3 years, 9 months ago
This is the fourth of seven installments of Chapter Three of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work for Sounds Magazine (Roscoe Moscow and The Stars My Degradation) and his comic strip Maxwell the Magic Cat. An omnibus of the entire chapter, sans images, is available in ebook form from Amazon, Amazon UK, and Smashwords. It is equivalently priced at all stores because Amazon turns out to have rules about selling things cheaper anywhere but there, so I had to give in and just price it at $2.99. Sorry about that. In any case, your support of this project helps make it possible, so if you are enjoying it, please consider buying a copy. Seriously. It's been a hell of a week, and I could use it.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: Alan Moore's earliest comics owed a large debt to the "underground comix" tradition pioneered by people like R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. These comics featured what is at once a troubling and alluring visionary quality, looking at the world and saying things that seemed unthinkable before them, and reflecting the peculiar genius of their creators.
"But they are fictions. They are uncontaminated by effect and consequence. Why, they are almost innocent." - Alan Moore, Lost Girls
|Figure 106: Spain's grim depiction of the end of Stalin's life|
in Arcade #4 (Spain, 1975)
While the underground clearly appealed to Moore on an ideological level despite the ethical failings of its leading lights, it is also worth discussing the aesthetic appeal. The gratuitous excess of the underground in and of itself is an odd fit for someone as focused on intricate structure as Moore. The tone of his praise in “Too Avant Garde for the Mafia” is telling - when he praises artists, it’s for things like being “creatively self-conscious in his use of the medium,” and the moments he chooses to single out are things like the final images of a biography of Stalin: “The narrative caption boxes relate how, during his final years, Stalin would travel by car along highways built for his solitary personal use across Russia. Wherever he stopped along the way there would be a room waiting for him specially constructed so as to be an exact duplicate of his room in the Kremlin, right down to the book lying open on the bedside table,” Moore explains, going on to describe the way these captions work in considerable detail, saying that “while this is sinking in, we see three pictures, showing a simple side elevation of a sparsely furnished, neat-looking bedroom. Each picture is identical to the others except that they get progressively smaller.” He goes on to describe the impact, saying, “in effect, we get the impression of an endless series of identical rooms stretching away into the empty distance, proving an unnerving glimpse into the mind of someone who once controlled half of the world.” When he does praise an artist of excess like R. Crumb, even that’s on stylistic grounds - he singles out for praise “a selection of unpublished drawings from his sketchbook that proved every bit a meticulous and fascinating as his comic work.”
|Figure 107: Opening page of Melinda|
Gebbie's Fresca Zizis, which was
confiscated and burnt upon import
into the UK. (1977)
The final key appeal of the underground to Moore was surely the means of production: the fact that artists got creative control, that work was produced for local scenes, and, of course, that it was uncensored. Censorship was, throughout the 70s and 80s, a problem for the UK comics industry. The heyday of this was the early 1970s, when the Metropolitan Police’s Obscene Publications Squad brought the idea of police corruption to levels far more obscene than anything you could buy in the porn shops they took protection money from. This resulted in the police spending much more time busting magazines like Oz than in prosecuting the actual pornography industry that had largely overtaken Soho, A raid by the Obscene Publications Squad over work by Crumb and Wilson, for instance, led to the 1973 shutdown of Bookends, described by Moore as “”a science fiction/comic/head shop out at Chepstow Place” in Notting Hill, leading to its closure, an event which left Moore’s close friend Steve Moore with five thousand pounds in debts. But to treat the 1970s as the extent of censorship in the UK is inaccurate. Even in the 1980s Knockabout Comics, who would eventually end up handling the UK publication of the bulk of his late career comics work, ran into trouble importing his future wife’s Fresca Zizis, all copies of which were confiscated and burned.
