The Moore Narrative of Comics History

Last time, we discussed the anxiety of influence and the silliness of thinking that Moore ripped off Superfolks or that Morrison ripped off Moore. This time, I’d like to look at why these charges persist and what they say about our understanding of comics history.

The idea that Morrison aped Moore rests not so much on any evidence as on the myth that Moore invented the literary (super-hero) comic.

The narrative here seems to be that comics were silly stories for kids until Alan Moore appeared and made them sophisticated and thoughtful for the first time.

Now, I don’t think anyone intelligent — including Moore — would say this is what he or she believes. As shockingly literate as Moore’s 1980s work was, it was the end result of a slow evolution from Gardner Fox to Chris Claremont — with ample amounts of Denny O’Neil along the way, not to mention the undergrounds, Will Eisner, and plenty more. Moore’s revisionism was also part of a wider movement, in which Frank Miller was considered his equal and plenty of others, like Mike Baron and Rick Veitch, were in the mix.

But this simplistic narrative about Moore’s place in comics history has a great ally. Moore’s work did feel like a quantum leap forward. His Marvelman and Swamp Thing, in particular, felt like nothing else in comics at the time. There’s comics history, and then there’s comics history as people perceive it.

Morrison’s right to point out that his career was concurrent with Moore’s. No one seriously disputes those dates. But Morrison’s work didn’t have the kind of high profile Moore’s had, at least in America, until Morrison’s early DC work in the late 1980s. So in the consciousness of the comics-reading public, Morrison came after Moore, simply because his high-profile work came after Moore’s. It doesn’t matter when Morrison started writing or making his living as a writer; what matters is when the two hit it big, in terms of public perception — and public perception is very hard to shake. (Look at how many people think Kurt Busiek’s writing career began with Marvels!)

I think this begins to explain a lot, such as Moore remember Morrison as an “aspiring writer,” rather than an “up-and-coming writer” or something similar. It’s possible that Moore didn’t read Morrison’s early work, and it’s possible he did but doesn’t remember it. It’s also possible that Morrison was once described to Moore or by Moore with a term like “up-and-coming,” which Moore remembers 30 years later as “aspiring.”

Of course, this mistake benefits Moore, but he need not be conscious of this self-affirming effect for it to have affected his memory. We all ought to know this from our own personal experiences. Such a slippage is wrong, but it need not be deliberate on Moore’s part.

Vertigo logoThe other big error Morrison points out, in terms of the chronology of his career, is to dispel Moore’s claim that he encouraged DC to bring Morrison into its Vertigo imprint. In fact, Moore doesn’t actually claim this; the transcript has Moore saying “I recommended him to Karen Berger when she was starting [indecipherable speech - Vertigo?].” Even if Moore started to say the word “Vertigo,” in interviews Moore has referred to Vertigo when he means the mature-readers comics, largely edited by Karen Berger, that evolved into Vertigo. Sometimes, Moore corrects himself; sometimes not.

Morrison discredits the Vertigo claim with gusto, but he need not. Anyone with the slightest bit of sense of comics history knows that claim isn’t true.

The real question is whether Moore recommended Morrison to Karen Berger, leading her to invite Morrison to pitch some comics, which led to Animal Man. Morrison discusses this pitch in our documentary Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods. At issue isn’t whether Moore gave Morrison a career. It is, again, whether Moore helped land Morrison the break that led to Morrison’s highest-profile work to date.

It’s an important distinction, but it’s one we can understand the origins of. Look at how often we refer to an artist’s big break as “launching his / her career,” even though that career was a decade or more old at the time. Even in our language, we privilege the work that becomes a hit or happens to get remembered, for one reason or another — and we marginalize what is often years (or in some cases, decades) of toil preceding it.

Saga of the Swamp Thing, Book OneThere’s no reason to believe that Karen Berger needed Moore to mention Morrison’s name. Berger’s sadly marginalized in this entire history. That’s not surprising, perhaps: she’s an editor, and it’s the writers and artists who get famous. But she deserves an enormous amount of credit in the history of DC’s creative renaissance of the 1980s and 1990s. She took over editing Moore’s Swamp Thing, after Len Wein’s departure. She brought several of the creators involved, including Morrison, to DC. She made Gaiman’s The Sandman happen. Vertigo was her baby. And at the time Berger recruited Morrison, she was on the lookout for British talent. So if Moore did mention Morrison, it was probably in response to her asking him who he thought she should recruit.

