Meet the Magus, Part 6:

A World Inside, Outside in Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate’s A Small Killing

Three years before Alan Moore announced his decision to become a magician and roughly four years before the performance event of The Birth Caul, he collaborated with Oscar Zarate on an unusual graphic novel. Its themes and artwork were unusual for the time, but it was also unusual in the context of Moore’s work up to that point. He had completed the highly successful run on Swamp Thing and the astonishingly successful Watchmen series, as well as other DC work. He had made his name in super-heroes and perhaps a little in the “supernatural.” No one expected a sudden departure into psychological realism. It was the first, however, of many short-story compositions that have spanned Moore’s career, each creating a unique world in which the narrative operates. A Small Killing, nevertheless, continues to stand out from Moore’s other works as the unique product of a highly experimental period in Moore’s life when he was intentionally breaking with mainstream comics and reaching for other modes of expression.

In structure, theme, and content, A Small Killing has a great deal in common with the performance (and Eddie Campbell’s later comic adaptation) of The Birth Caul. The similarities between them do not diminish either work but rather suggest a very direct thread of continuity between Moore’s “pre-magic” and “magic-era” works. In fact, there aren’t overt radical differences between the outlook of the two texts except perhaps that Moore breaks into the purely autobiographical in The Birth Caul and boldly asserts the role of memory, while A Small Killing contains germs of autobiographical experience that have been shaped and molded by collaboration with Zarate and cloaked in fiction. The autobiographical elements contained in A Small Killing may, in fact, be a significant part of the work’s artistic gravity. Let’s note that later, in The Birth Caul, when Moore talks about magic, he is speaking autobiographically. He rarely drifts off into theory regarding magic, even in interviews, but maintains a certain degree of practical authority. One could argue that whenever Moore uses magical themes in any of his works, only a fine line is drawn between autobiography and fiction. It is one of the many ways in which Moore invests himself into his works but a particularly influential one.

A World Inside, Outside

This kind of personal association between a discussion of magic and Moore’s own life can be seen in a 2005 interview now published in Alan Moore: Conversations. When he was asked what “advice” he would give to “someone starting off in magic,” he gave a chronological blow-by-blow of the kind of activities that would be necessary. The step-like order in which he presents the instructions is highly suggestive; what we may have here is Moore simply recounting, in general terms, the course of his own explorations and sharing that route with others. The first step, he says, is to “Fill your head with any old shit that you come across, then rely upon developing a sense of discrimination, so that eventually you’ll be able to sort out the stuff that is rubbish — which is a lot of it — from the stuff that makes some sort of sense to you” (qtd. in Berlatsky 202). It’s unclear whether Moore means a simple influx of information in the modern world or if he refers to a specific meditative state. As a first step to a creative act like writing, both would work equally well. The second step, according to Moore, should involve reading some “biographies” of people who pursued magic and questioning oneself fairly rigorously about whether “you think there really is anything in all this,” and if so, “Ask yourself how you think it works” (qtd. in Berlatsky 203). This step not only requires action by the individual involved but also a kind of pursuit and transformation of an abstract idea into a personal reality. Magic is not proscribed here, but it takes on features depending on the person in question. Rather than give an overly-specific account of his own limiting factors, Moore renders magic universal by leaving it open to the experience of others.

When Moore does get more personal, he suggests a relationship between the internal and the external that is quite radical: “I approach magic the same way that I approach writing. No one taught me how to do it. I just thought, ‘Let’s take a look at this from the outside, see if I can figure it out and come up with my own approach from there.’ Y’know, magic is an art, so I approached it the same way as I would any art” (qtd. in Berlatsky 203). We’ve noticed before the ways in which Moore sees connections between magic and art, and indeed, he sees magic as an art form, however, the parallel extends to “approach.” Magic, like writing, is “untaught,” and it can be approached from the “outside” in order to move to an inner state. It can be investigated, annotated, and considered both an outside phenomenon as well as an internal experience, operating on two different levels. Perhaps this is a helpful distinction to make between the general themes of the occult in Swamp Thing, for instance, and the more specific internalized themes of psychedelic experience or the general concepts of personal empowerment present in V for Vendetta and the internal transformations experienced by Evey. The outer and the inner form a related pair. It is very interesting that Moore considers both beneficial perspectives, rather than seeing outer, intellectual consideration as somehow lesser in degree than the internal, direct encounter with magical experience.

