Len Wein

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 47: Alan Moore (Part 1)

Alan Oswald Moore looks and behaves like a Magician and declared himself one in 1994. Often considered to be the village eccentric he is (also) in fact one of the most prolific and revered comic writers in the world and the history of comics books.

Alan Oswald Moore was born 18 November 1953 in England. He is an English writer primarily known for his work in comic books, a medium where he has produced some of the most seminal pieces of comic book literature. Frequently referred to as the best comic book writer in history, Moore blends folklore, myth and legend, science fiction, mysticism, drug use, politics, and fringe culture with a healthy dose of blithe absurdism (and mild perversion) as the basis for a lot of his work. He has occassionally worked under a pseudonym such as Curt Vile, Jill De Ray and Translucia Baboon. It can be said that Moore doesn’t take himself or his work as seriously as most of those who follow it, unless it is despoiled by Hollywood, although even this he acknowledges with shrugging, friendly disinterest.

Abandoning his office job in the late 1970s for the soulless, mentally crippling waste of life that it was to a man like Moore, Moore started writing for British underground and alternative fanzines in the late 1970s, such as Anon. E. Mouse for the local paper Anon and St Pancras Panda, (a parody of Paddington Bear) for Oxford-borne Back Street Bugle. Those however had been unpaid jobs, however he gained paid work, supplying NME with his own artwork and writing Roscoe Moscow under the Pseudonym Curt Vile (a twist on composer Kurt Weill) in a weekly music magazine, Sounds, earning £35 a week. Alongside this, he and his wife Phyllis, along with their new born daughter by claiming unemployment benefit to keep themselves going. In 1979, Moore started producing a weekly strip for the Northants Post, Maxwell the Magic Cat, under the pseudonym Jill De Ray (a pun on the medieval child murderer Gilles de Rais, something he found to be a ‘sardonic joke’, giving you some insight into Moore’s inner workings.)

It was with 2000AD that Moore began to get into his cheerfully lunatic stride, producing Tharg’s Future Shocks prolifically from 1980 – 1984. A formulaic approach had to be used to create and complete a story in the two or three pages available which would have hampered most writers, however Moore grasped this concept and gleefully introduced world after world after world of apparently normal or absurdist characters that were then either exploded, zapped, overrun, sold, shocked, trapped or eaten by the end of the second or third page. A perfect example is a Future Shock in which a erewolf has ‘secretly’ stowed onto a starship intended to travel light years automatically to it’s destination. A dream scenario for any film, comic or TV Sci-fi writer, the possibilities are endless. However, instead of merely playing out the scenario in which the werewolf has to be stopped in the script – Moore introduces another Werewolf. Then another. Until it becomes clear that everyone on board is a werewolf and the ship is on autopilot heading into the sun. Such is the nature of Moore’s mind that he has likely forgotten he even wrote it but he simultaneously created a genre bending idea, incorporating conventions of both horror and science fiction, masterfully making the central character the bad guy and entirely unsympathetic before unceremoniously burning the assembled characters (and the plot line) in a sun in a way that makes you chuckle to yourself. Moore simply never concerned himself with the idea that he would run out of ideas. In his defence he never has. A ferocious reader, he absorbs subject matter as quickly as he generates it, like some intellectual symbiont that looks like Santa on crack, gnawing on the shape of the universe and regurgitating bits of it, now fused and unrecognisable.

So impressed were 2000AD with Moore’s work they offered him his own series, based very, very loosely on E.T. A series to be known as Skizz, illustrated by Jim Baikie. Ever critical of his own work, Moore later opined that in his own opinion ‘ this work owes far too much to Alan Bleasdale.’
Add to that the anarchic D.R. and Quinch, illustrated by Alan Davies, which Moore described as ‘continuing the tradition of Dennis the Menace, but giving a thermonuclear capacity,’ followed two anarchic aliens, loosely based on National Lampoon’s O.C. and Stiggs. Ever the innovator, Moore (with artist Ian Gibson) introduced a deliberately feminist title, based around a female character (a first for 2000AD at that time), The Ballad of Halo Jones. Set in the 50th century, it went out of print before all the progs were completed by Moore.

Unusually, and unbeknownst to may, Moore took on Captain Britain for Marvel UK, taking over from Dave Thorpe but retaining the original artist Alan Davis, who Moore described as ‘an artist whose love for the medium and whose sheer exhultation upon finding himself gainfully employed within it shine from every line, every new costume design, each nuance of expression.’ However he described his time on Captain Britain as ‘ halfway through a storyline that he’s neither inaugurated nor completely understood.’

But it was under Dez Skinn, former editor of both IPC (publishers of 2000AD and Marvel UK), over at Warrior that Moore finally kicked into high gear and started moving towards his massive potential. Moore was working on Marvel Man (later named Miracleman), drawn by Garry Leach and Alan Davies. Moore described it as ‘(taking a) kitsch children’s character and (placing) him within the real world of 1982’ and The Bojeffries Saga, a comedy abouta working class family of Vampires and Werewolves, drawn by Steve Parkhouse. But it was another title, which showcased in 1982 alongside Marvel man in the first edition of Warrior in March 1982.

This was V for Vendetta, a dystopian tale set in London 1997, in an England now run by a fascist regime. The only resistance to this is a masked Guy Fawkes figure who bombs empty iconic government buildings and attempts to foster anarchy in the name of freedom. Moore was influenced by the pessimism that was rife over the conservative government of the time, only creating a future where sexual and ethnic minorities were incarcerated and eliminated. V for Vendetta struck a chord at the time but has lost little popularity through the years – regarded as a seminal work, V for Vendetta is a clear marker in the career of potentially the foremost comics writer of our time. Illustrated by David Lloyd, it’s a lodestone of pent up left wing aggression towards an increasingly reactionary conservative government and like all great literature is loaded with parallel themes inherent in the society of the time. Whether it’s the Crime and Punishment of comic works is another matter, but it remains a poignant and thought provoking piece that will most likely retain it’s popularity well into the future – and certainly for as long as Moore remains a popular writer.

Moore was a phenomenon, his scripts generating the most consistently well rated pieces in 2000AD he grew unhappy with the lack of creators rights in British comics. This would become a consistent problem with future publishers as well, as Moore refused to accept the situation. Talking to Fanzine, Arkensword in 1985 he noted that he had stopped working for all publisher except IPC ‘purely for the reason that IPC so far have avoided lying to me, cheating me or generally treating me like shit.’

He did, however, join other creators in decrying the wholesale relinquishing of all rights, and in 1986 stopped writing for 2000 AD, leaving mooted future volumes of the Halo Jones story unstarted. Moore’s outspoken opinions and principles, particularly on the subject of creator’s rights and ownership, would see him burn bridges with a number of other publishers over the course of his career – but this has rarely done anything but feed Moore’s reputation as an anarchic presence in an industry that, in appearance anyway, runs creatively on anarchy.

During this same period – using the pseudonym Translucia Baboon – became involved in the music scene, founding his own band, The Sinister Ducks, employing a young Kevin O’ Neill to complete the sleeve art. In 1984, Moore and David J released a 12-inch single with a recording of ‘Vicious Cabaret’ a song featured in the soundtrack of the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta, released on the Glass Records label. Moore also wrote ‘Leopard Man at C&A’, which was later set to music by Mick Collins to appear on the Album We Have You Surrounded by Collins’ group the Dirtbombs.

But, musically speaking it wasn’t Leapordman that would occupy his future but a Swap Thing. Alan Oswald Moore was beginning to be noticed on the far side of the Atlantic by Len Wein, DC Comics Editor.

Part 2 on Tuesday 27th December