Airing Alan Moore’s Shorts by Maggie Gray

30 Sep

I would like to thank all the contributors to this series considering Alan Moore’s short form works, and thank Ian Hague and Comics Forum for having us. I hope readers have found the articles interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking. To me, they have certainly demonstrated that many of the acclaimed qualities of Moore’s larger projects are equally present in these more academically disregarded works.

Recurrent themes identified across the contributions include an exploration of the potency of language, as Jose Alaniz puts it, ‘the perception-shaping power of words’. Alan Moore draws attention to the ideological operations of language, the way it serves to demarcate borders of inclusion and exclusion. However, he also insists on the utopian potential of words, and their ability to remake the world. As Daniel Werneck points out in relation to Moore’s treatment of Aklo as a ‘language virus’, this focus on the ‘role of words in modifying a human’s perception of reality’, is closely connected to his interest in the occult, and conception of magic as convergent with the liberatory capacity of creative practice.

This is itself deeply linked to Moore’s anarchist politics, also apparent across the examples discussed, which articulate anti-ableist, anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, and anti-nuclear stances. The political character of Moore’s work has often served to expose the representational hierarchies and marginalising occlusions of both mainstream comics and other cultural forms (as K. A. Laity demonstrates with her discussion of ‘Beyond the Angels and the Apes’, he often attempts to bring obscured female voices and strong women characters into more usually ‘male-centred’ stories.) However, as Alaniz asserts in relation to Moore’s representation of (dis)ability, this is not unproblematic. Not only do ‘Moore and Willingham reproduce some ablist presumptions’, but the explicit unveiling of the racist and misogynist undercurrents of Lovecraft’s work in Neonomicon also opens itself up to allegations of reproducing the very attitudes it purportedly critiques, particularly in the presentation of sexual violence against women.[1]

In terms of form, these shorts demonstrate an experimentation with narrative and playful subversion of the established conventions of their medium, underlining what Werneck calls Moore’s persistent ‘commitment to innovate’, as much as their lengthier counterparts. As Laity contends, they reveal his careful and tight approach to structure, whereby each unit – no matter how small – fits into a fully-conceived whole. This often results in non-linear or elliptical narratives, using flashbacks and framing sequences, as in ‘In Blackest Night’. Such a comprehensive approach is likewise apparent in his script-writing; as Laity suggests, approaching comics in the same manner as his multi-media performances, forming organic wholes out of a mix of words and images. Signature formal devices include a healthy dose of metafictional reflexivity, with Dr Dee’s breaking of the fourth wall or the self-awareness of the Kool-Aid man, who Marc Sobel suggests almost stands in for the writer himself. Intertextuality also abounds, from Ginsberg pastiche to a round of the Lovecraftian intertextual game, alongside play, not only on words, but with visual metaphors like the wave of ‘The Bowing Machine’.

However, alongside these more familiar aspects of Moore’s creative approach, this series of articles has also cast light on some of the more neglected aspects of his work. In particular, attention has been drawn to the use of comedic modes such as parody, farce, and satire that Moore is not widely acknowledged for. Alaniz has pointed out the way in which ‘In Blackest Night’ parodies ‘conventional ‘commiserating’ discourse often aimed at the disabled’ and Sobel has explored both the absurd tragicomedy of ‘The Hasty Smear of My Smile’ and the biting political satire of ‘The Bowing Machine’. As Laity suggests with her reference to BBC period sitcom Blackadder, Moore’s sense of humour not only owes a lot to his underground origins but to traditions of British comedy. It has been proposed that this has potentially contributed to the critical neglect of works such as D.R. & Quinch, Captain Britain, and notably The Bojeffries Saga which owes as much to the anarchic and surreal humour of British comics like The Beano and Wham! as it does The Munsters.[2]

Hopefully, these articles have inaugurated a wider process of fleshing out such overlooked aspects of Moore’s career, which, stemming from both his creative restlessness and fractious relationships with publishers, has been incredibly multifarious.

Parkin’s article focused on an often ignored part of Moore’s career, his earliest work as a comic book writer contributing back-up strips to British anthologies, mapping his creative development and the emergence of ideas in Dr Who Weekly that would come to fruition in Marvelman, Captain Britain and The Ballad of Halo Jones. Sobel’s articles have revealed the plenitude of Moore’s ‘Wilderness Years’, as in his post-DC/pre-ABC phase he combined epic projects like From Hell and Lost Girls with one-off collaborations with a stellar cast of alternative creators like Peter Bagge and Marc Beyer (not to mention Harvey Pekar, Hunt Emerson, Michael Zulli, Jamie Hewlett, Savage Pencil…). Werneck has considered one of his most recent comics contributions, despite semi-retirement from the field, and Laity one of a number of regrettably unfinished projects, notably in the field of music and performance, a continuous aspect of his career that has doubtless shaped his practice as a ‘performing writer’ (Di Liddo, 2009: 22).

