Meet the Magus, Part 8:

Transforming Perception in Another Suburban Romance

Quite a few of Moore’s works don’t merely feature transformative themes but display a capacity for transformation themselves. By taking on new forms, they lead what could be described as parallel or alternate lives. Works that originate as performances consistently follow this pattern. The Birth Caul came into being as notes for a performance then a live performance with other interacting performance elements such as location, music, sound effects, and props. After that, it made its way back into transcribed written form before being interpreted visually by Eddie Campbell. It’s clear that Moore does not view this progression as hierarchical. He does not feel that visual narrative is somehow superior to performance or that a more “permanent” form is an ultimate goal for artistic creation. Quite the contrary. If anything, he privileges performance as a magical act, an end unto itself. But he also acknowledges that each transformation into another format that a work may experience essentially creates a new work with its own potentials and valuable qualities. If all art is magic, then each new form is simply another, newly enacted, iteration of magical expression. In fact, it may be that these transformative patterns are particularly characteristic of creations that begin as part of a magical exercise. One more work that fits these criteria, and may have even been through the greatest number of transformations of any of Moore’s works, is generally referred to as Another Suburban Romance.

One reason that this composition is not usually associated with Moore’s other adapted performance pieces is that it derives from earlier in his career and also because its origin is more musical than the later pieces created for the Moon and the Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels. As die-hard Moore fans may recognize, Moore has consistently pursued an interest in musical performance to a degree that, in some ways, rivals his interest in the comics format. In the late 1970s, Moore crafted a monologue called “Old Gangsters Never Die,” which eventually became drawn into the orbit of a “surrealist drama” including two other sections: “Judy Switched off the TV” and “Another Suburban Romance,” which became the title piece (Millidge 242). Moore saw similarities between the pieces that were largely thematic. This linking together of disparate units, often containing separate narratives, is something typical of Moore’s later compositions such as Angel Passage and Snakes and Ladders.

Moore recalls, “It involved a number of characters that were moving through this series of scenarios that involved meditations upon politics, sex, death, and all of the other big issues” (qtd. in Millidge 242). A soundtrack was generated and recorded to accompany Moore’s lyrics, only for the planned stage-play to fall through. The three pieces were, however, resurrected in individual musical performances from time to time in Moore’s long history of band forming and collaboration with established bands. And so, a work conceived of as a surrealist play in the late ’70s made its way into purely musical form for recordings and live performances through the ’80s and ’90s, only to be adapted by Antony Johnston into a version “illustrated” by Juan Jose Ryp for Avatar Press in 2007.

Avatar Press presents Another Suburban Romance as an illustrated work rather than as a comic, though also describing its contents as “sequential stories” and crediting Johnston with “sequential adaptation.” The ambiguity becomes a matter of arguing semantics. The fact that there is a lack of complete clarity when classifying the book is symptomatic of its earlier shifting origins; however, the sequential format does enable us to place Another Suburban Romance alongside Moore’s other comics works for the investigation of magical motifs. The fact that Moore did not do the “sequential adaptation” himself does not make the work less characteristic of his work any more than Eddie Campbell’s personalized adaptation of The Birth Caul distances Moore from the work. It is possible that it is precisely because such works are partly autobiographical that Moore preferred to allow others to perform the adaptation process.

Transforming Perception

Moore’s early experiences with psychedelics taught him something radical that remained with him and informed his artistic works: altering one’s perception of reality is one and the same as altering reality itself, and that “reality [is] not a fixed thing” (qtd. in Millidge 36). For Moore, changing perception is, essentially, the same thing as changing reality. In many ways, this youthful realization acted as a precursor to his epiphany while working on From Hell that led to his announcement of his new role as a magician, an epiphany regarding the reality of the supernatural as an element within one’s own mind, “the one place in which Gods and demons inarguably exist” (Moore and Campbell).

