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The Birth Caul

When Eddie Campbell Comics published a work called The Birth Caul, I bought it because I'm a rabid and unrepentant Alan Moore fan. This work is a collaboration between Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell, who also worked together on From Hell, the fictitious biography of Jack the Ripper. I took a chance with The Birth Caul, but I had trouble getting into it because I haven't experienced many works of "abstract poetry." That's what this is: a long, illustrated poem that looks at the life of the common man (told in an autobiographical verse by Alan Moore), tracing time backwards from "The Present Moment" to the moment of conception…and before.

I had trouble getting into this, even though several of Moore's most memorable works are similar in form: they are illustrated poems that tell a story. See the famous "love scene" in Swamp Thing #34, for instance, or any number of passages from Moore's famous Watchmen and the last chapter of Miracleman, or for that matter the climactic final chapter of From Hell. The Birth Caul was intriguing, but I couldn't get into it. Then, upon doing research, I learned that the comic book is actually an illustration of a so-called "performance art" piece that Moore staged on November 18, 1995. A CD of the performance was performed and published, with narration by Alan Moore and music by David J (of Bauhaus and Love and Rockets) and Tim Perkins; the CD was released by Charrm (a small British music production company), and was apparently difficult to locate. I acquired one through amazon.com – I had trouble getting into the comic book, but I trusted Moore enough to risk purchasing the CD unheard (though brief RealAudio samples are available at the amazon.com Web listing).

The CD does indeed complement the comic book…or perhaps the other way around, since the CD came first and the book was produced afterwards. But the two productions do fit together very well, as two parts of a whole presentation of The Birth Caul. If comic book speculators get their hands on this one – as they most likely will – they would do well to sell them together with a title like "The Complete Birth Caul, comic book and CD."

The CD certainly complements the comic book, and the book in turn helps to flesh out the CD. Reading the book while listening to the CD was an interesting experience, not unlike when I first saw the video of Laurie Anderson's Home of the Brave. The CD is an interesting audio collage…but when visual images are added to the recipe, it expands into an entirely different and more fulfulling experience. Moore's recitation is given in a heavy, somewhat droll voice with a very thick British accent, and being able to read the text as it is narrated certainly makes it easier to comprehend. Likewise, the images on the pages paint a clear picture of the story that Moore is trying to present…yet, hearing him speak the words, along with the strange electronic soundtrack, allows me to understand the concepts he tries to present in a more direct fashion that is easier to grasp. Maybe the comic book spoon-feeds the images to me, instead of simply allowing my mind to try to create images from my own interpretation of the CD. But then, both the CD and the comic book are the work of the same creator, so I'm willing to accept this as the "true" version of the performance. Besides, I wasn't there when Moore performed this work before a live audience, so the CD and comic book are the only way I'll ever be able to experience that "Present Moment."

But what IS The Birth Caul? Moore's mother died three months before the "Present Moment" of November 18, 1995; like many authors, he poured his feelings into his writing as a way to accept it and heal from the pain. The Birth Caul is autobiographical (as I mentioned already), using the image of his mother's preserved caul as a jumping-off point, a symbol, to tell a rather depressing story of how we are born, grow up, become aware of the shackles the outer world imposes on us, and why we accept an endless tedium of working, sleeping, and pretending to live and love on the weekends between work-cycles. He begins with "The Present Moment," moving in stages through middle age, back to the altruistic optimism of early adulthood, the rebellion of adolescence, the naivete of childhood, and the unknowing, wondering curiosity of the first days of life. And he leaves us hanging, perhaps unsatisfied, when the piece ends as we move back beyond the moment of conception, past aeons of devolution to the first moments of Creation itself. But unlike a typical comic book story or even a true "novel" like From Hell, he doesn't spell out the final "meaning" of it all, instead leaving it to us to decide for ourselves what it's really about.

The sounds and the voice of the CD have been echoing through my head for hours, even overnight, since I first heard the CD; there are certain images from the comic book that stand out clearly in my memory (such as Moore sitting on a stage, covered with body paint), but the helicopter-like "theme" of the "Birth Caul" has been stuck in my head for a while now. And it's inspired me to think about what The Birth Caul is about, making me wonder how much of myself I see in it. Perhaps this is what Moore wants. Grieving for his mother, he paints an autobiographical picture of himself and uses it to prick us with a few sharp barbs of witticism, to make us feel some pain so that he will feel less. I don't regret spending $24 for this collection ($6 for the comic book, $18 for the CD), and as a capstone to the experience I learned a strange piece of trivia.

The birth caul is the membrane coating the head of an unknown number of babies as they are born: when it emerges from the womb, its head is coated with a shimmering film. This film is collected and preserved, usually on paper. Ancient traditions held that the birth caul was a symbol or portent of greatness, a mark of honor; it was also believed that the preserved birth caul was a talisman that protected its owner from death by drowning. Consequently, the caul was of value to sailors, and women often sold their cauls for sums of money that were not inconsequential.