On the Twilight of Alan Moore’s Superheroes: A Thank You

This was originally going to be a series of Tweets to Leah Moore, who is awesome, but after sitting down and thinking about it a little while longer, I decided to write something a little more substantial about this.

It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve really loved many of Alan Moore’s works, both his comics writing, and his prose. There’s been a lot of talk lately about superheroes, about whether or not the superhero genre in film — as discussed at length by Martin Scorsese, and in which I touch on in what will soon be my own article on Todd Phillips’ Joker — or in the comics medium, as has been covered by Alan Moore, at length, are legitimate.

I’ve had many thoughts about the comics medium, and the superhero genre, as well as Alan Moore’s words and works. I haven’t always agreed with everything he’s said, or did, but I will never deny the fact that his writing is genius, with layers of meaning and nuance, that informed my creativity and imagination personally, and through other favourite creators that I’ve also followed.

Leah Moore, the co-creator of Albion, Wild Girl, and Conspiracy of Ravens with her collaborator and husband John Reppion, recently published her own perspective on her father Alan Moore’s views on superheroes in comics and their presence in film and pop culture, as well his recent stance on voting in the British elections against Brexit, and the turmoil of it engulfing the entire nation of England.

I don’t have much to add to her words except for the anecdotes that really stick out at me from her words. I think that experiences she has, and had, with him: about his glee in finding old superhero comics, the creased pages of well-read and loved comic books he had on hand, the geeky nature of him as he took his knowledge of the geopolitical — of complex and third dimensional world-building — and applied it to the icons and inspirations of his childhood, giving those stories his tone and his voice, and all the little moments where he would share snippets of his work with her, clever lines that he was proud of, all the winks and nudges that we saw faintly in his captions and dialogue but she got to see personally and first-hand through his genuine love of not only the comics medium and what it could potentially continue to become, but for also the superhero characters that he left employment for to pursue a financially-unsure career in comics with which to work.

And it paid off. As a creator, he took a chance and with hard work and skill he not only made a living off his art, but he thrived. He achieved a dream. He took a series of risks, and I won’t pretend to understand the full implication of what that meant for him personally, or his family beyond anything I’ve read about in George Khoury’s The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, and The Mindscape of Alan Moore documentary. But it cost him too.

Imagine that you are working with something you love, because you don’t see yourself doing anything else. You literally, integrally, can’t. Not forever. You work on your projects and you keep doing so, to the point where you are ill, to the point where it hurts, and you still keep going. And then, through a series of bureaucratic and legalistic convolutions, incompetence, and the greed of others you find yourself spending more time trying to survive than making the things that you want. Imagine getting blamed for plagiarizing something that you made ages before the complaint, or being told you will get your work reverted back to you only for it to never go out of print and have the company you worked for own it. Think about how you think you could have interacted with this company — or companies — and believed you came to a settlement, that you finally got this unpleasantness out of the way, and you are even thinking about adding more to the good work you did for them only for them to fuck you over further. And then, try looking back at what you once loved, that you made into a career, and being positive about it.

Of course, that is just my understanding of it and I know there are many other complexities involved in there. I’m not even saying that Alan Moore is always right, and like I said I don’t always agree with him. Superheroes, for instance, are like M. Night Shyamalan pointed out in what would become his Unbreakable film series, our modern society’s version of gods and demigods: beings of great power and different morality, but a bridge between the mortal and the immortality, between humanity and Nature, between hopes and stories. They have captivated us, these stories of heroes who do good, and terrible things, larger than life: our dreams and nightmares put into words, and panels, and dialogue balloons. It’s only the nineteenth century aesthetic of the strong man and the cape and tights have that altered the iconography, just as once auras of power around gods were symbolized by horns.

And Alan Moore knew this. He still does, even now. He explored what power would do to the psychology of an individual, and while it wasn’t always pleasant, he still kept some common decency, and the dare to dream big in many of his narratives. Unfortunately, many others looking at great comics works — like those displaying the innovation of Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns — only saw the dark and gritty, the grimdark, and believed that edginess was all that made these stories truly great.

