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

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Practitioners 19: Steve Dillon

Steve Dillon is a British comic book artist from Luton, England. He has worked on a number of titles. He was penciller for some seminal works including the ‘Satanic Verses’ of Vertigo – Preacher, written by his consistent creative partner Garth Ennis (Preacher, Hellblazer, Punisher). Finding information on him is nigh on impossible as he seems to be as mysterious as The Saint of Killers, the iconic and legendary hunter of men designed by Dillon for the previously mentioned Preacher.

Dillon realised his potential as a serious comics artist during the production of a school comic book called ‘Sci Fi Adventures’ with school friends Neil Bailey and Paul Mahon in 1975. Dillon’s first strip in this comic was the brilliantly named ‘The Space Vampire’. This was followed by ‘Escape from Planet of the Apes’ which was drawn to a standard well beyond his years. In the late seventies Dillon wrote and illustrated a strip ‘Pi’ ina fanzine produced with Bailey called ‘Ultimate Science Fiction’.

To illustrate how far in advance of his age his drawing was Dillon secured his first professional gig in the first issue of Hulk Weekly for Marvel UK at the age of 16. He later worked on the Nick Fury. In the 1980s he also drew for Warrior and Doctor Who magazine, where he created the character Absolom Daak, Dalek Killer, a convicted killer given a reprieve for the death penalty in exchange for battling the bread bins from space. His concepts were significantly sharper and more broad than the children’s story of Doctor Who required but Dillon was going to get to sharpen his pencil for significantly darker story lines later on.

His work for 2000AD was prolific, from 1980 in Ro-Jaws’ Robo Tales: Final Solution with Alan Moore, through to a prominent position alongside Judge Dredd legends such as McMahon, Bolland and Ezquerra from 1981 to his last in 1987 and taking in Ro-Busters, Rogue Trooper, ABC Warriors and Bad Company and one shots and short runs like Hap Hazard (Prog 561 & 567, 1988) and Tyranny Rex (Prog 566-568, 1988).

In this time he completed initial redesigns for DC’s The Wanderers (a super hero team introduced in Legion of Superheroes – killed conveniently (redesigned) by Clonus, their Controller mentor and restored to a 13 issue story in the late 80s. These designs were abandoned and replaced by Robert Campanella. The series itself was drawn by Dave Hoover and Robert Campanella. Although frustrations occurred in the early days this shows signs DC were interested in the man himself as part of the British Invasion that was taking place at the time.

Along with Brett Ewins, Dillon started the comic magazine Deadline in 1988, which continued on for another seven years. Deadline was incredibly representative of the popular music/ comic book culture of the time and was to be the most successful of the 2000AD spin-offs of the period. It introduced the world to Jamie Hewlett and Tank Girl and championed the Brit Pop era that ultimately killed it off. However, by this time Dillon was working on US titles.

Finishing up with 2000AD with Harlem Heroes: Series 2 (Progs #671-676, 683-699 & 701-703, 1990) the move to the US happened with a shift over to Animal Man (now made popular by Grant Morrison’s 26 issue run) working alongside Tom Veitch for 18 issues.

Following this, Dillon worked on the gritty supernatural thriller Hellblazer, following down trodden semi-twat John Constantine through the dark confines of the supernatural underworld. Although incredibly popular and with a significant following and a feature film this was effectively a training ground for what came next. The critically acclaimed Preacher, following Jesse Custer ,disillusioned pastor struck by the supernatural power of Genesis and sent on a pilgrimage with his briefly estranged girlfriend Tulip O’ Hare and Irish Vampire Cassidy to find God and answer as to what he thought he was playing at.

In this series, Dillon brought his distinctive and clear cut artwork to life. It was written by Ennis with Dillon in mind and the majority of the action takes place in wide empty landscapes and run down detailess motels of middle America (and France). Dillon’s unambiguous artwork matched perfectly the unflinching content of Ennis’ writing: taking in sadism, masochism, buggery, a bulimic cardinal, a constantly physically humiliated villain, and the effects of an unkillable gunman from the depths of the earth facing off against an unwilling platoon of guardsmen. And thats just the beginning. I didn’t even mention the man with a face of an Arse.

Indeed, Arseface is potentially one of Dillon’s best designs, simultaneously massively deformed (everyone spontaneously vomits at the sight of him) and tragically, sensitively gallant. It makes the creation at once sympathetic and hilarious. Hard to explain, I encourage you to take a look for yourself.

Preacher ran for 66 glorious, sweary issues before concluding in 2000. It represents still a master work of irreverant character design and spacious, effective graphic story telling – at once representing romantic and traditional ideals with graphic and appalling violence and criminal scale debauchery.

From this (aside from an Atom special for DC) Dillon has continued to work with Marvel (and Ennis in part) beginning with transferring the mindless violence of Preacher to the pages of Punisher for Marvel Knights. This worked to great effect, with Dillon’s light touch and cinematic compositions offering an alternative version of the Punisher that had been prevalent since John Romita Jr’s run on Punisher: War Journal in the early 90s. Concentrating on Marvels MAX imprint Dillon drew for Straczynski’s Supreme Power spin off : Nighthawk and then to the 5 issue mini-series Bullseye: Greatest Hits (2005) – mixing it up almost immediately after with Punisher Vs Bullseye 5 issue mini series from 2005-2006).

Dillon went A-list with Marvel when offered a run with Wolverine: Origins 1-25. While his unfussy panels reduced the gravity and roughness of the central character, the violence and brutality of the title was understandably well realised.

Then it was back to Punisher with Garth Ennis in 2009 for a 6 issue series of Punisher: War Zone and Punisher MAX with Jason Aaron, an ongoing series still running now.

The high point of his career was perhaps Preacher as it utilised his skills most keenly with landscape, composition, content and characterisation but Dillon is a commercial artist hard to beat – offering accessible, enjoyable and clearly depicted panels that allow the writer’s story to flow through. This is often underestimated but as a storyteller Dillon is an exceptional practitioner. Who else can show you a Vampire getting his nuts blown off and raise a smile?