3 years, 4 months ago
This is the seventh of ten parts of Chapter Five of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work on Future Shocks for 2000 AD from 1980 to 1983. An ebook omnibus of all ten parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from Amazon, Amazon UK, and Smashwords for $2.99. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help ensure its continuation
Most of the comics discussed in this chapter are collected in The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks.
Previously in The Last War in Albion: (Alan Moore's accidental plagiarism of Norman Spinrad was one of two lifts he's discussed from his 2000 AD days, the other being the second Abelard Snazz story, Snazz being a genius whose plans inevitably turn out terribly...
"I had actually had plans. We had just sort of opened up very, very preliminary negotiations to find out if Gorey would be interested in illustrating it. And the day I finished it, he died. I mean literally. I finished it and the news was that Edward Gorey died." -Neil Gaiman, on Coraline
Snazz exists to satirize over-elaborate top-down thinking, but it’s important to note that Snazz is merely a consultant working for the government - a government that never once pipes up to say “wouldn’t just decommissioning the robot cops make more sense,” or “why don’t we reprogram the buggers so they don’t arrest people for wearing ugly ties,” just as, in “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain” Hoolio Moolabar never steps in to say “erm, why don’t we just go get the car instead of betting every penny we have with the doorman.” Snazz, in other words, is not so much a villain as a parodic version of a particular societal tendency that allows people like him to function in the first place. Moore, reflecting on Snazz, rejects the idea that Snazz works because he’s “a symbol of irresponsible science run amok, a sort of boffo Frankenstein,” noting that “anybody who can bring about the downfall of entire civilizations armed only with good intentions can’t be all bad,” and that “he is nowhere near as irredeemably stupid as the people who listen to him.”
|Figure 232: The sublime pinnacle of creative|
ecstasy. (From "The Multi-Storey Mind Mellows
Out," written by Alan Moore, art by Paul Neary,
in 2000 AD #254, 1982)
This tendency is reinforced by the later Snazz stories, which focus less on the preposterous schemes Snazz comes up with and more on the sorts of places Snazz ends up. By the time of the fourth Abelard Snazz story in January of 1982, Moore was putting Snazz in increasingly weird situations. That story, “Halfway to Paradise,” has Snazz acting as an image consultant to a variety of gods [including a lisping Thoth whose name, it is thus implied, might actually be pronounced the same as “sauce”], and the next story, two months later, features him building giant robot tennis players for a bunch of parodic Californians under the title “The Multi-Storey Mind Mellows Out.” [Moore notes that there is “nothing that really compares with the sublime pinnacle of creative ecstasy that I experienced upon coining the phrase ‘Jog for your life’.”] In both stories Snazz’s scheme is hardly the focus - it’s not even flawed, as such, in “Halfway to Paradise.” Instead the point is to show new sorts of people stupid enough to listen to Snazz.
|Figure 233: An elaborate crossover among Alan Moore's|
2000 AD work (From "The Double-Decker Dome Strikes Back,"
written by Alan Moore, art by Mike White, in 2000 AD #237,
That is not, of course, to say that Snazz is above reproach. A recurring theme in the Abelard Snazz stories is Snazz’s arrogance. As early as “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain,” Snazz is compounding his troubles with hubris. It’s not any flaw in his scheme that leads to his bankruptcy, but rather his insistence that a man as rich as he is shouldn’t have to get his own car. Likewise, in the next Snazz Misadventure, “The Double-Decker Dome Strikes Back,” Snazz’s scheme only falls apart when his scheme to use the good will of the Farbian Crottle Worms, described as “the most saintly and good-natured beings in known space,” to power the machinery of the Farbians [a people whose culture consists entirely of their own self pity - they are first depicted rowing a space ship as they sing, “our crops won’t grow / our cattle are starving / and we owe money to our in-laws. / Our shoes do not fit / But we have lost the receipt / Maybe tomorrow will be better, but frankly we doubt it.” The explanation for their misery is revealed in a narrated section that reveals that their previous homeworlds were flattened by the Platinum Horde, invaded by Grawks, and wiped out by a Rigelian cleaner as depicted in “They Sweep the Spaceways,” another early instance of Moore indulging in crossovers amongst his creations] falls apart when he reacts angrily to the Farbians praising the worms, declaring that “if it hadn’t been for me those greasy little glory-grabbers would still be baiting fish-hooks!” This, it turns out, is finally enough to piss the crottle worms off, and their good will evaporates, dooming Snazz.
