[21 November 2008]
“I found myself at a skinning yard and tannery… The next job I was able to get was that of a toilet cleaner at a hotel, and it more or less went downhill from there until I finally ended up as a comics writer.”
Back around 1998, Voice and Vision readers asked Stefan Wenger to name the greatest writer in the comic book industry. He didn’t hesitate: “Alan Moore, Alan Moore, a thousand times, Alan Moore.”
I’d never heard of him.
In my defense, I’d only been reading comic books since the previous year, when a Christian friend gave me his 50 or so issues of Spawn because it had suddenly occurred to him that Jebus might not approve of Satanic funny books.
But one hasty crash-course in Alan Moore Studies later, I was inclined to agree with Stefan; Moore’s output is wildly uneven, but few mainstream comic books have reached the caliber of Moore’s, save perhaps for Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. (And are we still having to look so far back to find transcendent comics? Perhaps I should just give up and title this column “Bam! Pow! Zap! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids!”)
Enter DeZ Vylenz’s The Mindscape of Alan Moore, which I initially regarded with wary skepticism; what could it possibly reveal that I hadn’t already discovered through Gary Spencer Millidge’s Portrait Of An Extraordinary Gentleman or the various Alan Moore interviews I’d read over the years or, really, through Moore’s work, chiefly his more autobiographical works, such as The Birth Caul or A Small Killing or my favorite, Promethea?
About six minutes into the DVD, I decided that it needn’t necessarily present anything new in order to have been worth my time, for it’s one thing to read an interview with Alan Moore, and another thing altogether to actually watch him talk. I for one have always rather enjoyed Moore’s admittedly eccentric appearance (wild, flowing hair and beard, scary bigass talon-jewelry, somber brow), but it’s disarming indeed to see such a man speak eloquently about working class issues and the nature of humanity and then suddenly say, “I wanted to know what Batman was doing this month.”
Then there’s the simple fact that I really miss the old guy; Moore recently quit writing comics. By the time he announced his retirement, he’d faced criticism that his titles had grown too stilted and didactic. (Moore’s response: “There are 1,000 comic books on the shelves that don’t contain a philosophy lecture and one that does. Isn’t there room for that one?”) Promethea remains my favorite Moore comic, but it certainly fell prey to this tendency to lecture the reader, and if comic book fans were by and large turned off by Moore’s eccentric musings, what are the odds that a lengthy documentary-format lecture will appeal to them?
Indeed, the most pressing question I have for director DeZ Vylenz is also the simplest: Who is your intended audience? The Mindscape of Alan Moore press release manages no fewer than five mentions of Watchmen, this despite the fact that little more than ten minutes of the program actually concern Moore’s comic book output, and further despite the fact that interviewers are instructed not to bring up Watchmen because Moore is sick of talking about it. One can’t blame Moore for having grown weary of discussing an adaptation of a book he wrote 20-plus years ago. Hell, I’ve spoken out against the movie myself, and I agree that the comic book is essentially impossible to film and that, more importantly, an adaptation is simply not necessary.
But it seems that the good people at Shadowsnake Films want it both ways. Directing one’s promotional efforts towards the fanboy audience might just backfire, because The Mindscape of Alan Moore is decidedly not a movie for fanboys.
Really, one can only suppose that the film is intended for philosophers; The Mindscape of Alan Moore is a sort of What the Bleep Do We Know? for a somewhat stranger, more cynical audience. But it’s also an altogether more endearing movie, owing to one’s assumed affection for its host, helped by his tendency to occasionally discuss Batman and pornography, two subjects sorely lacking in the latter film. (Certainly What the Bleep might have offered a turn of phrase like, “Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words or images to achieve changes in consciousness.” But What the Bleep wouldn’t have followed it with a brief discussion of “The erotic possibilities of Swamp Thing.”)
Happily, The Mindscape of Alan Moore boasts excellent production values and a genuinely creative, thoughtful director in DeZ Vylenz, about whom more at the Shadowsnake Films website. At the same time, there is pretentiousness at every turn; the film is subtitled “A DeZ Vylenz Expedition”; Moore claims that Watchmen helped its readers grapple with the growing complexity of their world. I could name a dozen other things…
But none of this much bothered me, because I have stated before that I am growing increasingly dissatisfied with the distance and irony of modern culture; better for someone to risk his reputation in the name of ambition. Ultimately, Vylenz and Moore earn their earnestness, for the Mindscape of Alan Moore is thought-provoking, and occasionally even unsettling. (I haven’t had cable since 2000, but Moore’s offhand criticism of television advertising was chilling even to me.)
And for all his self-serious Deep Thoughts, Moore is also a startlingly funny host. Indeed, the first draft of this column consisted of nothing but 20 or so of Moore’s choicest lines. (“Comics… they were almost a staple… of working class existence. They were something like rickets; they were just something that you had.”) But perhaps his humor shouldn’t be a surprise; Moore wants to change human consciousness, yes. But at the same time, he is officially part of Simpsons and Buffy the Vampire Slayer canon.
Still, the last pop cultural icon to dub himself a shaman was Jim Morrison; how many viewers would be interested in watching him wax philosophical for an hour-plus? I enjoyed this DVD, but such is my love for Moore’s comics that I lobbied to christen my firstborn Promethea; your mileage will no doubt vary.
The Mindscape of Alan Moore is a two-disc affair. Disc One hosts the main feature, being a simultaneously inviting, conversational and pretentious, self-serious philosophical lecture on the part of Moore. Disc Two offers interviews with some of Moore’s collaborators from the comic book field, including Melinda Gebbie (Lost Girls) and Dave Gibbons (Watchmen.) (Gebbie’s long musings on sexuality are interesting, and I was struck by her line, “We are the consummate act of ourselves at all times.”)
These interviews make for engaging supplements, but of course the real draw is the shaman himself, who begins the DVD by explaining, “In my work as an author, I traffic in fiction, I do not traffic in lies” and ends it by announcing, “History is a heat. It is the heat of accumulated information and accumulated complexity. As our culture progresses, we find that we gather more and more information and that we slowly start to move almost from a fluid to a vaporous state, as we approach the ultimate complexity of a social boiling point. I believe that our culture is turning to steam.”
I am happy to have watched The Mindscape of Alan Moore. It is a highly intelligent, literate portrait of one of the most iconic, gifted creators of our time. Still, much like a Hollywood adaptation of an Alan Moore comic, I am left wondering whether it was really necessary. Moore’s ideas are already laid out in Promethea and Lost Girls and V For Vendetta and From Hell; isn’t a documentary superfluous?
Let’s let Moore have the last word:
“If we only see comics in relationships to movies, then the best that they will ever be are films that do not move.”