Last War in Albion Book Two, Chapter Five: The Way Our Heads Thunder (Fearful Symmetry)


Moore’s disorientation and confusion in the wake of Watchmen is wholly understandable. Even reading Watchmen is, at times, enough to generate a sense of dazed exhaustion. And this is very much the point - an effect consciously generated by Moore’s use of the dense uniformity of the nine-panel grid. As Kieron Gillen puts it in Kieron Gillen Talks Watchmen, “if we’re talking about the many icons of Watchmen, [the nine-panel grid] is the invisible one. It underlies everything. We’re to watch these little boxes - hundreds of them - and make sense by combining them all into a larger piece of meaning. Watch,” he says, and snaps his fingers to cue his projectionist to advance his PowerPoint to a shot of Ozymandias watching his wall of television screens. Gillen talks about the comic as a “clockwork machine” in which “everything is predetermined. The forces that are put into motion mean this… the clock will carry on ticking, and if you read Watchmen enough you’ll know what the next tick is.” Gillen, here, is talking about the comic’s famously ambiguous ending, making a strong case that in fact there is only one possible “next step” for the book to take, and that the inevitable momentum of that step hangs impermeably over the entire work, which is in turn what Morrison speaks of when he talks about how the god of Watchmen is always shoving his cock in the reader’s face.

Figure 944: Watchmen #5 (Written by Alan Moore, Art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins)

Nowhere is this sense clearer, perhaps, than Watchmen #5, the famed “Fearful Symmetry” chapter. It has been noted by many that Moore’s focus and enthusiasm for a project often wanes over the course of it. If so, it is hard not to see “Fearful Symmetry” as a crucial turning point in the comic. Moore has spoken in interviews of how the third issue marked the point where he and Gibbons really mastered the technique of juxtaposition that would serve as one of the major engines of the book. Similarly, issue #4, “Watchmaker,” is a virtuosic and experimental piece playing with the nature of time, in which Moore, channeling Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, depicts the life of Dr. Manhattan as a simultaneously occurring eternity. And with “Fearful Symmetry” Moore reaches the formal zenith of the work, if not of his entire career. In a real sense it is impossible to imagine that Moore could devote the focus and attention that “Fearful Symmetry” required to any subsequent issue. In terms of Watchmen as a set of storytelling techniques - the grounds on which Moore, at least, has long been inclined to judge it - “Fearful Symmetry” marks the tale’s end. On top of that, its release in October of 1986 marks the last issue of Watchmen to come out prior to the explosion of the ratings controversy that would result in Moore’s acrimonious departure from DC. Moore would, of course, have been ahead in actually writing the book at this point, but the point stands - not long after “Fearful Symmetry” came the point where Moore began actively distancing himself from his DC superhero work. But perhaps most significantly, the truth is simply that, broadly speaking, Watchmen’s first half is much stronger than its second. It is not that “Fearful Symmetry” is the last good chapter - the next issue has several of the series’ most iconic moments, and the denouement is rightly legendary. But again, it marks a peak - the moment when Watchmen stops being concerned with proving what it can do and starts calmly advancing towards its end.

 Figure 945: Paralleled panels from pages 5 and 24 of "Fearful Symmetry." (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #5, 1986)

The main conceit of “Fearful Symmetry” is flagged in the title; the issue is symmetrically structured, with the back half of the issue mirroring the front on a panel-to-panel level so that, for instance, the panel revealing that Moloch has been shot in the head on page twenty-four corresponds, in a famously grim joke, to a panel on page five of Rorschach cracking an egg on the counter as Moloch looks on, facing the reader as he does in the later panel. Other correspondences exist in dialogue - a first-half panel where Bernard the newsvendor declares boasts that people like him “see every damned connection” is mirrored by one where he rues that “all we see is what’s on the surface.” And still others are oblique commentaries - a late panel in which the cops comment that “it’s a dead end. He can’t get out” matches an earlier one not just because they visually complement each other, but because the earlier one features Moloch meandering towards Rorschach’s trap for him, such that the cops’ dialogue serves as a wry description of Moloch’s situation.

The nature of this structure, of course, is that the issue seems textually incommensurable until the inflection point midway through the issue. And so for thirteen pages “Fearful Symmetry” seems like a perfectly straightforward installment of Watchmen. There are, perhaps, a few cryptically gnomic moments - a sequence where Rorschach uses the sauce at the Gunga Diner to draw a pattern on his placemat and then folds it to make a Rorschach blot, for instance, serves little purpose other than to provide a demonstration of symmetry within the issue. But for the most part it appears to be a return to the basically unconstrained approach of issues #1 and #3 from the high formalism of “Watchmaker.” And yet there is a sense of unease across the first thirteen pages - a clear feeling that the comic is winding its way through some labyrinth towards an unknown, perhaps unknowable revelation. This sense is generated perhaps most clearly by the start, a three page sequence that positively luxuriates in the slow tension of Rorschach’s cat and mouse game with Moloch, with two straight pages of Moloch just walking through his apartment looking for the intruder.

On the one hand this lengthy exercise in taut subtlety is directly paid off by the corresponding sequence at the end, in which Rorschach is taken by the police in a sequence that’s as action-packed and chaotic as the opening is quiet and suspenseful. But it’s also paid off in the overall sense of unease that hangs over the first half of the issue. The Rorschach-Moloch scene continues for three pages after Rorschach actually confronts Moloch, taking up six of the first fourteen pages. With the arguable exception of a two-page sequence in which the first overlays dialogue from Tales of the Black Freighter on a newsstand scene and the second is a straightforward Black Freighter sequence, no other scene until the issue’s four page centerpiece lasts more than one page. And these scenes generally end on strangely ambivalent notes, so that what accrues over the course of the issue’s first half is not so much a sense of suspense and momentum as simply questions. The effect is a sense of building tension in which there’s not a clear direction or object.

Figure 946: The center turning point of "Fearful Symmetry." (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #5, 1986)

And then, with the issue’s center two pages, it finally becomes clear. Pages fourteen and fifteen of “Fearful Symmetry” are, notably, the sole double-page spread in the entire twelve-issue series. On top of that, it is a spread that leans massively and heavily upon the idea of symmetry, with Ozymandias and his nameless assailant each occupying one of the two panels, the vase Ozymandias strikes him with split perfectly across them, and an ostentatious V in the background to further hammer home the fact that the spread is composed with particularly rigorous symmetry. Emphasizing this is the fact that the center two panels are very clearly two panels, with the usual gutter between them. (This effect is lost in the standard trade paperback edition, where the thickness of the binding makes it look like a standard double-page spread with a panel traversing the center, but is visible in the original issue and actively emphasized in the oversized Absolute edition.) Sort of actually including an explanatory essay (they opted instead to use the backmatter to talk about the fictional history of pirate comics) it is hard to imagine how Moore and Gibbons could signpost what they’re doing more explicitly.

More than just flagging the baroque structure of this particular issue, however, Moore and Gibbons tacitly flag large amounts of information about the series’ overall plot and structure. Put simply, Ozymandias is literally at the heart of it all, with the entire story hinging on him. More broadly, the fact that Ozymandias sits at the center of an issue that opens and closes with Rorschach is significant - the first time the series has clearly positioned them as opposites. The issue also lays a lot of deeper symbolic groundwork in this regard, including a sequence in Tales of the Black Freighter where the castaway is attacked by a shark, and another where Rorschach’s name is misheard as “raw shark,” a pair of moments that have significant implications given that the castaway is more broadly paralleled with Ozymandias within Watchmen.

It is fair to wonder, however, where these aggressively dense and formalist instincts came from. It’s not quite that they are unprecedented in Moore’s work - he had always been conscious of form and demanding of his reader’s attention, after all. Nor is it unclear what the specific influences that led him down the path are - he’s been open about the main one being Burroughs. But equally, there is nothing prior to Watchmen in his career that contains even close to the formal density of “Fearful Symmetry,” nor indeed of much else in Watchmen. Whereas there are numerous later works - From Hell, Big Numbers, Promethea, and Providence, for instance - that are in the same general range of density and ambition. It’s hardly surprising that Watchmen should mark a turning point in Moore’s style as well as in the history of Albion, but that still doesn’t explain: why it? Why this project as opposed to, say, Miracleman or Swamp Thing?

There are of course pragmatic and obvious answers. The self-contained and (supposedly) creator-owned setup of Watchmen made it prime territory for a self-consciously major work. There’s also the presence of Dave Gibbons, who Moore credits with the idea of using the nine panel grid, and whose clean style and propensity for detail allowed Moore to write the comic in a way he simply couldn’t have for Steve Bissette or John Totleben, little yet Chuck Austen. (Moore says as much in a 1988 interview: “I couldn’t have done this with Steve Bissette. Steve Bissette is a wonderful artist but there isn’t that degree of control and precision that Dave’s got.”) There are also the more ineffable but nevertheless obvious answers: this was simply the point in Moore’s career where he was ready to do something like Watchmen. One need only look at his steady development of confidence and versatility over the course of Swamp Thing as he learned to work in the longer style of the American single issue as opposed to the British anthologized short to see that the idea of him writing “Fearful Symmetry” in 1983 or 84 is preposterous.

