Was This Your Intended Statement? (Book Three, Part 63: Buster Brown at the Barricades)
Previously in Last War in Albion: To Moore’s delight, the V for Vendetta mask became an international symbol of anticapitalist protest on the back of the Occupy movement.
“All those logos on your raiment, brand-name badges of enslavement, drip-fed passive entertainment. Was this your intended statement?” -Alan Moore, “Mandrillfesto”
A month into the Zucotti Park encampment, indie filmmaker Matt Pizzolo, one of the distributors of the Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods documentary, announced a crowdfunded comics anthology to be called Occupy Comics, which was soon able to announce the participation of Alan Moore, who ended up contributing an essay to the project entitled “Buster Brown at the Barricades” that was serialized as the headline element of all three issues of the anthology once it came out in 2013. This was a lengthy work—over 21,000 words—in which Moore traced an alternate history of comics. Starting from the vogue among those inclined to mythologize the medium to trace its origins back to Egyptian times, Moore notes that “a very different, and perhaps more vital, reading of comic-book history becomes available if we simply turn over the stone blocks on which these stylised chronicles of Egypt’s kings or deities were carved. On the reverse of numerous stones that went to make the pyramids, inscribed on faces that were never meant to see the daylight, archaeologists have found what may well be the first anti-authoritarian and blasphemous satirical cartoons. These are depictions made, presumably, by bored and truculent stonemasons, of the same animal-headed gods to be found in the more conventional inscriptions, only here they’re shown as sitting around playing cards like some divine Egyptian poker school,” declaring this to be “the true historical precursor of the cartoon and the comic strip, the signifier of a grand tradition rooted in its healthy scepticism with regard to rulers, gods or institutions; a genuine art-form of the people, unrestricted by prevailing notions of acceptability and capable of giving voice to popular dissent, or even of becoming, in the right hands, a supremely powerful instrument for social change. It could even be said that, rather than such scurrilous and anti-social sentiments being a minor aberration in the otherwise sedate commercial history of comics, these expressions of dissatisfaction are the medium’s main purpose.”
Moore then proceeds to lay out this alternate history, looking at the relationship between comics and class in the early days of the medium by focusing on the treatments of poverty in Hogan’s Alley, the early days of Blondie, and strips like Mutt and Jeff, Bringing Up Father, and Li’l Abner before they settled into being a middle class concern. Throughout this, however, he notes the role of obscenity in the medium as well, with sections on Aubrey Beardsley’s “urge to shock and his desire to push his work beyond the boundaries of acceptability[, which] had very possibly no more of a refined conceptual basis than that of a teenager embellishing a garage door with an improbably enormous phallus, although executed with far greater delicacy and accomplishment” and on the way in which Tijuana Bibles were “puncturing the socio-sexual hypocrisy which held that sexual provocation was acceptable as long as the human activity which it was based upon was never mentioned or made otherwise explicit.” In this view, the Prohibition-era intrusion on the medium by organized crime using it to smuggle alcohol over the Canadian border and the subsequent normalization of brutally and oppressively creator-hostile contracts is a long-running aberration.
This latter portion of Moore’s history, however, gradually becomes notable for the one person who remains conspicuously, at times painfully absent. This unsurprisingly becomes clearest when it comes time to talk about the British Invasion, leaving Moore to attempt to describe how “The incoming British talent, on the other hand, arriving from a background where experiment and innovation had been met with healthy sales, were possibly allowed more leeway. When the minor risk of placing English writers on those titles that were on the verge of cancellation anyway paid off with similarly-boosted readerships and some small measure of acclaim both within and, increasingly, outside the narrow confines of the industry, experiment and narratives aimed at an older reader seemed to be an economically rewarding strategy. As a result the newer writers were, if not always supported in their wilder flights of creativity, at least not actively prevented from embarking on them in the first place, letting their abilities evolve and expand into new ground at a sometimes dizzying rate. In 1984, after a reign of thirty years, the Comics Code was finally discarded, broken by its own inflexibility and inability to cope with the demands to which the new wave of creators, justified by unassailably increasing sales, were suddenly subjecting it (towards the end of its incumbency, the Code decreed that anything drawn by the artist and bon vivant Mr. Kev O’Neill could not be published with the Code’s approval). The removal of this longstanding impediment to creativity allowed new freedoms in the industry, not always wisely exercised but all contributing to the new air of possibility with which the field seemed suddenly imbued.” Which is true enough, but fundamentally omits the little matter of just what the British writer who put out a 1984 comic that led to the Comics Code being discarded’s name was. Indeed, Moore spends much of the latter portions of the essay furiously writing around himself—Warrior sees a mention, but there’s no trace of the comic most directly responsible for why the Occupy movement had a crowdfunded comics project in the first place. Moore writes himself out of the history of the medium completely.
