The Nexus Files: Gay Comics NOT Starring Northstar Pt. 2

Hey there folks. As you may (just about) remember I’m Will Cooling and this is the corner of comicsnexus that is forever retro, The Nexus Files. Now as you may have noticed I’ve been away for…well for fecking ages and I have many, many reasons for my absence. However, none of them are interesting so I won’t bore you with them.

Anyway, moving swiftly on. Before I went AWOL I had begun an exciting new series columns about gay comics, with the first title covered being AARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) now we move onto the part two of Gay Comics Not Starring Northstar as we look at Alan Moore’s Mirror of Love.

NB: Okay not technically a comic, but who’s counting?

The Poem

The Mirror of Love is an interesting part of the wider Alan Moore cannon; that shows many of the great writer’s strengths and weaknesses. At its heart it is two things, firstly it is a look at the contribution of many LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans) people to human civilisation down the years. Secondly, it’s a tender poem told by one lover to another, something especially shown by the haunting closing lines where the ‘protagonist’ rejects a fundamentalist, bigoted Heaven in favour of living his life with his lover (or her lover I guess, but I always hear a man’s voice). The decision to give the poem the ‘context’ of two lovers talking to each other is inspired, for two reasons. One, it humanises what could be (and is in certain parts) a dry appraisal of LGBT history and allows Moore to inject real emotion and passion into the words. Second, despite what certain people may tell you (rolls eyes) sex is obviously at the heart of any queer identity and is naturally the aspect that has been the most censored aspect of said queer identity. Indeed, even today in our supposedly progressive climate its still something that raises hackles; look at the flaccid, impotent ‘gays’ that clog up such shows as Will and Grace. By placing sex at the heart of The Mirror of Love Moore not only shows a deep understanding of any queer identity but a desire to bring that identity in all its glory to the foreground.

Another impressive element of The Mirror of Love is the sheer scale and scope of the poem. Its simply outstanding, covering the whole arc of human civilisation, showing the achievements that LGBT people were able to achieve in societies that recognised and respected them and showing the suffering LGBT people endured when society turned against them. The interesting thing is (as the notes of the seriously excellent Top Shelf edition explain) that the sources Moore relied on where not from a ‘big book of gay history’ because when Moore wrote the poem such a book didn’t exist (which shows you exactly how hidden LGBT culture and history was until recently). Instead, Moore focused on the contribution of great LGBT artists and writers such as Sappho, Michelangelo, Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde with wonderful passages using such talismanic artists as snapshots of the wider situation for LGBT people at the time.

The poem is as a whole a wonderful piece of writing, and the fact that Moore could so successfully empathise with the persecution of LGBT people is testament to his skills as a writer. However, it is a slightly uneven poem with some of the language coming across as a tad clunky, sounding more suited to a sociological essay than a poem. However, on the whole the language is a haunting expression not only of sympathy and empathy for the persecuted, but a vivid and powerful denunciation of the persecutors. Moore always strives to keep a balance between the broad sweep of history that he is describing and the personal, intimate language of two lovers talking. This balance and his careful use of language is what makes The Mirror of Love such a wonderful poem.

However, despite its excellence it took quite a while for The Mirror of Love to actually be presented in a way that did Moore’s words justice.

Take One: Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! – Out! Out! Out!

As we found out in part one, uber-comics legend Alan Moore was so outraged by the Thatcher Government’s decision to ban the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in British schools that he organised a protest, fundraising comic against the decision. Amongst the contributions of such esteemed comic creators as Brian Bolland, Frank Miller and Harvey Pekar was The Mirror of Love. In an interview with newsarama Moore explained that the limited number of pages he had to ‘play’ with was what made him adopt a poem format. He recounts how his experience writing Etrigan in Swamp Thing taught him that “although it seems very flowery and flamboyant, poetry is a wonderful language for saying things in a very condensed form…(it) is a very condensed language. You can say much more complex things using much fewer, if even more carefully chosen words.” Something that was essential when due to five-panel format he wanted to adopt, he would have “to say something quite detailed about some particular component of gay history in only 42 words.”

The poem was given a faux-comic format, with illustrations by Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch, which depicted two cherubs looking back on the ‘history’ of LGBT people throughout history as they courted. To be honest, in a very uneven comic it was nothing special as the faux-comic format didn’t really seem to suit the poem and there was a slightly unappealing clash between the stylised, minimalist cherubs and the far more detailed historical images. Also the limited number of pages given to The Mirror of Love means that the poem seems extremely squashed, with the stanzas not being allowed to breathe properly.

However, that was not the end of the story.

