Moore Than Watchmen: Diving into the Library of Alan Moore
For a man almost single-handedly responsible for elevating the art form, Alan Moore wants nothing to do with comics. In fact, the British writer alleges that as of this year, upon completion of the fourth volume of his famed League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, he will walk away and never look back.
But as any comic fan knows, there’s always a kindling of hope that our hero will return through a hyped and trumpeted comeback somehow involving a mystical gemstone or a convenient multiverse plot device. Just ask Superman, or Jean Grey, or, um, a guy literally named the Resurrection Man. Moore, however, insists that his early retirement time is for real and there’s nothing those of us living under an emotional house arrest can do.
One could even say that if the Northampton native had a choice and time machine, Moore would go back to his younger self and disavow any associations with past contributions, especially with Watchmen, arguably the greatest comic book of all time but also one of which he himself doesn’t even own a single copy.
Well, if you’re already four paragraphs into an article about Alan Moore, then chances are you’re more interested in that seminal series about morally ambiguous superheroes than its author is. Maybe you’ve read the graphic novel–incidentally, a term Moore himself hated. Or maybe you’ve seen the divisive 2009 film helmed by cinematic literalist Zack Snyder. Or maybe you just tell people at parties that you’ve read it because otherwise every geek in the room will seize the opportunity to espouse on hits greatness ad infinitum and before you know it, you’re stuck in a corner listening to an impromptu Watchmen TED Talk.
But now with the critically acclaimed Watchmen television series airing on HBO, Watchmen is reaching an even broader audience which means its legacy isn’t in any real danger despite Moore’s efforts. Nevertheless, oblivious to the show’s reception, Moore is still insisting on stepping away from a storytelling medium that needs storytellers like him. Which is a damn shame, because he could use this opportunity to parlay the hosannas into an overall deep appreciation for his catalogue, a bookshelf or two not only worth admiring, but works of fictional art which I would consider essential to any library.
Yes, there’s more to Moore than just Watchmen, and below, we’ve hand-selected some of the lesser celebrated works that deserve to sit alongside the more well-known classics Watchmen, V For Vendetta and the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen–all of them from throughout the legendary writer’s four decade career.
Let’s get the deep cut out of the way first, shall we? After all, Supreme was initially nothing more than Rob Liefeld’s hyper-violent creation and an unimaginative near-direct take on Superman. Of all the books on this list, Moore’s reinvention of the character was, at the time, unjustly ignored. In fact, trades for the series are currently out of print and have been so for over fifteen years.
But Moore, to his credit, took over for a substantial run beginning with Supreme #41 and retconned the titular protagonist through a total reimagining. While Supreme was inadvertently jaw-droppingly unoriginal, Moore unveiled a rather complex storyline in which multiple iterations of the hero existed in an alternate reality called the Supremacy. This allowed for Liefeld’s version and the preceding forty issues to still exist in concept, while also giving Moore the freedom to create his own iteration.
Supreme is so thoroughly readable and thematically dense at the same time because on the surface, it’s an homage to Silver Age Superman and a love letter to a simpler time, but upon further inspection, it’s a contrasted takedown for the hardened cynicism of the 90’s.
To wit, Moore’s run includes a super-powered team with the vintage-sounding name Allied Supermen, a sister sidekick Suprema, and even a super-powered dog named Radar the Hound Supreme, but as a metafictional work of fiction, Ethan Crane, Supreme’s secret identify, is a comic book illustrator who’s reluctant to heed his publisher’s directive when he’s told to make his comics more violent.
“What I’ve tried to do with Supreme is not to capture what was done in the 50’s or 60’s,” Moore told Combo Magazine, “What I’ve tried to do is make Supreme a character that works across the ages.” And through his thoughtful postmodern take, he ingeniously pays homage to a bygone age while also skewering the modern day. Supreme indeed.
Imagine Dick Wolf greenlit Law & Order: Special Powers Unit, and you’d have a pretty good idea for what Top 10 is about.
Set in the fictional city Neopolis, this police procedural focuses on the superpowered patrolmen and women of Precinct 10 who are relegated to keeping watch over a metropolis inhabited by “science-heroes, heroines and villains.”
Yup, everyone who lives there has powers.
While this premise has every right to be dark, brooding, and provocative, Top 10, paradoxically, is Moore at his breeziest with dialogue that reads like witty cop banter spoken by characters in a Tarantino film. Oh, and those characters…? Well, there’s a talking dog with an erect robot body who also just so happens to be department sergeant, a zen taxi driver who drives with a blindfold and “feels out” the traffic, a shrinking pathologist who uses her Ant-Man-like powers to inspect corpses brought into the morgue, and a defense attorney who is literally a shark. And these are just the tertiary characters.
Reviews for the series often reference Hill Street Blues–which Moore himself cited as an influence–NYPD Blue, the aforementioned Law & Order, or Steven Bochco’s overall oeuvre (Cop Rock, anyone?), and truth is, they’re all right. It’s a quintessential urban police narrative featuring murders, prostitutes, robberies, and drug busts. But despite all of those comparisons, Moore makes the cop procedural uniquely his own by making it unlike any other before it.
The importance of Moore’s forty-four issue Swamp Thing residency cannot be understated as it was his American comics debut and established him stateside as a formidable talent. At the time, one would not fault him for broaching the Yankee newsstand timidly; the young British upstart, however, did exactly the opposite. He not only reconfigured a series featuring a B-list protagonist into a gothic horror tale, but he also infused heavy romance into it. Which is not exactly the formula for winning over teenage boys whose demographic, at the time, made up a large portion of the comic buying constituency.
Yet, if the series accomplished anything, it could be said that Moore’s Swamp Thing elevated the art form–no small feat–by making comic books epic, erotic, eerie, and eccentric. It could even be argued that had it not been for Swamp Thing, there wouldn’t be a Sandman or a Hellblazer.
But what makes it so essential that even thirty-five years after its original run, it’s just been reprinted this month in a gorgeous hardcover Absolute Edition? Well, for one, it confronted thorny issues like the South’s troubling history with slavery and racism (“Southern Change,” Issue 41), a feminist allegory involving menstruation and werewolves (“The Curse,” Issue 40), and global warming cautionary tale that predated social media’s armchair activism. But ultimately, even though it’s billed as a horror comic, in truth, Swamp Thing is an exploration of love and humanity, and what could be more relatable than that?
“Behold, I teach you the superman: he is lightning, he is this madness!” And with a Friedrich Nietzsche quote, Alan Moore begins Miracleman. Needless to say, s*** gets heavy from that point on.
In this brilliant deconstruction of the superhero, Moore presents us with a world, much like ours, in which a superman exists as a manifestation of the Übermensch that Nietzsche spoke of in the late 19th Century. It’s a fascinating read because over the course of sixteen issues, we see a failing journalist named Michael Moran go from dealing with a midlife crisis to literally transitioning into an all-powerful god named Miracleman.
And yes, it’s true that in 2019, the premise of a superhero in the real world acting as an omnipotent being isn’t all that novel with our Brightburns, Boys, and Chronicles, but at the time, Moore’s unvarnished take was fairly unprecedented. Comics, after all, was an escapist’s outlet.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Miracleman is where we’re first exposed to that thing that makes Moore a singular talent; the way he embraces a character’s totality and incorporates whatever history came prior to his own vision.
See, Miracleman was actually originally known as a 1950’s superhero named Marvelman created by Mick Anglo (why the name change? See the complex legal issues here) and back then, the series was quintessentially Golden Age with its chipper innocence and toothless naïveté. But despite his brutal reconfiguration, Moore’s love and respect for the history was palpable and he even went so far as to incorporate all of its legacy into the narrative–including the teen sidekick, the German scientist arch-villain, and the kitschy backwards magic word–but then refined it with pathos and sophistication.
“All Alan Moore did was to take it all seriously,” said Neil Gaiman about Miracleman. “And that is almost the foundation on which all that has happened in comics since was built.”
If ever there were any doubts over the degree of seriousness in which Alan Moore approached his material, From Hell buries them deep within the ground like a victim of Jack the Ripper.
Okay, that was dark. But what else did you expect when discussing Moore’s only foray into semi-non-fiction which just so happens to be a detailed narrative exploring the depraved mind of the most elusive serial killer of all time? From Hell is a meticulously researched retelling of the late 19th Century Whitechapel murders and an evocative thesis for the identity of a notorious killer that was never caught, and here’s the crazy thing; Moore’s theory, developed over a decade of wading through relevant materials, is entirely plausible.
Despite using historian Stephen Knight’s Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution as a springboard, From Hell develops new territory attributing–SPOILER ALERT–royal physician William Gull as the murderer with a supporting forty page appendix of notes and references to back it all up. This is not to say that the graphic novel is a straight linear crime narrative either–after all, this is still a Moore book.
From Hell also employs plenty of creative license with talk of a fourth dimension, and how time is a spatial plane, secret masonic councils, deep government conspiracies, and an appearance by a god in a vision who goes by the name “Jahbulon.” Nevertheless, Moore’s crime noir unfurls with such monumental confidence that it ostensibly reads like a documentary. “I was unnerved and amazed by the amount of confirming ‘evidence’ that turned up to support my theory,” Moore once said in an interview before adding, “[But] I knew it wasn’t a theory. It was fiction.”
THE BALLAD OF HALO JONES
Just about a year before cartoonist Alison Bechdel created the Bechdel Test–a narrative criteria in which two women must talk to each other about something other than a man–Alan Moore was already establishing the precedent.
The Ballad of Halo Jones, which appeared serialized in the comic magazine 2000 AD, was a response, according to Moore, to the “guns, guys, and gore” that permeated the publication. His response? “Girls, rockets, and monsters.”
All told, the story itself isn’t as fascinating as those three words indicate. Which is not to say it’s dull, per se. It’s just that given the context of the Ballad of Halo Jones and where it appeared surrounded by Judge Dread, Strontium Dog, and Rogue Trooper, Moore intentionally created Jones as a palette cleanser and had “no inclination to unleash yet another ‘Tough B**** With A Disintegrator And An Extra Y-Chromosome’ upon the world,” as he wrote in an introduction to a Halo Jones collection.
As a typical 50th Century everywoman, Halo encounters a revolving door of fascinating characters like the rodent hive mind called the Rat King or the cyber-canine Toby or the supporting character named Glyph who changed their gender 49 times and was left as an androgynous phantom with no personality and no presence. It’s weird, experimental, and at times feels vaguely like a Douglas Adams echo, but it’s profoundly feminist considering the time in which it was published. Which is why it warrants mention in any conversation about Alan Moore’s best works.
Intermittently, throughout the years, Moore gets maligned for his treatment of women such as in his Batman book The Killing Joke, or in his Lovecraft homage Neonomicon, and while those critiques merit deep consideration, it’s also worth remembering how novel The Ballad of Halo Jones was at the time, and how a newfound and burgeoning talent created a heroine that was wholly relatable, and only more so if you were living in the 50th Century.
What is your favorite Alan Moore comic? Let Your Geek Sideshow and tell us in the comments!