Friday, February 7, 2014

I Must Protect This Bag of Meat (The Last War in Albion Part 30: Plagiarism and Abelard Snazz)

This is the fifth of ten parts of Chapter Five of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work on Future Shocks for 2000 AD from 1980 to 1983. An ebook omnibus of all ten parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords for $2.99. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help ensure its continuation

Most of the comics discussed in this chapter are collected in The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks.

PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: Alan Moore's work for 2000 AD quickly led to a spate of extremely good stories, including "The Last Rumble of the Platinum Horde" (a title Moore inadvertently nicked from Norman Spinrad

"Robots couldn’t really give a fuck if you live or die. Seriously. I mean, what are you thinking? 'Ooh, I must protect the bag of meat at all costs because I couldn’t possibly plug in the charger all on my own.' Shut the fuck up." - Warren Ellis

Figure 225: The Golden Horde, also known as the Ulus of
Jochi, spanned a large portion of both Europe and Asia in the
13th century.
The story ends with Cornelius attempting to ride off on the horse of the last Khan of the Golden Horde, which is said to have “waddled forward a few steps, puked, and died.” And that’s basically that. That this apparently inadvertent coincidence of titles should take place around a Jerry Cornelius story written by someone other than Michael Moorcock, given that one of the most superficially obvious conflagrations in the War centers on Grant Morrison’s Gideon Stargrave character and the degree to which it and his larger work are or are not rip-offs of Moorcock’s work. Essentially no plot elements coincide between Spinrad and Moore’s stories. And yet there is a thematic kinship between them. Both are ruminations on the nature of violence that hinge on an over the top display of violence that is revealed to be fundamentally hollow. The end effect is to highlight the impressive diversity of potential in storytelling. Two writers with relatively similar ideas - a rumination on the banality of violence featuring the iconography of the Mongol hordes - ended up in profoundly different places. Even the similarity of title is wholly understandable - there really was a 13th century Mongol Khanate known as the Golden Horde, and it’s hardly surprising that two separate writers working with Mongol iconography riffed on the same famous and poetic name from history.

Figure 226: In more ways than one, this is not the original
Snazz story. (From 2000 AD #209, 1981)
This was, however, not always the case for Moore’s Future Shocks. Two months before “The Last Rumble of the Platinum Horde” Moore penned “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain,” his second story featuring Abelard Snazz. Unlike “The Last Rumble of the Platinum Horde,” which Moore was content to have reprinted in the Shocking Futures collection with a self-deprecating note in the introduction, Moore asked for “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain” not to be reprinted alongside the other five Abelard Snazz tales in the Twisted Times collection because, as he puts it, “some while after the sequel was published, I reread a story by the incandescent R.A. Lafferty and was horrified to learn that, unknowingly, two of the story’s three main ideas had been stolen wholesale. This phenomenon,” he explains, of “being unable to remember which stories are yours and which belong to someone else happens frequently among high-output writers and is probably unavoidable to some degree.” However, he declares, “that’s certainly no reason to compound the unintentional plagiarism by reprinting the story here.” As with “The Last Rumble of the Platinum Horde” and Spinrad, Moore ends by suggesting readers track down some Lafferty, calling him the better writer.

Moore revisited the issue in a later interview, explaining how “just occasionally you’ll come up with an idea and you’ll think, ‘That’s brilliant! That’s a great idea! It must be mine!’ And you don’t recognize it as, ‘Now, wait a moment, that’s a story that I’ve read by somebody else.’” He notes that he publicly admitted the incident and asked for the story not to be reprinted, and explained that “when you’re having to write to deadlines and turn out a lot of stories, you have to think fast. And maybe if I’d had a couple more days, I’d have remembered the R.A. Lafferty story.” But that it was “only some weeks later” that he realized the problem. Interestingly, in this interview he goes on to criticize a Man Booker Prize-winner whose book, it was pointed out, “was actually William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, right down to the structure of the individual chapters,” taking a dim view of the author’s defense that it was an homage, and noting that “these things happen, but once it happens once or twice or whatever, you have to become a lot stricter on yourself.” [Moore, in the interview, mis-identifies the book as James Kellman’s 1994 prize-winning How Late it Was, How Late, which he also mis-remembers as How Lare it Was, How Lare - in fact the book in question is the 1996 winner, Graham Swift’s Last Orders.] 

