Alan Moore: Scenes from the Life of the Master
A retrospective of Alan Moore's career highlights to-date, to mark the occasion of the Great Man's 50th birthday.
Alan Rupert Moore was born on the 18th of November 1953 in St Edmond's Hospital in Northampton. Moore was to live all his life in Northampton, only once contemplating leaving, to go to live in the United States. Popular legend has it that Moore's parents could neither read nor write, but this is completely untrue. St Edmond's Hospital, a converted workhouse, was not only his birthplace, but also the place where both his mother and grandmother died. After his mother's death, while going through her possessions, he found his grandmother's birth caul - a 'bellflower membrane blossomed from the amnion that masks the newborn child's head'- once objects of great magical significance. This became the pivotal totem around which he composed The Birth Caul: A Shamanism of Childhood, which had a single performance in a Victorian magistrates' court in Newcastle upon Tyne on the 18th of November 1995, Moore's 42nd birthday. A recording of this was eventually issued on CD by Charrm in a limited quantity of 500 copies.
Since his childhood, Moore had been fascinated by comics, both the home-grown British ones, and especially the occasional imported American monthlies. These would arrive sporadically on market stalls, apparently the remains of the American comics industry's returns, sold off and used as ballast on ships coming from the USA to Britain, and eventually making their way from the coast to Northampton, the city in England furthest from the sea. Like some sort of intellectual salmon, the comics made their way on a long, arduous and unlikely journey, to find a final resting place in their most fertile spawning ground, the mind of the greatest comics' writer the world has ever known.
In his mid-twenties, and with a wife, Phyllis, and baby daughter, Leah, 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, which at the time was working in the local slaughterhouse, and started sending off submissions. Soon enough, he found himself contributing a daily strip, called Maxwell the Magic Cat, to the Northants Post, which he wrote under the name of Jill de Ray, an allusion to Gilles de Rais, a 15th century French nobleman executed for the murder of one hundred and forty children. This strip would run from the 25th of August 1979 until the 9th of October 1986, and was collected in four volumes by Acme Press.
By the time Moore left the strip, in protest at the paper's stance on homosexuals' place in the community, he had gone from an unknown first-time cartoonist to a world-renowned comics writer. At much the same time as he began Maxwell the Magic Cat, he also started submitting work to Sounds, a weekly British music paper, this time under the pseudonym Curt Vile, which is a reference to the German composer Kurt Weill. It should be said, however, that his first actual professional sale, for spot illustrations, was to a rival music magazine, New Musical Express, (or NME, as it is more popularly known). One of the strips in Sounds was called The Stars My Degradation, and I remember a friend showing me one of these, which he had cut out and sellotaped to his bedroom wall, very nearly twenty-five years ago now. The strip eventually 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 IPC's weekly comic 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, Future Shocks or Time Twisters, as they were called. These were often only two or three pages long, giving him an ideal opportunity to perfect his craft, as there was no room for anything except pure storytelling in such a limited amount of space. More work followed, with Moore contributing short 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.
For 2000AD he would eventually write Skizz in 1983 (effectively written to cash-in on the huge media frenzy surrounding ET, but only similar to it if you imagine that, instead of being marooned in a Disney-perfect, Hollywoodesque America, the extra-terrestrial crash-lands his ship in a dour and depressive Birmingham, deep in the throes of the worst excesses of Thatcherism), 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's Marvel Superheroes title, the first of three different titles the strip was to run in during his stint on it. 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.
In the May 1981 issue of The Journal of the Society of Strip Illustrators, there was an interview with Alan Moore, where he was asked, "What ambitions do you have for 'strips' as a whole?" In the course of a long answer, Moore mentions, almost as a throwaway, "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. Before going any further, a few brief words on the complex history of Marvelman are perhaps called for...
In 1938, National Periodical Publications, who would later become DC Comics, published the first issue of Action Comics, which included the first Superman story, by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. This immediately started the comics industry's love affair with superheroes, which is with us still. The popularity of Superman lead Fawcett Publications, the following year, to publish what was essentially a copy of the character, in the guise of Captain Marvel. A series of court cases followed over copyright infringements, with Fawcett finally admitting defeat in 1953, and undertaking to retire their character, as well as to pay National US$400,000.
Soon after this, Fawcett closed its comics division, feeling that the end of the comics industry was near. While all this was going on, the Captain Marvel stories were being reprinted in Britain by L. Miller & Sons, Ltd. Fawcett's defeat in court meant that the reprintable material would soon dry up, so Len Miller, the publisher of the reprints, instructed comics' writer and artist Mick Anglo to come up with a copy of the character, and Marvelman was born in 1954. In fairness, the stories were never terribly good, and, despite at one stage having several titles featuring Marvelman and the Marvelman Family, the title ceased publication altogether in 1963. L. Miller & Sons Ltd ceased to exist soon after that, so the rights to all their work were in the hands of the official government receiver.
