Meet the Magus, Part 1:

The Birth Caul

Allow me to introduce you to a man you may have met before through his writing, art, or interviews.

He has copious amounts of hair, lives in Northampton, UK, and while he has the reputation of being a bit of a curmudgeon, he is also more than a little gleeful that V for Vendetta masks have become part of the “Occupy” movement. I’m introducing you because you may not have truly gotten to know this man yet. Versions of Alan Moore abound, as well as multiple interpretations of his ideas, motivations, relationships with former employers, and influences. One thing is certain, whatever else may seem shifting: Alan Moore is a Magician.

This has vast implications for the experience and interpretation of his work and yet it rarely makes its way into serious discussion. It tends to drift into rumors, innuendos, or the sub-strata of Moore followers who are more fanatically in the know. Books like Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman by Gary Spencer Millidge or his more recent, lavish Alan Moore: Storyteller tend to redress the balance, while the occasional scholarly article bravely ventures into the mystical or occult. But there’s still a marked imbalance between articles, commentary, and blogging about Watchmen, Swamp Thing, or any number of his works and the mention or exploration of his magical belief systems.

For many readers, this may seem like a foregone conclusion to respect an author’s beliefs, but for others, misconceptions about Moore’s beliefs may be a deterrent. They, for instance, would be fine reading his work on Supreme, but don’t want to know about his own private deity Glycon. Maybe they’d even support his charitable work to fund the Harvey Pekar memorial in Cleveland, but they definitely don’t want to hear about the imaginary “real” magical society, the Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, which he co-instigated. That’s a fan’s prerogative, to choose how much they want to know about their comics creators, but it’s not really a viable position for those who wish to put comics forward as an art. Perhaps some scholars might feel that “wacky” belief systems among comics creators detracts from the seriousness of the art and ought to be glossed over. That could account for scholarly negligence on the subject. It is, however, far more likely that ignoring these aspects of our comics creators will harm the development of comics as art by turning them into commercial cogs in a wheel, ciphers for a product we buy and sell rather than individuals who leave their own lasting stamp on the industry. I suggest we take that danger seriously and get to know the artists and writers who create substantial and lasting works, allowing them to have their own “voice” both off and on the page.

Understanding Alan Moore’s beliefs recently took a massive step forward when Knockabout released three items in a combined volume entitled A Disease of Language by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell in 2010. It contained a repackaging of a Moore-Campbell collaboration called The Birth Caul, another entitled Snakes and Ladders, and a third significant element: a wide-ranging interview of Moore by Campbell concerning Moore’s beliefs. For Campbell fans, an added bonus is included in some of Campbell’s original sketches for the works. As unusual as these works are, they have an even more unusual history for “comics.” They originated as performance pieces presented by Moore, with hardly any attention to written form until their later adaptation by the highly interested Campbell.

The Birth Caul, a “shamanism of childhood,” was born as a performance piece in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1995, a recording of which sparked Campbell’s visual imagination and resulted in a graphic narrative adaptation. What we find in The Birth Caul that also emerges in Moore’s other works, both pre and post his “outing” as a magician in 1993, are several key features that suggest a magical cosmology in his creative universe, including the presentation of time as something with a beginning and an end, the role of language as magical enactment, and the impression of place as magical space.

The first of these features, a view of time as containing a beginning and an end, can be likened to the mythological concept of the worm Ouroboros or the Midgard serpent of Norse mythology, who clutches at his own tail with his jaws. Time, for Moore, is self-contained, and that creates a remarkably “free” zone for action in terms of character and plot. It also indicates that the movement of time within the “circle” may have circular motifs and reflect its interdependence on other moments. This creates a particularly elastic thematic space for the author in which to create repeating motifs that contribute to meaning. Lastly, cyclical time within the serpent’s arc helps to highlight the role of a central character or psychological focus. We might make a comparison to Shakespeare’s tragedies wherein the outcome, if not known, is suspected by the audience, and consequently, the central characters are thrown into high relief for examination. Even their smallest gestures or banal thoughts become charged with significance and meaning within this context. Since time is not rushing forward, but is curving toward its own starting and finishing point in Moore’s works, the characters “pop” for readers, and we slow down and pay attention differently to their heroic position.

The relationship between language and magic in Moore’s works is surely predictable since many great writers have reinforced this ancient link between spoken language and “spells,” and many an anthropologist has investigated the origin of language itself in magical rites. Saying Moore is traditional in this way is no detraction from his originality. Part of the movement in The Birth Caul is backward toward Moore’s beginnings, and therefore backward through language into infancy. The particular ways in which Moore finds language magical, however, may still hold a few surprises, and if readers expect this relationship to be purely characterized by wish-fulfillment, they’ll be sorely disappointed; the magic of language, for Moore, is a raw, nearly organic, and seemingly unpredictable thing that can both world-create and world-destroy.

Both magical time and magical language form a triad with magical space in Moore’s works. Starting with Northampton is a wise choice, though other created or imagined locations may get a look in. Magical space is defined by ritual activity that sacralizes. Once the space is initiated, magical time can exist and magical language can take action. The very act of creating the “spoken word” performance of The Birth Caul created a magical space, for instance, of a perhaps limited variety. It is also within magical spaces that stories may be recreated, reenacted, and retold. The substance that they take on is part of the ritualized act of creation imagined by Moore. Setting up a magical space could be as basic and profound as describing the layout of a comic book page within which a story will play out. It’s the firmly established confines of a universe in which a story can exist to the dictates of its own rules.

When examining The Birth Caul, we may observe, firstly, that the remarkable movement of time in the performance piece, or “working” as it is called in its magical aspect, is what attracted Eddie Campbell to adaptation in the first place. The story begins in the present and moves steadily backward through time and yet manages to create a profound continuity within its narrative. It starts with an ending, the death of Moore’s mother in the same hospital where he was born in 1953. Imagery suggests that she is attaining a return to a form of infancy close to the time of her passing, and the circular linking of time is confirmed by Moore’s discovery (while cleaning out her flat) of an envelope containing the “birth caul” in which his mother was born, kept, and preserved out of superstition that it will protect the possessor from a “watery grave.” Campbell cleverly decides to intercut this narrative with images based on photographs of Moore actually performing this piece in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, an immediate “present.”

The “natal ticket stub” of the caul enables the audience to journey in time to Moore’s youthful independence, when working factory jobs left him disaffected. This is the next stop upon the backward moving track of Moore’s journey, full of “work and sleep” and nothing else. Narrating this state, he insists, “There is no way forward. We must set the action in reverse.” Fleeing this purgatorial life, Moore uses the “map” traced in the caul’s webbing to plunge further into the “waters” of the past and arrive at his teen years, furtive young love, and abandoned writing ventures. The perspective of the narrator, however, is still cyclical, describing youth as “frisking, unaware.” Crises lead backward into school days, his first crushes, to learning words, spelling, recognition of objects. Returning to the jabbering of infancy, and finally to an embryonic state, Moore returns himself, and all humanity, to an evolutionary spiral of DNA in a primordial darkness that opened the work, masterfully depicted by Campbell through a lyrical but discordant mesh of images and impressions from earliest perception. Because of the Ouroboros configuration of time in the work, the flow of time has been restrained and directed toward interrelationships in theme and image, allowing the reader to follow a narrating central figure in great depth in this “shamanism of childhood.”

