Enough About Alan Moore, Already!

Posted: March 19, 2009 in Jeff Holland, Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

alan-moore-1Okay, headline, will do. Right after this post.

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 alan-moore-2character (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 alan-moore-4goofy 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 alan-moore-31as 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.

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Comments
  1. EricMontreal22 says:

    Great piece and one I largely would agree with, although I think it’s a bit extreme. I don’t like later era Moore work as much but I think his run on Swamp Thing particularly is more than him just reconceptualizing an old character–his horror (and romance) stories within feel strikingly original to me–in a way much of his later work doesn’t. And what about works like his unfinished “planned magnum opus” Big Numbers? Still, there’s a lot of truth here…

  2. Erin says:

    No one writes a post bashing Moore unless they’re spoiling for a fight. Very well, sir: I’ll oblige. Watchmen’s been on my brain lately, so I’ll discuss that:

    Watchmen is about the corruption of power, the dangers of idealism, and the need for oversight.

    It’s also about superhero comics and western culture over a forty-five year span. But the themes apply beyond capes and spandex.

    I don’t think the question, “Do we really need superheroes?” is the central point of the book. There is far more here than you’ve given the author credit for.

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    I realize Watchmen is about quite a lot of things (many of which I’ve covered in other posts on the subject here). I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there’s anything simple about the book – though I think it’s the structure of the narrative that’s more impressive than themes of ‘power corrupts.’

    All I’m saying is ONE of the topics in the narrative asks if, after considering 45 years of popular culture, there is a real point to the western concept of ‘superheroes’ as savior-fiction, and noting that it fits in a career-long pattern of Moore using other characters to comment on, among other things, the comic book industry.

  4. Braak says:

    @Eric: I agree about Swamp Thing. I read Moore’s run on that with no interest and little awareness of the character, and found it to be a great read on its own.

    @Erin: I’m not sure that “the corruption of power” is necessarily accurate. Is it actually right to say that Dr. Manhattan was corrupted by power? Or even that Ozymandius was?

    @Jeff: You have overlooked Promethea! Promethea is like a deconstruction of modern consciousness, so it basically applies to everyone whether or not you’ve read the source material (which I actually can’t figure out if it actually exists–he refers to “original” Promethea stories a lot, but they could just be made up).

    In an interesting way, though–well, is it even possible to offer anything new without also thoroughly commenting on your predecessors? New ideas are only identifiable in the context of old ones. Would trying anything new with any pre-existing character or idea end up being a deconstruction anyway? And isn’t a new character necessarily either a) a reference to, or b) an explicit deviation from existing tropes?

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    There is a reason I don’t say ALL of Moore’s works. Just the ‘biggies,’ and in particular, the ones Entertainment Weekly is telling people to go read once they’re done with Watchmen. On doing that, I started seeing a thematic pattern, and that’s what I wanted to write about.

    Now, there are books that fall outside the pattern – From Hell and Promethea among them. I didn’t overlook them, so much as I wanted to save them for later. And also, this entry was running long, and I like to keep it to a readable two pages.

    So in the near future, I will be talking about these two, Ballad of Halo Jones, maaaaybe ‘Am Small Killing,’ and my favorite Moore work (and thanks to Chris for passing it on), ‘The Complete Future Shocks.’

    (Probably not ‘The Killing Joke.’ I do have some problems with that one, but they’re the same ones Moore has, and he seems to have really beaten himself up about it. And probably not ‘Big Numbers,’ since I like to read stories that have, y’know, ends to them.)

  6. threatqualitypress says:

    Future Shocks was a riot, aided immensely, I think, but the fact that Alan Moore didn’t have to take any of it remotely seriously.

  7. Jeff Holland says:

    Absolutely hilarious – including a play on ‘Benjamin Button’ that was, I would imagine, much funnier than Brad Pitt – while also being really solid and often very clever science fiction shorts.

  8. Erin says:

    Quoting Jeff:
    “All I’m saying is ONE of the topics in the narrative asks if, after considering 45 years of popular culture, there is a real point to the western concept of ’superheroes’ as savior-fiction, and noting that it fits in a career-long pattern of Moore using other characters to comment on, among other things, the comic book industry.”

    Well, that’s what you’re saying now. In the original post, you said something different: “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.”

    You’re shifting from describing this theme as being the primary point of Moore’s work to just being one of many. While I certainly agree that Moore’s work comments on the genre he’s working in, I don’t believe it’s the primary point he’s making in the majority of his fiction.

    It’s an important distinction if you’re suggesting that those who haven’t been reading comics won’t find much of interest in these books (which seems to be the implication in your original post).

  9. Erin says:

    Braak: Okay: we’re arguing semantics, now… which is pretty much my favorite thing to argue.

