Previously, we’ve discussed and dismissed the charges that Alan Moore or Grant Morrison ripped off anyone in any serious way. We next discussed the timeline of Grant Morrison’s career, including his hiring at DC.
We now look at why Alan Moore might sometimes seem, at least when he’s disparaging someone, to gesture towards a version of comics history in which everything sucked until his own work, which suggests that everything after is derivative of it.
It’s not hard to see how this version of comics history is rooted in a combination of (1) Moore’s awareness of his own crucial place in comics history and (2) his disappointment over how he feels he’s been treated by the comics industry.
By 1987, after just a few years, Moore’s work for DC had made the company a lot of money, and he had become as big a name in American comics as he had been in British comics. But he felt cheated over Watchmen for a variety of reasons. According to Moore, the rights to Watchmen were supposed to revert back to him and Gibbons, when it went out of print as all comics did back then, except that DC kept it in print in trade paperback. Moore also felt that he had to hassle DC to get royalties for things like Watchmen buttons, which he claims DC accounted as a “promotional item” for which no royalties were due. Moore also claims that he was told by an editor that if he wouldn’t do a Watchmen sequel, DC would assign someone else to write it. In addition, DC was considering a labeling system, which Moore (and several others) thought insulted comics, since such a system would be unthinkable for books.
Moore not only left DC but gave up writing super-heroes (outside of finishing Marvelman, now retitled Miracleman). Moore stated that he’d taken the super-hero about as far as it could go, and he was more interested in using the comics form to tell other kinds of stories. This led to projects like From Hell (which took years to complete), Big Numbers (never completed), A Small Killing, and Lost Girls (which after 1992, wasn’t concluded until 2006). I’d be the first to say that these are wonderful, major works — and that Moore deserves immense credit for this portion of his career. Moore took his fame and his skill and devoted it to creating major works outside of the super-hero genre. That’s of immense benefit to comics, and for my money, these are excellent works of profound historic importance.
But if Moore’s first challenge as a writer was to succeed in British comics, he accomplished that with gusto. If Moore’s second challenge was to make the shift to American comics, it’s hard to overestimate his success in that regard. Moore’s third challenge was to make American comics readers embrace smart, non-super-hero comics, to follow him despite his shift to other genres.
Moore wasn’t alone in this either. Frank Miller, also annoyed with corporate practices and the dominance of the super-hero genre, went to Dark Horse and created works like Sin City. Dave Sim, the creator of Cerebus who had been going the non-super-hero indy route for a long time, was busy encouraging others to do the same. Stephen Bissette was a part of this too, editing and publishing the anthology Taboo (in which From Hell and Lost Girls first appeared) and with his own series Tyrant. Everyone, it seemed, had their own publishing companies, including Alan Moore’s Mad Love and Kevin Eastman’s Tundra (who co-published Taboo and published Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, Dave McKean’s Cages, Mike Allred’s Madman, and Rick Veitch’s Maximortal). Image Comics came out of this context.
These were heady times. And it’s important to understand that this movement wasn’t simply a preference for independence or non-super-hero comics. It was ideological. It saw DC and Marvel as the bad guys, who had screwed over creators for decades and had a stranglehold on the medium, in which corporate super-heroes were more important than the creators who made them or what comics as a medium needed to be.
This effort produced some truly wonderful works, including some real masterpieces. As a movement, however, it didn’t work out as planned. The wild independent movement of the early 1990s continues to have lasting effects. Tundra might have collapsed, but Image Comics continues to thrive. Most importantly, however, the movement couldn’t break the super-hero’s dominance over the medium.
Super-heroes, instead of dying, reinvented themselves — first with gimmicks, event-driven comics, and then when they formalized a whole new tone with Marvels.
I’d actually argue that Moore’s career had a fourth challenge: responding to this development. I think Moore succeeded, making himself vital again through works such as 1963, WildC.A.T.s, Supreme, and his excellent America’s Best Comics — all of which continued his earlier trajectory by being published through Image (or DC, only because it purchased WildStorm). No, none of this work exerted the influence of Watchmen, nor probably achieved its sales figures. But it’s a fantastic body of work that placed Moore among the most important creators of this new movement, despite that it in many was a reaction against his earlier work. That’s an amazing accomplishment.
This may all seem a bit off-topic, but it’s really not. While Moore was busy working as part of the early-1990s independent movement, DC was moving on without him, especially with other British creators — including Grant Morrison. By the time Morrison began his DC work, Moore had already left. It’s important to understand that this wasn’t merely a response to not liking a proposed ratings system, or anything like that. Whatever part that played in Moore’s decision, his break with DC wasn’t simply a break with one company. It was a break with corporate super-heroes altogether, in which Moore labored as part of a movement pushing for creator rights, away from the big two companies, and for comics to create a place for other genres.
