Talons of the Old World (The Last War in Albion Part 96: Writing for Comics)


This is the eighth of eleven parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Ten, focusing on Alan Moore's Bojeffries Saga. An omnibus of all eleven parts is available on Smashwords. If you are a Kickstarter backer or a Patreon backer at $2 or higher per week, instructions on how to get your complimentary copy have been sent to you.

The Bojeffries Saga is available in a collected edition that can be purchased in the US or in the UK.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Moore's early minor and marginal works in the American market were largely in small indie publications, in reflection of his ideological preferences. 

"There's not much left of tomorrow. The wind from tomorrow is scouring her away. The talons of the old world are reaching up out of the dirt for her ankles. She can barely remember what hope and peace felt like. She dreams of those infinite childhood Augusts when she didn't know anything and nothing was coming, and wakes up with cold in her bones." - Warren Ellis, Injection

Figure 729: Captain Airship One electrocutes
Winston Jr. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Chris Brasted and SMS Quill, from Captain
Airstrip One
 in Mad Dog #10, 1985)
But it was in the British scene that Moore took this ideological preference to its logical extreme, contributing several works to publications that came out of the fan scene as opposed to from professional publishers. Of course, just like the American comics industry, the line between these two categories was in many ways porous, a fact illustrated by Moore’s year spent doing fanzine reviews and write-ups of conventions for Marvel UK, primarily in The Daredevils. And indeed, one of his fanzine contributions, a five page comic for the magazine Mad Dog entitled “Captain Airstrip One,” rather neatly bridges the gap between Moore’s talking about fanzines and participating them. The comic expands upon the eponymous Captain Airstrip One, who is Moore and Davis’s creations for Marvel UK, the alternate-universe Captain Britain of a world based on George Orwell’s 1984. The strip is a humor strip largely structured like what Moore called his “list” stories for 2000 AD - a fairly linear exploration of the humor implicit in the idea of an Orwellian superhero - for instance, having him crash through a window to help deal with little Winston Jr.’s propensity for smut-think by electrocuting him to death. But for all its disposability - the strip is firmly an amateur production - it adds a useful point to the larger tapestry of Moore’s Captain Britain work, affirming his inherent suspicion of the basic idea of a Captain Britain by demonstrating directly that the archetype need not be considered in the least bit heroic.

Figure 730: Moore's contribution to Moonstone.
(From Fantasy Advertiser #77, 1983)
Elsewhere, Moore contributed the script for the final installment of Moonstone, an ongoing superhero sci-fi story in the fanzine Fantasy Advertiser, to which he also contributed a lengthy four-part essay entitled “Writing for Comics,” an essay worth looking at in some detail simply because of the level of direct insight it provides into Moore’s general approach to comics at what can fairly be called the zenith of his early career. The piece was serialized over four issues of Fantasy Advertiser from August 1985 to February 1986, and makes mention of a variety of pieces from Moore’s early career, from his Future Shocks to his DC Comics work, including a fleeting mention of the then still-forthcoming Watchmen. Like any guide to writing, it is idiosyncratic in the extreme - for all that Moore insists that “above all, I don’t want to produce anything that smacks even remotely of ‘How to Write Comics the Alan Moore Way’” (an allusion to the popular How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which, as Moore goes on to point out, is better described as “How to Become a Lackluster John Buscema Clone”), the approach described is clearly particular to Moore and Moore alone.

Figure 731: The Draughtsman's Contract was a 1982 period
murder mystery.
At the heart of this idiosyncrasy is Moore’s focus on creating comics with “relevance to the rapidly altering world in which the industry and the readers that support it actually exist,” engaging in curiously eschatological musings about how “whether for better or worse, society as we understand it will be going through some almost incomprehensible changes during the next 40 years. Assuming these changes are survivable (and there seems little point in assuming anything else), and assuming that we have a future, then we are eventually going to have to cope with it.” None of this is untrue - indeed, Moore’s sense of what the next few decades of history would bring has, in hindsight, proven fairly accurate - and yet it is difficult to imagine many other comics writers who approach the question first and foremost from the angle of humanity’s basic survival. Beyond that, the essay is heavily discursive - Moore spends several paragraphs, for instance, discussing the Peter Greenaway film The Draughtsman’s Contract, which is particularly striking given that he introduces the film by noting that he’s never seen it. (Despite this rather glaring gap, the point he uses the film to illustrate, which is that novels and comics allow the reader to set the pace at which they consume the work, thus allowing for greater “literary complexity” than films, where one is “trapped in the rigid framework dictated by the film’s running time,” is a cogent one.)

This sort of extreme “from the ground up” approach permeates the entire essay, which largely espouses the very intellectual, almost structuralist approach to comics that one would expect from reading many of Moore’s interviews. It is not merely the musings on the particular structural benefits and drawbacks of specific media, but things like an extended dissection of the difference between what a story is about and the plot of the story. (He illustrates this with the example of his Swamp Thing story “The Curse,” which is “about the difficulties endured by women in masculine societies, using the common taboo of menstruation as the central motif,” but whose plot concerns “a young married woman moving into a new home built upon the site of an old Indian lodge and finding herself possessed by the dominating spirit that still resided there, turning her into a form of werewolf.”) In some ways, the work resembles one of the most famous “how to write” guides ever produced, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which Poe describes in improbable detail the decision making process that led to the writing of “The Raven,” especially in the lengthy section towards the end of the essay in which he meticulously works through the composition of a Superman story he did with Dave Gibbons called “For the Man Who has Everything.” 

