swampthing

Though I’m loathe to admit it, I read comic books for quite a while before the importance of the writer kicked in for me. Like a lot of fans, I think, the art is was the first driving force behind my selections from the new releases rack. After all, it is the most immediately impactful component of the form, even if my love of individual characters probably stemmed more from the way they were written than from any amount of cunning design that went into them. Sure, the rocky hide of the Thing might demand attention, but it was the Borscht Belt poetry and lurking tragedy of his alter ego, Benjamin J. Grimm, that truly moved me. It was years later before I even realized that certain writers–Roger Stern, Doug Moench–were the common denominator of separate titles that earned my ardor.

Alan Moore wasn’t the first comic book writer who I knew by name, but he was the one who locked into my psyche most forcefully. Sadly, I can’t claim to have discovered Moore early on. I wasn’t one of those people who was reading The Saga of the Swamp Thing, DC Comics’ shaky attempt to revive the boggy creeper created in the nineteen-seventies by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson, when a brash British writer took over, in late 1983. His first issue was mere clean-up of dangling plot threads, intriguing but unremarkable compared to what followed. It was issue #21, “The Anatomy Lesson,” that announced a startling talent. Grim, cerebral, atmospheric, challenging and–perhaps the rarest of qualities–genuinely fucking scary, the story completely transformed everything previously understood about the character, in a manner that was utterly logical and satisfying. Current-day comic events are touted with promises of staggering changes that almost always prove to be phony. Moore actually did something markedly different with the character he was handed, and did so largely without fanfare. He wasn’t trying to stir the frothing ire of fanboys. He just wanted to tell the best story possible.

I heard about Moore repeatedly before I ever read any of his stories, finally breaking down and ordering back issues of select Swamp Thing issues, largely, as I recall, on the recommendations found in Don Thompson’s Comics Buyer’s Guide reviews column. They were stunning. I wasn’t fully hooked, but I definitely wanted to keep reading what he had to offer.

Around roughly the same time, Moore was bringing out his masterpiece, one issue at a time. Watchmen began life as a pitch from Moore on how to utilize the old Charlton Comics characters DC had recently acquired the rights to. As Moore’s concept grew darker, editor Dick Giordano encouraged him to keep pursuing it but with original characters, albeit ones that wound up as thinly veiled takes on the Charlton heroes. Watchmen was and remains a stunning achievement, a story that upends, deconstructs and then subtly reinforces the very concept of heroism as presented in these ongoing comic sagas, doing so with an intricate command of the medium unlike anything seen before. The scripts Moore gave to artist Dave Gibbons were famously dense with detail, and every bit of every last panel contributes to the overall story and themes. Behind again, I wound up buying all twelve issues at once and reading them straight through in one dizzying night. Now I was fully hooked.

From then on, I remained as committed to Moore as I could, even as his place in the industry grew more compromised. Shortly after publication of his brilliant, defining take on the relationship between Batman and his arch-nemesis, the Joker, Moore split with DC, largely due to his dissatisfaction with how the publisher was breaking promises related to Watchmen, deliberately depriving Moore of owed merchandising royalties by categorizing items being sold as “promotional” and orchestrating ways to avoid the contractual promise of returning the series copyright to Moore and Gibbons. He avoided various overtures at reconciliation over the years, many of them halfhearted, undoubtedly passing up highly lucrative opportunities because he believed strongly in his principles. If Moore was perhaps unduly critical of those who participated in the misbegotten Before Watchmen prequels, given that most of his best work has hinged on appropriating characters originally conceptualized by others, his ire can be read as an indication of just how badly he was once burned by those he trusted.

Moore’s work may have been tougher to come by once he committed himself solely to independent publishers, but it was always fruitful to seek it out, from the unnerving Jack the Ripper story From Hell (with artist Eddie Campbell) to his unlikely triumph with the Rob Liefeld creation Supreme to the entirety of the America’s Best Comics line, probably best known as the home of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I have a special fondness for 1963, a series of comics he did for Image in 1993 that brilliantly reimagined the earliest days of Marvel Comics. Even when a title didn’t completely work–and Moore’s works increasingly had a whiff of disengagement, sometimes seeming like he was cranking out deconstructionist homage in a cerebral form of muscle memory–it always held some fascination, some spectral aura of a mind as complex and majestic as a pipe organ at work.

In fact, some of my favorite words from Moore in recent years have been those deployed when he simply ruminated, in print or in interviews, on the current state of, well, everything. Cantankerous, uncompromising and fiercely intelligent, he’s like Harlan Ellison with the gray haystack hair of a wizardly demigod. He folds provocative ideas in on themselves, as if doing origami with flaming paper. Lately, I’ve been especially prone to share this quote of his:

Yes, there is a conspiracy, in fact there are a great number of conspiracies that are all tripping each other up. And all of those conspiracies are run by paranoid fantasists and ham-fisted clowns. If you are on a list targeted by the CIA, you really have nothing to worry about. If however, you have a name similar to somebody on a list targeted by the CIA, then you are dead.

I can’t even begin to fathom the spiraling gears that lurk within his boundless mind. Luckily, I don’t have to resort to too much speculation. Moore has always been deeply generous and eloquent in sharing his thunderous ideas. Sometimes those ideas have the mists of madness around them and sometimes they’re borderline impenetrable, but grappling with what he presents has always been rewarding.

Previously…
An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy
Harlan Ellison
Dave Eggers
William Greider

16 thoughts on “My Writers: Alan Moore

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