These prosecutions often ran into more complex times in the courts, however. Oz was successfully prosecuted in 1971 over a particularly provocative issue that had been edited by school children. The three editors of Oz, Jim Anderson, Richard Neville, and Felix Dennis were given a substantial fifteen month sentence (Dennis’s was slightly less because the judge declared that he was “very much less intelligent” than the other two), and, in a particularly vicious move, had their heads shaven, a gesture that amounted to little more than an overt warning to any other dirty hippies who might get ideas. The case went to appeal, where the conviction was quashed, in part based on the observation that the Obscene Publications Squad was spending an awful lot of time busting satirical magazines and art galleries while leaving the pornography industry conspicuously unmolested.
|Figure 110: Alan King-Hamilton, a censorious fuckhead.|
Another prosecution based on a 1971 raid of the International Times offices led to the staff being hauled to the Old Bailey for the contents of Nasty Tales, a magazine primarily concerned with reprinting American underground material. Of particular objection was a single-panel strip by Crumb entitled “Grand Opening of the Great Intercontinental Fuck-In and Orgy-Riot” that amounted to a sort of Crumb-style version of S. Clay Wilson’s tableaus of perversity. To say that the courtroom was hostile to the material is an understatement - the judge, Alan King-Hamilton, is famed for his later overseeing of Mary Whitehouse’s prosecution over Gay News’s 1976 publication of James Kirkup’s “The Love That Dares to Speak its Name,” a poem written from the perspective of a Roman centurion that opens with a description of Jesus being taken down from the cross “beardless, breathless, / but well hung,” and goes on to describe a necrophilic dalliance with Christ, whose “shaft, still throbbed, anointed / with death’s final ejaculation.” King-Hamilton was quite literally a censor, having worked in that capacity for the Ministry of Information during the Second World War, and in the trial expressed surprise that anybody would defend the literary or artistic merit of the magazine, dryly remarking that “the world is full of surprises.” In giving instructions to the jury he told them that the experts summoned to discuss the merit of the magazine were not actually independent, suggested that Joy Farren, an employee of the International Times would “have been better employed in helping young hippies get back to their parents,” and bluntly declared that “the pendulum of permissiveness has gone too far and it is time it began to swing back again.”
Despite the judge’s aggressive attempts to swing the verdict, the editors of the International Times were acquitted by a 10-2 vote of the jury, in one of the more celebrated victories against censorship. Moore was, at the time, making his earliest forays into the local art scene, and was already friends with Steve Moore. More to the point, the anti-censorship position would have appealed strongly to Moore. But his interest in the underground scene dates back a good few years earlier, and while the anti-censorship position surely helped, it cannot be the source of his infatuation. Simply put, the underground was valuable because it was an avant garde artistic scene. Certainly Moore was seeking similar scenes out for himself in the 1970s. Moore got involved in comics fandom in the late 60s, and got involved in the fanzine scene, where he met Steve Moore. Around the same time he started editing a poetry magazine for his school called Embryo, a few issues of which survive and circulate online. Beyond showcasing some of his earliest surviving work, Embryo also demonstrates Moore's disdain for censorship, as with the introduction to its second issue, in which he defends the first issue's use of the word "motherfuckers," making sure to repeat the word - a move that got his magazine banned from his school shortly before his own expulsion. Embryo is not great - Moore describes his work as “angsty, breast-beating things about the tragedy of nuclear world, but [that] were actually about the tragedy of me not being able to find a girlfriend.”
|Figure 111: Alan Moore's juvenilia in both|
art and prose from Embryo #2 (1970)
Still, based on the surviving evidence, it was better than his peers. It’s churlish to criticise at length the poetry of an amateur poet whose only real literary sin was to appear in an obscure Northampton zine alongside someone who happens to have been very good at something else ten years later, and who attracted a set of fans obsessive enough to hunt down and scan his obscure early 70s zines for the Internet’s consumption. Still, it is worth recognizing the intensely inclusive attitude that the magazine embraced “PARANOPOLIS,” which describes “BabelGod stiltowing in distortion a billion maniac miles above the road. / Electricrackling whip, cruel and phosphorstreaking in silhouette, / through the screaming neonlight. / THE [unreadable]MOBILES HELLHOWL WITH ROADBLOODLUST, SCREECHING INTO /MANIAC WHITELINEATING MOTORMATTERWAY” shares a page with the greeting card sociology of race of “A Shady Problem,” which reflects, “My skin is black, your skin is white, / I don’t want to have to fight / for everything that is my right.” Moore’s contributions are mostly unimpressive, though like the work Grant Morrison was producing at a similar age, there are moments where, knowing the writer’s future, one can see the seeds. Unlike the other contributors to Embryo #2, Moore’s work displays a range of styles and approaches that reflect the obsessive focus on craft that would come to define him, turning in a reasonably competent imitation of the beat poets in “PARANOPOLIS” alongside a bit of cod-epic fantasy in “The Spires of Ishon.” There are also already visible thematic concerns: his interest in genre fiction comes through both in “The Spires of Ishon” and in “Moonshadow,” which is drenched in science fiction references, while “Deathshead” contains an off-handed mention of Asmodeus.
