Primer: Alan Moore

Primer is The A.V. Club's ongoing series of beginners' guides to pop culture's most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This week: We examine the comic book work of writer Alan Moore, the mind behind Watchmen, From Hell, and Lost Girls.

Moore 101

"I'd discovered American comic books at age 7," Alan Moore told the website Comic Book Resources in a 2002 interview. "I later came to appreciate comics as an art form, and realized that even with glorious exceptions like Will Eisner [and] Harvey Kurtzman, this was a field that was still largely untouched. Its great work still lay in the future at that point." Coming from anyone else, the statement would sound immodest, but Moore's work backs it up. Since entering the comics business in the late '70s, Moore has helped redefine the medium several times over. But his work leans more toward the subversive than the radical. The lion's share of Moore's writing can be classified neatly into genres—dystopian science fiction, true crime, more than a few superhero stories—but written in a way that takes the genre's conventions apart while still paying heed to them. Moore is a maverick who realizes he needs a tradition to play against.

Moore's best-known, bestselling work is Watchmen, which calls upon decades of superhero tradition, and helped kick off the trend of "grim 'n' gritty" adventure comics by placing morally ambiguous characters in a more realistic milieu. Released in serial form over 12 issues in 1986 and '87, Watchmen was loosely based on the Charlton Comics' line of Golden Age superheroes (properties wholly owned by DC Comics, Watchmen's publisher), but it added all manner of pulp archetypes and historical conundrums, from pirate tales and murder mysteries to the Gordian Knot and the quagmire in Vietnam. Unlike the postmodern superhero stories to come—some by Moore himself—Watchmen doesn't take a tongue-in-cheek approach to existing comics history. It rewrites that history completely, imagining costumed crusaders as pathetic and pathological, less interested in keeping the peace than in living out their self-satisfying fantasies. But while Watchmen's characters and plot have become less radical over time—either because they've been copied so much, or because they were thin and derivative to begin with—the structure and sophistication of the book's storytelling remain every bit as thrilling now as they were 20 years ago. Dave Gibbons' insanely detailed art finds visual rhymes and thematic connections that even Moore didn't know he'd implied, and Moore's method of stopping the action in order to look deeper into what a character is reading, as well as his devoting whole chapters to some heroes' convoluted backstories (complete with frenetic time-jumps, in the case of the omni-powerful Dr. Manhattan) has influenced a generation of geek art, right up to the current ABC hit Lost. The immediate impact of Watchmen was a wave of violent, ugly, and stupid superhero comics. The long-term impact has been much more resounding.

After swearing off major comics companies over issues of creators' rights in the late '80s, Moore spent much of the '90s doing quirky short-term assignments and work-for-hire jobs for the many upstart independent publishers that sprung up in the early '90s. Meanwhile, he worked on a pair of long-term projects: Lost Girls (see below) and From Hell, a sprawling, copiously researched account of the Jack The Ripper slayings. As a mystery, it's a non-starter: Moore reveals the killer early on, and his solution is neither original nor, with its conspiratorial ties to Freemasonry and the Royal Family, plausible. But that really isn't the point. From Hell lets Moore vivisect Late Victorian culture, pinpointing the source of the slaying less as one man than as the society that produced him, and tracing a pattern of cause and effect from the architects of Atlantis up to the present day. Moore's work has always been best served by artists ready to realize his vision down to the minutest detail, and here, Australia-based artist Eddie Campbell uses quavery black-and-white art to capture the church steeples, downtown billboards, and back-alley blood-spatters with equally unsparing attention.

Moore, a lifelong resident of Northampton, England, ended the '90s by launching the slyly named America's Best Comics, an imprint consisting, initially at least, of comics penned entirely by Moore. All the ABC titles have qualities to recommend them, but none has the immediate appeal of Top 10, a police drama set in a city of superpowered beings inspired more by Ed McBain than Justice League Of America. Loaded with references both obvious and obscure (some buried almost subliminally in Gene Ha's penciled art), it sends up the conventions of cop and superhero stories without letting the humor overwhelm the emotional pull of its appealing characters. It breathed fresh life into both genres, before ending unceremoniously after 12 issues. Moore returned to the Top 10 world twice, with excellent results both times: Using a pair of characters to explore the conventions of fantasy literature with the spin-off limited series Smax, and delving into the origins of the Top 10 world with the prequel graphic novel Top 10: The 49ers.

