Previously in Last War in Albion: Moore found his worldview rapidly evolving in the wake of Watchmen.
“It’s a new world, Arcane. It’s full of shopping malls and striplights and software. The dark corners are being pushed back a little more every day.” – Alan Moore, Saga of the Swamp Thing
These evolutions were already in progress, however, as Moore contemplated what he wanted his next major project to be. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he remained ambitious. Watchmen would have been a perfectly fine career capstone for most people. Indeed, Watchmen was already substantially more ambitious than what most people would attempt, which was at once its virtue and its tragedy. But Moore was surely rankled by the fact that his magnum opus sat in the control of a company he disdained and was steadily sliding towards outright despising. On top of that, he was only thirty-five. There was plenty of time for Moore to write another work of the scale of Watchmen.
In fact, he would decide to write three projects of that sort of scale and ambition, each picking up on different aspects of Watchmen. One of these was From Hell, which saw Moore expand his idea of using a murder and detective story to understand a larger world away from a narrative device for a comic book universe and into an interrogation of the 20th century itself via the Jack the Ripper murders. Another was Lost Girls, which saw Moore give his recurring interest in sexuality as a theme its fullest realization.
It was the third project, however, that was the biggest, most ambitious, and most fascinating thing Moore would work on during the period—a work of audacious formalist complexity that would delve into the storytelling tools he had developed for Watchmen and build an entire philosophical worldview out of them. Moore’s first description of it came in an interview published in February 1988, where he proclaimed that “ I want to do a graphic novel about shopping malls.” Clarifying this willfully puzzling remark, he explained that the comic would be “about a number of things. What happens is that an American shopping mall of Californian scale, one of those monstrous, minature cities you seem to have over there in LA, is erected in this small town in the middle of England.”
This captures one of the essential things about the shopping mall, which is that it was a distinctly American phenomenon even as it was exported to the world, emerging out of the specific concerns of post-World War II America. It is helpful, since Moore sets up the contrast himself, to contrast this with the UK. Both countries experienced a post-War economic boom. In the UK, this involved the creation of the welfare state, and, on a housing level, things like the new towns scheme and the “renovation” of the terraces into tower blocks. These were mixed blessings at best, as Moore trenchantly observed at numerous points during his career, and indeed their failings would be an implicit part of his malls project. But these projects stemmed in part of the specific concerns of the UK, which had a population density an order of magnitude higher than the US, in no small part because 79% of the population lived in cities in 1950, versus about 64% in the US. More to the point, it was a vastly smaller country, which meant that it was easy to have a large mass transit infrastructure.
With the vast expanses of land available in the United States, meanwhile, it was possible to sell an “American Dream” that consisted of owning a house in a quiet suburban area. Which in turn meant that it was necessary to construct large numbers of quiet suburban areas—sprawling expanses of largely identical houses lining a vast stretch of identical gently curving streets. The iconic one of these was Levittown, a seven square mile stretch of farmland on Long Island that was cut up into seventeen thousand quarter acre lots, each with a cheaply constructed house that could be sold to a returning (white) veteran, who, conveniently, was able to get a cheap home loan under the G.I. Bill. But these large suburban developments were only practical for families that also owned a car.
Among the results of this was a precipitous decline of urban downtown areas. With the large scale migration of wealthier white families out of the cities, the number of customers who could simply walk to the stores declined. The newly suburbanized population, meanwhile, found downtown areas inconvenient because of the difficulty of parking the cars they now needed to get there and the traffic they encountered on the way. The reality of capitalism, however, were that people still needed to buy things.
This resulted in the invention of the shopping center, a term first coined in 1947 as a collection of “architecturally unified” shops with sufficient parking. This went through a few years of development and refinement until 1956, when architect Victor Gruen refined his previous design for Northland Center outside Detroit into Southdale Center. Constructed in Edina, Minnesota outside the Twin Cities. The key difference between Southdale and Gruen’s earlier design was that where Northdale was an open-air pedestrian space, Southdale was an enclosed structure—a single 800,000 square foot building containing space for up to seventy-two stores and more than five thousand parking spaces. The resultant structure inherited its name from the general term for pedestrian areas, a mall, and thus the shopping mall was born.
Gruen’s design was a clever and efficient thing. A traditional shopping center was orchestrated around one large department store—the anchor store—and a series of smaller stores. Gruen, however, sought to use the vertical space an enclosed building offered, having two separate floors worth of stores. In order to facilitate motion through this space, he envisioned a structure with two anchor stores, each situated on opposite sides of a two-floor building. Shoppers would park outside either anchor store, enter the mall, walk the length of it on one floor, enter the other store, shop both floors of it, and then walk back to he first store on the other level, returning to their car having walked past every store in the mall.
