The edition of Sounds magazine dated 31 March 1979 saw the publication of Alan Moore’s first instalment of Roscoe Moscow in “Who Killed Rock n’ Roll?” Unlike Maxwell the Magic Cat, which is largely composed of self-contained joke strips, Roscoe is Moore’s first attempt at an ongoing narrative. Roscoe Moscow is, at first glance, a comedic detective story about a private investigator trying to find a murderer. Yet it is far more than this. Conventional logic and plot are twisted out of recognition in this bizarre, rude, often hilarious, and never dull epic parody. Little has been written about the strip beyond referencing it as an early work or offering a brief summary of a sentence or two. It has remained a little-known work and a footnote in the career of Alan Moore and has received little critical attention. Beyond this, it has been called a “tour de force” by Ian Shirley in his book Can Rock & Roll Save the World?: An Illustrated History of Music and Comics. Shirley bemoans the fact that the strip has not been reprinted, and it has remained out of print since its appearance in Sounds magazine, never having been collected in book form. However, Moore’s entire collection of strips for Sounds, Roscoe included, has now been put online at The Sounds Project, which now affords us the chance of reading this series in its entirety, so let’s cast a critical gaze over this strip.
Roscoe Moscow is the protagonist of the strip, and his investigation to find the killer of Rock N’ Roll, which refers to a person (Rocky) initially and, later, the musical genre, is the narrative bedrock of the series. The first episode opens with Roscoe “stackin’ up the z’s” – not sleeping, but balancing children’s building blocks, labelled with the letter z, and a humorous tone is set from the start with Moore making use of both visual and linguistic humour. He also establishes Roscoe’s own narrative style here, delivered in a kind of mock-American, hardboiled, gumshoe detective style. This style is common in prose, or voice-overs in film and TV, especially for the P.I. genre of story, as a first person, past tense narration is used to tell the story of what happened in the case being investigated. However, in this strip, we see Roscoe actually describing things out loud in the present, yet using past tense, first person narration as the thing he discusses is actually happening. He also says things directly to other characters as a “normal” character would in fiction, but even then it can be qualified with a phrase like “I quipped.” In addition, Roscoe also refers to things that have happened in the strip which he hasn’t witnessed. This underscores the fact that everything in the strip is his delusion, even though Roscoe himself doesn’t realise it’s a delusion until the end of the series. Maxine Moscow is introduced by Roscoe as his secretary in episode 3, and her initial function is to introduce to the reader and subsequently emphasise the fact that Roscoe suffers from delusions. This suggests that the world established in the previous two strips may, in fact, exist as a manifestation of such delusions. She highlights the artifice of Roscoe’s narrative style — “Why are you talking to yourself???” and warns him that he will “end up back in the bughouse.” All of this serves to create a sense of dislocation and oddness which serves to add a level of humour, mock the narrative conventions of detective fiction, and reflect Roscoe’s fragile state of mind.
The series is Roscoe’s quest to find the killer of Rock N’ Roll, and in broad terms, it follows the conventional narrative structure of such fictions, being dependent on locating clues and suspects, but this is offset by a bizarre cast of characters, which help to give this strip its uniquely odd tone, such as Dr. Voltan Van Zygote, the foetal psychiatrist who has an affair with Roscoe’s wife Maxine, and Mycroft, a hallucination of a humanoid crow in a zoot suit.
Moore also deals with controversial subject matter. He seems particularly intrigued by the Nazi regime, and references to it occur throughout the run of the strip, from posters and usage of the swastika insignia to an appearance by Adolf Hitler himself at the climax of the story (near the end of the series), which is prefigured as early as episode 4, where Roscoe and Hitler appear in the strip’s header together. The inclusion of such a topic may seem strange and arbitrary upon first reading, but there are logical reasons why Moore would make use of this type of imagery, which in no way suggests that he held sympathies with Nazi ideology.
Moore deals with Nazi iconography, bypassing Nazi ideology in the process. This iconography was socially taboo, yet by the late 1970s, it had become used in certain music circles: David Bowie had flirted with fascist imagery in his ‘thin white duke’ period, and the UK punk scene made extensive use of the swastika as a fashion icon intended to provoke shock in the conservative mainstream majority. Moore knew his target audience, Sounds being a music magazine, and seems to have tailored his use of this iconography to fit current attitudes towards music and fashion at that time. His use of iconography also fits in with the influence of the underground comix of the 1960s, which Moore loved, where social taboos and transgression were also important subject matter, as they were in the UK music scene at that time. Moore deals with music in the strip more overtly by offering three parodies of artists — Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and the Sex Pistols.
Iggy Pop becomes Wiggy Pulp, seen as a subservient figure to Bowie (known as David Boko in the strip).
Pulp refers to Boko as the “master,” and Moore seems to comment on the pre-eminent position Bowie held in the music world as one of the acts who seemed able to transcend Punk’s dominant cultural zeitgeist and retain his relevance and “cool”-ness; he also produced albums for Iggy Pop, and Pop supported Bowie on tour, both of which adds to the perception of Bowie as being in something of a higher cultural position than Iggy.
Bowie’s changing images and roles are dealt with by Moore here, and are perhaps gently mocked as well as admired. Various doppelgangers are hired to perform the various duties in relation to albums, films and tours (episodes 8 & 9), while, in a twist on Bowie adopting alien identities such as Ziggy Stardust, the real David Boko is revealed to be an “extraterrestrial slime monster” (episode 10) with tentacles, and definitely an alien of non-humanoid form. In addition, Roscoe’s references to homosexuality via the Boko and Pulp characters are designed to show what Moore perceives to be the narrow-mindedness of homophobia. Moore would go on to be an outspoken advocate of gay rights in the 1980s and beyond.
