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Genre Greats:
The Peculiar Genius of
Alan Moore
by Patrick Hudson

  
From Hell The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Miracle Man Swamp Thing V For Vendetta Watchmen Alan Moore
Alan Moore
In the last twenty years, Alan Moore has been responsible for a revolution in comics rivalling those brought about by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s, or Siegel and Schuster in the 1930s. In the 1980s he took a moribund form and, with great wit and a sure eye for the truth behind genre clichés, he redefined superheroes and the art of writing for the comics form. Without his influence we wouldn't have Sandman, The Invisibles, The Authority, Spawn or Red Rocket, the darker incarnations of 'Batman' and 'Wolverine', or the wilder British comics such as Zenith or Bad Company.
   Moore was born in 1953 in Northampton and - a non-conformist from an early age - was expelled from school in 1971. He held a series of nowhere jobs in the early seventies, whilst at the same time working on various artistic projects in the local area. His first break came in 1979 when he began working as a cartoonist for the weekly Sounds magazine under the nom de plume Curt Vile. Moore soon concluded that drawing was not his forte and began writing scripts for boys' science fiction comics such as Dr Who Weekly and 2000 AD.
   The late seventies and early eighties were a time of great change in British comics. A new generation of writers and artists influenced by American movies, comics and science fiction, was replacing the jolly-good-chaps of the World War II generation. Action had showed the way in the early 1970s, with gritty, violent strips more akin to the films of Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, than the Tom Brown's School Days and In Which They Serve of the previous twenty years. Action was quickly toned down following negative press attention, but the way had been shown and 2000 AD, which trod a similar path although in the safer world of fantasy and science fiction, was launched in 1977.
   Moore quickly found a place here, and his work in 2000 AD established a style and approach which he has followed, in various guises, ever since. Many of his shorts in the 'Tharg's Future Shocks' strand display his familiarity with genre clichés and his ability to turn them on their head and reveal the hopes and fears that support them. 'The Regrettable Ruse of Rocket Redglare' (prog 234, art by Mike White), for example, deliciously undercuts the happy-ever-after cliché of the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers adventure. Years after the defeat of his archenemy, galactic hero Rocket Redglare faces boredom, age and fading fame, so when his former nemesis gets in touch offering an opportunity for further adventure, he can't resist the allure of former glories. Moore takes the genre clichés at face value but explores their place in the face of real world of ennui and disappointment. These shorts generally display a light touch reminiscent of the Mad Magazine parodies of Harvey Kurtzman and others, but Moore adds a human dimension to the characters that sharpens the comedy and gives deepens the story.
   Of particular note among his occasional stories for 2000 AD are his collaborations with artist Alan Davis on the 'DR & Quinch' series. These Runyonesque tales of teenage rock'n'roll mayhem stand out as the finest examples of Moore's humorous style. Perhaps the most sophisticated is 'DR & Quinch Go To Hollywood', in which DR, a manic alien psychopath, and Quinch, his doltish, ultra-violent partner, encounter an Award-winning screenwriter dying at the scene of their latest atrocity. In his dying hands he clutches his final script, so DR steals it and they set about making the movie happen. The catch however, is that the script is totally illegible. All they can make out is that the title is "something something Oranges, something." Their solution is to hire a Marlon Brando-like star, whose mumbling delivery no one can understand. The mad cap antics that follow display Moore's natural instinct for pop-culture parody and anarchic farce while maintaining a level of wit and satire above the normal run of genre piss-takes in comics.
   At the same time, Moore was producing scripts for Dez Skinn's Warrior, a science fiction title aimed at a slightly older readership than 2000 AD. The more mature tone allowed Moore to develop sophisticated stories such as Marvel Man once more with Alan Davis and V for Vendetta, with David Lloyd.
