Brighter Than You Think: Ten Short Works by Alan Moore with Essays by Marc Sobel
This is a difficult book for me to review. On one hand, I welcome the publication of any work by Alan Moore, especially older, otherwise out-of-print work. On the other hand, I really don’t know if the world needs or wants this particular publication.
What it consists of, briefly, is ten short comics pieces, all written by Alan Moore, but with different artists, all of which have been previously published, and which are reproduced here with accompanying essays by Marc Sobel. My two main problems with the book, unfortunately, are those reproductions, and those essays.
First, though, let me explain about the contents themselves. The ten stories in comic form that this book contains were published between 1986 and 2003 – although the dates of creation and publication do not necessarily closely coincide, in a few cases, where a few years passed between writing and illustration, on one hand, and their actual publication, on the other. They vary in length from four pages to thirteen pages. Here’s a full list of the stories, along with illustrators, dates, and other publication details that might come in useful, later on.
1: Love Doesn’t Last Forever, illustrated by Rick Veitch, published in Marvel Comics’ Epic Illustrated #34 in February 1986
2: In Pictopia!, illustrated by Don Simpson, assisted by Pete Poplaski, Mike Kazaleh, and Eric Vincent, published in The Comics Journal, Inc.’s Anything Goes! #2 in December 1986
3: Tapestries, illustrated by Stephen R Bissette, John Totleben, and Stan Woch, published in Eclipse Comics’ Real War Stories #1 in July 1987
4: The Mirror of Love, illustrated by Stephen R Bissette and Rick Veitch, published in Mad Love Publishing’s AARGH! in October 1988
5: Come On Down, illustrated by Bill Wray, published in SpiderBaby Graphix & Publications’ Taboo #1 in the Fall of 1988
6: The Bowing Machine, illustrated by Mark Beyer, published in Penguin Books’ RAW Vol 2, #3 in June 1991
7: I Keep Coming Back, illustrated by Oscar Zárate, published in Serpent’s Tail’s It’s Dark in London in late 1996
8: “The Hasty Smear of my Smile…”, illustrated by Peter Bagge and Eric Reynolds, published in Fantagraphics Books’ Hate #30 in June 1998
9: This Is Information, illustrated by Melinda Gebbie, published in 9-11 Artists Respond Volume 1, issued simultaneously by Dark Horse Comics, Chaos! Comics, and Image Comics in January 2002
10: Brighter Than You Think, illustrated by Melinda Gebbie, published in Top Shelf Productions’ Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions in June 2003
As a collection, most of what these stories have in common with one another is that they were all written by the same man, over the course of a bit over a quarter of a century. Other similarities, or things in common, can be found, if you wish to find them: four of the stories were written for fund-raising projects (2, 3, 4, and 9); most of the stories were published in colour, with only three of them being in black and white (4, 5, and 7); two of them were illustrated by his wife, Melinda Gebbie (9 and 10). Two of them, In Pictopia! And The Bowing Machine, are still available online on an old LiveJournal blog of my own called Glycon, where I very occasionally post old out-of-print work by Alan Moore, with his general imprimatur. The stories that have most in common, though, are the first five, published in a relatively short space of time between February 1986 and October 1988, just two and a half years, with three of the four being by or directly related to various of his collaborators on Swamp Thing, his breakthrough comic work in American comics, particularly Stephen R Bissette, who did artwork in three (3, 4, and an art assist in 1), and who was the publisher of Taboo, in whose first issue the fifth story here, Come On Down, was first published. Otherwise, really, these are just random stories plucked from various places along Moore’s working life, with little else to bind them together – things like, as mentioned, publication being delayed, or being in a publication other than the one they were intended for being simply too random and insignificant a connection.
