The Last War in Albion Book Two, Chapter Ten: Where The Moon and the Earth Were Joined (Two Riders Were Approaching)


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 in 1938. Their work, of course, was simply a momentary endpoint of a larger chain of thought—the revolutions of theoretical physics that swept the scientific community in the early 20th century, upending the classical notions of the world and how it worked. Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and the rest, in a series of dizzying discoveries over the course of decades, unseated the idea of a fixed and knowable universe, finding instead a universe that is fundamentally ordered by human perception, where the act of looking shapes the thing being observed—a quantum revolution that brought, in its wake, the possibility of magic. And then, with Hahn and Strassman, a very different possibility.

Hahn and Strassman conducted an experiment in which they bombarded uranium with neutrons. Observing the result, they discovered to their astonishment that the process had created atoms of barium. Reading a letter about these results, their former colleague Lisse Meitner, a Jewish chemist who had fled Germany earlier in the year, she reasoned that if Niels Bohr’s theory of the atomic nucleus, which held that it worked more or less like a drop of liquid, were correct then a very large nucleus like uranium would be unstable—indeed, unstable enough that the weak force impact of a neutron could lead the nucleus to stretch and eventually snap like a cell dividing into two. Running the calculations further, Meitner realized that the result would have less mass than the original atom, and that the lost mass must be converted into energy—indeed, a tremendous amount of energy, at least for a single atomic reaction, although on its own it was barely enough to move a speck of dust.

Word of the discovery spread quickly, and in early 1939 Niels Bohr brought word across the Atlantic as he traveled to lecture at Princeton. This set off a wave of experimentation and theorization, in which several scientists including Leó Szilárd, Enrico Fermi, and Frédéric Joliot-Curie all came to the same realization: the reaction released more than one neutron. This implied that it was possible to create a cascading chain reaction in which the fission of one atom set off others, with the number growing exponentially, along with the amount of energy released. If the reaction were controlled, it would provide an extremely potent energy source; if allowed to run unchecked, it would create the most fearsome weapon ever designed. And so the race for the atom bomb began.

Figure 1110: Chicago Pile 1, the world's first nuclear reactor, did not in fact obliterate the South Side of Chicago.

In October, mere weeks after the outbreak of World War II, Szilárd and Albert Einstein penned a letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning him of the prospect of Germany constructing an atomic bomb. In December, Werner Heisenberg alerted Hitler of the same thing. The German project, however, was hobbled from the start by the fact that many of the country’s best physicists had been Jewish, and so the project never really got off the ground. Spooked by the possibility of a German atomic bomb project, however, the American project continued with increasing resources and efficient coordination. Nevertheless, the engineering involved was substantial, and it would not be until December 1942 that Enrico Fermi would begin constructing one in a squash court underneath the University of Chicago’s football field. This carried obvious risks: if Fermi’s calculations were wrong, the result would be a nuclear meltdown in the middle of Chicago’s South Side. Arthur Compton, who was supervising Fermi, made the decision to approve the location without consulting the university president, reasoning that “Based on considerations of the University's welfare, the only answer he could have given would have been—no. And this answer would have been wrong.” This astonishing statement, which was ultimately backed up by Compton’s superiors on what was by now called the Manhattan Project, all of whom were horrified by the risks but approved it as well; people do desperate things in wars.

Figure 1111: A young William S. Burroughs at the Los Alamos Ranch School

While Fermi worked in Chicago, the heart of the project needed to be located in a far more remote location. Several candidates were considered, but what was ultimately chosen was the site of the Los Alamos Ranch School, located on an isolated mesa in New Mexico, where a decade earlier William S. Burroughs had been a student, conducting his first experiments with mind-altering drugs when, intrigued by discussions of knockout drops in the books on gangsters he obsessively read, he snuck off to a pharmacy and bought some, taking a near-fatal overdose. The property was purchased in November of 1942, and the school closed down at the beginning of 1943, when it was promptly turned over to J. Robert Oppenheimer to run the bomb effort.

Two and a half years later, on July 16th, 1945, they successfully tested a weapon at the Trinity test site five hours south of Los Alamos. As Oppenheimer watched, he famously recalled a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Later, he reflected, “I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” Three weeks later, Colonel Paul Tibbets dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; three days later, Major Charles W. Sweeney dropped a second on Nagasaki. Between them, they killed hundreds of thousands, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. 

Figure 1112: Ivy Mike, the first Hydrogen Bomb test. (November 1st, 1952)

This had the effect of forcing Japanese surrender. Already on the back foot, the prospect of an enemy that could simply annihilate cities was an unfathomable horror. But this ability was the product of mere technological supremacy—an advantage that fundamentally could not hold. Upon learning of the new American weapon, Joseph Stalin declared that “the balance has been destroyed… that cannot be.” The USSR commenced its own research project, accelerated by information about the Manhattan Project leaked to them by German chemist Klaus Fuchs. And so in turn the United States began developing improved versions of the atom bomb. In 1946, Fuchs, along with mathematician John von Neumann, developed a patent for a new approach to nuclear weapons—the hydrogen bomb. The first of these was tested on November 1st, 1952, and produced an explosion four hundred and fifty times as powerful as the one in Nagasaki.

Figure 1113: A V-2 rocket, invented by Wernher von Braun.

Four and a half months earlier, in Pasadena, another explosion claimed the life of Jack Parsons. Parsons, one of the most infamously fascinating figures of the first half of the 20th century, was among other things an engineer working on the rapidly growing in importance technology of rocketry. This technology had been a mild obsession of Adolf Hitler, who had been fascinated and impressed by the work of Wernher von Braun, whose work became the V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile. These weapons were crude, inaccurate, and terrifying all the same—silent bombs that could be fired as far as two hundred miles away. Their effectiveness was limited in many regards—certainly they did not turn the tide of the war for Germany, much as they terrorized Allied cities in Europe. But they were the perfect vehicles for nuclear bombs, which were simply so destructive that it didn’t really matter how accurately they hit.

Figure 1114: The SM-64 Navaho, an early US missile that Jack Parsons helped develop.

And so the US commenced a missile program of its own, aided by Operation Paperclip, a project to capture and recruit as many top German scientists as possible, which had quickly recruited von Braun and his team to the US. One branch of this effort, the Navaho Missile Program from North American Aviation, commenced in 1946, and quickly hired Parsons, who had previously developed a solid fuel while working for the military’s Jet Assisted Take Off project, variations of which would be used in both ballistic nuclear missiles and the Space Shuttle. Parsons, however, was soon forced out of military work as Cold War paranoia led to a purge of anyone with suspected left-wing sympathies. Although for Parsons it was not his political convictions that would cause trouble for him but his religious ones.

Figure 1115: Jack Parsons (right) and fellow members of the Agape Lodge in ritual.

Throughout his scientific career, Parsons pursued an equally vigorous occult career, converting to Thelema in 1939 and being initiated into the Agape Lodge in 1941. In June of 1942, he and his wife moved into a house at 1003 S Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena with a group of other Thelemites. Parsons conducted scientific research in the garage, sacrificed animals raised on the twenty-five acre grounds in rituals, and hosting a science fiction club in the kitchen. It was through this that he met L. Ron Hubbard, at this point a middling science fiction writer who had recently unceremoniously emerged from the Navy. In August of 1945, the same month the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hubbard moved into the house, now fondly nicknamed the Parsonage, and quickly became close friends with Parsons, and even closer ones with his girlfriend, Betty Northrup (the younger sister of his ex-wife) whom Hubbard quickly married. Despite this, Parsons remained impressed with him, bragging to Crowley in a letter that while Hubbard had “no formal training in Magick he has an extraordinary amount of experience and understanding in the field. From some of his experiences I deduce he is direct touch with some higher intelligence, possibly his Guardian Angel,” whom Parsons described as “a beautiful winged woman with red hair, whom he calls the Empress.”

