Moore, Alan; Oscar Zarate (2003), A Small Killing, Avatar Press
Alan Moore is one of the titans of the comic book industry and probably the best living writer in the business, especially after Frank Miller went off the rails. Unlike a few of the leading writers/artists of alternative comics (if you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I am a raving fan of Charles Burns’ and Jeff Smith’s work), Moore managed, throughout his career, to touch on a truly vast array of notes and genres, and rare is the unsuccessful book penned by Moore. With whatever artist he collaborated, whether he worked on a creator-owned book or for DC Comics, whether he wrote an elegiac Superman story or the pornographic narratives of Lost Girls, Moore always came through and produced a standout work, one that was both recognizably his, and that gave the artists he worked with the space and freedom to shine, as well. A Small Killing is no exception to this rule. Originally published in 1991, it is a fascinating work of art, both a compelling story, as well as a intriguing, seductive, colorful maelstrom of a comic. Both the writing and the art are exceptional, and the overall product, short as it is, is a tremendously powerful, awfully dense political and creative statement, which is both completely original, and full of echoes to contemporary and more classical art and literature. Although its content seems mired in the 1980s, since it tells a story about a yuppie’s nervous breakdown, replete with cultural and political criticism of 80s politics, it actually exchanges the narrow scope of contemporary reference for history and psychology. It is not surprising that this book has been repeatedly picked up by various publishers and been reprinted several times since the 1991 edition, then published by Victor Gollancz, dropped out of circulation. This book is both terrific and terrifying, and it’s an understatement to say I recommend it to everyone.
In the coming weeks, I will also review Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing enthusiastically, but one of the most interesting things about A Small Killing is the fact that, unlike, say, Swamp Thing or Supreme, it’s really not a graphic novel tailored to and of primary interest for readers of the genre. The reason for this is mostly Oscar Zarate’s stunning art. Zarate’s pages, if one associates them with other artists in the industry at all, reminded me most of José Munoz’ (who is probably the main influence on Zarate) or Bill Sienkiewicz’ work (say, Electra: Assassin or Stray Toasters). But while the latter is a well-known artist with a thick portfolio of excellent and popular work, many, like me, will draw a blank where the name of Oscar Zarate is concerned. Even searches in online venues come up almost empty. Reading them we learn he has illustrated a handful of books, penciled a few short stories and co-created A Small Killing. While it’s hardly surprising that a masterpiece like this would overshadow the rest of an artist’s work, it is indeed odd that there doesn’t appear to be much of a ‘rest’ if one’s resumé includes work as singular and powerful as this. To return to the book at hand, the first thing you notice is that Zarate did not, as is usual in the genre, pencil, ink and color the panels, Instead, he appears to have painted it. Indeed, the contours and depth that an inker works with, the use a good inker makes of different degrees of clarity and visibility, of shadows, of light- and of darkness, Zarate hands over to colors. The strongest contours in A Small Killing are those of Zarate’s intrepid pencil and what appears to be a very fine ink brush. Some panels are almost exclusively penciled, with few colors entering the hailstorm of leaden lines, some seem to be completely in color, with contrast between different fields of color as the only kind of contour and boundary. From panels I found elsewhere on the web, I gather that this is, indeed, Zarate’s style, and that other writers have had comics created for them that looked similar.
However, the combination of a lack of a large back catalog of work, and the singular nature of this book right here made me feel this this style was created just for this story, these characters. The small fact that it wasn’t isn’t really important. Fact is, Moore wrote a story that Zarate’s art fit like a glove, and vice versa. It is not often that calling an artist a co-creator makes as much sense as it does here. It is almost impossible to say whose contribution is more important for the overall effect of the book, but Zarate’s style seems most specific to the kind of writing and thinking that A Small Killing represents, especially the way that Zarate’s swirling, disturbingly slanted art recalls early 20th century artists like Otto Dix but especially Max Beckmann (pre-1930s). Of course, Zarate’s work is very comic-like in the simple garishness of some of his colors and the lack of figural complexities, but the basic structure of the colors and the way he treats characters and actions in individual panels are highly reminiscent of Beckmann’s work especially where Beckmann depicts groups of people in bars. I found it impossible to read this book quickly, I think it needs to be savored page by page, and not only those pages that include a crowd tableau. Zarate slips his protagonist in and out of the artwork, sometimes as a blueish character in front of a screechingly orange mob, sometimes merging with crowds or background, sometimes threatened by erasure. Faceless sketches of people are inserted and glorious full-page visions. There’s really everything here, but the strongest part, and arguably the most important part for how the story is perceived and read, is the way Zarate treats crowds: a nameless mass of grotesque gluttony and vapid sensationalism. The slants and lights in many of those images make it impossible not to think of Dix or Beckmann.
