TCJ 300: Post-Human Review

Posted by on December 31st, 2009 at 4:07 AM


Panel detail from the book From Hell, by and ©1999 Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

Then there’s From Hell. It looks all right — fine styling, quietly impressive air — but it’s hollowed out. Moore started with the idea of writing about the overview of a murder, its ripple effects among a network of people. But he did a switch on himself; From Hell turned into a stunt. It’s an exercise in turning a literature sideways: Moore took an established body of facts and spun it a few degrees so as to produce an effect. The book’s human side, at its best, shows up as vignettes scattered through the action: the poor girl from Scandinavia thinking about her farm, the working guy who wishes Mary Kelly would settle down and not bring that other woman into bed. But From Hell‘s peak, its reason for being, isn’t any vignette about people. It’s old Gull on his progress through London. The thing is a showstopper: He’s calling out blank verse as he passes Cleopatra’s Needle and other sights — significant graves, looming churches — and the sights and the blank verse weave into a pattern, and the next thing you know, centuries have been explained and the Jack the Ripper body of lore has acquired a new conceptual heart, one that involves William Blake and Freemasons. Of course, in a good musical the most striking, well-developed facet of the chief character’s motivation might indeed be his desire to reassert male primacy through a series of blood sacrifices tied to London landmarks and the phases of Western esoteric history. And in a good board game, definitely. But not in a good novel. The book could have done some thinking about how somebody becomes a killer. But Moore just rigs up a villain. When Gull is a boy, he cuts up animals and tampers with his father’s corpse; when he is grown, he experiments on helpless beggar women. Then he has a stroke, and it’s like Bruce Banner getting hit by gamma rays. Gull is transformed. Now he’s not just a cold-blooded, upper-class stooge, he’s Jack the Ripper, the Moore-style Ripper with all the crazy beliefs needed for the book’s grand pattern.

A book that’s clever in the same way a board game is clever… that’s geekism. And geekism is a cheat, a way of cheating oneself out of life or out of a great novel. Instead of exploring — because figuring out the motivation of a murderer would take a good deal of exploring — Moore settled for fiddling, which he did so well that it’s like he accomplished something.

The complaints I’ve heard about Moore don’t hit the mark. People call him out on his recycling, but it’s like he had mustard on his chin — a minor embarrassment. Sometimes people say his work is cold-blooded, and they blame his mapping and planning. But he stopped doing the story outlines a while back, and I think his books have always shown a good deal of warmth — Moore talks about crying at the typewriter. He’s written his share of scenes that are heavy with emotion, an intense but miniaturized emotion like a fat, rich drop of juice. “I wrote a death scene for Krypto that made grown men cry,” Moore once said. Very extreme, poignant events happen to supporting characters. He brings a human voice to his work, but it’s a voice that says, “Awwww.” Sally Jupiter cries over the photo of the Comedian, the man who raped her and whom she loved — awww. Promethea’s mother learns her long-lost love didn’t abandon her; he’d been killed — awww. He’s got a heart along with his giant brain, and how nice if the two could work together, if he could spend more time thinking about the same events that make him feel. Why did Sally Jupiter love someone who had raped her? Moore’s answer to an interviewer came down to this: “People sometimes do some funny things.” And, sure, they do, but there’s a lot to be said after that.

People are present in Moore’s work, he knows them well and cares about them, but they really aren’t his focus. Humanity as a whole can put in quite a showing, as when Moore explains our lives to us in Promethea, but mostly his comics work comes down to vast, intricate scripts that touch on human experience — sometimes quite effectively — but exist chiefly to relate to themselves and to all the other comics scripts written before them. You can call that postmodern, I suppose, and I wouldn’t deny that it is. But it’s also geekism.

Promotional material from the Watchmen movie, from Watchmen: The Art of the Film; ©2009 DC Comics.

