Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Comics You Should Read: A Disease Of Language

First, to all you USians reading this, Happy Fourth Of July. Of course, this means you'll be getting your comics when the comics shop open tomorrow over there, while we'll get ours several hours earlier, but I'm sure you're not feeling at all bad about that.

How does your much-vaunted independence feel now, eh, Johnny Colonial? Feels like getting your comics several hours later than the rest of us, doesn't it? We may have lost in the short term, but we were playing a waiting game, and we're reaping the rewards now!

Anyway, yadda yadda new preview image blah blah Last Supper Planet Of The oh I can't even pretend to care any more. I'm going to look at this week's Countdown tomorrow and I'll do the same next week, but the comics I'm looking forward to tomorrow (and I'll write about those, too) are All Star Superman, Atom and Following Cerebus.

You may have noticed in the last post I moved from slightly depressed by Countdown to outright angry. The reason for this is simple - on the bus to work, the day before my last Countdown post, I was reading Promethea while listening to I Am The Walrus on my CD player. And I was just overcome with awe. Just looking at a page of Promethea, even before reading Alan Moore's writing, or processing the page as storytelling, one is overcome by the sheer beauty of J.H. Williams III's layouts. And combining that with one of the greatest tracks ever recorded in rock or pop music gave me an epiphanic sense of what the human race is capable of. The ugly bags of mostly water that are busily racing to extinction are also capable of looking at the world around them and perceiving beauty, and communicating that perception to others and making the world a better place.

And looking at the sheer amount of effort that was put into any issue of Promethea, the level of detail and attention from not just the writer and penciller, but from the inker, colourist and even letterer, filled me with contempt for Countdown and anger towards its creators. I'm not asking that everyone in comics put in the same care as Moore, Williams, Gray, Klein, Villaruba and Cox put into Promethea - Batman doesn't have to give you staggering insights into the human condition (though if it does, that's a bonus), just provide a pleasant diversion for a quarter of an hour. But to have access to one of the best playgrounds in the world, the freedom to let your imagination play as it will, an audience of (at least to start with) hundreds of thousands, and to be paid for the privilege, and then just not to bother... to turn in half-baked, badly thought-out drivel which no-one, least of all those involved with its creation, can believe has taken one femtosecond of actual effort... and then to blame the readers when they are not overjoyed... that just seems obscene.

But that's all just a digression. I posted that because there was another Alan Moore comic which gave me a much greater epiphany last year - one that, in fact, literally changed my life.

Last year I was working for Barclay's Bank, in a job I found both tedious and morally repugnant. I had ambitions - still do - I'm paying my way through various courses at the moment in the hope of eventually sidestepping into academia - but the job itself was dragging me down. And then, one lunch-hour, I read:

Then Monday. And the lathe, the desk, the counter. New vocabularies are absorbed a brittle language coined by blind industrial processes; glib abbreviations, acronyms. The running jokes become ungainly verbal furniture, with jutting innuendos that will jar your funny-bone until it snaps.

The complex political bitterness and envy; weather systems, highly localized, of cheap ambition, fiscal iotherm; a corridor of stifling heat blown in from Threadneedle Street, from Westminster, a fever-wind that curdles the behaviour and scatters reason.

People we do not respect and yet must be polite to.

The humiliations, devastating and yet so obscure as to be undetectable.

The lacerating splinters come from plastic fragmentation bombs, invisible to X-Ray. But they sting. They suppurate. The big ones take you off below the knees.

I broke down in tears and went home feigning migraine. By the next week I was working as a nursing assistant at the local hospital instead.

The comic from which those words came is A Disease Of Language, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, and is one of the few comics out there I could consider absolute masterpieces.

The bulk of the comic is taken up with adaptations of Moore's spoken-word prose poems The Birth Caul and Snakes & Ladders. I'd heard both of these before buying the comic, and been only mildly impressed - while Moore's booming bass voice and Northamptonshire burr are mesmerising when heard live (as anyone who was at the magnificent tribute to Robert Anton Wilson a few months ago can attest), they can, when combined with the rolling rhythms of his writing and without visual stimulation, be somewhat soporific, and for someone like myself with a relatively low attention span, the recordings can be more 'impressive' than truly moving.

Campbell's adaptations, though, recontextualise Moore's words and transform them. Only occasionally directly illustrating the text, they're as likely to comment or expand on it, often bringing the text into the picture itself (the best example is in the line "Virginity a thing to be disposed of quickly, like the Q in Scrabble". The Q in the text is actually on a Scrabble board as, apparently randomly placed, are the U, I and M...).

The Birth Caul is the more impressive of the two, and earlier (both chronologically and in the book). Inspired by Moore's mother's death, and his subsequent discovery of the caul she had been born with among her effects, it is a profoundly depressing work - a meditation on death, and the way life grinds us all down. Starting 'here and now', at the moment and in the place where Moore performed the piece for the only time, it goes backwards through a typical life, through depressing, futile work, through adolescent dreams never to be realised, through childhood and finally to conception.