Intermediate Work

After a couple of years of writing short comic-book stories for British magazines—often using pre-existing characters like Captain Britain—Moore started developing ideas for original series. In 1982, in the cutting-edge UK anthology Warrior, Moore and artist David Lloyd introduced V For Vendetta, a dark commentary on what they saw as the creeping fascism of the nuclear age. Moore and Lloyd offer up two protagonists: a philosophical terrorist wearing a mask fashioned after notorious anarchist Guy Fawkes, and an abused young woman whom "V" takes under his wing, to teach her (and thereby us) what needs to be done to preserve individuality and free thought. Built around short chapters, frequent plot twists, and heavy doses of bleak irony, V For Vendetta was a sensation in serialized form, but Moore and Lloyd had to abandon the story when Warrior folded. They came back to it three years later, when DC offered to let them finish the run, but the completed book feels unbalanced. It's two-thirds a gripping yarn, followed by a rushed, shrill third act. Still, those first two-thirds were enough to prove that Moore had the vision to spin a complex, involving narrative over more than eight pages.

Another densely detailed period piece, this one illustrated by Kevin O'Neill, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen takes a concept straight out of fan fiction and turns it into an exciting inquiry into how the heroes and villains an era produces reveal its fears and desires. With explosions. That premise: What if The Invisible Man, Captain Nemo, Mr. Hyde, Allen Quatermain, and Mina Murray from Dracula teamed up to save the world? It works both as high adventure and as a game of spot-the-reference sure to challenge the most hardened devotee of Victorian and Edwardian popular fiction. But Moore's treatment of the characters truly distinguishes the book. He doesn't so much redefine his heroes as draw out who they already are. The Invisible Man becomes the definition of amorality. Nemo's opposition to authority becomes a precursor for the coming centuries' terrorist acts. After revealing that The League was one of several Leagues that appeared over the centuries, Moore and O'Neill deepened the mythology with a satisfying second volume and the frustrating The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, the latter as much a sourcebook as a proper story.

Watchmen overshadows most of Alan Moore's other superhero work, but it was neither his first nor his last plunge into the world of capes and tights. The tangled history of Miracleman—from its origins as a British derivation of the 1940s Captain Marvel character to its current status as the source of a seemingly bottomless legal quagmire—is a Primer unto itself. Moore's run on the title stretched from its 1982 revival as a feature in Warrior through 16 issues. It begins with the middle-aged Micky Moran remembering he has the ability to transform into a superhero with the use of a magic word, and it ends with Moran's alter ego becoming a god on earth. In between, Moore teases out the troubling implications always present in the genre. What do these power fantasies mean, and, if left unchecked, where would they take us? Can the gulf between humanity and superhumanity ever be closed? "His emotions are so pure," Moran tells his wife early in the run, "when he loves you it's gigantic. His love is so strong and clean… When I love you it's all tangled up with who's not doing their share of the washing up and twisted neurotic things like that." By the end of Moore's story, the part of Moran that asks such questions is gone.

Moore was growing up in public as he wrote Miracleman. His progression and the wildly variable art—it begins beautifully with pencils by Garry Leach and Alan Davis, and ends with John Totleben's masterful pointillist work, but suffers in between—makes Miracleman show its seams a bit. But should it ever become widely available again, it should assume its proper status as one of Moore's best work. (The A.V. Club would never endorse illegal downloads, but there are rumors that it's digitally available online.)

After stripping superheroes down to their base elements in the '80s with Miracleman and Watchmen, Moore began putting them back together again in the '90s. Invited by the artists at Image to do more or less whatever he wanted with their creations—whenever he needed a quick influx of cash to help him finish From Hell—Moore initially responded with the muddled, unfinished miniseries 1963, and some routine work-for-hire on Spawn and WildC.A.T.s. Then he took over Rob Liefeld's grotesque Superman rip-off Supreme, and renewed a love affair with the genre that Watchmen had effectively killed off. Over the course of 22 Supreme issues, Moore strove to write superhero stories as imaginative and light-hearted as the best of the Silver Age, while subtly acknowledging that times had changed, and that throwback comics can never be more than a self-conscious construct. Though Moore was mainly spitballing ideas that he'd bring to fruition with the America's Best Comic line a few years later, and though he never got to bring Supreme to the big battle-royal finale he'd planned, the series' individual issues—collected in two sloppily produced trade paperbacks by Checker—are in many ways the most purely "fun" comics Moore has ever written, and some of the best "Superman" stories since the '60s.

