Interview: 11 Questions for Jess Nevins, Mighty Comics Annotator

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Why is this man smiling? Because he is clever

Why is this man smiling? Because he is clever

I’ve referred to Jess Nevins’ notes in the past here and there, when I’ve been stumped by something in a comic. They are insanely exhaustive and always right. But it wasn’t until I read through The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier with Nevins’ notes (introduced and blurbed by Alan Moore himself) on the desk right next to it that I confronted their true power: there is an invisible world of meaning in every frame that only becomes visible through the eyes of an adept, a man who can — just for example — pick Dogtanian (from Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, apparently) out of a crowd, and who knows that the initials AIHD correspond alphabetically to the numeric values 1984.

 

It was then that I first asked myself: who is Jess Nevins? How does he do what he does? Why am I not him? All is revealed below. Except that last one.

1. Who is Jess Nevins? Name, age, education, occupation, rank, serial number, etc.

I’m a librarian at the University of California at Riverside. 42, married, one son. I’ve written three books of annotations of League and The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, an encyclopedia of Victorian literature, characters and concepts. My next, The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (sample entries here: http://ratmmjess.livejournal.com/198216.html), will be out at the end of 2010 or beginning 2011.

2. What was the first annotation you did? How did that happen?

I actually began with the comic book miniseries Kingdom Come. As an English major, I’d read lots of annotations of everything from Shakespeare to Pynchon, and a guy named Scott Hollifield had done some pretty good online annotations to the comic book miniseries The Golden Age, so when Kingdom Come came out I thought I’d take a run at it. They turned out pretty well, so I kept going.

3. Why annotate? Tell me about how you see your role w/ respect to the creators and the readers — are you sort of a facilitator, making sure all the data gets through, from one side to the other?

There are always going to be texts, in any medium, which are sufficiently detailed or complex or obscure enough that some or many or most readers miss out on some or most of the references and themes and elements of the work. The annotator’s job is to illuminate as many of those things as possible, so that the readers who initially miss them can enjoy them or at least understand things which they previously eluded them.

Of course, with writers like Alan Moore, the details are really detailed, and the obscure references are really obscure. So I can’t hope to get all of them or even most of them in my annotations, and I can’t even call myself-the- facilitator. The final product of the annotations are the result of many people’s contributions–I lay the groundwork, and then others add to it. I initiate the process, and I make sure the annotations are maintained in one place, and I incorporate contributions into one document, and I do some editing. It’s far from a one-person job, and I can’t claim that it’s all me.

4. Give me a sense of how you work. It’s amazing how much rich stuff you pull out of some of these frames. How the hell do you find it all?

It helps to have a good working knowledge of the areas of popular culture, like Victorian literature, which Moore and Kevin O’Neill mine for their references, so that I know exactly what they’re referring to when they make a passing reference to The Wreck of the Titan. (An obscure 1898 novel by author Morgan Robertson, which predicted the Titanic disaster with uncanny accuracy).

Otherwise, it’s just pure research. I look at every panel to see if there’s a proper name mentioned, or someone or something referred to, or something shown in the panel (because Kevin O’Neill is responsible for a large number of references in League). And when I find something, I begin trying to identify it. Online research is the easiest, but I have a sizable personal library of reference books, and I have access to a wide range of databases I can use, and of course the books in the library in which I work. And as a librarian, I’m good at this kind of research–it’s what I do for a living.

But I never get everything. After I get all the annotations written and organized, I put them up on my site (http://www.geocities.com/ratmmjess/annos.html) and then wait for feedback from readers. Many of the online fans of League know about the annotations or find them when an issue comes out, so they read the annotations and point out what I missed or what I got wrong, and then I incorporate their contributions into the annotations (giving them proper credit, of course). It’s always an ongoing process–I’m still getting e-mails of things I missed in the notes to the first issue of the first League series.

5. Impossible Territories [Nevins' volume of notes on Black Dossier] has an introduction by Moore himself, and an extensive interview with him (no love for Time magazine in there, I couldn’t help but notice), and lots of notes from Kevin O’Neill. At what point did they get involved and start feeding back into their own annotations? What’s that like?

