Alan Moore’s misogynistic legacy

May 25, 2009

7/4/10 — Question for Alan Moore fans.

5/25/09 — MAJOR, MAJOR UDPATE.

5/26/09 — Post script:

Here were some things that didn’t occur to me before writing the following post:

1. That anyone beyond 30-odd friends, family and acquaintances would read it.

2. That even among that group of 30-odd, some might not appreciate having one of their artistic icons trashed on highly subjective grounds.

3. That I am not an expert authority on comic books, Alan Moore or sexism.

4. That comic book readers are deeply passionate, intelligent and thoughtful people.

5. That anyone I know who reads Alan Moore’s work and has an opinion on it is a wonderful human being.

6. That in social media as in the financial world, swans sometimes turn black.

7. That I was therefore in danger of pulling a Sasha-Frere Jones.

8. That a more honest and straightforward way to broach the subject would have been to say, “Hey, I’ve been catching up on a bunch of comics lately, including LXG, and I don’t know everything about what Alan Moore intended here, and for idiosyncratic reasons I’m not sure what to make of the violence involving Mina Murray. Can anyone help me out, before I go off half-cocked and incur the ire of a healthy cross-section of Alan Moore fans home on Memorial Day? Because I would feel bad if I inadvertently attacked a mature subculture.”

9. That possibly what I should have said was nothing.

10. That I am behind on other projects and should really be focusing on them instead of making trouble for myself.

And so, without further ado…

***

5/25/09 – Maybe you remember when I questioned the themes expressed in Alan Moore’s seminal comic book, Watchmen, back when the film version was in theatres? Something I could have made more hay over was the book’s brutality against women. There’s a graphic scene in which the Comedian beats and tries to rape Silk Spectre; later we learn Spectre’s daughter, Laurie, herself a superhero, was the product of a second, successful rape attempt. And more subtly, a female employee of Adrian Veidt’s is shot up in a staged attempt on his life.

I’ve since wondered if maybe I was being unfair to Moore’s project, to wit, the portrayal of how sick you’d have to be to want to become an actual superhero. As it turns out, no, Moore really does have a strong misogynistic streak. I became convinced the other day as I was flipping through one of his more recent works, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG) Volume 2, where there’s another one of those scenes that makes you realize you’re watching some heavy duty psychoanalytic shit play out in comic form.

lxg2

Those who saw LXG the movie (a piece of shite) will recall the story is about a “dream team” of characters assembled from Victorian era genre literature: Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray (née Harker; of Dracula), Captain Nemo, Hawley Griffin (the invisible man) and Mr. Hyde. In volume 2, the league battles the Martians from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, who, after being attacked by characters from Gulliver of Mars, make a brake for Earth, where they torch people alive with heat rays and threaten to sack London from atop tripod-limbed war machines.

The invisible Griffin, for one, welcomes our new tentacly-brain-looking overlords, providing them details about English military fortifications in return for a privileged place in the new Martian order. The “rape scene” occurs when Griffin, his treason discovered by Mina Murray, proceeds to beat the shit out of her. For two full pages – 18 panels, set 3 by 3 on the page – Murray is bloodied, thrown down, beaten until she vomits, then made to grovel before being allowed to rest in her own puke. Only Griffin is invisible the whole time, so there’s nothing impinging our view of Murray being beaten and degraded. (If you’ve got the stomach, here’s the end of the scene.) Not quite as fun as when invisible Buffy diddled Spike.

Exrapolating from Watchmen, I gather that what LXG is “really about” is how fucked up Victorian genre heroes – the superheroes of their day – really were, and therefore how fucked up we are*. Wikipedia claims Moore was originally going to call the book The League of Extraordinary Gentlefolk but changed it to Gentlemen “to better reflect the inherently sexist attitudes of the Victorian era.” Zing, Victorian era!

It’s a clever concept. But it doesn’t explain why Murray needs to get her shit knocked around in graphic detail. Even as a shock tactic, it’s rather ham-fisted, and we’re too far removed from that era for it to be meaningful to us anyway. The simplest explanation (and I’m not the first to have caught on to it) is this: Alan Moore likes scripting violence against women. The fact that it may “work” in context doesn’t change anything. In fact, it allows Moore to get off twice, first by creating it and second by implicitly daring us to call him on it and expose ourselves as exactly the kind of insufferable prigs who are too stupid to be reading his books in the first place. Well, as this Moore-hater says, fuck that.

