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Writing - Books Reviews - Review | by Pedrovmoura in Writing - Books Reviews on 21/06/2009 - Comments (0)
Annalisa Di Liddo / Alan Moore. Comics as performance, fiction as scalpel / University Press of Mississippi + Magickal Promethea / Lost Girls

This article is comprised of two parts: a first part is a small, simple review on Annalisa Di Liddo’s excellent academic book on Alan Moore, and the second is a re-appreciation of Moore’s Lost Girls trilogy (with Melinda Gebbie) and the Promethea series (with J. H. Williams III et al.), as “magickal comics”.


1. Scalpeling Moore.

“Alan Moore is the best writer of the universe”. Many of us have probably read this sentence more than once, perhaps one time too many. With all due respect to Mr. Alan Moore, people who say this have pretty narrow universes. Alan Moore is a great writer of comics, no doubt there. But all sorts of qualifications have to be added… English, British, contemporary, American comics, mainstream, or midstream, writer (that is, not writer-and-artist), etc. There are many people who are strong comics readers and are aware of an excellent battery of authors but who do not care for Watchmen or The Swamp Thing. Some will be probably the greatest fans of the first and not even be aware of Moore’s Lost Girls trilogy (not only because of its subject matter, but also because of the art, or because of its publisher and/or distributing system, or for the sheer fact that not everybody can afford such an expensive book); there are those who skip Watchmen’s full-text materials and those who don’t read the appendixes of From Hell, and just “get a kick” out of the story; and there are those who are moved with A Small Killing or laugh hard with The Bojeffries Saga or grow irritated by Brought to Light and who do not care a bit about A Killing Joke, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and Miracleman because they’re dismissed, perhaps not without reason, as being about “men in tights”. But this is Alan Moore’s strength. He is able to juggle his tools and skills within many genres and produce a mass of very interesting, sometimes wonderful experiences in all of them. We cannot expect that everyone will like his whole output, but there are, of course, readers who are ample in interests and perspectives that will subsequently follow Moore regardless of the different context. Comics are also provided with readers of a varied kind, being varied themselves. However, because of his role within the more modern history of American mainstream superhero comics (Watchmen is the jewel of the crown, but his contributions to Superman, Batman, and his own take on Swamp Thing and Miracleman are also, if not equally, important), fans of this kind of material tend to hyperbolize their discourse, tapped in and exploited by the hype-media… leading to “best writer of the universe”. Annalisa Di Liddo is definitely an Alan Moore fan, as wide-ranging in her taste as the author himself, if not beyond. But love for an author does not mean adopting an acritical stance. Alan Moore. Comics as performance, fiction as scalpel is an academic book that attempts to provide close readings and analyses of several of Moore’s works within particular disciplines of contemporary criticism, such as feminism, cultural studies, post-colonialism studies and the like. There is some jargon, but never too much, and although some familiarity with the resources used by the author will help us fully understand the scope of her discussions, it is a fairly uncomplicated speech, very welcoming for people who’ve just started their own path of academic studies with comics as their subjects. So, although intertextuality, multivocality, or chronotope are precise terms within literary studies (in its broadest sense), they are not to be feared in this book, and they are actually expanded upon through comics. The book is quickly read, thanks to a fluid and intelligent construction of sentence and chapter, but the ideas that it opens up will linger on after we’ve put it down, and from them we’ll expand whether within Moore’s output or in other comics (and beyond even) in which we can find the pertinence to apply Di Liddo’s thoughts and concepts. All in all, I don’t think Moore is a genius (in the sense that his aptitude and verve overcome his intelligence and will), but he is, undoubtedly so, a master craftsman. Indeed, like the jewellers or watch-makers he is so fond of quoting, he himself is able to consciously construct every single element of his work and place it with exactness within the whole to trigger and play out as best as possible its specific, organised purpose. Moore is an outstanding “control” writer (he is not a creator of outbursts such as, say, Stan Lee or Grant Morrison). Di Liddo analyses this perfectly throughout her first chapter. And perhaps that is what, at the end of the day, undermines Moore’s work: there is nothing “out of bounds”, that genius “sparkle of the imagination” that accentuates true human nature… Not many comics (or any other media for that matter) authors achieve this to the deepest degree. Perhaps Héctor G. Oesterheld, Yoshiharu Tsuge, Edmond Baudoin, Aristophane? Therefore, one must look into Moore’s specificities and special strengths as a creator of comics, not just advocate him as “the best”. In order to achieve that, Di Liddo chooses a narrower selection from Moore’s oeuvre, instead of attempting any sort of exhaustiveness or completeness (actually, the intellectual weakness of the so-called comics “fans” and “specialists”). Only that way can she propose a perspective, analyse the works and confirm that first idea. Close readings abound, then, always to return to