Lastly, Moore considers the “realm” in which magic seems to move and the relationship between the internal and the external: “I’d say it looks like the physical world is actually predicated upon the intangible world of ideas and the mind” (qtd. in Berlatsky 203). In this paradigm, outer is physical, concrete, and measurable by the intellect, whereas the world of the “mind” is “intangible.” Moore speculates that the “intangible” world of “ideas” actually determines the existence of the external and physical. In this schema, the outer world would, therefore, contain characteristics in keeping with the inner, but Moore goes further to actually suggest that the inner world has characteristics we would usually only associate with outer reality: “Okay, so let’s treat it [the inner world] literally as a territory. There might be ways to explore it, ways since time immemorial that people have used to explore it” (qtd. in Berlatsky 203). The idea expressed here that the internal world has “terrain” is wholly in keeping with Moore’s frequent geographical comparisons in his magical performance art. In the Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels, for instance, the audience is verbally guided through a very specific landscape. The role of symbolic geography appears again and again in Moore’s work and often has magical significance to suggest the navigation of liminal zones and the precise relationship between the inner and the outer. Moore speculates that cultures have traditionally used specific “ways” to explore internal geography, such as psychedelics; these are “doors of perception” into a very specific “mental space” that Moore occasionally seems to suggest has some permanence beyond subjective, individual experience. Certain “landmarks,” so to speak, may be experienced in common. For that reason, Moore recommends Aleister Crowley’s book 777 with its tables of correspondences between esoteric traditions as a “map” to charting internal landscapes, as well as Crowley’s Thoth Tarot set (Berlatsky 204). Moore also gives one last warning about “seeing things” or, rather, encountering magical beings. He takes a generously psychological approach to magical experiences and reminds the reader: “It doesn’t matter if they are only some sort of externalized part of your own personality, as long as they give you accurate information” (qtd. in Berlatsky 204). Maps, landmarks, encounters; these all sound as typical of Alan Moore’s storytelling as of his own belief system, but the resonant similarities are there for a reason. When Moore talks about the relationship between the material / intellectual and the intangible / spiritual, he’s speaking from experience. This discussion of duality builds up over time in Moore’s works but is perhaps best illustrated in Snakes and Ladders as the “dance” between the material universe, the snake, and its intangible / spiritual counterpart, the dancer. The relationship that arises between them and spans the distance between them is called magic. When Moore gives instructions here for encountering magic, he guides the reader in building relationships between the inner and outer worlds to make that possible.

A Small Killing

One of Moore’s “most underrated works” is nevertheless one he regards very highly, and at least one of the reasons that he considers the work unusual is because of the nature of collaboration involved with Oscar Zarate (Millidge 158). This work was the definition of getting out of one’s comfort zone for Moore and taking on the unpredictable necessities of a new form. This form was a first person narrative set in more than one country and involving a thoroughly modern man, a “yuppie” advertizing man to be exact. The external factors may have been far from Moore’s daily experience, and yet he transcended that issue easily through relentless pursuit of a nearly “stream of consciousness” psychological realism.