It’s not like I think Moore or his works are bad, because what does that mean? I enjoyed LXG as a comic, and I’ll get around to reading his other stuff eventually. He tells a good story. But as much as Moore gripes about movie producers and other toads focusing on the wrong parts of his stories, his very act of constructing a highly stylized reality in order to satirize it invites exactly the type of exploitation Moore bemoans. When David Chappelle, a smarter, more relevant social critic than Moore has ever been, saw his comedy being taken the wrong way, he stopped doing the Chappelle Show. (Ostensibly, anyway.)

Moore talks a good game – the old pushing boundaries shtick. Here he is interviewed about Lost Girls, his porno comic. And he’s got plausible deniability about his sexual politics: he and his wife Phyllis have a “lover,” Deborah Delano, and together the three of them published an anthology to drum up support against British anti-homosexual legislation.

The question is more one of legacy. Some comic book creators are aware of their medium’s unfriendliness to female characters. But they’re up against an audience – you can guess the demographic – that continues to valorize the less sophisticated creator, and that is exactly the type Moore will have emboldened.

Look at Garth Ennis’s book The Boys, a modern day Watchmen that follows a group of CIA-backed super-types who assassinate other supers who’ve gotten out of control. Ennis wants to complicate Moore’s moral universe: The main character, modeled on Simon Pegg (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead) is supposed to be the kind of nice, normal guy who would never want to wield horrific power. But Ennis immediately borrows from Moore’s worst tropes. The Pegg character joins the group after his girlfriend is ripped apart by an out of control super – in one panel the couple is holding hands on a date, in the next Pegg is holding her severed arm. Later, three male supers, members of the top dog superhero group, sodomize a new female recruit as part of her initiation.

In short, there’s a reason why the only “graphic novels” I’ve recommended to my girlfriend are We3, about escaped animal cyber-weapons (and super cute, at that), and Achewood, which properly speaking is a comic strip and is therefore outside the superhero tradition. (I’ve never read Blankets, so I can’t comment on it.)

My bottom line: If popular culture is a form of group psychotherapy, then comics like Watchmen, LXG and The Boys appeal to guys because we’re working through our ambivalence for the old-style masculine ideal. If women in comics are treated inhumanely, it’s because the men writing and reading those comics still don’t know what to do in a world of women as partners and competitors. And that’s something that could change.

The floor is now open to discussion.

Addendum: Shit, I really need to go back and read Volume 1, don’t I?

Addendum 2: I’m getting owned in comments for  a) lack of research and b) rehashing a played out argument.

Comments are now closed. Thanks for sharing your opinions.

31 Responses to “Alan Moore’s misogynistic legacy”

  1. jon bates Says:

    you should read miracle man also. older moore, where he debunks comics of the 50’s. sadly i think the main character’s wife and child get assaulted, but are saved by a female super… being. in debunking the superhero comics of the 50’s he also debunks the superheros, albeit superman/captain america style.

    i think i somewhat agree with you, but have to point to mina harker being a main character, and thus established as someone the reader will have more sympathy for. also they found hawley living in a school for girls and raping them as they sleep, so it is within his characterization by attacking mina in such a manner. that speaks to that scene being an extension of hawley’s character both as a serial rapist and a traitor. i THINK i read somewhere that moore modeled his characters after things he found in the original stories about the characters he chose from english literature, but can’t point you to where i read that just yet. if i find it again, i’ll certainly send it along. this all points to questions of why moore characterized these folks in this manner. for that i have no answer yet.

    i do kinda think that violence against women is more noticeable because we have been raised in a patriarchal society. i think you exemplify this by not recommending stories that feature violence against women to your girlfriend. treating her as a partner in my mind would mean offering her those stories and letting her form her own opinions about them. moore also showed, or at least alluded to, hawley being raped. that was harder for me to read than the harker scene. moore chose to make mina the leader of league, and she was attacked in the first book by hyde, but saved, even though hyde was killing prostitutes at the time. i think his character eventually learned how to control his monstrous side, where as hawley didn’t.

    i liked your article, but i think frank miller is far more misogynist than alan moore. i’m also starstruck for alan moore, so take my views with a grain of salt. i think i could go either way on moore being bad in his writing about women though, so i see your point. i’ll read more.