This interchangeable relationship between perception and reality has had a vast impact on Moore’s works because the storyteller’s perception becomes the reader’s reality. If the storyteller’s perception is essentially magical in its principles, then the reader’s reality becomes magical. If the storyteller perceives a certain internal reality, he can bring it into existence as a more public reality through art. When writing for comics, Moore produces words that create images through collaboration, and the images themselves become transformative realities for the reader. These processes are laid bare with particular transparency when it comes to Another Suburban Romance because of its distinct phases of collaboration. It is helpful, in this case, that Moore allowed free reign in adaptation to Johnston and illustration to Ryp because we can track the impact of his language alone. Moore feels that the interaction between language and images in comics creates “layers” of “possibilities” based on the “interaction” between the two (qtd. in Berlatsky 111). The transformation themes in Moore’s lyrics suggested such a degree of shifting reality to Johnston and Ryp that reading Another Suburban Romance becomes an exercise in leapfrogging between the “layers” of possible worlds at a fairly break-neck but surprisingly graceful pace.

“Judy Switched Off the TV”

If the reader is not forewarned about the surprising jumps between the panel illustrations, based upon the conceptual leaps in Moore’s lyrics, the movements will come as something of a shock. The combinations of ideas are surreal and without narrative explanation. Combined with Ryp’s illustrations, the effect has affinities with magic realism in prose based on the link between the narrator’s state of mind and the realities depicted; however, strict comparison is too limiting, as would be terming the effect of the image-language combination surrealist or absurdist. It’s “Mooreist,” rather, containing, but not limited to, all of the above. In “Judy Switched off the TV,” Ryp’s intricate line-drawing style, devoid of shading or hatching, is particularly overwhelming. Each crowded panel invites scrutiny and provides commentary, but the pacing of the language and its shocking disjunctions hurry the reader along. We aren’t given much time to ponder the shocking implications of the moment when Judy “went into the bathroom to die.” Is it a joke? A metaphor? Some level of psychological reality that renders the rest of the text a trauma narrative? Despite narrative elements, there are no orienting, fixed points for the reader to follow except for the circular pattern of return, whereby the “walk narrative” returns to the apartment, and seemingly the same moment in time when it began.

If a narrative could be reconstructed from the remarkable sequence of events and images, it would loosely run thus: the narrator leaves his apartment as his girlfriend takes a shower; he moves through a city with a cascade of impending apocalyptic events seeming to follow him, from anarchists to police actions and natural disasters; he takes on super-heroic qualities to outrun them; he is caught out and injured by a bomb in a bar; and he hijacks a taxi at gunpoint to take him home, where he returns to the moment when he initially left.  The world through which the narrator moves is not only threatening, it’s characterized by fire, resonating with the old Biblical concept that the world will be, finally, destroyed by fire. Some aspect of fire is depicted in nearly every panel, and Ryp’s challenge is to make that image effective despite lack of color and shading. His liquid, erupting bursts of flame create a peculiar effect, giving the impression, by the end of the section, that the world of the narrative is essentially drowned in creeping flames.

Many of the extreme images in the panels are developments upon the brief narrative cues provided by Moore (e.g. the addition of crowd scenes), and yet their tone is remarkably matched to the language provided. As if this logic- and sensory-challenging narrative weren’t enough of a tour-de-force, the conclusion of the narrative leaves two seemingly contradictory possibilities co-existing for the reader. Neither is eliminated or explained, so they create a kind of mental double-narrative. Judy either “went into the bathroom to die” or “zips up her throat or comes out of the bathroom backwards” (Moore, Johnston, Ryp). The “backwards” suggests a kind of backward threading of the narrative, a reversal in an upside-down world.  There is no question that the entire text conjures a dream-like state, though the illustrations create gruesome concrete images in detail, but the questions it leaves unanswered are questions of reality. What actually happened? How did it happen and why? Who is the narrator? Who is Judy? The transformation between panels and the mysterious space between them, wherein a reader is expected to create associative links, breaks down interpretation but leaves experience behind. In the same way that the musical performance initially created by Moore was a mind-altering and, perhaps, reality-altering experience for the audience, this text creates experience through suggestion and disjunction, breaking down the familiar until the world goes out “like a light” (Moore, Johnston, Ryp).

