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 31: Tim Sale

Tim Sale, was born on May 1st 1956, in Ithaca, New York, but spent most of his early life in Seattle, Washington. He attended the University of Washington for two years before moving to New York to study, in part, under artist John Buscema at the School of Visual Arts.

Sale has an incredibly distinctive style. His characters rarely represent realistic proportions and his style of art is decidedly abstract, relying on impressionistic and silhouetted ideas as much as clear visual representation. His compositions are carefully applied, often at dizzying or deliberately engaging perspectives. He is assured in his use of space, very much in the same way younger, more technically complete artists are, but he feels no compulsion to fill open spaces. This gives his work a compelling and assured feel that draws the reader in.

The physicality of his characters is always exaggerated which reinforces the innate characteristics of the character. Batman is big and broad, his neck long and ascending into darkness. The linework is clear and precise when necessary but betray emotional lines when necessary. He is an economical artist, assured enough to apply his own style.

Sale does divide opinion, in part because of his continued association with Jeph Loeb, a marmite figure in comic books. Most artists do not like to be compared to Sale due to his disproportionate bodies and arguably loose compositions and detailing. In spite of his considerable talent he has fallen down the same path as McFarlane. A pronounced and distinctive style that has its time and moves on, Sale has perhaps been left in the 90s.

But that doesn’t reduce his relevance. He pencilled and inked Dark Victory and Long Hallowe’en alongside Loeb 15 years ago and it continues to sell today. His compositions and the realisation of the Bat-universes character offered a visual insight distinct and intriguing enough to represent familiar characters such as the Joker and Two Face in ways previously unseen. Some later incarnations of Catwoman were lifted from Sales work on Dark Victory.

The problem for Practitioners such as Sale and Loeb is that the industry advanced. Techniques continued to develop, the demand for greater sophistication and accuracy increased from the readership. Its hard to say whether the industry will swing back towards the more cartoon strip years of the ’90s. However, it was a period of unprecedented and unrepeated growth for the comic industry and Tim Sale became a legend during that period.

Tim began doing art for the series Myth Adventures in 1983 and was soon working on Theives’ World, a shared fantasy series created by Robert Lynn Asprin in 1978, comprising of 12 anthologies. After meeting Matt Wagner and Diana Schultz (who were at the time creating for Comico Comics) and Barbara Randall of DC Comics at the San Diego Comicon, Sales career began to develop.

The majority of Sale’s work has been with Jeph Loeb. With him, they developed a cooperative style of creating books, in which the art and the writing influenced each other. The duo, creditted as ‘storytellers’, produced extremely popular work such as Batman: Long Hallowe’en, Batman: Dark Victory. Most recently they have worked on the so-called ‘color’ books for Marvel Comics involving mainstay characters from Marvel such as Spider-man, Daredevil and the Hulk.

Through his association with Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale worked on the artwork for Heroes. He was responsible for the paintings created by precognitive artist Isaac Mendez as well as other artists on the show. He is also creditted as creating the comic book font used throughout the series, based on his own handwriting.

Sale is another marmite character in the comic book hall of fame. His dereliction of standard artistic practices such as proportion and physicality means that very few artists want to be compared to him. I have to admit that if my work was assocaited with Sales I would look for where I had gone wrong as on a technical level, Sale does not deliver. But that is his strength in the eyes of a great many comic fan. Artists are by the nature technical, but Sale moves beyond that and offers up artworks taht are deliberately abstract and caricatured. Hs Wolverine is broad shouldered and bubbled, his Gambit gaunt and haunted. His London is empty and uncongested and yet, as the first time I ever saw his work I have been unable to forget it. As an artist I admire Sale’s willingness to apply his own distinctive style to the comic book page. An industry should thrive on individuals like Sale as they push the form outwards towards alternative modus. If everyone in comic books drew like the Kuberts, Quitely and Coipel, with infinitely careful pen lines, consistent detailing and carefully applied physical proportions comic books’d be a dull place. Sale comes from the same stable as Jon Bogdanove, Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane. Artists that contributed to the single most successful period in comic book history. While they may not be fashionable now clearly they have a great and broad appeal beyond the kernel of uberfans and tightly monitored comic book applications. An artist like Tim Sale would not get work in the comics industry right now, however the more I think about it – looking at a struggling comic industry – even with the money turning over in associated features – the more I think tahts not such a good thing. Men like Sale didn’t need to be optioned by a film company to pay their bills. They paid it through sales. And if you’re working in popular culture how many other benchmarks are there?