|Figure 234: The Platinum Horde sets off again. (From "The|
Last Rumble of the Platinum Horde," written by Alan Moore,
art by John Higgins, in 2000 AD #217, 1981)
A similar plot unfolds in “Genius is Pain,” the final Snazz story, which spends three pages and change acting as though Snazz has been put on trial for his various crimes, which are listed off in great detail, only to have it turn out that he’s been summoned to celebrate his six millionth birthday. His present for reaching this ripe old age [mainly through long periods of time spent in extra-dimensional pocket universes or suspended animation] is “the one gift that will make you happier than anything in the world,” which, in the eyes of the Manager of the Universe, turns out to just be a reconstructed Edwin, who proceeds to repeat his one meaningful line, praising Snazz’s genius, as Snazz angrily beats the poor robot. The story serves not only to emphasize the myriad of properly awful things Snazz has been responsible for, but shows the degree to which Snazz is a selfish boor. And yet even here, the reader is forced to admit that Edwin was somewhat annoyingly fawning, and Moore admits that he’d killed him off at the start of “The Double-Decker Dome Strikes Back” “before he had the chance to become tiresome.” Snazz remains, at least, comical in his malignancy, a satisfyingly entertaining mirror of society’s worst impulses.). This is perhaps unfair, however - the story may hinge on a fairly predictable twist, but equally, the story does have a reasonably sharp edge, encapsulating all the supposed glories of war and empire in an embittered joke. The ending, in which the Platinum Horde, lacking any better ideas, sets off once again is particularly cutting.
In other stories, however, Moore evaded the twist ending structure outright. “They Sweep the Spaceways,” for instance, does not even have a plot as such. It’s an example of what Moore describes as “a list story, in which you just think of an absurd topic or situation and then list as many funny or engaging ideas as you can relate to it.” A list story is not necessarily one without a plot or twist ending - the one Moore coined the term to describe, the later career “Sunburn” from Prog 282 in September of 1982, is ostensibly the story of Rorschach Skubbs, who has killed his wife and is attempting to dispose of the body, only to end up perishing. But this is in practice just an excuse for a chase across Moore’s setting for the story, a holiday camp on the sun, where Moore can unveil his various jokes: pallor-parlours, “where the fashionable go to lose their suntans,” asbestos-based clothing, lava surfers who shout “magma’s up,” and so forth.
|Figure 235: Apply now to the Trans-Galactic Disposal Corps (From "They|
Sweep the Spaceways," written by Alan Moore, art by Garry Leach, in 2000
AD #219, 1981)
But “They Sweep the Spaceways” lacks even this meager frame. It consists merely of a description of the job of inter-galactic janitor, a role best performed by the Rigelians, who are larger than suns. “Like all Rigellians, Quargol” - the example janitor of the piece - “has an almost indefinite lifespan. This is just as well, as Quargol’s working ‘day’ is over eight million years long.” Quargol is a mildly grumpy working class janitor who spackles over black holes, replaces burnt out suns, and tries to kill off outbreaks of “that most virulent of galactic pests - civilization.” The piece ends, after a fairly transparent bit of product placement for “Big Bang,” which is described by Quargol as “the new miracle cleaning fluid” that “destroys 99.999% of all known civilizations,” with a card that the reader can fill out to apply for the job, which, Moore notes, many readers did, even checking the box claiming that they were over 870,000 miles tall. Moore jokingly describes the story as “a calculated attempt to incite the working class population of this country to full scale revolution by rubbing their noses in their joblessness,” which, hyperbole aside, gets at the point of the story, which is to juxtapose vast cosmic phenomena and sci-fi iconography with menial working class drudgery. Its effectiveness is, on the whole, only increased by the structural innovation of avoiding a plot altogether.
|Figure 236: The giddily macabre antics of Timothy Tate (from|
"A Cautionary Fable," written by Alan Moore, art by Paul Neary,
in 2000 AD #240, 1981)
The last story in Moore’s early run of hits, “A Cautionary Fable,” is similarly a game of structure. It tells “the tale of Timothy Tate, a child too vile to contemplate.” Tate is a glutton, who goes from standard issue excessive appetite to the point where “he’d munch, with unashamed glee, through carpets and upholstery, and househould pets too slow to flee would often vanish utterly.” Eventually he encounters a UFO landing, eats the aliens, and grows to monstrous size, at which point he begins eating people and buildings in the course of an urban rampage. Eventually he topples from the spire of a skyscraper, plummetting to his death, at which point “Mr. Horace Bloggs of Forebone’s Food for Healthy Dogs” shows up to clear his carcass. “We dare not show what hideous fate befell the shell of Timmy Tate,” the story ends, macabrely, “but happy pets, in sated bliss, still lick their chops and reminisce.”
