Watchmen

Practitioners 48: Frank Miller (Part 1)

Frank Miller is an American comic book artist, writer and film director best known for his brooding, dark, film noir depictions of famous comic characters and the development of noir dystopias, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City and 300, Ronin and Daredevil: Born Again. Batman : Dark Knight Returns is viewed as a seminal work in comics history, mandatory for any that want to understand what (along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen) changed the face of comics so dramatically in the 1980s. He is also, nowadays, a liberal hate figure after outspoken statements regarding protest camps in the US and UK against multinational corporations. This, among other things, has placed a pall over his previous work, calling into question his politics and views on women, crime and society.

Miller was born in Olney, Maryland and raised Montpelier, Vermont, the fifth of seven children of a nurse mother and an electrician/ carpenter father. He was raised as an Irish Catholic.

Setting out to become an artist, Miller recieved his first published work at Western Publishing’s Gold Key Comics imprint on the comic book version of The Twilight Zone, drawing ‘Royal Feast’ in issue #84 (June 1978), and “Endless Cloud” in #85 (July 1978). Jim Shooter, one-time Marvel Editor-in-chief recalled Miller’s attempt to join DC, emboldened by his sign up with Western Publishing. “He went to DC, and after getting savaged by Joe Orlando, got in to see art director Vinnie Colletta, who recognized talent and arranged for him to get a one-page war-comic job”.

Miller’s first listed work is the six-page “Deliver Me From D-Day”, by writer Wyatt Gwyon, in Weird War Tales #64 (June 1978). A two-page story, however, written by Roger McKenzie and titled “Slowly, painfully, you dig your way from the cold, choking debris…”, appears in Weird War Tales #68 (Oct. 1978). Other fledgling work at DC included the six-page “The Greatest Story Never Told”, by writer Paul Kupperberg, in that same issue, and the five-page “The Edge of History”, written by Elliot S. Maggin, in Unknown Soldier #219 (Sept. 1978). and his first work for Marvel Comics, penciling the 17-page story “The Master Assassin of Mars, Part 3” in John Carter, Warlord of Mars #18 (Nov. 1978).

Miller’s style was never super hero orientated but in an industry that was he had little choice but to pursue it, practicing the form and bringing Superheroes to life well enough to secure a position as regular fill-in and cover artist on a number of titles, including Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-man #27–28 (Feb.–March 1979) which featured a character that grabbed Miller’s attention. As Miller recalled in 2008 “… as soon as a title came along, when [Daredevil signature artist] Gene Colan left Daredevil, I realized it was my secret in to do crime comics with a superhero in them. And so I lobbied for the title and got it”

Although still conforming to traditional comic book styles, Miller introduced his noir style to the pages of Daredevil on his debut, joining on a finale of an ongoing story written by Roger McKenzie. Living in Hell’s Kitchen in the 1980s Miller sketched the roof tops of his surrounding neighbourhoods and imbued the title with a greater accuracy than fans had seen before. New York was now a more dangerous place. His work was cited as reminiscent of German Expressionism’s dramatic edges and shadows as the Red Devil fought mostly now at rooftop level, among the water towers, pipes and chimneys.

Miller’s run was successful enough to bring Daredevil back from being a bi-monthly title to a monthly one but that was far from the limit of the success. With the departure of Roger McKenzie, Miller took over as writer and penciller, with long time collaborator Klaus Janson on inks introducing a skittish, visceral feel. Art became to form. Violence bled (within the limited parameters of the Comics Authority), fear was felt, anger and danger were portrayed. Everything was comics +. This was a slightly more frenetic, powerful version of the superhero canon – the focus on the darkness in the lives of the bright tights. Issue #168 saw the first appearance of the ninja mercenary Elektra, who despite being an assassin-for-hire would become Daredevil’s love-interest. Miller would write and draw a solo Elektra story in Bizarre Adventures #28 (Oct. 1981). This further characterised Miller’s work on Daredevil with darker themes and stories. This peaked when in #181 (April 1982) he had the assassin Bullseye kill Elektra. Miller finished his Daredevil run with issue #191 (Feb. 1983); in his time he had transformed a second-tier character into one of Marvel’s most popular.