This aggressively open approach made him a solid fit for the Arts Lab scene that was cropping up throughout the UK at the time. (David Bowie, notably, ran one out of a Beckenham pub, penning “Cygnet Committee,” a deep cut on the Space Oddity album, as an embittered farewell to the scene.) As Moore describes the Northampton one, “it was like a spontaneous kind of multimedia group where we decided that we were going to put on some performance, or we were going to put out a magazine, some event, or whatever, and then we all just worked toward it doing whatever we felt like doing.” Moore tried out different things, drifting into bands, doing poetry readings, drawing covers to zines, taking stabs at theater, et cetera. Moore describes the scene with a clear utopian nostalgia, admitting that the product of the Arts Lab was often rubbish, but praising its experimentalism and willingness to take risks, and clearly treating it as an influence. He specifically mentions the acting skills he picked up from the Arts Lab in a 2002 interview, describing his early technique of acting character parts out in front of a mirror to get a feel for them. It was also during his Arts Lab phase that he attempted to start a zine of his own to be called Dodgem Logic, sending musician and multimedia experimenter Brian Eno a lengthy bevy of interview questions that led him to sheepishly apologize for never actually getting the magazine out a quarter-century later when he interviewed Eno for BBC Radio 4’s Chain Reaction program.
|Figure 112: Moore's 1973 song "Old |
Gangsters Never Die" as illustrated in
1983 by Lloyd Thatcher...
As with most expressions of 60s utopian idealism, the arts lab scene fizzled by the mid-70s. But Moore continued to be demonstrably invested in the collaborative and experimental aesthetic of it persevered; Moore worked with several collaborators, including arts lab pal and future Hellblazer scribe Jamie Delano, to write a play entitled Another Suburban Romance. Among the songs Moore contributed to Another Suburban Romance was a recycled version of a song he’d written in 1973, “Old Gangsters Never Die.” This, then, is the first piece of Moore’s work to become at all famous or well-known - a rendition of it served as the B-side to the 1983 release of “March of the Sinister Ducks,” which was also accompanied by an eight-page comic adaptation by Lloyd Thatcher. The rendition was used in turn for the 1987 episode of Central’s England Their England. The song had a second comics adaptation overseen by Antony Johnston and drawn by Juan Jose Ryp by Avatar Press in 2003, along with two other songs from Another Suburban Romance - the title number, and a piece called “Judy Switched Off the TV.”
|Figure 113: and in 2003 by Juan Jose|
That “Old Gangsters Never Die” should enjoy such an extended afterlife is not entirely surprising - it is, in point of fact, quite good. Moore quickly develops a style and voice for his narrator, and displays the deftness of language and image that his later writing is known for, imagining “some old speakeasy in the 1920s where they never pulled aside the blind and looked outside to find that fifty years had washed away all the legends and the blood stains and the zoot suits like some fistful of dead roses someone left there with the hat check girl.” It by no means marks some magical turning point in which the “proper” Alan Moore arrives on the scene, but nevertheless, it shows more than just a flicker of Moore’s larger ability.
In many ways the most obvious precedent for Roscoe Moscow from this earlier period is the series of eleven comics he did for the Back Street Bugle, an alternative newspaper out of Oxford, entitled St. Pancras Panda. Conceptually, St. Pancras Panda is a straightforward parody of Michael Bond and Peggy Fortnum’s Paddington Bear, although, like Roscoe Moscow, the parody does not bother staying narrowly focused, and the strip is instead an opportunity for Moore to cram in a wealth of gags, allusions, and parodies of institutional power. Stylistically, like Roscoe Moscow, it’s a straightforward imitation of the underground comix scene. [continued]
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