If you’re reading this column, there’s probably a good chance that you’ve read something by Alan Moore, be it Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Batman: The Killing Joke, or even The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. And that’s great if you have, because Alan Moore’s certainly a good writer. The general problem, though, with Alan Moore, is that most people who read his work tend to stop reading comics afterwards because they assume that a) he’s the best writer out there and/or that b) comics haven’t gotten any better since his heyday. I’m happy to say that if you’re in either of those two camps, which is understandable, then you’re wrong on both counts.
In all fairness, I’ve read all four books mentioned above, and though I can’t speak for the famed Swamp Thing series, I can honestly say I’ve read better. Moore’s work certainly offers some nice reading, but it’s far from being representative of the medium of comics, either at its best or as a whole. What seems to have immortalized Watchmen, in particular (and caused people to place Alan Moore on such a pedestal), apart from an obvious level of quality in the storytelling, is the popular and horribly erroneous perception that it’s somehow “the comic” that brought things like grit, adult themes, and social commentary into the medium.
False. In reality, these elements existed prominently, over a decade earlier, even, in stories like R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat and Denny O’Neill’s Green Lantern-Green Arrow stories, the latter addressing issues like racism, anarchism, and even teenage heroin use.
Even so, what Watchmen did achieve, to its credit, was a certain level of realism, sophistication, and seriousness, as well as a resonance with popular culture that, while not unheard of, was certainly rare before its time. Additionally, due to its widespread popularity, it began bringing comics into the mainstream as an acceptable, intelligent medium, paving the way for other British comics writers to enter the American comics scene, often via their own independent titles or by revitalizing older, obscure characters. Furthermore, it played a huge role in catapulting independent comics into their own clearly defined, albeit sort-of-niche, genre.
Empirical achievements aside, Moore’s writing leaves something to be desired. While Watchmen and Batman: The Killing Joke (a huge source of inspiration for The Dark Knight) are solid at worst, League and V for Vendetta both read in a distinctly unwieldy fashion, especially if you are accustomed to modern comics. Additionally, Moore toys with some odd themes, and succumbs to some major pitfalls, with both works suffering from some very one-dimensional characters as a result.
For example, the Evey Hammond of the graphic novel is a far cry from the relatively feminist one in the movie. While endearing, the original comes off as a helpless, naïve, and unsophisticated victim, a battered, underage prostitute who is completely dependent on V to rescue her at every turn, even after her catharsis. Similarly, League’s Mina Murray (originally from Dracula), makes no real moves towards self-determination, despite being her team’s purported leader.
Apart from some level of sexism, Moore’s work is tinged with some of his altogether strange views surrounding sex itself. A self-proclaimed eroticist with several books on the subject, Moore’s League probably features the most prominently bizarre sexual encounters of any of his major works. The inclusion of (SPOILER WARNING) some really jarring scenes with Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain licking each other to the tune of some very odd onomatopoeia, along with a weird, out-of-place, and wholly unconstructive little sequence of Mr. Hyde raping the Invisible Man makes League’s already tenuous appeal collapse completely.
This isn’t to say Moore’s gratuity or use of provocative material never works, however. His sexual brazenness actually strengthens The Killing Joke as opposed to wounding it with frivolity.Here, the strange, kinky, but this time intentionally creepy sampling of what seems to be Alan Moore’s personal eroticism at work functions with the material instead of against it, lending the Joker a level of perverse sadism later utilized (albeit less erotically) in A Death in the Family, the famous story of Jason Todd’s (Robin II’s) demise.
I don’t mean to knock Alan Moore’s work — without a doubt, he’s done some great things. Watchmen is indeed a seminal work, if one of several. It, alongside Frank Miller’s relatively overlooked Dark Knight Returns and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, restored a sorely-missed dark, or at least realistic, tone to comics. The problem, really, is that, in light of the history of the entire medium, Moore is quite primitive. While his use of Bob Dylan lyrics and high-minded political satire will always bear a certain resonance, and his interwoven stories and mixed media were quite pioneering, his forceful and heavy-handed style hampers any ability his stories have to reach us on a personal, individual level. While powerful archetypically, Alan Moore’s characters are not human ones — even when they are fleshed out in terms of backstory or motivation, they come across as meticulously-built constructs, present in the story almost solely for symbolic purposes.
While these stories certainly have a great deal of power to them, and a few layers, they tend to lack depth of character. The real trick to writing in comics, and the one that makes for the best stories, is to utilize both the symbolic iconography that runs through comics and a tangible, more personal and grounded form of character. By combining these two facets writers (and artists) can create stories that possess an earth-shaking symbolic power alongside a relatable, engaging, more human character. Sadly, Moore’s writing lacks the latter quality.
While an industry milestone for a number of reasons, Alan Moore’s work, is, in reality, just one of many early steps in the transformation of comics from “kid’s stuff” to a fully developed artistic medium. As such, the general lauding of Alan Moore by those just entering the world of comics, while not totally unfounded, stems not from a real appreciation of the seminal value of (some of) his work, but rather from a generally low opinion of the medium as a whole. It’s been almost 25 years since Watchmen has published, and comics have come a long way since then. Because of this, the many readers who stop after Alan Moore’s work cheat themselves out of the best things comics have to offer. So do the medium and yourself a favor, and keep reading. It’s well worth the trouble.