Alan Moore Book Club: Illuminations: What We Can Know About Thunderman

by Koom Kankesan


This column of posts will deal with the stories in Alan Moore‘s new collection Illuminations. Some of these stories are old and some are new.

The longest story in Illuminations, at 241 pages, ‘What We Can Know About Thunderman’, is a savage satire of the mainstream comics industry. It is dedicated to the recently deceased Kevin O’Neill and begins with four professionals in a diner: their names are Brandon Chuff, Dan Wheems, Jerry Binkle, and Milton Finefinger. If the names aren’t enough to tip you off that this is going to be a ridiculous parody, then the events that transpire at the diner and Moore’s descriptions of the comics professionals quickly cement the mode. While Wheems’ stitches from a surgery bleed out all over the place, Finefinger inadvertently gets himself punched out by the waitress and Chuff sits there rigidly, his condescending smile frozen, dead from a stroke before the clueless geeks/professionals eventually notice something is wrong. Another character with an equally ridiculous name, Worsley Porlock, who has moved through the ranks of the industry also figures prominently in the tale but, perhaps due to the lack of inherent warmth and camaraderie in the industry, is not at the diner with his peers.

Porlock, along with Wheems and David Moskowitz (the head guy at American Comics where Porlock works) end up visiting Chuff’s apartment to clean things up and are aghast to find the entire apartment swimming in pornographic publications, opened face up. The opened publications offer them a sea of exposed private parts and is so high and extensive that Porlock discovers that the best way to maneuver through the apartment is to swim through the publications which in their consistency and nature act like an ersatz liquid medium. Things only get worse from there.

There will be the inclination when reading something like this to try and figure out who all the real life analogues are but this is of little interest to me. In the interest of getting this out of the way, I’m going to post a list of what Alex Grand, a very active comics historian, has deduced using his own detailed knowledge of the comics business. Fictional names are on the left and real life analogues are on the right:

American Comics – DC Comics
Massive Comics – Marvel Comics
Goliath Comics – Atlas Comics
Punctual Comics – Timely Comics
Banner Comics – Charlton Comics (?)
Sammy Blatz – Stan Lee
Jerry Binkle – Roy Thomas (?)
Brandon Chuff – Len Wein (?) or Nelson Bridwell (?)
Sherman Glad – Gardner Fox
The Streak – The Flash
Mr. Ocean – Aquaman
Moon Queen – Wonder Woman
Omnipotent Pre-Teen Militia – Teen Titans
Esme Martinez – Ramona Fradon
Pete Mastroserio – Dick Giordano
Mimi Drucker – Jenette Kahn
United Supermen – Justice League of America
Blinky Comics – Archie Comics
Tombstone Kid – Two Gun Kid
Abnormal Tales – Strange Tales
Journey Into Strange – Journey Into Mystery
Tales of Astonishing – Tales to Astonish
Ormazda – Thor
King Bee – Batman
World’s Best Adventure – World’s Best Comics
Exploit Comics – Action Comics
Thunderman – Superman
Peggy Parks – Lois Lane
Manhunt – Detective Comics
Alarming Adult Reverie – Amazing Adult Fantasy
Freak Force – X-Men
Julius Metzenberger – Mort Weisinger
Jim Lawes – Bill Gaines
Jim Lawes Sr – Max Gaines
SP Comics – EC Comics
Nutcase – MAD
Schuman and Kessler – Siegel and Shuster
Zando – Krypto
Demento – Bizarro
Thunderstones – Kryptonite
The Vindictives – The Avengers
Joe Gold – Jack Kirby
The Unrealistic Five – The Fantastic Four
Felix Firestone – Lex Luthor
Dr. Unrealistic – Mr. Fantastic
John Monster – Ben Grimm
The Tank – The Thing
Insubstantial Girl – Invisible Girl
National Guard – Captain America
Robert Novak – Steve Ditko
Beetle Boy – Spider-Man
David Moskowitz – Paul Levitz
Brothers Brothers – Warner Bros.
Bee Attitude – Batmania
Jimjon – Biljo White
Davis Burke – Dick Sprang
Hooded Vigilante – Alter Ego
The Massive Collector – Rocket Blast Comic Collector
Fishman – Sub-Mariner
Thundermite – Mxyzptlk
Professor Abnormal – Doctor Strange
Disturbing – Creepy
Inappropriate – Eerie
Shaw Magazines – Warren Magazines
margins – Witzend
Slim Whitaker – Wally Wood
Squack – Zap
Buzz – Robin
Caretaker – Guardian
Bee Buggy – Batmobile
Denny Wellworth – Archie Goodwin
Edward Hannigan – Jerry Robinson
Ron Blackwell – Bill Finger
Ralph Roth – Marv Wolfman (?)
Cosmax – Galactus
Corpse Clutcher, Necro-Filing Clerk

Morgue Minder – The Old Witch

Crypt Keeper – Vault Keeper
Unbelievable Stories – Amazing Stories
Albert Kaufman – Harry Donenfeld
Sidney Rosenfeld – Jack Liebowitz
Distance – Kinney
Sol Stickman – Julius Schwartz
Hector Bass – Robert Kanigher
Our Unshaven Army – Our Army at War
Thunderland – Krypton
Bernard Essler – Max Fleischer
Zoom Wilson – Flash Gordon
Flip Fraser – Buster Crabbe
Donald Adams – Kirk Alyn
Victor Richards – George Reeves
Zoron – Jor-El
Sir Laurence Olivier – Marlon Brando
Dirk Bogarde – Gene Hackman
Saul Richard – Christopher Reeve
Elaine Merchant – Lois Lane
Lord Varex – Zod
Macropolis – Metropolis
Val Guest – Dick Lester
Brian Ball – Dean Caine
Kate Porter – Teri Hatcher
Asher Tarrant – Tom Welling
Derek Danner – Michael Rosenbaum
Christopher Gent – Brandon Routh
Stephen Beacher – Henry Cavill
Millie the Model – Ellie the Escort
Jackie Berman – Martin Goodman
Frank Giardino – Vince Colletta
The Brute – The Hulk
Miniman and Minimaid – Ant-Man and Wasp
Wendy Dietrich – Flo Steinberg
Massive Pigsty – Marvel Bullpen
Andrew Donald – Alex Raymond
Roy Shaw – Jim Warren
Gene Pullman – Jim Shooter (?)
Glenfield – Riverdale
Bottleneck – Jughead

If you have any issues with any of this, take it up with Alex Grand. Seriously, Grand does admit that there are a few characters such as Wheems and Finefinger (two of the more sympathetic professionals in the tale) whom he cannot figure out. This is because while Moore’s tale has been fashioned to transmit his perceptions and feelings about actual characters and events in the comics business, much has been exaggerated, conflated, or simply invented for the sake of comic effect. Given the length of the list above, it’s obvious that Moore does have extensive knowledge and interest in comics history and more importantly, has put considerable effort into this project. Paul Levitz, head of DC Comics during Moore’s employment there, has said that perhaps he and others are fair game but Moore’s characterization of Nelson Bridwell as Chuff is extremely mean spirited, unnecessary, and below Moore. Regardless of whatever Moore’s feelings may or may not be towards Bridwell, it’s obvious that Chuff isn’t simply an analogue for him. While DC employees did find Bridwell’s apartment piled high with stacks of magazines and comics and pulps, Bridwell did not act like Chuff does in Moore’s tale: petty, sexually predatory, condescending, passive aggressive, and taking no responsibility for a biological son. There was talk of Julius Schwartzs predatory behaviour at DC, not to mention others, but Schwartz’s analogue is satirized as someone who has existed throughout the ages, always as old as he is now, having gotten various writers (such as Edgar Allan Poe) throughout time to sign their souls away.

Thus, Moore is not creating a snapshot of the comics industry, a kind of tabloid Kandor, but building a dream, a surreal shadow self, something akin to a German expressionistic portrait or perhaps a mural by Diego Rivera. But a hell of a lot more bitingly funny. For people who have read any of Moore’s work before, why on Earth would you not expect it to be intensely, bitingly funny? He does not produce anodyne work. If we fall into the trap of simply trying to deduce whom Moore is lampooning, we become like the comics enthusiasts he criticizes in this story; the connection of characters and events to their analogues becomes like a rabid comics fan obsessing over continuity at the detriment of a greater awareness of life and him/herself. It is similar to figuring out who all the analogues in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen saga are – we then simply read Moore because he’s clever and we in turn try to prove our own cleverness by solving his shadow references. However, the main thesis behind this story is that the comics business, which springs out of gangsterism in the Prohibition era, eventually corrodes and corrupts everything it touches. Its toxic nature ruins relationships and people, infantilizing and warping their personalities and minds, not to mention the character of those that read them. If we are to engage with Moore’s text at all, it behooves us to seriously think about what he’s saying and reckon with it. And this must mean reckoning with ourselves.