    I see your point about corruption, but I stand behind my claim. Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan, in a manner of speaking, both lose their souls.

    Between the two, Ozymandias is a far easier case to make, as his dream at the end about swimming towards the Black Freighter is fairly conclusive. What’s fascinating about the character is that he loses his soul without losing his ideals or – arguably – even his moral compass. It’s an interesting twist on corruption, but I certainly think it applies.

    Manhattan’s a bit more conceptual and, I’ll admit, less clear cut. Still, I’d argue that losing his connection to humanity, a logical consequence of becoming a god, counts as a kind of spiritual corruption. There’s a great deal more to his character, though, so I’m open to other points of view.

  10. Jeff Holland says:

    Okay, that’s fair enough, shouldn’t have used the word ‘primarily’ all willy-nilly like that.

  11. threatqualitypress says:

    Erin: I’m not sure about this. Has Ozymandius lost his soul, or are his nightly dreams of the Black Freighter a kind of psychic penance? Actual proof that he must still have a soul, and that it’s tormenting him for what he’s done? Also, I’m not sure what it means to lose a soul without losing your ideals or moral compass. The world of Watchmen isn’t a world of spiritual salvation–it is, in fact, a mechanical, clockwork universe. How can you even lose your soul in a world that doesn’t really allow for them in the first place?

    As for Dr. Manhattan–again, I don’t know about this. He has actual, real, god-like power–but it’s not the power that causes him to lose his connection with humanity, it’s his perspective. And, in a real way, the people of that world were lucky that it did–his disconnection and disinterest in humanity is exactly what prevents him from becoming an omnipotent tyrant. [I have a related Superman post that I’m going to write sometime]

    And then, what about the Comedian? He had power, conferred on him by his status with the Government, but was an utter shithead even before that. It wasn’t power that corrupted the Comedian–it was the Comedian who used his power in a corrupt way.

    If anything, I’d say that this is a story about the usages and nature of power–not necessarily that it is a corrupting influence. What Watchmen really says is not that power corrupts, but that idealism corrupts. Ozymandius does something awful in the name of his ideals (though may or may not actually be right), to solve a problem that is itself the product of ideals. The Comedian’s bitter cruelty is the product of starting out with ideals in the first place–Dr. Manhattan, devoid of ideas, is freed from the universe. The only people that make out okay are the people who were willing to compromise what they believed it.

    I think in this way it makes Promethea, which is a long story about Idea and its power, the precise counterpoint to Watchmen.

  12. The Owl Man says:

    A nearly unknown writer of negligible quality being credited as such a legend of literature has to have some method of a machine behind his image and reputation, and upon closer inspection this holds true in the grand form of the Time-Warner swamp monster ready to make a Lee-Kirby out of any hack willing to live the life and talk the talk. Very well, I’ll take it for now, while the goings good, as they say, or more precisely… while The Watchmen are hot. 🙂

  13. Erin says:

    @Braak:

    There are no souls in the sense of blue, glowing spirits of energy in Watchmen (well, besides the obvious), but there is a sort of spirituality that’s tied to the materialistic world the book unfolds in. Souls, of a sort, exist in the form of a person’s connection to those around them.

    Before you accuse me of stretching, here are a couple of passages at the end of the pirate comic:

    “They’d come to Davidstown to wait until they could collect the only prize they’d ever valued, claim the only soul they’d ever truly wanted.”

    “The world I’d tried to save was lost beyond recall. I was a horror: amongst horrors must I dwell.”

    In fact, as far as I can tell, the almost spiritual connection between a person and society seems to be the whole point of the pirate comic. Also, it’s why Moore takes the time to show the non-superhero characters of the book coming together in the moments before the cephalopod-bomb go off. Or, as the psychologist explains:

    “I mean, it’s all we can do, try to help each other. It’s all that means anything.”

    So, not souls in a Judeo-Christian sense, no. But souls according to a more classical Greek or Roman philosophical tradition that Ozymandias of all people should be able to perceive. The tragedy is that he doesn’t.

    That said, is this because he’s influenced by power or is it merely the logical conclusion of a fanatical idealism? While I see your point, I feel there’s an elephant in the room we’re not addressing:

    Who Watches The Watchmen?

    First and foremost, Watchmen is a call to beware those with power. For this reason, I suspect the intent was show Ozymandias’s idealistic goals empowered by ability and resources that drove them past the limits of reason, until they twisted into a mockery of their original intent (which, when you think about it, is pretty much what happened in the pirate story).

    Or, to put it another way, he was corrupted by power and lost his soul.

  14. Braak says:

    Quis Custodes Ipsos Custodiat–but of course, Ozymandius was not driven past the limits of reason at all; he was driven precisely to his reasonable conclusion. It’s important not just that Ozymandius killed all those people, but that he was right. He did, in fact, save the world by doing what he did, and what he did was simply a logical extension of what he’d always been doing–ignoring lesser evils for the sake of greater goods.

