Thursday, 19 August 2010

Et tu, Alan?

I'm rather sad now.

I kind of got the impression that Alan Moore wouldn't have liked Robert E. Howard.  Moore, for all his undoubted genius and coolness, was one of those people would've been likely taken in by the myths and misconceptions regarding Conan's creator that were riddling the world 25 years ago.  This was the age of Dark Valley Destiny, after all - and just a year after the appearance of Conan the Barbarian in cinemas. 

So we come to Sexism in Comics, a 1983 article by the man himself. Before I get stuck in, I want to make the point that outside of the Howard stuff, this is a really good article.  Sexism and Feminism is something I'm very interested in, as you'll no doubt have noticed.  However, just because something was written decades ago doesn't exclude it from discussion now that the facts are more fully known: if anything, it means that they need to be addressed even more. Just because "Epic Pooh" was written decades ago doesn't mean Brian Murphy wasn't right to critique it.  Man, I miss The Cimmerian.

Take for example the home-grown rape fantasies that populate our very own Sword-and-Sorcery genre. How many times have you opened up a copy of Savage Sword of Conan to find some barbarian forcing a lithe Kothian dancing girl back into the hay, ignoring her feeble half-hearted complaints and taking his cue from the delirious ecstatic look that the artist has drawn onto her face, showing you that she doesn't mind really. In fact, she likes this sort of treatment. Sure she does. Anyone would enjoy being sexually assaulted by an illiterate musclebound oaf who stinks of bear grease. That's most people's idea of a good night out.

The message of this sort of story is that women enjoy rape and that they say "No" when they mean "yes". When one reads in the papers about some of the astonishing proclamations made by judges presiding over rape cases, one wonders if our entire judicial authorities were not given copies of "Conan the Rapist" to read during their formative years. The other message contained in this material is that real men are good at drinking, reducing people to dog-food with their broadswords and interfering with tavern wenches.

I have to say, I really think Moore's looking into things in this section.  Breaking open even one of the lesser Savage Swords, I see the women with expressions not of "delirious ecstacy," but abject terror.  Either Moore is a poor judge of facial expressions that borders on the Autistic, or he's trying to paint this with the same brush used by John Norman.  I'll give him points for mentioning "Kothic" though, it proves that while he might not have understood the comics, he may at least have read them.  Or skimmed them.  Or asked someone for a Hyborian name he could steal to prove a point.

Oh, and by the way, earlier Moore compares Sword-and-Sorcery to Japanese Rape Hentai.  No, Alan.  Just no.  John Norman's Gor, maybe; Heavy Metal, at a stretch; but Sword-and-Sorcery in general?  Not in even the wildest fantasies of the average comic author will you find anything that compared to the depths of some horrors I've encountered (though mercifully only in synopsis form: I haven't the courage to experience them first hand).  In hindsight, it's rather hilarious to see Moore criticizing S&S's more lascivious side considering what he got up to less than a decade after writing this essay.  Or are the sexually explicit, exploitative adventures of characters from beloved children's fantasy stories exempt from this sort of denouncement?  Or is it just when you write them?

As well as that, as we shall find, all the criticisms Moore levels here are, by proxy, levelled at Howard. Moore apparently has no idea of just how feminist Howard was even judging by his strong female characters, let alone letters he couldn't possibly have access too.  But frankly, a badass like Valeria from 1936 alone is worth a score of Wonder Women from 1959.  A shame Moore doesn't bother to note that, or mention how a sword-woman from 1936 was a more positive feminist role-model than anything in the decades that followed - certainly in comics.  But I guess that doesn't fit into his worldview, as we shall see.

Strange that Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard was in reality a rather sad and lonely figure who never managed to sever his intense emotional bond with his mother. When she died he drove out to some waste land and blew his own brains out. Conan and all his other heroes were unashamed escapist fantasies of the way he would have liked to have been.

