Moore and Villarrubia on The Mirror of Love

In 1988 Alan Moore wrote an epic poem about the history of gay culture entitled The Mirror of Love. Now, 16 years later, Top Shelf has just released a version of the poem lavishly illustrated with photos by Jose Villarubia. It’s a moving, epic, literate, intellectual response to an argument currently going on in the United States – not a defense by any means, but an acceptance and a celebration of same sex love through the ages. Newsarama spoke with both Moore and Villarubia about the poem’s history, and how its latest incarnation came to be.

Moore first put pen to paper for The Mirror of Love in the late ‘80s, at a time when the supernova-level success the British writer had found in American comic books allowed him the freedom to do whatever he wanted – literally – when it came to comics. “It was around 1988, and I had just finished most of my DC commitments, including Watchmen, and V for Vendetta and most of my superhero work,” Moore said. “I was living then with my former wife Phyllis and our girlfriend, Debbie Delano in sort of a…experimental relationship, I suppose you’d call it. It was something we were very serious about, and it endured for two to three years, which was a mark of that seriousness.

“It was also round about that time that the government over here firsts proposed Clause 28, which was a bill designed to outlaw what was described as ‘the promotion of homosexuality.’ This was based, I suppose, on the theory that homosexuality is a choice by the individual, and is something that can be learned at school.”

Under Clause 28, any favorable or general references to homosexuality were to be removed from what could be discussed in society. As Moore saw it, Clause 28 nearly amounted to the word itself being removed from the dictionary.

“That was the first kind of legislation over here in a long time that was aimed at one specific minority, which had more than a whiff of the Third Reich about it,” Moore said. “It was very, very nasty – the implications of it were very serious.”

While the Clause could have affected his own personal relationship at the time, Moore saw the effects of government-sponsored correct-think as even more chilling for teenagers. “The number of teenage suicides in the Western world is already alarming, and while they’re attributable to a number of causes, certainly, problems with sexuality are numbered amongst those causes. If you imagine being a 15-year old boy or girl who’s just starting to get a grip on their own sexuality, which might happen to be gay…and then they are treated as unpersons in the culture that surrounds them, I don’t think that’s going to help.

“It was also a legislation that came out at a time when some conservative councilors and various leading figures of society, such as the police chief of Greater Manchester, James Anderson, had spoken of AIDS, which was becoming a very major public problem around that time, in terms of a ‘gay plague,’ despite the fact that the vast majority of cases came form heterosexual contact as was known at the time. It was decided more or less that only gay people can catch AIDS as a result of their immoral practices. Chief Anderson actually went so far as to describe people having AIDS as ‘swimming in a cesspool of their own making.’”

Homosexuality wasn’t nearly as integrated into society as it is now, and in both the United States and the U.K., conservatism was the call of the day. “Margaret Thatcher did not condemn any of the people who spoke out against gays – she stood by them and praised their forthrightness,” Moore recalled. “So it was looking potentially, very, very ugly, and Clause 28 looked like it might just be the tip of the iceberg. We decided that, given that I had fulfilled all of my commitments to mainstream comics, that this might be a good time to try putting together a benefit book that would raise people’s consciousness about the issue, and which would also raise money for the Organization for Lesbian and Gay Action, which was the main umbrella group for gay politics over here at the time. So we asked all of my friends in comics, or in some instances people that I never had contact with, but were very generous in offering work, and we put together a fair stellar roster of talent very quickly.”

Moore’s own contribution to the book, (titled AARGH! For Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) would be the centerpiece – an overview of gay history, which, he envisioned, would give the current political situation context, something which would cast Clause 28 as the result of various factors that had been pushing since time immemorial.

“Having that idea of trying to come up with a history of gay culture – I had eight pages to do it in,” Moore said. “I did it with Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch, who did a beautiful job on the comic strip between them, given the constraints of what we were trying to do in just eight pages. It was five panels per page for a very poetic account of gay history in the caption boxes.”

Assigning himself the overview of gay culture and history was the easy part. Writing it…now that was tougher. Again, this was in 1988, the closet was full, and by and large, society was still trying to pretend that homosexuality would just go away of its own accord.

“I had naively assumed that I’d be able to research this thing by going down to the local reference library and getting a good reference book on the history of gay culture,” Moore said of his early research plans. “I was soon disabused of this notion, because I realized that there wasn’t an overall history that existed at that time. I had to put the information together from books of gay poets, writers, and artists, in some cases, university dissertations on subjects like ‘Sodomy and Heresy in early Modern Switzerland.’ These were the fragments that I had to build the story up from.”