the same factors that guarantee Alan Moore’s strengths as a creator of comics narratives. The scholar pursues several venues of meaning, from Moore’s style of writing (which comprises the visuality of his comics, and taking always in account the creative and collaborative input of the artists) to tensions between opposite poles such as identity and alterity/otherness, sexuality issues, political constructions, and so on. And, quite importantly, by paying close, particular attention to several titles (the close readings of works such as From Hell, Lost Girls, V for Vendetta, The Ballad of Halo Jones), the scholar holds up the unifying signification that arises from the close relationship of text (the verbal material) and images (the visual material) of comics. Di Liddo is not someone simply applying concepts or analytical methods or specialised tools and terms on comics, something that does occur sometimes in other so-called “scholarly books about comics”. She is a true comics scholar, with a particular responsiveness to comics’ very own specificities while a mode of expression and form of art. Di Liddo opens up these investigative venues and makes us immediately wonder or warrant their applicability on other of Moore’s titles. For instances, the issue of alterity has been tackled by Moore and his collaborators in almost every single book he has ever done, to more or less profound levels. If we think of his Green Lantern Corps or Rogue Trooper short stories, the several alien races in Miracleman (especially the Qys with their permanent body swapping), we can understand that there’s lots of fodder to digest and discuss. Although Moore did not create them (with the exception of Tao and Ladytron, I believe), we cannot forget the characters that make up the Wild C.A.T.s, despite their sheer ridiculousness. Actually, two of the characters from that superhero team that make us think of one other theme analysed by Di Liddo: sexuality. Ladytron is a very assertive and sexualised woman (or cyborg woman, for that matter), to the embarrassment of the people she harasses (but the fact that it is a woman harassing men brings up a million issues worth discussing), and the “gaseous posthuman entity” (I shit you not) Fuji has an orgasm every five minutes. Sexuality and fun, I guess. Although the infamous issue of Watchmen Silk Spectre’s rape by The Comedian is unfortunately avoided (one of the few negative points of the book, in my opinion), many other dimensions of sexuality, as well as confrontations with gender-related expectations and social stereotypes are addressed. Contrary to popular belief, Moore has created very self-confident and positive women roles throughout his career (from Skizz to Halo Jones, from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to Promethea, from Swamp Thing to Miracleman, and so on). I find the aforementioned rape scene and its consequences (Silk Spectre will end up falling in love with her rapist) a kind of blatant horrid joke at the expense of “holier-than-thou” p.c. and feminists: by playing right into the hands of one of the most ludicrous beliefs related to rape, and turning it on its head, Moore is playing with our expectations and challenging all kinds of status quo, left and right. Moore is not condoning rape. He’s, well, fucking with your mind. As for Di Liddo’s analysis of Englishness in Moore, it’s quite brilliant the way she uses many sources (literature, mostly, including Alan Moore’s own novel Voice of Fire) to point out the nice balance between locality and universalism, or how Englishness defines Moore’s own sense of world-citizenship. If we really think about it, we’ll see how many of his characters remain within a local sphere or act locally first to reach global-scale effects (Swamp Thing, Miracleman, V, Dr. Gull, Skizz, Promethea). I have to say that there’s a slight loss in not mentioning The Bojeffries Saga. This hilarious and down-to-earth collection of stories of British monsters would be an added value to the research of that strand. Di Liddo addresses also the issue of memory, albeit not directly, and this is something that I’d like to see more developed. Perhaps this has to do with my own obsession with this theme, but thinking of A Small Killing, the stories told by the three Lost Girls, Moore’s performance pieces (especially The Birth Caul), the last episode of From Hell, and even Alec Holland’s dissolution, and also taking in account the complexity with which Moore tackles the issue of narrative time structures (in Watchmen, Promethea) – actually, time is also a big issue in his work, in particular if we think of all those little time-paradox stories he did for 2000AD – I’m sure we could come up with more brain fodder. But don’t get me wrong. It is not very bright of me to point out what’s missing, because what’s missing are texts that couldn’t be included lest we would have a mammoth volume and the author wouldn’t have a life of her own… There is no lack of ideas and arguments clearly expounded and validated. Di Liddo’s book is an interdisciplinary approach to Alan Moore’s output, and whose main concern is broaching new perspectives, quandaries and even conditions of possibility (in its Kantian sense) on the particular corpus of comics the author has presented. Its applicability and adaptability, as we have seen, is both broad and far-reaching. The author presented a line of research and she followed it to the letter, wonderfully so. In more than one way, the subtitle Comics as performance, fiction as scalpel is a program that makes this book not only obligatory reading for anyone who wishes to tackle with Moore’s work, but beyond, perhaps even to the expanded (and expanding) field of comics and comics studies.