Figure 947: Eroticized war in Watchmen. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #7, 1986)

But the issue of timing has wider implications for Watchmen. Moore has often made the joke that Watchmen was the result of a “bad mood” that he was in during the period. This is by and large understating things. In interviews from the time, Moore seems genuinely convinced that the world is going to end, certainly during his children’s lifetime, if not during his, and probably in some sort of nuclear explosion. In one interview, for instance, he notes that “in forty years the rain forests will be gone. If the rain forests are gone, we can't breathe. Simple as that. There's nothing that's more simple than that: no trees, no air. One of my children is eight. She said to me the other day, “I’ll only be forty-eight, won't I?' and I said. 'Yeah'. It's a pretty depressing thought. What a horrible thing to have to think about. I mean, we brought these children into the world and it might not have that much longer left. Nuclear reactors, for another thing. They can't be decommissioned because nobody knows how to do it. But they keep building them. We are going to have a Chernobyl every four or five years from now on. And more, because those reactors weren't built to last for twenty-five years in the first place; and they were built thirty years ago. One of those reactors is going to go up every few years.” Obviously this proved unduly pessimistic, although to be fair Leah’s still only thirty-eight. But nevertheless, it was the world Moore saw in 1986, and with no surprise. It was the peak of the Reagan/Thatcher years, disarmament talks were failing, Chernobyl happened. A wealth of immediate threats to human survival loomed, and the political situation looked actively disinclined to even acknowledge them; indeed, the US government seemed at times to almost eroticize the notion of nuclear war. Apocalypse felt just around the corner.

Figure 948: The June, 1947 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences, introduciing the Doomsday Clock.

It is impossible to fully understand the density of Watchmen absent this context. The point is not simply to be a comic that rewards reading and rereading at great length; the point is to be a comic with such density as to generate an inescapable gravity. Through its massively layered resonances and nonstop foreshadowing it conveys a constant sense of inevitability. This is, of course, flagged in one of the book’s most basic structural metaphors, the advancing clock on the back of every issue. This, in turn, alludes to the Doomsday Clock, a periodic feature of the Bulletin of the Atomic Sciences that declares the Bulletin’s assessment of the current danger of global disaster in the form of a clockface approaching midnight. The Doomsday Clock, however, is a variable thing, moved both forwards and backwards (though in 1986 it was at three minutes to midnight, the closest to midnight it had been since 1959, and second closest it has ever been; it returned there over concerns about climate change and nuclear rearmament having eventually fallen all the way to seventeen minutes in 1991). Moore’s use of it is both blunter and, in the end, more coherent - a clock that simply ticks inexorably towards midnight, the awful implications highlighted by the blood pouring downwards towards it over the course of the twelve back covers. The point is emphasized by the front covers and the panels containing the issue-ending quotes, which similarly depict a clock advancing further towards midnight with each issue. (And, of course, in the twelfth issue this all converges, with the front cover being a yellow clockface, mere seconds from midnight, with blood pouring down it, the first panel having advanced it, at last, to midnight proper, an image that also calls back to the first issue cover in yet another bit of fearful symmetry.)

And so what Gillen identifies as the ticking engine of Watchmen becomes a source of constant and inescapable dread in the comic. Ticks advance the clock. The clock advances towards annihilation. This is, of course, the way with time. Even if one strips away all the nuclear paranoia and symbolic eschatology, the underlying image of a clock ticking inexorably towards death remains one of only a handful in the whole of Ideaspace that can truly be described as universal. Everybody really is going to die. The structural mechanics of Watchmen - what Morrison identifies, as much to bury Moore as praise him, as its “splendorous crystal labyrinth” - exists to amplify the metaphor, rendering it claustrophobic in its vastness. It is arguably the single most intricate memento mori ever constructed.

This cannot have been easy for Moore. Indeed, in the face of it one suspects his “bad mood” quip wasn’t just about minimizing the cultural impact of his begrudged magnum opus, but about minimizing the personal impact of it, playing down the sheer intensity of writing it. Moore has described the experience of writing, talking about how “if I’m writing, as I often do, something which requires messing around with the structure or vocabulary of the English language, then I find myself entering some very unusual mental spaces indeed. Writing the Lucia Joyce chapter of Jerusalem, ‘Round the Bend’, I found myself in a kind of synaptic cascade-state that had a delirious, mind-expanding bliss to it. By contrast, writing the collapsed future-vernacular of Crossed +100, I found myself ending up slightly depressed just by the experience of having a limited language with a subsequently limited number of things that the characters could think, or feel, or conceive of.” What, then, must steeping himself in the unrelenting and overwhelming temporal march towards doomsday that is Watchmen for the better part of a year have felt like?

It is tempting to give a glib answer along the lines of “it must have felt like going mad.” This is mostly unfair, although it is impossible to completely forego the word when talking about someone who worships a puppet. But more than unfair, it is banal, falling into a rhetoric of equating artistic genius and mental illness that is at best tired and unenlightening and at worst crassly exploitative. That Watchmen succeeded is proof enough that Moore was not the only one for whom its claustrophobic eschatology appealed. It’s not paranoia if the world really is teetering on the brink of annihilation. Equally, it would be ridiculous to try to claim that Moore did not go further than most in exploring the apocalyptic tone of his times. It’s one thing to be drawn to a sense of stifling doom for the amount of time it takes to read Watchmen. It’s quite another to do so for the amount of time it takes to write one. That’s obsession; an obsession that goes beyond any easy explanation like Moore’s concern for his children. Loads of people had children in 1986 and were worried about their future in the face of nuclear weapons. Only one wrote Watchmen.

But the difference between “obsessive” and “crazy” is significant. The poison pen portrait can certainly be crafted. Moore’s propensity for feuds was accelerating rapidly, with him cutting ties with Alan Davis, DC, and IPC in fairly rapid succession. Add in some salacious gossip about his looming divorce and some selectively recounted stories of his increasing anxiety at the size of the crowds who came to see him at conventions and events and it’s easy to paint a portrait of a man so cracking under the strain of success that he was five years out from snake worship. Indeed, such portraits of Moore have become the norm in hindsight, particularly from within the American superhero comics industry that he was soon to shun. But it simply does not hold up. With the exception of his break with Alan Davis (a strong contender for the least sympathetic of his feuds, although notably one largely instigated by Davis), his feuds in this period are largely sound career moves that helped give Moore a career independent from any particular market. His looming divorce, though no doubt stressful for him (as was the attempt at a polyamorous marriage for a few years prior to it), has literally never been suggested by anyone familiar with the details to have been because he was “difficult” in any way. Indeed, the truth is that for all the widespread snark about Moore’s sanity, there has never been a point in his career in which he has seemed anything other than meticulous and aware of his actions. One need only look at Watchmen itself to see it. There exist numerous great works by people who can plausibly be described as “mad,” but the ornate precision of “Fearful Symmetry” is almost exactly unlike those works.

But if not madness, then what? The answer comes further in the quote about the experience of writing, when he says that “our entire neurological reality can be seen as being made from words at its most immediate level. When you descend into this level of our reality, the code of our reality if you like, then whether consciously or not; whether deliberately or not, you are working magic.” Moore wasn’t consciously or deliberately working magic yet in 1986, but it’s virtually inconceivable in hindsight that the mind-wrenching experience of writing Watchmen was not seminal in his doing so. (If nothing else, the two works most directly responsible for Moore’s eventual devotion to Glycon, Big Numbers and From Hell, are both fundamentally efforts to apply the techniques of Watchmen to new situations with new artists.) That was always the promise of Burroughs - that the continual, deliberate arrangement, rearrangement, and derangement of symbols would produce magical effects. In this regard, Moore fell into the classic trap for neophyte magicians: he got exactly what he asked for.

Of course he was neither the first nor last magus to wall himself into a labyrinth of his own construction. That’s not what’s remarkable about Watchmen and never has been. Rather, it is the paranoid, haunted quality of the labyrinth. Much of this came from the decision to use superheroes as the frame for his atomic eschatology. On the one hand this is an obvious link, as Grant Morrison observes at length in Supergods. On the other, however, it’s a slightly oblique one, based on something other than mere causality. Superheroes and atomic weapons emerged on opposite sides of World War II, their cultural legacies developing in parallel. There exist superheroes who are directly built out of the iconography of nuclear physics - most relevantly, Marvelman and Captain Atom - but the superhero is not “about” nuclear weapons any more than the atom bomb is “about” secret identities. And yet their parallel evolution creates its own symmetries. The superhero genre’s heyday coincides neatly with the most utopian visions of the atomic age, while the decline of the genre into something based more on faded and slightly shabby nostalgia similarly coincided with the turn towards a more nightmarish vision in the 1980s.

Figure 949:Comics by the newsstand in Watchmen. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #5, 1986)

And so Moore’s construction of a detailed superhero history structured so as to lead inexorably towards a cataclysmic mid-80s end is strangely compelling. The idea of the cataclysmic ending of a superhero narrative had already been quasi-introduced in the form of Crisis on Infinite Earths, even if the actual ending part is ultimately eschewed. But more than that, the idea of the apocalyptic suits superheroes, a fact Moore had already heavily riffed on in his work on Captain Britain, Marvelman, and Superman, which is to say basically all of his pre-Watchmen superhero output. It is unmistakably what manichean stories of good and evil titans battling want to resolve into some sort of final battle, even if their serialization ultimately means this can never pay off, as with Crisis on Infinite Earths. But Moore’s idea of a superhero universe in decline was also a good fit for the times, with American comics having, by 1986, largely completed their transition from the mainstream availability of the newsstands (represented as a central part of Watchmen’s nostalgia) to the niche of the direct market. The industry had, simply put, seen better days, which was why the adult readership Moore successfully brought in with comics like Watchmen (and, to be fair, that people like Frank Miller brought in as well) mattered so much to the industry. And so Watchmen, by balancing a sense of decline and a sense of the apocalyptic, was perfectly poised for its time.