Figure 1116: Jack Parsons and his wife Marjorie Cameron, aka Babalon

In 1946, Parsons attempted to deal with his sudden absence of a girlfriend in the tried and true magical way of summoning one. Working with Hubbard and Northrup, he commenced what is known as the Babalon Working, a series of magical rituals to manifest Babalon, the Mother of Abominations, and in doing so create a Moonchild as suggested in Crowley’s 1917 novel. The first of these rituals lasted twelve days. On one of them, Parsons and Hubbard observed a seven-foot column of brownish yellow light in the kitchen, which, after Parsons banished it with a magical sword, left Hubbard with a paralyzed arm for the rest of the night. Shortly after the first ritual was completed, Parsons met Marjorie Cameron, whom he quickly married. During a second working, meanwhile, Hubbard, acting as the Edward Kelly to Parsons’s John Dee, offered the following prophecy: “Display thyself to Our Lady; dedicate thy organs to Her, dedicate thy heart to Her, dedicate thy mind to Her, dedicate thy soul to Her, for She shall absorb thee, and thou shalt become living flame before She incarnates. For it shall be through you alone, and no one else can help in this endeavour. It is lonely, it is awful.” Parsons took the account of the working and published it as Liber 49, which he proclaimed to be a fourth section of Crowley’s The Book of the Law, a prospect that caused Crowley to complain, “I get fairly frantic when I contemplate the idiocy of these goats!”

Between the two workings, Parsons formed a company called Allied Enterprises with Hubbard and Northrup, contributing the majority of his life’s savings after selling the Parsonage to developers and leasing back the carriage house. Hubbard proposed a plan whereby they would buy yachts on the East Coast, sail them to the west, and sell them at a profit. In reality, Hubbard intended to engage in a lengthy world cruise with the money. Parsons realized this in time to get a legal injunction, but was ultimately still fleeced for the majority of his investment. Dejected, he returned to Pasadena and commenced helping North American Aviation build a missile to hurl atomic weapons across the planet. 

Figure 1117: Dark Angel, a portrait of Jack Parsons by Marjorie Cameron

Once he’d been forced out of rocketry work a few years later, he began work doing various pieces of contract work. In June of 1952, he received a rush order from a film crew looking for explosives. Working on it, he dropped a coffee can of mercury fulminate, which detonated, triggering a further explosion that destroyed the entire bottom floor of his house. Parsons was pulled from the wreckage, horribly injured, and was dead less than forty minutes later, his last words being “I wasn’t done.” 

Was this living flame in which Parsons was, as prophesied, consumed the backwards reaching echo of the hydrogen bomb test?  If so, then what of a third blast, in 1928, when a fourteen-year-old William S. Burroughs was playing with a chemistry set in the basement of his parents’ St. Louis house? While affixing the lid to a box of potassium chlorate and red phosphorous, the mixture detonated, mangling his hand. For six weeks the young Burroughs lay in the hospital, his dressings changed regularly, excruciatingly, necessitating what doctors described as “nearly an adult dose of morphine,” his first experience with the drug that he’d eventually become addicted to. He emerged from the hospital haunted, taciturn, and withdrawn. Burroughs’s biographer, Barry Miles, argues that Burroughs would have viewed the 1928 injury as a point of entry for the Ugly Spirit; twelve years later, during a psychotic episode, he would cut off the top joint of his little finger on the previously injured hand.

Figure 1118: The first edition of Junkie was credited to a pseudonym and tried to pitch the book as a pulp exploitation novel.

Burroughs would battle this Ugly Spirit throughout his life, eventually blaming it for his killing of his wife, Jean Vollmer, in 1951. By this point Burroughs had already written his first novel, Junkie, but the death of his wife spurred his literary career into full gear. As he put it in 1985, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.” 

The next few years were fraught, as the years after murdering your wife usually are. He spent 1953 traveling through Columbia looking to try yagé, better known as Ayahuasca, on the grounds that (in varying accounts), it could either cure opiate addiction or grant its user telepathic powers. The same year, with the help of Allen Ginsberg, he published Junkie, establishing himself as one of the major figures of the Beat Generation. Spending some time in New York, he had a brief sexual relationship with Ginsberg, but this faltered over their differing needs and desires, and after a fight that culminated in Ginsberg snapping, “I don’t want your ugly old cock,” Burroughs left the city and the country.

Figure 1119: Marjorie Cameron on the cover of the first issue of Semina (ohotographed by Wallace Berman, 1955)

Supported by his parents’ money he traveled again, first to Rome to pursue a romantic relationship with Alan Ansen, again finding it unsatisfying, and eventually moving to the Tangier International Zone, a portion of Morocco administered jointly by European colonial powers. He commenced a new phase of writing, publishing fragments of what would eventually become Interzone, and completing the manuscript of Naked Lunch. Among his publications in this period was one in Semina, an art journal published out of the West Coast Beat scene by Wallace Berman, the first issue of which featured a photograph of Marjorie Cameron on the cover.

Leaving Tangier during the political unrest after its return to Moroccan control, he relocated to Paris, where he stayed in a building that became known as the Beat Hotel, a run-down building with shared toilets on each floor that, at one point, had Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso all staying in it along with other figures from the scene, the latter writing his mushroom-cloud shaped poem “BOMB” while in the hotel. In 1958, Burroughs was joined at the hotel by polymath artist Brion Gysin, and his time became a haze of drugs and occult experiments with his new friend. Burroughs had always believed in magic, experiencing visions from a young age and, in his view, successfully laying curses on multiple targets, but here occultism became a part of his day to day life, a foundational aspect of his psychic landscape.

Figure 1120: William S. Burroughs outside the Beat Hotel (photographed by Brion Gysin, 1959)

In September of 1959, Gysin was cutting a mount to frame a picture, and cut through a stack of newspapers. Recalling a discussion with Burroughs about applying artistic techniques to writing, he picked up the fragmented text and began rearranging it to produce a text that he would publish the next year as “First Cut-Ups.” Gysin quickly shared the technique with Burroughs, who helped him develop it further, and embraced it as a core aspect of his artistic technique, connecting it to his occult explorations and concluding that cut-ups provided messages from a collective and external consciousness, claiming that “when you cut into the present the future leaks out.”

In 1960, following a drug arrest in Paris, Burroughs relocated to London, where Dr. John Dent had pioneered a technique for easier heroin withdrawal. In 1961, Timothy Leary contacted him on the advice of Allen Ginsberg, offering him psylocybin in the hopes that Burroughs would write up a trip report. He hated the drug, getting nauseous and seeing visions of green men with purple, fungus-like gills, but agreed nevertheless to speak at a symposium in New York organized by Leary. He spent a summer in Tangier high on Leary’s pills, and then traveled to New York in the fall. He stayed a few months in the US, exploring an ultimately fruitless collaboration with Leary, then returned to Europe, settling down in London in 1966.

