Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve months more than a year to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 62nd installment.
Originally, I had planned to do two weeks of Lost Girls, until I reread Lost Girls and realized that I wasn’t interested in writing about it for two weeks in a row, even if I did allow myself to hit the thesaurus and use lots of synonyms for tedious and pornography.
So, instead of that, I have listened to the cries of the Tor.com readership and reached back into the Wildstorm vaults for an Alan Moore-related comic book series from 2005-2006.
I’m talking about Albion, a six-issue series in which Alan Moore partnered with Leah Moore (total relation) and her husband John Reppion to tell a Watchmen-esque tale of British comic book heroes in modern day decline. Only, it’s not really like Watchmen at all, once you get past the nine-panel grid on the opening page of Albion #1, and it’s about the rebirth, not the decline, of some of the great British comic book characters of…well…somebody’s youth. Probably not yours. Definitely not mine.
Reportedly, the project was mostly motivated by artist Shane Oakley’s interest in reviving the old British characters, as Leah Moore (who is Alan Moore’s daughter, by the way) describes in a 2006 interview with Forbidden Planet: “Shane has such a passion for the comics and the characters. He really got us all excited about it from the start. We certainly wouldn’t have been able put so much into it if he hadn’t given it such a lot of momentum at the outset.”
And that was around the time that Leah’s father had begun to distance himself from Wildstorm and DC Comics, getting ready to move The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to Top Shelf and wrapping up his prior commitments. And like the entire genesis of America’s Best Comics, the Albion project was partially motivated by Alan Moore’s desire to ensure that his artistic collaborators didn’t lose out on work that was (even unofficially) promised to them: “We got involved,” says Leah, “simply because Dad was winding up his comic writing, fulfilling all his obligations at ABC etc, and he still wanted Shane to be able to have a crack at the characters. He figured that if he plotted it and we scripted it then it would be the best for everyone.”
Here it is, then, the Shane Oakley-inspired, Alan Moore-plotted tale of British children’s comics characters confronting the harsh realities of the 21st century. Here we have…Albion.
Albion#1-6 (Wildstorm/DC Comics, Aug. 2005-Nov. 2006)
Albion really is nothing like Watchmen, and it was unfair of me even to mention Moore’s most famous work in the same context of this project, but when Albion was announced, I remember that the general marketing approach was meant to imply that Moore was doing something Watchmen-like with these old, forgotten British characters, even if that’s not what he (or Leah Moore or John Reppion or Shane Oakley) ended up doing at all.
Still, that first issue cover has a dismantled Robot Archie right there in the center, and it’s drawn by Watchmen’s own Dave Gibbons, and it has that austere black border, and…come on! Wildstorm was so obviously trying to say, “hey, kids, this here comic is like Watchmen, and Alan Moore sort of wrote parts of it, kind of.”
But after the cover and the initial moments of the first issue, which did have that nine-panel grid on just the opening page, Albion establishes itself as something different. Shane Oakley is not at all like Dave Gibbons, and Leah Moore and John Reppion, even with Alan Moore’s structure underlying their work, are nothing like their dear old dad.
I don’t know exactly what it means that this series was plotted by Moore, but based on other Moore plots I have seen—which are usually either lists of events next to page numbers or thumbnail panel-by-panel drawings—I suspect that Albion was not a meticulously designed project hammered out on Moore’s typewriter, then given a sheen of dialogue by his daughter and son-in-law, particularly when Leah Moore says, “The plot is quite elastic, so we can pretty much throw in who we want within reason, and also Shane has been quite busy filling the backgrounds with people who might in a certain light be a character you remember well.” It seems, then, that what Alan Moore provided the project was his name and a general structure of larger events that should occur, while the rest of the creative team filled in the actual storytelling and characterizations.
That may seem obvious. Moore was, after all, credited with just the plot, but he’s the first credit on the cover of each issue, which makes him appear to play a significant role, when it looks like what he did was little more than provide some basic ideas and maybe an outline of a scene or two. Maybe even not that much. Even for a structuralist like Moore, the plot is not what matters most. Imagine Watchmen with the same basic plot found in that series—retired superheroes start getting murdered and the remaining heroes uncover a mysterious conspiracy that puts the entire world in jeopardy—done by a dozen other comic book writers. It’s not too dissimilar to what we have already with Before Watchmen, I suppose, and that shows how everything that matters is in the how of the telling, not in what is being told.
