Neil Gaiman

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 37: Peter David (Part 1)

Peter David is an American writer of comic books, novels, television, mvies and video games. He was born in September 1956 and his most notable comic book work are an award-winning 12-year run on Incredible Hulk, as well as writing turns on X-Factor, Aquaman, Young Justice, Supergirl and Fallen Angel.

Peter David made his name on - and a legend of The Incredible Hulk with 12 Years as writer

Perhaps influenced by his background, David is known for his use of real life issues and humour, as well as popular culture and self referencing within the pages of his work. He is a prolific writer who’s style shows up his natural enthusiasm for characterisation and anarchic plot development. His characters are broad and often sympathetic. He develops worlds as he sees the and when allied with the write artist (Quesada, Frank) his storytelling flows beautifully and simply to the reader. His is an entertaining read, using sardonic humour and situation comedy, action and big scale themes to put forward serious issues Peter David is a very serious campaigner for LGBT issues after he and his gay friend were targets for ostracism and harrassment from homophobes in his second home town in Verona. He had moved there from Bloomfield, New Jersey. While it was his best friend Keith that was gay, the effect was enough for him to spearhead associated story lines in his mainstream comic book with deft, frank and uncompromising cander. His home life has also informed his work as his paternal grandparents and his father, Gunter escaped Nazi Germany to settle in the US, where his father eventually met his mother, Dalia, an Israeli-born Jewish girl, to whom David credits his sense of humour. While his writing carries none of his religious or family backgrounds, David’s acknowledgment of deeper social and political movements beyond the edges of the pages and his use of humour to augment and ease difficult subjects in his work suggests influences from his home in Fort Meade, Maryland (where he was born). He has two siblings, a younger brother named Wally, a still-life photographer and musician and a sister called Beth.

David was drawn into comic books at the age of 5 when he read copies of Harvey Comic’s Casper and Wendy in a barbershop. The Adventures of Superman TV series later got him interested in Superheroes. His favourite title was Superman and he cites John Buscema as his favourite pre-1970s artist. The closest David has got to writing Superman is his first -cousin Supergirl. A character that arguably David’s style suits more though I think many would be intrigued as to what he would do with the last Kryptonian.

As a young boy, his father was a journalist, writing reviews of films, to which he took the young Peter David along with him. Whilst the elder David was writing his own review, his young son was knocking together his own back at home. Some of these appeared in the article itself.

The seminal moment however was in meeting his idol, Stephen King at a book signing, telling him that he was an aspiring writer. King signed David’s copy of Danse Macabre with the inscription ‘Good luck with your writing career,’ which David now inscribes himself onto books presented to him with the same aspirations. Other writers that David cites as influences include Harlan Ellison, Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Robert B. Parker, Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods), Terry Pratchett (Discworld), Robert Craiss and Edgar Rice Burroughs while specific books he has mentioned as his favourites include To Kill a Mockingbird, Tarzan of the Apes, The Princess Bride, The Essential Ellison, A Confederacy of Dunces, Adam versus Jefferson and Don Quixote. Harlanm Ellison, an American writer of more than 1000 short stories, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, essays, a wide range of criticism covering literature, film, television and print media and editor of two ground-breaking sci-fi anthologies, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, is cited as the writer David most tries to emulate in his work. Though emulation seems pointless now as David has become such a notable writer in the field, even if in a limited number of titles.

Strangely, David had given up on a career writing and came to work in book publishing, first Elsevier/Nelson and later working for sales and distribution for Playboy Paperbacks. He subsequently worked for five years in Marvel’s sales department as Sales Direct Manager under Carol Kalish, who hired him and then succeeding Kalish as Sales Manager. At the time he he made a couple of cursory attempts to sell stories, in particular for Moon Knight to Dennis O’Neill bbut this proved fruitless. Three years into David’s time as Sales Manager ‘maverick’ James Owsley became editor of the Spider-man titles. Owsley had been impressed with David’s willingness to work under him without hesitation when Owsley was assistant editor under Larry Hama, and thus, when he became editor, he purchased a Spider-man story from David, which appeared in Spectacular Spider-man 103 in 1985. A move from Sales to Editorial was seen as a conflict of interest at the time and in response to any possible criticism, David made a point of not discussing editorial matters while in his 9-5 job of Direct Sales Manager and decided not to exploit it by promoting the title. David still attributes the poor sales of the title to this decision but has commented that crossing over from Sales to Editorial is now common. None-the-less he was fired from Spectacular Spider-man by Owsley due to editorial pressure by Marvel’s Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, and has commented that the resentment caused by Owsley’s purchase of his stories may have permanently damaged Owsley’s career. Despite this far from ideal start in his career as a comic’s writer, arguably damaging other’s careers unintentionally in the process, (or perhaps because of it) Jim Shooter’s replacement as Editor-In-Chief, Bob Harras, offered David a position as ongoing writer on a struggling title no-one wanted to write. A difficult, curmudgeonly title that was defined by its character’s complete lack of development – even for the comic’s industry. That title was the Hulk and Peter David was about to make history….

