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An essay I wrote for my "Metaphysical Messages" class. The original had footnotes, which I don't feel like figuring out how to format in lj, so they're rendered here in brackets and small text (to differentiate them from the copious amounts of parentheticals I seem to use these days). This was written for a comics skeptic, so apologies for anything that comes off didactic.

A few details first, just to get them out of the way:

Alan Moore writes comics.

Alan Moore writes comics, sometimes, about superheroes.

Alan Moore believes in magic.   

Alan Moore worships a Roman snake god named Glycon. But don't sweat it too much; Moore himself believes Glycon to be a fraud perpetrated by an ambitious cult.

Alan Moore believes that he, himself, can perform magic.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes.

Watchmen is the book that changed everything. I mean this in as many ways as possible: it changed comics, it changed science fiction, it changed me.

I was eighteen. A friend of mine [A friend of mine I was trying desperately to sleep with, it should be noted. In the fine tradition of undergraduate courtship rites I probably, truth be told, only laid hands on the book at all in order to impress a boy. I think Moore would be perfectly happy with this entry (no pun intended) to his work. Moore is all about patterns and rituals, after all.] handed me the book and told me that it was about “superheroes with souls.” For a long time after reading the book I thought this an overly reductive statement. Watchmen is about, in no particular order: the Cold War, the rise of superhero narratives against the backdrop of America's shifting relationship with authority [Moore's writing always has a slightly metafictional bent, and here is no exception; the rise of vigilantism within the book itself mirrors the rise of the superhero comic book in the thirties and forties in the “real” world. The alternate history, in other words, mirrors the true history of America's odd relationship with the hero, and more importantly with the anxieties of the late twentieth century (what exactly is a hero in a world of moral relativity? How should crime and punishment work if our authorities are no longer just right or wrong but human? Do we want to be protected or free?).], the Machiavellian impulse, the communal hysterias of the late twentieth century, the mutability of identity, the nature of time, the apocalypse, and probably a half dozen other big-ticket items I'm leaving out. The book takes place in alternate United States in which masked vigilantes truly exist. Most of these people are just men and women who don masks and fight crime (often from silly, childish, or flat-out deviant motives, it turns out). Then comes Doctor Manhattan, a scientist whose body is disintegrated in a nuclear accident, but who then reconstitutes himself atom by atom (or Adam by Adam, as Moore likes to point out). Doctor Manhattan has become a transdimensional being, outside human perceptions of scale, space, and time. He is functionally a god. He can destroy and alter matter, he can appear multiple places at once, he can be a giant or a lilliputian, he sees time from outside its relativity. Masked vigilantes are rendered more or less obsolete by his existence in the world, and have mostly gone into retirement. The Soviet crisis has changed tenor; Doc Manhattan's presence checks the pettiest of the Cold War power struggles, but he also ensures that the only possible end that the Soviets can force is Mutually Assured Destruction. The world stands on the brink of this nuclear collapse as the story kicks into gear. Someone is killing off the aging masked vigilantes of an earlier age, starting with the notoriously brutal hero known as The Comedian. The remaining “heroes” set out to solve the mystery. In the process they discover a conspiracy, a betrayal by one of their own, and a horror beyond impending nuclear war.

That, then, is the plot of Watchmen. It's bleak, it's smart, it's incredibly well-written. The problem is that it doesn't tell you what Watchmen does. Moore's genius lies in creating—or perhaps revealing—patterns beneath the surface of reality. He uses every resource the comic medium provides to create a system of visual rhyme that makes a meaning beneath the meaning of every individual object. The Comedian's blood-spattered smiley-face pin echoes the Doomsday Clock ticking towards midnight and the Fallout emblems going up all over town and the skull and crossbones image that permeates a comic book within the comic called Black Freighter (a pirate story fraught with existential grimness). These emblems don't just create cohesion between different elements of the book; they create something in the viewer that goes deeper. A discomfort with the way these semiotics have gazed out over our half of the century, perhaps. Something harder to put the finger on: horror, awe. The Burkean Sublime at work.

