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DC Universe: The Stories Of Alan Moore
Alan Moore
DC Comics / Titan graphic novel £12.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Outside of Stan Lee, it's hard to think of any comics' writer who might get the accolade of a volume devoted entirely to their work other than Alan Moore. Quite apart from his superlative genius, few of the other undoubtedly talented writers in the field have an oeuvre that would fit quite so snugly into a handily sized volume like this one - aside from the Swamp Thing series that Moore wrote between 1983 and 1987, this relatively slim volume collects together all of the fill-ins and annuals he wrote for DC before he foreswore ever working directly for them again in 1989. (Okay, maybe Neil Gaiman.)

Anyway, although it's fair to say that not every story here is a gem, this collection does demonstrate just what it is that separates Moore from the pack. Perhaps his most important talent in relation to superhero comics, and the most difficult for later writers who may have absorbed his technical innovations to imitate, is his ability to expose the wiring of the pop icons of the collective unconscious. This is at its most obvious here in his stories featuring DC's big guns, Batman and Superman.

The collection opens with For The Man Who Has Everything from Superman Annual #11 in 1985, a story, which has not, to my knowledge, been reprinted since publication. Wonder Woman and Batman (accompanied by the then-new Robin, Jason Todd) visit Superman on his birthday to discover that he's already been given a gift by an old admirer: a mind controlling plant that leaves Superman catatonic while he dreams of "his heart's desire." For Superman, this is the life on Krypton that was stolen from him by the cataclysm that ended up with him marooned on Earth.

Working with Dave Gibbons, Moore presents us with a portrayal of the 1950s' sci-fi imagery of Krypton fast-forwarded through 30 years to a post-oil shock world of political tension and failed techno-political dreams. It is a classic Moore story: he effortlessly takes the accepted cliché elements of the super-science utopia of Krypton and gives them a small twist, bringing it down to Earth, as it were. At the same time, this story manages to cast light on the relationship between DC's most iconic characters, almost as an afterthought. The glimpse we catch of Wonder Woman - brave, brash and a trifle bellicose - whets the appetite for what he might have done with the character given more space.

Even more intriguing is a look at Moore and Gibbons working together just as they started work on Watchmen. Gibbons is at his peak here, and his rendering of the characters is supple and believable while maintaining the mythic weight that they require. His work is a succinct summary of the silver age style with the subtly dynamic approach to layout and posing that was shortly to be used to such devastating effect.

There are two other Superman stories here: the first is the less effective The Jungle Line from the DC Presents Annual in the same year, which sees Superman meeting Swamp Thing. It probably made sense to 'the powers that be' at DC that their newly critically acclaimed muck monster meet the leader of the pack, but what we get is a fairly standard Superman-loses-his-powers story, albeit told with some technical flair by Moore and artist Rick Veitch. The third Superman story is one Moore's numerous masterpieces, the two-part Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? According to the introduction to the story by Paul Kupperberg, when Schwartz mentioned the project to Moore, he grabbed him around the throat and said, "If you let anybody but me write that story I'll kill you." What we get is certainly a story worth killing for.

Batman is featured in two stories. Mortal Clay taken from Batman Annual #11, published in 1987, is a nice, twisted tale of love and disappointment for the super-villain Clay Face. Batman himself is more a supporting character in this story, which portrays the villain as a pathetic character, motivated by his impossible desire for companionship and irrational jealousy. Although the art of George Freeman doesn't always work - particularly when depicting Batman himself - he does have a good grasp of Clay Face's despair and does a good job of depicting his crazed nature.

Moore's other major Batman outing is the standalone story The Killing Joke, which he created with the British artist Brian Bolland. This is rather a double hit, as Bolland is another prodigiously talented creator whose comics work is now largely restricted to covers - he provides the cover the cover of this book, in fact.

While it was much heralded at the time, there is something a bit off about this story. Although he is often credited as the man who brought so much darkness to comics in the 1980s, Moore seems uncomfortable with the nastier elements he introduces here. The origin for the Joker works well on its own, and the exploration of the relationship between him and Batman is promising at that start, but the over-the-top persecution of Commissioner Gordon isn't very effective and ultimately undercuts what might have been an interesting character examination with an element of cartoonish ultra-violence.

Perhaps this demonstrates the ultimate weakness of superheroes: there's always going to be some generic element that snaps you out of the story and makes you stop and think: 'Hang on! It's just a bunch of weirdoes in funny outfits!' Maybe this is the point of The Killing Joke, but here a story that promises us catharsis ends up delivering bathos. Partly, perhaps, this is because Moore couldn't really take the Batman/ Joker relationship anywhere and the story remains unresolved. Of course, the lack of resolution is another structural weakness of the way superhero comics are produced: there can never be any resolutions because the story is always to be continued.

