Alan Moore is well known for his groundbreaking comics, his mistreatment at the hands of his former publishers, and his tendency to respond to any sort of criticism or disagreement by abruptly and dramatically cutting off all contact with the offending party. Unfortunately, this post is about the last of these.
I don’t follow Twitter, so I hadn’t realized until last night that comics scholar Will Brooker took to that outlet to criticize some of the more unsavory elements of Moore’s recent work. Moore has now responded in a lengthy interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid where he doggedly lays into rank after rank of straw men while refusing to acknowledge the real reasons Brooker and other readers have criticized his comics.
To unpack every bad-faith assumption, projection, or inaccuracy in this interview would be a month’s work, but I hope a few examples will show why I found this interview so profoundly disappointing (while also sadly typical of Moore’s public statements in recent years). For reasons that I’ll explain below, I want to focus on his response to the criticisms of his use of the Golliwogg in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, criticisms that were first and most substantively expressed by Pam Noles in a series of blog posts from 2007. This is how Moore (with a helpful prompt from Ó Méalóid) represents those criticisms:
PÓM: 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?
AM: The idea that it is not the place of two white men to ‘reclaim’ (although I’m not certain that’s exactly what we were doing) or otherwise utilise a contentious black character, unless I am to understand that this principle only applies to white men using black characters, would appear to be predicated upon an assumption that no author or artist should presume to use characters who are of a different race to themselves.
Pam Noles has not been shy about her criticisms of Black Dossier. It would be easy to read her work and discover that Noles never makes the assumption that Moore generously attributes to her. (In fact, I’m not familiar with any critic of Black Dossier who has made that assumption. Brooker criticized Moore and his fellow panelists for defending the Golliwogg as a “strong black character,” not for writing characters of a different race.) It would be easy to learn that Noles cites several examples of artists and writers who she feels use blackface characters and imagery in an appropriately critical or historical context, including white artists like David Levinthal and white writers like Paul Theroux and Bill Willingham. It would be easy, in short, to grapple with the actual criticisms Noles made and not the ludicrous arguments Moore makes for her—but that might require recognizing that Noles has a point.
I also have to point out Moore’s historical revisionism when he claims he’s not certain that he and Kevin O’Neill set out to reclaim the Golliwogg. He seemed pretty certain when he told Jess Nevins,
Now, it seemed to us on looking over this material that the Golliwog as a figure had been grossly misrepresented. […] So what we thought we’d like to do is take this perhaps needlessly controversial figure, strip him of the minstrel clothes that he was later, and not in any of Florence M. Upton’s narratives, but he was later dressed in, to take all of those elements away, to restore him to the original figure (Nevins, Impossible Territories 201-2)
Moore seemed pretty certain when he told Nevins “We mainly wanted to dispel any racist notions. […] we wanted to further distance our character from any Golliwog that the readers may have previously come across” (Impossible Territories 203). O’Neill seemed pretty certain when he told Noles to her face that “he and Moore want to rescue the Golliwogg by reintroducing it to the mix in a new form.” Not only is Moore not being honest about his critics’ statements, he’s not being honest about his own.
And he is supposedly responding to Noles’s statements, as indicated by his reference to the “American photographer” who met Kevin O’Neill at a signing. I also want to point out the unctuous manner in which he feigns respect for Noles and her views while refusing to represent them honestly or accurately. (Or, you know, learn her name.) From later in the interview:
Now, this person has an absolutely inalienable right to her reaction, and I am not suggesting or implying that her response was ‘wrong’ in any way. If that was her reading of the story, then she is fully entitled to retain her opinion. I would hope that in my lengthy response to the first several questions on your list that I may have perhaps allayed some of her misgivings, although my feeling is that this is frankly unlikely.
Apparently Moore is just conscious enough of the racial politics of the situation that he doesn’t subject Noles to the same scorn he visits on other critics. Instead he goes through all the outward observances of respecting her opinion while slipping in little passive-aggressive digs, like the implication that she’s too close-minded to have her misgivings allayed.
I at least hope that in having raised her concerns and been listened to in a personal encounter with the book’s artist, and now having these issues addressed to the best of his ability by the book’s writer, that she will accept that her concerns have been engaged with to a degree that is greater than most readers could or would reasonably expect. I would point out that while everyone is entitled to their informed opinion, this is actually the full extent of their entitlement.
Or the implication that Noles’s criticism stems from her entitlement, with maybe just a hint that her opinion is misinformed.
Possibly because I’m typing this on Christmas Eve I feel inclined, despite the long hiatus between this person first airing her grievance and us hearing anything further from her, to take her stance at face value.
Or the implication that her failure to contact the notoriously private Moore in person, or to voice her criticisms continually over the past six years, means those criticisms are suspect. (If she had contacted him in person or voiced her criticisms continually over the years, perhaps he would accuse her of being a stalker, as he does Laura Sneddon and Grant Morrison.)
Also, taking somebody’s stance at face value isn’t generally a favor that you do them only in a burst of Christmas cheer. It’s a basic courtesy you show anybody who presents their views honestly, assuming you are interested in presenting yours honestly in return. And it requires that you actually read and respond to their words, not somebody else’s misleading summary of them.
I can readily imagine how justifiably angry the depiction of non-white characters in contemporary comics, or the relatively tiny number of artists or writers of colour compared to the number of non-white comic readers, could make anyone, irrespective of their colour or ethnicity. I simply feel – and this is only my personal opinion and in no way privileged over her own – that in this instance that anger is misdirected.
