Brighter Than You Think
Having a favourite writer who has had a long, prolific career is great, as it means you’re constantly discovering ‘new’ works by them. Alan Moore is one of those writers who always seems to have numerous things crawling out of his back catalogue to surprise you, and this softcover book shines a spotlight on some of them, collecting ten fairly obscure short comics stories by Moore, and adding context and analysis in the form of Marc Sobel’s essays that follow each strip.
I hadn’t read any of these ten stories before, so getting this book was like Christmas. (Actually, it was Christmas, as my wife bought it for me as a Christmas present, but that’s just a coincidence.) Since getting it, it’s lived on my bedside table, with its format making it a great book to dip into when I want something short and self-contained rather than a long-form read.
I won’t go through all ten stories in detail here, but what leaps out at you about them is that they’re all so different. A sci-fi allegory revolving around adultery and STDs; an absurdist cartoon about the life of a marketing mascot; a weird neurotic horror tale about a TV gameshow; a non-fiction wartime biography; a defiant poem in celebration of homosexuality; a meta superhero tale about the history of comics; an autobiographical encounter with the spirit of Jack The Ripper; a bizarre parable about competitive Japanese etiquette; a montage of scenes from the life of John Whiteside Parsons; a musing on the causes and effects of 9-11… you could easily believe that each of these stories was produced by a completely different writer, as they’re all so different in tone and subject matter.
What they have in common though, is that they’re all really bloody good.
Paired with lots of different artists - some of whom I was familiar with, some of whom were new to me - Moore’s ten stories collected here all hit home in a different way, employing very different techniques to make their mark.
I loved the ridiculousness of his heartfelt tale of the Kool-Aid Man, with suitably cartoonish art from Peter Bagge:
Then I Keep Coming Back, illustrated by Oscar Zárate, is the polar opposite, a haunting London-set story that veers between an ancient church and an almost-as-ancient pub, where ghost stories mix with Moore’s own real-life experiences in the wake of From Hell.
Mark Beyer’s art on The Bowing Machine is something else entirely, disturbing and almost abstract in places, but perfectly fitting for the weird story that Moore is telling.
And then there’s Rick Veitch bringing a classic 2000AD sort of vibe to Love Doesn’t Last Forever.
This is just a sample of the ten stories collected here, with all of them offering something new and different compared to the others.
But this is only half the package, really. The other half is made up of Marc Sobel’s essays, which situate the stories in their original context (both their publication history and the wider context in which they were produced), and which also pick out key elements of them for analysis.
It’s testament to the density of Moore’s stories that each one sustains several pages of in-depth analysis, even when the original comic only runs for a handful of pages; and Sobel is a decent writer who is able to mix academic and pseudo-academic observations with a more conversational style that makes the essays engaging rather than dry and airless (as with a lot of ‘serious’ comics commentary).
The only real problem I have with the book is that the reproduction quality of the comics themselves often leaves something to be desired. I don’t know if it’s a case of having to scan in the original comics because the art files no longer exist, or whether it’s a paper/printing issue, but some of the stories look really washed-out: particularly the murky In Pictopia, which looks like the whole thing has been smeared in brown mud.
Luckily, the black-and-white stories fare better, but they’re considerably outnumbered by the full-colour strips. They’re all perfectly readable, but the problem takes the shine off the book slightly, (especially when contrasted against its title!).
Don’t let that niggle put you off, though: this collection is still well worth your attention, and I’d love to see another similar book to unearth more of Moore’s lost gems in future.
In the absence of that, though, the endnotes and bibliography section of this collection gives lots of pointers towards other odds and ends that even the biggest Moore fan might have overlooked. Time to hit ebay.