The blurb on the back of the book says that these stories are ‘long out-of-print,’ which might be a good reason to collect them together, but even this is not entirely true. I Keep Coming Back was republished in Avatar Press’s Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures and Other Growths #3 (of 3) in November 2003, with the three issues of that title collected in a single volume (along with quite an amount of largely unnecessary extras, in my opinion) in September 2007, which itself was reissued by Avatar in 2012, and It’s Dark in London, which contained the original publication of I Keep Coming Back, was reissued by a new publisher, SelfMadeHero, in March 2012; Love Doesn’t Last Forever was reprinted in Rick Veitch’s 2007 collection Shiny Beasts; “The Hasty Smear of my Smile…” was reprinted in Peter Bagge’s Other Stuff in 2013; and In Pictopia! was reprinted in George Khoury’s The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, from 2003, although with Eric Vincent’s original colouring replaced with digital colours by José Villarrubia. The Mirror of Love was also reprinted, in a book called The Mirror of Love, where the eight pages of the original text is turned into a 136-page book – what had not been immediately obvious in its original form was that The Mirror of Love was written as an epic poem, so the text naturally lent itself to being spread far more thinly than in the comics panels it had first occupied, each page accompanied by a facing page photograph, taken by José Villarrubia. Which I suppose is something else that two of the stories here have in common: there are other versions of them out there somewhere, which he’s involved with, but they’re not the ones in this book.
Anyway, as I mentioned above, I’m not happy with the actual reproduction of the stories here. Bluntly, it’s terrible. Many of them are reproduced so poorly that images are blurred, text is blurred, and background – and sometimes foreground – details are difficult to make out. In Pictopia!, parts of which are deliberately supposed to represent old yellowed pulp paper comics, are so dark that the pages look like they’ve been soaked in strong tea overnight. In most of the stories the text in the word balloons lacks the crispness and sharpness it had in the original versions. The detail in the last story, Brighter Than You Think, is so poor that items on the first page which are referred to in the essay following it – John Dee’s Sigillum Dei Aemeth and Holy Table – cannot be made out. There are other instances, too.
This is one of the things that puzzles me about this book – if it is meant to be presenting out-of-print work by Moore in the hope that collectors will buy it, then why are they presented so badly? I would have thought that the publishers would have strived to get the best quality versions of the work that they could, which would presumably be either original artwork or print-quality scans or photographs of that artwork. But the impression I get is that the art was scanned out of the publications they originally appeared in, and not even scanned to industry standards, at that. I’m one of those collectors that this book is presumably targeted towards, and I got very annoyed, very quickly, when I saw how poorly the work was treated. I care about comics, and I care about quality, and I particularly care about the work of Alan Moore, and his collaborators, and none of these are well served by the shoddy quality of the comics reproduced in this book. So there’s that part of the work dealt with, for the moment.
Along with the reproduction of these stories, each one is followed by an essay by Marc Sobel, who is ‘a freelance journalist and scholar in the field of comic book studies,’ according to the blurb, so a bit like myself, I suppose, except that I’m mostly an unpaid amateur, finding that a more comfortable place to operate from. I don’t know Marc, and our paths haven’t crossed before, to the very best of my knowledge, and I want to emphasise that none of the following, where I shall be quite harsh towards this book, is personal. I’m responding to the work before me, not the person who produced it, in the main.
Anyway, those essays: The essays are presented in the style of academic papers, in as much as they contain quotations from other books, which are identified in the essays only by the surname of the author and a page number. So, for instance, you will have a quote like this:
‘Moore remarked that he “wouldn’t piss on Marvel if they were on fire” (Bissette 223).’
And this is another of the problems I have with this book – whilst the each story is immediately followed by the relevant essay, these essays in turn all have numbered notes to go with them, which are all collected together at the back of the book as endnotes – rather than as footnotes or back notes accompanying the essays – with all of the individual bibliographies for each story (in this specific case the reference is to Stephen R Bissette’s Mr Moore and Me essay, starting on page 217 in Gary Spencer Millidge and smoky man’s Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman, published by abiogenesis press in 2003, with the specific quote being on page 223) being even further towards the back of the book, so that, if you wished to read any given story, whilst simultaneously checking all the additional material that hopefully adds value to a book like this, so as to fully absorb all it has to offer, you would, in the case of the first story, have to have bookmarks in pages 11, 19, 142, and 163. I realise that this may be some form of academic standard, but I’m not an academic, and I don’t think this book is necessarily meant to be purely for an academic market – although, as I said earlier, I don’t really know who the book is meant to be for – and I found running multiple bookmarks very tedious, as they tend to fall out, if nothing else, with all that flicking back and forward. And, frankly, if it is meant for an academic audience, then it’s very poor indeed.
