Hey folks. I’ve decided that the serialization of LWIA v3 is simply far too delayed, and that I’m going to get through it in a series of three omnibus posts so that it’s wrapped up before the 60th Anniversary Doctor Who Specials. Right now those are still set to be Patreon-exclusive, with roughly $370 a month to go before they happen on the site. You can help by backing my Patreon, where I’ve got reviews of the first five installments of Tales of the TARDIS up, with the last going up later today.
Previously in Last War in Albion: Alan Moore became fascinated by fractals, or at least by what he thought fractals were.
The blue world spins below me, fragile as glass, a vast and delicate ornament. Naked creation crackling and streaming off in all directions. Clouds are not spheres. Mountains are not cones. Lightning does not travel in a straight line. These things are abstractions of reality. The geometry of nature, like the geometry of life itself, contains infinites.” – Grant Morrison, Animal Man
Allow a moment of fancy. It will not escape notice that Dewdney’s introduction sounds very much like something Alan Moore might write, and thus almost tailor made to capture his eye. Could this article in fact have been his introduction to the Mandelbrot set? Certainly Moore was an avid reader of popular science magazines. He generally favored New Scientist, but it’s easy to imagine him passing by a newsstand and seen the striking visualization of the set on the cover, a crackling flame tongue in all its mad and infinite detail. If so, and if he picked up the issue out of curiosity, what would he have learned? Much of the article consisted of semi-technical explanations of complex numbers and computer programs that would have sailed over his head, but his eye would surely have been caught by the thrilled descriptions of how “the numbers inside remain to drift or dance about. Close to the boundary minutely choreogrphed wanderings mark the onset of the instability. Here is an infinite regress of detail that astonishes us with its variety, its complexity and its strange beauty,” or the lush descriptions of the recurring patterns within the set: “a riot of organic-looking tendrils and curlicues sweeps out in whorls and rows. Magnifying a curlicue reveals yet another scene: it is made up of pairs of whorls joined by bridges of filigree.” Ultimately, however, one suspects the key detail, beyond the breathtaking illustrations, would have been the subheadline billing the Mandelbrot set as “the most complex object in mathematics” would surely have been eye-catching. (Indeed, Moore parroted the line in an interview, describing the Mandelbrot set as “the most complex shape in mathematics, and possibly the most complex shape in the universe.”)
It is worth unpacking that complexity a little. In the case of the Koch snowflake, zooming in on the image generates the same pattern. Pick a single point to zoom in on and you’ll see an endlessly repeating jagged series of triangles. This is not true of the Mandelbrot set. Zooming in yields a series not just infinite detail but infinite variation, with the images one finds at progressive depths familiar, clearly echoing past images, but never actually repeating itself. The effect is not only a pretty picture, it is genuinely arresting. Even if Moore had not understood the formula that generates the Mandelbrot set, it’s an alarmingly simple thing—approximately six characters long. And yet observing it, it quickly becomes evident that those six characters encode an entire universe. Moore, in the midst of spending a lot more effort on the task for Watchmen, would surely have taken note.
Reading up on the subject, Moore would quickly have stumbled upon a nexus of popular science and mathematics books at the time, and he mentions several in interviews talking about Big Numbers. One was Gödel, Escher, Bach, which had also inspired Morrison in crafting Doom Patrol. But another, which Moore singles out as “one of the best ones for beginners,” is James Gleick’s 1987 Chaos: Making a New Science. Gleick’s book served as popular primer on the emerging vogue of chaos theory, a topic that, in his telling at least, included the Mandelbrot set. (Gleick devoted his fourth chapter to it, and it eventually got used as the cover image for a reprint edition. Chaos theory was, at its core, the study of complexity—as Gleick put it, ““that quite simple mathematical equations could model systems every bit as violent as a waterfall. Tiny differences in input could quickly become overwhelming differences in output.” The canonical example—and the one Gleick begins his book with—is usually phrased along the lines of “a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas,” a phrase coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz. Gleick unpacks the story of this at length, describing how Lorenz created a computer program to simulate the weather and, wanting to look at a particular pattern again, re-entered the data from his printouts to run the simulation a second time. Except the second run of the simulation provided markedly different results, a phenomenon Lorenz eventually traced to the fact that the printouts he had used rounded the data off at three decimal places—a tiny change more precise than most weather instruments could actually measure, but enough to dramatically change the overall results of the system.
Within this phenomenon was a striking implication—that seemingly random and unpredictable events might still be the products of intelligible, defined systems. And it is clear Moore found considerable appeal in this idea, becoming a dutiful evangelist of the idea and its implication that “even a universe that is as complex and breathtaking and beautiful as our own doesn’t necessarily need an omnipotent creator to set it in motion.” He would parrot lines from Gleick in interviews, such as when he told one that “fractal mathematics makes possible different ways of looking at everything. In hard, practical terms, it’s already starting to reverse the trend towards specialisation, something which has been the cause of consternation within scientific circles for some time,” which is almost an exact quote of something Michael F. Shlesinger told Gleick and that he in turn quoted in his book’s preface.
In practice, chaos theory was something of a fad, and by the time Moore was working on Big Numbers the backlash against it was already in progress. Indeed, this was what was responsible for Moore changing the name of the comic from The Mandelbrot Set to Big Numbers—he’d gotten in touch with Benoit Mandelbrot, figuring that it was inappropriate to name a comic after an actual person without permission. As Moore tells it, he “ got a lovely letter back, saying that although normally his basic attitude is that fractal mathematics should be explored as much as possible for educational and entertainment value and that normally he’d be only too pleased to give us his permission, at the moment there’s some controversy going on within the weird sort of cryptic inner world of mathematicians. Apparently there’s been an awful lot of conservative elements within the maths community attacking fractals in general and Mandelbrot in particular, basically on the grounds that he’s seen as something of an egomaniac and self publicist,” and suggesting that having comic named after him would be detrimental in this regard. (Moore also noted that he considered Big Numbers to be the better title.)