Gotham's skyline from Miller's 1986 Dark Knight Returns (with Klaus Janson)

Additionally, Miller drew a short Batman Christmas story, entitled ‘ Wanted: Santa Claus: Dead or Live’ written by Denny O’Neill for DC Special Series #21 (Spring 1980). This professional introduction to the Dark Knight was to prove a point at which the comic industry stopped being something and developed into another entirely. It was the moment that comics began to move into a more graphic, realistic, emotionally dynamic, engaging and challenging era. Elsewhere, Alan Moore was working on The Watchmen and would be asked in future to write The Killing Joke and further darken the world of Gotham and it’s central hero. But nothing that Moore was writing on the Dark Knight compared to one of the most important pieces of comic book literature in history. With Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley, Miller began to put together a fractured tale of a future without a Batman and a Bruce Wayne broken by the loss of Jason Todd. Now older and slower, a mournful Wayne is presented again with taking on the banner of the Bat. Only this time the world in which the caped crusader stepped into was very different…

Working with Chris Claremont at Marvel on Wolverine 1-4, inked by Josef Rubenstein and spinning off from the popular X-Men title, Miller used the series to expand on Wolverine’s character. The series was a critical success and cemented Miller as an industry star. Taking an older, curmudgeonly and effectively lonely character and dropping him into a world of greater brutality and violence proved very popular – the Wolverine series still continuing today, surviving the collapse of comics in the mid 90s and still going strong. While other great artists such as Adam Kubert and Marc Silvestri continued and concreted it’s success, Claremont and Miller set the tone. Brutal, fringe figures were quickly becoming Miller’s niche.

Marvel's Wolverine 2 by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller

In Miller’s first creator-owned title, Ronin, Miller had found himself with his original quarry, DC, and he was given the opportunity to further the concept of the isolated figure of violence on the edge of society. Ronin revealed most clearly the influences of Manga and bande dessinée artforms on Miller’s style, both in the artwork and narrative style. In the early 198os Miller and Steve Gerber proposed a revamp of DC’s central figures entitled ‘Man of Steel’, ‘Dark Knight’ and the frankly less inspiring ‘Amazon’. This proposal was rejected, however the first shoots of a seed of an idea were clearly being shown in those proposals. While the Man of Steel and the Amazon remained as they were, The Dark Knight was set to rise. In 1985, before the release of Miller’s finest work, he was honoured as one of the 50 honourees in the Company’s 50th Anniversary publication Fifty Who Made DC Great. Had they left it one more year, Miller would have rocketed into the top 5 with the release of the Dark Knight Returns.

Having never left, in 1986, the Dark Knight Returned and was welcomed with open arms. A four issue mini-series it featured a Gotham gone downhill, unprotected by a figurehead crime fighter as it had been time immemorial in the wider DC Universe. This was the first Elseworlds, a parallel world inhabited by a familiar but substantially different set of characters who could now live or die without consequence. However, Miller was never going to let them off that easily…

At the age of 55, Bruce Wayne returns to the hilt and takes back his role of Batman, it showcased a more adult form of comic-book storytelling by heralding new waves of darker characters. Miller, much like Moore, absorbed a great deal of the world around it though Miller twisted his into a more immediately engaging shape. Punk Gangs and Neo Nazis rule the streets alongside older, more familiar foes – all now even darker than before. The smell of paranoia over the Cold War and the threat of Nuclear War is musky in The Dark Knight, increasing the pall of murk that has descended on Gotham. Simultaneously though Miller gave voice to both liberal and right wing opinions during the series, through continual talking heads on various invented TV shows. With the themes of media, crime, personal responsibility, federal control, public opinion and the futility of redemption, Dark Knight represents a dark and risible future. It was excellent. A timely chime on a bell of collective paranoia, it tapped perfectly into the state of mind of society at the time. Rather than the patronising resolution by brightly coloured gods – here the solution contains only glimmers of salvation but deep shades of absolutism. It satisfies fully as emotional resolutions are struck so rarely in the real world, rarely in conjunction with the resolution of situations. In Miller’s world there are no easy answers. His worlds roll on beyond the final panel, stories often unfinished, character’s unresolved. 25 years later the collected novel remains a timeless best seller.