What remains in his absence is, by and large, something of a blasted heath. Moore’s account of the mainstream comics industry is completely unsparing. Moore describes how in the 1970s “many of the comic landscape’s most important and most influential talents were to either drift out of the business in disgust or else be marginalised by the major comic companies who were sure, in their complacency, that there’d be plenty more prolific and exploitable creators where the last batch came from,” how in the 1980s “The major companies had dismissed or alienated almost all of comics’ most productive and innovative idea-mongers, seemingly still working on the flawed assumption that creative talents were completely interchangeable, that Kirbys, Woods and Ditkos grew on trees and that the fandom-reared replacements who’d been parachuted in during the 1960s would prove capable of generating new and viable ideas of their own, rather than simply revelling in an arrested adolescence with the characters they’d loved when they were children,” and how by the 1990s “ U.S. comic publishers seemed utterly incapable of operating differently from the parade of larcenous Little League mobsters who’d preceded them. They treated the new talent with just the same sugar-coated and duplicitous contempt with which they’d treated everyone since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster first walked through their doors. Unable to learn any lessons from the past and intellectually too nondescript to craft a viable future, once again the massively over-promoted office boys who in the main controlled the comics business managed to completely alienate the crucial talent upon which their new, unearned respectability depended.” Those creators who remained, meanwhile, were largely dismissed as “fan writers who were only too pleased to be working with the costumed heroes that they’d been fixated on since they were children, and apparently were not concerned that in accomplishing their adolescent dreams they’d helped to put the far superior talents who’d created the beloved emblems of their endlessly extended childhoods out of work. Nor, for the most part, were they likely to risk their nostalgic opportunity to rummage in ‘the toy-box’, as the major companies’ repertoire of misappropriated super-characters is sometimes known by the enthusiastic fans-turned-pro who now account for a majority of the professionals employed within the industry, by raising any of the questions or complaints that led to the dismissal of their luckless predecessors. In this shift from working writers to promoted fans we can see the beginnings of a process whereby the creative duties on a title will most likely be assumed by someone who’s a devoted admirer of some previous creator’s run upon the book in question, and will fill his or her tenure on the title with fan-pleasing references rather than originating the fresh concepts that all comics need if they are to survive. As a result, with some few decades of fans referencing fans who in their turn were referencing fans, we have a program of inbreeding which almost surpasses that of European monarchy, assuring that the product will be subject to genetic weaknesses, will speed up the decline and ultimate extinction of whichever line it happens to be part of, and will be inordinately stupid.”
These were, of course, familiar points to anyone who had read Moore in an interview where some hack journalist sought an easy headline by asking his opinion about whatever DC was doing with some plot point out of his Green Lantern shorts or whatever. But it was unusual to see Moore address these topics unbidden and at such brutal, vicious length. All the same, Moore does not resolve on a note of pessimism, save, arguably, for his erroneous prediction that Marvel and DC would soon go more or less completely under. Instead he calls on the politically motivated readers of Occupy Comics to, well, do precisely that, noting that “armed, with nothing more than a blank page and some variety of drawing implement, dissenting voices can refine and broadcast their ideas more widely and compellingly, while at the same time possibly making their protest into an enduring work of art that can enrich the medium and the broader culture in which it exists,” and calling on them to “ pick up that brush, pencil, pen, that mouse or even that discarded cardboard box out in the alleyway and pour your heart, your mind, your self into as many little panels as it takes to make your statement. You may find it opens up modes of expression and dissent that you have previously not considered or imagined. You may even find you’ve got yourself an occupation.”
