Practitioners 47: Alan Moore (Part 3)

In an unusual third part for The Practitioners, Alan Moore furthers the boundaries of leftist and liberal ideologies through comics and marriage and promptly slides back into the thorny embrace of the mainstream…

Alan Tiberius Benedict Leoness Moore III has almost none of those names. However, in 1988 he had a hate on for all things commercial and vowed to work separately from the mainstream with the able help of his wife Phyllis and their mutual lover Deborah Delano. As you might expect the independent comics publishing run by them was known as Mad Love. Tired of the requirements and apparently double handed treatment of creatives in his chosen field Moore moved away from his mainstay subjects of Science Fiction and Superheroes, revealing clearly a wish for more literary comic work, concentrating now on social, political and current subjects for his work.

'Growing Out of It' by Mark Vicars, Jamie Delano, Shane Oakley and Tom Frame for ARGH!! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) (1988)

Beginning with their first publication ARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia)- an anthology of work by a number of writers (including Moore) that directly opposed the Thatcher Government’s Clause 28, a law designed to prevent councils and schools ‘promoting homosexuality’ with sales going towards the Organisation of Lesbian and Gay Action, it’s fair to say they went for the political jugular of late ’80s Britain, something Moore, a dignified and practicing leftist all his life found great satisfaction in. Moore was pleased with his involvement, stating at the time “we hadn’t prevented this bill from becoming law, but we had joined in the general uproar against it, which prevented it from ever becoming as viciously effective as its designers might have hoped.”

His title, Shadowplay: The Secret Team, illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz for Ecipse Comics and commissioned by the Christic Institute, a public service law firm founded in 1980 and based in Washington DC, with offices on other major US cities, included in the anthology ‘Brought to Light’,a description of the CIA’s covert drug smuggling and arms dealing furthered his ideological goals to great success.

Adding to this Moore’s Big Numbers, an unfinished title involving a hardly disguised Northampton known as ‘Hampton’ and dealing with the effects by big businesses on ordinary people – a story certainly prescient of the situation we have found ourselves in now – and a Small Killing, hailed as Moore’s ‘most underrated work’ about a once idealistic adveritsing executive haunted by his boyhood self for Victor Gollancz Ltd publishing, it looked as though Moore was finally getting what he wanted. A career without compromise. An opportunity to change people’s minds without speaking through a (however kindly) censored soundbox.

Following this with Warren Elis’ ‘all-time favourite graphic novel, the now notorious From Hell, in which Moore, inspired by Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s holistic detective reasoned that in order to solve a crime holistically, one would need to solve the entire society it occurred in. Using a fictionalised account of the Jack the Ripper stories almost every lasting figure of the period is in some way directly or indirectly involved in the story, including ‘Elephant Man ‘John Merrick, Oscar Wilde, textile designer William Morris, artist Walter Sickert and occultist, astrologer and ceremonial magician, Aliester Crowley among others. Taking nearly ten years to complete, using sooty, scratched pen and ink style by Eddie Campbell, it was a great work, very much toiled over. Hilariously, this caused it to outlive Taboo, the small independent comic anthology created by former collborator, Stephen R. Bissette that it had originally been intended for.

With his other work, Moore wanted again to attempt something innovative in comics, and believed that creating comics pornography was a way of achieving this. This is perhaps something that only Moore could tackle and remain viable, given what he did after completing this project. He remarked that “I had a lot of different ideas as to how it might be possible to do an up-front sexual comic strip and to do it in a way that would remove a lot of what I saw were the problems with pornography in general. That it’s mostly ugly, it’s mostly boring, it’s not inventive – it has no standards.” His answer to this conundrum was Lost Girls, another title that outlasted Taboo itself, in spite of also being intended for it, a story in which three women – of different ages and classes – Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Wendy, of Peter Pan meet in a European hotel and regale each other with stories of their sexual adventures. Illustrated by Melinda Gebbie, whom Moore, in spite of being visually part-wookee, entered into a relationship with, Lost Girls was published erratically until the work was finished and collected in 2006.

In this time, Moore wrote a prose novel, Voice of the Fire, which was published in 1996 – following linked events through the Bronze Age to Present day in Moore’s hometown of Northampton through linked stories that formed ingeniously into one coherent story. It remains available online in Hardback and Paperback versions.

