14 January 2022

Bill Watterson: A Few Thoughts on Krazy Kat

(from"The Komplete Kolor Krazy Kat", Kitchen Sink Press, 1990)
As a cartoonist, I read Krazy Kat with awe and wonder. Krazy Kat is such a pure and completely realized personal vision that the strip's inner mechanism is ultimately as unknowable as George Herriman. Nevertheless, I marvel at how this fanciful world could be so forcefully imagined and brought to paper with such immediacy. THIS is how good a comic strip can be.

Interestingly, Krazy Kat gains its momentum less from the personalities of its characters than from their obsessions. Ignatz Mouse demonstrates his contempt for Krazy by throwing bricks at her; Krazy reinterprets the bricks as signs of love; and Offissa Pupp is obliged by duty (and regard for Krazy) to thwart and punish Ignatz's "sin," thereby interfering with a process that's satisfying to everyone for all the wrong reasons. Some 30 years of strips were wrung out of that amalgam of cross-purposes. The action can be read as a metaphor for love or politics, or just enjoyed for its lunatic inner logic and physical comedy.

Despite the predictability of the characters' proclivities, the strip never sinks into formula or routine. Often the actual brick tossing is only anticipated. The simple plot is endlessly renewed through constant innovation, pace manipulations, unexpected results, and most of all, the quiet charm of each story's presentation. The magic of the strip is not so much in what it says, but in how it says it. It's a more subtle kind of cartooning than we have today.

To the bewilderment of many readers, there are few endings in Krazy Kat that qualify as "punchlines." Instead, it's the temperament of the writing and drawing throughout the strip that is the joke. If you don't think it's funny that a strip should have an intermission drawing, or that a character would refer to his tail as a "caudal appendage," you're reading the wrong strip, and it's your loss.

Quirky, individual, and uncompromised, Krazy Kat is one of the very few comic strips that takes full advantage of its medium. There are some things a comic strip can do that no other medium, not even animation, can touch, and Krazy Kat is a virtual essay on comic strip essence.

In their headlong rush for the "gag", most cartoonists run right past the countless treasures Herriman uncovered simply by taking his time to explore the freedom of his medium. The self-consciously baroque narrations and monologues ("From the kwaint konfines of the kalabozo del kondado de Kokonino -- Officer 'Pup' gives answer") show that words can be funny in themselves, just as drawings can. The sky turns from black to white to zigzags and plaids simply because, in a comic strip, it CAN. No other cartoonist ever approached his blank sheet of paper with so much affection for all its possibilities.

The scratchy drawings delight me no end. They have the honesty and directness of sketches. So many of today's strips are slick and polished, the inevitable result of assistants trying to develop a mechanical style that can be continued indefinitely. The drawings in Krazy Kat are whimsical, idiosyncratic, and filled with personality. The bold design of the Sunday strips neatly compliments the flat expanses of color or black, and the wonderful hatching brings character to the otherwise posterish approach.

Nothing in Krazy Kat had a supporting role, least of all the Arizona desert setting. Mountains are striped. Mesas are spotted. Trees grow in pots. The horizon is a low wall that characters climb over. Panels are framed by theater curtains and stage spotlights. Monument Valley monoliths are drawn to look more like their names. The moon is a melon wedge, suspended upside down. And virtually every panel features a different landscape, even if the characters don't move. The land is more than a backdrop. It is a character in the story, and the strip is "about" that landscape as much as it is about the animals who populate it.

As the artwork is poetic, so is the writing. With the possible exception of Pogo, no other strip derives so much of its charm from its verbiage. Krazy Kat's unique "texture" comes in large part through the conglomeration of peculiar spellings and punctuations, dialects, interminglings of Spanish, phonetic renderings, and alliterations. Krazy Kat's Coconino County not only had a look; it had a sound as well. Slightly foreign, but uncontrived, it was an extraordinary and full world.

Darn few comic strips challenge their readers anymore. The comics have become big business, and they play it safe. They shamelessly pander to the results of reader surveys, and are produced by virtual factories, ready-made for the inevitable t-shirts, dolls, greeting cards, and television specials. Licensing is where the money is, and we seem to have forgotten that a comic strip can be something more than a launchpad for a glut of derivative products. When the comic strip is not exploited, the medium can be a vehicle for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.

Krazy Kat was drawn well over half a century ago, and yet it's a much more sophisticated use of the comic strip medium than anything we cartoonists are doing today. Of course, a 1930s Sunday Krazy filled the entire newspaper page, whereas editors today usually cram at least four strips in the same amount of space. This reduction of size greatly limits what can be drawn and written and still remain legible, and it goes a long way toward explaining the comics' devolution.

Even so, the whiteness of paper is still vast, uncharted territory, ripe for exploration. There are plenty of exotic lands for a cartoonist to map, if he or she will leave the well-worn paths and strike off for the wilds of the imagination. Krazy Kat is like no other comic strip before or after it. We are richer for Herriman's integrity and vision.

Krazy Kat was not very successful as a commercial venture, but it was something better. It was art.

Bill Watterson is a cartoonist and created Calvin & HobbesFantagraphics Books have reprinted George Herriman's complete Krazy Kat Sunday pages (1916-1944), which belong in any serious comics reader's collection.



07 January 2022

Chris Reynolds: An Appreciation by Seth

The New World: Comics From Mauretania
(New York Review Books, 2018)

(This article first appeared in The Comics Journal #265, 2005)
Chris Reynolds is the most underrated cartoonist of the last 20 years. The fact that a large number of you reading this article are probably unaware of him is some indication of the truth of this statement. In the short period that he was actively cartooning he produced a rich body of work that continues to engage me even after many repeated readings.

I first came across the work of Mr Reynolds back in the late 1980s when I was an artist working at Vortex Comics. One day, while avoiding work, I was flipping through the slush pile (unsolicited submissions) when I came across a graphically appealing two-page submission titled "The Lighted Cities". I can’t recall if Vortex used this strip or not, but the work stuck in my mind. Those two pages managed to create an evocative world that seemed fully formed yet offered very few details. Something was going on - but what? It was obviously the work of a talented artist and it also clearly hinted that it was a small piece of a larger whole. Later I came across his work again in Escape magazine... or possibly it was in a lone copy of Mauretania Comics that somehow found its way across the ocean. I can’t remember which. Either way, this second encounter set me on the job of trying to track down all of his work. This was not an easy task. Finding back issues of Mauretania Comics here in North America is next to impossible. Even finding them in Britain seems like a difficult process. In fact, I doubt I could have ever completed the collection without the help of the author himself. Still, it was a task well worth the effort.

You might be wondering, “If it is so difficult to find these comics, then why are you bothering to tell me about them?” The good news is that Kingly Books of England has just released a collection of selected works from Mr. Reynolds titled The Dial and Other Stories. It has been 14 years since Penguin books published his brilliant graphic novel Mauretania (not to be confused with his series Mauretania Comics) and this new publication corrects a grave oversight that has kept his work out of the limelight for so long. It’s a cause for celebration. It also gives me an excuse to do something I have wanted to do for quite some time - write an appreciation of him and try to help bring his fascinating comics some of the attention they have sorely lacked. Chris Reynolds is a name you should know.

From the above paragraphs, I hardly need to mention that Chris Reynolds is an English cartoonist. He was part of that brief burst of cartooning energy that emerged in England in the mid to late ‘80s - mostly centered around Escape magazine — that included artists such as Glenn Dakin, Ed Pinsent, John Bagnall, Eddie Campbell and Phil Elliott. He self-published 16 issues of Mauretania Comics beginning in 1986 and in 1991 Penguin books published his graphic novel Mauretania. After that his appearances have been few and far between. This is a genuine shame. Being a cartoonist myself, I can only assume that he grew dissatisfied with the lack of obvious reward for such hard labor. Either that, or he just lost the passion for cartooning. Whatever the cause, I often regret that I don’t have ten more years of his work to add to the pile.

The very first issue of Mauretania Comics contains the subtitle "Mysterious stories about times and places" and no description could be more apt for the kind of stories that Mr. Reynolds tells. Times and places are certainly among his most important themes - but it is the word “mysterious” that best describes his comics. They are subtle, layered, and often oddly moving, but they are also deeply perplexing. This is not to imply that they are in some way overly obtuse in the way of so much modern gallery work. It is often the strategy of artists to present their ideas in a manner that is deliberately impenetrable to the audience in an attempt to cut off any criticism about the depth of its meaning. You can’t criticize something if you can’t grasp it. Reynolds is not afraid to put his ideas in the forefront of the story. He simply understands that a good mystery loses all of its power once it is solved. He masterfully manages to retain large enough gaps in its details to keep us wondering just what the big picture is. He is smart enough to have never filled in those gaps.

That said, Reynolds’ focus, as an artist is still clearly that of a world-builder. Even with all the gaps he’s purposely left he still manages to etch a striking portrait of a unique world. It is a place very much like our own - and yet not quite. It’s a parallel world, a slightly askew version of post-war Britain, perhaps. Certainly, it is very English in character The trappings of this parallel world turn out to be unexpected as the series goes along. For one thing there seems to have been some sort of war in outer space. And there are “aliens” walking around - particularly in the mining industry. There are strange organizations with names like the A.U.S., or "Rational Control'. One main character is possibly from another world - he definitely appears to have owned a spaceship at some point. Robots pop up occasionally and characters have returned from the dead once or twice. The setting could be 1950, or 1980, or possibly 2080. It’s a bit confusing.

This certainly doesn’t sound promising, does it? It’s almost a slight against Mr. Reynolds to bring up these details because they are so misleading. Reynolds smartly leaves these elements vague and unexplained. He hints at them but leaves us guessing. I’m sure he knows exactly the nature of his world’s history but I’m also sure he knows that to drag these things out into the light of day would expose them as trite, clichéd, and dull as ditchwater. By holding them back he recasts them into odd, surreal touches. The stories are never about these things anyway. They’re never about “things” at all. The stories are about feelings - especially those associated with specific places and specific moments. Mr. Reynolds’ characters are extremely sensitive to their own inner worlds. The science fiction elements are red herrings, simply there to muddy the waters.

Few comics place such an emphasis on the setting as Mauretania Comics. Often the stories are actually about the setting and if it isn’t the main focus, you can be sure that it is a crucial element. His very style of storytelling is dependent on the impression given by lingering shots of buildings or landscapes. Occasionally whole pages will be given over to architectural scenes or clouds moving across the sky. The attention paid to these shots of building facades is just as important to the storytelling as the panels devoted to the characters. In many instances they supply the subtler details not given by the dialogue or narration. Sometimes they offer a counterpoint to what is being said.

The characters themselves are creatures of intuition. They follow their impulses more than their logical minds - even his detectives (mockingly labeled "Cinema Detectives") fit this template. In his graphic novel, Mauretania, he makes a clear statement favoring intuition over “Rational control.” Much of the characters’ intuition is linked to the feelings that places evoke. Mr. Reynolds seems very much in touch with the environment - especially the man-made environment. Like Edward Hopper, his places have a “charged” quality. Also like Hopper, he manages to convey the actual feeling of "being there". There is a rare sensitivity in the understanding of place that makes his comics a rich reading experience. They have a marvelous authenticity of place for a world that is so broadly etched.

Similarly interesting is his use of time. Time has a strange fluidity in his stories - past, present and future are not entirely separate. The stories do generally follow a linear path, but I detect an undercurrent in them: There is a cumulative effect that hints at a cyclical nature to the narratives. No one seems to ever leave the past fully behind. It’s not as though they are trapped by their pasts — nor is it purely nostalgia — it has more to do with the perceived feeling that the “past” exists somewhere as solidly as the events that are happening in the “present.” Perhaps it is memory that is lingering more than time. In Reynolds’ “Cinema Detectives” strips, the character Rosa inexplicably returns from the dead for no more reason than that she is willed back from the past. “Back by popular demand,” the narrator states. Mr. Ranger from “The Golden Age” stories appears to exist in several different time periods at once, as does another character from that series, Robert. None of the characters' relationships seem based on events that are occurring in the present. Their connections are always from an earlier period. Often stories focus around characters that are offstage — friends from long ago or people that are being sought. The odd thing about their absence is that one never has the impression that they are merely somewhere else — they always feel as if they are entirely absent from the world, as if they have ceased to exist in whatever time the story is set in. This is obviously my own personal impression and may have nothing to do with the intentions of the author.

I don’t want to give the impression that Mr. Reynolds never takes a misstep. Occasionally a story will spell out a little too much about his world and subsequently flatten the mystery a bit. Sometimes, he will push an idea too far into the absurd and have it become uncomfortably humorous. There is a lot of humor in his work, but in the best stories it keeps on the right side of absurd. Too much absurdity leads to conflict with the otherworldliness of his stories. Too far out and we lose the connection with our own world and, consequentially, our identification with the characters.

When it comes to the visual elements of the strips Mr. Reynolds’ work is of a very high order. He works in an idiosyncratic style reminiscent of woodcut artists — especially Masereel. Unlike other artists, who are trying for this look, with Mr. Reynolds it is merely a side effect of his heavy use of black shapes, his thick line work and his wide panel borders. It may have something to do with his uniform panel arrangement too.

Compositionally, his panels are beautifully put together. His understanding of shapes and their relationships within the panel (and the page) are very accomplished. His inking style, on the other hand, is eccentric. Lines are inked in with a bold thick line that often obscures detail — mouths and noses become blobs, small visual elements blur together. In cold type this sounds rather unappetizing but on the comic page it works surprisingly well — adding a freedom and fluidity to what could be very rigid compositions. He is quite fond of silhouettes and characters appear as black shapes for pages at a time. In general, the tone of the artwork is dark — even in bright sunlight the preponderance of shadow makes for a moody page design. He is a good designer. Several of the covers from Mauretania Comics are small masterpieces. At times, his hatching tends to be a bit fussy for my tastes and I tend to favor his strips that have a cleaner look. The artwork reached maturity by issue #2 and while there are peaks and valleys over the remaining issues, the actual evolution of the style is negligible. He reached a high mark early and remained pretty consistent overall. The Mauretania graphic novel is artistically a real high point though. The quality of the artwork generally depends on the effort (or interest) he showed in a particular story.

His storytelling style was also strikingly consistent. He unsparingly used a nine-panel grid and his narrative style always favored narration over dialogue. Again, these choices seem like drawbacks. Today’s cartoonists usually favor a more varied approach to storytelling and narration currently seems to be frowned upon in the “show don’t tell” school. Chris Reynolds is the exception to the rule because neither of these rigid sounding choices hurt his work in any way. His stories read very effortlessly and the staccato rhythm of his unflinching grid is perfectly wedded to his content. The stories seem made for it — which, I suppose, they were. The consistent use of narration blocks also add a natural distance between the reader and the character which is just the right choice if what you are trying to do is keep the character distant from the reader.

In the next few pages I intend to briefly discuss four wonderful short stories from the Mauretania Comics series and his masterpiece, the Mauretania graphic novel.


This story appears in the second issue of Mauretania Comics and it just may be my favorite of all Mr. Reynolds’ stories. One of the first things that struck me about this strip is the jump in quality that occurred between issues one and two. Looking back at the run of Mauretania, the first issue is interesting but formative — it feels like early work. The second issue is instantly recognizable as mature work, a big creative jump.

This story is also the first appearance of Reynolds’ central character, Monitor. This character needs some explaining. In appearance, Monitor is a rather odd figure especially since the settings he appears in are so clearly a mundane, everyday world not much different from our own. Monitor is a slight figure, boyish really, dressed in a sort of spaceman’s uniform. It’s almost a child’s conception of a spacesuit. He wears a large round helmet and visor (with an “M” written on the side) that conceals his features (save for his nose and mouth), and on his back he sports a little backpack (rocket pack? schoolbag?). His costume is completely at odds with the other characters in his world. Still, the other characters rarely take notice or mention his odd attire. I have wondered if Monitor isn't possibly a character Mr. Reynolds created as a child (in a different context, of course) and cleverly transported into his adult work. Monitor’s name is a mystery in itself. Just what is he monitoring? By all indications he seems most intent on monitoring his own inner life.

