British Comics Greats – Alan Moore

Published On July 7, 2006 | By Joe Gordon | Comics, Reviews

For today’s focus on the great Alan Moore – a comics writer even Time magazine paid homage to – I’m relinquishing the blog to my chum, Pádraig Ó Méalóid. Pádraig is well-known among the SF community for his organisation of events like Dublin’s Phoenix Conventions, running Irish SF News and his many articles, interviews and reviews from The Alien Online, Emerald City, Fractalmatter and others. He is a dedicated collector of graphic novels and vocal in his support of good material (he’s the one who drew my attention to Streets of Dublin a while back). He is also something of an expert in Alan Moore, so today I am going to take a back seat and enjoy Pádraig’s look at one of the most popularly and critically acclaimed writers in the business – why not join me?

Alan Moore is the greatest comics writer in the world. That’s not me being nice about him, that’s undeniable, scientifically provable fact. Who is he, though, and what has he written? And is he any good, really? Here’s a brief biography and bibliography to help you to decide.

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In his mid-twenties, and with a wife and child to support, Alan Moore decided that if he didn’t pursue his dreams of being a writer and artist then, he probably wouldn’t ever do it, so he gave up his job, and started sending off submissions. Soon enough, he found himself contributing a daily strip, called Maxwell the Magic Cat, to the Northants Post. This strip would run from 1979 until 1986, and was collected in four volumes by Acme Press.

By the time Moore left the strip, he had gone from an unknown first-time cartoonist to a world-renowned comics writer. At the same time as he began Maxwell the Magic Cat, he also started submitting work to Sounds, a British music paper. One of the strips in Sounds was called The Stars My Degradation, and featured caricatures of various musical figures of the time, for instance Brian Eno, who appeared as Brain One.

In 1981, Moore started getting work published in 2000AD. Although 2000AD had only been around for three years at the time, it was easily the most important thing to happen to the British comics scene to that point. Moore started submitting short pieces called Future Shocks or Time Twisters (now collected by Rebellion). These were often only two or three pages long, giving him an ideal opportunity to perfect his craft. More work followed, with Moore contributing one-off pieces to the newly revamped Eagle, as well as Marvel UK’s Doctor Who Weekly. Eventually, he was offered the opportunity to do longer work at both IPC and Marvel UK.

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For 2000AD he would write Skizz in 1983 and The Ballad of Halo Jones in 1984 and 1985, which still stands as one of one of his finest and most touching pieces of work. In the meantime, in 1982, he had started writing Captain Britain for Marvel UK. Something else happened around this time, though, which was to really begin the process that caused Moore to change the comics’ medium, and the perception of the superhero comic, forever.

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In the May 1981 issue of The Journal of the Society of Strip Illustrators, there was an interview with Moore, where he was asked, “What ambitions do you have for ‘strips’ as a whole?” Moore said, “My greatest personal hope is that someone will revive Marvelman and I’ll get to write it.” Dez Skinn, who had plans to launch a new monthly British comic called Warrior, read this and, as he was himself interested in revitalising Marvelman, he contacted Moore.

It was agreed between Skinn and Moore that Moore would write Marvelman for Warrior, along with two other titles, V for Vendetta and The Bojeffries Saga. Moore’s Marvelman was a revelation, being the first real attempt to see what a superhero would actually be like in their interaction with the rest of humanity, and how their presence would affect the world around them. V for Vendetta is a dark and beautiful piece of work, featuring a post-apocalyptic, authoritarian Britain, with the title character, the anarchist V, attempting to overthrow the government. This story was perhaps unique in that the protagonist was never actually identified as anything other than V, despite various hints that it could be any of a number of supporting characters in the title. The Bojeffries Saga is difficult to classify, although if you think of a cross between Coronation Street and The Addams Family, you would be in the right general direction.

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Moore‘s work in Warrior and 2000AD got him noticed in America, and he was offered work by DC Comics on one of their flagging titles, The Saga of the Swamp Thing. The title was on its second run, and by the time Moore took over in January 1984 sales were slipping badly, and nobody was really expecting anything world-shattering. Once Moore tidied up a few loose ends in that first issue, however, he completely reinvented the character, making him one of the most powerful and complex in the DC pantheon, and in the process revitalised DC’s moribund horror line. Along the way, he created the character of John Constantine, a sort of cockney thaumaturgic wideboy, who eventually got his own title, Hellblazer, and who went on to be one of the cornerstones of DC’s ‘mature readers’ imprint, Vertigo.

Moore produced a number of other stories for DC, including The Killing Joke, a Batman tale recounting the origin of The Joker; Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? , the last Superman story of the pre-Crisis DC continuity (and one of my own personal favourite Moore stories) and a number of other bits and pieces. All of these are now available in one volume, DC Universe: the Stories of Alan Moore.

The most important work Moore produced for DC, however, and perhaps the most important single comics work ever, was Watchmen. Produced in twelve issues in the eighties, this still stands clear of anything produced before or since even now, nearly twenty years after its first appearance. Besides being a murder mystery, a conspiracy story, and a romance, there is a vast cast of well-realised characters and organisations, all logically thought-out and having a reason for being in the story. The art, by Dave Gibbons, is breathtaking in its intricacy and rigour. From the individual covers to the continuous repeating of the shape of the blood splatter on the Comedian’s badge, to the completely three dimensional imagining of the streetscapes, the art is as close to a flawless pictorial document as you are likely to see in this lifetime. But perhaps the most important contribution of Watchmen to comics, and to literature in general, is its thorough and exhaustive deconstruction of the motivations of costumed crimefighters, and therefore of human beings.

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After doing Watchmen and V for Vendetta, Moore felt he had said all he had to say on superheroes, so he bid farewell to the mainstream, and went to look elsewhere. A number of projects were started at that time, like From Hell and Lost Girls. Despite From Hell being perhaps the most exhaustive investigation of Jack the Ripper to date, Moore deliberately states that it is a work of fiction, and could probably as easily proved that one of the other suspects was actually the ripper, rather than William Gull. Lost Girls, to be published any time now, is more or less an erotic tale of the meeting of three fictional characters, Alice, from the Lewis Carroll books, Dorothy, from L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, and Wendy Darling, from J M Barrie’s Peter Pan.

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Time passed, and, after seeming to have vanished off the face of the planet, Moore reappeared in, of all places, Image Comics. He did a six-part pastiche of Marvel Comics called 1963, and started writing for some of Image’s established characters. Some of this is frankly forgettable, but Moore quickly got back into his stride, and his run on Supreme is easily up to his highest standards. It was while writing Supreme that Moore got to observe the mechanics of Awesome Comics, the imprint within Image it was being published by.

When Awesome folded, Moore decided he’d rather like an imprint of his own, and he formed America’s Best Comics, otherwise known as ABC. Of the five titles originally published by ABC, two titles in particular stand out. The first is Promethea, which is more or less Moore’s own primer on magic. The other is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, now up to a second volume (with a third, the Black Dossier, expected this winter). If Watchmen can be said to be Moore’s masterpiece, then The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is surely the master at the top of his form, bringing together a group of adventurers composed of characters from Victorian literature to do battle against villains from the same period. The text and artwork are filled with detail, and both volumes are available as two-volume slipcase editions, with an outsized version of the first six-part story in one volume, and Moore’s complete scripts in the other.

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Moore announced recently that he was largely retiring from comics’ writing, and was going to spend more time on his other interests, such as his performance work. From his earliest days, Moore was interested in theatre and music, and was in various bands. A recording of The March of the Sinister Ducks, by The Sinister Ducks, on which Moore performed under the name of Translucia Baboon, can still be found lurking on the ‘net somewhere, although little else remains from that period. The most significant body of recorded work by Moore, however, which grew out of his growing interest in magic, is the series of CDs he produced in collaboration with David J and Tim Perkins, under the collective title of The Moon and Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels.

After producing The Birth Caul Moore adopted the concept of psychogeography, whereby he psychically dowsed the spirit and energy of a place, based on its physical characteristics, prominent residents, and past history. All of these recordings started out as one-off site-specific performances, with Moore reading his work over a musical background, and accompanied by lights, smoke, incense and a dancer. Recordings of all of these were subsequently released. Three of them exist so far, all released on the Re: label. The Highbury Working: A Beat Séance, my own personal favourite, is about the Highbury district of London. Angel Passage was part of the 2001 Tygers of Wrath celebration of the life of William Blake, and Snakes and Ladders was recorded at a Golden Dawn symposium in Red Lion Square in London in 1999.

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What Moore intends to do in the future remains to be seen, but I can be certain that it will be good, it will be innovative, and it will make my world a better place. There will be more performances, and more comics, and he has plans for a series of magic books. The last word on Moore, though, I’ll leave to his younger daughter, Amber, who says, “He is not, as you can gather, a man of half measures. He can re-orientate the target demographic of a whole industry because he wants to.” If magic is the imposition of the human will on the world around us, then this is magic in its most pure form.

Pádraig Ó Méalóid

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(A slightly different version of this piece first appeared in Fractal Matter)

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About The Author

Joe Gordon
Joe Gordon is ForbiddenPlanet.co.uk's chief blogger, which he set up in 2005. Previously, he was professional bookseller for over 12 years as well as a lifelong reader and reviewer, especially of comics and science fiction works.

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