Tuesday, 5 November 2013

On "Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life Of Alan Moore" by Lance Parkin

With the hubbub triggered by Before Watchman came a vehement interpretation of Alan Moore that I'd not seen before. Prankster, genius, standpat, magician, hypocrite, polymath, psycho-geographer, plagiarist, madman, proletarian, Judas, eroticist, hippie, refusenik, anarchist, weed-head, acid-head, bread-head, publicity-freak, shaman, misogynist, narcissist, feminist, ecologist, activist, pornographer, dinosaur, professional contrarian, and even, courtesy of Rob Liefeld, "ruthless businessman"; all of these were far more than merely familiar labels. For in excess of three decades, Moore has inspired debate as no other figure in comics has. Yet his adamant conviction that Watchman should belong to its creators rather than Warner Bros Entertainment inspired a label that was new to me; Alan Moore as the paradoxical avatar of both utter selfishness and godless socialism, as the destroyer of immersive corporate universes and the fun-loathing despoiler of obsessively fannish entitlements. There's something deliciously and appropriately pagan about this continual respinning of Moore's image by this and that fraction of the public; now a symbol of freedom, now of repression, and so on and on. It's the nature of even minor celebrity in the babble-saturated 21st century, of course, and yet Moore seems particularly susceptible to the process. Even those of us greybeards who've followed his career from its first fanzine stirrings and Roscow Moscow's adventures in Sounds can get distracted by the bedlam. For it's all too shamefully easy to start thinking of Moore's art in terms of the differences of opinion he's instigated and inspired rather than those of the work itself. More than any other comics creator, it seems, "Alan Moore" can threaten to disappear into the endless distorted reflections of hyper-reality's hall of mirrors.

One of the particular achievements of Lance Parkin's admirable literary biography is its refusal to view Moore's life and work in the terms of these many fierce and partisan debates. Though Parkin often conscientiously discusses the events which inspired them, his focus is always on the evidence rather than the tumult. Superbly researched and lucidly argued, Magic Words encourages the reader to step back from the gallery of supposedly Manichean controversies and ossified preconceptions. With a determination to focus on the light rather than the heat of things, Parkin lends many of the most apparently unchallengeable aspects of Moore's career a new perspective. To take but two of a great many examples, Warrior editor Dez Skinn is presented as a far more sympathetic and well-intentioned player than he's frequently been portrayed as, while even the claims of DC's marketing department to the success of Watchmen are treated with respect and fairly appraised. (The status-grab isn't accepted, but it isn't dismissed out of hand either.) Instead of building a prosecutor's case for one cause or another, one man or his supposed opponents, Parkin sifts the evidence and evaluates it with the fair-mindedness and empathy that foresight and familiarity so often obliterates. That the process reveals that Moore's often been anything but the entirely blameless victim of his hagiographers' accounts is hardly surprising. After all, even saints at the height of their devotion are still tainted by earthly sin, and Moore has been a serial confrontationalist even as he's also been a consistently brilliant creator. What emerges from Parkin's brew of admiration, enthusiasm, scepticism, curiosity, insight and knowledge is a Moore that's no more cackling spirit than cross-bearing martyr. Because of that, the portrait of its subject that emerges is enticingly fresh and repeatedly contrary to received wisdom.

My sincere thanks to Mr Parkin for the scan of the above, which arrived after I'd been raging about the claims of DC's marketing executives to the credit for the success of Watchmen.
Just as enriching is the decision to ground Moore's life and its creative achievements in the context of his more youthful experiences. Rather than solely considering the man's work in the light of the history of comics and the wider pop culture, as is often and quite understandably done, Parkin has chosen to incorporate such concerns into a far broader social and cultural approach. His is an inspiringly forensic attention to matters of class and locale, education and employment, opportunity and constraint. Though many others have of course discussed the same issues, none to my knowledge have been as well-informed or insightful. To cherry-pick some of the most remarkable examples of the evidence that Parkin has succeeded in tracking down would be to spoil just one of the book's many pleasures. But nowhere else have I come across a more convincing, concise and undemonstratively poignant portrayal of life's everyday realities in a provincial city during the quarter century after Moore's birth in 1953. In particular, Parkin excels in teasing out the creative and social lifeline that Northampton's Arts Lab offered in the Seventies to a Moore who was seemingly doomed to a life of little-league self-expression and drudge-sodden employment. Parkin's portrayal of the Arts Lab as a sanctuary in which Moore could express his inventiveness while collaborating with sympathetic allies nails both the virtues and limitations of the ever-declining pre-punk counter-culture with an unsentimental acumen. Even as Moore was reaching for the opportunities that the Arts Lab offered, the world-view and social circumstances which informed and enabled it was withering away. To read of the period in Magic Words is to be less amazed at how Moore eventually willed himself into a rightfully-feted creator, and more to be staggered that he managed to keep his ambitions alive at all.  