The story, like all of Mr. Reynolds’ plots, appears simple at first. Monitor is on his way to the café where he works. He had taken the job on a lark — almost bullying the kind old lady who runs the place into hiring him, but now he’s grown disinterested with the work. This morning he had received an unexpected letter and he sits, on the steps of the house opposite the café, to read it. The letter informs him that he has just inherited a house. The house, it turns out, is she very one whose steps he’s sitting on.

He vaguely recalls some childhood connection to the place. He should report to work, but his desire to explore his new acquisition wins out. The door is not locked and when he enters the house he is surprised to find it is not the mundane place he expected.

On the surface, nothing much happens in this short story, but, like all good comics, it is in the telling that it comes to life. Reynolds sustains a wonderful calm throughout and the sense of place is palpable. As we move through the story we share Monitor’s gentle mood shifts as he experiences each new inner state of being. From the dissatisfaction of his job, to the perplexity of the unexpected inheritance, to his sense of wonder at exploring his new home, to, finally, his detached transformation into a new life. All in eight pages.

In many ways, this story sets up the blueprint for most of the stories to come. His most evident themes all take a short turn on the stage: a fascination with the sense of place; the persistence and mystery of memory; a concern with the effects of design; the potency of intuition; and some form of transformation (usually spiritual). A little bit of study shows that the first four themes add up to induce the final one — transformation.

In this case, the transformation begins when Monitor considers exploring his new house. His sense of responsibility to the old lady doesn’t have a chance against the excitement of that unknown building — “a mysterious world,” in Monitor’s own words. From the outside the house is a typical mid-century row house and that’s just what Monitor anticipates he will find inside, but he’s genuinely astonished upon entering to find a short hallway that immediately opens up into a large open-air space. A stone garden path leads up to a strange, crystal-domed structure (not much larger than a cabin). He goes in and finds the place warm (“like a summer house”) and looking through the clear walls he sees it has a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape. He’s also surprised to discover that the area around the house is more industrial than expected. A floating, windowless train is observed making it’s way down the river.

It is in these moments that Monitor is transformed. It is a subtle transformation — a simple and sudden shift in perspective. In a burst of intuitive insight he recognizes that he need never go to the café again. He will have to apologize to the old lady but she will forgive him. He will live the rest of his life in this house on the hill. This information is presented in a deadpan, matter-of-fact manner, and the reader is never misled into thinking that these are merely Monitor’s plans for the future. This is clearly information that has been intuited to him (from somewhere) by his presence in the house. This is the nature of personal transformation in Mr. Reynolds’ world. It comes about, most often, from a combination of time and place — not from circumstance or action.


From Mauretania Comics #5, another Monitor story. Monitor, it turns out, is actually a rather good character to “drop” into stories. He’s something of a cipher — a passive everyman. In this case, he’s taken a job as a mine agent. Monitor isn’t any clearer on what a “mine agent” is than I am. Nevertheless, he makes the best of it, moving into a shack down by the new mines. (What has become of Monitor’s home is anyone’s guess. Like I said, things tend to be somewhat fluid in these stories.) Given little actual job instruction, Monitor decides to show some initiative and draw a map of all the mine locations. He tours the various mines and meets some of their owners. At one location, over a ridge, he discovers some mysterious aliens running a mine. He watches their methods with interest. Monitor’s boss is pleased with his work. Some friends visit. The mines suffer hardship and then close up. Monitor takes on a new job and then some years later he pays a sentimental trip back to the area.

Mr. Reynolds relates this mundane story with such a quiet beauty that it is pure poetry. That famous “sense of place” that I keep harping on about is so clear and visceral in this strip that you have the impression that you’ve actually visited the area. As we follow Monitor on his various rounds we are treated to a virtuoso display of drawing and design as Reynolds produces some of his most potent use of landscape. His combination of gentle narrative and slow pacing creates a sustained mood that can only be compared to actual experience. If you’ve ever spent any time away from home wandering an unfamiliar town or city you will surely recognize the fascinated, yet slightly sad, feeling this experience inevitably creates.

In the middle of the story, Reynolds gives us a short talk on the relativity of place and feeling. Specifically, how a place becomes meaningful when you live there but also how difficult it is to impart that meaning to outsiders. This section particularly spoke to me. I’m sure, at some time or other, you’ve tried to show a visitor the charms of where you live — the places that are just so interesting to you — only to feel the feigned interest, or downright indifference, of your guest. Or perhaps you’ve been on the other side of this scenario — being shown the local sights by some host and feeling little about them. This is Monitor’s circumstance, exactly, when two friends visit him. In Reynolds’ own words: “Monitor had been looking forward to this visit by his friends for a long time but for some reason he didn’t think they appreciated the area very much when he showed them things. But that was alright, he supposed, because they had their own lives.”

That’s the key line: “because they had their own lives.” In it, Mr. Reynolds acknowledges that these places resonate for Monitor because they are his places — his life. Back home, these friends have their own places. It’s typically sensitive of Reynolds to recognize this condition and to draw our attention to it in a story where he is trying so earnestly to make us care about Monitor’s adopted countryside.

There are many such sharp human asides in this little seven-page story, and they are told with lovely understatement. The final page, where Monitor returns years later, has such a vivid melancholy to it and the ending trails off so sublimely that I hesitate to kill it by describing it here.


By this point it seems silly to mention that each issue of Mauretania Comics is made up of a variety of short stories — that must be self-evident. However, what I’ve neglected to make clear is that many of these short stories are part of individual series that have their own series-titles. These separate series are all interconnected but star different characters. There are the Monitor stories, the “Cinema Detectives” (starring Rosa), and the “Golden Age” stories (starring Robert). All of the Golden Age stories are identically titled “The Golden Age.” This particular one is from Mauretania Comics #8. It is the only “Golden Age” story from the series not reprinted in the current Kingly book.

These “Golden Age” strips usually begin with the words “years ago.” Evidently, they take place in the past. Further proof of this is the fact that Robert (a young boy) is one of Monitor’s school chums from when Monitor was a boy. Of all Mr. Reynolds’ work, these stories are the most baffling. Rational explanation is rarely offered for the events that occur and the reader quickly ceases to look for simple answers. The thought processes are those of a dream.

I’m not all that sure what Reynolds is trying to communicate in some of these stories. There is a quality of surrealist “automatic writing” about them. They can be very absurd. The timeline of this series-within-a-series (and they do follow some sort of an arc) appears to be, at least partly, cyclical. They certainly make a very interesting narrative puzzle. The “Golden Age” story I’m discussing here is the least absurd and most linear of them all. This one is actually pretty straightforward — that’s probably why it’s my favorite of the bunch.

The story: Robert is on summer vacation. He visits a local miniature railway, now in decline. He takes a ride but it ends abruptly when the train comes to a halt at the edge of a canal. This new canal has been built right through the middle of the rail line. Robert can see the continuation of the rails across the shimmering canal. Rails he will never ride. Summer passes and at the end of the holidays Robert pays a return visit. The miniature railway has closed down for good. Robert decides to re-join the severed rails. He gathers the materials from nearby sheds and builds a bridge across the canal. Robert stokes the engine of the miniature train and prepares for his ride. Just then, Mr. Ranger, Robert’s schoolteacher, arrives and informs him that school has begun. He then drags Robert away. The end.

There are several very interesting things about this strip, the first being how clearly it is a precursor to the Mauretania graphic novel (but more about that later). Another is the use of the train — or more properly, the rails. Trains often appear in Mr. Reynolds’ stories and I think he uses them because they are convenient symbols for “connectedness.” Rails, like wires, can be conduits for delivering things. In this case, the rails have been severed and whatever “message” they carried can no longer be transmitted. Because of this severed artery the railway dies. Robert understands this on an intuitive level and tries to reconnect them. Much like Monitor and his house, you anticipate that when Robert rides the train over the canal the message will be transmitted and Robert will be transformed. But unlike Monitor, Robert doesn’t receive his transformation — Mr. Ranger prevents it. This is interesting too. In later stories we get to know Mr. Ranger and he’s a rather unlikable character — stodgy, suspicious, and always after Robert (and his headmistress). Eventually, he joins the new Police Force named “Rational Control,” one of Reynolds’ few instances of rationality squelching intuition.


This is one of the “Cinema Detectives” strips. It’s the one where Rosa dies. Earlier, if you recall, I mentioned that Rosa returns from the dead in a later story. Her death is actually sad and when she does return there is a genuine desire (as a reader) to have things return to normal and for her happy life to pick up where it left off. Reynolds resists this urge and her return actually makes things awkward. Her family and friends have moved on and she doesn’t have a clear place in their lives anymore. Her husband, Jeff, has remarried. It deliberately fails to fulfil the reader’s emotional wants.

But back to her death. Rosa has been wounded while investigating a case and is holed up in the Doolan Hotel. Her young son, Jimmy, is caring for her. While he is out buying bandages, a man slips into the room. We cut to the funeral and then again to Rosa’s husband quickly remarrying (Sandra). Jimmy had met Monitor at the funeral and starts to imitate him by wearing a similar helmet. The only difference is that instead of the “M” that is on Monitor’s helmet, Jimmy paints a “II.” “I’m going to be Monitor Two,” Jimmy says. A year passes and Jimmy has persuaded Jeff and Sandra to take him back to the area around the Doolan Hotel. They visit a large hill nearby that he and his mother had visited shortly before her death. Jimmy takes off, running wildly, down the hill in an attempt to get back into the past. He fails. That night, back at the Doolan hotel, he cries as he finally faces his mother’s death.

On the surface, this story seems to be about a boy coming to terms with the death of his mother. Without reading further “episodes” I’d have to agree with that assessment. But knowing of Rosa's return and Jimmy’s role in the Mauretania graphic novel casts the story in a different light. It’s another transformation story. “Jimmy” is transformed from a sad little boy into one of Reynolds’ intuitive beings. The moment of transformation occurs when Jimmy puts on the helmet and symbolically becomes Monitor’s son. In the graphic novel we see that Jimmy is the character most able to receive “messages” that are coming from somewhere else. Intuition doesn't just come from inside (in this universe) — it is a way to connect to some mysterious source of information.

Jimmy’s actions on the top of the hill give us a hint to how it works. While standing there, he hears his father say the word “nowadays” in a sentence. This word, instantly picked up on by Jimmy, acts as a trigger: He sees it as a key to open the doorway to the past. This is the moment when he races down the hill, repeating the word over and over (like a mantra) as he runs. Like in other stories, Jimmy is invoking the power of time and place. He’s returned to the spot of previous happiness and sparked by the key word “nowadays,” he has guessed this is the moment. It sounds odd when written down, but within the context of the stories these actions don’t seem out of place. When he reaches the bottom of the hill, he closes his eyes and thinks: “Now I’m back!” Upon opening his eyes, we see (from his perspective behind the visor) his mother standing there. In the next panel he is alone. Still, he yells up the hill — “You’ll have to go now, Sandra.” Jimmy expects his old life to resume. It doesn’t and back at the Doolan hotel Jimmy realizes that he’ll “never be able to go places and change things like he’d thought Monitor could do.” This is an interesting statement in itself. Jimmy sees Monitor as a catalyst for change in the world. I’m not sure if that is Monitor’s role — but it certainly foreshadows Jimmy’s.

In the very last panel Jimmy (in bed, presumably all cried-out) hears (or maybe not — he may be asleep) a whisper in the shadows — it’s Rosa’s voice. When I first read this story I assumed this whisper to be a dream, or a ghost, or even a sad little boy’s longings. Knowing the rest of the stories, it reads like the first hint of Rosa’s return to the world. I must assume that Jimmy’s frantic run has actually worked. He’s brought back the past.


Finally, we come to the graphic novel. This, in my opinion, is Mr. Reynolds’ masterpiece. This is also the one publication you might easily be able to track down. In fact, at the time of this writing there are 14 copies available at www.abebooks.com. It’s a rich work but I’m going to try and keep this brief. A lot could be said about the book, as it definitely rewards repeated readings, however I’m going to focus on the story and its main theme. It’s safe to say that this is a distillation of the work that has come before. Mr. Reynolds has refined the details of his theme and presented it here in its purest form. The book is (as you’d expect, by this point) entirely about the conflict between rationality and intuition. It was only while working on this article that I also came to understand that this story brings a conclusion to the earlier works and an end to the Mauretania world.

The book opens with a factory closing. Fern Inc. has shut down and Susan, one of its employees, has just turned down the offer of a lift into town by her ex-boss, Alf, so that she can explore a “mysterious” little stream that she has watched from her office window every day. Susan follows the little stream through the gathering dusk until she spies a helmeted man sitting alone in a car silently watching the closed factory. The fact that Susan has finally given in to her whim to explore the stream says a lot about her as a Reynolds character. She’s making a shift from everyday reality into the world of more mysterious information. That the stream leads her to Jimmy confirms this. In many ways, Susan is Reynolds’ most fully realized character. She’s written in broad strokes and we certainly don’t get a lot of information about her beyond the essentials — but she does have a feeling of authenticity to her. She feels like a real person and unusually (for a Reynolds story) we share her inner thoughts. We relate to her and her problems — her lost job, her failed romance, the unwanted sense of intimacy with Alf, her overly concerned mother. She is someone from our world.

Quickly after Fern Inc.’s closing, Susan unexpectedly gets a job offer from Reynal Industries (a name which is surely some kind of word play — though I can’t figure it out). Sure enough, Alf has been hired too. The work at Reynal is suspiciously vague and her new boss, Tony, is unnaturally interested in Fern and its closing. It's all he really wants to talk about. With minimal sleuthing on Susan’s part she discovers that Reynal is a front for “Rational Control — the trendy new police force.” Susan immediately goes to Tony and spills the beans. Here, the tone of the story changes.

Now that Reynal’s front is exposed, Rational Control comes clean. It turns out that they are watching Jimmy. They’ve hired the ex-employees of recently closed factories because Jimmy has somehow been involved in their failing and they’re poking around for information. Rational Control is at a loss to explain how Jimmy’s done it. They’ve even managed to get ahold of one of Jimmy’s helmets but “There was no receiving device — nothing.”

Susan is drafted into their plan to find out more. They send her across the street (Jimmy’s office is just across the way) to apply for a job. Jimmy and Susan meet. Jimmy has grown up now, he’s not a child any longer, but he still wears his helmet with the II on the side. He is still symbolically Monitor’s child. He appears to have fulfilled his wish to “go places and change things.” Jimmy and Susan have an odd yet open conversation. She asks what Jimmy’s company does. Jimmy replies: “Well, it’s unusual work. We close down factories that are ‘harmful’ and that sort of thing. We do a few more positive things but that’s what we’ve been doing lately. That’s why I closed Fern down. I mean, it wasn’t anything personal or anything, and I’m sorry I had to do it, in a way. You know, quite a good looking building even.” Then Jimmy points across the street and lets Susan know that he is aware that Rational Control is watching him. “They’re not ready to close me down yet, though,” he says.

Later, Rational Control, still utterly baffled, sends Susan back across for more information. In a beautiful five-page sequence Susan silently crosses the street (carefully showing us the details of the streetscape) and enters Jimmy’s office. Not finding him there, she explores the dark back office (in a terrible state of decay) until she finally emerges into what looks like a prison yard (high walls and barbed wire) where Jimmy is sitting at a patio table. For a mysterious figure, Jimmy is amusingly unthreatening. Like Monitor, he is a slight figure, and with his big round helmet he is rather absurd-looking. His greeting doesn’t exactly inspire awe either: “Hi Susan — its a nice day.” Over the next eight pages of conversation (interspersed with scenes of moving clouds) we learn what Jimmy is doing. In halting dialogue between the two we come to understand that Jimmy’s conception of why the factories are “harmful” is not as commonplace as something like environmental damage — it’s somehow vaguer yet more important. Although what it is we do not learn. We do, however, discover his methods for closing them.