|Figure 237: "A Cautionary Fable" belongs to a long and|
glorious literary tradition of gruesome rhymes about children
As the quotes show, the defining feature of the story is that it’s told in rhyme, featuring distinct phrases consisting of four iambic or anapestal feet in an AABB rhyme scheme, positioned beneath Paul Neary’s illustrations, which manage to evoke a combination of classic Victorian children’s literature and a giddy sense of the grotesque. The approach is simple - it is essentially, as Moore describes it, “Hilaire Belloc for the eighties,” and uses the same meter, rhyme scheme, and, more to the point, perversity as Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children (For instance, “Jim, Who Ran Away from his Nurse and was Eaten by a Lion,” has his final fate described thusly: “The lion having reached his Head, / The Miserable Boy was dead!”), only with a lightly sci-fi twist appropriate for 2000 A.D. As with most of Moore’s successful Future Shocks, the appeal is largely in the choice of subjects to contrast, mixing together two types of narratives in order to produce surprising effects.
|Figure 238: Not all twist endings were quite as successful as|
Moore's. (From "The Collector," written by Kelvin Gosnell,
art by I. Kennedy, in 2000 AD #210, 1981)
None of these stories are great and major works by Alan Moore. But there is only so much that a bespoke four-to-six page humor piece can accomplish, and Moore’s 1981 Future Shocks by and large sit comfortably at the upper limits of that. Certainly they were far above the standard set by Moore’s contemporaries. One of the other major contributors of Future Shocks in 1981 was Kelvin Gosnell, whose short stories were barely coherent. “The Sound of Silence,” in Prog 207, is indicative. It features a man being driven to distraction by the overly loud music of his neighbors, who proceeds to invent a machine that cancels out all sound. He, for no reason set up anywhere in the preceding two-and-a-half pages, proceeds to use his machine to embark on a life of crime. Predictably, he gets caught and ends up sharing a cell with the son of the overly loud family who kicked off the story - a family that had been utterly unmentioned in the story at any point after the main character turned to a life of crime. The story ostensibly has the same sort of elliptical shape that Moore’s twist endings do, but without any of the actual work put into setting it up. The twist is, in effect, that the part of the story that was casually thrown away at the halfway point to be replaced with a completely different story comes back. And this is par for the course for Gosnell - three issues later he offers “The Collector,” which proceeds through three pages of generic war story featuring American pilots in the Vietnam War before revealing, with no setup whatsoever, that the pilot of the mysterious unmarked plane is in fact the devil and that the pilots are all dead. It is not that this is a bad twist so much as that nothing whatsoever in the first three pages sets it up even remotely.
Gosnell is perhaps an easy target (and it should be noted that Gosnell’s writing elsewhere is much more capable), but even other writers of repute floundered on the Future Shocks. Steve Moore and Peter Milligan both penned Future Shocks in 1981, and while they lacked the aggressive incompetence of Gosnell’s writing, they also lacked the creative panache of Moore’s stories. In a magazine like 2000 AD, where the appeal is often more the quality of the concepts than the execution as such, this is a significant flaw. Moore is essentially the only writer of Future Shocks who is using them to try to come up with arresting ideas while also focusing on tight, disciplined storytelling. Moore, indeed, used these stories to push and challenge himself. This did not always work out - also from this period is “Southern Comfort” in the 1981 Sci-Fi Special, a strip that Moore had his name taken off of (it went out instead under the rather bitter name of R.E. Wright) due to his dissatisfaction with the finished art by Walter Howarth. Identifying exactly what went wrong is tricky - Moore, in interviews, refers discretely to “a guy who obviously has enough problems already.” But the strip Moore describes trying to write - one spurred by editor Steve McManus who, “in an ingenious attempt to curb the flow of shimmering and lucid metaphor that I used to give the humblest caption box a certain poetry and elan, asked me to do a two-part story without captions.” What went wrong between Moore’s script, which he describes as “a superb Swiss-precision piece of Graphic Narrative,” and the finished product, which uses repeated caption boxes, is not entirely clear, although given Howarth’s art one suspects it is simply that the script as drawn was not capable of telling its story without Moore (or someone) adding numerous captions to explain what the plot was supposed to be. Still, for all that the strip failed, it’s telling that Moore was so willing to experiment in the first place.
|Figure 239: The T-Gun is a pleasantly clever sci-fi conceit (From "Strontium|
Dog: Portrait of a Mutant Part 12," written by Alan Grant, art by Carlos
Ezquerra, in 2000 AD #214, 1981)
That he stood out for doing so only emphasizes the truth, which is that 2000 AD was largely setting a low bar for Moore to clear. Yes, “The English/Phlondrutian Phrasebook” is terribly clever, but its stablemates include forgettable pap like Meltdown Man (A SAS officer who has been transported to the future in a nuclear explosion fights to liberate the humanoid animals of the future from their evil human captors) and Return to Armageddon (A prequel to the Book of Genesis featuring space pirates). Mere competence was enough to be the third-best strip in Prog 214. That Moore was better than third is, in other words, a low bar to clear. Admittedly the other two strips in that issue - an installment of a lengthy Judge Dredd series called “The Mega-Rackets,” and the twelfth part of the sprawling Strontium Dog origin story “Portrait of a Mutant” - can credibly be described as classics of the magazine. “Portrait of a Mutant” has a reasonably entertaining sci-fi concept - guns that send their target back a few minutes into the past, at which point the Earth has hurtled forward in space, leaving the target dead in the vacuum, and Judge Dredd features the ever-popular conceit of Umpty Candy. But neither are particular high points. “Portrait of a Mutant” is terribly long, and the twelfth part is an exercise in getting the plot from point A to point B. And Judge Dredd, though good, is doing nothing the strip hadn’t done in its two-hundred-and-twelve previous iterations. Shining brightly among such competition is not something any comics writer could do, but equally, it doesn’t take the best of the best to flourish.
