Friday, January 17, 2014

The Fallen Wizard of Northampton

Alan Moore, self-professed magician and writer of comics such as Watchmen, V for Vendetta and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, tried to place a terrible curse upon his enemies. It backfired.

I could fill a book with my ambivalence about Alan Moore’s work, his public persona or his approach to comics, as a narrative form or as an industry.

The first issue of Watchmen came out around the time of my first day in school, so Moore has never been a formative influence on me or my comics reading. I’ve read a bunch of his books and translated some of them into German, all of which was great fun. And while Watchmen—once I had read it, in the late 1990s—was never a personal favorite, I find it hard to argue with people who claim it’s the most accomplished superhero comic ever published.

Moore’s persistent heckling of the North American comics industry has never bothered me. His comments on the state of superhero comics, 25 years after Watchmen, have been harsh, but not necessarily wrong. And, in any case, Moore has enough career-defining works under his belt to have earned the right to a few eccentricities. I appreciate that he doesn’t feel obliged to be the champion of a scene he obviously considers creatively stale and backwards, as well as ethically rotten. Likewise, I’m very much with Moore on DC Comics’ decision to go through with the Before Watchmen books, in 2012, despite Moore’s objections. DC may have the legal right to publish these books, due to an unlikely loophole in the original contract, but that doesn’t grant the publisher the moral right to do so. I think that’s a distinction worth making.

On the other hand, there are tendencies and themes in Moore’s work that I’ve found questionable, and which are in need of critical scrutiny, at the very least. Which brings us to the questionnaire Irish blogger Pádraig Ó Méalóid published last week, along with remarkable, remarkably elaborate responses from Moore. ‘Ambivalent’ doesn’t begin to describe my reaction.

First up, the piece is marred by all kinds of things. Poorly phrased questions, strawman arguments, bad-faith assumptions and semantic hairsplitting are the least of its offenses, so I think it’s pointless to take Moore’s rejoinders at face value. Not that the issues themselves—the ubiquity of sexual violence in Moore’s work and his appropriation of the Golliwogg, a character representing racist stereotypes, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen—don’t merit discussion, but reading Moore’s responses in that context leads to frustration. I recommend Marc Singer’s analysis of Moore’s statements on the Golliwogg, for instance, which addresses both the actual subject and the shoddy treatment it receives from Moore in his responses to Ó Méalóid.

If one thing is clear from Moore’s comments, it’s that a forthright discussion is not what he’s looking for. So what is he looking for, then?

Let’s speculate.

In The Mindscape of Alan Moore, a ponderously presented 2005 film that's basically a glorified monologue, Moore explains his views on magic and art. “Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as The Art,” he says.

“I believe that this is completely literal. I believe that magic is art, and art—whether that be writing, music, sculpture or any other form—is literally magic. Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images to achieve changes in consciousness. The very language of magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events. A grimoire, for example, a book of spells, is simply a fancy way of saying ‘grammar.’ Indeed, to cast a spell is simply to spell—to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness. And I believe that this is why an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world you are likely to see to a shaman.”

Moore knows that words have power. He declared himself a magician in 1993, and this is the context for his understanding of art, of stories, of words.

It’s a fair assumption, I think, that this understanding extends not just to Moore’s published works, but also to his other communications with his audience, including public appearances, interviews and written statements.

The world is shaped by narratives, in other words, and even as he makes this point, in Mindscape, Moore is constructing a narrative of his own:

“I believe that all culture must have arisen from cult. Originally, all of the facets of our culture, whether they be in the arts or the sciences, were the province of the shaman. The fact that in present times this magical power has degenerated to the level of cheap entertainment and manipulation is, I think, a tragedy. At the moment, the people who are using shamanism as magic to shape our culture are advertisers—rather than trying to wake people up. Their shamanism is used as an opiate to tranquilize people, to make people more manipulable. [With] their magic box of television and by their magic words, their jingles, [they] can cause everybody in the country to be thinking the same words and have the same banal thoughts all at exactly the same moment.”

Every good narrative needs a villain, and in Moore’s narrative, the bad guys are the “advertisers”—the  purveyors of “cheap entertainment and manipulation,” who abuse their magic to lull the masses into uniformity. The film was released in 2005, but the bogeyman Moore conjures up here is echoed in his more recent characterizations of fellow comics writer and magician Grant Morrison.

In a previously published comment, Moore painted Morrison as someone who made his career by taking shots at Moore while at the same time plagiarizing his work, as well as the work of writer Michael Moorcock, who has been similarly critical of Morrison. In the account now published by Ó Méalóid, Moore shows less restraint, hurling insults at Morrison with abandon.