2. Sex-Magickal Girls.

One of the aspects that made me a little sad in Di Liddo’s book is its appreciation of Lost Girls. The author makes an excellent close reading of the book (a whole chapter is devoted to it), and she makes clear many of its facets – especially the meanders and fine points of its thoughtful intertextuality and the many levels of its creative imagery – but her judgment ends up not entirely positive. She does not consider its failure as narrative to be overwhelming, neither does she dismisses it completely, but it ends as a sort of weaker link in Moore’s output. I think that the problem is to be found in the consideration of Lost Girls as your usual comic book. I think we should set aside the fact that it is pornographic (and it is), or that it has a strong theme, both sexual and political (and it does). We should forget about its “political naivety and narrative flaws”. Or better, we should not forget that, but rethink those dimensions within a larger framework. One must look into Lost Girls as a work of magickal comics. As it is well known, Crowley defined magic (or in his spelling, Magick), as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will”. Alan Moore employs this very same principle through the particular usage he makes of comics as a medium (in this case, a fully acceptable soubriquet). Grant Morrison follows a similar path, albeit with a different attitude and with other strategies (even though we’re quite close to Lost Girls’ generic aim when The Invisibles’ own shaman, Lord Fanny, casts spells via masturbation…). Most people will think of magic as whether cloak and wand shenanigans or card tricks or spectacular, televised David Copperfield-like illusionist shows. But this is nothing of the sort. It has to do with a concentration of the self, a channelling of one’s own will and skills, and effort, and a manipulation of all that surrounds us that may help us to attain the set goals. For instances, a basic distinction is as follows: Magic in this strongest sense has to do with improvement, learning and steps forward. Therefore, it has all to do with sharing knowledge, discussion and teaching. Revealing magick techniques means to help people finding their own way to reach whatever happiness and well-being they’re looking for. Just like one teaches yoga, pilates, kung-fu or tai-chi, ancient Greek or calculus, one can teach aspects of magic in order for people to try out those techniques and instruments by themselves. Sigils, for instance, are the most easy ones. It has nothing to do with New Age gurus, trying to swindle money from you or getting a power rush. It’s similar to a teacher/parent who, after teaching a kid how to read, feels happy when seeing that kid sitting by him/herself reading a book. And both Moore and Morrison take seriously the perspective of magic and comics as language, as a combinatory code. That’s why when you hear so-called magicians bitching each other for revealing tricks and illusions (which they call “breaking the code”, as if they were out of a Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter film) it just sounds childishly elitist and self-centred (and self-serving). We could say that from this latter guild of illusionists Penn and Teller are probably the ones closer to real magicians. I believe that Alan Moore and his collaborators have attempted to move comics from a medium of fiction or of narrative into an instrument of magickal thought. And practice (this is important). Promethea is not only a tongue-in-cheek project, a curious balance of serious-not-serious, which can be read at one time as a cool adventure of a post-Aquarian Wonder Woman, as a manual of magical theories and ideas, and as a grimoire or a table of correspondence between many things (specifically issue 12 and then the whole travelling-business starting at the next issue). It is also a tool to learn how to use a map and the map itself. The question that may rise is, What map? Crowley created his famous Tarot with Lady Harris in the 40s’. As the story goes, Crowley provided Lady Harris with many notes and pointers as to how the images should be done. The so-called The Book of Thoth may not be everybody’s choice for their Tarot deck, but is one of the most dense in terms of symbolism, sometimes to the point of self-parody (The Hierophant, M:A V). The point is to make it as a map, as colourful, clear and resourceful as possible. Using tables of correspondences such as the ones found in Liber 777 or Stephen Skinner’s books may help you, or the ones provided by Promethea, but all things considered we can all use that Tarot freely. It is a map that shows you that most important than the destiny and then the journey, is the first step in asking for directions. Questions. Dealing with multiple answers. Manipulating language. Learning how to speak and hear, read and write. Creating thus our own maps of understanding. To a certain extent, the art in Lost Girls (those complicated, integrated page compositions), as well as that of many issues