The Redoubtable Alan Moore (Pt. I)
By: Beal & James17930
James17930: If Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and Stan Lee can be considered the gods of the modern comic-book universe, than Alan Moore is definitely the Jesus. Usually such a trite religious metaphor would seem somewhat silly, but, well, look at him. All kidding aside, the twinning of the two is quite apt, for both of them are similar in the way they went about their work — taking an established medium which, in their time, received little-to-no mainstream respect and transforming it with such a unique and creative vision that the masses were forced to take notice (for Jesus, Judaism; for Moore, comic books — to date, Jesus has still sold more books than Moore, but personally I prefer Moore). We won’t delve too deeply into Moore’s biography — that’s already been done to satisfaction at Wikipedia; we want to focus specifically on his work, providing our own unique and fascinating insights. Of course, this means we’ll be limited to what we’ve read, which happen to only be his major works, so if you’re looking for discussion on Miracleman, Swamp Thing or Promethea I’m afraid you’re out of luck.
Beal: Beal here. I’d like to start by comparing Alan Moore not only to Jesus, but also Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Shakespeare, Plato, and Thomas Edison…
Actually, the Shakespeare comparison does work, in a way: William Shakespeare is universally held to be a master, a genius, an inspiration to every writer who has followed, an artist truly deserving of hyperbolic praise. And yet, as much of an inspiration as Shakespeare still is even today, there’s nobody out there trying to cop his style. For example, Spielberg comes along, Spielberg imitators come along; start with The Beatles, pretty soon you’ve got a British Invasion on your hands; either way, the shoulders of giants tend to get stood upon. But I don’t know of anyone working in Shakespeare’s specific style who has achieved any recognition.
The same goes for Alan Moore: few names in the comic book industry garner as much respect as his. He’s written several of the medium’s greatest, defining works, he can be called ‘genius’ with genuine intent, and he’s even been compared to famous prophetic messiahs on occasion. But there’s nobody else out there even trying to do what he does. He is partially responsible for an overall maturation of comic book storytelling, he’s certainly inspired any young comic writer working today, and yet he’s all alone in his style. Aspire to the levels of Alan Moore and you’re probably gonna fall on your ass.
J: And so what is that style? Social commentary of the highest order, to be sure, done in the way sci-fi and fantasy traditionally goes about doing these things. A focus on character, but, as Beal says in an e-mail he sent to me, mostly as “a tool of fleshing out the world, grounding the [story] in enough of a human reality to deliver the deeper themes.” And, of course, pure, unadulterated, sumptuous entertainment.
V For Vendetta established the idea of Alan Moore. His previous works contained clear suggestions of the unique, mature authorship the name now implies, but when V was released, serialized and in black & white, his place in the comic book industry must’ve been clear as day. V For Vendetta is a masterful work of science-fiction warning, probably the first of such grand success in this medium. It is the comic book equivalent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, or Fahrenheit 451, or Brave New World. Moore took the world he saw in the early 1980s and described its future in a worst-case scenario, leaving enough threads hanging out for an audience to make the connections.
Some of Moore’s most lauded work, and V For Vendetta especially, seems better suited for comparison with literature than with other funnybooks. There’s an intrinsic level of complexity to his worlds, characters, stories, themes — and all together, in a single work — that is typically dismissed as only being possible in great prose. V doesn’t accomplish this by cheating its medium — it’s no prose story with drawings off to one side; it embraces being a comic wholeheartedly, as Alan Moore does across the board. He’s certainly contributed to the increased stature comic books, as a unique medium with unique potential, have claimed in the past twenty years.
B: Boiling V for Vendetta down is a difficult task (aw hell, boiling any of these books down will be hard, even Tom Strong, which is a pretty straightforward superhero adventure); its themes are as plentiful as the deliberate contradictions to those themes. But at its most surface, it’s the story of a vigilante (or freedom-fighter, or terrorist; the book encourages you to look at it from more than one angle) working to bring an end to the fascist, autocratic, theocratic dystopia that England has become by the end of the 20th century (the series began publication in 1982).
I’m daunted by density as I try to go on. Right at the start, the very first damn panel, we’re introduced to the “Voice of Fate,” booming its message across the loudspeakers through the streets of London. Panel 2 gives us a CCTV camera perched up on a telephone pole (this was back before that was a normal, unquestioned thing — great science fiction tends to be prophetic) overlooking a mass of workers flooding out the factory gates, in night-time shadows that can only be described as “dreary.” And, in case you missed it up in the corner, panel 3 is a closeup of that camera, with its sign posted below: “FOR YOUR PROTECTION.” Moore and his partner on this project, artist David Lloyd, know how to get the most out of their pagespace.
Rather than analyze this 286-page tome panel-by-panel, I’ll just restate that this book is dystopian science fiction in its most classic sense — loaded with more ideas and anger and worry than you could ever absorb in just one reading. My largest criticism of V for Vendetta would be in the art — though as filled with weight as the dialogue, it’s kind of ugly and muggy. I’m sure this is partly to be blamed on the colourized version, which is the only version I’ve read; I don’t like the colouring at all, and I think the pictures are better suited to a stark black and white. But beyond this, I find a problem in how Moore and Lloyd use a realistic art style; it’s a choice I understand, given the warning/parable nature of the story, but perhaps a bit more stylization and a few less lines on the characters’ faces would’ve been beneficial.
And the story itself is very complicated, very convoluted — this combined with the over-detailed art make the book a bit of a chore to follow in places. Even so, it’s still very compelling, very dramatic, and if you read it once and feel you’ve missed a few things, what’s the harm in reading it again? Smart fiction like this should be read again.
J: I haven’t read it, so I’ll take your word for everything. I thought the movie kicked ass though.
At Midnight, All The Agents . . .
Watchmen was where Moore broke through. Originally published in twelve issues from 1986 – 1987, it has only grown in popularity since, having been collected in a trade-paperback edition and being the only graphic novel to appear on Time magazine’s ‘100 Best Novels From 1923 to Present’ (whatever that’s worth). The book revolves around a group of retired superheroes who are slowly being knocked off by a mysterious killer, all set against the back-drop of 1980s Cold War nuclear hysteria; the story delves deep into the personal lives of the characters as well as the socio-political milieu of the time. So where in V for Vendetta Moore extrapolated a dystopic future based on 1980s England, in Watchmen he creates a dystopic present America based on if the 1970s had of unfolded differently — Richard Nixon re-writing the constitution to say in power and another nuclear crisis unfolding, among other things. Both methods are apt for delivering his unique brand of criticism.
J: However, I did have some problems with Watchmen. While it’s good, it’s not great, and it surprises me that this is considered by most his seminal work over From Hell (but we’ll get to that later).
It definitely feels overlong. I found myself somewhat bored for long stretches here and there; most notably all of Chapter 4, the issue focusing on Dr. Manhattan — the reason being that if felt like filler. Turns out I was right. In an interview with Locus Magazine in July 2003, Moore admitted that he only had enough plot to fill six issues, and so “interspers(ed) the more plot-driven issues with issues that gave kind of a biographical portrait of one of the main characters.” This isn’t horrible, but I do find it grating that the plot is abandoned for as long as an entire issue, here and there. Moore should have never admitted to this, because now it makes me cast aspersions on anywhere that he wanders off for long stretches on ‘character development’ because I know he’s drawing it out to fill a full twelve issues. He also says in the Locus article that the choice of twelve issues was completely arbitrary, so, once he found he didn’t have enough for that length, he should have gone to DC and have it recast as either an eight or ten issue series. This reminds me of Charles Dickens rambling on and on because he got paid by the word — slightly nefarious and unfair to the reader. I mean, how many times and from how many perspectives are we brought back to that meeting where Captain Metropolis is trying to get a new group of heroes together? Five or six? I understand doing this as a technical device, but after a while it gets a bit old.
The same could be said about the whole Tales of the Black Freighter sub-plot. This is a ‘comic-within-the-comic’ which is being read by a teenager camped out on the sidewalk next to a newsstand in Manhattan. Every once in a while we are shown the story from the comic, which involves a shipwrecked sailor attempting to make it back to his home by constructing a raft out of the corpses of his shipmates. Moore has said this sailor’s story is a mirror of the story of Adrien Veidt (Ozymandias), which makes sense, but my problem with it is that it’s just too long. Usually, when constructing a juxtapositional ‘story-within-the-story’ like this, the author will focus it — having it appear at one key moment in the primary story, or else having only the most pertinent details of the secondary story reoccur at various intervals — whichever works the best for dramatic effect within the context of the primary story. A perfect example of this is the ‘play-within-the-play,’ The Murder of Gonzago, in Hamlet, III. ii. (here we are back to Shakespeare again). It’s short, focused, and directed. The Black Freighter story, however, is so long that it takes on a life of its own outside of the primary story and, in my opinion, is more distracting and confusing than meta-fictional. Again, if Moore hadn’t of stuck himself with an unwieldy twelve issues, this wouldn’t have been an issue.
All that being said, overall, of course, it’s still an excellent book. Rorschach is an amazing character — I loved every moment with him in it — and the ending, from the actual event which takes place to the contemplations on whether the ends ever justify the means, is monumental.
B: I’ll wholeheartedly agree with that assessment of Rorschach; everything about that guy is wonderful. But I’ll disagree with the dragging on of Chapter 4, because I found Dr. Manhattan to be another amazing character, on par with Rorschach, and I was happy to learn more about him. When Moore originally conceived of Watchmen, he had wanted to use actual, established DC characters, but couldn’t, so he tweaked them into characters of his own — Dr. Manhattan is inspired by The Atom, Rorschach comes from The Question. If he had been able to use these characters, telling an origin story wouldn’t have been necessary; but with a character as strange, in powers and perspective, as Doc Manhattan, an origin begs to be known.
True, it’s a step aside from the real plot, not something I would ever encourage, but it’s one I was happy to have. Having a sense of history for these characters makes their developments within the story stronger. If they could’ve done this in a different manner — perhaps as separate, side issues dedicated to individual characters — it would’ve likely been an improvement. As it is, I accept it, and I’d rather have it embedded than not at all.
Of the Moore books I’ve read, Watchmen is my favorite. Even if it has its (minor) failings in the storytelling department, it has nothing but success in the realm of ideas, and its executions of these ideas. The ‘superheroes as metaphor for humanity’s new ability to obliterate itself’ story has been told many times — Watchmen was probably the first; it’s almost certainly the best. As I see it, any complaints to be made about Watchmen are dwarfed by its victories. And its climax is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read.
I would absolutely say Watchmen is deserving of all its spotlight and status. But then, I haven’t read From Hell yet…