First Issue Collector’s Item is a periodic, ongoing look at that most illusive (and, in many instances, ultimately valueless) pop-culture artifact: The first issue of a comic book series. This week, Alan Moore returns to monthly comic books with Fashion Beast #1.
I can’t exactly say I was shocked to learn that the genesis of Fashion Beast was an unrealized script from the mind of punk rock provocateur Malcom McLaren. Afterall, McLaren had as chaotic a relationship with film as he did with music. In 1977, McLaren hired Russ Meyer to make a movie about the Sex Pistols. Meyer, in turn, hired Roger Ebert to write the movie, and the two men responsible for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls set out to create a film about a band neither had listened too. Ebert’s brilliant script, Who Killed Bambi, includes scenes wherein Johnny Rotten confronts a religious group quite like the Church of Scientology and Sid Vicious shoots heroin with his mother. When Russ Meyer—whose tastes were good and clean, if perverse—asked McClaren if Vicious would be up for that sort of thing, he shrugged the question off entirely. “Why wouldn’t he?” McClaren said. “It’s all based on fact.” Why not, indeed? McClaren, after all, was just throwing every idea he had into a manic, potentially unfilmable script.
The most amazing thing about Fashion Beast, then, is that it’s one cohesive narrative, something linear and cogent. That could be chalked up to his choice of collaborator. If Meyer and Ebert favor whacked out, campy, hypersexualized, overstuffed narratives, Alan Moore is their exact opposite. He’s no less interested in sex (as evidenced by The Lost Girls. itself a hypersexual fantasia), but his narratives, from Swamp Thing to V for Vendetta to Watchmen are dense and methodical. His work, which beyond his brilliant and underrated Promethea I’ve never read in single issues, almost necessitated the invention of the phrase “graphic novel.” His worlds are large and tactile, omnipresent and unmistakably his.
But Fashion Beast is a collaboration, and the idea is unmistakably McClaren, with Moore’s populist and occult leanings peering in from the edge. According to Moore, who unearthed this unrealized film script and handed it off to Antony Johnston for adaptation, Fashion Beast is a marriage of “the life of Christian Dior and the fable of Beauty and the Beast.” Despite his infamy in the music industry, McClaren, whose initial dalliance in music was partly a ploy to promote SEX, his King’s Road boutique in London, moved through many social circles. While its not yet clear where the fable comes in, fashion is evident in every frame. Against the roar of a factory, the barking of dogs, and the static on the radio, the occupants of a hotel dress themselves hoping to get into an exclusive nightclub. Moore’s point is obvious: In our world, image is identity. I suspect that’s why I initially didn’t catch that the woman dolling herself up like Marilyn Monroe was, in fact, a man, something that’s evident to the men and women she passes by on the street because she “tries to hard.”
Her name is Doll, and she’s a coatcheck girl at a nightclub who aspires to fame. The Beast, in this instance, is a woman Doll jokingly calls a man. In the tradition of Moore’s heroes, she’s abrasive and anti-society. Where V blows up the Old Bailey, she infiltrates the coat check room and rips claim tickets from garments, creating chaos and a situation that will very likely see Doll fired and thrown out into an oppressed world. And boy, is it oppressed. We don’t see much of them in the first issue, but the England of Fashion Beast features a swinging sweatshop scene. Machines are manned by the dusty poor, who are snapped at by old women in pancake makeup and Victorian dress. If you’re not among this odd ruling class and you’re somehow enjoying yourself, you’re clearly deluded.
Moore was commissioned by McClaren to write this in 1985, a period during which he was changing superhero comics with Swamp Thing, crafting the medium’s perfect piece of agitprop with V for Vendetta, and laying the foundation for Watchmen. Though Moore and McClaren were in talks with Avatar about the release of Fashion Beast as a comic book a decade ago, its release early in DC’s attempted revival of the Watchmen property through a torrent of miniseries delving into the backgrounds of Moore’s principal characters can’t help but feel coincidental. Here is something written at the height of his power, being released at a time when a cadre of writers and artists are huffing the vapors of his most famous work for inspiration.
Not everything in Fashion Beast works, however. There’s a curious sense of decompression to this first issue, as if a ten-issue adaptation of a 200-page screenplay needed extra padding. There’s an extended sequence where Doll simply dances to a Malcom McClaren song that, while working on an obvious level (after Doll is dressed down for being an attention whore, she sets out to prove it), simply goes on too long. The musical interludes of V for Vendetta and Watchmen worked because they were interludes. When Zack Snyder took the snippet of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and blew it up for the purpose of scoring a campy sex scene, the metaphor became obvious to the point of annoyance. When Moore does it here, to a song that’s easily the least complex of any he’s referenced in his work, one can’t help but feel that Doll has her calamitous incident in the coat check room coming to her.
Still, Fashion Beast is unmistakably Moore, and, better, it’s Moore in a time before the comic book industry ground him into the beardy, angry wizard who emerges from his home to wonder aloud why nobody has sought to outdo his ideas. In this gorgeously rendered book—artist Facundo Percio draws Moore’s characters as though they’re from a reality only slightly removed from our own, the contrast between high fashion and abject poverty being sharp—what’s clear is that nobody’s challenged Moore’s ideas because nobody can. At the height of his powers or otherwise, Alan Moore is one of the worlds most prolific engines of creativity. To enter any world of his making is a privilege.
Fashion Beast #1. Adapted from a screenplay by Alan Moore by Antony Johnston. Based on a story by Malcom McLaren. Art by Facundo Percio. Released September 5, 2012, by Avatar Press.