“Old Gangsters Never Die”

Readers will find more of the familiar to latch onto in “Old Gansters Never Die” and can also more easily follow a narrative pattern; however, it’s a narrative based on transformation and the hypothetical. The illustrations add detail and narrative elements that further expand the radiating plot elements. Though many of the plot elements are left open to interpretation, the text consists of a meditation on gangsters – particularly noir film gangsters – of the past, with a movie-theatre setting and a “haunted screen” (Moore, Johnston, Ryp). The narrator contemplates the possible aspects of a gangster’s death, getting further and further into character, and highlighting the virtues of one possible violent “end” over another. More formal aspects of poetic language and structure break the narrative into lines and half-lines with repetition that brings the lyrical aspects of the language to the foreground. The most pronounced association, and also contrast, lies between beauty and violence. The silvery bullets shot from Dillinger’s gun into the hearts of policemen become ornamental “etching,” and the narrator, who wears “diamond collar studs,” describes himself as “elegant.”

The use of “I” to lead us further into this sensory world of speakeasies and machine-gun fire occasionally slips into the second person, and “you” experience the possible death-scenes of a gangster, each a little more “elegant” than the last. Moore emphasizes the connection between beauty and violence in the noir tradition, rather than inventing the connection himself, through traditional tropes. Famous gangsters are described romantically as “constellations” moving on Earth with “hellstars in their eyes,” and of course, the femme fatale is a “killer” and “one must always kiss one’s killer” (Moore, Johnston, Ryp). These tropes come alive with romantic emphasis in this compressed retelling of the basic mythologies of noir gangster “B” films, as the text calls them. The transformations at work allow multiple realities to co-exist, as in the previous section. Each possible mode of the gangster’s death is played out in intricate detail, within different layers of reality while contrasting with the negating insistence of the title and refrain “old gansters never die.”

Ryp masterfully depicts the fluid interchange between “outside” realities in the narrative and what is happening in a film, on a silver screen, toward the beginning of the story. In one particular panel, the screen’s images blend with the audience members almost interchangeably. The presence of an unnamed narrator, the use of reference to historical figures like Dillinger, and artifacts like films give an air of authenticity to the text, but the parallel realities transform the perception of the reader to accept many possible narratives. In this way, the reader receives a wider spectrum of narrative realities without the need for limitation or elimination.

“Another Suburban Romance”

The first two sections of the grand narrative are loosely structured around movement, and the third and final part of the text is no exception. In “Judy Switched off the TV,” the narrator takes a walk. In “Old Gangsters Never Die,” the narrator seems to leave the theatre, and the places he visits for his possible demise form a night’s ramble through Chicago. Whereas in “Another Suburban Romance,” the narrator is a describing figure perambulating through a town or city, while Ryp depicts an avatar of Moore on a grim stroll. The dark images of a world in nearly post-apocalyptic decline are unrelenting in both the text and the panels, opening with “murderers,” “tenements,” and “flames.” Those are just teasers as Ryp depicts the settings through which our walker moves. The reader becomes inducted into the reality of this created world by stepping “outside” with the narrator, into the mean streets, with this caveat and warning: “And once you step outside, you’re outside for the rest of your life” (Moore, Johnston, Ryp).

For a text replete with such hellish descriptions, it’s remarkably lyrical. As in the case of “Old Gansters Never Die,” the language of violence becomes an aesthetic, and Ryp’s unflinching depictions of drug addicts, prostitution, and road-rage mobs capture a kind of stillness surrounding the central “walker” and observer. We should note that the musical piece “Another Suburban Romance” was initially written in the late ’70s, but Ryp has chosen to depict a version of Moore with snake-wound walking stick in keeping with his public days as a magician. The link is not exactly accidental. The contents of the lyrics are strongly suggestive of Moore’s critique of urban reality that a reader might find in, say, From Hell or even Promethea. The “dance” between the serpent DNA and the dancer, imagination, in Snakes and Ladders may even make an appearance via the chorus of “Another Suburban Romance”: “But what the hell, let’s dance / It may not be pretty, but it’s worth a second glance.” The disjunction characteristic of the text, as a whole, returns, including the union of seeming opposites: the unattractive and the attractive.

