Happy Birthday Alan Moore
Alan Moore turned 70 on the 18th November. Hard to believe that the creator of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Miracleman, From Hell and so many other mindblowing works of comic book fiction, has reached this milestone.
I first came across his work in the pages of 2000 AD, to which he contributed many short tales in the Future Shocks series, and while these and other series he wrote for the comic were all entertaining, the strip that really grabbed my attention was The Ballad of Halo Jones, in which Moore and illustrator Ian Gibson created a dazzling vision of the future with an ordinary (yet complex) young woman at its centre. The 25th Century world they depicted was a detailed and convincingly realised milieu, with its own authentic and compelling customs, slang, and politics. The strip, which ran over 3 series, was the antithesis of the mainstream comic books, more influenced by the imaginations of Philip Dick, Samuel Delany and Michael Moorcock, than it was by the creators of Superman or the Avengers. Halo Jones was both contrary and contradictory, naive and yet cynical, fucked-up and humane--she was, in short, a character in which we recognised ourselves, despite the fact that her adventures were set five hundred years in the future. The storylines were at times madly comic, violent, but also tender and capable of packing a gutwrenching emotional punch. It's just a shame that a dispute between its creators and the publishers of 2000 AD over intellectual property rights, brought the series to a premature end.
In the early 1980s Moore began writing for Warrior comics, resurrecting an old character, Marvelman--later Miracleman--and repurposing him as an ubermensch set in the real world of the 1980s. Although Warrior went into liquidation while Marvelman's story was still developing, Moore was able to complete the work when Eclipse took on the character in 1985 (hence the name change to avoid legal action from Marvel comics).
Moore's iconic dystopian saga, V for Vendetta, also began in the pages of Warrior, and following the latter's demise, the story was reprinted and completed as a stand alone title in DC's Vertigo line. The series, Moore's most overtly political, although one of Warrior's least popular storylines, went on to sell over 500,000 copies when reprinted by DC, and inspired the Wachowski's somewhat tepid film adaptation. V's struggle to bring down a fascist dictatorship in England and his espousal of an anarchist philosophy has had an enduring legacy that has transcended its comic book origins with the Hacker collective Anonymous deploying V's Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of their activism, and its far wider use by people taking part in 2011's Occupy protests against social and economic inequity.
By this time, Moore had already taken on scripting the Swamp Thing--reviving another established title that had become jaded and was suffering poor sales. Moore completely revamped the character, re-imagining the creature's origins and going on to establish Swamp Thing as one of the most innovative and boundary-pushing titles of the era. Moore's version of the Swamp Thing envisaged the creature not as some chemically assisted assemblage of human and plant, but as an entirely vegetable entity capable of consciousness and regeneration. This allowed for a far more dynamic and powerful character, and for storylines that were more explicitly engaged with ecological and political concerns, whilst never losing sight of its roots in supernatural Horror. Moore's expansion of the creature's powers allowed for more science fictional ideas, with, in one spectacular plotline, Swamp Thing journeying beyond Earth and the solar system in search of other, plant-based conscious life forms. The overtly horror saga, American Gothic, which ran over 14 issues is, for me the highpoint of Moore's run, and it not only reintroduced older, near forgotten DC character like, Cain, Abel and The Demon, but it gave us the enigmatic John Constantine, half con-man, half mystic, who would go on to feature in his own title, Hellblazer.
By far Moore's most powerful and fully realised work is Watchmen, his epic satire and deconstruction of the supehero mythos, created with artist Dave Gibbons. The genesis of the project lay in Moore's desire to craft a story around a set of existing supeheros, but depicting them in a far more realistic manner, in which they would be subject to the same human weaknesses and desires as the rest of humanity. DC had earlier acquired just such a group of characters from Charlton Comics, and it was these that Moore had it in mind to revamp. But even though senior editors at DC were receptive to Moore's ideas, he was encouraged to develop new superheroes rather than trying to repurpose existing ones, in part because the editors realised that it would be almost impossible to re-use these characters when and if Moore killed them off.
Although Moore was concerned that readers would not respond emotionally to characters they weren't familiar with, he later realised "that if I wrote the substitute characters well enough, so that they seemed familiar in certain ways, certain aspects of them brought back a kind of generic super-hero resonance or familiarity to the reader, then it might work." Thus the antecedents of Rorschach, Nite-Owl and Dr Manhattan lie in older, largely forgotten comic book characters like Steve Ditko's The Question, The Blue Beetle and Dr Atom. The almost godlike powers of Dr Manhattan echo those of DC's own Superman, while Nite-Owl's costume and his reliance on gizmos and gadgetry are clearly meant to suggest the Dark Knight himself. As Moore intended, investing these new creations with a few of the archtypal characteristics associated with more familiar superheroes, allowed readers to feel invested in them, thus making for a greater psychic dissonance when their emotional and behavioural flaws were revealed.
Moore wasn't interested in simply telling a story about a conventional superhero team in the manner of the Justice League of America or the Avengers. Rather the aim was to create a world not that far removed from contemporary America in the 1980s, one in which superheroes co-exist alongside real historic figures like Richard Nixon, still US president in 1985 after US victory in Vietnam, with the Watergate scandal never having come to light. The Cold War was still very much in progress when Moore was writing Watchmen, and the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviets is one of the book's key preoccupations. In the story, most costumed heroes--more correctly identified as vigilantes--have either retired or been outlawed, save for a few like Dr Manhattan and The Comedian, who work for the government. The former's apparently limitless powers position him as a key military asset who gives the US a strategic advantage over the USSR, thus increasing tensions and edging the two superpowers ever closer to world war 3.
Although the narrative begins in a familiar way, with Rorschach investigating the murder of the Comedian and uncovering an apparent conspiracy against costumed heroes, this is merely the start point for what Alex Abad-Santos, writing in Vox, called a story that, "while rife with ostentatious characters like mad genius Ozymandias and all-powerful Doctor Manhattan, is much more grounded in showing us what it’s like to be powerless." The dominant motif in Watchmen is the question of who watches the Watchmen: that is, who is it that keeps the most powerful people in line? As Abad-Santos suggests, "Moore and Gibbons show that the most powerful will do everything they can to stay that way."
It's a brilliant and ruthless exploration of power relationships, the way ordinary people defer to those with power, and the extent to which we exploit those without. It exposes our fascination with superheroes and confronts us with the reality of this obssession as a manifestation of our innate need to identify ourselves with the powerful. It's a work that has been widely misintepreted, with many fans seeing it as a celebration of the powerful superhero, when Moore and Gibbons' intentions were precisely the opposite. Like other works by Moore, it has been adaptated poorly for film, and somewhat better, by Damon Lindelof for television, where the show portrays continued social and racial strife affecting the same world some 15 years after the events portrayed in the original comic book. DC have continued to exploit the title, without Moore's blessing, in a number of prequels and sequels. In spite of this, and although Moore has gone on to create other notable works of graphic fiction--From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tom Strong, Providence and others--Watchmen remains his strongest and most enduring work.
So, happy birthday then, Alan Moore, and thanks for giving us the greatest comic book of all.
For an in-depth look at Watchmen's enduring relevance, see Alex Abad-Santos' 2019 Vox essay on the comic, here.