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Review of Annalisa Di Liddo’s Alan Moore: Comics as Performance, Fiction as Scalpel

By Eric L. Berlatsky

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

As Annalisa Di Liddo notes in the Introduction of this book from University of Mississippi Press’s Great Comics Artists series, much ink has been spilled in response to Alan Moore’s work. Most is more hagiography than biography, more lavish praise than balanced analysis, but Moore is, nevertheless, also among the most discussed figures in academic comics studies. Featuring prominently in books by Geoff Klock, Richard Reynolds, Bradford Wright, and Thierry Groensteen, Moore has also been the subject of numerous articles in Imagetext and other comics journals. Discussions of Watchmen (1986-87) and From Hell (2000) have even found their way outside of the insular world of comics criticism and into journals typically devoted to “literature” without pictures. To this point, however, there had been no scholarly book-length treatment of Moore’s oeuvre, making Di Liddo’s a landmark.

Di Liddo takes her trailblazing role seriously, as the book reveals the appropriate immersion not only in Moore’s comics, but also in the growing academic literature on the medium. She bemoans the “all-too-celebratory” nature of previous Moore books and aims to correct their “deficient critical attitude” (14). All of this is to the good, and there are times when Di Liddo lives up to her stated goal of a “more systematically critical study” (14). The term “critical” is something of a misnomer, however, in two distinct ways. First, while Di Liddo aims to separate herself from recent Moore celebrations (Gary Milledge and smoky man’s Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman and George Khoury’s Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore), in the end she is almost never actually critical of Moore’s work, his politics, or his philosophy. While she is better than most of her predecessors about offering the possibility of critique, she hesitates to actually make clear arguments about where Moore’s work falls short in her own estimation (and thus also where his successes are greatest). Likewise, while Di Liddo is adept at locating motifs, themes, and trends, she is less willing to actually make a case for what an individual text (or even a constellation of texts) actually tells us about social, political, or philosophical issues. Moore himself, in a bewildering blizzard of interviews, is quick to explicate many of his basic thematic concerns, and Di Liddo rarely goes beyond what Moore himself has said. As such, while Di Liddo’s book is an important step forward for Moore criticism, it too often leaves its readers at the doorstep of some significant insights, while declining to fully open the portal.

The introduction addresses the by now singularly uninteresting question of defining the term “graphic novel.” The less said about this the better, and the book properly begins with the first chapter, which is more fully illustrative of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Di Liddo begins by discussing Moore’s formal approach to writing comics. Di Liddo informs the reader of Moore’s tendency to write in the fullest of “full scripts,” with an impossible amount of detail, commentary, and conversation for his artistic collaborators. This leads to an interesting and compelling commentary on Moore’s late-career tendency to value the written word over the image, and how this preference ultimately leads him both into the study of magic and to non-comics projects, like his first novel Voice of the Fire (1996). Di Liddo also gives due attention to Moore’s collaborative instincts and visual imagination, how he writes to the strengths of his artistic partners, and is more than willing to accept input and transformation by the visual artist despite the seeming impregnability of his scripts. All of this, while well known to the Moore aficionado, will surely help the neophyte reader or scholar. The strengths of this section of the chapter are balanced, however, by significant weaknesses. Di Liddo relies overmuch on Moore’s mid-eighties “how-to” essay, Writing for Comics, a piece Moore has at least partially disavowed since, and which, at the very least, is significantly out-of-date in relation to his later work. Similarly, Di Liddo’s focus on Moore’s “intertextuality” is both undertheorized and curiously unmotivated. In her discussion of the “barrage of direct and indirect quotations” (42) of Victorian literature in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (1999-present) volumes, she is largely willing to settle for the fairly obvious observation that “intertextuality” is a frequent practice of Moore’s, and that he sees literature as “an inexhaustible repository of stories” (43). This is true, as far as it goes, of course, but leaves out the question of why Moore so frequently borrows his characters and stories and to what purpose. Is his practice “deconstructive” of the tradition? A parody of it that critiques elements of what has gone before? Or is it merely a pastiche that has no critical perspective on the work that it cannibalizes? While Di Liddo approaches these questions in later chapters, she never fully engages with theories of intertextuality, the distinction between parody and pastiche, or any number of other theoretical perspectives that might have led to more revelatory conclusions.

The latter half of the chapter is devoted to Moore’s reworking of the superhero tradition, particularly in Swamp Thing (1984-87) and Watchmen. In some ways, this section works better, with Di Liddo devoting space to the ways in which Swamp Thing‘s use of intertextuality (especially with Walt Kelly’s Pogo) is instrumental in the series’ critique of environmental destruction. The treatment of Watchmen, however, is surprisingly brief and Moore’s magnum opus is never given due attention in the course of the book. Di Liddo traces Moore’s use of E.C. horror comics, Coleridge, Poe, and Brecht in the Tales from the Black Freighter inset to exploit a range of intertextual connections. Even so, Di Liddo hesitates to draw any conclusions about how Moore uses these strategies in service of (for instance) the political stance Watchmen takes, or in terms of Moore’s critique of the very genres from which he is borrowing. More than works like Supreme (1996-2000), or the 21st-century ABC Comics line, Watchmen and Marvelman/Miracleman (1982-89) are clearly critical of the whole notion of superheroes and the incessant borrowing from that tradition is not merely borrowing, but also part of a critique of “superpowers” in comics and the “Super Powers” in the Cold War. Di Liddo’s tendency to merely identify borrowing without delving fully into what it means or why it is important is disappointing. Also problematic are a series of factual errors. Hardly significant in themselves, they indicate a less than full knowledge of the material under discussion. Di Liddo claims that Moore himself invented Marvelman for Warrior magazine in 1982, adapting the figure from Fawcett’s Captain Marvel (48). In fact, Marvelman was created in the mid-fifties by Mick Anglo. Di Liddo also claims that Swamp Thing #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” was Moore’s “first issue” (50). In actual fact, it was his second, as he used his first to tie up the hanging threads of his predecessor’s tenure. Errors of this kind most offend the fan community and have little impact on the substance of Di Liddo’s argument(s). It is worth remembering, however, that comics scholarship often begins with fan appreciation (as Di Liddo acknowledges) and that a critic’s grasp of basic facts and chronology should be stronger than those of the fan.

There is little doubt that the middle of Di Liddo’s book is the strongest part and she hits her stride in chapter two, particularly. Her discussion of time and space in Moore’s work is welcome, as it is a complex theoretical issue that needs critical explication. Her treatment of Moore’s neglected space opera, The Ballad of Halo Jones (1984-86), is especially good, as she looks closely at Moore’s (and Ian Gibson’s) use of circular structures, both in terms of plot (Halo’s residency in the circular “Hoop”) and in artistic form (the use of circular panels). Di Liddo also makes some bona fide critical claims about the meaning of the text, suggesting that all of the formal circularity reflects the thwarted and frustrated life of the intensely “ordinary” Halo Jones, whose experience reflects that of the “ordinary” citizen of Thatcher’s mid-eighties England (71). A close comparison of a panel from Halo Jones to the Japanese print, “Mount Fuji as Seen from Kanagawa” is both compelling and enlightening, revealing influences and meanings not evident on the text’s surface (68-69).

