As comic-book writer Alan Moore enters retirement, ‘Lounge’ revisits some of his iconic classics
From ‘Marvelman’ to ‘Swamp Thing’, Moore was a pathbreaker who leaves behind a rich legacy
This could well be a bad year for comic books. In April, DC Comics officially shuttered its for-adults imprint Vertigo. And now, the writer who changed the way we look at comic books—which, in turn, begat a publisher like Vertigo—is entering retirement. Alan Moore, the magician from Northampton and the author of books such as Watchmen (1987), V For Vendetta (1989) and From Hell (1996), has decided he has had enough of writing comic books.
In 2016, Moore had announced that once he finished the final instalment of his comics series, The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, he would be done with the art form. Speaking to TheGuardian, he had said: “I think I have done enough for comics. I’ve done all that I can. I think if I were to continue to work in comics, inevitably the ideas would suffer, inevitably you’d start to see me retread old ground and I think both you and I deserve something better than that." Now that The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. IV, The Tempest has been published, Moore waves adieu.
And yet, popular culture clearly isn’t done with Moore. In October, HBO will roll out the Watchmen TV series, created by Damon Lindelof and inspired by Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ masterpiece. Moore’s work has been turned into blockbusters earlier (each of which he hates with a passion), but his books remain essentially un-filmable, unconcerned as they are with run-of-the-mill superheroics and linear narratives. Alongside fellow English writers and friends Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison (the three are often called the British Invasion by comics historians), Moore’s defining works have sought to peel back the mask of superheroes and look at the human beings, warts and all, that lie beneath.
In the 1980s, this was a radical concept. Gaiman, the most populist of the trio, moved away from writing comics soon after his Sandman series concluded. Morrison has continued to work with DC and produce stunning books, like Final Crisis (2009). But Moore’s work since 1990 has been more idiosyncratic. Although almost entirely focused on comics, it has largely been outside the fold of DC, a publisher that Moore likens to an evil empire.
Given the wide variety and importance of Moore’s books, we revisit some of his most inventive and iconic books.
MARVELMAN/MIRACLEMAN (1982-85) This was the first series that would give the comics reading public a taste of what Moore had to offer. Published between 1982-85, Moore took Marvelman, an established wholesome superhero, and turned his mythology inside out. This was the first brush that readers had with Moore’s novelistic prose and his deconstruction of superhero myths. At the same time, he wrote sumptuous action set pieces and delivered suspenseful humdingers that had readers coming back for more. By the time Moore would finish his run with Miracleman (the superhero had to be renamed to avoid a legal battle with Marvel Comics), comics would never be the same again.
From Frank Miller’s dark and violent The Dark Knight Returns (1986) to Gaiman’s Sandman (1996), all subsequent reimaginings of established comic-book characters owe a huge debt to Moore’s work. Interesting trivia: Gaiman took up the mantle to write Miracleman stories from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, until the publisher Eclipse declared bankruptcy.
V FOR VENDETTA (1982-89)The amazing thing about Moore in the 1980s was that he was writing four genre-defining comics series pretty much simultaneously. The first one he started working on was V For Vendetta, . A howl of rage against the conservatism and racism of Thacherite Britain, in it Moore imagines a chillingly prescient future Britain, one ruled by a totalitarian government led by the fascist Norsepower party. This police state, underpinned by the politics of white supremacy, homophobia and evangelical Christianity, is challenged violently by an unnamed anarchist, wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, quoting Shakespeare and packing fearsome firepower.
V, as the character is called, and his mask have since become one of the most ubiquitous symbols of popular resistance. The Occupy protesters wore these masks. The masks also grew in popularity among Arab Spring protesters and were banned by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Working with illustrator David Lloyd, Moore wrote the comics for the UK-based Warrior, an anthology comic, till 1985, when Warrior was cancelled. DC took over in 1988, and Moore completed the story in 1989. It later became part of the Vertigo label, which was created precisely so that comics such as V For Vendetta could be published.
WATCHMEN(1986-87) If V For Vendetta was aimed at the smugness of conservative Britain, Watchmen did something very similar to Ronald Reagan’s US. Considered Moore’s magnum opus—equal credit should go to illustrator Dave Gibbons—and the greatest series ever published in the history of comics and graphic narratives (in 2005, Time magazine listed it among the 100 Greatest Novels, the only comic book to make it to the list), Watchmen has remained a pop culture sensation for 32 years. Set in an alternative universe America where superheroes are real, where the US won the Vietnam War, and Richard Nixon remains the president in 1985, Watchmen is a masterclass in postmodern storytelling.
In this America, masked adventurers have been around since the 1940s, fighting crime and their inner demons, even as their sheer presence has altered the political and ethical landscape of the country. The tale spans two generations of superheroes, even as their lives are threatened by a mysterious conspiracy, while the doomsday clock of mutual nuclear annihilation between the US and the Soviet Union ticks close to midnight. Moore intersperses the story with extracts from in-universe biographies, histories and medical reports, as well as a comic-within-a-comic in the form of a pirate yarn.
When it was collected in a single volume in 1987. DC marketed Watchmen (and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns) as a “graphic novel", a serious piece of work, as opposed to “frivolous" comics. Moore loathed the term. In 1988, Watchmen became the first, and to date only, comic book to win a Hugo Award for science fiction or fantasy works.
SWAMP THING (1984-87) Moore was writing yet another classic at the same time as Watchmen, where he took a minor horror character from DC’s stables and turned it into a profoundly moving rumination about mankind’s relationship with nature. Under the stewardship of editor Karen Berger (who would later become the founder-editor of Vertigo), Moore wrote Swamp Thing between 1984-87, about a monstrous godhead who is less interested in locating his humanity than he is in maintaining the balance between human civilization and the “Green". Moore’s reimagining made the character immensely popular, so much so that the Swamp Thing remains a continuing character in the DC universe, based not on its 1970s origins but on Moore’s vision. During his run, Moore would introduce secondary characters like the demon hunter John Constantine and Cain and Abel, who would go on to helm comics series of their own.
FROM HELL (1996) As comics writers like Gaiman, Morrison and others bolted in through the door that Moore opened, he himself bowed out of mainstream comics. This was the result of a combination of factors, from his growing horror with the corporate overkill of publishers like DC and Marvel, to his interest in magic and different forms of storytelling.
In 1989, Moore and artist Eddie Campbell began work on a comic based on the Jack the Ripper murders called From Hell. Serialized till 1996, when it was collected in a trade paperback edition, From Hell is a tour de force, a murder mystery as well as an investigation of class, power, magic, secret societies, the occult and the creation of the 20th century, the bloodiest yet in human history.
Swathed in Campbell’s claustrophobic black and white ink sketches, From Hell marks the initial flowering of Moore’s fascination with Victoriana, a theme he would return to with his League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen books (from 1999-2019), as well as in his graphically erotic book, Lost Girls (2006), about the sexually explicit adventures of Alice from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz and Wendy from Peter And Wendy.