Last War in Albion, aka "A Four-Colour Psychochronography"
Last War in Albion is an ongoing feature of this site, currently running on Fridays. It is an ongoing critical history of the British comics industry focused primarily on the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Its primary narrative runs from the publication of Grant Morrison's earliest professional comics work in 1979 through to the present day, although its style is characterized by frequent digressions both forwards and backwards in history.
The structure of Last War in Albion is an ongoing serial - each entry begins with the last few sentences of the previous entry, and leaves off with a simple "[continued]" after what will become the first few sentences of the next entry. Jumping around will thus produce some confusion, although hopefully a pleasant and entertaining level.
The nature of this project means a lot of crawling around through the archives and trying to piece together timelines of decades old events. This at times requires tremendous practical help, and several people have provided various forms of material support in writing this project. To wit, I would like to extend special thanks to Meredith Collins, David Dovey, Ben Hansom, Andrew Hickey, Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Lance Parkin, Alex Reed, Matt Feltman, Roger Whitson, Anna Wiggins, and, of course, Jill Buratto.
Tables of contents for individual books of the project follow:
Please note that the blog versions of Books One and Two were written prior to Morrison's embrace of they/them pronouns.
Hello! If you missed it, the Kickstarter for TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 8 began over the weekend. We hit goal in 24 hours, but are still $500 away from the first stretch goal, and frankly, I'll be pretty sad if the book doesn't get most of its stretch goals, cause some of those are pretty big essays. So please, if you haven't yet, head over and back the Kickstarter.
With that said, the grand finale of The Last War in Albion Volume 2.
It must be said that Moore was in no way prepared for this development, and indeed would be both slow and reluctant to adjust to the reality that he was now engaged in an elaborate magical War. As discussed at length, he reached the end of Watchmen with a sense of entirely understandable exhaustion, given that it was the culmination of a genuinely staggering period of nonstop deadline-based productivity. But even if one were to take Swamp Thing, Marvelman, V for Vendetta ...
Quick update on Christine's Patreon. There's been a tremendous response, but she's stalled at around $208 at the time I'm writing this on Saturday. Financial security for her really needs about $300, so if you're at all interested in her amazing Kate Bush work, please check it out. Also, she's got fun intermediate goals: at $225 she'll be doing a podcast with Daniel Harper, and at $250 another with Jack Graham about Alien and The Shining. So please, help my daughter afford an apartment via her Patreon.
And so at last the story returns to where it began. Grant Morrison has, of course, been ever-present. As already discussed at length, his first professional credit predated Moore by five months. But he has been a shadow presence in the narrative, lurking at the edges, occasionally contriving to intersect it, waiting for his moment to take the stage in earnest. And now at last he arrives having always been here, and it becomes necessary to trace the story backwards, figuring out who he has been all this time.
This is, of course, a strange moment in which to observe Morrison, as he remains resolutely unspectacular ...
In order to understand Moore’s transformation it is necessary to fully understand precisely what Watchmen was and what it did. And to understand this it is necessary to appreciate one of its major thematic concerns, the prospect of nuclear annihilation. This aspect of the War entered the scene approximately one picosecond after the creation of the universe, when the electroweak force, unable to cohere once the universe cooled below 1015 K, split into the electromagnetic force, which would go on to underpin more or less the entirety of communication, and the weak nuclear force. This latter force was responsible for a phenomenon called beta decay, in which a neutron can transform itself into a proton by expelling an electron, along with other forms of radioactive decay. Together, along with gravity and the strong nuclear force, they create a delicate mathematical balance in which matter and life are possible. And yet within that crucial weak force is a terrifying implication.
|Figure 1109: The equipment upon which Hahn and Strassman first generated nuclear fission.|
This implication (and indeed the weak force itself) went unnoticed for approximately fourteen billion years, until German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman first achieved nuclear fission ...
And what of Moore? Where was he as the company he forsook remade itself in what they imagined his image to be? How did the Prophet of Eternity respond to what he had wrought?
At first, retreat. As he told an interviewer around the time he was finishing the script for Watchmen #12, “I’m going to take a couple of months off and basically not have a single creative thought in my head for that entire period.” This was both unsurprising and necessary. By this point it would have been clear to him that Watchmen was going to leave him in a vastly changed financial situation (he suggested in 1991 that it had” made me hundreds of thousands of pounds” though noted “that's not a fraction of what DC made out of it”). On top of that, he was understandably tired. Since his career had taken off in earnest in 1981, he’d been working at a staggering clip across multiple publishers. V for Vendetta, Miracleman, Watchmen, Swamp Thing, The Ballad of Halo Jones, The Killing Joke, and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow had essentially all come in a five year frenzy of productivity with ...
The core of the problem was that from DC’s perspective, the lesson of Watchmen could only ever be one thing: things like this sold. And within the post-Crisis reality of the direct market, what DC specifically cared about was what fans said. The simple reality is that what the vocal fans who showed up and bought Watchmen in their specialist comic book stores liked most about the book wasn’t the moving explorations of sexuality in “A Brother To Dragons”; it was Rorschach being a moody badass in “The Abyss Gazes Also.” And so this is what DC imitated.
This, of course, was not unique to Watchmen—the kind of hard-edged and violent antihero represented by Rorschach was, to DC’s mind, part and parcel of a trend of dark and violent superhero comics that also included Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Mike Grell’s Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters. This, in other words, was something they already knew how to imitate, and that Moore was always one of several writers capable of providing. Indeed, in most regards Moore was always an imitator in this regard, putting his own spin on a foundation that had been laid down ...
CW: rape, sexual assault, violence against women, transphobia, and homophobia. This chapter contains multiple NSFW images.
There is, however, another important sense in which Rorschach represents a myopia within Watchmen and, more broadly, Moore’s larger artistic vision. As mentioned, a crucial part of Rorschach’s psychology is his tortured relationship with sexuality. Sex is a major theme of both Watchmen and Moore’s career, and one that he has much of value to say about, but there is something unseemly about the directness with which Rorschach’s disgust with sex is pathologized, not least because it’s a character trait inherited from his underlying relationship with the apparently asexual Steve Ditko. More broadly, there is something oversimplified and unsatisfying in Moore’s approach to sexuality—a flaw intimately connected to his persistent inadequacy on the subject of sexual assault. This would be a relatively minor issue were it not for the awkward fact that the relationship between superheroes and sexuality is one of the comic’s major themes.
The theme of sex within Watchmen ignites in the seventh issue, “A Brother to Dragons,” which forms, along with “The Abyss Gazes Also,” a symmetrical axis at the center of the series. Watchmen can be divided into ...
The line, of course, belongs to Rorschach, the glamorous poison at the heart of Watchmen’s appeal. Moore is self-effacing about the character these days, joking that his popularity is down to the fact that Moore “had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans that smelling, not having a girlfriend - these are actually kind of heroic.” But unlike a lot of Moore’s self-deprecation, there’s an edge to this quip. He’s emphasizing his failure to anticipate the reaction to Rorschach, but only as a means to insult Rorschach’s fans even more spectacularly. There are obviously a lot of things about Watchmen that have gone sour for Moore, but at times it seems that there is nothing he resents quite as deeply as the reception of Rorschach.
|Figure 977: The Zodiac Killer, a Californian serial killer named for his literally cryptic letters, has nothing to do with either Watchmen or From Hell.|
In some ways it’s no wonder. It’s not just the throngs of fans eager to tell Moore how much they admired Rorschach, a phenomenon that is surely associated with the sudden spike in Moore’s popularity that turned comics conventions into deeply unpleasant experiences where he felt crushed ...
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 ...