Nevertheless, it is clear that Moore developed a thorough philosophical worldview out of his understanding of chaos theory and of what the Mandelbrot set meant and implied. As Big Numbers suggested, this view was rooted heavily in his experience of everyday life in Northampton during the tail end of the Thatcher era. He explained in an interview how “When I was growing up, I used to get all of these nice little Ladybird books that would tell you about the structure of society. ‘This is what nurses do. This is what policemen do.’ There was God at the top of the pile, and there was the queen somewhere slightly lower, and there was the prime minister slightly under that. It was a very simple societal structure and everyone’s place in it was made very clear. That was in the late ’50s. Thirty years later, society has become far too complex for anybody to have any picture of its structure. It doesn’t seem to have a structure any more; it just seems to have this chaotic turbulent flow. We want to try to suggest the possibilities of structure that exist within that chaos.” But Moore’s view of that structure was, to say the least, complicated—he noted that he did not find the idea “terribly comforting. It says that there is order in the world, but it also says that that order does not care about us. It is purely mathematical, and much too complex for us to be able to predict. We now know that weather behaves according to the science of chaos—that doesn’t mean we can predict when there’s going to be another hurricane. It means that we now know why hurricanes like that happen unpredictably. It is beyond our control; chaos is part of the normal, natural order of things. We can’t regulate chaos, we can’t impose our will upon the world in the way that we’ve been previously trying to, which I believe that God recommends we do in some of the early verses of the Old Testament. It’s simply not true that the world is there for man to impose his will upon.” This, it would seem, was the intended theme of Big Numbers, and where he intended the work to go, conceptually.
This was very much not how it would work out in practice. Two issues of Big Numbers came out in 1990, with a larger gap between them than the planned bimonthly schedule, but not so wide a gap as to be immediately worrying. The third issue saw delays, however, and by the end of 1990 Moore was already spending time in interviews shooting down rumors “that Bill and I have had terrible arguments, that Bill’s been taken off the strip and Dave McKean’s already been contacted as Bill’s replacement,” chalking the book’s delays up to more general scheduling problems.
Much of this was due to Sienkiewicz’s chosen art style, which he described as “a more photographic, soft focus atmospheric airbrushed painterly style” that he achieved by thumbnailing the comic and then using “those thumbnails to choreograph, and then photograph, on average, forty five different people as characters, both primary and secondary,” a process that involved quite a lot of work on top of the obvious as he had to secure release forms, reassure the models about how their characters might be used, and, of course, pay people for their time. This included both friends of Sienkiewicz’s from his local comics scene—John Prentice, Frank Bolle, and Stan Drake all posed for various characters, the latter, memorably, for an extended scene in which Christine’s father is on the toilet. (Although Deborah Delano notes that at least one panel of that character is modeled after her abusive father.) And it quickly proved to have further complications. Two of the models passed away, while a third—the model for Christine—got married and moved to Germany. One of the models for a child character hit puberty and entered a massive growth spurt.
This spurred a rethink on Sienkiewicz’s part, as he realized that his insistance on rigorous adherence to photo reference constituted “a vain attempt to control everything—everything—completely, as things swirled and collided in midair all around.” And so, out of necessity, he regrouped, switching to using pen and ink with airbrushing and other flourishes added as needed. The results were still enormously detailed, but at least somewhat simpler. All the same, Sienkiewicz found himself falling further behind. As he put it, “I couldn’t sleep, and it served me right. It was entrusted to me to pull it off, to ‘suck it up’, grow a sack, and I was going under for the third time… Money got tighter and tighter. Productivity suffered severely. Big Numbers became my life. Not just the series Alan and I were attempting, but Big Numbers the actual Petri dish of real life chaos. I’d lost a parent, a relationship, began a new one, went through the art assistant debacle, and realized just how far behind the proverbial eight-ball I’d placed myself. And placed Alan, Big Numbers, and the folks at Tundra—and of course, the all-important readers. So in plain English, between issues #2 and #3, my so-called life went to complete Hell personally.”
Nevertheless, Sienkiewicz finished up the third issue, which saw Moore further develop his key themes and stretching his conceptual material. Unlike the first two issues, which were primarily concerned with introducing the sprawling world and concept of the comic, the third issue saw Moore working with a connective frame, with a recurring motif of people answering a questionnaire for the prospective mall about what they might like to purchase there, with the primary beneficiary being Christine’s sister, Janice, who spends the whole issue sitting in her comatose boyfriend’s hospital room reading the survey to him and selecting his options, often with a bit of wry humor. (“Then it says ‘Are you currently functioning in the above trade?’ So that’s, like, ‘Are you in plumbing?’ I’ll put ‘sort of,’ shall I?”)
“There you go dudes. Instant pizza noses nin… uh, hero style.” – Neil Gaiman, Comic Relief
Moore also finds space to begin elucidating key concepts. For instance, he has Sammy explain the notion of fractional dimensions to his father by way of crumpling up an unwanted letter from social services to “send it to the second-and-a-half dimension.” He also delves deeper into the secondary worlds aspect of the comic, with a scene in the model railway world in which the shopkeeper who maintains it vents his obvious anxiety about the mall by having one of his townpeople brag that “My business is doing so well I am opening a shop [in America]. Those Americans better watch out. They cannot compete with our prices or our hard work.” An even more substantial engagement comes when the three children of the mall architect begin product testing a role-playing game called Real Life, which offers an unsettlingly detailed simulation of life. Moore explained this dynamic in interviews, saying that “There’s a role-playing game that the architect’s children play in which they create imaginary characters, and we follow the progress of these imaginary characters as well. We’re showing what’s going on in people’s heads to some degree, not what they’re thinking, but the little fantasy lives that they have. It’s all to do with the maths. Basically, the 40 characters we’ve got include some that aren’t real in the story sense. They’re imaginary characters; they’re like imaginary numbers. They are still part of the overall structure because imaginations have as much to do with what happens in reality as anything else.” And this comes to head in a several page scene in issue #3 in which the children commence rolling dice to determine their characters’ races and genders. (This leads to one of the more amusing errors in Alan Moore’s comic about math as he apparently believes that it is possible to roll a one on a pair of six-sided dice.) This scene serves as an illustration of the larger idea that the world is governed by numerical systems, most strikingly when it comes time to roll for income and the daughter, who has previously rolled a Black character, discovers that while white characters roll a twenty-sided die for their parents’ income, she only gets to roll a six-sided one. Adding to the scene’s potency is a recurring set of images in which the children’s characters are represented by a series of blank cutouts that get gradually filled in over the course of the scene as the children roll the dice, first with skin color, then crude genitals and breasts, and finally with full bodies and faces to symbolize who they are, a process that literalizes the degree to which major aspects of self and identity are, in the end, determined by the simple and statistical structures that underpin society.
