I’ve never known quite how to feel about Alan Moore. Perhaps my feelings are best expressed by the time I found myself drunkenly screaming, ‘Alan Moore is a sex pervert’ in a public park immediately after declaring him one of the greatest living writers. His fondness for sex scenes has always left me prudishly uncomfortable and I’ve been very disturbed by the gendered violence in his work. I have never known whether Moore uses rape as a cheap storytelling device or whether he is one of the few writers, not just in graphic novels and comics but more broadly, who are unflinching about the sad truth that men get beaten up but women get raped.
What I admire about Moore is his sheer range – the exhilarating madness of his mixed-media storytelling. I barely remember the plot to Watchmen but I still remember the genre-perfect interspersions: the penny dreadful style comic within a comic, not to mention the critical commentary on this comic, fragments of autobiography and scientific journal articles. I still cringe at the overwrought article on owl-watching which so perfectly captures the florid writing academics are prone to when they try their hand at other writing (guilty).
And then recently there was the whole-kitchen-sinkness of Moore’s novel Jerusalem. Admittedly it is badly in need of editing, but I can think of very few writers who would have experimented so wildly when given free rein instead of squandering the opportunity.
I am not sure then how I missed the release of Volume III of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which actually came out in 2012. Perhaps the The Black Dossier (2007) seemed like a natural place if not for the story to end, then at least for me to walk away from the series. But five years too late to the party, I stumbled across articles claiming that Alan Moore had declared Harry Potter to be the Antichrist. Whatever my equivocal feelings about Moore, like most people who grew up with Harry Potter, I feel nothing but adoration for the series. I have stood in the lines, exchanged rabid theories about upcoming books and participated in endless impromptu trivia quizzes. To prove my credentials: I sat obsessively refreshing a webpage to get an early access account to Pottermore.
When I finally sat down to read Volume III, I’d consumed a fair amount of the commentary already and dismissed it in my head. Of course, Harry Potter was not high art and the writing is serviceable at best but it was hardly as bad as Moore was claiming – and seemed an unnecessarily cruel choice for depicting the supposed degradation of contemporary culture. It is brilliantly plotted. It made reading cool again. It gave an entire generation of children their morality. I’d come to the conclusion that much like Frank Miller before him, Moore had just started taking some erratic swings.
I managed to sneer my way to the big standoff. Even for those who hadn’t read spoilers beforehand, the lead-up was peppered with obvious clues – a school up north, a character named Tom Riddle. The cultural critique seemed fairly heavy-handed, particularly: ‘a quarter platform over, the franchise express, gathering steam’. The finale itself was crass (the zenith of Harry’s powers seems to be magically ejaculating on his enemies) and ended abruptly. In spite of it all however I was thoroughly unprepared for who descended from the clouds to confront Harry Potter.
Literature’s most famous nanny come to give its most famous child a time-out.
Understandably, much of the critical attention has been on Harry Potter. Often Poppins receives a bare mention and her presence has been simply read as an attempt to end on a joyous, positive note. It is easy to see the juxtaposition as a mere battle between the old and the new – a nostalgic yearning for the past. After all, the protagonists of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are all drawn from classics of the late 1800s to the early 1900s and Volume III sets one up for a vicious critique of the modern age. Yet, that could hardly be the extent of the message when Harry Potter itself harkens back to the good old days of English boarding schools.
Readers are likely to be familiar with Mary Poppins from the Walt Disney film rather than PL Travers’ books. While the idea of Julie Andrews staring down an evil Harry Potter is laughable and at best ironic, it is utterly plausible that Travers’ Poppins could take on the Antichrist. Mary Poppins of the books is already a mythic figure. She is the ‘Great Exception’ who communes with animals and has a raft of magical powers that are deployed with utter matter of factness, instead of spells with silly puns.
Disney’s Mary Poppins is cheerful and rosy-cheeked, eager to burst into song and dispense moral lessons. Of Traver’s Poppins we are told ‘Mary Poppins never wasted time in being nice’. She is an oftentimes harsh, amoral figure who brings chaos in her wake. In Travers’ world, normal rules are regularly upturned: gravity does not hold, humans act like animals and animals like humans. None of this happens because of an epic battle between good and evil, but simply for the sake of a birthday or a tea party. It is an exuberant, capricious world that bears a great deal of similarity to the spirit of Moore’s own work.
The sheer genius of Moore’s choice of deus ex machina doesn’t simply rely on the contrast between the ‘real’ Mary Poppins and Harry Potter but rather the way in which he gambles on the reader’s ignorance of the original Poppins to make his point. The Disneyfication of Mary Poppins transformed something chaotic and unmanageable into the palatable and easily marketable. The parallels to Harry Potter should be clear: a morality tale is dressed up in wholesome nostalgia and mass marketed, not just across multiple reprints of the books, but with theme parks, toys and a seemingly never ending stream of films. In the same way that we only have the diminished, milquetoast Poppins, our culture increasingly favours the easily digested and disseminated.
I do not want to get enamoured with Moore’s snarky cleverness and dismiss Harry Potter too readily. I know of no other children’s book or indeed adult fantasy book, where the problem of evil is so thoroughly grappled with. Voldemort is not inexplicably bad such as Sauron or a mysterious dark shadow, a la the antagonist in the Wizard of Earthsea (both frequent comparisons to Harry Potter). Rather, Rowling gives us the pieces of Voldemort’s childhood showing a troubled, neglected child desperate for any power he can wield over his circumstances then leaves us to notice that Harry himself, not to mention a host of other characters, had similarly terrible childhoods. The nearly but not quite explicable nature of evil is handled with deftness. These are books that age with you, as great children’s books should, containing if not answers to questions we will all eventually ask then at least honest depictions of the question itself. Whatever Harry Potter eventually birthed, the source material is not to be easily discounted.
Then again, that’s exactly why Moore’s point comes through like a punch in the gut: the distance between Travers’ Poppins and Disney’s Poppins, how easily the nuance of the Potterverse is cast aside in favour of plastic wands and T-shirts. How fragile, complexity.
Volume III is set in 2009, poised at the precipice. The Iraq war has come and gone as has the Global Financial Crisis but everything from the artist’s (Kevin O’Neill) sombre palette, to the ominous words that wrap-up the confrontation (‘The strange and terrible new aeon is unavoidable’) suggests that the worst is yet to come. Moore’s message feels all the more pressing now that news has become fake news. In an increasingly polarised world where expertise is shunted aside in favour of opinion and hashtags rule, it feels like what Moore captures so masterfully in that final confrontation – the triumph of the simplistic – has spilled over into everything.
Image: Still of Antichrist from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen