Vertigo

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 33: Ivan Reis

Born in 1975, Rodrigo Ivan Dos Reis was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil and is a penciller with projects under his wing for Marvel, Chaos! but most prominently – and most recently – DC.

Blackest Night

For three years, Reis worked under Mauricio de Sousa in Brazil. De Souza is a prominent cartoonist who has created 200 characters for his popular series of children’s comic books. His characters are more Jeff Smith than Alan Davis and Neal Adams (as recent collaborator Geoff Johns described Reis’ drawing style) but clearly this time under the tutelage of such a prolific cartoonist taught the young Reis lessons in productivity.

He began his international career for Dark Horse working on titles such as Ghost, starting with Issue 17 and acting as regular artist until the title ended at Issue 36. During his tenure working on Ghost, he also worked on The Mask, Time Cop and Xena. Later, he worked for Lightning Comics (a fairly shameless comic company from the mid-nineties that offered nude variant covers for their female character titles; Hellina, Catfight and other female heroines).

For Vertigo, Reis pencilled an issue of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. He became better known for his work on Lady Death for Chaos! Comics. Written by Brian Pulido, Len Kaminski and Bryan Augustin, Reis drew for the title for three years (from 1999 to 2002). Lady Death was a Previews favourite, enjoying large scale pre orders and carrying a lot of popularity from the success of the nineties. It was from this good girl art that Reis enjoyed popularity, however it would be in working on much more unconventional artwork for a mainstream title that Reis would find legendary fame.

For Marvel, Reis worked on the Thing & She-Hulk: the Long Night, Avengers Icons: Vision, Captain Marvel, Iron Man, Defenders and Avengers. It was on Avengers Icons: Vision that Geoff Johns worked with Ivan Reis for the first time and formed a partnership that would literally turn a major publisher on its head and redefine the popularity of a 60 year old character.

It was with DC, after a series of short stints on a number of titles that Reis arrived at Green Lantern volume 4. A well known but slightly unnoticed character in the DC Universe, the number of Volumes was indicative of GL’s troubled past as a title. Consistently reinvented and repackaged, the story of Hal Jordan; test pilot and interstellar police officer with a magic ring had been transposed regularly. Driven nuts and killed in the 90s as part of the Return of Superman storyline and replaced by another character entirely noone was expecting great things from Green Lantern. However, under Geoff Johns the title was beginning to pick up considerable pace. The scope of the burdgeoning conflict and the introduction (after 60 years!!) of the idea that there might be other rings of alternative colour out in the universe that represented danger broadened the scope of the title considerably. Reis worked from Issue 11-38 alongside Geoff Johns, presiding over the introduction of the now famous Sinestro Corps storyline that kicked off the enormous Blackest Night storyline.

Throughout all of this Reis maintained an even tiller at all times. As Johns clearly became increasingly convinced of Reis’ capacity to produce highly detailed and dramatic artwork at incredibly short notice the scope of the title gained considerable pace. More than pure talent, Reis offered Johns a reliable and dependable creative crucible from which to expand the embryonic saga that would incorporate the entire DC Universe.

Not only in Green Lantern but in the Rann / Thanagar War mini series (written by Dave Gibbons) Reis demonstrated an incredible eye for detail, composition and anatomy. His grasp of an empty page allowed him to fill the page with hundreds of variant starship of a multitude of designs, realise the designs of almost limitless alien characters and still maintain scale and scope as a hole in the size of the universe was torn open by giant hands. The requests placed on Reis in the Rann / Thanagar war show a resolute faith in Reis’ capacity to complete the storyline and present it effectively. The complexity of what Reis has been continuously asked to do on behalf of multiple DC writers suggests that writers, if told that Reis is the assigned artist, know that they can let their imaginations run wild. In an industry that still relies on deadlines, even with increasing expectations being placed on artists in terms of quality and precision – that truly is priceless.

Reis simply makes it work. Whatever the script demands appears and is perfectly well realised. Features are precise and emphatic, representing the thoughts and feelings expected in any scenario. If thousands of figures are required they are provided in bold detail. Increased objects on a page in no way denotes how much or how little detail is applied either. In Reis’ work there are no shortcuts.