Di Liddo’s discussion of From Hell (1988-1998) in the same chapter is also interesting, if not quite as strong in its critical perspective. It is here that Di Liddo elaborates upon and elucidates Moore’s obsession with time as merely a fourth spatial dimension, which contains an order and pattern that would only be fully visible from outside the spacetime continuum. Moore first explores the idea in depth in Watchmen, and it is curious that Dr. Manhattan’s four-dimensional consciousness never finds its way into this chapter’s treatment of Moore in the context of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope.” In Watchmen, the interest in “simultaneous time” is explored through quantum mechanics and Einstein’s “general theory” of relativity. From Hell, conversely, is preoccupied with the relationship of magic (Moore’s late-career obsession) with the experience of simultaneity. In this context, the Jack the Ripper killings and the mythology surrounding them become part of an exploration of the cultural and social patterns of the twentieth century whose origins lie in Whitechapel. Di Liddo does a nice job explicating Moore’s theoretical positioning of the killings and also discusses the book’s gender politics. Never, however, does Di Liddo bring the question of Moore’s feminism together with his vision of a patterned four-dimensional spacetime. If the Ripper’s murder of the London prostitutes is “predetermined,” part of an eternally spatial and patterned timeless present, how can we be critical of the Ripper’s (and his society’s) treatment of women and the poor (and especially poor women) as the book elsewhere implies we should? In this context, how can the book say anything useful about politics and ethics, which necessarily rest upon human agency? From Hell is far from conclusive on these topics, and even the notion of four-dimensional spacetime may be a figment of William Gull’s deranged mind in the context of the book. Nevertheless, some coherent and sustained argument about these issues would be welcome.

Finally, chapter two discusses Promethea (1999-2005). Here again, Di Liddo is at her best in discussing the formal design of particular pages. She nicely pinpoints the ways in which Moore and J. H. Williams III repeatedly construct “timeless” double-page spreads that work against comics’ normal tendency to progress sequentially from panel to panel. By creating a multiplicity of “circular” pages that lead the reader through conversations and actions that have no beginning or end, Moore and Williams make a comment about the peculiar sequential and simultaneous spacetime created by, or reflected in, comics (and magic, and theoretical physics). Moore’s notion of “ideaspace,” a communally shared realm of imagination, is also discussed in relation to Promethea, which functions both as a presentation of these ideas and as a neo-Romantic celebration of the powers of art and the imagination. Insofar as Promethea is itself a theoretical explication of Moore’s esoteric notions, the burden is on Di Liddo to not merely repeat those ideas, but to critique them, or take them further. She rarely does so, however, neither interrogating the potentially problematic Romanticism nor the comics’ lack of narrative drive. While Di Liddo mentions those who claim that Promethea is made up of “substantially uninteresting philosophical and religious disquisitions” (86), she is unwilling to make such claims herself, or to defend the text with full throat. If she is to bring up the debate about the problematic nature of Promethea‘s plot or lack thereof, it is perhaps not too much to ask her to make her own contribution to that discussion.

The third chapter shifts focus to Moore’s interest in English cultural identity. Here, Di Liddo looks closely at The League of Extraordinary Gentleman‘s critique of Victorian Britain. Di Liddo convincingly delineates The League‘s deconstruction of the British Imperial hero, its implicit critique of imperialism, and its rejection of the patriarchal sexism that found its height in the nineteenth century. Her discussion of Moore’s critique of Margaret Thatcher’s government is also illuminating. Through a reading of Moore’s “Mirror of Love” poem (1988) as a response to 1988 anti-gay legislation, V for Vendetta (1982-89), Skizz (1983), and the unfinished Big Numbers (1990), Di Liddo limns Moore’s anti-Thatcherite politics, particularly in terms of the prime minister’s treatment of marginalized communities. Di Liddo’s research into the political, social, and economic facts of Thatcher’s Britain is fairly minimal, but the close reading of Moore’s output during the period adroitly reveals the politics at its heart. Even here, however, Di Liddo misses some opportunities to discuss the ways in which Moore’s critique of England’s past and present also translates into a serious critique of contemporary neo-imperialism. Big Numbers is centered around the erection of an America-style shopping mall in “Hampton,” a thinly veiled copy of Moore’s own Northampton, and the attention to the failure of Thatcher’s Britain is met equally by a critique of American global expansion. Moore’s love/hate relationship with America never arises in Di Liddo’s book, but it is a compelling mirror to his treatment of England and central to much of his work. The nineteenth-century fin de siècle of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman might be read equally as a critique and mockery of the British Empire and of its American successor. Chapter three closes with a discussion of the psychogeographic elements of Moore’s novel Voice of the Fire (1996) and its link to Raymond Williams’ thought. Again, while Di Liddo cleverly reveals Moore’s increasing fascination with “regional consciousness” as a means to a more universal perspective, the link between the novel’s immersion in “place” and space and Moore’s fascination with the nature of time are left curiously unexplored, despite the concerns of chapter two.