Jimmy tells Susan that there are special “points” that affect things and “you have to do things at the right time.” For example, this morning all he had to do was buy some children a kite. Susan asks him how he knows when to do these things? Jimmy replies: “Well, I don’t really.” It’s a telling statement. Jimmy doesn’t know — he feels. It’s hard not to view Jimmy as a kind of Zen figure and his effect on Susan is certainly like a master provoking her into an enlightened experience. In fact, in the very next sequence when Susan leaves Jimmy and re-emerges into the street we are treated to a marvelously understated scene that undoubtedly shows that Susan has been transformed. She steps into the street, and mirroring her walk across the street 20 pages earlier, she stops to observe the streetscape. In four brilliant panel transitions (each showing Susan standing and looking) we shift from a dead-on shot, to a worm’s-eye view, then, Susan hesitatingly turning back towards Jimmy’s office and then back to the original dead-on shot. Simply, Susan has experienced a change in perspective. She sees the world in different terms. From this point in the story, she is on Jimmy’s side.

While Susan was with Jimmy she noticed something odd about his movements. When Jimmy walked somewhere he always retraced his steps exactly in coming back, touching again every object that he had touched before. Later, Rational Control raids Jimmy’s office, rounding up his employees (though not catching Jimmy). One of his employees comments on this queer aspect of Jimmy’s behavior: “It’s as if, recently, Jimmy had some sort of imaginary wire behind him. If he went somewhere he always had to come back exactly the same way.” This isn’t the first overt mention of wires. Just pages earlier, Rational Control had become quite excited upon discovering an overhead wire between their building and Jimmy’s office. A red herring. It was just a normal electrical wire — nothing important.

But wires are important. It’s the central image of the book. It’s right on the cover. Like the stream Susan follows to Jimmy, wires contain currents — perhaps “undercurrents” is a more precise term here. These undercurrents in the world are the sources of Jimmy’s mysterious information. He’s the receiver at the end of the wire. Back at Rational Control one of the officer’s suggests that perhaps Jimmy’s information is from a spiritual source. For a moment Rational Control considers it: “In that case, there’s nothing we can do! If it’s God telling him what to do, and it works, then there’s nothing anyone can do.” They quickly retreat from this position — preferring to see Jimmy as a con man. Suddenly, during all this discussion at Rational Control, the power goes out. Even the phones are dead. Confusion sets in and everyone disperses. Susan finds herself alone in the street. Sensing that the power failure was one of Jimmy’s “points” she feels that Jimmy must surely be behind it and so she makes her way to the power station. Inevitably, she finds him there. Jimmy and Susan notice that one of the telephones is different from the rest and, sure enough, it’s still working. They follow its long wire out the door and far into the countryside where for 10 silent pages they trace its source. In the end it turns out to be nothing more than an experimental portable phone being tested by a field truck. Rational Control shows up, having also deducted that the power station was important.

In what seems like an anticlimax, everyone ends up on the hill overlooking the power plant, just standing around. Then a call on the portable phone reveals that the power failure was caused by some kids playing with a kite. The meaning is lost on Rational Control but, of course, we understand. Just then, Susan thinks of something: “Are you going to follow the wire all the way back this time Jimmy?”

This is the real climax of the story. Jimmy intuits that it’s time to cut the wires — to sever the umbilical cord between himself and the mysterious information source. “I have to go across there — without going back the way I came along the wire — that'll be the last thing I have to do.” Jimmy tells Rational Control, “You just have to let me go. Really I think it will change the world.” So Jimmy runs back across the field in a series of brilliantly crude drawings (which perfectly convey the look of a shimmering light on a hot summer day) and the world changes. The wires vanish. Literally.

Just how the world changes we never know. Honestly, what concrete details could Mr. Reynolds supply that would satisfy the reader? One thing we do learn though is that Rational Control is out of business. We see them packing up their files and we overhear Tony say: “Now that the world is perfect they don’t need us anymore.” So clearly, Mr. Reynolds’ perfect world is not formed through rational thought. Another humorous detail is the proliferation of wireless phones. The book ends on a happy scene between Jimmy and Susan.

It's a marvelous book and it brings a resolution to the world of Mauretania that is unexpected, absurd, funny and satisfying. In that “Golden Age” story from a few pages back we see the echoes of this one. There, Robert tries to connect the rails (wires) toward some mysterious end, but he’s stopped by rationality. Here, Jimmy manages to change the world by severing them. Rationality fails to stop it this time. And if there is one point I’ve failed at — it’s in conveying what an enjoyable read these stories are. The graphic novel is a positive page-turner. In the end, it turns out that Mr. Reynolds (or his characters, at least) have a deep belief in feeling over thought as a positive force in the world. I’m not sure I share that viewpoint, but within the context of his universe it’s a convincing idea. However, I must say, the deck is stacked. The characters who represent rationality are a boring group of old sticks-in-the-mud — not very likeable. Your sympathies always lie with the intuitive types. While writing this article, I came to a new appreciation of just how well thought out and consistent Reynolds’ work is. What appears to be, upon first reading, a world of odd, disjointed events turns out to be an internally coherent worldview.

It was genuinely difficult to keep to these five stories. The series contained many worthy strips that I was tempted to talk about. “Soft Return” from the final issue was particularly hard to leave out — a beautiful strip. I’ve deliberately omitted “The Dial” because I want to let you experience it yourself in the Kingly book. It’s an important story in Mr. Reynolds’ universe — a highly complex work open to a wide range of interpretations. I can’t emphasize enough that you should go and buy that book. Hopefully, if it is successful, further books will appear collecting the rest of Chris Reynolds’ work. He’s a cartoonist of the first rank. Unique. Remember his name.

Seth is a cartoonist living in Ontario, Canada. His works include the graphic novels It’s a Good life if You Don’t Weaken, Clyde Fans and George Sprott which are available from Drawn & Quarterly.


03 January 2022

Neil Gaiman: Bowie by Michael Allred

by Neil Gaiman
(from the foreword to Bowie by Michael Allred, Insight Editions, 2020)

I read about David Bowie in a newspaper before I ever heard his music. I was eleven. The article in a daily newspaper was about Bowie saying he was bisexual, a term I had never previously encountered. The people who wrote the article seemed more shocked that he wore makeup. A man wearing makeup. Had you ever heard of such a thing?

Not long after that, I heard a song on the radio about a spaceman leaving his capsule on a space walk; it was being played in the school's hobby room, where the kids were allowed to go and make balsa wood airplanes. I didn't really get pop music at that age. I loved Gilbert and Sullivan; I loved songs that were stories, and most rock and pop wasn't. "Space Oddity" was a story, even if it left its ending wrapped in ambiguity, and it was science fiction, and I loved and understood science fiction.

And really, it was the science fiction that was the fishhook in my cheek and dragged me in, as much as the music. Perhaps more than the music. I would listen to music that I didn't love, to tease out the ideas, and play it enough that I loved every beat and bar of it. For me, it was the thread that linked The Man Who Sold The World - "The Supermen" and "The Man" himself - with Hunky Dory - which gave me "Changes" and Quicksand" - and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, a sci-fi journey. It started with a heartbeat that told us that we only had five years until the end of the world and took us to a room where a kid my age was listening to a Starman sending in music from outer space. The other side of the record was the story of Ziggy Startdust and his journey from fame to zombie obscurity, and I was certain that Ziggy was an alien, come to bring us music. The Starman had descended into a world that was ending in five years, and he would finish his life wandering dully, insulated from from all feeling, like Thomas Jerome Newton drinking himself into painlessness.

I was twelve when Aladdin Saine came out, and I was bedazzled and confused, and I wanted to know who the strange ones in the dome were and why Aladdin Saine was going to fight in the Third World War, and I held on to the conviction that this was science fiction. I was thirteen when Diamond Dogs hit, and I was so much in love I went to the school library and took out George Orwell's 1984 and build huge sapphire-coloured post apocalyptic sages in my head out of the rest of it.