of Promethea, are a sort of mnemonic images, mandalas of concepts, small visual concentrations of correspondences and attributions and ideas, created to channel our own linkage to them. The initial “mirror-looking” (not “looking mirror” for here it is the mirror who looks) in the first book of Lost Girls stresses the necessary concentration of the gaze, the immobility of the body and the consequent consciousness of one’s body. A pleasure of sorts. The constant back-and-forth of the second book is just a complicated way to create a fourth dimension. The last comic book issue of Promethea was an immense, strange and colourful mandala. Not simply narrative images, but thought-images. In the 2003 The Mindscape of Alan Moore (a film by… uh… DeZ Vylenz), the English author points out how close grimoire and grammar are etymologically, reconfirming the idea that the manipulation of words, whether by writing, speaking, singing or chanting converge to the same objective: change, knowledge, discovery, revelation, or, to use its Greek correspondent, apocalypse. The end of the world is nothing but an error in interpretation. If it is an end, it is also a beginning. Learning a new language. Remember Promethea’s last word directed to us, her readers? “Stay awake”. And what better way to stay awake then talking, exchanging stories? Or exchanging spit, and having sex? So, if Promethea is transparently obvious about this aim, Lost Girls follows the same generic idea: do good unto others. It is a similar application of this strategy, if to a lesser extent. Or perhaps in a more concentrated way… Much has been written about Lost Girls. Many reviewers and critics, including Di Liddo, have pointed out how many of the usual Moore elements are present in this work: the convoluted intricacy of image and text, sometimes in an interdependent way, the rehash of well-known fictive figures in new settings, the verbose tirades of the characters in order to make a point - no, to pound it into our heads -, the formalist constructs that bring to the fore comics-related concepts such as Groensteen’s tressage and Fresnault-Deruelle’s tabulaire, for instances. But what I’d like to call your attention here is rather to its nature, less that of a comic book than that of a magickal guide. The writer Natalie Nichols published an online review of this book and she seems to put forward a very comprehensive look upon that special nature of Lost Girls, beginning by her reading of the three women characters (Alice, Wendy and Dorothy) as “the triple-goddess archetypes of maiden, mother, and crone”. Lost Girls is, of course, a play on the “Lost Boys” from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan writings. But whereas the boys became that way due to abandonment, lack of love, and a wish not to grow up, the girls become lost through a much more complex process, that is intricately related with their socialization, their growing up, their conformity to social expectations. It’s as if a woman’s true potential is always stifled by society (it was, and perhaps it still is even in our so-called modern and equalitarian societies). Especially their sexual potential, free and wild, Moore and Gebbie seem to say. Therefore, it is through sex that liberation comes. Returning to the idea of grimoire as a repertory of new language, we must assess how the breaking of language that sex results in is a powerful symbol of the dissolution of societal, normal language and the beginning of an inner, deeper liaison. The amount of “oh yes” (most positive) and “mmmhff” (as a harpocratic vow) and repetitions reveals this. Nichols, in the steps of Moore, indicates how much “truly liberating erotic beauty”, of which Lost Girls is a perfect case, “is mind-blowingly unavailable to the masses”. But to the contrary, we do have unlimited access to images that objectify people (usually women) in a lustful, commercial-prone, almost mechanical way. Moore and Gebbie’s book provide a more direct way to, not “talk about sex”, but “talk sex”. Which, in the end, it’s just yet another door to the Imagination, which Moore believes to be a real, tangible space, and which he calls Ideaspace. Throughout his books, he has played with this notion, calling it Blazing World, Immateria, Supremacy, the Fourth Dimension, and so on…. Perhaps in Lost Girls it is the hotel itself, and the bubble of sexual freedom it provides. And it should come as no surprise that the usual domestic settings of girls’ adventures (say, Ann of the Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Les Malheurs de Sophie), in opposition to the continental-travelling, sky-crossing, swashbuckling exploits of boy’s tales (Neverland, Narnia, Hogwarts), is here again revisited, if with a twist: the inner circle of the Hotel becomes the vessel for memory- and fluid-swapping, for time-travelling and for haven-creation. After all, its name is Himmelgarten, literally “Garden of Heaven”, that is to say, Eden. The question is, are we returning or creating it? Perhaps both. The slightly