More nattering about the new Comics Journal — one of the long reviews in the issue is a piece by Tim Kreiner about Alan Moore’s Black Dossier. Kreiner’s overall point seems pretty dead on — the book is self-indulgent in a really boring way. A lot of his smaller points seem kind of off base, though. For instance, he argues that:
Moore seems particularly interested in the reasons for the decline in the quality and power of fantastic literature in the 20th century. Part of it has to do with the postwar ascendancy of American culture over British (a shift in power made explicit by the internecine plot that Mina and Allan uncover), but part of it is a more general atrophy of the popular imagination. By mid-20th century, flags had been planted at the poles, and the Congo and Amazon basins were no longer tantalizing terra incognita, leaving the world more bounded, finite and known than it had been in Victorian times. Imaginative literature left lost continents and battling airships behind for other planets and the wholly imaginary worlds of Lovecraft and Tolkein, leaving present-day genre fiction to the sordid realities of the Cold War. This book is set uncomfortably closer to the unromantic present…. The difference in tone between the first volumes and this one is the difference between Wells’ exhilarating apocalypse and Orwell’s dreary dystopia, between Conan Doyle’s logical world of problems and solutions and Graham Greene’s murky moral ambivalence.
I don’t know…I just don’t quite buy it. Lovecraft’s world isn’t wholly imaginary, just for a start, and Moore uses the Elder Gods to good effect (as Kreiner notes). I love Wells, but C.S. Lewis is at least his equal (Lewis’ martians actually show up in the first series). Kreiner suggests that Emma Peel is weak tea as an iconic character, but I’ve just finished watching her entire run on the Avengers, and I think I have to disagree. She’s certainly a much more interesting character than the original Mina — the success of Dracula has had as much to do with great movie adaptations as with the original book, which was actually pretty mediocre. Conan Doyle isn’t any better than Agatha Christie. Sure, Hercule Poirot isn’t quite as big a name as Sherlock Holmes — but is Captain Nemo really all that iconic? I guess you could argue back and forth, but It just seems a bit much to blame Moore’s failure on the decline of Western literature.
I also think Kreiner’s a little off base when he argues that:
This, I’m afraid, is what happens when a master craftsman starts thinking of himself as a Great Artist and becomes more interested in increasingly elaborate filigree than in the nuts-and-bolts structure of the thing he’s supposed to be building. In this regard it is classic Stoner Art, so richly frilled with reverberant detail that the underlying form dissolves. The obsessively worked-out backstory and metatextual jamming — which were perhaps always Moore’s real interests — have been brought unabashedly to the fore, while the ostensible plot and main characters have receded to perfunctory sketches. When the characters and the story stand on their own, this extra dimension is just a bonus. But what was peripheral in the earlier works is now the whole point; this book’s raison d’être seems to be to provide fodder for Jess Nevins’ website. The Black Dossier is, in other words, the stupefying Silmarillion to volumes I and II’s rousing Lord of the Rings.
Kreiner also compares the Black Dossier to the end of C.S. Lewis’ “Last Battle”, when Aslan is more directly linked to Christ, and all the major characters die — which Kreiner characterizes as a “creepy and didactic ending”. I happen to think that the Last Battle is pretty much perfect, myself; it’s certainly creepy and didactic, but such is the apocalypse. It’s also, I think, actually the antithesis of the Black Dossier. Moore’s whole point is that the real is imaginary; Lewis is arguing that the imaginary is real. For Moore, the intertextual games, the play of imagination, is the point of existence — he worships his own imagination; it’s geekery as religion. Lewis, on the other hand, has created a fiction, and the fiction is truth, but it’s the truth that is real, not the fictiveness. Moore’s problem in the Black Dossier (and, I’d argue, in Promethea) is that he’s mistaken his own wankery for a moral and philosophical stance. You may disagree with Lewis, but he certainly never does that — his philosophy and morality are Christian, and, whatever you may say about Christianity, you can’t say that Lewis worships it because he made it up.
I guess the point is that I don’t think that the main problem is that Moore has let the philosophy overwhelm the plot, so much as that he’s let the philosophy overwhelm the plot, and that the philosophy happens to be both glib and stupid. There are great works of art that don’t rely on plot — everything from Lautremont to Becket’s novels to Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, to name just three. But if you’re going to abandon plot as the main engine of interest, you do need to have something else to say.
My brother Eric Berlatsky actually has a really interesting take on the Black Dossier’s intellectual content, or lack thereof, if more Alan Moore bashing is your cup of tea….