Take Two: Enter Jose Villarrubia

One person who loved The Mirror of Love was American artist Jose Villarrubia; indeed he loved it so much that he wanted to bring the poem to new audiences. He first read the poem, not in its AARGH edition but in a text-only reprint in issue three of “esoteric magazine” Rapid Eye. Speaking to the Villarrubia recounts his first impression of The Mirror of Love:

I had never read anything quite like it. It was difficult in parts, but also exhilarating and profound, ironic and earnest, passionate and painful. But most of all it was hopeful. Not just feel good, escapist hopeful, but deeply so. I read it, cried, laughed, and read it again several times, enjoying it more and more with each consecutive reading.

However, his close relationship with The Mirror of Love only begun some years later when he was lunching with a playwright friend who was trying to convince him to try his hand at performing on stage. It had been something that Villarrubia had wanted to do for a while, although nerves had held him back. When it was suggested that a monologue would be a good way for him to ‘get his feet wet’, he remembered The Mirror of Love and decided that would be the perfect text for him to perform. With his friend David Drake directing him he did indeed perform The Mirror of Love at a local gay pride festival. As Drake explains in his introduction to the Top Shelf edition, their original idea was to have Villarrubia as a lecturer, giving his last lecture on gay history and the challenges facing gay people today (well the 1980s). However, a friend basically pointed out that would make for a pretty boring stage show and besides surely the “piece is really all about sex”. Smart friend. Cue, a drastic change in direction as the sexual nature of The Mirror of Love was brought to prominence with a naked Villarrubia (ooh la la) talking about gay history and culture to his sleeping lover. In this form The Mirror of Love was performed and was a success.

However, that was not the end of the story.

Take Three: Pretty Pictures

Some years later and Villarrubia was working closely with Alan Moore, not only on comics such as Prometha but also illustrating Moore’s novel Voice of Fire. Whilst at the Angouleme international comics festival in France, François Peneaud (a long-time friend) came up to him and asked why he hadn’t illustrated The Mirror of Love? The main reason was a simple one, The Mirror of Love had already been illustrated and Villarrubia didn’t feel he was able to be so brazen as to suggest a new edition. However, he said he was happy for his friend to suggest it and that’s exactly what Peneaud did, asking Chris Staros of Top Shelf whether they’d be interested and of course they were, providing the original authors consented, which of course they did.

So begun the process to the repackaging of The Mirror of Love into a bonafide poetry book, complete with an evocative selection photos representing gay culture and straight persecution. Drawing inspiration from Alan Moore’s original script for Bissette and Veitch, Villarrubia boldly reimagined The Mirror of Love with his photos showing a care and attention to detail that underlines Villarrubia’s love and understanding of the poem. Each picture compliments and underscores the message of the stanza, and on the rare occasions that Moore language fails the beauty and power of the accompanying picture perfectly illustrates exactly what Moore meant. The level of synergy between Villarrubia and Moore is perfectly illustrated by an anecdote Villarrubia told

I made a sample portfolio with ten images and went to Northampton with Chris Staros to present it to Alan and get his feedback. Alan opened it, very carefully, took a long breath, and went on to recite precisely the passage that the first image illustrated, even though it was very far from a literal representation of his words. He did this with all ten images. I was blown away; Chris was pleased.

This synergy led to Moore giving Villarrubia an unprecedented level of freedom to bring Moore’s words to life. The result is a collection of images that are simply mouth-watering, with too many outstanding images to list them all in this article. The ones that stand out in my mind are the baroque masculinity of the Spartan solider, the tender sensual classical era lesbian couple laying on the rose-bed and above all the spatters of blood on the canvas to represent the holocaust. However, all Villarrubia’s pictures are individual masterpieces that when combined with Moore’s words create a wonderful piece of art, that not only beautifully represents queer culture but the core values of the human spirit; tolerance, hope and love.

(An as an extra note the Top Shelf edition is beautifully packaged with an informative introduction by David Drake, excellent short biographies of some of the figures mentioned and extracts from poems referenced. In addition the reproduction values are excellent.)

The Final Word

The Mirror of Love is not a flawless poem, but it’s an admirable one with at times haunting language beautifully expressing LGBT history and culture. However, it’s only with the Top Shelf edition that those words are packaged in a form that does them justice. Villarrubia’s pictures add much to Moore’s words as they bring real character and heart to the piece. This isn’t a comic book, but the way that words and pictures come together to create something greater than either could achieve by themselves is perfectly within the spirit of the medium.

That’s all for this week. Join me next week when I’ll be looking at How Loathsome. But we close with the final stanza of The Mirror of Love, which are amongst the best words that Moore has ever wrote:

While life endures we’ll love
and afterwards,
if what they say is true,
I’ll be refused a Heaven,
Crammed with popes,
policemen, fundamentalists,
and burn instead,
quite happily,
with Sappho, Michaelangelo,
and you, my love.

I’d burn throughout eternity,
with you.

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