It’s easy to simply characterize Moore as a bitter old man who is unduly ungrateful for the achievements and recognition he’s achieved in the comics business. Even serious newspapers that run interviews with him usually lead off with something like “Alan Moore Says He’s Leaving Comics” because that version is easier to sell and sensationalize – the eccentric and bitter crank who thinks he’s better than anyone else. It’s a sound bite worthy of the internet age, lacking nuance and thought. However, if you actually read through current interviews with Moore or, even better, watch him speak in videos, nothing could be further from the case. Moore comes off as quite lucid, grounded, coherent, thoughtful, gentle, phenomenally intelligent as always, humble even. Not to mention his old salutation/moniker when writing 1963, “affable.” My own impression of him is that he seems very bookish and hard working, dedicated to his calling, a gifted introvert that reads and studies widely but that is coupled with a very intense moral compass and views of the world, someone who has strong opinions on things and acts accordingly. He also seems to have a flair for theatrical presentation and that is where the gothic and psychedelic photos seem to fit in but if you listen to him when he says something for arch dramatic effect, it usually has a self conscious performer’s irony and emphasis, as if he assumes you are in on the joke and insight, the same way he is.

Unfortunately, most people who are comics fans aren’t in on the irony or nuance. There is a huge dearth of irony and self-reflection in comics fandom. There are many people who are bookish and introverted but rarely is it coupled with a strong sense of determination, conviction, or morality. This leads to a double irony (some would say hypocrisy) because much of the material in mainstream comics is built out of an ideological cloth that espouses doing the right thing, albeit a kind of two dimensional pressing of that morality, a universe where correct action is not only possible but clearly obvious. Moore, besides all the things that make him intelligent and innovative, is above all a moralist – that is what places him apart from all the other clever writers who have appeared in his wake from Neil Gaiman to Grant Morrison to Garth Ennis to whomever else. We end up admiring the technical aspects of Moore’s DC work and the pleasure it brings while at best cursorily acknowledging the moral aspects, and simply not thinking about them afterwards. We value the aesthetics over the polemics. We don’t want to think about our complicity or sense of enablement in the whole business, in our own fandom (Moore himself, like his entire generation, are fans turned pros) because if we do, it threatens our identities and self-concepts. And comics/pop culture and our own fandom are a significant part of that identity/self-concept. Therefore, it is easy to say that Moore grossly exaggerates some of the aspects of the comics business he refers to but your feeling of whether his core views are correct or not is going to depend on whether you detach yourself enough from your own fandom to take a truly critical appraisal. Someone for whom this would be threatening would likely see Moore as cranky and bitter. Someone who wouldn’t be as personally invested would see this story as inevitably truthful.

Moore’s personality and interests are complex enough that he’s going to inspire different reactions among different groups and in different people. He’s the proverbial elephant being felt up by blindfolded men at different vantage points who each produce a different description of what the elephant looks like. And like the elephant in the room, his talents, works, personality, and their effects are so large that his treatment and appraisal in the industry cannot truly be ignored. As for me, I genuinely love the medium of comics but I feel no inherent allegiances to superheroes or companies or products or titles. That, to me, seems frankly insane, the equivalent of painting your face in team colours and standing outside a football stadium hurling abuse at rival fans. It removes agency and critical thinking, replacing them with tribalism. Surely there has to be more to life than this? I think Moore is right in that the movie franchises have inordinately affected the comics themselves, a case of the tail wagging the dog, and that creatively, this has only levelled the creativity once inherent or possible within the industry; the comics entertainment media explosion has done us no favours and may end up sinking the comics business if the fad implodes. We’re confusing popularity and economic success with creative growth and artistic exploration which are actually worth feeling excited about and deserve fandom.

Moore’s cobbled satire, apparently written fairly quickly and in a burst of creativity and feeling, is very post-modern not just in terms of its satiric nature but in that the very form itself which uses a variety of techniques and modes to give us fleeting impressions of various aspects of his topic. Like the elephant, and the various reports of different facets of it. We’re used to more classical (think of any of the major sagas such as Swamp Thing or Marvelman) or modernist (think of some of major innovative works like Big Numbers or From Hell) stories from Moore, although postmodernist self-reflection has always been at the heart of his writing. Even The League is a saga, except for perhaps The Black Dossier which is much more piecemeal. Therefore, there’s very little precedence for the Thunderman project. To me, it’s like The Bojeffries Saga in that every chapter of it can be read disparately but the whole is this very odd, wacky, wonderful, funny, uneven, insightful jigsaw puzzle of the working class that is incomplete in its scope but begs to be read again. Moore doesn’t deal with indie comic companies or alternative comics in this work. If he wanted to, I’m sure he could say some choice things about Gary Groth and his experience with Fantagraphics. He also doesn’t deal with the effects that he and Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin and that whole generation has wrought on the industry. Therefore, for his purposes, he’s dealing largely with an industry and its patterns that becomes ossified in the bronze age and then regresses after the period in which Moore writes superhero fare. He also therefore doesn’t tackle the Image era and the damage that has permanently been caused by those shockwaves.