But what was to come next would cement Miller as a legendary artist and writer but it will be his move to LA that will reveal him as a true auteur. Noir bleeding from every pore, Sin City was still almost a decade away…

Part 2 will be here Next Tuesday

Practitioners 47: Alan Moore (Part 4)

The turn of the Millennium was fast approaching – something that would perk up the most sallow mind – and Alan Moore’s is nothing if not finely attuned to the ebbs and flow of the world around him, though perhaps unconcerned with the date itself. His is a mind that, when presented with a milestone in time and history he looks backward for another, using the existing build to a momentous date to gain insight into a period in history similar to one he found himself in. But who to populate this book? For a literary man there could be a myriad of choices. From those choices was formed the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

The story of the League sees H. Rider Haggard’s elderly and Heroin addled Allan Quartermain, H.G. Well’s malevolent and uncontrollable Invisible Man, an aggressive, xenophobic but ultimately honourable Captain Nemo of Jule’s Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the puny and bestial duality of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought together in the name of England by the haunted Wilhemina Murray now some years after her ordeal in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All this at the behest of the porcine Government liaison ‘M’ (a certain Mycroft Holmes, survivor of his more famous brother). Together, drawn by the incomparable Kevin O’ Neill, the League dealt with threats as easily found in successful literature as themselves, though of course at all times unaware.

A satisfying, bounding, rambunctious rendition of old tales renewed called on almost all of Moore’s previous experience – drawing on his love of classic science fiction, withering horror, humour and unapologetic and resonant sexuality threaded seamlessly through the politics and society of the period. All presented with cartoonish glee reminiscent of Rupert Bear (who makes an appearance as a sexually aggressive experiment of Dr Moreau, who for the benefit of ease is now working out of the English Woodland) or Victorian funnies.

The first volume of the series pitted the League against Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes books; the second, against the Martians from The War of the Worlds. A third volume entitled The Black Dossier was set in the 1950s. The series was well received, and Moore was pleased that an American audience was enjoying something he considered “perversely English”, and that it was inspiring some readers to get interested in Victorian literature. Moore has always undervalued his influence. His writing has represented for a great many years a bridge across which readers of otherwise unassociated literature could cross to others.

Kim Jong Il might have declared himself Priminister of Sweden that year or Arnold Schwarzennegger a governor of California because somehow the most reknowned English comic book writer had just started a company named America’s Best Comics.

His relationship with Jim Lee had seen him agree to create an imprint within Lee’s Wildstorm company shortly before it was sold to DC. Lee and Editor Scott Dunbier flew to England specifically to reassure Moore that the sale to DC Moore had experienced before his pilgrimage into independent comics would not affect him and would not have to deal with DC directly. Moore, had already begun lining up a series of artists and writers to assist him in the venture, decided that there were too many people involved to back out now – and America’s Best Comics were born to two English creatives and a story about uniquely English characters at the height of the British Empire.

Other than League, titles such as Tom Strong, Top 10 and Promethea – all writen by Moore – covered the gamut of Moore’s interests and fascinations, supported by some of the finest artists in the business. Tom Strong, drawn by Chris Sprouse, is a post-modern superhero series, inspired by characters predating DC’s Superman was reminiscent of Moore’s work on Supreme but according to Lance Parkin was ‘more subtle’ and ABC’s most accessible comic,’ while his unnatural, drug induced longevity allowed Moore to enjoy enjoying commentary on the history of comics and pulp fiction.

