Jun 19, 2018

Old Stories Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, and Black Dossier

“WARNING: YOU WILL BE TOLD HOW AND WHEN TO USE IT.”
- Black Dossier, pg 5

Old Stories
Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, and Black Dossier
Travis Hedge Coke

Originally conceived as a guidebook to whet the appetite between volumes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Black Dossier could have been the most disposable comic either had ever worked on. It is, in its published forms, potentially the most demonstrative example of what both can and have achieved in comics. Black Dossier is the mature beginning of what comics, taken to their sincere extremes, can be.

An epistolary novel told in the styles of William Shakespeare, Franz von Bayros, Jack Kerouac, and P.G. Wodehouse, among other artists and writers, Black Dossier is almost two comics running in relay race bursts. Or, perhaps, better to say, they are braided together. There is a throughline narrative, set in one time period, moving chronologically forward, set in the late 1950s, as a dash across England, by two immortals who have stolen a book of secrets from a totalitarian government in decline. Scattered, before, between, and outside of this, are the stories documented in that book, describing the narrative history of the human Earth, from the Miocene up to only the year before our “modern narrative” couple, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain and Bram Stoker’s Mina Murray. One, the shape of everything, the other, the shape of now that is fifty years earlier than the comics’ date of publication. Together, they fight crime form an interpretive dance version of our collective Anglo entertainment history.

The quality of the writing (and the art) is difficult to gauge, even by the standards that we usually do, as so much of it is in mimicry of other peoples’ forms and habits, from children’s cartoons to Crowleyian treatises. I think Moore’s William Shakespeare is not bad, his Jack Kerouac is nothing like any tone or technique Kerouac employed but immense fun, and his Jeeves and Wooster story is a flub as a Wodehouse pastiche or a Lovecraft horror tale. I can at times, roll my eyes to the same scene that generates real laughter or genuine tears. I stare in awe, deep and across the surface of so many of the illustrations, then the eurocentric lens, or the male gaze of the artwork overwhelms and locks me out in a tedium.

It’s ridiculous that a two-hundred page volume could feel so monstrously big and dense and radically packed, but it is packed firm. Black Dossier blows up like a powder keg when you start it up, a machine of myriad angles and refractory reflections. Is a perfectly executed pastiche of cheap kid lit still cheap kid lit, or something “higher”? When content reflects era and mode, and not the mores and expectations of the time of publication, is the evocation forgiven or a strength? Or, is it still something you can mark down for? Is there good in me marking, anyway? Either way?

“I'd started asking the librarian if she had books with magic and spaceships and dragons and stuff in them, but with some black people, too.”
- Pam Noles, shame
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest the majority of readers only ever read the 1958, with the dossier sections skimmed, skipped, or read separately, as if they were disparate narratives. This, too, is the history and present-day landscape of our literary and entertainment inheritance. “If I wanted to read a novel, I would read a novel. I bought a comic and I will only read the little boxes with pictures and dialogue balloons,” to closely paraphrase a poster on the old Comic Book Resources boards. A number of League fans seem actually offended that there are sections formatted as essays, illustrated memoir, novel excerpts, and stage play script. It bothers them.



And, “we” don’t read what we aren’t told to. Too many readers skip prologues or afterwords, even where, as with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, they are of vital, total-text-altering significance. Truism and truth. The villains of the comic explicitly do not want “us” to know what is in these documents, or how they share with us what is in them, the artistry and execution of the Shakespeare scenes or the John Cleland sequel to Fanny Hill. That would, you might believe, inspire some readers to dig into them, and to dig in them for secrets and relevancies, but audiences do not work this way. People can, but audiences do not, something I fully expect Moore and O’Neill understand.

Sad, because these dynamics of what is considered important and what is considered undesirable or dismissible are central to the comics’ concerns. The story, from the intimate to the cosmogonic, is one of trust and of trust’s abuse. On the cosmic level, the various divine forces are shaping and reshaping human existence to further their own ends, regardless of how they may implore worship or command a sense of compassion (or passion). At the personal, we have a loving couple, Allan and Mina, their compatriot and sometime lover, Orlando, and the inversion, in the three government agents pursuing them while attacking, humiliating, and using one another. Mina, Orlando, and Allan are love and love of adventure. James Bond and Bulldog Drummond are the human faces, the human hands of betrayal and adherence to the law that lets their hand fly as they like it.

Ema Night? Ema is a government agent, but she does not betray, lie, rape, cheat, or exhibit the dramatic bigotries of her associates, does she? She does not. But, it’s different for women.
“[P]eople could accuse me of wallowing in those elements under the guise of postmodernism and they’d probably be right. I don’t think you get an unpleasant atmosphere after reading the stories.” - Alan Moore, discussing scenes in which schoolgirls are shown midair, raped by an invisible man, climaxing in jokes, from Heroes and Monsters, Jess Nevins

One of the worst tendencies in Alan Moore comics, to my mind, is his reductive distinction of male and female as cosmogonic forms, and spiritual formalisms. Women simply, in Moore comics, are not the same as men, in any way. Ema Night is, in large part, consigned to the woman to be betrayed, to be infantilized and used, both by her godfather, Hugo “Bulldog” Drummond, and by James “Jimmy” Bond, who murdered her father before they team up, and will go on to seduce her and murder her godfather. Drummond is a racist, sexist paranoid. Bond is a murderer, rapist, and weasel. Night is a smart, vivacious, martial arts nightmare who… can be manipulated, used, and betrayed by men. It’s the men who have thematic agency, and that she will get hers in another comic, published a few years after, is no genuine recompense.

