Book review: Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore

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In 1978, Alan Moore decided to quit the job at the Northampton gas board and dedicate himself full time to breaking into the comics industry as a writer. It was a high risk strategy. He was twenty-four years old and his young wife was pregnant. But Moore saw it as his last chance to exchange a job he hated for a career he loved.

Success came slowly with occasional one-off stories (Tharg’s Futureshocks) in the new science fiction comic 2000AD. Later, came Skizz, D.R. and Quinch and my own personal favourite, The Ballad of Halo Jones. More success came through the short lived and inappropriately titled Warrior comic (it was not war-related at all). Moore provided the backbone to the comic between 1982 and 1985, most famously with V For Vendetta, set in a late 1990s futuristic fascist dystopia. He also wrote Marvelman, now known as Miracleman, a promising superhero strip derailed by a legal dispute with Marvel Comics. This proved an forerunner to his greatest success, DC’s The Watchmen.

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Today, Alan Moore is still in Northampton, in his sixties and is renowned as one of the most successful comic writers ever albeit one with a bit of reputation for disputes with his employers or prospective filmmakers attempting to adapt his works (Moore has famously never seen any of the four films directly based on his own comics).

His fascinating story is detailed thoroughly by the always excellent Lance Parkin in this comprehensive biography.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin, published by Aurum Press (2013)

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Thirty years of The Ballad of Halo Jones

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If you were reading the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 20000AD, thirty years ago this month, you would doubtless have noticed a new character.

The Ballad of Halo Jones written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Ian Gibson first appeared in July 1984. 2000AD, which had started in 1977, already featured many of its best known science fiction and fantasy strips notably Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine. Ian Gibson had, in fact, drawn many Dredd episodes as well as the more humorous Sam Slade: Robohunter.

Alan Moore is a legend in the world of comics today. This was less true in 1984, but he was hardly unknown then either, having already penned both the futuristic drama V For Vendetta and Marvelman (later known as Miracleman) for Warrior, a title Moore had largely dominated but which was on its way out by 1984. He was also doing Swamp Thing for DC and had produced the extraterrestrial fantasy Skizz and D.R. and Quinch for 2000AD.  He had also written many Tharg’s Futureshocks; the Twilight Zone-style one off stories which many 2000AD staff first get established on. Moore had worked once with Gibson on one of these, “Grawks Bearing Gifts”.

But the first Halo Jones story wasn’t a hit. Lance Parkin in his biography Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore writes: “Now, Halo Jones is regularly cited as a high point of the magazine’s long history. Then, it was a different story. Every week, the magazine polled its readers on their favourite strips, and Halo Jones was notably unpopular during its first run (#376-385, July-September 1984)”. What was the problem?

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Was it because most of the characters were girls? Halo is introduced as a teenager, one of a group of female friends (plus Toby, a robot dog) who live on the Hoop, a large crime-infested artificial population centre constructed off Manhattan Island. It was fairly unusual for 2000AD to have a female lead character at this time but it is probable a few factors conspired against the strip. Readers complained of a lack of “action”. Moore assumed they meant a lack of “violence”. Cynical but perhaps accurate, there is little of either in Volume One (at least, not until the end). The story also features a fair amount of futuristic slang which may have alienated some readers. Although to be fair, the slang “Squeeze! Squeeze with a bare arm!” isn’t that unusual bearing in mind the strip is set in 4949, nearly 3,000 years in the future. Another possible point against it is that there is also little interesting to mark out Halo at this point. She is just another one of the girls.

Volume Two which appeared in 1985, however, was much better.

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For one thing, the intriguing prologue features a lecture, set even further in the future which not only updates us but hints for the first time that Halo might be destined to become a figure of genuine historical import. Halo also develops more as a character, working as a stewardess on a space cruise liner the Clara Pandy during a year long voyage and leaving her less ambitious or unlucky friends back on the Hoop.

The ship turns out to be a perfect vehicle for all sorts of great stories, many working as stand alone strips. Toby, Halo’s companion reveals a ferocious dark side while a particularly strong story concerns The Glyph, a soulless sad character rendered invisible after countless sex changes have robbed him of his true identity.

Volume Three, is by Alan Moore’s own admission, the best of all.

Although it appeared only a year later, in 1986, ten long years have passed for Halo and she has become a more cynical, harder and more interesting figure. Washed up, she bumps into her old friend Toy Molto (a giantess) and the two decide to join the Army.

Predictably, this ends badly with the two becoming involved in the encroaching war in the Tarantula Nebula, a Vietnam-style conflict, periodically alluded to in the strip since Book One. Funny, ingenious and at times, moving, (one episode sees Halo talking for some time to a wounded colleague before realising with total horror that they have been dead for some time), Halo experiences the full indignity of combat. The war on the planet Moab, particularly leads to a memorable battle in which the strong gravity of the large planet leads time to be distorted leading the conflict to literally be appearing to pass either in slow motion or sometimes even accelerated speed. Halo also becomes embroiled in an unwise love affair with the monstrous General Luiz Cannibal and loses her innocence in more ways than one.