Sienkiewicz, however, was burnt out, and decided upon finishing Big Numbers #3 that he would need to step back from the comic, leaving Moore to find a new artist. On top of that, the comic was encountering numerous other problems. On the most obvious level, Mad Love had been a joint venture of Alan Moore, his wife Phyllis, and their girlfriend Deborah Delano, with the latter two handling the business end, Moore being the sort of businessman who didn’t bother reading his contracts; Moore’s divorce, however amicable, obviously made this arrangement more complicated. Meanwhile, the slow release schedule meant that even though Big Numbers sold astonishingly well for a black and white comic about shopping malls, Mad Love was bleeding money. Moore’s initial investment of his Watchmen royalties was quickly spent, and Sienkiewicz’s struggles meant that no further income was forthcoming. As Moore explained it, “whether you’re bringing out a book every month or two months or not, you’re still having overhead every month, you’re still having to put out money all the time to pay for people’s time and stuff like that… If you’re not getting money back in because you’re not getting the book out, then it is very similar to pouring money down the drain. It was reaching quite a desperate state.”
To try to get the book and its financials under control, Moore ended up having to seek an outside publisher for the comic. He ended up working with Tundra Publishing, based out of the American Northampton in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, which had been founded by Kevin Eastman, an indie comics creator who had recently and rather improbably become a multimillionaire.
Eastman was an art school dropout and comics fan who came up through the recesses of the late underground comix scene, publishing minicomics through Clay Geerdes’s Comix Wave imprint. Eventually, in 1981, he followed a girlfriend to Northampton, where he began working on a local free newspaper and met Peter Laird, a fellow comics geek with similar influences in Jack Kirby, Heavy Metal, and the like—Eastman recalls being stunned, upon arriving at Laird’s apartment, to see a page of Kirby’s art from The Losers. The pair decided to work together. One evening, Eastman drew a humorous sketch of a masked turtle wielding nunchuks. Laird was amused, and after some spitballing Eastman produced a set of four turtles, each with different weapons, labeled Ninja Turtles. Laird inked the drawing, extending the title to dub the team the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Amused at their antics, the pair began to work on an origin story for the quartet. This ended up being a sort of oddball parody of Marvel’s Daredevil, especially the Frank Miller era. Like Daredevil, the Turtles gained their powers being soaked with weird radioactive ooze from a car accident. Daredevil’s mysterious mentor Stick became the wise rat Splinter, while the villainous ninja organization the Hand became the Foot. These were mixed liberally with a truckload of martial arts cliches to produce an origin story. Neither Eastman nor Laird were exemplary draftsmen, but this served to help the comic, making it feel like the burst of youthful exuberance it was instead of like a slickly realized corporate product.
In May of 1984, funding a three thousand issue print run with a loan from Eastman’s uncle, they released the book, promoting it with a full page ad in the Comics Buyer’s Guide. And so they attained that most unlikely of things: an outsider debut that immediately succeeded, with Eastman and Laird quickly having to print an additional six thousand copies. This was a proper black swan event, and like most there is no particular reason why it should have happened. A catchy title, a striking cover image, a couple comic shops willing to take a small risk on something that caught their fancy, and word of mouth led to a couple of guys’ chelonian Frank Miller pastiche to success. Eastman and Laird solicited the second issue through the direct market, and were stunned by fifteen thousand preorders and the realization that they could make it as professional comics creators. Sales continued to increase—a rereleased first issue moved thirty thousand, and by issue #3 they were selling fifty thousand copies, all from a two man studio handling all the business stuff themselves.
This was, of course, during the febrile atmosphere of the mid-80s comics industry, with the initial boon of the direct market and the burgeoning indie movement creating a climate that was hungry for a fresh-faced indie success story like Eastman and Laird. By their eighth issue they were collaborating with Dave Sim to do a Cerebus crossover and selling over a hundred thousand copies. Through this, they remained loyal to their underlying vision. The comic veered merrily among plotlines, jumping to alternate dimensions and generally just having a good time. This was sometimes a creative barrier—the third issue spends most of its page count on one of the most well-documented follies in comics, a car chase. But it remained what it was—a burst of childish fun that could and did move among noir, martial arts, funny animals, science fiction, and more amidst its tones.
Eastman and Laird were friends with Steve Bissette, and as Frank Miller buffs they were aware of his growing advocacy for creators’ rights. And so at first they held out against the myriad offers of licensing, reasoning that they were already succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. Instead they locked down their copyrights, trademarked their key concepts, and waited. But in 1987, they signed a deal with Playmates Toys, a Hong Kong toy company that was looking to gain a foothold in the American boys’ market, and reckoned Eastman and Laird’s turtles were the way to do it. They would launch a toy line consisting of ten toys and, more excitingly, an animated series to promote the toys. This involved a very different take on the material. Eastman and Laird’s comics were silly, but they owed their debt to Frank Miller and played their ridiculousness relatively straight. More to the point, the target audience was adults: the turtles drank, swore, and killed. Playmates, however, intended to sell these toys to four year olds, and so all of that went out the window. The turtles, who had worn identical red bandanas in the comics, were redone so that each had a unique color, and were given distinct and archetypal personalities: the comedy one, the hotheaded one, the brainy one, and the leader. They were also all given catchphrases, an affected surfer speak, and a ravenous love for pizza.
The result was an absolutely massive hit. A full TV series was quickly pushed into production in 1988. In 1989, a video game from Konami that became one of the best-selling games for the original Nintendo. In 1990 came a feature film that grossed $200 million and was the ninth biggest film of the year. In short, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had gone from being a shock indie comics sensation to something even more elaborately strange: one of the single biggest pop culture phenomena of the turn of the decade. Eastman recalls, early in the fervor, going to his local toy store and hearing a kid begging his mother for Ninja Turtles toys, saying that he and Laird were “frozen. Like, this was weird. It was very, very, very fucked up.” As Moore diplomatically put it when he was asked what he thought of his new partner’s previous work, “What can you say? It’s a phenomenon.” But any sense of surrealism and conflict over their newfound wealth was fundamentally muted by the fact that they were absolutely gobsmackingly rich, on a level that Alan Moore, with all his Watchmen success, was nowhere near.
