JANUARY 20, 2014
THE PUBLICATION of Watchmen generated a healthy buzz when it was released between 1986 and 1987 as a miniseries in twelve issues. Prior to its serialization, Alan Moore had established himself as a respectable, innovative, industrious comics writer, primarily because of his work in Warrior and 2000 AD in the UK and Swamp Thing in the US. The publication of Watchmen as a graphic novel made him famous and almost single-handedly jettisoned comics to critical and creative heights that have yet to lose altitude in the twenty-first century. In the wake of Zach Snyder’s 2009 film, Watchmen remains Moore’s most celebrated work alongside The Killing Joke and V for Vendetta, both of which were published as graphic novels shortly after Watchmen. As Lance Parkin foregrounds in this new literary biography, these revolutionary comics were produced three decades ago over the course of five years and “represent a blip in his career, not the bedrock of it.” His intent in Magic Words, then, is to unearth the bedrock. In some respects, the bedrock just isn’t as interesting as the blip, especially considering that Moore is a homebody who, despite the falsity of his reputation as a reclusive wildman, has spent most of his adult life in his house in Northampton, the English town where he was born. “All I do is sit in a room and write,” Moore has said, “it must be one of the most boring existences in the world.” Parkin thus attempts to excavate the “ideaspace” of Moore while providing an engaged overview of his artistic output, which, besides comics writing, includes poetry and fiction, performance art, music, and the practice of magic. Emphasizing the importance of Moore’s inner life (and its manifestation in his art), Parkin hypothesizes that “his work has become — may always have been — something best understood not as literal autobiography but as extracts of the autobiography of his imagination.”
Parkin is a British author and screenwriter best known for his work on Doctor Who. Published on the year of Moore’s sixtieth birthday, Magic Words received an endorsement from Moore, and he even attended the book release party in England. In recent years, several biographical works on Moore have come out. Most significant is the 2005 indie biopic The Mindscape of Alan Moore in which he mainly discusses his background and upbringing, his religion (the worshipping of a snake-god called Glycon), and his views on shamanism, consciousness, spirituality, and the future of humanity. Also notable is Millidge Gary Spencer’s Alan Moore: Storyteller; published in 2011, it has been referred to as the definitive book on Moore by reviewers as well as the publisher, and like Magic Words, the book received an endorsement from its subject. Magic Words is more comprehensive and written from a more skillful angle of repose than Storyteller, a pastiche that contains less actual biography in favor of quotes, manuscript excerpts, artwork and illustrations. To date, Parkin’s book is the most wide-ranging and detailed look at Moore, even if, at the end, Moore the man emerges as something of a mystery.
Magic Words contains an introduction followed by ten chapters that progress chronologically through Moore’s life and career. In the introduction, Parkin debunks notions that Moore is a curmudgeonly anchorite, explaining that, for instance, he has given many interviews over the years in which he talks freely about his craft and to some degree his personal life. In terms of his work, Parkin underscores its challenging nature and how Moore wants it to be that way. “At the playful end of the spectrum, that means deconstructing genre clichés and an exploration of some of the absurd impracticalities of being a superhero or living in a science fiction world. At a narrative level, it means using a range of techniques to tell a story. Underlying this, though, Moore has always sought to create work with a deeper meaning, and at least some form of relevance.” Ultimately Parkin seems concerned with how Moore’s writing resists autobiography even as it waxes autobiographical. This is as much an effect of Moore’s undying affection for playfulness and provocation as it is his methodology and technique.
The subsequent chapters are rather varied in focus, sometimes centering on individual works or groups of works, sometimes on biography or a specific theme, and occasionally everything at once. For example, the first two chapters are respectively about Moore’s boyhood and schooling in working-class Northampton and his early work in comics, whereas Chapter Six is all about Watchmen (its conception, complexity, reception and influence), Chapter Eight reveals the dynamics of Moore’s “magical belief system” (a triumvirate distinguished by “psychogeography, snake worship and ideaspace”), and Chapter Nine walks readers through his turbulent relationship with the various film adaptations of his graphic novels. Whatever the case, each chapter moves forward in time and is typically supplemented by black-and-white illustrations from comics and other media by and about Moore.
Parkin’s explication of Moore’s career is meticulous, thorough, thoughtful, and invariably lucid. The backstories for all of the masterworks are unpacked in detail. Watchmen receives the most attention, as it should, but ample coverage is also devoted to V for Vendetta, From Hell, The Killing Joke, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Promethea. Particularly intriguing is the history of Moore’s falling-outs with DC Comics, his experience with indie publishers, the dynamics of his writing process, and his views on and reactions to the corporatization of the comics industry and its current “death spiral.” Parkin consistently intermits pieces of Moore’s personal life throughout Magic Words. In the end, though, I didn’t have a fully rounded sense of Moore; the character that Parkin develops, while perfectly interesting, if not utterly fascinating, remains engimatic. This is partly the point. Parkin admits that Moore’s artistic and ideological antics are deliberately and purposefully performative. “Is it an act?” he writes. “Well, yes. Moore has never done anything but put his cards on the table when it comes to that question. It’s a ‘theatre of the mind’; it’s all a way for him to practice his art.” Magic Words appropriately concludes on an interrogative note: “Moore’s a writer who loves posing questions but keeping his endings ambiguous, leaving the conclusion in the hands of his readers. So . . . which one is Alan Moore?”
Clearly Parkin had access to Moore, but I suspect Moore was selective about what he disclosed, or perhaps he simply told Parkin what he could and couldn’t write about him. For instance, we learn very little about his relationship with his first wife Phyllis and their shared lover Deborah, both of whom eventually left him and took his daughters with them. Likewise do we learn little about Melinda Gebbie, the illustrator of Lost Girls and Moore’s wife since 2007. Among other things, Parkin discusses Moore’s penchant for hallucinogenic drugs, his expulsion from school for peddling acid, and his flirtations with madness (namely a megalomaniacal episode in 1994 that sounds a lot like Philip K. Dick’s notorious 2-3-74 episode), but not in considerable depth. Speaking of PKD, sometimes I found myself wishing that Parkin had written a more fanciful biography in the vein of Emmanuel Carrere’s I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, which takes imaginative liberties with the “truth” in an effort to explore the labyrinth of PKD’s idios kosmos; it seems that this approach might be better suited to write about an “autobiography of [the] imagination.” That said, this biography is a great success and by far the finest book on Moore in existence (not to mention that it’s probably the most beautiful hardcover I’ve ever seen). Given Moore’s vast fanbase, some readers will in fact want to know more about his private life, but Parkin does the best he can given the information available to him, and in addition to chronicling the life of Moore, Magic Words chronicles the history of comics. Colloquial, smart and often funny, the book will appeal to multiple audiences—scholars, fans, and general readers who want to know about the Magus and his mediums.