Occasionally the comment is made, whether as an accusation, a complaint, or a compliment, that The Last War in Albion is a difficult text. You can see – it’s right there on its embryonic TV Tropes page.
It would be churlish of me to suggest that this is untrue, but it is at least my hope that it’s not excessively true. So in the interests of populism, some observations and comments on how The Last War in Albion is structured and suggestions on how to get the most out of it.
First of all, I want to stress that I have never written Last War in Albion with the idea that the audience should understand all of it. The general idea is that if you don’t understand one bit, there’ll be another one along in a few sentences anyway. Part of the fun of Last War in Albion is its sweep and its scope. Given that, a bit of confusion is not only OK, it borders on the desirable. Certainly it helps emphasize the scale of the thing.
So, big picture: there’s an bit of joke underlying its structure, namely the never-ending essay in which paragraph transitions are maintained across entries. The structure is consciously based on comic book series and on the idea of serialization and cliffhangers. A single blog post isn’t the whole story, or even a complete story in and of itself, but a single element in a story. This is, these days, how single issue comics work, for better or for worse.
Plenty of people, in response to that format, “wait for the trade,” as the saying goes – that is, wait until a story is completed, and then buy a collection of issues to read in one shot. Plenty of comics are consumed that way – nobody reads Watchmen or Sandman as monthly serializations anymore, and there’s a strong case to be made that both are improved in trade.
For exactly this reason, I publish the equivalent of trades for Last War in Albion alongside the first installment of a chapter. If you can’t spare or don’t want to toss $2 at the trade, that’s fine too – you may find archive diving more satisfying. Certainly it’s a very different project when taken in chapter form as opposed to in blogpost form, and I imagine it’ll be different yet again in book form.
I really don’t want to say it’s better in chapter form, though. For me, things like the parenthesis that would not die are much better in blog form, where the start of the parenthesis isn’t in the same entry as the end, than in chapter form, where its just a really long parenthetical.
For me, the blog format highlights the larger structure of The Last War in Albion, which is pointedly not just a description of a bunch of comics but rather an account of the entire world in which those comics exist. Inasmuch as it is military history – and obviously that’s the conceit – it’s the sort of military history that’s focused on the causes and consequences of the war as opposed to on the mechanics of the battles. Comics scholarship as Game of Thrones, if you will.
A given episode of Game of Thrones tends to be about sketching the world of the story, with a lot of attention being paid to the first and last scenes. Each episode amounts to a statement along the lines of “here’s what the world looks like right now,” typically with some events that quietly (or loudly) change the shape of the world so that next week the world looks appreciably different. But even in a week where not a ton happens the shape of the world changes based on what route you take through it – an episode that starts with Sansa and ends with Arya has a very different shape than one that starts with Jon Snow and ends with Daenerys, for instance, and makes a different commentary on what the world looks like.
This is very close to the approach I take with Last War in Albion, which takes seriously the idea of conceptual and imaginary space. It’s exploring territory and terrain, finding major moments in the history of a movement in comics (essentially “Alan Moore and the British writers who came in his wake”) and wandering around them, looking at what’s adjacent to them.
And this is important, because I don’t slice chapters into posts willy-nilly. I have a target word count of about 2k, though some posts are always a bit longer, but the goal is to have a given post take up in one place and leave off in a substantially different place, so that the overall point of the post is the transition between these two points.
This was practically literal in the Skizz/D.R. & Quinch chapter, where every post cut is deliberately put right in the middle of talking about some work that isn’t one of the two comics. (I had to cheat and put one in an account of Alan Moore’s expulsion from school, which doesn’t quite fit the pattern, but.) So every entry there was structured as a move between two seemingly unrelated topics, with the comics serving as the bridge. The chapter on the whole is bookended by the larger move, but the four middle posts are:
- South American magical realism to Boys from the Blackstuff
- Boys from the Blackstuff to The O.C. and Stiggs
- The O.C. and Stiggs to Moore’s expulsion from school
- Moore’s expulsion from school to MAD Magazine’s Super-Duper Man
I don’t always manage it quite so tightly, but for instance the most recent chapter still used the same basic structure – it starts midway through a corporate history of Marvel Comics and ends having identified a specific problem with a particular moment of a particular mid-70s British comic series.
