fantasy

Practitioners 47: Alan Moore (Part 2)

Having conquered (and irritated) the British comic book industry with his time on 2000AD, Captain Britain and Warrior, Alan Moore was about to cross the Atlantic. DC Editor Len Wein offered him a place in the DC lineup – though reserved judgment carefully and only offered a minor, formulaic, failing title.

Swamp Thing was a stereotypical monster title quite a distance from the mainstream legends of DC. Whether Wein offered it as a low priority title that mattered little if Moore failed or saw the potential in Moore’s alternative and original work in the UK, but nevertheless – few could’ve anticipated the work produced. It remains difficult to know if it is because of Moore’s current reputation retrospectively illuminating old work through association or if the Swamp Thing under Moore really represents timeless writing but along with artists Stephen R. Bissette, Rick Veitch and John Totleben, Moore revolutionised the character. Taking advantage of the low importance of the title, Moore created beautifully experimental storylines addressing environmental and social issues alongside the horror and fantasy, supported further still with research on Louisiana – where the storyline was set.

Moore recognises comic books as a as a mature medium – potentially as influential, challenging and intellectually stimulating as books, theatre, films or television – when at their best. He recognises that there is no limitation to the content that can be applied to any character or situation, whether they wear a spandex jumpsuit or a psychic formation of roots and swamp vegetation with regenerative powers. He elevated the subject matter and the characters and trusts his reader’s intelligence as any writer should. Through Moore’s writing it becomes clear that the base material is not limited in its scope to be elevated and broadened to meet any audience or handle content thought previously beyond it’s remit. In short, Moore fails to recognise limitations. A comic book page is as alive to him as a page of prose, poetry or a painting in a gallery. In turn this elevated him above the rest of his fellow writers.

Using Swamp Thing as an experimental platform to revive many of DC’s neglected magical or supernatural characters, Moore resurrected a number of figures to greater status that even after 3 decades have not seen them recede back into the minor leagues, including the Spectre, the Demon, the Phantom Stranger and Deadman. One such figure was introduced by Moore. John Constatine is a working class magician based visually on the musician Sting, who later became the central character in Hellblazer, DC imprint Vertigo’s longest running title. From January 1984 to September 1987, from issue 20 to 64, Moore guided Swamp Thing to critical and commercial success. Thanks to Wein’s successes with the first UK invasion – featuring Moore and his soon-to-be-counterpart artist Brian Bolland, the doors were beginning to open for UK and European artists such as Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Peter Milligan and Neil Gaiman to continue in the same vein. Many were influenced directly by Moore and continued the tradition of brave and successful rethinks of existing titles – such as Morrison’s run on DC’s Animal Man some years later. These titles formed the foundation s for Vertigo comics.

Moore’s two-issue run on Vigilante furthered his credibility as a brave, alternative and unrestrictive writer willing to look at difficult and hard hitting stories. The central figure, Vigilante is rendered sidelined and shocked as a father, having abused his daughter, pursues her until he is chewed up in the back wheels of a vengeful young woman’s car. The daughter, having lost her Mother is traumatised and beside herself at the loss of her Father, offering a difficult, challenging and controversial conclusion more recognisable as literary conventions than the black and white moralism of comics.

Eventually, after consistent successes, Moore was offered some of DC’s most prominent characters, starting with Superman, entitled For the Man Who Has Everything, illustrated by Dave Gibbons, in which Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman arrive at the Fortress of Solitude to discover Superman overwhelmed by a plant that offers up his wildest dreams. Moore followed this up with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? – effectively the first example of A Death of Superman storyline – some 8 years before it was thought up by Jurgens and co, designed as the last Superman story in the pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe and illustrated by Curt Swain. The final fates of Brainiac, Lex Luthor, Clark Kent, Superman and Lois Lane are decided, handled masterfully and with a typically deft touch by Moore.

