I was reconnecting with some of my former professors at a reception this past weekend when one of them asked what I was working on. I said I had almost finished writing a book about three influential comics writers, and he asked me, “Now do these three write comic books or graphic novels?”
Now before you start shouting, I ask you to really consider the situation: you’re in a crowded reception and you’ve got a maximum of sixty seconds to answer that question—what would you really do? Would you begin ponderously pontificating that “graphic novel” is not a signifier of quality or of genre but is simply a form of publication? Well I thought about doing that, but ultimately I decided on a different approach.
I smiled, nodded ambiguously, and asked if there were any more hors d’oeuvres.
I know, I know. It was a major comics-scholar fail. I violated the oath. I’m guilty. But honestly, does anyone really like to hear long, strained, legalistic definitions of terms? I certainly lost my stomach for that sort of thing a long time ago. Arguments over semantics are the fancy pants intellectual’s version of a barroom brawl—just as pointless, just as destructive.
But it did get me thinking about one of the many ironies surrounding that term, “graphic novel.” When people like my former professor use it to signify quality, they’re either talking about independent art comics in the Daniel Clowes / Art Spiegelman mold, or they’re talking about “literary” mainstream comics as personified by the genre work of Alan Moore.
But here’s the irony. If we were to get “old school” on the term “graphic novel” and apply it strictly to long-form, complete comics stories published all at once in a single volume, how many “graphic novels” has Alan Moore actually written? It doesn’t take long to realize that none of his signature works—Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Swamp Thing, Watchmen, From Hell, Lost Girls, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea—actually qualifies under the strictest definition of “graphic novel.” You could, I guess, make a case for The Killing Joke, but at 46 pages, that really seems a bit of a stretch.
Again, I’m not all that interested in being too legalistic here, but technically I don’t think Moore wrote a pure graphic novel until 1991’s A Small Killing with Oscar Zarate, and since that time, with the exception of a couple of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen one-shots and a Top Ten prequel, it remains Moore’s only original graphic novel. His narrative ambition has always played out on a larger scale with projects that sometimes take as long as a decade to complete. As a result, the tightly-focused, single publication format of the graphic novel has never been his signature form. But based on A Small Killing, that’s a shame. It’s easily one of his best books, and it’s also one of his most personal.
What do you do when it seems like you’ve conquered the world but you’re not happy? That’s the question that haunts Timothy Hole, the protagonist in A Small Killing, although the same question might just as easily apply to Alan Moore’s professional life at the end of the 1980s. As his relationship with DC Comics ended, Moore began backing away very quickly from the world of mainstream comics. As he wrapped up the lingering threads on the two series that had essentially launched the modern comics era—Miracleman and V for Vendetta—Moore moved away from the mainstream, beginning the three most ambitious projects of his career—From Hell, Big Numbers, and Lost Girls. Big Numbers would famously implode, but the other two would occupy much of his time over the next decade.
But A Small Killing was far more limited in scope than those other projects. He was collaborating with Oscar Zarate, an artist who was very much a part of the art-comics scene and who had no interest in genre comics. The two of them decided on an idea Zarate had of a man being haunted by his ten-year-old self. Zarate was keenly aware of Moore’s super-hero past, but he was intrigued to work with someone who was trying to go in a new direction. As he says in a supplemental essay at the end of the 2003 Avatar edition, “We shared a curiosity: He wanted to innovate, to move in some other way. After that enormous thing he did, Watchmen, he wanted to talk about other things and it seems that our encounter happened at the right time.”
Any hesitation that Zarate might have felt about Moore’s ability to step outside of popular genres would soon be nullified. A Small Killing is far more Crumb than Claremont. Perhaps because Zarate’s input was so strong and because Moore hadn’t initiated the story himself, he wound up compensating by making it far more personal and self-reflective than almost anything else he had written. In fact, the basic set up for the story ought to sound oddly familiar to those who had been following Moore’s career.
A Small Killing focuses on an advertising man who first made his mark in the early 1980s doing car ads in England. Buoyed by his early British success, he landed a high-profile and highly lucrative job with an American soft drink company in the mid-‘80s. He was very successful selling this American product, but as the story begins, he has been given a new task—selling the soft drinks in Russia.
