Let’s get something out of the way upfront: I don’t think Alan Moore is a racist, homophobe or misogynist. But some of his works — particularly League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Neonomicon — have issues. Although it might seem silly to go after Moore when there are much worse offenders both in comics and other media (not to mention actual rapists), Moore’s work is a good case study of how even the most well intentioned, progressive writers can screw-up matters of race, gender and sexuality. And because he is perhaps the most highly regarded writer in comics, there’s a trickle down effect from his work. Moore refuses to listen to his critics, but maybe other writers can learn from his mistakes.
Last week Pádraig Ó Méalóid published an interview with Alan Moore in which he asked a few questions about sexual assault in his comics in general and specifically about his inclusion of Golliwog in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier.
Moore’s response is long and vitriolic, and misses the point entirely.
I can understand why Moore is so bothered by accusations of racism and sexism. He’s an old hippie who has put more consideration to identity politics and representation into his work than most comic writers of his or any other generation. He’s taken other creators to task for their sexism and homophobia. But even though he’s written some strong women and minority characters, he can and does get it wrong sometimes, and his reaction here is disappointing — not least of all because of the rhetorical style he employs.
As Marc Singer puts it, Moore “doggedly lays into rank after rank of straw men while refusing to acknowledge the real reasons Brooker and other readers have criticized his comics.”
Further, Moore tries to tries to discredit his critics by casting them as either fanboys offended by his recently published comments about The Avengers, over-sensitive and uninformed fans who just don’t understand his work, and/or people with an axe to grind.
For example: “As I understand the course of events unfolding after the launch, there had been someone in the audience, whose name escapes me but who is evidently pleased to identify himself as a Batman scholar, who had been offended by Act of Faith and, as people in this branch of scholarship presumably do, he had advertised this fact on social media.”
That “Batman scholar” wasn’t just a fan who rants about comics on the internet. It was Will Brooker, a professor of film and cultural studies at Kingston University, who expanded his PhD thesis on Batman into a book published by Continuum.
Moore also references an African American woman who asked League artist Kevin O’Neill about Golliwog. “In Kevin’s account as I remember it he’d done his best to explain but was left feeling that he may have done an inadequate job, and that the woman hadn’t seemed to be interested in his account of Florence Upton’s original creation, or in the context within which we’d come to our decision,” Moore wrote.
That women is Pam Noles, a Clarion Workshop alum who has been published by Warner Books, Dark Horse Comics and the Los Angeles Times. Noles didn’t just ask O’Neil a few questions at a conference. She wrote a detailed series of essays about why she found the creators’ use of the character problematic. Far from being the uninformed and/or overly sensitive fan that Moore makes her out to be, she knows quite a bit about the character’s history.
Perhaps Moore didn’t know where the criticisms were coming from. He’s pretty open about the fact that he doesn’t use the internet, so he wouldn’t have come across Noles’ essays on his own. I don’t know if Méalóid sent over any additional context, such as Noles’ essays. So maybe Moore really did think that these criticisms are coming from uninformed, uncredentialed and easily-offended losers. But really: should it matter who raised the issues? Moore himself is an autodidact and champion of self-publishing. The substance of the critiques are what matters, not who is making them.
Anyway, Méalóid asked: “How do you respond to the contention that it is not the place of two white men to try to ‘reclaim’ a character like the golliwogg?” and Moore went on at length about why he didn’t think the character should be off limits and why he thinks white men should be allowed to write about people who are different from them.
But neither Brooker nor Noles suggested that it would be impossible to use the character well, let alone that white men shouldn’t write black characters. Actually, Noles suggested a few possible ideas for ways to tell a story about Golliwog in her essays.
Brooker’s tweets, which seem to be reason for the interview, only questioned whether four white men should be the judge of whether Moore succeeded making Golliwog a “strong black character.” Which is a fair point. Did Moore actually run the Golliwog idea by any people of color? His entire defense is based on his personal reading of the original Golliwog books — not any feedback he’s received from actual black people.
Noles writes at length about why Moore did such as poor job with the character, but the most concise explanation I’ve found of what’s wrong with Moore take comes from an anonymous writer Pop Culture Purge (emphasis mine):
From what I’ve read of the initial Golliwog book, there’s nothing particularly racist in his portrayal–the story is about toys having adventures and the Golliwog is representative of one type of toy from the period. But, that type of toy is inexorably wrapped up in racist practices–it has a history (For an excellent in depth look at that history go here).
To a certain point, I can conceptually follow Moore’s use of the Golliwogg’s in the league–I can see where it makes sense in terms of Black Dossier because of the theme of British childhood. I can also see why Moore disassociated the Golliwogg from the racist origins: as a character he simply had no background at all, so Moore gave him one. Alright, but . . . . Once Moore has one of the Dutch Dolls make a comment about the Golliwogg’s large manhood, well, we’re right into racial stereotypes and the whole racist history of the Golliwogg comes bubbling up–Moore did it to himself.
Noles goes into much more detail in her essay series, and makes the case that the Upton’s original stories are more racist than Moore admits. Specifically, she points out that minstrel shows were popular in both the U.S. and Britain at the time, so even the original books would have been racially charged. Part 2, Part 3 and Part 5.1 are, I think, the most important essays in the series.
Moore’s tone deafness on the issue is astounding, but as Noles wrote in 5.1 of her essay series, Moore has written strong black characters in the past. As far as I know, Moore hasn’t been criticized for his portrayal of race in any of his other books, so it may seem a little silly to fixate on one character out of the many that Moore has written over the years. But Moore’s treatment of women in his comics is more complex, and it’s an issue that spans his entire career.
His defenses on this issue are even worse though. For example: “While discussing this latest highlight of my continuing presence in the comic field and my present perceived persona as a rape-fixated racist with my wife (and let me just repeat that to underline the seriousness of what I’m trying to get across here: WITH – MY – WIFE).” (Emphasis in original)
Is Moore seriously trying to imply that he can’t be sexist or racist… because he has a wife? By that standard wouldn’t that make Warren Jeffs like the least misogynist person ever since he has hundreds of wives?
Most of Moore’s defense focuses on the question of whether men — or anyone else for that matter — should be allowed to write about rape at all. Moore mostly seems to be responding to a Grant Morrison quote from Rolling Stone: “We know Alan Moore isn’t a misogynist but fuck, he’s obsessed with rape.”
That does sound petty coming from Morrison, who was just trying to turn the conversation away from misogyny in contemporary comics published by DC. And there are people online who have claimed that Moore shouldn’t write about rape at all, or at least not depict the action of rape. But other critics have made more nuanced critiques, and they did so long before Moore’s Avengers movie interview, so I think we can rule out the idea that everyone who has ever pointed out that Moore writes a lot of rape scenes is an Avengers fan with an axe to grind.
It’s hard now, however, to find critiques of Moore’s treatment of rape since Google is filled with page after page of listings for blog posts that reference either the Last Interview or the Morrison Rolling Stone interview. But here’s a good one:
In each of these cases Moore seems on a facile level to be trying to challenge views of rape and misogynistic attitudes. Perhaps this feminist pose would be convincing if Moore didn’t “explore” rape with such obsessive regularity paired with such lack of any real message beyond “rape is ugly” (though the message “James Bond was a rapist”, reminiscent of MDC’s song “John Wayne was a Nazi”, is intriguing). In each case, moreover, rape is used as a plot device to justify some extremely gory revenge scene.
So, with resounding echoes of the worse aspects of Tarantino, the reader and the writer indulge in a good rape scene; pat each other on the back for disapproving of rape; and go on to indulge in a revenge scene which has been very comfortingly justified. As with many action movies that try to assume an “edgy” tone, the author adopts a fake “hardened” view of the world. Pretending to a grim, hardcore realism, the author loses himself in brutal fantasies. Utter infantile macho self-indulgence so often and so easily poses as “progressive” and “subversive”.
Of course not everyone agrees. There’s a whole book on sexuality in Moore’s work. I haven’t read it do I don’t know what sorts of conclusions the writers draw, but at least one writer from the anthology — feminist scholar Zoë Brigley — defends Moore’s work: “The work of Alan Moore is no exception in presenting violence against women as an routine event. Moore, however, probes for the causes of physical, psychological, and sexual violence against women, from the perspective of both male perpetrators and female survivors.”
And of course there’s room for positions between “Moore always handles rape poorly” and “Moore always does a good job of writing about rape.” Comics journalist and PhD student Laura Sneddon (more on her later) was troubled by the 10 page rape scene in Neonomicon, but not by the use of attempted rape in Watchmen. She wrote:
Thanks to rape culture and the institutional sexism of our society, rape remains an issue that will always be read very differently by women readers. Should it not be talked about? Of course not. Should it be depicted in comics? When it doesn’t address the fallout and impact of the act, I think the negatives of portraying the act far outweigh any positives. Other crimes don’t carry the same emotional trigger that rape does – not only can it pull you out of the story, it can consign the entire book to the bin.
But even Watchmen isn’t free from criticism. Comics writer Gail Simone — one of the leading voices against the status quo of violence against women in comics — has criticized the book. (For the record I agree with most of her points.)
Few of Moore’s critics suggest that men should never write about rape, or that Moore personally is a misogynist. “I’m also not saying you can’t use rape in comics, or talk about it in fiction, or anything like that,” Simone wrote. “I’m just saying it can be done well, or it can be done horribly, like anything.”
Noles focuses mostly on Golliwog in her essays, but Part 5.1 covers sexuality in the League series and makes the case that Moore does a pretty good job of satirizing Victorian attitudes about women’s sexuality, but does a poor job of dealing with homosexual male sexuality in the series. As Noles points out, Moore published AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia). But that doesn’t mean everything he ever writes on homosexuality will be well handled. I think the first time I saw a critique of Moore’s writing about rape, it was an essay by a gay man about why Moore’s use of anal sex as a form of punishment — Hyde raping the Invisible Man to death, for example — was troubling. Unfortunately I can’t find it at the moment. I’d love to link to it, and to read nuanced writings on Moore’s treatment of sexuality.
I would have loved to hear Moore address some of this. Maybe he has a good response. Instead we get more accusations that his critics have ulterior motives. In the case of Sneddon, he suggests that she’s only criticizing him because he and his wife refuse to be interviewed by her following a couple incidents described in the interview. “It seems to me that what has quite possibly happened here has nothing whatsoever to do with whatever opinions she professes to hold with regard to feminism or to violence against women,” Moore wrote. Given that Sneddon wrote her Neonomicon review back in 2011, before she interviewed Moore for The Independent and before Moore’s wife, comics artist Melinda Gebbie, declined to be interviewed by Sneddon, I can’t help but call bullshit on the “she’s only criticizing my work because she has an axe to grind” line. (See update below for Sneddon’s response)
Moore does make one good point: “In fact it’s something of a puzzle as to why none of the many reputable journalists of either gender who’ve interviewed me during my thirty-something year career have possessed Ms. Sneddon and Grant Morrison’s penetrating insight or earnest concern for womankind.”
Good question. According to Noles: “I could give you names of the comics scholars and so-called journalists who have told me directly they are too afraid to bring it up because they don’t want to lose access or they just don’t want him mad at them.”
Given Moore’s stated to refusal to ever be interviewed by either Sneddon or any “publication or institution with which she claims to be associated” ever again, those fears don’t seem unfounded. I’ve never tried to interview Moore because I didn’t think I had anything original to ask him. But now I wish I’d thought to try to interview him on this subject. The time is long overdue for a more critical examination of his work. For my part, I’m adding the articles linked in this post to the Alan Moore dossier, along with a few others.
This is getting terribly long, so let me reiterate before signing off: I don’t think Moore is personally a sexist, a homophobe or a racist, but some of his work is, as the academics say, problematic. I’ve learned a fair amount from reading the criticisms of his work. It’s helping me understand why a domestic violence scene in something I’m writing doesn’t work. I hope that even if Moore doesn’t care to engage in these critiques, other writers can learn from his mistakes.
P.S. I don’t want to go into the Grant Morrison feud, but a lot of people have been confused by this line: “I announce Lost Girls, a lengthy erotic work involving characters from fiction, and within a few months he has somehow managed to conceptualise a Vertigo mini-series along exactly those lines.” To my knowledge no one has figured out which of Morrison’s works Moore is referring to. My thought: is it possible that it was a proposal that was never finished/published? Update: None of the projects from the this guide to unpublished Grant Morrison projects seems to fit the bill. In 1988, Morrison told an interviewer he was working on “a biography of Shelley (it’s set in a bizarre cross between early 19th century and today, and has Shelley and Byron as comic strip writers).” That sounds like the closest thing to what Moore is describing, and may have been related to the Bizarre Boys series that never ended up happening. When did Moore first announce Lost Girls?
Late update: There’s some discussion in the comments about what prompted the interview, and about a roundtable discussion that happened between Will Brooker, Pam Noles, Laura Sneddon, and Pádraig Ó Méalóid prior to the interview. It remains unclear whether Moore had a copy of the e-mail round-table. Brooker has been kind enough to explain the situation and gave me permission to reproduce his e-mail here:
Magic Words: An Evening With Alan Moore was an event at the Prince Charles Cinema, London, on the evening of Tuesday 26 November. I attended, as did Moore’s recent biographer Lance Parkin (who chaired the discussion), Kevin O’Neill, Melinda Gebbie and Pádraig Ó Méalóid.
What began as a very positive and enjoyable event became increasingly uncomfortable for me – I believe I was very much in the minority – and I left before the end. I tweeted several comments about my disappointment.
Some discussion followed from my tweets that evening, which led me to talk online and by email to Pam Noles, whose website And We Shall March had already engaged critically with the ‘Golliwog’ character. I also entered into discussion about the evening on the Facebook Alan Moore fan page, and from there I began talking to Laura Sneddon, who had expressed some reservations in an earlier review about Moore’s depiction of rape in Neonomicon.
Pam, Laura and I agreed that it would be interesting to hold a roundtable discussion by email about the issues we found problematic in some of Moore’s work, and Laura approached Heidi MacDonald of The Beat with the idea of developing an article from it. Pádraig Ó Méalóid was approached and invited to join the discussion as someone who remained an unequivocal fan and friend of Moore and his work.
The email discussion during December 2013 was an attempt to engage with key issues in Alan Moore’s work as a whole, prompted by the evening event. To publish it now would position it as a ‘reply’ to Moore’s recent interview – a reply that doesn’t even answer anything specific that he says, because it was written before his latest conversation with Pádraig. To reply directly to Moore’s interview would mean compromising and sacrificing elements of the discussion, and responding to his agenda rather than publishing the conversation we actually had in December.