On Alan Moore’s WildC.A.T.s

Alan Moore doesn’t even slum it like the rest of us do. Though some would regard the very thought as heresy, Moore has proven himself able, if not ecstatic, to churn out the scripts when necessity demands. It’d take an exceptionally generous heart to argue that his mid-nineties work for Image Comics’ WildC.A.T.s, for example, was consistently very much more than old rope. The dialogue’s often undercooked when not actively hackneyed, the plots so loose that the reader could imagine Moore scribbling out first draft one after another following weeks of sleepless nights communing with serpent-headed gods. In places, we can even see Moore lazily hanging his stories on the clichés of his own career, as if he were pastiching the very idea of being Alan Moore, or, more probably, pillorying those writers who’d regurgitated his influence in a shallow, sensationalist fashion.

It was, according to the man himself as quoted in Gary Spencer Millidge’s Alan Moore: Storyteller, the result of the Bard of Northampton attempting and failing to gauge what the audience for Image books wanted. “I must have somehow misplaced my arrogance.” Millidge quotes him as saying. Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe that Moore was in any way intensely committed to the super-books he produced for Image. A loss of faith and direction notwithstanding, the period saw Moore delivering work which, while superior to just about everything else in the superhero market, simply didn’t reflect the extraordinarily high standards his work had previously regularly attained. A journeyman Alan Moore script, no matter how competent, is simply no Alan Moore script at all.

Yet only in his work for the WildC.A.T.s/Spawn limited series did Moore entirely push aside his habit of grounding even stereotypical fight scenes on the bedrock of smart ideas, choosing instead to produce what seemed to be a typically hyper-kinetic and ill-thought-through Image book of the period. The point was well-made, although the result resulted in what remain perhaps the most entirely disposable comics ever produced by Moore; the satire was indistinguishable from its target, and the target was almost entirely without merit. But in the WildC.A.T.s book itself, no matter how disinterested Moore often appeared to be, he just couldn’t seem to stop himself playing with unconventionally bright-minded, politically radical concepts. Some creators might consider switching off almost entirely when faced with a commission they felt little if any personal connection with, focusing on stringing together familiar cape’n’chest-insignia clichés with little concern for the intellectual superstructure of the work. Yet Moore appears to have proceeded by counter-intuitively investing his scripts with conceits and ambitions which he rarely rigorously worked up in his finished scripts, leaving a clear disjunction visible between the intriguing sub-text and the often mediocre text of his work. Perhaps he could take being alienated from his endeavours so long as the work allowed his mind to keep turning while he typed on and on. Perhaps he just couldn’t help himself. Even when producing the thinnest of stories, Alan Moore seems to have found it impossible not to ground his work in something of genuine substance.

Moore’s scripts for WildC.A.T.s were all concerned, to a lesser or greater degree, with the myth of the irredeemable Other. Jim Lee and Brandon Choi had originally presented the readers of Wild C.A.T.s with a backdrop of an alien war between the largely virtuous super-gods of the long-lived Kherubim and their loathsome, reptilian opponents, the Daemonites. To an anarchist like Moore, the very idea of a species which was either implicitly noble or implacably sinful while organised in the form of an inconceivably massive warrior nation was as absurd as it was pernicious. All powers, great and small, undertake their land-grabs under the cloak of the flim-flam of superior virtue, and Moore set about revealing that Actums Dictum applied just as much as to the supposedly angelic Kherubim as it did to their apparently devilish opponents. The presumption of inarguable ethical superiority by any community inevitably leads, as Moore’s work on WildC.A.T.s argues, to abuse and aggression of one sort or another, to ideologies of racial and cultural meliority, to societies founded on inequity and oppression. Reinvigorating the title with the revelation that the Kherubim had actually long-ago long defeated the Daemonites and reduced the latter to an intergalactic underclass, Moore spun a series of stories illustrating the truth that absolute power will corrupt absolutely. It’s a fact that Moore showed applied to knock-off Earthly super-heroes every bit as much as did to god-like beautiful aliens. Faced with the self-righteous, exploitative, racist-to-the-core empire of the victorious Kherubim, the various members of the WildC.A.T.s either succumbed to the lure of membership in the ranks of an entirely objectionable master race or fell foul of its loathing of difference and dissent. In short, and in contradiction of the traditions which even today power the majority of superhero books, the WildC.A.T.s were found to be just as corruptible as history tells us the vast majority of human beings always have been. As Moore’s beloved Pogo had long before declared: “We have met the enemy and he is us”.

Moore’s second major theme throughout his run on WildC.A.T.s concerned the process which social scientists call deviancy amplification, or the ways by which intervention into disapproved-of behaviours can create more rather than less of the same. The superhero comic has always perpetuated the myth that crime is controlled, if not solved, by beating up and incarcerating criminals. The solution, no matter how temporary, to the problem of a rising crime rate in the comics is nearly always the increase of the number of superheroes working together to beat up the enemy, before dumping them off for a no-doubt short-lived spell in one type of institution or another. While Moore had the original members of the WildC.A.T.s off-world learning about their own fallible natures, he created a second Earthbound team unknowingly under the Machiavellian control of the laboratory-grown super-genius Tao. Tao’s plan was admittedly a simple one, but it’s one which has proven remarkably successful out here in the real world too, and not least in the National Security State as it manifested itself following the tragedies of 9/11. By exaggerating the menace posed by the underworld of the Wildstorm Universe, Tao was able to gather around himself a considerable alliance of super-folks which he could then use to provoke a yet-more fierce reaction from the criminals it threatened. At the same time as escalating NYC’s crime war through a process of excessive super-heroic violence inciting an even more excessively violent super-villainous counter-reaction, Tao was also organising atrocities, such as the bombing of Clark’s Bar, where off-duty super-people gathered. How better to convince the most powerful individuals in the world to lend him absolute power? Mirroring the way in which the Kherubim had secured their empire through the labelling of the Daemonites as irreversibly corrupt, Tao’s campaign served to underscore Moore’s critique of the naïve and dangerous approach to power in the superhero comic. Whatever the social problem might be, Moore argued, power is never the solution, and the concentration of an unrestrained and remarkable degree of power into the hands of any group of individuals, no matter how well-meaning, is always - always – a very bad thing.

