Alan Moore’s Maxwell the Magic Cat

Maxwell the Magic Cat was both written and drawn by Moore, and this strip, along with those he drew and co-wrote with Steve Moore for Sounds magazine, would support Alan and his family financially, allowing him to make the move from amateur to professional cartoonist.  The series ran in Moore’s local newspaper, the Northants Post, and received only one reprinting in a series of four volumes just over 20 years ago. These strips are now rare, and they form a unique view of the mind and skill of Alan Moore prior to his later, more successful and currently available work.

Maxwell the Magic CatMoore’s first strip in the series differs from the remainder of the run in two key ways: it consists of ten panels (it changes to five panels from the second strip onward), and it contains omniscient narrative captions, where the author’s “voice” provides a description and commentary on the narrative action (which Moore also loses with the second strip). The reduction of panels suggests that Moore soon became aware of the extra work involved in producing 10 panels, and newspaper strips worked to a standard 4- to 5-panel length anyway.  He would also adopt a less consciously laboured and detailed style for the strip to facilitate its speedy completion, specifically no use of stippling (i..e. dots to add texture and depth), which is a feature of Moore’s artwork elsewhere, especially for Sounds, where an arguably “cooler” reader, “hipper” to the alternative, underground style of cartooning, existed.

Moore’s opinion of his own art for Maxwell is frank:

To say that I drew Maxwell the Magic Cat is probably being too kind to my writing ability. I realised I was nowhere near good enough or fast enough to succeed as a cartoonist. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7307303.stm, accessed 14 May 2008)

Moore would succeed as a writer to a far greater degree than he did as a cartoonist, but his artwork does have a charm and appeal and suits the comedic tone of the strip. He adopted a cleaner, less-detailed and uncluttered style from the second strip onwards, reminiscent of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts at times, to better reflect the children’s cartoon strip style that he was required by the newspaper to create. The narrative captions, which are perhaps an attempt to play with a convention associated with children’s storybooks, are soon dropped as Moore perhaps realises that the style of humor he is aiming for works better without them and that a reader would not expect such captions in the comic strip format. He learns that it is better to show rather than tell, a common piece of advice received by many writers. He structures the strip in a very basic narrative fashion, always maintaining a five-panel-per-episode ratio, with an initial situational set-up in the early panels, building to a humorous resolution in the final one or two panels. In this, he, he follows a standard cartoon strip structure, based upon the form of a joke, a concept that Moore understood well:

Arthur Koestler [in The Act of Creation]… noted that most jokes seem to be based upon building up a set of expectations in the mind of the listener and then totally demolishing all of their assumptions with the unexpected denouement of the punch line. (Moore, Alan, Writing for Comics, Avatar Press 2003, pp12-13)

The Maxwell strip gains great power in that it sets a precedent from the very start in dealing with a surreal and absurd world, which gives Moore the opportunity to write and draw anything that takes his fancy. It proved to be the main reason that he continued the strip until 1986, long after he gained more prestigious and profitable work. Along with Peanuts, another influence on the strip is undoubtedly the children’s comics that Moore grew up with and that still held dominance in the UK comics market at the time of the late 1970s. Comics like The Dandy and The Beano were long running weekly anthology titles with strips that ranged in size from a haaalf to a full page and sometimes two pages for the front and back cover lead features. Maxwell owes a debt to Korky the Cat, the smart feline lead from The Dandy. In addition, a character like Mangler Mullins, a bully who is introduced early on in Maxwell, can be traced to similar striped-jersey-wearing tearaways as Bully Beef, also from The Dandy, and Dennis the Menace, a spiky-haired UK character (of no relation to the American character of the same name).

Maxwell the Magic Cat

Moore drew on such archetypes of children’s comics precisely because they were recognizable to both children and adults. Moore did not relish the task of having to produce a comic strip for children for the Northants Post; they had rejected his adult-flavoured Nutter’s Ruin pitch and proposed the he produce an alternative for children. Moore registered his protest in a subtle way by adopting the pseudonym Jill de Ray, which he based on Gilles de Rais, a notorious Fifteenth century child murderer. What remains of huge importance to Moore’s career here is that Maxwell the Magic Cat is his first revisionist work; he takes the archetypes of children’s comics and cartoon strips and creates a more adult-oriented work, as he would later do with superhero comics.

Moore does this in a number of ways.  He begins by introducing more references to things that would relate to adults rather than children. One strip drops references to 1960s music group the Who and the films Quadrophenia and Alien:

Maxwell the Magic CatAlso, the use of language by characters becomes more sophisticated, as seen when Norman bemoans the obligation of having to do homework:

Maxwell the Magic Cat

Phrases like “burden of belonging to a more advanced species” and “complexity of higher thought” are strong indicators that Moore is moving the strip towards a more adult audience. His success at achieving this was shown when the strip was eventually moved from the children’s page to the entertainment page of the newspaper.

The subject matter in Maxwell is broadened to include ever more surreal ideas as Moore continues with the strip.  Here are some examples: Maxwell’s tail and a snake have an adult relationship, with all the suggestive passion and romantic language that Moore can sneak into the strip; tin cans talk about their impending demise when they are taken from the cupboard shelf; and various talking cats and mice engage in discussion and interaction.  As I read through the strips, I get the sense that Moore partly uses the strip to give free rein to his humorous side and acute sense of fun.  For readers familiar with work such as Watchmen, Swamp Thing, and From Hell, it can be eye-opening to see this lighter side of Moore’s work, but careful consideration reveals that bizarre humor holds a prominent place through Moore’s career, from UK work like DR and Quinch to the lighter moments, w, which punctuate his work for Image, particularly the “Affable Al” text pieces from 1963 and his ABC line of comics.