Timothy’s career tracks almost exactly with Moore’s. After trying to make a go of it as a cartoonist, Moore turned to mainstream comics in the early ‘80s, creating groundbreaking work in British magazines like Warrior and 2000 AD. By the mid-‘80s, he began working for the American company, DC Comics, writing incredibly successful horror and super-hero stories. The quality of his work helped open the doors to a more diverse audience for mainstream comics and, as with Timothy, there was no doubt a good deal of pressure for Moore to take that same “product” to this new, untapped market.
But the comparisons also extend beyond the professional. Even the superficial parallels between the protagonist and Moore are rather striking. Timothy Hole is the same age as Moore, and although Timothy is from Sheffield, Moore notes that Zarate used the landscape of Northampton, including the lot where Moore’s boyhood house once stood.
We also learn that Timothy had grown increasingly estranged from his parents during his teenage years, especially after he began experimenting with acid, and before he enjoyed his success in advertising, he lived a fairly Bohemian life with his wife. However, everything changed after the British car ads and his decision to take a job with the American soft drink company. The drink, called Flite, feels like a pun on the erstwhile super-hero power of “flight,” and as the story begins, we learn that Timothy is now divorced and looking to move beyond the work he’s been doing with Flite, even though the company is anxious for him to continue selling its licensed product to the new, fresh, untapped market in Russia that has only now begun to show an interest in American products.
By changing a few of the nouns, the paragraph above could make a nice summary of Moore’s career, and the parallels between author and character appear in the opening scene. When we first meet Timothy, he is on an airplane and the flight attendant asks him, in a line laced with symbolism, if he would like a new drink or if he would like to keep his same old cup. For both Timothy and Moore, artists in transition, that is the eternal question.
The book features a braided narrative. One thread focuses on Timothy traveling back home, wrestling with the ethics of his profession while being haunted by the ten-year-old version of himself. The other thread explores Timothy’s life, traveling back through time, beginning with his farewell party in America. As Timothy remembers the party, Moore highlights the shallowness of the American advertising world. The crude and insensitive behavior of the other partygoers—the people of Timothy’s world—features many snippets of random dialogue, including one ironic and enigmatic line: “The ambiguity has to be clearer.”
Moore never lets us forget the similarities between Timothy’s life and Moore’s own experiences in the world of comics. In a traumatic moment from the party, one of the guests carelessly destroys Timothy’s collection of robin’s eggs, neatly categorized and framed in a glass case. He had started the collection when he was a child. As Timothy tells us, he has them all in a particular order, and he can remember every excruciating detail about each egg. With the obsessiveness with which he’s catalogued them, he might as well be a comics collector talking about his bagged and boarded collection, heartbroken over finding a crease in a twenty-year-old issue of The Amazing Spider-Man.
Timothy is also drowning in a world of commercials, as Zarate shows us images of McDonalds, Kodak, Coca-Cola, and Sanyo ads. He keeps trying to figure out how to sell Flite to this new Russian audience, but every idea that occurs to him—“Cossacks? Cosmonauts? K.G.B. Men? Stalin?”—feels cliché. They are the sort of ideas a commercial, popular writer might think of first—pre-packaged genre agents, designed to communicate an iconic sense of Russia in symbolic shorthand, much like a DC writer who wants to write a crime story so he automatically makes it about Batman. Clearly, Timothy, like Moore, is wanting to move beyond these tired approaches, but neither is as sure of his new audience. As Timothy notes, “I mean, the car ads, I knew my target audience: young, single, white, male, earning between ten and fifteen grand P.A. . . . No problem.” Much of the same certainty could be applied to someone writing super-hero comics in the 1980s. But for both comics writer and ad man, doing something new means facing a number of unknowns.
As he continues to grow obsessed with a mysterious boy who is stalking him, Timothy speculates that rival corporations might have hired a little person to assassinate him, or that perhaps he is being stalked by a homicidal little person, straight out of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Back. However, those are the ideas of popular fiction, movies, and mainstream genre comics, not of the real world and not of the world of art comics. As Timothy returns to his home and visits his parents, he realizes the difference between his imagination and the real world of his parents: “They’re so normal, so relentlessly normal and little boys who murder cannot possibly be real, not in the same warm dull world as them.”
