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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BTB Awards: Best Film

Winner – Senna

ts limited release will mean that Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and death of Ayrton Senna is unlikely to be topping may film of the year polls and at face value that seems sensible. A feature length documentary about the career of a Formula One driver who died nearly 20 years ago doesn’t exactly scream ‘mass appeal’ but nonetheless Senna is easily one of the most remarkable films of the year.
Utilising only archive footage and Voice-over, Kapadia creates a narrative which manages to be stronger and more engaging than most dramas. The decision not to include any talking heads segments means that the film feels more like a story being told first hand than a reflection on past events and the in-car footage (which looks mind blowing on a cinema screen) enhances this even further.
While the insights into the notoriously secretive world of F1 will be a treat for racing fans, the film’s greatest strength is its ability to appeal to people who don’t have the first idea about the sport. More than anything else Senna is a heart stopping, tear inducing story about an utterly unique individual. Whether you spend weekends pouring over lap times or you’re someone who thinks pole position is a thing that strippers do, there is a tonne of things to love about this film and you will be doing yourself a genuine disservice if you don’t seek out the DVD.

Runner up – Drive

For the runner up we go from a real life man in a car who is unable to stop to a fictional man in a car with no choice but to go on. The stylish, neon lit, meticulously shot Drive follows the story of Ryan Gosling’s driver as he makes ends meet on the streets of Hollywood – beautifully captured in various skyline, helicopter and stylistically careful ground shots creating a fantastical, idealistic and visceral stage for the action to take place on. In many ways the cinematography is the story as the central character – known only as Driver – enters into a tentative and touching relationship with his neighbour Irene (a flawlessly American accented Carey Mulligan) and her young son, who’s husband is incarcerated. Lingering silences and long, unbroken takes give the scenes involving these characters an assured intimacy that lingers with the viewer and plays realistically.

This is punctuated by acts of unspeakable violence, some of which admittedly come close to destabilising the careful balance that Director Nicolas Winding Refn appears to be looking for. The film could have played out as successfully as a 15 certificate on first viewing making the violence seem gratuitous and unecessary, however, I suspect that on repeat viewings the brutality and ludicrous violence will permeate more strongly and be powerful reminders of a thoughtful and energised movie and certainly a step up into the big time for both Winding Refn and Gosling.

The involvement of Simpsons regular Albert Brooks as deceptively chipper gang boss Bernie Rose and Ron Perlman has his apparently more savage and sweary partner Nino doesn’t hurt either.

Effectively Tarantino-lite, this is much less cartoonish, stylised and self consciously scripted. It also seems, accidentally or not, to be lifting directly from the GTA game series – with the theme and the look harking back to both Liberty and Vice City. This only adds to the fun in this subtle shocker.

Best remake / prequel – The Thing (2011)

To the arctic circle now for the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, The Thing. More than anything else it’s the choice to set the scene back in 1982 rather than reboot that has placed this film so high in our rankings. Following very much the same line as the original, it centres on the events leading up to the beginning of the first film in which two members of a Norwegian science team our found by an American research group.

The new film manages to mimic perfectly the light touch and claustrophobic lighting and setting, even going so far as to almost directly lifting moments from the original. But this is because the creature is doing what it did in the first place. The joy is in it’s appearance. The plot even deliberately curves at anticipated plot moments to both acknowledge and defy the original.

While it loses some of its appeal as the scale increases towards the end of the film, revealing perhaps a little too much of the origin this film scores highly for introducing a realistic female lead in Mary Elizabeth Winstead and tip toeing the line perfectly between homage and producing an original piece of cinema.

Best foreign language – Troll Hunter (2011)

Made off putting by the idiotic UK Trailer (below) this film by André Øvredal and Håvard S. Johansen (supporting writer) follows a group of hapless students in search of a hunter deemed illegal by fellow bear hunters. Determined to uncover who he is for the sake of an interesting film, they uncover a wide government cover up beyond anything they could anticipate.

Essentially, a Blair Witch Project that pays off the film manages to lull you into simply watching the ‘found footage’ of the students, constantly having to remind yourself that things are going to increase in scale exponentially at some point. And increase they do. However, the film maintains its roots until it’s finale on snowy Nordic tundra, maintaining a calm and careful pace that US blockbusters will never master.

The Norwegian mountains and countryside are really the great treat of the film at times (when there’s no monsters to hunt) as, for instance in one short sequence, sheer mountainsides and a glacial lake are filmed out of a car window as one of the students calls to another taking a whizz as nonchalantly as Sam Mendes filmed a brick wall with a plastic bag floating around in front of it. It becomes clear that what the world finds magnificent, Norwegians can take for granted and that the filmmakers are acutely aware that half their work is done merely filming on location in their beautiful country.