Practitioners 30: Jeph Loeb (Part two)

Hate is a strong word. Saddham Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, Adolf Hitler conjure that idea pretty well. I hate Jeph Loeb. Not the man. I have no idea what the man is like but I hate his output in the comics industry. I am not alone in this. In Forbidden Planet a short while ago a member of staff (a fan of Loeb) intervened at mine and another member of staff’s leering at the prospect of picking up a Loeb. She was pretty adamant. It seems there are feelings on both sides. While I was determined to keep him off this list for subverting Ultimates into a knee jerking cartoonish wasteland of 90s cliches and effectively ripping off 30 years of X-Men continuity and invention to claim Heroes as an original series, Loeb is the man responsible for the hailed Batman: Long Hallowe’en and Batman: Dark Victory with Tim Sale.

Modern comic book readers on the whole are disregarding of Loeb’s influence on central Marvel characters in particular, however with further scouring you start to discover that Loeb has had a massive (and on the whole very positive) effect on modern popular culture. Joseph ‘Jeph’ Loeb III is an American film and television writer, producer and award-winning comic book writer. Loeb was producer/writer on TV shows Smallville and Lost, writer for films Commando and Teen Wolf (making him responsible for one of the greatest Arnie lines in history ‘ Vhy don’t you let off zome zteam..’) and was a writer and co-executive producer on Heroes from 2006 and 2008.

If you think he’s a crappy writer, you’re wrong… he’s a four time Eisner Award winner and five-time Wizard Fan Award winner, producing comic book writing that has appeared in the New York Times Bestseller List. Most of his work, which has incorporated almost every major character in the mainstream comics industry, has been working alongside his collaborator and creative partner, artist Tim Sale.

There’s no doubt that Loeb got off to a considerably impressive start. Having just left Columbia University with a Masters degree in Film, he received his debut in filmmaking in collaboration with Matthew Weisman in authoring the script for Teen Wolf. Loeb and Weisman then collaborated in writing the script for Commando. He went on to create Burglar, unusual as it offered a central comedic role to a female actor, Whoopi Goldberg and then returned in the same year to the Teen Wolf canon with Teen Wolf Too starring Jason Bateman. It was here Loeb met Tim Kring with whom he would work on Heroes more than two decades later.

Loeb is known for his extensive use of narration boxes as monologues for his central characters in order to communicate their inner thoughts, though dialogue is sparing and intermittent. There is no doubt that Loeb has very much influenced comic books and broadened their appeal beyond the standard demographics. This will always be perceived as selling out, commercialism or lack of interest in the base material by some quarters of the comic fan fraternity but its not up to Loeb to answer to that. As long as he continues to sell books, whether to the purists or those who don’t check the name on the front cover and continues to be enjoyed, Loeb will be paid to write comic books and rightfully so.

Loeb’s first comic book work was Challengers of the Unknown Vol.2 Issue 1-8 (March October 1991) which was the first of many following collaboration with Tim Sale. Loeb and Sale’s later collaborations included ‘Year 1′ orientated Batman: Long Hallowe’en, Batman: Dark Victory and Superman For All Seasons among others. The Long Hallowe’en has been noted as having influenced 2005 Christopher Nolan Batflick Batman Begins, the others being Batman: The Man who Falls and Batman: Year One.

In 2002, Loeb teamed up with super-artist Jim Lee to create a year-long story arc ‘ Batman: Hush’ which sat at the No.1 Spot for sales for 11 of its 12 months of publication. The following year Loeb launched the DC team up title Superman/Batman: his run spawning a Supergirl series, and an animated film adapted from Loeb’s ‘Public Enemies’ story arc.

Loeb’s son, Sam, tragically died on June 17, 2005 at only the age of 17, following a three year battle with bone cancer. At the age of 15, Sam wrote a story in Tales of the Vampires #5 with Jeph’s long-term collaborator Tim Sale. In 2006, Sam’s final work appeared in Superman/Batman #26, which was nearly completed before his death. His father finished the work with the help of 25 other writers and artists, all of whom were friends of Sam, including Art Adams, Joe Casey, John Cassaday, Joyce Chin, Ian Churchill, Allan Heinberg, Geoff Johns, Joe Kelly, Mike Kunkel, Jim Lee, Pat Lee, Rob Liefeld, Paul Levitz, Joe Madureira, Jeff Matsuda, Ed McGuinness, Brad Meltzer, Carlos Pacheco, Duncan Rouleau, Tim Sale, Richard Starkings, Michael Turner, Brian K. Vaughan, Mark Verheiden, and Joss Whedon. The issue also featured a tale titled “Sam’s Story,” dedicated to Sam.

In 2006, Loeb chose his hometown of Stamford Connecticut as the launch pad for a major crossover event for Marvel. It was a tectonic shift in the view of Marvel characters and something that not even Marvel’s recent attempts to return to a Golden Age of Avengers has been able to fully recede. Taking the premise of civil rights, the heroes (and villains) of the Marvel universe were forced to choose sides on an ideological battle over attempts by the government to introduce a superhuman registration act. A brave and bold concept it was launched by Loeb with the destruction of a school by a haphazard and destructive superhuman battle.

In 2007, Loeb wrote Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America, using the five stages of grief as a motif to explore the reactions of various Marvel characters following the death of Captain America. The final issue, released on 4th July (Independence Day) was the ‘Funeral of Captain America’, which was covered by the Associated Press, the Washington Post and ABC.

Following signing an exclusive contract with Marvel in September 2005, Loeb has launched Ultimates 3 (with artist Joe Maduriera) and Hulk (with artist Ed McGuinness), in which was introduced the arch-villain Red Hulk. He also worked with artist David Finch on Ultimatum and Tim Sale once more on Captain America: White, the fourth in the ‘colour’ series for Marvel.

Loeb currently shares his writing studio, the Empath Magic Tree House with Geoff Johns and Allan Heinberg.

His run at Marvel aside – Loeb has exhibited great writing at times – in particular with the Batman canon. His largest problem appears to be diversity as certain titles lend themselves neatly to his style of writing. Indeed his continued collaborations with Tim Sale are even more indicative of a tendency towards noir and crime thriller writing, something that clearly the Batman titles support beautifully. His pursuit of diversification has seen him demonised – not always- unjustifiably – but there is no doubt that Jeph Loeb will leave an indelible legacy on comic books. He rebooted Batman with Year 1, killed Captain America and introduced Hush to the world. He brought comic lore to the small screen with Smallville and Heroes. But mostly, he has shown a love of comic books, no doubt very personal to him. He returns and remains in an industry less profitable than TV or Film, having made his money from it. That love of comic books should not be discounted because in that, is something that those who stand in Forbidden Planet and deride Loeb’s work share with him. A love of an art form and ultimately, at times, enabling the expansion for it. Loeb belongs in the hall of Practitioners. Not always popular or well loved, he has no doubt influenced and furthered it and shown great love for it.