In 1988 came a Batman story that helped redefine the character along with other titles such as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One but was cited as ‘a rare example of a Moore story where the art is better than the writing.’ This was The Killing Joke, a script developed based on artist Brian Bolland’s idea of developing a creation story for the Joker. Escaped from Arkham Asylum, The Joker shoots Barbara Gordon through the stomach, crippling her and then parades photos of her broken body, naked, lying in glass to her Father as part of a twisted fairground ride in a bid to drive him mad. It fails. However, while opinion differs on the effectiveness of the writing – a history for DC’s most famous villain was created, a second tier character was offered a chance to define herself as a central character as Oracle in following years and Batman was darkened and hardened further into the easily recognisable figure we know today. However Moore acknowledges it as not his greatest writing and upset Bolland by referring it to ‘just another Batman story.’ However, Moore had offered Bolland a platform on which to create a defining career project. He’d once again created a wave of success at an apparent low point in his own career. Something that illustrates the power of Moore’s writing and the influence of his involvement.

A set of panels from Tales of the Black Freighter - a comic being read by a character in Watchmen

Another artist gained global fame thanks to Moore’s writing. Dave Gibbons was assigned to a limited series known as the Watchmen, on which Moore asked him to maintain a consistent three tier, 9 panel layout. Collected as trade paperback in 1987, Watchmen is a seminal work and mandatory reading in understanding the history of comic books, cementing Moore’s reputation. A Cold War mystery in which the shadow of Nuclear War threatens the world. The heroes that are caught up in this escalating crisis either work for the U.S. government or are outlawed, all of whom are motivated to heroism by their various psychological hang ups. Using political and social climate to define the history and current state and status of the individual heroes it dealt with subjects like moralism, politicised ethics, loneliness, isolationism, mental illness, sickness, economics and capitalism among others seamlessly and seemingly effortlessly, interlacing the fates of characters defined by templates of central DC characters, but developed well beyond their original’s plotlines. Gibbons met Moore’s recommendations beautifully, allowing his vision to come to life. Watchmen is non-linear and told from multiple point of view, and includes formal experiments such as the symmetrical design of issue 5 ‘Fearful Symmetry’ in which the last page is a near mirror image of the first, the second to last the second and so on. Dr Manhattan, a character unrestrained by the limitations of the laws of physics allowed Moore to investigate the implications to free will if the constraints of linear human perception were removed. His most famous character, Rorschach, named after the basic visual psychological test sets the tone perhaps most effectively, bemoaning, pessimistically, a world entirely lost – to him most specifically. Isolated and increasingly unhinged and appearing early in the book as a seemingly inconsequential background figure, Rorschach represents most prominently the outsider aspect that all of the characters suffer from. A masterpiece, it is seen as Moore’s best work and the only comic book ever to win the literary Hugo Award, in a one-time category of Best Other Form. It is widely regarded as the best comic book ever written. Released around the same time as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez’s Love and Rockets it has been seen as part of a movement in mainstream comic books of the time to reach out to adult audiences. Breifly, Moore became a minor celebrity, causing him, typically, to withdraw from the public eye and refuse to attend conventions. This is unsurprising perhaps as he was said to have been followed into the toilet by overzealous autograph hunters at the UKCAC.

Moore proposed a series named Twilight of the Superheroes in 1987, the title a twist on Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Twilight of the Gods’. A series set in a future DC Universe, ruled by Superhumna dynasties, including the House of Steel (watched over by Superman and Wonderwoman) and the House of Thunder (presided over by the Marvel family). About to combine in a dynastic marriage, a move that could threaten world freedoms, several characters, including John Constatine, attempt to stop them and save the world from the power of the superheroes. Perhaps because the proposition would reinstate the many worlds already eliminated in the Crisis on Infinite Earths it never saw the light of day, though DC retains rights to its contents. Many similar projects have appeared since, Mark Waid and Alex Ross of the most prominent of these, Kingdom Come, admitting to having read the notes but insisting that any similarity was purely coincidental and unintended.

Again Moore’s relationship with DC had deteriorated over rights as Moore and Gibbons were paid no royalties for a Watchmen spin-off badge set as DC defined them as ‘promotional items’. Reportedly, and rather appallingly, Moore and Gibbons earned only 2% of the profits earned by DC from Watchmen. Completing V for Vendetta for DC, which they had already begun publishing, Moore slung his bag back over his shoulder and made his way out into the cold wastes and warm embrace of independent comic writing.