Like Supreme, a lot of Alan Moore's projects in the '90s went unfinished or unrealized, as he struggled to make the transition from genre writer to serious writer, while independent comics publishers and unreliable artists folded all around him. But in 1991, Moore completed an entire graphic novella that has gone practically unnoticed. A Small Killing, illustrated by Argentinean painter Oscar Zarate, jumps around the consciousness of a rising young advertising executive as he prepares to start pitching a soft drink to the Soviets. He flashes back to his childhood in the low-rent suburbs, and tries to puzzle out the reasons behind his intuition that someone's trying to kill him. The secret isn't that hard to figure out, but A Small Killing isn't the kind of story that relies on surprise. It's more a poignant depiction of how the ghosts of our choices linger, as well as a demonstration that Moore is capable of writing a sophisticated non-adventure book that doesn't descend to pretentious incomprehensibility. A Small Killing is his most underrated work.

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Advanced Studies

Moore's interest in fringe science and the occult has grown more intense through the years. By the mid-'90s, he was publicly professing to worship the Roman snake god Glycon (though his attraction to the deity seems largely tied to the probability that the original Glycon cult was defrauding the devout). Promethea began as the ABC line's take on Wonder Woman, and became a clearinghouse for Moore's thoughts on Alesteir Crowley, tarot, and the Kabbalah, before circling not quite all the way back again in its final apocalyptic issues. Reading it can feel a lot like being buttonholed by a genial, disturbingly persuasive madman with fully considered ideas about the mystic forces that secretly guide the world. The gorgeous art by J.H. Williams, who guides Promethea from a slightly dystopian city to the afterlife and all points beyond, stays in lockstep with Moore's ideas, no matter how outré they become.

DC's Swamp Thing was on the verge of cancellation when Alan Moore assumed writing duties in 1984. It became his breakthrough into American comics, one accomplished by turning the title on its head. Swamp Thing's origin was pretty simple: Alec Holland, a scientist working on a secret project in the Louisiana swamps, has been turned into a horrific vegetable monster thanks to an explosion intended to kill him. With his second issue, Moore used a story called "The Anatomy Lesson" to unravel that origin, revealing that Holland had died in the explosion, leaving behind a vegetable creature who only thought he was Holland. Instead of a man who had turned into a plant, he was a plant laboring under the illusion that he'd once been a man. From that inversion, Moore spun horror stories with a mystical bent, sending Swamp Thing off to explore the afterlife, the dark side of America (in a long storyline that introduced acerbic magician John Constantine, soon to star in his own series), and, less successfully, outer space. Stephen Bissette and John Totleben supplied the lion's share of the art for a run that, by the time it concluded, had helped redefine what could and couldn't be done with comics, and built a mythical system out of the fringe elements of the DC Universe. That's what makes it simultaneously brilliant and a little forbidding to comics newcomers, who may not immediately get the references to Adam Strange, Deadman, and other venerable-but-obscure characters. The poetic storytelling that balances creepiness with tenderness—the latter courtesy of Swamp Thing's odd romance with an understanding woman named Abby—makes the problem easy to overlook.