  2. J. L. Bell Says:

    Oh, surely the scripter of From Hell, a metaphysical revisiting of the Jack the Ripper murders, does not get off on…

    Never mind.

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    @JL No way, dude. You’re totally missing the point. It’s about society! He’s depraved on account ‘a… Ya, I haven’t read it. It’s B&W, right? Blech.

    I did read V for Vendetta. It was interesting to compare against the film version, which was considerably less bleak at the end and had a lot of sexual politics.

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    @jon That’s interesting about Griffin. I still think Moore fetishizes rape, which may actually be to his credit. It means he’s struggling with the idea of it. But I’m not sure he’s winning the struggle. Anyway, I’d be curious to hear your reaction to The Boys.

  5. JR Minkel Says:

    And re: my girlfriend, I’ll have to think about that.

  6. JR Minkel Says:

    Ok I’m starting to get what you’re talking about. Mina Harker was asked to assemble the league. For the most part, she gets a bunch of pricks who treat her like a sex object and probably make her regret the whole thing. The exception is Nemo (?), who’s honorable despite / because of being a “darkie” and therefore not participating in Victorian culture. Griffin, who goes invisible because he’s ashamed at the loss of his manhood, never transcends his past and ends up threatening London. Hyde, having severed himself from his Victorian gentleman side, becomes Murray’s defender by rape-murdering Griffin and then saves the day against the Martians, sacrificing himself in the process (see the asterisk in my post). And in the end the culture Hyde saves is depraved (ibid.). The story ends with Murray leaving to think about things, and rightly so.

  7. Edward Kaye Says:

    You have clearly not researched this subject properly.

    “he’s got plausible deniability about his sexual politics: he and his wife Phyllis have a “lover,” Deborah Delano, and together the three of them published an anthology to drum up support against British anti-homosexual legislation. ”

    – Alan Moore and his wife Phylis have been divorced for many years. Alan has recently gotten remarried to the very lovely Melinda Gebbie, artist extraordinaire, and co-creator of LOST GIRLS.

    I point this out only as an example about your lack of thorough research prior to making your slanderous comments.

    I think you will find that Alan Moore has lots of respect for women, and has written many times about this very topic. For example, in his essay ‘Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies: How far have we come?’, which you can read here: http://boredrigged.blogspot.com/2008/02/alan-moores-essay-sexism-in-comics.html

    Alan Moore’s books are full of strong women who don’t are not there just for the men to abuse. See Promethea, Top 10, even V for Vendetta, though there is a little abuse in that it incidental.

    The violence against women in FROM HELL obviously has to be there. Moore did a great job on it though, because what he did was to make it real and brutal. He showed us that it isn’t like it is always shown in Jack the Ripper movies and play. Historically the Ripper tales have always been a precursor to modern torture porn. Strumpets prettying themselves up, waiting on the street corner, we all know what is going to happen, we wait, anticipating the attack, like we are on the brink of orgasm…. Moore took all this away and said “this is how it would really happen”. It is grim, bleak, horrific. This is what happens when you murder a woman, there is nothing glamourous about it at all.

    In TLoEG, Mina is the classic victim. Moore is merely reflecting the treatment that Stoker gave her in Dracula, we is reflecting the treatment of women that was so popular in 19th century literature.

    LOST GIRLS is not porn. If you think that then you are clearly a small minded little person who should get their mind out of the gutter. LOST GIRLS is a piece of artwork, an exploration of sexual discovery… to label it porn is to undermine everything that Moore and Gebbie were trying to achieve.

    As for THE BOYS, I think you are just highlighting the violence against women. There is plenty of violence against men, women, animals, children etc. It is a violent and disgusting book. What is magical about the book is Garth Ennis’ extremely strong characterization. Hughie’s girlfriend in The Seven starts off as a very weak willed person, willing to let men do whatever they want to her to get ahead. As the story unfolds she becomes much stronger, and takes less shit from the men around her. I think later in the series we are definitely going to see her take her revenge against these men who ‘think’ that they are so very powerful.

    Perhaps what is happening here is that your are projecting your own hatred and disrespect for women. You are reading these things into the stories.

