What We Can Know about Alan Moore: A Review of Illuminations

What We Can Know about Alan Moore: A Review of Illuminations

Alex Kingsley

Under Review:
Illuminations. Alan Moore. Bloomsbury, October 2022.

Alan Moore is best known as the creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, both comic book series popularized by their film adaptations. Watchmen explores the idea of state-sponsored superheroes, whereas V for Vendetta has become a symbol of anarchy and antifascism. Anyone who knows Moore’s work knows to expect something dark and subversive, with a hint of satire. While Moore is mainly known as a prolific comic book writer, Illuminations is not his first foray into prose—it is, however, his first short story collection. 

Illuminations opens on “Hypothetical Lizard,” a whimsical title for a dark story. It takes place in a fantasy brothel where workers with unique talents suit all kinds of tastes. We meet Som-Som, whose services are reserved for sorcerers. Since sorcerers are liable to reveal all sorts of magical secrets during sex, Som-Som has been “silenced”—her left brain severed from her right brain, and her right eye and ear covered with a mask. This way, she is unable to verbalize anything she has perceived. Som-Som, however, is not the protagonist but an observer. She witnesses two other prostitutes become romantically entangled, and witnesses the painful breakdown of their relationship. This is a story about duality—in gender roles and gender expression, right brain and left brain, two lovers who mirror each other, the existence or non-existence of the hypothetical lizard. It is delightful in its creativity and disturbing in its brutality. While the story does not go well for her, it is nice to see a trans woman in a story where the main thrust is not transphobia, yet her identity and gender expression are crucial to what transpires. The fluidity of gender flows between characters like sand in an hourglass. It’s worth giving a content warning for descriptions of gender dysphoria and sexual assault, though nothing graphic.

By contrast, the rest of the stories take place in our reality, with some speculative element thrown in. Each one is, in its own way, what you might call a “mind-fuck.”

The main attraction is alternative-history superhero satire, which is familiar territory for anyone who knows Moore’s work. What We Can Know About Thunderman is a novella told non-chronologically through a combination of prose and ephemera, ranging from online conversations to film reviews to therapy transcripts. It explores the lives of comic book writers now that their glory days are over—their lives are a little sad, pathetic, and at times disgusting, but tinged with magical realism that feels very reminiscent of Watchmen. Centering on comic companies American and Massive (analogues for DC and Marvel, respectively) the story pulls no punches when it comes to its critique of not only the comics industry, but of corporate America on the whole. This is a story for anyone who has said to themself “Are they seriously making another Marvel movie?”

 A superhero fan may enjoy the novella, and may even see themself in it, but they may not necessarily like what they see.  The story illustrates how in an industry where imaginative (and horny) little boys from the 1950s became the writers of the very characters they grew up revering, they are allowed to never mature. The same characters and plotlines are rehashed over and over again, tinged with political propaganda, just as we see happening in real superhero media. The comic book writers in the story must choose: either meet a tragic demise or grow so disgusted with the industry that they must escape—or perhaps they stay in it long enough to uncover the bizarre secret at the top of the company. It left me wondering what kind of horrific experience Moore had in the comic industry to produce something like this, but it also offers valuable insights from a comic veteran. 

The most interesting aspect of Thunderman is its direct connection to American politics. As he watches the January 6th insurrection, Moore’s protagonist reflects that the upsurge of superhero movies comes from “a feeling as if people wanted this to be a simple world, that they could understand. They wanted big dramatic threats and enemies, no matter that they strained all credibility”. According to this theory, the fascination—near fetishization—of superheroes is to blame for Trump’s 2016 election. Superhero obsession is portrayed as a kind of idol worship, akin to the cults of personality that exist in our current political landscape—characterizing people as deities who can do no wrong, even when this defies all reason.  

The story is so rich with satire, social critique, and character that it could very well stand on its own, but its power is strengthened by the stories that came before it. With the exception of the secondary-world fantasy that begins the anthology, each story provides us with a sense of Brechtian alienation, putting the familiar in contrast with the strange in a way that tickles the brain. 

I do, however, have a few critiques. In general, there is major emphasis on sex — from the male perspective—in almost every story. Even in the one where the only characters are amoeba-esque proto-organisms. In repeatedly describing pornography, Moore comes up with some of the most creative euphemisms I have ever seen—my favorite has got to be literature of the “monodextrous genre.” If you have to come up with that many euphemisms, you might be writing about pornography a bit too much. While it’s not explicitly sexist or objectifying, the emphasis on male sexuality can leave non-male readers feeling alienated. Beyond that, I found the amount sexual content distracted from the stories rather than enhancing them. Illuminations is a fascinating book, but left me with the impression that it was written by someone who’s been through a messy divorce and might be burdened with an insatiable libido.

The palpable sex fixation, however, is not enough to keep me from recommending the book. If you want a fascinating analysis of the entertainment world from the mind of one of the most celebrated comic book writers in the English language, read this. If you’re easily disturbed or put off by sexual content, maybe don’t. If you do pick up Illuminations, you’re in for a wild ride, from start to finish.

Alex Kingsley is a writer, comedian, and game designer currently based in Madrid. They are best known as the creator of sci-fi comedy podcast The Stench of Adventure from Strong Branch Productions. Their fiction has appeared in Radon Journal, Sci-Fi Lampoon, Orion’s Beau, The Storage Papers, and more. Their non-fiction has appeared in ASPEC Journal, Interstellar Flights Press, and Medium. Their games can be downloaded for free at alexyquest.itch.io. You can find them on Twitter.

Transparency Statement

This article was commissioned by an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. The author and editors had no previous acquaintance. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Alex Skopic. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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