Here the undecidability concerning Moore’s and Zarate’s contributions kicks in again, because part of that association may also be due to Moore’s story. Moore wrote, as many writers in the late 1980s and earlyy1990s, a harsh indictment of the shallow and chintzy 1980s culture. Of these writers, the most successful was probably Martin Amis, who rose to fame on the strength of his 1980s satires. But Amis’ brand of topical writing doesn’t always suit Moore very well. He doesn’t have Amis’ narrow obsession with the smallness of minds, or Amis’ bitterly biting pen. It’s not that Moore doesn’t try to be topical now and then, but he’s always best when the topical bleeds over into the allegorical, mystical, strange or the plain personal. Lucky for us as readers, and for A Small Killing, this is exactly what he does here, and it’s one of the main reasons why the book is still so readable today. Unlike Amis, Moore is a generous, easily puzzled writer, and this insecurity and openness enables him to write tales about the abyss in us and our culture without damning it all to hell. The story is simple enough, but engineered in a complex manner. It involves Timothy Hole (which is “pronounced ‘Holly’, actually”, “it’s a sort of English thing”), a middle-aged yuppie who works in advertising, and is quite talented at it. As Hole lands a new job and a great contract, marketing a fictional soda (a stand-in, quite explicitly, for Coca Cola or Pepsi) to Glasnost-era Russia. This set-up, and a few stray lines here and there may make the reader think of Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) but laughs are scarcer in Moore’s and Zarate’s book. Bewildered by the difficulties this job entails, Hole suffers a nervous breakdown and encounters a small boy, apparently bent on killing him. After appearing in the middle of the road one dark evening, causing Hole to swerve and crash, he appears to follow him, menacingly, for the rest of the book. Hole develops a paranoia, screaming whenever he’s sure to have caught a glimpse of the unknown dark-haired child, sweating with fear whenever he doesn’t see him.
There would be a Twilight Zone-style cheesiness to this mysterious boy, if Moore hadn’t made sure that we all knew pretty soon who that boy was. So instead of hurrying through the book to find out what would happen to the book’s protagonist, we watch as the environment changes around Hole’s increasingly frantic mind, and we follow the flashbacks down their path to Hole’s past. Hole, who is from Sheffield, which is a British industrial town that aw its industry fail in the 1980s, moved first to London and then to New York. Mad with terror, Hole retraces his steps in the present to the places of his past, flying first to London, then taking the train to a more affluent part of Sheffield and finally walking to the poor quarters where he grew up as a child. There is no real explanation for him taking this trip, but as his memory travels back in time, so does he, in a way. Moore takes the metaphor of space and travel that discussions of flashbacks and memory entail, and mirrors it in literal travel. At the end of the book, in a revelation that is devastating for Hole, both levels come together in an epiphany of sorts. The colors of Zarate’s mad tableaux of crowds and landscapes reflect Hole’s own disturbed mind, and his alienation not only from others but from himself, from his own ideas. Hole is really unpleasant protagonist, we don’t much care for him, he betrays people, cheats them and cheats on them, a truly shallow individual who apparently found his niche in advertising. There is the palpable (and explicit) influence of existentialism on the book, but despite a few similarities, Timothy Hole is no Antoine Roquentin, and the book ends on a different note. A Small Killing is about self-discovery, about how people can change as they age and the lies they tell themselves about their own past. As the world is subsumed by Hole’s feverish brain, and past relationships with women, his parents or mentors are seen to have failed due to his increasingly uncaring and empty emotional state, we as readers are drawn into Zarate’s terrifying whirlwind of colors and lines.
But, really, it’s more than just personal. Two aspects in particular are worth mentioning. One is Moore’s mastery of various registers of speech: this skill shines most in the large, full-page crowd panels, which are flooded by small pieces of dialogue, ad culture nitwittery, empty 1980s hipsterism and other bits. The way Moore zeroes in on those moments, and the way he makes a highly economic use of them within the larger structure of A Small Killing is so well realized that it reminded me personally of William Gaddis’ use of salon banter in The Recognitions. The other aspect is political. With a handful of deft allusions and hints, Moore and Zarate settle the book firmly within a fixed historical and political context, as the book was written and published at a time when the United States were governed by George Bush père and the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher (and Thatcherite PM John Major). Thatcher is especially significant as Moore connects modern apolitical culture with the demise of a traditionally left-wing worker town, and Hole’s betrayal of himself with that same change. This sounds topical, but I don’t have a personal context for Thatcherism, and yet it still works. Hole can be made to stand for any political peregrine who endorsed ideals as a young person yet swore off them as he grew older and more successful. The central focus of A Small Killing is on the was our core beliefs about society are linked to core beliefs of ourselves. In a book of dichotomies, of overlapping levels, this is one of the most important. I’m not sure this book has been very influential or important for the genre or literature in general, but as a work of art, it is amazing, and very powerful. Alan Moore’s enormous body of work casts a large shadow, but that should not be an excuse for readers to ignore or shun a small, less widely publicized masterpiece such as A Small Killing.
A short personal note. As I am trying to finish two manuscripts and getting back into reviewing books, I have a hospital bill to pay off, which means all kinds of issues for me. If you have a buck or two to spare, I would be more than thankful. There is a paypal button on the right hand side of this page. That’s just in case you feel charitable. As it is, I am happy enough about every single one of my readers. There are more of you than I ever expected, even through the dry months in the past year, and I am thoroughly humbled. Thank you all.