Alan Moore Book Club: ‘Illuminations’: “American Light: An Appreciation”

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 eighth story in Illuminations, “American Light: An Appreciation”, is twenty-seven pages long. It’s a challenging twenty-seven pages but well worth it. Perhaps the most unusual story in the collection so far, it borrows the forms of two genres, neither of them being ‘short story.’ This is a Beat poem in the vein of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl by a fictional and celebrated Beat contemporary, Harmon Belner by name. At the same time, the poem is a melancholy meditation on the life of the Beat literary movement, evoked through a walk through of associated San Francisco streets by the poem’s narrator using a system of ancient Egyptian mythological analogies to lend meaning to the narrator’s journey. The second form that is evoked is that of the academic essay through academic notations. At the bottom of each page, sometimes taking up more than half the page, are copious explanations and analytical deductions of the poem’s lines through the use of footnotes, written by one C. F. Bird.

What are we to make of this pastiche that comes right after the story “What We Can Know About Thunderman”, the savagely critical satire of the mainstream comics industry discussed in my last post? The influences and interests are easy enough to pinpoint and make sense of. In his acknowledgements, Moore thanks his wife Melinda Gebbie and her detailed knowledge of the San Francisco area where she lived, and Kevin Rings Beat Scene magazine for providing inspiration. Given some of Moore’s counterculture leanings and interests, it’s not surprising that he has an extensive knowledge of Beat culture, history, and writing. He has also professed an admiration in interviews for the writings of David Foster Wallace, Wallace’s erudition and ambition as a writer and his use of footnotes. It is also perhaps worth noting that Foster Wallace committed suicide.

The use of annotations here are very different than, say, those in From Hell. Being on the same page as the poem and in some cases, crowding out the poem itself, the annotations are a commentary in counterpoint to the poem. Moore playfully tries to summarize the topic’s social scene in a comprehensive way (something he’s often done before – we don’t have to look further than the previous story in this very collection for example) while trying to represent opposing points of view. Bird notes the chauvinistic and solipsistic elements of the Beat scene and in some ways, her commentary, affecting cool and deconstructive tones, mirrors the criticism of today which is much more aware and concerned with systems of power, exclusion, and oppression. I mentioned in the previous write-up that Moore doesn’t incorporate the effects that he and Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin and others have had on the comics industry. In some ways, the meditation of opposing (fictional) agencies and voices within the Beat scene could be seen as a companion to the Thunderman story; it’s impossible, especially given their proximity in the book, not to think of “American Light: An Appreciation” as at least distantly related to Moore’s musings and very frustrated feelings about the comics scene. On the other hand, it might be a commentary on scenes in general, or perhaps literary scenes more specifically, now that Moore is focusing his energies on literary production.

Like Moore’s future Long London works, not to mention previous efforts such as From Hell or Voice of the Fire, “American Light: An Appreciation” focuses heavily on the geographic area to which its tale is tied. Beat or beatitude or enlightenment or light is tied to its Bay area locale in a very specific spatiotemporal manner and since Moore’s story collection is titled Illuminations, there is a feeling that light inevitably dies, giving way to darkness, which may perhaps result in future light much further down the road. Egyptian beliefs about the passage of the sun through the underworld during night are emphasized repeatedly through the poem’s structure. The light that seems to emanate from the mainstream comics scene, according to Moore, is more of a radioactive light: bright but ultimately harmful and toxic. I’ve recently had my own experience with radioactivity in the scene. In the last post, I credited comic book historian Alex Grand, leader of the very large Facebook group Comic Book Historians and a recurring presence at the San Diego Comic Con, with figuring out much of Moore’s analogues in his Thunderman story. I tagged Grand when I posted the link to my write-up on the Facebook (the only social media I use) group he administers. At first, he thanked me for crediting him. Then, after midnight, I got an IM from him asking whom I was referring to when talking about Moore’s criticism of comic fans who focus rabidly on comics continuity as opposed to larger ethical concerns and awareness. I was puzzled he thought I was referring to him or his group as there was a little discussion of Moore’s thesis in his group, and responded that it could be anyone who neglects to think in terms of self awareness about their actions. And this is the truth – I think Moore’s criticism could apply to anybody as opposed to a specific person. It could apply to me and that is why introspection is important. Grand thanked me, wished me well, and then promptly blocked me on Facebook and banned me from his group. I wasn’t very active in the group so I didn’t personally mind but I was astounded at his reaction. I sent him a very pleasant query about what had happened through the Comic Book Historians website. What I got back was a very convoluted justification that Grand was protecting the group from me, and a disingenuous request that I change the writing in my article. I thanked him and wished him happy holidays.