It was around this time that Moore became a ceremonial magician. Ceremonial magic, also referred to as High Magic and as learned magic and developed via Hermetism which, in late antiquity, grew in parallel to ancient religions including early christianity and was “characterized by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith.” Moore practices his magic through long, elaborate and complex rituals of magic and is far too complicated and steeped in ancient lore and anti-religion to go into fully here.

Big Numbers by Alan Moore and Bill Bill Sienkiewicz

At the same time, Moore made a choice that took him away from the core values he had grown to be known for throughout his career and took him back to the heart of mainstream comics, joining Jim Lee at Image Comics – something that shocked a great many of his fans. Image well known at the time for it’s ‘flashy artistic style, graphic violence and scantily-clad large-breasted women,’ it seemed an odd choice for a writer like Moore. But it was the content of Image that had enticed Moore, now looking at an industry that had changed dramatically in his time away. His first work was an issue of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which was then followed by the creation of his own Mini-series, 1963, “a pastiche of Jack Kirby stories drawn for Marvel in the sixties, with their rather overblown style, colourful characters and cosmic style.” According to Moore, “after I’d done the 1963 stuff I’d become aware of how much the comic audience had changed while I’d been away. That all of a sudden it seemed that the bulk of the audience really wanted things that had almost no story, just lots of big, full-page pin-up sort of pieces of artwork. And I was genuinely interested to see if I could write a decent story for that market.”

Writing what he saw as “better than average stories for 13 to 15-years olds” including three mini-series based on Spawn: Violator, Violator / Badrock and Spawn: Blood Feud, it appeared that Moore had grasped the nettle on this one. Perhaps even more unlikely, Moore was given Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. at issue #21, which he ran with for 14 issues.The series followed two groups of superheroes, one of whom are on a spaceship heading back to their home planet, and the others who are instead remaining on Earth. Moore’s biographer Lance Parkin remarked critically of the series, feeling that it was one of Moore’s worst, and that “you feel Moore should be better than this. It’s not special.” Moore himself, who remarked that he took on the series – his only regular monthly comic series since Swamp Thing – largely because he liked Jim Lee, admitted that he was not entirely happy with the work, believing that he had catered too much to his conceptions of what the fans wanted rather than being innovative.

It was arguably a laudable gesture and to Moore’s credit, conceding a great deal of control to the hands of the artist after years of delicate and intricate control of content, though it was – as conceded by the man himself – a mistake. History would confirm that this period had little lasting creative effect on the industry but at the time writers such as Moore were sidelined and choices were made based on the industry at the time – though with hindsight it is clear that this became a missed opportunity. Moore could have potentially reignited great writing in popular works, dragging the rest of the industry with him as he had done so many times – but that would have had to be intentional and Moore has never tried to influence the industry beyond the borders of his own work.

However Moore took over Rob Liefeld’s Supreme and acknowledging the considerable similarities with DC’s Superman, took the title towards the Silver Age Superman comics of the 1960s, introducing a female superhero, Superema, a super-dog Radar, and a Kryptonite-like material known as Supremium. This ‘mythic’ reimagining of Supreme departed from the character he was templated upon, giving the title fresh air between it’s content and that of the title it had so visibly been based on and under Moore, Supreme was to prove to be a commercial and critical success. Moore announced that he was finally back in mainstream comics after several years of self-imposed exile – something that no doubt saw the older reading fraternity cheer. Moore hadn’t realised something yet. That fans were still following him and waiting for the old Moore to return, fully formed and reinvigorate an ailing art form in a thriving industry. Something Moore tried soon enough with Rob Liefeld’s branched-off Awesome Universe.

With Liefeld’s departure from Image, he hired Moore to create a new universe for the characters he had brought with him from Image. This was Moore’s chance to bring to bear his considerable powers of imagination and he took to the job enthusiastically. Moore’s “solution was breathtaking and cocky – he created a long and distinguished history for these new characters, retro-fitting a fake silver and gold age for them.” Moore began writing comics for many of these characters, such as Glory and Youngblood, as well as a three-part mini-series known as Judgement Day to provide a basis for the Awesome Universe. However Moore was dissatisfied with Liefeld, saying “I just got fed up with the unreliability of information that I get from him, that I didn’t trust him. I didn’t think that he was respecting the work and I found it hard to respect him. And also by then I was probably feeling that with the exception of Jim Lee, Jim Valentino – people like that – that a couple of the Image partners were seeming, to my eyes, to be less than gentlemen. They were seeming to be not necessarily the people I wanted to deal with.”