Part 3 – Tuesday, 3rd December 2012

Practitioners 43: Dan Abnett

Born in England (12th October 1965), Dan Abnett is  a comic book writer, novelist and full time fantasist absorbed in the world of fantasy, space and superheroes. He has directed enormous future armies into cataclysmic battles, led mighty metal robots to clang together to save the universe, assassinated space empresses and sent heroes into space in wheelchairs. He is a frequent collaborator with fellow writer Andy Lanning, and is known for his work on books for both Marvel Comics, and their UK imprint, Marvel Uk, since the 1990s, including 2000AD. He has also contributed to DC Comics titles, and his Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 novels and graphic novels for Game Workshop’s Black Library now run to several dozen titles and have sold over 1,150,000 copies as of May 2008. In 2009 he released his first original fiction novels through Angry Robot books.

While Abnett cannot claim to have kick started a character on the same scale as Judge Dredd, the ABC Warriors or Slaine in his tenure at 2000AD, he did create one of the book’s better known and longest running strips of the last decade, Sinister Dexter, following the exploits of gun sharks (hitmen) Finnigan ‘Finny’ Sinister and Ramone ‘Ray’ Dexter in the state city of Downlode, sprawled across central Europe ‘ like a hit and run victim’. Sinister Dexter is a universe apart from that of Strontium Dog and Dredd, and style supplants horror, with neat and precise detailing throughout to give it an alternative edge that readers found addictive. With more than 135 stories alone to his name, most stretching to more than one issue, Abnett is one of the most prolific of all 2000AD writers, making his lack of success at generating a  genuine globe trotting legend like Slaine or Dredd more down to bad luck than anything else.

Most likely in fact it’s lack of intent intent. Abnett’s style is pretty light, humorous and wry. His stories bound along and drag you with them. First and foremost is character, planted firmly at the heart of whatever dying star/ hive of alien warriors / dangerous street he can find. In Abnett’s universe character is secondary to event at times but only momentarily. Then, the characters bounce resolutely back into the frey and mash it up (for want of a better word). Abnett is addicted to failures. The almost-guy. Slaine and Dredd, much like Superman, Batman et al are a stall of successes. You put a criminal in his way, Dredd crushes dissent and puts them away. Slaine warp spasms, charms, wangles or shags his way out of every scenario. One of Abnett’s character steps into the frey he might as well be ready to lose an arm. Abnett’s characters are desperately, hilariously and touchingly out of their depth. This makes readers even more attached to the characters as they survive all that Abnett (and Lanning – to be featured in the following article) throw at them. Major characters are put to the sword, or in the case of perrenial space empress and Mutant headteacher beau du jour circa 1995, Empress Nerimani of the Shi’ar, who has wandered in and out of Marvel’s most prominent titles for decades, unceremoniously blown away by a sniper as part of a Darkhawk conspiracy. This, to anyone unfamiliar with the situation – is lunacy. Brilliant lunacy. You can almost see the grins on their faces as they decided it.

This was to move a nobody character, effectively unheard of since the ’90s into the foreground of an empire churning, galaxy battering epic in the guise of Marvel’s War of King’s series two years ago, in which stable, mainstay characters were supplanted, abused, annihalated, twisted and entire empires changed status. The scale of the effect on accepted rules of the wider Marvel Universe was mad, but Abnett and Lanning play with the planets and principle characters involved like so many ping pong balls. This, you suspect, was learned in the furnaces of the creative pool of 2000AD and the more blood thirsty Marvel UK. But more likely, they are just crazy bastards.

As well as a neat absurdist streak and a whithering habit of throwing humour at serious plot points (hard not to when your head tactician is a talking Raccoon but more on that later). He didn’t stop there. As well as generating Black Light, Badlands, Atavar (with Richard Elson, about the last Human alive trapped between warring alien races), Downlode Tales (an extension of the Sinister Dexter universe), Sancho Panzer (with Henry Flint, featuring the eponymous character piloting a giant tank, excellently monickered Mojo, with his brilliantly named technician, Tool), Roadkill and Wardog, Abnett scribed Judge Dredd, Durham Red and Rogue Trooper.