Figure 1121: David Gaiman responds to William S. Burroughs in the pages of Mayfair (click to enlarge)

In 1968, Burroughs briefly joined the Church of Scientology, which L. Ron Hubbard created in part out of half-digested bits of Thelema he had picked up working with Parsons and in part out of an elaborate series of blatant lies. Hubbard had constructed an elaborate system based on the existence of a “reactive mind” that absorbed language and turned it into repressive trauma. For Burroughs, this connected with his magical beliefs around how cut-ups worked, and he found Scientology psychologically clarifying in processing his own not entirely understood childhood trauma. In spite of its benefits, however, Burroughs quickly fell out with the religion’s authoritarian streak, and in 1970 published a broadside in the British porn magazine Mayfair against entitled “I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard,” in which he claimed that while “Scientology has scratched some surfaces and turned up some leads,” Hubbard’s secrecy and grandiose claims such as being able to pen a piece of literature that will provoke vomiting were largely intolerable. Over the next few issues various Scientologists responded, including a piece from David Gaiman, whose son Neil had a few years earlier, at age seven, spoken with the BBC about his family’s religion. The same year, in The Electronic Revolution, he explains the magical effects of the cut-up method, starting from Hubbards’ claims and asking, “As set forth by Mr. Hubbard this consists of a number of quite ordinary phrases. He claims that reading these phrases, or hearing them spoken, can cause illness, and gives this as his reason for not publishing this material. Is he perhaps saying that these are magic words? Spells, in fact?” 

Burroughs imagined the technique on a mass scale, instructing his reader to “ imagine that a news magazine like Time got out a whole issue a week before publication and filled it with news based on predictions following a certain line, without attempting the impossible, giving our boys a boost in every story and the Commies as many defeats and casualties as possible, a whole new issue of Time formed from slanted prediction of future news. Now imagine this scrambled out through the mass media.” But Burroughs needn’t have imagined. As he wrote those words, above him, the network of satellites upon which the modern communications system would run was rapidly being assembled, hurled into the air by the rockets Hubbard’s magical mentor had helped bring into the world.

Figure 1122: Telstar 1, the first communications satellite to relay television and telephone signals, was launched in 1962.

These communications satellites were, in effect, an incidental byproduct of Cold War rocketry. As the USA and USSR armed themselves further and further with missiles and thermonuclear weapons, there became, in effect, a lot of spare rocket technology going around. This had numerous effects—the entire utopian dream of interstellar travel, for instance, amounted to fantastic retellings of a proxy war between the two countries as they used rockets to one-up each other in the realm of space travel. “We can put a man on the moon,” after all, is little more than a PR exercise to brand the technology with purposes friendlier than “we can shoot a rocket to engulf your city in Babalon’s living flame.” But they also allowed for the placement of satellites, which could be used to efficiently build a global communication system, provided, at least, that the satellite physically resembled a hydrogen bomb and could thus be lobbed up into space on a rocket.

And so gradually the sky became littered with a lattice of satellites, both military and civilian, pumping out an endless stream of information, all encoded within the weak force’s old partner, a planet-engulfing torrent of electromagnetic radiation, a billion scrambled signals screamed out by replica hydrogen bombs to reshape the world into their psychic image. Hence the latter Cold War, the US and Russia battling it out in every possible arena, each trying to establish their vision, their system of the world, as the one that would define humanity in the dawning twenty-first century, each of them more willing to incinerate the planet than allow the other to control it. That the dialectic was tedious, American capitalism and Soviet communism two equally broken systems that shared each other’s worst traits was beside the point; the world was nevertheless wholly ensnared in this idiots’ Gordian knot.

Figure 1123: The first Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs, held in 1957.

How then could such a thing be unpicked? Obviously anti-nuclear activism existed alongside the development of nuclear weapons, beginning with Szilárd’s plea to Fermi and Joliot-Curie not to publish about chain reactions. Many of the early efforts focused on the problem of nuclear fallout, starting in 1954 when the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru was contaminated with nuclear fallout from a hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll. This spurred the (unsurprisingly) already existent anti-nuclear sentiment in Japan, and in 1955 the Japanese Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was formed, and a petition calling for a ban on nuclear weapons gained thirty-five million signatures. The same year, Bertrand Russell issued the Russell-Einstein manifesto, which addressed the growing realization that between the destructive power of thermonuclear weapons and the nature of fallout contamination that a nuclear war would likely be planet-destroying. This led to the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, held in Pugwash, Nova Scotia by a billionaire friend of Bertrand Russell’s, which helped open diplomatic channels that in turn helped defuse situations like the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which a nuclear war was averted purely by the actions of Vasily Arhipov, a Russian commodore who vetoed a decision to launch a nuclear missile from a submarine too deep to receive signals about what was happening on the surface. 

Following this crisis, in 1963, a treaty was signed largely banning nuclear tests and slowing nuclear proliferation, starting with China, who tested their first nuclear weapon the next year, and continuing with India, Pakistan, South Africa, North Korea, and probably Israel. With the rise of 1960s protest movements, anti-nuclear campaigning expanded to include criticism of the emerging phenomenon of nuclear power as well. This was the wave of anti-nuclear campaigning that included Walter Morrison, Grant Morrison’s father, who used his young son to get away with sneaking into nuclear bases to take photographs on the pretext that Morrison had kicked his ball over the fence. But while this wave of activism was pursued with vigor, it had relatively few results, in no small part because its goals were fundamentally global, with powerful disincentives for acting first. 

From a twenty-first century perspective of comparative safety (at least from that specific apocalypse), it is tempting to look back at the events of the Cold War’s denouement and derive causality. Within conservative circles, this takes the form of hero worship, suggesting that Ronald Reagan’s specific policies caused the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus effectively won the war for the United States. Less ridiculous versions of the same premise argue that the economic failures of the Soviet Union were fundamentally unsustainable, and that its defeated collapse was a historical inevitability. But both of these lines of argument fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Cold War, which was not simply a complex and multilevel war to be won by particularly cunning stratagems, but an entire mode of thinking—an all-encompassing worldview made up of interlocking symbols: the bomb, the rocket, the stars, the sickle, and more. It did not depend on individual actors, who were in the end interchangeable parts within a machine of inconceivable complexity. This does not mean that individual action cannot be decisive in specific moments, as with Vasily Arhipov, but Arhipov did not alter the larger system in which the missile launch nearly happened; he just kept the world from being incinerated.

But this logic applies on a larger scale as well. Regardless of the supposed historical inevitability of the collapse of the USSR—a claim that firmly belongs in the category of history being written by the victor—it is ultimately an error to suggest that the USSR was necessary for the Cold War. It is not, after all, as though the end of the Cold War actually spelled the end of US and Russian tension, nor as though both countries did not remain nuclear powers. Similarly, tension continues to exist between the US and China, between India and Pakistan, and between North Korea and more or less everybody. The threat of nuclear annihilation blatantly still exists, and it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which it happens. And yet in practice the dissolution of the Soviet Union clearly did correspond with the end of nuclear annihilation as an omnipresent existential threat. The nature of the scrambled symbols blared out by the satellite system changed. And so the question remains: what could possibly have caused that change?

Burroughs, of course, already suggests an answer: magic. Indeed, he answers the question directly in The Electronic Revolution, writing, “I have described here a number of weapons and tactics in the war game. Weapons that change consciousness could call the war game in question.” And yet subsequent magical theorists have identified significant problems with this approach. Peter Carroll, writing seven years after Burroughs in Liber Null, formulates what is essentially the default position of chaos magic on this matter: “The tendency of things to continue to exist, even when unobserved, is due to their having their being in Chaos. The magician can only change something if he can ‘match’ the Chaos which is upholding the normal event. This is the same as becoming one with the source of the event. His will becomes the will of the universe in some particular aspect. It is for this reason that people who witness real magical happenings at close range are sometimes overcome with nausea and may even die. The part of their Kia or life force which was upholding the normal reality is forcibly altered when the abnormal occurs. If this type of magic is attempted with a number of people working in perfect synchronization, it works much better. Conversely, it is even more difficult to perform in front of many persons, all of whom are upholding the ordinary course of events.” And Grant Morrison, in “Pop Magic!” offers a similar assessment, noting that “Before you set out to destroy ‘the System,’ however, first remember that we made it and in our own interests. We sustain it constantly, either in agreement, with our support, or in opposition with our dissent. The opponents of the System are as much a function of the System as its defenders. The System is a ghost assembled in the minds of human beings operating within ‘The System.’” 

Figure 1124: The October 1967 demonstration in which protesters attempted to levitate the Pentagon.

In other words, magic on the scale necessary to terminate the Cold War is absurdly difficult because of the sheer number of people who are, deliberately or not, counterweaving any such effort in their every thought about what is and isn’t possible in the world. A magical spell to end the Cold War would simply launch itself into the vast matrix of information that is that war like a fly into a windshield, and do just as little to slow it down. For a practical case study, consider the 1967 effort to levitate the Pentagon. And that was just a single building; the Cold War is much bigger. Magically speaking, a massive array of knockoff hydrogen bombs drenching the world in an endless rain of information fallout is as fearsome and unstoppable an enemy as it is possible to imagine. Indeed, it is sufficiently fearsome that it is difficult to imagine who could even take on the task. The level of madness necessary to make the attempt more or less categorically precludes the level of technical precision and focus necessary to pull it off. It would almost necessarily have to be achieved by accident—an exercise of magical will that takes place on a level other than conscious desire or intent. But this presents its own problems—accidental magic may be very effective at propping up consensus reality’s apocalyptic long con, but in the overwhelming majority of instances it has a crude bluntness that is only suitable for the simplest of spells. 

Whereas an end to the Cold War would have to be enormously subtle. The only method of attack with any real possibility of working would be to create a sort of sympathetic resonance within the information bombardment that is the Cold War. One could not simply launch a sigil or conduct a private ritual. One would instead have to transmit something quite substantial within the Cold War’s information system. Ideally it would need to exist within the ecosystem of modern media—either the product of a major corporate media company or of state media (not merely in the sense of being released by it but of emerging out of that company/state’s very essence, perhaps tacitly mirroring some sort of original sin within its publisher). Ideally it would not come from the US or Russia, but a third party—the old Western European colonial regimes whose collapse created space for the US/Russia rivalry to seize the stage would be ideal, though certainly not the only choice.

This would enable it to work upon the information system slowly and by attrition. Instead of being swatted away as an external threat, it could exist within that system, throwing it off balance and eventually crashing its function—a method of action more like cancer than a virus. In this regard, looking in 1991 for the end of the Cold War is an error—the end likely happened some years before, and it simply took until 1991 for the chain reaction instigated by the disruption to finally reach its critical mass. 

In order to persist within the information system for that long it would not merely need to be popular and successful, but dense. Anything simple and to the point would be overrun by the system, made to function normally within it. A successful piece of sabotage would need to have a sort of fiendish complexity—to serve as a hyper-dense information system on its own. Here the techniques of Burroughs are specifically applicable—it would be necessary to create a scrambled, overlapping system with multiple symbols accruing increasingly rich and heavy meanings through repeated use across new contexts such that they have enough life to survive years of being digested and regurgitated by a thousand chattering satellite bombs without losing any of their potency. And yet it would also have to, very much unlike Burroughs, be simple and graspable in spite of its fiendish complexity—to offer a surface-level accessibility and clarity rooted in clean, approachable classicism. This would be most easily accomplished by disguising it as a work of popular fiction. Even then, perils abound—the work would have to stand relatively independently, as opposed to being quickly undermined by a torrent of sequels and merchandising that collapse its complex and multilayered symbols into easily digested single vision.

Figure 1125: Doctor Who's companion Ace wearing a Watchmen badge on her right sleeve.

Enough pretense: this is a description of Watchmen. A work by one of the greatest magicians of his age that predates his awareness that he was doing magic, and so that is able to engage in an audacious high wire act without any of the doubt or self-recrimination that would interfere with any attempt to do it deliberately. A conscious mind that is entirely capable of the magic work required but unburdened by the knowledge that it is doing them. Published and then stolen by DC Comics in a grim parody of their foundational theft of Superman, but crucially left unblemished for twenty-five years before being polluted with sequels and tie-ins. Featuring a Burroughsian web of symbols and overlapping streams of information that rewards endless, obsessional reading, but with an ultra-readable nine panel grid and immaculately clear art that makes it accessible in spite of that complexity. And, of course, it was in practice massively popular, the Watchmen smiley immediately leaching out into the wider culture, appearing on the jacket of Doctor Who’s new companion Ace, on the cover of Bomb the Bass’s “Beat Dis” single, and as set dressing on The Lenny Henry Show. 

It must be stressed that there is a reason that creating a magical spell to end the Cold War is not something any magician would do consciously: it’s an astonishingly stupid and destructive thing to do. In doing it, Moore found himself caught at the epicenter of a blast of living flame that is by definition larger than the hydrogen blast that stretched back to consume Jack Parsons and William Burroughs’s hand. Few indeed are those who could be engulfed in such a blast without going mad. It’s not entirely clear whether Moore was even one of them. Magic at the scale of Watchmen changes the magician as much as it changes the world. Even the most deliberate and carefully performed magic tends to lean hard into the law of unintended consequences. Watchmen takes this to extremes.

The most obvious thing is simply that the work could not possibly be widely understood. This is already well-documented, with readers glomming onto the most violent and transgressive elements of a work that was never about their glorification. That the comic’s most visible impact would be the glorification of Rorschach while its role in averting the annihilation of the entire human race went unnoticed is a cruel irony of reception. Likewise, the hurt feelings and ways in which Watchmen would lead to Moore’s alienation from the entire comics industry is a cruel price to pay, but largely the sort of thing one expects when engaging in audacious and high-profile acts of magic.

It is also possible to ask about the personal cost. To suggest that Watchmen caused Moore’s divorce is a crass overreach, but it is probably fair to suggest that Moore’s life would have undergone an upheaval of similar scale even without the collapse of his marriage. It is simply not possible to do something on the scale of Watchmen and emerge out the other side the same person; certainly not while still maintaining one’s creative faculties. That Watchmen can credibly be argued not to be Moore’s best work is an astonishing thing, but that this was possible already required a dramatic change in his approach and worldview. But ultimately, this was not merely lucky but necessary. On a fundamental level, Moore’s abilities were needed.

There were, after all, far larger consequences . Consider the way in which Watchmen averted the Cold War: by becoming a part of the vast information system of the world and disrupting its function. Consider similarly what the overall message being pumped through all those satellites was: an entrenched and bitter war fought within a facile opposition. Watchmen did not simply terminate this message. Instead it shifted it. And in doing so, it shifted all of the titanic amount of energy that was making up that war. This energy had to go somewhere—there was too much of it to simply fizzle out. In other words, if there wasn’t going to be a Cold War anymore there had to be something else.

And so the Last War in Albion. With the Cold War recognized as, fundamentally, a conceptual structure, where else could it go but into the realm of ideas and magic? And so its structures migrated. A simmering feud between two warring ideologies with far more similarities than differences, only rarely fought directly and in the open, but instead in a series of proxy wars to establish control of various conceptual territories. The terms didn’t even need to change; if the Cold War was at its heart a battle for control of the twenty-first century, so would this War. 