   V for Vendetta saw the first real flowering of Moore's 'serious' style, developing a bleak, surrealist story of imprisonment, freedom and liberty, both personal and political. Lloyd drew it in stark, contrasting black and white, giving it an hallucinatory, over-exposed edge. When Warrior closed, this series remained unfinished, but in the early 1990s it was picked up by DC and republished from the beginning, this time in light, washed out colours that underscore the bleak expressionism of the art.
   The story that made Moore's career, however, was Marvel Man. Marvel Man had been a British knock off of Captain Marvel from the 1950s. The original series had petered out by the early sixties, and when Moore revived it he imagined the original hero 20 years older, the 'boy reporter' alter ego now a middle aged hack, his Marvel Man days long forgotten as if they were a dream. During a terrorist attack on a nuclear power station, he suddenly remembers who he is and dramatically transforms into Marvel Man.
   Without the demands of continuity to consider, Moore was able examine the nature of power and heroism in a way that had never been attempted in superhero comics before. Marvel Man's super strong punches were more likely to take a man's head off than send him flying against the scenery in traditional superhero style. Meanwhile the reappearance of Marvel Man changed the world in a way rarely considered in mainstream comics. Nearly 20 years later, in a world where the tropes of 'realistic superheroes' have been raked over again and again, it's hard to imagine how revolutionary this approach was. It quite literally changed superhero comics forever, and the consequences are something that Moore still wrestles with.
   Moore was one of several creators quietly revolutionising comics in Britain, and the fuss did not go unnoticed by American publishers. Marvel comics established Marvel UK to create local product, and a steady trickle of creative talent moved across the Atlantic, attracted by the opportunity to work on 'classic' characters and the financial rewards on offer.
   In 1983, Moore took over writing duties on DC's moribund Swamp Thing title. Beginning with issue 20, Moore quickly wrapped up the ongoing story line and launched into something quite different. Looking at the existing continuity through his own, peculiar lens he transformed Swamp Thing from an experiment gone wrong into an archetypal plant god, the latest in a long line of plant elementals that protect the 'green', the spiritual origin of all plants and thus life on Earth.
   Once again, Moore took the givens of the genre and continuity, and reknit them into something strange and beautiful. While he examined the spiritual side of the character, he never once lost sight of the comic's original appeal. He retained the 'horror comic' flavour, while upping the ante with Clive Barker-style monsters and gore, brought to hideous life by artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben.
   The increasing violence and explorations of adult themes lead to trouble with the Comics Code, a voluntary industry censorship code that had been established in the 1950s after hysteria over EC's brand of weird horror. In many ways, the Code had held comics back, leaving them in a juvenile ghetto that they were unable to grow out of, even to the level of other forms of juvenile fiction. This sudden undermining of the Code lead to an explosion of non-approved comics "for mature readers." Independent publishers without the editorial or censorial limitations of the mainstream Marvel and DC, were first follow Moore's lead, with titles such as Zot, Nexus and Love and Rockets dealing with superhero and sci-fi clichés in a fresh, illuminating way.
   Even the 'big two' seemed rejuvenated, and old standards such as Superman, The X-Men, The Justice League of America, Wonder Woman and - most of all - Batman all resurfaced with renewed vigour. Numerous DC titles went through Swamp Thing style revisions, and powers and origins were tinkered with to suit the current mode, not always for the better. Moore put a cap on the whole thing with the publication in 1986-7 of The Watchmen.
   The Watchmen is still a steady seller, its enduring appeal a testament to its revolutionary power. It started life when Moore began toying with the characters from the long-defunct Charlton Comics line. These had been co-created by then DC comics executive editor Dick Giordanno, and when Moore produced an outline for them Giordanno decided that his creations had a little more life in them yet, and didn't want them effectively ruined forever by Moore's proposed story line. Moore reworked the story, freeing it from some of the continuity demands of the existing characters, which probably made for an ultimately stronger work. Blue Beetle and Captain Atom, the Charlton analogues of Night Owl and Dr Manhattan, later got their own series, and Giordanno's decision has doubtless saved us from ham-fisted attempts to stitch the events of The Watchmen onto the four-colour world of Superman and Batman.
