The seminal Alan Moore comic that never was
Perhaps because it was a symptom of the strangeness of existence or perhaps because it was an unnerving reminder of the cyclic nature of life, but it was really bloody weird returning to and finishing a work that I'd started and abandoned when I was a young underground comic artist trying to break into the mainstream. It was definitely weird inking a page drawn on yellowing watercolour board that another me had pencilled around twenty years ago. It's not that I'd forgotten drawing it: I could remember pencilling those panels, on some, even the music* that was playing at the time (a pretty common phenomena), but it did give me a peculiar frisson all of its own.
I don't know how he had heard about it but William Christenen got in touch, asking if I still had the artwork for the "lost Warrior story" Nightjar. Warrior was the groundbreaking UK comic art periodical published by Dez Skinn (now editor/publisher of Comics International) where Alan Moore made his name before being headhunted by DC Comics, bringing his unique and magisterial talent for writing sequential art universal acclaim. Alan was already contributing Marvelman (later Miracleman) and V for Vendetta and he and I had talked about collaborating on a strip for Warrior for a while. We decided upon a horror piece. I started drawing from his script, fitting it in around paying work until, to be mercifully brief, Alan and Dez fell out big time. As a result, Alan stopped writing new stories for Warrior and Nightjar, now with no home, was shelved.
Two and a half pages of the strip were inked, another one pencilled and a further four not even started. Will asked if I still had the script. I didn't know. I had a look. After the third search it turned up in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet in my cluttered storeroom, along with, surprisingly, an earlier letter from Alan, reprinted here, setting forth his thoughts on the strip.
This was amazing. Not just because I'd completely forgotten about it, nor that I seldom keep old correspondence but for the letter itself. In comic terms, it's a genuine historical document: a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the emerging talent that many believe to be the greatest ever writer in the medium - a mind wildly and intensively creative but always with one eye on the practical storytelling and commercial aspects.
Nightjar would have been Alan's first horror work. Many of the ideas he is playing with here emerge later in Swamp Thing, his concept of an urban sorcerer eventually manifesting itself in the form of John Constantine.
Drawing on contemporary horror fiction, Nightjar was a reinvention of the horror strip at a time when comic book magicians wore cloaks and tights or, if female, fishnet stockings and top hats, and blasted villains with mystic power bolts whilst declaring "By the hoary hosts of Hoggarth!". Peter Strawb's Shadowland was a big influence, though Alan's story and characters are purely his own. Another influence was Ramsey Campbell, whose brilliantly crafted tales of terror set in and around Lancashire were groundbreaking in the way they generated supernatural horror in the setting of everyday urban life.
Astonished to find the script and letter, I was even more astonished when Will asked me to finish the artwork I'd begun and abandoned so long ago. As it turned out it wasn't as hard as I thought, returning to my old crosshatching inking style and drawing early 80s costume - though those high heeled boots have gone round the cycle and are back in fashion again- it was just, as I said, weird.
In between Alan writing the letter and beginning the script, he came to visit me for a couple of days to discuss the concept in detail. I lived in a Victorian terraced house in Preston, but previously had been in a small "two up, two down" terrace, the basis for my depiction of Harold Demdyke's house, as seen in page one.
As an aside, after a couple of visits, Neil Gaiman had his Crowleyesque character Roderick Burgess come from Preston in Sandman #1 and my later terraced house appears in his short horror story The Wedding Present. Strangely enough, I now live in "a tall house overlooking the sea somewhere on the east coast" like the Nightjar character Inez Eastaugh.
In Lancashire, not far from Preston, squats the dark, brooding mass of Pendle Hill, a huge, barren hump sprawling over 25 miles, less than 100 feet short of mountain status, topped with peat bogs and often capped in mist. The hill dominates the surrounding countryside both physically and psychically in a way not entirely explicable: it radiates creepiness. In the 18th century this eerie atmosphere generated a series of witch hunts, resulting in show trials and mass executions at Lancaster Castle.
I'd known the stories of the Pendle Witches since childhood and suggested the place as a setting. We did the Pendle circuit, Alan taking particular interest in the Witches Galore shop in Newchurch, wanting, in a future chapter, to contrast the kitchness of the witches on broomsticks and other such souvenirs with the story's magical reality. In the village where Alan sets this first chapter, we had lunch and a pint in the pub, The Sabden Witch, before its garish life size mural of cackling crones feeding a bubbling cauldron. We also visited Lancaster, took some location shots and even identified our heroine's house.
