Saturday, March 14, 2009

Alan Moore

(This article was first published a few years before it became obvious that the Watchmen movie really was going to happen, and when I felt that some of Moore's works still needed a bit of explaining to the general public.)

Everybody has hang-ups- including legendary comics writer Alan Moore. To those in the know, Moore is the main man in comics. His work has challenged and changed the industry. He’s also an insanely bearded guy who worships a spoof Roman snake-god.

Almost all of Moore’s well-known works are preoccupied with super heroes- in particular, with making the super hero ‘genre’ somehow respectable. Comics have been synonymous with super-heroes since the 40’s. As a form of story-telling in which the story-teller is not bound by the limits of reality, budget or practicality, anything can happen. And yet most western comics on sale today belong to, or are indebted to, a single genre.

Moore’s first major work which is still popular today is V for Vendetta. Many will recall the (surprisingly good) film of the same name. Written in the darkest depths of Thatcherite Britain, it posits a not-too-distant-future in which Britain is a totalitarian state. It’s a setting familiar from 1984 and its many rip-offs. There are curfews, CCTV cameras everywhere, secret police, and mantras designed to drive all independent thought from the minds of men. Into this situation Moore throws the character of V- an anarchy-loving theatrical showman who blows up the Old Bailey to the strains of the 1812 overture. In the comic version, V was quite clearly a terrorist. Given todays political climate, this aspect of his character was toned down somewhat in the American-made movie.

Despite the dressing of the setting, Vendetta is a superhero story, and V is a superhero. He has a distinctive costume (his Guy Fawkes outfit), a secret identity, a distinctive weapon (his foot-long throwing knives), and he descends from the darkness to rescue helpless girls from bullying thugs. Perhaps Moore’s real point of reference here is not 1984, but Batman. Moore has worked hard to give this hero more depth than the traditional spandex-clad ones. V is morally ambiguous, possibly villainously homicidal, and definitely insane. Unlike the heroes of old, in V’s world the issues are not clear-cut. Though the government is portrayed as being corrupt, the actions V carries out against them (basically terrorism) are not softened of watered down.

Alongside Frank Miller, Moore helped to bring comics (and inevitably, superheroes) into the mainstream in the 80’s with works like Batman: The Killing Joke. In this regard his most important work is Watchmen. A movie version of this has been in development hell for about ten years. What’s good about the book is that its one of the earliest comics to construct an insanely realistic and thought-out world on such a scale. Close examination of the art shows that much of the action takes place over a single block in New York, and that the dimensions and geography of this area could be worked out (I wasn’t bothered, but it’s impressive anyway). In this alternate world, locations, brand names and histiry are used consistently for hundreds of pages. But Watchmen too is a superhero story.

The central conceit of the book is that in the 40’s, people were inspired by superhero comics to dress up in ridiculous costumes and actually go out and fight crime in the real world. Thus we are presented with a selection of heroes who are actually people with no real powers, but plenty of real-life problems. We’re not talking ‘Peter Parker’s gotta fight the Green Goblin while worrying about his date with Mary Jane’ problems, though. There’s Hooded Justice, who commits suicide after rumours of homosexuality ruin his life. There’s Nite Owl, who has become a lonely old man who fixes antique cars. The Comedian is a right-wing fascist who fights in Vietman for a three-times elected Richard Nixon. These characters are not the ageless, perfect citizens of comic lore.

I guess that Watchmen best displays Alan Moore’s hang-up about superheroes. The adventures of these super-powered beings clearly meant a lot to him as a kid (though they didn’t to me). At some later point he began to realise how patently ridiculous the notion was, and became fascinated with the idea of placing them in some kind of real-world situation. How would the simplistic, primary-coloured superheroes fare in an age of civil-rights movements, distrust of the government and international terrorism? How would they deal with loneliness, alcoholism, divorce and other personal problems?

Watchmen is a multi-tiered work in which every image is a motif that connects with what has gone before or will come after. It is told in fragments from different time periods, and reading them in order can be no more enlightening than reading them randomly. Like Ulysses, it can be opened at any page. Now there’s a pretentious recommendation. Basically, by the standards of any art-form, it’s damn good. Yet Moore himself has stated that however good it is, Watchmen can never rise above its genre. He has pushed the superhero story to places it was never designed to go… but its still a superhero story.

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