Soon after Moore launched From Hell in Steve Bissette's short-lived (but glorious) horror anthology Taboo, he added the erotic juvenile fiction deconstruction Lost Girls to the Taboo roster. When Taboo folded, Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie (who became Moore's romantic partner as well) decided to complete the whole story before publishing it, and 15 years later, they convinced independent publisher Top Shelf to release Lost Girls as a three-volume hardbound box set, retailing for $75. The book sold more than 30,000 copies, which is a testament to Moore's reputation, because while Lost Girls is one of his most straightforward stories—divided, like V For Vendetta and so many other Moore works, into digestible chunks—the subject matter couldn't be more repellent. Attempting to demystify pornography and pull apart the psychological underpinning of children's stories, Moore and Gebbie have The Wizard Of Oz's Dorothy, Peter Pan's Wendy, and Alice In Wonderland's Alice enjoying a sexy country vacation on the eve of World War I. The material set in 1913 is explicit but fairly benign, while the retellings of each woman's personal history are at times stomach-turningly shocking, including graphic depictions of well-loved children's book characters—some of them children themselves—engaging in sexual activity. Lost Girls is a bold work that dares to ask whether fantasy alone can be harmful, and while it isn't always successful as a statement of principles, it's as emotionally affecting a book as the comics medium has ever produced.

The Essentials

1.From Hell

2.Watchmen

3.Top 10

4.Promethea

5.V For Vendetta

Essential Stories

1. "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?"

Alan Moore only had three cracks at Superman, but he made all three count: first with the rich Superman's-greatest-wish story "For The Man Who Has Everything," then with the surreal Swamp Thing team-up "The Jungle Line," and finally with "Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?," a two-issue farewell to Superman designed to clear the decks before the series rebooted in 1986. Set free to come up with a logical endpoint to 46 years of Superman lore, Moore made the bad guys badder, brought back nearly every Superman character and concept for one last hurrah, and found a way to spread wanton destruction throughout the DC universe, while still ending with a reassuring wink. Though it's far less dense than Watchmen, the same approach pertains: What if the people who created superhero comics cared as much as the people who read them?

2. "Greyshirt: How Things Work Out":

Appearing in Tomorrow Stories, ABC's uneven but often brilliant anthology series, "How Things Work Out" uses Greyshirt, Moore and Rick Veitch's homage to Will Eisner's masked gumshoe The Spirit, as the anchor for a storytelling experiment with a powerful payoff. Set in a four-story apartment building, with each story of the building capturing a different decade, it follows a father and son's dashed dreams to their tragic conclusion.

3. "Reversible Man"

A lot of Moore's early stories for British magazines are tossed-off goofs, heavy on punchlines and gleeful oddity. But "The Reversible Man" is a powerful exception. Like a lot of that early work, it explores a single idea—in this case, it's that old fantasy-fiction chestnut, "What would it be like to live your life backward, from death to birth?"—but rather than going for laughs, Moore finds the sweetness in the concept, observing how irritation with spouses turns to fervent affection, and how work gets "progressively easier… and I had to give less and less money to the firm every Friday night." In four short pages, Moore packs in dozens of touching observations on the pains and pleasures of everyday life, before ending on a moment of existential horror.

4. "Swamp Thing: Pog"

Moore never let his affection for classic comics creations stop him from using them to heartbreaking ends. Originally published in Swamp Thing #32, "Pog" recasts Walt Kelly's Pogo characters as visitors from another planet who drop by Swamp Thing's Louisiana turf in search of a more hospitable environment. Instead, they find the same problems they left behind, discovering that a world overrun with humanity has little use for funny animals, no matter how whimsical their speech or sharp their social commentary. (Moore has never let his own complicity in the darkening tone of modern comics get in the way of mourning what's been lost. See also the brief, brutal one-off story "Pictopia.")

5. The Killing Joke

While Watchmen had a lot to do with the darkening of superhero comics in the decade to come, Moore's 48-page, Brian Bolland-illustrated Batman story The Killing Joke—along with Frank Miller's badass Batman revival The Dark Knight Returns—showed future writers and artists how to add a coat of grime to preexisting characters. Even Moore has regretted the influence of The Killing Joke, a nasty re-telling of the Joker's origin story that spills over into the sexualized torture of Batgirl. But while its chin-stroking "are good and evil really the same?" theme isn't all that profound—and its punk nihilism loses its cool once readers get past their sophomore year of college—The Killing Joke is undeniably upsetting, and it carries Moore's obsession with rhyming images to a mind-bending extreme. Even now, adolescent comic-book fans can read The Killing Joke for the first time and think, "This is how superhero comics are supposed to be," while middle-aged comics fans read it and think, "This is the moment where the genre went wrong." Either way, The Killing Joke remains an impressive achievement.