And so with that, dear reader, the Ceremonial Magician named Moore chose instead to take to his own universe, forming it in the kernel of his own magnificent mind. To help him form the crucible in which this magnificent new universe would sit he employed his old friend Jim Lee and set about finally realising the great aspiration of generations of writers and artists. This time; the Magician Moore decided, he would finally create America’s Best Comics…

Part 3 Coming Soon

Practitioners 41: Erik Larsen

If Simon Bisley is the Heavy Metal and Neil Gaiman the careful lyricism, Erik Larsen is the rock and roll of comic books. Bold colours, flash bang visuals, heavy weaponry, implausible chicks, nasty ass comic book violence and a great hero rising through the pile of body parts and big boobs. Creating a middle ground for those becoming disillusioned with the ‘big ones’ homogenised, careful storytelling, Larsen grinds the pulpish, the extreme and the deliberately silly and offensive together in a cathartic throw back to comics pulp heyday in an unapologetic, hedonistic and ultimately downright fun experience. Recognising that a page is an empty space, pregnant with possibilities, the only limitation – the edges of the artist and writers’ imagination.

Even in the boom days of the nineties, the average comic book geek was under the age of 12 or most likely a social pariah. To these people, escapism was characters that did what they wanted, represented ideals they believed in, got the busty girl and were never intimidated by a sky full of Martian space ships. These readers had a well developed silly bone and an understanding of pulp humour. The readership wasn’t frightened of a book that revelled in random events in the name of kitsch entertainment. This escapism saw heroes appear that were bright, bold, unremitting and smart mouthed. Cartoon heroes for Saturday morning television, made untransmittable before 10PM EST. Erik Larsen was the king of this. A master of crazy, bombastic pulp.

Larsen was born in middle America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a child growing up in Bellingham, Washington and Albion, California he created several versions of a character named ‘The Dragon’, a batman like character, driving a car copied from Speed Racer’s Mach 5. Producing a fanzine with a friend which featured ‘The Dragon’ the character was developed into a character able to change using a magic word like Captain Marvel.

Taking his first paid work, working on Megaton, co-creating and illustrating a feature called ‘Vanguard’ with publisher Gary Carlson. The Dragon appeared, slightly revised in the second edition. Larsen went on to work on the Sentinels of Justice for AC Comics and DNAgents for Eclipse Comics.

His work at DC included The Outsiders, Teen Titans, Adventures of Superman and Doom Patrol. For Marvel he completed a The Amazing Spider-man fill-in story and 5 issues of the Punisher. Frankly Larsen made it look easy. Wandering from company to company, first working on incredibly diverse titles for DC and ultimately extremely high end titles for Marvel. Aside from a Nova storyline cancelled for Marvel Comics presents, his flight up the ladder at Marvel was unstoppable. Alongside his master work, as writer and artist on Savage Dragon, Larsen has found an occasional home with Marvel, returning to write and illustrate on Fantastic Four, The Defenders, Wolverine and Nova. He briefly returned to DC to write Aquaman.

Just a selection of the alternate Dragons from the incredibly wild Larsen Universe (by Art Adams)

In 1990, Todd McFarlane was leaving the title Amazing Spider-man, a title he had visually revolutionised and Larsen took over the reigns as of 329, having previously pencilled issues 287, 324 and 327. With writer David Michelinie and Larsen, the series experienced increased sales, with stories such as ‘ The Cosmic Spider-man’, ‘The Return of the Sinster Six’ and ‘The Powerless Spider-man’ that deliberately took off the gloves Spider-man had been treated with. Larsen kept pace with the extreme nature of the story lines, Mary Jane never looking sexier, the character numbers and speed and occurrence of events break neck.

It was during ‘The Return of the Sinister Six’ and before ‘The Dragon’ found his place among the comic book elite that Larsen cemented his place as a true Practitioner. During the production of the book his house was destroyed by flood. While trying to deal with this situation he never missed a page, or reduced the quality of his work – instead accepting an offer by Marvel to reduce the page numbers for two months and fill with back stories. Larsen’s enthusiasm and strength of character bled through here as the rendering of the characters and storylines never missed a beat. Doc Oc swung menacingly into view and epic conflict between multiple characters played out across page after page. Had it not been mentioned in the collected graphic novel, no one would have ever have guessed what was taken place. Not only that, but the faith and help offered by Marvel, a large corporate company, was willing to move mountains to see Larsen complete the project – such was his popularity at the time. His influence on one of the most popular books in comics history, exceptional even in a field of high selling books, places him retrospectively among the greats. But the best was still yet to come. A bawdy, violent, crazy and personally driven comic, seeing his childhood creation fall into the hands of millions of readers around the world. Image had been born under McFarlane and Larsen was going to prove a true linchpin and the very epitomy of the companies ethos. Creator owned and creator driven books were to be given an icon. And that icon was the absurdly named Savage Dragon.