   The story concerns what is painted as an alternative history where superheroes were a craze in the 1930s when several bored, publicity hungry, or just plain crazy people put on silly outfits and fought crime. Just as the craze was petering out, an event occurred to change everything. In 1961, the first and only real superhero was created when scientist John Osterman is transformed by a nuclear accident into Dr Manhattan.
   It's the only such high-fantasy comics moment in the series, and it totally transforms the world, in contrast to the worlds of mainstream superhero comics where the existence of aliens, gods and weird science doesn't appear to change anything. Dr Manhattan's powers are awesome beyond belief and he soon becomes part of a new, revived superheroes movement. Popular vigilantes rather than rock'n'roll dominate the sixties on this Earth, and the world steers to the totalitarian right rather than the liberal left.
   By 1985, the time of the main plot thread, the heroes are retired, working for the government or operating underground like the crazed Rorscharch. Russia and the United States stand on the brink of nuclear war, and someone's killing the ex-superheroes. The murder mystery leads to a deconstruction of the superhero genre and an examination of vigilantes, good and evil, and whether you can do right by doing wrong.
   While its influence is still strong in today's comics, The Watchmen holds far more interest than a mere museum piece. Moore's experiments with the form of comics writing reached an acme in the tautly structured pages. Aided by Dave Gibbon's precise art he weaves the story through a rigid three-by-three grid, throwing in visual puns and echoes that resonate throughout the work. A butterfly, skull and crossbones, and the symmetrical shapes of Rorscharch's mask have a subtle, numinous interrelationship that stays with the reader long after the impact of the mystery and violent action has subsided.
   Moore was at a creative peak in the 1980s and everything he touched turned to gold. He was name checked by 'Pop Will Eat Itself' in their song 'Def Con 1'; there was talk of a film with Malcolm Mclaren, and Terry Gilliam was to film The Watchmen; his comics were reviewed in broadsheet newspapers and he was profiled in trendy magazines; and when DC decided to re-launch the comic Superman after 50 years, Moore was drafted in to write the final two episodes of the original Superman series ('Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?' with Curt Swan) surely the ultimate accolade in the world of superhero comics. V for Vendetta and Marvel Man (renamed Miracle Man after protests from Marvel comics) were revived by DC and Eclipse, respectively, and charismatic Swamp Thing supporting cast member John Constantine was spun off into his own title, Hellblazer, written first by Jamie Delano and later by Garth Ennis. Swamp Thing and Hellblazer spearheaded DC's Vertigo imprint, later the home of moody-student favourites such as Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Grant Morrison's The Invisibles.
   By the late 80s, thanks large part to Moore and his contemporaries, comics had gone from a laughable cultural backwater to a touchstone of cool. While creators were getting more recognition from the mainstream, there was a rising feeling in the industry that they weren't getting due recognition - or reward - from their publishers. Following revelations about the shabby treatment of Jack Kirby by Marvel, creators began demanding more ownership of their creations and their work. Never one to duck the good fight, Moore was at the forefront of this movement with Steve Bissette and Rick Veitch. Because of the "industry standard" contracts, beneficial ownership of nearly all Moore's work up to now, from 2000 AD and Warrior right up to The Watchmen, was held by the publisher and not by the creator.
   Another source of dissatisfaction for Moore was the comics industry's, and more particularly DC's, handling of the growing relaxation of what could be portrayed in comics. Still very much perceived as a children's medium, efforts were made to 'protect' impressionable readers from the 'objectionable' material by DC's labelling system. Swamp Thing was labelled as being "for mature readers" and comics shops were advised that these titles should not be made available to readers under 15 years old. Moore felt this was an absurd notion, and one that was not extended to other forms of literature apart from pornography, and his work on Swamp Thing was not that. In effect, it was a form of censorship.