It is a great pity that he couldn't have diverted his undoubted energies into something a bit more positive and healthy.  It's a greater pity that he has doomed the following generations of his fans to endless reruns of his hopelessly insecure dreams of brute sex, white slavery and mindless violence.

Though it chagrins and infuriates me to do so, I'm willing to give Moore a certain amount of slack on the woefully inaccurate, borderline libelous, and frustratingly facile depiction of Howard and his most famous creation.  After all, if the official biographies and the man considered by many at the time to be the top authority on Robert E. Howard were coming up with lines like "maladjusted to the point of psychosis," what hope is there for anyone else?  How could he possibly know that Howard had a fairly interesting and action-packed life, that his depression was far more complex than simply missing his mam, and that there's so much more to Conan than Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment? Certainly it makes for an attractive dichotomy, and since Moore is a writer, he'd probably lap up the idea of the author of one of the mightiest warriors in fiction to really be a little small-town geek. Many people do.  It's classic Scooby-Doo material: "Why, it turns out the mighty barbarian was really just an insecure, lonely man in a suit!" So though it disappoints me that Moore was misinformed, I cannot blame him considering the climate of the time, any more than I can blame Howard for his views on geography or evolution.

Moore also shows a lamentable lack of familiarity with Howard's other work, especially non-fantasy.  Now, I can afford a little bit of slack on Moore not knowing that Howard wrote anything other than Sword-and-Sorcery - I don't think many of them were even in print until the '00s - but jings, it still chafes that he seems to completely ignore A Gent from Bear Creek.  The first Robert E. Howard novel ever published, and it wasn't Sword-and-Sorcery, but a comedy western.  The idea that all of Howard's heroes were "unashamed escapist fantasy" flies in the face of the larger body of his work - what of fallible mortals like Steve Harrison, Conrad & Kirowan, Steve Allison and others?  What's "escapist" about the dark, bleak fatalism of Bran Mak Morn, or the uncaring dark cosmos of Solomon Kane, or the many Cthulhu Mythos or Southern Gothic horrors?  Must do better, Alan.

It's particularly that jab about Howard not directing his energies into something "a bit more positive and healthy" that grinds my gears.  Alan, the single most commercially successful and probably most numerous of all the fields Howard wrote in during his lifetime was comedy.  Not epic Swords-and-Sorcery, not historical fiction, not horror, comedy.  Comedy westerns and boxing yarns outnumber every one of his fantasy series combined.  These comedies are light-hearted, rambunctious and ultimately harmless.  It's hard to think of anything more "positive and healthy," relatively speaking, than the delightfully whimsical adventures of Breck Elkins or the loveable Steve Costigan.  I'm willing to give Moore some slack, since the boxing comedies were undoubtedly quite unknown at the time he was writing, but it's still poor form to characterize Howard's work on what is a comparative fraction of his corpus.

That said, Moore brings up one good Howard-related point, though it requires a bit of qualification.

It's a greater pity that he has doomed the following generations of his fans to endless reruns of his hopelessly insecure dreams of brute sex, white slavery and mindless violence.

It may be true that Howard's successors were doing reruns of "brute sex, white slaver and mindless violence," but you certainly can't blame Howard for that.  Most of the Conan pastiches Moore is clearly describing here are a result of that old chestnut of Conan being nothing more than - wait for it - Puerile Adolescent Wish-Fulfillment.  All that's required is for Conan to bash some heads in, rescue a voluptuous damsel, and for a beastie or two to appear in the proceedings.  This gross caricature of Howard's creation has led to the mockery of Sword-and-Sorcery as a genre, and it's utterly infuriating to see Howard blamed as the origin, when the true origin quite clearly lies in the mass-market, production-line pap which became the Conan Franchise.