  8. elmonoamarillo Says:

    I don’t agree, I mean, this is the man who started AARGH and other movements to equal acceptance of all.
    I think it’s way more plausible that it’s a critique on society, especially in watchmen.
    as for being graphic, it’s pretty much his job to be so, to tell a story in a compelling and smart way. In my opinion, having read only three of his works (LXG, Watchmen, V) it’s not that he’s misnygistic, it’s that he sees the world as a misogynistic place

  9. Edward Kaye Says:

    Yes there are typos, yes I hate typing in this tiny box, and yes, I am mad!

  10. elmonoamarillo Says:

    @Amen brotha

  11. DBL Says:

    I consistently fail to understand why artists can portray absolutely anything happening to a male, but the minute anything happens to a female, they are condoning it. Don’t give me stories of righting past wrongs either – you want to go around righting oppression by reading it into everything go right ahead but seeing as your interpretational fallacy went out of style ten years ago I doubt you will get much traction.

  12. Leigh Mortensen Says:

    Less talky to the internet, more talky to the therapist. Seriously. If you can somehow manage to get past the fact that the word therapist has “rapist” in it, that is, which, after your bizarre screed, I am not confident is in your ability to do.

  13. DBL Says:

    I have no problem reading stories about women getting blown up, raped, shot to pieces, and brutalized, actually I love it just as much as such things happening to men in stories. Face it violence in fiction kicks ass in society. Women are full members.

  14. JR Minkel Says:

    @Edward: You’re doing a good job convincing me I owe you and the rest of Moore’s fans an apology. You clearly hold his work in high regard and have given it more thought than I have.

  15. Edward Kaye Says:

    Don’t pull that shit on me. If you are going to argue something you show be willing to back it up with facts and data. I thought you were supposed to be a scientist!

  16. pryt Says:

    @In short, there’s a reason why the only “graphic novels” I’ve recommended to my girlfriend

    What, is she retarded or something, that you must choose what is right for her? And you have the nerve to call Moore’s work misogynistic?

  17. Edward Kaye Says:

    Unless that wasn’t sarcasm… hard to tell on the internet :)

  18. gBusab Says:

    “LOST GIRLS is not porn…”

    Alan Moore himself calls it pornography:

    http://www.paulgravett.com/articles/116_moore/116_moore.htm

    http://www.salon.com/books/review/2006/08/30/moore/

    Repeatedly.

  19. DBL Says:

    Final comment, I am building up too many ‘awaiting moderations’ … when men get beat up onscreen no social purpose is required. No woman or feminist is going to sucker me into a double standard.

  20. Ellison West Says:

    I honestly hate these kind of arguments. They basically ignore any and all kinds of character development and amount to a count of how many times a female character has something bad happen to them. It’s pathetic how people expect female characters to be little more than untouchable demigoddesses, perfect and true and untouched, while not giving two shits about what happens to any male characters. When the person tossing around these arguments clearly hasn’t done any research (as an FYI, Laurie was the product of what’s suggested to be consensual sex, not rape – unless you’re willing to go down that route, in which case there’s absolutely no hope for you at all) a laughable argument becomes outright offensive. You’re projecting your own views and seeing exactly what you want to see to the exclusion of all else. And that disgusts me more than anything else.

  21. J. L. Bell Says:

    @Edward Kaye: The violence against women in FROM HELL obviously has to be there.

    Only if one has to write about the Jack the Ripper murders. Billions of people get by without doing so. It’s even possible to critique Victorian values (as if they still need critiquing) without depicting that particular historical episode.

    Now I found From Hell to be grim, fascinating, provocative, at times maddening. It’s a genuine work of art. A work of art about a sexual predator which shows the sex and the predation in great detail. (And yes, JR, in black and white.) By length alone, it’s a big data point on the map of what interests Moore enough to write about.

    I think the major weakness in the argument here is that Moore’s work is so voluminous, and appears mostly in a medium riddled with poor portrayals of women, that it requires a great deal more reading and comparison to make the case than JR has done.

    But I also think the issue of sexual violence against women in Moore’s work is worth considering seriously, even if (and especially if) he’s made explicitly feminist statements.

    Let’s consider that one of the few advocates for strong women in the “Golden Age” of American comics was William Moulton Marston. And his feminism was bound up [!] in his sexual kinks.

