I probably don’t need to tell you who Alan Moore is. You probably already know that he is responsible for writing some of the most well-received and almost universally-acclaimed comics and graphic novels that have ever been released. You are probably familiar with his practice of giving away his share of the royalties from the films based on his celebrated works to the artists who collaborated with him on the original comics. You might even have heard that he is a lifelong resident of Northampton, a practicing magician, (the spiritual kind, not the Paul Daniels kind) a novelist, a musician, a cartoonist, a poet and a father and husband. Magic Words is primarily a book about all of the other stuff.
Like any great biography it is a portrait of the era surrounding the man as well as of the man himself. The background of working-class England is an ideal scene for such a tale and it is through snapshots of the places he frequented that we see Moore grow from a boy with his mind firmly set on the fantastic worlds he found in comics, into a man who would go on to literally change the landscape for the medium with the creation of Watchmen alongside other award-winning work.
One of the first things you might notice is that the pages of the book are edged in black. At first glance this appears to be simply for the aesthetic. The cover art itself seems to have been chosen to invoke an air of mystery, of hidden stories and smoke and mirrors. So black pages would seem to be just a strange quirk of the design. But at some point whilst reading it, a comics aficionado will understand explicitly exactly what the black edging does for the page. It looks like the pages themselves are outlined, just as they would be if this was simply a picture of a book in a panel of one of Moore’s stories. This could simply be me overreacting to a fairly ordinary stylistic choice to have black-edged pages but for me, this gives the entire book far more cultural weight, alluding to some of the themes that are presented, many of them paralleled in Moore’s works.
The design and layout of the book itself is very simple, but stylish. Each chapter begins with a quote from Moore and there are numerous pieces of artwork peppered throughout its pages, some from artists working alongside Moore and some by Moore himself. It is these rare glimpses of Moore’s cartoonish style and R.Crumb-influenced composition and shading that give a wonderfully profound insight into the mind of the man who would become the mythical figure. His sense of humour and pacing really shine through in some of these vignettes and, in the case of the reprints of some of his “Maxwell the Magic Cat” strips for the local newspaper, they feel like hidden gems that were being turned out whilst he was creating some of his most well-known work for big name publishers like 2000AD.
The narrative of Moore’s life is not presented straightforwardly. The opening chapters give us some insight into his early life, the working class Northampton of his youth, his schooling and his subsequent attempts to find his niche in the place of his birth. Chapter 3 presents us with a sometimes intricately detailed look at Moore’s creative process, his routines and his rigmarole. It gives a very satisfying layer of definition to the legend that certain readers will be familiar with, grounding him very firmly in the real. We cut across time, drawing in his early work for local fanzines and briefly looking at his later series before progressing on with the story. The proceeding chapters take some of what we have just been told and add a layer of previously missing detail, taking in particular topics such as his opinion of the works as films, his recollections of times that he got “swindled” by employers, fallings out and creative spurts of imagination. Each layer of new concern is grafted on to the last, each one filling in gaps in detail that we were only faintly aware of previously. It is an occasionally difficult, slightly whiplash-inducing technique but it fits the material perfectly, building up a more detailed picture of the artist as a man with very definite recurring threads throughout his life.
Predictably the “centrefold” section is based around Moore’s work on Watchmen and his subsequent loss of trust in DC Comics. The beginning of this section, which covers two chapters itself, begins with a critical analysis of Watchmen, opening up the idea, to which Moore somewhat subscribes, that audiences by and large completely misunderstood his intent with the entire series. It posits a strangely refreshing take on the comic and one that has made me rethink my original issues with the series, convincing me that I should read it once more without the feeling that I should read it because I’m “supposed to”. I was almost dreading this section of the book, but I came out of it with a fresh insight on the creative process and the intent of the creators and its place alongside its contemporaries, rather than simply the often quoted “dark and gritty” recommendations from ardent fans.
As the book progresses it becomes more and more obvious why the story is told in the way it is. We are watching the character of Alan Moore as told through in an Alan Moore-esque story. The very last words in the book, a direct quote by him, allude to this. We see his childhood, his adolesence, the beginnings of a rebellious youth, creative spark, wish fulfilment, cynicism and betrayal, (possible) mid-life crisis and unwillingness to play by anyone else’s rules, creative freedom and his most celebrated work, and all of it is brought to a strangely satisfying close, promising fresh insight upon a second reading, something that I don’t feel has ever been achieved with any biography I have read previously.
Interestingly enough, none of it feels sycophantic or as though Parkin is going out of his way to see things from Moore’s side. In fact there are numerous occasions where Parkin distances himself from Moore’s rants and tirades, citing potential paranoid delusions and attempting to find a more rational explanation. It is never unfairly critical, but neither is it a glowing portrait. Moore is presented as a man, just like any other and his errors and foibles are laid out for all to see. It is a satisfyingly balanced book that still leaves you rooting for the man himself.
With Magic Words, Parkin has managed to compile a biography of one of the most prolific creative minds of our time in such a way that anyone can read it and find out more about him, no matter whereabouts they have entered into the world of Alan Moore. Ardent fanatics will enjoy the glimpses into his personal life and opinions; comics afficionados will appreciate the way that the book anchors itself firmly in the culture of its subject, giving a well-rounded potted history of the then-burgeoning British comics movement as well as snapshots of what the scene was like in 1980s America. Fans of his more “occult” work will find more than enough to satisfy their own particular tastes regarding Moore’s own understandings of the Universe and his relationship to it, perhaps drawing some inspiration for themselves. Magic Words is a book that manages to cater to all the different levels of the Moore fandom, whilst remaining simple and easy enough to read if you have never even heard of him. It is a biography that can be critical on occasion and at least once downright heartbreaking, but it is a fantastic and fitting portrait of a man who may, or may not be one of the greatest living comics writers of our time.