It is important, however, to understand why one would want to flourish on these stories. The purpose of Future Shocks is, after all, straightforward. As Grant Morrison put it in a 1989 interview, “there’s a sort of apprenticeship - you’re forced to do Future Shocks (notoriously tedious one-off filler sci-fi stories).” In Morrison’s account, “they usually get you to do two years of work on those before you’re let loose on a proper strip.” As Lance Parkin puts it, “a regular strip or two in 2000 AD was the grand prize for a British comics writer in the early eighties.” But for Morrison, at least, the process was accelerated - he would only toil on Future Shocks for a year or so, penning sixteen before being given Zenith. Moore, meanwhile, waited from July of 1980 until March of 1983, over two-and-a-half years, in which he penned thirty-six short stories, at which point he was finally honored with the thrilling brief of creating a clone of E.T. Before the movie actually came out. Had Moore been given the year-long apprenticeship Morrison would eventually get, he’d have moved on to a regular series around the time of “They Sweep the Spaceways.”
|Figure 240: A Squonge. (From "Mister Could You Use|
a Squonge," written by Alan Moore, art by Ron Tiner, in
2000 AD #242, 1981)
Instead he was left on Future Shocks long after his best ideas had visibly been used. Indeed, the transition point where Moore’s ideas run out is unnervingly clear. After a run of six brilliant strips punctuated by a couple of Abelard Snazz stories and the unfortunate business of “Southern Comfort,” Moore ended 1981 with “Mister Could You Use a Squonge,” in which satisfyingly hideous-looking alien life-forms nicknamed Squonges turn out to grant profound intelligence to anyone who wears them. The twist ending - that the squonges were all completely insane and drove their wearers uselessly mad - is largely flat, and the story has a curious lack of point. This is not in and of itself significant - any writer, given a massive number of short stories to write - will turn out a few duds. But “Mister Could You Use a Squonge” still marks the end of the period in which Moore would reliably score a hit every time.
|Figure 241: Humanitarian vegetables of death. (From "Salad|
Days," written by Alan Moore, art by John Higgins, in 2000
AD #247, 1982)
In many ways this comes down to a simple matter of numbers. In 1981 Moore penned nine strips for 2000 AD. In 1982 he penned twenty-one, a rate that meant he appeared in nearly half of the fifty-two issues of 2000 AD published that year. Yes, many of his 1982 strips were comparatively shorter two-pagers, but the sheer volume of output in 1982 almost necessarily came at the expense of quality. It is not, however, that this middle period was devoid of good stories. Prog 247’s “Salad Days,” for instance, spends two pages getting more mileage than would seem possible out of a pun whereby a bunch of alien vegetables eat humans because they are “humanitarians.” Prog 278’s “Hot Item” is an effective list story about the heat death of the universe in which numerous jokes are made about the lack of any sort of energy available such that small distances take enormous amounts of time to cross. (“It’s no good! They’ve put centimetres between us while we’ve been nattering!”) The story’s ending, in which the energy crisis is forestalled by the discovery of old issues of 2000 AD whose thrill-power “never wanes nor grows dim” and “will give our people all the energy they need for years to come” is perhaps more than a little self-serving, but the story still sparkles. And Prog 252’s “American Werewolf in Space,” in which what looks like it will be a blood-soaked yarn about a werewolf massacring people on a spaceship turns into a bizarre farce when it turns out the entire two-thousand person crew of the Hermes were werewolves, and the entire mission was just an excuse to jettison the werewolves from the planet, is improbably inventive.
But many other stories in the period are flatter at best. “A Second Chance,” a two-pager in which the last man on Earth finds a woman, is utterly devoid of any point. “All of Them Were Empty,” in which a siege on a American truck stop is revealed to be conducted by sentient cars wanting a fill-up, is similarly uninspiring, as is “No Picnic,” in which a man is buried alive on Easter Island to become one of the famed heads. And when Moore did hit gold, it was often by rehashing his own previous work. [continued]
Share on Facebook