Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Alan Moore's Shakespearean Pastiche

I'm still halfway through Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neil's just-published book, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier -- the third book in the series although not (somewhat confusingly) the third volume, but rather an intermission volume resting between volume two and the promised volume three. But I have to stop and ask the collective wisdom of the internet:

What the !@#$% is up with Moore's Shakespeare pastiche?

One of the reason that I have to ask is that I haven't seen anyone mention yet that it seems off. I've been following the reviews (as linked to by Dirk Deppey and Tom Spurgeon), and everyone so far seems impressed. People whose views I respect will say things like "Those documents are immaculately constructed, whether they're recreating Shakespeare plays or...".

Whereas I thought it was so bad I almost put the book down.

So obviously either I'm seeing something they're not, or I'm just missing what Moore's trying to do, or something. That latter is perfectly plausible: speaking just for myself, Alan Moore is one of my favorite writers, and (I would say) one of the best writers ever to grace the medium of comics. I love his work -- which is why I preordered this book over a year ago.

What bothers me about the sequence?

It's not the visuals. Todd Klein, and whoever else had a hand in their creation, did a bang-up job. And while Kevin O'Neil's pictures are clearly out of place -- Shakespeare's folios didn't have those sorts of illustrations -- I'm willing to forgive them for the larger conceit of the volume (which is a collaboration between Moore and O'Neil).

No, it's the writing.

First of all, it's anachronistic.

...I hesitate to say this, since Alan Moore is the Great Bearded Wizard of Northampton, and I never took a Shakespeare class after high school. What do I know from Shakespeare's folios? And it's possible that I am either A) wrong or B) missing the subtle literary intent -- I haven't even finished reading the book yet! ... But I don't see it. Maybe someone can explain it to me.

It's clearest in the peripherals -- the stage directions and such. They're simply much fuller than any Shakespeare folio would have:
• Directions are given for the character's speech -- "aside", "to gatemen", etc. I don't think that early editions of Shakespeare included these -- oh, modern editors would put them in to clarify matters. But they weren't in the Folio. (Readers were just expected to get when a character was speaking to a particular person, or to themselves.) Maybe it's a crutch for modern readers.
• The same is true for the other occasional stage directions -- "produces paper", in particular.
• Every character enters either left or right. But I don't think that early Shakespeare editions ever indicated this. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong... but take a look for yourself. What's most damning about this is that I can't see that it's making either a subtle literary point, nor making things clear (as the above might be): it just seems anachronistic.
• The Dramatis Personae: I'm not sure that the early editions even had these. But even granting them that licence... the order is wrong. Every Shakespearean dramatis personae I've ever seen -- even in modern editions -- puts the royalty first, nobles second, others third (not according to the size of the role, as latter playwrights would do). It just seems wrong this way.
• Ending with "curtain" -- or for that matter "they sleep" -- did early Shakespeare editions ever use those phrases? In the annotations, Peter Svensson suggests this is meant to indicate a private, commissioned performance.

Again, maybe I'm wrong about some or all of this. But I remember quite clearly learning all this in high school -- it's not overly complex stuff.

Why does all this matter? Well, in another book it wouldn't. But they go to so much trouble to fake the look of a folio -- the fonts, the paper color, the spelling, etc. -- that it really jarred me.

I also strongly suspect some of Moore's word uses were anachronistic. If it weren't Thanksgiving tomorrow, I might pull down the OED and see if I was right. Or maybe I was overly suspicious because of the stage directions. But for me the spell was broken.

Then there's the quality of the writing.

Complaining that Moore isn't as good as Shakespeare is just daft -- no one is, after all -- although it must be said that Moore was really begging for the comparison here. But that isn't what bothered me. What bothered me is that it didn't even seem like a credible pastiche. It felt clunky; it felt telegraphed -- I can't quite imagine Shakespeare writing a line like "Your wit fair spins my head with all its play": he would have made it, well, wittier. To my ear the rhythms often sounded wrong -- one line in an otherwise iambic passage wouldn't scan, for instance. The language seemed far simpler than Shakespeare would use, at least for such an extended passage -- the sentences fit far too tightly in too few lines, there weren't the complexities of sentence structure and metaphor that I find when I read Shakespeare. (To say nothing of the lack of the obsolete language that's everywhere in Shakespeare... which is why modern readers need all those footnotes!).

The conversation between the Queen & the others felt clunky and forced -- as if we were supposed to be so impressed that it was in a Shakespearean mode that it needn't bother to be interesting: but for me the fact that it wasn't interesting spoilt the illusion of the Shakespearean mode. The annotations say that "“Master Shytte” and “Master Pysse” are very Shakespearean names," noting -- correctly -- that Shakespeare didn't shy away from the scatological: but they seemed like cruder jokes than Shakespeare would make, at least to my ear.

All of which is to say that it didn't read well. Not that it wasn't as good as Shakespeare, in the sense that Moore didn't write something that could go head-to-head with The Tempest: but in the sense that it didn't sound credibly like Shakespeare, even in his weaker moments. And what made it so frustrating for me is that I bet Moore could do better: he's such a good writer that I found myself thinking, "come on, Alan, try a little here!"

I'm sure some of my readers will think I'm nitpicking, or trying to be overly clever, or something. I don't mean to do either. Quite frankly my first, gut reaction to this passage was that it was so bad that it almost kept me from reading the rest of the book.

So far I haven't found anything else in the book that bothered me so much: but then, I haven't read Fanny Hill, the other major work which Moore pastiches in the part I've read so far.

So I have to ask: is this just me? Was anyone else bothered by any of this? Or was everyone else just so impressed by the color of the paper and Todd Klein's admittedly impressive work that they didn't care about the details?