    Let’s consider that Moore’s “Invisible Girls and Phantom Ladies” article praises one artist for using “her very delicate stippling technique to depict some of the most unnerving and violent psycho-sexual visions one is likely to come across.” And, reader, he married her.

  22. Jones Says:

    So part of your argument is that Moore is a misogynist because Ennis is. I don’t think that makes any sense.

    Also, go back and read Watchmen again – the second time the Comedian sleeps with Sally was consensual. It as much as says so in the dialogue.

  23. Louie L. Says:

    Forget violence toward women, I think the comic book attitude toward violence in general is still, despite all the talk about how the industry has “matured” and is all deep and grown-up now, embarrassingly juvenile. Nine times out of ten it’s used either for childish shock value (woah!! That guy totally got his face blown off!! Kewl!) or glorified as part of a badass power fantasy. Even when we “critique” violence we do it with– tons of violence! (just use buzzwords like “satirical” and you’ll be able to have your cake and eat it too). That’s like punching nuns to promote Christianity, and I don’t buy it. I’m not saying every comic should be about Angels playing Jenga on a cloud. I enjoy senseless carnage as much as the next bald ape. But an occasional thoughtful, mature discussion on the destructiveness of violence would be nice. Even just a nodding acknowledgment that it’s a bad thing. So far the only way creators and audiences seem to be able to swallow such “pussy” arguments is through anthropomorphisized animals. Well how about graduating to people? Zap! Boff! Pow! Comics haven’t grown up as much as we think.

  24. Erica Says:

    Most of you are missing a point…

    It it necessarily misogynistic to have women beat up, killed, etc. in the sometimes very violent world of comic books, especially superhero ones? No.

    The point is that usually there is only one token woman. When there’s only one woman and a bunch of men, the woman because the sole representation of her gender. And if she’s solely used as the motivation or plot device for the male characters, she has no true choice, no agency of her own. Thus, anything that happens to her is a reflection on her gender given the patriarchal society we live in. Not to mention that female side characters’ rape/death/beatings are often the “reason” why male characters do their quest/revenge/etc.

    When it comes to rape, outside of being in prison, that average adult male in a Western society has something like a .003% chance of being raped. Rape is a very gendered attack.

    Some Alan Moore comics are better than others, but if I’m looking for a writer who consistently writes women well, Moore is not one of my top choices. (I’ve read Watchmen, League, V, From Hell, and Lost Girls.) I do think he has a fascination with gendered violence, especially rape. Rape can be a fetish for both men and women and Moore is not alone in his fascination. It’s a valid critique of his writing, which doesn’t take away from him being a good writer and innovative comic author.

    Watchmen has three women. One is killed off screen. Another raped. And the third is a product of rape and used largely as a reason for the men to move the plot along. (See Dr. Manhattan coming back to Earth and Nite Owl II taking up the mantel again.)

    League largely only has Mina. Other side female characters are raped and killed without a second thought. When she’s raped, I found myself asking what’s the point.

    In Lost Girls, rape is certainly portrayed as a fetish and as something to get off on. As is bestiality, among other more taboo sexual fetishes.

    I could go on, but I’m not going to.

  25. Matty Says:

    Sorry about your blogpost’s pwnage, but really, it’s a bit extreme to claim Alan Moore’s a woman-hater. Yes, he scripts violence to women but he, in fact, spends much time dissecting why it’s a wrong and bad (perhaps too much into the mystic sense for some people’s tastes). Really, you should read Promethea, even though it does get boringly didactic for some. There’s a scene in Supreme (Superman stand in) where Diana Dane (Lois Lane stand in) meets her counterparts from different parts of comic book history. Diana gets to meet her grim and 80s counterpart that Moore uses to parody the victimization of characters in that time period as a substitution for real character development. Even if Moore evidenced misogynistic tendencies, he has continued to develop as a human being since then. He has talked about his early-mid 80s stuff as things he wrote while in a bad mood and he does write different stuff beyond Watchmen: http://www.avclub.com/articles/alan-moore,14006/


  26. [...] Alan Moore’s misogynistic legacy [...]


  27. [...] am about oversharing, sticking my foot in my mouth, backpedaling like a spineless jerk, and then loathing myself for not standing my [...]


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