Moore, and his collaborator Dave Gibbons, use the multi-panel layout of the comic form to play games with time and identity. In the chapter entitled “Watchmaker,” Doctor Manhattan sits brooding on Mars while at another point in time his origin story plays out. This is crucial: for Doctor Manhattan the fourth dimension is not sequential but continuous. As a child he watches his father, a watchmaker, arrange delicate cogs on black velvet. Simultaneously he walks in the desert of Nevada, the site where the accident re-created him as a superhuman. He sits on Mars. He watches his father throw the cogs from their balcony the day the Enola Gay drops its bomb, invoking Einstein's theory of relativity: “If time is not true, what purpose have watchmakers, hein?” He watches his lover get old while his body stays the same. He falls in love again with a younger woman. He sits on Mars. The chapter moves elliptically through the events, revealing the narrative of his genesis while making it clear that narrative, a series of events leading one to the other, is an illusion. It's a particular ability of comics to be able to reveal the deconstruction of time in this way; individual panels are necessarily static. Movement is implied between the panels. Moore and Gibbons are able to lead the reader through events that are decades apart (or simultaneous, if you are a superhuman) within the space of a centimeter.

And aren't superhero narratives always about identity? The donning of masks, the taking of alter-egos. In the chapter called “The Abyss Gazes Also,” the book turns towards the bleak psychological territory of its most extreme character, Rorschach. Rorschach, a borderline psychopath, is utterly isolated by an uncompromising moral code. The chapter is framed by an interview the prison psychologist, Dr. Long, is conducting, after Rorschach (whose real name is Stanley Kovacs) has been captured and unmasked. The section is essentially a battle over Rorschach's identity. Dr. Long is determined to see Rorschach as a mask Kovacs wears: “After the murder of Kitty Genovese, you decided to vent your hostility on the underworld...making a mask for yourself you decided to become Rorschach...” But Rorschach interrupts him. “Don't be stupid. I wasn't Rorschach then. Then I was just Kovacs. Kovacs pretending to be Rorschach.” For Rorschach identity is not a thing to be donned and discarded with the change of clothes. The difference between his mask and the standard superhero mask emphasizes this; his mask is not a war helm, or a sleek domino designed to obscure identity. It's a new face. It's a face he can “bear to look at in the mirror,” as he says, a face he recognizes as his own more than what lies beneath it. The mask itself is made from a science fictional white fabric with heat-and-pressure sensitive black blots on it that shift and move with his expression. It covers his entire face. It is both more expressive than other superhero masks, and more terrifyingly blank; it's simpler and more pure than the usual range of human features.

It is Rorschach's sense of identity that ultimately wins. In the course of his treatment, he describes the moment he was re-born. The scene is recreated in a series of panels rendered in hellish red, orange, and yellow, almost entirely without words. Rorschach, investigating a kidnapping, enters the kidnapper's backyard where two dogs fight over a bone. He finds the girl's clothes in the furnace. He sees a butcher block and set of knives. There is no child. He turns back to the German shepherds, fighting over the bone. Suddenly we are back with the doctor and the captive in the prison. He describes splitting the first dog's head with the butcher knife: “Shock of impact ran along my arm. Jet of warmth splattered on chest, like hot faucet. It was Kovacs who said “mother” then, muffled under latex. It was Kovacs who closed his eyes. It was Rorschach who opened them.” This is an origin story more stark and startling, more potent and existentially fraught, than the puerile motives of young men and women playing dress-up.

Moore uses the superhero narrative the same way Borges uses the detective story, the same way Pinter or Lynch or Hawkes uses thirties noir, the same way James uses the ghost story. It's a reinvention that respects convention, a mild lampooning only a true lover could provide. A co-opting of form that embraces the form even as it subsumes it. So we get superheroes, in Watchmen, who are faced with postmodern moral complexities, who must either become more complex in response, or else die. My college friend was right, in the end. It's about superheroes with souls, and that is all, and that is everything. This isn't a negation of the tradition. It's a transcendence of it.

I bring you fire.