It's the combination of Parkin's judicious approach and his remarkable if lightly-worn knowledge that makes Magic Words such a captivating and essential read. Rooting Moore's career so convincing in his earliest inspirations, aspirations and disappointments gives Parkin's chapters a compelling sense of continuity and character. What in other hands might have seemed like a summary of an already played out and codified career instead feels like an examination of a very-much on-going and open-ended adventure. Perhaps most beguiling is the impression that Moore's career has always been founded on the same beliefs and desires that informed his time at the Arts Lab. While others have portrayed him as endlessly disputatious or perpetually preyed upon, Parkin's work suggests a man who's always "clearly hankered for a place where he and his mates just get on and make art".  Not a testily self-centred individual who simply can't get on with others then, but one who just wants to create with folks who both support him and share his priorities. If it doesn't excuse Moore from an apparent habit of wishfully placing his own desires and principles before those of his colleagues, it certainly explains why he might repeatedly have done so.

Life as an expression of the values which informed the affairs of the Arts Lab may or may not be the key to understanding Moore's life and career. Parkin himself determinedly ends his book with a series of competing approaches to the understanding of his subject. Yet as a hypothesis, it's convincing, compelling and touching, and it makes far more sense than any other that I've come across. As Parkin leads his readers from the creative and business circles of 2000AD, Marvel UK and Warrior to across-the-pond publishers such as DC, Image, Awesome and Wildstorm, what might otherwise appear as the disconnected expressions of genius and bloodymindedness are reframed as the product of one fascinating individual and his fiercely held principles and aspirations. It's a well-played accomplishment that makes Parkin's smart-minded analysis of Moore's work all the more compelling. Not only is he reexamining the individual component's of Moore's canon, but he's also calmly and sharply redefining the context in which they all relate to one another. Even those who've suspected that they never need or want again to read of Marvelman or Watchmen, From Hell, Lost Girls or The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen will find a great deal here that fascinates.

Parkin's purpose isn't to imperiously define, describe and file away an indisputable take on this "Alan Moore" and his comics, books, cartoons, music, performance, relationships, business dealings and magical ceremonies. But it is, it appears, to make us see all of those things in a way that's as fresh as it's rigorous, as entertaining as it's illuminating. In the Babel that so often passes for debate on the subject of Moore and his many and various works, Magic Words is an indispensable guide and a more-than-merely-welcome inspiration.

And Before Watchmen? As Parkin writes in a mustn't-miss piece that will appear here at TooBusyThinking tomorrow, 

"I've been asked if I should have read them for research. Did anyone who wrote a biography of Elvis research Roland Rat because he covered Love me Tender?"

As I've been attempting to express, Mr Parkin is indeed a writer of characteristically impeccable judgement.

The hullabaloo of the peanut gallery recedes, and recedes further .... 

I can only suggest that you drop everything and search out a copy of 'Magic Words' right now. It compliments the very best of what's previously been written about Moore while rendering a great deal of the rest entirely obsolete. You can find the book's site here.



  1. Replies
    1. Hello Emmet:- I don' think you'll be disappointed, I really don't :)

  2. Alan Moore consistently writes heartfelt and thought provoking tales. I wanted so much for his example to proliferate and raise the bar for other creative types in the industry. Sadly, the bar seems to be stuck at the bottom dollar / pound.

    I blame Alan Moore, post Watchmen and Swamp Thing for years of empty calorie comic book buying.
    That last sentence is intended as humor.

    1. Hello Teresa:- If only the industry had absorbed the lessons of Moore's succss while he was writing the super-book. As you imply, the wrong lessons were learned. In the second part of these posts about Magic Words, Lance Parkins himself suggests that the period since Moore left DC has seen the editors in comics fight to make sure that no-one ever again attains the influence that he did. Perhaps the desire to avoid a writer becoming bigger than the editor class has meant that the latter have filtered out a great many writers who they ought to have hired.

      Which is not, of course, to suggest that great writers haven't - and aren't - worked in the post-Moore industry. Of course they have. Yet I wonder what they might have achieved with the freedom which Moore originally had ...