2009 Sheister of the Year: Alan Moore

Poking around Amazon using their generally quite useful Customers-who-Bought-this-Item-also-Bought feature, I came across Alan Moore's 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom, which was apparently published to little fanfare back in October. The book is something of a weird hybrid of neo-Victorian cultural criticism and a 'history' of pornography. The following is taken from the book's description on Amazon:

With each new technological advance, pornography has proliferated and degraded in quality. Today, porn is everywhere, but where is it art? 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom surveys the history of pornography and argues that the success and vibrancy of a society relates to its permissiveness in sexual matters. This history of erotic art brings together some of the most provocative illustrations ever published, showcasing the evolution of pornography over diverse cultures from prehistoric to modern times. Beginning with the Venus of Willendorf, created between 24,000-22,000 bce, and book-ended by contemporary photography, it also contains a timeline covering major erotic works in several cultures. 25,000 Years of Erotic Freedom ably captures the ancient and insuppressible creative drive of the sexual spirit, making this book a treatise on erotic art.

I don't really want to spend too much time parsing terms here, but it is noteworthy that this description uses the terms 'pornography' and 'erotic art' pretty much interchangeably, which strikes me as somewhat problematic. Just to satisfy my curiosity on the matter, I checked the OED's definition for pornography (a gesture I imagine Moore would malign as somehow perpetuating troublesome Anglo-Saxon establishment patriarchy) and it seems that the key determinant of pornography is that it is "intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic feelings." Erotic art, on the other hand, is generally not, in my experience, created expressly for the purposes of titillation, although some titillation can be part of it, but rather to engender other aesthetic, affective or even socio-political associations.

Semantics aside, there seem to be two major threads suggested in this blurb: first, that as technology advances, porn quality suffers; and second, that there is a causal connection within societies or cultures between sexual permissiveness and cultural advancement or civilization. The first issue is little more than a standard permutation of technophobic arguments, insofar as they relate to creativity. Whether you are talking about music or literature or plastic arts, the notion that technology drives quality down is a canard generally resorted to by aging establishment figures who fear the dreaded slide to irrelevance. What technology does is put the tools of creativity in the hands of more people--it democratizes art. It also means that more content is generated and distributed and let's be real, most people's art sucks. So while it might appear that there is a direct link between computers and bad porn, what you really have is more porn more easily broadcast.

What really sort of set my critical machinery to work was the idea that Alan Moore, who can't write a narrative to save his life, is going to argue, in 90 pages, mind you, that a culture's success hinges on its attitudes to sexuality? It gets worse. In the spot that Amazon reserves for blurbs from reviews of the featured work, you'll find this:

Sexually progressive cultures gave us literature, philosophy, civilization and the rest, while sexually restrictive cultures gave us the Dark Ages and the Holocaust. (Alan Moore)

There are so many problems here that it's difficult to decide where to begin, so I suppose I'll begin at the beginning. I am just going to go ahead and guess that by "sexually progressive cultures," he really means ancient Greece. Okay, so ancient Greece did give us literature and philosophy and civilization (I'm not really sure about "the rest," though), but they were also certainly far from an ideal civilization, at least according to the sort of quaint sixties-era morality that Moore tends to espouse in his books and interviews. They had slaves, they participated in all sorts of atrocities in war, they were certainly arrogant, nationalistic, racist xenophobes. They also seem to have thought very little of women.

On the other end of things, I can only guess that by "sexually restrictive cultures" he is referring in general to Christian societies and likely more specifically to the Anglophone West (read: US/UK). Again, I haven't read the book, but I'm really curious to know how Moore deals with the thesis destroying phenomenon of the incredible flowering of erotic literature and art in Victorian England--a society that has become synonymous with prudishness--or if he just avoids the topic altogether.

