It's Alan Moore day!

*Yes, apropos of absolutely nothing beyond sheer happenstance, I’m declaring it Alan Moore Day on this site; I’ll be pledging my state Senate to have this formally recognized via resolution in short order.

*First order of business: this week’s new column, on what Moore’s (most) recent exit from DC means, and why it means anything at all. Give it a whirl!

*And now…

Voice of the Fire


I’ve spoken of this book before, in the process of reading it, two times in the past. I think I picked up on a lot of the book’s running themes as I went through it, enough so that Moore’s final chapter acted largely as a confirmation of what I had suspected (aside from providing a nice little autobiographical sketch and some other fun stuff which I’ll get to in a moment). One thing that instantly strikes me: I’ve communicated with a bunch of other people who’ve read the book, and the topic of accessibility always comes up. Let’s be frank here: an awful lot of potential readers, an awful lot of casual Moore fans who’ve maybe liked his DC work and would like to see what he can do entirely on his own, are going to be intimidated right out of the store by that first chapter. Others, folks who stuck with it and read the whole book, found that it was easier to actually start at the final chapter, in which Moore explicitly considers many of the book’s recurring images and themes, and move backwards through the book, ending with the curious fantasy tongue of early man. Indeed, Neil Gaiman brings up the ‘circle’ image in his introduction, suggesting that you can really start pretty much anywhere.

I don’t really agree with this. I think it’s quite deliberate (having now read the whole thing) that Moore expends a third of the book’s space on the first two chapters, the only two in the B.C. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a complimentary motif going on for much of the action: a story of wicked witches as antagonists is matched with a story of somewhat less wicked witches as protagonists. A nun’s crazed visions of Catholic and pre-Christian mixings is followed by a knight’s enlightenment as to the errors of Christian dogma (or is he still only too gullible, on multiple levels?). A man disguised as a fowl wanders through the birth of the Roman occupation of Ham Town; the next chapter delivers us straight to the decline of that infamous empire, with the marginalized figures of Rome now our guide and narrator. Tit for tat, much of the way.

This is utterly true for the first two chapters as well, but on a much larger scale, one necessary for the cumulative impact of the work, in this reader’s opinion. Both chapters force us into a student’s role, learning about the world. The first chapter forces us, as I’ve written before, to re-learn how to perceive reality itself. When we can’t speak, when we can’t perceive objects in the distance as ‘distant’, when we can’t evaluate things like make-up. We need to see reality as it was at the dawn, as it was to a toddling mankind. It’s tough, don’t get me wrong; it’s slow reading. But it’s rewarding. And after it’s done, you really feel tuned into the environment, like you’re part of this place. It’s the language that does it. And then the next, complimentary chapter arises, and we get more of a geographical education. We’ll be spending much of the book in or around the Northern Ham Town, and thus we walk back and forth with our new narrator, seemingly the cunning opposite of our last guide, a conniver in disguise, just as our last hero was bamboozled by similar subterfuge. But she’s no brighter, ultimately, as she’s taken around by a man with the entire town literally mapped on his skin. He is the town, just as the stories of the people are the soul of the town. Moore gently introduces magical elements that will permeate through the book, offering a taste of explicit unreality; sometimes thee elements feel like they’re breaking the realistic, authentic mood of the book. But Moore’s point is that fiction needs no ‘pure’ realism, that realism in history is largely created by stories, and magic and the unexplained can aid our understanding of the ways of these people. In a way, this theme reminds me of Goddard’s “Notre Musique”, which I reviewed a few days back, and which carries along some similar concerns.

Having been exposed to all of the book’s major themes: religion, language-as-perception, geography-as-people, and fire-as-storytelling, we launch into the remainder of the work, a series of character sketches and little anecdotes. I was a bit wrong when I thought upon beginning the book that Moore would use language as a means of bringing us through time, of showing us human development. What Moore is really after is using language (the only means by which we can experience his work here, stripped from the visuals of the comics page - a fitting preoccupation for a famous comics writer’s first prose novel!) to both convey his characters’ personalities and force us to question their perceptions. After all, if the souls of the past are conjured through storytelling, we should be prepared to accept the fact that such stories may not entirely be accurate; our narrators through the book constantly mistake things, delude themselves, or prove to be utterly difficult. In a later chapter, “The Sun Looks Pale Upon the Wall”, we follow a poet who’s apparently lost his mind, and is keeping a journal of decidedly untrustworthy observations. But all of this only serves to bare his sorry romantic soul. And as always, the next chapter, “I Travel in Suspenders”, gives us a very different fellow: a salesman and lothario, always selling his sub-par wares and himself to clients. Or women. Or a jury. Or us. Of course.

And through it all there’s the ever-mutating presence of religion, which often leads to death and strife and violence; Christianity and its wars, yes, but pagan slaughters and witchery are far from off the hook. Violence permeates these ages, including our own (the news of shootings and cripplings, all around Moore’s Northampton home). There’s the fire, the shagfoals (dream dogs, more stories, connections), recurring images and characters seen out of the corners of perception. It’s far more than interlocking short stories here, if I may delve into authorial branding: the story of history’s procession in such a small place is a consistent, coherent one. This is a novel, a novel of stories, but Moore sees history, our collective novel, as a mass of unreliable narrators and spiritual mysteries.

Ah! And what of the bearded one himself? Famously (almost as famous as the first chapter), Moore ends the book with himself, literally now, as the final narrator. We instinctively trust him, being the author of the book and all, but why not extend the burden of perception to him as well? I presume that much of the ongoing action in this final chapter (largely centering on Moore taking walks and trips as he tries to think up a final chapter - a potentially disastrous easy choice) has benefited from editing, from focusing before the word processor. Moore even calls his own reliability into question: he makes reference to the prior chapter, which he has written, but it’s plainly an earlier version of said chapter, with an utterly different ending. Only trust the fire, folks, not the teller of the tale.

It is here where many concerns come to light. Moore explicitly points out recurring motifs in the book; it can feel like hand-holding, even ass-covering, but only at first. We enjoy a walking tour of (then-contemporary) 1995 Northampton. We learn the geography once again, this time how it is ‘today’. We must be told how the severed feet and heads relate to Moore; after all, someone has to tell the story! We visit girlfriend (now soon-to-be wife) Melinda Gebbie, plus Moore’s brother Mike, Daughter and “Wild Girl” co-writer Leah, and her sister Amber. We watch television with Moore, and go to eat with Moore.

And we create with Moore.

The final sequence is explicitly about writing (granted, the entire novel is about storytelling), and the typing out of the words you see on the page becomes magic. The air and history and thought and belief are solidified into Word, and now they are real in our heads, not the same way it was in Moore’s head, but that’s the reality of storytelling. I mentioned in an earlier post as to how some of this material hearkens over to prior and future Moore work. Surely the presence of Guy Fawkes’ Day in several chapters will put the too-visible “V for Vendetta” into everyone’s mind. Every last person who enjoyed this book must immediately go out and orderThe Highbury Working”, an album struck from Moore’s 1997 stage performance, doing very much the same for Highbury as he does to Northampton, only in miniature and with music. And who can ignore “Promethea”, the interplay of fictions and their creators as transmuted to the superhero form from which Moore’s popularity rose?

This is a key work in the Alan Moore bibliography. It informs his comics work, and in many aspects surpasses it. Every fan should give this a try.

And start at the beginning, where the Voice is at its most mischievous. You’ll be ready for its tricks later on.