Moore refers to Morrison as his “own personal 18th century medicinal leech,” who at some point “decided that it would be easier to gain status by smearing my name,” which he did with “herpes-like persistence.” Moore holds forth:

“The end, at least in the Morrison household, would always seem to justify the means. [...] I presume that in the world which Grant Morrison and his fellow mediocrities inhabit, where the worth of one’s work is a remote consideration after one’s bank balance and degree of celebrity, these methods are seen as completely legitimate or even in some way entertaining.”

Clearly, Morrison is the villain in Moore’s story—the self-advertiser, manipulator and no-good maker of mediocre entertainment. The antagonist of the narrative, the Madam Mim to Moore’s Merlin, stands revealed.

Whatever personal or professional reasons Moore may have for despising Morrison: In the story Moore is telling, where writers are shamans who must use their magic storytelling powers to change human consciousness for the better, Morrison represents everything that’s wrong with the world—he’s ruthless, shallow and only in it for money and fame.

This is the point where the two arch-nemeses clash. As practitioners of magic, their weapon of choice, as Moore explains in Mindscape, are words:

“In all of magic, there is this incredibly large linguistic component. The bardic tradition of magic would place a bard as being much higher and more fearsome than a magician. A magician might curse you. That might make your hands lie funny or you might have a child born with a clubfoot. If a bard were to place not a curse upon you, but a satire, then that could destroy you. If it was a clever satire, it might not just destroy you in the eyes of your associates. It would destroy you in the eyes of your family. It would destroy you in your own eyes. And if it was a finely worded and clever satire that might survive and be remembered for decades, even centuries, and years after you were dead, people still might be reading it and laughing at you and your wretchedness and your absurdity.”

The stage for the Wizards’ Duel is set.

From Moore’s perspective, the “fearsome bard” seeking to destroy him with a terrible satire, and thus forcing him to retaliate, may be Morrison.

But there’s another way of looking at this narrative.

Morrison seems to have much less bile and hatred for Moore than vice versa. Morrison’s own account, as published in 2012, counters Moore’s allegations with specific corrections and dates. Moore, on the other hand, now mostly repeats what he said before, including parts that Morrison already refuted—and does so with increasing levels of abuse. Moore’s diatribe is smartly written and at times darkly funny, and it’s directed at the very substance of a human being. It’s an attempt at character assassination.

And why not? Moore has clearly given some thought to the art of “destroying” people, after all. And if this isn’t the kind of “finely worded and clever satire” Moore must have thought of in Mindscape, nothing is.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no less ambivalent about Morrison and his œuvre than I am about Moore, and it’s clear that Moore thinks he has good reason to roast and insult Morrison. That reason may be personal, or professional, or philosophical, or Moore may have overreacted for reasons nothing at all to do with Morrison. We might never know.

But even giving Moore the benefit of the doubt regarding his attacks on Morrison, singling out Pam Noles (a blogger who criticized Moore for his use of the Golliwogg character), Will Brooker (a pop-culture scholar who criticized Moore after attending one of his public appearances) and Laura Sneddon (a journalist who interviewed both Moore and Morrison and later criticized Moore) is quite an error of judgment.

None of these people are minor celebrities in the way Moore or Morrison are, and nothing in Moore’s statements suggests that they did anything to warrant being publicly attacked by someone like Moore. They committed the grave sin of disagreeing with Moore and criticizing his work online. By trying to discredit them and—in Brooker’s and Sneddon’s cases—ridiculing them by name, Moore, in his own story, takes on the role of an ugly and malicious bully.

And that’s very bad news. It’s bad news for Moore, because he ends up discrediting himself. And it’s bad news for comics, because one of the field’s most brilliant voices seems to be wholesomely and irrevocably estranged from the industry, now more so than ever.

Imagine what Moore might be able to achieve as an advocate for creators’ rights, for instance, if he hadn’t cut all ties with the industry, and used his narrative—and magic—skills in the service of that cause. Instead, he seems content to be remembered as someone who madly and irrationally lashed out at his peers, his critics and his audiences for the most trivial of offenses.

Does Moore hope to be respected as a “fearsome bard”? Does he really believe this is a proportionate response? Doesn’t he have anyone to take him aside and talk him out of this sort of thing? Is he going senile?

Moore’s story is slipping away from him. The Wizard of Northampton, who at one point inspired readers through the ingenuity of his work, has lost control of his own narrative. And years after he is dead, people still might be reading it and laughing at him and his wretchedness and his absurdity.