Britain a Prophecy, my own take on the sorts of comics I write about here, is currently less than $250 a month away from being feasible. If you like this project, you’ll also love what we’re doing over there, and I hope you’ll consider backing it.
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Morrison’s explanation of theoretical physics was given to the Mad Hatter, one of several Alice in Wonderland riffs in Arkham Asylum.
He was my father’s oldest friend, the white hair ringed about his bald, pink crown. He seemed forever anxious; eager to be somewhere else. We called him ‘Bunny,’ though his actual name escapes me now. In hushed tones, so as not to wake my sister, he complained about the sun and asked if I would come inside to keep him company, awaiting my Papa’s return. It seemed ungracious to decline.” -Alan Moore, Lost Girls
Beyond that, Amadeus Arkham’s daughter is described as having a deep love of the Alice books (which Arkham blames for her nightmares), while the graphic novel is bookended by two quotes from Alice in Wonderland: “‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked. ‘Oh, you cant’ help that,’ said the cat: ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’ ‘How do you know I’m mad,’ said lice. ‘You must be,’ said the cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’” and “And is that not a mother’s gentle hand that withdraws your curtains, and a mother’s sweet voice that summons you to rise? To rise and forget, in the bright sunlight, the ugly dreams that frightened you when all was dark.”
Alice in Wonderland references are, of course, a mainstay of a certain strand of self-awarely clever fiction—a shorthand for “this is a work of playful psychedelia” so easy as to frankly be lazy. Certainly within Arkham Asylum’s dizzying labyrinth of occultism, psychology, and quantum physics it stands out as a strikingly pedestrian choice. Nevertheless, Carroll served as at least a minor obsession for Morrison in the period, who also wrote a play about him for the theatrical troupe Oxygen House, who performed it at the 1989 Edinburgh Festival Fringe; Morrison references it in the annotations to the Arkham Asylum script for the Mad Hatter scene, noting,“some of the ideas on these pages are developed in greater depth and to greater effect” in the play
Carroll was the pen name of The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a Victorian-era mathematician at Oxford whose career was split between mathematical texts such as An Elementary Treatise on Determinants, With Their Application to Simultaneous Linear Equations and Algebraic Equations, The Fifth Book of Euclid Treated Algebraically, and A Syllabus of Plane Algebraic Geometry and his far more famous pen name. His most enduring creations, the two Alice books, began as stories told on a boating trip in 1862 to entertain Alice Liddell, the ten-year-old daughter of Dean Henry Liddell and a close friend of Carroll’s.
Behind this statement, however, lies a tremendous amount of controversy and theorization. Dodgson’s relationship with the Liddells ended abruptly a year after he recounted the earliest version of the Alice tales. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but the fact that the pages of his diaries covering the event were excised by one of Dodgson’s descendants raises suspicion, as does Alice’s older sister Lorina’s assertion to one of Dodgson’s early biographers that the reason had been Dodgson’s excessive affection for Alice, although she expressed some regret for this assertion in a subsequent letter to Alice. The picture is muddied further, however, by Dodgson’s well-documented love of taking photographs of young girls, including a number in which the subject is nude. What to make of this is much contested; numerous defenses of Dodgson have been mustered on the usual grounds of “the morality of his times,” and it’s true that Dodgson’s behavior was not as unusual in the context of the mid-19th century as it would have been just a few decades later. Equally, there were very good reasons for the later consensus that taking nude photographs of children is unacceptable, and the fact that they were not seen as sinister when Dodgson took them is hardly a conclusive case that they weren’t.
Morrison, in any case, was not someone who could keep from stirring the pot in such circumstances, and Red King Rising stirs it vigorously indeed. A two-hander dialogue between Alice and Lewis Carroll (distinguished actively from Dodgson, who Carroll claims is asleep and dreaming him into existence), the play presents Carroll as a malevolent id—“The spirit of unreason, the demon of nonsense, the unbound Prometheus,” before making the suggestion that Dodgson/Carroll is also Jack the Ripper. This is an impressive, if deeply improbable escalation of the claims about Dodgson, but Morrison sells it, connecting their portrait of Dodgson’s sexual repression to the deranged sexuality of the Ripper, who Morrison describes her as an eruption… a fugitive from the right brain, the Dionysian hemisphere… the reflection of the age in which we live. It happens. It happens at the end of a century—this pent-up frustration must find some expression. So, it explodes like steam released from a kettle, like volcanic pressure.” A deft final reveal that Alice is in fact a sex worker hired to dress as the famous literary character—and not just any prostitute but Mary Kelly—wraps the commentary into a clever package that won two awards at the Fringe and a decent review as “a multi-referential mix of clever ideas with a strange, rather threatening edge to it.”
Morrison penned a second play for the Fringe the next year, this time called Depravity and written about Aleister Crowley. Crowley, of course, was one of the central magical figures of the early 20th century, a primary combatant in Albion’s penultimate War. A poet and novelist, he charted an iconoclastic path across the occult landscape of his age, playing a starring role in the collapse of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn before founding his own occult order, the Ordo Templi Orientis, its doctrine extending from a 1904 vision in which Crowley encountered his Holy Guardian Angel, Aiwass, who dictated to him The Book of the Law and, in doing so, ended the Aeon of Osiris and commenced the Aeon of Horus.. His work is foundational to the contemporary occult tradition; trace any subsequent movement back and you will find, somewhere in the tree, either a succession from or rebellion against Crowley and his doctrine.