Part 2 on Thursday.

Practitioners 35: Andy Kubert

Andy Kubert was born on February 27, 1962, the third member (after father Joe and elder brother Adam) of one of the most famous comics artist families.

While Kubert started at DC Comics, drawing Adam Strange and the Batman Vs Predator crossover, he is probably best known for his work at Marvel Comics, specifically the company’s X-Men titles. With the move of Jim Lee to Image in the early nineties, Kubert (who had already been providing cover art – including Gambit’s introduction on Uncanny X-Men and a brief stint as that titles penciller) became penciller for what was the No.1 title in the world. Starting at Issue 19, Kubert caught the potential disaster of Lee’s departure and maintained the quality. Not dissimilar to Lee’s style, Kubert maintained the lightly lined, crosshatched, clear and concise style readers had enjoyed and actually clarified the panels more so than Lee himself.

Andy Kubert’s run on X-Men was a game changer as it maintained the quality of the X-Men line through the all important X-over event that captured the work of Peter David, Joe Quesada, Adam Kubert and Greg Capullo – all legends in the field. Andy Kubert was penciller on the flagship title of not just the X-line but Marvel itself and continued to push out exceptionally engaging compositions throughout the run. While his work was perhaps less accurate and realistic than his brothers (working on Wolverine at the time), Andy’s work had a subtlety and finesse that his brother didn’t. Relying on light line work and fine detail to augment the story, Kubert’s style was more illustrative and naturally drew the onlooker into the page. Kubert’s grasp of emotive splash pages and unique angles and physicality gave new life to characters such as Gambit and Beast, their natural gymnastics perhaps less impactful under another, less confident artist. His work continued to develop and found itself increasingly enhanced by new colouring techniques as the pencil and ink linework could be more easily brought out of the page; the background and foreground becoming more distinct; a minor detail that his early X-Men work suffered from at times. Far from being a Jim Lee imitator, Kubert was his own artist, developing the characters away from Lee’s original designs however slightly.

Offering it a lighter touch, the emotional impact of the events in the story found greater scope. The romance between Gambit and Rogue that encapsulated the intelligent writing that was taking place in X-Men developed naturally under Kubert’s artistry.

In 2003, Kubert worked on Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602, a beautifully rendered story dropping the most central Marvel characters into the centre of the Elizabethan England at the end of Monarch’s reign. Kubert’s linework matched perfectly the lighter ink work of the period. His representations of the characters timeless and at the same time recognisably the characters of modern day. In it enhanced pencil was used, with the image painted from Kubert’s pencil line work. The effect was staggering and made clear Kubert’s natural illustrative style. Although always precise and meticulous, Kubert’s focus is not always on the central character and he enjoys playing with compositions, not necessarily filling any panel with the characters but allowing the surroundings to impose on the action. This is undoubtedly the work of an assured artist. To be able to jump from X-Men to a project like 1602 successfully shows the range of work Kubert is capable of handling.

Both Andy and his brother signed exclusive contracts to work for DC comics in 2005. While his brother Adam has returned to Marvel comics following his 3 year deal with DC; Dan Didio has confirmed that Andy still has projects with DC. Fundamentally Bat related. Kubert provided covers for Blackest Night issues of Green Lantern and Blackest Night: Batman miniseries. Andy worked with his father Joe on the first two issues of DC Universe Legacies, a 10 issue miniseries chronicling the history of the DC Universe. On top of this Andy contributed to Batman 700, teaming up with Grant Morrison to tell more tales of Damian Wayne as Batman in the future of the over-sized anniversary issue. ‘Flashpoint’ – a Flash centric event is due to start this year (2011).

Kubert is an artist who alters the projects he touches. He has handled two of the most well known franchises for the two largest comic book companies in the world and left all concerned wanting more. The youngest Kubert, Andy had something to prove and it can certainly be argued that his work is considerably more popular and well received than his brother or father. Having also handled Millar’s Ultimate X-Men – a challenge as he effectively anchored the original designs in the mid to late 90s – it’s clear that Andy Kubert is a quietly famous and exceptional talent among equally talented artists. This cannot be ascribed to genes alone, as Kubert has handled the most well known projects in the world and made them more memorable.