30 November 2009

A Little Moore Love, Part the Third incorporating The Summup.

Ah, well. Here it is the thirtieth day of November as I write this, almost the end of Alan Moore Month, and I did not get the last two parts of my little series completed in time. Oh well, I'll try to make the best of it and hit the last two series in condensed fashion. Again, I'm just attempting to shine a light on certain Moore-scripted efforts that made a lasting impression on me, without citing a lot of the usual suspects.

The final two series I wish to bring up have a bit in common, which is to say that they both feature strong female characters as their leads. Now, believe me, I know that discussing "strong female characters" is a red flag to some, who will always find some point or another to dispute your claim no matter how good the intention is; that said, I think Moore has done quite a bit towards giving us characters of that ilk- Abigail Arcane, Mina Harker, Dhalua and Tesla Strong to name a few. And yes, I know you can nitpick these selections as well- some of them are dependent, to different degrees, on the male characters in the books in which they appear; it seems to me to point towards the pursuit of a well-rounded character rather than any sort of slight, intended or not.

One such character was an early effort, released in 1984 at roughly the same time as Saga of Swamp Thing: The Ballad of Halo Jones, a British series that was collected and reissued Stateside in three volumes. It was probably the first thing I read by Moore after I had discovered him via Swamp Thing. In collaboration with longtime British comic stalwart Ian Gibson, he gave us a young lady of the 50th century who embarks on a quest of sorts, without even knowing it. She leaves Earth after the death, under mysterious circumstances, of her best friend, then eventually heads into outer space as hired help on an luxury space liner before ending up, through a set of odd circumstances, as a soldier in a interplanetary war. She really undergoes a life-changing journey, and I found it fascinating when I first read it so long ago, especially thanks to more than one really deft plot twist as the story unfolds. It also points to another unfortunate reoccurring situation in Moore's career, and I borrow Wiki's assessment: "a dispute between Moore and Fleetway, the magazine's publishers, over the intellectual property rights of the characters Moore and Gibson had co-created", effectively ending what was originally intended as a nine-issue saga. A couple of pages from Book Three:

The other series is Moore's highly imaginative, and often hard to (for lack of a better word) penetrate ABC series Promethea, in which he once more confounded expectations by taking what had appeared on the surface to be an attempt to bring us his version of Wonder Woman into some strange and unexpected places, taking the opportunity to expand upon and instruct the great unwashed about his views and beliefs on divinity and the afterlife, as well as the nature of Man. Heavy stuff, and to Moore's credit he gradually worked it in rather than overwhelm us with it. By issue #10, he got around to the nature of sexuality, and how it tied in with the imagination as well as magical realms (some would say there's no difference), and while I had been exposed to many of these ideas in a number of other places, I had not seen them presented as concisely (and I must say I had never seen them presented as well, either, thanks to the great J.H. Williams III) as I had here. In this issue, in order to learn how to harness her abilities and powers better, as well as face the threat she was dealing with at the time, she enters in an agreement with the John Constantine analogue Jack Faust, (who appears to her as he truly is, an old man, rather than the young-looking glamour he wore when we first met him) who offers to instruct her (and alter-ego Sophie Bangs) in exchange for sex. Well, it's not quite as sordid as it sounds-- and the lesson proceeds something along these lines:

See what I mean? Anyway, the series proceeded to get more metaphysical and phantasmagorical from here, and while sometimes it seemed like Moore was headed straight up his own arse with much of it, he did bring the series home nicely at the end. This issue in particular, though, has remained one of, if not my very, favorite of the whole run due to its clever and fascinating way of enlightening a subject that remains near and dear to my heart, even after all these years.

So, to sum up, it seems to me Mr. Moore gets some stick in a lot of corners, usually from the people who are inclined to be contrarian and simply hate to see anyone or anything praised or highly regarded in what they consider to be excessive or disproportionate fashion. Me, though, I have no problem with the accolades he's been given due to the many, many outstanding works he's given us. Sure, in many cases he's simply recycling ideas he's gleaned from a multitude of sources-- but isn't that what most writers do? Einstein once famously remarked that "The secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources", and I believe this to be true. And while he may not be an Einstein, Mr. Moore is a pretty smart fella. Smart enough to take a look at comics, their characters and their tropes, -many sacred, others less so- and rethink many of them. Look at them in a newer, more realistic light. Separate the good stuff from the bullshit and distill them down to their essences, and reshape them to his more level-headed way of thinking. Sure, many other writers have also done this since-- your Morrisons, Ellises, Ennises, Gaimans and so on (notice most of them were from that big UK invasion of the mid-'80s/'90s) have done the same, and it can also be argued that Frank Miller took this tack (in my opinion, he still toed the Marvel House line and kept his innovations squarely in the Spillane-school area, and DD still looked/felt like a Marvel comic) when he revamped Daredevil in the very early '80s...but Moore was one of the first, or at least the first to get my attention in this fashion. To me, that's something remarkable, and it's a shame that all the battles with American comics publishers and all the kerfluffle with Hollywood have seemed to drain his energies and dent his reputation somewhat.

Regardless, while I've been a bit disappointed in recent efforts such as LOEG: Black Dossier and Century, if he writes it, I'll check it out- I still believe in his ability to make, well, magic.

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Alan Moore's Lost Treasures - #6 in a 6 Part Limited Series

“The Bowing Machine”

The third issue of Raw (volume two), the digest-sized final collection of Art Spiegelman’s art comix series, is the best single volume of a comics anthology ever published. Included among the book’s extraordinary contents are Spiegelman’s own penultimate chapter of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, a classic 32 page excerpt of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (the famous “Tiger Tea” sequence), an exquisite Gary Panter sketchbook, “Thrilling Adventure Stories,” the first glimpse of the genius that was to come from Chris Ware, “Proxy,” a highly under-appreciated collaboration between novelist Tom DeHaven and Richard Sala, and Kim Deitch’s masterpiece, “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” The anthology also includes strong pieces from Lynda Barry, Muñoz and Sampayo, Drew Friedman, Marti, Justin Green, Kaz, and several lesser-known but equally talented European artists, not to mention the brilliantly sarcastic R. Crumb cover. With such an impressive lineup, it’s easy to see how a little story by Alan Moore got forgotten in the mix.

Yet “The Bowing Machine,” Moore’s unlikely collaboration with Amy and Jordan creator, Mark Beyer, is among the highlights of this impressive book. The story, which runs all of nine pages, is a subtle exploration of the socio-political tensions that arose between the US and Japan in the early 90s as Japan’s economy returned to international prominence. In the very first panel, Moore’s nameless Japanese protagonist describes, in scathing fashion, the toxic influence that foreign investment has had on Japanese culture: “Ah, there is so much money, rolling west in giant waves of dollar green topped with a silver froth of dimes, to break amongst the broken crab-claws down in Tokyo Bay.” Once again we are immediately confronted with evidence of Moore’s unparalleled grasp of the English language.

The story quickly narrows its focus onto a single rivalry between the narrator and a co-worker, both employees of an unnamed Japanese company, as each struggles to curry the favor of their superiors that they may ascend the corporate ladder. The personal competition between these two is a metaphor for the larger competitive tensions that existed between the US and Japan, and Moore plays a note-perfect riff on international politics in the way he depicts these two rivals, each going to ritualistic extremes of politeness in their professional behavior, while secretly harboring a seething mutual hatred for one another.

