Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Alan Moore and the golliwog

(another repost from my own blog)

When I first read the Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill Black Dossier, I was baffled by the Galley-Wag. He’s a huge blackface figure who comes out of nowhere to save Allan and Mina, babbling insane gobbledygook, as you can see below.The deus ex machina aspect was just bad writing but what was the point of the blackface? It turned out this was a revival of yet another 19th century fictional character, the Golliwog, but it’s one that doesn’t work.

The original Golliwog was created by Florence Kate Upton. It became the basis for golliwog dolls which make the racist aspect a lot more obvious, as you can see. I saw them on Robertson’s Jam labels in my childhood but I just thought they were funny looking figures. I hadn’t been exposed to much racist iconography of that sort, and it never occurred to me they had any resemblance to black people in real life.

According to Moore, the original Golleywog was a strong, positive character, not at all racist despite the blackface look, ; I’ve heard arguments to the contrary, but I’ve no idea which is right. By putting the Galley-Wag in the book as one of the Blazing World’s agents, Moore thought he could redeem the character, restoring him to his non-racist roots. When people began saying he blew it, Moore did not take it well. Eventually he fell back on the time-honored cop-out that his critics are objecting to white people writing black characters.

Um, no. The issue is not Moore’s white skin, it’s that he  had a bad idea and handled it badly. Even assuming Upton’s Golliwog is as non-racist as Moore says, I’ve never heard of it and neither, I suspect, have most other LXG fans. Of course that’s true of lots of characters in the series but it’s more of a problem with the Galley-Wag than having Billy Bunter (a character I know but I’m sure few Americans did) put in an appearance. My reaction isn’t going to be “Wow, Moore has reclaimed the positive qualities of the Golleywog!” but “What the hell i sthat freaky character in blackface doing there?” Even readers who’ve never heard of Allan Quatermain can figure out his character type (great white hunter/adventurer) without much effort. The only way to make sense of the Galley-Wag is to read the Upton story or study Jess Nevins’ annotations to the series.

That to me, is authorial failure. Readers are entitled to judge the story by what’s on the page and what’s on the page is blackface. Admittedly the Galley-Wag is so bizarre he doesn’t conform to any particular racist stereotype, but that’s not good enough.

It’s not like this is a unique problem in the series. LXG suffers from having a shit-ton of rape and rape threats, not to mention Yellow Peril stereotypes in the first series. The Comics Journal argues that Moore and O’Neil use these tropes to “dare their readers to parse the difference between mimesis and mockery,” but I don’t see mockery, just a lot of rapes and racist imagery recycled. If their intent was to mock or subvert the tropes, they blew it.

To paraphrase the late film critics Siskel and Ebert, if something in a comic doesn’t work, having the creators explain why it had to be that way is not an excuse.

#SFWApro. Comics panels by O’Neill.

15 Comments

  1. Adrien

    I’ve been thinking about this comic a bit this week, so call it good serendipity that you posted this. I think comics like this and the surrounding reaction to it are a good showcase of Moore’s weakness as a writer and as a public figure. Moore overall is a talented wordscribe, but I find that he lets his interest in a subject get in the way of just telling the story. This volume of League is a good example, where he tries to rehabilitate the image of a character readers who weren’t already incredibly on the know wouldn’t even acknowledge or find interesting. As you noted, Moore reacted poorly to the criticism he received at the time, but it can be hard to really allow for a nuanced discussion about shortcomings like that as people treat him like a devil or angel just because he said he dislikes superhero movies and he wore a communist t shirt that one time. As a result, critical discussions of his work, and Moore’s reaction to them as a writer/person, tend to be lost in the discussion.

    Anyhow, sorry for the length comment, this has just been brewing in my head of late and your post just provided the perfect opportunity to get it out.

    1. I was struck by the end of the final LGX volume where he and O’Neill sneer at their critics (“They thought we were just going to do more stories about the ‘Bloomesbury Justice League.”) but don’t even acknowledge criticisms such as the overuse of rape in the series.

        1. Adrien

          Yeah, that’s kind of where I think Moore could have switched gears a bit and tried for academia. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great when authors share their interests. Broadly speaking, American comic authors tend to explore pop culture whereas manga tends to be more varied where you can make a long running series about competitive wine tasting of all things, but it’s all good so long as the story still holds. There’s just a difference to say, Kieron Gillen contextualizing his stories in things that aren’t my passion (pop music, tabletop gaming) and still making it moving, and Moore talking at me about his interests.

  2. If only the Golly was a forgotten 19th century character… Ultra-famous British children’s book author Enid Blyton used a Golly in her work up till 1963, and subsequently the character remained in print until relatively recently.
    Then it became somewhat of a ‘culture war fodder’ about a decade or so ago here, with the usual suspects claiming that it’s just a harmless children’s book character.
    I’ve certainly seen Gollys for sale here in Northern Ireland up till 15 years ago, along with Al Jolson CDs with blackface cover.
    Alan Moore may be annoyed that he’s not infallible, but as a writer you really need to make sure that when you want to reclaim a character, that the character is yours to reclaim, and that your irony or parody is sufficiently distinguishable from the original. He failed on both counts.

    1. Adrien

      Geez, didn’t know the figure was that prevalent. That explains why Moore felt inclined to fix the image some, but I agree with you that he isn’t the best person to reclaim it, or even decide if it should be reclaimed.

  3. John King

    Robertson’s continued using gollywogs on their labels (which could be sent in for gollywog badges) until 2001 when they were replace with Roald Dahl characters.
    Now, they have Paddington Bear on their labels (due to his association with marmalade)

  4. JHL

    Yeah there were several countries where the gollywog retained cultural prominence until quite recently.

    LXG sounded like a fun concept (I’d been a fan of Farmer’s Wold Newton conceit) but it always felt to me like Moore thought that if the story wasn’t racist and sexist then it wouldn’t be authentic and that that trumped it not being awful.

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