As the admittedly unexpected winner of the Cold War, that Moore himself would be pulled into this replacement conflagration was inevitable. This is simple fate. Having accomplished something so searingly audacious, Moore could simply not be allowed to slink into the night. Hubris, even inadvertent hubris, has its consequences. Hence Moore’s transfiguration, from charming and eccentric genius comics writer into the far stranger figure of a snake-worshipping occultist. He had new roles to play.

But war is not a solitary pursuit, and Moore needed a rival; someone who could occupy an opposite position to him. Not too opposite, of course: a rivalry such as this requires the sort of frenzied hatred that can only be conjured from the narcissism of small differences. But someone whose work, by its very nature, would be an affront to Moore, and who would find Moore an offensive figure in his own right. In 1987, of course, no obvious figure existed that could possibly satisfy this. There were other prestigious comics writers, of course: Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman were routinely mentioned in the same breath as Moore in press articles, and each have clear differences with Moore. But neither of these men were magicians or likely to become magicians, and both were friendly with Moore. Better to find someone new. That is the pattern for Albionic Wars, after all: the entrenched and venerable magician and the young upstart. Aleister Crowley and Austin Spare, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, William Blake and William Blake; a War requires these two figures. Moore was obviously destined to be the first. And the other would, by his nature, have to arrive upon the scene. And so the world watched, and waited for the upstart to present himself.

“My favorite stopping place was the launch site monument where the Army had tested Nazi rockets. On the bee television, I could see that this is where the Moon and the Earth were joined. All around this place, semi-intelligent weapons were trying to escape the Earth hoping for a new life elsewhere.” - Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees

Figure 1126: The Terrazoid from the original European release of the Zoids toys.

{The story begins, for the first time in the War, in Japan. There, in 1981, the toy company Tomy released a set of three model kits for mecha resembling various animals: an elephant, a dinosaur, and, more sinisterly, a duck. The line, called Mechabonica, was a complete flop, but the next year were successfully released in the US under a new name: Zoids. Under this name they were rereleased successfully in Japan, and, in 1984, in Europe, by which point they were a fully fledged line of exciting smashy robot toys. In Japan, these toys featured a story told through a “Battle Story” printed on the boxes that told of Planet Zi, where two factions of humanoid Zoidians, the Hellic Republic and the Zenebas Empire, fought an ongoing war with the eponymous giant robot mechs, which they have modified into their current highly developed forms, with the Hellic Republic mostly using blue Zoids with a more open design, and the Zenebas Empire using heavily armored red Zoids. No effort was made to translate this story into English-language releases, however, and in late 1985 Marvel UK began producing a comic that provided its own backstory for the toys. 

Figure 1127: The awkward double bill of Spider-Man and Zoids.

This comic was initially published in Secret Wars, the title in which Marvel UK reprinted the eponymous crossover saga and its sequel Secret Wars II, and subsequently spun off into Spider-Man and Zoids, which, as the title suggests, ran the Zoids titles alongside reprints of various Spider-Man comics. The initial installments were penned by Ian Rimmer, who got his start editing Scream! for IPC (the first issue of which featured an Alan Moore strip called Monster, although other writers took over the strip after the first installment) before migrating to Marvel UK, with art by Kev Hopgood. These had a sort of classic IPC vibe to them, mixing some of the premises of Pat Mills’ Flesh in the early installments of 2000 AD with the feel of a classic British sci-fi war comic vibe, especially in the Secret Wars installments, where the strips are four-pagers with a double page spread in the middle that allowed for Frank Bellamy-esque wide panels that showcased the giant robots the comics were meant to be selling. 

Figure 1128: The Prince of Darkness, Krark (Written by Ian Rimmer, art by Kev Hopgood, from Spider-Man and Zoids #1, 1986)

The setup of the comics is simple enough: a ship called the Celeste, commandeered for prison transport, crash lands on its intended planet, which turns out to be belled Zoidstar, and where they are promptly caught in the middle of the ongoing war between the Blue and Red factions of Zoids and, with their ship destroyed, commence trying to survive in this hostile new environment. Within this simplistic setup, however, there were a surprisingly large number of moving parts: the rise of the “Prince of Darkness” Krark, a Pterodactyl-shaped Zoid who sought to unite the Blue and Red Zoids under his command to conquer the galaxy, the revelation that the prison officer Silverman was in fact a deadly cyborg, and a wealth of plots and intrigues among the Zoids such as the story Mammoth, a Red Zoid who defects from the Blue Zoids. 

It is, it must be said, actually pretty good, if never spectacular. It’s clear everyone involved is trying to get a comic about selling toys to punch above its weight. This doesn’t mean that it has outsized ambitions—nobody is engaged in some sprawling project to reinvent fighting robot comics forever. The aim is still disposable pop culture ephemera. It’s just that they’re trying to craft enjoyable pop culture ephemera—something that will entertain and leave readers excited for the next installment.  It’s not post-Moore work, but it is post-Mills work, tangibly written by people who read Charley’s War and Action and were minded to try and equal that.

What the UK Zoids strips are most remembered for, however, is providing Grant Morrison his first ongoing work. Morrison wrote a trio of two issue stories over the course of 1986 before essentially taking over the comic for an eleven issue run starting in December and continuing until the penultimate issue in February of 1987, the same month as Watchmen #9. The tone and ambition of these contributions are revealing. As Morrison tells it, “I took the job seriously and set about transforming the undemanding source material—a group of astronauts stranded on a planet of warring alien robots—into a showcase for my peculiar talents in an action-and-angst-fueled take on East-West politics and how it felt to be part of a group of ordinary people trapped between the titanic struggles of very large opponents who couldn’t care less about your hobbies or your favorite books.” As usual with Supergods this is self-aggrandizing, but in no way unfairly so; Morrison’s Zoids strips do immediately stand out from those among them as more innovative, interesting, and ambitious—the work of someone who is not only taking the job seriously but who is trying to do something genuinely memorable and worthwhile with the job.

Figure 1129: The horrors of war on Zoidstar. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Geoff Senior and Stuart Place, from Spider-Man and Zoids #18, 1986)

Morrison’s first story, a two-parter that came out in July of 1986, the same month as Watchmen #2 and 3, is indicative of his style. While a main story features Heller, the captain of the crashed Celeste, confronting the cybernetic Silverman and apparently finally killing him, the real highlight is a b-story in which two elderly Zoid, Zee and Zed, fly across Zoidstar in search of the Zoid afterlife, a place called Metalon. They speak speculatively of the place, describing it as “an island paradise where Zoids such as you and I, who have fought well and grown old, may find final peace.” The journey to Metalon is hard—Zee is fatally injured in an unexpected attack by an Octozoid—and Morrison takes care to sell the horror of the Zoids’ war. As the Octozoid attacks, Zed narrates: “I hear Zee screaming… a sudden shock sears through my neuro-circuitry. My Zoid has lost a leg. I hear metal stressed to its limit, snapped and twisted. I hear glass exploding. I hear Zee dying.” As the battle concludes, he euthanizes the critically injured Zee, strips his Zoid for parts, and flies off again in search of peace.