Eventually the story takes a Steven Millhauser-esque dive into obsession as the protagonist becomes a self-trained master at bowing to his superiors. The importance of the bow as a professional and cultural ritual is keenly understood by the Japanese narrator, but as one of the story’s many newspaper articles describes, “It is not enough to just bow in Japan. The exact angle of the bow must be determined by the nuances and subtle shades of a complex system of social intercourse. But today, as the country continues to absorb the ways of the West, older Japanese are worried that the new generation is losing the gentle art of bowing.” In the narrator’s hands, this simple social grace is once again elevated to a high art, and becomes the foundation upon which he briefly stakes his professional reputation.

But of course, the American rival has no concept of the bow’s importance in traditional Japanese culture, and instead seeks to best his rival by use of technology. He purchases the “bowing machine” in an effort to learn to bow in the same impressive manner as his Japanese rival, never understanding that bowing is a revered cultural tradition, not some mundane skill one can learn on the weekends with a simple machine.

The story ends with a bitter irony when, despite his ignorance, the rival becomes entangled in the bowing machine for several days, and suffers a crippling back injury in which he is permanently bent forward, like some hideous monstrosity. When he returns to work, hunched in his grotesque posture and relegated to a wheelchair, the Japanese narrator realizes he has been bested in their silent competition. His superiors, whether out of pity or admiration, are unable to ignore the immense sacrifice they perceive he made in pursuit of cultural sensitivity, and are moved to promote and favor the tragic figure over his upright, majestically bowing rival. Thus, a grave miscarriage of justice prevails as the accident victim is shown favor and privilege within the corporate culture.

Mark Beyer’s art is an acquired taste. His style is over-simplified and to the untrained eye, may seem childlike and unattractive. But upon closer examination, his panels are deceptively complex. First of all, Beyer makes great use of colors and patterns, using meticulous hatching and shading, as well as bright swaths of primary colors to add tone and texture to his panels. In addition, Beyer rises to the considerable demands of Moore’s script, which calls for several recurring images that inform the story’s underlying themes. In particular, the arcing posture of the bow itself, noted not only in the physical act depicted throughout the story, but also in the breaking arc of the “waves of dollar green,” operates as a visual motif for the cynicism and defeatism of the main character. Beyer also incorporates newspaper articles, both in Japanese and English, to convey a large quantity of story context (including a brief history of the machine’s invention) in a relatively small amount of space. Finally, each page features a shifting series of symmetrical wallpaper patterns, set against stark black backgrounds, adding a distinctively Japanese aesthetic to the story.

In the end, this is one of Alan Moore’s most cynical tales. Its focus on the unspoken bitterness inherent in international politics is a brutal indictment of American arrogance. What lingers most is the final image of the rival, pathetically mangled in his wheelchair. Though victorious, his bastardization of a sacred cultural ritual, not to mention the self-destructive nature of his behavior, makes him a loathsome and disgusting figure. His victory is pathetic and hollow, and, in the story’s larger metaphor, it portrays America as a scrupulous giant, blindly destroying the world in search of the all-important profit. Moore’s final words are scathing in their indictment of America's globalization and the impact it's had on the world.

“Now he has laid himself so low that I can never rise above him.”


That's it! I really hope you enjoyed this series of posts. If you're still hungry for more Alan Moore short stories, I also recommend checking out:

1) "Brighter Than You Think" - an awesome mini-biography of occultist John Whiteside Parsons, illustrated by Lost Girls collaborator, Melinda Gebbie, which appeared in the anthology Top Shelf Asks the Big Questions.

2) "Tapestries" - a great little story about the horrors of war that appeared in Real War Stories #1 (Eclipse Comics, 1987). Illustrated by Miracleman collaborator, John Totleben (with Stan Woch) and Stephen Bissette.

3) "The Bojeffries Saga" - the majority of this story originally ran as a back-up in Fantagraphics' Dalgoda and Flesh and Bones, and was recently collected by IDW.

4) The New Adventures of the Spirit #1 and 3 - The first issue features a new, full length collaboration with Dave Gibbons, while the third issue contains a short story with stunning illustrations by Daniel Torres. Both issues published by Kitchen Sink Press.

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29 November 2009

Alan Moore Month - Lost Girls

Lost Girls
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Melinda Gebbie
Published by Top Shelf Productions. $45.00 USD

Now available as a single hardcover volume, I remember the stir around the 2006 Comic-Con International - San Diego when the first, limited edition, three volume slipcase edition was released. I believe it was touch and go whether the book would debut at the convention at all. Moore was enjoying renewed attention in 2006 with his America's Best Comics imprint and all those quality titles like Promethea, Top 10, Tom Strong and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, so it wasn't a bad time to put out this lavish work.

The book received good reviews, though they were fairly scant, due no doubt in large part to the $75 price and there only being 500 copies printed. But I think there may also have been a reluctance on the part of critics to follow Moore's lead and engage pornography as a valid artistic medium. Although I was one of those who purchased the slipcase edition then, I was surprised to go searching and find I, too, had failed to review the book.

Moore may be a self-proclaimed anarchist, and some of his work reflects those ideals, but the manner in which he constructs his stories, while complex, is rarely very subversive. More often, he uses his intellect to try to recapture elements of a genre or character that gave him delight in the past, but whether he adds darker layers or references or storytelling conceits rare or new to comics, his first intention is entertainment. Watchmen, for everything else going on with it, is a superhero story, and there's a good deal of extraordinary individuals fighting. In Lost Girls, like any pornographic work, there is lots and lots of sex. A shameless amount of it.

In fact, being shameless is the whole point of the book. Moore wants to rescue pornography from the gutter and place it not on a pedestal but at least on a level with other literary genres. Sex, whether with others or oneself, is a regular, necessary part of life, after all, so why not make the facilitator or stand-in for it something of a high quality? To this end he enlisted his partner, Gebbie, who brings a style both feminine and fearless. So much pornography is ugly and harsh and anti-woman, so Gebbie's use of soft, glowing pastels is perfectly welcoming. It's also probably a necessary corrective as it makes the social taboos being violated in the sex scenes more palatable.

Moore has three goals in mind with the book: 1) to get the reader off; 2) to get the reader to think; and 3) to have fun with old literary characters. In the story, Moore has taken Dorothy from Baum's The Wizard of Oz, Alice from Caroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and Wendy from Barrie's Peter Pan, and brought them together as adult guests at a libertine European hotel just before WWI. The three women meet and begin exchanging their stories, as well as copious amounts of saliva and other fluids. Moore models their stories on the literary works, so that over the course of the tale-telling, Dorothy has had sex with farmhands with the traits of The Scarecrow, The Cowardly Lion, and The Tin Woodsman, while Wendy and her brothers are led into sin with the young vagrant Peter, and Alice is raped by a friend of the family nicknamed The White Rabbit. Moore banks on readers recognizing their beloved childhood stories being turned dirty, and it works. Moore understands that achieving the first and third goals requires a combination of not just inventive scenarios but also deft characterization. The brain is the largest sex organ humans possess; naturally situations are more erotic if we can engage the imagination. Moore isn't satisfied with just a lavish Tijuana Bible (and indeed it gets a little dull by the time of Dorothy's third farmhand, despite the addition of a horse), so he also draws on Gebbie's skills of mimicry (and his own) to punch up the book with several pages taken from the hotel manager's "White Book," with stories in the style of legendary pornographers of their day such as Aubrey Beardsley and Alphonse Mucha. Moore seems to be paying homage to those who inspired him and who took great risk with their artistic careers to tell their scandalous stories.

With all three characters, Alice, Dorothy and Wendy, we get variations on dewy innocence spoiled. The nubile virgin being awakened to adult pleasures is a prime fantasy. If Moore only wanted to show these literary characters as sexual beings, getting it on together with no worries, that would have been fine. But what he attempts is to deliver on two almost contradictory ideas and make them work. First, that sex and pornography are necessary and healthy, and second, that sex is never without consequences. Moore has to walk a fine line throughout the book. Wendy's stuffy English husband has been stifling her for years, condescending to her and not considering her needs. His inability to see the hot-blooded woman right before him, and his awakening to his own homosexuality, are presented comedically, as well as with that great old technique of shadows revealing the desires the characters can't say out loud. Wendy's and her brothers' young gropings with Peter have left them estranged and embarrassed, and her not able to tell her husband what she wants. Alice's rape led to endless depravities with her lesbian schoolmistress and eventually, a stay in a sanitarium and estrangement from her family. And Dorothy's own incestuous shame has left her without a family as well. Monsieur Rougeur, who runs the hotel and has staffed it with attractive, willing young servants, embodies the contradictory ideas Moore is putting forth, in that he is not simply a bon vivant with a wonderful, guilt-free pleasure palace, but a man who made his fortune trafficking in child prostitution and art forgery. There is no children's book for Rougeur, but he is just as much a creature of self-deceit and repressed memory as the women. What Moore is saying is that fantasies--sexual or otherwise--are good. Expressing our desires--no matter how dark or depraved they may be--is also good, as long as that expression is through art and not hurting anyone. When we act on these desires in real life, there are always consequences. To this end he sets this bacchanal a few days before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which led to the First World War. As a date for a kind of loss of humanity's innocence, it's as good as it gets. It's a remarkable book in that it really does succeed in being extremely dirty, and yet even with the revelations about the characters, there's no guilt. That's not what Moore is after. He wants the reader to be aware of the consequences, but at the same time, to revel with the three women as they overcome their own repressed feelings.

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27 November 2009

Alan Moore's Lost Treasures - #5 in a 6 Part Limited Series

“Madame October”
“Madame October” originally appeared in issue #16 of Negative Burn published by Caliber Comics. The “song” was part of a recurring series of poems and short verses that were featured in the anthology and referred to generally as “Alan Moore’s Songbook.” This particular poem, which features spot illustrations by Strangers in Paradise artist, Terry Moore, was also included in the Best of Negative Burn Year Two collection.

The poem recounts the tale of two French men, Albert and Rene, both lovers betrayed by the same woman known only as “Madame October,” conspiring to murder a third, unknown man who they suspect has stolen their lover’s affection. Compared to Moore’s body of work, this story is slight; there are not a lot of character and plot developments, per se.

But once again, Moore’s prose in this song has the elegance and beauty of spun silk. With just a few words, Moore’s lyrics conjure stunningly vivid mental images. Consider the opening stanza which sets the scene as we are introduced to Albert and Rene, the two protagonists, conspiring together in a smoky French café:

“Albert and Rene, like a poison cruet set,
Sit perched on chrome stools,
In the Gaulois bar.
From the jukebox,
Piaf tells Manuel not to go there,
And out in the streets,
Where the pug-dog faced cars
Sound their horns,
There are soldiers and girls by the Seine,
And gendarmes, in wet midnight capes,
Look away when they kiss.
Garlic breeze haunts the mews,
And you’d swear nothing bad ever happened
On nights such as this.”

While the poem doesn’t quite adhere to a strict iambic pentameter, there is definitely a rhyme scheme in place. But the tempo is disjointed, and the musical tone of the words is hard to hear. Nevertheless, Moore is on his game in this short piece. The meandering rhythm of the poem fits its mysterious, drunken subject matter, as if the words, like the two heroes, are staggering drunkenly down a narrow cobbled alleyway toward an inevitable, tragic mistake.

Terry Moore’s five richly detailed spot illustrations are gorgeous, enhancing the dramatic elements of Moore’s poem without overshadowing its lyrics. The drawing of the cobbled Parisian alleyway where the crime takes place is particularly beautiful and captures both the romance and menace of the accompanying prose.

But Moore not only contributed illustrations, he also designed the elegant page borders which frame Moore’s words in a rich shroud of looping fabric and autumn leaves, brambly trees and arching gates. Even “Madame October” herself lurks in the margins, mysterious and seductive, casting a ghostly shadow across the unfolding drama. Rather than carrying any particular storytelling responsibilities, the design is strictly decorative; yet, like a theatrical backdrop, its presence is invaluable in heightening the erotic tension of the of the underlying mystery.

The song concludes with a clever Roald Dahl-like twist-in-the-tale which imposes a painful sense of irony on the characters’ actions. But it is Moore’s masterfully woven language that makes “Madame October” memorable. The writer’s ability to conjure specific and emotionally wrought images from such an economy of carefully arranged words is a skill that never fails to amaze.

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26 November 2009

Alan Moore Month Update!

Alan Moore Month Status Report!

We're winding down our celebration of Alan Moore Month here at Trouble with Comics. Are you sure you haven't missed something...?

* Johnny Bacardi on Top 10 #8
* Matt Springer on Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
* Matt Springer on UK Batman story The Gun
* Marc Sobel on Come On Down
* Johnny Bacardi on Saga of the Swamp Thing #24
* Christopher Allen on Alan Moore's Wild Worlds
* David Wynne on The Killing Joke
* Marc Sobel on I Keep Coming Back
* Christopher Allen on Supreme
* Christopher Allen on Watchmen
* Marc Sobel on Pictopia
* Christopher Allen on 20,000 Years of Erotic Freedom
* Marc Sobel on The Hasty Smear of My Smile
* Christopher Allen on Alan Moore's Complete Wildcats
* Mick Martin on V for Vendetta

We're not quite done yet, so keep checking back for more Alan Moore Month updates here at Trouble with Comics!


24 November 2009

Alan Moore Month: A Little Moore Love, Part Two.

Continuing a multi-post look at single issues of Alan Moore-scripted comics that made a lasting impression on me, without citing the usual suspects.

Like most of the titles from Moore's cheekily-named America's Best Comics, Top 10 had a ready-made hook: Hill Street Blues with superheroes. In the Top 10 universe, everyone had superpowers, and an attendant set of rules and regulations for them to follow. This, of course, gave Moore, in tandem with artists Gene Ha and Kevin Cannon, the opportunity to provide a panoply of imaginative characters--some pastiches of established types, some a bit more cleverly disguised. The Top 10 precinct was the hub around which many different storylines revolved; some overlapped, and many went independently of the others, until the climactic events of the final issue of "Season One".

In the period of time that had elapsed between this issue and the last one I wrote about, a span of some 15-plus years, we had found out a great many things about Moore, and he had written a great many of what most consider comics classics; Watchmen of course, From Hell, Killing Joke, and so on. We had found out quite a bit more about the man, as well, such as his disagreements with DC, his stance about the filmed adaptations of his work, and his embrace of witchcraft and pagan religious beliefs, if that's the best way of describing it. When he reemerged, doing stuff like WildC.A.T.S. and Supreme for Image, I figured that he must have some bills to pay or something, and it wouldn't last long. I was quite surprised when he launched the America's Best Comics line, and even more so that he was scripting every title himself- what an insane workload, thought I! But he pulled it off: League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea, Tom Strong, and this title are among his very best extended comics work, in my opinion. He once again exceeded my expectations.

But he also confounded them once or twice as well, and there's no better example of that than this issue, #8, in which Moore gives us a character that is a practicing, born-again, bible-believing Christian, in the middle of the cornucopia of beings and belief systems already established by this point. Her name is Lt. Cathy Colby, code-named Peregrine. She has flight-based abilities. We're given the beginning of her day like this:

A bit of explanation: in the world of Top 10, interplanetary travel is facilitated by Star Trek-like transporter technology. Sometimes accidents happen, as is the case here, in which a giant horse-headed (Beta Ray Bill doppelganger, perhaps?) alien being collides with a craft piloted by a husband and wife returning from vacation, an analogue for Adam Strange and his beloved Alanna. At first, the cause of the collision is unknown, but they report seeing an unknown man-sized shape of some sort. The horse-headed being and the man are slowly dying from being merged, and the wife is already killed. Lt. Colby decides that she needs to stay on the scene and try to figure out what happened, and provide aid if necessary. What happens afterwards has stayed with me ever since I read it, and BEWARE OF SPOILERS. I MEAN IT, I'M GIVING AWAY THE ENDING TO THE PRINCIPAL STORYLINE OF THIS ISSUE NOW:

The dying man asks Lt. Colby if she's a Christian; she replies in the affirmative. The three of them then begin in on a discussion about belief and philosophies that is on the surface somewhat simple, but no less profound for it, and ends on a touching, dramatically nuanced note. Another thing that surprised me as much as anything is that Lt. Colby, the conservative Christian, was not held up to ridicule or cast in a harsh light; she displays empathy and concern, as well as professionalism, until the very end--and this coming from a self-described snake-worshiping anarchist (according to Wikipedia, anyway), who had also begun to hold forth on his personal philosophies and beliefs via Promethea--maybe the last place you'd look to find a sympathetic portrayal of mainstream Christianity. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, since Moore's sprawling cast was shown to be made up of a number of different belief types, but this impressed the hell out of me--no pun intended--and even though I am not exactly what you would call a believer myself, I was very happy to see this...it made the ending (as well as my enjoyment of the series as a whole) that much greater.

Defying expectations. As far as I can tell, that's been one constant throughout his career to date.

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Alan Moore Month: Good-Bye, Superman! We'll Miss You!

"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" is a two-issue comic book story by Alan Moore and Curt Swan, edited by the legendary Julius Schwartz. Its two issues were both published in September 1986.

Watchmen is a twelve-issue comic book story by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons that would later be collected into a single trade paperback and become easily one of the best-selling and most-acclaimed graphic novels of all time. Its first issue was published in September 1986.

It's tempting to read boatloads into that largely coincidental symmetry (although I can't prove it's coincidental; I guess maybe someone in scheduling at DC was aware of the rich meaning in the shared month of publication, but I doubt it). Watchmen really begat the modern era of superhero comics, among other things; "Whatever Happened" was designed from the outset to act as the curtain call for a dead era in superhero comics: The Silver Age, as defined by a specific editorial and storytelling style at DC.

If my blogging compatriot Chris Allen is right and "Watchmen is about escaping the petal-soft death grip of nostalgia to live in the moment," then what is "Whatever Happened" about? On its surface, the story seems to have some nostalgia for the past. Moore frames the tale as an "imaginary story," employing this descriptor to poetic effect. Swan's art instantly evokes the Superman of the 1960s and 1970s. The story drags in every element of the Superman mythos and then some, in the style of other "imaginary" tales like "The Death of Superman" from 1961.

Yet even as he's using common silver age story beats, each gets twisted into some dark version of itself. Bizarro isn't a harmless buffoon; he's a mass murderer. The new Luthor/Brainiac "team-up" involves Luthor's death at the hands of the robot, who digs his metal claws into Luthor's brain and takes over his body; it manages to be especially creepy as drawn by Swan in his traditional Superman style.

In fact, it turns out there's very little nostalgia in the nuts and bolts of Moore's "Whatever Happened." Instead, each element from the past is subverted to more sinister ends than ever before. In a sense, Moore is commenting on the transition in mainstream superhero comics from the light-hearted frolicks of the silver age to the more "reality" based storytelling of the modern age. Those elements had already begun to leak into DC's titles but would fully dominate the publisher's storytelling from post-Crisis onward.

For Moore himself, it's an interesting utilization of these building blocks of the silver age, because it's always seemed clear that he has warm feelings toward the Mort Weisinger school of comics; aside from occasional comments in interviews, his Supreme run could be viewed as a massive modernized love letter to Superman's silver age, pulling off a similar trick of repurposing the era's storytelling fundamentals but with more obvious affection.

On the surface, it's a nostalgic wrap-up to the silver age; dig deeper, and it's a dark dissection of the impending era in superhero comics. Moore seems to be illustrating a gradual creeping of the modern into the stories of the past, creating a bridge of sorts between the pre-Crisis tales that have come before and the tone of the post-Crisis era of DC comics. In "Whatever Happened," the true archenemy of superheroes everywhere, "reality," infects the fantasy world of the pre-Crisis DC universe. Through his villains, Superman experiences vengeance and evil at a level he's never before encountered. The "innocence" of the silver age is abandoned forever.

Also infecting the Silver Age is a new fascination with character development and emotional truth. There were certainly emotions expressed between characters in the silver age, but it's all very surface and subservient to the plotting and ideas. To make a possibly unfairly broad generalization that will surely be refuted with gusto by fans of silver age books, those stories are incredibly clever and creative, and scads of fun...but don't seem very interested in creating real emotional lives for their characters.

In "Whatever Happened," Moore shows us Perry White and his ex-wife reconnecting in what they believe is their final living moments, a touching moment between those two characters that would be virtually unimaginable in any silver age Superman story. The sharpened purpose of Superman's villains raises the dramatic stakes; when members of the Legion of Super-Heroes (who seem to have knowledge of Superman's "end") appear for a final encounter, their *chokes* and *sobs* actually pack an emotional wallop for readers.

Or maybe not. Maybe Moore is just taking the piss a bit, slyly messing with the volume controls on the various elements in an average Silver Age Superman story toward making the whole enterprise more dark and "gritty." It could even be read as parody in spots, rather than affectionate satire.

I'd believe that to be the case, if not for Superman's final moments, the sadness with which he seems to step into the gold Kryptonite room, how he vanishes silently into the arctic mists, never to be seen again...except by us, the readers, who see "Jordan Elliot" wink at the readers, as if to say, "Don't worry, I'm not going anywhere."

And he hasn't. Pre-Crisis DC, and the Superman stories created throughout the Silver Age, live on, in reprints aplenty and the fond memories of fans. That attitude of anything-can-happen fun lives on too with modern twists, in books like Incredible Hercules and Batman & Robin.

So is he saying you can take the comics out of fun, but you can't take the fun out of comics? If so, that's a pretty damned nostalgic point of view. Oh, how the ghost of you clings...

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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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18 November 2009

Alan Moore's Lost Treasures - #4 in a 6 Part Limited Blog Series

“Come On Down”

Alan describes this story as ‘an inversion of regular horror stories: What’s horrible isn’t that grotesque things happen to people, but that people want grotesque things to happen to them.’”

- Stephen Bissette from the Introduction to “Come On Down” in Taboo #1.

Most people probably remember From Hell and Lost Girls as Alan Moore’s two major contributions to Stephen Bissette’s under-appreciated late '80s anthology, Taboo. Chapters in progress from both stories were serialized in the square-bound series, which spotlighted a number of highly talented creators (many British) working on black and white, EC-style short horror stories.

But what may have flown under the radar was another short story by Moore, with artist Bill Wray, which appeared in the first issue. “Come On Down” is a nine-page story which was originally intended to appear in Harris Publication’s short-lived revival of Creepy magazine, but ended up in Taboo #1 instead. The story was written in 1985, just a year shy of the first issue of Watchmen.

“Come On Down,” as the title implies, is a parody of The Price Is Right, a long-running TV game show in the United States. Five times a week, the popular show’s announcer selects a few lucky audience members to “come on down” and play “pricing games” for cash and other prizes. The contestants are not alerted beforehand, adding an element of surprise and excitement to the show’s proceedings.

In Alan Moore’s story, however, audience members compete not for cash and prizes, but something far more macabre--their own death. This unique game show, whose name, “Brief Candle,” underscores perfectly the fading emotional state of its depressive audience, invites contestants “to spin the big wheel,” in order to choose their method of suicide. Then, in front of “a live studio audience,” the lucky contestant is put to death in whatever manner the fickle wheel of fate has chosen for them.

Moore introduces us to this deeply disturbing world through the eyes of Carol Steiner, a young woman afflicted with a hobbled leg (a lingering effect of childhood polio) as she acclimates and is quickly overwhelmed by the chaotic life of New York City. Nearly killed by a suicide jumper just days after her arrival, Steiner immediately slips into a depression she never really recovers from, and after spending days at home in front of her TV recuperating, she unexpectedly discovers “Brief Candle.” Of course, the networks know nothing of this show (“we only broadcast to folks we think will enjoy it,” a cameramen later quips), so at first Steiner wonders if she imagined it, but when she finds it again, almost without trying, her horror and revulsion are not enough to overcome her morbid curiosity.

Inevitably, Steiner’s sick fascination gets the better of her and she finds herself drawn to the show. Even the shock of her first live studio experience is not enough to deter her, and like a masochist discovering a new, exotic fetish, she becomes obsessed with the show, reorganizing her life around its schedule, even as she grows numb to the shocking horror of the deaths she witnesses. Eventually, Steiner’s detachment devours her, and she watches with an almost inhuman indifference as, week after week, a new suicide is perpetrated with the glitz and glamour of a Broadway musical. The story’s nightmare ends with a final image of Steiner, much older, the lines of horror etched into her squalid face, sitting in the same studio seat, patiently awaiting her own turn at the big wheel.

Bill Wray’s stark black and white art is well-suited for the satirical tone of Moore's story. His panels do a nice job heightening the feelings of paranoia by exaggerating perspectives and distorting the relational size of objects within the frame. His character designs are menacing with exaggerated Cheshire grins for the hosts, and angular, Chaykin-esque faces for the contestants. Wray’s varying panel sizes and grid layouts also add a sense of visual dynamism, and his technique of allowing panels to bleed into each other at the most shocking moments conveys the surreality of the terror being depicted.

Like everything else he’s written, Moore seems to have an innate sense of human psychology, and in this short piece, he demonstrates a keen understanding of the emotional insecurities that underlie real fear. In the end, “Come On Down” may lack some of the sparkling prose evident in Moore’s later works, but its underlying concept is much more intelligent and terrifying than the usual slasher, blood-and-guts fare.

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17 November 2009

Daily Breakdowns 037 - TCJ, Moore and Vertigoing

The Comics Journal just put up their landmark 300th issue in online form, before apparently realizing lots of people wouldn't buy the print version and pulling it. Ah, well, I was going to get it anyway, but I couldn't resist reading some of the columns, and the hilarious Noah Van Sciver cartoon interview with Gary Groth, who apparently speaks as he writes, not seeking the perfect word but rather the perfect trio of negative adjectives.

Unfortunately, I have only a fading, anger-etched memory of Tom Crippen's wrongheaded piece on the age of geekism or somesuch, with Alan Moore as ubergeek and his major works, Watchmen, From Hell, Promethea and Lost Girls found wanting due to Moore not doing enough thinking. In fact, for Crippen, Moore's heavy thinking/best writing petered out around 1989. For Crippen, thinking = explaining, because it really bugged him that a) Sally Jupiter in Watchmen cries over the death of her rapist, The Comedian, and Moore doesn't tell the reader why, and b) in From Hell, he doesn't tell us why William Gull became a killer. I guess for the latter I would say: see (or rather don't see): Hannibal, the prequel explaining in excruciatingly literal and gratuitous detail how young Hannibal Lector became the riveting middle-aged serial killer he is in The Silence of the Lambs. You could also cite the Star Wars prequels for the hazards of trying to trace fascinating adult characters back to their origins.

Leaving aside that inventing psychological motivation for the murders based on past incidents would seem to be beyond Moore's aims for the book, it just seems like one of the least interesting concerns. The mystery is more powerful. Likewise, Sally's crying is often cited as one of the more intriguing scenes in Watchmen. In just the one panel, the mysteries and complexities of human relationships are captured. Leaving the reason(s) for her tears to the reader's interpretation gives the scene more resonance. I always think it's a combination of affection and pity for The Comedian, a sadness that he felt he had to take from her what he could have had willingly if he didn't hate himself. It works that way; it no doubt works differently for other readers. It's hard to see what would be gained by explaining it. And it's not like Moore had a problem with writing the origins of evil -- The Killing Joke works fine for that. It's a shame, as Kreiner is a better writer than this but, ironically given how he criticizes Moore for dressing up thin stories with artifice and allusions, in this case he tried to dress up a pretty brittle skeleton of a column idea in unformed ideas of geekism and geekish visual aids from Watchmen film production stills.

As a -- what's less than a lark? A larklet? -- I felt like checking in with recent issues of some Vertigo series I'd never read, to see if they were any good and if they're easy enough to get into even if they've been running for a year or more.

Scalped #31
Written by Jason Aaron
Art by R. M. Guera
Published by Vertigo. $2.99 USD

Quite a striking cover. I like the logo and sun-scorched top half very much, the bottom half not that well integrated with the top, but still okay. Doesn't seem to have anything to do with this issue's story. This is the third part of a five part arc, "The Gnawing," and it's not bad. An old guy buys a rifle and one bullet at a gun shop in such a way that any gun shop proprietor would know he's going to be shooting a person with it. Two criminals escape police custody and one of them knocks the other on the head. Nursing his injury, he tries to hole up with his old lady, but she wants nothing to do with him because he's apparently an FBI agent. A beefy, mean-looking Native American, I think a casino owner named Red Crow, wants the guy found. The woman is his daughter. She's pregnant or really sick.

Writer Aaron provides a breezy read but it seems like a lot of crime movie cliches with the only difference being the reservation setting. So much profanity it made me wonder if Aaron ever got tired of writing it. Literally no one here says anything with just a hint of wit or that hints at depth of character. Guera's working his heart out on this thin material, with the gun shop opening being mind-blowing in combining verisimilitude with freaky pastel coloring from Giulia Brusco. Artwise, it's more airy and scratchy than an Eduardo Risso, but his influence seems to still be there with the fat lines, and occasional playing with light and shadow. Entertaining like an average TV crime show, except you have to pay for it in what amounts to ten minute installments.

Northlanders #21
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Leandro Fernandez
Published by Vertigo. $2.99 USD

This issue is a little luckier in that it begins a new story arc, "The Plague Widow," so by design it should be a little easier to jump on. About all I knew of this book before picking it up is that it was set in Viking times--I guess technically from the story these are Volga Boatmen along the Russian River. The plague has come to the village and there is an argument over what's to be done. Most of the villagers--religious folk, led by the brutish warlord Gunborg--want to just pray and hope for the best, while Boris is aware of the developing research on germs and votes to expel the infected from camp. He's a good character for Wood to write, as Wood always likes the bold loner against society. There's some heartfelt stuff here as well, as a mother is torn by her faith vs. science, but once her husband dies she has to make a tough choice in the interest of her daughter Karin. Although, again, this is a slim, quick read, it's involving, and the period is different enough from the usual to help sell it. Fernandez is even more indebted to Risso's style, but the clean line and starkness work very well for the setting, especially with the earth tones and candle light sources from Dave McCaig. It lacks subtlety, to be sure, but it's affecting nonetheless. I can do with more sentimental comics about mothers and daughters toughing out harsh conditions, grotesque men and the plague. OK, well, just this one is fine. Looking forward to catching up on the series.

Air #14
Written by G. Willow Wilson
Art by M. K. Perker
Published by Vertigo. $2.99 USD

I like the art the least of the three, although at least it's the most different, with its kind of P. Craig Russell rendering. This is part three of "Pureland," set in a fictional, largely fundamentalist (I assume Muslim Third World country. An attractive blonde has some sort of power to control air or combustion or chemical reactions or something, and she's searching for an Arab Interpol agent named Zayn, with whom she feels a bond. Weak from overmedication, she's helped by Zayn's brother, and unfortunately we get an awful lot of the backstory of him and his two brothers, who have all found jobs in which suit their individual needs for violence and idealism like the three bears found suitable bedding. It could be the most original premise of the three comics surveyed here, it's hard to tell from since I don't know what the premise is, exactly. And of course, it's had over a year to set it all up and get readers on-board with it. I can just say that this particular, random issue didn't grab me all that much. Still, passing-to-good grades for all.

I'll be catching up on some Marvel stuff soon as well.

Christopher Allen

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Alan Moore Month: A Little Moore Love Part One

So we're all writing about Alan Moore, here on his birth month, eh? Well, I wanna play too!

Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I'll be writing about individual Moore comics that have had the biggest impact on me, beginning with...

Saga of the Swamp Thing #24 (cover date May 1984)
Confession time: I believe (although my memory is spotty) that this is the first Alan Moore comic that I ever read. I certainly don't recall reading any before this. Now, I had always liked Swamp Thing-- bought the original Wein/Wrightson and Michelinie/Redondo 70s issues right off the spinner racks, and while I was happy to see the character get his own book back in the early '80s, the creative team of Martin Pasko and Tom Yeates (who had done, and would go on to do, work I liked a lot) didn't really click as well as I hoped. By issue #15, I had stopped buying, and although I noticed they had changed the writer and artists by #20, I really didn't know who the heck this Alan Moore guy was, or Bissette and Totleben either for that matter, and for all I knew here was another case of replacing a creative team with new, unproven and green talent-- and it would only be a matter of time before the inevitable cancellation. As it turns out, I couldn't have been more wrong. One afternoon, and I still recall this vividly, I was standing in a nearby convenience store, checking out the comics rack (back when convenience stores still HAD comics racks), and happened to glance at the cover of Saga #24, noticing that depicted thereon were members of the Justice League-- but with a difference. Superman, Green Lantern and Co. were standing (in Hawkman's case, hovering in mid air) all around their monitor screen in an otherwise dark satellite, their figures and faces half obscured by darkness, watching Swampy in conflict with a strange looking fellow with leafy Chia-pet style "hair," brown wood-hued skin, and oh yeah- a chain saw. I was intrigued, certainly by the tableau on the screen, but also by Steve Bissette and Tom Yeates' decision to depict the League in this fashion. Paging through it, I was a bit surprised to see that the badguy was Jason Woodrue, The "Fluoronic Man"-- but a radically different one from the fella I was familiar with from the old Gardner Fox/Gil Kane Atom series that I had been collecting at the time. Hooked, I plunked down my three bits, and settled in at home to see what was going on.

Apparently, I saw, this was the conclusion of what (as it turned out) was a four-part story arc, which just happened to contain, two issues prior, the now-legendary "Anatomy Lesson" in #21. Botany expert Woodrue (who, I'm only now finding out, had transformed himself into the plant-guy in a mid-'70s issue of Flash, of all places) had been hired by Pasko's Sunderland Co. to find out the secret of the creation of the Swamp Thing, and by extension the bio-restorative formula that it was assumed had created the monster. Of course, we all know (as Moore conceived it) that wasn't the case at all, and the end result had left Sunderland dead at Swampy's hands, and the Thing himself in a comatose state. Woodrue had eaten one of Swampy's tubers, and suddenly found himself communicating with the plant world in such intense fashion that it drove him absolutely batshit insane, and caused him to set out to take the planet back for the plant world by killing all the "meat sticks", using his vegetation controlling abilities. Things look dire, and eventually it comes to the attention of the 1980's Justice League, consisting of Superman, Zatanna, Hawkman, Green Arrow, Flash, Wonder Woman, and Firestorm, whose hands, it seems, are tied. A standout scene from this issue involves the League throwing out, and dismissing, plans of action in dealing with the threat. Then, fortunately, Swampy emerges from his comatose state (he was really having a hard time dealing n' all), just in time to save Abigail Arcane (who Woody was menacing, dumb idea) and derail the F.M.'s plans...simply by, after resorting (unsuccessfully) to violence, stopping him dead in his tracks with the gravelly voice of reason: if Woodrue kills all the people, who will replenish the carbon dioxide plants need? Woody has been using his great power for his own blind, selfish purposes, and did not represent the Green after all. Almost 30 years later, this message about the abuse of power still rings true.