These are important, heart-of-us-all subjects to cover, and Black Dossier is a mature, considered push of them to prominence. Prospero, late in the comic, tells us that fiction is often our best parent, our most reliable friend, frequently our first lover, but it is, to paraphrase his paraphrase, a bead game of a guide. Trust and its abuse, truth, semblance, and deception are worthy things to consider, this comic does not, however, always rise to the consideration as it should. Bigotry can be mature and considered. Avoidance of responsibility can occur just as easily in the old as in a youth.


Women and people of color are given short-shrift in what is supposedly a model of human entertainment history. Even within Anglophone entertainment, that the first English novel is by a woman, that Shakespeare’s most nuanced and wary characters are frequently women is brushed aside in inexplicable erasure. Women appear, largely, so they can have sex with lots of people and things, or bend over for us. Orlando, who alternates between male, female, and variant forms between — and yes, I take this seriously — is good at “fighting and fucking,” and it’s all fighting when he’s male, and when female, “prostitution and small fraud,” “handmaiden,” who was both seduced as a hundreds of years old adult by a thirteen year old boy, and upon meeting the founders of Rome, “slept with both accidentally, prompting Romulus to murder his brother.”

“Seen from here I appear as a most unsightly cartoon of someone who is awful enough to begin with.”
- The Cat Inside, William Burroughs

Lesbian and straight sex will often be indulged in, in full page illustrations or lengthy, detailed relationships. Male homosexuality is almost cheesily euphemismed and coded, referred to after or before the fact. An inoffensive exercise, were it not for the conceit that this is covering all Anglo entertainment history, and to a lesser degree, all human entertainment, human fantasy from the beginning of time. Even in short form, the lack of male homosexuality or male homoeroticism draws attention to itself and never in a good way.

And, have we mentioned that virtually everyone is white? The first novel in English has more human beings of color with dialogue than Black Dossier. Sinbad the sailor, maybe a lama in Shangri-La, both of whom appear for one panel each, Captain Nemo, who appears in description by white characters and in the corner of a two-page spread detailing his submarine. Some Fantippo black citizens in a state of half-dress, no shirts and breechclouts and bowties, tophat, with a Big Ben and lamppost made out of jungle trees, for one panel. One sentence referencing “a Malay” and “a tall Negro with excellent bone structure.” The word “negro” gets played with in the excerpt from a Sal Paradyse novel, echoing era-specific Ginsberg usage, but applied to skies and streets, not people.

The most prominent black character, whose role is to talk funny, look funny, drive the vehicle for our white heroes, and have a big penis, is the Golliwog. And, the Golliwog is not human.

“Where ‘British’ was written for his nationality, a cop crossed that out and wrote ‘Wog.’ On another book-in sheet, ‘Wog' was typed in as his nationality.”
- Pam Noles, Small Update…


That is race in Black Dossier, that is our cultural inheritance, our history of fantasy and fantasizing. A white white world that sometimes as a tall negro with excellent bone structure hiding in half a sentence.



The subplot of a faery evacuation from “the world,” which is miniatured as England, is colonialism by metaphor. The locals striking a “bargain,” by which they are evacuated out of sight, so that white Britons are all you see and who own the land. The same is echoed in Orlando’s description of the “founding” of Britain and the wiping out of the indigenous peoples, giants (The Life of Orlando, Chapter 3: I Discover Britain, a section of Black Dossier). And, yes, fair, this is a good part of the history of English behavior and English descriptive warfare on other peoples.

The excuse that it is focused on Anglophone literature and entertainment would only sustain were it true. German film, French art, Roman and Greek myth and poetry are all brought into play. Asian literature, is not. The existence of black entertainment, by black Africans or black people of other nations, including those where English is most prominent, are unseen and unreferenced. Black and Asian characters are single panel cameos. And, the nonhuman Golliwog and his oiled big dick and nonsense speech-patterns are on roughly twenty of the two hundred pages comprising Black Dossier.

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill most likely will never see what I have written here, nor am I writing it for them. They have lived long lives. They are geniuses in their fields. They know what they do.

If they want to perform sort of psychic and sociographic colonialism under the guise of sharing universality and mutuality, I have neither the urge nor capacity to redirect them. But, I can talk about their work and its effects. I can talk to our readings of their work, and what affects our readings and recapitulations may do.

If both Moore and O’Neill want to dismiss Will Brooker (“[A] Batman scholar, who… who… had difficulty in interpreting the fifteen-minute film” - Last Alan Moore Interview?) and Pam Noles (“[A]n African-American woman (if that is still an acceptable U.S. term) who had seemed upset by our inclusion of the Golliwog/Galley-Wag” - ibid), they’ll have no concern with me.

Nine panel grids, six panel grids, integral 3D fx, false documents, annotations, homages, pastiche, parody, an intense range of tones and styles, prose and illustration, artificial weathering, a dozen typefaces, different paper stocks for different effects, paratexts, the mimicry of stageplay, popular song, essay, personal letter, business report, newspaper ad, beat paperback, and government-issued pornography make Black Dossier illustrative of what genius hands and minds can do in the form and field of comics. It illustrates the strong range of what comics can be. It illustrates the sad truth of what they probably, as field and form, are.


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