My boyfriend and I read Promethea together. When we were finished, he said with absolute certainty that the book had become Alan Moore's instruction manual on magic. I disagreed. I thought it was a meditation on the nature of the creative impulse. The truth is that for Moore, they are exactly the same thing.
Promethea initially looks like another superhero narrative, albeit a strange and occult one. Sophy Bangs is a college student investigating the recurring myths and stories of a warrior woman named Promethea. The tales crop up in different time periods, different genres, from a Gnostic text in early Christian Egypt to epic poetry to comic strips and pulp novels. Sophy discovers that Promethea is a living story, a demi-goddess that can be invoked and channeled: See, anyone with imagination and enough enthusiasm for the character can bring her through from the Immateria, by thinking themselves or others into the role,” explains Barbara Shelley, the era's most recent Promethea incarnate. An eighteenth-century poet transformed his housemaid into Promethea by composing poetry for her; later, a female cartoonist transformed herself into Promethea and provided succor in the trenches during World War One. A lesbian illustrator took up the mantel in the mid-forties, followed by a gay pulp writer in the fifties who became a transgendered Promethea. Inevitably, it turns out that Sophy is destined to serve as the next incarnation.
While this isn't exactly a standard superhero origin, it's at least identifiable as such. When Sophy transforms into Promethea (which she does by writing a poem, which should have been the first tip-off that that would get strange), she resembles Wonder Woman in stature and in cup size both. She can fly, she possesses a commanding tone. Her weapon is a caduceus of living fire (another tip-off). Superficially, then, we have a standard average-person-gains-powers narrative along the lines of Spiderman or The Green Lantern.
But it's not long before the superhuman trappings drop away and the series becomes a vast, visionary walking tour through the cosmos. Literally. Sophy and her friend Barbara go on a quest through the Sephiroth, or Tree of Life. Each chapter is a different location on the Tree, and each chapter represents a different aspect of being: mercy, judgment, logic, beauty, and on and on.

Can you imagine the kind of cajones it takes to use a medium most often used for action and adventure to unfold an experiment in cosmology? If you aren't very, very good at what you do, you are going to piss off everybody: the fans who thought they were getting a hot female superheroine and the highbrow comics literati who signed on for philosophical digression. Fortunately, Moore is in fact that good. He works closely with artist J.H. Williams to make what would essentially be a didactic dialogue about Kaballistic lore, tarot archetypes, occult figures and mythology into a genuine adventure on its own terms. Moore and Williams turn the abstract into a series of landscapes. They use and abuse the formal opportunities of the medium to bridge the gap between the literal and the figurative.

The use of panels in Promethea differs substantially from Watchmen; in the latter, Dave Gibbons stuck close to a standard nine panel layout. Promethea, on the other hand, follows no consistent rules. The layout shifts with every chapter, sometimes with complex multi-level panels that combine the abstract and the literal. In one of her earliest magic lessons, Promethea gets a tour of the tarot system, learning the archetypes and meanings of the cards. Each page shows a different card drawn in cartoonish style; a Scrabble anagram of Promethea's own name that adds some kind of oblique meaning to the card at hand; an image of Promethea herself engaging with the card; and, if that weren't enough, a running joke being told by Aleister Crowly across the bottom of the page. The chapter takes place in the “Immateria,” which is what Moore calls the realm beyond the physical world (the cosmos and the Sephiroth are synonymous); it takes place in the equivalent of dream, imagination, vision, hallucination. In other chapters the panels work differently; on one two-page spread the panels disappear, replaced by a giant mobius strip that Sophy and Barbara walk around and around in a recurring loop. Elsewhere, gods and goddesses span multiple panels, their existence transcending narrative itself.

The art style itself changes substantially from chapter to chapter. As Sophy and Barbara ascend the Sephiroth and move through the different spheres of human existence, the world around them shifts to represent the element they're currently inhabiting [Obviously, because we're the reader of the text, the image represents the Sephira they are in; however, we're asked by Moore and Williams to imagine that the characters are not in a representative landscape but a literal one. When they are in Netzach, they are literally under a sea of emotion. It's one of the odd metafictional things about the book: we read the representative and believe the literal.]. When Sophy and Barbara go to Netzach, the Sephira representing emotion and love, they find themselves in a deep green ocean. The figures of the women are drawn the same way they've been drawn through the entire book, but the landscape becomes simple and blocky, a bit like Beatles album art, a strange hallucination around them. The art of the landscape evokes a sense of the intuitive, deep-sea world of the heart. Later the women go to Binah, the sphere of understanding, which is a world of muted greys and blues, the figures within very simple, without the level of detail elsewhere in the book; the setting is clarity itself. And in Chokmah, the sphere of wisdom, the landscape is a glittering silver, bright and crystalline and shimmering with knowledge.