Top 10, a cop procedural comedy, in a fantasy city named Neopolis in which all have super powers, costumes and secret identities was drawn by Gene Ha and Zander Cannon , spawning four spin-offs (partially written by both Cannon and Ha); including two sequel mini-series, Top 10: Beyond the Farthest Precinct, written by Paul Di Fillipo and drawn by industry legend Jerry Ordway.

Promethea allowed Moore to set the record straight, determined that his tale of a teenage girl, Sophie Bangs, who is possessed by an ancient pagan goddess, the titular Promethea, would not portray it’s central world of occultism ‘as a dark, scary place’ as that was not his experience of it. Drawn by the monumentally talented J.H.Williams, it has been described as ‘a personal statement’ from Moore, being one of his most personal works, and that it encompasses “a belief system, a personal cosmology.”

However, perhaps inevitably, despite the assurances that DC Comics would not interfere with Moore and his work, they subsequently did so, angering him. In League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #5, an authentic vintage advertisement for a “Marvel”-brand douche caused DC executive Paul Levitz to order the entire print run destroyed and reprinted with the advertisement amended to “Amaze”, to avoid friction with DC’s competitor Marvel Comics. A Cobweb story Moore wrote for Tomorrow Stories No. 8 (part of an Anthology featuring further characters Cobweb, First American, Grey Shirt,Jack B. Quick and Splash Brannigan) featuring references to L. Ron Hubbard, American occultist Jack Parsons, and the “Babalon Working”, was blocked by DC Comics due to the subject matter. Ironically, it was later revealed that they had already published a version of the same event in their Paradox Press volume The Big Book of Conspiracies.

DC had once again interfered in his work and Moore and with his runs on ABC titles coming to an end, he decided once again to step out of the industry, remarking to Bill Baker in 2005 “I love the comics medium. I pretty much detest the comics industry. Give it another 15 months, I’ll probably be pulling out of mainstream, commercial comics.”

Frank Quitely's portrait of Mr Alan Moore

A powerhouse and a much needed revolutionary and inspirational force was again lost to the mainstream. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen continues still now with Century, a three part saga, of which two are now available (one of which advertised in Fallen Heroes 1 which I was proud enough to be a part of).

In January 2011, the forth and final issue of Neonomicon was released by Avatar Press. Set in the H.P. Lovecraft universe it is, as it’s predecessor and prequel The Courtyard was, drawn by Jacen Burrows.

But in 2010, true to form, and after a lifetime of bucking the system and creating his own, he formed ‘the first 21st Century’s underground magazine’ titled Dodgem Logic, utilising Northampton based artists and authors, as well as original contributions from Moore.

Future projects are The Moon and Serpent Bumper Book of Magic, written with Steve Moore and earmarked for release with Top Shelf in ‘the future.’ Otherwise, the easily recognisable cultural figure of Alan Moore can be found at numerous musical events, including a forthcoming appearance with guitarist Stephen O’ Malley confirmed for the ATP ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ music festival in London. Alternatively, he can be found bare chested in the Simpsons episode from 2007 ‘Husband’s and Knives’ which was aired on his 59th Birthday.

While you can apply many titles to Moore his reason for everyone being aware of him is because he is a writer. His recognisable appearance would have gained him nothing if not for the attractiveness of his words. Familiar sounds applied to unfamiliar environments, Moore’s is a voice that spits gravel but reaches the reader as blossom. Moore understood the potential of any medium to portray palpable ideas and failed to recognise the limitations artificially applied by so many other writers in the business. Where the most successful commercial writers rise and fall with the last big ‘event’ nowadays, Moore will outlast them. Moore’s writing was never based on sensationalism or the direction of a company – no matter how well intentioned. Moore’s stories are built on ideas and those last forever – no matter how they are received or sent out to the public.