Figure 772: The much discussed fourth
page of "For The Man Who Has Everything."
(From Superman Annual #11, 1985)
It is not that any of his insights into why that script works are wrong - indeed, Moore executes a cogent analysis of why a story that has indeed been widely praised as one of the greatest Superman stories ever told (and was in fact anthologized in a collection titled exactly that) worked. But as with Poe’s insistence that “saw that I could make the first query propounded by the lover- the first query to which the Raven should reply "Nevermore"- that I could make this first query a commonplace one, the second less so, the third still less, and so on, until at length the lover, startled from his original nonchalance by the melancholy character of the word itself, by its frequent repetition, and by a consideration of the ominous reputation of the fowl that uttered it, is at length excited to superstition, and wildly propounds queries of a far different character- queries whose solution he has passionately at heart- propounds them half in superstition and half in that species of despair which delights in self-torture- propounds them not altogether because he believes in the prophetic or demoniac character of the bird (which reason assures him is merely repeating a lesson learned by rote), but because he experiences a frenzied pleasure in so modelling his questions as to receive from the expected "Nevermore" the most delicious because the most intolerable of sorrows,” when Moore claims, “since I’m aware that pages 2 and 3 are on left-hand and right-hand pages respectively, it would seem advantageous to save any big visual surprise until page 4, so that the reader doesn’t see it until he turns over. Thus page 3 ends with a teaser. Having entered the Fortress, the three heroes are staring at us in surprise and dawning horror, looking at something off-panel that we cannot see. This hopefully suggests something sufficiently intriguing to get the reader to turn over to page 4. Since there’s an ad break immediately after page 4 and since I quite like having a full-page splash panel, just to give the title of the story and its suggested premise some weight and moment to signify that the story has started in proper, page 4 is the splash. Thus, on the fourth page, we see what Batman and Robin and Wonder Woman are seeing: Superman, standing there frozen with a hideous black-red growth spilling from his breast,” there is a faint sense that he is not so much describing his process as patting himself on the back after the fact for having come up with something so clever. 

But this slightly overwrought tendency is largely undercut by a sort of self-deprecating practicality, such as his observation, after working out the first half of the comic and how he wanted it to end, that “this meant that pages 26 to 36 were left for the final climactic battle between Superman and Mongul, which seemed about the right sort of length,” or his account of Mongul’s motivation where he says that he “wants Superman out of the way so that he can take over the universe or whatever these tyrant types usually aspire to.” Similarly, the fact that this intricate description of his thinking on one particular script comes after many pages of detailed analysis of the comics industry in general, in which he thoughtfully and carefully dismantles common pieces of advice like the claim that a character should be able to be summarized in fifteen words makes it more believable when he suggests that he applied similar thought to the particular details of a script, not least because he is evidently able to jot off such thorough remarks upon both for a fanzine like Fantasy Advertiser at more or less the height of his career. If nothing else, one can compare the process Moore describes to surviving artifacts like his initial pitch for Marvelman or to his infamously thoroughly thought out scripts and see the similarities. 

Figure 773: Promethea #12 juxtaposed
a poem about the history of humanity
with the Major Arcana of the Tarot, a joke
by Aleister Crowley, and a lot of anagrams
in a series of 24 images that flow into each
other and loop from first to last. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by J.H. Williams III and Mick
Gray, 2000)
It is also worth pointing out that Moore, revisiting the essay in 2003, explicitly advised readers to “work without a safety net” and “ignore everything I said in this essay’s opening chapters about thinking through your plot and structure and characterization before embarking upon the story,” noting that “when you are a writer of some experience and prowess, it should be well within your capabilities to simply launch yourself at the deep end with a good opening idea and then trust your own mysterious processes to let plot and structure and nuances of character emerge from the narrative as you go along” and revealing that this was how he was presently working on comics, explicitly citing Promethea #12, an issue he describes as having “a structure so intricate and unlikely that I’m still not entirely sure how we accomplished it” as being written that way. Nevertheless, the fact remains that when, in 1984, Moore boasted that “I know quite a bit about writing comics” and that “there are maybe a dozen people in the Western world who know as much or more than I do about writing comics,” he had, on the evidence, a solid case. This is, ultimately, one of the basic truisms of Moore’s writing: he is an enormously cerebral writer, or, as Grant Morrison less charitably puts it, one whose writing “built its own splendorous crystal labyrinth,” but was as a consequence “stifling.” 