So one thing to keep in mind when reading Last War in Albion, particularly in post-by-post form, is that the real subject of a given post is the transition.
I try to put the cuts towards the extremes of a given topic – I’m much more likely to cut an entry at the 20% or 80% mark of my coverage of a given topic than at the 40 or 60% mark. 20% is the ideal, because it means that a post starts with a fairly meaty bit of coverage of something. The result should be – and it’s entirely possible and even probable that I miss this sometimes due to my desire to have posts be about 2000 words – that the start of a post kind of eases the reader into things. It may take a paragraph or two, but pretty soon you ought to remember what it is we’re talking about. If I cut late in a topic, it’s usually the case that fairly early in the post there’s a sort of clean start moment that you can jump right in on. Either way, there’s a flow that gets generated pretty quickly. At least one reader has described to me what going to an Albion entry is like, saying that there’s two or three paragraphs of confusion, and then suddenly they’re comfortable and know what’s going on. So, you know, expect that. Again, it’s not unlike the experience of reading serialized comics – a new issue comes out, and you spend a few pages going “wait, where were we when I read the last issue of this a month ago?”
Another thing that I put to be a little helpful are the images. Different entries have different sorts of images, and you can often get a decent sense of what the entry is like by just scanning the images. Just from the images alone, you can tell that the most recent entry starts with broad history and then settles into Captain Britain itself, moving into interior pages and engaging with specific issues instead of just throwing disparate covers up. So the corporate history that characterized Part 41, which was all disparate covers, gives way to something more focused midway through the entry, and you can even see about where that happens.
In general the big questions for a given entry, though, are “where do we start” and “where do we end up.” Once you’ve got those, the stuff in the middle should kind of take care of itself, moving from topic to topic in a kind of presentational “here’s everything that’s going on” sort of way.
But there’s one other thing I tend to do, which is write big, convoluted sentences. Here’s one of my all-time favorites, from Chapter Five.
This was, of course, more or less exactly the response Action was going for, and almost everyone involved with the comic would have worn their condemnation in The Daily Mail – a staggeringly reactionary paper that memorably ran a front-page headline in July of 1934 proclaiming “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” and speaking enthusiastically about how Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists, had a “sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine” (an editorial stance that had, a few months earlier, earned editor Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, a fan letter from Adolf Hitler thanking him for his “wise and beneficial public support” of “a policy that we all hope will contribute to the enduring pacification of Europe”), and which, more recently, lambasted Neil Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer for a moment during her Glastonbury performance where her left nipple was visible, to which Palmer wrote and performed a scathing musical response in which she called them a “misogynistic pile of twats” shortly after ripping off her kimono and exposing the bulk of her naked body to a rapturous round of applause from her audience – as a badge of honor.
That’s not just a long sentence, it’s an ostentatiously long sentence that’s been written almost specifically to tweak people who complain about run-on sentences. I’ll admit, I like long sentences. I like the way that linguistic structure lets you put massive, elaborate things in a single container. In this case the sentence exists to make a single, actually relatively small point – what pissing off the Daily Mail actually means.
This is presented with what’s actually just a fairly straightforward list of facts. Nothing in the litany is hard to follow. Just two carefully chosen bits of factual history – one from a ways back, one from the present, the former chosen because of its infamy, the second because of its tangental relevance to the War. Why do it as one sentence?
Because of an as-below-so-above structure, basically. It’s the same “wander around the landmarks” approach the whole blog takes. And the point of the sentence is to let readers get lost a bit, so that you get to let the various details and facts sort of wash over you.
Which is, in general, a good approach for Last War in Albion. My view is that nobody who isn’t me should have to worry too much about the frighteningly elaborate superstructure of the thing. The reader should sit back and enjoy a sort of slide show of “here’s what’s going on in the world.” The superstructure should be visible and stand up to scrutiny, but if I’m doing my job right it shouldn’t be necessary as such, and instead the entries should work as a set of structured snapshots.
Your mileage may vary, of course. It could also be that I’m writing a dense and impenetrable bit of madness that’s terribly difficult to read. I’m probably not actually the person to ask on that one.