We can look at this two ways. In a Moore-centric narrative, it was Alan Moore’s success at DC that spurred Berger to go hunting for more British talent. In this same narrative, we could call Vertigo the result of Moore coming to DC on Swamp Thing. Undeniably, there’s some truth to this viewpoint. But we could equally take an editorial perspective, in which we realize that DC had already recruited Alan Moore, in large part due to the waves his work in Warrior was making in smart American comics circles. The recruitment of Moore worked out well, and DC sought to follow it by recruiting more British creators.

And here’s the key, for our current purposes: Morrison was published in Warrior. We don’t even need to go beyond that single British publication to realize that Berger had probably already read Morrison’s work. Had she gone further and done even a cursory survey of British comics (and no one says anything about Karen Berger without saying she’s smart), Morrison would have blipped on Berger’s radar again and again. He had established a reputation as a smart and ambitious writer — a perfect candidate for American importation.

Also, Berger wouldn’t have tried to import other British creators if there weren’t any. True, no single British strip had captured the American imagination like Moore’s Marvelman. But the Americans sharing copies of Warrior also read its other features. Moore also wrote V for Vendetta for Warrior, Captain Britain for Marvel UK, and stories for 2000AD — all of which had other features too, including Morrison. The buzz in America might have been about Moore and Marvelman above all, but it was also about the British comics scene more generally. Creators fed off of each other’s ideas and work. Indisputably, Moore quickly became the biggest star of this scene, but he was hardly alone. It’s not like these magazines were nothing but bland crap, outside of Alan Moore.

This isn’t to reduce Alan Moore in any way. Had his Swamp Thing failed, this recruitment of other British creators might have been slowed or even stopped. He deserves a lot of the credit but for paving the way so successfully. He was the Brit who made good in American comics, hopping the pond and winning much bigger audiences. To say that he paved the way isn’t to say that the others who followed weren’t talented, or were merely hangers-on. If they hadn’t already demonstrated their talent, they probably wouldn’t have been recruited.

If Moore suggested Morrison to Berger, kudos for him. But even if he didn’t, Berger probably would have found Morrison’s work. In fact, it’s very likely she would have already known it. If the line before Moore suggestion of Morrison was “I’m looking for some British comics creators; whom would you recommend?”, the line after may well have been “He’s on my list.”

I should probably point out that it’s strange, in Moore’s recollection, that he’d mention Morrison at all. After all, Moore’s described Morrison as an “aspiring writer” who wanted to take over Marvelman. Moore seems to dismiss Morrison’s work in this period (if not later) as derivative. So why would he recommend Morrison to Karen Berger? The simplest answer is that Moore had read other Morrison work and liked it, or at the very least thought it showed promise or an interestingly different take.

To my knowledge, no one’s made this point. Moore suggesting Morrison makes Moore look like a good guy, the elder statesman who helps the young Turk catch a break. But if Moore did suggest Morrison, it very strongly suggests he had read and respected Morrison’s work. One can’t reasonably take credit for suggesting Morrison and also suggest that Morrison’s work is derivative rubbish.

I certainly see how this kind of thing would anger Grant Morrison, and it’s hard to blame him. It looks like Moore having it both ways, selectively ignoring history that doesn’t fit his own narrative. I don’t know that this is true. Moore acknowledges that his memory isn’t the best, and he makes chronological mistakes in interviews that don’t serve any conceivable agenda. They’re simply errors, sometimes about things as mundane as which project came first — things someone who knows the chronology involved would instantly spot. He’ll often say he thinks something happened one way, but it could have been the opposite. When this involves a subject such as who came up with something first, he’ll sometimes even add that the interviewer should check with the other person, whose memory is probably better. This doesn’t suggest someone consciously out to malign others, at least to me.

This isn’t to give Moore a pass for suggesting that Morrison’s entire corpus is pilfered from Moore or Michael Moorcock. That’s absurd, and it would seem to suggest that Moore’s read more of Morrison’s work that Moore sometimes lets on — how else could one make such a generalization? If so, Moore ought to notice the claim’s not accurate. But even if Moore hasn’t, one would think he has the responsibility to do so before making such a claim about a fellow writer. And yes, as Morrison himself points out, that’s sad — especially in a small medium that’s only recently gaining literary respectability.

Here, it’s worth pointing out that Moore makes that claim, at least in the passage quoted in the piece to which Morrison replied, immediately following his account of Morrison’s similar allegations. We can take this a bit more tit-for-tat, at least from Moore’s perspective. Morrison may well retort that his charges against Moore were made, tongue firmly in cheek, in places like Drivel and Speakeasy. Perhaps recalling that brings up the ire in Moore, even today, especially since those charges, however half-serious, have stuck enough to require a three-part piece by Pádraig Ó Méalóid to unpack. Once fired up, Moore may well respond in a way he sees as in kind. Both sets of claims are equally absurd, although Morrison might say that his were clearly meant to be so and were a long time ago.