Moore also further developed the humor aimed at adults by giving it a political and societal dimension. Moore was able to deal with topics which concerned him on a local level in the strip, another factor which encouraged him to continue the strip long after it was professionally advantageous to do so. He has since called the strip “an antidote to Garfield” in its dealings with politics and social concerns.

Moore aims his political criticism at a wide range of subjects, including organised religion, war, unemployment, redundancies, and strikes. He is able to mock and criticise such important subjects through the veil of a cartoon strip. Maxwell is a non-human character who exhibits human traits and, in doing so, becomes a reflection of humanity, as do all the other talking animals in the strip. Moore can mock and criticise institutions such as religion, and activities such as war, using non-human characters as representatives of certain character or personality types and viewpoints. A similar technique can be found in science fiction and horror: an often quoted example is the alien invasions of the USA in 1950s B-movies being a metaphor for the fear of communism. Such genre metaphors, like Moore’s work here, enable an artist to comment upon comedic, social and political aspects from one conceptual step removed, which affords a distanced, more objective perspective and allows for more pointed criticism.

Moore’s key theme in the strip is how mankind’s own sense of superiority is grossly misguided.  This theme is sustained throughout the run of the strip from the first episode onwards. Unlike domestic cats, Maxwell is not “owned” by Norman, and this lack of ownership is set from the start, when Moore shows Maxwell simply falling from space into Norman’s garden. Our prized human characteristics, such as intelligence and wit, are possessed to a far greater degree by the animal Maxwell throughout the strip’s run, as we see when Maxwell spots the error in Norman’s math homework. This is again explicitly, and superbly, stated by Moore in a strip where Norman and Maxwell discuss the concept of mankind as the dominant species on the planet:

Maxwell the Magic CatMoore’s mockery and understanding of mankind’s arrogance shows a level of perceptiveness which also extends to his consideration of the form and conventions of the short cartoon strip.  Moore uses the strip to play with conventions in an interesting manner.

Maxwell the Magic Cat

Here, Moore creates a metafictional awareness within the strip that is used for comedic effect, which forms an early precursor to later, more defined and polished experiments with metafiction and comics (for dramatic effect) by Grant Morrison, with work such as Animal Man.

Moore plays with these ideas occasionally during the run of the strip, and they usually lead to memorable episodes.  In the strip mentioned above, Moore is creating a self-reflexive awareness, within the strip, of its own fictional status — the characters are basically aware that they are in a comic strip. Moore also plays with another metafictional idea — the presence of the author within the work. He does this through the means of Maxwell and the “author” (Moore’s pseudonym Jill de Raye) communicating with each other.

Two strips illustrate this beautifully. In the first example, Maxwell considers a dark night sky, and wonders why there are so many stars, in an almost philosophical manner. In the final panel, the stars have been rearranged to form the words “VERY EASY TO DRAW”.  In the second example, Maxwell addresses Jill and asks her to clean out her pen as it is leaving ink blotches on the strip.

In the former example, Moore assumes an almost godlike role in his ability to manipulate the stars, while in the latter, Maxwell is able to “break the fourth wall” and talk to Moore. Maxwell also addresses the reader directly in another strip in which a “war” has ended, asking the reader whether they wished that they lived in a comic strip (as such severe problems can be solved so easily). Such self-awareness within a comic strip is taken to logical extremes, as is shown when the characters comment upon their lack of exposure in the strip in the manner actors would complain about a small role, or when they take strike action, or when Maxwell arrives late in the last two panels, leaving the preceding three entirely blank.

Moore’s main influences here are twofold: firstly, the type of self-referential, breaking-the-fourth-wall animated cartoon, particularly those created under the Looney Tunes banner, where characters would speak to and engage with the artist directly, sometimes being erased in the process if the artist was annoyed. Secondly, similar conversations were evident on occasion in the British humor comics mentioned above, where discussions between artists and characters occurred. The important factor to consider here is tone: it’s weird, surreal, absurd, entertaining and funny, as opposed to the “seriousness” of literary metafiction, like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for example, which takes the form of a Victorian novel, with interruptions from Fowles, the modern writer. It also creates a childlike glee and works well in amusing small children, unlike some later (and equally interesting) developments in comics, specifically Morrison’s Animal Man run, where a more mature audience is targeted.

It is now evident that Maxwell the Magic Cat gave Moore the opportunity to display his developing abilities as a humorist, revisionist and experimenter. As mentioned earlier, he was also producing work for Sounds Magazine during the same period of time: Roscoe Moscow and The Stars My Degradation, under the pseudonym Curt Vile, and I will focus on Roscoe Moscow next.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew writes about comics for Sequart, where he is currently serialising a book on the Moore-Bissette-Totleben-Veitch issues of Swamp Thing. He blogs about comics and other aspects of popular culture here. He holds a BA Hons in English, History and Media Studies, an MA in English Literary Culture (1880-1920), and postgraduate qualifications in teaching and librarianship. He currently works for Glyndwr University in Wrexham, Wales, UK, as an academic study skills tutor and sessional lecturer, where he is also undertaking PhD research into intertextuality in the work of Alan Moore.

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