In this respect, it doesn’t matter whether Alan Moore suggested Grant Morrison’s name to Karen Berger, nor how long Morrison had been writing. Moore went on strike from DC for ethical reasons, only to watch DC try to replace him by importing other British writers. What’s more, DC gave many of them the job of revitalizing tired DC characters through a newly sophisticated lens, much as Moore had done with Swamp Thing. Grant Morrison had Animal Man, Doom Patrol, and Kid Eternity. Neil Gaiman had Black Orchid and The Sandman. Milligan had Shade, the Changing Man.
Most of these were labelled as being for “mature readers,” much as Moore’s earlier Swamp Thing had been labelled “sophisticated suspense.” That label was the result of how Moore’s scripts couldn’t be reconciled with existing DC policies about content. It was not something achieved casually. It was the result of a battle Moore’s intelligent scripts spurred, and this victory created room at DC for more mature content — which came to be codified in the “mature readers” label.
Now, it’s easy to see that none of these works, by Morrison et al, had all that much to do with one another, in terms of style. Morrison’s Doom Patrol is as absurd as The Sandman is high-literary. Any initial attempt to copy Alan Moore’s style, because that’s what DC seemed to want, quickly evaporated as these writers’ own voices took over. In this, Morrison’s completely correct. But the whole model of using British creators to revamp tired DC characters with new intelligence was based on trying to duplicate the Alan Moore formula — minus Alan Moore.
And the reason these creators had room to do their own thing, to write mature comics, was in large part because of the precedent set by Moore’s “sophisticated suspense.”
Of course, DC wanted another Alan Moore. He’d made a lot of money for them. But “another Alan Moore” didn’t really mean a copy of his writing style — although DC might not have minded, were that the case. All it meant was another British writer who could revitalize DC properties, as Moore had Swamp Thing – and maybe do a high-profile Superman or Batman project here and there, the way Moore had, only now in the increasingly popular form of the graphic novel.
None of this is to minimalize the work of Grant Morrison, nor other creators like Neil Gaiman or Peter Milligan. They had to succeed on their own terms, exactly as Moore had on Swamp Thing. Moore had to succeed at DC, for the company to be so interested in recruiting more British creators, and he deserves credit for that. Equally, Morrison and Gaiman had to succeed — to find their own voice and audience — for them to succeed. They deserve credit for that too. DC wasn’t running a charity, and coming from Britain alone wasn’t by itself going to make anyone’s work sell. These creators had to work for their success, every bit as much as Moore did. Moreover, people like Morrison and Gaiman won the most acclaim precisely because they were so different, so unique, and so good.
Still, there’s no denying that they had these opportunities, at least as history played out, because of Alan Moore. Not only did his success lead DC to import other British talent, but the battles Moore waged on Swamp Thing had carved out a place for these creators to write for “mature readers.”
It’s not clear, if one pulls Alan Moore out from comics history, whether any of this would have happened on its own. Morrison and others were making a name for themselves in British comics. Perhaps DC would have noticed them in time. DC might have tried “mature readers” comics anyway, without Swamp Thing, perhaps in response to Marvel’s Epic imprint. Maybe these would have been a success in any timeline, leading DC to create Vertigo.
But this is speculation. A thought experiment. In our universe, these things happened as they did, and it’s hard to imagine how these events would have unfolded without Alan Moore.
It was the success of these “mature readers” titles, despite Moore’s departure from DC, that led to the 1993 creation of Vertigo, which was launched with six existing titles, including Animal Man, Doom Patrol, The Sandman, Shade, the Changing Man, and Swamp Thing, soon accompanied by Black Orchid and Kid Eternity — all series that had been given new life by the British imports Morrison, Gaiman, or Milligan. The sixth existing title was Hellblazer, starring a character Moore had created in Swamp Thing, spun into his own series by fellow Brit Jamie Delano, and then being written by the Northern Irish Garth Ennis.
It is true, as Grant Morrison points out, that many of Vertigo’s early specials and mini-series had been developed elsewhere, especially for Disney’s aborted Touchmark Comics. But as we’ve already established, the idea that they — or these “mature readers” comics were derivative of Alan Moore’s work is very silly indeed. The works themselves that were published by Vertigo owe nothing to Moore’s work.
But Vertigo itself owed a lot to Moore.
It’s easy to see Grant Morrison’s perspective. He never asked Alan Moore for help. Karen Berger sought him out, based on his previous works, however she first heard his name. He had to pitch ideas — there was no charity here. It was the strength of the work Morrison and others produced, none of which were copies of Moore’s concepts or styles, that led to the creation of Vertigo. Hell, Moore wasn’t even around at DC during this time.