Morrison and others have pointed to the fact that these charges against Morrison are part of a larger pattern by Moore, denigrating today’s current comics writers. And perhaps once we realize that all the accusations of borrowing and theft are a rather silly affair, it’s this larger narrative of comics history that we’re left with.

It’s a version of comics history in which Moore changed everything. Which he did.

But pushed too far, it’s a version of comics history in which everything sucked before Moore, and therefore everything that’s any good afterwards is derivative.

Moore doesn’t go this far. He doesn’t say it. But sometimes, especially when he’s putting down the comics of today, he gestures in its direction.

Next time, we’ll look at why this might be the case — and at the risk of psychoanalyzing Alan Moore, I think it’s fairly understandable. We’ll also look at why Alan Moore treats Neil Gaiman’s work during the same period so differently than Morrison’s.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics and his transgressive novel Nira/Sussa. He currently lives in Illinois.

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13 Comments

  1. For the record, Pádraig Ó Méalóid has pointed out that when he transcribed “[indecipherable speech - Vertigo?],” that the audio dropped out at this point and that Vertigo was more of a guess. Some might have an interest in blaming Alan Moore for saying this, so it’s important to point out that there’s no evidence that he did. That’s not my interest, though, and I don’t think knowing this changes my argument.

  2. Peter Bell says:

    I have been enjoying your articles on this very controversial topic Julian , keep up the good work. I’m really interested in what you have to say about Gaiman , it seems like him and other writers are good friends with both men and because of this are stuck in cross fire of sorts. Actually the more I think about i find it interesting how much fighting among writers actually occurs within the medium.

  3. In regard to Alan Moore “recommending” Grant Morrison, I might add just a little detail. I was lucky enough to interview Karen Berger earlier this year, and she told me that when she first started traveling to England to meet with the creators there, she had already “been following 2000 AD for a number of years.” She also added that Len Wein, Paul Levitz, Dick Giordano, Joe Orlando, and Jenette Khan were all reading the British magazines at the time. So I think Julian is right. While Moore might have put in a good word for Morrison, he clearly wasn’t acting as some all-powerful and anonymous patron or benefactor like some character from a Charles Dickens novel.

    (I also don’t think that’s exactly what Moore meant to imply in the Webchat. All of us are parsing the details from a throwaway comment that Moore “crafted” with more than a little twinkle in his eye.)

    Anyway, when I talked to Karen Berger, she said she already knew many of the British freelancers when Jenette Khan asked her to become their liaison, and, of course, she met many more after that. While I didn’t ask her for a blow-by-blow account of how the interview process took place, what she described sounded very similar to the process universities use when interviewing prospective employees at a convention like the MLA. The editors were in a hotel room and the creators came in, met everyone, and made their pitches. (By the way, she didn’t make the MLA comparison; that’s just what I inferred, so if I got it wrong, mea culpa.)

    But as Morrison said in The Beat, he already had amassed a body of work, and he had made pitches to DC before. He was obviously familiar to DC when he was finally interviewed. Moreover, when Berger talked to me about the impression Morrison made in his interview, she used many adjectives including “serious,” “intense,” “shy,” “smart,” and “thoughtful.” It seems pretty clear that Morrison was hired because he had a body of work, he made a strong impression, and he had a good pitch.

    • Fascinating and important points, Greg — and well-put too.

      There’s been quite a bit of debate about how much what I’d term the “American comics intelligensia” was aware of British comics in this period, with claims varying widely. So this is really essential information, and it suggests that we’re really starting to get somewhere in piecing this all together.

      Over on Facebook, Stephen Bissette has said that he personally knows Alan Moore did recommend Morrison. He and Pádraig have recounted Moore’s kindness to Morrison, before Morrison’s jump to DC.

      I don’t think these two narratives are mutually incompatible. Furthermore, this goes an awful long way towards explaining the perspectives of these two men.

      If Grant’s perspective is that he was already establishing himself, and Karen Berger and others at DC told him that they were aware of his British work, it’s not surprising that he would wonder “who the hell does Alan Moore think he is, that I owe his career to him based on some recommendation!”

      On the other hand, if Alan’s perspective is that he was kind to a young Morrison on multiple occasions and recommended Morrison to Karen Berger, especially based on DC’s desire to duplicate Alan Moore’s success at DC, it’s easy to see how Alan Moore would also see things as he does.

