Mon
Apr 9 2012 2:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: The Ballad of Halo Jones

Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months 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 24nd installment.

“Marvelman” and “V for Vendetta” were nearing the last pieces of their runs in Warrior magazine. The fallout from “The Anatomy Lesson” was rumbling through The Saga of the Swamp Thing. Captain Britain was involved with something massive, I’m sure, omniversally-speaking.

We’re talking July, 1984, or so the cover-date of 2000 AD prog 376 would have us believe.

That’s when Alan Moore and Ian Gibson launched a bold new series in the pages of that sci-fi boys adventure magazine. A recurring five-pager called “The Ballad of Halo Jones.”

This was no gun-toting super-cyborg, or a lethal assassin from a world she never made. Instead, Moore and Gibson conceived of a strip that was quantifiably antithetical to the ethos of 2000 AD at the time. This would be a series about a young woman growing up, perhaps caught up in extraordinary affairs, but not heroically. And she would spend significant time shopping.

Of course, Moore and Gibson set their series dozens of centuries in the future and created a high-tech tableau for their story and plenty of social commentary woven throughout.

But it was still, at its core, the story of a young woman, dancing with dignitaries, living her life.

The series was popular enough with readers to warrant a return for “Book Two” the following year, with “Book Three” wrapping up in 1986. There was some talk, early on, of nine books total, bringing Halo Jones from the cusp of adulthood in the beginning to old age in the finale. But rights disputes with the folks behind 2000 AD led Moore to walk away from the character forever. Ian Gibson would still be interested in doing more Halo Jones. Perhaps DC could scoop up the rights and put Darwyn Cooke on the case.

“The Ballad of Halo Jones,” though – and I teased this in the comments of The Great Alan Moore Reread a couple of weeks ago – is far from my favorite Alan Moore work. I’d rank it near the bottom, actually. It’s certainly the worst of this mid-1980s golden era of Moore, even though it does have some fleeting charm. But as a whole, the three extant books of “Halo Jones” suffer more than they succeed. I’d love to see defenders of the series advocate for it in this week’s comments. I’d like to hear some counter-arguments. What do people actually like about “Halo Jones”?

Because for me, it’s Alan Moore’s version of a futuristic female Forrest Gump. And just because he wrote the series a decade before that abominable film (and a year or two before the release of the novel upon which it was based) he still should have known better.

 

The Ballad of Halo Jones (Rebellion, 2010)

As far as I know, all the collected editions of the “Halo Jones” strips are all basically the same, but not exactly – you get all three books of “The Ballad of Halo Jones” and maybe a couple of sketches or covers. At least one version includes an introduction by Alan Moore. This one doesn’t. So what we’re left with, via Rebellion circa 2010, is a group of stories from 1984-1986 that must stand on their own. A saga of a young woman growing up and living and loving and suffering and overcoming and…well…the problems begin in the opening few chapters.

Ian Gibson’s plastic figures aren’t helpful – Gibson’s characters have two expressions: pouty and emotionally pouty – but he’s a slick enough artist to keep the story moving along coherently and imply a larger world (and universe) than we’re ever fully shown.

So the art’s not the biggest concern, even though most of the usual 2000 AD crop of pencilhacks would have probably been able to pull more pathos out of the situations presented here.

No, the problem is Alan Moore’s grasping at Douglas Adams absurdity and continually falling short, then shifting into biting social commentary like, say Anthony Burgess, before ultimately settling into some combination of the two mixed with a heavy dose of soap opera melodrama. I don’t know what was on the BBC in those days, but “Halo Jones” feels dipped in bathetic hyperdrama in what I would term for contemporary audiences along these lines: imagine Beverly Hills 90210 with clumsy futurespeak, by the writers of Chuck, and the set director for Caprica.

That’s just nonsense, I realize, like saying that “Halo Jones” is a meal of yogurt and escargot and lemon mustard, but that’s because the series feels not just discordant, but endlessly familiar in its pieces yet completely unworkable as a whole. Like an engine made out of jello and inner tubes.

(I could spend the rest of this post just listing other random nouns that don’t go together. To avoid that, I will move on and assume you now get the sense of what it’s like to read “The Ballad of Halo Jones,” even as I go on to write more about some of its details.)

