Comics & Prose: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Joe Hill
I think it’s the rare author, particularly these days, who sticks to only one form of writing or another for their entire career. I don’t think it’s especially complicated to see why: authors are restless and roaming, interested in exploring and playing and pushing themselves. On the whole, they like trying new things. Sometimes, the wandering takes them into (or out of) a career in comics and into (or out of) a career in novels and other forms of prose, and I thought it would be interesting to look at a few.
The Comics: I think I hardly need to tell you about Alan Moore’s comics, any more than I need to tell you about the pop songs of the Beatles. From Watchmen to V For Vendetta to his recent League of Extraordinary Gentlemen work, Alan Moore has remained prolific and relentlessly creative and imaginative for a long long time now (and happily this shows no sign of abating). Although some of his better known works like Watchmen and From Hell have a reputation for their extreme density, they are somewhat in the minority among the rest of his works, in that he has always strived for readability. His intelligence and complex writing always suggests that his readers are as smart as he is and can handle it, rather than trying to rebuff them through cleverness. Other works, like Swamp Thing and Supreme and even something that looks very complicated like the psychedelic Promethea are very readable. There’s a plot, and it’s moving along and full of people you can relate to, and not so much dialog on each page that would drown out the art.
The Prose: Although he’s written some short stories and a lot of articles, his prose consists of two major works, only one of which you’ve yet read. One is his first novel, Voice of the Fire. A complex novel which tracks the history of the geographical location of his hometown, Northhampton, the novel moves from prehistoric caveman days up to the very modern day.
Unlike his comics, this first novel is dense and hard work. The first chapter is written in an extremely difficult to follow imagined prehistoric dialog, which has no sense of past or present or complex identities in it. It’s maybe 400 words of vocabulary altogether. What happens in this first chapter? I have no idea! I’ve read Voice of the Fire twice, and have never made it through that first chapter. The last chapter is in the present day of its writing, and stars Alan Moore himself, writing the last chapter, almost as if it exists in real time.
Not only is it intensely experimental, it’s dense and hard, as I said. I have a theory that this is a lack of confidence in novel-writing, as opposed to plenty of confidence in his ongoing comics career. Lack of confidence (possibly because he’s very literate and aware of all the amazing novels out there) means that he overcompensates quite a lot. It’s still readable, but its fractured narrative doesn’t have the ease or readability of, say, David Mitchell’s similar fractured narratives.
His second major prose work is Jerusalem, and you haven’t read it yet because he’s been writing it for eons and I believe it’s done in first draft now, and somewhere in the range of 750,000 words. I will die of old age before I finish reading it.
The Comics: Although Neil Gaiman has written a lot of comics, what he’s probably best known for is his Sandman series, the mythic story of the Endless (Death, Dream, Desire, Destruction, Destiny, Delirium, Dispair) and the many varied people and characters who exist around them. It’s a tremendous narrative, across 75-plus issues, heartfelt and tragic and warm and funny. Aside from a rocky start, it remains very readable and very fun, amidst the darkness and the occasional sadness. Neil Gaiman has a great ear for dialog and rhythm and it always comes through.
The Prose: Gaiman transitions skillfully between comics and prose, with what is perhaps more confidence, or at least more clarity, than Alan Moore has. His novels and short stories have been as acclaimed and successful as his comics work, with books such as American Gods and Coraline and The Graveyard Book, among others. His prose less resembles his comics work (or even that of his inspiration, Alan Moore) and has more in common with the sparse readability of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. His ear for dialogue and the rhythm of it carries over excellently, whether it’s a short story or a novel. The closest he comes in similarity between his comics and his prose work is probably American Gods, a rambling novel about forgotten mythic gods living in America and Shadow, the man who works for Odin. It’s a big strange book, and it resembles the Sandman series, in tone if nothing else.
The Comics: Although he’s written some other comic work now, Joe Hill’s major comic work is a series called Locke & Key, the story of the Locke children dealing with the fracturing of their family after the murder of their father…but also dealing with magic keys and the immense powers they offer, as well as the intertwined and complex history of their own family and those keys, and this big strange Keyhouse in Lovecraft, Maine. Joe Hill did the series with Gabriel Rodriguez, and amazingly talented artist.
The series has a lot of confidence in it, partly lent it by Rodrequez’s precise and detailed art, but also because Joe Hill is a very careful and precise writer. This means that from issue first to issue last, there’s no sense of flailing or figuring things out. Everything moves calmly and logically, with confidence. There’s also a tremendous amount of detail in the comic. I’ve re-read them dozens of times and still find fun new details in the backs of panels, or new connections I hadn’t noticed before. It’s dense but not in an obvious way that might intimidate anyone.
The Prose: like his comics, Joe Hill is very careful and precise, very detailed, in his prose as well. Whether it’s his short stories in 20th Century Ghosts (an amazing collection of long, slow and haunting stories) or his novels like Heart-Shaped Box or NOS4A2, he puts a lot of careful work and detail in. He moves seamlessly between the forms, much like Neil Gaiman does. I have no idea really about his confidence levels in different forms (I would guess he is more confidence in comics than anywhere else), but the care taken and the precision mean that any lack of confidence doesn’t come across, or is carefully eliminated before the book finds its way to us.
This is the barest scratching of the surface of authors who move between comics and prose, of course, but they’re three of my favorites so I can’t help but talk about them first. I think these days, we as readers move between forms pretty fluently, so it seems unlikely to me that you, Constant Reader, didn’t know that they had done work outside of their most famous area…but perhaps you didn’t know. And if that’s the case, I hope you’ll go seek out their comics (or their prose). It’s fun to explore while reading, particularly when an author we love is exploring just like we are.
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