Snakes and Ladders

Posted by on November 26th, 2010 at 12:01 AM


©2005 Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.


Snakes and Ladders
CD recording by Alan Moore and accompanied by Tim Perkins
Fifth in the RE:Play series
Stage Cues and Whispers

Anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms caused by Alan Moore’s retreat from comics (or alternately, anyone suffering from his selective participation lately) might well be able to ease their pangs by picking up recorded versions of his stage performances. Case at hand, Snakes and Ladders.

Back in early 2002 in the paper Journal issue #240, I was able to write about Snakes and Ladders, the comic book, as one of the stellar pamphlets of the prior year. It featured Eddie Campbell’s inspired transcription, a skilled collaborator’s vision of the text (and perhaps the performance) of Moore’s piece delivered live and in concert. By that time, of course, Campbell and Moore were already an accomplished aesthetic team-up, what with From Hell and a prior comic of Moore’s aural The Birth Caul. As comic, Snakes and Ladders has aged well and remains highly recommended. (Caul and Ladders have been collected, along with worthwhile addenda in A Disease of Language from Knockabout.)

At the time I wrote of it, no commercial recording of Snakes and Ladders was available. One has appeared since, but even after that it had to wait on my end for the acquisition of sound system sufficient to play the CD disk in proper fidelity, a system that came with a new automobile.

By ear alone Snakes and Ladders is an entirely new experience. That much could have been predictable. But how novel, how singularly distinctive, the very nature of this recorded material is… well, that’s been the ongoing surprise.

On a mechanical level, punctuation is transformed. Snakes and Ladders takes as its subject nothing less than the span from origination of the cosmos to the exact moment of art’s creation. (“It’s April 10th. We find ourselves in Red Lion Square,” which would be, specifically, Conway Hall where Moore originally convened his guided travelogue.) The performance advances Moore’s use of psychogeology, specifically as it relates to the immediate environs of Red Lion Square, touching upon Oliver Cromwell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jonas Hanway (the “first Englishman to carry an umbrella”), disinterments, a symposium on “real magic,” altered states, including especially bereavement, the titular game of sublime ascensions and catastrophic falls, Arthur Machen, particularly after the death of his beloved wife Amy and anything and everything else that could conceivably bind such matters together and probably many other ties that would be inconceivable to you unaided.

Moore’s words are the spell. His delivery channels a voice consummately refined from Hammer Films and smoked to perfection as the incantation proper. During his performance, with its sprawling ambitions, it’s difficult not to think of the brave, completely outsized black-widow-spider male, plucking on web filaments at a distance, then ever closer, rhythmically hypnotizing the female so they might truly connect and get about the business of continuing the existence of the species. So Moore broaches his many topics from his many angles, mesmerizes, and inches closer to his artistic goals in enthralling increments. In his visuals, Campbell will honor the fluctuating gait of dicey steps and headlong leaps by way of calligraphy, text blocking and page breaks, but on disc, Moore’s voice makes sure the eyes stay fixed, unwavering. He’ll reinforce the pacing, modify the tones, bring things up short, bring things abruptly home, suddenly lay things in your lap. (“Best start with the basics. Best make sure we’re all on the same page.”) It’s spellbinding.


©2005 Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.


The audio recording of Snakes and Ladders makes us, the audience, the collaborators, in place of able, admirable Campbell, in place of anybody else in the world. There’s only us and we’re making this, within “our familiar bodies restless in these chairs” (or auto seats, as the case might be). Left to our own devices each of us can, with familiar, personalized imagination, envision for ourselves that which Campbell has rendered with his. To take just one example, I’ll bet you could come up with a more, uh… let’s say “discriminating” depiction of the mythologically primal dance of snake and woman, something that foreign printers would balk at setting into mass-produced hard copy, maybe? Something that might run into a little trouble at customs?

All right… another, more wholesome example: For me, an absolute tour de force in sound is Moore’s description of the eons of abject darkness after the universe’s birth. “Right from the start, existence was a worry… After the fuss and the fireball of that first Big Bang, there was no follow-up, just silent blackness lasting for millennia… One flash, then that uncertain pause. The universe as a substandard firework that no one dare approach. Was that it?”

Moore goes on to cast this pitchy eternity in the context of an unbegun stage production: “the tense, pre-curtain dark, extended for a thousand thousand centuries. First night nerves there in that first night… The author, if there is one, has no track record. The black décor yields no clue as to the drama yet to come, save to suggest it may not be a comedy.”

Led to that trough, Campbell must drink. He accompanies Moore’s text with the sights of the theater, of playbills, loge seats and patrons straining with anticipation. Few artists, after all, can afford to faithfully depict such drama with the absolute blank void so specifically invoked and far fewer would succeed with it. But we can. As no other could. We can bathe in what is, by any sentient measure, endless ebon. Steep in it. Thrill to the terror of it, safe in the knowledge of how things turned out… all the while keeping an eye out for the appearance of that snake, whatever its guise.

You may miss the comic but there’s always that open-ended invitation to the dance. Hop to it.


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