Besides, the sentence above is nothing more than a bad Orson Welles ripoff. Specifically, Moore is borrowing (I would argue stealing) and perverting perhaps the most famous line from The Third Man. Anyone who's seen the movie will know what I am talking about, but it's in the scene when Welles's Harry Lime and Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins are talking in that great ferris wheel and Martins is objecting to the sorts of black market activities that Lime is involved with on moral grounds. Lime poo-poos Martins's moralism and dramatizes his point, saying:

in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Of course, Welles's version works historically, literarily and rhetorically, while Moore's does not. But the real point here is that Moore is basically a sheister who takes advantage of the generally low cultural literacy of much of his audience by ripping off his predecessors and passing it off as original. Back in the spring when everybody was rediscovering what a boring book Watchmen is, the blog of our favorite local comics shop featured a post that was a general appreciation of Moore and his work. In the course of the piece, the author noted that he had read pretty much all of his comics and even owned a copy of his novel Voice of the Fire, which he admitted had "bested" him thus far.

Moore's novel involves a series of interconnected stories taking place over several thousand years, but always in the same place in England, and each with its own narrator, including one who is mentally challenged. Admirers of the book will often laud its 'experimental' narrative techniques. Yeah, maybe 20-80 years ago when these various techniques were first developed. The following is from Amazon's description of Edward Rutherfurd's Sarum, which was published in 1987: "Rutherfurd's sweeping saga of the area surrounding Stonehenge and Salisbury, England, covers 10,000 years." And a book that uses multiple narrators, including one who is mentally challenged? Really? Does Moore really think his readers haven't read The Sound and the Fury?

Clearly he does and while perhaps there are large numbers of Moore's fans who aren't up on their Faulkner, there are also plenty who are and apparently they don't give a shit. Granted, the novel is not Moore's primary medium, so one can hardly expect a masterpiece. But his readers also seem to employ a similarly myopic approach to his comics. There is no better example of this than Moore's bafflingly popular 80s-era comics deconstruction Watchmen. Whenever I'm put in the uncomfortable position of adumbrating Watchmen's numerous problems with a 'sophisticated' comics reader, they invariably resort to the "but it was so new and groundbreaking for its time" defense. In the first place, even if that were true, that alone wouldn't make the book worth reading today. And besides, it isn't really true in the first place. As Brandon pointed out in the piece he wrote on Milligan and Fegredo's Enigma as part of our "Um, I Don't Really Like Watchmen Week," Watchmen wasn't the first major superhero deconstruction, it was just the first shamelessly self-promoting superhero deconstruction.

And that's just it, Alan Moore is a shameless self-promoter, which helps to explain the latest of his productions to surface in this, his annus mirabilis, the self-proclaimed "First Underground Magazine of the 21st Century," Dodgem Logic. I have to believe that this tagline cannot be serious--does he not realize that we are about to enter the tenth year of this century? Does he honestly think that all of the thousands upon thousands of crackpot geniuses armed with MacBooks and the latest self-publishing software have just been sitting on their hands, waiting for him to ring in the new century ten years late? Besides, the idea that something published under the name "Alan Moore" can be considered 'underground' strikes me as unbearably cynical and disingenuous. This is a guy who priggishly removes his name when his mega-blockbuster comics are adapted into mega-blockbuster movies and who fancies himself as somehow anti-establishment when comics shops around the world order his books by the score. Alan Moore is the bloody establishment.

It occurred to me, though, as I was thumbing through a copy of Dodgem Logic at my local comics shop, that Alan Moore is just a late-20th/early-21st century version of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but without the occasional flashes of stunning brilliance. Dostoevsky, with his grotesque beard and paranoid politics, was afflicted with graphomania--he was literally compelled to write, sometimes covering his hands and arms with illegible scrawls when he ran out of paper. Aside from his famed novels and short stories, Dostoevsky founded a literary journal with his brother and also published the astoundingly prolix Diary of a Writer in order to give his compulsion an outlet. Despite the great power of many of his books, nearly all of them contain some level of the bizarre, nativist, anti-semitic and xenophobic political views that he developed after serving time in Siberia. There is unquestionably a similar paranoid streak in Moore's work, the sort of contradictory pining for the years of Nixon and Reagan that one often notes in the rantings of particularly batty liberals. There is a wistfulness in books like V for Vendetta, Watchmen or even the promotional copy for Dodgem Logic that gives one the sense that the guy really wants society to implode into a dystopic morass.

