Alan Moore
Fashion Beast
Medium: comic
Year: 2012
Country: UK
Writer: Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren, Antony Johnston
Artist: Facundo Percio
Format: 225 pages
Website category: Comics UK
Review date: 9 October 2014
It's a new Alan Moore work from the 1980s, recently published for the first time. He wrote it as a movie screenplay, circa 1985, but the movie never happened. Nearly thirty years later, Avatar Press found the screenplay and adapted it into a comic.
How is it? Answer: it's good, but smaller than his more famous work. It's painted on a narrower, more mundane canvas. It has no superheroes, no supernatural and no science fiction... well, perhaps the latter, at a stretch, but only in the same way as V for Vendetta. Its cast are ordinary freaks and it's about the fashion industry. The original idea came from Malcolm McLaren, you see, whose startlingly wide range of projects and interests included virtually inventing punk in the 1970s and managing the Sex Pistols. One of those ideas had been to commission Alan Moore to write a movie, which is just one more piece of evidence for this being a man with his finger on the pulse.
(It was McLaren who suggested that its characters include "a girl who looks like a boy who looks like a girl" and "a boy who looks like a girl who looks like a boy". That could have posed casting challenges. Curiously, according to Moore, "in 1985 this was nobody's vision of the fashion industry [...] The actual society that the story happens in is much more like the society we have now than culture was in 1985.")
Anyway, Moore's one-line description of McLaren's idea is "a bizarre and riotous conglomerate of the tortured life of Christian Dior fused with both the fable 'Beauty and the Beast' and Jean Cocteau's haunting and luminous film adaptation of that story."
That said, the finished series is also very Moore. It's rich in that slightly uncomfortable intensity one often finds in his work, while its setting is another near-future dystopia that, to me, has a bleakness I associate with the 1980s. It has nuclear winters, a war, conscription and an unseen authoritarian government that might easily be on the road to V for Vendetta. (Moore's intention had been for this to be "an unspecified 'everycity' during a similarly unspecified epoch with elements of both the past and the future, in order to recreate the timelessness of the original fairytale." I'm not going to say it fails in that, but its setting felt to me, quite strongly, like a new and unique variety of AlanMooreland.)
The story is simple. If you're expecting Alan Moore Greatness, you might even find it a bit too simple. It's not world-shaking, unless you regard the fashion industry as the world (which of course its characters do). It's personal and intimate. It's not natural comics material, although that's in no way a bad thing. The pacing's also leisurely, Antony Johnston choosing to spread this across a ten-issue series when one suspects Moore might have compressed the narrative into fewer pages had it been him adapting it, perhaps back in the 1980s. Personally I don't mind at all, but it is noticeable. Paradoxically it makes the book both relaxed and intense, the former in its almost languid pacing and the latter in its alarming, sometimes claustrophobic characters and their often ingrowing minds.
It's the last couple of chapters that really take off. There's plenty of fascinating stuff before then, but those final chapters turn the book from an interesting character piece into Alan Moore properly letting rip. We'd already had a rich soup of ideas, themes and the unhealthy self-obsession of these characters, all tangled up in themselves like knotweed. Here, Moore keeps building on all that while also giving us the finale of a satisfying story.
Don't take the 'Beauty and the Beast' thing too literally, though. That's a worthwhile angle on the text, but not a plot road map.
Moore manages to say interesting things about fashion, even if (like me) you have no interest in the topic. His takes on it include painting it as an almost shamanistic activity, thus foreshadowing his more recent magical thinking. He comments directly on the way that people create their own meanings for it, at once absurd and as true as anything else in such a subjective area. "That's pornography!"
The art's interesting, too. It's detailed, well-drawn and realistic, but it's eschewing the glamorous escapism that's often associated both with fashion and comics. There's something a little rough about it, although the colouring partly smooths that out. It's never pretty. Very slightly, it's as if the drawings had been hewn from stone, not drawn. I was particularly struck by the scenes in Celestine's study, with strong use of darkness, raw close-ups and ugly angles. Stark eyes stare. This is art with power and the story would have lacked half its force without Facundo Percio.
I've seen this called a lesser work of Alan Moore's, but I think I disagree. It's smaller, that's all. Back in the day, I think he'd have done it in less than half of this current page count, while of course it lacks the nerd-pleasing subject matter and epic scope of Miracleman, Watchmen or Swamp Thing. It also has less likeable characters, with quite a lot of it being apparently given over to snobs, bullies and self-obsessed bitches. (They unfold. It's not that simple.) The book's first half skirts with being unpleasant in a dull way. However it's just as intense, focused and thematically rich as Moore's more famous works, while also just as revolutionary. Despite being thirty years old, it's a new kind of revolution.