It’s not automatically a deal-breaker when the cover of a biography boasts not one, but two glowing blurbs by the book’s own subject. But when Alan Moore is the prickly figure in question, such blurbs don’t bode well for the book’s objectivity. It should come as no surprise, then, that Lance Parkin’s Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life Of Alan Moore is something less than fair and balanced. In essence, it’s a glowing appreciation more than a biography. Thankfully, it also ably probes and illuminates the fragmentary career and creative evolution of one of comics’ greatest innovators.
What Magic Words doesn’t do, however, is give a significantly fuller picture of Moore than the one already on public record. All the basic bullet points are worked into the narrative: Moore’s middle-class upbringing in the English town of Northampton; his struggles throughout the ’70s to break into the British comics industry; his early work as an underground cartoonist; and his groundbreaking work on comics like V For Vendetta, Marvelman, Swamp Thing, Watchmen, The Killing Joke, and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen—not to mention his dalliances with the occult and polyamory, plus his seclusion and contrarian stance toward the entertainment industry since Hollywood got a hold of his creations.
This is where Parkin’s sympathy with his subject curdles into defensiveness. Moore is presented as being above moral reproach, and this preemptive dismissal of anything remotely critical of the man or the artist doesn’t help flesh out this portrait; in many chapters, the intimate moments of Moore’s life seem like little more than a footnote to the larger events and ideas swirling around him. On a more technically annoying level, rarely does a page go by without rhetorical questions being asked of the reader—“Has Moore been forced into this position in which he finds himself?” “If Moore is not a comics writer now, what is he?” “Will his work endure?”—which too often give the text a glib, inconclusive slipperiness.
Magic Words shines brightest when it aims its insight at Moore’s work. Parkin’s dissection of Moore’s vast oeuvre, the opuses and the marginalia, are penetrating and fresh, with plenty of cogent contextualization regarding the history of comics as it pertains to Moore, and vice versa. And his breakdown of Moore’s creative process is fascinating in both its detail and its eerie quietude. Parkin has his opinions—about Moore, superhero archetypes, and the comics industry as a whole—and to his credit, he uses them not as didactics, but as a framework. Even when he gets a little too cute with his full-circle opening and closing (meant to mimic Moore’s own penchant for bracketing a graphic novel with the same sentence or image), Parkin evocatively echoes his deep passion for his subject. But a little more distance would have made Magic Words that much better.