Rippling, Dribbling Blobs of Pure Holographic Meta-Material (The Last War in Albion Part 24: Alan Moore's Star Wars Comics)

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This is the sixth of seven parts of Chapter Four of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work onDoctor Who and Star Wars from 1980-81. An ebook omnibus of all seven parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords for $2.99. The ebook contains a coupon code you can use to get my recent book A Golden Thread: An Unofficial Critical History of Wonder Woman for $3 off on Smashwords (the code's at the end of the introduction). It's a deal so good you make a penny off of it. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help support it. I should perhaps also note that all of these books are currently on sale as part of Eruditorum Press's annual post-holiday sale.

The stories discussed in this installment and the next are currently in print as part of Dark Horse's Star Wars Omnibus: Wild Space Volume 1.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: Despite his distaste for Star Wars as a franchise, Alan Moore, after departing Doctor Who Monthly in solidarity with Steve Moore, settled in to write several stories for Marvel UK's variously titled magazine of Star Wars comics.

"Perhaps someone else would call these rippling, dribbling blobs of pure holographic meta-material angels or extraterrestrials." - Grant Morrison, Supergods, 2011

But the cleverness of “Rust Never Sleeps” is not primarily in the fact that it is a by-the-books horror story. Rather, it is in the fact that it is not a horror story at all, even though its basic plot structure is straightforwardly lifted from one. The structure is really just a platform for the real point, which is an exploration of the basic idea of a robot god. Tellingly, C-3PO drops out of the narrative at the end. Once the Stormtroopers arrive at the end of the third page, his role is superfluous. He begs Brother Fivelines not to confront them and bemoans how Fivelines didn’t listen to him while he’s vaporized, but that’s his final line. The remaining page and a half of the story consist only of the droid god’s rising up to defeat the Stormtroopers. C-3PO doesn’t even get a full appearance after it - he appears cut-off on the side of one panel on the last page, but the story has nothing to do with him. Instead it focuses on an extended narration ruminating on the nature of the god of the droids. 


Figure 176: The wrath of a meek and subservient god. (Alan Moore
and Alan Davis, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Monthly #155,
1982)
This narration is interesting in a large part because it gives the sense of recreating Moore’s own process in hatching the story, starting from the premise of the droids having a god, and then speculating that “surely it would be as meek and subservient as the droids themselves. It would not be a god of wrath. It would not be a god of vengeance. Would it?” And then from there it imagines what sort of vengeance such a god might take if the premises the story started with - that “droids have no hearts. No bones to bend beneath the load that is too heavy. No souls to rail against the indignity that is unbearable” - are finally discarded. This is the real conceptual framework of the story - the game of what-if.

It is tempting to describe this approach as formulaic. Moore’s short stories ultimately all work the same way; they have some high concept central twist such that a character misreads their circumstances, leading to a denouement in which the real nature of things is revealed to them, often in such a way as to impressively kill the villains. And yet even across Moore’s four Star Wars five-pagers there’s an impressive variety. “Tilotny Throws a Shape” is ultimately humorous. “Rust Never Sleeps” and “Dark Lord’s Conscience” are less thoroughly funny, but are nevertheless both primarily setup for a wry punchline. “Blind Fury,” on the other hand, is a grim-faced horror story. Moore is not recycling the same story, but using a fairly tight-knit plot structure to explore a variety of ideas. When the idea is a horror story, as in “Blind Fury,” the structure ends up with the feel of a Robert E. Howard Conan story. When the idea is more abstract and philosophical, as in “Rust Never Sleeps,” the structure produces a different mood. In the end, it is not so much that Moore is writing formulaic stories as that Moore is, at this page in his career, writing five-pagers, and a five page comic story simply doesn’t leave much room for variety. Twist endings are the only approach that’s realistically available. 

Figure 177: Or, perhaps, not. (Alan Moore and John Stokes,
Star Wars Monthly #159, 1982)
Moore, however, was clearly never entirely happy with Star Wars. The limits of Moore’s patience with the franchise become clear by the time of his final story, “Blind Fury.” It traces Luke Skywalker’s encounter with the last survivor of the Order of the Terrible Glare, which apparently fought a war against the Jedi several thousand years ago. Where Moore’s other stories move around their twist endings with relative grace, “Blind Fury” blunders about, depending on Luke repeatedly trying to remember why he’s heard of the planet he’s investigating, and only doing so when it comes time for someone to explain the plot. The central twist - that the last surviving member of the Order has been saved in a computer and doesn’t realize that the war is thousands of years old and the Jedi have died out - is a science fiction staple, resulting in a fairly dull resolution. The closing narration as Luke stares into the burning rubble of the tower in which he found the computer seems to sum up the degree to which Moore is at a loss, reading, “There is a lesson here, somewhere. Perhaps if he stares into the flames for long enough it will be revealed to him. Perhaps…”

Figure 178: Tilotny, throwing a shape. (Alan Moore and John Stokes,
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Monthly #154, 1982)
Other times, however, Moore’s obvious frustration with the Star Wars title led him to push into a strange sort of creativity. This is most notable in his second Star Wars strip, “Tilotny Throws a Shape.” After a one-page opening in which Princess Leia finds herself chased by Stormtroopers on a seemingly abandoned dusty planet, Moore’s caption rather archly notes that “in a universe as old as this one, the death of a princess is scarcely new. It has happened before. What follows hasn’t.” This is something of an understatement. What follows is set of four entities whose nature is never really explained, but who apparently exist outside of space and time. Or, at least, usually do, as at the start of the story one of them, Tilotny, declares that she has “thrown a shape,” boasting, “I’ve invented form! I’ve invented mass! Oh, cleverest Tilotny! Everything has edges! And… and things happen one after another! Tilotny has invented time!” Tilotny’s shape - a humanoid figure - is quickly mimicked by her compatriots as Horliss-Horliss (who can, as Tilotny observes, metastyle, but who has never thrown a shape) manifests as an abstract shape, followed by Cold Danda (inventor of anti-concepts) manifesting as an orb with a face in the style of the Green Man, and finally Splendid Ap (who is, Tilotny later notes, stupid, and who misunderstands time and thus accidentally exists in many places at once) who takes the shape of a pyramid (colored a memorable bright pink by Pamela Rambo for Dark Horse’s 1996 reprint). 

Figure 179: Splendid Ap, having trouble with time. (Alan Moore and
John Stokes, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back Monthly #154, 1982,
coloring by Pamela Rambo for Star Wars: Devilworlds, 1996)
The four proceed to cavort until their revels are intruded upon by Leia and her pursuing Stormtroopers, the latter of which cause a bit of an uproar as Cold Danda accuses Tilotny of repeating a shape. She quickly begins altering the Stormtroopers, at which point Horliss-Horliss joins in, killing Princess Leia by turning her heart into a diamond. Tilotny then merges the storm troopers into a single being, at which point they get bored of shapes and abandon the planet, leaving Splendid Ap to clean up the mess and bring everyone back to life. It is, in other words, a story in which Star Wars is almost, if not entirely irrelevant. Much of it amounts to cosmic beings of seemingly limitless power bickering childishly over a creative priority dispute; indeed, the whole story could be read as the War in a microcosm, with Horliss-Horliss, who comes second to throwing shapes and whose more abstract shape Tilotny poo-poohs, saying, “it isn’t even a good shape! It does not have as much shapeness” (to which Horliss-Horliss sniffs that Tilotny doesn’t “perceive the subtlety of my form”) standing in for Grant Morrison. Superficially, of course, this is refuted by the actual chronology of events, as the bulk of the War post-dates this strip, but one ought recall that Horliss-Horliss and Tilotny are both beings who normally exist outside the flow of chronologic time, experimenting with it only for the brief duration of “Tilotny Throws a Shape,” and thus this problem is in no way a meaningful obstacle. 

Moore’s rejection of the style of Star Wars must also be understood as an embrace of starkly different forms of science fiction narrative. Where Star Wars embraced the ability of science fiction to do rolicking adventure yarns, “Tilotny Throws a Shape” harkens to an older model of science fiction in which the point of the genre was to play with interesting intellectual concepts. The approach of “Tilotny Throws a Shape” amounts to crashing Star Wars into the sort of science fiction written by Italo Calvino, whose short story collections Cosmicomics and t zero are mostly narrated by Qfwfq, an entity as old as the universe who casually reincarnates in a variety of forms throughout time and who reminisces about various events in cosmic history, talking about how, as a child, “I was acquainted with all the hydrogen atoms, one by one, and when a new atom cropped up, I noticed it right away,” and how he played games with the atoms. “Since space was curved,” Qfwfq explains, “we sent the atoms rolling along its curve, like so many marbles, and the kid whose atom went furthest won the game.” The story goes on to describe the formation of galaxies as a consequence of Qfwfq’s games, describing how he took a bunch of hydrogen atoms “and flung them into space. At first they seemed to scatter, then they thickened together into a kind of light cloud, and the cloud swelled and swelled, and inside it some incandescent condensations were formed, and they whirled and whirled and at a certain point became a spiral of constellations never seen before, a spiral that poised, opening in a gust, then sped away as I held on to its tail and ran after it.”