After putting this comic down, I was-- well, if not dumbstruck, certainly surprised as I recall...this was something that I didn't quite expect. Not so much the whole scenario and resolution of the Woodrue/Swampy conflict, clever and gratifying as it was, but the radically different way that Moore, Bissette and Totleben depicted the League: as near-omnipotent superbeings, grimly observing events in the Louisiana town down below, all wrapped in shadow and mystery...but exhibiting logical extrapolations of character traits we'd seen before. Superman, for instance, probably the most thoughtful rethinking (and Moore always did pretty well by the Man of Steel, actually)-- calmly calculating Woodrue's motivations, and the effect his heretofore unseen abilities were having on the Earth below. This was NOT the standard Len Wein/Gerry Conway/Dick Dillin/George Perez style. This was new, weird and fresh- and it's hard to get across to those versed in the sour superteam books of today exactly how odd it was. See below, and of course click to see all bigger 'n stuff:

You gotta love Bissette and Totleben's callow-looking Firestorm (who was still a teenager in DC continuity then, I believe), as well as Hawkman's placid fatalistic declaration at the end of the page-- Moore has never had more sympathetic collaborators than those two. Superman's response to Firestorm's idea (which many, lesser writers would probably have gone ahead and used if it had been a situation that came up in, say, Firestorm's own book), injects a little humor into what is an otherwise grim scenario. The equally downbeat finale was strong, as well, with Superman and Green Lantern calmly descending from on high in the wake of Swampy's victory to collect the quite obviously broken (in more ways than one) and disoriented Woodrue:

How often do you see, in superhero comics anyway, these characters that have put themselves through some sort of fantastic transformation, actually ponder and reflect on their state? Yet, here's Moore, giving us Woodrue (as he pathetically attempts to make himself "presentable" for his arriving "guests") fretting about how much his bark has grown out...and it's all the more pitiable (and telling about how shameful his defeat was) that he now wants them to think of him as one of the humans he so despised and sought to destroy just hours earlier.

All of this served notice, to me, anyway, that this Moore fella had a different way of approaching these super-beings than what I had become accustomed to seeing, and marked him, in my book, as a writer to watch.

Coming next: Top 10...but not one of the scenes you might be thinking of.

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Alan Moore Month - Alan Moore's Wild Worlds

Alan Moore's Wild Worlds
Written by Alan Moore
Pencils by Scott Clark, Carlos D'Anda, Al Rio and Michael Lopez, Jim Baikie and Travis Charest
Inks by Sal Regla, Richard Friend, Trevor Scott, Edwin Rosell, Mark Irwin, Luke Rizzo, Randy Elliott, Jim Baikie and JD
Published by Wildstorm Comics. $24.99 USD

Say what you want about DC, but at least once they bought Wildstorm, they managed to get most of Moore's Wildstorm work into trade paperbacks, and they're still in print. Only a fraction of Moore's Spawn-related work is collected by the McFarlane house of Image Comics, while Moore's Supreme and Judgment Day for Rob Liefeld's Extreme Publishing are available now from Checker Publishing but with poor reproduction.

Wild Worlds is one of the worst introductions to Moore's comics work. There is not a single piece here that is essential or anywhere close to his best work. Even so, Moore at his lowest spark is still capable of some charm, and for those with the inclination, time and money, it's kind of interesting to see him struggle a bit.

Spawn/WildC.A.T.S.: Devil's Day is the first piece here, originally a four issue miniseries written shortly before Moore took on the writing duties of the regular WildC.A.T.S. series. I'd love to know how this one was put together, but I'm speculating Wildstorm founder Jim Lee had asked Moore to take over the book but then asked if he could scramble together a miniseries while the regular creative team got through whatever storyline they had in the works. Whether that's quite how it happened or not, what's pretty clear is that Moore cobbled together a team-up story based on a shaky premise: bored gods drop an amulet of power to a future Earth, where supernatural hero Spawn finds it and uses its power to overthrow his demonic oppressor and take his power, corrupting himself and becoming the evil leader of the world.

Moore takes some ideas from his aborted DC Twilight proposal, which sounds like a good thing, except these are the easiest ideas: have a grizzled, future version of a hero come back to our time to warn the 'C.A.T.S., and many of the heroes of the future will be degraded and debased versions of the heroes we know. Making the tall, skinny redhead Fairchild from Gen13 morbidly obese, or making Void into a prostitute, are uninspired executions of the ideas, and not in keeping with Moore's track record of trying to find something special in other people's characters, or at least to leave them in as good a shape as when he found them. He does okay with the contemporary version of the team, writing them in character and without a hint of any of the status quo-shattering he would be doing in their regular title.

Spawn is another story, though. Despite being the key to the whole story, he barely registers for much of it, having little to do or say. When he does talk, he's tentative, even stammering, and it's only near the end where Moore gives him a would-be affecting scene when the identity of the future Zealot is revealed to have a connection to him. It doesn't work that well, and I found myself distracted and quibbling with Moore's plotting. As in, why not have present-day Spawn fight future Spawn? We know future Spawn won't want to kill him for fear he'll fade out of existence. And the framing device with the strange gods setting the future in motion on a silly whim is sort of irritating. It's just too easy and arbitrary, and so right from the start the reader feels there's nothing really at stake. The other problem is Scott Clark's art, which features ridiculous anatomy, squashed faces and a complete inability to render older characters convincingly.

"Spotlight on Majestic" is a curious science fiction story, terribly over-rendered by Richard Friend but with adequate, if not particularly distinctive, pencils by Carlos D'Anda. In it, a very old Majestic faces the last dying glimmers of the universe with other immortals, and finds love with a vampire. One wishes a little more time was spent with some of the stranger immortals rather than the shticky Wandering Jew, but Moore peppers the story with romantic narration about love sparking while the rest of the universe grows cold. And this on the same page as a joke about syphilis, but that's Moore for you. The story might have worked even better as the last Supreme story, perhaps, as no one had really done enough with Majestic for readers to care that much here.

"Voodoo: Dancing in the Dark" was a four issue miniseries that found the former WildC.A.T.S. member in New Orleans to get away from things, and to, well, make some money stripping. As in Spawn/WildC.A.T.S., our protagonist is caught up in godly matters, but this time it's voodoo gods, and rather than a whim it's a deadly battle, as one club owner tries to bring an evil god into being through lots of blood sacrifice. Priscilla "Voodoo" Kitaen is taken in and coached by a trio of mostly benevolent beings, and with their help finds the strength to finish the four issue miniseries and then wait for another writer to use her. It's a book I skipped when it first came out, not being as much of a Moore completist, and while I didn't really miss much, it's also not as bad as some people have said. The script is routine but at least gives a bit of insight into voodoo lore, Michael Lopez and Al Rio alternate on the art, Lopez having a moodier and somewhat more distinctive and developed style, while Rio is very similar to Jim Lee or J. Scott Campbell, cheesecake but not bad. Another minor effort from Moore but with a bit more style and energy than Spawn/WildC.A.T.S..

