By the time I started reading comics, Alan Moore had already made plenty of history; and, in the eyes of that side of comics I so adored at first, he had already become history. New comics by him were infrequent enough for each new outing to be an Event, a grand statement to be heard - and then promptly discarded because of his antagonism. For a long time I struggled to imagine Moore as a consistently working—and consistently published—writer, not because his bibliography was too thin, but because of that framing which, in a way, precluded him from being seen as a peer who exists in the same space. The announcement of Moore's debut short prose story collection came with a similarly celebratory loudness: after two novels of immense formal ambition and focus, one screenplay, and more than four decades of comics work, comes the time for Moore to sink his teeth into another format, one that we've only rarely seen him toy with. Yet, despite the promo-copy bombast, Illuminations is, for the most part, more casual and vulnerable than one might expect. It feels not like a grandmaster telling you sternly to sit down and listen to his airtight, meticulous machinations, but a writer trying, gradually, to find his voice in a less-familiar form and trace anew the boundaries of his definition of storytelling.
Though scope and function vary rather wildly, all nine stories in Illuminations share a fantastical bent, with a strong contrast between the sweepingly ornate nature of Moore's worlds and the intimacy of the core narrative; if the collection can be said to have an overarching theme, it's the attempt at balance between the lofty size of the Idea versus the humbled smallness of a story in practice, with most pieces coming down to the tension between two characters (even if one of them happens to be the literal son of God), while the sheer immensity of the universe serves as a backdrop or an implication.
The first story, "Hypothetical Lizard" (1987), which Moore describes as his first serious attempt at short prose fiction, is very much an embodiment of that theme; it's an overwritten story (though more charming than others would manage; for all his flaws, Moore's love of language and phrase is palpable and often infectious), brimming with ideas and imagery that do not merit pursuit. This leads it to sometimes miss the stage for its set-pieces, treating the intimacy at the core of the story—focused on two sex workers in a fantasy brothel, one of whom enters an abusive relationship while the other is surgically forced to bear silent witness of that abuse—more coldly than it probably should have. There is a care there, but it's only aimed correctly in part.
Perhaps my favorite story of the bunch is "The Improbably Complex High-Energy State" (2019), which frames the birth of sentient life as concurrent, and implicitly synonymous, with the birth of hegemony - and, pursued far enough, the birth of totalitarianism and fascism. The story balances the cosmic wonder and whimsy of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics with a profound cynicism; the epic rise and fall of the first empire in this story's nascent universe takes place over an immeasurably short span of time, so as to say, in a very Moore fashion: "This may as well never have happened, insofar as it always happens just like this; it is ugly, and inevitable, and completely absurd."
The longest piece in the collection, "What We Can Know about Thunderman" (2021), is Moore's comprehensive settling of accounts with the American comics industry, and a further utilization of that balance between deep cynicism toward the real world and immense passion for the way in which it is embodied through story; over its 240 pages and 20 chapters, Moore constantly shifts between modes of storytelling, from straight prose to comic script to Reddit-like threads and personal blog posts, with the same restlessness that fueled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier or the Watchmen supplementary material, emphasizing his oft-misrepresented ethos of "love the craft, hate the business." This approach affords Moore a great deal of focus on his core thesis, presenting various angles on not the superhero, but those who enforce and worship it (creator and fan alike, though Moore sees the two as one and the same), all of whom exist in a state of permanently arrested intellectual development, propping up an entire industrial-cultural complex worshipping a shared refusal to grow up. It reminds me, at times, of Ted McKeever's 2016 miniseries Pencil Head, which similarly frames the American mainstream comics industry as an incubator of pathetic, childish people. But, whereas McKeever uses his five-issue farewell to mostly spray cuss words at people who have personally wronged him (evidently his foremost moral metric), Moore makes more of an effort to reinforce and explicate the connection between the industry and its psychological repercussions; he puts an emphasis on the systemic patterns before articulating how they extend to the personal, at which point he does not bother with pulling punches. Alan Moore cannot be mistaken for someone who is interested in making friends or persuading anyone.
This collection being an exercise in narrative and formal flexibility, there are times in which Moore tries—and fails—to go past his limits. "American Light: An Appreciation" (2021) attempts an homage to the Beat generation of authors and poets by presenting the reader with a fictional Beat poem, complemented by biographical and exegetical annotations about its in-universe author. This isn't the first time Moore has tried his hand at such free-form poetry (I highly recommend the collection A Disease of Language, in which Eddie Campbell adapts two of Moore's spoken-word performances into comics), but previous efforts were more successful for a very simple reason: they emerged from within Moore, reflecting his personality and psyche and the circumstances in his life that he could not have shaped. Those were a reframing—a reclaiming—of the uncontrollable. "American Light", on the other hand, seeks to reverse-engineer a poetic work from a fictional persona that Moore himself controls: first deciding what he wants it to say, then creating ornamentation around that core statement. It robs the work of the spontaneity and abandon it warrants, leaving Moore with not much beyond overwrought, too-careful derivation.
Some of those limits are not merely questions of mode or form, but more deeply-seated constraints. As is frequently the case with Moore, Illuminations raises some questions about the author's perception of sex and fixation on sexual violence. In Moore's writing, sex often (though not always) takes on a punitive aspect, synonymous with an imbalance of power, and its depiction exists as either direct condemnation (via the fascist nymphomaniac editrix Mimi Drucker of "What We Can Know about Thunderman") or shorthand thereof (such as sexual relations between the primordial lifeform and its subordinate in "The Impossibly Complex High-Energy State"): one-sided and existing to reinforce a victim-perpetrator role system that tends to humanize neither and judge both. I don't believe Moore to be a puritan in the least, but this troubling undercurrent of judgment mars the complexity that otherwise characterizes his worlds.
Yet Illuminations isn't a claim to perfection from a literary titan whose every word is thunderous and wondrous, but an exercise - and a mostly successful one. It serves as a reminder of Moore's oft-overlooked grounding; like the worlds he builds, he exists simultaneously in the sweeping cosmic gestures and in the minuscule and intimate. When he falters, it's often due to either his excessive need for control or his often-uninterrogated social premises; when he succeeds, it's almost impossible to deny that he is among the finest craftsmen most of us can name. Illuminations is his way of saying "I am large, I contain multitudes" - and for worse or (more often) for better, he proves himself right.