In Watchmen we have the geek triumphant. The weaknesses operate as secondary strengths, and the primary strengths function at a level that’s astonishing. Moore took an entire genre and reimagined it, and he engineered the most powerful structure ever seen in a mainstream American comic. At the same time, he wrote about feelings and lives, about people close up, and they are better imagined, better defined people than you’ll find in any other superhero comic. The problem is that’s not saying much. Moore is way ahead of the pack just because he can tell us something about a woman who hate-loves her mother, about a man who has lost direction, about somebody who hates the world but still wants to do good. With Rorschach, at least, it’s possible to dip into psychological speculation; with Laurie Juspeczyk or Dan Dreiberg, theoretically possible but not so interesting — most people have parent issues that are more particular than those of Laurie and Dan. But that’s all right. Basically, all the heroes in Watchmen are there to make a point, which is that superheroes are human too. The reason for Nite Owl is that we get to see a superhero, any superhero, who suffers from impotence. Joey the cab driver and Bernie the newsvendor have their moments, but the stories they’re part of are really anecdotes. Bernie’s reason for being in Watchmen comes down to a reflex: When the cataclysm arrives, he throws his body over that of young Bernie. The idea isn’t that Bernie in particular would do this; it’s that even he would do it, that anybody would do it, any human. Bernie is there to show that humans are human too.

So the human side of the business is present only as support. The show is the structure and the ideas, including the idea of adult superheroes and (Moore’s announced favorite) the idea of simultaneous perception. Supposedly, Watchmen simulates a quantum experience of reality, with the high point being the chapter where Doctor Manhattan looks forward and backward through his life. But I don’t think Moore was being straight with himself. The decentering found in most of the book doesn’t have to do with illusions of before and after, just people’s tendency to treat themselves as the center of existence. The Gunga Diner elephant blimp floats overhead in one panel, and a few pages later it’s in the background of another, and in neither case does it matter much to the characters, but we see how a common reality continues behind their backs. The training-wheels version of this effect is continuity, in the Star Trek and Green Lantern sense. Watchmen took an audience that had been preparing itself, that had been sharpening its eye and building up its data capacity, and dropped on it a geek miracle, a series that refitted U.S. comics for high-density information flow. The Nostalgia ads that keep popping up, the Mmmeltdown wrappers, the electric cars and four-legged chicken — for story purposes, at least, they could all have been dumped, and the same for the recurring pyramids and the way background details merge to body forth the famous smile and blood streak. But losing them would have crippled the book. Reading Watchmen, the brain is pulled in and in and in, down into the depths of each panel, and down into the connections between panels and pages and chapters. The sensation is a dream amplification, a beautiful spinoff, of our lifelong experience of sitting at a desk and trying to make sense of a mass of material.

When Moore looks at what humans are capable of, the lead items on his personal list are the channeling and processing of information. Veidt, Watchmen‘s example of a supreme human specimen, is billed as “the smartest man in the world.” V (from V for Vendetta) and Rorschach aren’t stronger than the dopes they beat up, just more resourceful and ingenious; Rorschach’s gift is that he can turn a prison cell into a device for killing his enemies. Then there’s Doctor Manhattan, at the absolute top of Moore’s scale of superbeing, the man who lives the dream of simultaneous flashbacks and flash-forwards. He doesn’t lift mountains; instead he’s wired into the movement of atoms and molecules. Superman got his start as a hyped-up circus strongman; Dr. Manhattan is a super version of a nuclear physicist, the man who tracks all the moving parts. Superman wears circus tights, Dr. Manhattan wears nothing — he can’t be bothered. He’s an absent-minded professor, and at heart he’d rather sit in a corner and put watch gears together and take them apart. In designing the most superior human of all, Alan Moore made him a geek.

At the Watchmen production offices, from Watchmen: The Art of the Film, photographed by Clay Enos; ©2009 DC Comics.