Ah well.  The piece was written in the '80s, and as I said, it is a very interesting article nonetheless.  As was the case with my disagreements with Michael Moorcock's criticisms and Bob Silverberg's atrocious Howard/Gilgamesh slash fan-fiction, it doesn't affect my opinion of the man's best work.  I still think "Kings in Darkness" is one of the ten finest Sword-and-Sorcery stories ever written, and "Our Lady of the Sauropods" one of my favourite ever science fiction stories.  The man has still written some of the most important comics... ever.  V for Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Killing Joke, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, Supreme, Promethea (my personal favourite), Tom Strong, his work for 2,000 AD and Swamp Thing - any one of those works would be enough to assure his place in the Pantheon of Comic Deities.  'E's a bluddy genius.

So he's unfortunately ill-informed about Howard - nobody's perfect.  If anything, it just makes him more human.  Kind of like REH: I may vehemently disagree with the racist elements in his fiction, but as with Moore's dismissal and mischaracterisation of Howard, it's as symptomatic of the time and place as much as it is their own fault.  They're both wrong, but for reasons beyond simple personality flaws, and it doesn't take away from their genius.  Crom knows Moore has his fair share of... interesting views, and given his almost otherworldly aura, I think he kind of needed a bit of humanizing in my eyes.  Maybe one of these days, if I ever meet him at a convention, I'll pluck up the courage to suggest he incorporate more Howardian elements in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen beyond Crom and a vague reference to the "Amra Period" in The Black Dossier, and hopefully not make the "Conan was Swedish" mistake again.

Speaking of which, I can't believe I forgot to point out that the idea of Cimmeria being Welsh "Cymru" or Danish "Himmerland" is hilarious, since the otherwise erudite and scholarly folk seem to have completely missed the historical Cimmerians.  That's quite an oversight.  Even the guy writing in noting the real Cimmerians didn't know about Howard's "The Hyborian Age," and you'd think people would at least read up all they could on his fictional Cimmerians in order to determine where he was going with them, rather than come up with weird theories based purely on speculation.  That's like wondering where Tolkien got the idea for the Rohirrim without actually reading The Lord of the Rings.  Another thing I notice which is not exclusive to Black Dossier is the "Amra is another word for lion" theory - frankly, I have sufficient cause to doubt this, which I'll talk about in an upcoming post.  Ah well, since the death of Geocities their site has vanished from the 'Net: maybe a new iteration will be more accurate.

Anyway, I highly encourage everyone to read "Sexism in Comics" - just skip most of the fifth page.


  1. So... let me get this straight. In Watchmen, The Comedian almost rapes Sally Jupiter, until Hooded Justice intervenes. But then, a few years later, Sally has a relationship with her "almost" rapist. I think you hit the nail on the head. Moore is exempt here as well I suppose...

  2. The myth that Howard's stories were naught but pure boys' wish fulfillment and escape really needs to die now. I mean, the very first published Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword," has Conan coping with the difficult responsibilities of kingship, "wearying [him] as all the fighting [he] had done never did."

    When I was a fighting-man, the kettle-drums they beat,
    The people scattered gold-dust before my horse's feet;
    But now I am a great king, the people hound my track
    With poison in my wine-cup, and daggers at my back

    I miss The Cimmerian too.

  3. Moore turned beloved characters of literature in to maladjusted drug fiends and sexual predators in his LXG books.. I won't even go into what he did with those faery tale books..

    He's self important and I'm glad I traded all my Alan Moore Trades a while back and got something from some one who doesn't think quite as highly of himself as Moore does..

  4. I was going to bring up the hypocrisy of watchmen but monsterhoodoo beat me to the punch.

    And I raise a toast to the shade of the Cimmerian as well.

  5. Well: i really hate Alan Moore comic books. I find them long, empty and pedantic. Even Watchmen. ESPECIALLY Watchmen.

  6. Very good point, monsterhoodoo (and David), in fact I think it's probably the most damning counterpoint to Moore's whole "Swords-and-Sorcery was showing women falling in love their their rapists" spiel - especially considering Watchmen was written *after* this article!

    There's also some of the rather crazy stuff in Promethea, as well as some very unfortunate implications in Tom Strong, but it's clear that Alan's a bit of a sable pot calling an obsidian kettle stygian. For shame, Alan!