Whilst it’s true that I’m not an academic, I am probably an expert on the work of Alan Moore, to the point where I’ve been privileged in the past to help copy-edit a number of books about him and his work. So it is perhaps inevitable that, almost no matter what, I’m going to pick up on any errors in a work like this. But what I’m talking about here isn’t just petty nit-picking – although some of it is, which I’ll come to – but a general laxness in the information in the essays that continued to irk me – although I’ll freely admit that, once I’d seen the poor state of the reproduction here, I was probably already predisposed to a critical and hostile reading of them.
Here’s a sentence from the second paragraph of the essay on the first story reprinted here, Love Doesn’t Last Forever, relating to why Moore wouldn’t piss in Marvel’s ear if their brain was on fire:
The trouble began in 1985 when Dez Skinn, who published Moore’s series, Marvelman and V For Vendetta in the British anthology, Warrior, struck a potentially lucrative deal with the small press publisher, Eclipse Comics, to reprint several of Warrior’s titles, including Marvelman, for the U.S. market. However, when Marvel Comics’ legal department learned of Eclipse’s plans, a series of threatening letters were exchanged between the two publishers over the use of the word “Marvel” in the title. While no legal action was ultimately taken, Moore was begrudgingly forced to change the series’ title to Miracleman.
It is perhaps unfortunate, all things considered, that not only do I know a bit about Alan Moore and his work, but I know absolutely fucking loads about Marvelman and Miracleman. I have, more by accident than by design, written an as-yet-unpublished hundred thousand word book on the subject, which was also partially serialised on The Comics Beat – part sixteen is here, and you can work backwards from there, if you choose – so I winced when I saw this. It’s incorrect on several fronts: Skinn had originally struck a deal with Pacific Comics, who then went bust, with Eclipse Comics picking up their properties, including the possibility of publishing some of the striops from Warrior. It was Marvel Comics’ legal department in the UK who wrote to complain about the use of the word Marvel in the title of a comic, rather than their US counterparts, as is implied here. And the title that they wrote to Dez Skinn – and not Eclipse Comics, as is also implied here – about was a one-off UK publication called Marvelman Special No 1, rather than a potential US title called Marvelman. This may all seem like the ravings of an over-involved fanboy, and indeed in many ways they are, but that is surely rather the point. If you care enough about the work of Alan Moore to buy a book like this, and to read the essays in it, then the very least you can expect is that those essays will be accurate, rather than the vague recollection of someone who didn’t think it was important to check the facts to make sure they were correct.
And this first essay’s minor-but-annoying digressions from absolute fact pretty much set the tone from there on in. The second essay, on In Pictopia, starts with this sentence:
Out of the hundreds he’s written in his career, “In Pictopia” is Alan Moore’s most acclaimed short story.
Not only is this a ridiculously generalised statement, but it’s said in a book that also contains The Mirror of Love, which is surely a greater and more widely acknowledged contender for that title. And, frankly, if that’s the author’s opinion, then why the fuck is the reproduction of the artwork of the story so fucking appalling?
Here’s the original art for page for of In Pictopia, which is set in the Funnytown part of Pictopia, as scanned by me from its original appearance in Anything Goes #2:
And here, by contrast, is that same page, scanned by me on the same machine, with the same settings, on the same day as the above, as it appears in Brighter Than You Think:
Further into this particular essay, referring to a panel on page 6 of In Pictopia, there’s a reference to the location of the action of that panel, which is a place called Captain Billy’s Bar, which has a redirect to the notes at the back of the book, where it says:
The name “Captain Billy” is a reference to the popular Golden Age superhero, Captain Marvel, whose secret identity is Billy Batson.
No. No it isn’t. Or certainly not directly. Here’s the art from that panel – again, both versions are here, just to show the page above is not just a one-off mistake.
The reference here – as evidenced by the fact that Flynn is drinking the house cocktail, a Whizbang – is actually to a magazine called Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, which was first published in 1919 by Wilford Hamilton ‘Captain Billy’ Fawcett, and was the first offering from his nascent Fawcett Publications. Later on, in February 1940, various aspects of the name of that magazine would be used in another of Fawcett’s publications: Captain Marvel, AKA Billy Batson, made his first appearance in Whiz Comics #2 that month, starting a process that inexorably led to Marvel Comics republishing Alan Moore’s early eighties Marvelman work from Warrior in a title called Miracleman…
The thing is, Alan Moore knew about this in 1986, and that was before the advent of the Internet, the greatest research tool any half-decent researcher could wish for. Although Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang is a little bit obscure, it’s by no means unheard of, although I am quite possibly, once again, biased by the fact that this is an area I know far too much about. But, as I said earlier, I wasn’t in the mood to be forgiving. It’s not to be confused, by the way, with this 1987 illustration for a trading card by Olivia De Berardinis, also called Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang.