Whatever his wishes on the matter, it's clear that the economic meltdown has been good for business. As we bravely head into the next decade, one can only hope that people will start heading back to work and Americans can go back to caring more about who's gonna win on American Idol than the next election, if only because that's a general indication that things are well in the world. Alan Moore isn't going away any time soon, but his peculiar blend of paranoid pessimism and literary larceny isn't helping anyone. I'll take Grant Morrison's loony optimism over Moore any day.


Samax said...

i like Alan Moore, but I really enjoyed this post. when i first read Watchmen (probably four or five years ago), I found it kind of hard to read, but very rewarding. Some of that may be because i finally understood why grim and gritty took over superhero comics (i was 100% uninterested in Watchmen and comics like it when i was a kid). His stuff has been hit and miss for me, but the stuff i like (like Promethea), i really like.

like most Moore worshipers (and lo, they are legion), i think people who HATE him tend to overstate themselves. but i find both camps (and Moore's catalog) very useful. Your criticisms of Moore notwithstanding (and as a person who likes his work, I can easily admit they are pretty much accurate!), I think he's high on the list of people writing mainstream comics (Moore is about as 'underground' as Nirvana or Pearl Jam is 'alternative').

now, i LOOOOVE Grant Morrison (he's probably my favorite writer, but I don't ALWAYS buy his books either), but I never considered him to be opposite of Moore until recently. I always considered his style to be an evolution of Moore's until I started reading and watching interviews where it became clear that HE saw his work as being the opposite of deconstructionist (and i guess moore is always deconstructionist? I'm wordy, but not a critic LOL).

*shrug* I like them both. they are both kooky and flawed, but Grant's work is way more fun. Fun is good. real good.

anyways, Moore is REALLY tripping with his goofy comments on history, but I hear people make those sorts of comments all the time. *shrug* it's whatever.

great post david!

samuel rules said...

As a former book store employee I hate Alan Moore for forcing me into conversations about politics with the kind of people who read Moore and have revelations, I LOVE Top Ten and a few other Moore stories. He spends so much time trying to be subversive in his work that they become one giant message to his readers, his legion, that his stories start to suck. Also his views are the same ones that most 14 year olds hold.

I think a major reason that he is popular is that a lot of people who enjoy his works wish they were doing something radical and instead are in offices, being bored. And maybe because they are embarrassed to be reading comics as adults, and having a beacon of fake intellectualism that's related to super heros/sci-fi/funny books makes them feel better about it.


Vee (Scratch) said...

Moore's gripe against the bad evil corporate DC comics is priggish as you put it. (I love that word!) I do find it odd that he considers himself underground or subversive.

As far as his views on sexually progressive cultures . . . . yeah ok, whatever. I don't feel the need to get deep into who originally authored Greek mythology and culture.

Cool post. I enjoyed "Um, I Don't Really Like Watchmen Week"

david e. ford, jr said...


thanks for your comments--there's a lot going on here that's worth addressing. i appreciate that, like sammy, you are someone who can appreciate some of what moore writes, but can also recognize his flaws. i can remember that way back before i actually became a comics reader, i read From Hell and i do remember sort of enjoying it, though also sort of being puzzled by how not engaging it was--like, i basically had to make myself finish it, though it wasn't exactly unpleasant. at the time, not really having a good understanding of how comics worked, i sorta chalked it up to a "i suppose that's how 'serious' comics are" ignorance, but now that i'm better versed in comics and how the narrative works &c, i realize that it was really self-indulgently written. I haven't read promethea and i'm actually willing to read at least the first volume, since i do have a few friends who are into it, but i wonder if you'll tell me something: can you describe for me what you like about the moore comics you like? it seems to be the sort of question for which it's hard to get a straight answer.