Figure 950: Ozymandias rejoices at saving the world. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #12, 1987)

But the most chilling part of Moore’s labyrinth is not the sense of doom that hangs over it. Rather, it is his exploration of what, at first glance, would seem to be an innocuous, even optimistic line of thought. A core element of superhero stories, after all, is that superheroes save people. So how might that apply to the nuclear eschaton looming over Watchmen? To pinch a framing from Grant Morrison, if the bomb is an idea, what better idea could superheroes possibly offer to counter them? But far from offering any sort of hopeful, utopian vision of superheroes averting atomic crisis (that hardly being an original notion, after all), Moore, thinking about this question, came up with a genuinely chilling answer. He did not take the obvious route that he would eventually explore in Miracleman of simply having the superheroes destroy all the nuclear stockpiles by force. Instead he comes up with a far more cracked and strange idea - Ozymandias’s mad scheme to slaughter the population of New York.

It is, famously, an absolutely bonkers plot involving faking an alien invasion with a giant squid monster designed by a committee
of artists and scientists that would be teleported to New York with a
 malfunctioning teleporter that
 would kill it on arrival, releasing a massive psychic shockwave that would kill everyone. But beneath the basic ridiculousness is a dark and ominous vision in the form of Ozymandias’s animating obsession. There is something fundamentally unsettling about the image of a man who can intuit the pulse of the world deciding to take action to change it. Especially in the context of Watchmen, where Ozymandias’s Burroughs-inspired television watching is naturally allied with the way the world works. And Ozymandias’s plan, ridiculous as it is, hinges on a grim structural joke. The world of Watchmen consists largely of superheroes - Moloch is the only corresponding supervillain to appear, and the discussions of “costumed criminals” in the Under the Hood excerpts make it clear that these are fairly generic criminals who dress up in the same way that Hooded Justice or Captain Metropolis did. There’s no villainous equivalent to the sort of high-tech adventuring of Nite Owl, little yet anyone who displays actual or even quasi-superhuman powers like Doctor Manhattan or Ozymandias. Except, of course, for Ozymandias himself, whose plan is a dead ringer for the sorts of elaborate world-spanning schemes of super-villains like Doctor Doom, Lex Luthor, or Ra’s al Ghul might come up with. And so at the work’s climax - in a scene where Ozymandias both aligns himself with and surpasses the “Republic serial villains” of pulp adventures - what had initially seemed like a lack within the narrative is revealed to have been central to it all along.

Figure 951: Ozymandias's television viewing is explicitly presented as using the same nine-panel grid as the comic itself. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, from Watchmen #11, 1987)

What’s really interesting about this twist, however, is that even Moore found himself unsettled by its implications. It is not, obviously, a route Moore was keen to see the world go in. It’s worth noting, in particular, that Moore was working on the conclusion to V for Vendetta around the same time, in which he actively disclaimed the idea that violence was an acceptable tactic in political revolution. And yet Moore, in interviews, repeatedly stops short of actually disclaiming Veidt’s actions, noting in one interview that “at one level Veidt is the hero of Watchmen. You can’t take that away from him.” And Moore took active steps to make sure Ozymandias remained sympathetic, in many ways specifically to keep Rorschach from becoming the moral center of the book. To this end, and cribbing slightly from his efforts in V for Vendetta to maintain a level of balance between the fascists and V, he gave Rorschach the ostentatious and pathologically right-wing politics, while making Ozymandias a more straightforward Kennedy-esque liberal respected by the left “for his moral and political pronouncements, which tend to reflect the pacifistic spiritual doctrines that have made him what he is today,” as he put it in the initial pitch. This is a bit of a feint - Moore’s politics are after all anarchist, not liberal - but the point remains that Moore is unable to quite reject Ozymandias’s vision, to the point of making ambivalence over it the note upon which the whole of Watchmen ends.

There is a sense - especially when taken in conjunction with the end of Miracleman - of Moore genuinely wrestling over the question of whether it wouldn’t just be better if someone came down from the sky and sorted the world out. It’s not that Moore ever quite endorses this - his underlying skepticism ultimately wins out in both Miracleman and Watchmen. But it’s an oddly close-fought thing given his larger sensibilities. And it’s impossible not to notice the parallels to Moore’s career and the way in which he recoiled from the success of Watchmen, burning his bridges with DC and retreating to the grimy margins of self-publishing at a moment when the mainstream would have let him do almost anything he wanted. At the moment in Moore’s career when he had the most straightforward amount of power he ever would, given the choice most analogous to the one he was picking at in his major works at the time, he balked.

This, of course, left him with a massive vulnerability. If he was going to be ambivalent about changing the world, after all, that just meant someone else could come along and do it. Someone who, while his skills at comics writing were not yet up to Moore’s (they can’t be; nobody’s can), was more adept and familiar with magic, having been dabbling in it consciously since his adolescence. But moreover, someone who, unlike Moore, craved fame, having tried and failed to hack it as a rock star before falling back on comics. Who, in other words, was drawn to the idea of standing astride the world and bending it to his will in almost precisely the way that Moore was repulsed and terrified by it. And Moore’s halfway measure of locating this monstrous possibility within his labyrinth and then walking away made it all too easy for someone to follow his steps and then take one more. 

But Albion is not a young realm, and none of this is new. Not the apocalyptic visions, not the dense labyrinth of symbols, and certainly not the bitter clash between two rivals. All of it, for instance, was tangibly present within the work of William Blake, perhaps the greatest prophet and magus in the history of the realm. Indeed, if the War can possibly be said to be “about” one thing (it can’t be; nothing can), it is about the psychic legacy of Blake, a figure who embodies both Moore’s instinct to push towards the margins and cast deep roots into the conceptual terrain and Morrison’s zeal to reshape the world to his will. In a real sense, Blake defines Albion - at times even literally, with Albion being his name for primordial and undivided man.

Figure 952: Scofield in chains, burning. (By William Blake, from Jerusalem Copy E, 1821)

Perhaps the biggest difference between Blake and the combatants in Albion’s last War is that Blake did not have a creative rival against whom he struggled. Instead he worked in relative isolation, remaining on the fringes of his own culture for his own life. His most important works sold in quantities that would not trouble even the lowest reaches of the Diamond sales charts, and he was famously dismissed as an “unfortunate lunatic" in the one contemporary review his work got. The closest thing to an adversary Blake had was John Scholfield, a soldier he quarreled with after finding him drunk in his garden, and who subsequently accused him of sedition. The incident would count as one of the few times Blake’s vision of political revolution actually employed violence as a tactic, were it not for the fact that Scholfield’s accusations were little more than the bullying of a drunken brute. Blake was ultimately found not guilty, the incident was deeply traumatic for him, a culmination of a lifelong fear of political persecution, and Blake subsequently vented his fury at Scholfield by working him into his prophecies as an antagonistic and contemptuous figure. But while Blake’s depiction in Jerusalem of Scofield (or Skofield, Skofeld, Schofield, and Scofeld, as he variously deliberately misspelled it) burning and in heavy iron chains is a legendary swipe to rival the phrase “herpes-like persistence,” Scholfield was a grudge and a vendetta. Not a rival.

Figure 953: Urizen with one of his books of brass. (By William Blake, from The Book of Urizen Copy G, written 1794, printed 1818)

And yet for all of this, his work is full of rivalries and oppositions. His expansive and bespoke mythology brims with figures who are divided against themselves, splitting in two (or, in the later revisions, four) and warring against each other. Perhaps the most basic of these struggles comes between Los and Urizen, a fight first detailed in The Book of Urizen and revised/expanded repeatedly over the rest of Blake’s life. The basic form of the conflict is simple. Urizen is a figure of cold and brutal reason, dividing and measuring space and inscribing books of absolute and universal law in brass in pursuit of “a solid without fluctuation.” Los, on the other hand, is the Eternal Prophet, a blacksmith who is endlessly creating and generating. It is Los (from whose side Urizen is rent in The Book of Urizen) who is most regularly associated with Blake, and with good reason; Blake, after all, fancied himself a prophet, and was self-evidently a creative force. Indeed, for a man who famously proclaimed that “I will not reason and compare: my business is to create” it seems self-evident that Los would be the sympathetic figure and Urizen the antagonist. And yet Peter Ackroyd argues persuasively in his biography of Blake that Urizen is just as much an analogue of his creator as Los, pointing out that Urizen’s declaration that “I in books formd of metals / Have written the secrets of wisdom” could just as well describe Blake’s own engraving process. And for all that Blake was a creative figure, he was also one of ruthless, obsessive precision, tinkering and revising his work at considerable length. In this light it is perhaps most significant to note simply that The Book of Urizen is not some heroic tale about Los’s triumph over the oppressive Urizen; instead Los’s attempts to craft a body for Urizen lead to further disaster, with Los being sucked into the mire of single vision and materialism with Urizen instead of freeing him.