Moore’s increased distancing from film adaptations of his work bely one very clear principle. His were personal projects, created with one or two others at a time. No recreation worth millions of dollars will ever compare to the thrill of reading a Moore penned panel on a Moore planned page. It was in the man, in the moment of creation that what has inspired and intoxicated so many with ideas over the years was formed. With every passing day the sentiment that placed it on the page chills, such is the immediacy and personality of a Moore script. Had it been written a day after you sense it would have been written differently, the idea formed slightly differently by an absorbed piece of prose or a remembered or realised politic. When you read a Moore panel it is the thought of a great man, crystallised and still. All you get from it is a momentary glance at the whirring cogs in the great atomic clockwork mind of Moore and even in that momentary encounter with it – there is enough wonder and intrigue to fuel 100,000 more books.

If you doubt this you only need to look at Moore’s run on the Green Lantern Corps series, short storiesdetailing a corps made up of thousands of disparate and incredible beings from a thousand different worlds. But one Green Lantern, created by Moore, doesn’t socialise. In a short story named ‘Mogo Doesn’t Socialise’, a hardened bounty hunter arrives on a partially forested planet looking for the mighty Green Lantern Mogo. In true Future Shock style, he wanders about the planet for years, determinedly hunting for his quarry, mapping the banded tree line as he goes. It’s not until his search is almost complete that he realises his mistake. The Green Lantern he is looking for is not on this planet. The Green Lantern in question is the planet. Moore is Mogo, a constant presence drifting in the dark, his influence felt among every member of his fraternity.


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 46: Jim Lee

Jim Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea on August 11, 1964 and emigrated to the United States with his family at the age of four, growing up in St Louis Missouri. In Lee’s St. Louis Country Day School his classmates predicted he would found hi sown comic book company. Despite this, Lee seemed resigned to following in his father’s profession of medicine, studying psychology at Princeton University, with the intention of becoming a medical doctor. However, medicine’s loss was certainly going to be popular culture’s gain as Lee became one of the most influential and well known artists on the biggest selling comic book of all time. One that founded movie franchises and supported an ailing Marvel in the late ’90s and found some of the most famous comic companies in the world to rival it.

Lee’s rise to fame with Marvel Comics was inevitable as it was undeniable. In 1986, as Lee was preparing to graduate from his psychology degree, Lee took an art class that reignited his fascination with art at a time when seminal work such as Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen was reinvigorating the American comic book industry. With the psychology degree complete, Lee did something, with the reluctant blessing of his parents, that shows incredible courage and clarity of mind and self belief. He postponed his medical degree. The rest is without a doubt comic book history. He vowed he would return if he failed to break the comic book industry. Not something that should’ve worried him.

Submitting examples to various publishers, Lee did not see success until a New York comic book convention where he met Archie Goodwin, comic book editor (regularly cited as the ‘best loved comic book editor… ever), artist and writer who introduced him to Marvel Comics. Now it seems hard to believe that Lee was not snapped up immediately by the first commissioning editor to spot him but Lee exposes the nature of the industry. Retrospectively, artists are professional, passionate and confident in the style they work in and seem undeniable masters of their art but even the most capable artist can be subject to the pressures, misunderstandings, bad luck and bad timing of the industry. Lee began on Alpha Flight and moved over to Punisher: War Journal, his work there inspired by Frank Miller, David Ross, Kevin Nowlan and Whilce Portacio, as well as Japanese Manga.