With Marvel UK, Abnett had runs on Death’s Head 2, The crossover Battletide, Knight’s of Pendragon (all of which he co-created) as well as The Punisher, War Machine, Nova and various X-Men titles. Over at DC he reinvented Legion of Superheroes as the Mini-series Legion Lost which was later launched as the ongoing series The Legion. As was typical of his most recent work, most of Abnett’s work was written with Andy Lanning. From this they derived their moniker DnA. For Dark Horse comic Abnett was responsible for Planet of the Apes: Blood Lines as well as knocking out Lords of Misrule and Hypersonic. Many UK readers will know his work however primarily on the 40,000 Warhammer series, including the Gaunt’s Ghost, Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogies, and more recently as part of the Horus Heresy, the SF best-selling Horus Rising, Legion and Prospero Burns. Frankly, these titles are unfamiliar to us here at the Bunker however clearly Abnett has brought his strong character and situation writing to bear on the battlefields of 40K, no doubt, injecting personalities that prove engaging in ferocious battle. He’s dabbled in comic books for 4ok’s black library imprint; producing Damnation Crusade, Lone Wolf, Inquisitor Ascendent and Titan. Again no doubt with the same results, given the number of titles.

Put this together with writing two Doctor Who audio dramas – the Harvest and Nocturne – as well as Torchwood: Everyone says hello for BBC Audio as well as two novels based on the respective series: The Story of Martha and Torchwood: Border Princes, and it’s clear that Abnett is a significant bedrock in British Science Fiction. With this grounding in space and time hopping adventurers it’s perhaps unsurprising that Abnett (and Lanning) have found such a secure home in Marvel’s cosmic titles.

But prior to that they developed the sharp edge of DC’s Wildstorm Imprint, The Authority, spawning storylines in which Earth is attacked by God himself back to feed on what was a primordial soup and understandably narked at discovering a Human populated, verdant planet where he left his pantry. It’s not til you see an interdimensional, sentient supership entering God’s pores and detonating its brain with the power of the previous century that you understand the lunacy of Abnett and Lanning. Magnificent space operas be damned, God assassinations by chain smoking blondes is the remit here. In many ways that is Abnett and Lanning’s genius. Lighter than Millar’s follow up too as perhaps would be expected.

At the heart of incredibly massive events, the collapse of star spanning empires or the decimation of a city block there is the average, the easily recognisable. The character’s written by them carry the easily recognisable traits of normal people. No matter what you throw at these characters, they remain people first and superheroes second. After joining Guardians of the Galaxy, as part of Marvel’s Cosmic Imprint Jack Flag can’t stand ‘space stuff’ even as he fights tentacled beasts from the far side of an interdimensional fracture or trying to survive a Negative Zone prison breakout in a wheelchair. Jack Flag is another fringe character unrecognisable outside of Captain America comics until he was crippled by the Thunderbolts under Osborne. He came out of nowhere, went downhill and sent to a prison in a backlot of the Marvel Universe and instantly became irresistable to Abnett and Lanning (I’m not calling them DnA – I’m just not).

It’s Guardians that represents the hybrid brain of Abnett and Lanning. Led by the permanently down trodden Star-lord and a Raccoon, Guardians of the Galaxy represents exceptional gung-ho space adventure and dead pan tongue in cheek humour at it’s own expense. Most of the characters are as unhappy to be there as you’d expect to be if you were faced by an interstellar absolutist faith that feeds on the beliefs of others and kills anyone who steps in their way. The members of the team are an eclectic batch (when alive); including a psychic titan lesbian, a master assassin, a talking tree king and a man from 1000 years in the future witha  Captain America shield. These characters should struggle to blend but at the hands of Abnett and Lanning the many parts become a much more satisfying hole. Not a mispelling.

Abnett is a veteran chef of plot line and character, always incorporating the right blend to create satisfying and engaging storylines. A man of specific interests, he is most at home (with Andy Lanning) dealing with situations of bewildering scale and yet manages to draw you in to the minutae of characters caught in these events. A master of scale and plotting, Abnett can handle a charge on an alien world or two characters grabbing a drink (provided it descends into a bar room brawl inspired by an quadreped alien with telescopic glasses on. As 9 Billion lives are threatened and an imprisoned Moondragon (character), pregnant with a spore from a cancerous universe where life won allowing disease to thrive is about to give birth amongst a militant fundamentalist cosmic church, Star Lord jumps out and shouts ‘ Hi, I’m Starlord! I’d wave but my hands are full of guns.’ Don’t know if that was Lanning, don’t know if that was Abnett but Abnett was in the room and that is good enough for me.

Regarding the talking Raccoon – you’ll have to wait ’til we do Lanning. I got worried I wasn’t going to leave anything for his article next week….