Magical language plays its part from the very start in the composition of magical time and space in The Birth Caul. It is significant that Campbell chose to use every single word of the original “working” in his graphic adaptation, and often ventures into unique experiments with the presentation of a great deal of text to draw unusual relationships between words and images. Trails of lettering are recursive, and often leisurely, drawing attention to themselves rather than any swift movement in action. The birth caul itself is described, initially, as a “postcard” with a “message” to be “deciphered,” and the “working” could be read as an explication of that need. It is a “log of older tides” and clearly the expression of a proto-language which Moore is attempting to translate or decipher. The only way to “reach” this language, however, is to return to the point of its origin. Rather than “translating” the caul into modern speech, understanding necessitates a harder shamanic road voyaging and translating oneself back into a state in which such language is native. In this way, The Birth Caul might be read as a recreation of a magical state through the recovery of a magical language, which is a “way back in.”

A loss of vitality in language is connected to a loss of identity, necessitating a journey further “back” when “anecdotes” in teen years become “less valuable with each retelling.” Childhood and infancy become the richest mines for language in the graphic narrative, however, each successive phase carries its own limits and dissatisfactions until language both breaks down and becomes expansive, containing greater possible meanings, for instance, the interpretation of phrases like “one sudden morning when us first think that we thinking and before it what we can’t remember in the nothing came from.” The gist of the meaning may form a central core of communication to the reader, that a child may achieve their first moment of self-awareness suddenly, however, the combination of words conveys much more of the haunting uncertainties of impression and identity. The words capture an entire psychological and sensory state. Finally, journeying down the “spiral staircase,” we may conclude that DNA is the primordial “language” and its own indecipherable code present in the caul Moore is speaking about. This is the heart of the shamanism of childhood Moore is unraveling, a language encoded in being itself.

Lastly, the use of magical space in The Birth Caul is one of its most consistent and binding elements. The transit in magical time takes place within the linked geographical zones of the “working” space of Moore’s performance and the continuous landscape of his Northampton upbringing. This has a secondary useful role of enabling the reader to stay oriented in a narrative situation in which time moves in an unusual way. When establishing the magical space of the narrative, Moore jumps backwards in time to form a geographical prehistory that parallels the prehistory of the embryo in the womb. The Celtic tribes, Roman occupation, and industrial revolution of Newcastle build the sacred space from its historical foundations forward and situate the performance space within magical time. The industrial revolution leads thematically to the historical point of Moore’s youth when he was “delivered to the world’s blunt engine” of work. Though the “world’s engine” is turned back in the story, the space within which the reader journeys is largely the same, guided by Moore. Recurrent objects like mirrors, beds, and TV sets maintain physical continuity, while Campbell’s intricate detail-laden panels convince the reader of physical reality in the narrative. Campbell’s configurations on the page gradually break down into simple units in infancy memories, before melding into a DNA and Ouroboros spiral, confirming that space, like time and language, comes from the same root. It is at this point of origin for all three, a common source, that this proto-magical state fully exists, “our secret fountain.”

If the elements of magic in this particular work of Moore’s seem simple, it is because they appear stripped down to their most basic components in this narrative that regresses to express potential states. What could be more basic than time, space, and language to the human experience? And yet, these, particularly, are infused with Moore’s sense of cosmology. The perceived universe, for Moore, is constructed around individual experience of these elements. The shamanic figure, or, in this case, the magician, is situated at the center of these mysteries, seeking the point at which the three intersect. The Birth Caul suggests that this point lies at the origin of life itself, the moment of conception, and is, consequently, omni-temporal in the individual springing from this “root.” It is in this way that Moore explains his own origin as a magician and the retrieval of this authentic experience of identity. Intimations of these patterns can be found spread throughout his works, as well as some explicit discussions of these concepts, but nowhere quite so firmly delineated as in his autobiographical work The Birth Caul.

Coming up next time: “The Universal Dance in Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Snakes and Ladders.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book, as well as scholarly blog-posts for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter.

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4 Comments

  1. Just wanted to say welcome, Hannah, and I’m looking forward to the column!

  2. Miguel Rosa says:

    Welcome, Hannah. Excellent article!

  3. Thanks guys! Hope you enjoy it and the new one coming up.

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