    Couldn't agree more, Brian. We didn't even have a heroine in a Conan adventure until the fourth story. As you say, "Phoenix" was all about Conan dealing with the realities of kingship and more: "The Scarlet Citadel" had him dealing with betrayal, the struggle to regain his kingdom, facing his darkest fears in the Halls of Hell, and making a deal with a human devil in order to save his kingdom; "The Tower of the Elephant" has Conan neither get the treasure nor kill the monster, and is faced not with an epic battle, but the shame of an entire race as he witnesses a cosmic tragedy. Don't see much Puerile Adolescent Wish Fulfillment there.

    Lagomorph and Kike, well, to each his own. I can certainly see why you'd dislike Moore's books, but I can't help but love some of his work. Promethea is my own favourite, while my mother adores "Love and Death." He is massively self-satisfied and needs to be knocked down a peg or two, but ultimately, I think he deserves some credit. As someone once said, "I suppose we must respect him."

  7. About the watchmen "hypocrisy". Moore use his art to critizise the many things he find wrong in the world, and just because he put that stuff in the watchmen dont say he exploit a rape fantasy and see women as victims, quite the contrary. It would be pretty poor critisism of society to exclude everything bad and just pretend its not there. More obviously feel strongly against sexism in pop culture, and natrually he choose to get it right in his own creations. Or did any of you think that the comedian was a cool rolemodel? What Moore see in Conan is the boyish fantasy hero doing basicly what the comedian is doing but being treated as just that cool rolemodel (no, that is not the way I see Conan, but from Taranaich vigilance we know Moore do/did). The comedian/sally relation is obviously there to point out 1. the shift in generations (between mother and daughter etc) and 2. to point out what a bastard the comedian was.
    And the lost girls is about another part of feminism: breaking the all to common view of girl/women protagonists as virtous asexual little prinsess dolls (ironically for this discussion, Howard also broke those silly cliches decades before Moore, as has ben pointed out). Lost girls probably has the same problem Howard have: the writer has one intention, but the casual reader has a much more simpleminded point of view. But it is an interresting development on Moores behalf to try to make serious erotic comics, with a feminist touch too.
    You dont stop sexism by saying "men and women are equal" you stop it by saying "men and women are not equal, there is a male bias, and we need to work on changing that".
    Good post Taranaich

  8. When i think about it, the comedian is probably an projection of that sword and sorcery hero Moore paint in his article on sexism. Make sence if he is frustrated of how those "heroes" of yeaster-generation got their way and even keep corupting the present (as moore se it), so he makes a true "damndest bastard there ever was" and no charming exuses this time, to try make us understand those heroes are not very nice guys.

  9. Fredrik, I've been working on a follow-up to the post: you've brought up a number of points I considered since my original reply, especially the idea of Comedian representing that exact sort of boorish "hero" in S&S and the more gritty comics.

    Indeed, it's interesting how similar the two cases are: people accuse Watchmen of being "warped" because of the Comedian's attempted rape and SSI's twisted love, but they fail to realise that the Comedian is a bad man and SSI is psychologically broken. I think Moore's made that exact mistake with SSoC: he's asserting that the bad guys who rape women in SSoC are meant to be sympathetic, which is patently absurd. So it's an interesting parallel.

  10. for me Swamp thing, the stories of Moore, though I haven't read all,are one of the best comics done, I read Watchmen lot of time ago, and I don't like The league of extraordinary gentlemen,I read the first volume, as a friend said in a forum maybe people and critics aclaim that comic becase they usually don't read pulp or pastiches...
    more things the label confuenden imbeciles is very dangerous and could be not understand, it look like you're calling Alan Moore or Ryan Harvey from Black gate, excellent his review of Conan of the isles, imbeciles, other people maybe deserve the word... I assume imbecil is the same than in spanish, isn't it?
    the last sentence of Fredrick in his first entry, when he speak about feminism, looks great but I don't understand exactly the term bias... could some of you explain it...?