Now Moore wants to demonstrate that he’s a committed anti-racist who understands institutional racism and privilege. Earlier in the interview he tries to separate his use of the Golliwogg from the statements of Carol Thatcher and other right-wingers who cherish their golly toys and stickers (or, in Thatcher's case, their right to use the name as a racist insult without any consequences). But his separation boils down to his insistence that the original character wasn’t racist, only the later exploitations of the stereotype (Noles demolished that one six years ago), and his somewhat befuddled statement that “I would have hoped that it might be fairly obvious, with a little thought, that neither I nor Kevin are likely to be of that persuasion, but it appears not.”
Moore seems genuinely to believe that his own politics indemnify him against racism, that asserting or even hinting at his left-wing bona fides means he couldn’t possibly be lumped in with Carol Thatcher even though they both defend the same blackface imagery. Moore seems to believe—as many of us do—that racism is solely a matter of bad intentions, not actions or institutions, and that not having those bad intentions means his actions couldn’t possibly be racist. I’m sure he is quite sincere in this belief. I’m sure he’s honestly shocked at the criticisms of his use of the Golliwogg. (Although how surprised should you be that people in the twenty-first century might object to the use of a blackface character?) It doesn’t change the fact that he chose to use a racist caricature in his comics, free of any critical or historical context.
It also doesn’t change the fact that Moore seems to think any anger at racism is justifiable, provided it isn’t directed at him.
As I understand it from the questions I’ve been asked, the major bone of contention seems to be the question of whether white creators can presume to present possibly controversial material relating to black characters.
No. Just no.
I’ve addressed this more comprehensively above, but would only add that if I had adopted this attitude back in 1999/2000, there is every likelihood that the United States, surely embarrassingly, would be nearly a decade-and-a-half into the 21st century and still without any positive examples of mixed-race marriages producing mixed-race offspring anywhere in its media. Certainly not in its comic books.
Yes, if Alan Moore hadn’t written a couple of minority supporting characters in his book about a square-jawed white guy fifteen years ago, the United States wouldn’t have any positive examples of mixed-race marriages producing mixed-race offspring anywhere in our media.
Thank God we have Alan Moore to save us from ourselves. Which book was that, by the way?
(I’m referring to Tom Strong here, incidentally, which is apparently also distinguished by the fact that it is the one title in my oeuvre in which I somehow managed to restrain myself from depicting acts of sexual violence against women.)
No, that would be the one where Moore changed it up by depicting an act of sexual violence against a man.
The whole interview is like this—although to call it an interview is being generous. Ó Méalóid only asks six questions, apparently submitted ahead of time as a list, and Moore responds at length. It’s not clear whether Ó Méalóid asked any follow-up questions, but it looks like he lets Moore’s responses go unchallenged. And the questions he does ask, particularly on the Golliwogg, invite Moore to respond to the weakest possible version of his critics’ arguments. But perhaps I’m being too hard on Ó Méalóid—he asks Moore these questions more directly than anybody else has, and Moore’s answers reveal more about him than I, at least, have ever wanted to know.
Noles, of course, is more than capable of answering Moore on her own and doesn’t need me or anybody else rushing to her rescue. I’ve focused on Moore’s defense of the Golliwogg because that happens to be the area I’m researching right now—literally right now, as in I would be wrapping up my section on the Golliwogg today if this rancid little ball of spite and denial hadn’t dropped from the ether—and I’ve spent the last month and a half looking over Black Dossier, the Upton books, Noles’s criticisms, and all the Moore and O’Neill interviews I could find on this subject. The distortions, the revisions, the straw men, and the outright lies jump out at me most clearly on this issue, and the evidence that exposes and disproves them is closest at hand.
But the whole interview is like this. Moore is just as evasive and intellectually dishonest in responding to criticisms of his frequent reliance on rape and sexualized violence. He’s just as misleading about Grant Morrison, fudging dates and inventing interview quotes and acts of plagiarism. (If anybody can identify the Morrison work that copies Lost Girls, let me know.) He’s just as defensive in his final paragraph on Gordon Brown, where he expresses something that could almost pass for contrition if he didn’t lace it with those hallmarks of the non-apology apology, “I’m sorry if anyone took offense” and “Some of my best friends are ____.”
All in all, this is not so much an interview as an increasingly ugly self-portrait of an artist who, for all his considerable gifts, cannot accept that he has said or done or written something offensive and does not know how to respond other than to double down on the original mistake.
Moore has been cutting off his acquaintances and announcing his retirements for some twenty years now. I have to say, I hope this one sticks. In this interview alone, he says no longer wants any contact with Morrison’s publisher or Sneddon’s employers. He doesn’t want any contact with their friends, artistic collaborators, or associates. He asked Lance Parkin, as sympathetic a biographer as any author could ask for, not to interview any of his friends and family. (Perhaps the book would’ve had fewer Morrison quotes if he had?) And now he claims he’s going to cut back on interviews and withdraw from what remains of his public life. I’ll believe that when I see it, frankly, but I think it’s a good idea and I hope he follows through with it. Certainly this last one has done him no favors.
He also asks if “admirers of Grant Morrison’s work would please stop reading mine, as I don’t think it fair that my respect and affection for my own readership should be compromised in any way by people that I largely believe to be shallow and undiscriminating.”
That one, I’m afraid I can’t oblige, at least when it comes to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If there’s one thing this interview has made clear, it’s that Moore’s body of work needs more criticism and more pushback against his frequent recourse to sexual violence and racial stereotypes. Because we need to make it impossible for him to minimize or isolate or misrepresent the thoughtful and judicious criticisms that are already out there.
Because while Noles and Brooker and those other critics are more than capable of responding to Moore, the fact is they shouldn’t have to do it alone. When Moore fills his comics with racist caricatures and misogynistic violence—and defends them in such dishonest terms—he makes them everybody’s problem.