20 November 2009

Alan Moore Month: Batman Always Wins

For a writer largely credited with revolutionizing the superhero comic book, Alan Moore has written precious few mainstream superheroes.

He's written plenty of his own heroes, and then there's that Watchmen thing everyone keeps telling me about, which I simply MUST get to one of these days, after I've finished reading the Twilight saga for the forty-seventh time. (Whooooo will Bella chooooooose???)

But time spent clocking in and out at the Big Two Spandex Adventure Factory? Very little. He wrote a few legendary Superman tales, and a scattered assortment of one-offs and back-ups and fill-ins for titles across DC. He's never written ANY major Marvel character, except those that appeared in his Captain Britain run back in the day.

And he's written Batman. Or rather, he's written stories in which Batman appears. He's never actually written a Batman story.

What's that? Yes, you there in the back, with the fake dreadlocks and the soft-serve ice cream cone. The Killing Joke, you say?

That's a Joker story. Batman's a supporting character at best. And that happens to be true of Moore's two other Batman stories, one of which has never even been printed here in the United States, and isn't comics at all.

"The Gun" appeared in a 1985 UK Batman annual. It's a prose short story by Moore and featuring spot illustrations by Garry Leach, who draws a pretty sinister Batman in spite of the garish coloring that really emphasizes the bright blue of Batman's classic blue and grey outfit. The titular weapon is (SPOILER) the gun that shot young Bruce Wayne's parents, and it's being utilized by Johnny Speculux, a graffiti-tagging thug with the most eighties british nickname in the history of the planet.

It's basically one of those things where the weapon carries all this anger and rage which it then somehow mystically ejaculates through a variety of emissaries, including Joe Chill, before meeting its own demise eventually along with Mr. Speculux. Batman's hardly in it, and when he is, it's not a very distinct or inspired Batman. He has a nice short moment with a little girl who saw her own parents murdered by Speculux at an only-in-Gotham art exhibit of gigantic home furnishings (nice Dick Sprang homage there).

Like Moore's Star Wars stories for the UK Empire Strikes Back magazine, "The Gun" is clever and short. It's one of those fast in-and-out blunt quickie type stories like you'd read in 2000AD or even the EC books. It's even got a "creepy" twist ending that brings the central theme of revenge back to its logical starting point, with Bruce Wayne as just another casualty caught in the crossfire. I very much liked this bit about Batman:

"He was staring at Johnny Speculux, and there was something familiar in his eyes...They had all of the seething, emotional intensity of a child's eyes, but they were set into an adult's face and the effect was terrifying."

There's something about little Bruce Wayne's eyes living on in the visage of Batman; it's a unique evocation of a theme that has since become trite, which is that Batman is little more than the seething wound left open by the death of Thomas and Martha. Back then, it wasn't quite as overdone, and drawing that line through Batman's eyes puts us squarely in Johnny Speculux's shoes, because while we don't know that much about Johnny, we know everything about Batman's vengeance, and we know it is a terrifying thing, even through the eyes of a child.

Moore's other significant Batman story is from Batman Annual 11, "Mortal Clay," with art by George Freeman. This one is a Clayface tale focused on the third villain to claim the title, Preston Payne. It's a full-length comics story, not a four-page prose story, so Moore stretches out a bit and offers a glimpse inside the mind of a man obsessed with a mannequin. His "lover" is "Helene," and the entire story is told from his point of view, so it becomes a series of cuckoldings in which a security guard and Batman both become "the other man" in his twisted brain.

Payne's interior monologue is what provides the thruline for "Mortal Clay," and there's moments where he definitely lets the character ramble on, but it's still a compelling narrative technique, especially since the comics format is so uniquely suited to utilizing voiceover and image to comment on each other.


All you really need to know to get that he's crazy is that Preston Payne is in love with a mannequin. Seeing it laid out as above, with his "...and neither of us said a word" as counterpoint to the dead chilling face of "Helena," is Moore mining the potential of comics for its full potential.

I think so much of the appreciation of Moore comes down to his exceptional ability to pull off moments just like that one. He is a supreme master of comics as a storytelling vehicle and an art form for exploring themes. Whether it's a minor moment of Clayface hugging a mannequin or the virtuoso construction of Watchmen's fifth issue, where Moore and Gibbbons together build a "Fearful Symmetry" into the DNA of the page layouts themselves, Moore is so completely comfortable with the multiple levels on which sequential art can operate that his stories always redeem multiple readings. Even when he's just telling a Batman story that's not much about Batman for a random annual, meant to do little more than pile onto the limitless and ever-growing mountain of ongoing superhero fiction.

Batman himself doesn't appear significantly until the final sequence of "Mortal Clay," when he shows up to capture Clayface and is mistaken for the latest lover to steal the heart of "Helena." clayface and Batman fight, until Clayface collapses in a distressed heap before his mannequin, and Batman...offers his hand to the villain.

We then learn that while Clayface has been restored to Arkham Asylum, thanks to Batman's intervention, he's been allowed to live in relative happiness with "Helena." It's a side of the Caped Crusader we don't see very often these days, but it's welcome when it does appear; Batman has pity and mercy for many of his sickest adversaries.

These handful of stories don't give us a great idea of Moore's vision for Batman, but they do seem to indicate that like many Batman writers, Moore seems far more interested in the Dark Knight's rogues gallery than in the hero himself. Of course, we could spend some time dissecting the elements of Batman that clearly inspired aspects of Rorschach from Watchmen. That's the thing with Batman: Even if you're Alan Fucking Moore, Batman's never really far away.

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Blogger Jason said...

It's funny, we were just talking about this stuff last night at book club. We were lucky enough to have Gene Ha as a guest (the book was Top Ten Vol. 1). He mentioned how much Moore hated the Killing Joke for being so unrelentingly grim and for being "responsible" for Barbara Gordon's shooting (which he inserted for shock effect and was sad to see it carried forward).

The thing about Batman is that he's a character much like the Spirit, who can be used more of as a force of nature than as an actual character in his book. He's a plot device sometimes rather thanthe main character. this is not a criticism, simply because so many Batman stories have been told you have to get really creative to use him in new ways.

I'm going to have to hunt down "Gun" on the interent and read it. Will definitelybe giving his other two Batman stories a read in the near future.

November 20, 2009 12:36 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

I can definitely see that, although I don't think creators really use Batman's world as effectively as Eisner & co used the Spirit's world with him as just a cameo in some stories. I wish it would happen more, actually.

November 20, 2009 1:55 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Actually, it seems the best place they did stories like that is in The Animated Series. I can think of a few of the top of my head that were among the best and that barely involved Batman.

November 20, 2009 2:01 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

yeah, absolutely. or I'm thinking of that story they adapted for the Gotham Knight movie where the different kids imagine him in different ways...more about the idea of Batman than Batman himself.

November 20, 2009 5:09 PM  

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