When the first League series was being published and I was posting my notes online, an interviewer with Spin showed Moore (who of course isn’t online in any capacity) a copy of my annotations. Moore liked that people were going over his work like this, so when the time came to publish the annotations as a book, my publisher got Moore’s phone number and we called him and asked him if he’d be willing to do an introduction and an interview. He was happy to, as was Kevin O’Neill when we got in touch with them, and for the later books were generous with their time in pointing out what we missed.

It’s enormously flattering to me to have them respond in this way to work I’m doing. They are both the soul of generosity–they couldn’t be nicer people–and having them add to the notes, and lend them a semi-official imprimatur, makes all the work worthwhile.

6. The Watchmen movie: yay? nay? no comment?

I haven’t seen it yet, and don’t know when I will. Not because I don’t want to, but because I’ve a ten month old son and don’t have the time or opportunity to go to the movies. My wife and I both want to see it, but being able to is another matter.

7. So many times in his career Moore has picked up pre-existing characters — the League, Swamp Thing, Marvelman, etc. — and bent them to his will, with spectacular results. What do you know about why he likes to work in that mode? What does it get him that wholly original, from-scratch characters don’t?

I’d never presume to speak for him. Purely guessing, though: part of it, I think, is the commercial reality that if you use pre-existing characters you’ll sell more issues. At least as far as the comics market goes, people still buy comics for the characters far more than they do for the creators.

I’m sure that’s not his sole or even primary motivation, but I think that did factor into it. A larger part of it is a desire to try to find the basic, core elements of old, familiar, tired characters and to create the Platonic ideal of that character–in a way, accepting an artistic challenge to do something new and different and remarkable with a character who might be thought incapable of producing something new and different and remarkable.

This applies not just to pre-existing commercial properties, but even to his original work on archetypal characters–I’m thinking in particular of his work at America’s Best Comics on things like Promethea and Tom Strong.

But in a larger sense I think he is, ultimately, writing new characters rather than pre-existing ones. Setting aside his original work, like Voice of the Fire, his forthcoming novel Jerusalem, and his recorded work, he takes pre-existing characters and by teasing out their basic natures from the detritus that has accreted to them, he essentially re-invents them. Swamp Thing, Marvelman, the League–all these characters have the same name and laundry during Moore’s work on them as they did before Moore, but they are totally different in plot, character, and themes.

Put another way: the umpteen number of Superman lifts and copies are far less original and from-scratch than Moore’s Supreme or Marvelman (who was a Captain Marvel lift, but you know what I mean).

8. Do you dream of putting out an Ultimate Annotated Edition of the League, something like Martin Gardner’s talmudic Annotated Alice?

Possibly, although it would be an enormous work. Moore & O’Neill have plans for several more volumes of League–an Ultimate edition of my notes wedded to the Ultimate version of the League would be a multi-volume set. If someone wanted to offer me the money to write such a thing, though, I’d certainly do it.

9. Have you, as an annotator, ever gone down in defeat? Are there things in the LoEG books that you just can’t solve?

Oh, heavens, yes. When Moore & O’Neill get into areas which I don’t know anything about and which are ill-represented online and in print–1950s British comic book science fiction, for example–I’m at a complete loss, and some of their references stump even the collective brains of the people who contribute to the annotations. In the Black Dossier, for example, Kevin O’Neill drew in spaceships from various British Fifties sf comics, and if he hadn’t identified them for the print version of the annotations, they would have remained a mystery to us all.

Moore sometimes jokes about trying to stump me. I feel a pain in my head when he says that, because if/when he ever tries to do that, I’m not just stumped, I’m uprooted and thrown into a woodchipper.

10. Do you have inside dope about what Moore is doing next? What’s the deal w/ his long-awaited novel?

I do have some inside dope, yes, but I don’t think he’d want me spoiling his surprises. He’s spoken in various interviews about what’s to come in Century, and those interviews hint at some of the great fun he has in store.

About the novel–it’s going to be huge, 750K words or more, about everything from his family to the history of England. I know he’s been working on it more-or-less non-stop, although he took a break to write Century. I don’t know much more about it, but I can’t wait to read it.

11. Last question: who’s your favorite LoEG character and why? Least favorite?

Favorite, I guess, would be Captain Nemo, for the combination of the visuals, the attitude, and the lines of dialogue. Least favorite is Orlando, who becomes very irritating in Century: 1910. (He was deliberately written that way by Moore, of course).

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