   At the end of the 1980s, Moore, with Vietch, Bissette, and numerous others, decided to go it alone. Vietch's King Hell press began publishing his own Brat Pack series of twisted superheroes, Bissette's Spider Baby Grafix launched the ground-breaking horror anthology Taboo (home of the first few chapters of From Hell) and Moore's own Mad Love imprint launched with the first issues of Big Numbers and The Lost Girls. The creators' ambitious plans ran into trouble, however. Dogged by controversy, Taboo met with resistance from distributors and comics shops and never really took off, while creative differences spelt the end of Big Numbers. Vietch fared better, but his Brat Pack stories were, to a large extent, a more conservative enterprise than Moore and Bissette's projects, rehashing superhero clichés whilst making explicit some of the implicit darkness of the superhero myth - kind of like The Watchmen with more sex and violence and less heart and soul.
   Despite the apparent failure of these projects, an important precedent had been set. In the early 1990s, the more bankable, and instinctively mainstream, talents of Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefield, who had established a huge following with their work at Marvel (particularly McFarlane's work on Spiderman) decided to throw off their shackles and unleash their creative freedom by establishing Image Comics. In its time, this was a hugely successful enterprise, challenging the dominance of the 'big two' and showing how creator rights and creator freedom (even if it was merely the freedom to create more superheroic drivel) could be made commercially viable.
   For Moore, Image was something of a lifeline while he underwent a creative crisis. He gigged on McFarlane's Spawn and spun Rob Liefield's creation Supreme (a Superman variation) into his own title. His most important work for Image is the tragically truncated 1963. This series is, on the surface, an affectionate parody of the 'silver age' of comics. Written in the overblown style of Lee/Ditko/Kirby during the peak of early Marvel, each issue is presented as one issue of a line of comics each with a vague 1960s Marvel equivalent. The individual stories are united by the tale of the various heroes trying to discover the origins of a mysterious interloper from another universe. The series displays many of the tricks from Moore's magic bag: seamless pastiche, an obsessive attention to genre trivia and in-character back-up prose, in this case wild parodies of period advertising, Marvel-era letters pages and Stan Lee's particular flavour of hype.
   The series was to climax in an 80-page spectacular which would see the 1963 heroes land in the world of the Image characters - Spawn, Wild C.A.T.S, Shadowhawk, Youngblood, The Savage Dragon and Supreme - and contrast the innocence of silver age with the grim, dirty heroes of the nineties. Sadly, this final issue was never to appear, lost in the contractual and creative disputes that lead Jim Lee and Rob Liefield to strike out on their own. These disputes have also prevented the six completed issues of 1963 from being collected into a single volume. This is a real shame, as they represent some of Moore's finest superhero work, the light to The Watchmen's darkness and a deeply buried rumination on what The Watchmen and its like had wrought in the superhero genre.
   At this time Moore had more than superheroes on his mind. He wrote a novel Voice of the Fire, a psycho-geographical meditation on his native Northampton. An increasing interest in mysticism and magic (of the Crowley type rather than Daniels) lead to writing on magical theory and practice in underground and alternative magazines. He has created works for performance in galleries and small theatres around Britain works in, collaboration with composer David J, inspired by his new interests.
   However, his major work in this period is undoubtedly From Hell, his examination of the Jack the Ripper murders in collaboration with Eddie Campbell, an extraordinary achievement by both artists. Moore speculates about one of the more unlikely theories of the Rippers' identity, Queen Victoria's surgeon William Gull. In Moore's story, Gull is commissioned by the Freemasons to murder a shop girl who has had a child by Prince Albert Victor (Prince Eddie), then Prince of Wales, and the prostitutes who know about it. For the ageing, perhaps insane, Gull, the mission becomes a magical working with its basis in Masonic symbolism and the history and geography of London. From Hell is a sombre, symbolic, sometimes obscure work, recalling the novels and psychological non-fiction of Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.
