Monday is Alan Moore’s 60th birthday, and I wish him every happiness on that (and every) day, both because I respect and admire his wit, talent and politics, and because he has brought me more unbounded joy over the last three decades than probably every other comic book creator combined. Beginning very early on in his Swamp Thing run and continuing through to the current day, a new Alan Moore book means surprise and delight, and sometimes a little bit of controversy.
Moore’s recent Nemo graphic novel with artist Kevin O’Neill shows that Moore’s passion for fun and exciting comic books that are also complex and thought-provoking hasn’t waned at all. Although the very mention of Moore can anger and aggravate aggrieved fanboys over-invested in the importance of corporate comic book culture in their lives, the fact of the matter is that Moore’s work mattered, and continues to matter, for the very reasons they despise him in their thousands: Moore puts his own needs before corporate whims, he gives readers what they need, not what they want (giving readers what they want, or think they want, is the very foundation Moore’s former publisher DC Comics has built its current loathsome line of books on), and most importantly, he uses his unique and brilliant intellect to construct complex and challenging works that demand you exercise your own mind in order to not only enjoy, but even to comprehend. It’s hard to imagine any of the work-for-hire prostitutes who applied their minor gifts to Before Watchmen against all rational, ethical decency being able to even read the first book on this list, never mind write something anywhere near as entertaining, challenging and soul-satisfying.
About this list: Lance Parkin answered this very same question recently in my Five Questions interview with him, and made the terrific point that “at heart the most important thing about Alan Moore is his writing.” I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. I fully support Moore in his stance against the abuses of corporate comics publishers against creators unable to stem the tide of their perfidy, but I think oftentimes even Affable Al’s most fervent fans get so caught up in the rhetoric and invective (Glycon knows I have been guilty of this myself) that they forget to celebrate just how much fun Moore’s work almost always is. The worst of his work in comics, arguably some of the stuff he did for Image in the 1990s (examined and put in context in Parkin’s wonderful new biography Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore), still contains the structure, humour and narrative left-turns that are trademarks of Moore’s style.
So here are the five Moore works that I find myself coming back to again and again, always entertained, always astonished by how fresh and vital they remain after a dozen reads or more.
Voice of the Fire
This is Moore’s greatest achievement to date, a prose novel that also functions as a collection of short stories and can be read and enjoyed as either. Each chapter is set in its own era, with its own characters, story and themes, but each combines as a whole to tell an alternative history of Moore’s hometown of Northampton and environs that is chilling, hilarious and mind-blowing. Anyone who has never approached this work because it’s “not comics” is denying themselves enjoyment of the most personal and powerful expression of the talent of the greatest writer comics has ever known.
Even though Swamp Thing got to the States first, Miracleman is the book that really showed the power of Moore’s gifts to change the way we think not only about comics, but about entertainment in general. And despite shipping delays, fill-in issues, mediocre art in some issues and an ethical and legal tangle that may never truly be understood, never mind sorted out, Moore’s run on this comic remains revolutionary, thrilling and timeless. I can’t recommend or endorse Marvel’s forthcoming reprints given their history of fucking with Moore and his work, but I do recommend you read these if you can and immerse yourself in probably Moore’s greatest superhero epic. Its impact and influence on entertainment since, in everything from comics to movies to television, cannot be overstated.
Moore’s most complex and greatest work in comics to date, From Hell and Voice of The Fire convinced me that his interest in magic was truly informing his work in positive and unprecedented ways. There are moments in both books that will turn your brain inside out and leave you changed in ways that will last long after you close the cover and move on. There’s more technique and hardcore comics talent at work in From Hell than in 90 percent of every other comic book ever published, and at the same time, it’s also just one hell of a wild story, in comics form. It’s the one work of Moore’s that I recommend without reservation to anyone who wants to know why the man has the reputation that he does. In From Hell, Moore and artist Eddie Campbell prove beyond all doubt that, as Harvey Pekar believed, “You can do anything with words and pictures.” In From Hell, Moore and Campbell do everything.
A bit of a sentimental favourite, because it was the first Moore work I was ever exposed to. Despite Moore’s falling-out with artist Steve Bissette, their work along with John Totleben on Swamp Thing remains one of the greatest works DC ever published, and given how very shabbily the publisher treated Moore during their partnership and ever since, one supposes it’s kind of a miracle that it happened at all. But from the start of this run, I had the sense something different and more adult was happening in comic books, and I was right. Moore brought nuance and complexity to American comics with Swamp Thing, along with horror and dread and subtlety since unmatched. No one would ever again make Swamp Thing as important a title and character as Moore, Bissette and Totleben did, and in a world that makes sense, no one would have even tried. They said and did it all, and the run remains as vital and classic today as we knew it was even when it was shipping monthly to our local comic shops and drug stores.
There’s a bit of proof of concept about Moore’s Wildcats run; Jim Lee had created a cookie-cutter X-Men ripoff for Image and imbued it with absolutely nothing worth talking about. When Moore took over the title, it immediately — immediately — became the wildest and most interesting superhero comic book on the stands. So if you want proof that Moore is the real thing, that he puts his money where his mouth is and delivers the goods virtually every time, then read the issues before Moore took over Wildcats, then read his run. There’s no greater evidence of why Moore is the best writer ever to work in comics. He can take any idea, or even the absence of one, and turn it into something professional, exciting and worth talking about. I re-read this run every few years, and its casual quality and absolute transformation of one of the shittiest comics ever published brings a smile to my face every time. You don’t think Moore is a magician? You need to read his Wildcats, my friend.
Happy birthday, sir. And thank you.