The choice to write The Mirror of Love as an epic poem wasn’t exactly made by Moore. Rather, it was dictated to him by circumstance. “I was doing it as a comic strip for inclusion in a comic anthology. That kind of dictated that I had a certain number of words, maximum, per page – 210 if anyone’s absolutely that interested. That meant that I had to get these very detailed parcels of information into very small parcels of words. Each panel [five per page] would only have 42 words for its caption. Very often, I had to say something quite detailed about some part6icular component of gay history in only 42 words.”

While it wasn’t his first time using poetry, Moore said he quickly realized that for what he was attempting, a poem was the best means to reach his goal. “Although it seems very flowery and flamboyant, poetry is a wonderful language for saying things in a very condensed form, which was something that I discovered when I was doing the rhyming couplets for Etrigan the Demon in Swamp Thing #25,” Moore said. “I suddenly realized that poetry is a very condensed language. You can say much more complex things using much fewer, if even more carefully chosen words.

“Also, once I started writing it, in a more poetic style, simply to fit the information in, I found that there was a grandeur to gay history that made that style perfectly appropriate. When you’re talking about people like Oscar Wilde and Michelangelo, you’re in a fairly celestial area of the arts, one that is completely appropriate for these grand, sweeping phrases. It seemed right for practical reasons, and then, once I actually started applying it, it seemed right for all sorts of other reasons as well. This is something big, and grand, and wonderful. The style of producing Mirror of Love kind of underlines that.”

So – AARGH! came out, in 1988, it raised a good deal of money for the Organization for Gay and Lesbian Action, and in time, Clause 28 was defanged due to public outcry. From there, it, as Moore described, “Skulked around at the edges of our legislation over there for another 15 years until it was recently taken off the books. So I guess it is a victory fro common sense and human decency, even if it did take a long while in coming.”

Given the tides of the comic book market, the poem remained as one of Moore’s lesser known works, even among some of his readers who could quote Watchmen dialogue verbatim. Ten years after it was published though, it found a reader who would prove to be quite important: Jose Villarrubia, an openly gay professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, who also worked in comics, and was gaining a reputation as an innovative thinker in regards to color and composition.

“I first read The Mirror of Love in the esoteric magazine Rapid Eye #3, accompanying a long interview with Alan regarding magick and mysticism,” the artist recalled. “When I first read it I was amazed. I found it extremely powerful: passionate, poetic, ironic and very moving in turns. Some of the sections broke my heart, but others healed it and even made me smile.”

The poem moved Villarrubia in a slightly…different way. Nearly immediately after reading it, Villarrubia wanted to perform it as a one-man play. Villarrubia called his friend and director David Drake, read him the poem, and asked him to help him adapt it as a play and direct him in its delivery.

After some trial and error, Drake decided upon a setting of a sumptuous dreamscape, with Jose reciting the poem to his sleeping lover. Both would be nude.

“I wanted to do a solo performance for ages,” Villarrubia recalled. “A wonderfully talented solo performer, David Mills, was visiting Baltimore and encouraged me to perform. I remembered the text, read it aloud and it sounded absolutely great: from almost mythical in the beginning to almost Agit-prop Theater by the end.”

Villarrubia performed The Mirror of Love six years ago at the Baltimore Theater Project to rave reviews. “Some were a little shocked because of the nudity, but most were very, very moved,” Villarrubia said. “The paper gave us generally positive reviews: they were very complimentary of my performance and David’s direction, but did not know quite what to make of the content, since it was more akin to a performance art piece than a traditional theatrical one act play.”

The new actor also sent a video of the performance to Moore. “Jose had interpreted the poem wonderfully,” Moore said. “There was an actor what was sleeping nude in a double bed, and Jose just gave a brilliant performance of the piece, also naked, which caused Melinda [Gebbie, Moore’s partner] to comment when we watched it, ‘Nice ass.’”

The adaptation by Villarrubia was the start of a long working relationship between him and Moore, with Villarrubia serving as colorist on the Moore-penned Promethea comic book series, as well as other special projects.

But among his friends, it was well known that Villarrubia still had a special fondness for The Mirror of Love. It took a little pushing on their part to get him to think of interpreting the work yet again. “A friend named François Peneaud suggested bringing the poem back as a book,” Villarrubia said. “We were in Angouleme for the Comics festival and François asked me how come I had not illustrated Mirror in my own style. I told him that I had not thought of it, but, of course, I immediately had a pretty exact idea of how I would do it.

