Comics

From a Fluid Culture to a Culture of Steam: Alan Moore

For all the self-serious Deep Thoughts and the sometimes unsettling material in DeZ Vylenz The Mindscape of Alan Moore, Moore can be a startlingly funny host.


The Mindscape of Alan Moore

Director: DeZ Vylenz
Cast: Alan Moore
Distributor: Disinformation
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2003
US DVD Release Date: 2008-09-30
"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."

-- Alan Moore

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."

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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