Adverts for the Titan anthologies of the story at the time hinted at ten volumes of Halo even suggesting she became a pirate queen. But, in fact, Volume Three would be the end. Moore fell out with 2000AD and went onto The Watchmen and phenomenal comic success. Only Neil Gaiman has come close to his status amongst contemporary British comic writers.

The Ballad of Halo Jones remains his overlooked masterpiece. I urge you to seek it out.

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Top ten 2000AD stories which should be made into films

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Chances are, if you like any comic at all, the last few years will have seen one of your favourites be made into some sort of film, with adaptations ranging from both the biggest to even the most obscure comics and graphic novels. Some, such as 2000AD’s most famous story, Judge Dredd, have been filmed more than once.

But which other stories from the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic are ripe for a big screen outing?

Sam Slade: Robohunter

The pitch: Like Blade Runner. Except funny.

Like Blade Runner, John “Judge Dredd” Wagner’s Robohunter took its inspiration from Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It was always much more fun than Ridley Scott’s film though (which it predates). Sam’s colleagues included Kidd, an obnoxious man trapped in a baby’s body and the idiotic android, Hoagy. His first mission saw him trying (and failing) to bring order to the colony Verdus where a full-blown robot revolution had occurred.

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Rogue Trooper

The pitch: Blue movie.

Thanks to Avatar, The Watchmen and The Smurfs, cinema’s latest “blue” period may have peaked a few years ago. But the blue genetically engineered warrior Rogue, trapped in an eternal war on the desolate Nu Earth is the only 2000AD character other than Dredd to have ever got his own annual and could work well on screen.

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Button Man

The pitch: The Hunger Games for grown-ups.

Not to be confused with Children’s ITV’s Button Moon (note: nobody has ever done this), this was a rare non-sci-fi outing for the comic. The premise – hired killers are paid by rich clients or “Voices” to hunt each other and fight to the death for sport – is so cinematic that it’s surprising it hasn’t been filmed already. In fact, Dreamworks bought the rights some years ago. But, as yet, there is no film.

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The Ballad of Halo Jones

The pitch: The girl from tomorrow.

Before he became the beardy comics legend behind The Watchman and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore wrote a lot for 2000AD, notably this unusual female-centric strip which saw its heroine progress from life in the claustrophobic 40th century metropolis The Hoop, to a job on a luxury space cruise liner to ultimately fighting a future war on the time-distorting planet Moab.

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Nemesis the Warlock

The pitch: Alien insurrection.

Nemesis is the alien leader of Credo, a resistance movement fighting the neo-fascist forces of the malevolent, futuristic masked megalomaniac Torquemada. With catchphrases like “Be pure, be vigilant, behave!” the villainous Torq is the real star of the strip. It’s a nice twist having humanity as the villain, although in general, Pat Mills’ story is probably a bit too weird to make into a film.

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Slaine

The pitch: The Celtic Conan.

Pat Mills’ Slaine, the musclebound warrior of the Land of the Young, Tir Nan Og, may be steeped in Celtic mythology, but it did start around the same time as the first Conan films. Despite unique twists (the whole thing is related by Slaine’s morally questionable dwarf sidekick Ukko and Slaine himself is also prone to warp spasms – don’t ask), a Slaine film might struggle to escape from such unfair comparisons.

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Chopper

The pitch: Surfs up!

A spin-off from Judge Dredd, Chopper – real name: Marlon Shakespeare -first appeared as a teenage graffiti artist not unlike a Mega City One version of Banksy, in the early Eighties before transforming into a world champion in the illegal sport of sky surfing. This could actually be brilliant, although risks comparison with the Silver Surfer (already brought to screen in the terrible Fantastic Four sequel). And as any Eric Bana fan will tell you: there is already a film called Chopper.

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The ABC Warriors

The pitch: They, Robot.

Robotic fighting unit and sometime allies of Nemesis the Warlock (see above), the two most famous Atomic Bacterial Chemical Warriors – the wittily named Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein – first appeared in Ro-Busters, a sort of robot version of Thunderbirds, which appeared in 2000AD’s sister paper Star Lord, before merging into 2000AD in 1978. Oddly, Hammerstein has already been in a film, cropping up randomly in the first Judge Dredd movie.

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Strontium Dog

The pitch: Alpha male.

In the future, a nuclear conflagration has left a sizeable minority of mutants, all forced – for some reason – to work as Search and Destroy agents (or “Strontium Dogs” basically bounty hunters) by the unsympathetic “norm” majority. The coolest of these is Johnny Alpha, accompanied by his Viking sidekick Wulf Sternhammer (“A skull to crack with the happy stick und Vulf is fine!”). Alpha’s mutation gives him white eyes but it also enables him to read minds and do all manner of cool stuff, so who’s complaining?

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Anderson PSI

The pitch: She’s always in your mind.

Another Dredd spin-off but let’s face it, the psychic female Judge was the best thing about the recent Dredd film. She could also be pitched against Mega City One’s ultimate super-villain, Judge Death. Altogether now: the crime is life, the sentence is death!

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