At fifteen, I bluffed my way into a showing of The Man Who Fell To Earth, acting old enough to be allowed in, and I bunked a day off school to go to Victoria Station for Bowie's arrival there (I didn't see him, but I met people who were different Bowies at different periods, and I saw copies of Station To Station flung over the wall they had put up to stop us from seeing him, and I felt like I was touching magic). 

The incarnations of Bowie were, in themselves, science fictional. All I was missing was a Bowie comic, and, missing it, I would draw bad Bowie comics myself.

I met Mike Allred around 1989, at (I think) a Forbidden Planet signing. He gave me some of his art, and I loved it. I sent it to Karen Berger, my editor on Sandman, who had him do a tryout page and told him he wasn't quite ready yet. I continued to love his art and was proud that the world rapidly discovered how good he was and that, together, we would bring back the character Prez in the pages of The Sandman: World's End. Later, we would make one of my favourite comics I had any part of: the Metamorpho story in Wednesday Comics, complete with a 1963-style periodic table. There was a cleanness to his lines, a joy in the image and in the construction of each page, aided and abetted by Laura Allred's precise and delightful colouring.

There was a brief moment in the early 1990s when rock-and-roll biography comics were the next big thing. It didn't last very long. None of them were like this. This is pure delight, a book made by fans who were also artists, for fans who are dreamers.

This is a book filled with visual allusions (my favourite is the Hunky Dory "Quicksand" first Spider's gig page). The people in these pages aren't people. They are icons - larger-than-life versions of themselves, filled with resonance. It's Bowie's life as parables and imaginary histories, a beautifully researched re-creation of something that might be better than documentary footage. It's an imaginary reconstruction of the time and lives of an imaginary figure, inspired by the life of the actor, one David Jones, formerly of Bromley and originally of Brixton. 

Insight Editions
Michael Allred: Conversations (UPM, 2015)

22 December 2021

Alan Moore: Love & Rockets by Jaime Hernandez

Love & Rockets #24 (1987)
Original cover art by Jaime Hernandez

(from the introduction to Love & Rockets: Mechanics #1 by Jaime Hernandez, 1985)
The worst thing about being a mature and discerning comic enthusiast who's fiercely committed to the elevation of aesthetic standards within the medium is that you have to hide all your copies of Herbie and Atomic Mouse when your friends call round. Much as you might be dedicated to sweeping radical change in the field of graphic narrative, there still remains a sloppy and nostalgic longing for the way Lee Elais drew the Black Cat or the precise feel and smell of a Giant-Sized Li'l Archie Special, and the difficulty of reconciling a thirst for the magnificent with an appetite for the inane is something that makes hypocrites out of the best of us. We all want progress, but we don't want to watch while the bulldozers of cultural advancement roll forwards over the crushed remains of Betty, Veronica and the Fighting American.

That's why Mechanics, along with the rest of the work that the Brothers Hernandez have been perpetrating within the pages of Love & Rockets, comes as such a bloody relief. There's enough style, content, and persistent narrative ingenuity to satisfy the most wild-eyed and slavering progressive, but somehow it's been accomplished without sacrificing and of the sheer silly-arsed vitality that gives the medium so much of its appeal. In Mechanics, Jaime Hernandez seems to have somehow synthesised a complete and satisfying comic-book world out of all the things that, for whatever reason, he loves about comics.

There's a sense that the world inhabited by Maggie and her friends exists in the backstreets of the regular funny book universe. You know that if you took the crosstown bus from Barrio Hoppers 13 you'd find Riverdale High School, sheltering out in the more sedate residential districts uptown. You know that somewhere far away there's a Metropolis where the super-people are punching each other through buildings, even though the sound of conflict seldom filters down to street level. All the familiar icons dotting the comics landscape are filtered through a unique and lucid personal vision, providing a rich, evocative backdrop for the meticulously observed and vividly human characters to perform against, and the mix is as perfect as it is consistent.

Relentlessly charming despite its hard cutting edge, Mechanics is a comic strip for the future with a keen grasp of what was valuable about the strips of the past. If there's a more exhilarating or compelling book on the market at the moment, I haven't heard about it.

Fantagraphics: How to Read Love & Rockets

18 December 2021

Alan Moore: Tales of Telguuth by Steve Moore

Tales of Telguuth
by Steve Moore
with Greg Staples, Paul Johnson, Siku, Simon Davis, Clint Langley Jon Howard & More!

by Alan Moore
(from the introduction to Tales of Telguuth by Steve Moore, 2015)

Steve Moore (June 11th, 1949 - March 14th, 2014) remains a massively influential figure in a diverse array of fields ranging from Oriental studies and I-Ching scholarship, through his extensive Fortean work, to his standing as an occultist or as an authority on Decadent and Gothic literature. His patiently accrued collections of Chinese and Japanese swords; his unique archive of Asian cinema; his thirty-year dream record; his accomplishments as classical scholar and contemporary moon-goddess worshipper: all of these clearly require an introductory essay of their own in order to unpack the intellectual breadth and the importance of this extraordinary individual. Just as clearly, given that you're reading this as preface to a trade collection of his Telguuth comic strips, none of the things above are what we're here to talk about. They are included only to provide a little necessary context to the work as writer of comics, science fiction and fantasy for which my late mate was best known. 

Starting work at Odhams Press in 1967, aged sixteen, Steve Moore was an enthusiastic science fiction fan and, more unusually, one of the country's earliest devotees of comic books. As a perfect example of the audience that the publishers of Wham, Pow, Fantastic and Terrific were hoping to reach, his ideas were listened to and and a result the above weekly comics became far more fan-friendly endeavours... this long before there was even such a phenomenon as a recognised English comic fan. Using the benefits that his new stays as sud-editor allowed him, he published the UK's first comics-fanzine, Ka-Pow, and co-founded the first Bristish comic conventions. These would lead to the creation of a healthy, progressive indigenous comic scene and, directly or indirectly, to most of the early British comic book talents of whom you've ever heard becoming involved with the medium and the industry. Without Steve Moore the modern comic landscape would look very different, if it was even noticeably there at all. This is, of course, without considering his contributions as a writer.

Much like Woody Allen's Zelig, Steve Moore would appear to have been involved intimately with the greater number of the British comic scene's most influential landmarks such as Doctor Who weekly and monthly, Warrior, and, in 1976, a fledgling weekly title which would become the venerable institution known as 2000AD. Here he created that long-standing format and excellent proving ground for new talent, Tharg's Future Shocks, along with is work on the reanimated versions of boyhood favourites Dan Dare and Rick Random, which in later years there were a slew of inventive serials such as Valkyries or his space-Yakuza narrative Red Fang. And yet, of all the many feathers in his 2000AD cap, the writing of which he remained the proudest was his work on the delirious and exquisite horror-fantasy, Tales of Telguuth.

His writing style, commenced in the restrictive and pragmatic confines of the early boys' adventure comic was brisk, spare and functional in keeping with the editorial directives of the 1960s, but throughout his long career you can see finer, more exotic sensibilities attempting to break through without disrupting the professional requirements of a fast-paced action story. By the time that he was in his twenties, he was reading less and less adventure fiction (prose or comic book) for personal enjoyment and was gravitating more towards the Classical or Oriental; to the Gothic and the Decadent. The jewelled concerns of language and originality of concept became his priorities, more so than the old-school story requirements of perpetual physical activity and constant danger. He wanted to write a fantasy narrative which reflected his genuine personal tastes and interests in that genre. These had shifted from a general affection for the field of sword and sorcery to a more rarefied appreciation for the Dying Earth tales of Jack Valance and, especially, the glittering fantasies and decadent prose-poetry penned by Clark Ashton Smith.