Instead, Timothy gradually comes to realize that the child stalking him is himself, his past, and the fact that his child self is out to kill him is an indictment of what he’s done with his life. After revisiting many of his personal failures—failures as a lover, a husband, a son—he finally returns to the site of his first and most horrible crime—putting live insects in a jar and burying it in his yard: “It was the first bad thing that I did knowingly.” The event, which comes directly from Moore’s own childhood, becomes symbolic of all Timothy’s questionable decisions. To explain this loss of innocence, Timothy turns to Nabokov’s Lolita, a running motif in the story: “That’s how we change, first to Lolita; then, with rueful smiles, to Humbert Humbert.”
The young Timothy thought little of the bugs, but the adult goes to dig them up and finds that they have grown to monstrous size, like creatures out of a 1950s horror movie. His sins have caught up with him. And, significantly, so has his past. He winds up engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with his boyish self, and the two of them struggle in an epic confrontation of the mind, a cliché comic book clash-turned-private struggle. Even though A Small Killing stands with Big Numbers as one of the most realistic things Moore has ever written, he teases his past career with this climax—giving us giant bug monsters and a fistfight.
Significantly, while in the midst of the fight, Timothy finds his Russian campaign. In a dream worthy of one of Don Draper’s Mad Men pitches, the elder Timothy envisions a way to sell Flite to Russians, imagining a scene with an older man and a boy selecting a soft drink:
Scene: Moscow, Red Square, one hot afternoon. Resting against the wall, a boy; his grandfather. On wall, gigantic, Lenin’s face. Stage right: Vending machine, our logo prominent. Cool, unconcerned, the boy drinks Flite. To him, it harbours no dilemma. Sweltering, thirsty, Grandfather deliberates; shoots wretched, guilting glances up at Lenin, who, with eyes retouched, returns his gaze accusingly. That’s it. No words.
Giving in to the American soft drink company is an act of betrayal for the old man, but it means absolutely nothing to the boy. The strength of the pitch comes from its ambiguity. Timothy’s still selling Flite to the Russians, but doing so in a more ethical way, acknowledging that drinking it might be wrong, but ultimately leaving it up to the old man and Lenin to work out. The ad never shows whether the old man drinks Flite or not.
Likewise, Moore and Zarate never show the conclusion of Timothy’s battle with his younger self. We simply see Timothy wake up the next morning in his yard. He leaves his glasses behind, walks into a store, and buys a rival soft drink. As he walks out, his final thoughts suggest a new beginning: “There’s a new yolk in the blown egg. There’s a new pulse in the scraped womb. Everything is pregnant.”
For the penultimate image, Zarate provides a splash page of the entire landscape outside of the little store. The image is a study in movement—the street and sidewalk are empty save for Timothy, walking east, towards the sun, while a bicyclist peddles west, a sedan and a passenger train race south, and a jet soars overhead to the north. Moore’s final caption, “Into the morning, unnoticed, I slip from the scene of the crime” is playful and vague, referring perhaps to the purchase of the rival soda, but also suggesting his new future, finally having coped with many of his past “crimes.”
Perhaps he couldn’t make the ambiguity more clear.
On first reading, A Small Killing seems notable for its highly personal, almost autobiographical elements and for Moore’s experiments with stream-of-consciousness. However, the lingering power of the story comes from its dramatization of the ethical dilemma of the creative artist working in a commercial industry. As a metaphor for the comics industry, Timothy’s struggle to find an ethical career path is very much on point. The first two phases of Moore’s career—writing mainstream comics in England and in America—had both ended badly, with legal disputes, broken relationships, and bitterness. A Small Killing comes during a period of rebirth for Moore. While the rest of the world races north, south, and west, Moore walks alone into the morning sun.
And maybe, just a little pregnant.
 The same thing is true of “Shadow Play,” his 30-page collaboration with Bill Siekiewicz that comprised one-half of the graphic novel, Brought to Light.
 I’m not including the various comics adaptations others have made of his performance art and other non-comics writing.
 Johnston, Antony, and Jaime Rodríguez. “Anatomy of a Killing.” A Small Killing by Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate. Urbana, IL: Avatar Press, 2003. All additional quotes from Moore and Zarate come from this essay.