Yet particular sections of Moore’s career remain stubbornly untouched in academic discourse. This notably includes almost the entirety of his work for Image and the studios that operated under its banner (like Jim Lee’s Wildstorm and Rob Liefeld’s Extreme), as well as parts of his ABC output, with Promethea and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen generally favoured over Tom Strong, Top Ten and Tomorrow’s Stories. However, as noted, particularly absent is discussion of his early work in British comics, including his work as a strip cartoonist in underground, music and local papers, as well as contributions to UK anthologies like 2000AD, Dr Who Weekly, and Marvel UK publications like The Daredevils (as well as annuals, and fanzines). Importantly this work included prose stories, photo fumetti, illustrations, articles and reviews as well as comic strips.

As stated in the introduction, there are many contributing factors as to why short form works by comics writers like Moore have been critically neglected. However, the profound historical importance of the anthology format to British comics, a key point of difference from US comics publishing traditions, may be of significance.

In general, British mainstream comics periodicals have been anthologies, evolving from illustrated magazines, penny dreadfuls and story papers and initially aimed at a wider working class readership before becoming solely targeted at the juvenile market. (For Moore himself comics were ‘a staple part of working class existence…something like rickets’, Vylenz, 2003). Like many Golden Age US comic books they conventionally comprise short episodes of character-led series in various pulpy genres, alongside activities pages, prose material and pin-ups. However, they tend to have a greater degree of text features and articles and a greater number of shorter strips – originally of one to two pages, but expanding to five to six pages (and greater continuity between episodes) with ground-breaking titles of the 1970s like IPC’s Action and 2000AD.[3] Traditionally, British comics are published on a weekly basis, magazine or tabloid size, and monochrome or duochrome. For many years printed on newsprint, they were cheap, disposable ephemera sold in newsagents, often with the incentive to be taken apart (e.g. to enter competitions or detach pin-ups). Their production was based on a highly rationalised division of labour, for a long time predicated on conservative house styles, restrictive editorial policies, and a dearth of creator rights – it wasn’t until Kevin O’Neill snuck credit cards into 2000AD that artists were openly acknowledged for their work.[4] Although very much a dying breed, reflecting the general decline in the British market since the 1960s, British comics magazines are therefore very different formal, material and social objects from the (Silver Age +) American comic book and the literary ‘graphic novel’.[5]

As Parkin points out, Moore claims he developed his skills as a comics writer working on back up strips for such British anthologies, with the limited page length schooling him in pacing, structure, rhythm and concision of storytelling and world-building. Moore has said of the period spent contributing two- to six page stories to the ‘Future Shocks’ and ‘Time Twister’ segments of 2000AD:

I continue to regard the two years or so that I spent working on stunted little five-page stories destined to be printed in black and white upon Izal two-ply lavatory paper as one of the most educational and creatively rewarding times of my career. (1986: 2)

These strips not only display a sharp learning curve, but also represented a space in which he could play around with different genres, concepts and techniques, mixing parody of overblown science-fiction clichés in the vein of Douglas Adams with experimental formal devices and psychological and metaphysical themes inspired by writers like Philip K. Dick, while also confronting painfully relevant political issues like unemployment.

In the same vein as the articles in this series, it is arguable that strips like ‘The Reversible Man’ (a life told in reverse revealing the pathos of the ordinary) or ‘Chronocops’ (featuring hardboiled paradox police and numerous overlapping timelines) are as formally complex, thematically unified and developed, and structurally integrated and well-crafted, as his critically acclaimed longer works, economical in their storytelling yet profound in their effect. Being less significant to the publication as a whole and its commercial imperatives, and less tied to the formulaic demands of ongoing series, these shorts potentially offered more freedom to experiment without great editorial interference, financial risk or career impact. It is also perhaps arguable that this schooling in the structural and narrative demands of creating effective short form works, gave the writers of the 1980s British invasion as a whole an advantage in exploiting the potential of mainstream serialisation, to create self-contained episodes that formed part of overarching, fully-conceived and cohesive narratives.

The wider question, however, is whether sections of comics studies and criticism continue to evade (and even disdain) the medium’s mass cultural ‘populist, industrial and frankly mercenary’ origins (Hatfield, 2005: ix) and heteronomous contexts of production as epitomised in British mainstream anthologies. Is there a process of gentrification occurring in concurrence with the legitimising efforts of some comics theorists and practitioners, despite the supposed post-modern erasure of high/low-brow distinctions? (Hatfield 2005: xi-xiii and 2012: 34) Are certain works that appear in more durable formats, appeal to a middle class audience, and align with bourgeois romantic models of authorship being canonised, elevated to the status of timeless auratic masterpieces, in contradistinction a mainstream Other elided as tawdry commercial kitsch?[6]

Answers on a postcard.

Works Cited

Barker, Martin. Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Beaty, Bart. Unpopular Culture, Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

comicbookgrrrl. ‘Comic Review: Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’, 13/12/2011. [Accessed 24/09/2012].