Smith (1893-1961) started out as a young poet of considerable promise before being led, in the 1920s, into fantasy fiction through the influence and example of his friend and correspondent H.P. Lovecraft. Smith's origins as a poet and his fastidious use of language were evident throughout his career as a fantasy and science fiction writer, even when working under the most narrow and draconian of restraints. Among his prolific creation of fantastic environments, there existed a few that Smith returned to again and again, such as the imaginary medieval realm of Averoigne or, more significantly, his breathtakingly weird 'Last Continent', Zothique. With many of his stories appearing the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales they were understandably horror-inflected, their strikingly strange ideas and crystalline language lifting them head and shoulders above all of the magazines other contributors with the arguable exception of Lovecraft himself. Discovering Smith was as much of an inspiration for Steve Moore as had been Smith's own discovery of Lovecraft, or Lovecraft's of his early idol Lord Dunsany. There was that same recognition of a kindred literary spirit, the gratifying sense of someone else attempting to articulate that same creative urges and in doing so establishing a blueprint for the way in which such work might be attempted.

There are some early examples of Steve trying to apply the sensibilities of Smith to comic strip adventure, such as in the Claustrophobia and Twilight continuities that he essayed for Warrior, but its not until Telguuth emerges as a perfect vehicle for such ideas that we see him employing the full range of unrestrained and decadent imagination that his readings had awoken in him. In Telguuth, where there is no continuing character save for the vicious and phantasmagoric world itself, he was set free from the requirement to ensure his leading men and leading women lived to see another episode and could enjoy the 'anything-might-happen' frisson that arises from a self-contained short story. Given their potential disposability, Telguuth's array of monsters and protagonists are thereby liberated from the need to be conventional heroes or villains. In Telguuth's nightmarish milieu, with death or worse prone to descend at any instant, most of the inhabitants appear to be unburdened by morality and there is no sense of an ethical imperative in play across this frightful and hallucinatory terrain. Amongst the numerous and largely diabolic deities of Telguuth, none are just and loving shepherds eager to assist the fair or happy ending, and in these upsetting tales of desperate and ill-motivated individuals blundering into horrific situations which they do not fully comprehend, we are shown a reality which, despite its extravagant fantasy trappings, is actually far closer to the reality in which most of us are unlucky enough to be living. The questing hero is a self-serving oaf, frequently undone by his own disastrous lack of imagination. The sultry heroine and the villainous magician, equally flawed and desperate, are liable to fall prey to their own magical subterfuges and the truly ghastly entities they have attempted to control. On Telguuth, as on our only slightly less exotic and demented planet, few thing can be said to work out for the best.

In these often sadistically amusing stories of the dreadful, the perverse and the grotesque we can see one of the most important British comic writers of the last fifty years having the time of his life. The musical names of his characters and cities roll off the tongue like poisonous beads of mercury, the curses and the demons are of the most fiendish and implacable variety and every tales extends the map of a new, gem-encrusted alien hall. This is an author ecstatically at play within his feverish, overgrown and not-infrequently alarming deviant imagination, a deranged and capricious sorcery to equal anything that ancient and ghoul-haunted Teekar-Tannlan has to offer.

Of the many dreamlands that Steve Moore engendered, it can be assumed, I think, that Telguuth was the closest to his heart outside the moonlit territory of his fabulous prose novel Somnium, as evidenced by the plain fact that Telguuth was the only world of fiction that he never could relinquish, even after his retirement from the comic industry. His self-published not-for-profit Tales of Telguuth prose short stories were a continual delight to the small circle of friends and acquaintances fortunate enough to be on his mailing list. He was halfway through sending out his latest tale, The Marmoreal Frown of Ahuralura Manz, when he suffered the heart attack that finally removed him from our midst, and his admirers will be relieved to hear that Strange Attractor Press are issuing a limited edition of these rare and gorgeously bedizened little masterpieces to coincide with this splendid collection of his bitter fables from 2000AD, illustrated by a fine assortment of young and contemporary artists who've arisen from a British comic field that Steve Moore ploughed, sowed and stamped out nearly fifty years ago.

To those of you who care about comics, about fantasy, or about the art of writing itself, welcome to a marvellous and heartless wonderland. Welcome to Telguuth.

Alan Moore
October 26th, 2014

Iain Sinclair & The South London Psychic Circuit

10 December 2021

Alan Moore: Memories of Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993)

The Bedside Mad (1959)
by Harvey Kurtzman & Others

(from The Comics Journal #157, March 1993)
The first time I encountered Harvey Kurtzman, I was around 10 years old. The encounter took place between the covers of The Bedside MAD, a paperback collection; strange, American, the cover painting possibly by Kelly Freas, the edges of the pages dyed a bright, almost fluorescent yellow. To this day, it burns inside my head. 

The stories in that volume and the Kurtzman stories I discovered later brandished satire like a monkey-wrench: a wrench to throw amongst pop culture's gears or else employed to wrench all our perceptions just a quarter-twist towards the left, no icon left unturned. King Kong and Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Superman were rendered naked and absurd by the device of draping them with realistic failings and then setting them against a gross yet realistic world where Wonder Woman marries her romantic interest and ends up shackled to a stove, hemmed in by hyperactive kids. Where all the slapstick violence Maggie dishes out to Jiggs results in ugly bruises, blood-stained collars and the bleak depressions of a battered spouse.

The first time I met Harvey Kurtzman, it was in peculiar and somewhat inauspicious circumstances, over a hotel breakfast in San Diego. Julie Schwartz, aware of my admiration for Harvey's work, had decided to drag me over to the table that Kurtzman was sharing with Jack Davis and make introductions, which effectively made me feel like an awkward, party-crashing nerd from the very outset. Added to this, Harvey was still apparently nursing some obscure minor grievance of possibly pre-war origins against Schwartz, which he vented by pretending to mistake Julie for Robert Kanigher. Brief and largely bewildered introductions were made, and I returned to my orange juice and eggs.

The next time I met Harvey, it was halfway through what was, for personal reasons, probably the lousiest week of my life to date. As a confirmed stick-at-home, I was in France. As a certified convention-hater, I found myself attending the Grenoble comic convention. Beyond this, I was in the middle of a complex and painful relationship-breakdown and I felt wretched, a bone-marrow misery that went on for months.

It's strange, then that this singularly lousy week should also contain a few of the most golden and idyllic hours that I can ever remember spending. Halfway up a mountain, in blazing sunlight above the snowlike, I sat at a cafe table with Harvey Kurtzman, drinking beer while Harvey, suffering from the debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease and bundled up warm on an already warm day, drank cocoa. We both had our families with us, and Harvey's daughter took my daughter's up for a trip in a light aeroplane while we talked with Harvey and his wife Adele.

I don't remember every word we said. I wish I did. I remember that he said Watchmen was "a damn fine piece o' work," and I know that it's one of those memories that I'll still be clutching at pathetically when I'm old and spent. I remember that he seemed surprised when I told him that Watchmen wouldn't exist if he hadn't skewed my perception of the super-hero genre with works like Superduperman. He looked amazed, almost bashful, unbelievably enough, and he said, "Well, how about that?" We talked, unsurprisingly, about comics. I told him about working for DC, how you know they're going to end up owning your creations going in the door, but how at the time you assume, with the total folly of youth, that it isn't important; that you will always have an inexhaustible supply of good ideas. He nodded. "That's true. What you said about assuming that you'll always have ideas, that's very true." Adele asked if he'd like another cocoa. He said, "No, I'd better not. I might start something." I remember all these things, small and useless as they are.

The last time I saw Harvey Kurtzman was the next morning. He and his family were leaving the hotel, taking an early flight back to the States. I hadn't slept, and had come down to the lobby in search of fresh cigarettes only to find Adele, anxious because their taxi had arrived and Harvey was missing.

I found him on the first floor, unable to get his baggage into the elevator due to the ravages of Parkinson's. I helped him get everything downstairs to the taxi, and he was painfully grateful. Bearing in mind that every good idea I ever had was probably ripped off of Harvey Kurtzman, I told him to forget it. That it was a small thing. A brilliant, vital mind trapped in a body that no longer responded properly, he replied that I was wrong. That it was a goddamn big thing. He got in the cab. They drove away towards the airport.

Harvey Kurtzman, the one I last saw that morning is gone. The Harvey Kurtzman who exists in my mind, in my work, in every line I write, he's not gone at all. He's there forever.