The main joke on the opening two page spread is an example of the kind of trying-and-failing I’m talking about. Swifty Frisko – broadcaster, and most minor of minor characters – announces the promotion of a Procurator Fiscal, and a related name-change: “Mr. Bandaged Ice That Stampedes Inexpensively Through a Scribbled Morning has added another three words to his name…he will now be addressed as ‘Procurator Bandaged Ice That Stampedes Inexpensively Through a Scribbled Morning Waving Necessary Ankles’...Crazy name for a crazy reptile!”

You can feel the tiny Douglas Adams trying to crawl out of Alan Moore’s beard, right?

That tonality would be fine, honestly, if the story did more than just sprinkle in the overbearing absurdity amidst the cultural chatter. But there’s a distinct lack of substance in the main characters, particularly in Book One, and Halo Jones is an incredibly uninteresting protagonist.

I get that Alan Moore was reaching for something different and ambitious: an inaction non-hero in an otherwise ultra-violent anthology comic. Halo Jones, though, can’t carry the weight of the plot. She’s presented as a kind of everygirl, stumbling through incidences, practically with no distinctive personality of her own. Yet she’s the one we’re forced to follow, for page after page, as if making her “normal” in a world full of craziness is somehow a reason to keep reading. It’s not, and for the first time in this entire Great Alan Moore Reread, I faced a comic that I would have put back on the shelf halfway through if not for my own sense of duty to actually read all these pages even if I barely write about any of them.

But I persevered. And since that seems to be the moral of “The Ballad of Halo Jones” by the end – something about there being more to life, so don’t give up – maybe Alan Moore knew what he was doing all along.

Back to the story that is barely worth reading!

The short version: Halo Jones hangs out with her pals, goes shopping, gets into some minor scrapes, and…finds her friend murdered by an unknown assailant, and then moves away. And that’s basically all of Book One. Passive Halo Jones, going from one incident to the next, like a certain maudlin Tom Hanks character from a bafflingly-beloved movie.

Also: “Ice Ten” is the name of a musical group in the comic. That’s a hilarious Kurt Vonnegut joke, maybe. (The “maybe” refers to the level of hilariousness, not that it isn’t a Vonnegut reference, because it clearly is. Still, “Ice Ten”? That’s the level of humor in here?)

(I’ll also note that a particularly annoying feature of reading “The Ballad of Halo Jones” in a collected edition, because it’s a series of five-page installments, originally designed to be read with a week in between chapters, the characters constantly repeat each other’s names. Again and again. I don’t remember that being a problem with “Skizz,” but here it’s an unbearable tic.)

In Book Two we learn that Brinna, Halo’s murdered friend, was actually killed by her own robodog. And we get a high-octane confrontation when Halo learns the truth and…someone else comes in to save her. Because she’s Halo Jones, and we can’t have her doing anything that might make her seem the least bit worth reading about.

Actually, I should hold back a bit on my mockery, because Book Two is far more entertaining than the other two books of the Ballad, with a couple of subplots that swerve in just the right off-kilter way, like the mystery of the mostly-ignored child called Glyph and the strange secret of the Rat King. The opening chapter of Book Two is the strongest single chapter of the entire saga, actually, mostly because it’s completely about the character of Halo Jones without her ever appearing to suck the life out of the pages. Instead, she’s the object of academic perfection from a future-history point of view. And though that rose-colored lens she’s far more of a vital force then she is when she’s actually starring in her own series.

Book Three nods toward making Halo a viable lead in an action series by throwing the sci-fi trope of the future-soldier into the tale. What we get is kind of a proto-Martha-Washington-Goes-to-War, or Alan Moore’s twist on the Joe Haldeman kind of Vietnam-in-space novels. Halo, now a whole lot more grizzled, becomes a gun-toting lead for the first time, and yet, to stay true to the premise of the series, she constantly struggles against her own compulsion towards violence.

Let me put it this way: in Books One and Two, Halo Jones is a mostly passive character who has things happen to her. In Book Three, she becomes the agent of her own destiny, but still spends too many pages making “ugh” faces at blaster rifles and throwing down her military garb and saying things like, “No!! What’s happening to me? I’m going crazy, and I’ve got to get out of here…” before returning to a new battle like a mannequin posed for action that will never happen.

Ian Gibson also throws in an absurdly muscled Rambo caricature in Book Three that may or may not have been specifically called for in the script. (I’m leaning towards, “yes, I’m sure it was.”) I suppose that’s a funny allusion in 1986. Jim Abrahams and Charlie Sheen teamed up to make it hilarious as recently as 1993.

