03 November 2009

Alan Moore's Lost Treasures - #1 in a 6-Part Limited Series

Alan Moore is the John Lennon of comics writers.

Like Lennon, Moore is at once a visionary, poet and prophet, that rare artist who has stood alone at the top of the mountain for more than two decades now, almost universally recognized as comics’ best writer. Yet, like Lennon, there is a whole wealth of great work that lies just beyond the knowledge of the mainstream audience, stories that, for a variety of reasons, never quite made it onto most comics fans’ radars, but which are definitely worth tracking down and reading.

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, in this limited blog series honoring Alan Moore in the month of his birth, I’m going to be taking a closer look at some of these "lost treasures" from Moore’s prolific past. Many of these stories are rare, out-of-print and buried in this anthology or that backup feature. The stories are vastly diverse, including everything from biography, poetry, satire, and war stories to comedy, slice-of-life and autobiography. But all offer fascinating glimpses into Moore’s unparalleled and indefatigable imagination. In reality, Moore has several dozen short stories that fall into the category of obscure and forgotten, but in this series, I’ll be focusing on six of my personal favorites. I hope you enjoy it!

“The Hasty Smear of My Smile…”
I haven’t done the actual research, but if you asked 1,000 comics fans what their favorite Alan Moore story is, I’m guessing 75% of them would say Watchmen without batting an eye. 15-20% would probably be split evenly between Miracleman, V for Vendetta and From Hell, while the final 5-10% would probably cite some of the author’s lesser regarded, but still excellent mainstream works like Swamp Thing, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Top 10 or Promethea.

But I think I can confidently state that NOBODY would answer “The Hasty Smear of My Smile.” Yet this four page story, which ran as a backup feature in the final issue of Peter Bagge’s Hate (#30), is a mini-masterpiece. It’s a capsule version of Moore’s considerable skill, the epitome of everything that makes him fascinating as a writer.

The story essentially brings personality, perspective, voice and history to the Kool-Aid man character, who up to that point, was never anything more than an advertising logo, a ubiquitous corporate mascot used to sell powdered swill to unsuspecting children. But at some point in recent history, the Kool-Aid man transcended from corporate mascot to cultural icon. Like Kleenex, or Xerox, the brand name of Kool-Aid entered the popular lexicon and became interchangeable with all other similar powdered drink products. Of course, the history of Kool-Aid as a consumer product is irrelevant. What’s fascinating is what Moore, and Peter Bagge, who illustrated the short story, created with the concept.

In this story, the Kool-Aid man is not only a real person living in the real world, he is acutely aware of the absurdity of his existence. He knows he’s just a pitcher of Kool-Aid with a face “hastily smeared” on it, yet he has the same human desires to be loved and accepted as anyone else. His voice, too, is a note-perfect evocation of somberness, a recalcitrant reflection on a life comprised mostly of torment and ridicule, only occasionally rising from the depths to experience a few brief moments of fleeting joy.

As usual, Moore’s prose is more than just functional, it’s poetic. Even the title is strangely beautiful, foreshadowing the melancholy meditation that follows and implying hidden depths of depression behind that gleaming, yet unsustainable smile. On the opening page, Moore immediately sets the scene, establishing the Kool-Aid man as a highly sensitive writer and poet, uniquely talented at translating the horror and ridicule he’s endured into haunting and painful prose. “Sometimes I am purple in angry negro thunder over night tenements,” he writes, “sometimes I am rock-a-dile red, queer commie blood leaked from America’s television asshole.” In just these few panels, Moore has revealed the soul of a tormented genius.

Moore also cleverly references the few familiar cultural references to Kool-Aid, including most notably, Tom Wolfe’s classic novel, The Electric Acid Kool-Aid Test. But rather than play it straight, Moore twists the concept to imply that the Kool-Aid man himself was addicted to psychedelics. After a fight in which he called Wolfe “a hack journalist,” the Kool-Aid Man recalls how “Hunter S. Thompson held me down while Wolfe pissed into my head.” Not only is Moore a vastly talented writer, his sense of humor is also razor-sharp.

Of course, Peter Bagge (with inks by Eric Reynolds) deserves much of the credit for the comedy in this story. His looping, rubbery drawings, which hyper-exaggerate emotions to their cartoon extremes, are perfectly suited for the psycho-mascot lead character. And the red-tone coloring adds a certain tenor of sadness to the proceedings, while also staining the panels the all-too-familiar color of its subject.

In the hand of a gifted writer, anything can become a character. Yet Alan Moore, more than just about anybody in the history of comics, possesses the perfect combination of imagination, talent, skill, and vision to not only bring this bizarre figure to life, but to use his story to mock and ridicule the society which created and worships such an absurd character. In the end, the Kool-Aid man’s story is a tragedy, an elegiac memoir of a difficult life, and while I hardly expect it to garner the same praise or critical attention as Moore’s longer works, it’s every bit as satisfying, and is among my favorite Alan Moore stories.

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Blogger Robert Boyd said...

I had a very different reading--I didn't see him as a tormented genius but as a lame fellow traveler who had a little cache because of his fame. His hilarious poem is an obvious rip-off of Alan Ginsberg, and he seems to define himself by the famous people he knew. But unlike most of the people mentioned in the piece, his fame is built purely on his physical appearance, not on any talent he may have (and that is what torments him).

November 4, 2009 10:18 AM  

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