Alan still hadn't decided upon the title of the strip nor the name of the protagonist. I came up with Mirrigen Demdyke, named after the head of one of the Pendle witch clans, the ancient and blind Old Mother Demdike (sic), who was described by the Lancaster court clerk during her trial as "the rankest hag ever to trouble daylight". Mirrigen is a spelling of Murigen, the Irish Celtic equivalent of Morgan la Fey of the Arthurian legends. Alan muses in his letter about naming her after a bird. A couple of weeks before his visit, I'd been listening to the weird mating calls of two nightjars as they wheeled in the dusk Lake District sky and knew I'd found the right name. Neither Alan nor Dez had heard of them before, Dez commenting that it sounded like a nocturnal pint of beer.
You'll see in Alan's notes how much thought he devoted to Mirrigen's appearance, wanting a look that walked the line between beauty and strangeness. He loved my suggestion of basing her on Jane Morris, the Pre-Raphaelite model and wife of William Morris. The straight nose, strong jaw, bow lips and pronounced philtrum (that vertical grove between the lips and the nose) and realistic figure were in marked contrast to the comic book heroine stereotype of the day, with the tiny retrousse nose, big eyes, small chin and hourglass curves. Mirrigen also went against the then contemporary received wisdom of never drawing philtrums on attractive female characters or shading their faces, as it made them look masculine. David Lloyd was already breaking both of these taboos in V for Vendetta. As Nightjar was never published, I went on to use Jane Morris as the inspiration for the appearance of Persephone in the Sandman story, The Song of Orpheus and Ophelia Ruskinspeare in my graphic novel Heart of Empire.
Alan was also keen on the strip having a singular and unique visual identity. In accordance with the story's ambiance, I decided upon a line and watercolour wash technique, with the panels against a solid black background. It needed to be very dark and claustrophobic. A major difference from the earlier work is that I used a computer to finish off the new pages, for airbrush effects and so forth. The glows on the second page are done with a "real" airbrush.
I'm puzzled now as to why I ignored so much of Alan's visual suggestions on the second page of the script. If I'm working with a writer, I usually try to follow instructions to the letter. I did add a few extra frames later on, but Alan is always open to his artists using their judgement on elements such as timing and point of view.
When it came to drawing the seven birds who had conspired to murder Mirrigen's father some twenty years previously, I suddenly discovered a glitch in the plot, presumably one that Alan would have spotted and rectified had the strip been completed at the time. You'll see in the script that one of the characters is only thirty years old, one twenty-one and one only eleven! After getting Alan's approval I aged the first two characters, changing "the girl" in the script to "mistress" and adding " The second now inhabits the body of..." to the child's caption. I also depicted him clearly, in contradiction to the script, figuring that Alan was saving him for a shocking revelation in a later chapter, something that will now never happen. I also gave him limbs, as it now didn't matter what came next and I wanted to show him as a TV junkie operating a remote.
A couple of years after Warrior folded, I 'phoned Alan to suggest that we revive Nightjar and place the project with another publisher. Too late: now he already had his ideal horror vehicle and his Swamp Thing was the hottest comic around. He also felt that he'd moved on and was capable of better work and he was right. He just carried on getting better. He suggested that we came up with another big project we could get our teeth into but, although we did subsequently work together on a few shorts, we never did collaborate on a graphic novel, much to my regret. Right then I was busy working for the British weekly SF comic 2000AD and Alan, well, that's in all the comic history books. Alan's now talking of retiring from comic writing altogether to concentrate on magic and other things. It's a little like hearing that your favourite musician's giving up music to become a catholic priest.
So, Nightjar will stay there on the shelves of Lucien's library: an epic that never was.
Two days after I received the script for this first chapter, I was drawing while listening to local radio when the news came on. The night before, in one of the small stone terraced cottages in a tiny village crouching in the darkness on the slopes of Pendle Hill, an old lady had been burned to death when a fire gutted her home.
9 June 2003
Bryan has written and drawn the graphic novels The Tale of One Bad Rat, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Heart of Empire, and, among others, has illustrated Sandman, Fables, Hellblazer, Legends of the Dark Knight and Judge Dredd.
*Talking Heads: Remain in Light
Also see: page 3 and page 4 from the Nightjar comic, and the article on Alan Moore's Yuggoth Cultures.
The design and content of this page and this entire website is copyright 1999, 2006 by James Robertson: all images are copyright 1999, 2006 by Bryan Talbot