For Gruen, a socialist who fled the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938, this was a utopian design. As he put it in his 1960 book Shopping Towns U.S.A., “The basic need of the suburban shopper is for a conveniently accessible, amply stocked shopping area with plentiful and free parking. This is the purely practical need for which the shopping center was originally conceived and which many centers most adequately fulfill. Good planning, however, will create additional attractions for shoppers by meeting other needs which are inherent in the psychological climate particular to suburbia. By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities, shopping centers can fill ane xisting void. They can provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place, and our own Town Squares provided in the past.” And Gruen’s design for Southdale hinged on the Garden Court of Perpetual Spring, a large open area halfway between the anchor stores full of natural light from the skylights during the day and lit by paper lanterns at night, replete with sculptures, plants, goldfish ponds, and even an aviary. A cafe with umbrellaed tables enticed shoppers to stop and rest for a time, while a stage meant that the space could be used for concerts and events. The result had its critics—Frank Lloyd Wright denounced it as having “all the evils of the village street and none of its charm”—but for the most part this was seen as a triumph—Time declared it a “pleasure-dome with parking.”
For Gruen, however, this structure was always meant to be a part of a larger design. He emphasized how “A reciprocal relationship exists between a shopping center and its surrounding area. A well planned center can exert a highly favorable and invigorating influence on the area surrounding it, and a well planned surrounding area can add, in a large measure, to the prosperity of the center.” The biggest pioneer in terms of that relationship, however, was James Rouse, a developer who began his career by constructing a series of malls in Gruen’s basic design, but who in the 1960s turned his attention to grander projects. In 1963 he acquired twenty-two square miles of farmland situated almost precisely halfway between Baltimore and Washington, and commenced constructing an entire city, Columbia, Maryland. His vision consisted of ten separate villages, each feeling like its own small town. These would consist of a couple of neighborhoods, each with a distinct name, consisting of houses and walking paths, arranged around a central shopping center alongside schools and a community center. So, for instance, the village of Harper’s Choice consisted of neighborhoods like Longfellow, Swansfield, and Hobbit’s Glen, with street names taken from literary sources so that Hobbit’s Glen, for instance, has Green Dragon Court, Rivendell Lane, Tooks Way, and Barrow Downs. All of this was maintained by the Columbia Park and Recreation Association, a homeowners’ association effectively run by the Rouse Company that maintained a carefully regulated list of acceptable house colors, door colors, landscaping decisions and more to ensure the pleasantness of the communities. And at the center of Rouse’s meticulously designed set of communities, the core around which these ten villages were held? A massive shopping mall.
For all the utopian impulses in its design, however, the shopping mall would soon become a juggernaut of its own, spawning a wealth of what Victor Gruen, who had long since fled back to Europe to retire, denounced as “bastard developments,” not merely in the United States but across the world. Central to this was the very design elements that had been most motivated by Gruen’s utopianism: the warm, inviting central court and the expansion of the mall into a structure that provides as many community needs as possible. All of these, after all, are also all things that make people want to spend time in the mall, and thus to engage in the mall’s primary activity: spending money. And in the face of such intense profitability, utopian impulses were largely beside the point.
By the 1980s, then, the rhetoric about malls had shifted to close analyses of the engineered environments they offered and of the consequences of those environments. Fine details of the mall were closely parsed. Do the tinted windows on mall doors exist to make the outside world look dark and stormy so that people will subliminally want to stay inside? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly the case that malls are micromanaged to the extent where it’s plausible. As William Severini Kowinski, described it in 1985, the mall the mall uses “a combination of peacefulness and stimulation. The environment bathes you in sweet neutrality with soft light, candied music, and all the amenities that reassure and please without grabbing too much individual attention. At the same time, the stores and products dance for you with friendly smiles and colorful costumes. The sheer number of products and experiences you pay for and their apparent variety are in themselves factors that excite and focus.” Kowinski comapares this to television, but his larger case is that the mall is literally a “magic place” in the sense of the “protected privileged space common to the special worlds of history and myth, from the castles and walled cities of medieval Europe and the Forbidden City of China to the enchanted wood, the city in the sky or under the sea, the Shangri-La in the mystic mountains of fantasy.”
It was these aspects of the mall that interested Moore, who explained that he found malls “fascinating, like the first outposts of Earth on Mars. There is a totally new kind of human being there. It’s the trap of capitalism that has birthed a human that likes to shop more than eat, sleep, or procreate. I find that chilling.” Moore found in this a springboard for an idea that would allow him to write about “mathematics, skateboards, LSD, poetry, shoplifting, sex, practically all human life. I’m trying to do something which includes everything.”
All of this, it’s fair to say, was something of a departure from what people expected out of Moore, and the mischievous tone of Moore’s initial declaration was never far from his early hype for the series—in an essay in Steve Gerber, Steven Grant, and Frank Miller’s Words and Pictures newsletter Moore described his musings on what he might do with the artistic freedom afforded to him outside of the mainstream comics scene, noting that “ If I didn’t want my next book to have superheroes in it, then that was okay. If I didn’t want it to have any science fiction or fantasy either, then that was okay too. No fist-fights, artificial cliffhangers or adventure story pacing? Fine. Why, if I wanted, I could go right outside genre altogether. I could do a twelve-issue series about shopping and algebra. In fact, I think I will,” announcing in a footnote that this was an entirely real project that would be called The Mandelbrot Set. [continued]