Moore has a reputation for bringing bleakness and darkness to superhero comics in the 1980s, and while the sadism of this story somewhat reflects that what he was actually doing was bringing humanity to them. He gave superheroes frailty, self-doubt, the odd moment that verges on cowardice or self-service, and used this to highlight their courage and nobility. This reflects the heroic potential in all of us, which is surely the ultimate thematic lesson of the superhero.

Moore's superheroes are not above humanity; they do what ordinary decent people would do given similar abilities. He is not writer like, say, Pat Mills who appears to feel that even the desire to do good hides a fascistic impulse control others, or Frank Miller for whom a fascistic desire to control others is a desire to do good. Moore, celebrates believes in the essential goodness of superheroes and, by extension, of all humanity. It is significant that in both The Killing Joke and Mortal Clay, the supposedly dark and grim Batman's main concern is to help Clay Face and the Joker. Moore's Batman is not driven by a desire for vengeance or impatience with the morally weak, but by a desire to heal those who have been hurt as he was by the murder of his parents.

Of course, this humanising instinct goes for villains too. Thus, Clay Face and the Joker are presented as people broken on the wheel of life and spinning out of control. It's not a totally nihilistic state, however, as even these characters seek a connection with other people, even if they don't know how to make it.

As well as these iconic powerhouses, this volume gives us Moore's take on 'street level' action through fill-in stories for Green Arrow in Detective Comics and Vigilante in his own title. Vigilante is a New York attorney by day and costumed crusader for justice by night, not to be confused with DC's golden age cowboy character. Vigilante was a very 1980s' sort of a concept, cut from the same cloth as The Punisher (although Vigilante tried to catch his quarry alive), or TV's The Equalizer.

Moore's two-part fill-in from issues #17 and #18, published in 1985, uses the Vigilante set-up to examine attitudes to vengeance by, once again, humanising the villain, in this case a father that has sexually abused his daughter. Moore sets him self a hard task - it's difficult to find much sympathy for the father - but builds a portrait that is at once sympathetic to the character's misery, isolation and misplaced need for loving intimacy but unflinching in exposing his delusions and the damage he does. Equally, he picks at the Vigilante concept and allows the supporting cast to mock the appearance of a costumed do-gooder in this supposedly realistic world of street crime and drugs. The artist Jim Baikie had previously worked with Moore on the schoolgirl-meets-alien story Skizz in 2000 AD, and his less-stylised work, coming from the British comics tradition rather than the heavily American-influenced Bolland and Gibbons, gives the story its gritty, urban feel.

Rounding the volume out are a selection of one-offs Moore wrote for The Omega Men, Green Lantern and Tales Of The Green Lantern Corp, and his version of the origin of the Phantom Stranger that appeared in Secret Origins #10(although for my money Gaiman's was the best take on this story). Many of these are like Future Shocks from 2000 AD - the Omega Men stories, in particular don't seem to really have any significant place in the DC continuity. The Green Lantern story Mogo Doesn't Socialise, is similarly reminiscent of Future Shock, with its twist ending, but did introduce a character that turned up again in the context of the Green Lantern Corp.

Most interesting of these stories is Tygers (not the last time Moore used that Blake poem as a reference point) from Tales Of The Green Lantern Corp Annual #2, published in 1986. This story mines an interesting and under-examined character in DC myth, Abin Sur, the Green Lantern who handed his ring on to Hal Jordan. In the story, Abin Sur receives a prophecy of his own demise, the career of Hal Jordan and the final fate of the Green Lantern Corp. I'm not familiar enough with 'GL' continuity to know if the last prophecy was significant, but the other two are handled well and add to the stature of Hal Jordan in a way that is very resonant given recent events in that character's continuity. A particularly enjoyable aspect of this tale is Kevin O'Neill's artwork. O'Neill joyously depicts the demonic world that Abin Sur visits in classic Nemesis-style. While Abin Sur himself looks a little stiff and uncomfortable - O'Neill struggles with depicting humans in the stereotypical US superhero style - the demons have a grotesque vivacity that only he could capture.

While there are no real stinkers here, a few of the stories are obvious potboilers, and Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow and The Killing Joke have been available for some time. If you haven't picked them up already, then these alone will certainly make this purchase worthwhile. For The Man Who Has Everything and Mortal Clay are near-forgotten gems that every Moore fan will want to read, so even if you have those other stories, it may be worth picking this volume up for those two alone. All the stories here will provide pleasure to the DC fan and, of course, Alan Moore completists will want to add this to their collection.
DC Universe: Stories of Alan Moore

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