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

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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