Then came the crossing of two similar talents, one more senior than the other as Lee filled in for regular illustrator, Marc Silvestri on Uncanny X-Men 248, which was, due to positive response and Marvel’s own enthusiasm for Lee’s style followed up on issues 256 through to 258 as part of the ‘Acts of Vengeance’. The timing of this was key as X-Men, under Claremont was not only ground breaking and beautifully written at the time, it was on a meteoric rise in terms of popularity, beginning to challenge the more mainstream titles of Spider-man, Fantastic Four and Avengers. Eventually, Lee became Uncanny’s full time penciller, working for the first time with inker, Scott Williams, who would become his long time collaborator. To cement his position as an X-men innovator, Lee co-created the smooth talking mutant thief Gambit, with Chris Claremont. Lee’s popularity crystallised in these months, becoming more and more representative of what fan’s wanted. He gained increasingly greater control of the franchise and in 1991, Lee helped launch the second X-Men series, X-Men (Volume 2). He did so, not just as artist but as co-writer alongside Chris Claremont, giving the book a more broad and cutting edge feel to it’s perhaps more thoughtful predecessor. X-Men 1 was raw edged, fun comic book pinned with the wisdom and knowledge of an older and more restrained writer. Lee pushed Claremont’s boundaries while Claremont restrained the more inexperienced artist to just the right degree. The result was comic book history and rightfully so. However, Lee redesigned costumes, entirely successfully for Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Psylocke and Storm as well as creating villain Russian Super Soldier Omega Red.

X-Men 1 (Vol 2) remains the best selling comic book of all time with sales of 8.1 million (and nearly £7 million). This was confirmed in a public declaration by the Guinness Book of Records at the 2010 San Diego Comic con. While one aspect of it’s success was that it was released with five different variant covers as well as a limited edition gatefold edition that revealed it all in its glory, the success was thanks to Lee’s distinctive, modern take on a fan favourite and the development of the X-Men in an exciting new direction. The variant cover trick became a weight around collector’s necks in years following with Gold and Silver foil, holograms and gatefolds every few months for some titles, but this first incarnation was about piecing together a piece of art, mass produced and available to anyone who wanted it. Only Jim Lee and perhaps one or two other legends of the industry could’ve commanded such a response.

The success of X-men saw Lee hungering even more for greater creative control over his own work, and as soon as in 1992, Lee accepted an invitation to join six other artists (Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Rob Liefeld) who broke away from Marvel Comics to start Image Comics, which would release their own creator-owned titles. Lee’s batch of titles included Wild C.A.T.s, which Lee pencilled and co-wrote, and other series created in the same universe, including Stormwatch, Deathblow and arguably the more successful Gen13.

Lee and his close friend, Valiant Comics publisher Steve Massarsky, arranged a Valiant / Image crossover, Lee’s characters being used, alongside those of Rob Liefeild. Four central titles would exist – two from each company – in single edition format, each edition known as a colour rather than a number, plus a prologue and epilogue book. Wildstorm produced Deathmate Black, with Lee himself contributing to the writing, illustrating the covers of that book, as well as contributing to the prologue’s interior links. The assignment was given to Valiant creators against their better judgment, in particular Editor-in-chief Bob Layton, who complained about Image’s inability to meet their deadlines. Deathmate Black came out a few months after Valiant’s Blue and Yellow installments, which had come out on time, and Liefeld’s Deathmate Red was so late that Layton flew to California to procure that chapter personally, and ink it himself in an Anaheim hotel room. Layton see’s Deathmate’s lateness as one of Valiant’s ‘unmitigated disasters’ and views that project as the beginning of the spectacular collapse of the 1990s for the comic book industry. A collpase that would pull in Marvel and a collapse that comics has not, if ever, recovered from.

Wildstorm continued on, expanding it’s line to include other ongoing titles. As publisher, Lee later expanded this by creating two separate imprints for Wildstorm, Cliffhanger and Homage (to be replaced again years later to reform as a single Wildstorm Imprint, now owned by DC).

Moving back, with Rob Liefeld, to Marvel for the Heroes Reborn alternate universe storyline of the mid-late nineties, Lee was given the opportunity to plot the new Iron Man and wrote and illustrated The Fantastic Four. Both used existing storyarcs and developed them, bringing them more up to date. The innovations on these titles, however, were arguably greater than the more successful Ultimate Universe that has existed since as an Imprint of Marvel, though that is more subject to greater popularity of the industry as well as greater sophistication in art and writing in modern comic books.