Moore’s push beyond mainstream comics was evident in his choice of projects. He explains: “It is one of the most important works for me as a writer, because I was entering a new territory, I felt that I was attempting an unmistakably adult work, after all the super-heroes I had written before” (qtd. in Millidge 158). It is interesting that Moore uses the word “adult” here. That suggests ideas of growth, development, and, perhaps, responsibility that he felt had been underrepresented in his previous work. That also explains the often jarring themes of guilt, regret, and questioned identity we encounter in A Small Killing. Oscar Zarate’s lavishly painted artwork, a combination of watercolor, ink, pencils, and more, brought a dayglo quality to the already hallucinatory narrative, but his style conveyed psychological states in great detail through focusing on facial expression and engaging pointedly with the grotesque. Moore feels that this equal collaboration was part of the work’s uniqueness and artistic success. Zarate’s artwork helped to give lead character Timothy Hole’s inner states a sense of outer reality and gave outer reality the menacing, unpredictable geography of an internal war-zone. Famously, Zarate suggested the idea for the story to Moore: that of a grown man pursued down the street by a schoolboy (Millidge 156). Moore later recalled a dream he had had in his 20s wherein a 10-year-old version of himself confronted his older self, disgusted by the outcome of “growing up” (Millidge 160). Both Zarate and Moore had provided their thematically similar visions for the combined work. Essentially, both creators had provided material from their respective internal worlds to compose this work of art.

The back-and-forth motion of collaboration continued, and Moore, in particular, did not request any directorial control over the composition of panels or the pacing of images in each chapter. This story about the “redemption” of a character who seemed irredeemable has a highly idiosyncratic structure (Millidge 158). It begins in the “present,” moves through a recent series of flashbacks, then the character explores a series of geographical locations associated with eras of his past. Essentially, a present-tense narrative is laced with flashbacks that move further and further back in time until the narrator reaches his own childhood in Yorkshire, the “scene of the crime” that troubles him. This backward movement in time, grounded in geographical reference, is one of the striking features that A Small Killing has in common with The Birth Caul.

The blurring between internal and external realities begins early in the narrative when Timothy Hole, on a plane waiting for take-off from New York to the UK, becomes certain that a person, who may or may not exist, is lurking in the “occupied” toilet (5). Crowd scenes, which dot the work (such as the flashback to Timothy’s going-away party), give the illusion of grounded material reality for Tim’s experiences, making the contrasting uncertainty about whether he really does or does not see a malevolent schoolboy more pronounced. It is perhaps Tim’s uncanny recurring dream, whose symbolism is left open for interpretation by the reader, that most clearly picks out the existence of layered worlds in A Small Killing. We observe Timothy’s truly internal world through his dreams but also his perception of outside reality through his eyes. The reader can view his physicality in an “outer” world as we observe him, as well as the way that others view him in the “outside world.” These layers, which in a “realistic” work should be sharply defined, are instead traversed or, perhaps, transgressed against by a lone traveler: the schoolboy. He is both “real” and “imagined,” a powerful archetype and a historically existent figure. The encounter between Timothy Hole and his child-self is a deadly game. Even in Tim’s dream there is a serious outcome; when he sees a man and a child and is sure that “one of them was dead, and [he] couldn’t see if it was the man, if it was the boy”(7). The way in which Tim’s internal world “pursues” him, in the form of his schoolboy self, suggests that Tim has imposed the constraints of the outside world on his inner self just as strongly. Young Tim, in fact, considers that invasive action on the part of the adult Tim to be tantamount to murder. The dualism inherent in the text, which is indeed the springboard for the dramatic tension and construction of the story, is again an expression of the tangible versus the intangible, but in this case, the intangible is making itself felt with devastating results and an almost magical efficacy on Tim’s psychology.

Tim’s initial glimpses of the schoolboy blend with the outer world. He thinks he sees him in the busy Rockefeller Plaza of New York City, then crossing the street outside a café. He seems purely incidental, a bystander to Tim’s self-absorbed and increasingly neurotic life. The symbolism becomes more distinctive, and alarming, when Zarate depicts the boy, rendered almost ghostly but smirking in the light of Tim’s car headlights, as a barrier in a road, literally halting Tim’s progress and nearly ending Tim’s life (17). The pop-psychological interpretation of the dual child-man figure is accurate and interesting to a point, but Moore and Zarate skillfully leave room for further interpretation.

