Alan Moore: Big in Belgium

Statue of Lucky Luke (and Jolly Jumper) in Queen Astrid Park, CharleroiSomething remarkable has been happening in the industrial town of Charleroi, some 30 miles south of the Belgian capital: for six weeks in the early spring of 2004, the exhibition space in its Palais des Beaux-Arts has been devoted to "Alan Moore: Les Dessins du Magicien", an exploration of the works of Alan Moore. It's a strange and pleasing experience for anyone accustomed to the low status of comics in the English-speaking countries to see the town plastered with posters (based on Dave McKean's magnificent cover art for The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore) for an event which treats them as a legitimate art form; but even that isn't really the remarkable bit. Charleroi already pays very visible tribute to the stars of Spirou, the powerhouse of Belgian comics: not only Lucky Luke, but also Spirou himself, and the Marsupilami have their statues in the town. But these are famous Belgians: Alan Moore, a writer in the English language, is outside this tradition of comics both as an anglophone and as a writer. There is no need to elaborate here on the conviction of the franco-belge school of comics that the rôle of the writer is subsidiary to that of the artist; it is sufficient to note the title of the show. "Les Dessins du Magicien" emphasises that what is on display is drawing, rather than writing (it's comics, of course, it's both) as if there were less risk of alienating people by describing Moore as a magician than by describing him as a writer.

Exhibition interiorThe exhibition in other words, is as exceptional as it seems, and then more so: Didier Pasamonik's introduction to the catalogue claims that the show "a valeur de manifeste" (serves as a manifesto). This bold acceptance of the Moore's self-description as a magician, and of the esoteric quality of much of his current work, is carried through into the appearance of the exhibition itself. Inside the hall, framed pages cluster around the junction points of a Kabbalistic Tree of Life traced on the floor. There is something slightly theatrical - but entirely magical - about the economy of means (yellow sticky tape, disco-style glitter balls) with which the space has been transformed into an alchemist's laboratory of ideas. This purports to offer the visitor a route which is not the simple chronological progression of a conventional exhibition, but an initiation into the mysteries of Moore's art. Like Promethea, the visitor travels the pathways of the Kabbala, but unlike Promethea's journey, this not restricted to a single, one-way transit: steps may be retraced, new routes may be chosen connecting different centres, and new connections and resonances perceived each time.

Les Dessins du Magicien: within this magical space, what is on show consists largely of drawings. Inevitably so, for - however fascinating Moore's original scripts may be - the works of a comics writer are designed to be read through the artist's images. The most disparate collection is the introductory material gathered under the title Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman: one of Jose Villarrubia's stunning photographic portraits of the author hanging back-to-back with Bryan Talbot's moody depiction of the artist as mage, one of Moore's discarded keyboards (the attached candle stump going some way to explain just how he manages to destroy them at such a rate), Gary Spencer Millidge's biographical strip from Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman. Even so, it manages to include a number of the very early Roscoe Moscow strips. And nothing wrong with that: it's good to have an opportunity to see Moore's own artwork, and to read these early works, mysteriously not yet republished.

A page from the unpublished third issue of Big Numbers After this introductory section, it's page upon page of artwork. Some items are quite dazzling, whether for rarity value (a page of Bill Sienkiewicz's art for the tragically interrupted Big Numbers), because they look so much better in the original than reproduced in the comic (a page of Eddie Campbell's delicate smudgy artwork for The Birth Caul, for example), because they are just so downright gorgeous (Promethea probably leads the field here, whether it's Jose Villarrubia's manipulation of his own photographs, or J. H. Williams' heroic painting within the magically prescribed range of colours) or any combination of the three. Others offer the pleasure of reacquaintance with the published work, so that the visitor to the exhibition becomes once more a reader of the comic. The decision to group together pages from the same work has the effect, intended or not, of making it easier to succumb to this temptation.

Nothing to complain of, then, in the abundance of artwork on display. But there is a sense of something missing: given the theme of Moore as magician, was it really impossible to include any of this actual works of magic? Clearly, there was no prospect of persuading him to turn up in person with one of his performance Pieces, but there are sound recordings and there must be photographs (or failing that, there are Eddie Campbell's rendering into comics, there are John Coulthart's fabulous images). As it was, a trailer for the film The Mindscape of Alan Moore played on a constant loop in a side room, adding a not-quite-audible soundtrack of Northampton-accented mumbling to the overall experience. This slightly haphazard approach to Moore's magical works ran counter to the stated aim of the exhibition: the material on offer was of the highest quality, but there was a nagging feeling that it was failing to accomplish its stated aim.

The same quibble applies to the idea of the exhibition as kabbalistic initiation. The images are ostensibly grouped thematically rather than chronologically, but since the chosen themes (love, magic, the everyday, power, the past, the future...) are fairly broad, and recur throughout Moore's career, it just so happens that each cluster of images represents a comparatively small group of texts from a comparatively narrow period. A section on Superpowers, for example, restricts itself to a consideration of Marvelman, Watchmen and For the Man who has Everything (described as "a little known Superman story"; clearly Belgium is another country...). This is fine as far as it goes; certainly, at the time, both Marvelman and Watchmen seemed, each in its own way, to have said the last word about superheros. Despite which, Moore continues to return to the theme: Supreme and Tom Strong are two more recent considerations of the Superman myth. Yet they are set aside from the consideration of superpowers, to be presented instead under the rubric The Energy of the Past, alongside The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and other instances of Moore's literary roots. Similarly, The Power of Love is a thread which runs through all of Moore's work: it could have been represented by anything from D. R. & Quinch Go Girl Crazy to such classic Swamp Thing episodes as Rite of Spring and Loving the Alien. But the pages placed in the penultimate section of the exhibition all come from two texts which are not themselves exactly new, but nonetheless qualify as forthcoming publications: Lost Girls and The Mirror of Love.

In one sense, then, the exhibition fails to deliver on its undertaking: under the disguise of a thematic system of labels, the visitor's path is substantially a chronological review of Moore's career in comics. Admittedly, as Jean-Paul Jennequin (credited as assisting Paul Gravett in curating the exhibition) points out, "Rien n'empêche d'ailleurs le visiteur, à l'issue de son périple, de commencer un autre parcours dans un ordre différent, découvrant ainsi de nouvelles connections et des résonances insoupçonnées." (After all, there's nothing to stop the visitor, having completed a journey through the exhibition, setting off again on another tour in a different order, and so discovering new connections and unexpected echoes.) Nothing, that is, but exhaustion. It is by no means a complaint to point out that this is a huge exhibition, and full of good things; but it would take exceptional stamina on the part of the visitor to make - in a literal, physical sense - more than one circuit.

In another sense, this act of criticising the arrangement of the material, of suggesting alternative associations, of considering how better the multi-layered nature of Moore's creativity might be conveyed (imagine, for example, each of the junction points of the tree as a page on a website, so that no page is ever more than a click away from any related page...), what is this reaction but a new journey through the material? In that sense, this review itself, with not only its great enthusiasm for the exhibition but also its consideration of how it might have been done differently, is just another fruit of the magician's designs.

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© Jean Rogers, 2004
Photographs © Roger Cornwell, 2004