Eastman, however, did not forget his roots, and wanted to invest back in the comics community. In 1988 Eastman and Laird, along with a couple of other creators including Steve Bissette, Rick Veitch, and Scott McCloud, had penned a Creator’s Bill of Rights calling for creator ownership, creative control, and control over licensing and distribution. Subsequently, Eastman began to imagine a utopian vision for a comics publisher—one that would let creators get away from the grind of work for hire and do the visionary passion projects of their dreams. He explained later that “I had resources to put in place a first-class facility with the ability to bring in qualified key people that could run it, instill a ‘philosophy,’ to give the creators a home, a place to go to, where they coul dget the financing to explore this great creative novel that was inside of them, nd see it through to completion in a well-done, potentially well-publicized sort of venue… They would have total say over all their projects, and profits.” And so, in 1990, he founded Tundra Publishing, and a year later reached out to Moore to try to rescue Big Numbers.
“Fuckadoodledoo.” – Alan Moore, as described by Eddie Campbell
Among the things Moore and Eastman turned out to have in common was their skill, or lack thereof, with the business end of publishing. Rick Veitch recalled that Eastman, working with him and Steve Bissette, “sort of worked out a plan for what we thought Tundra could be. Again, there was really no need to make a big profit. So Tundra could publish lots of esoteric titles, which there weren’t that many of in the marketplace. The original plan was to do five titles the first year and ten the second year, and then cap it at fifteen.” Instead, Eastman came to San Diego Comic-Con his first year running Tundra hyping an sixty-five separate projects the company would be involved with. Some of these were major projects with a clear path to success—an American edition of Violent Cases, for instance, or Dave McKean’s solo work Cages. But inevitably many of those projects failed to make a splash, and the company lost $14 million over the four years of its existence. On top of that, instead of the “qualified key people” that Eastman dreamed of, the company was staffed with a mixture of friends and family of Eastman who were at best dubiously qualified for the jobs (the company president, for instance, was the uncle who had lent Eastman and Laird the initial thousand dollars to print Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) many of whom Eastman than undermined with an overly permissive attitude.
This context is important for understanding what is otherwise a completely bewildering decision, namely what to do about Bill Sienkiewicz’s stepping back. By all appearances, this decision was taken largely by Eastman, who had taken over management of the project, paying Moore and Sienkiewicz page-rates for their work. Eastman, of course, had a myriad of contacts across the industry, and could have found any number of creators eager to work on a major Alan Moore project. In practice, however, he picked a twenty-year-old artist named Al Columbia who had never drawn a comic before.
The reason for this is simple enough: Al Columbia had spent the previous two years as Sienkiewicz’s studio assistant. The idea was simple enough—as Eastman explained it, Columbia “could draw Bill like Bill and would keep the look consistent.” Eastman took the initiative on recruiting Columbia, including flying him to the UK to meet Moore and get him to sign off on it. Harder, however, was getting Sienkiewicz to approve the idea. As Moore complained in 1992, “Bill has got some personal dislike for this guy, doesn’t want him to carry on the book. Now, the way I see it, at this point in the negotiations Bill doesn’t really have a lot of say in what happens to the book because he’s dumped it… Bill seems to be being what I can best describe as ‘obstructive’ about us continuing the book with another artist,” and suggesting that whether the book continues would come down to “what Bill does and what we have to do to counter that.” Eastman, meanwhile, recounted that “Bill was really uncomfortable with it. Understandably so, it’s like having someone else raise your child, but at the same time, he wasn’t going to do it, and he said, ‘All right. You know what? Out of respect for Alan, I’ll let Al step in and do this.’” In reality, the situation was somewhat more complicated than that—Sienkiewicz and Columbia had already completely fallen out when Eastman recruited Columbia. Eddie Campbell recounts the story (or at least Columbia’s side of it) in How to Be An Artist—an impressively tawdry affair in which Sienkiewicz had an affair and Columbia found himself caught between Sienkiewicz’s angry wife’s demands for answers and his loyalty to Sienkiewicz, ultimately getting thrown under the bus by both. Sienkiewicz’s warnings were more extreme. Paul Jenkins, who was working as editor on Big Numbers for Tundra, recounted that Sienkiewicz “told us that this kid is a complete menace—a lunatic that’s not right in the head. We were listening to Bill with half an ear, because after all, this was Bill, who couldn’t fishing the book, telling us what someone else was like. We weren’t inclined to believe his judgment.”
As it turned out, they should have. Exactly what happened is not entirely clear. The most common version of the story is the one recounted by Eddie Campbell, which sees Columbia become increasingly frustrated at the prospect of spending nine oversized issues imitating Bill Sienkiewicz, and finally, after completing the artwork for what was to be his first issue, destroying it all and disappearing into the night; “a small cut out figure on the floor of the studio rented for Al is all that is ever found of Big Numbers #4.” Eastman corroborates the bulk of this, noting that “the more it went along, Al became more aggravated and started saying that we didn’t really want Al, we just wanted a Bill clone.” Eastman also recounts—and Jenkins corroborates—that Columbia showed them the completed art for issue #4, then asked to take it home for finishing touches. (Jenkins specifies that this was a ploy to get another chunk of his fee for the pages, and that he took it home “ to paste some of the loose figures back onto the page to make it like a collage.”) All agree that the art was destroyed, with the most common account being that Columbia ripped it up. Eastman and Jenkins separately recount Jenkins attempting to hunt Columbia down and threaten him for the pages, although Eastman puts the scene at a Northampton restaurant Columbia was subsequently working at, while Jenkins says it was at a hotel and he never found Columbia.
Columbia’s accounts of the incident generally focus on his frustrations with Eastman and Jenkins. He complains bitterly, and surely reasonably, of the degree to which he, as a young and inexperienced artist, was taken advantage of, noting the irony that he was on a restrictive work for hire contract despite being employed by Tundra. (It is here probably also instructive to note Eastman’s grousing that “Bill was considered one of the co-creators, but Alan created the concept. So Alan writes a 500-page script, and Bill was cocreator because he created the ‘look’ of all the characters, and the environments,” a shockingly artist-hostile take on the creative process.)
