The title of Moore’s second strip for Sounds Magazine, The Stars My Degradation, owes its inspiration to a famous science-fiction novel by Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1956). In the novel, Gully Foyle is a man driven by the desire for revenge against the crew of a spaceship that left him stranded in space by ignoring his need for rescue. Foyle states variations on the following verse as a repeating motif throughout the novel:
Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation.
Deep space is my dwelling space
And death’s my destination.
Moore takes the structure of this verse and reconfigures the content to create a version which he uses in the title box of every episode:
Dempster Dingbunger is my name,
Sputwang is my nation,
The depths of space gob in my face…
The stars my degradation!
Moore both establishes a comic tone at the very start of this series through the use of this verse and title, in turn flattering fellow science-fiction fans, who would recognise his parody. Science fiction was also subject to a broader audience appeal in Britain during this time, as it was throughout the USA and much of the planet, particularly through films, including the Star Wars and Superman franchises. Britain’s long running science fiction anthology comic 2000AD also began during this period (1977 in fact), created as a means to take advantage of the science fiction boom in the media at that time. However, Moore’s work in Stars has much more in common with Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which also dates from this period (1978). Both Moore and Adams revel in the potential weirdness and absurdity of science fiction, and both works originated in comparatively marginal media (radio and comics respectively). While Stars would not reach the levels of popularity, durability, an, d influence of Hitchhiker’s, it does hold a place in a lineage that would later lead to other cult comedy science fiction such as the TV program Red Dwarf in the UK.
Episode one of the strip (12 July 1980) opens with the “mind-destroyingly dull” planet Sputwang, which we learn was colonized by a religious sect called the “Stammering Brethren.” Dempster’s inability to stammer ostracizes him from society and leads him to contemplate suicide, but then he chooses to leave the planet instead.
Moore’s affection for the genre shines through this opening episode. The opening panel depicts standard science fiction tropes: a planet and its moon hanging in space, a flying man (with the aid of a helicopter pack), and a spaceship (actually a copy of the Enterprise from Star Trek). His use of such recognisable genre images shows, his familiarity with the genre of science fiction across a range of mediums, including TV, magazines, and books.
Dempster is ridiculed by everyone for his stammer-less speech and is very much depicted as a man out of step with Sputwang society, an innocent who has little street-smarts: he is unaware that Dingbunger, his surname, is also a form of insult, and that the planet recommended by the taxi driver, Depravity, sounds “romantic.” His innocence and naïvety is further emphasised in the very next episode, when he doesn’t realise he’s involved in a sexual act until the very last moment.
Dempster’s innocence is in direct contrast to the other characters Moore teams him up with. Axel Pressbutton, a psychotic cyborg, was first created by Steve Moore and Alan Moore (as Pedro Henry and Curt Vile) in a short series of four one-page strips for rock fanzine Dark Star, entitled Three Eyes McGurk and his Death Planet Commandos, with Alan pproviding the art for Steve’s script. Moore borrowed Pressbutton for the strip. He is the antithesis of Dempster: rude, loud, vulgar, and excessive.
His chestplate, decorated with the image of a penis, houses a button that, when pushed, causes him to have an immediate orgasm. He is prone to violence and uses the cleaver attached to his forearm with enthusiasm.
Moore also borrowed McGurk for the series later in the run.
He is a hyper-criminal who the group hoped to use to deal with the treasures they have found, and he jo he ins them for the remainder of the run. Moore creates and borrows characters to create a memorable and strange cast for the series.
Equally bizarre is Mupdook, a talking monkey referred to as a “great ape god” and the pilot of a banana-shaped ship. He is accompanied by numerous robotic clones of Fay Wray (the lead actress in the original King Kong film).
A possible inspiration here is the popular Planet of the Apes films and TV series, and it’s interesting to note that Moore would create another talking ape years later in Tom Strong – the gorilla King Soloman.
The other key characters are Harry the Hooper and Nekriline. Harry suffers from a speech impediment, in which the letter “s” is pronounced “f,” the second instance of a speech impediment being used as a source of humor by Moore (recalling the stammerers of Sputwang in the first episode).
He possesses a hoop which allows the owner to teleport, and it’s interesting to note that the idea of teleportation is also used in Bester’s novel, where it is called “jaunting.” Nekriline is essentially a zombie, and she se she srves as Moore’s take on the undead.
She has retained her consciousness and displays a gothic, melancholic personality. She establishes a relationship with Dempster during the series.
The characters are not really given any kind of meaningful character development or story arc. They are there to add humor to the strip and, in this sense, are limited sketches of characters. This, however, is not a negative point, as Moore is creating a humor strip, and in the context of this particular strip, the humor works more effectively through the use of the kind of broad characterisation which veers towards stereotype — the coward (Dempster), the psychotic (Pressbutton), the criminal (Harry) — and so forth.