When Dez Skinn started Warrior, he assured all parties involved that he had secured the rights to the character from the receiver, but no actual corroborative proof of this was ever produced, and Skinn has alluded elsewhere to the fact that he actually never had pursued getting the rights. When Marvelman was being produced for Warrior, the copyright was a three-way split, with Moore, Skinn's Quality Communications, and the artist on the strip, all being deemed to have a third each. When Warrior folded (at least partially because Marvel Comics had caused trouble about them having a character with Marvel in his name, despite the fact that, at the time of Marvelman's first appearance, Marvel Comics did not exist under that name, being still known as Timely Comics).
Skinn went looking for an American publisher for Marvelman. He originally sold the rights to a San Diego based company called Pacific Comics, who virtually immediately went bankrupt, without ever getting around to publishing a single issue. Eclipse Comics bought out a number of properties belonging to Pacific, including the rights to Marvelman. Eclipse published sixteen issues of the title, by now renamed Miracleman, under the authorship of Moore, before Moore handed over the title, along with his third of the rights (the other two thirds now belonging to Eclipse), to Neil Gaiman, the incoming writer, who split his share with Mark Buckingham, the illustrator. Gaiman wrote a further eight issues before Eclipse went out of business. Todd McFarlane bought out Eclipse's properties at a receiver's sale, and is currently in the throes of litigation with Neil Gaiman on another matter, with Gaiman trying to retrieve the rights to Marvelman/Miracleman, so that it can finally be reprinted.
To recap: Captain Marvel was a copy of Superman. Marvelman was a copy of Captain Marvel. This would seem to imply that the rights should actually belong in some sense to DC Comics, who at this stage own not only Superman, but, as fate would have it, Captain Marvel, having bought the rights to it many years back. Even if Lee Miller was the correct holder of the rights at the time he was publishing it, these eventually became the property of the official receiver, and Quality Communications' Dez Skinn appears to never have actually acquired these from them, according to a recent interview with him. The subsequent passing of title from Quality to Pacific, and thence to Eclipse, before finally ending up with McFarlane, could quite possibly be completely null and void, as none of these people actually had any legal title to the character in the first place. And, yes, that was the short version of the Marvelman saga.
So, it was agreed between Dez Skinn and Alan 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.
Moore's work in Warrior, as well as in 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 it's second run, but was really only revived to cash in on the 1982 Wes Craven movie of the same name. By the time Moore took over at issue 20 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 virtually 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, which Moore once described as being based on a bad mood he was in one afternoon.
As if guided by an unseen hand, Moore had ended up with a title that was virtually perfect for him, allowing him to experiment with new ideas and story-telling techniques. The entirety of his run on the title, with the exception of that first issue, which has never been reprinted, is available in six volumes from DC. 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.
The most important work Moore produced for DC, however, and perhaps the most important single comics work ever produced, was Watchmen. Produced in twelve issues between September 1986 and October 1987, this still stands clear of anything produced before or since even now, over fifteen years after its first appearance. Besides being a murder mystery, a conspiracy story, and a romance - as well as having a rather chilling pirate story woven through it - 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, which are the first panel of each issue, 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. Perhaps the greatest flaw of Watchmen was the vast quantity of inferior copycat stories it spawned. Every comics writer, and especially the talentless ones, it seemed, wanted to write something grim and gritty, and to ascribe the lowest possibly motivations to any and all previously noble characters. If comics can be said to have had a Golden Age and a Silver Age, then this was its Dark Age.
After doing Watchmen and V for Vendetta for DC, as well as various other things elsewhere, Moore was becoming disillusioned with the mainstream comics industry. DC treated him shabbily with regard to things like royalties on Watchmen reprints, and he eventually forswore working with them as a protest at the company's introduction of a ratings system for their comics, which was imposed without any consultation with any of the creators of the comics. He had sworn never to work for Marvel Comics again after their part in the downfall of Warrior, and what he generally regarded as a bullying and hectoring attitude on their part at that time. Feeling he had said all he had to say on the subject of superheroes, and that he had no wish to work for the companies publishing these anyway, he bid farewell to the mainstream, and went to look elsewhere.
A number of projects started at that time, amongst them From Hell and Lost Girls. Despite From Hell being perhaps the most exhaustive and incisive investigation of the Jack the Ripper mystery to appear between the covers of a book to date, Moore deliberately states that it is a work of fiction, and could probably as easily have chosen to prove that any one of the numerous suspects was actually the Whitechapel murderer, rather than William Gull. Lost Girls, to be finally published next year as a three-volume work in a slipcase, 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. I anticipate it keenly.
