of Felix the Cat, and Moore, in particular, would surely have had Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat firmly in mind when grumpily writing a talking cat. 

Figure 117: Korky the Cat, the most obvious
of Maxwell's antecedents, on the cover of
The Dandy #1080, from 1962
But the real obvious influences for Maxwell the Magic Cat come from the larger context of children’s comics that Moore was shoved into. The definitive set of British children’s comics were DC Thomson’s suite of comics: The Beano, The Beezer, The Dandy, and The Topper, of which The Beano and The Dandy were the oldest and best known. The Dandy dates to 1937, and The Beano to 1938, with the latter still in print today. When the Northants Post asked Moore for a children’s strip about a cat what both they and Moore surely had in mind was Korky the Cat, the cover strip for The Dandy. Korky is a relatively odd character. He’s mischievous, certainly, but is a relatively anodyne trickster. He might generate a spot of mischief, but only lightly, and he’s just as likely to be the victim of a prank as the perpetrator. Korky the Cat, in other words, is less a defined style of humor and more a framework in which various jokes can be made. In this regard, the difference between it and Maxwell the Magic Cat is largely the sorts of jokes that are made. Korky the Cat delights in lowbrow humor and punchlines of people (or cats) smashing into things or getting comically mangled. Occasionally it’s openly racist, as in a strip where a caricatured Chinese character appears to ask for a “mandolin” but in fact wants a mandarin orange. Maxwell the Magic Cat, on the other hand, is based around political humor and complex jokes about the structure of comics. More than anything this constitute’s Moore’s rebellion against the structure of children’s comics, and it’s part and parcel of a larger rebellion against The Beano and The Dandy

Figure 118: This young girl
has rickets in the same way
that many British children
had copies of The Beano
On the one hand, The Beano and The Dandy were influences on Moore - he described them in an interview as the first comics he ever read, and elsewhere clarified that these comics “were almost a staple part of working class existence. They were something like rickets. They were just something you had.” This obviously low opinion of them appears to be based on what Moore, even from an early age, recognized as a dangerous and unsettling dynamic of power and control. In Moore’s account, these comics “mainly featured working class children in working class environments, and generally being spanked by their parents and teacher, which was a peculiar fixation,” noting that “they presented a world that was almost indistinguishable from the one that I lived in.” Unlike Garfield, this presents a credible account of what Moore was bristling at in being asked to do a children’s comic. 

But the nature of this dynamic is more complex than Moore lets on in his interview quips - a fact that is surely not lost on Moore, given his later work playing with the genre of comics under discussion. While strips in The Beano often featured resolutions that involved mischievous children getting spanked, this has to be taken in the context of the behavior exhibited on the way to being spanked. The two most relevant strips here - and surely the two Moore was specifically referring to when talking about the comics’ spanking fixation - are The Bash Street Kids, which features the exploits of a rebellious group of schoolchildren who are frequently spanked by their schoolteacher, and Dennis the Menace, who is usually spanked by his father. 

Figure 119: Mayhem and corporal punishment in a 1962
installment of Dennis the Menace...
(It is worth clarifying for the sake of some readers that the Dennis the Menace strip in The Beano is a completely separate phenomenon from the Hank Ketcham-created American comic strip of the same name. Both feature the same basic premise - a young boy named Dennis and his troublemaking exploits - although the American Dennis is a well-meaning child who inadvertently causes trouble, whereas the British one, created by artist Davey Law and Beano editor Ian Chisholm, is more of an unreconstructed sociopath. The two characters are wholly unrelated, with Law/Chisholm and Ketcham hitting on the name independently. Chisholm was apparently inspired by a music hall song entitled “Dennis the Menace in Venice,” while Ketcham named the character after his own son. The strips debuted in the same week, with the American one starting on March 12th, 1951, and the British one five days later in the March 17th issue of The Beano.)

Figure 120: ...and in a 1965 installment of The Bash Street Kids, both from
The Beano
These are not unique strips by any means; their focus on naughty schoolchildren was shared by other Beano strips like Roger the Dodger and Minnie the Minx. The Dandy skewed towards a slightly different style; though it had strips like Winker Watson and The Smasher that were in the same style, but they aren’t the strips The Dandy is famous for, whereas Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids are in many ways the iconic two strips of The Beano. Reading them, then, what jumps out is not so much the corporal punishment that many strips end with as the giddily destructive antics that precede them. The Bash Street Kids, for instance, feature in misadventures like crashing a miniature train at an amusement park into a bee hive, or letting an elephant loose in the classroom. Dennis the Menace, meanwhile, appears in adventures with a similar tone (he has his own “releasing bees” story less than a month after The Bash Street Kids get one), but also in ones in which he’s more overtly malevolent, such as, for instance, one in which he systematically tortures his neighbor Walter on a birdwatching exhibition, finally unleashing a herd of wild turkeys to attack him and laughing as he’s attacked by them.

Figure 121: Maxwell and Norman find themselves cleaning up after the
exploits of Peregrine the Pleasant Panther (Alan Moore, as Jill de Ray, 1983)
It’s not hard to draw a link between this sort of destructive revelry and bits of Maxwell the Magic Cat - especially in the early days where it was more straightforwardly a kids comic. The difference is that where The Beano and The Dandy revel in displaying the destructive antics, showing the scenes of chaos, Moore’s approach is to leave the destruction off panel. Even in the strip’s latter days Moore would go back to the “rampant destruction for comedy purposes” trope, however. For instance, in his occasional appearances Peregrine the Pleasant Panther, Maxwell’s intensely violent cousin who, tends to do things like eat zookeepers.

The fifth panel reveal of Peregrine’s murderous rampage follows four oblique panels showing the dirt that Maxwell and Norman are throwing into the air as they dig the murdered zookeeper’s grave, allowing Moore to obliquely build to his humorous/murderous punchline. This has two advantages. First, it makes the joke into something more nuanced and subtle. Instead of just being a joke about how hilarious it is to see innocent bystanders violently ripped apart by wild animals, it becomes a joke about piecing together what’s actually happening in a story that at least initially seems to be about how Peregrine has gone home. Second, it prevents Alan Moore from having to spend time drawing something difficult like a panther mauling. This approach is typical of Maxwell the Magic Cat - even during the sections where Moore reworks it into being a political satire, the basic joke is typically the level of remove between what’s depicted in the strip and the cultural subject matter being joked about - for instance, a strip mocking the upcoming wedding of Prince Andrew is done in the form of Maxwell talking on the phone to (presumably) the Queen about his idea for “Andy and Fergy Airsickness Bags.” 

Figure 122: Liver Chunks in Oyster Sauce walks his last mile (Alan Moore,
as Jill de Ray, c. 1981)
But this merely accounts for the starting point that Moore rebelled against. Before long any resemblance between Maxwell the Magic Cat and a children’s comic was gone, and eventually the Northants Post conceded the point and moved the strip off the children’s page entirely. It’s not that the strip was ever child-unfriendly as such, though after a few months it becomes hard to imagine any child particularly enjoying the jokes about pairing red wine with fish or Robert Mitchum. By the time Moore got to tins of cat food sitting on death row and the tragic end of Liver Chunks in Oyster Sauce any pretense that the strip was aimed at children was firmly out the window. Instead Moore turned the strip into a general gag-a-week strip that wandered through any number of interests: politics, complex formal play with the structure of the comics medium, bleak existential jokes (a captured mouse asks Maxwell what happens after death, and Maxwell describes cat heaven. [continued]

Comments

Kit 3 years, 5 months ago

(for find-and-replace: Millidge)

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Philip Sandifer 3 years, 5 months ago

Ah yes. The one form of typo there's no recovery from: when you've just outright read a name wrong for years.

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Daibhid C 3 years, 5 months ago

As I understand it, the peculiar dynamics of the Beano and Dandy strips were the result of the pecular dynamics behind the scenes. The writers and artists were gleeful in their portrayal of troublemaking kids as instruments of (often righteous, if you squinted) chaos. The people in charge at DC Thomson, however, were stern Dundonian presbyterians (you just have to read the Sunday Post to see how conservative DC Thomson can be) who insisted that moral order must be reimposed by the Powers That Be by the end of the story. (An exception was Minnie the Minx, possibly because even stern Dundonian presbyterians weren't comfortable with showing a girl being hit by her father.)

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Iain Coleman 3 years, 5 months ago

I suddenly find myself wondering what part Viz comic is going to play in the War.

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C. 3 years, 5 months ago

the simultaneous cross-Atlantic births of "Dennis the Menace" is an amazing bit of coincidence, as if aided by some god of mischief.

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