When a series falls short of even Hot Shots! Part Deux, there’s a problem, even when Alan Moore’s name is on the cover.

This comic is just so completely Alan Moore’s Forrest Gump from beginning to end, with Halo sleepwalking and stumbling and kind-of-trying-but-feebly through events. I don’t know what else to say, except: “if you haven’t read The Ballad of Halo Jones after all these years, feel free to skip it. The rest of your life will thank you.”


NEXT TIME: Perhaps More Worthwhile Stories from Alan Moore – This Time in Gotham City!


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

22 comments
Jeff R.
1. Jeff R.
I think part of the appeal of tBoHJ is in its depth, both it's actual depth and its use of what it can show to generate an illusion of even greater depth. The future slang, while grating at first, is fully consistent and evocative; the various mystery threads are all played completely fair and are still surprising when the reveals come. And I don't mind at all the art. (Although every attempt I've seen at colorizing it has been truly attrocious)

But the more interesting thought that's come to me when reading your review here is how strikingly Halo Jones resembles Promethea. (In fact, almost every single one of the specific things you bring up to complain about has a direct and obvious Promethea analog; it'll be interesting to see to what extent you feel the same way about Moore reaching for the same sort of places with twenty more years under his belt.)
Amal El-Mohtar
3. amalmohtar
I disagree with this completely! I only read TBoHJ for the first time last week, and was absolutely blown away by it. Women talk to women! Women have deep, meaningful friendships with women! Women have agency and desires and competencies and likes and dislikes and they come into contact and conflict with each other! It saddens me that these things I long for and crave in comics get written off as boring, uninteresting, unable to carry a plot.

But it was still, at its core, the story of a young woman, dancing with dignitaries, living her life.

This is just such a beautiful statement, and one that led me to think this would be a review appreciating how deftly Moore shows that life woven through with social commentary. I love that she can talk to dolphins. I love that without being an extraordinary character, she lives through extraordinary things with awareness of her limitations, with humility, and with the kind of integrity that comes from knowing and owning one's failures.

I likewise disagree about Moore's writing in general. While I found Book I pretty dense and slow-going, I think it was a sensible way to depict the claustrophobia and senselessness of life on the Hoop. I've only read Haldeman's poetry, so can't say much about comparisons there, but found the War-in-Space sequences to be brutally effective and incisive, especially in the high-gravity areas.

I had other problems with it, but they weren't on the level of basic competency in plotting, character development, writing, or storytelling.
Ilan Lerman
4. Ilan
Admittedly, I haven't read these stories for a very long time, but I remember thoroughly enjoying them. I was the absolute target demographic for 2000AD at the time: a 13 year old boy, and I recall that Halo Jones struck me as somehow melancholy, with a larger scope to it, and the feeling that her life had some great significance to it.

It was so incredibly different to the other strips in 2000AD and that's what I loved about it. I always kind of liked Ian Gibson's stylised art (I loved it in RoboHunter particularily). In a comic that was dominated with male muscle-bound heroes (Johnny Alpha, Dredd, Rogue Trooper etc..) Halo Jones was a breath of fresh air and a type of storytelling quite unlike anything I'd seen in a comic before.

I completely agree with Amal about how her un-remarkable nature is what's so remarkable about her, and how she was probably quite important in attracting female readers to maybe stick with what was very much a boy's comic.

The episodic nature perhaps doesn't come across so well in graphic novel form, but I read it at the time, week after week in the way it was intended, and sure it's a product of its time, but I think it transcends that and is relevant today. I always recall it as one of my favourites from that mid-80s era of 2000AD, and if had that much resonance with a 13-year-old boy then surely it must have some merit.
alastair chadwin
5. a-j
Personally I loved Book 2 when it came out in 2000AD having come too late to the party to catch Book 1.

I do thinks the wheels came off with Book 3. Book 2 appealed to me as a story about a couple of minor crew on a spaceship which was interesting and odd while Book 3 is a fairly standard 'war is hell' riff, something which 2000AD would do better with their later strip Bad Company (Alan Grant & John Wagner). I actually thought the weakest part of Book 2 was the battle with the robodog.

I also very much like Ian Gibson's art.
Jeff R.
6. jasonb
I finally got around to reading this recently, and pretty much agree with everything you say here. She bumbles her way through the universe, never really doing a whole lot.