As for the particulars of what happened to Big Numbers #4, Columbia’s accounts vary. In a 2000 post on The Comics Journal message board, he asserted that he had never actually finished the issue, and that the pages he destroyed were simply to cover up that fact, going on to declare that “ I never had any intention of staying with the project but merely attached myself to it in order to gain (through Eastman’s money) a certain prominence, at which time I would quit in the manner that we have all heard about. This way, with no visible proof of the artwork, it would always shine as a masterpiece in people’s minds and imagination” before going off on a riff about how “ I am a boy with horns. There is not a single thing I say or do that is not designed with a specific outcome in mind. Any and all rumors about myself were generated and manufactured by me and me alone. Please allow me to introduce myself…” A decade later, in a podcast interview, Columbia discussed the way in which he’d become disillusioned with the project, noting that he’d preferred the less photorealistic style Sienkiewicz had used for issue #3, but that “the fourth issue they wanted back in the style of the first two, which I was happy to do when they asked me to do it, but by the time it really started up, I had just completely lost interest in doing it,” describing how he meticulously found new models for all of the characters and repeated Sienkiewicz’s style for the first two issues, explaining that ultimately “I couldn’t stand the project. It was just a bunch of black figures playing out some… I don’t know. I guess it would have brilliant. I don’t know. I don’t ever give anyone that much credit. I don’t care how good a writer you are, you’re gonna say ‘this is my magnum opus’ and ‘this is going to be the Citizen Kane of comics then you’re gonna screw yourself,” dismissing the comic as “just this idea that Alan Moore is this infallible writer” and claiming that Moore was the only one who praised it as his magnum opus, and speculating that “maybe it was gonna be the worst thing he ever did. You never know. I know that I got bored with it real quick.” In this telling, he chopped up the artwork to make a collage-based cover for a split single by his roommates’ band Sebadoh. (This seems unlikely—the single in question came out in 1991, while Columbia’s work on Big Numbers was in 1992.)
As for the oft-repeated detail of a single figure being recovered, it appears true, as does Kevin Eastman’s claim to have used it as part of the cover for a one-shot he published with FantaCo in 1994 called Infectious. Beyond that, nothing of Big Numbers #4 has ever surfaced, and in the wake of the project’s collapse Eastman declined to publish issue #3, reasoning that nobody would be interested in it. This proved untrue in practice when, in 2009, Pádraig Ó Méalóid discovered someone selling a photocopy of the completed third issue and snapped it up, releasing it online with the permission of Moore, to considerable fanfare and attention.
But this was it for Big Numbers. No more ever appeared. For a few years after the project Moore would muse in interviews about how “I seem to be leaving these artists as smoldering wrecks by the fire,” but resolve that “I’m committed to it—I’ve never left a project unfinished yet, although I can’t draw it myself. If I thought I could, I would go for it. What is it about this book that has made strong men weep and policemen turn in their badges? I don’t know. I’m determined to finish it, assuming we can find an artist,” although admitting that he was more focused on its sister projects of From Hell and Lost Girls. Within a few years, however, Moore had resolved that “it’s never going to be published now, I’ve had two artists just run screaming into the night, and it becomes increasingly difficult to resurrect as a comic book with each one. I’ve written the scripts up to issue five. But what do you do? Do you get a new artist in? Do you start running it again from issue one and promise the readers that this time we are going to finish it. And what happens if the artist leaves halfway through again? I wonder, is it me? Is it me doing this to these poor boys?” For a while Moore speculated that it might resurrect itself as a television series, but ultimately he concluded that “ I’m quite happy for it to be my Edwin Drood.”
In The Mystery of Edwin Drood, of course, it was to be the uncle, John Jasper, who did it. What would have become of Big Numbers? Ultimately, two significant documents exist. The first is a fragment—thirty pages of transcript, representing about a tenth of the discussions Moore had with Alex Usbourne and Michael J. Basset about their efforts to adapt the series to television. (The entire discussions were apparently transcribed by Basset, but haven’t entered the public sphere, and with a quarter century having passed, seem unlikely to.) The other is an outline for the project Moore drew up on August 28th, 1988, back when the series was still called The Mandelbrot Set. Moore had taken to bragging about this outline, describing the “huge sheet of A-1 paper, which I think is the largest paper size. Down the left-hand side it’s got 40 characters’ names, and along the top it’s got the numbers one to 12, for the various issues. It’s divided into 480 squares. In each of those squares there is a tiny, scribbled little piece of information that explains what happens essentially to that character in that issue. It’s really tiny, cramped writing; nobody can read it but me, but it tells me the plot exactly,” and claiming that he “mainly did it to frighten other writers – Neil Gaiman nearly shat, the colour drained from his face when he saw this towering work of madness.” This outline was reprinted in a trivially cropped form in Gary Spencer Millidge’s 2011 coffee table book Alan Moore: Storyteller, and, combined with the Basset transcript and a handful of other interview quotes from Moore and Sienkiewicz, gives a reasonably clear picture of what Big Numbers was supposed to do.
Oh yes. But unusual books. You’ll find none of them on Earth. In this section, for example, are novels their authors never wrote, or never finished, except in dreams. – Neil Gaiman, Sandman
A key spine of it, interestingly, is a character who did not even appear in either of the published issues of Big Numbers—the “market analyst Daniel “D.W.” Wayland Carrol. Carrol is mentioned fleetingly—he annoys the mall’s architect by not showing up to view the model, and it’s speculated that “probably he was drunk or in jail,” which turns out to be prescient as, upon landing in the UK in the third issue, he’s promptly arrested for bad behavior on the plane and bringing a can of mace into the country. He’s ultimately let out because of the intervention of the farmer whose land is sold to construct the mall, whose son in law is a cop, and gets his first on-panel appearance late in the issue when he’s given a ride by Teddy Killingback, another of the men released from the psychiatric hospital who believes himself to be an alien from the planet Neptune, who Carrol describes as “the first reasonable person I’ve met in this country.”
In issue #4, Carrol would have met Christine briefly meet while buying computers from Sammy, who got himself a job at a computer shop in issue #3 after correctly predicting that they’d be expanding to move into a mall space when it opened. This would have been a hostile encounter—as Moore described it, “they get into a row. They hate each other and obvious loathing from first sight.” Ultimately, however, both of them would end up using the computers’ modems to connect without realizing each other’s identities, eventually agreeing to meet at the mall opening in issue #8. They would then realize that their romance was manipulated by a third party, namely Sammy, who had subtly altered their messages to obfuscate their differences, papering over the gap between Carrol’s libertarianism and Christine’s anarchism to make them think they shared political views. Eventually the pair would confront Sammy, who would show them the Mandelbrot set, prompting an epiphany for all three—Moore’s outline variously describes them as “remade,” explaining how “they explore a beautiful, dangerous world.”
The nature of this world, however, is not entirely spelled out either in the document or in the existing transcript. Moore comments that “They’re the only three who understand the whole thing. They’ve stepped outside the story almost and can see this whole… pattern spreading in front of them just in this moment ‘round his house. But you know they may well have… I was going to perhaps have them taking drugs when they were round there. That was a possibility because that’s something that all three of them would have in common, acid or ecstasy or something like that,” but for all that this clarifies the broad strokes it doesn’t exactly contain any details, and in fact suggests a certain haziness on Moore’s part about what exactly he intended this beautiful and dangerous world to be.
Some broad elements can be deduced. It’s widely reported that Big Numbers was to slowly transition from black and white art into full color over the course of the twelve issues. As Moore explained it, “First we thought about doing a black-and-white book because we haven’t got a lot of money. Then we started thinking that we could do some color and about ways in which color could be used that were totally different to the way in which it’d been used in other comics. It’s taken for granted that either the thing is in color or it’s not. We thought we could make a statement by introducing color gradually. Once we began to see how it would look and began to imagine effects that we could bring out, it became a very important feature which will unfold as the series goes on.” A hint of this came in issue #2, when a series of panels showing Sammy’s bedroom contains a poster of the Mandelbrot set that explodes out of the otherwise black and white page in radiant full color. Indeed, Moore specified that “we’re going to use coloring to underline the notion of fractals that will build up throughout the series.” Presumably, then, the grand epiphany Moore had planned would have coincided with this switch to color—one can particularly easily see how this might be combined with a diegetic acid trip. And this would have allowed Moore to play with contrasting visions of realism—the photorealism of Sienkiewicz’s black and white art pitted against the fuller, lusher vision of a fractal world. Moore could have been imagining any number of stylistic tricks for Sienkiewicz to employ here, but no record of those plans exists.
Past that, however, it is difficult to reduce the planned end of Big Numbers to some sort of definitive single statement. In fact, Moore was adamant about this, saying in an interview, “I don’t want to form a hard and fast fractal philosophy, but the nature of chaos science changes a lot of things. We have to look at the world differently, even if that just means that when you put your milk in your coffee, you just spend a couple of seconds thinking about what’s happening down there in that little fluid thermo-dynamic universe,” saying that the comic was “an exploration as much as a statement. It’s a new science that’s come up in the last 10 years and, by virtue of being new, it’s also a new source of metaphor that’s previously not ben mined by other artists. It’s virgin snow. I just want to walk around in it and leave my footprints.” And, of course, this is consistent with how Moore tended to work. It is not, after all, as though Watchmen came to a definitive statement on Ozymandias’s morality, the nature of time’s simultaneity, or the meaning of superheroes as a metaphor. Moore’s work tended to be an exploration of the facets of a theme, and there is every reason to think the transformative knowledge of fractal reality would be something the reader would have been forced to imagine and speculate about.
The nature of the fractal universe that Moore postulated, however, is such that this climactic revelation ought to have recurred and echoed across the larger design of the comic. And while no detailed account of Moore’s philosophical position exists, Moore’s gargantuan A1 outline does provide a strikingly detailed account of how all of the individual plot threads of his vast structure were intended to resolve. Perhaps the key realization comes at the bottom of the sheet, where, after working his way through all of his characters, real and imaginary, Moore includes four final rows of his table: Historical Narratives, Mall Development, Issue Summary and Title, and Date/Weather/Headlines. The first and last of these are essentially blank across the table save for an admittedly cryptic “The Great Fire of Northampton” under Historical Narratives in issue #11. This was a real event—a 1675 blaze that practically leveled the town—but it’s not referenced anywhere else in the column. “Issue Summary and Title,” meanwhile, is less a matter of plot or of title (since the issues were ultimately just numbered, but is generally better understood as a description of theme: the first three issues, for instance, are described as “Return to a changed place,” “Family life and ties, in all their aspects,” and “The passage of time, and the onslaught of the future.”
Combined with the row describing the mall, these two lines give quite a lot of thematic information about where Moore was going. But what is key about this arc is that its climax, in the classical sense of “the moment where it reaches its peak,” was set to come with Issue #8, described simply as “realization” in the summary section, and in which the mall opens. This was to be the issue where Christine and D.W. realized that they were each other’s online romances, while other characters learn that they have AIDS, realize they are in love, or come to appreciate the degree to which the mall threatens to disrupt their lives. Not all of these are earth-shattering disruptions per se—the shoplifter, for instance, simply realizes mall security is too good to shoplift effectively.
With this event at the two-thirds mark of the series, the back third would have involved the characters coming to terms with this realization. The issue descriptions for the final four are “Exploring and reacting to a new landscape,” “Discoveries and decisions,” “Revelation—the true face of the new world is revealed,” and “The new world awaits and everyone learns their place at last.” This, and especially the fact that the revelation of the new world’s true face comes in the same issue where Sammy was to explain fractals to Christine and D.W., makes it clear that the insight Christine, D.W., and Sammy are ultimately granted is simply an understanding of the post-mall world in general, and, more to the point, of the ordering principles within it.
Here, then, the authorial hand so visible in Watchmen makes its reappearance. Because what jumps out, looking at what everyone’s place within the new post-mall world entails, is that Big Numbers was to be driven first and foremost by a sense of justice. The bulk of characters who were established as being cruel or abusive in the early issues suffer concrete misfortunes. The builder who cat calls Christine upon her arrival and who is seen to be a misogynistic, right-wing bully is thrown out by his Sun-reading wife for having AIDS, and finds himself on the street, while his equally bigoted wife “is not free from the taint of public suspicion, falling prey to her own Sun Reader values.” The police officer, who is similarly comprehensively emotionally abusive to his mentally ill wife, finds himself ostracized by his wife’s rich family and haunted by the ghost child who had been haunting Christine at the beginning of the book. The would-be serial killer is struck and killed by a the cab driver, who is thus out of a work, liberating his own put upon and frustrated wife. The ruthlessly ambitious mall manageress, who was engaged in petty fraud, is ironically busted for a far larger fraud that was in reality perpetuated by Sammy. The corrupt councillor behind the land sale is discredited. Even when a cruel character does not get a straightforward comeuppance, there’s at least a hint of justice—the plot about the architect’s three children sees the older brother become disturbingly abusive with his younger brother, but within the roleplaying game there’s an implicit balance to this as the younger brother’s character is nudged towards murdering the older brother’s.
Meanwhile, the characters who were basically decent folks tended to end up more or less OK. Christine’s mother, after being arrested protesting the mall, discards her concerns about respectability and moves in with her girlfriend, while her schoolfriend, after getting sucked into credit card debt, recovers and repairs her marriage. Sammy’s father ends up in a relationship with the social worker wife of the shopkeeper, who has left her husband. And the shoplifter, who Moore unsurprisingly sees as one of his “decent” characters,” ends up working with the architect’s wife to run an elaborate shoplifting ring against the mall. This is not to say that the story has a “happy ending” per se—many characters end up in an altogether more ambiguous place. The farmer, for instance, who turned in the corrupt councillor, ends up in an uncertain place, aware of his complicity in his daughter’s mental illness. Christine’s father, who has realized that he is a coward after failing to do anything as his ex-wife is arrested, ends up working in a McDonald’s at the mall. Christine’s younger sister, meanwhile, ends up deciding that she enjoys life with her comatose boyfriend and effectively moves into his hospital room. Other endings are outright tragic—the shopkeeper’s faith in free enterprise is proven naive as he is driven out of business by the mall, and he collapses, dead of a heart attack, on top of his train set, which suffers what Moore describes as a “terrible miniature apocalypse.”
It happens to us all. We get a sniff of sorcery and Oh! What plans we make! We’ll shake Creation and leave nothing but smiles and wit and a reputation all men envy! – Garth Ennis, Hellblazer
Perhaps the most revealing plot point, however, comes with Christine’s old drug friends. This group—a clear analogue to Moore’s own working class counterculture friends—would spend much of the comic struggling through their desperately contingent lives, realizing that the future the mall offers excludes them utterly. But in the final issue, Moore would have offered a distinct turn, explaining tht “we see, from the ruins of their culture, a green pound economy springing up, introduced by the children.” Moore does not elucidate on this phrase, but it also appears in the account of the vicar’s ending—after losing his faith and realizing that the mall will destroy his congregation, he “finally finds a place for himself in the green pound economy. People only want him to listen but, ultimately, that’s enough.” The nature of this economy—one gets the impression it’s some sort of hazily defined notion of a postcapitalist world—remains vague, but Moore does expand crucially on the vicar’s loss of faith when talking to Basset and Usbourne, explaining that “he’s not even sure that God’s there anymore. It might all just be numbers. Blind mathematics,” and mapping out a conversation between the vicar and Sammy in which the vicar would make the watchmaker argument that the world is too complex not to have a designer, to which Sammy would reply that “you don’t need God’. You need simple start conditions.”
It’s notable that there is a sharply mechanistic quality to this worldview. Moore got at this when talking about the indifferent nature of the mathematical order, but he was willing to go even further, noting when asked in an interview whether he was proposing a deterministic university that “some of the scientists on the front edge of this are starting to talk in hushed tones about free will and its consequences.” Ultimately Moore hedges on this, saying that “I don’t think that fractal mathematics precludes free will. It means that our actions are being buffeted or directed by forces beyond our control, and that those forces are diverse, very complex, and all the rest of it. It doesn’t mean that there is one plan that we are all working to. It just means that there is chaos that we are all in, and that chaos has its laws, too. Chaos is not a mess; chaos is a form of order. I don’t think it’s any more threatening to live in a universe that has a different sense of order to the order that we’ve tried to impose upon the universe. It’s still an ordered universe, it’s just ordered along more comprehensive lines than we previously suspected. How much free will we have or haven’t got is a difficult thing to say at the best of times because free will is dependent upon circumstance. You’ve got a certain amount of free will, but that is limited by your social situation, your geographical situation, the laws of physics working upon you.”
There is a tidiness to this—one that resolves both the overall shape of what Big Numbers might have been had it concluded and, in many regards, almost everything. But there is one part of it that remains stubbornly unresolved and inexplicable: Al Columbia. More specifically, Moore’s reaction to Columbia’s actions is difficult to explain. Moore has never been someone who reacts well to betrayals, as evinced by the string of broken friendships with his artistic collaborators and the anguished hurt with which he describes his feelings about DC Comics. Given this, his reaction to an artist destroying an entire completed issue of his magnum opus and destroying the possibility of his ever completing it could fairly be expected to evoke incandescent fury on Moore’s part. Instead, however, Moore’s comments on the matter consist largely of wry jokes about how he keeps driving artists mad. Even when he has commented directly on Columbia’s actions, he’s mostly seemed bemused by the excess of it all, noting how “’I heard all sorts of insane stories. One of them was that he destroyed the artwork. Another was that he ran away with it and was hunted by the police,” but not sounding especially angry about it.
This gets at a larger mystery: why didn’t Moore attempt to resurrect Big Numbers again? Kevin Eastman suggests some efforts were made to resurrect it after Columbia’s departure, noting that “we talked to people like Jon J Muth and Kent [Williams] and George [Pratt] and some other people to see if they would be interested, but they were doing their own projects that they enjoyed, so we sort of threw up our arms in just ultimate frustration.” But this strains credulity to a degree—was there really no artist in the whole of the industry interested in working on a prestigious Alan Moore project? If nothing else, why not the choice that would have seemed obvious at the start: Eddie Campbell, who admits that ” I always felt a certain resentment that Billy the Sink got Big Numbers and blew it while i was stuck drawing Jack the bloody Ripper for ten years.” Certainly in 1992 when it all fell apart he was too busy with From Hell, but he notes that, a few years later, after having finished From Hell and A Disease of Language, he explicitly offered to finish Big Numbers, but that Moore was uninterested. This would have been around 2001, around the same time Moore was declaring that “I don’t see any way that I can resurrect it as a comic strip.”