Moore is not, however, the only person he excises from his history of the medium, although the other absence is a markedly different one. On one level, it is simply a bit of well-aimed snideness, as Moore lists the “very few original and capable creators like Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis,” a list that is visibly calculated to exclude the most obvious other name to include among these UK imports: Grant Morrison. It’s hardly a surprise that Moore would omit a figure he evinces nothing but contempt for, but elsewhere in the essay Moore finds himself engaging quite substantively with his nemesis, albeit while still pointedly refusing to call them by name. It comes while discussing the way in which Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were cheated out of ownership of Superman, when Moore entertains the various justifications for this act, noting that “More lately there have been attempts to mitigate the industry’s offence with an appeal to half-baked mysticism and postmodernism, maintaining that Superman and the commercial children’s comic characters which followed him are all in some sense archetypes that hover in the ether, waiting to be plucked by any lucky idiot who passes by.” This is recognizable as a snarky but not entirely inaccurate summary of Morrison’s argument in Supergods that DC’s purchase of the Superman copyright meant that the character was “Set free of his creators” to become “more real than we are,” asserting that “There is a persistent set of characteristics that define Superman through decades of creative voices and it’s that essential, unshakeable quality of Superman-ness the character possesses in every incarnation, which is divinity by any other name.” Moore’s assessment of this argument was to note that “Ingeniously, this sidesteps the whole Siegel and Shuster problem by insisting that creators in the superhero field aren’t actually creators after all, but merely the recipients of some kind of transcendent windfall fruit that should be freely shared around,” but to ultimately conclude that “Even if this were true, it’s difficult to see exactly how it justifies a perhaps gangster-founded company of fruiterers (just to continue the analogy) declaring that these profitable magic apples all belong to them in perpetuity.”
This would be hard-hitting but reasonable enough argument. Instead, however, Moore presses the offensive against his unnamed rival, snarking that “one can see why such a morally-evasive brand of metaphysics might appeal to the large corporate concerns which steer the comic industry; to those amongst the readership whose primary allegiance is to a specific superhero rather than the ordinary non-invulnerable human who originated him; and to those loyally and profitably labouring at franchises, who know they’re in no danger of ever creating an original idea which would be valuable enough to steal.” It’s a savage and mean-spirited shot, though no moreso than any of the others Moore was prone to firing off at his foe during this period. But its effect, coupled with Moore’s self-erasure from the history of the medium, serves as a spiteful sort of torch-passing. Moore may be done with the medium, seeking to pass it on to the kids after taking his name off it like it’s a Wachowski script, but having burnt the house down and salted the Earth he is visibly seen to hand what he views as the worthless wreckage of mainstream comics to none other than Grant Morrison.
And yet, in the end, this is essentially what he did a quarter century earlier with V for Vendetta itself, calling a clear and explicit end to his time in the mainstream American comics industry, but not before giving Karen Berger a list of names to pursue as successors that included Grant Morrison. But in both 2013 and 1988 the key part was the same—not that Alan Moore was done with this shit, but that he was moving on to other things. [continued]
Last War in Albion will return in March.
February 25, 2023 @ 10:35 pm
I can’t help but wonder if Grant Morrison today would make the same kinda argument about Superman’s copyright – it hasn’t even been that long since Supergods was released, but it absolutely reads (as Alan Moore points out) like a weak metaphysical, postmodern justification for creators getting cheated out of their rights. I’m not surprised it didn’t change Moore’s perception of Morrison as just a “corporate-friendly version of myself”.
March 3, 2023 @ 11:17 am
The “archetypes that hover in the ether” idea is one that I see quite often in, of all places, the pop-culture-themed areas of AlternateHistory.com. Not so much from the actual timeline writers, but from enthusiastic commentators who suggest “Hey, if Batman: The Animated Series doesn’t exist, maybe Harley Quinn makes her debut in the movies?” prompting others to explain that without the very specific combination of a Batman project, Paul Dini, and Arleen Sorkin, Harley Quinn simply doesn’t make her debut anywhere.
March 4, 2023 @ 1:29 am
I felt that when I read this one Beatles “what if they didn’t break up” alternate history story, Once There Was A Way. A lot of it is devoted to exploring unused/unmade ideas (i.e. the White Album was first called “A Doll’s House”, Abbey Road was first called “Everest”, them starring in a Lord of the Rings film directed by Stanley Kubrick) and I got this sense that the author didn’t think through if these ideas would’ve actually plausibly happened instead in this alternate timeline, he just wanted to showcase a specific kind of Beatles trivia in this fictional context. That’s fine and all, it just seemed less interesting than trying to figure out what could’ve actually taken place.