Figure 774: The end of the fucking world. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Bryan Talbot, from "Cold
Snap" in Food for Thought, 1985)
Elsewhere in the UK fandom scene is Moore’s contribution to Gary Spencer Millidge’s 1985 benefit anthology Food for Thought, which also included Grant Morrison’s Gideon Stargrave two-pager “Famine.” (This is, in fact, one of two pieces Moore wrote for charity books addressing the African famine, having also penned three pages for Marvel Comics’s X-Men: Heroes for Hope, a writers and artists jam that comprises one of the two occasions on which Moore has worked with Marvel Comics proper, as opposed to their UK division or an alternate label such as Epic Comics. Moore’s pages, illustrated by Heavy Metal veteran Richard Corben, feature the X-Men character Magneto suffering a psychic attack.) Entitled “Cold Snap,” with art by Bryan Talbot, it is a bitterly cynical piece that echoes many of the ecological themes of Swamp Thing, only from a more humorous angle. It opens with narration of how “it was early evening in the late cretaceous. Chalk-heavy seas covered most of north-western Europe. But nobody minded. WGBK were showing reruns of “I Married a Hypsilophodon” and, somewhere, trilobites were lending each other money. There was the faintest of nips in the air…” Over four pages, it continues in a similar vein, showing the domestic life of Steve and Eilleen, a pair of dinosaurs waiting out what they admit is a particularly harsh winter. The power keeps going out, it seems, although this is framed mainly in the familiar terms of 1980s politics, with Steve grousing about how they “never should have elected a lesothosaurus. I mean… what do we know about him? Nothing!” and grousing to his neighbor, Roger, about “all this energy crisis shit in the paper.” Eilleen suggests that she “was talking to Alice’s girl - the one who’s in college - and she says that we’re using up our resources too fast,” but Steve and Roger are quick to dismiss this on the grounds that Alice’s girl is a lesbian. Sure, it’s a bad winter, but as Roger notes to Steve as they trudge back through the snow in from a failed attempt to dig up Steve’s push mower (which is frozen solid to the ground), “it’s not the end of the fucking world.”

Figure 775: Bryan Talbot's art for the
cover of Ragnarok, which both he and
Moore contributed to the early stages
It’s a good strip, and Moore is characteristically willing to say as much, although he is gracious enough to offer the credit to Talbot, who he says “did a masterful job,” reflecting on how Talbot did the illustration “on one of his last pieces of duotone,” a type of drawing board that could be used to efficiently add hatching to a piece. But Moore’s enthusiasm is perhaps unsurprising, given that it is one of only a few opportunities he has had in his career to collaborate with Talbot (who also illustrated one of his Future Shocks, “The Wages of Sin,” and a Ro-Busters story for the 2000 AD 1983 annual, as well as one of his Superman text-pieces. Talbot also contributed character designs for Ragnarok, a largely awful independent animated film that Moore provided some storyline work for). This was clearly something of a pity for Moore, who, in a letter to Talbot in the process of another project, an abandoned supernatural horror strip for Warrior to be entitled Nightjar, reflected on how enthused he was to be working with Talbot because “this will be the first time I’ve worked with an artist whose background is as solidly rooted in the underground as my own is.”

Nightjar ultimately became a casualty of Moore’s falling out with Dez Skinn, who, for his part, insists that he “was never very keen on Nightjar (hated the name) and Bryan was another slow - or busy - artist, so it would never have happened in Warrior.” Talbot ultimately only completed two and a half pages of the strip, with another page partially completed, but roughly twenty years after Talbot had started the page,  William Christensen at Avatar got in touch and asked if he still had the unfinished pages. Talbot did, and Christensen proceeded to commission Talbot to finish the strip, reprinting it along with the script and Moore’s letter to Talbot about the development of it in the first issue of the anthology Yuggoth Cultures, collecting various Moore obscurities with newly commissioned adaptations of some of his poems and song lyrics. [continued]


Eric Gimlin 5 years, 9 months ago

The Last War in Albion is going to stop at Promethea, isn't it? Because you're going to have so much to say about it you'll never be able to finish.

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Jeff Heikkinen 5 years, 9 months ago

You seem, at the very beginning, to distinguish between "minor" and "marginal" works, but I'm not sure how the two differ. Is there a difference and if so, what is it?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 9 months ago

In this case not an important one, and I'm certainly not using the terms with some conscious precision, although I'd tend to think "minor" is a judgment of quality while "marginal" is a judgment of historical importance. I would call, for instance, Killing Joke minor but not marginal and Fossil Angels marginal but not minor.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 9 months ago

God, I'm terrified enough by everything before Promethea.

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Jeff Heikkinen 5 years, 9 months ago


For whatever it's worth (little enough, I'm sure), I'd have guessed "minor" would be a matter of as-objective-as-possible historical importance and "marginal" a more subjective judgment of fit with some overall narrative arc of Moore's career, with neither implying anything about quality.

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Alan 5 years, 9 months ago

To me the most ironic and amusing thing about "For the Man Who Has Everything" is that JASON TODD saves the day! Also, it says everything you need to know about this story that it was, IIRC, the only comic story to be remade into an episode of the Dini Justice League series. When Superman says "Burn!" was one of the few times that godlike character ever seemed in any sense dangerous.

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