 Figure 1130: The horrors of the Zoid afterlife become apparent. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Geoff Senior and Stuart Place, from Spider-Man and Zoids #19, 1986)

In the second part, an exhausted Zed crashes onto an island where a faceless, robed figure welcomes him to Metalton. He submerges in a pool, dissolves and is reborn in a new body, and is ushered through the golden gates of Metalton, speaking wearily to his faceless psychopomp about the peace he longs for. But as the robed figure ushers him through the gates, he explains: “Metalton is the isle of heroes, a warrior’s heaven where mighty Zoids may live forever.. Not in eternal piece…” He trails off for the final page turn. “But in eternal combat!” And so Zed ends the story at war once again, an endless war in which he can feel pain but never die, “for on Zoidstar it never ends… the fighting never ends!”

On one level it’s a simple twist of fate story along the lines of 2000 AD’s Future Shocks which to be fair Morrison had already written three of. But it would be an easy mistake to treat the structure as the content here. If anything, Morrison is making a savvy choice, recognizing that a story told over six pages is still basically Future Shock-sized even if it’s set up as the b-story over two installments of a strip, and that a twist ending is still the most effective thing to do with a story that size. And Morrison’s choice of endings is effective beyond the twist, recasting the endless conflict that had been playing out over the previous twenty-five installments of Zoids not merely as a brutal war that the human characters struggle to survive against the backdrop of, but as an existential nightmare in its own right, no longer merely dangerous but nihilistically absurd. It’s not just clever, but perfectly designed to seriously fuck up an entire generation of British comics fans, among them the then eleven years old Kieron Gillen.

Figure 1131: Phaedris contemplates the devastation of Zoidstar. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Ron Smith and Stuart Place, from Spider-Man and Zoids #30, 1986)

Morrison’s second story, in September, took this approach further, entirely discarding the main human-centric plot of the comic to tell a two-part story focused on a man named Phaedris, the lone survivor of an ancient Zoid attack on the previously tranquil world of Roquindel, “a blue-green world of heartbreaking beauty” where “the seasons turned, the tides rose and fell, synchronized to the vast, geological rhythm of Roquindel’s perfect heartbeat.” Phaedris has traveled to Zoidstar. When he left, his intention was vengeance—to destroy the Zoids’ world as they had destroyed his. But looking upon the barren, war-scarred planet, he notes, “you’ve already done the job yourselves.”

Instead, he rescues a lone Zoid pilot, carrying him to safety. Eventually the Zoid pilot recovers, and they speak; Phaedris offers him a glowing sphere containing “the stored essence of Roquindel.” The Zoid touches the sphere, and is flooded with the memories of Roquindel, breaking into horrified sobs at the realization of what his people have done. Phaedris explains that he has been traveling so long that his lust for vengeance has burnt out, and that he is now empty; the Zoid suggests they travel to the Blue Zoid base to show the others the sphere. And so, at the end of the first part, they do.

Figure 1132: Something almost like jope. (Written by Grant Morrison, art byGeoff Senior and Stuart Place, from Spider-Man and Zoids #31, 1986)

The second part sees Phaedris and the robotic pilot reach the Blue Zoid encampment, where Phaedris attempts to present the sphere to Zoidzilla, the Blue Zoid leader. Zoidzilla is singularly unimpressed, and blasts Phaedris into oblivion. The pilot is horrified, and runs to comfort his dying friend, who begs to be taken home so he doesn’t die in a barren desert. Almost immediately, the Red Zoids attack, and the pilot runs around the battlefield, desperately trying to get anyone to touch the sphere so they can understand the futility and uselessness of the endless war in which they are all struggling and dying. They do not, and the pilot is eventually blasted to bits by a Red Zoid, who is subsequently shot down himself. After the battle, as its pilot crawls free of the wreckage, it finds the sphere, picking it up, and staring, raptly at it as he says “I… understand… I understand” while a lone flower blooms in the sand behind him.

It is a less nihilistic ending than Morrison’s first arc, to be sure, but no less bleak for it. If anything, the introduction of some notion of hope increases the sense of horror Morrison is bringing to Zoids. Metalton was a piece of absurdist horror in the tradition of Sartre or Ionesco. But it rendered the Zoids into a thought experiment—a world of endless and horrifying war in which nothing else really features. This second two-parter, however, makes it a world in which change is possible—one where it is possible to imagine a sequence of events that would stop the wars and allow for something else. This sequence of events is demonstrably and cruelly improbable—the obvious assumption, having just seen Phaedris and his friend brutally slaughtered, is that the same fate awaits the Red Zoid when he tries to explain what he has seen. Nevertheless, alternatives exist. In this, the world of Zoids is much more analogous to the material world of the 1980s, where the idea that the Cold War was horrible and foolish was widespread but seemingly impotent, unable to affect the world. The former is about the existential nightmares of the reader’s toys; the latter is about the overwhelming cruelty of the reader’s world. 

Morrison’s third Zoids two-parter began in Spider-Man and Zoids #36, two days after Watchmen #6. Unlike his first two, this one ties in more with the overall plot of the comic—no surprise given that Morrison would be taking over as the primary writer in just a few weeks. As with his first arc, this one splits its attention between two stories. The main story features Heller and his crew salvaging the wreckage of the now-submerged Celeste. The more interesting plot, however, takes place back on Earth, where it becomes evident that the events of the first Zoids strip back in Secret Wars were not an accident at all, but rather the plan of the Cybersol Corporation, which sought to salvage a Zoid and harvest the technology. The second strip is perhaps most interesting on this front, featuring the return of a salvage operator who appeared in a one-strip story back in Spider-Man and Zoids #12 credited to Richard Alan, in fact the pen name for letterer Richard Starkings. This was the first Zoids strip not to be written by Rimmer, and featured the salvage operative approaching Zoidstar to look for the Celeste, only to find the Zoids and flee, concluding that the Celeste could not possibly have survived, not noticing as the survivors scream futilely at her departing ship, begging her to save them. 

Figure 1133: Men in black disappearing the witnesses. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by John Ridgway and Stuart Place, from Spider-Man and Zoids #37, 1986)

In Morrison’s strip, she is being interrogated at the Cybersol corporation, where she frustratedly gives yet another account of her experience on Zoidstar, where she is being held prisoner by men in black suits and sunglasses. After getting her story, they explain that she’s been classified as “missing in space” by Galactic Salvage, which the men in black own, and then push her out a window so that she cannot tell anyone else about the Zoids. It’s one of the earliest instances of Morrison’s fascination with conspiracy theories, born of his memory of how men in black “turned up one night and said to my dad that if he kept it up he would vanish and never be seen again.” And it furthers the sense of the Zoids’ war as a cruel and satiric mirror of the Cold War. 

It is inevitable, in any early Morrison work, to make the comparison to Moore. But arguing that these Zoids stories are Moore imitations is a heavy lift. There are moments of similarity, to be sure—some mildly florid captions like “the sky turned black as the sun went down, like a coin in a furnace, melting along the skyline” in Spider-Man and Zoids #30, or the scene transitions in Spider-Man and Zoids #37, where Morrison uses dialogue from the next scene as wry commentary on the previous one in a manner that resembles some of the formalist tricks of Watchmen. Heck, if one were really determined, a case could be made that the twist of Metalton’s true nature resembles the punchline of the Maxwell the Magic Cat strip from a few months earlier in which a mouse, about to be killed by Maxwell, inquires about the afterlife, and is told of Cat Heaven, “where everything is lovely and they get whatever they want for all time”; the mouse, relieved, asks where mice go when they die, and is told that they go to cat heaven as well. But this mostly serves to illustrate the fundamental hollowness of the exercise.) Yes, if one wants to prove that Morrison’s work has antecedents in Moore’s the evidence is there, just as it is if one wants to prove that Watchmen has antecedents in Superfolks. Not only is influence a thing, ideas are not separate from their executions, and to creators can tackle superficially similar material in radically different ways. 

