Alan Moore’s Lost Treasures: ‘The Bowing Machine’ by Marc Sobel

12 Sep

The third issue of RAW (volume two), the digest-sized final collection of Art Spiegelman’s art comix series, is possibly the best single volume of a comics anthology ever published. Included among the book’s extraordinary contents are Spiegelman’s own penultimate chapter of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a classic 32 page excerpt of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (the famous ‘Tiger Tea’ sequence), an exquisite Gary Panter sketchbook, ‘Thrilling Adventure Stories,’ the first glimpse of the genius that was to come from Chris Ware, ‘Proxy,’ a highly under-appreciated collaboration between novelist Tom DeHaven and Richard Sala, and a long portion of Kim Deitch’s masterpiece, ‘The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.’ The anthology also includes strong standalone pieces from Lynda Barry, Muñoz and Sampayo, Drew Friedman, Marti, Justin Green, Kaz, and several lesser-known but equally talented European artists, not to mention a brilliantly sarcastic R. Crumb cover. With such an impressive line-up, it’s easy to see how a little story by Alan Moore got lost in the mix.

Yet ‘The Bowing Machine,’ Moore’s unlikely collaboration with Amy and Jordan creator, Mark Beyer, is among the highlights of this impressive book. Written in 1991 on the heels of the highly publicized collapse of the Big Numbers series with Bill Sienkiewicz after only two issues, and just before he began exploring alternatives to the Big Two superhero publishers, including, most notably, his 1963 limited series for Image Comics in which he re-imagined the origins of the Marvel universe, this nine-page short story appeared during a period which the author himself described as his ‘wilderness years.’ (Rose)

Like Big Numbers, which, though incomplete, touched on themes regarding the United States’ corrupting influence on the rest of the world, ‘The Bowing Machine’ is a subtle exploration of the socio-political tensions that arose between the US and Japan in the early ‘90s as Japan’s economy returned to international prominence. In the very first panel, Moore’s nameless Japanese protagonist describes, in scathing fashion, the toxic influence that years of foreign investment has had on Japanese culture: ‘Ah, there is so much money, rolling west in giant waves of dollar green topped with a silver froth of dimes, to break amongst the broken crab-claws down in Tokyo Bay.’ Once again we are immediately confronted with evidence of Moore’s unparalleled command of the English language.

The story quickly narrows its focus onto a single rivalry between the narrator and a co-worker, both employees of an unnamed Japanese company, as each struggles to curry the favor of their superiors that they may ascend the corporate ladder. The personal competition between these two workers is a metaphor for the larger competitive tensions that existed between the US and Japan, and Moore plays a note-perfect riff on international politics in the way he depicts these two rivals, each going to ritualistic extremes of politeness in their professional behavior, while secretly harboring a seething mutual hatred for one another.

Eventually the story takes a Steven Millhauser-esque dive into obsession as the protagonist becomes a self-trained master at bowing to his superiors. The importance of the bow as a professional and cultural ritual is keenly understood by the Japanese narrator, but as one of the story’s many newspaper articles describes, ‘It is not enough to just bow in Japan. The exact angle of the bow must be determined by the nuances and subtle shades of a complex system of social intercourse. But today, as the country continues to absorb the ways of the West, older Japanese are worried that the new generation is losing the gentle art of bowing.’ In the narrator’s hands, this simple social grace is once again elevated to a high art, and becomes the foundation upon which he briefly stakes his professional reputation.

But of course, the American has only a rudimentary concept of the bow’s importance in traditional Japanese culture, and instead seeks to best his rival by use of technology. He purchases the ‘bowing machine’ in an effort to learn to bow in the same impressive manner as his Japanese rival, never understanding that bowing is a revered cultural tradition, not some mundane skill one can learn on the weekends with a simple machine.

The story ends with a bitter irony when, despite his ignorance, the rival becomes entangled in the bowing machine for several days, and suffers a crippling back injury in which he is permanently bent forward, like some hideous monstrosity. When he returns to work, hunched in his grotesque posture and relegated to a wheelchair, the Japanese narrator realizes he has been bested in their silent competition. His superiors, whether out of pity or admiration, are unable to ignore the immense sacrifice they perceive he made in pursuit of cultural sensitivity, and are moved to promote and favor the tragic figure over his upright, majestically bowing rival. Thus, a grave miscarriage of justice prevails as the accident victim is shown favor and privilege within the corporate culture.

Mark Beyer’s art is an acquired taste. Unlike Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd, John Totleben and the dozens of other mainstream artists Moore has collaborated with throughout his career, whose styles tend to be more dramatic and photo-realistic, Beyer’s drawings are overtly and intentionally “arty”. Well-suited for the experimental context of RAW, Moore’s decision to partner with Beyer was part of the author’s general move away from mainstream comics at the time. During the same period, Moore also collaborated with Bill Sienkiewicz (Brought to Light and Big Numbers), Oscar Zarate (A Small Killing) and Eddie Campbell (From Hell), all artists whose visual approaches are vastly different from the traditional house art styles of Marvel and DC. Beyer’s style is over-simplified and, to the untrained eye, may seem childlike and unattractive. But upon closer examination, his panels are deceptively complex. First of all, Beyer makes great use of colors and patterns, using meticulous hatching and shading, as well as bright swaths of primary colors to add tone and texture to his panels. In addition, Beyer rises to the considerable demands of Moore’s script, which calls for several recurring images that inform the story’s underlying themes. In particular, the arcing posture of the bow itself, noted not only in the physical act depicted throughout the story, but also in the breaking arc of the ‘waves of dollar green,’ operates as a visual motif for the cynicism and defeatism of the main character.[1]

Beyer also incorporates newspaper articles, both in Japanese and English, to convey a large quantity of story context (including a brief history of the bowing machine’s invention) in a relatively small amount of space. Finally, each page features a shifting series of symmetrical wallpaper patterns, set against stark black backgrounds, adding a distinctively Japanese aesthetic to the story.

In the end, this is one of Alan Moore’s most cynical tales. Its focus on the unspoken bitterness inherent in international politics is a brutal indictment of American arrogance. What lingers most is the final image of the rival, pathetically mangled in his wheelchair. Though victorious, his bastardization of a sacred cultural ritual, not to mention the self-destructive nature of his behavior, makes him a loathsome and disgusting figure. His victory is pathetic and hollow, and, in the story’s larger metaphor, it portrays America as an unscrupulous giant, blindly destroying the world in search of the all-important profit. Moore’s final words are scathing in their indictment of America’s globalization and the impact it’s had on the world.

‘Now he has laid himself so low that I can never rise above him.’

Works Cited

Rose, Steve. ‘Moore’s Murderer.’ In The Guardian. Published February 1st, 2002.

Marc Sobel is the author of the forthcoming books The Love & Rockets Reader: From Hoppers to Palomar and The Love & Rockets Companion: 30 Years (and Counting) from Fantagraphics Books. His article, “The Decade in Comics” was recently featured in The Comics Journal #301. In addition, Sobel’s reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in a variety of publications and websites, including The Comics Journal, Sequart Research and Literacy Organization, Hooded Utilitarian, Comic Book Galaxy, and elsewhere. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and two sons.

[1] Indeed, with Japan’s island geography and history of tsunamis, the wave is an important cultural symbol, perhaps best reflected in the famous woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai.

This article is part of a series on Alan Moore’s short comics, guest edited by Maggie Gray. To read the other articles in this series click here.


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