Green Lantern threw up yet more challenges. In order to create Red, Orange, Sinestro, Blue, Indigo and Violet corps/tribes each had to have all original characters, each with their own specific designs and detailing. Reis not only designed his own but then enhanced the work of others, adapting them into his own naturalistic style without losing the dynamism of the work being done in GL’s sister title, Green Lantern Corps. As the title that centred the epic, Reis was handling hundreds of different alien designs, at least 7 variants of uniform and insignia design which was then extrapolated and different for each different character of any shape in any Corps, as well as the introduction of DC’s Hall of Heroes as well.

It was with Blackest Night, the final part of the epic that Reis came into his own. 7 Lantern Corps, the entire frontline cast of DC, alien entities, dynamic twists, almost unlimited environments, all colliding on Earth. Reis didn’t miss a panel. Consistent, epic, engaging and faultless – cities collapsed, Lanterns were born, literally thousands of dead aliens fell from the sky, people turned to salt – all of it was incredibly realised at the hands of Reis. Whether it was stormy coastlines in battles against undead merpeople and sharks or porting into a Telephone call centre, Reis struck the right chord in every single scenario.

In Blackest Night his lack of ego and professionalism was there for all to see. It was never about quick tricks or advertising himself as artist but realising as perfectly as possible the best way to present an enormous, sprawling epic, incorporating literally hundreds of characters and incredible events. Reis proved himself a true Practitioner by being put in the spotlight and never missing a beat. His art is so advanced, every aspect of it so precise and well realised that it is impossible almost to fathom how he achieved it in the short time available to him. That is the mark of the true artist, to move beyond what can be done and instead extend to what is needed.

The cast of Brightest Day - Geoff Johns' and Ivan Reis' follow up to Blackest Night

Ivan Reis could’ve come from nowhere (as his Wikipedia profile suggests). His pencil work is now synonomous with the most prominent work being put into the public eye. Seemingly without faltering he has drawn every member of the DC Universe and incorporated a thousand different species into the Green Lantern Corps, a feat that the Green Lantern movie with literally hundreds of technicians and special effects experts are struggling to bring to the big screen. Ivan Reis is the epitomy of big thinking artists.

Practitioners 4: Brian Azzarello

Brian Azzarello has written for Batman (‘Broken City’, with Eduardo Risso and Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire) and Superman (‘For Tomorrow’, with Jim Lee). Prior to his rise as a writer he was best known as the line editor for Andrew Rev’s incarnation of Comico, a middle American publisher responsible for Robotech, Jonny Quest, Mage; The Hero Uniscovered and Grendel before going bankrupt in 1990.

But his greatest works are the investigation and subsequent revelling in the murky underbelly and imagined clandestine power houses of the american continent in the incredibly indelible and affecting 100 Bullets – which ran from August 1999 to April 2009. It was a masterwork.

It was initially presented as a set of episodic, self-contained storylines, an occasional appearance by the seemingly omnipresent Agent Graves the only connecting detail but by its completion it made clear a nationwide network of criminal empires resting behind the accepted powers-that-be that touched (and consumed) the lives of everyone inside it.

The Series won the 2002 Harvey Awards for Best Writer and Best continuing series (as well as Best Artist for his long term creative partner Eduardo Risso) and 2001 Eisner Award for Best serialised story, and in 2002 and 2004 Eisner Award for Best Continuing Series.

Although diffuse, the main reasons for this success were most likely Azzarello’s uncanny capacity for realistic use of regional and local/dialects as well as often oblique use of slang and metaphorical language in his character’s dialogue. His capacity for subtle and accurate characterisation and his capacity for dynamic and often potentially debilitating plot twists while never losing control of the inherent details that made it so gripping.


He had worked with Eduardo Risso on Jonny Double and went on to work with him on Batman: Broken City applying the same noir and pulp principles reminiscent of the best Miller, Janson and Varley. The intuitive sense of layout and pacing between them formed one of the most effective partnerships in comics history, underpinned by Azzarello’s understanding of provocative and engrossing storytelling.

His dabble into self publishing was (and still is) a rip roaring success with Loveless; a noir Spaghetti Western following the trials of an outlaw couple in the desolate and uncertain years following the American Civil War.

His most recent work of note is Joker for DC comics in which Azzarello brings the long standing image of the DC’s comic book Joker closer to that of Christopher Nolan and the late Heath Ledger’s version from The Dark Knight (2008). He represents far less an ethereal and spiritual threat to Gotham than he does a more potent and vicious one with real verve and clarity in his criminal intent. Something that in the hands of other writers might lessen a long beholden character, but in the hands of Azzarello (aided ably by Lee Bermejo) it finds greater potency in its compactness. An affecting writer, well worth a look if you get the chance.