For Alan Moore, the caul is a centerpiece for one of his most ambitious artistic visions. He sees it not only as a symbol of birth, but of all things.
Most often he sees it as a symbol of travel-- a lost map of Atlantis, a postcard, a ticket-stub, a secret motor, a lucky charm embraced by sailors, the silk from a parachute, a trail of blood, a diving bell, a commuter's newspaper, a luggage label. 'The birth caul is a thread of spore, a bread crumb trail that guides us back, back down the ape-hill to the crotch of valley and the swamp below.'
Indeed, the theme of this epic poem, illustrated brilliantly by Eddie Campbell, is a dramatic voyage from death to birth.
Moore originally recited The Birth Caul in a performance at the Old County Court in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Campbell recreates that recital as a part of the piece, showing Moore seated at the bench, the caul hanging over him, an upended three-wheel bicycle before him, a hangman at his left. Moore's body is painted with shamanic designs as he relates the poem to a seated audience.
In the moving preamble, Moore relates the recent death of his mother, and how, going through her things, he found the caul passed down from his grandmother. He tells of his fascination with it, and cites passages from Dickens and historical accounts of the mystical qualities of cauls.
He contrasts our intoxication with 'this present moment' against an historical account reaching back to before the Roman invasion. Tantilizingly, he points out an ancient massive wall which lies beneath the pavement at the old Court's front face. Then he marches us through the industrial revolution and to the present, where McDonalds signs have 'wallpapered' over the country.
Invoking the signifigance of his courtroom setting, Moore intones that 'someone is judged tonight.' That someone is a timid-looking man in the audience.
We receive an abridged account of the man's career as an adult executive, a lost soul whose clown-face mask hides an incomplete, tentative identity. We eavesdrop on his pathetic life, his meaningless relationships, his stifling and demeaning workplace, all to the refrain of 'We work and sleep. We work and sleep. Weekend. Forget it all. Have fun.'
But this routine comes to an abrupt halt as the man has a coronary or a nervous breakdown. His clock has become shattered. 'There is no way forward. We must set the action in reverse. We must turn back the world's blunt engine.' And turn back he does...
At seventeen, the man confronts a future of infinite potential, but finds himself plagued by shallowness, self-consciousness, and cowardice. The fleeting passion of sexuality is followed by disillusionment. His education prepares him only for 'punctuality, obedience, and the acceptance of monotony... those skills we shall require later in life.'
Tramatized by his first job, he begins to understand the pained sadness in his parents faces; finding an old photograph of them at his age, he begins to understand what lies ahead. But he doesn't understand that behind him, a tidal wave of change is rising up. preparing to sweep him away.
Ten-year-old Dominic Allard (in the only section in which the man's name is mentioned) is immersed in the learning of language, and being changed by it. He is going through a period in which he will lose an older sister in a traffic accident, and begin to be attracted to girls.
He stares at an ox tongue on display in a butcher's window, a palpable symbol of how his expressiveness will be 'severed, dressed, made fit for public consumption.' Language replaces reality, and he is only vaguely able to recall the time when he was in touch with the things themselves.
But as his journey backwards passes through his infanthood, he is again immersed in raw experience. An out-of-reach shelf, the wingnut holding together a table leg, a tuft of cotton pulled from a cushion, all these things are fascinating events in his tiny life.
He first comes to understand the meaning of death, and first wonders who he is and where he came from. The journey back continues, and he is again in the womb, a fetus curling in on itself, dropping backwards through evolutionary stages, to conception. And from there, to a reuniting with the cosmos.
Moore's rich palette of language makes the trip worth taking. His poem is alive with seductive rhythms and fateful repetitions. He skewers his wide-ranging subjects with concise word portraits. His vision is all-encompassing.
Campbell's complex visualization is fully-engaged in the text; in fact, its crucial to the poem's interpretation. This is especially so in the last section, where Moore is speaking in the baffling syntax of infanthood-- without Campbell's astute illustrations, we'd be lost.
An impressive mixture of collage, drawing, and ink wash, this book renews Campbell's credentials as an artist's artist.
Publish3ed by Eddie Campbell comics. Available in the US through Top Shelf:
Top Shelf Productions Inc.
Marietta, GA 30061-1282
Lux and Alby are welfare recipients bent on maintaining their benefits, so that they can pursue their microscopic obsessions instead of working for a living.
Lux is completely absorbed in vanity about his appearance, the penning of perfectly awful poetry, and the wooing of a lesbian woman far more intelligent than he. Later in the book, he picks up a new hobby, cultivating his kissing technique.
He seems well-rounded though, compared to Alby, who's only joy is perusing his complete set of Silver Surfer comics.
Both characters are dragged kicking and screaming into reality by the need to forge job hunt credentials for their unemployment benefits restart reviews. Their capable friend Ruby agrees to help them in exchange for a share of their living quarters. She too is absorbed in a petty obsession, trying to turn enough votes to beat out her ex-boyfriend in the election to head the organization of the Homeless.
Meanwhile, the upstairs neighbor is scheming an etherial triumph-- he wants to force his way into Nirvana, even though he hasn't earned entrance. And the only way the Goddess Ishtar can stop him is to hide Nirvana from the human race, an act which threatens spiritual disaster.
Well-illustrated and told with a fair-to-middling sense of good humor by Martin Millar and Simon Fraser , this graphic novel holds together just barely, leaning heavily on the supernatural subplot. The problem is that the author is unwilling to portray anything but the sunny side of his characters' disfunctional lives. Even a pair of heroin addicts are 'fun' addicts whose vomiting is played for laughs and who are supposedly not really addicted. The only thing that gives these characters dignity are periodic scenes showing each of them visiting a hospitalized friend who is apparently dying.
How much more satisfying the story would be, if only it had dropped the supernatural plotline and opted for subjecting the characters to a truly otherworldly experience-- holding down a JOB!
PO Box 148,
Hove, BN3 3DQ, UK
The story is strongly reminiscent of Donald Westlake's humorous crime series staring a hapless thief named Dortmunder (the movie THE HOT ROCK was based on this series.) What's especially amazing is that Kyle Baker has captured Westlake's comic timing with beautifully-realized visual sequences.
An especially successful example is when the hero, Noel, is waiting in the police station to talk to a detective, and happens to sit next to a wanted poster displaying his face prominently. He notices someone staring at him, has a puzzled look on his face, notices she's still looking, sits and puzzles over it, then finally turns around and sees the poster.
This book is a welcome departure for a commercial company like DC. Not only is it a complete never-before-printed graphic novel, but it features new characters, and in a genre, the humorous mystery, that hasn't had much of a track record in the comics industry.
Unfortunately, the middle section appears rushed, and seems to get lost in extensive, awkwardly-staged slapstick routines. The surprising climax has punch, but I wished Baker'd been able to remain better-focused throughout the narrative.
Published by DC Comics.