Kat Clay on a collection of stories by Alan Moore
To critique Alan Moore is to critique the Chimera, the mythic beast of lion, goat, dragon, and woman. Once you think you’ve identified the taxonomy of his writing, he transforms to another species. Like Bellerophon upon Pegasus, we must peer down from on high to fully view the Chimera. And what beast might Illuminations (Bloomsbury, 2022) be?
For there are really two books within Illuminations – one is a short story collection of the same name, the other is the novella ‘What We Can Know About Thunderman’. And while the former offers a variety of stories – both in quality and content – you’ll want to stick around for the latter.
Despite this visible division, there are several consistent threads that tie the stories together. First, the humour, sharply satirical and cynical of those who take advantage of others. Second, whether it is the apocalyptic Eden of Location, Location, Location, essentially described as William Blake’s Grand Designs, the theatre performers of ‘Hypothetical Lizard’, or the brains of the big bang in ‘The Improbably Complex High-Energy State’, creators and their creations are at the heart of Illuminations.
Some of these stories are better than others. There’s the snappy crowd pleaser of ‘Cold Reading’, where a psychic charlatan gets more than he bargained for. ‘Hypothetical Lizard’ may be too bizarre for some, but it certainly quenched a secondary-world weird fiction itch I’ve had for far too long, with its sex worker Som-Som and her divided mind. The titular story, ‘Illuminations’, examines what happens when nostalgia gets the best of someone revisiting a seaside town from his childhood.
Moore’s languid prose suffers a little from indulgence; he’s best when the language works to support the events within. His riff on beatnik history, ‘American Light: An Appreciation’ doesn’t work for me, maybe because of my personal hatred of footnote stories. And 38 pages of masturbating space brains is always going to be a hard sell.
But this observance of creators and creation is no more seen than in the masterstroke of ‘What We Can Know About Thunderman’, Moore’s satirical polemic – read nuclear – takedown of the comic book industry. Up until this point, I’d considered Garth Ennis’ The Boys to be the natural successor to Watchmen. Turns out, Moore has presented his own right of reply to the greatest comic ever disowned.
Thunderman takes the form of fragmentary vignettes told over the entire history of comics, from deathbed confessionals to movie reviews. It follows the lives of the key creatives who have worked on America’s greatest superhero comics – Mr Ocean, King Bee, Blinky, Clock Kid, The Tomorrow Friends, and of course, Thunderman. The novella could be a disaster – overly long, ambitious, experimental, and complex. Instead, it’s brilliant.
Anyone who’s ever questioned the need for more superhero films will find firm footing here. Moore connects comics, capitalism, and pornography, through a satire worthy of A Confederacy of Dunces. In a 1960s vignette, a mobster laments that communism has its own art – why not capitalism? By the end of it, you’ll be convinced that superhero comics are a form of capitalist pornography, epitomised by the unforgettable image of Dan Wheems swimming through Brandon Chuff’s apartment full of smut magazines.
And by writing about the people included in the comics industry – namely white men – Moore draws attention to who is excluded. A single black person is notable at BeeCon1, the King Bee superhero convention. Women are an aside to these writers, editors, and illustrators. They are groped, idolised, rescued, fantasied, fetishised, ogled, murdered, and impaled on a Christmas tree. Mimi Drucker, nearly the only woman in the two-hundred-and-forty-two-page novella, isn’t even who she appears to be. As Moore writes, the business ‘unsexed and dehumanised the people working in it.’
There’s part of me which longs for Thunderman to be illustrated – that this mixed media prose collage could only be improved with a visual to go with it. But perhaps that would deny the point – comics burn, whether that’s the paper they’re made from, or the people who touch them. And like Moore’s description of comics, prose is just another form of perfect lines on a page. ∎
Kat Clay’s short stories have been published in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Aurealis, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and several anthologies. Her non-fiction and criticism has been published in The Guardian, The Victorian Writer, and Weird Fiction Review, and she was a contributor to the Locus winning and Hugo nominated Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. You can read ‘The Black Box Killer’, Kat’s experimental futuristic thriller inspired by 60s new wave science fiction, in Interzone #294.
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