In this, Blake offers a remarkable level of insight into the tumultuous self that exists beyond the placid exterior of face and identity. It is not that the insight that people are divided against themselves is terribly original; rather it is the scope of Blake’s vision that stuns. Blake elevates the internal conflict between his instinct towards fussy precision and his creative zeal to the organizing mythology of the universe, simultaneously parodying Paradise Lost and Genesis in a dark and ominous vision of a world hopelessly and terminally constrained by Newtonian fixity. This, of course, is the central characteristic of the War itself, and indeed of magick - the way it traverses from the most intimately personal realms to the most sprawlingly cosmological. But within that scope is, of course, the material world, hence Blake’s terror in the face of Scholfield’s slanders. Indeed, in later printings of The Book of Urizen Blake excluded an important plate seemingly because of a line in which Urizen imposes “One King, one God, one Law” upon the world, the mention of the King ultimately proving too fundamentally unsettling for Blake. And this is hardly unreasonable of him - the depiction of Urizen as a suffocating tyranny is clearly one that implicates the monarchy, and that’s intended to do so.


Figure 954: Los recoils in horror from his work as Urizen's body assembles itself. (By William Blake, from The Book of Urizen Copy G, written 1794, printed 1818)

As Blake’s dualism suggests, his instinctive mode of resistance to Urizen, both within himself and without, was creation. Specifically, in Blake’s case, the creation of art. As The Book of Urizen itself makes clear by depicting Los’s failure, the point is not that this resistance will “stop” or “defeat” Urizen, or indeed any other figure one wishes to inveigh against. Indeed, the point is often simply a matter of need or compulsion. Much like Watchmen is simply not a thing one writes if one is capable of avoiding doing so, the ornately realized illuminated prophecies that Blake creates - especially the late career ones such as the fifty page Milton a Poem and the hundred page Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion - are not works that people create incidentally. In many ways, this is far more true for Blake than for Moore. Moore, after all, may not have been capable of stopping himself from writing Watchmen, but equally, he wouldn’t have written it were it not for the existence of a major comics company that wanted him to do a prestige project. It was a lucrative gig and, for all Moore’s eventual misgivings about it, a savvily chosen project. Blake’s work, on the other hand, was ostentatiously non-commercial. The illuminated prophecies used printing techniques of his own devising, not fitting into any existing market or practice. After an early flirtation with the relatively sellable notion of a children’s book of poetry in the form of Songs of Innocence, his illuminated work moved quickly and decisively towards the obscure and difficult. His insistence that each copy must be unique and of his hand severely limited sales. In short, Blake’s illuminated prophecies eschewed essentially every form of commercial sense known to man.

This is not to say that Blake lacked all business sense. He supplemented his work as a prophet with more conventional commercial illustration, thus generally managing to make ends meet, although it was at times a bitterly narrow thing. But Blake often resented this work, and the degree to which he was constantly haunted by paranoia about his friends and associates made things harder for him. As a result, he could turn on his employers, as he did with his patron at the start of the 19th century, William Hayley, who gave him lodging in a cottage at Felpham and a series of portrait commissions that kept him busy and well paid. He found the work deadening, however, eventually coming to describe Hayley as “an enemy of my spiritual life” and moving back to London, where he quickly started work on Milton and Jerusalem. It was this work, and other such things inspired directly by his visions that animated his passions, and when one arrived he would leap into action, calling for Catherine (or whoever else was nearby) to “reach me my things.” (Catherine, for her part, noted at one point, “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise.”)

Figure 955: Blake's The Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819-20)

And yet it is worth asking exactly what these visions contained. Sometimes this is straightforward - Blake’s famed miniature The Ghost of a Flea, for instance, is a straightforward depiction of an apparition of William Gull that manifested during an 1819 seance. Other times, however, it’s substantially less clear. For instance, his 1790 The Marriage of Heaven and Hell begins its main section with the declaration “As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity.” On the one hand, this sounds like the sort of thing Blake would do. On the other, however, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is an elaborate pastiche of the “visions of hell” offered by writers like Milton and Dante, and particularly of Emmanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, which casually drops claims like “I have often talked with angels on this subject,” strongly suggesting that Blake’s descriptions of visiting hell are less statements of personal revelation than a mere literary device.

But for all of this, it is difficult to entirely reject the idea of personal revelation within The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The book begins with a plate entitled “The Argument,” which describes the furious wanderings of the prophetic Rintrah, a figure who appears throughout Blake’s later mythology as one of Los and Enitharmon’s children, perhaps most significantly in Milton, one of the most self-evidently personal of Blake’s visionary works. Claiming that that Blake had a fully or even mostly realized version of the figure that would appear in his 1811 poem in 1790 would require a certain degree of critical bravado (although Rintrah also appears in 1794’s Europe a Prophecy, while it’s been suggested that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was actually finished as late as 1793, which would imply a more straightforward connection), but even without resorting to non-traditional critical devices such as the fractal and acausal nature of Eternity it seems fair to suggest that Blake’s subsequent reuse of the figure implies that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is not quite as straightforward as describing it as a Swedenborg parody would suggest. And more broadly, there are clearly personal moments in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, most notably when Blake offers a detailed description of learning his illuminated printing technique in “a printing-house in hell,” and, at the end of the book, when he writes of his friendship with an  “angel, who has now become a devil” and of how “we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense, which the world shall have if they behave well. I have also The Bible of Hell - which the world shall have whether they will or no,” a claim that is traditionally interpreted as referring to The Book of Urizen.

Certainly large swaths of The Book of Urizen are anticipated by The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which explicitly associates Reason, Good, and Heaven before denouncing the idea that “Energy, called Evil, is alone from the body, and that Reason, called Good, is alone from the soul” and instead proclaiming that “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses” and that “Energy is the only life and is from the body, and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy,” a line that alludes to the double pun of Urizen’s name, which parses both as “your reason” and “horizon.” Although Energy, being grounded in material existence and with a clear connotation of sexuality (a recurrently difficult subject for Blake, whose occasional advocacy of free love led to difficulties, not least of which was Catherine’s horrified response to his suggestion that they might attempt a polyamorous marriage) , does not equate straightforwardly to Los’s frenzied creativity, its position as an opposite pole to Reason’s authority resonates clearly.

This, of course, puts Blake in the relatively awkward position of defending Hell against Heaven and Evil against Good, a rhetorical feat that goes a long way towards explaining why, along with Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the most accessible and widely read of Blake’s works. Indeed, Blake’s defense is animated and passionate. Blake takes as his starting point Milton’s depiction of Satan, who is infamously the most interesting character in Paradise Lost by miles despite nominally being the villain. Blake suggests, in one of the work’s most quoted lines, that this is because Milton was “a true poet, and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” But it is the first, less often included words of this quote that are really key; it is not merely that Milton secretly agreed with his Satan, but that any true poet must do so. Hell, in other words, is a source of provocation and inspiration.

Figure 956: The Proverbs of Hell. (By William Blake, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Copy I, 1790, Printed 1827)

This is exemplified in the book’s famed “Proverbs of Hell,” a lengthy section of pleasantly heretical aphorisms, including oft-quoted ones like “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” and “the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” as well as less-often bromides like “drive your cart and your plough over the bones of the dead,” “he whose face gives no light shall never become a star,” “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” “the bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship,” “you never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough,” “improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius,” and the sublime “everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.”

It is clear, reading The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that Blake’s heart is in the defense of Hell. This is perhaps no surprise; Blake’s instinctive love for the rebellious and insurrectionary is a constant feature of his work. And, of course, it is here that the satirical nature of the work becomes most important. But for all the passion of his defense,  it’s not quite right to say that Blake sides with Hell over Heaven. The point, after all, is their marriage - a sense of balance between them. It’s just that a world where Heaven dominates, however, balance requires him to back the losing side. But the point is not so much the matter of which is superior as it is the basic fact of their opposition. As Blake puts it, “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”

Blake is offering a sort of prototypical version of the Hegelian/Marxist dialectic here, which suggests that oppositions and their eventual resolution through synthesis (or marriage, if you will) is the driving engine of history. But this is all too often a tired and unenlightening rhetoric, and it is another iteration of the claim within The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that is perhaps the most interesting in terms of the War: “Opposition is true friendship.” It is an odd way to look at the various rivalries that have exploded, from time to time, into psychic warfare for the heart of Albion. And yet there is much to it. What would Crowley have been without the Golden Dawn to rebel against, or Spare without Crowley to serve as his foil? More than that, though, is it not the fact that the Golden Dawn unraveled in the face of Crowley’s public disclosures what distinguishes it from the many forgotten and abandoned occult orders, or that Spare showed that Crowley’s baroque systems could be short-circuited what allowed them a useful afterlife? Any magus knows that it is impossible to work a spell without clear intent, and nothing clarifies intent like opposition.

Figure 957: The frontispiece to The Book of Ahania, showing Urizen's murder of Ahania. (By William Blake, 1795)

But as mentioned, by this standard Blake had no true friends; only those who, like Catherine, respected and pitied him. He wrote in mindful opposition to writers like Swedenborg and Milton, but both were dead by the time he addressed them, their replies to him limited to his own dreams and visions. He existed singularly within his time; and perhaps within any other. Given this, it is perhaps no surprise that he turned his vision inward, making a rival of himself to serve in place of the one the world would and could not provide. Within himself, however, Blake found far more than mere Contraries, a notion Blake was quick to move beyond, if indeed the simplistic alchemic model of unifying opposites was ever anything but an element of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’s satire. Certainly by the time of The Book of Urizen he had come to be more skeptical of the idea, hence the opposition of Los and Urizen being not a means by which Urizen is redeemed but a crucial step in creation’s fall into base materialism and the ensnarement of the world in the horrid net of religion. And much of Blake’s prophetic work in the period displays the same themes. From 1793-95 Blake produced two three-book myth cycles - the Continental Prophecies (America a Prophecy, Europe a Prophecy, and The Song of Los, which consists of two poems, “Africa” and “Asia,” that bookend the first two prophecies) and The Book of Urizen along with its two revisions/sequels The Book of Ahania and The Book of Los, across which he developed the early fundamentals of his mythology. And these are shot through with failed and frustrated oppositions: Orc’s faltering revolution in America, Enitharmon’s corrupted ascension in Europe, and both the failed revolt of Urizen’s son Fuzon and the destruction of his Emanation Ahania in The Book of Ahania.