Harvey Kurtzman (1924-1993) was an American cartoonist, writer, editor and pioneer of comics. He is probably best known for creating the trailblazing and revolutionary humor magazine MAD in 1952 before eventually leaving the publication in 1956. However, his influence extends far beyond that legendary 28 issue run, with his work continuing to inspire generations of cartoonists worldwide. Following his work on MAD, Kurtzman would go on to create a variety of seminal works of the medium including Trump, Humbug, Little Annie Fannie, The Jungle Book and Help! During this time, he helped to discover and mentor a number of diverse talents including Terry Gilliam, Gloria Steinem, Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb. Known for his social satire and pop culture parodies, Kurtzman is looked upon as one of the most influential pioneers of comics whose towering and iconic shadow still looms large today.

04 December 2021

Alan Moore: The Mark of Batman


(from the introduction to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, 1986)
As anyone involved in fiction and its crafting over the past fifteen or so years would be delighted to tell you, heroes are starting to become rather a problem. They aren't what they used to be... or rather they are, and therein lies the heart of the difficulty.

The world about us has changed and is continually changing at an ever-accelerating pace. So have we. With the increase in media coverage and information technology, we see more of the world, comprehend its workings a little more clearly, and as a result our perception of ourselves and the society surrounding us has been modified. Consequently, we begin to make different demands upon the art and culture that is meant to reflect the constantly shifting landscape we find ourselves in. We demand new themes, new insights, new dramatic situations.

We demand new heroes.

The fictional heroes of the past, while still retaining all of their charm and power and magic, have had some of their credibility stripped away forever as a result of the new sophistication in their audience. With the benefit of hindsight and a greater understanding of anthropoid behavior patterns, science fiction author Philip Jose Farmer was able to demonstrate quite credibly that the young Tarzan would almost certainly have indulged in sexual experimentation with chimpanzees and that he would just surely have had none of the aversion to eating human flesh that Edgar Rice Burroughs attributed to him. As our political and social consciousness continues to evolve, Alan Quartermain stands revealed as just another white imperialist out to exploit the natives and we begin to see that the overriding factor in James Bond's psychological makeup is his utter hatred and contempt for women. Whether most of us would prefer to enjoy the above-mentioned gentlemen's adventures without spoiling things by considering the social implications is beside the point. The fact remains that we have changed, along with our society, and that were such characters created today they would be subject to the most extreme suspicion and criticism.

So, unless we are to somehow do without heroes altogether, how are the creators of fiction to go about redefining their legends to suit the contemporary climate?

The fields of cinema and literature have to some extent been able to tackle the problem in a mature and intelligent fashion, perhaps by virtue of having a mature and intelligent audience capable of appreciating and supporting such a response. The field of comic books, seen since its inception as a juvenile medium in which any interjection of adult themes and subject matter are likely to be met with howls of outrage and the threat or actuality of censorship, has not been so fortunate. Whereas in novels and movies we have been presented with such concepts as the anti-hero or the classical hero reinterpreted in a contemporary manner, comic books have largely had to plod along with the same old muscle-bound oafs spouting the same old muscle-bound platitudes while attempting to dismember each other. As the naiveté of the characters and the absurdity of their situations become increasingly embarrassing and anachronistic to modern eyes, so does the problem become more compounded and intractable. Left floundering in the wake of other media, how are comic books to reinterpret their traditional icons so as to interest an audience growing progressively further away from them? Obviously, the problem becomes one that can only be solved by people who understand the dilemma and, further to that, have an equal understanding of heroes and what makes them tick.

Which brings me to Frank Miller, and to Dark Knight.

In deciding to apply his style and sensibilities to The Batman, Frank Miller has come up with a solution to the difficulties outlined above that is as impressive and elegant as any that I've seen. More strikingly still, he has managed to do it while handling a character who, in the view of the wider public that exists beyond the relatively tiny confines of the comic audience, sums up more than any other the essential silliness of the comic book hero. Whatever changes may have been wrought in the comics themselves, the image of Batman most permanently fixed in the mind of the general populace is that of Adam West delivering outrageously straight-faced camp dialogue while walking up a wall thanks to the benefit of stupendous special effects and a camera turned on its side. To lend such a subject credibility in the eyes of an audience not necessarily enamored of super-heroes and their trappings is no inconsiderable feat, and it would perhaps be appropriate to look a little more closely here at what exactly it is that Miller has done. (I hope Frank will forgive me for calling him 'Miller'. It seems a little brusque and rude and I would certainly never do it to his face, but somehow it's just the sort of thing you call people you know quite well when writing introductions for their books.)

He has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of the comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character's mythology. Yes, Bat-man is still Bruce Wayne, Alfred is still his butler and Commissioner Gordon is still chief of police, albeit just barely. There is still a young sidekick named Robin, along with a batmobile, a batcave and a utility belt. The Joker, Two-Face, and the Catwoman are still in evidence amongst the roster of villains. Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it's all totally different.

Gotham City, a place which during the comic stories of the forties and fifties seemed to be an extended urban playground stuffed with giant typewriters and other gargantuan props, becomes something much grimmer in Miller's hands. A dark and unfriendly city in decay, populated by rabid and sociopathic streetgangs, it comes to resemble more closely the urban masses which may very well exist in our own uncomfortably near future. The Bat-man himself, taking account of our current perception of vigilantes as a social force in the wake of Bernie Goetz, is seen as a near-fascist and a dangerous fanatic by the media while concerned psychiatrists plead for the release of a homicidal Joker upon strictly humanitarian grounds. The values of the world we see are no longer defined in the clear, bright, primary colors of the conventional comic book but in the more subtle and ambiguous tones supplied by Lynn Varley's gorgeous palette and sublime sensibilities.

The most immediate and overpowering difference is obviously in the portrayal both of The Batman and of Bruce Wayne, the man beneath the mask. Depicted over the years as, alternately, a concerned do-gooder and a revenge-driven psychopath, the character as presented here manages to bridge both of those interpretations quite easily while integrating them in a much larger and more persuasively realized personality. Every subtlety of expression, every nuance of body language, serves to demonstrate that this Batman has finally become what he should always have been: He is a legend.

The importance of myth and legend as a subtext to Dark Knight can't really be over-stated, shining as it does from every page. The familiar Batman origin sequence with the tiny bat fluttering in through an open window to inspire a musing Bruce Wayne becomes something far more religious and apocalyptic under Miller's handling; the bat itself transformed into a gigantic and ominous chimera straight out of the darkest European fables. The later scenes of The Batman on horseback, evoking everything from the chivalry of the Round Table to the arrival in town of Clint Eastwood, serve to further demonstrate this mythical quality, as does Miller's startling portrayal of Barman's old acquaintance Superman: The Superman we see here is an earthbound god whose presence is announced only by the wind of his passing or the destruction left in his wake. At the same time, his doubtful position as an agent of the United States Government manages to treat an incredible situation realistically and to seamlessly wed the stuff of legend to the stuff of twentieth century reality.

Beyond the imagery, themes, and essential romance of Dark Knight, Miller has also managed to shape The Batman into a true legend by introducing that element without which all true legends are incomplete and yet which for some reason hardly seems to exist in the world depicted in the average comic book, and that element is time.

All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarek, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo. In comic books, however, given the commercial fact that a given character will still have to sell to a given audience in ten years' time, these elements are missing. The characters remain in the perpetual limbo of their mid-to-late twenties, and the presence of death in their world is at best a temporary and reversible phenomenon.

With Dark Knight, time has come to the Batman and the capstone that makes legends what they are has finally been fitted. In his engrossing story of a great man's final and greatest battle, Miller has managed to create something radiant which should hopefully illuminate things for the rest of the comic book field, casting a new light upon the problems which face all of us working within the industry and perhaps even guiding us towards some fresh solutions. For those of you who've already eagerly consumed Dark Knight in its softcover version, rest assured that in your hands you hold one of the few genuine comic book landmarks worthy of a lavish and more durable presentation. For the rest of you, who are about to enter entirely new territory, I can only express my extreme envy. You are about to encounter a new level of comic book storytelling. A new world with new pleasures and new pains.

A new hero.

Alan Moore
Northampton, 1986