Arts Framed – John DeFore on comix 

Just enough Moore

The publicity machine is revved for V For Vendetta; as one of the few Texans to have previewed the movie, I’m happy to say it’s a bang-up job. And although the writer disavowed the project early on, this is the best film yet to adapt the work of pioneering comics auteur Alan Moore.

Moore was greeted like a rock star in the ‘80s when he made the leap from English publishers to the home of Batman, DC Comics. He flourished there through the decade before leaving to experiment with self-publishing and smaller companies. (The upcoming issue #273 of The Comics Journal will touch on this era with a long feature on Eddie Campbell, Moore’s collaborator on Top Shelf’s acclaimed From Hell.)

DC has made it very easy for newcomers to get acquainted with Moore. From reprints in the familiar trade-paperback format to more lavish editions, most if not all of his work for the company is in print.

It all starts in 1984, with the author’s long run reviving Swamp Thing. With artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben, he accomplished something impressive: He connected the character to the wider “DC Universe” of superheroes (a requirement, in those days) while firmly establishing that Swamp Thing inhabits a world all his own — an icky, Southern Gothic, genuinely frightening land where heroes generally can’t be bothered to tread. A string of paperbacks now breaks the series into story arcs; each stands alone nicely, but those who don’t know the character are advised to start with No. 1.

As Swamp Thing became a sensation, editors began seeking out the writer to fill in on regular superhero titles. The newly published DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore collects this work, demonstrating not only Moore’s mastery of the material and his fondness for tweaking iconic characters, but his ability to segue easily from the open-ended narrative of Swamp Thing to brilliant self-contained tales such as “The Killing Joke” (often called the best Joker story ever) and episodic sci-fi in Tales of the Green Lantern Corps.

The world of super-Spandex was a tired one in general, though, and Moore dropped a bomb on it in 1986-87. Absolute Watchmen is an oversized and pricey hardback reprint celebrating the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest graphic novels. In the course of 12 chapters, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons (not one of my favorites, but a perfect match for this material) create a new mythology to stand in for the Justice League, and proceed to tear it down. Watchmen imagined how heroes and civilians might interact in a real world, and the result wasn’t pretty.

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V For Vendetta was finished in 1989. Moore began the series in England, before moving to DC, and as a result the book’s look is unlike anything that would normally have seen print in the States. Artist David Lloyd avoids the clean lines and bright colors familiar to American fans, washing his realistically rendered characters in pale monochromes and shadows that form a barrier between this world and ours. But V’s world, though set in a near-future London, is in fact not too unlike our own: Politicians have used fearmongering to grab power and quash liberty; citizens who aren’t numbed by propaganda feel powerless to stop them. And our hero is a terrorist. The upcoming film paints Moore’s tale in broader, politically loaded strokes, and will surely rile the O’Reillys of the world. But it does a favor to the author whether he wants it or not, making him look like a prophet of newsprint.

Also of note this month:

Kevin Morrissey, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, got in touch to alert us to a new project from Maus author Art Spiegelman. Titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#!, the memoir (told in an endearingly cartoonish style) is being serialized as the author writes it; the installments began in VQR’s Fall 2005 issue and, given Spiegelman’s tendencies, may stretch out for years. Happily, there’s lots of other great stuff in each volume. See vqronline.org for details.

Since Spiegelman’s last published work dealt with vintage newspaper strips, one suspects he’s thrilled with The World on Sunday (Bulfinch), a big and beautiful new compendium of turn-of-the-century images from Joseph Pulitzer’s New York newspaper. A gorgeous peek at a vanished era, the book celebrates a publication in which entire pages were devoted not only to funnies but to caricature, charming illustration, and such imaginative if fearsome visions as “If a Great Earthquake Shook New York.” It’s a must for fans with a taste for comics history.

By John DeFore


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