This is all true. But it’s also easy to see Alan Moore’s perspective too. If DC was hungry for smart and innovative British writers, it was because Moore had already succeeded at DC. These writers were asked to redefine existing DC properties, as Moore had Swamp Thing. The whole project was, one could say, DC’s attempt at an Alan Moore farm. And if these other writers had room to use these project to write intelligent, literary comics for DC, it was because Moore had paved the way on Swamp Thing. These opportunities only existed because of Alan Moore.
Yes, Morrison had to use this opportunity to create a career. And he has, demonstrating both his brilliance and his staying power. But success is almost always some combination of both talent and luck. (Morrison certainly acknowledges the role of luck in his career, especially when it comes to the timing of Arkham Asylum, which happened to be released in time for the blockbuster 1989 Tim Burton movie.)
It’s hard to imagine Moore’s perspective on this without seeing the immense pain this situation might have caused. Moore had taken an ethical stand, as he saw it, in leaving DC Comics. He believed that creators mattered, that his voice shouldn’t be taken for granted and wasn’t replaceable — on a Watchmen sequel or on anything else. So he set about creating wonderful new works of independent comics, not only without DC’s characters but without super-heroes at all.
DC took the opposite bet. No matter how much any individual at the company sympathized with Moore and with creator rights, the company went on without him. It sought to replicate the model, asking other British writers to retool other flagging DC properties. And it worked. While Alan Moore was struggling to complete From Hell, Lost Girls, and Big Numbers, DC was churning right along with Doom Patrol and The Sandman, reaping increasing critical success and culminating in a new imprint that would let creators not only write non-super-hero work but own it. And these works sold better than titles like Taboo.
Stephen Bissette has recounted that Karen Berger, when she was putting Vertigo together, called him and cited Taboo as one of her models for the imprint. Even in his absence, the movement in which Moore was engaged, outside of the DC / Marvel corporate structure, was still influencing things — and doing so directly, not merely as a continuation of the trajectory Moore and Berger had laid down with Swamp Thing.
I’m certainly not suggesting that Morrison, Gaiman, Milligan, or anyone else was some kind of scab, working with the publisher that Moore and Miller were effectively boycotting for ethical reasons. I would’ve, given the opportunity! I think Moore understands this too; after all, Neil Gaiman’s work for DC didn’t hurt their relationship.
Furthermore, the work these writers produced at DC in this period included a shocking number of landmark works. I was a huge fan of these “mature readers” titles and read everything Vertigo published for years. No one’s a bigger fan of Sebastian O, or The Extremist, or Enigma, or the Vertigo Voices specials than I am.
I’m simply suggesting that this must have sucked for Alan Moore. And that he had played a crucial role in blazing the trail for all of this to happen at DC. To watch this from outside must have been miserable. DC kept making money on Watchmen trade paperbacks. DC hadn’t only found “replacements” for Moore, but they’d won some intense critical praise. Now, DC had spun this into an imprint that was offering many of the creative opportunities and respect that Moore had wanted, a few years before, but been unable to get. Meanwhile, Moore was busy creating what he felt were his most subtle and ambitious writing ever, yet struggling with failing publishers who largely couldn’t keep a schedule, pay much of anything (outside of Tundra, which bankrupted the company), or deliver readers in large numbers.
I alluded earlier to the fact that Moore hasn’t implied that Gaiman is somehow an Alan Moore imitator, the way he has Morrison. That’s funny, because both were part of DC’s British importations, in the wake of Alan Moore’s success. And we’ve already discounted the idea that Morrison’s work is derivative of Moore’s, so that’s not the difference the way Moore talks about Morrison and Gaiman.
Of course, there’s Morrison’s youthful statements about Moore and Superfolks. Even before this recent bout, Morrison’s played his part in perpetuating the dispute, as with his Aug 2011 statements to Rolling Stone about how Alan Moore’s “obsessed with rape.” (Morrison also claimed he’d never included a rape in his comics, which is simply untrue).
But it’s worth noting how reverentially Gaiman talks about Moore. Gaiman’s interviews seems to acknowledge how much of a debt he owes to Alan Moore, especially Moore’s Swamp Thing, for creating the opportunities that allowed The Sandman.
Of course, Gaiman’s The Sandman used characters and elements, whether Hell or Cain and Abel, that Moore had used in Swamp Thing. That’s not true of Morrison’s work. So there’s actual borrowing going on between the two series.
Gaiman has also acknowledged that Moore’s Swamp Thing had a profound effect on him, and Gaiman became friends with Moore, whom Gaiman credits with teaching him how to script comics. Moore also selected Gaiman, years ahead of time, to follow him on Miracleman.