Lee returned to Wildstorm, where he would publish series such as The Authority and Planetary, as well as Alan Moore’s imprint, America’s Best Comics. Lee himself wrote and illustrated a 12-issue series called Divine Right: The Adventures of Max Faraday, in which an internet slacker inadvertently manages to download the secrets of the universe, and is thrown into a wild fantasy world.

Sourced from HERE Check out the gallery there for more awesome images. Thanks to Alexandre Bihn for the awesome scan.

In a typically astute and decisive choice, Lee sold Wildstorm to DC in 1998 because he felt that his role as publisher was interfering with his role as an artist. In an echo of the choice made many years previously, he put his calling first. In 2003, Lee collborated with Jeph Loeb for a 12 issue Batman run. Introducing a new nemesis from Batman’s past, ‘Hush’ was a tightly packed and neatly executed trip through the Bat universe. Lee’s images were sumptuous, his design work intricate, emotive and innovative. Lee, the artist, through all the pitfalls and difficulties of publishing had lost none of the values and passion he had when working on X-Men 1 more than 12 years before. He followed this up with ‘For Tomorrow’ a 12-issue story in Superman by 100 Bullets writer (and Bunker firm favourite) Brian Azzarelo, although this didn’t achieve the same level of success, Lee’s work showed a maturity and stillness that perhaps wasn’t visible in his earlier career. In 2005, Lee collaborated with Frank Miller on All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder, a series plagued by delays. Lee’s work was spotless throughout, in particular a redesign of the batmobile and a gatefold image that folded out from the book itself that revealed the full scale of this Elseworld Batcave. While Lee’s contribution was near infallible, Miller’s writing was unsophisticated and cynical in most ways and alienated a great many readers. During this period, Lee returned to WildC.A.T.S with Grant Morrison. The gap between All-Star Batman and Robin 4 and 5 was one year and to date, only 1 issue of WildC.A.T.S (Vol 4 has been published. During thsi time, Lee also drew covers for the Infinite Crisis series.

Lee was named Executive Creative Director for DC Universe Online MMORPG. This was released in 2009, with Lee responsible for concept art for the project.

Lee’s meteoric rise did not falter there, as he has now taken a position alongside Dan Didio as Co-publisher of DC Comics. Despite obvious concerns, Lee maintains that this will in no way effect his capacity as a creative. He cited two projects, Dark Knight: Boy Wonder – a follow up of the Frank Miller series he had worked on and also a painted cover for Giuseppe Camuncoli’s layouts in Batman: Europa 1. Neither projects have surfaced yet. The Wildstorm imprint was officially declared ended by DC in September 2010.

With DC’s enormous revamp of it’s entire line, A-List artists were brought to the forefront to work on the most prominent titles. With a Justice League movie in discussion /pre-production at present DC was always going to put JL first in their choices of creative teams. The illustrious team of Jim Lee as penciller and Geoff Johns as writer is certainly, still, a cocktail that no true fan of the artform can ignore. If anything that is Lee’s great talent. Enduring popularity. His art work remains so fresh and clear, and so respresentative of what people want from their books – in spite of changes in the industry itself – that Lee has proven himself a Practitioner who has wandered away from the thing he is most beloved for, but like a much younger, more south east asian Peter Cook, retains a place in every fan who ever saw his work. This is testament to Lee’s enormous talent. His offers to put out projects reveals a conflict of interests that has taken him away perhaps too much in the last two decades, however he is a brave artist who pursued greater goals. Without finding ourself in the same situation who are we to say we wouldn’t pursue those same goals…. however Lee’s example is certainly a cautionary one. Swathes of exceptional artwork, pages and pages of classic comic work haven’t seen the light of day. From the top down the industry runs on one thing – putting out the best books possible. While we can never undermine someone’s right to do whatever they want – what would we have given to see more Lee?

Alan Moore Responds to Frank Miller’s Occupy Rant

Alan Moore did an interview with Honest Publishing this week where (among other things) he was asked about his opinions on Frank Millar’s recent Occupy Wall Street outburst. This is what the Watchmen creator had to say about the man who many consider to be the other father of modern comics:

“Well, Frank Miller is someone whose work I’ve barely looked at for the past twenty years. I thought the Sin City stuff was unreconstructed misogyny, 300 appeared to be wildly ahistoric, homophobic and just completely misguided. I think that there has probably been a rather unpleasant sensibility apparent in Frank Miller’s work for quite a long time. Since I don’t have anything to do with the comics industry, I don’t have anything to do with the people in it. I heard about the latest outpourings regarding the Occupy movement. It’s about what I’d expect from him. It’s always seemed to me that the majority of the comics field, if you had to place them politically, you’d have to say centre-right. That would be as far towards the liberal end of the spectrum as they would go. I’ve never been in any way, I don’t even know if I’m centre-left. I’ve been outspoken about that since the beginning of my career. So yes I think it would be fair to say that me and Frank Miller have diametrically opposing views upon all sorts of things, but certainly upon the Occupy movement.”

“As far as I can see, the Occupy movement is just ordinary people reclaiming rights which should always have been theirs. I can’t think of any reason why as a population we should be expected to stand by and see a gross reduction in the living standards of ourselves and our kids, possibly for generations, when the people who have got us into this have been rewarded for it; they’ve certainly not been punished in any way because they’re too big to fail. I think that the Occupy movement is, in one sense, the public saying that they should be the ones to decide who’s too big to fail. It’s a completely justified howl of moral outrage and it seems to be handled in a very intelligent, non-violent way, which is probably another reason why Frank Miller would be less than pleased with it. I’m sure if it had been a bunch of young, sociopathic vigilantes with Batman make-up on their faces, he’d be more in favour of it. We would definitely have to agree to differ on that one.”

Moore’s comments are pretty much in line with what one would expect him to say on the subject. Sad as it is, I don’t think there were many people who were all that surprised about Miller’s rant. Technically brilliant as some of it is, far right ideology is pretty much embedded in the very DNA of Miller’s writing. That’s not to say it’s not interesting to hear Moore’s thoughts on the subject however. Modern comic book fans get so used to saying “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns” in the same breath that we sometimes forget just how wide a gulf separates the two writers.

You can read the rest of the interview here and here.

Day 1 of Kapow: Lesson Learned. Leave Frank Quitely alone.

Day 1 of Kapow came and went very well frankly. I have decided to leave Frank Quitely alone tomorrow and I will allay my suspicions that Dave Gibbons stole my pens. My suggestion that Brendan McCarthy doesn’t look much like his picture was a master stroke in introductory conversation. I will now appear in a Marvel comic book (by tomorrow) on a page with Dave Gibbons (artist on Watchmen) as well as The Guinness Book of Records (whenever that’s out). I was given a stick of rock by a child care assistant in a low cut top who got it from a burlesque dancer from the Isle of Wight. I gave it to a Scotsman. Oh, and we sold some books.

That is all.

GIVE ME BACK OUR PENS, GIBBONS!!

(None of this will make any sense until Monday when all will be revealed – possibly with pictures but needless to say its all going very well.)

The Twelve Geeks of Christmas – Saturday Morning Watchmen

As a thank you for all your support over our first few months of being operational, we’re giving you twelve days worth of geeky videos, hand picked and guaranteed to raise a smile. Enjoy.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDDHHrt6l4w&fs=1&hl=en_GB]

Happy Christmas everyone. Hope you like the first video we’ve picked and that it tastes good with your stuffing. I recommend watching this and then watching the watchmen movie and trying not to laugh. It’s not an easy feat.

Tune in tomorrow for the next vid.

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