but you hit on something here that i think is at the root of the strong reactions to moore, particularly from those who don't like him and that is the fact that in the comics world, it is basically understood that moore is capital-G GREAT, with no real room for discussion. the canonicity of Watchmen approaches that of, like, Paradise Lost or Dante's Commedia. i feel like there is this alternate universe out there, where watchmen is this obscure 20+ year old comic that i might pick up in a quarter bin and think of it in terms of like a neat curiosity, but yeah . . .

grant morrison is also an interesting case, if only because he's so damned inconsistent. like, his best stuff is amongst the best shit EVER, but so much of his stuff is incomprehensible or just bad. but it is interesting to see how he has set himself up as moore's opposite number, and i definitely think it was a fully intentional choice he made at a certain, early point in his career. i think the most important thing that separates them (aside from the fact that morrison can write REALLY entertaining stories) is that you generally come out of a good morrison story feeling hopeful, whereas moore's stuff makes you feel like a shit, just for taking up space. the cynicism in that dude's work is, like, glenn beck level, which is a great irony.


i think that what you describe is true of a large number of moore's fans, if not quite all of them. the thing that's really baffling about that, though, is that if you really look at his books from an ideological point of view, they are extremely nihilistic. like, they don't actually espouse anything in positive terms, but rather as AGAINST the 'establishment,' whatever that means. of course, the establishment in his comics is always some sort of souped-up version nixon or thatcher, mixed with the government of orwell's 1984. the only value his stories express is destruction.


i'm loathe to say too much about his sexhistory book, if only because i've not read it, but i have in the interim spent a bit of time looking at some reviews and it appears that what he means by history of pornography is actually a history of male-oriented Western pornography--with a few token japanese woodcuts thrown in. so yeah, for all of his sixties-era liberal trumpeting, he's really just this sorta culturally and sexually chauvinistic brit. ha!

thanks all for reading!


david e. ford, jr said...

You know, i also didn't really talk about this so much, but his idea that thanks to technology there is no good erotic art out there is just straight-up bullshit. there are so many great photographers and painters and comics creators making great erotic/quasi-pornographic art right now--it's almost like a new golden age for smut. seriously, what planet is he living on?

david e. ford, jr said...

one more thing:


"Moore is about as 'underground' as Nirvana or Pearl Jam is 'alternative'"

you nailed it


Samax said...

David (your rap name, By the way is 'DEF Junior'. LO! i have spoken!)

so, one of the things that i like about Moore's work is also what often runs me away from it: dude's shit is MAD dense. deep and immersive, as in not fluff. the sheer amount of work he stuffs into a piece makes it kind of convincing (and conversely, discouraging).

like, if he writes Transformers, and tells you where Optimus Prime's trailer goes when he transforms, then dammit! that's where it went and that's all there is to it! there shall be no more discussion of it (it's funny when people challenge authority by establishing themselves as the proper authority! lol...)

On swamp thing, he came on and in one issue, flipped the whole premise into something else, and you couldn't be mad at it. He's gifted at that, because he knows how to interpret things in mystical ways and convince a reader that he's right.

Morrison has the same gift. I still interpret everything that has ever happened in X-men by things characters said during his run (and i'm old enough to have read a GANG of x-books before he wrote it).

the flip side of it is that he (Moore) can get bogged down in minutia or go off to strange and seemingly unnecessary places and lose a reader... that's easy to read as a lack of focus, or as being super brilliant or channeling otherworldly genius. take your pick.

I found Promethea (which i read as a magic reimagining/examination of Wonder Woman) to be more upbeat than typical Moore, with extra pervy mysticism. during one of my bouts of poverty, i made daily trips to Borders and kicked my feet up to read the Promethea trades and fell in love with that comic. to my credit, i did not steal them (i REALLY wanted to). JH Williams does a splendid drawing that joint...

and Top 10 is dope too. There's a character in it named Irma Geddon for God's Sake!

i actually don't like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Tom Strong all that much.