   Campbell's black and white art is more than up to the challenge of the material, beautifully rendering London's monolithic architecture, draping it in the threatening darkness of Victorian London. He captures the looming power of a Hawksmoor church and the world of seedy, back alley pubs that the doomed prostitutes inhabit with equal skill, slipping easily between the representational and symbolic needs of the story.
   From Hell is backed up by extensive notes detailing Moore's research. On the whole, he appears to have recreated the weeks leading up to the crimes in exacting detail by studying available sources and tracing the movements of the various players with mathematical precision. But the notes demonstrate how fact is never as clear and precise as fiction and Moore identifies points where he has had to conjecture or tweak the facts to fit the story. Moore often provides supplemental material to his work - such as in The Watchmen and 1963 - but these notes are more than just stage dressing. They are a journal of research and discovery, detailing coincidences and chance meetings along the way of his research that hint at something of the deeper structure and meaning that Moore senses in the Whitechapel Murders.
   Since 1999, Moore has undergone a small resurgence with the appearance of America's Best Comics, a line of comics all written by him and published - through a somewhat complicated web of ownership - by DC. First to appear was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a six-issue series detailing the further adventures of Victorian pulp-heroes Mina Harker (from Bram Stoker's Dracula), Dr Henry Jekyll (from Robert Louis Stevenson's The Extraordinary Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Alan Quartermain (from H. Rider Haggard's Quartermain series of novels, which began with She), Hawley Griffin (antihero of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man), and Nemo (antihero of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). As well as the main cast, it features guest appearances from a who's who of Victorian popular literature, and Moore is once more knitting together disparate, often delightfully absurd, continuities into a seamless whole.
   It is a mordantly witty work, that serves to further the dark vision of the Victorian era set out in From Hell. During the research for From Hell, Moore immersed himself in Victoriana and there can be little doubt that The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is also a product of that research. Like From Hell, it deals with destruction unleashed on London's East End by the Victorian Establishment, to whom the people living there are less than livestock. Once more, Moore has taken clichéd genre heroes and, where lesser writers might be content to let them sleepwalk through parody, Moore takes them at face value and allows the truths these stock characters embody to shine through.
   In late 1999, ABC launched four new titles by Moore: Tomorrow Stories, Tom Strong, Top 10, and Promethea.
   Tomorrow Stories is that rare thing these days, an anthology comic, each issue featuring new stories of the whimsical superheroine Cobweb (with The Lost Girls artist Melinda Gebbie), boy inventor Johnny B. Quick (with Kevin Nowlan), Spirit-like crime fighter Grey Shirt (with Rick Vietch) and superheroic parodies 'The First American' and 'US Angel' (with Jim Baikie). In many ways it's a return to the days of the 'Future Shock', and Moore demonstrates a lot of smart-alec wit in these short pieces, but they never reach the level of his more sustained work.
   Tom Strong is a genre meta-work, an attempt to piece together a legend like Superman or 'Doc Savage' out of whole cloth. At the turn of the century, a Victorian scientist deliberately casts himself and wife away on the mystical island of Attabar Teru to raise a super-child away from the influence of civilisation. The result, mixed with some miraculous native herbs, is near-invulnerable, super scientist and hero Tom Strong. The first issue provides highlights from Strong's fifty-year career to establish a heroic continuity. Later issues have hopped and skipped around different eras of Strong's continuity, mimicking the comics of the time the stories happen. So, issue five's 'Untold Tale of Tom Strong - Escape From Eden' is drawn and lettered in a style of 1950s sci-fi adventure comics by the likes of Wally Wood, and issue eight's 'Riders of the Lost Mesa' is framed by a dime-store western top and tail.
