Alan Moore is the sort of writer one would be tempted to call an elder statesman, were he not such a staunch anarchist. The blurb for Illuminations, his new prose fiction collection, declares that he is “widely regarded as the best and most influential writer in the history of comics.” It’s a tricky accusation to shrug off. Like many a maladjusted geek, I spent my late teens falling in love with Alan Moore’s work from the eighties. Watchmen (1986-7), V for Vendetta (1982-9), even the much-maligned (not least by Moore himself) Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) all meant the world to me, and they drew me further into the realm of comics even as they built bridges to more enriching traditions outside of them. For a reader steeped in his eighties work but largely unfamiliar with what came after, there is something of a shock in the stories presented in Illuminations, and not just because Moore has less than flattering things to say about the comic-book medium. Vince Gilligan, the Brexit Party, gammons, and “twat-splaining”: the book is littered with references showing not only that Moore has kept up with the zeitgeist, but that he has taken the trouble to understand it. It’s a refreshing attitude from a writer of Moore’s stature, but it is a subtly unnerving sort of refreshment. Gandalf has returned in a pair of dark glasses, riding a hoverboard and waving a selfie staff. Bilbo is lit.
To call Illuminations a collection is, while technically accurate, somewhat misleading. There are nine pieces included in this volume, with the seventh, “What We Can Know About Thunderman,” running to about 240 pages, more than half of this 450-page book. In his generous yet characteristically redundant blurb, Neil Gaiman says that the book’s other offerings “turn out to be a sort of camouflage” for “Thunderman,” while Moore himself calls it “the tiger-headed elephant in the room.” Monstrous and uncanny, “What We Can Know About Thunderman” is nothing less than a monumental middle finger to the entire superhero industry, as awful in its grandeur as it is meticulous in its spitefulness.
Rather than hewing closely to a central character, the novel burlesques a century of American comic history, presenting a vicious cabaret whose members strut into the limelight and bare their innermost rots. We open in a diner in 2015 with a group of comics pros chewing the fat, and one of the first things we learn about this alternate history is that, in 1965, a group of legendary comics scriptwriters tried to form a union:
Needless to say, Glad and those other old guys were immediately fired, replaced as writers by an eager swarm of youthful comic fans who, grateful to be living out their boyhood dreams, seemed unaware or unconcerned that they were putting previously lionised creators out of work.
If the depiction of the post-sixties superhero scribes as an army of scabbing fanboys strikes you as harsh, you ain’t seen nothing yet. From here the novel presents a parodic lowlights reel of comics-industry malfeasance, from the theft of Superman from Siegel and Shuster to the McCarthy-era creation of the Comics Code Authority. A particularly memorable scene comes in 1960 when a possibly hallucinating Stan Lee analogue is seemingly visited by a CIA agent who encourages him to create a new kind of superhero:
The costume heroes at American, they’re playboy millionaires, or they’re from space, or there’s some magic bullshit. How does that reflect our country’s values, Sam? Why can’t good, ordinary Americans, like nuclear scientists, cyberneticists, arms manufacturers, why can’t people like that be super-guys?
It’s a brutal skewering of Marvel’s popular heroes, sharply linking the cultural operations we now know the US government undertook during this period with the openly propagandistic nature of many recent Marvel films.
These savage depictions of earlier comic-book history feed into lampoons of more recent incidents. A reference to “a 2018 issue of King Bee in which the apian avenger’s pollinating apparatus was made briefly visible” is an obvious stand-in for the infamous “Batman’s penis” episode, while a series of forum posts about “the Monkey Christ Thunderman” is clearly meant to invoke the digital removal of Henry Cavill’s moustache from the 2017 Justice League film. Familiarity with the comics industry has bred contempt in Moore, and the result is an informed yet merciless takedown. That the novel throws out so many comics fan deep cuts yet is so deliberately crafted to piss off comic fans is only fitting. It’s a sublime bit of trolling from a writer who has justifiably had enough of this shit.
But the novel’s most audacious move comes when Moore implicates the superhero industry in contemporary politics. At one point Worsley Porlock, a comic book editor, watches news coverage of the January 6 coup attempt. Reflecting that he and “a lot of other comics guys” had seen the appeal of Donald Trump in 2016, he expounds:
Possibly it had to do with the exaggerated cartoon aura that the guy had … That year, six of the dozen biggest-grossing movies had been superhero films, and he supposed that there had been a feeling as if people wanted this to be a simpler world, that they could understand. They wanted big dramatic threats and enemies, no matter that they strained all credibility, and also wanted some improbable and memorable character to offer them solutions that were simple, and as unbelievable as the imagined menaces they pledged to combat. Just how the electorate had come to be in such a malleable state, Worsley had no idea.
This is an unforgiving critique of the US culture industry’s fixation on the superhero, and the childish fantasies underpinning so much of reactionary politics. Yet the novel has all the propulsive energy and daring cheek of the best superhero fare; as grim and confrontational as “Thunderman” gets, it never stops being fun to read.
All of which said, it’s hard to shake a sense of unease about the piece. Part of this is its sheer weight and the bevy of inside jokes begging to be excavated and sniggered over on geek blogs. Part of it is the temptation of crassly autobiographical readings. Moore has made no secret of his disillusionment with superheroes in recent years, and when one character decides to bid “goodbye to the entire comics field” with a work designed to “investigate the whole notion of Thunderman from a variety of angles, until all that it was possible to know or say about the character and his effect on culture had been captured,” it starts to feel a bit too neat. That this character meets an ambiguously sticky end adds some welcome nuance, but it also feels like a barbed comment on Moore’s own project. There’s a sense that, when dealing with the superhero comics industry, one simply cannot win. But most of all, it seems slightly unfair to the other pieces in the book to package them alongside such a gargantuan tantrum as this. One may reasonably ask why this review has spent so long on this part of the book given these issues, but in the spirit of the original piece, I shall regress to childish self-justification: he started it!