Julian Darius, of Sequart, called this “comics revisionism”:  this deconstruction of the superhero to display the problematic and questionable elements of the superhero dream, while also keeping their humanity, characterization, and world-building at the forefront. Moore’s work had affected the superhero comics genre, and still does: even if a lot of the works after him — both in comics and film adaptations — only superficially borrow from that legacy.

I can talk about all of this, all day, really. But there are two things that really stick me about this discussion right now. The first is something Martin Scorsese said about film, which can be applied to stories. In his New York Times opinion piece I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema, Let Me Explain, with regards to his era of film-making he states “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.”

Aside from the fact that Scorsese goes on to talk about the danger of attempting to mass-manufacture a particular kind of story over and again, recycling it without innovation or introspection, his previous words are fascinating given how this is especially what Alan Moore — and some others inspired by him — actually brought to superhero characters and stories. Moore did, in fact, in the medium of comics bring spiritual revelation and contradictory, complex natures to superhero characters, and did his part to transform the medium itself by drawing into it not just continuity but a sense of literary canon — of sophistication — and a modernist voice that may well have not been there before. Seriously, Scorsese’s words above could have easily applied to moments in Watchmen, in V For Vendetta, in Promethea, and other works created by Moore. But I won’t go into them.

Instead, there is the other point I want to make. It is looking at Leah Moore’s words, about a man who liked to play with superheroes, who wanted to make meaningful stories out of them, who believed in the potential of an art-form, and in recent times claims that they are just the adolescent fantasies of nostalgic adults yearning for childhood, the tools of corrupt systems wanting to make a buck and rip-off their artist employees, and a medium that barely has any change or representation. I’m not going to debate the merits of these statements, though I disagree with the last point given how there are many forms of representation in comics now — though in DC and Marvel that’s still a give or take situation — but I just want to draw the attention that Leah Moore has brought to it: that someone who loved superheroes can’t stand them anymore, or at the very least if you go by League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, has a wry cynicism tempered by a wistful remembrance of more idealistic days long gone.

It’s sad. I’ve had my differences with Alan Moore’s work a few times, one time especially during Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century where I stopped reading him for a while. But it was never because of indifference, or because somehow I felt I was better than him. It was because it hurt. It hurt when he came in, and changed something to be grimmer, but more real. Because it struck me in a place where I was still holding onto hope. But it never occurred to me that he must have dealt with something similar, a few times already. This creator, who wove together entire worlds, who interviews almost self-derisively seemed to channel Frederic Wertham’s views on comics superheroes when looking back on his work, was saying something about these stories, and his art.

And I can’t help but wonder, like Leah Moore, if it would have been different if he had been treated better during his time writing in the industry. If we would have seen a Minutemen of his own creation, or more. But at the same time, these terrible experiences did get him to create other works. I love his Providence series, for instance, and I still want to get back into reading Jerusalem.

I guess I am getting older as well. I faced my Century a few times. I never got as far as Alan Moore did in my own creative work, and I don’t think at this point I ever will. In the end, I’m just glad. I’m glad I got to be some small part of his creation, like so many others, in just reading his work: in just interacting with it even in this tiny way. I’m also glad he is making his own works in other media now, such as his films. And when I came back to him, when he created that limited run in Crossed +100 and then Providence, it was like coming home to that older intellectual friend you don’t always agree with, but you feel enriched by spending that time together. And I never forget that it was his work, and those works that he informed, that got me back into comics to begin with: that saved me from completely dismissing them as juvenalia and relics of an immature childhood. Comics are so much more that. And I have creators like Alan Moore to thank for it.

All I can do now is keep following my own dreams, and the old stories, wherever they are go. After all, as a blue, naked man once said to the world’s most intelligent, if not wise, man in another time, another life. “Nothing ever ends.”

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