My boyfriend says he reads Promethea when he needs to feel connected, when he needs a reminder that the world is a whole thing. I understand the impulse. Moore takes you deeper and deeper, higher and higher, within and without at the same time. Any writer willing to risk so much to show me that the cosmos is all contained inside my own self, and that it also contains me at the same damn time, any writer who can do that is a magician. I don't care if the giant snake god he worships is a total fraud.

What is the fourth dimension?

Are architecture and archetype so unrelated? The one describes the structure and shape of our buildings. The other describes the structure and shape of our cosmos. We inhabit both.

From Hell
takes us to late Victorian London, to Whitechapel and Spitalfields during Jack the Ripper's reign of terror. As is often the case with a Moore book, the superficial plot is less important than the way the book is built and the strange metaphysical places Moore uses the plot to get us to. On surface From Hell subscribes to a somewhat farfetched solution to the Ripper crimes, positing them as a Freemason plot [This Freemason theory is not Moore's own invention. In his notes for the book, he acknowledges his debt to Stephen Knight's controversial Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution, which provided much of the fodder for From Hell.] . The short version: a group of prostitutes discover that Prince Albert Victor fathered a baby on a Whitechapel shopgirl. Under pressure to pay off some local protection gangs, the women decide to blackmail Walter Sickert, the painter who allegedly introduced the prince to the shopgirl. Word of the blackmail reaches the queen. She calls upon the Freemasons to solve the problem. Doctor William Withey Gull, a noted Freemason and the royal physician, is dispatched to, well, dispatch the threat. What starts initially as Gull's service to the Freemasons, however, becomes more frenetic, more bloodthirsty, and more occult. Gull is either mad, or a visionary (and we're invited to decide whether there's a real difference between them). He casts the murders as another battle in a cosmological gender war. By the end of his exploits, he has either transcended time itself, or is starkly mad.

From Hell is not a mystery. We know who the murderer is from early on. From Hell, instead, is a book about the birthing pains of the twentieth century. As in his previous books, the patterns within text and image reveal the patterns of history and time. Moore makes a case for an understanding of the Ripper crimes as a microcosm containing the seeds of the coming century. The media frenzy around the Ripper crimes, the gender battles, the tension between scientific progress and a lost visionary age. The bloodshed—be it of five undernourished whores, or of the millions of men dead in two world wars, in nuclear blasts and meltdowns, in genocides and revolutions--all resonate with our own inheritance.

As with previous books, From Hell experiments with time. William Gull seems to experience time from somewhere outside of it. In the second chapter, Gull's life up until the Ripper crimes is detailed. The events are mostly linear, but certain phrases occur out of temporal order. The first page of the chapter gives us nine panels of solid black, with speech bubbles isolated within. “What is the fourth dimension?” asks one. “Less than a thimble-full of iodine divides the intellectual from the imbecile...of which phenomenon I shall forthwith attempt a demonstration,” says another. A third cries out in pain: “Oh no! William, it's too big! William, stop it, you're hurting me! Take it out! Take it out!” Across the rest of the chapter it becomes clear that these are touchstones across his life, events that unfold at completely different places on the timeline. And yet the implication is that in that first moment, in the darkness of the Limehouse Cut—for that is where we start, with a young Gull and his father in a canal tunnel—all of these events are already present [Is this the horror of history or the horror of science? Is this the seeming predestination of those events which have become infamous, or just Einstein's relativity haunting us?]. Time, it turns out, has its own architecture; in a conversation with James Hinton, Hinton describes time as a vast arch:      "Fourth dimensional patterns within eternity's monolith, he suggests, seem merely random events to third-dimensional participants...events rising toward inevitable convergence like an archway's lines. Let us say something peculiar happens in 1788...a century later, related events take place. Then again, fifty years later. Then 25 years. Then 12. An invisible curve, rising through the centuries." And so, with this eerie speculation on time, we're prepared when time becomes more slippery. Gull, passing down an alleyway with the unfortunate Annie Chapman, looks in a window and sees a twentieth-century man looking out, his living room full of strange devices. Butchering Kate Eddowes in Mitre Square, he's struck by a vision of a skyscraper looming above him. And during his final murder, the systematic evisceration of Mary Kelly in her little rented room, he is transported forward and backward both: to a twentieth century office building, where the visionary fervor he believes he's ushering into the future has been demolished by lethargy.