Di Liddo, Annalisa. Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics, An Emerging Literature. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Heer, Jeet. ‘Comics and Class: Labor Day Notes’ Comics Comics, 01/09/2010. [Accessed 24/09/2012]

Moore, Alan. ‘Introduction’. Alan Moore’s Shocking Futures. London: Titan Books, 1986.

Venezia, Tony. “Soap Opera of the Paranormal”: Surreal Englishness and Postimperial Gothic in The Bojeffries Saga’. Alan Moore and the Gothic Tradition. Ed. Matthew J. A. Green. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012. In Print.

DeZ Vylenz. The Mindscape of Alan Moore. London: Shadowsnake Films, 2003.

Maggie Gray completed a PhD in the History of Art at University College London in 2010, with a thesis entitled ‘Love Your Rage, Not Your Cage’ Comics as Cultural Resistance: Alan Moore 1971-1989. Her work has been published in the journals Studies in Comics, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, and Kunst und Politik, as well as Alan Moore and the Gothic Tradition, edited by Matt Green (Manchester University Press, 2012. In Print). She has also contributed to 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die (Cassell, 2011) and Icons of the American Comic Book: From Captain America to Wonder Woman (forthcoming, Greenwood, 2013).


[1] – There has been ongoing criticism of the representation of rape and violence against women in Moore’s oeuvre in both academic and fan contexts. For a thoughtful consideration of the portrayal of rape in Neonomicon see comicbookgrrrl, 2011.

[2] – Identification and analysis of Moore’s use of comedy, and its oversight in existing scholarship, is one of the key insights of Lance Parkin’s forthcoming literary biography. See also Venezia, 2012.

[3] – Action was the subject of a censorship campaign led by the tabloid press, the National Association of Newsagents, and Christian moral pressure groups such as Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association with a class dimension similar to the anti-comics crusade of the 1950s as discussed by Jeet Heer (2010). See Martin Barker, 1989.

[4] – Eagle was actually the first British comic to run credits, but these were removed when Odhams took over publishing the title in 1959. DC Thomson was particularly stringent about retaining creator anonymity, and also forbade trade union membership.

[5] – This is at least true of the commercial mainstream – The Dandy for instance has announced its final print edition in December of this year. However, the anthology remains an important format for small press publishing, as it was for both UK and US underground and alternative comics scenes.

[6] – While this gentrification appears to be most prevalent in correlation of comics to literary models, it is equally apparent via association with certain practices in the visual arts. I draw here strongly from Bart Beaty’s identification of an autonomising trend of ‘postmodern modernism’ prevalent in the European comics avant-garde of the 1990s (2007).

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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2 responses to “Airing Alan Moore’s Shorts by Maggie Gray

  1. Daniel Werneck (@empire_of_dust)

    2012/10/01 at 13:48

    That last big paragraph gave me the chills! I see it happening all the time: cartoonists are lauded or scoffed mainly because of the media where their comics are published–or even worse, because of the cost of that media.

    Webcomics artists, for instance, are always refered to as being “webcomics artists” as if they belonged to a different breed of cartoonists. People who print their own zines are considered mildly childish, while any dimwit who gets to publish his comics as a hardcover with a famous logo on its spine could easily be considered a god among cartoonists. Comics such as XKCD and King Cat never get the same attention and respect as, say, Teen Titans vol.1.

    Presuming that The Market is a good enough filter to decide which comics are great and which ones are garbage is a very post-capitalist thing to do, and has nothing to do with actual art criticism. Being a best-seller doesn’t make a book better than the rest, and therefore we cannot assume Watchmen is Alan Moore’s best work simply because it sells well. Every single panel he ever published (or produced, even) should be taken in consideration. They are all pieces of the same puzzle.


    Thank you very much Maggie Gray for this lovely article and for organizing this entire series. It was certainly a great advancement in the field of Alan Moore studies!


  2. Lance Parkin

    2012/10/02 at 17:04

    Why are the shorter, earlier pieces neglected? I think some of that is availability, but as – say – all his Sounds work is available online, now, it’s not the whole answer. I think some of it is that a corollary of being in an anthology is that lots of other things are in the anthology, too. I think any sensible study of Sounds, 2000AD and his Doctor Who work has to look at the whole issue, what *else* is in there.

    Halo Jones works by itself. The context, though, is that she was jostling for attention surrounded hyper-male leads with massive guns. That she represented a contrast. I don’t think Halo Jones makes *as much* sense unless you read the whole issue. Or at least, I think that the collected edition recontextualises her, pushes her far more onto centre stage.

    As for what’s neglected: Moore’s prose. If you stripped away everything except his prose fiction and essays, he would still be a prolific writer. I’ve not done a word count, but I’m pretty sure you could get a chunky volume out of his prose fiction, and one of roughly equal size of his essays, introductions and so on.



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