Moore may be suggesting that these are alternate forms of perceiving essentially the same reality.  The lyric “a kiss in the blitz” combines these two features in a fine balance, as does the title itself, containing “suburban” and “romance,” two concepts rarely associated and perhaps even mutually exclusive in connotation (Moore, Johnston, Ryp). The final double-page spread is ambiguous and concludes the three-part narrative in a challenging way. The reader is left to consider what kind of final statement this forms and how that affects the previous reading of the text: “…the crack-teams and the crystalheads, / They stand round like crucifixion crowds: / They’re just waiting for the man” (Moore, Johnston, Ryp). Ryp’s visual narrative suggests that the Moore avatar is the “man” that the people are looking for and depicts Moore, finally, standing in the midst of a broken down bookstore as seekers kneel around him in adoration while he describes a magical question-mark in smoke in the air. If that sounds surreal, it certainly is. And it is also most certainly a post-magical portrait of Moore that updates the original composition of the lyrics. That suggests the pervasive manner in which Moore’s magical persona has informed pop-culture perception of his work.

Johnston and Ryp clearly perceive Moore as a magus, here a messianic figure bringing a form of truth to an often terrifyingly shattered world. When Moore composed this piece, this is the world he envisaged and described. Johnston and Ryp just take it one step further, by casting the narrator in the role of messiah. Perhaps Moore, Johnston, and Ryp are essentially saying that the core of “suburban romance” is waiting for some central figure, a “hero,” as a guide. The more degraded the suburban, or urban, environment seems to become, the more romantic the ideal. The final arc of this three-part text turns one textual pattern on its head. Whereas “Judy Turned off the TV” depicts reality constantly transforming around the narrator and “Old Gangsters Never Die” insists on multiple realities, “Another Suburban Romance” takes us on a walk through a reality that is exaggerated in its dark aspects – but largely recognizable – before emphasizing a transforming attitude on the part of the narrator. He is, after all, the one suggesting we “dance” despite all, and Johnston and Ryp, at least, think he could be “the man” everyone’s waiting for. The narrator seems to hold two perceptions of reality simultaneously: he rigorously observes around him in detail what is not “pretty,” while suggesting that there is something else present in reality beyond these perceptions. It’s “half a chance,” a “car-crash ballet,” and a “kiss in the blitz.” It’s a dualistic reality, at heart, if he can insist on the beauty in the violence (Moore, Johnston, Ryp). The narrator’s perception can transform his reality, and this is the kind of “man” for whom society awaits.

Another Suburban Romance, as a whole, is a remarkable composite work with a unique history. For Moore fans, it delves deeply into Moore’s creative past and may illuminate some dark corners of his early artistic philosophies. The person who wrote these lyrics believes in the power of perception to radically alter, destroy, or even transform reality into a more bearable place to live. There’s also an underlying and remarkably insistent realism present, not just in detail, which often jumps off into the surreal or absurd, but an insistence on realism based on observation. All three narrators observe their realities minutely, come to the conclusion that those facts are theirs to interpret, and willfully do so, transmitting those findings to the reader. These pieces began as performance, containing many of the elements of Moore’s later magical compositions, and they reflect some of the same concerns. They present alternate views of reality through storytelling, challenging and re-inventing perception according to their own rules. Placing them in the context of adapted sequential narratives must have been an overwhelming but enlightening task. Ryp visually captures some of the “bottled lightning” infused into these earlier works and shows, through the sheer breadth of visual references, the storytelling potential they contain. Johnston and Ryp seem to suggest that the performances, in fact, conjured the magician long before the magician began to conjure the performances.

Works Cited

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

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

Moore, Alan, Antony Johnston, Juan Jose Ryp. Alan Moore’s Another Suburban Romance. Rantoul, Il: Avatar Press, 2007.

Moore, Alan, and Eddie Campbell. From Hell. Portland, OR: Top Shelf Productions, 2000.

Coming Up Next: “Gods and Demons: From Hell, Part I”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar, medievalist, and the Editor-in-Chief of BleedingCool.com. 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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