Moore also explores the way the symbols and layout and landscape of a city can not only accrue deep subconscious significance but can evoke and invoke that same significance. Chapter four, “What doth the Lord require of thee,” is a tour of London, with Gull didactically elucidating the bloody, occult, mysterious history of London's landmarks to a hapless cab driver [Moore's notes also refer to the debt he owes to the “psychogeographic” avant garde poet Iain Sinclair, whose work clearly owes a debt of its own to Baudelaire and Aragon and all the wandering urban deadbeats who first articulated the ominous or visionary ways the city affected the self, and vice versa. Moore just takes this a step further and calls it magic.]. Gull reveals the battle between Dionysion impulse and Apollonion taking place in the very stone of the city, reason and madness each trying to destroy or enslave the other. Ultimately we end before Hawksmoor's terrifying Christ Church Spitalfields, a looming edifice rooted in the plague pits  of Spitalfields (once “Hospital Fields.”), the building that serves as the backdrop for the murders to take place. The Druids once mixed blood with their mortar to lend the stones vitality; what power, asks Gull, must grow from a church built upon so much suffering?

It's the final chapter that draws all these themes irrevocably together. “Gull Ascending” takes place a decade after the murders. Gull has been locked in an asylum, his death faked by the Freemasons. His body lies slumped against the asylum wall; but then, we slip in through the pupil of his eye. We soar with Gull as he moves backward and forward, through space and time. He explodes in a shower of blood over the Mediterranean; appearing as a demon, he chases William Blake from his home, becoming the infamous Ghost of a Flea. The visions continue, and Moore's notes on the chapter are almost necessary to follow the references. Everything Gull “does” is based on a real event (or at least based on witness's reports); blood rained on the Mediterranean in 1888, and Blake did report a demonic visitation. Gull has either become a principle or joined with it; he is no longer Gull but a force of malice moving through the centuries. He becomes the nightmare that wakes Stevenson and leads to the writing of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He appears at the foot of the London obelisk and throws himself into the Thames at the precise spot where countless people have reported a haunting by a suicide. Entering the twentieth century, he appears in the formative imaginations of Britain's most notorious serial killers, speaking to Peter Sutcliffe from a gravestone (Sutcliffe in reality claimed God spoke to him from a gravestone and told him to murder prostitutes), and appearing as the vision of a disembodied head to Ian Brady as a child (who later, with Myra Hindley, spirited away a handful of children and buried them on the moors).

In Moore's vision Jack the Ripper is not a mystery to be solved, but the savage, mythic, perhaps even horrifyingly divine motivating spirit of bloodshed. The Ripper, a creation of fear and of hysteria, entered the communal imagination, his five sordid crimes no longer as relevant (five! Fewer than the numbers taken out by disease and poverty and squalor in those same slums.) as the thing he represents. He's a bogeyman, a cautionary tale, the archetypal serial murderer. All those evils that you hear of and can't quite understand, products of dark unhinged minds, stem from the place on the soul where Jack rests.

Inna final analysis

A Shaman, giving you access to hallucinogenic berries and poisonous toads, escorts you across a plain of shattered time. A Sorcerer summons demons and angels and faeries and genii to haunt, serve, harry, and succor. A Magician conveys his arcane lore, taking the unknowable and crafting a spell—a metaphor—a story—to teach it.
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