“Be warned, though,” said the man behind the counter. “It contains a lot of fish-rape.”
I was asking the man behind the counter in Subcity in Galway about Alan Moore’s soon-to-be-released stories set in the world of HP Lovecraft’s weird stories.
“Fish-rape!” I exclaimed. Though in hindsight, it was to be expected. When the copyright for Lovecraft’s horror stories expired and Alan Moore got his hands on them, the resulting graphic novels would inevitably involve fish-rape. Lovecraft’s stories would not acknowledge the existence of sex, let alone rape, but would often involve grotesque fish-people. Moore’s stories, meanwhile, always seem to have a rape scene.
Sitting in the Jervis Street library some time later, taking a cavalier approach to a pressing deadline and flicking through a really fun Moore comic entitled Smax, I saw yet another female character being brutally raped. It set me thinking over all the Alan Moore graphic novels I’ve ever read, and I realized that every one of them included a scene where a woman is raped or else very nearly raped. This includes Watchmen, V for Vendetta, the three League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books and the shorter comic Century: 1910, From Hell, and the Lovecraftian Yuggoth Cultures.
There’s a new edition of Century¸ set in 1968, which I was looking forward to for a while. I saw it in the shops recently, had a flick through it, and though no sexual assaults caught my eye, I realized I’d had enough of Alan Moore. That isn’t to say that reading him wasn’t worth it.
V for Vendetta remains my favourite of his works: it oozes a grimy 1980s British atmosphere, and with David Lloyd’s shadowy, ashen illustrations, it makes me think of the greatest mini-series never made by the BBC. The flamboyant V himself seems all the more extraordinary against this grim and down-to-earth backdrop. The film should have been directed not by the Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) but by Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In).
Watchmen is quite rightly taught on some English courses in my college now. Some found the long “writey bits” between the chapters to be a bit of a bore but I loved the sense of looking at artefacts from the world of the comic (even Hollis Mason’s bizarrely short memoirs).
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, like Gaiman’s Sandman and Morrison’s The Invisibles, appeals to readers because of the web of references it spins. These kinds of comics are best read by English undergraduates. The League perhaps came to over-rely on this trick, however, making it a hit-and-miss affair as time went on. Whole speech-bubbles, whole panels, whole pages, began to turn into inside jokes cracked between Moore and some imaginary person out there who’s read every single thing he has.
It is Moore’s use of rape, however, that smacks most strongly of self-indulgence. As he’s at the top of his business and all it takes is his name on the cover to sell his work, he can treat his female characters however he likes.
Sometimes Moore uses rape for the sake of pastiche. In Smax and Watchmen, what could be more incongruous with the fantasy worlds, respectively, of Tolkien and of superhero comics, than the idea of sexual assault?
V for Vendetta contains the least explicit and most stereotypical scene of threatened rape: V crashes in, Hollywood-style, before the secret-policemen even touch our heroine, kills them and spirits her to safety. Here Moore is no more at fault than is any artist who is too lazy to think of a better way to bring hero and heroine together. Evie’s extended torture later on in the comic presents a more complex picture. There’s nothing sexual in this sequence: it’s a narrative, however harrowing, of resistance, through which Evie rises above victimhood.
In the League comics, rape seems more sinister. In the first, an attempted rape is presented in a cartoonish way, but again as a way of bringing the hero to the rescue of the heroine. Later the invisible man, again very cartoonishly, infiltrates a girl’s school and goes on a raping spree every night. This sub-plot is played entirely for laughs. Later rapes take a different tone, reading as attempted condemnations of patriarchy and misogyny.
The Invisible Man rapes Mina Murray, and in revenge Dr. Hyde rapes the Invisible Man to death. A girl working in a London boarding-house is gang-raped by its customers; this spurs her to wreak a bloody and very explicit revenge. James Bond tries to rape the unlucky Miss Murray after luring her to Orwell’s Ministry of Love. He underestimates his victim, who, as in previous examples, exacts a vicious revenge.
In each of these cases Moore seems on a facile level to be trying to challenge views of rape and misogynistic attitudes. Perhaps this feminist pose would be convincing if Moore didn’t “explore” rape with such obsessive regularity paired with such lack of any real message beyond “rape is ugly” (though the message “James Bond was a rapist”, reminiscent of MDC’s song “John Wayne was a Nazi”, is intriguing). In each case, moreover, rape is used as a plot device to justify some extremely gory revenge scene.
So, with resounding echoes of the worse aspects of Tarantino, the reader and the writer indulge in a good rape scene; pat each other on the back for disapproving of rape; and go on to indulge in a revenge scene which has been very comfortingly justified. As with many action movies that try to assume an “edgy” tone, the author adopts a fake “hardened” view of the world. Pretending to a grim, hardcore realism, the author loses himself in brutal fantasies. Utter infantile macho self-indulgence so often and so easily poses as “progressive” and “subversive”. So did Italian fascism in its early years.
As noted before, sex and women are timidly absent from Lovecraft’s tales. What disturbs me about Moore’s Lovecraftian rape scenes, however, is not some kind of fanboy nerdiness about “remaining true to the original” by leaving out sex, but rather the sheer self-indulgence that is evident. Moore is visibly having great fun using Lovecraft’s material and ideas, and amid all this fun he throws in some more pointless rape scenes- for what object, if not for fun? To carry his ill-defined rape-related crusade even into his Ctulhu pastiches?
I believe that in time comics/graphic novels will receive the same critical acknowledgement and attention as written novels do today. I hope that when a future generation studies Moore- and it definitely should- the writer’s evidently disgraceful attitudes toward women and clear obsession with rape should be to the fore.
In many ways Moore is a fitting successor to Lovecraft. Moore’s obsession and Lovecraft’s utter silence when it comes to sex point to vast seams of mental disturbance for critics to dig into into. Moreover, Moore, like Lovecraft, straddles literature and pulp fiction. When comics are studied in universities, students should read Moore and understand immediately why the graphic novel was looked down upon in our time as a laddish, adolescent hobby. In the midst of real brilliance are patches of utter self-indulgence and the gross artistic abuse of women. It is all the more offensive that it tries to pretend to be anything else.
Lovecraft’s talent and imagination shine through his horribly racist attitudes (usually) and attain a certain independence from the author that edifies him and helps us to understand him. I am in a trough with Moore at the moment, but I predict that sometime in the future I will open V or Watchmen again and, just like with Lovecraft, hope that it can shine through.