   Tom Strong is deliberately nostalgic for the old-fashioned adventure stories of a more innocent time, before eviscerating hell-spawned revenants turned the superhero comic into a monthly gore fest - a phenomenon that Moore's 1980s work helped inspire. The invented continuity adds depth to the concept, but the episodic style has the effect of presenting a series of climaxes without sufficient build up. Rather than a conventional contemporary superhero comic, it is more a superhero remix comic, taking bits and pieces from comics and genre history and attempting to tell in a single issue a story that might, in regular comics publishing, take 50 or 60 years to unfold. It may not always work, but over a dozen issues Tom Strong's world is beginning to take shape and Moore's manufactured history is beginning to resonate like the real thing.
   More familiar ground is covered by Top 10. Moore presents the city of Neopolis, where superheroes are not just real, everybody is a superhero, from the cab drivers to plumbers and, particularly the policemen. Top 10 is a superhero ensemble work that plays out something like a very twisted version of NYPD Blue.
   In between the usual cop-show hassles of murder, robbery, drugs and domestics, Moore and artist Gene Ha paint the bizarre world of Neopolis with breathtaking skill and invention. Every frame is packed with amusing, knowing detail and Moore has let his imagination run riot, creating bizarre and amazing heroes pursuing the 'realistic superheroes' routine to its logical fictional zero point, the hard-boiled cop show.
   Most promising of the new crop is Promethea, undoubtedly a superhero comic, but one with a unique and intoxicating flavour. In fifth century Egypt, an Egyptian priest of the old gods helps his daughter escape before he is murdered by the Christians. The little girl is rescued from certain death in the desert by the god Thoth-Hermes, and taken to the Immateria the land of myth and fiction, somewhat similar to Gaiman's world of 'Dream'. Throughout time, Promethea has appeared to men as a muse and lover, inspiring poetry, literary fiction, romance novels and, in the early 20th century, comics. In an alternative New York, college student Sophie Bangs discovers that she is the next earthly embodiment of Promethea.
   Moore weaves a story of magic and myth, using the imagery and language of magic and poetry to knit a superhero story with a difference. As in Tom Strong and Top 10, Moore has created a bizarre backdrop for the story. Sophie Bangs' New York is a strange variation on our own. The mayor is a schizophrenic, and the skies are patrolled by the science heroes, The Four Swell Guys, and the Painted Puppet is a popular psychopathic murderer, while the city's most popular comic is a romance title, Crying Gorilla about a, well, a crying gorilla.
   These series are currently ongoing, despite rumours of cancellation and a few missed shipping dates, and so who knows what the future holds for them? Moore has announced a spinoff title for Tom Strong, and this title has garnered most of the popular acclaim. However, all the titles show Alan Moore in prolific, sometimes prodigious, form. Once more he is confounding the popular notion of superheroes, with not a doom-ridden psychopath in sight. It could be that Alan Moore is about to revolutionise comics all over again.
Alan Moore, selected titles:
Batman: the Killing Joke (1988),  From Hell (1988-95),  The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-2000),  Marvel Man (1982-85, Warrior) + (1986-90, Eclipse),  1963 (1993),  Opia (1986),  Promethea (1999-2001),  Swamp Thing (1982-87),  short story 'The Courtyard' in The Starry Wisdom (1994),  Tomorrow Stories (1999-2001),  Tom Strong (1999-2001),  Top 10 (1999-2001),  V For Vendetta (1982-83, Warrior) + (1988-89, DC),  Voice of the Fire (1997),  Voodoo: Dancing in the Dark (1999),  Watchmen (1985-86),  The Worm (2000)

Related pages:
tZ  Top 10: Book One by Alan Moore - graphic novel review
tZ  Mutants Season: Mutants in SF and Comics - critical article
tZ  Silver Metal Lovers: Sexuality, Romance and Relationships in SF Comics - critical article
tZ  - buy books and comics by Alan Moore at Amazon.co.uk
tZ  - buy books and comics by Alan Moore at Amazon.com
Alan Moore

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