The Sex Pistols become the “Stick Pimples,” a device which allowed Moore to comment on the role of publicity in the creation of a popular music act.
The band is managed by Malcolm Magnesia and Richard Branestawm, who are obvious parodies of Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager, and Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Records. A bizarre twist occurs when both characters are actually two heads sharing the same body.
This is a literal realisation of the idea that music managers and record producers are complicit in the exploitation of music for money, not art. Indeed, the series can be seen as literal realisation of another metaphor, that of the ‘death of rock n roll’ signified by new types of popular music, such as electronic music by bands like Kraftwerk – here transformed into Rafiawerk, who were also key players in the death of Rock N’ Roll in the strip.
Beyond its dealing with detective fiction, fascism and music, the series is also notable for Moore’s early use of superheroes. One scene is set in “Captain Billy’s,” a bar where superheroes go to relax. When Roscoe asks for help from his own hero, Rocket Redglare, he is told that “yer about twenny years too late! We ain’t barely in shape to cash our welfare checks anymore!! Dammit, Roscoe, we’re old men!!” This suggests that Moore sees the superhero genre itself as tired or played out, something he would seek to help rectify in later works like Miracleman and Watchmen. He mercilessly satirises the genre in Rocket Redglare’s following exclamation:
It’s obvious that Moore understands something about super-heroes in this work, even if it’s only the fact that by this time in history he sees them as a worn out genre, and subjects them to satirical ridicule by giving them absurd names based upon existing American characters and appearances which also suggest the characters they mock. Here is a list of the “sad assed sons of bitches” and the characters they most likely satirise:
The Human Safetymatch = The Human Torch
Plasticene Man = Plastic Man
Wombat Man = Batman
The Silver Sufferer = The Silver Surfer
The Green Latrine = The Green Lantern
Doctor Marginally Abnormal = Dr. Strange
Moore also adds a character that he calls “The Flyin’ Fuck,” a man dressed in a penis costume, and subtlety is disregarded once again, as it is for most of the strip; in this Moore again shows the influence of the kind of overt humour associated with underground comix.
Other comics parodies he creates are Brain One (Brainiac 5 from The Legion of Superheroes, combined with musician Brian Eno), Sgt. Gutz and his Mayhem Maniacs (a parody of Marvel’s Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos) and the Sivana Brothers (Doctor Sivana from the Captain Marvel comics).
Moore’s satire of superheroes and other comic characters here required him to have an understanding of the forms and conventions of such comic-based narratives, and I’d argue that, while Moore’s initial understanding of these factors leads him to mock and satirise superhero comics in the first instance, he later matures as a writer. This understanding and manipulation of the form and its associated conventions helps his work to evolve into conscious revisionism of the superhero for dramatic purposes in Miracleman and Watchmen.
A similar evolution can be seen in Roscoe‘s liberal use of sex, bad language, offensive imagery and violence, and the series could be viewed in hindsight as a means of getting a number of taboos out of his system before tackling adult themes in a more mature or dramatic way. He pays tribute to S. Clay Wilson in one strip, a one-panel instalment depicting a chaotic fight including Roscoe, “The Freeway Fuckdogs Motorcycle Club” and “Sudden Death Aerial Commandos,” and it is evident that Moore’s owes a debt of inspiration to Wilson, who used explicit imagery in comics.
While Moore’s debt to the underground comix is established in the tone of dark humour he sets here, he again moves away from this style of humour in later work, focusing on the dramatic in his depiction of sex and violence — as seen in the tenderness of Miracleman and Liz Moran’s sexual encounter in issue #9 of Miracleman (leading to comics’ first depicted childbirth) or the violence of the Comedian in Watchmen.
As such, a pattern seems to be establishing itself where Moore initially deals with themes, ideas and characters in a humorous way at the start of his career and re-visits them in a dramatic, serious context in later work, and an early indication of this shift is seen as the end of Roscoe.
Madness is the key theme of the strip, and it is a theme which one can trace through Moore’s work, including Rorschach from Watchmen, the Joker in The Killing Joke, and William Gull in From Hell. Moore’s treatment of the theme is humorous, and could be dismissed as shallow and offensive, but I would argue that in dealing with mental illness here, he comes to an understanding of the devastating effect in can have, particularly in the final episodes of the series, which take a more realistic outlook at Roscoe’s predicament. For the majority of the series, we laugh at Roscoe’s actions and arguably become complicit in laughing at a sufferer of mental illness (even though it is only a fictional character in a humorous strip), but we are made to take pause and question our own sense of values in the scenes set in the mental hospital and the account of Roscoe’s life following his rehabilitation. Suffering comes to the forefront, as does our genuine sympathy for a character that has been viewed as little more than a fool until the series’ end. It is an early sign of Moore’s ability to wring emotion out of his readership in the most unexpected context. This dual approach to the theme of madness — to be laughed at or sympathised with — is drawn together in the last strip of the series, which is an early example of Moore using juxtaposition of two narratives, one documenting Roscoe’s new normal life, and the other being an appearance by Moore himself telling a joke.
Here, Moore seems to be saying that mental illness is the subject of humour and jokes, which can be wonderfully freeing and liberating. And while normalcy is perceived to be boring, it is at least safe and not subject to prejudice. In this ending, we see the first indication that Moore the humorist will move towards the use of human drama and tragedy in his work, adopting either a humorous or serious tone when he feels each is required.