All of this raises an interesting issue within the War, however. Much of the conflict within the War, after all, comes from various creative priority disputes between Moore and Morrison. As the War develops, a major concern will be Moore’s late-career disdain both for working on properties he does not himself own and his outrage at projects like Before Watchmen that make use of his ideas. Given this, the existence of a plagiarism issue early in Moore’s career is interesting, not least because of the opportunities it offers Moore’s adversaries in the War to cry hypocrisy and let slip the dogs of comments on the Internet. 

Figure 227: R.A. Lafferty's Space
Chantey
, from whence "The Return of
the Two-Storey Brain" inadvertently
originated.
It is first worth actually looking at the similarities. Contrary to Moore’s recollection, the story in question is not in fact from an anthology of Lafferty’s work, but from his 1968 novel Space Chantey, which presents a sci-fi adventure modeled after The Odyssey. The fourth chapter of this book features Captain Roadstrum, the lead character of the work, using a device that lets him rewind time slightly to cheat at gambling. Eventually he becomes a multi-billionaire, as well as an emperor who owns a thousand different worlds, only to lose it all to a restroom attendant as he attempts to get the attendant to give him a piece of toilet paper with the Emperor’s Crest on it, for which the attendant wants a single coin. Roadstrum, determined not to pay [despite his massive wealth] proceeds to get involved in a series of double or nothing bets despite not having his time-rewinding device on him, and this eventually bankrupts him, and indeed leaves him twenty-four worlds in debt to the attendant, who is said to “still own those worlds today. He is High Emperor and he administers his worlds competently. He is a man of talent.” 

Moore’s story, on the other hand, features Abelard Snazz being rescued from certain death by Hoolio Moolabar, who has recently lost his life savings at a casino. Snazz contrives to help him by creating a small time machine in the chest cavity of his robotic servant Edwin and uses it in the same manner that Lafferty’s character does - to rewind time at the casino and thus win games with foreknowledge of what will happen. When it comes time to go, however, the doorman declines to get their spaceship, citing house rules against it. Snazz proceeds to make a bet with him, but, unable to rewind time because Edwin is off getting drunk with a robotic dancer, proceeds to lose everything in an ever-escalating game of double or nothing. Moolabar, having lost all of his money again, rewinds time to before he rescues Snazz and Edwin and leaves them once again to die.

Figure 228: The parking attendant thwarts Abelard Snazz
with an Acme Probability Scrambler ("The Return of
the Two-Storey Brain," written by Alan Moore, art by
Mike White, 2000 AD #209, 1981)
There are, to be fair, differences between the stories. Lafferty’s story makes no indication of how the restroom attendant is so lucky, whereas Moore’s is shown to have an “Acme Probability Scrambler” that explains why the coin flip always comes out heads. Moore’s story, on the other hand, lacks the rather charming detail of high-roller gamblers playing for planets instead of just for money, and indeed also lacks the bizarre cast of gamblers that Roadstrum faces down such as “Johnny Greeneyes, who could see every invisible marking on cards with his odd optics,” and “Pyotr Igrokovitch,” who, “following heavy losses in his youth… shot himself through the head.” Whenever Pyotr loses he shoots himself again, though always through the same passage. “It was rather a weird thing when seen by one for the first time,” Lafferty writes, “and Pyotr very often killed spectators standing behind him.”

But these are small details. Moore is on the whole correct - “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain” is a fairly straightforward lift of an incident out of Space Chantey. That details are changed does not ultimately distract from the fact that Moore wrote a story with the same basic effect as Lafferty’s - someone has a clever but dishonest idea gets their comeuppance by being overly arrogant to the wrong person. This in and of itself is not a problem - every Abelard Snazz story has a plot along these lines. The problem is that Moore runs the plot in the same setting - a sci-fi casino - and with the same dishonest idea. Unlike his inadvertent overlap with Spinrad, where the two writers ended up with stories that are as different as two stories using the iconography of the Mongol hordes to make a comment on the hollowness of violence could plausibly be, here Moore is working with the same basic images as another writer and trying to produce the same basic effect. 