Blake’s sense of doom and futility in this period is impossible to escape. He fashioned himself a prophet, yes, but his prophecies augured nothing good. Urizen’s tyranny seems inescapable, with every avenue of resistance doomed to sputter out or turn against itself. Even the grim eschatology of an unrelenting march towards doomsday would seem in some ways more optimistic than the utter despair of The Book of Urizen, which ends with a description of how “Beneath the Net of Urizen; / Perswasion was in vain; / For the ears of the inhabitants, / Were wither’d, & deafen’d, & cold; / And their eyes could not discern, / Their brethren of other cities.” The end, after all, is at least a form of escape and change. Blake, however, saw no escape or hope within his visions, writing in one of his notebooks in 1793 that “I say I shant live five years And if I live one it will be a Wonder.”

But four years later, his prediction far from true (he would in fact live twenty more on top of that), he commenced the second phase of his prophetic works, beginning composition of poem far larger than anything he’d composed up to that point (the longest of which, The Book of Urizen, was only twenty-eight plates long, many of them splash pages; the poem as a whole is just over 500 lines long. However his new work, alternately called Vala and The Four Zoas, eventually mushroomed to over four thousand lines across 139 separate pages, although many of these are scraps and fragments, as he never completed the typesetting and engraving of the poem.

Figure 958: Blake diagrams his fourfold vision. (From Milton a Poem Copy C, 1811)

The main purpose of this new work was to map out the full extent of his mythology, but it also served to advance this mythology beyond the stifling confines of mere dualism. As the title suggests, Blake moved to a system based around quartets, which he alluded to in a letter to Thomas Butts written in 1802, squarely in the middle of the poem’s composition, from which his famed injunction against “single vision and Newtons sleep” originates. This warning, however, comes only after he proclaims that “a fourfold vision is given to me / Tis fourfold in my supreme delight / And three fold in soft Beulahs night / And twofold Always.” Beulah - Blake’s term for the realm of dreams - is a Hebrew word meaning “married,” and the location of threefold vision within it seems a clear allusion to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell - one expanded on in Milton a Poem when he proclaims that “Contrarieties are equally True” within Beulah. And so the choice of four is not so much Blake investing in quartets specifically as it is him moving entirely beyond the weary processes of dialectics and their resolutions; a placeholder, in other words, for an altogether more limitless possibility.

But this effort too ran aground; Blake never got The Four Zoas to work to his satisfaction, eventually abandoning the poem in 1807 to focus on Milton and Jerusalem. That is not to say that he abandoned the overall mythic structure he’d worked out; indeed, Milton contains a diagram of the system, in which the opposition of Urizen and Urthona (the unfallen form of Los) is positioned across a North-South axis, with a second East-West axis introducing Tharmas (physical embodiment) and Luvah (emotion, though in a decidedly fiery sense; Orc is retconned as Luvah’s fallen form just as Los is Urthona’s) added. (And just as Los and Urizen have their Emanations in Enitharmon and Ahania, Tharmas has Enion, representing sexuality, and Luvah Vala, the eroticization of war.) Blake even ended up incorporating some of passages of The Four Zoas into Jerusalem. But neither of these works offered the sort of broad map of the entire mythology that The Four Zoas attempted. And so Blake’s system remained eternally incomplete, its basic tenets never formulated even as Blake explored its depths again and again.

Figure 959: A page of The Four Zoas highlighting the unfiniished state of the manuscript. (By William Blake, 1807)

But this cannot be taken as a failure on Blake’s part. Quite the contrary, it is arguably the payoff to his entire approach. It is not, after all, that The Four Zoas does not exist. It may well be that there are lost Blake works that would be of considerable import in understanding his vision. It’s certainly the case that there are multiple copies of existing works, including The Book of Urizen, America a Prophecy, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, which exist only in private collections with no widely available reproductions. But The Four Zoas is not among them; its text is widely collected, the pages upon which Blake composed it mostly available online from the British Library, and forthcoming from the Blake Archive. What it lacks, however, is a final form. It is existent, but unfinished, and thus fundamentally uncertain.

In other words, if The Four Zoas represents a failure of Blake’s vision - an inability to create a map of his own mythology that satisfied his dense and formalist instincts - it represents a triumph of Blake’s method. In this regard, it is not merely a turning point in his style, but the culmination of it: a creation that absolutely resists single vision; that cannot simply be one thing. And in doing so - in failing at this key moment - he figures out a way to defeat Urizen. The answer is not some definitive statement - some defined alternative that exists in the material world. Nor is it some implied but unspoken next step - a simple splitting of the difference where the absolutes of black and white become gray. Nor is it merely nihilistic refusal - a negation without substance. It is simply the observation that nothing ever ends. Nothing is fixed and defined and certain. There’s no answer or revelation that explains everything. There’s no last or definitive word. There is always more.

That the shuddering maelstrom this implies should feel apocalyptic is hardly a surprise. The list of magicians who lacked a flair for the eschatological is a short one, after all. “The most brutal part,” said Blake in a 2014 seance, “was existing. Someone described it once as being cast out of Eternity into one stinking moment, and that’s exactly right. Alternatives and possibilities aren’t escape.” And this is essential to understanding Blake’s vision. Its primary difference from the more typical Christian theology of his time is not, in fact, his creation of a wealth of other gods that he unsubtly hides behind the word “Zoa,” but the fact that instead of imagining redemption as some ultimate restoration of God’s order - a rigorously symmetrical cosmos of “as above, so below” - he imagines it as a process of endless, ceaseless resistance - a desperate, clawing, and doomed effort to get out. Out from the stifling influences of his predecessors, out from the capricious authority of the government, and, in the end, out of the awful reality of time’s ponderous ticking forward.

Figure 960: Urizen, solitary and preparing. (By William Blake, from The Book of Urizen Copy G, written 1794, printed 1818)

But this was not a technique he invented by failing at The Four Zoas. Indeed, the approach defines The Book of Urizen, which, even as its plot is one in which rebellion against Urizen is continually frustrated, develops a narrative technique that fundamentally undermines Urizen’s seeming dominion, resisting his authority even as it proclaims it to be inescapable. Even he most seemingly basic aspect of Urizen’s fixed nature - his name - is in practice unstable. The first chapter of The Book of Urizen, for instance, asks “what Demon / Hath form’d this abominable void / This soul-shudd’ring vacuum?” before answering the question: “Some said / ‘It is Urizen’,” presenting the term not as some sort of True Name, but with a mealy-mouthed deflection more typically associated with undergraduates who can’t be bothered to look up a reference. Then, in the sixth stanza of the chapter, as the perspective switches from a horrified Eternity looking on at the self-closd, all-repelling Demon to the entity itself, Blake writes, “His cold horrors silent, dark Urizen / Prepar’d,” using the term, previously established as one possible and in no way universally accepted name offered by external observers, as the term for Urizen when he’s being described on his own terms. And then the second chapter essentially reboots the narrative, starting over with a description of the state of creation, referring to him first as “the Immortal” and then finally, in the second stanza, saying “Urizen, so nam’d / That solitary one in Immensity,” thus establishing yet a third relationship between the being and his name.

And this isn’t even a change over the larger course of the work: all three of these acts of naming take place on the first page of the poem proper. The changes over the course of the poem as a whole are even more striking. At the poem’s start, for instance, Urizen arises within a void, his defining aspect being his utter singularity. Then, in the second chapter, he describes how “First I fought with the fire; consum’d / Inwards, into a deep world within: / A void immense, wild dark & deep,” a description that suggests that his separation came through self-observation - a turn within. But in the third chapter, shortly after Los is introduced, Blake proclaims that “Urizen was rent from his side,” a declaration that is, charitably, a heavy revision of the first two accounts of Urizen’s fall. And so Urizen, for all that he seeks “a solid without fluctuation” is left by Blake in eternal flux.