allegorical L’Ombre du Courbeau (“The Raven’s Shadow”, 1975-1981) by Belgian author Didier Comès, tells the story of a World War I German soldier escaping the violence of the trenches by being admitted to the house of three mysterious women (once again, “maiden, mother, and crone”) who are but representatives of several kinds of Death. There is no sex here, but there is eros, and falling in love. There are many similarities with Lost Girls and L’Ombre du Courbeau, but for me – and for now – the most important is that they both have created an Eros-haven amidst the land of Thanatos. Does this sound like a cliché? Is it too transparent? That’s the point, silly! There are no great complications. Sometimes the most simple truth is the hardest to verbalize. Remember Deleuze and Guattari’s famous opening lines in L’Anti-Oedipe (“Anti-Œdipus”)? “It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks”. Even when Moore is dealing with incredible super-powered beings or demi-gods, he makes sure they’re represented doing exactly this: eating and shitting, breathing and fucking. Don’t forget Swamp Thing’s “The Rite of Spring”! Or Promethea’s and Jack Faust’s magic-tantric session! Or Moore’s contribution to Seven Deadly Sins with a story about… “Lust”! It fucks, all right. But instead of the power/fucking fantasies typical of most comics – American mainstream has its “swimsuit editions”, not to mention the already scantily-clad super-heroines, French comics have their many panels with tits-and-ass shots, manga has panchira – Moore and Gebbie have transformed this into a realm of fantasy and esoteric lessons. A vagina is a mandorla is a poppyfield is the Caterpillar’s mushroom. In more than one way, Promethea is a twin sister to Lost Girls. Both use the visual potential of comics to create a fuller meaning of the story being told. It’s true that Promethea, due to its sheer size but also its narrative plot, goes through the whole gamut of comics typologies and styles, transforming it into a catalogue of approaches to magickal thinking, projection and imagination. Gebbie’s art is slightly more subdued, but at the same time more controlled, beautiful and “painterly”, in the sense that invites one to both read the pages and contemplate their composition. This tension between reading (quick access to linear verbal meaning) and contemplating (emergence of deeper and freer associations) is something one can find in many, many other examples, and so very differently: from 16th and 17th centuries Emblem Books to William Blake’s print output, from so many record covers (Iron Maiden, anyone?) to Peter Stuart’s illustrations for the Folio Society edition of The Collected Stories of Gogol. They are all maps, tricks of associations, doors and accesses. With very different magick forces at play, one may surmise, or lead to think. Where pornography (or eroticism, if you prefer), is concerned, bringing Lost Girls close to diverse works such as Raymond Bertrand’s and Tomi Ungerer’s is worthwhile, I think, especially to rethink its originality as “thinking man’s porn”. Nevertheless, the artists’ drawings are beautiful. However, I’d say that stylistically Melinda Gebbie’s soft drawings are closer to the likes of children’s literature illustrators such as Rackham or Bauer, or an artist such as Nell Brinkley (of which there’s a new anthology, published by Fantagraphics and edited by the great Trina Robbins), although her revised art for the later edition is reminiscent of Will Elder’s fleshy tones of no more no less than Little Annie Fanny!". Lost Girls began as a series of small booklets, but of which only two came out. By the time the whole thing was done, it was published as a massive three-tome boxed set, quite expensive. Nevertheless, its publisher, Top Shelf, has already announced a slightly cheaper edition in a one-volume hardback, due this Summer. Sooner or later a paperback edition will appear, making this book as available as possible (who knows, maybe someday it will come out in a pocket edition, one you can hold with one hand only), and making more visible its universal, libertarian purpose. Because we all should have maps in order to start asking for directions on our own.

© 2001, 2014 SuccoAcido - All Rights Reserved
Reg. Court of Palermo (Italy) n°21, 19.10.2001
All images, photographs and illustrations are copyright of respective authors.
Copyright in Italy and abroad is held by the publisher Edizioni De Dieux or by freelance contributors. Edizioni De Dieux does not necessarily share the views expressed from respective contributors.

Bibliography, links, notes:

pen: Pedro Vieira de Moura




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Lost Girls
Sex Magickal Girls
Annalisa Di Liddo, Alan Moore. Comics as performance, fiction as scalpel
The Lost Girls trilogy
The Magyckal Mystery Tantric Tour band
A vagina is a mandorla is a poppyfield is the Caterpillar’s mushroom
Promethea's Super Mandala
Idle fingers help one read better
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