Some of the best writing in here is in the childhood section. In a passage very similar to the first chapter of Voice Of The Fire in its limited vocabulary and comprehensibility, Moore presents a series of sense-impressions from a very small child, though even these are flavoured with the constant awareness of death:

It when we want does snow. It when we want be a Christmas. Dead is birthday party where us cannot get with mumps but all time while goes on everything not us.

In heaven is the Odeon, an upstairs part there only where we dream and we are on an adventure that for being good we win and everything is best.

The Birth Caul is very difficult to read on a regular basis, because its view of the world is one that, while largely true, if accepted would lead to suicide. Luckily, in A Disease Of Language, it is countered by Snakes & Ladders.

Snakes & Ladders is in many ways a more formally impressive work. Campbell's style here is much less illustrative, much more abstract. Many pages consist of just a single image, others a collage of several images , often created in Photoshop:

Where The Birth Caul had been a deeply personal, emotional work, this appears to be more intellectualised, and to my mind doesn't pack the punch of the earlier piece as a result. Written for a symposium on magic, it covers many subjects, from Moore's views on psychogeography to the nature of language and magic, to the lives of Arthur Machen, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Oliver Cromwell and Francis Crick.

However, the heart of the piece comes in the middle, a dance between a naked woman (and how pleasing that Campbell, unlike so many comic artists, can draw a woman as simultaneously both beautiful and human) and a snake, while Moore talks about the symbolism of the two:

If there is to be progress, then there must be sex. There must be death, and all Earth's children, all the myriad creatures must destroy each other to survive. Into mortality and evolution we descend. We fall.

This section is some of the most beautiful work either Moore or Campbell has done, and while The Birth Caul's message is "we're all going to die", that of Snakes & Ladders is "we're all going to die, so let's dance while we can".

And Arthur Machen in Amelia's death, finds his Golgotha, finds his place of skulls, his Calvary, is taken down into the black earth of his grief. His heart become a vast stone rolled across the door. Yet Machen somehow finds an exit, stumbling in his wretched dark, led blinking like a pony from the pits of Gwent into the daylight, into Syon..... every sound and colour singing like a Hallelujah choir after the long and lampless silence of the tomb.

Rounding out the package, we have a long interview of Moore by Campbell (and two more articulate people you will not find in the comics medium) discussing Moore's magical work and his less 'mainstream' writings - Voice Of The Fire, Promethea and Lost Girls, examining the ideas, especially about 'ideaspace', that link these seemingly very different works. And to end with, a series of sketches (one reproduced above) by Campbell, roughs for the dance sequence.

These works seem almost like an anti-Cliff's Notes to Moore's other works, presenting the underlying ideas unburdened by plot or character. As such they can be hard going - there are no compromises made here - but when read, they will increase your appreciation both of Moore's other work and of life itself. Moore talks about his work being a magic working, and this definitely is...


Anonymous said...

I take it this was the death knell for this blog...

Andrew Hickey said...

You take it wrong. I've always said I won't guarantee an update before Sunday evening, because I work shifts... it's only been four days since my last post!

Jordan said...

Hey there

I've enjoyed your blog. I have STOPPED collecting Countdown...The moment I decided to stop is when the Rogues said - "we killed Flash!" I had no idea what they were referring to, and everything seemed fine with them in the last issue, and I got really annoyed that it seemed like I missed something.

What's the point of collecting every issue of a series if it feels like you're missing huge chunks of a story? Maybe I'm just missing the point.

I have some excitement for where all this is going, but I can't commit to a weekly series where I'm so underwhelmed every time.

Anyway, I'm going to still read it, cause my friends work in a comic book store and I hang out there all the time. But I can't afford a weekly comic, and honestly my room isn't even big enough to hold another 52 issues of something. I got comics piled on the floor here.


Mark Parsons said...

Moore's performance cd's are amongst my favorite works of his (alongside Promethea). I'd love o see an adapatation of Highbury Working and read somewhere that Melinda Gebbie was adapting the Blake cd (Angel Passage, IIRC) which I've not really gotten my head around yet. I gather AM felt more cd's might mean repeating the format/essence of what came b4, but I would love to see more of this format from him.

PS: just got back from Brazil and picked up many comix, including three issues of Countdown. I am slightly relieved to say that I liked these issues and felt that the plotstrands are FINALLY gelling. It's no 52, but I too was on the verge of dropping the series. I think I'll stay tuned for awhile yet.

Jherek Carnelian said...

Loving your blog. I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything you write. Particularly your Alan Moore and Grant Morrison apreciations. Nice to read an intelligent analysis of those guys rather than the usual fawning obeiescence or angry incomprehension. But hey, when you gonna write something I disagree with so we can have a debate?