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Voice of the Fire
Alan Moore
Top Shelf Productions, 284 pages

Voice of the Fire
Alan Moore
Alan Moore is considered by many to be the best writer in the history of the comic book form. His 1986 epic Watchmen, along with Frank Miller's Dark Knight are arguably the most important individual works of the modern comics era. He got his start in comics in the early 80s, working for a variety of British publishers. Moore has worked on a variety of other comics projects over the past 15 years such as From Hell (adapted in the Johnny Depp / Heather Graham film). He currently has the ABC line at DC/Wildstorm which includes titles such as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Courtyard
Alan Moore Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

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Voice of the Fire is far more clever than the world probably expected. It's also perhaps not the most accessible work, for several reasons.

But let's start with first impressions of the edition at hand. The jacket design is inspired: front cover image of flame rising from a man's lips; back cover image of lingering smoke. (You'll note the allusion to the title.) On both the front cover and spine, the author's name is more prominent than the title, lending the impression that the target audience is the reader who already knows Alan Moore's name -- the fan of his award-winning work in the graphic novel format. Inside are handsome photographic endpapers and 12 plates of glossy art photos. All in all, a nice book to look at. Removing the dust jacket, you find the book is quarter bound in cloth with silky slick boards. It's securely bound, and printed on heavy paper so the book has real heft to it. Merely holding the book is a pleasing experience.

As noted on the dust jacket, there is an introduction by Neil Gaiman, another writer of graphic novels who made the leap to writing novels, sans graphics. Don't skip the introduction. It's brief, but important. In it, Gaiman explains how the first incarnation of this book, published in 1996 by Gollancz, had no introduction. This was probably an unwise choice; it's important to let readers know what they're getting themselves into here. I'll explain why.

This novel is actually a collection of thematically-linked stories, 12 of them, that all take place in Northampton over a span of 6,000 years. The first story, set in 4,000 BC, is narrated by a simpleton paleolithic nomad, who speaks in a difficult dialect, with a severely limited vocabulary, strange grammar, and a naively warped understanding of the world around him. He's unable, for example, to distinguish dreams from waking reality, and believes that clouds are great amorphous sky-beasts who occasionally devour the sun and then, presumably, spit it out again. (He isn't nearly clever enough to understand the concept of metaphor, so it seems he believes this to be the literal truth about clouds.) The first several pages are particularly difficult, until you manage to get into the swing of this strange dialect. It never becomes easy. It's much like the first time you read Shakespeare as a young child -- you recognize most of the words, but they don't seem to have been fit together in quite the right way, so you only almost understand what you're reading. This first story is nearly 50 pages long, and it's a trying slog all the way through. By the end of it, I found the world looked and sounded strange when I finally glanced up from the pages, trying to interpret what my wife had just said to me in modern, colloquial English.

Each succeeding story uses progressively more elegant language as each jumps ahead further in history, until the last episode, which is set in 1995, the time of the author's writing. The final story appears to be semi(?)-autobiographical, and is largely about the author's difficulty finishing a difficult project that is the book you're reading. On one level, the final story seems somewhat anti-climactic; but on an another level it is ingeniously haunting.

None of the stories are what you would call pleasant. They deal with violence, madness, death, mutilation, betrayal, loss of faith, and other such unhappy subjects. Most of them, however, have moments of agonizing brilliance. Ultimately, the book is about the myth and magic of story. Images and events from one tale recur in later one, so that each contains echoes of the others. Finally, all the themes are loosely brought together in that last, authorial-voiced story. The whole is a work of surprising genius.

Alan Moore is the reason I read graphic novels today. Many years ago I had given up on comic books, although a good friend kept trying to entice me back with a variety of titles that held regrettably no interest for me. They all seemed to be trashy, adolescent stuff, until finally this friend handed me issues 20 and 21 of Swamp Thing. I cocked an eyebrow at the title and the cheesy overall look, but I gave it a chance. I was amazed at the quality of the writing, and even moreso when I looked at the issues prior to Moore's writing and realized the limitations he had to work within. I've been a fan of Moore's work ever since -- I haven't read everything, and I haven't always enjoyed everything I've read, but for the most part he's still my favourite writer of graphic novels, because he's such a damn good writer. I recently re-read Watchmen and V for Vendetta and I was happy to learn that at least some of his material has aged well.

I think that many of Alan Moore's fans would be entirely capable of appreciating the brilliance of Voice of the Fire. But I also think that a large number of them would give up before finishing the first tale, challenging as it is. And that's unfortunate. I also think there are some literature professors and "mainstream" literary readers and critics who would wet themselves with pleasure if they gave this book a chance. But I fear they'll likely give it a snobbish miss when they read the author bio and see that he's only previously written comics.

Neil Gaiman eased himself gradually from comics (most notably Sandman) through genre novels, illustrated and not, to the point where he's convinced the general reading public -- as opposed to the genre reading public, who mostly don't give a damn -- that American Gods should be acceptable in this mythical mainstream. But Alan Moore, on the other hand, has jumped the rails altogether and abruptly given us a brilliantly multi-faceted gem of purest literature. Top Shelf has made a commendable effort to resurrect this work, which is too important to be permitted to fade quietly into obscurity. Do your part: read it, and be amazed.

Copyright © 2004 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh has several great passions in his life: reading, and...uh, some other things that are, no doubt, equally interesting.


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