In the spirit of moving on, which Moore so laboriously summons, what else does the book have to offer? Quite a lot, it turns out. Hieronymus Bosch is repeatedly invoked, and with good reason: Moore is seemingly never happier than when creating a baroque landscape of otherworldly horrors for his hapless protagonists to stumble through. In “Location, Location, Location,” a solicitor named Angie is the last woman on earth after a Biblical apocalypse, tasked with showing “Jez” Christ around his new house in Bedford. She makes “an effort to ignore the sky,” which is filled with six-winged lion-headed beasts, great red dragons, and women clothed in the sun. Against this backdrop of fiery absurdity, Jez himself cuts a down-to-earth figure, chatting about Killing Eve and The Handmaid’s Tale (the TV series — he hasn’t read the book); he is surprisingly understanding when Angie exclaims, “Jesus Christ!” It’s a fun comedic angle, contrasting the banality of a provincial house viewing with the Book of Revelation, but its most intriguing passages come when Moore stops to explore the nature of the apocalypse. As Jez explains:
Contractual language. That’s exactly what it is, deliberately intimidating and unfathomable. The man-headed locusts and bull-headed men, the slaughtered lamb with seven eyes and seven horns—these are all clauses and subclauses and disclaimers in a legal document. And yes, I know, we’ve got to bring all this archaic nonsense up to date and make it more accessible. Some of this terminology, the images and symbols that it’s drafted in, are pre-Sumerian. That’s not the way to run a modern business. I kept telling everybody, but …
It’s a funny, inventive story, reminiscent of Ted Chiang’s “Hell Is the Absence of God,” but with a distinctly British attitude and style. Its best gag is the reveal that the Garden of Eden is located on some allotments in Bedford.
Similarly dense, but even more abstract in its humour, is “The Improbably Complex High-Energy State.” Set in “that initial femtosecond” of the universe’s existence, it is the story of a Boltzmann brain formed in the primordial mass. After having the universe’s “first experience of an experience,” the Boltzmann brain, which decides to call itself “The Panperule,” goes on to become “Eternity’s first monster,” as it finds and enslaves more of its own kind. But its dictatorship becomes unsustainable as the universe develops and its subjects start to get ideas above their station. This is a roiling, primordial fable, both parody and parable, and at times it feels like nothing so much as a modernist take on the Just So Stories.
Another dense and scientifically informed tale of identity and enslavement can be found in “A Hypothetical Lizard.” Published in 1987 as Moore’s “first serious attempt at short prose fiction” (the book’s other pieces were all written between 2009 and 2022), the viewpoint character is an underage prostitute serving a clientele of wizards. As part of her initiation into “the House Without Clocks,” the connection between the two hemispheres of her brain is surgically severed, and she is fitted with a porcelain half-mask: “She would be blinded, but not exactly. Her hearing would remain, after a fashion, and she would even be able to speak. But she would be Silenced.” It’s a queasy, uncomfortable story, dealing unflinchingly with abuse and sexual exploitation, albeit one that feels distinctly first attempt-ish.
There is a mildly Orientalist vibe to the story’s magical city, the text peppered with references to “floral infusions” and nobility called things like “His Scarlet Eminence.” Rawra Chin, the story’s protagonist (as opposed to its viewpoint character) is distinctly a late-eighties cis man’s take on a trans sex worker, and while her portrayal is sympathetic and her situation effectively menacing, some of the language used is lacking from a contemporary viewpoint, even after revisions to the original text. It’s hard not to wince at the introductory sentence, “The visitor’s name was Rawra Chin, and she was a man.”
These knotty, confrontational pieces sit alongside shorter, more straightforward yarns. “Cold Reading” is a classical ghost story of a fraudulent psychic who finally encounters a bona fide revenant. “Not Even Legend” is a loving parody of a group of paranormal investigators who meet a tragic end at the hands of a real-life cryptid. For all the grandiosity of the book’s longer pieces, there is a real pleasure in these brief genre exercises, like expertly crafted sketches by a genius landscape painter.
“Illuminations,” the collection’s title story, is one such piece, and probably the finest in the book. It concerns a middle-aged man who decides to return to the seaside resort of his childhood in “a spasm of bereavement and divorce.” Moore is honest about the appeal of nostalgia, but equally honest about its hollowness; at one point the narrator reflects that “the yearning winter daydream is the only Welmouth.” The story’s final twist is a sickening thing, masterfully paying off the story’s earlier details and effectively dramatising the souring of childhood memories.
All through Illuminations, Moore seems preoccupied with the horror of getting what you want; the flash of comprehension that you have invited in a monster. It’s a compelling image, especially in this age where The Will Of The People is constantly fulfilled and yet constantly denied. But there’s a sense in which the book has invited in a monster of its own; as enjoyable as it is, “Thunderman” warps everything else around it. If Moore’s ambition is to move decisively away from comics and into prose, doing so with such a lengthy diatribe against the comics industry seems a bit of an own goal. Every other piece on offer here is more interesting, to the point where it feels somewhat unwise to package them with an obvious spotlight hog (one that could probably have fended for itself as a standalone offering). Illuminations is a book that deserves to be digested, dissected, and discussed. It’s just a shame that one of its beams will inevitably shine so much brighter than all the rest.
Editors: Reviews Department.
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.