Depravity was at once a more ambitious and less successful play than Morrison’s first effort—its thematic reach is wider, but, in a common problem for Morrison, this expansive reach largely ends up getting out of their hands, resulting in a diffuse mess of interesting ideas that never quite cohere. Where Red King Rising won an impressive smattering of awards and raves, Depravity fared more ambivalently; The Independent described it at the time as “something of a horse designed by a committee: the whole is less than the sum of its parts,” although it still scooped up the Evening News Award for 1990. Assessing the failure, Morrison complained that “There was no space to move, no kind of dramatic space at all, because everything was there and I was so worried about making sure that every viewpoint was represented. I was just absolutely hemmed in by the sheer volume of words that had already been written about him. Whereas, with Lewis Carroll I felt free more to just invent a character, because what he was, was an alter ego anyway, or a persona of a real man. Whereas Crowley was a real person that I was trying to deal with,” while also blaming Oxygen House’s rewrites to the script.
Depravity centers on the relationship between Crowley and Victor Neuberg, a poet who entered Crowley’s orbit in 1906 and became both his lover and disciple. Its central incident concerns the pair’s 1909 trip to Algeria, in which they performed a series of Enochian rituals including one in which, lacking an animal with which to make a sacrifice, Crowley allowed himself to be penetrated by Neuberg. More significant, however, was their ritual to traverse the 10th Aethyr, which involved summoning the demon Choronzon, which Morrison dramatizes at length. The setup of the ritual was straightforward: Crowley sat within a magic triangle into which Choronzon was to be summoned, while Neuberg sat within a protective circle to interrogate the demon and keep it under control. The ritual was one of the most dramatically intense experiences of Crowley’s life, and certainly of Neuberg’s; at one point Choronzon successfully breached the triangle, physically attacking Neuberg and forcing him to drive the demon back at dagger point. This became a foundational experience in Crowley’s new religion of Thelema, where Choronzon was a figure of ego destruction who must be conquered on the path to ascension.
Morrison, for their part, plays at the most obvious interpretation of events; that Crowley was a charlatan who pretended to be possessed by Choronzon and used the scenario to abuse and assault Neuberg. This interpretation is certainly bolstered by Crowley’s biography, which is full of sadisms both casual—he routinely subjected Neuberg to antisemitic abuse—and elaborate, such as the time he sat in his tent as his aggrieved climbing companions perished in an avalanche, proclaiming that “a mountain ‘accident’ of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever.” But Morrison is not one to reject the numinous so casually, and ends up splitting the difference, suggesting that Crowley, in his manic cruelty, nevertheless did represent the dawning of a new age—one that, depending on perspective, can be defined either by the liberation Crowley presented it as or by his own shocking cruelty.
This is a solid interpretation, although unlike Morrison’s take on Carroll they never quite work in as decisive an expression of it as Red King Rises offers of its perspective. In a real sense Crowley marked the arrival of modernism to the magical sphere, revolutionizing magic from its hoary Rosicrucian roots—or at least one vision of this, with Austin Osman Spare playing the chaotic upstart to Crowley’s rigidly structured doctrine. But this overturning of settled dogma came, in the end, out of Crowley’s reckless egotism; he was arrogant and selfish enough to set himself above all existing magical doctrine, the brilliant master of the spiritual realm who had seen further than any before him had, so far that he could, Messiah-like, bring about a new age of man.
Crowley, in fact, makes a brief appearance in Arkham Asylum in a two-page section detailing Amadeus Arkham’s 1920 trip to Europe, in which he meets both Jung and Crowley. Tellingly (though whether about Arkham or Morrison it’s not entirely clear), the Crowley section of this is far more substantive—no details are provided of the meeting with Jung while Arkham notes that Crowley was “Charming and highly educated,” and recounts their discussions of Tarot and games of chess. This is situated in 1920, which puts it squarely in the middle of Jung’s career (notably well before the writing of Archetypes and the Collective Unconsciousness) and on the downward slope of Crowley’s.
In terms of Arkham’s story, meanwhile, it marks a calm before the storm; upon his return, he learns that Martin “Mad Dog” Hawkins, a murderer he interviewed some sections earlier, has escaped and is on the loose, Arkham’s narration that “It’s not my problem. Not tonight:” making it tacitly clear to the reader that it is very much his problem, or soon will be, a point reiterated by the section’s ending, which focuses closely on Arkham’s daughter, with the closing line “I almost wish she need never grow up” full of tacit menace. Sure enough the next Arkham flashback begins with him discovering his family murdered, complete with the macabre Nietzsche reference as Arkham discovers his daughter’s severed head has been stuffed inside her doll’s house, “And then I look at the dolls house. And the dolls house looks at me. (The astute reader will note, of course, that the dolls house is tacitly serving as a metonym for the asylum as a whole, thus tacitly equating it with the Nietzchean abyss. Certainly Morrison notes it in the script.)
Arkham’s psychological collapse becomes the dark and gothic terror at the heart of the asylum—a madness literally inscribed upon its stones that Batman not only confronts but is bound up within, positioned as the dragon at the heart of it even as he fights against a different representation of it. It is thus implicitly the heart of Batman’s own dysfunction—not the reason why he dresses as a bat to fight crime per se, but certainly the reason he found himself in what Morrison views as a basically non-functional state as the 80s reached their conclusion. [continued]