This series is also important in that it contains evidence of development in Moore’s technique and style, and he displays his growing understanding of what effects he can achieve through the comics form. His art style can be aesthetically pleasing and is at odds with his opinion of himself as a poor artist. For example, in episode one the detailed depiction of the buildings and walkways evoke both Blade Runner and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and help to create a solid, defining image of Sputwang.
Moore also experiments with the negative image of Dempster on the bridge (at a distance), which emphasises his isolation. The three-panel progression depicting the space taxi leaving Sputwang also suggests the balletic, movement of craft in 2001 — no rocket engine bursts are visible, and the craft floats upward through the three panels.
Moore’s growing artistry can also be seen in this episode of the strip (7 February 1981), which echoes the scene previously discussed in episode one.
The movement of the craft from the bottom left of the strip, puncturing panels in its movement to the top right of the strip, is extremely dynamic. Moore’s inclusion of Maxwell the Magic Cat in the space debris, and the inclusion of other characters he created prior to the strip (St. Pancras Panda, Anon E. Mouse, Roscoe Moscow, Abelard Snazz) in his background of another episode (5 September 1981), indicates his growing fascination with including interesting background details which would become a characteristic feature in later, more mature work like Watchmen.
Indeed, Moore also begins to experiment with word-less scenes in his strips, honing his skills as a comics creator. One interesting strip indicates Moore’s interest in erotica (18 April 1981), and it prefigures his much later work Lost Girls, although here the scene is framed within the context of comedic male voyeurism.
Moore would also be subject to editorial censorship, in the deletion of panels from one episode of the strip, which may have been deemed too sexually explicit or disturbing (18 December 1982).
Knowing Moore’s attitude to such censorship, on, one could conclude that this may, in part, have contributed to the strip ending soon after and Moore’s decision to not work for Sounds again.
Moore also continues to engage with metafictional ideas: leaving messages between panel borders (9 August 1980); appearing in his own strip, lettering a previous episode (4 July 1981); sorting out character notes to hand over scripting duties to Pedro Henry, a pseudonym for Moore’s friend Steve Moore (5 December 1981).
This series of strips allow Moore to gain experience at producing work on a regular basis and experiment and hone his sense of what works in comics in both a visual and linguistic sense, enabling him to gain a greater understanding of producing work in comics form.
The plot of the series was no doubt improvised, although Moore has instinctively made use of what Christopher Booker (The Seven Basic Plots) has named the “Voyage and Return” plot, a pattern that Booker says is particularly characteristic of science fiction:
The essence of the Voyage and Return story is that its hero or heroine (or the central group of characters) travel out of their familiar, everyday “normal” surroundings into another world completely cut off from the first, where everything seems disconcertingly abnormal. At first the strangeness of this new world, with its freaks and marvels, may seem diverting, even exhilarating, if also highly perplexing. But gradually a shadow intrudes. The hero or heroine feels increasingly threatened, even trapped: until eventually (usually by way of a “thrilling escape”) they are released from the abnormal world, and can return to the safety of the familiar world w here they began. (p.87)
Moore adds moments of “complication” to the narrative to propel the plot forward, but these seem random and include the following: drugging the cast with Priapin 90 — “the most mind-wrenchingly powerful aphrodisiac in known space!!!”; the self-destruction of the Fay Wrays, resulting in the destruction of a “justice” building, which inadvertently signals a revolution; the discovery of treasure (here, comics and other pop culture works attain increased cultural significance and monetary worth, something that has actually come to even more prominence in the years since Moore drew this strip).
Plot is actually of secondary importance to the character humour and parodies in the strip. Moore also deals with bizarre science fiction ideas, combining them with the explicit sexual references and gross-out humor he learned from reading underground comix like The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. At this point in his career, he is a parodist and alternative cartoonist, and it is only later that he begins to change into Moore the dramatist in his comics writing.
Indeed, Moore’s lack on concern for a dramatic story for the strip is reflected in the fact that Steve Moore takes over scripting duties for the final 37 strips of the series (with the exception of the final episode, which Alan Moore scripts himself). I would suggest that it seems logical to assume that Moore’s increasing interest in dramatic scripting, which was shown in some of the short stories he produced for 2000AD, is at odds with the style of Stars he’d created (absurdist, parodic, with randomly improvised plots). Steve Moore (under the alias Pedro Henry) then helps by undertaking scripting duties, in turn allowing Alan more time to devote to work demanding structured plots and storytelling, which is reflected in the fact that it is during this time that he starts to produce script work for Captain Britain, V for Vendetta, and Marvelman (Miracleman).
Next time: parody in The Stars My Degradation.
Wow, this was quite a history lesson! I’m always fascinated by Alan Moore’s early work. Thanks for the article.