Not only could the child represent the repressed unconscious grown dangerous and irrational, a dramatic epic struggle elaborated upon by Carl Jung in his theories of the collective unconscious, but he could be more. He could be all of the things that a child might represent in a psychological context, rather than simply one of the possible meanings. The all-inclusive child figure with its destructive and hopeful aspects is represented in Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot by the Aeon card. While Crowley associates this “child” with Horus, a vengeful child acting on behalf of his murdered father (Osiris) in Egyptian mythology, the card’s simple connotations can be “Closure. Resolution. Definitive Action” (Wasserman). Ironically, closure is what Timothy Hole lacks, as may be implied by his name. The child’s pursuit, full of extreme cruelty to the point of torture, nevertheless contains a form of compassion in a forced resolution to Timothy’s extreme psychological state. The child represents the end of one era and the beginning of another for Timothy Hole, if he can survive this catastrophic transition. The catastrophe is part of the destruction inherent in this shift. In the overt symbolism of Tim’s collection of broken bird eggshells in the story, Tim must return to a point of origin and be reborn in order to reinterpret the points in time when things went wrong.

These points in Timothy Hole’s life when things went “wrong” are tied to his own creative block in solving an ad campaign dilemma for a soda company in post-Cold War Russia. The block is a solid reminder of a deeper internal problem for Tim. The imagery surrounding this internal “problem” is violent and painful. Tim’s issues could be interpreted in a number of ways, but essentially he carries a great deal of discomfort about choices he made and responsibility he avoided. The avoidance of choice seems to be more tragic than a possibly blameworthy choice made. Tim has left his fate up to others, and therefore there is no way in which he can have truly fulfilled his potential as an individual. He allowed himself to be wooed away from his first happy, successful job without a great deal of thought; he drifted into a divorce while still having some feelings for his youthful sweetheart; he allowed his girlfriend to have an abortion simply because he didn’t want to be part of the decision-making.

Avoidance seems to be the most serious crime in A Small Killing. It has created a drastic imbalance in Tim’s life, one that skews the relationship between his outer and inner worlds. Outwardly, he seems to be doing well landing a big ad campaign and pursuing a casual love life. Inwardly, he is at a terminal point of self-destruction. This extreme disharmony, and the rocking of the boat that brings the story to its dramatic conclusion, is well represented by the Thoth Tarot card Adjustment. In a wider tarot tradition known as the Last Judgment, its stern qualities are intrinsic to the process of weighing human motivation and action. It conveys ideas of justice and balance as well as the “exacting” aspects of nature, according to Crowley’s Book of Thoth (86). Represented by a female “blind-justice” type, the card evokes both the violent eradication of imbalance and the “harlequin”-like dancing return to natural balance in the universe (Crowley 86). She will “dominate every element of dis-equilibrium in the Universe” (Crowley 86). It is possible that much of the violence present in A Small Killing, from the murderous enmity of the schoolboy to mob fight scenes that Tim gets lured into in London, represents the psychological need for the return of the child and the violent protest of Tim’s inner world against drastic imbalance.

The prolonged final encounter between Tim and the schoolboy in his hometown, rendered even more dramatic due to the fact that Tim now recognizes himself in the boy, is a masterpiece of psychological ambiguity, as outer and inner worlds collapse together into a single known geography of early childhood. The single act of cruelty committed by Timothy as a child, repressed and deeply laden in guilt, becomes the focal point where Tim seems to encounter and release his own self-loathing. The jar of insects that he buried alive becomes a monstrous cornucopia of alien creatures, life itself bottled and buried to rot. Zarate’s full-page spread of their release rivals Swamp Thing for the organic and uncanny (88). Adjustment takes over, and Tim’s reaction is nausea as he faces still more violence, retribution for his rejection of balance between his inner and outer worlds.