I really wanted and expected to like this book. And the rest of what I've read so far has been fine -- not as good as Moore's best work, or even the first two volumes of the League, I think, (I find the amount of sex to be, frankly, tedious (Moore always has had a lot of sex in his work, but in, say, Swamp Thing #34, or Promethea #10, it was frankly done in a far more interesting way)). But the Shakespeare pastiche was the only thing yet that made me really cringe. And I'm curious as to why (or whether) I'm the outlier here.


Richard said...

I haven't read Black Dossier yet...but I have to say that Moore's literary pastiches have never been all that great. Go back to Hollis Mason's memoirs in Watchmen for example. (Other supplementary material in that series was better...but Moore didn't write all of it.) Moore was heavily praised for this sort of thing simply because his efforts were better than anyone else in comics who had tried the technique up till then; over time, that vital qualification was overlooked and many readers now assume it's good simply because it's Moore.

One thing I'd say about Moore's writing in general is that he isn't good at subsuming his ego in any other writer's voice -- that includes his parody/homage of other comics writers as well as his forays into prose -- and the reader is always conscious of him keeping an arch distance from the material. When he tries to do a Superman homage or a Stan Lee pastiche, too often I sense his presence hovering at my elbow, saying "Look at this bit I've lifted, look at how cleverly I've done that."

But as I say, not having read this, I'm not yet entitled to say whether Moore is a less faithful student of Shakespeare than he is of Mort Weisinger.

Stephen said...

Hmmm... but Hollis Mason's memoir wasn't supposed to be a parody of a particular author (at least I've never seen it as such, and Mason himself is fictional, unlike Shakespeare). So it isn't nearly as jarring.

And as for Moore's Stan Lee parodies, those are, well, parodies, not pastiches. So again I don't think this quite applies.

And, of course, the pastiche documents are far more central in Black Dossier than they are in most (all?) of Moore's other works.

...Which is to say: maybe you're right. I'd have to think about it. But even if you are, it's still far more of a problem here.

Anonymous said...


I agree with some of your points, particularly regarding the stage directions, which i agree seemed wrong but I think that you are perhaps being a tad harsh.

Doing a Shakespeare pastiche without creating any anachronisms? That sounds like a hell of a job, especially as the author is trying to tell his own story and make his own points too. No obsolete language? To do something as exact as you demand would take an immense amount of time, research and effort. Given that this segment was one small part of the book I think you are expecting too much. If Moore had created a work that was in its entirety a pastiche of Shakespeare and had no greater purpose beyond that then perhaps it should be more exact but it is a merely a small part of the whole. It is in service to the greater story and it is important to bear that in mind.

Moore does not manage to use language as poetically as Shakespeare but he makes a very noble attempt and I applaud him bothering to make the attempt. He could just do the easy thing and do it all as a comic strip and then no-one would be able to touch it (do you criticize Shakespeare for not being able to match Alan Moore for sequential narrative ;) )as no-one has a greater skill in the medium as Moore. But he doesn't want to do the easy thing.

Be a little more generous. Applaud the attempted innovation rather than nit-picking so pedantically.There are many brilliant things in the Dossier and you seem to have focused entirely on one negative aspect.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah:

Regarding your final paragraph: Finish the book before you criticize the book as a whole. That is very poor form. The book grows and grows and some of the sequencies in the second half are easilly the equal of much of what Moore has done in the past.

I would suggest being a little less trigger happy with the criticism and give yourself a little more time to think and consider your thoughts before airing your criticism. And certainly pay the creators the courtesy of finishing the work in question first. But then you wouldn't have a blog if you didn't consider your own opinions to be exceptionally fascinating and important ;)

(please appreciate that my barbs are meant in the gentlest way possible)

Unknown said...

Moore didn't write all the supplemental stuff in Watchmen? Wow, I didn't realize that. What didn't he do, and who did it instead? Myself, I remember liking the Hollis Mason memoir; the bit I always remember is when he described the guy who had the kind of face you didn't see anymore. I don't know why, but I like that description.

As for other Moore prose, I loved his novel Voice of the Fire. I don't think that's really a pastiche of anything, but he does some really cool stuff with language there. The first chapter alone is pretty incredible, once you wrap your head around it.

Stephen said...

Moore didn't write all the supplemental stuff in Watchmen.

I somehow skimmed over this claim the first time I saw that comment. To my knowledge it isn't true. Certainly no one else is credited in the book. If someone wants to convince me they'll need to show me some evidence.

Peter Kessler said...
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Peter Kessler said...

I also thought the Shakespeare section was surprisingly unconvincing. So unconvincing that I've been trying to persuade myself that there must be some reason for why it's so off the mark. Maybe (and I'm just guessing here) in the same way that so many of the characters and allusions in LOEG are only tangentially related to their literary originals, the Shakespeare of this parallel Earth wrote in a slightly different way from our own bard. But that might be giving Moore a lot of rope. Who knows? Maybe Moore can't stand Shakespeare and simply can't be bothered to do a decent pastiche. But if that were the case, it's surprising that he visually identifies himself with Prospero. I'm reminded of George Bernard Shaw and his love-hate relationship with Shakespeare. In his puppet play 'Shakes vs Shav' he suggested that his own 'Heartbreak House' is as good as 'King Lear', perhaps with tongue in cheek. Ultimately I think RAB's got it spot on. Moore is a virtuouso, and he feels really uncomfortable in another writer's skin. The magic of LOEG is that the characters created by others all come into Moore's world, not the other way round.

Peter Kessler said...
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