Reviews: Magic Words – Padraig talks Alan Moore with Lance Parkin
It is just possible that, in Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore, Lance Parkin has invented a new way to write a biography, with this book. It’s an unauthorised biography that got the full approval of its subject, right at the very end, which I really don’t think anyone has done before. But before I get to that, I think a little personal disclosure is needed…
This is not the first time I’ve read this book. I got in touch with Lance Parkin through his blog in January 2012 in connection with something he’d said about Marvelman in his Alan Moore Pocket Essentials book from 2001, which I hoped he could clarify for me (which he did). As it turned out, he had been contemplating getting in touch with me at about the same time, as he had been commissioned by a publisher to write a book about Alan Moore, and as I’d written about, and posted images of rarities by, the selfsame Moore, he had hoped I might have a look at his book as he was writing it. And I did. Actually, the history of the writing of book itself is fascinating and unique, and the process of its creation is going to become part of its character, as time goes by, I think.
Nor am I unfamiliar with the subject of the book. I have been fortunate enough to interview Alan Moore half-a-dozen times, for this and other websites, over the past few years. I’ve met him, and even had him make me a cup of tea in his kitchen in Northampton, whilst I – perhaps foolhardily – tried to persuade him that the film version of V for Vendetta really wasn’t that bad. So, I’m by no means an innocent bystander, and this review will obviously by coloured by all of that.
(Alan Moore, a very young Neil Gaiman and Dave Gibbons at a mid 80s London comic bash, pic from our treasure trove of photos from our 30th anniversary special guest post for Nostalgia & Comics)
Actually, as Lance has managed to not so much blur as completely annihilate the line between authorised and unauthorised biography, I though the least I could do was to try to bring a bit more to this review that just my opinion, so this is more correctly an inter(re)view, as I also asked him some questions about the book, and about his own self, to boot. So, let me finally get on with it!
As I said above, Lance Parkin has been working on this book since at least the beginning of 2012. Actually, he’s been working on it for over three years. I asked him how this came about:-
“Aurum Press got in touch because they were looking for someone to read a draft of Alwyn Turner’s biography of Terry Nation, who created the Daleks. They were also wondering if I’d be interested in writing a biography of Arthur C Clarke. It wasn’t something that I’d thought of doing. I could see a way to do it, but it was a struggle to plot out. I casually mentioned to my editor Sam Harrison and my agent Jessica Papin that when I wrote my Alan Moore book it was much easier. They chatted among themselves and the next thing I knew, it had been decided that they’d love an Alan Moore book. That was late 2009, early 2010.”
And in case you’re wondering why Aurum though he’d be the man to consult on the Terry Nation biography, here’s a brief bit of background on his own writing pedigree:
“Oh – when I was about eleven, I’d got a ZX81, and I put together a newsletter thing called Sinclair for Schoolkids for a year or two. Just laying it out like that seems like I was dedicated from a young age to becoming a writer. I did want to be a newspaper journalist, until I found out that most people who work on newspapers aren’t Lois Lane breaking into secret rooms and discovering great injustices, they’re people who sit at a desk topping and tailing press releases.
I wrote a few articles for Doctor Who fanzines – one about Douglas Adams for In-Vision, a great fanzine that dedicated an issue to each Doctor Who story. I wrote about a dozen articles for the Doctor Who fanzine Matrix, most of which were reprinted a couple of years ago in a book called Time Incorporated. That was where the first version of my Doctor Who chronology A History of the Universe appeared. I wrote a Doctor Who novella, Snare for them, but that was actually after I’d submitted my first novel to Virgin.
I started out writing those Doctor Who novels for Virgin Books – the first, Just War, was published in January 1996. Those were original novels, not adaptations of TV episodes, and I guess they had some of that Alan Moore ‘grim and gritty’ ethos. I wrote three for Virgin, as well as A History of the Universe, which is the above-mentioned timeline of the Doctor Who universe.”
And of course this is not the first time he has written about Alan Moore, either. In 2001 Oldcastle Books published his Alan Moore: Pocket Essentials book, reissued in an updated edition in 2009. So, like myself, he has form…
In an odd echo of how Alan Moore first came upon the idea of his version of Marvelman, and then put it away for a number of years before doing anything with it, Lance also thought about doing a biography of Moore some years back:
“When I was at university at the University of York in the mid-nineties, one of my professors, Hermione Lee, was working on a biography of Virginia Woolf [Virginia Woolf, Chatto & Windus, London, 1996], and I idly wondered if Alan Moore would ever get the same kind of appraisal. I was approached by Aurum Press to write a book about Arthur C Clarke, and that never quite sparked into life, so I suggested a Moore biography. I shamelessly ripped off the structure of Hermione Lee’s book. It’s a biography, so it’s a chronological account of Moore’s life, but each chapter is also an essay on a particular aspect of Moore’s life.”