Two final images depict the struggle of the man and child in highly symbolic form. The distance shot of the hollow in which they fight suggests their dual presence within an egg, while Tim’s dream returns again for a single panel, a dream wherein lightning strikes either a man or child, and he’s not sure which (94). In truth, both are struck down, of course, since they are the same person. This adjustment, for all its extremity and violence, has a satisfying ending. Rebirth imagery surrounds Timothy the morning after the fight. The final two pages of the narrative are flooded with unaccustomed sunlight and long shadows, as if a new aeon has, indeed, arrived. Timothy has escaped with a relatively light sentence, enabling him to “slip from the scene of the crime” (95). This is because it was important to Moore to depict more than just a “heartless, doomed man” but rather someone who, like everyone, “has the chance to redeem himself if he faces his past” (Millidge 158). Tim’s survival and rebirth also confirms the restored order of natural law in a satisfying way. Tim becomes that much more universal as he rises, reborn, after terrible sufferings of his own creation.

A Small Killing is a dramatic enactment of a psychological scenario wherein the inner world projects itself upon the outer world under extreme stress. As the story progresses, the defining barriers between those two worlds break down further with a more than purely negative effect. Something magical happens. Natural laws step in to apply harsh justice, the only possible road toward resolution. The results are more than cathartic, they’re also creative. Because Tim has recreated his inner world, finally, he has transformed his outer world, too. This is partly symbolized by the creative outburst that overcomes his “block” in resolving the important ad campaign. When Moore left the subject matter of super-heroes to take up an experimental tale, he journeyed several steps towards understanding the psychological impasses of modern life, privileging the material and outer worlds over the inner and intangible. His “grown up” work addresses that danger head-on but concludes with some degree of hope. As he would discover later, and enact in his magical performances, the inner world can reach out to communicate a necessary message to the intellect. Moore’s advice to the neophyte magician also conveys the psychological reality conveyed by Timothy’s other self: “If it seems morally and intellectually and emotionally true, then I’d say that, even as a hallucination, it’s as good a source of information as any” (qtd. in Berlatsky 205).

Works Cited

Berlatsky, Eric, ed. Alan Moore: Conversations. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2012.

Crowley, Aleister. The Book of Thoth (Egyptian Tarot). San Francisco, CA: Weiser Books, 2008.

Millidge, Gary Spencer. Alan Moore: Storyteller. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2011.

Moore, Alan (w.), and Oscar Zarate (ill.). A Small Killing. Urbana, IL: Avatar Press, 2003.

Wasserman, James. Instructions for Aleister Crowley’s Thoth Tarot Deck. Stamford, CT: U.S. Games Systems Inc., 2006.

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Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar, medievalist, and the Editor-in-Chief of She 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 for Sequart Organization about Alan Moore. She is @HannahMenzies on Twitter.

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Also by Hannah Means-Shannon:

How to Analyze & Review Comics: A Handbook on Comics Criticism



  1. ...Ryan C says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and absorbing analysis. For my money, “A Small Killing” is one of Moore’s best-written works and probably his most underappreciated (well, “Supreme” gives it a good run there — most folks seem to enjoy it on the level of “Alan Moore’s extended run on ‘Superman’ under another name and appreciate its nostalgia value, but fail to see it as the triumphant counterpoint to ‘Watchmen’ that it is and view it as primarily a “nostalgia piece” when in truth it points a way forward for the entire superhero genre that pays tribute to, and incorporates, the best elements of the past while setting out on a wholly new course — but that’s another matter for another time) — and it’s certainly his most emotionally affecting. Zarate’s artwork and the structure at which he paces it out gives the proceedings a more “continental European” feel than anything else Moore’s been inolved with, and the end result is a truly mature, richly thought-out, emotionally complex narrative wrapped up in an almost deceptively simple story. Sheer visual poetry, “A Small Killing” positively flows, organically, from beginning to end and remains a truly unforgettable reading experience that has not only stood the test of time, but gained luster in the years since its initial release. I hope more fans of Moore’s work give it a go — it’s completely unlike anything else he’s ever been part of, to be sure, but absolutely remarkable for its integrity, truth, and, dare I say it, even beauty.

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