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Trouble with Comics

ADD’s Top 5 Alan Moore Works

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.

Miracleman

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.

From Hell

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.

Swamp Thing

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. 

Wildcats

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.

Swamp Thing #0

Writer: Scott Snyder

Artist: Kano

DC Comics. $3.99 USD

There are parts of this issue I loved. Those would be pages 1-3. We seem to be seeing the story of a Swamp Thing prior to Alec Holland, a skinnier one who lived in a cabin in Manitoba and helped grow the crops after the spring thaw. I would’ve been quite happy learning more about this guy and seeing how Kano drew him. 

But then Snyder goes for what I don’t think is absolutely a mistake, but for me, an unnecessary and less interesting choice, which is to show that Anton Arcane is not just this bad wizard who continues to haunt the life of Alec Holland and those he cares about, but that he’s this agent of Rot, the forces of decay and entropy always at war with the Green (plant life) and the Red (animal life). I don’t have a problem with the whole Red/Green/Rot thing, though I think it’s occupied too much of both Swamp Thing and Animal Man, and it’s not that I have a strong attachment to an earlier characterization of Arcane. It’s not even that I’m against a fatalist approach. But man, it’s just gotten so overdone. I remember back, about ten years ago, when John Byrne did it in Spider-Man: Chapter One, rewriting history so that Norman (Green Goblin) Osborn was tied to Spider-Man’s origin and retroactively his primary nemesis. It wasn’t the primary failing of that series, but it just seemed kind of an easy, uninteresting idea. And since then, lots of comics have done the same thing when they rebooted. It’s completely unfashionable to just have bad guys show up and screw with your life because they feel like it and you’re in the way. No, it has to be destiny, some connection that goes back to primal forces beyond your control. So now we have an Arcane who seems to live for nothing but killing Swamp Things or future Swamp Things (in fact, he really enjoys killing them in the neonatal ward). He’s not a brilliant antagonist now; he’s just a monster who takes pleasure in what he does but doesn’t seem to have a choice in doing it. He’s just the biggest cog in a machine, just another agent in another shadowy group like the ones that made a decent show like True Blood into an embarrassment in a few seasons. Or, to bring it back to not only comics but Scott Snyder comics, why The Court of Owls are boring as shit. They’re just shapes and costumes and vague, sinister plans. Not a character in them. Characters are more interesting when they’re self-directed and unique and pursuing individual goals or compulsions. Anton Arcane is basically mold that talks out loud about how much he’s enjoying ruining your bread. 

—Christopher Allen

The New DC 51 - Stupendous, Satisfying or Simply So-So?

As Week Two hovers on the horizon, here’s the conclusion of the alphabetical tour of Week One.  And it all wraps up with the letter ‘S’.  Stupendous, satisfying or simply so-so?  Week One ends here…

Static Shock #1 features the return of a character that I never read who was also the star of a cartoon I never watched.  In other words it’s the first book I can sample as a new reader!

In a somewhat daring move, the book doesn’t bother with a back story or origin.  There’s a little bit of background on the hero and his family, but it doesn’t get bogged down with the explanations of who’s who and how they came to be.  Because of that it reminded me of the DC books from the ‘70s when the reader would just be thrown into the story, “Don’t know who the Seven Soldiers of Victory or the Justice Society of America are? Stick around and you’ll figure it out!”

Writer John Rozum employed a similar method when he brought Xombi back with artist Frasier Irving – a book that was wonderfully creative, gorgeously illustrated and read by nowhere near enough people to ensure its continuing existence.

The tragedy is that if Xombi had debuted during the new 52 it would have received a major boost in awareness.  A lot of the new books are receiving unwarranted attention merely because they’re part of this massive re-launch (look at this alphabetical tour of Week One as an example).  Had Xombi been measured against Men of War, Hawk & Dove and other lesser comics, it would have had a much better chance of standing out like a true gem.

But lamenting the premature death of Xombi is like crying over a poorly postioned glass of milk: maybe if it had been moved to a better spot, more people would have been aware of its existence, but the damage has been done.

(Having said that, oh please buy the trade paperback when it comes out.  The book was tremendous.)

As for Static Shock, it’s an enjoyable enough romp but there wasn’t anything particularly memorable in the first issue for me to be enthusiastic or see myself returning.  But of all the books I’ve read so far, it is one of the few that I could see a young reader enjoying.  So while it may not be for me, it would be nice to see DC cultivate the market for this book and capture the young tween audience they say they’re hoping to grab.