The encounter did give me a chance to think more about comics scenes and reactions to Moore’s story. It made sense that people working in the mainstream comics industry, especially those who had worked adjacent to Moore, might feel self-conscious but it made little sense that people purporting to be objective historians would feel umbrage regarding the matter. To be transparent, Grand has asked our website and myself personally to review two of his self-published books and I accommodated him to the best of my objective ability. In one of those cases too, he requested that our website change something regarding what had been written. The idea of objective rationality might be a misnomer (this is a central theme in the films of Stanley Kubrick who, like Moore, aims to examine subjects comprehensively) both in regards to aestheticism and analysis. Moore’s story about the Beat generation points to the kinds of personal animosities, vanities, peculiarities, irrational interpretations and interactions, myopia, and castigation that is part of any scene, no matter how fringe or idealistic its terms are. Some people are part of the tribe or cult or tree house while other people are not. Hierarchies form and nothing remains free from the human insecurities, astigmatism, and failings that assail our nature. Like Belner and Bird in this story, personal grievances, feelings of inadequacy and misgiving subconsciously drive our actions even while the work we’re doing is valuable and important.

I am aware of the irony of trying to analyze and discuss the topic of bias in cultural criticism while I’m engaged in the same practice regarding a story by Alan Moore. I can’t pretend to be objective as I am an inveterate Moore fan, but I can attempt to be honest and truthful. I’ve never been great at syncretizing entire fields of thought. I know that is Moore’s style and leaning and I admire him for it, but I don’t have the same abilities. He works on an epic scale and I work on a small one. I’ve always found that grabbing a piece of something and attempting to drill as deeply as possible is the way to go for me. I am interested in many different things but know that I have huge gaps in my reading and knowledge. For example, I have read some Beat literature and find the period interesting but wish I knew a lot more. Furthermore, as I get older, though I have read more, my memory gets worse, and I think that humbles me.

In my case, I seek to find depth, connection, and meaning, to explore as much as I can given time and my own limitations. Thus, I often find that though my comprehensiveness and mastery of a topic may be uneven, if I go deep enough and seek out vital connections, this will resonate with readers. There used to be the idea that a primary work of creation was the most important thing and those that provide criticism or annotation were doing secondary work. Gradually, this shifted so that analysis became über-meaningful in itself, no longer academically beholden to the shadows of their primary sources. This has led to cultural criticism generating its own scenes. Human frailty with its egos, agendas, and fragile grandstanding once again infects the radiant source of creative power. This also echoes Moore’s idea in the Thunderman story, where true creativity and purity exist in a Platonic realm and depiction in print only weakens and reduces its nature through diminishing returns. I think that in comics scholarship, we still have a challenge because the primary work we refer to often remains squarely in the realm of pop entertainment, struggling to be taken seriously. For both these works of entertainment and their analysis to be taken seriously, the focus has to be realigned more towards a truer grappling with the human condition and self awareness as opposed to sliding towards its cursory and superficial enjoyment, or bigger and better entertainment for entertainment’s sake.

I also realize, as I read this tale of younger writers idolizing older masters and being disappointed by them, that Moore has served a similar role in my own life (minus the disappointment). He’s not the only literary figure I greatly admire but he is at the top of the heap, not because I think he is the best writer to have ever existed, but because he is the most meaningful to me personally – for a variety of reasons too numerous to circumscribe here. A friend of mine who also loves Moore’s writing often argues with me on this point – he always points out that no one’s perfect, including Moore, and I reply that I’m not saying Moore’s perfect but he is exceptional and therefore worth thinking about seriously. I think he’s exceptional in the literal sense of that word: he’s not like most people and does not act in the way most people act, especially in the comics scene, though he probably sees no reason why other people shouldn’t act in the same ways he does, whether regarding his practice as a writer and thinker or his ethical and personal reactions to things. However, I also know I’m very different from Moore and cannot follow his footsteps or match his cleverness or best his philosophical musings. I can only look at him as a very interesting beacon and cultural touchstone. I genuinely believe that reading his work and following him has done me much more good than harm, provided much light and joy in the darkness, and that it will continue to do so.

%d bloggers like this: