My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sometimes, not often, I see a non-fiction book that makes me want to slap myself because I wish it had occurred to me to write it. This was my reaction on learning about The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer, Greg Carpenter’s study of the three British writers who, beginning in the 1980s, permanently altered American mainstream comics, not only aesthetically and institutionally but also with respect to their connection to the culture at large. Though other factors and other important creators were and are at work during the ongoing careers of these men, it can nevertheless be said that without these three writers, there would probably be less academic and literary respect paid to comics in general, fewer regular female readers of mainstream comic books (as opposed to indie or manga), and fewer if any serious or adult-oriented movie/TV treatments of certain generic material originating in such comics, to name only three developments led by the authors of Watchmen, From Hell, Sandman, Mr. Punch, Doom Patrol, and The Invisibles. Because the influence of Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison extends so far beyond comics to film, literature, and academia, a book on this topic was necessary, and Greg Carpenter has in general done an excellent job.
The British Invasion is not quite literary criticism and not quite biography, though it contains elements of both; its focus is less on close reading (and much less on the personal lives of its three subjects) and more on their negotiation of the world of comics. It traces their professional fortunes and examines how those fortunes informed their writing. Carpenter’s signature move is to suggest comparisons between the authors themselves, considered as striving and occasionally beleaguered working writers, and their fictional characters—Carpenter reads Gaiman’s Morpheus, for example, as a surrogate for Gaiman in that both writer and character struggle with performing their duties while remaining grounded in authentic human emotion.
This method reminds me of one of my other favorite books on mainstream Modern Age comics, Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why; Klock tends to see the characters of Moore, Morrison, and other comics writers as sharing their authors’ fight to create a space for their visions in a world already crowded with other people’s meanings. But whereas Klock’s study is a psychodrama influenced by Harold Bloom’s poetics of influence, Carpenter neglects psychology and the weight of tradition in favor of sociology and the institutional factors (the market’s demands, as interpreted by editors and publishers, above all) that made Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison the writers they were; a corollary in academic literary theory to The British Invasion would not be Bloom’s work, then, but Pierre Bourdieu’s studies of the development of autonomous art in nineteenth-century France in The Field of Cultural Production or The Rules of Art—appropriately enough, since the revolution carried out by the British invaders aimed to turn comics away from profit-driven sensationalism and cliche and toward such aesthetic values as realism, formalism, and experimentalism.
But The British Invasion is, for better and for worse, not an academic book. Carpenter writes in a loose conversational style modeled on the type of public pop-culture criticism that flourishes on the Internet. He also assumes an audience mostly already familiar with comics history and lore, as when he makes knowing references to No Prizes or casual deployments of McCloud’s taxonomy of panel transitions. Despite the occasional solecism (call me stodgy, but the misuse of “begs the question” causes me to squirm), this is mostly to the good, as it allows Carpenter to stress events and circumstances that may well be beneath the awareness of many academic critics, such as the rise of Image Comics and the creator rights’ movement, the speculator bubble of the early 1990s, and the major editorial role of Karen Berger in these writers’ careers (in an appendix, Carpenter interviews Berger herself).
Relatedly, Carpenter is at his best in analyzing not such much-criticized works as Watchmen or Sandman but more minor and overlooked works in the three writers’ oeuvres, to include such flotsam as Moore’s early Star Wars stories and Gaiman’s Future Shocks shorts, texts I was not even aware existed; I doubt the dreck Moore wrote for Todd McFarlane, which I recall tossing aside in disgust when I was thirteen, will ever receive such a nuanced critique again! And I especially appreciate Carpenter’s emphasis on three crucial, neglected early-’90s graphic novels by his subjects: Moore’s A Small Killing (with Oscar Zarate), Gaiman’s Signal to Noise (with Dave McKean), and Morrison’s The Mystery Play (with Jon J. Muth).
All in all, The British Invasion is an informative and intelligent approach to these three writers, who (along with their American counterpart, Frank Miller) did more for mainstream comics than anyone since Stan and Jack. The following qualm, then, should not be taken to qualify my recommendation—anyone interested in this subject should certainly read this book. What I am about to say is more in the vein of those rambling, irritating comments at academic conferences whose subtext is, “Why didn’t you write the book the way I would have written it?”
An invidious question: is Alan Moore really on the same artistic plane as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison? Twenty or even fifteen years ago, I probably would have said yes, but this century so far seems to have clarified matters, as both Gaiman and Morrison have in different ways capitulated to commercialism, with Gaiman’s becoming a kind of YA lifestyle guru and Morrison’s success as DC Comics company man.
The promise of their early masterpieces seems largely unfulfilled, as Gaiman opted for fans in lieu of readers sometime after American Gods and Morrison’s commitment to pop magic justified his almost total absorption by the corporate machine. In Morrison’s case, even the early work looks diminished in the rear view mirror; on the back of the final Invisibles trade paperback, Warren Ellis compared that series to a set of pop songs, and, like pop songs, Morrison’s work (in my experience) makes an intense initial impact but can only be nostalgically revisited rather than critically reinterpreted. That initial impact was enormous and sensibility-shaping for me (I first read Arkham Asylum when I was eight!), but the work does not to my mind meet the gold standard of endless re-readability. Gaiman’s Sandman most certainly does meet that standard, but does much else in his corpus? I suspect he sought too much contact with his audience, which made him (as it would probably make anybody) less tough-minded and independent than a visionary needs to be. Drawing inspiration from Carpenter’s taste for musical metaphors*, we might say that Gaiman and Morrison began as Radiohead and finished as Coldplay.
By contrast, Alan Moore’s much-decried self-isolation from the mainstream currents of Anglo-American culture, his obsessive pursuit of his own worldview, lends his work, even today, an intricacy and autonomy that beg for close reading and will not leave the mind. Moore has not finished experimenting or unfolding the implications of his nature and experiences, whether readers like it or not (and readers do not have to like it, as I do not like the nastiness of Neonomicon or the sheer tendon-straining weight of Jerusalem, a novel I will likely finish reading in about the year 2020; we need only be possessed by it in spite of ourselves).
Throughout his book, Carpenter expresses impatience with Moore’s old-fashioned (and sometimes personally and professionally divisive) concern to make a distinction between art and commerce, finding Gaiman’s and Morrison’s creative adaptations to the market more to his taste; but the actual careers of these authors may testify to the rightness of Moore’s uncompromising idealism. Pragmatism, as somebody once observed, is well and good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.
* Carpenter structures his book by an analogy between comics’ British invasion and the best-known British invasion of American pop culture, that of rock bands in the 1960s. Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison are likened to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who, respectively (if not quite consistently), and each chapter is accordingly named for one of those bands’ songs when focusing on their counterpart writers. Leaving aside the aptness of the comparisons (while the Moore/Beatles and Morrison/Who conflations make sense, is there anything of the bluesy, dirty Stones in the more genteel Gaiman? I am not a music expert, but perhaps his analog should be The Kinks—isn’t he a dues-paying member of the Fiddler’s Green Preservation Society?), it is either an amusing and witty device or far too cute. I never did decide which!