But it’s the monsters themselves that take centre stage. The decisions in the way that each is introduced is masterful, each uniquely different in pacing, reveal and environment. One is viewed finally from a great distance through a window of a shack which serves only to increase its impressiveness. With an enigmatic, monosyllabic central Troll Hunter, grimly wandering into harms way on behalf of the Norwegian government with the hapless batch of determined and stunned students along for the ride, it’s spectacular, engrossing and fun.

A stark change in tone in the middle of the film does threaten to scupper it slightly but the even pacing and anticipation of the unknown final Troll at the heart of the problem keeps things moving to impressive effect. They will try to remake it. I’m sure they’ll fail. Take the Norwegian out of Norway and it’s knackered.

Best Comic Book Movie: X-Men: First Class

In a year in which at least three highly entertaining and thoroughly exciting comic book adaptations were released it was the one not made by Marvel that edged it for us – however marginally. It was the X-Men that clinched the title.

Easily the strongest of the X-Men films, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman along with woefully under acknowledged screenwriters Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz brought the X-Men back to the 20th Century. Like Captain America, Vaughn and Goldman (the creative team behind Stardust and Kick-ass) the decision was taken to go to the roots of the title, seeing the original X-Men line-up changed to deal with those already revealed. Only, instead of merely laying comic book events over historical ones, Vaughn and Goldman interlace them directly with historical events.

We find an arrogant and slightly unlikable Professor Francis Xavier (played by James McAvoy) in the swinging sixties looking to extend his theory of evolution on to any girl with a discoloured eye or wonky toe. It’s clear that the X-Men are born from Xavier’s arrogance and it fills beautifully an absent detail in the inception of the X-Men. Brought into it is Erik Lenseherr (Michael Fassbender) who is hunting Jew killers and Nazi conspiritors around the world. Thinking that control of his power is fuelled only by anger and fury it makes Lenseherr – soon to become Magneto – a more well rounded character, as a cyclical psychology has formed in which Lensherr has to generate these feelings to tap into his power, only further perpetuating his anger and violent behaviour. All of the characters carry inherent (and human flaws) that make them accessible and offer a tone of inevitable doom to the proceedings.

Well realised set piece after well realised set piece is laced through the plot as the X-Men are pulled into conflict between both the Russian and US Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in a bid to avert Nuclear War. Something that could easily have been a cynical plot device is so neatly realised that it makes sense (and, winningly, illustrates the absurd nature of the Cold War in a language understandable to younger audiences).

So close in fact were the runners up for Best Comic Adaptation that featured below are the trailers for both Thor and Captain America. We thoroughly recommend both and can’t wait for the Avengers movie next year….

Runner-up – Thor

While pipped at the post by First Class, Thor was overwhelmingly the surprise of the year, guided effortlessly to be an entertaining romp by Royal Shakespeare Company founder, Kenneth Branagh, offering up laughs, pathos, energy and a star turn by Chris Hemsworth as the titular character. Tom Hiddleston as his half-brother Loki stood out only slightly among a frankly incredible cast featuring Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba and Stellan Skarsgard (most likely drawn in particular to Branagh’s banner).

Thor tips the balance beautifully between fish-out-of-water comedy, fantasy epic and Superhero movie. Marvel’s incredible run of success to the Avenger’s movie next year seems to be unstoppable and Thor, as a potential tripping point has proven a nice surprise as a watchable, stand alone movie.

Runner-up – Captain America: The First Avenger

After being deemed unfit for Miltary service, Steve Rogers volunteers fora top secret research project that turns him into Captain America. We all know the story, however old school Director Joe Johnston achieved the implausible and made Captain America cool again. Borrowing heavily from Mark Millar’s Ultimates (effectively, in hindsight, a love letter to Hollywood and a considered development of the Avengers brand to become more audience friendly outside of comics) Cap still retains most of his gosh, shucks charm.

The decision to set the entire film in World War 2 is a bold and clever move, giving the audience credit where there may have been none with a more cynical film company. Featuring Hugo Weaving as arch Nemesis, the Red Skull, Stanley Tucci as Cap’s creator Dr. Abraham Erskine, Toby Jones as Dr Arnim Zola and Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Philips it has a touch of class as well as being a crowd pleasing actioner. It also has the best villain diversionary tactic gag in comic book history as a Nazi assassin (Richard Armitage) escapes across the docks from the newly created Cap, he grabs a young boy and throws him in the dock. Cap, stopping to help the boy in time honoured fashion is greeted with the sight of the boy paddling away, shouting ‘Go! It’s okay. I can Swim.’ A wry sensibility that runs through the whole film.