Moore is primarily looking at superheroes and the two dimensional mode they operate in. If you get far enough into the tale, beyond the lurid profiles of the various denizens and working conditions of this industry, he has some really interesting observations about superheroes, their colour schemes, addictive nature, and fans’ psychological behaviour on a neurological level that is fascinating to consider. One of the things he posits is that in their original conception, the ideas of superheroes exist in a perfect Platonic realm that embodies magic and purity but when brought down into our physical world, being transposed through commerce and avarice and human failings, become something else, successively worse with each generation and iteration that only waters down and warps the magic through diminishing returns. His depiction of the offices of American (the analogue for DC comics) is really interesting: a netherworld of labyrinthine corridors without light where ghosts of previous doomed employees haunt the halls and arcane acts of self-denigration and perversity are commonplace. It’s a depiction worthy of Promethea where the ideas and emotional and psychic energies of things overwhelm the physical space within which they’re attached. Working in comics in time renders its practitioners into two dimensional versions of themselves, forever simplified and trapped by the restrictive boxes of the medium in which they work.

Moore has said many times that he loves the medium of comics; it’s the industry which has driven him away. If you think about how much time and effort and will he has put into what he’s done (look at the way Frank Miller’s trajectory has gone in comparison or even as an illustration of what Moore’s saying about the effects of the comics industry), his reaction might actually be a very sane and sensible one. I do think he’s right in that many of the greatest talents the industry has produced have been screwed or warped by it or instead, simply looked to profit as best they could after a while. Moore is in the atypical position in that his skill and attractiveness as a writer afford him the ability to work solely as a prose writer/essayist/screenwriter/performer/what-have you and because of that, some people are always going to be interested in what he produces. However, comics fans are probably going to expect something that feels familiar, something from ‘within the bubble’ which Moore wishes to extricate himself from. Thus, Jerusalem seemed too formidable/impregnable/uninviting to most and Illuminations will seem too off-base. Similarly, the future Long London books will probably resonate very little with comics fans as the books are concerned with the psychogeography of London and its history of magicians. For Moore, writing is a work of shamanism and often carries a moral and cultural imperative whereas comics fans are largely looking for entertainment and escape. Therefore, if one likes reading his older work, especially now that we are older fans for the most part, it might be worth thinking about the moral aspects of them as opposed to simply how good or innovative the writing is.

For me, I loved comics because it was contiguous to other art forms such as literature and film and theatre and painting and so on. Reading the works of Moore and Miller and Jaime Hernandez and others allowed me a fuller understanding of the world and art and the way reality could be understood and perceived. In the same way that Moore argues that a fan who becomes a comics pro cannot remain in that original state of pure innocence, I as a reader cannot go back to the way I was in junior high – that, like the tribalism, would be regressive and frankly insane. It would do a lot more damage than good. Once that genie was out of the bottle, something that happened during my later high school years, I could no longer put it back and just be a superhero collector/fan, blinkered to the rest of the world. Reading was connected to writing and to thinking and acting. I could still be obsessive but that obsession extended to other things; it connected things. I feel mixed feelings if I go to a convention now. Part of me feels the nostalgia and excitement that others do. Part of me is aghast at what has become manifest, a very physical manifestation and display of all the commerce and deleterious attitudes that have mutated within the hobby. For all the relief that nerds and social misfits feel when they go to a con, there are people feeding the illusion of providing a haven for them while being motivated by the immense profits that are to be reaped. We give them that power. And it keeps us in thrall, limiting us, circumscribing us; it’s addictive territory.

On the other hand, I much prefer being around comics scenes and people compared to literary scenes and film scenes. I find that both comic fans and industry professionals are much more approachable, despite their personal quirks, and more working class, less elitist in the way they operate. That’s not true for everybody but in a general sense, there is much more of a tie between practitioners and their fans in comics culture. If I could have my own vision realized, my own Platonic ideal, I would go to a con that didn’t make a distinction between comics and other arts. I’d leave my motel room and walk down the hall overhearing chatter about film scripts, painting exhibitions, theatre performances and wander into a convention hall, not knowing what I was going to encounter at any given table. Perhaps a comic book writer promoting his next year’s projects in cross-cultural dialogue with film producers showing clips of films they hope might compete for attention abroad. Stand up comedians plying their bits and musicians performing sets. Painters painting on canvases while discussing their work. A place where creativity and influence are in dialogue, where interesting meetings and genuine appreciation take place. It would be one continuous, unpretentious, authentic thing representing life.

One can hope, right?

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