Shedding ideas like an enthusiastic 8 year old, completely unafraid of running out of original material, Larsen took readers on a roller coaster ride experience. Pneumatic vixens and wild mutant monsters crowded the streets of Savage Dragon’s home town Chicago, while Larsen was the man to pull back together the Sinister Six (a combination of all the worst enemies of Spider-man) in New York for Marvel. Artist, script writer, plot and character designer – Larsen could barely contain his ideas on the page. This was what Image had been formed for and Larsen was about to take it by storm.

Seeking greater control and profit over the work they created, Larsen and six other illustrators abandoned Marvel to form Image Comics, where Larsen finally gave his childhood creation life in the form of the fin-headed, green super-cop, The Savage Dragon. This time a massively-muscled green amnesiac who joins the Chicago Police Department after being found in a burning field with no memory of how he ended up there. After a series of self-published redesigns of the character, the stripped down version of the Dragon was given a three issue limited series in 1993, expanding to a full length ongoing series completely under the control of Larsen. Astonishingly, in self-publishing, Larsen has maintained a reasonably consistent monthly schedule (excluding a couple of occasional lapses) in comparison to the other Image titles. Larsen describes Dragon as the missing like between Marvel and Vertigo, aimed at older Marvel readers ready to throw in the towel on comics altogether. And in this he has pitched it perfectly. With a much more adult view, the Savage Dragon bridges the gap neatly between the teen orientated Marvel and the devoutly adult Vertigo titles.

If in any doubt as to why Larsen belongs among the hall of Practitioners, here it is. One of the brave and the bold to leave the relative safety of Marvel behind in order to self publish, Larsen’s title, The Savage Dragon, is the only title in the original line-up (besides Spawn) to still continue to exist and the only one still created by its creator. Image was built on Larsen’s ideals and he has proven that he always intended to see his dream through – marking him out as perhaps the most diligent, determined and honest creator to have left Marvel in the ’90s. Add to that his unnatural talent, enthusiasm and sense of humour and you have a natural comics talent with no time for the limitations of modern books. Larsen will continue to do it his way. Exotic women, massive guns and superheroes with Chicken heads prevail and the day Larsen stops doing that, a little light on an era that harks back to the beginning of comics will go out. Until someone finds a copy of Savage Dragon….

Moon 1.3 – the full process

Moon Page 3. Perhaps the image that went through one of the most extensive additional design work. It passed backwards and forwards between myself and Iv as a black and white, a colour and finally a graphically enhanced image. As it is effectively a one panel page it was a great opportunity to stretch ourselves a little and Page 3 is probably one where I genuinely feel the finished product appeared as it had originally been attended. It also confirmed that myself and Iv knew what we were doing… (at least vaguely)

The original inks. Drawn over pencil line work to decide layout and composition and the finer details. Fairly basic stuff. A detailed description of what we were looking for was sent over to Iv.

Iv applied her own artistry to the page, adding her own ideas to the tones and hues – something she always does really well. In particular, the decision to take the plain black of the sky behind and make it a more interesting blue. The figures at the base of the main image were intended to be uplit red / yellow. However Iv lit them blue to tie them together with the main image and not undermine the central Moon deity figure. It also sets apart beautifully the main abstract poster image and the bottom panel. These are her colours as they were returned back to us before I got my greasy mitts all over them again. Iv is an unnaturally talented colourist and a pleasure to work with.

Next some graphics to enhance the basic colours. Taking existing constellations, one is a lifted selection from astronomoical photography and the other is painted digitally using the template of the original constellation taken from a low res image. I think this one is in CMYK (the standard format you have to put it in to go to print – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black (K for some reason)) so the colours are bleeding and the colour map has altered slightly but it is still the same image as the others….

… and slap on some lettering using Illustrator and finishing in Photoshop by creating layers and slicing and placing elements behind the central figure. Otherwise the linking branch of the speech bubble would really detract. Et voila. Page 3 of Moon 1. More of the same coming soon. Danke.