Demerits

Even the most brilliant writer in comicdom takes some wrong turns. In Moore's case, the mistakes have either been the result of his taking a job strictly for money, or trying something that stretches the comics form a little too much. In the mid-'90s, with From Hell still uncompleted and his other art-comics on hiatus, Moore cashed some checks from Image and Awesome Comics, and worked on their superhero properties. Some of those comics, like Supreme, Youngblood, and Glory, are slight but highly entertaining, while others are jumbled and indifferent. Moore spent a year writing the adventures of the interstellar super-team WildC.A.T.s, but while he tries to riff on class conflict and the distinctions between human and artificial intelligence, his plots are overly convoluted, and he doesn't seem especially interested in reining them in. Meanwhile, in the spin-off miniseries Voodoo, Moore crafts a bayou mystery around a telepathic WildC.A.T.s heroine/stripper, but his interjections of local color are blaringly awkward, and the mystery story fairly bland.

On the flip side, Moore has also been involved with some work that exposes his weakness for the willfully obscure. Periodically, he's allowed artists to adapt his prose stories and performance-art pieces into comics, and the results have been generally dire. The book A Disease Of Language collects two Moore lectures on magic, history, and human consciousness, illustrated by From Hell's Eddie Campbell. Both "The Birth Caul" and "Snakes And Ladders" are beautifully drawn and sporadically insightful, but they suffer from Moore's persistent belief that incomprehensibility is a prerequisite to mystic understanding.

Miscellany

Perhaps the biggest "what might've been" in Moore's bibliography is Big Numbers, a self-published, serialized graphic novel that he and artist Bill Sienkiewicz completed two issues of in 1990, before Sienkiewicz crumpled under the workload and Moore's publishing imprint Mad Love collapsed financially. In retrospect, maybe it was all for the best. Big Numbers was insanely ambitious, attempting to connect up the patterns in a handful of strangers' lives via fractal geometry, while also pushing comics design forward with a purposeful mix of black-and-white and color, collage and paint. But on the page, Moore's "everyday people" seem a little shallow, and his "big picture" pretty unfocused. A lot of the major ideas in Big Numbers were being explored simultaneously in From Hell, and once Moore turned his attention more fully to the latter, he was able to write a stealthier masterpiece, without the pressure of expectation that weighed down Big Numbers.

Continuing the "unfinished" trend, in 1993 Moore crafted an elaborate homage to the boisterous early days of Marvel Comics with the miniseries 1963, a six-part riff on Stan Lee's hyperbolic prose and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko's dynamic art, featuring characters based on Spider-Man, Nick Fury, The Fantastic Four, Thor, Doctor Strange and the like. The whole endeavor was supposed to culminate in an 80-page "annual" that would contrast the imaginative simplicity of early Marvel with the simplistic imagination of the early '90s, but 1963's publisher Image got wrapped up in internal turmoil, and the story never got its contextual epilogue. All that remains are six issues of overly rigid pastiche, lacking the spirit of later Moore superhero works like Supreme and Tom Strong.

And speaking of Tom Strong, while it hardly counts as "unfinished" (since Moore masterminded 36 issues and a wealth of spin-offs), it may be the one property in the America's Best Comics line that never hit its full stride. After a stellar debut issue that introduced the Doc Savage-like superhero and his extended family of do-gooders, Tom Strong rarely recreated the same mix of wonder, wit, and wisdom. The book quickly became another Supreme-like romp through the Silver Age, full of incomplete thoughts and only mildly amusing structural experiments. Increasingly, Moore gave the Tom Strong stories over to guest writers and co-writers, and the concept lost cohesion. One recurring trait in Moore's career has been that intense focus and follow-through results in greatness, while dabbling produces something, well, less than legendary.

Twilight Of The Superheroes is only slightly less frustrating than Big Numbers or 1963, if only because, instead of dead-ending, it never got started. Intended as a Ragnarok for the DC Universe, it imagines a future in which the House Of Steel (ruled by Superman) and the House Of Thunder (ruled by Captain Marvel) have helped steer the Earth toward its apocalypse. Moore broke with DC before it could be realized, but not before leaving behind a detailed proposal filled with twists and turns that suggest the mind-blowing comic that might have been.

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