Figure 1134: Echoes of Metalton in a Maxwell the Magic Cat strip. (Alan Moore as Jill de Ray, 1986)

For the most part, it is easier to articulate the ways in which Morrison’s Zoids work does not feel like Moore, and indeed does not feel like someone trying to imitate Moore. Perhaps most obviously, Morrison does not feel like he is out to impress. Of course, neither does Moore in all instances, but Moore’s works up through 1986 generally divide into two neat categories: works that are ostentatiously trying to impress the reader and works where Moore is fucking around. The former, obviously, includes things like Miracleman, V for Vendetta, and Swamp Thing, while the latter includes most of his Future Shocks and D.R. & Quinch. What Morrison does with Zoids feels like neither of these. It doesn’t luxuriate in its best moments, avoiding the accelerated language and slowed pacing that tends to accompany Moore’s best ideas in order to make them stand out as such. There’s none of the ornately formalist structuring—the repeated motifs that Moore routinely uses to build up to his more overtly clever reveals. Morrison uses some lightly recurring theming—discussions of deserts in the Phaedris two-parter, or some paralleled scenes in the Metalton one such as Heller being reassured that “it’s all over” after his confrontation with Silverman and Zed’s declaration that “the fighting never ends.” But this isn’t done ostentatiously, and the degree to which it prefigures Silverman’s inevitable return is allowed to play out in the quietness of subtext, unlike Moore, who derives so much of his strength by making the subtext into text, putting his themes right at the surface in lush bursts of structure and poetry.

Ironically, Morrison claimed almost the exact opposite in a 1988 interview, claiming of Zoids that “it's probably the closest I'll come to something like Watchmen; I put everything into it. There was stuff from the Tarot that nobody will ever notice, there were all sorts of recurring images and symbols. And the strange thing was, the readership really got into it.” And yet the truth is that if one were to take the credits off the bottom of all of the Zoids strips and then ask someone to identify which ones were by Grant Morrison, they’d likely be able to get most of them right, particularly if they looked out for Morrison’s common obsessions, but it’s easy to imagine a Richard Starkings or Simon Furman strip sneaking through, or someone failing to realize that the strips from Spider-Man and Zoids #36-37 are his. Morrison is clearly the best writer to work on Zoids, but the disjunct is not radical. He outclasses them by beating them at their own game, doing the same sort of post-Mills “cultural ephemera done well and with impact” that they are, but with a wider range of ideas and an emotional palette that takes in moods like grief and sorrow alongside suspense and excitement. 

Figure 1135: The Black Zoid revealed., (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Kev Hopgood and David Hine, from Spider-Man and Zoids #40, 1986)

If Morrison’s first three Zoids stories make it difficult to present him as a Moore imitator, his work once he fully took over the title with Spider-Man and Zoids #40 in December of 1986 makes it impossible. Morrison’s first arc was an epic seven part story known as the Black Zoid arc. It opens with one of the few moments of Morrison’s Zoids that actually is fairly describable as a Moore imitation, with captions talking about how everywhere has stories of the end of the world, from “the Yhai—a superintelligent microorganism colony that inhabits a water droplet on the hull of a derelict spacecraft—[who] believe that the end will come when the sun rises, evaporating their entire universe,” while “the shrouded mutes of Dhola communicate in a complex sign language—fearful that even the slightest whisper might attract the attention of the god Kazaxus of the Destroying Eye.” The narration then turns to Zoidstar, where, instead of hearing an eschatological myth, the reader sees Zoidzilla, the by this point iconic and terrifying Blue Zoid leader, suddenly attacked by an unseen foe that destroys him almost instantly. This, it emerges at the end of the issue, is the Black Zoid, a massive Zoid revealed in a final page splash, where he takes up the whole page, three humans cowering at the bottom, not even as tall as its toes, and piloted by the still not dead yet Silverman.

Figure 1136: The Black Zoid sheds its first casing in a burst of biomechanical horror. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Kev Hopgood and Dave Hine, from Spider-Man and Zoids #42, 1986)

This begins a five issue sequence in which the humans try to deal with the Black Zoid. This takes the form of, essentially, a lengthy fight scene in which various forces throw themselves against Silverman’s behemoth. Issue #42, for instance, sees Gore, one of the more prominent Blue Zoids, attacking the Black Zoid and managing to topple it. But as soon as the Black Zoid is felled, it splits open wit a series of horrible sounds and, dripping with green slime, a second, more mobile Black Zoid emerges, this one armed with a massive blade, with which he quickly decaptitates Gore. This sets up the pattern for the next couple of issues, which see other forces take on the Black Zoid: Heller’s son Griff, piloting the remains of Zoidzilla, then Krark’s new United Zoid Army, and finally Heller’s friends back at base, who manage to get a large cannon together and blast the Black Zoid. Each time, the Zoid splits open to reveal another within it, a wasp-line flying creature, then a beetle, and finally Silverman himself, atop spidery-legs, who crawls out of the wreckage to kill Heller. In the final installment, Heller fights Silverman one on one, decapitating the spider-robot and finally smashing the head when it too grows legs to attack him.

The summary does little justice to the material, which comes off not as a repetitive litany of Matryoshka mechas but as an epic battle against a world-ending threat, with every new form of Black Zoid or response to it ratcheting the tension up further. Morrison turns the volume up to ten and simply leaves it there, correctly betting that he can sustain a tone of frenzied apocalypse for thirty-nine pages straight. And, it is worth noting, this is not something that Moore would ever have done. Moore’s work almost entirely avoids action sequences; violence happens in them, but it’s never his choice of set piece. The closest thing to this in Moore’s ouvre is the apocalypse in Swamp Thing’s Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-in, and that’s played as a series of spiritual confrontations with a cosmic being of ultimate nullity, not as giant robots smashing the shit out of each other. Moore’s may have more literary merit—although truth be told few people would turn to Swamp Thing #50 as one of their first choices in an argument for the literary merits of comic books or indeed Alan Moore—but Morrison’s has the energetic thrill—the sense of effervescent thrill designed to send pre-adolescent boys to school enthusing “didja read Zoids yet” at their friends. Morrison is offering the base and joyful pleasures of childhood popular culture, distilled down to their essence done with competence, verve, and a clear sense of thoughtfulness. For all Moore’s skill, this is at best something he’s been able to do sporadically, in Captain Britain and perhaps a handful of his minor DC works, and never in this kind of ultra-distilled manner. 

Figure 1137: Morrison brings in his frequent theme of loss of identity. (Art by Steve Yeowell and Dave Hine, from Spider-Man and Zoids #48, 1987)

The Black Zoid arc ends with a page consisting of three three-panel epilogues, all of which, in the usual fashion of such things, set up future plots: Krark begins to dream of galactic conquest, the Red Zoid leader Redhorn makes his return after his apparent death a few months earlier in the Zoids Annual, and, perhaps most obviously, Silverman turns out to have survived. And Morrison’s remaining four installments of the strip are similarly future-looking. He opens with “Orientation,” a story further developing his storyline of the Cybersol Corporation looking to harness Zoids for their own use. This installment takes place entirely on a spaceship traveling to Zoidstar as a ship full of space marines (this was notably just a few months after Aliens hit cinemas) prepares to try to capture a Zoid. The following two feature the humans recovering from their battle with the Black Zoid, and in particular tending to Griff, whose attempt to pilot Zoidzilla has led to him becoming trapped inside his own mind, overpowered by Zoidzilla’s consciousness. Once again, Morrison is playing with thematic obsessions that will continue throughout his career, this time grappling with mental possession and loss of identity, as he already had in The Liberators for Warrior.

