Alan Moore’s Snakes and Ladders was one of his first major works dealing specifically with his unique approach to magic, following his revelation in 1995 that he himself was, in a very real sense, a magician. Many of us comics readers have since come to a new understanding of this prickly, intense and deeply spiritual eccentric wizard from Northampton who used to write superhero comics through this and other psychedelic pieces. Unearthing, written with Mitch Jenkins, is probably the most successful adaptation of Moore’s live performances to comics, but Snakes and Ladders is a true multi-media piece, involving music, spoken word and visual images. The purpose of such pieces of art, Moore freely states, is to confuse and confound the senses and draw the viewer/reader/listener into a contemplative and fundamentally psychedelic state, in which they are open to new ideas and new ways of seeing the universe. The Alan Moore who wrote Watchmen is emphatically the same Alan Moore who created these pieces, and if a reader sees the obvious authorial links between the works, they truly understand Moore as an artist. (If they don’t, they haven’t truly understood Watchmen, for one thing.) But it seems that many in comics have an impatience with Moore’s precious artfulness and see it as indulgent and overtly intellectual. Indulgent, perhaps. Despite the fact that Snakes and Ladders is in some ways quite intellectual, its true power is actually emotional, if one has the right mindset.
Eddie Campbell, Moore’s collaborator on From Hell, adapted the spoken word performance recorded in 1999 to comics form in 2001. A CD was released in 2003, and the inevitable fusion of those two is now being presented on Vimeo in five parts, the first of which is available for anyone to view. It’s fairly close to representing Moore’s original mode of presentation, and in the right setting, a deeply hypnotic experience.
Moore’s voice, with that pinched Northampton accent, is unmistakable as he reads his own text with his usual intensity, set to eerie electronic music. Campbell’s equally moody images drift into and out of frame, following Moore’s rumination on the history of his own place and time, and the meaning of life and consciousness, all filtered through his distinctive sense of British wizardry. Moore’s magic, and in fact all of his art and writing, is ultimately about unity, coherence and connection, whether that be physical, temporal or spiritual. In Snakes and Ladders, he discusses specific aspects of the history of his part of England (Oliver Cromwell pays a visit, both in human and undead form, for example) and builds, in this first segment, to a shudder-inducing climax in which he reminds us all that we’re just “mud that stood up”. Moore starts at the beginning of time, weaves together Francis Crick, a late Victorian woman dying of cancer, the location of Northampton and finally his assessment of the true nature of humanity, drifting between the subjects with his voice growing in intensity. The film enhances this drifting-with-urgency tone, and draws us into the wizard’s unique and profound vision of the universe.
Alan Moore has the ability to tell us profound things, or ordinary things in a profound way. All of his many works have that power, but this adaptation of Snakes and Ladders brings it into focus in an easily-digestible 10-minute video. Anyone with ten minutes to spare, preferably first thing in the morning or late at night, will find themselves well-rewarded, not to mention enlightened.