May 16, 2013

AM Portrait: Sex, Vampire and Christmas Shopping

Alan Moore and The Bojeffries. By Steve Parkhouse.
The great Steve Parkhouse contributed to the now sold-out Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman (2003, Abiogenesis Press) with two pieces: an amazing illustration featuring Moore and the beloved Bojeffries (above, at page 84 in the original volume) and a short text (page 83, 85 and 86) - that you can read in the following - full of memories about his collaboration with the Writer from Northampton.

A special thank to the author for his permission to post them on this blog.

Sex, Vampire and Christmas Shopping
© Steve Parkhouse

I first met Alan Moore in 1971. He was about sixteen or seventeen at the time, and I was five years older. I’d just started working at IPC Magazines as a comics sub-editor on titles such as Whizzer and Chips and Buster and mysteriously named prototypes like JNP 49.
Though professing to be producing new comics all the time, IPC Juveniles were simply regurgitating ideas that were fifty years old. Recycling was the name of the game. Editorial staff were paid next to nothing, installed in draughty old buildings with creaking office furniture and expected to co-exist with the rats, the debris and the general malaise of Farringdon Street and its depressing environs.
It was a cottage industry; inhabited by middle-aged men in cardigans who smoked pipes. You could see them in the works canteen, spooning down vast quantities of jam roly-poly and custard while discussing the latest developments in model aircraft design. The very suggestion of producing something new in the comics field would be met with glazed and vacant incredulity.
In this world, Dan Dare was the apotheosis of comics creation. The Eagle comic was the altar upon which everything else was sacrificed. There was another company somewhere in Scotland, in the heathen land beyond the Wall where another clutch of juveniles was being produced by middle-aged men in cardigans and pipes. They had different titles, but were basically the same.

Sitting across from him at the table of a small café, just around the corner from the Bookends bookshop in West London, I was struck by Alan’s demeanour. He was very, very young – but very, very funny. He was undeniably a performer. Very quick, irreverant and totally refreshing.

For the next three years I was engaged in the regurgitation of fifty-year old material, until finally I could stand it no longer and quit. I had occasional glimpses of Alan’s work – or the odd message conveyed through Steve Moore – another IPC sub-editor – who’d been a long standing friend of Alan’s. But we never actually met again until ten years later.

In the interim, I had learned something of the craft of storytelling. I could draw a cartoon or two in about half a dozen styles – and was ploughing a strange and somewhat lonely furrow as a freelance illustrator. I had kept various contacts since IPC days – the most notable being Dez Skinn and Paul Neary, both of whom had been involved in setting up a British office for Marvel Comics. Everybody talked a lot about doing something new. Every time comics people get together, beer flows with the conversation and great, majestic vistas unfold of unlimited creativity. There’s invariably a wistful edge to these conversations – largely because people recognise the fact that comics have never been a true part of British culture. Comics are, and always have been, regarded as children’s entertainment and are consequently marginalised in the national psyche.

So, in the early Eighties, when Dez Skinn commissioned me to start work on a new title called Warrior – I assumed it was another pipe-dream.

I managed to cook up a few things to keep my interest going, but I was totally unprepared for what was to come. And what was to come was Marvelman.

Drawing for a living is a strange occupation. People outside the business assume that it’s an “interesting” job, maybe full of bizarre characters and exciting situations. That’s only partially true. For the most part, drawing comics, like everything else, consists of hard graft and uninteresting chores. Inking, to name but one. The joy of the work is in the original creation, telling the story with rough pencilling work. Getting the artwork “camera ready” is the tedious part, often involving disappointment and lots of reworking.
During the long, isolated and sometimes stressful hours, one’s mind turns to the whole question of “why we do it.”
For the most part, we are working on flimsy fantasies, peopled by two-dimensional characters speaking ridiculous dialogue dreamed up by ten-a-penny hacks. At their best, comics are mildly entertaining kitsch. At worst…well, at worst they’re simply tomorrow’s wood pulp.