Gaiman’s also a very different personality than Morrison. Gaiman can come off as calm or even meditative, and he often very kindly credits a number of influences, placing his own work in a kind of literary continuity. In contrast, the young Morrison was heavily influenced by the punk movement and was a musician himself. Though he’s evolved out of this, his personality is perhaps less inclined to bow or to defer to his predecessors.
So there are a lot of good reasons why Gaiman would acknowledge Moore and Morrison wouldn’t. Correspondingly, these are also reasons why Alan Moore might be kind to Gaiman and disparage Morrison.
But it’s hard not to notice that Gaiman seems to respect Moore’s contribution to comics, without which there wouldn’t necessarily be a Sandman.
The kind of respect that Moore didn’t feel from DC Comics.
Morrison doesn’t do this.
I suspect that the issue for Moore isn’t really whether Morrison’s work is derivative of Moore’s. It’s not. Moore probably knows it.
I suspect that the issue, for Moore, is really about respect. Respect from a man who’s done very well for himself at DC, in the wake of Alan Moore, without whom Morrison wouldn’t have necessarily had those opportunities.
Alan Moore’s statements about how all of Vertigo was derivative of him aren’t about the work. You only have to read that work to see that it’s not.
Except in that it was sophisticated. In that it could be for “mature readers.” In that it didn’t have to be all about super-heroes and could be written in a literate way, with complicated narratives.
That‘s what Moore carved a space for at DC, especially for his fellow British imports. Not single-handedly, to be sure; Moore had compatriots and predecessors. I’ve written about many of them. But Moore, more than anyone, paved the way at DC by showing the company that a writer could do these things and not only win awards but make real money for the company.
The issue isn’t plagiarism, except if all sophisticated comics at DC are plagiarism.
What Alan Moore means, when he says Vertigo was derivative, isn’t a statement about the work. It’s that it evolved out of DC trying to duplicate the Alan Moore model.
And you can understand why he wouldn’t want to see that as a tremendous creative success.
The issue also isn’t whether Grant Morrison was doing smart comics before he came to DC. He was.
Comics weren’t silly things until Alan Moore came along. That’s simplistic, and everyone with the slightest awareness of comics history knows it.
The media’s latched onto that narrative, as it’s rushed to try to understand this medium, the history of which it doesn’t really know. It’s really easy for a reporter at Entertainment Weekly to pretend comics were no good until Watchmen came along.
Grant Morrison’s right about all these specific points. It must be frustrating for him.
But understanding Moore’s all about reading between the lines.
I’m not excusing Moore for being imprecise about this. I’m just trying to explain it.
The issue isn’t whether Moore gave Karen Berger the name Grant Morrison.
It’s why she wanted a name.
Here as elsewhere, Moore’s statements, though not necessarily literally true, convey a deeper truth.
The underlying truth of “I told Karen Berger about Grant Morrison” is “Morrison owes me his career.” With an implicit, “and he’s not grateful.”
I don’t think Alan Moore really thinks Grant Morrison’s a plagiarist.
I don’t think Alan Moore really cares whether he gave Karen Berger the name Grant Morrison or not.
I don’t think Alan Moore really thinks Grant Morrison was nothing but an “aspiring writer” until Morrison got a break at DC.
What all of this suggests is that Alan Moore feels that Grant Morrison owes him a debt — one that Moore feels Morrison is remiss not to acknowledge.
It’s not a debt for starting Grant Morrison’s career, but for creating the circumstances at DC that spurred Karen Berger to look Morrison’s way.
That’s why Moore seems to describe Morrison’s career as beginning at DC. Because Moore’s not talking about Morrison’s British career. He’s talking about the opportunities Morrison had at DC, which changed everything.
After all, Moore never got satisfaction from DC. He made an ethical choice, as he saw it, and walked. Even when he worked there at WildStorm, DC ordered things like the pulping of an issue of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. By the time DC offered him Watchmen back, on the condition that he write a follow-up, it was 25 years later.
What Alan Moore has from this period of his career isn’t the rights to his work. It’s not a whole lot of happy memories and lasting friends, if his interviews are any evidence.
It’s the importance this work has in history. Not only on its own terms, but for creating opportunities for those who followed. Who perhaps didn’t have to go through quite what he did, to establish a place in mainstream American comics for “sophisticated suspense.”
A place that would seek out a Scottish comic book writer and give him Animal Man.
A place that, because giving creators these opportunities worked, continued to evolve into a place that would publish something like The Invisibles and let the author keep the rights — something Alan Moore couldn’t get.
In interviews, Alan Moore’s often imprecise about dates and details, even when recounting disputes. But Moore always very clearly communicates the emotion involved. When it comes to these disputes, he seems to feel nothing more acutely than being disrespected.