Figure 229: "Bad Timing" redoes the basic Superman origin
only with Jor-El being comically wrong about the planet's
destruction and the capsule inadvertently triggering a massive
nuclear holocaust. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Mike White,
2000 AD #291, 1982)
This marks a useful line in trying to understand how influence works. None of Moore’s stories, nor indeed anyone’s stories, exist in a vacuum devoid of influence. “The Regrettable Ruse of Rocket Redglare,” for instance, is transparently modeled off of Flash Gordon, just as the later “Bad Timing” is expressly based around Superman. But the entire point of the story is that it’s taking the Flash Gordon style of story and twisting it into a cynically entertaining parody of itself. The problem with “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain” isn’t that it shares so many concepts with Lafferty, but that it does nothing with those concepts that Lafferty hadn’t already done, and indeed, recreates his central premise. In this regard it is markedly different from even the work of Moore’s that most obviously takes concepts from other writers, which can almost never be described as an imitation of those writers. Moore’s sense of an obligation to be stricter on himself in future work is one that he appears to have taken quite seriously.

It is also worth reiterating that the shared point between Space Chantey and “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain” is one that is central to Abelard Snazz in general. This does not, however, imply that Snazz is in any way a rip-off character. Indeed, Snazz is a satisfyingly original concept, and the fact that what constituted a satisfying incident in Space Chantey and what constituted a satisfying Abelard Snazz story were similar is largely coincidental. 

Figure 230: Abelard Snazz unleashes his
robot criminals in an increasingly ill-advised
scheme ("The Final Solution," written by Alan
Moore, art by Steve Dillon, 2000 AD #190, 1980)
Snazz, for his part, made his first appearance ten progs prior to “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain” in the first part of a two-part a Ro-Jaws Robo-Tale called “Final Solution” that marked Moore’s fourth contribution to 2000 AD. The story concerns a planet on which crime has gotten completely out of control. In desperation, the Prime Minister turns to Abelard Snazz, whose distinctive double decker brain means that he has two stacked sets of eyes. Snazz promptly designs giant police robots, who proceed to eliminate crime, but who then go on to begin arresting people for comically minor infractions like breaking the laws of etiquette by using the wrong spoon. Desperate to stop this latest calamity, the planet turns to Snazz again, and he creates criminal robots for the police robots to arrest. Which is all well and good until people get caught in the crossfire between the robots, leading Snazz to propose robotic civilians to get caught in the crossfire instead. At this point the planet becomes too crowded for human habitation and everyone flees, pausing only to jettison Snazz and his fawning robotic companion Edwin out the airlock before they can get too far on their idea for a robotic planet.

Figure 231: Iain Sinclair standing in front of his ideal sort
of London architecture: graffiti.
The central joke of “Final Solution” is one about technocracy and the tendency of people in charge to favor overly elaborate and engineered solutions. More broadly, it’s an indictment of the same logic behind what Moore’s later-career collaborator Iain Sinclair describes as grand projects. Sinclair’s beloved bugbear is of course the 2012 London Olympics, but they are for him only the biggest image of “the grand project of New Labour and lottery money,” which he describes as “top-heavy schemes <that> are imposed down from the top” in the name of “a legacy that offers little more than what was there already.” Describing the Olympics, Sinclair says that “the games are just empty buildings,” but that this is functional because people are used to living among ruins. Of the grand project, Sinclair says, “they were just ruins. They were never anything else.” This sense of hollowness describes Snazz’s scheme as well - the replacement of progressively more aspects of society with robot duplicates until society itself is crowded out.

