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