Having said that, I think the last book is by far the best, and I liked the social commentary stuff he crammed in there. It felt more authentic than the weak attempts at humor in the beggining. Plus the time dilation stuff was genuinely clever, and not just another version of someone else's sci-fi universe.
Jeff R.
7. Aaron Poehler
Halo Jones was my first intimation that everything Alan Moore wrote wasn't automatically interesting or good.
Jeff R.
8. Mattybaa
I reread this in november after finding it right at the back of my "books I should but can't bear to be parted from" cupboard and enjoyed it completely... Again.

A point that seems to be missed is Halo's curse, which runs throughout the whole thing but never rammed down the throats of the reader. Every person she gets close to, she loses. Her tennant murdered. one friend, on the verge to stardom, lost to the drummers. Her best friends chronic aggrophobia forcing her to abandon Halo. A robodog becoming a homocidal stalker. Her sister in arms dying despite Halo's heroic attempt at bringing her back to camp. Even her lover, where she made the most difficult choice to sabotage his suit after learning of his war crimes (which she ironically helped instigate in book 2).

An average person faced, time after time, with extraordinary loss still finds a way to pursue her dream and just get out and live.

Such a melancholy theme could have killed the story, but it's saved by the very ubsurdity of the Adamsisms that compell the reader to go on. Incidentally, in Blighty, the TV adaptation of Hitchikers Guide To The Galaxy proved a big hit around this time so I think Alan can be excused for riffing Mr Adams in Halo Jones.

And so the story ends at book 3. And a perfect place to close because we are left safe in the knowledge that, after the final panel, Halo Jones will have an impact in future/history. A happy ending entrusted with the reader.
Please excuse the poor spelling/grammer. I give no excuses, so there.
Jeff R.
9. Jeff R.
Tim@2: But we're talking about writerly issues, not art ones. Is a band based on a weak Victor Hugo reference really better than one based on a weak Vonnegut one? Or quasi-Douglas Adams absurdity related to a mentally ill mayor really better than same related to an alien poobah? And the heroines aren't much different in terms of activity/passivity either. (At least Halo didn't spend an entire volume having things explained to her...)

Tim Callahan
10. TimCallahan
Jeff, you realize I will forever be unable to see that Promethea is just Halo Jones with better art? I am trying to push it away... but it is now there, forever, in my brain.

Now I can't even look forward to that reread!

(Actually, I do think you're right about the parallels. For sure. But Promethea is not a great story anyway. It's an essay that just has a faux-narrative to trick the reader into thinking it's a story at first. It has a different agenda than Halo Jones, but the plot structure has similar beats! Yes.)
Tim Callahan
11. TimCallahan
Also! I love the Halo Jones defenders! Speak your case. Explain what I'm missing. I love the passion and debate! (Though I probably will just read and think, "oh.")
Amal El-Mohtar
12. amalmohtar
Promethea should've been subtitled Alan Moore's Illustrated Guide to High Magic, really.
Iain Cupples
13. NumberNone
I think you need to look at Halo Jones (and, in fact, Skizz) in a similar way to some of Moore's early DC work: it's a writer trying to push the boundaries, react against the existing ethos and produce a human, relatable story in the midst of wham-bam-action. Broadening the reader's horizons, as all good SF should.

Speaking of Skizz: because of the futuristic context, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that Halo is not only an everywoman, but like Roxy, is a working-class teenage girl. She starts out as part of the unemployed masses, spends book 2 as essentially a maid, and by book 3 has risen to the dizzy heights of being an enlisted grunt. In the latter two books, she spends some time dealing with people higher on the social ladder than she is, but she remains absolutely part of the working class. Her economic and social power is limited by this, but her happiness is not.

And the theme of the series throughout is clear: escape. Halo wants to get out. She escapes the Hoop, escapes Earth, escapes the war, escapes even the aftermath of the war and all that means for her personally. Moore was presenting us teenage boys-own readers not only with a non-action hero (and a woman at that), but an authentic working-class hero, one who bucks the system and escapes, almost wholly through her own agency and independent spirit. She sees her companions and even her memories ground down along the way, but she never gives up. In this she's very like Moore's other explicitly working-class characters, including almost the whole cast of Skizz: the difference being that Halo actually makes it out. The gender issue is so obvious and the class issue so easy to lose track of that I can see why the former predominates, and it's hard to separate the two completely - but I think a reading of Halo Jones that doesn't deal with the class issues is partial, at best.

