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.
The 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.
There’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.