Strange Britain: Mooreiana, Comics and More, Part III Comics and Christ Church
After leaving Red Lion Square, I was immediately confronted with the strangely glam pop culture products at Forbidden Planet, London on its ground floor, but then overwhelmed by its fairly vast basement level stash of comics and graphic novels. The ground floor level, with its fairly consistent media tie-ins, from films to television shows, raised a question for me that I’ve heard before recently. It just hadn’t quite hit home for me until then: when did geek culture become mainstream?
I’ll clarify that I was never a card-carrying geek as a young person, strictly speaking. I just found, over time, that that’s where my sympathies and loyalties lay. It was like an ocean of cultural input receded and left me standing on solid geek ground. The fact that the world has started to become a geek playground amazes me. I wanted to buy at least half the Doctor Who products, for one thing, and I stood staring at a small army of V for Vendetta masks long enough to probably alert security, even in a comics store. But when I went down stairs, I was relieved to find that it wasn’t all Dalek totebags (not that there’s anything wrong with that). The hard stuff was well represented. In fact, there was also a liberal sprinkling of art-book and prose tie-ins. Alan Moore’s work figured prominently. The place was a carnival of pop-culture, but maybe not quite the temple of comics that some fans might have in mind. As the geek mainstream rises, some are headed for higher ground. But let’s remember that even Moore would have stared at a small army of V for Vendetta masks.
I was distracted long enough by this that I had to hurry along on the fairly long subway ride and walk to try to get to the Whitechapel area so helpfully documented by Eddie Campbell’s reference pictures as posted on his blog. There are many, many reasons why a fan might wish to find the locations and psychogeography of Moore and Campbell’s work From Hell. If Moore’s performance pieces are about the psychic state of a geographical region over time, From Hell is an opus on the subject. While its narrative is speculative, albeit based in history, its geography is scrupulous. We may not be sure what exactly happened, but we know exactly where it happened. Campbell helps confirm that with his web-published reference photos for the work. And the thing is, the atmosphere of locations are of such importance to Moore’s work that it leads to curiosity. If you had a chance to stand in known, significant locations from the work, you’d take it just to see, to ponder whether you’d pick up on the atmosphere Moore and Campbell found in that location, too.
At least that was my logic. I nearly got lost getting there, “there” being Christ Church in Spitalfields, which ought to be called “the wickedest church in the world” a la Crowley. I kept walking along the possibly right road quizzically in a complete lack of street signs. I glanced down at a styrofoam chip container I was trying not to step on, and when I looked up, I couldn’t believe my own eyes somehow. I not only stopped walking, but I took at least half a step backward without even thinking about it. There might have even been a moment wherein I could have continued backing up instinctually. The architecture of this church would have attracted any artist or writer investigating the Ripper murders immediately. I don’t mean to take away from Moore or Campbell’s ingenious choices in staging and handling geography, but it only takes one glance at the enormous, imposing tower of Christ Church to command one’s full attention. This is the point where trying to convey the atmosphere I’m talking about may get a little slippery.
First off, there are quite a few 19th century brick rowhouses still standing in the area off Commerce Street, some virtually abutting the church grounds. To the credit of local preservation, these brick homes have not been sandblasted and rendered more sanitized. They look like you would imagine the area to look like in the late 19th century, collecting the soot, wear and tear of everyday life. Maybe films and documentaries have rendered these types of low-income dwellings iconic to the Ripper stories, but I found them immediately recognizable. Then again, it could have been the influence of Eddie Campbell’s detailed architecture in From Hell. So, firstly, you have the looming, unusual church architecture. Then, in reasonable proximity, plenty of architecture you’d associate with Whitechapel (even though this territory is not quite yet Whitechapel). These impressions hit me all at once. Despite my reactions, I walked closer to the church, assuming I’d go inside. Having arrived at 4:15, I was barred. The church had shut at 4PM. I stood watching the caretakers finish up inside. It was frustrating.
I took various photos of the exterior of the church, then crossed the street to the covered Spitalfields Market, which had not yet closed for the day. There were racks of cheap fabrics, and voices of vendors chatting to each other in its cavernous interior. I was still trying to decide what I thought of the church. I turned out of the market randomly and was confronted with what seemed, architecturally, to be the intended view of the church. I was standing in an avenue that aligned directly with its front steps and to my right was another row of perfectly broken-down 19th century brick houses. It felt like the same sudden combination of impressions over again. I concluded that there was something very mentally affecting about the architecture and its position in the surrounding streets. You could try to pin it down to the relative height of the enormous steeple to the surrounding, lower structures, or perhaps the proportion of the steeple to the church, which is rather exaggerated, or point out the rather blank cement-like stone that makes the edifice seem strangely dour. But none of this would be definitive.
I was glad that I visited, despite my failure to get inside the church but I didn’t need much encouragement to get out of the area before nightfall. I took the underground back to Leicester Square and started looking for Gosh! Comics. It took a little doing since I wasn’t that familiar with narrow roads around its new location. When I did find it, there was no mistaking it. It’s new venue is brightly lit, colorful, inviting, with plenty of glass flashing the sharp covers of the most recent and desirable graphic novels. Walking into Gosh! Comics is a comics lovers dream come true, from its polished wooden floors to its well-lit shelves and loaded sale tables. One whole wall gathered works by author, including Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison.
Indie works received much more focus than is typically given in American shops, and the small indie comix magazines received an entire wall for display. Every surface was tastefully loaded with wares. Titles were grouped by carefully labeled genres. The only explanation for a comics store this richly and sensitively arrayed with the finest works in the medium was that it was a store designed for enthusiasts by a true comics lover.
I saw titles that I knew were obscure and self-published proudly stacked alongside established imprints. The egalitarian approach was clear. This wasn’t about the strength of the publisher but the strength of the work itself. It was a delight to visit. The only problem was deciding what I was taking home with me. Within a few seconds of entering the shop, I grabbed something I’d seen online but not managed to acquire, the latest journal volume from STRANGE ATTRACTOR that contains Alan Moore’s notes for a John Dee opera. Moore and O’Neill’s Century 2009 packaged with a limited edition print of the cover art was the last thing I noticed and also snatched up. I could have stayed for hours but it was closing time and I had other places to be.
Though I’ve been familiar with London for much of my life, the London I saw on my “Mooreiana” tour was a very different London. These places weren’t really even off the beaten path, but they were hidden in plain view. Sometimes you need a magnifying glass, or a particular lens to reveal the hidden qualities of the world around you, and using Moore’s work as a guidebook to a few locations was a remarkably rewarding thing. I felt like I had engaged with the history and significance of locations much more directly than I otherwise would have been. Moore’s work had opened up little windows of insight, encouraging me to go further, even, than the text, into my own impressions. A great deal of art and literature connected to geography, or even psychogeography does just that. It provides the first step toward perception, after which the viewer or audience must process their own interaction with the artifact. For Alan Moore, though, with the emphasis and value he places on performance and interaction with geography, however, I think visiting these locations is key. If you can’t, the text will bring these places, full of their unusual associations, to you. But if you can, you’ll find that the doors are unlocked and waiting for you.
(*As a strange caveat, I found, while writing up these experiences, that I had picked up a copy of It’s Dark in London, edited by Oscar Zarate, now from Self-Made Hero Press, that includes photos of Christ Church and district, and Moore and Zarate’s account of entering the gutted church in “I Keep Coming Back”.)