So, having interested Aurum Press in the book, how long did it take him to write it?
“They gave me the time and money to really get to grips with the project, we started talking about this very early in 2010, with the aim of having it out in time for Alan Moore’s 60th in November this year. So, about three and a half years. A luxurious amount of time that meant I could spend a year researching, a year writing and a year heavily revising. As someone who’s written books in six weeks before, this was rather wonderful. It’s been pretty solid work, though. I very quickly found there were over five hundred interviews with Alan Moore around, and then there are far more than that with all the various artists, editors and other people he’s worked with. I started out thinking I had virtually everything Moore had ever published … er, no. I had about two-thirds of it. I read or re-read virtually everything he’s written. He’s hugely prolific, and crops up in some very odd places at times. The problem was never going to be finding ways of stretching the book out to the word limit.”
(cover art for the new LOEG tale Nemo: the Roses of Berlin by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, due from Knockabout and Top Shelf in the spring of 2014)
And, finally, here’s Lance on writing the book, and how it went from being an unauthorised biography, to a strange mutant hybrid of unauthorised and the opposite.
“At the beginning of the process, I wrote a note – one of the strangest things I’ve ever written, there isn’t a form letter for ‘by the way, you don’t know me, but I’ve just been commissioned to write your biography’. I got a very polite note back saying ‘I don’t want anything to do with it, don’t bother my friends and family, but unauthorised biographies are usually the best ones’. I’ve had acceptance letters ruder than that rejection! So I went off, and for three years I wrote an unauthorised biography, and because I’d been told not to talk to Moore’s friends and family, that basically left me with mostly people he’s not talking to any more for whatever reason, and that was actually really good news for the book, because it creates this counternarrative. Alan Moore’s given a lot of interviews, and we’ve got a really good idea of his side of things, his version of events. I’ve no great reason to doubt what he says, I hasten to add, but he’s approaching it from his perspective, he doesn’t always have the full story, and any two people are going to remember the same conversation differently. We’re coming up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination, and the conspiracy theorists set great store on the fact that the eyewitness accounts don’t all agree with each other – well, I’d be a lot more suspicious if they did.
I wrote my book, my editor Sam Harrison edited it, I redrafted. In July it was done, and out of courtesy (and practical considerations – we wanted to include illustrations by Moore, and needed his permissions for those), Sam sent him the manuscript on a Friday. On Monday morning, he got a very enthusiastic phone call from Alan Moore saying he liked the book, and would love to talk to me about it, and Sam asked him if he’d give a quote to endorse the book, and he wrote a lovely one which is now splashed all over the front and back covers. I had two long phone interviews with Alan. The first was him going through the book and either correcting factual errors or adding a comment or two. I’ll stress at this point he said right at the beginning that this was my book and I could take or leave his comments. And that almost all of them were simple factual corrections – one interviewer had misheard him, he was able to tell me the name of the caravan site the family went to when he was a boy, supply some surnames of childhood friends, that kind of thing.
The second interview was me asking him about gaps in my narrative. Some really wonkish questions that I don’t think he’d been asked before, or that anyone who’d not just written a biography of him would be all that fascinated by, many of them about his early career and the Arts Lab, but I was able to get some details out of him about the break up with DC, and some unmade projects like Sun Dodgers and Underland. There were places in my draft that went ‘perhaps Moore expected’ or ‘maybe he was motivated by’ which I could pin down.
The book that’s coming out is the book I wrote with a sprinkling of information from those conversations. The only thing that I cut was a place where I guessed wrong (I thought he might have left Sounds because he was concerned about editorial interference, and that wasn’t the case). So I’m in this weird position of having written an unauthorised biography that the subject has endorsed. It wasn’t a hagiography, it wasn’t a hit job, I was just trying to give a fair account. I didn’t really have an agenda going in, except to untangle a few things. Coming out of it, I have a new appreciation for creators’ rights, but I don’t think Alan Moore’s the greatest victim the comics industry’s had. If anything, the scandal is that his deals count as good ones.”
But is it any good, this book? Oh yes. It’s wonderful. It’s a well-written, well-researched, balanced, and hugely enthralling book about a subject dear to my heart. It’s fair to say that I know quite a bit about Alan Moore and his work (he’s being modest, Pádraig is, of course, the Professor of Mooreology at Maximegalon University – Joe), but there is just so much more in here that I didn’t know, or that properly clarifies things that I did know.
Even having read drafts of various chapters as they were being written, I really enjoyed reading this, from cover to cover. Because, besides having thoroughly researched his subject, Lance Parkin can actually write. His prose carries us effortlessly through the book, above and beyond how interested we might be in its subject. And, while this is a book that the Moore fans will like, I think it is also perfectly accessible to the non-expert, as well. I mean, people like me were always going to buy another book about The Master, but this is a book for everyone, even if they know pretty much nothing about Moore’s work. There’s always a danger of writing to the choir, and forgetting that not everyone knows about things like monthly comic schedules and who Tharg is, and it can be very difficult avoid this, but this biography is scrupulously fair. It is, as Parkin himself says, very much not a hagiography and, for a man who is obviously very enthusiastic about his subject, he’s not afraid of pointing out Moore’s bad decisions, and character flaws, either.
(Alan Moore in Cerebus by Dave Sim and Gerhard, image shamelessly borrowed from the fine A Moment of Cerebus site)
And the book itself is beautiful, too. It’s a squat hardcover, 426 pages long, which includes the text, thirty pages of notes and references, and a comprehensive index, which gladdens my heart. On the cover, there’s a photograph of our beloved Magus, complete with a smoking cigarette of some kind or another. The edges of the pages are all stained black, but the cover photograph has just one tiny bit of spot-lamination, so that his eye twinkles as you, all of which could be a leitmotif for the book in general, as Parkin strongly makes the case that even Moore’s most portentous and apparently dark work, Watchmen, was really written as a comedy, and with a twinkle in its own eye.
Obviously, quite a bit of the book deals with Moore’s time at DC Comics, and with the above mentioned Watchmen. He said to me, “Moore’s interesting – possibly unique – because he’s not after a bigger slice of pie. DC are just baffled by him. They just don’t seem to get that the only ‘right’ Moore wants is the right to say ‘don’t do that’. And, of course, that’s the only power that actually matters.” And I don’t think it’d be making too much of a presumption to suggest that Parkin shares my opinion that Moore spent his time at DC spinning straw into gold, and that DC have spent the time since then attempting to spin that gold back into straw again. But he does his best to explain the circumstances of what was going on, and how it all went wrong, and there’s things that I didn’t know about until I read them here, and which I’m going to have to read again, just to make sure I grasp them fully.
Because, really, that’s the kind of book this is. I can see myself returning to it many times in future, particularly with the help of that index I mentioned above. You can’t beat a properly searchable reference book and, as well as all the other things this book is, that’s very much what it is, too. The number of fresh interviews in this, with people who have never been interviewed about their work with Moore before, like Bernie Jaye, Moore’s editor at Marvel UK, make this a great resource, just on their own.
So, you’ll have all got the idea that I liked the book, by now. And, yes, I loved it. Not because it’s by a man I know – but haven’t met, although that’ll change on the 26th of November – or because it’s about a man whose work I love – although both of those things are in there, as well – but because it’s well written, informative, and an important book on an important subject. It helps us to better understand and appreciate both the man and his work, and shines light into some previously dark corners. There are undoubtedly areas of Moore’s life that remain to be explored – we still know almost nothing about his personal life, his family life, although it is likely that that will remain so as, while he’s always happy to talk about his work, and him political and magical beliefs, he still has a very private side, which we are unlikely to see him suddenly open up about. But his magical work, his music, his burgeoning film-making career, these all await fuller exploration. And there’s probably still quite a bit of work to come, all of which will need to be written about, one fine day.
There have been other biographies of Moore, of course, and this book is a crucial and important addition to that growing canon. My own opinion is that all these books are points on a continuum, all important, but none of them definitive, as I think a definitive biography of Alan Moore simply isn’t possible. This book, whilst talking about the same man, does so in a radically different way to Gary Spencer Millidge’s Alan Moore: Storyteller – which, it pretty much goes without saying, you should all have on your shelves, as well as this book! In fact, the two books could not be more different, in a lot of ways: Millidge’s book was written to a deadline, with a very rigid pre-established word-count, for a publisher who wanted to produce a glossy, heavily illustrated work, and it was done with full cooperation of its subject. Parkin’s book, really, is the opposite of all that, and is a sort of inside-out, alternative narrative to it. If Millidge’s book is big and shiny, then Parkin’s lurks in the moonlight shadow, a far more interesting place to be, betimes. But both illuminate, none the less. And there will be more biographies of Moore, no doubt, building and expanding on all the ones that have gone before, and showing us more things we didn’t know, or hadn’t seen in that particular light before.
For the time being, though, there’s this beautiful jewel of a book. Go buy it, and read it.