”François asked Chris [Staros, Top Shelf Publisher], who agreed enthusiastically, and Chris approached Alan, who did the same. Chris also got permission from Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch, who illustrated the first version.”

“Jose suggested to me that it might be possible to take the original piece from ARRGH! and realize it in another format – that it could be done as a book of photo images, with the original cramped, eight pages expanded, so that you have one verse or section of the poem on a left hand page, and one of Jose’s wonderful photographs illustrating it upon the right hand page,” Moore said. “It sounded like a great idea to me, and so we, mostly Jose – I have to admit that my contribution after having written the thing was minimal, compared to the amount of work Jose has done. Having seen it, I can say that this is the format that it was probably always meant to be in. I’m immensely pleased with it.”

In addition to the poem itself, the Top Shelf edition of The Mirror of Love contains four appendices, covering who’s who in the poem, other poems quoted in The Mirror of Love, suggested readings, and a history of Clause 28.

While still solidly acknowledging that the work is at heart, Moore’s, Villarrubia has been likewise struck by the irony of the timing of the volume’s release in the US from Top Shelf. While nothing quite as Orwellian as Clause 28 is in the offing, the US government is rattling its saber in regards to creating laws against homosexuals.

To that end, Villarrubia finds The Mirror of Love speaking as strongly now as it did when it was originally released – perhaps even more so, given the current political climate.

“Clause 28 was just another bump in the long road towards the normalization of the treatment of gay people,” Villarrubia said. “Now we have the Defense of Marriage Act and the proposed Constitutional amendment. Hatemongers always find excuses to discriminate and punish those that are different from them: when The Mirror of Love was written, in the mist of the AIDS crisis, the excuses were mostly ‘public heath issues’ mixed with ‘divine punishment.’ Now the excuse is that recognizing gay relationships is a ‘threat’ to the ‘institution of marriage.’ Same crap, new stupid reasons.

“You cannot rationalize intolerance, that’s why you will hear astonishingly dumb arguments: ‘gay couples can’t have children,’ or ‘you need a man and a woman to raise a child’ - so much for sterile straight couples and single parents, I guess they would be outlawed as well. The poem shows how same sex relationships have been regarded through history as sinful, friendships, and diseased, and those three evaluations continue to be the notions that bigots have of gays.”

That said, Villarrubia set out to make The Mirror of Love a unique expression, opting for photos rather than illustration, letting each one connect to Moore’s words. “Alan structured the original piece very tightly: eight pages with five panels each. Each panel caption had a story arc of its own. So forty pages of text accompanied by forty pages of images was immediately the natural choice.

”A few of the images are based on Alan’s descriptions for the panels of the original illustration - the Spartan warriors come to mind. Others are documentary - The Stonewall Inn bar in New York City, Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris, and others are metaphoric, illustrating my interpretation the sentiment of the passage, and not repeating the same information twice.”

Villarrubia only used tow images he had previously collected, and gathered the rest from a wish list he constructed. “Aside from the two I had, the other 38 images were shot specifically for the book. First, I sketched all of the images, drawing several thumbnails sketches for each one of them. Then I gathered up props, sought locations, cast models, etc…. and proceeded to shoot them.”

For example, for the image that would accompany Moore’s words about St. Paul naming same-sex love as sin for the first time on page 19, Villarrubia had a very iconic image in mind – a cross on the top of a church with the sun shining above it.

“That photo was shot in Northampton, and I had a sketch that looked very much like it,” Villarrubia said. “It’s amazing how when you have an image in mind, and walk around looking for it, most of the time it will appear at some unexpected point. This happened several times during the completion of this book.”

Collecting all the images took Villarrubia about seven months in total, with some images presenting unexpected challenges. “The AIDS passages at the end took a lot of planning. I could not do a theatrical recreation of thing for the present, like I did for the Spartans or Shakespeare. It would have looked very fake and kitschy. So I put myself in situations were I could get dramatic photo-journalistic photographs of gay activists and police. I shot over a dozen 36-exposure rolls, and I got just one shot that was adequate, but I must think it is perfect for the text, and definitely one of my favorites.”

When asked to relate his views about the state of gay culture and politics in the United States upon the release of his poem in this new format, Moore said that he felt much progress has been made since he first wrote The Mirror of Love, but, as he put it, “there are still pockets of appalling bigotry.

With America at the moment, it seems that gay consciousness has reached the point where gay couples are unable to understand why they shouldn’t have the same rights under law as everybody else, and are thus, getting married. Now, speaking as a practicing pagan, obviously, the idea of a Christian marriage service – I don’t really have any opinion on that, so I can’t comment on that, but I understand that George Bush has said that he wants to see a constitutional amendment to forbid gay marriage. I believe that his, (please God) likely successor John Kerry favors some sort of civil ceremony.

“I can see where that might go some way to placating the religious objections to it, but those religious objections are actually founded upon fairly spurious foundations anyway. As far as I can see, this all goes back to the book of Leviticus, where yes, it does say that homosexuals should be stoned to death or burned or something like that. Okay, it says that in Leviticus, but if you’re going to take notice of everything it says in Leviticus, then we would have a society today that would be like something out of Hieronymous Bosch. I don’t know if most of the religious right ever bothered to read the Bible, but if they did, they would surely be aware of this. So, it seems a bit perverse to single out homosexuality. It seems to me as if they have a personal aversion to it, which they are trying to justify by these rather spurious religious references.”

What we are witnessing, Moore feels, is just history moving forward, with the requisite sound and fury of those opposed to the change, those who would, as Moore sees it, attempt to put the genie back in the bottle.

“Once you have accepted that gay people have a right to exist, then it becomes progressively harder to justify the fact that they don’t have the same rights as everybody else, that the same laws should apply to them that apply to everybody else,” Moore said. “As with most things in culture, you’re going to get this surge of progress which will be met by people digging their heels in. It will be met by fundamentalist objections, which have their basis in trying to turn things back to how they were. I’d suggest that historically, that’s not going to happen. That doesn’t work.

“Our leaders do not control the tides of history – they are just surfing them. They are doing their best to keep on top of them. They do not make the tides – the tides of history come from a million different vectors: our advancing technology, our advancing worldview. These are the things that actually make a difference to the flow of history, and our leaders try to sit on top of it, and perhaps try to give the impression that they are controlling it, but history’s history. Time and tide – they don’t pay much attention to any human leader.

“There will be a lot of unnecessary hardship and anguish and pain and fighting and shouting, but at the end of the day, things will progress, and they will move on. Those voices, I think, will become more subdued, as they realize that these things have happened and it wasn’t the end of the world. It wasn’t Sodom and Gomorrah and people turning to pillars of salt. The final judgment didn’t descend upon us because two gay librarians from Massachusetts happened to get married and tried to live happily ever after.”

Backing up from the work a little, Villarrubia was able to give an objective view of it, revealing what drew him to it in the first place, and what he hopes will attract others. “It is an epic history of same sex love told through the love lives of great Western artists: Sappho, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Whitman, Dickinson and many others. It takes a poetic form that combines a fairy tale beginning - of the ‘Once upon a time…’ kind, with an intimate love letter, and a political manifesto.

“To my gay friends, I would say: ‘Get it!’ Most of my gay, lesbian and bisexual friends have a marginal - at best - concept of who they are in the context of history and where they come from. This book is an eye opener, proof positive that gay people have not been an underground subculture, but have instead played an essential role in shaping Western culture.

”I would also tell them to get it because I did it and it has my best work to date….”

And while he feels that the screaming, finger-pointing anti-gay individuals may be a little beyond appreciating the book, Villarrubia feels that it would find an audience among individuals who are more moderate in their view of homosexuality.

“The book can be useful for people that are not fanatical, but have not given the topic a great deal of consideration, or are uncomfortable with the mixed messages that they get in the media, from politicians and churches – ‘hate the sin, not the sinner.’ I think especially for those people that love Alan’s writing, even though they may not agree with him completely politically, this book could send a message: let this (in practice) straight writer, whom many, including myself consider a genius, guide you into a territory that maybe unfamiliar, and even a little treacherous, but trust that you will learn something in the process, while he will thrill you with his ideas and prose. If you had the courage to follow him into From Hell, The Mirror of Love can grant you different, but equally precious, rewards.

“I hope it becomes a part of school libraries and youth resources. I hope it helps gay sons and daughters facilitate a dialog with their parents. I hope it becomes a very romantic present for lovers. Margaret Cho put it best in her quote:

"The only way to go to war with hate is to love. The Mirror of Love is the great weapon in our arsenal. Not only does it elegantly and profoundly tell our history, it gives us a perfect reflection of our immense beauty. Moore and Villarrubia weave a remarkable tapestry, in words and images that captures with precision the ecclesiastical and ecstatic capabilities of the human heart."

To discuss this article, click here.






js=no