So Albion is barely an Alan Moore comic, by any standard that means anything, but its premise isn’t necessarily an uninteresting one. It’s an exploration of the forgotten heroes (and villains) of British comics, and it takes that idea and literalizes it. These characters have been forgotten by the world, but why? And what has happened to them?
Our guides through this strange world of forgotten heroes that few of us outside of middle-aged British readers would recognize anyway comes in the form of the precocious Penny and the, um, relatively dull Danny.
Penny is the daughter of Eric Dolmann, who you may remember from “The House of Dolmann” a comic that ran in Valiant from 1966 to 1973. But let’s be honest, you’re not likely to remember that, or have ever heard of it, which is fine. Albion still makes sense without knowing all of these British comics that Moore and Moore and Reppion and Oakley are so eager to resurrect. And the guy’s name is Dolmann, so you can probably guess that he was a kind of “doll man,” but not a miniature Chucky kind of knife-wielding crazed type, more of a toy man who had an army of animatronics his daughter inherited.
Yes, this may have been the inspiration for Top 10’s Robin “Toybox” Slinger, now that I think about it. But it doesn’t help to think about Top 10 when you’re reading Albion, because Top 10 is overstuffed with engaging characters and thrilling events and odd occurrences and Albion is really not. It’s mostly just a whole lot of this: oh, these forgotten British characters are all locked up in an asylum because the government couldn’t handle their weirdness, and so Penny and Danny—who is really just a straight man for Penny, and a guy who gets to ask questions that leads to exposition from whomever they meet—try to find out where they all are and then bad stuff happens and the story is kind of derailed when each British comic book character of the past needs to do something that shows off who they once were even though it’s basically impossible to care because it’s all a mess of angular artwork and chiseled shadows and statements like “$%& off, you wanker” and “How ‘bout I smack you in your ugly mouth, Dr. Spock?”
It’s not all bad, though.
The Spider, the “King of Crooks” gets a few moments where he’s shown to be immensely threatening like a coiled cobra with a plan. And Charlie Peace, time-travelling Victorian man-of-ill-gotten-gains gets to be all gruff and unlikeable before he reveals his true identity and then is the gruff but cool master of telling it like it is. And I suppose if you really did grow up with these characters, there’s an extra dimension that I can’t appreciate at all because I have absolutely no nostalgia for anyone on any of the pages of this comic book. They might as well all be brand new characters as far as I’m concerned. (Except for Robot Archie, who played a pivotal role in Grant Morrison’s Zenith epic from 1980s 2000 A.D. magazine and thus has a place in my heart forever.)
So this sort-of Alan Moore comic gains nothing by his near-absence, and even if there is a kernel of a decent story beneath its ham-fisted dialogue and cameos-that-appeal-to-a-tiny-segment-of-the-readership, it’s just not a very good comic overall.
As a final thought, let me explain the central problem of Albion as symbolized by that now-tired cliché of the flashback scenes drawn in the style of the old comics from which the characters originated: it doesn’t even commit to that approach. Albion dips its toes in pastiche a few times, but it pulls back too quickly, rushing on to other, louder matters. Instead of embracing what it is—a superhero mystery story wallowing in cheap nostalgia—it tries to cram in more characters and more conflicts that don’t matter one bit in the end. It’s cluttered and unpleasant and whatever Alan Moore provided underneath its shell is lost under the veneer of trying-really-hard-and-failing.
That’s Albion, and if you’re doing your play-at-home-version of The Great Alan Moore Reread you can feel free to skip it entirely and not feel the least bit guilty. Unless you are a 52-year-old British reader who likes sloppy, choppy versions of other, better comics, in which case, Albion might be just about perfect.
NEXT TIME: In Cthulhu we trust, or so says Alan Moore in Neonomicon.