The final chapter focuses exclusively on Moore’s work of deluxe pornography, Lost Girls. Unfortunately, this chapter is Di Liddo’s weakest, featuring hesitant claims about the quality of the book and few insightful critical moments. The chapter begins by listing a number of Lost Girls‘ intertexts and predecessors, building on its origins in Alice in WonderlandThe Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan. While this section enlightens the reader on several possible precursors to Moore’s reworking of these texts, curiously absent is any discussion of Moore’s previous exploration of a “pornotopia” in the pages of Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg (1985). Moore’s Flagg stories take a negative view of sexual permissiveness in Kansas, and, in doing so, explicitly rework The Wizard of Oz. Likewise, Moore’s depiction of Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” in Lost Girls is preceded by the (in)famous sex issue of Swamp Thing (#34), which shared a title with the ballet. These precursors and intertexts within Moore’s own work are left unmentioned despite their obvious relevance to Moore’s developing attitude toward sexuality.

These shortcomings are not substantially overcome by Di Liddo’s close reading. In interviews and didactic moments of the text itself, Moore posits Lost Girls as a “make love not war” book. Sex is offered as a chronotopically eternal realm of the imagination, a paradise of sorts, in which any thought, at least, is fair game, providing a necessary outlet for our baser urges. Through close readings of Lost Girls, a sampling of the available interviews, and a variety of critical reviews, Di Liddo successfully conveys both Moore’s intellectual position and those of the book’s numerous detractors. She does not, however, offer much that is critically new. She does not engage with the available feminist debate over pornography, nor does she approach the book’s dominant focus on same-sex desire through the prism of queer or gender theory. While Di Liddo gently critiques the book’s heavy edifice of formal structure, she does not address why this structure, so praised by many in Watchmen, may be counterproductive for a work of pornography. Di Liddo’s discussion of Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman brings the text into some relevant theoretical context and her reading of the conclusion of the book is compelling. Still, it is hard not to wish for a reading of Lost Girls that goes beyond what Moore himself has asserted and that engages more fully with the existing theoretical literature on pornography.

The conclusion briefly explores Moore’s career-long interest in performance and compares Moore with some of his contemporaries in prose. Both sections are promising, and provide some productive angles of criticism. At the same time, however, they reiterate the weaknesses of the rest of the book in their tendency to be more descriptive than critical. In the latter section, she does little more than list the “commonality of narrative motifs and stylistic patterns” (172) she sees between Moore and authors like Peter Ackroyd, Iain Sinclair, and Angela Carter. As Di Liddo remarks, however, Moore is a cultural, literary, and artistic sponge and one could name any number of important influences on his work. Naming a few names and motifs may be useful to suggest further reading, but it does not constitute deep analysis of Moore or the other authors in question.

As a Moore reader for more than 25 years and as a literary scholar, I opened Di Liddo’s book in the hopes of being enlightened about Moore’s work and career. More than that, I hoped for an authoritative and thorough account that would erect a high bar for future Moore critics to hurdle. Perhaps these expectations were unrealistic, and Di Liddo disavows any attempt to “cover” Moore thoroughly and in all his complexity. The book, then, is both disappointing and encouraging. While it leaves too many questions unaddressed and too many arguments unmade, it does provide a useful beginning for thinking about Moore’s work in its totality.

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