Practitioners 30: Jeph Loeb (Part One)

Hate is a strong word. Its a word that slips easily from the tongue on a myriad of subjects. It can be applied forcefully and popularly to many things; the ignorant actions of a maniacal religious fundamentalist and terrorist, the despotic and arrogant foreign policy of industrial nations at times. It can be used in a more personal and specific vehemence, reactionary to a set of circumstances, aimed at a personal and immediate target of contempt; such as getting up in the morning or the discovery of a rainy day. But it can also be applied more blithely and at times more aggressively at figures that have dared raise their heads above the parapets of creative output and deemed themselves worthy of outputting material on the popular stage. One such man to have created such contempt is Jeph Loeb.

Red Hulk makes a good point.

A marmite figure in the starry fermament of the comic book industry sky, Loeb has been the subject of just such a vehement and outspoken attack by me, in the middle of Forbidden Planet. Shamefully, as I make my way, hopefully into the industry I always hoped to work in I am guilty of declaring my ‘hate’ towards a figure I’ve never met. I have existed in a state of contempt of Jeph Loeb for many years now.

There are numerous reasons for this; He dips. Dancing around between industries (Television and Comic book primarily) he never remains on anything for very long. He enjoys a symbiotic relationship with comic books and appears and reappears occassionally from time to time as he feels like it. And they just keep letting him in. As a freelancer, desperate to enter the industry myself it is perhaps galling to see someone allowed to choose when he feels like working. In particular when everything I’ve read of his is hackneyed bollocks. I’d like to point out I haven’t read everything he’s written – or even much but never the less the majority of it is commercially minded, heartless pap with almost no reverence to what’s gone before (pretty much just channelling my rage about Ultimates 3 there). This is jealousy. The most arrogant and divisive motivation to hate. Effectively I’m saying – I could do that, get out of my way – you’re not even doing that good a job – why do you get to be in that position and I don’t?

Next is the most recent actual comics output. Red Hulk: Hulk but angrier. That’s right. Angry Hulk, the angriest of the angry characters in the Marvel Universe. Capable of splitting the crust of the planet with his anger in fact while green is now red. And he’s angrier. This off the back of the exceptional Planet Hulk. A moment in which The Hulk had found pathos and scope and strength in character almost unseen since he was handled by the almighty Peter David (with deft subtlety and aplomb), Marvel choose to hand it to Loeb. This would be fine except that Loeb is now reknowned for taking existing characters at their most beloved and popular and shitting on them from a great height seemingly because everyone knows the smell of shit. It’s popular and well known and people do talk about it Loeb, no doubt. But nobody actually likes the smell of shit.

Then, there’s Ultimates 3. Ultimates but more Baywatch! People like Baywatch. No, they don’t Loeb. They like tits. Baywatch had tits in it. So did Ultimates 3 thanks to the yank up the ranks of Valkyrie; an admittedly nubile and stunningly beautiful warrior maiden, ‘mysteriously’ imbued with powers that levelled her up to Avenger status. Happily. Off the back of Mark Millar’s gloriously dystopian military- industrial complex super human thriller that reinvented central characters and made them as recognisably flawed as the best literary characters, Loeb was handed free reign of the book. Saved effectively by Joe Maduriera’s stunning artwork, Loeb presented us with a morally bankrupt set of misanthropes seemingly happy to watch each other having sex on a wide screen (and that was the opening page) and never really leaving the house. Plodding, self absorbed, hackneyed and laboured Ultimates 3 was a commercial success. I own it, I like reading it. But I like watching Mega shark vs Giant Octopus so don’t pay any attention to me.

I also hate Heroes. Effectively taking 30 years of X-Men continuity and development and repackaging as an ‘original’ show on ABC. Enjoyed by millions and considered ‘original’ by those who never picked up an X-Book, this one just plain makes me angry. Loeb was writer and co-producer, following a run on Lost and receives my rage through this by association.

But who is he? This hate figure I’m so determined to despise? Check in here on Thursday to find out as I actually take a crack at uncovering who Loeb is to the comic industry and whether he has, does or should have the credentials to be considered a Practitioner….