Figure 961: Plate 16 of The Book of Urizen, which variously depicts Los (left) and Urizen (right). (By William Blake, written 1794. Left: Copy G, printed 1818. Right: Copy A, printed 1794)

But there is a more foundational aspect of Blake’s unfixed style - one upon which these textual incommensurabilities build. Blake’s illuminated works exist in individually printed and hand-colored copies, no two of which are identical. In the case of The Book of Urizen, for instance, eight copies are known to exist, six of which are widely available. And the differences among these copies are significant; as mentioned, the fourth plate (from which the “solid without fluctuation” line originates) only exists in three of the copies. No two copies place the full-plate illustrations in the same order or locations throughout the text. Plates 8 and 10 each contain the beginning of a section labeled Chapter IV, each of which begins with a stanza numbered 1; on top of that, the order of the two plates is reversed in several copies. Several illustrations change dramatically across copies as well; Plate 6 depicts three figures hung upside-down, bound in serpents, and cast into fire, save for in Copy D, where there is but a single figure. Plate 16, meanwhile, depicts Los in two of the three copies in which it is included, while in a third the figure is given a white beard indicating that it is Urizen. And these are just the variations with the biggest interpretive implications: every page of every copy has its own idiosyncratic decisions of coloring. [continued]


Figure 962: One of the few versions of "The Tyger" in which the beast actually seems to burn bright in a forest of the night. (By William Blake, from Songs of Innocence and Experience Copy T, written 1794, printed 1818)

“The Tyger” is a fitting thing to look at here, not least because it shares some of the particular horror of The Book of Urizen with its deadly terrors, dread grasp, and, perhaps most obviously, its fearful symmetry, a phrase that seems tailor made for the geometric precision of Urizen. But more than that, “The Tyger” illustrates another means by which Blake destabilizes his texts, namely the gap that opens up between image and text. For all the anthology-friendly bombast of the poem, after all, it is impossible to escape the fact that in the overwhelming majority of the copies, the image is not that of a monstrously incandescent Tyger, but of an ordinary, at times even downright goofy looking tiger. This is not universally true - in particular, Copies T and F adopt a strikingly dark color palate, such that the flashes of yellow and orange really do seem to burn brightly out of some limitlessly dark woods. But for the most part Blake uses the image to undercut the poem, re-emphasizing the children’s primer Innocence of the book’s dualism instead of allowing Experience to define the tone of the page. Variations on this are a common technique in Blake, whose images often bear an oblique and difficult to surmise relation to the text, not so much illustrating as complicating it.

And yet for all of this, it is the frenzied, obsessive energy of the works that shines through. It’s not just the desperate, constant desire for escape - the way in which Blake seems to be flinging himself at the doors of perception, seeking not merely to cleanse them but to knock them off their hinges entirely. It is the way in which to read them is to be drawn into the act - to be forced to join Blake in his ceaseless, furious quest to see more and deeper. One does not keep up with Blake in doing so; he is always just ahead, always on to something else by the time you’ve caught up to what he was doing. It is easy to be left in a state of dazed exhaustion when reading Blake; The process is frustrating, and moreover eternally frustrated, whether by fundamental unknowability of his vision, the limitations of the existent texts, or simply by the inevitable inadequacies of the reader. But this does not matter; one does not read Blake because the task will succeed. One reads his work for the same reason that he created it: because we have to. Because we are compelled.

“Asmodeus is that light throbbing of temple and pulse warning that approaching thunder heads our way. The wreckage of love, our regard lies white and broken. Promoses of lace that rend us in shadows after lust evaporates. Mind that until now thought of continuity, our torch, then saw it flicker. The recapture, consciousness let live moments longer which, in truth, only offers turmoil. His name burning, his voice below things. All suffering nourishes that presence. A feast impending, our ruin to come. It becomes symmetry.” - Alan Moore, “The Demon Regent Asmodeus”

{By most standards, “In Pictopia” is best approached as one of the footnoted curios of Alan Moore’s career, of a type with “Not! The World Cup,” “Captain Airstrip One,” or his 1984 short story “Sawdust Memories,” with which it shares at least some affinity. It’s a mere thirteen page story, scripted by Moore as eight but expanded by primary artist Don Simpson, and has been collected only sporadically, reprinted only in a 1990 best-of-decade collection from Fantagraphics and the first edition of The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, both out of print. Several online editions exist, at least one with Moore’s blessing, but it remains, by any reasonable standard, one of Moore’s many obscurities. And yet despite unquestionably being obscure, it is a work with a surprisingly robust reputation. A 1999 best-of-century list in The Comics Journal, for instance, put it at 92nd place, immediately behind Watchmen. (The other War-relevant placings are Mr. Punch at 90th, V for Vendetta at 83rd, and From Hell at 41st; the top three were Pogo, Peanuts, and Krazy Kat.) It was one of many strange decisions in the list, to be sure, but it speaks volumes about the regard in which “In Pictopia” is held by its admirers.

Figure 963: "In Pictopia"'s improbable entry on The Comics Journal's best-of-century list.

That The Comics Journal should produce such an idiosyncratic list is not surprising, the inclusion of “In Pictopia” ultimately included. From its 1976 start the magazine, and more broadly its publisher, Fantagraphics Books, has occupied an odd place in American comics culture. Both magazine and company started when Gary Groth and Michael Catron, two DC-area comics fans in the outermost orbits of the industry (Catron was the assistant to DC editor Mike Gold, while Groth had run a few conventions and been offered but declined a low-level editorial position at Marvel) bought out an ad-supported fanzine called The Nostalgia Journal, quickly renaming it The Comics Journal after a few issues.

Figure 964: The first Groth-edited issue of The Comics Journal, still under its previous title.

Groth, who took the reins on The Comics Journal, proved an adept editor. Notably, he started as he meant to go on, using his first editorial, in The Nostalgia Journal #27, cover-dated July of 1976, to lay into Alan Light, who had been the publisher of Groth’s previous publication, the Fantastic Fanzine, and who continued to publish The Buyer’s Guide for Comics Fandom, which Groth openly admitted was the primary competition for The Nostalgia Journal, to the point of proclaiming “Watch out, TBG” on the cover of the issue. Inside the pages, Groth’s attack was sweeping, referring to Light as “the dark side of fandom” and saying that “over these last six years [Light] has told me as much about the American character as Nixon and the whole Watergate dungheep ever could.” But the touch of outright genius was that this attack, which took up five full pages of Groth’s thirty-five page first issue, was accompanied by a page-and-a-half interview with Alan Light and Murray Bishoff, which Groth has the breathtaking cheek to blithely describe in his editorial with a simple “we will try to present a fan or pro interview every issue; this issue we present a sportive conversation with Alan Light and Murray Bishoff and a short, but interesting interview with the comics’ consummate storyteller, Jack Kirby.” Notably, this takes place the paragraph before Groth launches into his five pages of invective against Light.

Figure 965: The first Fantagraphics issue of Love and Rockets, with a cover by Jamie Hernandez. (1982)

For all Groth’s propensity for a scrap, however, The Comics Journal took a relatively highbrow perspective on the industry. It covered the goings-on of Marvel and DC, but with a practiced disdain, as evidenced by their 1986-87 coverage of DC’s ratings system controversy, which was on the one hand by far the most in-depth going on, to the point where the incident can fairly be described as having played out in the pages of The Comics Journal, and on the other inclined towards a “plague on all their houses” perspective that viewed everyone involved as being childish and overdramatic. In contrast to American superheroes, they championed a literary tradition of comics that incorporated not just the heritage of American newspaper strips implied by their 1999 best-of list but things like the Underground Comix tradition of R. Crumb. This represented something of a synergy-minded editorial position, as Fantagraphics at large quickly established itself as the vanguard of the emerging alternative comics scene, most obviously by becoming the publisher of Gilbert and Jamie Hernandez’s Love and Rockets (from which David J Haskins’s post-Bauhaus band would draw its name).

The result was a strange hybrid of a magazine, simultaneously serving as a tastemaker for self-professedly erudite fans interested in the artistic capabilities of the medium and as an acerbic chronicler both loved and hated by mainstream superhero fandom. And both of these tendencies were on full display in The Comics Journal #53, their 1980 Winter Special, which featured an interview with Harlan Ellison, one of the most acclaimed writers of the American wing of the 1960s New Wave of Science Fiction, and a favorite of those inclined to argue for the genre’s literary respectability. Ellison’s propensity for outspoken bluntness exceeds that even of Alan Moore, and he is in rare form in the interview, already holding court about his opinions on comics by the time Groth’s got the tape recorder running so that the interview begins in mid-thought, with Ellison grousing that DC legend Dennis O’Neil “has got the fatal flaw that I think is shared by many of these fellows.” It continues in much the same vein, with Ellison sneering at comics figures both major and minor with varying degrees of affection (O’Neill is actually, along with Len Wein, one of Ellisson’s two favorite comics writers) for thirty-one pages.

Figure 966: "Hairy," in this context, is vulgar slang for female genitalia.

This would be par for the course for both Ellison and The Comics Journal were it not for a Ellison’s discourse upon the work of Mike Fleisher, who he proclaims to be “crazy as a bed bug,” a “derange-o,” and “certifiable,” a remark Ellison notes “is a libelous thing to say.” In fact this last claim would be tested when Fleisher sued Ellison and Groth for libel, asking for two million dollars in damages. Admittedly, it’s not hard to see why Fleisher was aggrieved, not least because Ellison wrongly asserts that Publisher’s Weekly had proclaimed Fleisher’s novel Chasing Hairy to be “the product of a sick mind.”  Equally, Ellison is entirely fair to describe the novel as “about a couple of guys who like to beat up women and make them go down on them. In the end they pick up some woman - a hippie or whatever the fuck she is - and set fire to her and she loves it so much she gives them a blow job.” So while Ellison certainly misquotes Publisher’s Weekly, he’s not exactly wrong in characterizing the book.