When the first few issues of Warrior were in preparation, I was visiting Dez Skinn’s editorial bullpit on a regular basis. On one occasion I walked into Dez’s office to find a very large man with a very large beard looking at some of my artwork. He introduced himself as Alan Moore – and we briefly reminisced about our first meeting. We also went into the time-honoured routine of: We Must Work Together Some Time. Yeh, right.

As I went on my way, I had no idea that Alan was the kind of person who actualises things. Whether his motivation springs from some inner hunger (especially at that time) or a genuine wellspring of creativity, we have never discussed. I guess it’s a large portion of both – and an excelent balance it is. But nevertheless, within a very short time Alan presented me with a choice of three different scenarios that he’d been working on.

Now here’s the really strange part. Here there is a risk of wandering into thickly-wooded hinterlands of esoteric musings. We had agreed to do something funny. We had agreed that Mad magazine had more or less monopolised comics humour for far too long. I had  been working on an extraordinarily dark and difficult piece called Spiral Path, my attempt to put together a totally un-scripted comic. I was exhausted. I was suffering from hallucinations and nightmares. My house was haunted, one of my oldest friends had been abducted by aliens, and my cat had been run over by a tractor.
I was longing to draw cartoons again. I had a vague notion of domestic humour with a strongly surreal twist. When the Bojeffries Saga appeared in the post, it was the beginning of a healing process for me that has spanned many years.
This was a script written by a person who had experienced many trials and tribulations. Though still young, he was a parent of girls (like me) He was a performer, a poet, a songwriter…a voracious reader (like me)…a person of seemingly vast eclectic knowledge (I wish). He was undeniably a dreamer (like me)…in fact we shared the same dreams, literally. And yet he had a grasp of the human drama that revealed a huge undertow of compassion and understanding. There was no cynicism, only affection.
In subsequent scripts, he displayed the peculiar talent that almost every other collaborating artist finds agreement with: the ability to write exactly what the artist wants to draw.
Even though he confessed that sometimes every phrase of the Bojeffries had to be chiselled from granite, he never compromised on quality or commitment. And that involvement made The Bojeffries an unparalleled joy for me to work on.

Like all the best magicians, Alan brings forth ideas from the cornucopia of his mind with a flourish and a panache that disguises the hard work beneath. His power to amaze us conceals an equally amazing feat:  these are no flimsy fantasies. They may be fantastical, but at no time does he stray from his true task of illuminating the human condition. His stories are invariably written from the experience of a life truly lived, with a human scale and dimension woven through them like a thread of gold.

And in the case of the Bojeffries, they are very, very funny.

I confess, I read the first three issues of Warrior with a sinking heart. The power and potency and absolute “adultness” of Marvelman was blowing everything else away. Alan had stepped from the wings with a prodigious talent, and like a grown-up amongst so many children had simply shown us the way.
He seemed to bring a novelist’s sensibility to the craft of writing comics, but in a way that no novelist has ever managed to achieve. He had arrived at exactly the right time, when comics were floundering in a swamp of their own making. We all wanted something new, but nobody had the road map. It had occurred to very few people that maybe comics should be about life as we know it, based on our own experiences. I suspect this is because the milieu of comics seems permanently adolescent in nature.
I know that Alan’s writing encouraged me to draw from a different perspective. To observe from life – the life I saw around me, rather than aping the techniques of established artists.
As more issues of Warrior appeared, my heart stopped sinking and I relaxed into simply acknowledging the emergence of a gifted and inspirational writer.
Through the combined efforts of Dez Skinn and the writers and artists of Warrior, the doors of the cottage industry had been well and truly breached. Battered down, in fact.
There are still those pipe-dreamers who wait patiently for the resurrection of the Eagle.
But I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

The old paradigm has gone.

Alan Moore has seen to it.

Steve Parkhouse
Carlisle, Cumbria
October 2002

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