  11. Well, I really did like Watchmen, From Hell was ok, but the LXG stuff just left me cold.. I don't like seeing other peoples characters used that way.. and it's one of the few times I'll say I like the movie better than the book.. And V For Vendetta did nothing for me since I'd seen the film first..

    I don't want anyone to think I'm trashing him.. He is a highly creative person, and shows tremendous depth in his reading habits. But I do feel he takes himself way to seriously.. but then a lot of those old 2000AD guys do..

  12. Bias means you favor one side preferentially to the detriment of the other side.

  13. Fair point, Francisco: I've replaced it with the more neutral and appropriate "Reputation of REH" tag. I normally reserve "Confounded Imbeciles" only for... confounded imbeciles, and you're right, it isn't really fair to count Moore among the likes of others I've criticized.

  14. "Bob Silverberg's atrocious Howard/Gilgamesh slash fan-fiction,...": Man, I thought that I was the only one who still remembers GILGAMESH IN THE OUTBACK, despite the fact that it won the Hugo for best novella in 1987! You know, as much as I love Silverberg as a writer, I can't quite forgive him for marring such a fantastic concept (Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft meet Gilgamesh in Hell) with his silly theory that Howard was a repressed homosexual, and that his Conan tales merely represented his "sublimated" desires (someone clearly needs to inform Silverberg that no one, barring a few literary critics, still follows Freud's pseudo-scientific theories).

    Alan Moore and rape: Yeah, for some reason, Moore gets an unbelievable amount of slack when he uses the same type of dodgey material that he condemns others for using. Case in point, Jim Shooter is vilified for depicting an attempt by two homosexuals to rape Bruce Banner in RAMPAGING HULK. When Moore depicts the homosexual gang-rape of Johhny Bates in MARVELMAN, he is praised for writing such a "harrowing" scene. Of course, Moore, clever clogs that he is, has his rapists spout anti-homosexual rhetoric as they rape Bates.Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

  15. I like a lot of Alan's work. Promethea was pretty spankin' and TLoEG has been very entertaining and even insightful (particularly his dissection of Victorian ideals that never lived up even their most modest intentions). I find too much of his work to be shameless revisions of things that are culturally familiar, but he's hardly alone in that. I don't think he's the genius everyone makes him out to be. He's good but not so much revolutionary as he is adept at skewering convention and shedding light on the deeper complexities of being human.
    What bothers me about his empty headed slam at Robert Howard and his fiction is the simple fact that he weighed in on something he was too lazy to bother researching. He came to asinine conclusions, conclusions that -regardless of their lacking merit- were then read by avid (and more than a few sycophantic..) fans. They, in turn repeated the same clueless opinion in their slavish worship of Moore's "genius".
    Fandom. I really don't get it.
    What's funny is I remember reading Moore's anti-S&S screed and his rant against Howard and this kept me from reading his work for a little while.

  16. thanks for the explnation Lagomorph Rex and for the aclaration Al...
    by the way here you have a very good characterization of Alan Moore by a group of spanish humorists Muchachada Nui, its surreal and pop culture based is oriented for freaks and geeks in the late twenties and thirties...

  17. sorry I tried to said explanation and its surreal and pop culture based humour...

  18. Alan Moore is an ass. He's a remarkably talented writer but he's still an ass. Not an uncommon trait (see also Harlan Ellison).

  19. Believe me, Syon, you aren't the only one who remembers "Gilgamesh." Part of the reason I haven't already torn it apart on TBTTF is that I'm doing research on Lovecraft: I'm pretty sure he comes off at least as badly as REH in the story.

    Rick, well, I think that's the saddest part of all: I think Moore DID do the research, but the research was based on inaccurate "facts." Still, Moore came up with his own groaners too.

    Anon, Moore is indeed an ass. Harlan Ellison's also an ass (he sued someone for comparing him to the "insane" Robert E. Howard - and WON!). I just wish they could be more humble geniuses - Crom knows they exist.