The resultant lawsuit hung over The Comics Journal for several years, fracturing the relationship between Groth and Ellison in the process. The eventual trial, at the end of 1986, was a vicious affair on all sides. Fleisher’s lawyers described The Comics Journal as an “elitist, muckracking” publication, not entirely unreasonably, while Ellison took pains to point out the number of times he applied the epithet “bugfuck” to himself and people he admired (indeed, Ellison’s transition into Fleisher was applying the “crazy as a bed bug” descriptor to Steve Gerber’s legendary Howard the Duck run) and Groth’s lawyer observed that Fleisher’s income had actually increased since the Ellison interview, undermining Fleisher’s claim of damages, while further testimony was provided by Jim Shooter and Dean Mullaney. By the end matters descended into farce, with arguments over whether Ellison was, as his attorney tried to present him, a respected literary writer and significant figure in the American Civil Rights movement or, as Fleisher’s attorney presented it, just another hack turning out scripts for publications like Heavy Metal and Creepy, a debate that in many ways embodied the editorial contradictions at the heart of The Comics Journal itself.

Figure 967: The Frank Miller-drawn cover of Anything Goes #2, which included "In Pictopia"

In the end Groth and Ellison prevailed, but the suit was an expensive nightmare for all parties, and in order to pay its legal bills Fantagraphics published a six-issue anthology entitled Anything Goes featuring a marquee collection of contributors including Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Stan Sakai, Frank Miller, Marv Wolfman, Neal Adams, Dave Sim, Art Spiegelman, the Hernandez Brothers, George Pérez, Kevin Eastman, R Crumb, and Eddie Campbell, along with Moore and Simpson’s “In Pictopia.” That Moore should be drawn to the cause is hardly surprising - it was after all exactly the sort of freedom of speech issue that reliably animated Moore, and he was hardly a fan of Fleisher, who he presented in 1983, perhaps with the pending libel suit against The Comics Journal in mind, as an example of a comics writer who was “dishing up evil, sordid little adult fantasies as suitable for the growing minds of healthy boys and girls” due to an issue of Brave and the Bold featuring Black Canary stripped to her underwear and in bondage while the villain leered over her.

On top of that, the editorial position of The Comics Journal was one that suited Moore. His affection for superheroes was, perhaps, more genuine and less opportunistic than The Comics Journal, which often seemed to cover them out of grudging obligation to the bottom line. But nevertheless the sort of audience The Comics Journal catered to - people interested in superheroes but also in a value judgment that treated them as lower quality, less literary efforts - were exactly the sort of people Moore’s work was most likely to appeal to, whether it was in the “smart superheroes” vein of things like Watchmen and Miracleman or the decidedly-not-superheroes vein of The Bojeffries Saga, which he and Parkhouse penned an installment of (“Batfishing in Suburbia”) in the April 1986 issue of Fantagraphics’ Dalgoda. And The Comics Journal had been an early booster of Moore’s American work, proclaiming issue #93 the “Swamp Thing issue, and anchoring it with a fifty page run of interviews with Bissette, Totleben, and Moore. Indeed, this was Moore’s first major US interview, the issue being dated September 1984, just a year after Moore started on Swamp Thing. (He makes reference at the end to preparing a pitch for Challengers of the Unknown, which would have had him working with Dave Gibbons and looking at how Superman’s arrival affected the Cold War, a detail notable mostly because it means that Watchmen wasn’t even in progress yet when he did the interview.)

Figure 968: The Peacock Skirt, by Aubrey Beardsley (1893)

Indeed, if anything what’s surprising is how little Moore actually worked with Fantagraphics, given that he visited Gary Groth on his first American visit, the same month that The Comics Journal #93 was published. Some of this is due to happenstance - one of his many failed attempts to get a book called Dodgem Logic off the ground, for instance, was to be an anthology series published by Fantagraphics that he described at the 1985 San Diego Comic-Con as starting with a black comedy about comics to be called “Convention Tension,” and moving to a second issue about the Aestheticist artist Aubrey Beardsley. Moore noted his gratitude “that Fantagraphics Books are being innovative or stupid enough to do a totally uncommercial package,” but for whatever reason the project never came together, and Moore’s association with Fantagraphics ended up being restricted to a couple of short pieces, of which “In Pictopia” is by some margin the most significant.

Figure 969: Left: First two panels of "In Pictopia." Right: Last two panels of "In Pictopia," showing Moore's characteristic elipticism. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Don Simpson and Eric Vincent, in Anything Goes #2, 1986)

In many ways, the story of “In Pictopia” is one of the strip constantly overperforming. Moore’s original commitment to Groth was two four-page strips, but he found the idea of “In Pictopia” too big to fit into such a small container, and ended up doing one eight-page script, although given that Simpson then expanded the script to thirteen pages, in terms of Moore’s short work it’s perhaps easiest to frame it as a forty-panel script, compared to his Future Shocks, which tended to have panel counts in the high twenties. And thinking of “In Pictopia” as a super-sized Future Shock is helpful, as Moore is using techniques he honed at IPC. The overall structure is typically elliptical - both the first and last panels feature captions over blackness, while the second and penultimate panels feature POV shots of the main character’s hands. And the overall story structure is what Moore describes as a “list” story, in which the plot mostly consists of taking a big concept and running through its most interesting implications in rapid succession - a style used for such 2000 AD classics as “They Sweep the Spaceways,” “Sunburn,” and “The Big Clock!”

Figure 970: The comic strip skyline of Pictopia. (In Anything Goes #2, 1986)

But between Moore’s maturity as a storyteller and the space afforded by the increased panel count, “In Pictopia” goes to stranger and more unsettling places. Its conceit is the city of Pictopia, depicted on the title page as a collection of skyscrapers seemingly made up of comic panels, in which various comic strip characters live. The broad premise has antecedents - most obviously Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? - but as usual Moore’s angle on the material is unique. Wolf’s novel proposes that comic strips are actually photographs of the “toons,” while in Moore’s story, although the comic strips clearly exist (one character is introduced in terms of hers, and tenements are named after comic syndicates), there’s no clear sense of how the strips relate to characters’ day-to-day lives. Instead the sense is more that Pictopia is an early version of Ideaspace - a conceptual realm in which comic strip characters live, but that is ultimately created as a consequence of the real-world comics industry, its geography shaped and reshaped by industry trends - most notably when the Funnytown neighborhood (occupied by funny animals) is bulldozed because “this city’s changing, and some things just don’t fit the continuity no more.”

Figure 971: Funnytown! (Written by Alan Moore, art by Don SImpson and Mike Kazaleh, from "In Pictopia" in Anything Goes #2, 1986)

As this suggests, there’s an elegaic tone to “In Pictopia” in which Moore mourns the traditions and styles of comics that have waned and been neglected, and specifically that have been neglected in favor of superheroes, the only sorts of comics characters who can “afford to live in color,” as the narration puts it. His description of Funnytown is characteristic: “Funnytown! Old radios that played nothing but thirties jazz! No furniture or cars later than 1950! No urban violence that isn’t in some way amusing. I’m here five minutes, I start smiling, whistling! I love it. Everywere, people strolled, perfectly syncopated from sight gag to sight gag. These people, they were so lively, so talented. They made just walking around seem like poetry. Every moment expressed so much. But there wasn’t any work for them. There wasn’t any money. They were stuck here.” At one point, in the story’s most haunting sequence, a crowd of superheroes (specifically the “new people” that Flexible Flynn, a pastiche of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, warns are moving into the city) tortures a dog from Funnytown, crowding around his prone body and kicking him repeatedly. “Mutilate a funny, and seconds later it’s healed completely. Often, they’ll let you disfigure them for a buck,” the narrator explains. “I felt sick and walked on quickly.”

Figure 972: Lee Falk's Mandrake the Magician.

The narrator is Nocturno the Necromancer, based on Mandrake the Magician created by Lee Falk in 1934. Mandrake is not the only comic strip character Moore riffs on - the strip opens with a parody of Little Nemo, and also features a version of Blondie, Red, who’s reduced to turning tricks while Deadwood is in rehab, seen bringing South-Sea Sullivan, a Popeye stand-in, back to her apartment. (In another of the story’s grimmer gags, Nocturno decides to pay Red a visit, only to discover her getting roughed up by some Judge Dredd lookalikes. “I am not a brave man,” he narrates. “I backed out, stammering, terrified, apologizing, trying not to meet Red’s terrorized, pleading eyes. She knew. She knew why I’d come to visit her.”) But Mandrake is a particularly savvy choice for a lead character. On the one hand he’s historically important - a strong argument exists that he’s the first comic book superhero. On the other, he’s largely an obscurity, overshadowed even within Falks’s own career by his later creation of the Phantom, and by 1986 more or less published by rote, propping up the bottom of the shrinking comics pages in fewer and fewer newspapers each year. He is, in other words, the perfect character to frame a story about the decline of a particular type of comic with - an important but never great figure in comics history who had demonstrably fallen on hard times.

Figure 973: Joe Orlando's page of Tales of the Black Freighter. (Written by Alan Moore, from Watchmen #5, 1986)

This sense of a fallen, faded fictional universe is, of course, shared with Watchmen, which “In Pictopia” coincided with, coming out in December 1986, the same month as Watchmen #7. The script appears to date somewhat earlier - Don Simpson’s recollections of what else he was working on at the time would have him drawing it in early 1986 - but is still firmly in the same period Moore was working on Watchmen. Perhaps the most obvious connection is to Tales of the Black Freighter, the pirate comic-within-a-comic that recurs throughout Watchmen, which Moore conceived of in the course of pondering what the comics industry might have done in a world where costumed adventurers, being real, held little interest for readers. And it is perhaps telling that, of the various background bits of the Watchmen setting, few were developed with the detail of Tales of the Black Freighter, which went as far as commissioning a page of art from veteran artist (and editor of the original Wein/Wrightson Swamp Thing stories) Joe Orlando to include as an illustration to the backmatter of Watchmen #5. But where Tales of the Black Freighter imagined a history of American comics that had not been dominated by the superhero, “In Pictopia” offered the far bleaker approach of depicting the slowly dying legacies of the many historical alternatives to a superhero-based comics industry that existed.