Why? One explanation, certainly, is the one offered by Moore, who mused, “I mean, what do I do? Do I actually sort of say ‘Yeah, we’ve got a great new artist, are we going to start from #1 again but this time, no, buy it, because this time we really will get to issue #12?’ I mean, I wouldn’t buy that if I heard it from somebody who’d kind of failed twice to do what he said he was going to do.” But this is hard to entirely credit. Did Moore really have such little faith in the commercial potential of such a project? It’s hard to believe that Chris Staros, who had happily picked up Lost Girls for his Top Shelf Productions after a decade lull, would not have happily snapped up a redone Big Numbers if Moore had wanted to produce such a comic. The more likely explanation, then, is that Moore simply did not want to.
This makes some sense. Big Numbers was very much a product of the time in which Moore imagined it, and by the time he had finished up From Hell and was in a position to think seriously about resurrecting it, the cultural moment had in many ways passed. Fractals and chaos theory had very much been pop science fads of the early 90s, and a comic heavily rooted in those ideas would have felt less like a fresh exploration of bold new ideas than like Moore was ripping off Jurassic Park. Concepts like Christine and D.W.’s digital romance, which had been extraordinarily prescient when Moore imagined them in 1988, were a decade later already well worn romantic comedy tropes. Even the central concept of a mall quickly became less a harbinger of the oncoming Americanized future than a dated concept that was swiftly being overtaken by online shopping. Doing Big Numbers as the period piece that it would have to be would be a very different book than what Moore originally conceived.
Nevertheless, it could have been made to work if Moore had wanted it to. And yet Moore was conspicuously uninterested in trying to make it work. The inevitable conclusion is that he did not care to—that something about Big Numbers no longer entirely reflected what he wanted to say by the time he reached the mid-90s. Many candidates can be ruled out at a glance. Certainly Moore did not lose interest in looking at everyday life in Northampton. And Moore would eventually fully embrace the prospect of a deterministic universe, so the more superficially troubling implications of Big Numbers’ philosophic views would not have proven a problem.
To understand what did change it is helpful to look at the subsequent project of Moore’s that stands as the most obvious successor to Big Numbers, namely Jerusalem. Moore noted this connection in interviews, saying that “in some ways, a lot of the stuff that I was thinking about with Big Numbers is going to be completely applicable to Jerusalem. Not in the same sense, not the same characters, not the same story, but some of the same spirit.” And there are indeed a number of threads in Big Numbers that were repurposed into Jerusalem. It’s not that Jerusalem recycles any specific characters from Big Numbers—as Moore notes, “all the characters from Big Numbers were characters that I’d just invented for the purposes of the story, sometimes based upon real people that I knew, whereas the characters in Jerusalem are, I mean a lot of them are my own family or they’re real people that I know.” A plot thread about the shopkeeper and his social worker wife escaping Idi Amin’s Uganda, for instance, is a clear mirror of a character in Jerusalem whose parents escaped Charles Taylor’s Liberia. The sense of architectural projects reshaping a community on a downright spiritual level moves from being about a mall to being about the horrendous trash incinerator Moore calls the Destructor.
Perhaps most importantly, both works are immensely concerned with the idea of a larger and mathematically structured pattern underpinning creation. Both works are built around the basic concept that if you take a small, ordinary place such as Northampton and observe it in sufficient detail, the structure of the entire world might take shape. This is is, of course, the methodology William Blake employed when speaking of imagination. But in Big Numbers, at least, Moore ultimately turned to a very different sort of answer than Blake, deciding that the world revealed within his grain of sand was structured according to the faceless and indifferent reality of fractal mathematics and Newtons sleep—one that, as Moore suggests when talking about the vicar’s plotline, he envisioned as relatively atheistic. Jerusalem, on the other hand, actively acknowledges the existence of God, albeit a fundamentally inaccessible and alien one who exists in a multidimensional Eternity folded up into several more dimensions than humans can readily comprehend. It also discards Moore’s earlier hesitance about the idea of determinism, fully and explicitly embracing a deterministic worldview. The result of this is ultimately a reaction against the worldview offered in Big Numbers, which was rooted in the ambiguity and tension between the obvious constructedness of its world, with its clear sense of justice and morality, and the indifferent sweep of fractal mathematics. In the wake of the project, Moore picked a side. If Big Numbers had been in part an effort to respond to criticisms of the sort Morrison would raise about Watchmen and its overt authorship, Moore’s later work changed gears and simply admitted the accusation.
But it is key to recognize that this was not simply a position Moore took on art. Moore was not deciding that it was artistically dishonest to present an atheistic universe given the designed nature of art. He was making a much larger point. Perhaps the Mandelbrot set revealed that you did not need a watchmaker to produce a universe of startling complexity. But Moore had other revelations, and these suggested a sense of cosmic design—a world that was itself a work of art. More than that, they suggested a specific identity for the designer.
Once again, Jerusalem, in its status as the most obvious successor project to Big Numbers, is instructive. Its world, after all, is not merely structured around Moore’s eventual revelations about the nature of time, but around an art exhibition held within the novel by Moore’s authorial stand-in, which contains exhibits that correspond directly to the individual chapters of Jerusalem. In interviews around the time of Jerusalem, Moore readily took the implication further indulging in an extended bit during multiple appearances in which he began from the philosophical concept of simulationism—that the universe as it exists is in fact a simulation of a universe run in another universe. From there Moore mused about how “the person playing this simulation—who is effectively God from our point of view—is liable to actually be in the simulation themselves as a kind of avatar. Now assuming that ego works the same way at this upper level of existence that it does in our own level, we might assume that the person who is playing this game would probably want to go for a character who was, I don’t know, admired in some way, was, perhaps a minor celebrity.” But, Moore warned, “this still gives you an unmanageable amount of minor celebrities to deal with. How are you supposed to sort amongst those thousands and thousands of minor celebrities?” Around this point in the bit he would begin stroking his beard, thoughtfully noting that “perhaps if you narrowed it down a bit by only sucking up to those celebrities who perhaps look a bit like you might imagine God to look, or perhaps have the kind of resonant deep voice that you might expect the creator of the universe to have” before trailing off, leaving the implication to hang pointedly in the air before, in case anyone still didn’t get it, just openly casting himself in the part for The Show.
Another way to put this, then, is that not long after Big Numbers fell apart, Alan Moore became a magician.