Instinctively, I feel that geekism has to go wrong. It may work for a while, but then it will claim you. That will be the case even if you aren’t scared and weak, lazy, a social outcast. You can be a seer, a grand old man with a beard; somehow you’ll end up stunted. Why that has to be is another question. But the day-to-day realities of our lives seem to take us away from the immediate and toward the unreal and abstract. Those realms give the mind plenty of elbow room but not a lot of material to operate with, at least not over the long term. Reality is better because it keeps you on the hop, busts up mental routines, forces you to think about matters you never expected to think about; it makes it easier to care about matters beyond your navel, and therefore easier to feel. Otherwise your mental functioning becomes an end in itself and the wheels go about in smaller and smaller circles for less and less reason.

If you take a step back to look at Zack Snyder and Alan Moore, the situation that contains them both turns out to be geekism; it’s the holistic social explanation for the botched movie and Moore’s hollowed-out masterpieces. Geekism is our situation as well, and someone could do a good book about it, or maybe a graphic novel. Alan Moore won’t, because this is an overview that he never caught sight of — yes, abstraction and dependence and mediated reality are a blight for everybody else, but he figures he’s in the clear.

At least he has now pretty much withdrawn from corporate comics, a business that must be considered one of geekism’s main carriers. The two had their differences, but in a lot of ways Moore and the industry fit quite well. Moore needs to keep spinning old ideas in new ways, the industry needs to keep changing while it stays the same. Moore needs to build systems and toothpick cathedrals; the industry needs someone who can construct stories that wind from issue to issue and never let the readers go. Moore needs to analyze, delve and plant; the audience needs someone seeding details they can hunt down, catalog and cherish. Comics, geeks and Alan Moore have done all right for themselves during the past 30 years. But the fun stuff was finished early on, and since then it’s mainly been wasted time.


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4 Responses to “TCJ 300: Post-Human Review”

  1. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “Why did Sally Jupiter love someone who had raped her? Moore’s answer to an interviewer came down to this: “People sometimes do some funny things.” And, sure, they do, but there’s a lot to be said after that.”

    I think Moore’s right, actually, and you’re wrong here, Tom. Sometimes (or even often) it shows more respect for the human condition to grant people their incomprehensibility. You want a humanist and/or a psychological explanation. But how are those not just games as well? And more condescending games at that, I’d argue. Moore does actually offer a couple of explanations, or hints in the text (in the conversation Sally overhears as a child, mostly), but he also allows a certain distance. I found Sally’s relationship with the Comedian both respectful and moving precisely because it doesn’t involve “analyzing, delving, and planting.”

    I disagree with a bunch of other stuff too — but despite that, or because of it, what a fantastic essay. The caterpillar leg metaphor; Gull as the incredible Hulk, the comparison of Lost Girls and Watchmen the movie — you’re just on fire. I know it took a ton of work, but it’s really worth it.

  2. Daniel C. Parmenter says:


    I agree with some of what you said, but I’m willing to grant him a few genuine classics, post ’89: his two Spirit pastiches in the Kitchen Sink Spirit Adventures series were wonderful for the same reason that “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” were, they functioned as loving tributes to characters and creators that obviously meant a lot to Moore.

    I can also say a lot of good things about the Tom Strong series. Of course it could be argued that at its core, it’s just another Superman riff and that any Moore Superman riff is probably basically going to be good. Is it up there with his best stuff? Tough call.

    BTW, did you read his novel “Voice of the Fire”? Thoughts? I actually kind of liked it, other than the first chapter.

  3. Tom Crippen says:

    “I’m willing to grant him a few genuine classics, post ‘89:”

    Fair enough. The guy’s a genius and he writes a ton, so he’s bound to put some first-rate stuff out there. But, in my view, we’re talking about pages on the one hand versus volumes on the other.

    Didn’t see the Kitchen Sink stories but I very much liked his rhyming tribute to Will Eisner in (I think) the last Tomorrow Stories. The Tom Tomorrow stories that I saw didn’t do much for me, so there’s no accounting for taste.

    I haven’t read Voice of the Fire, but a friend recommends it. Someday I’ll get a copy. For purposes of the article I just made sure to include “comics” when I wrote off his post-’89 work.

    I wouldn’t mind catching his performance art stuff; I bet that’s a sight. Then again, I wouldn’t mind watching him drink tea and watch television. What can I say, he’s a personality.