It’s Moore’s inability to avoid making his WildC.A.T.s stories as ethically empty as many would argue the characters deserve which both redeems these issues while frustrating anyone trying to appreciate them. Unhelped by constant changes in the artists he was paired with, and by the fact that even the most gifted of them were still mastering their craft, Moore’s scripts are in places embarrassingly poor, with page after page of barely-choreographed fight scenes often serving to obscure the worth of his convictions. Yet there are also moments of exquisite storytelling, and several of them are to be found in WildC.A.T.s #28, wherein the original team return to Earth traumatised from the trials they’ve undergone, and mostly failed, on the planet Khera. It’s a comic in which the comparison between the shattered individuals who’ve partially seen through their own vulnerability and venality and the well-meaning gung-ho superheroes they’d left behind in America is painfully emphasised. While the founding members of WildC.A.T.s can scarcely bring themselves to utter a single word to each other, each isolated in private worlds of regret and shame, their successors are stumbling down the same path towards compromise and corruption as Spartan, Zealot and company once did. Unlike so much in superhero comics since Chris Claremont first pioneered the ultra-soap content of his X-Men issues, WildC.A.T.s #28 is a story where its characters don’t express themselves to each other, and where dishonesty is the order of the day amongst those who can still bear to talk at all. Lovers and loved ones lie, brother and sister affect selflessness while pursuing separate agendas; only one of the superheroes on show in WildC.A.T.s #28 is smart enough to realise how everyone else is being manipulated, and, unfortunately, that someone is Tao, who has no-one’s best interest except for his own at heart. Not only are Moore’s super-people convincingly ethically fragile, but they’re often far too trusting and complacent for their own – and therefore everyone else’s – good. Only the deluded Kherubim super-man Majestic and the brainwashed, self-confessed ignoramus Ladytron think nothing of expressing themselves honestly, and both of them receive little that’s kind or good in return.

There’s so much to recommend about Alan Moore’s WildC.A.T.s, and yet, in the last analysis, the comics themselves are at best adequate. The reader might cherish the hardnosed and yet incredibly touching scene in which Ladytron turns to Majestic to save her when she’s about to be blown apart, and be haunted by the loneliness and misery captured by the single four-panel page in which the entirely alienated WildC.A.T.s finally re-enter Earth’s atmosphere after their dispiriting adventures far out in space. We might even choose to appreciate how Moore’s work here is uncommonly bleak and uncompromising for a super-book, presenting as it does a world in which self-knowledge brings anything but happiness, in which self-deception and an ignoble cause can lend purpose and self-esteem rather than the shame which it ought to. These are stories in which the truth isn’t welcome, in which no-one celebrates the throwing off of deleterious ways of thinking. It’s as if the longest winter is almost behind the comic’s cast, but no-one’s longing for spring, let alone able to recognise it when it threatens to arrive. Yet Moore’s WildC.A.T.s ultimately read like the product of an impossibly gifted and yet regrettably inexperienced and immature young writer. If only, the reader might find themselves thinking, this writer, this Alan Moore, could have mastered his trade before taking on this assignment. What an unlikely masterpiece might have resulted from that.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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  1. Great points about power and super-hero ethics, Colin. But I’m writing simply to say that I’m intensely jealous of your final paragraph. God, how powerful and wonderful, and those middle sentences especially shall surely stay with me. Thank you.

  2. Gary Ancheta says:

    What I loved about Alan Moore’s Wildcats is that took the metaphor of sexuality as superheroics that Jim Lee setup in his original series and grew the metaphor up a bit. In rereading the first four issues, the sexual metaphor becomes more and more apparent. Zealot has the body of an ‘angel” but only feels restrained ecstasy through extreme violence in an S&M sort of way. Voodoo is a half-daemonite who makes people “loose control” through her mental powers. Maul grows big but loses control whenever he grows too much. Warblade can make his appendages grow long. Spartan is a perfect man that is basically a vibrator (something Voodoo points out). EMP is a short guy whose a “big package” (again, another thing they point out). Void is a beautiful woman in a skin tight outfit that is barbie doll-ish. Grifter is basically John McClain who is the sub to Zealots’ Dom.

    When Alan Moore takes over, he gives regret to the “sexual superpowers” of the earlier series (something he builds on from his Spawn .vs WildCATS series that is all about “sexuality gone wrong”). The Kheribum were portrayed as “Angels” who had a “Hell Ghetto” where Daemonites would dwell, possessing themselves as a way to preserve their culture. Mr. Majestic is the epitome of the “Men of Steel/Women of Kleenex” article by Larry Niven, where, when confronted with his own sexuality by Savant, recoils because he feels like he’s an angel above it. Tao is the master manipulator, but his greatest crime is having sex with Savant and manipulating her. Even the notion of blood = AIDS comes into full fruition in the Zealot vs. Voodoo issue.

    I think he does quite well in that series, but it does read like his earlier work from 2000 AD. This could have easily been packaged with Skizz or Ballad of Halo Jones and (except for the art) you wouldn’t blink an eye.

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