Brighter Than You Think: Ten Short Works by Alan Moore is the latest entry in Uncivilized Books’ “Critical Cartoons” series, which is devoted to exploring the work of important comics artists. Other volumes have profiled Chester Brown and Carl Barks; in singling out Moore for attention, the series is breaking with its own pattern by focusing on one of the few notable comics creators who is a writer only. Aside from a few illustration attempts early in his career, Moore has never drawn anything for publication.
Despite this, there’s a coherent pictorial intelligence at work across all of his comics, one that is precise and consistent enough to be more than simply lucky intervention by his pencil-and-brush artists. Throughout his career, Moore has shown a willingness to use the building blocks of the comics medium to tell stories, experimenting with panel shape and layout, and also with constructing remarkable patterns of visual motifs. Most strikingly, he has constantly found ways to playfully contrast words (both narration and dialogue) with pictures in ways that don’t always advance the plot or explain the action but rather toy with the reader’s attention and expectations, delaying or sometimes entirely withholding the kind of narrative closure one expects from the medium.
The ten stories in Brighter are picked from across a quarter-century of Moore’s work, with short critical essays by comics scholar and journalist Marc Sobel following each (more on this later). Even the weakest of the stories is worth at least one read, but the best of the bunch reward multiple visits. For this, I’d nominate the classic “In Pictopia” and the lesser-known “The Bowing Machine.” “Pictopia,” seen from one side, is a forbiddingly meta story, Moore and artist Don Simpson’s complaint about the sudden contemporary trendiness of a dour, violent sensibility in comics of the era. Conceiving of the entire imaginative universe of comics as contained within one large city, Moore’s flâneur protagonist surveys the landscape as different neighborhoods flourish and decay. Disgusted by the grim 1980s, the story bursts with references to all the other genres of comics (funny animals, underground humor, westerns, and so on) that were pushed to the side by newly grouchy superheroes. This resonated deeply with readers at the time who were trapped in the midst of this change — like me! — though I’m not sure if someone unfamiliar with the context would appreciate it to the same degree. Nevertheless, Moore’s protest at the coarsening of popular entertainment — and, by implication, everything else — remains deeply felt and somehow also very funny.
“The Bowing Machine” may be even better. Moore and artist Mark Beyer balance the story (of a young Japanese executive’s competition with a fellow employee over who can show the most deference to their superiors) with an exhilarating, densely woven collection of visual motifs. Images appear and reappear in surprising rhythmic alterations, only occasionally matching the words that make up the (ostensible) narration. Verbal and visual language act as parallel streams of information, sometimes reinforcing each other, sometimes in contradiction, sometimes making a third point in an almost Eisensteinian fashion. It’s quite incredible.
Unfortunately, Sobel’s essay about “The Bowing Machine” misses the point pretty egregiously, reducing Moore and Beyer’s spellbinding aesthetic dexterity to a lamely topical reading. He sees it as “a metaphor for the larger competitive tensions that existed between the U.S. and Japan at the time,” adding that “Moore plays a pitch-perfect riff on international politics in the way he depicts these two adversaries.” Sobel does thankfully make note of the visual component of the story — how could he not? — but, frustratingly, he presses it into the service of his blunt take, proclaiming that “Beyer and Moore intended these confusing page layouts to represent visually how Eastern and Western cultures have moved into a convoluted hybrid…resulting in a muddled mixture of traditions.” To come away from this rich story concluding that it was Moore’s anguished protest against cultural miscegenation is to betray a defect in one’s eyes, or in the organ they’re connected to.
Sobel’s commentary stays at this level throughout, unfortunately. He does do a good job of filling in the blanks of Moore’s biography and career, as well as explaining the relevant events of the era during which these comics were produced; at their best, the essays are a very good microhistory of the comics industry during the turbulent period of the 1980s through the very early 2000s, and this is a crucial and welcome supplement to the likes of “In Pictopia.” But as an analyst, he is definitely lacking. The explanatory essays following each story are bewilderingly constructed, often merely retelling the plot of the story the reader has just finished, and pocked with footnotes that go into unnecessary detail about areas of common knowledge.
This reaches a kind of crescendo in the chapter on “This Is Information.” In that story, an uncharacteristically earnest meditation on the 9/11 disaster, Moore makes light of the frenzy surrounding Osama bin Laden by sardonically referring to him as “our current mujahedin [sic] Moonraker, our beige Blofeld.” The panel bearing this caption features a caricature of the villain stroking a white cat and saying, “Choose your next witticism carefully, western democracy. It may be your last!” A pretty on-the-nose bit of business, but Sobel doesn’t trust his readers to get the reference. He makes sure to tell us that we were just shown a “clever depiction of Osama bin Laden as the James Bond villain, Ernst Blofeld (in From Russia with Love).” But even that isn’t enough! A citation then directs you to the end of the book, where a helpful endnote informs you that the references to “Moonraker” and “Blofeld” in Moore’s text were in fact nods to Bond villains, and that the white cat and bit of dialogue in the panel were deliberate echoes of the film versions of From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, respectively. This devotion to spelling out the bleeding obvious is all too typical for Sobel’s contributions to the book, and I assume that only space considerations prevented him from including a further note informing us that James Bond was a fictional British spy, itself leading to yet another citation explaining the concept of espionage…
Though Brighter Than You Think is of limited use as a critical text, it’s tough to beat as a straight-up collection. The stories here were mostly short contributions to comics anthologies, all of which are now out of print and something of a chore to find, so Uncivilized Books has done a service for the comics fan by compiling them all into a fine-looking volume. Nothing here will budge Watchmen or From Hell from their places at the head of the class among Moore’s oeuvre, but his artistry is just as evident in these short pieces, in some ways more impressive for being able to do nearly as much as the longer works in just a few unforgettable pages.
Brighter Than You Think: Ten Short Works by Alan Moore is now available from Uncivilized Books.