    Again, I don’t think that the entirety of the book illustrates the corruptive nature of power, but the danger of reliance on those people in power. That is, we need to beware the people in power not because they are corrupt, or will be corrupted by their power, but because the very best-case scenario is that someone who has power will give it up and leave us on our own, anyway. This is why we have all different representations of power, and all different scenarios for how it plays out.

    Corrupt is just such a loaded word, and in the way that you’re using it–that is, the “corruption of the soul” is a loss of connection with the people around you–I don’t think that “power corrupts” is necessarily the most apt way to describe what was going on. Power didn’t corrupt the Comedian–he was always a dick. Power didn’t corrupt Rorschach–it was powerlessness that drove him to become a psychopath.

    Likewise Dan, who by your standard must be corrupted at least a little, since he’s really only got one friend in the world, and their friendship seems based primarily on mutual nostalgia, didn’t get that way because of the power to do good, but because of his loss of that power.

    The nuclear arms race that’s going on isn’t a product of a misuse of individual power, but a fear of the power that other people have–again, this would more accurately be a misuse of power because of “corruption” rather than the other way around. In fact, I’d argue that the running theme throughout the book is that it’s powerlessness which drives men to desperation and evil, which is what the psychologist, and all the people coming together at the end are meant as an answer to: individuals have power, too, and they should use it.

  15. Erin says:

    @Braak:
    “It’s important not just that Ozymandius killed all those people, but that he was right. He did, in fact, save the world by doing what he did….”

    Ozymandias may or may not have saved anything: ultimately, that’s in the hands of an idiot with ketchup on his shirt. Otherwise, the point would be that no one’s watching the Watchmen, but that’s okay, since they’ll make the tough calls and do what’s best.

    Whatever the outcome, the very action is an evil one. When the sailor kills the man on the beach, he thinks he’s countering the acts of evil men. What he’s really doing is performing an evil act himself, adding to the tragedy. Same thing with Ozymandias: if the New Frontiersman publishes Rorschach’s journal, everything Ozymandias did becomes moot. Everything he worked for, everything he killed for, comes apart.

    After all, Moore chose that name for a reason.

    The ends don’t matter as much as the means, because, “Nothing ever ends.” The deaths caused by Ozymandias are an evil act, and no intention or goal justifies them.

  16. The Owl Man says:

    Besides being a bad attempt at a comic it’s also a bad example of viral marketing. I thought brits had never heard of ketchup? And why would you want to save the world in it?

  17. threatqualitypress says:

    @Erin: Yes, but it’s not the power that corrupts him. Ozymandius has always been doing that. Beating people up, breaking the law, he has always been committing immediate evils for the sake of larger goods. Power didn’t have anything to do with it except for making his capacity both for performing evil and performing good substantially greater. If this is an argument about the principle of moral action, then the scale at which it operates is irrelevant; a thing isn’t more evil because it’s big, it’s just evil because it’s evil. Since this is an extension of Ozymandius’ general practice, it remains an inaccurate assessment to say that he was corrupted by power–the truth of the matter is that, by this standard that you’ve established, he must have always been corrupt, which is probably why we shouldn’t be giving power to people in the first place.

    @The Owl Man: I don’t know. Pages, pictures, little word bubbles. It seems like a reasonable attempt at a comic to me. Brits have ketchup; it’s the one thing that Heinz doesn’t make over there.

  18. Jeff Holland says:

    …There’s ketchup?

  19. Josh says:

    Man, I dunno. We seem to place such a premium on the New, when I would argue that we understand and appreciate a mere fraction of what’s come before. I think there’s something to be said for recontextualizing and interpreting, especially if you can make it entertaining at the same time.

    And I think Moore does, for the most part; if it gets a little tiresome after a while—well, how many artists bat 1.000? He’s hit, I would say, a few more out of the park than most of his peers.

  20. The Owl Man says:

    I’m not talking Heinz, boatshit. I’m talking ketchup. You don’t get it over there, do you.

  21. matt says:

    I like the lego action figure.

  22. threatqualitypress says:

    Heinz makes ketchup, though. That was the weird thing I discovered when I went to England. Like, I knew that Heinz made 57 other things, like relish and mayonnaise and brown sauce and six different kinds of mustard, but I’d never seen that shit in restaurants. Just Heinz ketchup.

    But at the pubs in England, there’s Heinz everything, Heinz Worcestershire sauce and Heinz rum fish slurry and Heinz tartar chutney, but not Heinz ketchup. The pubs all use locally-sourced organic ketchup in their packets–I assume at the behest of mad chef Gordon Ramsay.

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