Aside from a Travis Charest short (more of an epilogue, from WildC.A.T.S. #50, which was already collected in the Alan Moore's Complete WildC.A.T.S. trade, also published in 2007), there's just one more story in the book, "Deathblow: By-Blows." I did buy this one when it came out. For one thing, I like artist Jim Baikie, who'd done some good work with Moore before, in 2000 AD in the early '80s and later on Supreme. Fans of the Punisher-like remorseless vigilante Deathblow were no doubt surprised that this miniseries has very little to do with him, instead finding a tall, tough, naked woman emerging from a strange egg on a strange world where it's kill or be killed. Could there be a connection between the various people she encounters? Might some be less than trustworthy? In fact, like those long-ago "Future Shocks" stories Moore wrote, this is a science fiction story with a twist ending. Once you accept it's not a Deathblow story, and once you get to the twist, it ends up being a spare but action-packed and fun story that owes at least a little to Harlan Ellison.

Again, the stories included in this volume are among Moore's least-inspired. Like those 2000 AD tales, they are products of a scribe for hire. They're tightly plotted but lighter on characterization, with characters Moore didn't create and with little latitude to develop them. The artists appear for the most part to have been chosen for Moore rather than by him, and the brevity of the stories prevents a real synergy from developing. And yet, they're still Alan Moore, reflecting his beliefs and interests, and while he's only moderately successful at melding those with the needs of the licensed superhero story, there's still some entertainment and interest to be found.

Christopher Allen

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15 November 2009

Alan Moore Month: In Defence Of The Killing Joke

My favourite Alan Moore book is the one everyone hates, including him.

I'm talking, of course, about The Killing Joke.

Moore has said that he feels it's lacking in substance, and by and large the critics seem to agree. I don't, though. The piece carries a strong message and has some interesting and well-explored themes. The thing is; those themes, and that message, are present in everything Moore writes, and probably everything he says and does too; as such we, and he, tend to overlook them. We don't think of them as being the core of a Moore comic, because they're always there, in the background. So when they're all that's present, it's easy to think that there's nothing at all. I'd argue, however, that the lack of distraction and dilution makes the piece purer, and the clearest expression of the man's concerns in print; precisely because there was no conscious intent to impart an idea or a message, it becomes the most primal iteration of the message there is.

So, what IS the message? Basically, violence is stupid, and violent conflict can only ever be destructive; that the only workable solution to conflict is communication and compromise. It's a pacifist parable, in the only genre would would think was completely unsuited to it.

It's perfect, and I love it.

As I've said, this idea comes up in all of Moore's works; it's there in Watchmen, it's there in V, it's especially prominent in Tom Strong (my second favourite of Moore's works), but in all of these other concerns end up grabbing the limelight. pacifism is so integral to Moore's worldview that it seems unworthy of special attention; but in the world outside of his magic cave, the idea that violence is an acceptable and effective way of solving problems remains sadly popular. For me, while I'm happy to read his thoughts on the nature of time and reality, (wo)man's ascent to self-made god(ess)hood, his ruminations on the effect fascist rule has on interpersonal relationships, and so on ad infinitum... none of them is as IMPORTANT an issue as pacifism. The central flaw of our culture is that we just won't stop hurting each other. this is something that is worth addressing head on and with our eyes wide open, and The Killing Joke does exactly that.

I know, I know, the generally held opinion is that the story is about the similarities between it's two protagonists. Moore himself has said that the book is about that parallel, and how he feels that isn't a particularly interesting or original observation. He's right, and while that's certainly an element of the piece, it's not what excites about it. Among the things that do excite me are Gordon's refusal to stoop to the Joker's level -- "it has to be by the book" -- by resorting to emotionally cathartic violence, and the fact that Batman concludes the piece by offering the Joker psychiatric help. This moment in particular is something we tend to miss when talking about this book. How many times have we read a Batman story in which ol' big ears will decide that he's going to settle things between him and the Joker "once and for all"? Now, stop me if I'm wrong, but doesn't that pretty much ALWAYS mean that he's "finally" decided going to kill him? This book offers the alternative solution. the BETTER solution.

And yes, okay, it fails. Because it would. Because in a conflict this entrenched, it takes more than a single olive branch to heal the rift (if you'll allow me to mix metaphors like an inexperienced chef). They've come too far, been fighting too long; and let's be honest, Batman himself is already far too commited to violence for this to be a workable solution.

Which is the tragedy, and the point of the story. Violence solves nothing. Punching people solves nothing, and Batman is someone who tries to solve his problems by punching people. So it stands to reason that even at his wisest, even when he gets that little glimmer of inspiration that leads him to a more enlightened solution, he will never, ever solve his biggest, most flamboyant problem. Violence doesn't work, so Batman doesn't work.

Sure, Batman takes the Joker away at the end, to be locked up once more in the institution he got out of so easily (so easily that we don't even need to see the escape itself) at the beginning of the story. Sure, Batman gets to chalk this one up in the "win" column. But we know the truth; the Joker has turned down the only thing that might ever stop him from being who he his; and as long as the Joker walks the earth we know he'll keep escaping, we know he'll keep killing; we know that Batman is a failure. the Joker is the symbol of everything that is wrong with Batman; the one problem he simply cannot solve. The Batman is a creature of violence; born of violence and ultimately undone by it.

Of course, it also helps that it's absolutely gorgeous to look at. Brian Bolland is of course one of the greatest draftsmen of the last fifty years, as well as a master storyteller (a more unusual combination than it should be in cartoonists), and this is quite possibly the best sequential work of is career. Again I find myself in the minority camp, as I much prefer the John Higgins colouring on the original edition rather than Bolland's own re-coloured version. Bolland is too reverential to his own line, keeping to a dour grey pallette, only breaking out brighter colours for melodramatic effect (blood and so forth). Higgins is far more adventurous, purples and yellows and greens saturating the page, giving the whole piece a chemical mood. The difference in the two artist's approaches is best summed up on my favourite page, the one where the joke is told. This isn't just my favourite page in the book, this is one of my favourite pages ever. Bolland's storytelling here is sublime; the body language, the carefully chosen camera angles, the lighting which alternately hides and then illuminates the Joker's face, the way the tips of the joker's fingers protrude ever-so-slightly over the border in panel 5 (I think it's panel 5? I don't have the book to hand)... all of it is brilliant. In the original, Higgins' colouring compliments Bolland's performance beautifully, the gaudy carnival lights in the background placing us in a vaudeville setting; in Bolland's recoloured version, the lights are plain, the piece washed out, literally drained of colour; and in the process, some of it's life. It's like listening to your favourite song by your favourite band but with the rhythm track removed. Sure, the guitars and the vocals are still fantastic, the lyrics still move you, the musicianship is still worthy of adulation... but it sounds a damn sight better with the whole band.

Anyway, I think I've wandered away from my point. Which was: The Killing Joke is very, very good; it is, in fact, a damn sight better than we generally give it credit for. Let's stop calling this the lesser Moore work, please. Take it as it is, and judge it for what it is; one of the greatest, most definitive Batman stories ever told, the one that cuts to the heart of the tragedy; the one work by Alan Moore that most clearly expresses the core theme of his ouvre, and the greatest work of Brian Bolland's career. That's not bad, not bad at all.

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Alan Moore Month: The Best Superman Story You Never Read...

"I think the thing that made Superman seem such a wimp in real life is his voice. He's got this real tiny, squeaky little Mickey Mouse voice, y' know. Every time you talk to the guy it's all you can do not to laugh."

From "I Was Superman's Double" by Alan Moore, which appeared in the hard-to-find 1985 UK Superman Annual hardcover. Click the link to view or download the story in PDF form.

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