Figure 1138: Zoids gets metafictional. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Phil Gascoine and Stuart Place, from Spider-Man and Zoids #50, 1987)

In this regard, Morrison’s final Zoids strip, in Spider-Man and Zoids #50, a week after Watchmen #9, is arguably the most interesting. Certainly it’s the one that various comic sites writing articles on Morrison’s obscure early work have most often latched on to, and for obvious reasons. It opens on an unknown planet where a man sits at a chess board opposite a skeleton who he continues talking to. It is evident that the man and his crashed ship have been on the planet for a long time, and that he has lost his mind. Meanwhile, strange aliens consisting of levetating orange tadpole like creatures with a single eye fly over the planet, inspecting Zoids. Eventually they come to confront the man, cryptically informing him that the game is about to begin. The man, horrified, breaks down crying, telling Charlotte about these aliens, explaining, “they whole universe is their playroom! All of us, even this planet’s robot monsters. All of us. You. Me. We’re just toys to them.” It’s a bit of bracing metafiction, adding yet another level to Morrison’s increasingly complex satire about the futility of endless war among Japanese model kits. 

Figure 1139: The bulk of the existent issue of Zoids Monthly is taken up summarizing the Marvel UK strip. (Written by Grant Morrison, art by Steve Yeowell and David Hine, from Zoids Monthly #1, 1987, unpublished)

One final installment of Zoids appeared in Spider-Man and Zoids #51, the final issue of that title. This was written by Richard Starkings, and followed up on Redhorn’s return before teasing that the story would continue in Zoids Monthly #1. The plan was for Morrison, who had by this point impressed Marvel UK editorial, to write the book for the US market under Marvel’s Star Comics imprint, a children’s imprint that did a number of comics based on toy licenses. Morrison wrote the first issue, and Steve Yeowell completed pencils, with Dave Hine inking and Richard Starkings lettering about half of it before Marvel pulled the plug. In May of 2020, Starkings lettered the uninked back half and released the comic on Twitter, allowing it to be read for the frist time in more than thirty years. The resulting book is not much—unsurprisingly, Morrison planned to use the first issue to recap the events of the UK-exclusive Zoids comics for their new American audience. But it’s clear Morrison had ideas for where to go. But Marvel got cold feet, deciding that the comic was not suitable for the children’s audience that Star Comics catered to, and pulled the plug. 

In Morrison’s telling during an interview in January of 1988, four months before Animal Man #1 came out, this was an act of self-sabotage. “They wanted something with a lot of action and not too much thought so I rewrote the first script as this really nasty Viet Nam type thing with everybody getting blown to bits. I sent it in because I was just pissed off, and the Americans hated it. I thought, if they want action, I'll give them action. I think it was a mistake to involve US Marvel in Zoids. We had a lot of support and encouragement from lan and Richard at Marvel UK but the Americans are so reactionary it's unbelievable.” This seems unlikely, however. For one thing, it’s a completely inaccurate account of Zoids Monthly #1, which is a fairly talky book that sets up themes and recaps things, with no major action sequences whatsoever. For another, it’s not as though Morrison objected to action—the interview took place the same month as his final Starblazer contribution, after all. 

But most of all, it is impossible to imagine Morrison deliberately throwing away an opportunity like that. To get picked up in the US market after your first ongoing gig in the UK was the obvious dream of anyone getting into the UK comics industry in the mid-80s. For all Morrison’s self-mythologizing as an anarchic, devil may care enfant terrible, he was simply not stupid enough to throw that chance away. More likely, he simply fell afoul of what was, to be fair, an impossible gig. Zoids Monthly #1 was a poor fit for Star Comics, yes, but so was Morrison’s Zoids work in general; Marvel was in effect asking him to do something they didn’t actually want him to do. Add to that the fact that Marvel was at the time in the tumultuous last days of Jim Shooter, and that Marvel had never particularly taken Marvel UK seriously in the first place, with Shooter famously opting to completely alienate Alan Moore by refusing to budge over the Marvelman naming issue, and it’s easy to see how Morrison’s apparent big opportunity could easily have been doomed no matter what he did. Still, the fact that he came as close as he did to immediately breaking out in the US market spoke volumes. Yes, it was a period where US comics companies were hungry for British talent, all hoping to find the next Alan Moore. But that Morrison could parlay that into an American job effort off the back of seventeen five-page strips about robot toys shows how impressive a talent he was. Another chance would be along soon enough.}

Chapter 11, "By Another Man's (Look Upon My Works Ye Mighty)," will be published on July 20th.


LovecraftInBrooklyn 4 weeks ago

The first half of this reminds me of how magic works in Mage the Ascension, consensus reality vs people trying to fight it. It’s incredibly Morrison styled.

The Zoids stuff reminds me of how inspired by Morrison the LEGO movies are, both in the meta fiction and the First Truth of Batman

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Elizabeth Sandifer 2 weeks, 5 days ago

Mage: The Ascension lifts liberally from chaos magick, yes.

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Eric 4 weeks ago

So glad you're working on this again; I haven't commented here because I've been reading it as you release it to your Patreon so don't normally have much to say once it gets here. Very much looking forward to seeing this as a single book finally.

With that said, I do have one very minor technical question: Every list I've ever seen of Morrison's Zoids work says his first issue was 19, not 18; with 19 being a single issue rather than a pair by him. Was Morrison actually credited in the issue?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 weeks ago

No, he was on 18 and 19, as the image credits indicate. But Spider-Man and Zoids was a weekly title, and so his two -part arc spanning those two issues both came out in the same month.

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Eric 4 weeks ago

Thank you. Now I have another issue of the series to track down, I thought I had completed my run of the Morrison issues.

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Mikhail Gorbachev 4 weeks ago

"Watchmen ended the Cold War."

You cannot be serious, young lady.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 4 weeks ago

So first of all lol, especially at continuing the joke through to the e-mail address.

Second of all, I think that really depends on what you mean by "serious."

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CJM123 3 weeks, 6 days ago

Are you making sure you also entertain the possibility that Gorbachev is reading The Last War in Albion? He could be really feeling the pressure of Coronavirus and not being able to do some war crimes, but still somehow less than most other world leaders.

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Daru 3 weeks ago

"One would instead have to transmit something quite substantial within the Cold War’s information system. Ideally it would need to exist within the ecosystem of modern media—either the product of a major corporate media company or of state media (not merely in the sense of being released by it but of emerging out of that company/state’s very essence, perhaps tacitly mirroring some sort of original sin within its publisher).”

"A conscious mind that is entirely capable of the magic work required but unburdened by the knowledge that it is doing them."

What a chapter EL - you've done it again! I loved that creeping feeling that rose within me, of the awareness that the act of magic that was being hinted at was Watchmen. A thing of beauty.

After having read your thoughts on the intersection between Parsons, Hubbard, Crowley and Burroughs - it really worked for me - whilst drawing in also (I know it is outside the purview of the War) obvious thoughts of both Twin Peaks: The Return episode 8, and Mark Frost's Secret History of Twin Peaks. No obvious comment to make, just noticing that a parallel line of thought was made - but one that did not contain any sense of positive outcome or hopeful magic.

But damn, I am so glad to be reading LWIA again El and to see you digging your teeth into long form writing - it's really working.

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