It's not Moore's best work, but it's nowhere near his worst. Halo is a more human and relatable and memorable character than most of the characters Moore took on at DC. I wish there had been more of her story. I find it touching and interesting to this day.
Amal El-Mohtar
14. amalmohtar
@NumberNone: I absolutely agree about the class issue. The one thing I'd disagree with about your comment is that Halo DOES give up, at points -- she gets ground down, thoroughly beaten, loses hope -- but gets back up again, keeps going. I found that even more powerful: hers is not a narrative of persistent, uncrushable hope, but of figuring out how to get up and live again when everything's taken away from you.
Jeff R.
16. JRyderau
Moore has said that "Halo Jones" was his response to "Love and Rockets". I'm sort of in two minds about it - I loved the oppositional stance it had to the other stories in 2000AD at the time, but I think it probably doesn't stand up all that well now. At the time, though, it was pretty much a trail blazer, and showed that 2000AD was open to all kinds of SF - not just recast cop, war and sport stories.
Jeff R.
17. Badpun
To me, the essence of Halo's story is that she is quite literally a nobody who became a somebody simply because, as she says herself, "I was there". Glyph is a marvellous counterpoint to this - when "nobody died today", that nobody as embodied in Glyph was Halo's former self - the nobody that she was up until that day was no longer who she had become.
Kevin Maroney
18. womzilla
Moore has said that "Halo Jones" was his response to "Love and Rockets".

Yes, very much so--or at least the first volume was. If you read it wondering what is the point of the characters just wandering around their neighborhood trying to make sense of their lives--well, that *is* the point. (He was also reading American Splendor for the first time around then, if I recall correctly.)

I recall a Moore interview in which he said that he made a deliberate attempt for the second and third volumes to be more plot-driven. Jones is less passive in Book Two than in Book One, and gains some real agency, even if much of her story still happens *to* her rather than *by* her. But in Book Three, she's definitely taking the reins of her life in hand.

Moore's original plan for the series was to take an ordinary girl who becomes consumed by the idea that there must be a bigger life for her, if only she can *escape*. Each volume would show her life as she escaped onto a larger scene. One can only imagine how she goes from her AWOL exit to the legendary figure of the history books, but you see that she has set herself on that path.
Jeff R.
19. joeyjojo
Yeah, every time I read 'Halo Jones', I think that most of the best parts of the story were not yet written when Moore abandoned it. There's a lot of stuff that seems likely to have paid off, but as it is, we're left with a series that is mostly set-ups. Whenever things do pay-off, they're great -- I mean, the Glyph vs. the robo-dog, for instance. I honestly think that if the series had finished, Moore would've brought it all together and done something great with it. As it is, there's a lot of interesting ideas but they haven't yet come together -- presumably because this is really just the first act of the story.
Jeff R.
20. fritz catlin
I still love Halo Jones as much as I did reading it in episodes in the 1980's .
At that time it totally stood out as having a wider scope than most of the other strips in 200AD and much relevance , the different drummers implants as a reflection of the then new trend of walkman headphone wearing being a particularly brilliant touch.
Nearly 30 years on I often find myself giving a copy to my friends children as an excellent introduction to Mr Moore's mindset...
Rob Rater
21. Quasarmodo
@ 10 Tim

Tim, I seem to recall that you changed your stance on Promethea quite a bit when you did the re-read. Does this mean you need to go back and re-evaluate Halo Jones again?? ;)
Jeff R.
22. Julie Lindsey-Halls
I've read the comments above, and can't see anyone writing about what came into my mind first when I read Halo Jones in 1984. I was one of many girls reading 2000AD, so I don't believe it was a "boys" adventure comic, I saw it as a ground breaking and thrilling sci fi read for everyone. When I first read Halo, I felt it was my comic, for the first time I was reading a sci fi comic that I could well and truly jump into. The friendships, betrayals... remember that poor woman with ears around her neck.. and when Halo understood her.... when we found out that the dog had killed her best friend... omg as a young girl I thought all this was amazing (and still do). I don't remember any other story in 2000AD that was directed at girls the way Halo was, thank you Alan for the most amazing invite a girl can get into comics. If Alan Grant thought he was rewriting Love and Rockets, he was way off, but they are both amazing pieces of work in their own right.
Jeff R.
23. Oliver_C
One of Alan Moore's greatest comics, even in its tragically truncated state. Perhaps not coincidentally, Moore keeps his use of sexual violence as plot device or narrative spice -- aside of course from the deeply creepy implications of Toby's yearning to become Halo's boyfriend -- to a minimum.

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