      But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself, as this will be further addressed in part three. (All three parts were written around the time the first part went up, for the record.)

  4. “I don’t think these two narratives are mutually incompatible.”–Julian Darius

    To this, I add three words: Amen and ditto.

    • I agree with you both (Greg & Julian). I think the major point of contention over the finer aspects of this argument is that we’re dealing with two of *the* major comics writers of our generation (and the medium), and they aren’t ignorant of this. In terms of academics, there’s always a feather in the cap for the critic who is first to uncover and publish a particular idea or theory. Here, too, we see a battle over place in the comics canon. While I’m not sure any of Morrison’s work will necessarily match Moore’s, there is the potential to at least lay claim to being a peer in terms of chronology (not trying to disparage Morrison here). If Moore’s account is the “gospel” truth, however, it places both Morrison second to Moore both in entrance into the field (according to perception of the readership as you rightly state, Julian) in addition to the impact of the works. If Morrison’s account is gospel, then it opens the door to Moore no longer being the only “old man on the mountain top,” so to speak. And as Julian suggested, he might not explicitly make those claims, but it is not hard to infer these points.

      So it makes sense that egos are on the line and lines will be drawn. But as you both point out: These accounts aren’t mutually exclusive, and it seems a synthesis of these recollections that is a little closer to the truth may be seen here.

      • Thanks for your comment, Forrest. I especially like the point about how this is a battle over the comics canon. I think that’s quite right, and I’d like to add that it’s part of the media — and academe’s — growing awareness of comics.

        Think about it: if Entertainment Weekly mentions Moore, it’s likely to be in the context of how he basically “invented” the smart, literate comic. If the magazine mentions Morrison, it’s likely to be “one of the most vital voices in comics today.” Given limited media resources — and inclination to research — it’s easy to wind up pushing the “Moore narrative of comics history” without even being aware of it.

        Again, this isn’t to say that Moore’s not of tremendous importance, just that this is a simplified, Great Man account of comics history. One that’s appealing in part because of our continuing, celebrity-dominated, Great Man view of history.

        In Morrison’s response on the Beat, I definitely saw him struggling against the dominance of such a narrative. Wrestling for his own place in the pantheon — and to avoid being drawn as some kind of Johnny-come-lately Alan Moore or something.

  5. I’m quite proud this got a prominent mention on the Beat — check it out!

  6. Adam David says:

    I’m reading all this with much attention, but I really fail to see the academic value of writing at length/splitting hairs about what ultimately seems to be one man’s pissing contest against a typhoon: Morrison should just learn to be comfortable about his own legacy and stop convincing people his is better than Moore’s.

    • I think that’s a bit unfair for Morrison, Adam. He’s not trying to say his work or his legacy is better than Moore’s, he never did. In fact, he, most often than not, praised and aknowledged Moore’s influence on him. What he’s trying to say is that his “legacy” has its own merit, which I happen to believe is huge, just as I think Moore’s is also. And Geoff Johns’s work has its own merit too, and Jason Aaron’s, and Neil Gaiman’s, etc, etc.

      Fighting for whose work is better than whose is the most unintelligent thing to do, and it’s a virus that will unfortunately prevail in many fans (and some creators) of every medium. Imagine a comics industry where everyone wrote like Moore, or like Morrison, for that matter, just because they’re “the best”. Where every comic book, every story, you pick is “Watchmen”. Where everytime you try to listen to music, it’s the same endless loop of, say, The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” or Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Within a week I’d shoot myself.

      Every artist, if he’s honest enough, will make the best work in the world, because his/her work will be unique and sui generis, because he/she is unique as a person. I know this sounds as a cliche, but it’s true. It’s something that, by the way, Neil Gaiman has always said, and I think that’s why he always respected everyone else’s work and had nothing but good things to say of his fellow writers.

      If Morrison sometimes sounds like he’s trying to be pompous is because a) he’s partly making fun of himself, and b) he’s upset, as anyone would be, for being put into a system of unfair and unproductive fingerpointing that seem to value him only in the terms it invented for itself, terms that don’t have anything to do with the only thing that matters at the end of the day: the spiritual and intellectual connection between human beings through art.

      Excellent article, by the way, Mr. Darius. I look forward to reading your thoughts on Neil Gaiman.

    • Adam, I don’t think Morrison ever said he was better than Moore here. Nor do I think I’m judging some kind of pissing contest. It simply occurred to me that the whole business involved some deep issues about authorship and about how we understand comics history. Everything I’ve written has been about that, not at all who’s the better writer or something. I’m sorry this didn’t come through for you.

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