But it is a mistake to treat Snazz as the sole culprit of the piece. Yes, Snazz exists to satirize over-elaborate top-down thinking, but it’s important to note that Snazz is merely a consultant working for the government - a government that never once pipes up to say “wouldn’t just decommissioning the robot cops make more sense,” or “why don’t we reprogram the buggers so they don’t arrest people for wearing ugly ties,” just as, in “The Return of the Two-Storey Brain” Hoolio Moolabar never steps in to say “erm, why don’t we just go get the car instead of betting every penny we have with the doorman.” Snazz, in other words, is not so much a villain as a parodic version of a particular societal tendency that allows people like him to function in the first place. [continued]

10 comments:

  1. An interesting choice of illustration for Space Chantey. While Moore may have encountered the story in that edition (which seems to be the only UK edition), he might have had the US edition:

    http://people.uncw.edu/smithms/H-series/H-056.jpg

    which is relevant to the war as that edition was illustrated by Vaughan Bode, a major name on the Underground Comics scene.

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  2. which he also mis-remembers as How Lare it Was, How Lare

    I can't believe this isn't simply a typo, as the keys are next to each other. Or at the very least a transcription error, presumably by McKenzie or Tice.

    Sinclair’s beloved bugbear is of course the 2012 London Olympics

    Of course? Have I missed a reference in an earlier Albion chapter that establishes this certainty? I've not encountered it in Sinclair's work before (I've not read much in the last dozen years, to be fair, but also most of his output predates the announcement of the 2012 location).

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    1. I'm not sure about his fiction so much, but IIRC he was very prominent in the media voicing his objections to the Olympics -- I don't have any links on hand, but I do seem to recall a few articles in the Guardian and/or the Independent of this nature.

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    2. This is a relevant one http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17098201

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    3. Ta Nyq! I still doubt it's a prominent enough aspect of his work overall to warrant "of course," especially in a context of 1981, but always interesting to hear his thinking.

      (Especially after being underwhelmed by the site generally, and repulsed by the shopping mall, on arriving in London at that station by car last November.)

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  3. This seems like the most essential instalment of the Albion project yet, all revolving around the nature of originality in art. It's quite telling that this Abelard Snazz story was a case of accidental plagiarism of an incident from a novel based on The Odyssey, which is probably the most ripped-off/riffed-on story in Western history. Of course, no one ever accused James Joyce of plagiarizing Homer.

    It reminds me of the approach to took to crafting my own new novella, Under the Trees, Eaten (available this Spring from an internet near you). It's a pastiche of H. P. Lovecraft tropes, with basically the same setting as "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," but set in rural Quebec. Except I threw a female protagonist in the story who doesn't take any otherworldly bullshit, and a foregrounded personal backstory and family history with the mysterious town of aliens. With a liberal-enough definition of plagiarism, one could accuse me of ripping off Lovecraft. But I purposely set out to turn his themes and approaches upside down.

    So you could also say that I've ripped off Alan Moore, just in terms of the techniques he developed to engage with his influences an predecessors in the wake of his embarrassment over "Return of the Two-Storied Brain."

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    1. I thing the issue here is the one of deceit (or in this case of being perceived as being deceitful). Lots of ideas and genre-fiction twists and concepts got either recycled by 2000AD (and vice-versa) but to varying degrees these are either ideas that are essentially public domain or were used as satire or as a homage (or could be defended that way). Importantly an informed reader would likely know what was being referred too [even if an 11 year old reader might not.]
      Space Chantey was sufficiently obscure that a sophisticated reader may well believe that the ideas Moore was using were Moore's own (as indeed he thought they were).

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  4. Just a mention for people interested in other Alan Moore material from around this time: The collected Bojefferies Saga is out on Comixology now, with a new story as well as all the earlier ones. Bizarre and funny stuff, very glad to see it collected and a new story.

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  5. Incidentally, Moore's Time Twister story "Dr. Dibworthy's Disappointing Day" resembles R. A. Lafferty's "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" just closely enough that I thought till now that it was the story in question. The key idea (repeated successful attempts to change the past that aren't noticed by the people who make them) is less specific, though.

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  6. I assume this detailing of Moore's specific attitudes and personal definition of what does and doesn't constitute plagiarism forms the background of what I would say is the opening salvo in this magickal war - the article in Speakeasy where Morrison implies that Alan Moore stole the plots for Marvelman,' Watchmen,and Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? from the 1977 novel Superfolks by Robert Mayer.

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