 Figure 974: Top: Flexible Flynn, based on Jack Cole's Plastic Man. Bottom: Flynn after his replacement. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Don Simpson and Eric Vincent, from "In Pictopia" in Anything Goes #2, 1986)

But in many ways it is not even the way in which it reflects on the past that makes “In Pictopia” so interesting, but rather the way in which it is ahead of its time. Its concept, after all, is not merely that superheroes are the only bits of Pictopia not to be in decline, but that the superheroes themselves are being replaced by the “new people,” such as the ones who recreationally beat a funny animal. Indeed, towards the end of the story Flexible Flynn himself is replaced with a new version - a snarling, muscle-bound brute with a studded leather collar. Given the line about how “some things just don’t fit the continuity,” one imagines Moore was referencing Crisis on Infinite Earths the way it was used to replace characters like the Curt Swan-drawn version of Superman that Moore sent off with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow with the more self-importantly serious take of John Byrne’s The Man of Steel, a title that implicitly and grimly answers Moore’s question.

Whatever Moore had in mind with this plot detail, however, it comes off as ridiculously prescient. While the trend towards darker and more “realistic” superheroes was obviously well underway in 1986, it really wasn’t until the early 90s that both Marvel and DC began aggressively revamping characters into darker alternate versions with storylines like The Death of Superman, Knightfall, and the Clone Saga. The War - particularly Watchmen - obviously has considerable responsibility for this trend, but it unquestionably lies in the future with regards to “In Pictopia.” Indeed, when Moore wrote the strip he hadn’t even begun falling out with DC. So it’s remarkable to see him write something that serves as a blistering critique of comics that wouldn’t come out for a half-decade.

Crucial to the blow’s effectiveness, however, is Don Simpson’s art, which takes the three-panel appearance of Flynn’s replacement and gives it an incredibly vivid design that looks as though it was drawn by a different artist than the earlier appearance of the original Flynn. It would be an exaggeration to say that Simpson anticipated the aesthetics of early-90s superhero design perfectly - New Flynn is still firmly a creature of the 80s. But nevertheless, it’s a design that wouldn’t have been entirely out of place in the early 90s. And moreover, the parts of the design that are the most striking are generally the ones that go beyond beyond the description Moore gives via Nocturno: “the costume was similar, but with slight modifications. The visor looked more sinister, somehow. And his face, his build they were more… well, more realistic.”

Figure 975: Don Simpson satirizes Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. (From Megaton Man #6, 1986)

Indeed, Don Simpson is generally the secret weapon and unheralded hero of “In Pictopia” - the decisive factor that elevates it from an above-average Alan Moore short to a dark horse inclusion on a best-of-century list. Simpson was the writer and artist of Megaton Man, a broad superhero parody published by Kitchen Sink Press. Simpson and Moore had only met once, at the 1985 San Diego ComicCon, where Moore surprised the neophyte creator by being familiar with his work, then delighted him with an enthusiastic reading of Simpson’s photocopies of the forthcoming Megaton Man #6, which contained an elaborate parody of Swamp Thing, even going so far as to suggest to Simpson that Dr. Manhattan was partially based on Megaton Man. This was, to say the least, a generous suggestion on Moore’s part, but it’s easy to see why he was so enthused - Megaton Man is a wickedly funny and well-executed satire.

But however good Megaton Man is, working with Moore Simpson genuinely outdid himself. The decision to stretch Moore’s script by five pages - more than half the length of the original - wasn’t just an impressively confident move given that Simpson described the script as “like an inspired gourmet recipe (with personal asides from Julia Child),” it was a supremely generous act for an artist working for free on a benefit book who had a day job he should really be getting back to. (Kitchen Sink publisher Denis Kitchen notes that he was “not thrilled that my rival publisher Fantagraphics was getting a foot int he door” with one of his most successful creators.) But it was unquestionably the right call, allowing Simpson to default to what he describes as “a Cinemascope ‘widescreen’ panel” that put three page-width panels per page, which both served to, as Simpson puts it, “impose a steady rhythm” on the comic and to give room for the sorts of elaborate background visuals necessary to properly realize Pictopia as a setting.

Figure 976: Eric Vincent's coloring on "In Pictopia" gave old newspaper characters a washed out and faded look, including sepia-toned speech balloons, in contrast to the cleaner colors of characters like the Judge Dredd parody. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Don Simpson, from "In Pictopia" in Anything Goes #2, 1986)

In pursuit of these visuals (and, more prosaically, looking to save time), Simpson tapped his friends Pete Poplaski and Mike Kazaleh to help with the art, with Poplaski filling in crowd scenes of old newspaper characters and Kazaleh (who’d previously worked in animation) handling the animals of Funnytown. With Eric Vincent rounding out the art team by providing a nuanced color job that, for instance, added brown tints to the old newspaper characters “to suggest the decomposing stock of newsprint” while reverting to a “garish, almost primary color palette” when drawing characters like New Flynn, even going so far as to tint speech balloons differently based on the character’s status, the art served to thoroughly sell the idea of Pictopia as a place where a wide variety characters abut each other.

Simpson also works hard to sell one of the story’s most fundamental visual aspects, the repeated motif of grid lines, whether in the form of the segmented windows of Pictopia’s skyscrapers or the chain-link perimeter fence that characters regularly gaze through. These lines evoke the structure of the comics panel, emphasizing the way in which the characters are trapped and confined, their world slowly eroding away in the face of modernity - a cramped, paranoid feel that’s miles from the zany excess of Megaton Man, but equally distinct from the pristine dread of Dave Gibbons’s art on Watchmen.

None of this quite makes “In Pictopia” a major work, and the truth is that The Comics Journal’s inclusion of it on their century best-of list when they infamously excluded Dave Sim’s Cerebus is a self-serving perversity that’s nearly impossible to justify on any aesthetic grounds. But that bit of memorable hubris does not erase the fact that “In Pictopia” is one of the great minor works of Moore’s career - a moving and revealing counterpoint to the themes of Watchmen that speaks volumes about where his career was actually going at the time.}


LovecraftInBrooklyn 7 months, 2 weeks ago

This is everything. I’ve been trying to integrate Watchmen with my own symbol systems, favourite bands, world saving plans. Last year/this year, two pieces of media brought back Blake: the videogame Devil May Cry 5, the only game with a dedicated ‘read William Blake’ button, and the barely released A24 horror film Saint Maud, which you need to see, by any means necessary. And I was compared to him...Everyone has his favourite band rhymes him with Yeats...more apocalypses

I leant out Watchmen before 9/11. I got it out after. I didn’t want it back

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LovecraftInBrooklyn 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I remember Pictopia vividly...the funny animal being tortured reminds me of The Coyote Gospel from Animal Man.
Alt country band Lucero also did a song about Love & Rockets, the Ballad of Maggie Chascurillo. Dwight Yoakam’s speech pattern was compared to Dr Manhattan’s in an interview.
The Comics Journal should be publishing you. This is genius

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CJM123 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I really liked the main essay El. It's been great discovering this stuff years later. I need to reread it all to find all the links between the panels and the essay, and maybe see if there's some symmetry I'm missing.

For the minor essay, In Pictopia made for a fun online read, even if it felt a little glib in the current situation to use urban oppression to mourn comics. Is Dave Sim really worth reading? All I know is his nasty personal politics.

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CK 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I suspect she meant her praise of Sim entirely in the context of 1986, when "Cerebus" was hitting a creative peak and genuinely brilliant, and Sim's nasty misogyny hadn't yet reared its head and curdled the book into a repellent anti-feminist manifesto.

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El Sandifer 7 months, 2 weeks ago

Honestly I wouldn't even go that far. But it's unmistakably a technical achievement of the sort The Comics Journal would be reasonably expected to enjoy, and excluding it while including an extremely obscure Moore work that was published by their parent company is eyebrow raising.

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CK 7 months, 2 weeks ago

I mean, I haven't read "Cerebus" since I was in my early 20s - the first half was finishing up while I was still in college - so it's entirely possible that if I ever re-read the 80s stuff (highly unlikely) I might not be as impressed with it now as I was then. :)

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Daru 6 months, 2 weeks ago

"And Moore’s halfway measure of locating this monstrous possibility within his labyrinth and then walking away made it all too easy for someone to follow his steps and then take one more.

But Albion is not a young realm, and none of this is new. Not the apocalyptic visions, not the dense labyrinth of symbols, and certainly not the bitter clash between two rivals."

It has been amazing, El, to read this chapter again - truly wonderful writing. The transition from the main text into the section of Blake and his cosmology is sublime (as is the mention of Blake appearing in a 2014 seance!) You just inspired me to dig out my complete Blake edition, where I had just stopped at "The Four Zoas" - and I realised too that I have some illuminated Blake editions that I had passed onto me from an occultist friend who passed away a year ago, along with a copy of "Why Mrs Blake Cried" that I haven't read yet.

Basically Blake is one of my biggest influences, and the sections where he appears in the War are catnip for me!

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