Voice of the Fire
Written by Alan Moore
Photo Plates by Jose Villarubia
Published by Top Shelf
There’s a cliché in the rock world, stating that anytime the guitar player for a successful band goes out on his own, his first solo effort is characterized by noodley overplaying, muddy overdubbing and all-around excess at the expense of the his former group’s songcraft. I hadn’t really thought of how this notion might apply to the creation of comics, but in the case of Alan Moore’s 1995 novel Voice of the Fire (I have the 2003 hardcover reissue from Top Shelf; a softcover edition is currently available), that cliché comes true.
Working in collaboration with talented illustrations such as Stephen Bissette, Dave Gibbons, Chris Sprouse, Kevin O’Neill, J.H. Williams III and others, Moore’s reputation as the most talented of comics writers is nearly unimpeachable. In Voice of the Fire, freed of the shackles of collaboration, able to let his words carry the full weight of his vision, Moore lets loose without restraint.
Voice of the Fire’s reputation as a difficult read is well earned (that I’ve finally finished with it to write this review nearly seven years after buying it from Chris Staros at a Pittsburgh Comicon should tell you something; my most recent and first successful reading of the book took nearly three weeks; I’m not an exceptionally fast reader as these things go, but I’m not slow either: three weeks to finish 284 pages is a long, long time). Tracking the history of Moore’s hometown, Northampton, England, beginning in 4000 BC until the then-present 1995, Voice follows no clear protagonist (except perhaps the notion of the city itself) and individual chapters connect in only oblique ways – hallucinatory visions of other characters sometimes, but more frequently thematically and through mythical references.
Much of the book’s legend stems from the first chapter; set over 6000 years ago, “Hob’s Hog” is narrated by a young boy, cast out from his tribe following his mother’s death, in a preliterate language. The novel’s opening line, “A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in ways of this, all hard of breath, where is grass codlings on I’s feet and wetting they”, serves notice that surviving Moore’s opening gambit will take incredible resolve. As for the tack of Moore in writing such an inaccessible passage, I think most readers (and writers) will give him credit for tackling the notion of narration from a character older than language; the technical and creative challenge of finding and maintaining the voice is handled with astonishing aplomb. Other readers…, well, they’ll find the assault on their comprehension aggravating, high-handed and insulting. What good is writing if a reader cannot read, they may ask. Neither side is right or wrong; it’s simply a fact of the novel that you should know if you’re to attempt passage between its covers. Consider it noted.
In truth, the book’s success and failure have little to do with “Hob’s Hog.” Eleven chapters and over two hundred pages follow, and though they may not achieve the glamour of the jambling, thorny difficulty of the opener, each installment supports all of the strengths and faults of Moore’s prose writing.
Without an artist to mediate Moore’s language (even his comics scripts are legendarily detailed and lengthy), Voice of the Fire careens wildly from beautifully moving descriptions to over-wrought and over-heated walls of language, and back again. Passages, entire pages, are shown to readers in extravagant detail, while the motivations behind every depraved lust are unearthed. It’s deep, powerful writing. At time, however, Moore’s prose slips into an exceedingly purple variety, using analogies that stretch comprehension and the rhythm of the writing. Also, he likes to compare things to piss. A lot.
Ostensibly about Northamption, a fiction that threads through the town’s history (you’ll recognize many names during the reading, such as Guy Fawkes, and you’ll swear that others are real even when they aren’t), Voice of the Fire is ultimately about myth vs. reality. Frequent references to previous chapters twist and distort the version read earlier in the novel. In the second chapter, a tale is told of a man who, having been told by his god to sacrifice his son, finds a hog and butchers it instead. Suffice to say, if you read “Hob’s Hog,” the hog’s viewpoint on the matter is quite different, yet fitting to the myth.
The final chapter is undoubtedly the book’s high point; continuing the first person narrative theme, Moore finds that he himself must become the narrator (the book is a fiction, not a lie), as he explores his own attempt to bind his hometown within the pages of his novel. Metafictionally, he describes the process of writing the final chapter, while discussing aspects of it with family and friends, and examining the evolving neighborhoods of Northampton.
The lasting durability of myths defines Voice of the Fire, a testament to the “truths” of history and the importance of stories in shaping our world. Moore’s wit and wonder provide lift to most of the novel, yet his indulgences also create sections that drag the book’s flow to a crawl and jar the reader from the world of Moore’s imaging. The end result is a flawed masterpiece, difficult, sometimes unable to clearly make its point, yet showing signs of wisdom and intelligence amidst the muck.