This collection of Alan Moore’s short fictions contains five stories that have been published elsewhere – mostly in smaller, indie print venues – and four entirely new works. The opening story, Hypothetical Lizard, is a queer surrealist revenge tale written in 1987, while in Cold Reading, originally published in 2010, a real ghost takes revenge on a con artist who performs fake seances.
All the others have been written in the past three years: highlights include Not Even Legend, in which a strange creature moving backward through time infiltrates a group of friends who investigate supernatural phenomena; The Improbably Complex High-Energy State, a self-conscious tribute to 1960s new wave science fiction that chronicles the sexual escapades of a Boltzmann brain in the first femtosecond of creation; and American Light: An Appreciation, in which Moore flaunts his ability to capture the essence of American beat poetry and 1980s literary criticism while satirically undermining both.
The original novella What We Can Know About Thunderman is the savage heart of the volume – and not just because it takes up more space than all the other stories combined. Moore’s Watchmen has been described as a deconstruction of the “silver age” superhero genre, painstakingly exposing its conventions in order to subvert its entire undertaking. What We Can Know About Thunderman may be said to offer a similar deconstruction of the American comics industry itself.
As the story begins, four fans turned comics writers chew over industry gossip at a New York diner, and we quickly discover that the fictionalised comics business in which they labour is a thinly veiled allegory for the real industry in which Moore himself first became famous. “Massive” and “American” replace Marvel and DC Comics, respectively, and the story’s titular Thunderman is (of course) our very own Superman.
The dinner is interrupted by the belated revelation that American’s editor-in-chief, Brandon Chuff, has been dead for the entire conversation, despite his smiling presence at the table (somewhat like the real-world comics industry, Moore implies). Chuff’s death precipitates the promotion of Worsley Porlock, another fan turned writer, who becomes editor-in-chief at American during the dark years of the Trump administration and the Covid pandemic. Thunderman subsequently explores key moments in Porlock’s life, ranging from his early childhood to American Comics’ collapse.
Alternate chapters explore fictionalised versions of key moments in the history of the comics industry, such as one scene in which publisher Jim Laws (Moore’s stand-in for EC Comics editor and publisher William Maxwell Gaines) testifies at the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings into juvenile delinquency. Another scene, set in 1960, suggests that “Satanic” Sam Blatz (Moore’s satirical version of Stan Lee) received covert instructions from the CIA to mobilise superhero comics in service of pro-American, pro-corporate cold war propaganda.
Although many elements are exuberantly fictionalised – I doubt that any female executives at DC Comics were married to a painting of Augusto Pinochet – part of the story’s pleasure lies in Moore’s insider knowledge of the industry: there is a sense that there’s a kernel of sordid truth within each satirical fictionalisation, as though Moore is airing everyone’s dirty laundry for the world to see.
What can we uncover, Moore wants us to ask, when we examine the hidden underworld of the American comics industry, zooming in on each detail with the same uncomfortable discernment Watchmen brings to bear on the conventions of silver age comics? Unwaveringly, his argument emerges: the business dehumanises people, drawing them into “an insane alternative reality” akin to the experience of cocaine addiction. Executives exploit working-class creators – such as Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as well as Moore himself – for the benefit of shareholders and corporate oligarchs. Modern-day creators are largely middle-class former fans who have become brand-oriented content generators feeding a mass cultural addiction to shallow escapist fantasies.
And all this, Moore asserts, runs parallel to the rise of populist fascism in the US. If the comics industry is “a metaphorical microcosm for the whole of society”, then comics fans and Maga reactionaries both similarly reveal “how blurred the line separating fact from fiction is for many people”. Moore drives this point home during a chapter where Porlock watches the 6 January Capitol riot on television, musing that when Trump was elected in 2016, “six of the dozen biggest-grossing movies had been superhero films”, and many of the former reality star’s followers responded to him as though he was a four-colour superhero figure. “They wanted big dramatic threats and enemies, no matter that they strained all credibility, and also wanted some improbable and memorable character to offer them solutions that were simple, and as unbelievable as the imagined menaces they were pledged to combat.” This led inexorably to the events at the Capitol, when Trump’s hardcore fans (“fanatics” in the truest sense) revolted against the inconvenient truth of Biden’s electoral victory in an effort to “expose troublesome fact as fiction, while establishing pulp picture-story narrative as universal fact”.
America’s “post-truth” departure from factual objectivity, in other words, is a consequence of its near wholesale embrace of the fascist mythology that reality can become whatever one has the will to make of it – a mythology endlessly rearticulated within mainstream corporate superhero fantasies and reactionary political subcultures. Moore has offered variations of this argument elsewhere, but What We Can Know About Thunderman gives a savage, satirical perspective on the American superhero industry – and by extension America itself – unmatched in his previous writing. The collection as a whole demonstrates that although Watchmen may be Moore’s best-known work, his storytelling has transcended its origins in the vexed commercial medium he now conscientiously eschews.
• Illuminations by Alan Moore is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.