Figure 180: Besides creating Qfwfq, he was
affiliated with a French literary club that
experimented with writing under differing rules
and limits. A particularly classic example is Perec's
 A Vanishing (it has several alternative English
titles), in which the letter E is entirely absent. The
Spanish text instead eschews the letter A, that letter
being equivalently frequent in Spanish. The term
describing this type of textual play, A Vanishing's
French title, the club's name and indeed Qfwfq's
imaginer's name are unsuitable terms in this
particular  figure, which is written under similar
restraints.
It is not merely this sort of vast cosmic sweep that Moore borrows from Calvino, however. Like Moore, Calvino’s stories frame the cosmic in human terms, deriving humor from the contrast.  In one story, for instance, Qfwfq compares his current life (“At Penn Station I get off the train, I take the subway, I stand and grasp the strap with one hand to keep my balance while I hold my newspaper up in the other, folded so I can glance over the figures of the stock market quotations”) with his memories of the primordial state of the Earth when “the substance of things changed around us every minute; the atoms, that is, passed from one state of disorder to another state of disorder and then another still: or rather, practically speaking, everything remained always the same. The only real change would have been the atoms arranging themselves in some sort of order.” In another, “The Aquatic Uncle,” he tells the story of how his family had made the transition from living in the sea to living on dry land, all save for one stubborn uncle, N’ba N’ga, who is portrayed as a cantankerous and slightly embarrassing old man. The story talks about how Qfwfq found himself with the difficulty of introducing his fiancée because “I hadn’t yet dared tell Lll that my great-uncle was a fish,” before telling of how his fiancée eventually leaves him for his great uncle, having been seduced by the romance of the old sea.

In other words, as with his 4D War Cycle for Doctor Who Monthly it is not so much the ideas that are innovative here as it is where Moore opts to deploy them. Extra-dimensional beings playing games with the fundamental forces of the universe aren’t in and of themselves innovative, but throwing them into the universe of Star Wars is not only innovative is a witty commentary on the limitations of that universe. And yet “Tilotny Throws a Shape” is not some angry howl of protest against Moore’s assignment. Its structure is still a tight little five-pager with a clear setup and punchline; on page one Leia encounters a Stormtrooper helmet and a pile of bones that, impossibly, look like they’ve been around for millennia. At the end the Stormtroopers pursuing her are accidentally sent millennia into the past by Splendid Ap, who is, as the narration notes, confused by time and space. The closing two panels feature Leia recovering and making her way back towards her ship, the Stormtrooper bones lying in the dust, neatly tying off the story’s premise and setup. Structurally it’s as straightforward an execution of the short-form comic story as exists. It’s just that its content is, by the standards of Star Wars, completely and utterly barmy. 

Figure 181: Italo Calvino, whose name contains the letter O.
But while the idea may not be startlingly original, Moore handles it well. The humor and casually vast metaphysical implications of the story prove a compelling playground for Moore, and he handles the tension between the grotesque fates suffered by Leia and the Stormtroopers and the fundamental humor of the strip well. Given four characters whose nature is fundamentally inconceivable, Moore manages to make them all distinct, and with very little space to do it in. It has clear influences, but it is not a slavish imitation of those influences by any measure. Beyond that, it is a mistake to treat the existence of influence as a problem in any sense; all creative works have influences. What is clear from Moore’s work is that his influences are particularly broad. Even at this early stage of his career they include underground comix, golden age science fiction, American superhero comics, H.P. Lovecraft, Brechtian theater, film noir, Victorian horror, time travel fiction, and Italian postmodernism. Beyond that, he has combined these influences in unexpected and startling ways. This constitutes a laudable achievement for someone whose professional work consists of some comic strips for a second tier music magazine and some filler about Doctor Who and Star Wars.

And yet it also suggests that Moore is not best served by writing in such narrow genres as “Star Wars tie-ins” or “Doctor Who stories that don’t feature Doctor Who.” It is both telling and compelling, then, that a far larger body of Alan Moore’s early work comes in the form of bespoke short stories for 2000 AD published under the header of Tharg’s Future Shocks. It is not that this format allowed unfettered creativity by any measure. But it was a structure that allowed Moore to stretch his creative wings, as well as to work with a compelling variety of artists. [continued]

Next Time in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore writes sixty short stories for IPC, plagiarizing, with various degrees of deliberateness, R.A. Lafferty, Norman Spinrad, and himself. It’s brains too big for one pair of eyeballs, time running in a variety of directions, and twist endings aplenty in The Last War in Albion Chapter 5: Alan Moore’s Future Shocks, beginning on January 2nd at philipsandifer.com

Comments

elvwood 3 years, 3 months ago

That was fun - though I think the caption to figure 181 should have been something like "Italo Calvino, whose cognomen doubly contains 'O' - of course, Oulipo does too."

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elvwood 3 years, 3 months ago

Poo, posted too soon. On second thought not cognomen - possibly moniker?

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Daibhid C 3 years, 3 months ago

Interesting stuff.

"Moore amuses himself by writing cosmic weirdness in a bog standard space opera setting that doesn't otherwise contain it" is going to come up again later, I think...

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Daru 2 years, 1 month ago

Wonderful stuff Phil.

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Rasmus Lykke 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Huh.
The name of Qfwfq is an interesting one and almost certainly one that Morrison has also encounterd, given his infant universe of Qwewq.
Yet another connection between Moore and Morrison.

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