Enough About Alan Moore, Already!
Alan Moore is generally regarded as one of the all-time greatest comic book writers. And if you look at the work he puts into every piece (Google one of his exhaustively detailed scripts), the guy is a phenomenon, using the format to its fullest effect to explore themes, visuals, and commentary.
But let’s say you’re not someone who’s been reading comics for 20 years or so. Let’s say, for instance, you’re someone who just came back from Watchmen, and you’re wondering what book to read next? Or, more specifically, “What’s the big deal about this Alan Moore guy?”
Entertainment Weekly (staffed by a lot of comic nerds, it turns out) took that challenge, and offered 16 Moore books to read, ranging from “Essential” down to “For completists only.” It hits all his major works over the last 30 years.
It also illuminates a problem I’ve always had with Moore’s work – the vast majority of it exists primarily to comment on other books/concepts. It’s academic reading, holding a magnifying glass up to old ideas. But does it really add anything new?
His early stuff – “Captain Britain,” “Miracle Man” and “Swamp Thing” – are early examples of “deconstructing” a character (usually by putting a more grown-up shine on the old stories) – an “Everything you thought you knew is wrong” approach to writing that Moore pioneered. In each book, he breaks down the origin of the character, analyzes it, and recreates it into something wholly different. Impressive, yes, but…unless you were already interested in, say, Swamp Thing, would it matter?
Now we’re at “Watchmen,” which uses analogues of old Charleton characters to thematically ask: Do we really need superheroes? By breaking down the psychological subtext of 40 years of superhero stories and putting it all back together (again, adding “adult” themes of doomsday thinking, moral relativity, and midlife crises), he comes up with a clear answer: Not so much. But that answer ONLY holds up when you place the weight of reality on a genre developed as escapist entertainment. Which feels like cheating a bit to make the point.
By the 90′s, Moore started playing with the toys of the superstar would-be artist/writers at Image Comics. He took on Jim Lee’s glitzy “WildC.A.T.s” and turned it into a meta-commentary on the shallow, manufactured nature of 90′s superhero comics, by depicting much of its cast as, well, shallow and (in some cases, literally) manufactured.
He also retrofitted Image founder Rob Liefeld’s Angry-Superman knockoff, “Supreme,” with 50′s-era Superman tales…mostly just to see if he could. It’s a fun academic exercise, but other than to remind people how magically goofy old Superman comics were, what’s the point?
Moore closed out the 90′s by developing a line owing to the early part of the century’s pulp traditions. It launched with “Tom Strong,” the story of, well, Doc Savage, right down to his origin. But even if it’s the best writer in the world playing with a 21st century Doc Savage…it’s still just a pulp pastiche, mimicking the enthusiasm of the old stories. Like an alien trying to convincingly flip off a human being. He gets the gesture exactly right, but there’s some vital passion lacking in the execution.
In this century, his big works are “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “Lost Girls.” “LoEG” groups Victorian characters like Allan Quatermain, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jeckyll, etc. into a kind of proto-Justice League, as they battle other period-specific threats.
“Lost Girls” is…look, I’m not gonna mince words – it’s an arty porno comic featuring the leads from “Through the Looking Glass,” “Peter Pan,” and “Wizard of Oz,” recontextualizing their grand adventures as formative sexual experiences.
Look at this list again, and tell me what patterns you see. “Recontextualization.” “Knockoff.” “Interpretation.” “Deconstruction.” “Playing with.” You can’t use terms like these unless the idea is re-using old concepts.
I’ve begun to see why I can respect Moore’s abilities without really enjoying many of his works. So much of Alan Moore’s output over the years has been devoted to the literary past, that I find his books to be a great basis for, say, a term paper (“Lost Girls” in particular reads like an illustrated women’s studies essay more than an actual story), without necessarily being all that interesting on their own.
By working so hard to put his own spin on comic book and pulp concepts that came before him, Moore focuses his energies on projects that don’t really require the massive amounts of effort he puts into them.
Again, like the alien practicing obscene gestures.