I could provide a long list of, and go into detail about, many other errors that annoyed me: not paying attention to the actual styling of the titles of two of the stories, In Pictopia!, which is constantly referred to without its exclamation mark, and “The Hasty Smear of my Smile…”, which is given as The Hasty Smear of my Smile, without its double quotation marks, or ellipsis. Do these even matter, though, you might be asking? Yes, is undoubtedly the answer, as far as I’m concerned. Doubly so if you’re trying to write something supposedly scholarly. One important thing a scholar needs to do is to honour the author’s work, and their intentions. If Alan Moore put quotations marks, or an ellipsis, or an exclamation mark in the title of a story, then we must presume that they’re there for a purpose. And, if someone doesn’t bother to make sure these are correct, where else are they cutting corners? I promise, there’s a loads of small errors like this, throughout the parts of this book that aren’t the stories it contains. This review, so far, is up to nearly 3,000 words, and it is not a word of a lie that I could probably write the same amount again, listing further errors of factual inaccuracies here. There’s the misspelling of Allen Ginsberg’s first name as Alan, in the essay about The Mirror of Love, for instance.
But I shall limit myself to just two more complaints, both referring to the same piece, the title story and last entry from this book, Brighter Than You Think. Here’s the art for the first panel, as it originally appeared:
And here’s the art as it appears in this book:
There’s several things wrong, here. There’s that awful Moiré pattern all over it. There’s the slight blurring of Todd Klein’s lettering. And there’s this, from the inevitable essay that follows:
On the left, he is shown in standard business attire, clutching a fuel casing, while in the background, a rocket launch represents Parsons’ chosen profession. However, on the right, his private life as an occultist shatters this traditional image of normalcy. On this half of the scene, Parsons is flanked by the Sigillum Dei (“Seal of God”) in the upper right corner and the “Holy Table” just below, both arcane symbols used during magic rituals for centuries.
And this is really where the whole thing finally falls apart. You can’t see the detail in the very things he’s referring to, because the reproduction is so poorly executed. The essay highlights the very errors that are inherent in the entire book. The images aren’t detailed enough for the commentary, and the commentary is too error-ridden to justify being attached to the work of a creator like Alan Moore. Which leads me to my final, most nit-picky, but also probably most damning error.
In the essay on Brighter Than You Think, referring to L Ron Hubbard’s early writing, there’s a number referring us to a note at the rear of the book, which says,
Hubbard’s first published story appeared in Thrilling Adventure magazine in 1934.
The thing is, the magazine was called Thrilling Adventures, not Thrilling Adventure. And what’s significant about that missing S at the end of Thrilling Adventures is that this same mistake occurs on the Wikipedia page for L Ron Hubbard, and on the Wikipedia page listing his written work. But a few moments on the internet – and possibly the sense that a magazine with a number of stories in it wouldn’t have a title that was in the singular – would have found the correct title. Sure, the possibility exists that it’s just a mistake, just a typo, but I think I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t in the mood to be merciful, and I choose to believe this wasn’t the case here. Which leaves the particularly unpalatable fact that at least some of the research for this book was done on Wikipedia, and not independently verified afterwards. Wikipedia is a good and useful resource, but only a fool would fail to check the information on it, especially if it’s going in a book with their name on it.
So there you have it. I didn’t like the book, because the images are poorly done, and the essays are badly written. I don’t even think Alan Moore himself is particularly interested in the book, because I know that he has requested that any payments due to him for it be given to the relevant artists, and regards the book as semi-authorised, at best. At least two of those artists, in the meantime, seemed not to know that the book was actually being published, when I spoke to them about it, and certainly hadn’t been asked to provide the original art for the stories, which the publishers appear to have decided they only needed to scan from their first place of publication, rather than to get anything more aesthetically pleasing.
So it’s all a bit murky, a bit like those illustrations, up above…
Author: Alan Moore & various artists (original work) / Marc Sobel (essays)
Publisher: Uncivilised Books
Date of Publication: January 2017
Reviewed by: Pádraig Ó Méalóid