It is strange, however, that Static Shock has the same “Rated T Teen” classification as every other book this week.  According to that rating system, Detective Comics is just as youth-friendly as Static Shock.  And that is just plain wrong.  If DC really wants to self-regulate their books, they should be more careful about slapping the same rating on every comic they sell.

Stormwatch #1 is the first book to present the recent merger of the former Wildstorm universe with the new DCU.  But just like the all-too common story of two people who have known each other for years who then end up hating each other when they move-in together, it’s difficult to see how these two different personalities will live under one roof.

One of the great advantages writer Warren Ellis had with Stormwatch and the follow-up The Authority was that it could be magnificently creative and destructive because it never had to worry about its effect on other books.  Super-villains could wreak havoc all over the world because it was in Ellis’s corner of the Wildstorm universe where anything could happen.

But with the re-launch of all these new comics and the apparent intention to unite all of them into one coherent universe, the challenge is to somehow make Stormwatch edgy, relevant and interesting.

Or to put it another way: in a universe populated with the Justice League, Justice League International and Justice League Dark (let alone the Teen Titans and a Legion Lost) what role can Stormwatch possibly have?

There’s no simple answer in the first issue, but from the look of things Stormwatch is going to do the secret, behind the scenes stuff that no other hero or group knows about.  Perhaps the book will be left in its own little corner of the new DCU and it won’t have to tone down the Apollo/Midnighter relationship and there won’t be a bizarre Justice League/Stormwatch team-up in the future.  It’s hard to say if the editors will keep their fingers out of the pie.

The first issue has a lot of things happening and there’s enough going on to stay interesting for at least a little while.  Obviously writer Paul Cornell won’t have the same latitude that Ellis at least initially enjoyed, so it will be a challenge for him to be creative within the corporate confines.  Whether those restrictions will force the book to be more inventive as it pushes against those boundaries or it just smothers the series completely remains to be seen.

The return of Swamp Thing would have been a complete non-event if it wasn’t for writer Scott Snyder being in charge.

While the character returned at the end of Brightest Day (with John Constantine tagging along) and he had a rather horrible and ignoble mini-series entitled The Search for Swamp Thing this is the book that matters for the character. How bad was that mini-series? – Constantine cries out, “Superman! Hold me hand, brother!” as they both get pulled into The Green because, I guess, he and Superman are best buds and Constantine always talks that way.

Because had there been just one bad issue, I think there would have been a major uproar with fans.  One bad issue would have written the whole series off.

Fortunately Snyder and artist Yanick Paquette seem to know their stuff.  The book is filled with tiny artistic nods to the past: an industrial digger is named after the character’s creator, a hotel is named after one of the book’s greatest artists and the combination to a safe happens to be a very good year for comics.  So, yes, these new creators know their history.

But that respect for the past would be meaningless if they weren’t going to do something inventive with the character.  Swamp Thing lasted almost 100 issues after Alan Moore left the book and had two attempts at a re-launch after that book died.  So for this to work, it would have to be something special.

The first couple of pages establish that the character is back firmly planted (sorry for the pun) in the DCU as it features Superman, Batman and Aquaman before it moves to our hero.  But, as it turns out, the main character isn’t Swamp Thing, but instead it’s Alec Holland.

(How or why Alec Holland has returned, I don’t know.  I suppose it was explained in Brightest Day or Search for the Swamp Thing, but other than flipping through the pages of the mini-series, I don’t know anything about the mechanics of those two books.  I trust all will be explained.)

Unlike in Men of War, the juxtaposition of the superhero and a common man actually works.  Alec is not overly impressed with the arrival of Superman.  He explains that he just wants to be left alone and Superman grudgingly respects his decision.  But to paraphrase Abby from Alan Moore’s run on the book, the craziness just seems to follow Alec Holland.  I suppose coming back from the dead and having the memories of a monster will do that to a guy.

Of all the books in Week One, this was the one I had highest hopes for and this is the one that delivered.  I don’t know how scary and creepy the creators can go with a non-Vertigo book, but if the other releases this week are any indication, they might be able to go as macabre as they want.  Snyder had a brilliant run with Dick Grayson as Batman in the pre-new Detective Comics that was dark, twisted and yet somehow filled with humanity.  If he has a long-term plan for Swamp Thing, I’m definitely along for the ride.

—Kevin Pasquino