While all this was going on, Moore started his own publishing company, Mad Love, in association with his wife, Phyllis Moore, and their mutual lover, Deborah Delano. Their first publication, AARGH!, which was an acronym for Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia, was a reaction to the Tory government's Clause 28, a piece of legislation that would effectively outlaw homosexuality in Britain once again. It had been as a result of this proposed legislation that Moore had considered moving himself and his family to the USA, as he felt that, if the legislation was passed, the relationship that he and Phyllis and Deborah were in would be the target for unwelcome attention. Mad Love went on to publish the first two issues of Big Numbers, written by Moore and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz. This was to be an ill-fated project, as there was a falling out between the two collaborators, causing the cessation of work on it. Not only that, but Moore's home life was falling apart, and eventually Phyllis and Deborah left him, taking Moore's two daughters with them. This was Moore's own Dark Age, with a divorce from Phyllis, and the collapse of Mad Love, taking with it a lot of the money that Moore had earned during his heyday in the American comics industry.
Time passed, and, after seeming to have effectively vanished off the face of the planet, Moore reappeared in, of all places, Image Comics. He did a six-part pastiche of Marvel Comics worst excesses, 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 eventually ended up 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. If Watchmen can be said, in the most exact sense of the word, to be Moore's masterpiece, which is to say the piece that moved his status from journeyman to master, 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 have spawned a book of annotations, Heroes and Monsters by Jeff Nevins, as well as a truly beautiful two-volume slipcase edition, with an outsized version of the first six-part story in one volume, and Moore's complete scripts in the other. I hope someday to find sufficient time to be able to sit down with the three of these, the comic, the scripts, and the annotations, and completely immerse myself in the work for the whole day.
Sadly, problems ensued at ABC. Although Moore was writing all the titles, they were all the property of ABC, rather than Moore himself, with the exception of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which was wholly owned by Moore and Kevin O'Neill, the artist. ABC was in turn owned by Wildstorm Comics, but just as ABC was launching its first issues, Wildstorm was sold to DC Comics. Moore had undertaken a number of years before that he wouldn't work for DC again but, as there were now contracts signed, and other people depending on his continued involvement with ABC, he decided to continue, as long as he was given an undertaking that there would be no interference from the people at DC. However, although at the time this assurance was given, there were a number of times that DC did actually interfere, and Moore has now decided he is finally going to retire, permanently this time, from working in mainstream comics.
He isn't leaving quietly, though. Before he goes, he is destroying the ABC universe. Promethea is on the rampage, and is going to take it all down with her. Once again, Moore is doing something no one else has ever done, which is deliberately destroy a fully realised comic universe, and all the titles and characters included in it. When he's done, it should be impossible for anyone to do anything with the characters.
All of this is timed to more or less coincide with Alan Moore's fiftieth birthday, which is on the 18th of November this year. On his fortieth birthday, Moore announced that he had become a magician. He is now saying that he is largely retiring from comics to concentrate on being a full-time magician, And to spend more time on his other interests, such as his performance work. From his earliest days, Moore was interested in theatre and music. He was involved with the Northampton Arts Lab, where he worked with Jamie Delano, who later went on to write Hellblazer, the Swamp Thing offshoot featuring John Constantine. Moore 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.
Around this time, Moore also met David J, formerly of Bauhaus, and with whom Moore would work a number of times over the years. The musical interlude in V for Vendetta, 'This Vicious Cabaret,' was recorded by J in 1984, and is available on his 'best of' album, On Glass. Other bits and pieces got recorded over the years. The most significant body of recorded work by Moore, however, and one 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, as mentioned earlier, 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 these, either taken at the performance, or rerecorded in the studio later, 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. I urge you to seek these out.
Perhaps Alan Moore's greatest gift, it seems to me, is not in his ability to create characters, but rather in the way in which he presents old ones in completely new ways. Marvelman and Swamp Thing were all effectively reinvented by him, and would otherwise be completely forgotten by now, rather than being seen as iconic comic characters. Even his greatest work, Watchmen, grew out of the fact that DC had bought the rights to a group of characters previously published by Charlton, and were looking around for ideas for what to do with them. Moore's plans for the characters were seen as being too radical for them, but he was urged to come up with new characters instead. It's still easy to see that Rorschach was based on The Question, and Dr Manhattan on Captain Atom, though. A lot of Moore's more recent work, such as From Hell, Lost Girls, and especially The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is based on previously established characters, even if one of them is nominally a historical character. What he is producing here, really, is the best fan fiction in the world, ever.
I've only managed to mention what could be regarded as the highlights of Moore's output here, but there is a vast amount more out there. In TwoMorrows Publishing's The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore, there is a twenty-page bibliography, which is already incomplete by now. However, the only major work of his that is currently out of print is Marvelman/Miracleman. I believe that, in the future, Moore's body of work will the subject of scholarly study. After all, his work is, above anything else, about the human condition, and human beings, who he loves as if he were one of us.
What Moore intends to do in the future remains to be seen, but I can be fairly 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, which he isn't abandoning completely, and he has plans for a series of magic books. The last word on Moore, though, I think I'll leave to his younger daughter, Amber, who says in the above mentioned TwoMorrows book, "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 and beautiful form.
(This article originally appeared, in a substantially shorter form, in the programme book for They Came & Shaved Us, a convention held in Dundalk, Ireland, in October 2003.)
Copyright © Pádraig Ó Méalóid, 2003.