When did Alan Moore become ALAN MOORE? When did the promising prospect become the master Bardly craftsman? If his work for Marvel UK in the early 1980s is to be trusted, the graduation occurred between his completing the script for the Captain Britain feature in April 1983′s The Daredevils #4 and that of the following issue. The former’s Killing Ground is an awkward, generically Claremontian confection, a fundamentally predictable punch-up enlivened only by a few smart character moments and the swiftly improving art of his collaborator Alan Davis. But Executive Action, appearing just 30 days later, is self-evidently prime-time ALAN MOORE. Beautifully paced, innovative and humane, equally informed by suspense and comedy seasoned by a love of the counter-culturally absurd, Captain Britain suddenly stepped up from the ranks of the many peripheral if intermittently-promising also-rans to stand beside Moore and Davis’s other British superhero – Marvelman – as the finest that the sub-genre of the time had to offer.
Killing Ground is clearly the work of promising neophyte creators who are still reaching to produce comics that succeed in being at least the sum of their parts. Of the two of them, it’s actually Alan Davis whose contribution still seems the more notably mature and inspired. His figure work is still on occasion implausible, with his whole-body shots often displaying a command of anatomy that’s been seemingly mastered more from comics than from any systematic observation of real life. Yet in places, as in the opening exchange of blows between Captain Britain and Slaymaster, his characters suggest a idiosyncratic sense of movement and power and balance which clearly indicates a craftsman of considerable potential. Ultimately, it’s Davis’s storytelling, his command of how to frame and pace the threads of Moore’s often crowded and at-moments confusing story, that’s the most compelling aspect of his art. A single panel of the ten frames present on page 6, for example, required Davis to (1) show a psychic straining to telekinetically lift a mass of magazines, while (2) burying the tale’s villain beneath them, while (3) showing Captain Britain noting the situation, while (4) he’s simultaneously listening to a telepathic message. It’s a scene whose dysfunctional complexity would task any of the medium’s very finest artists, and yet Davis succeeded in transmitting some considerable sense of what was supposed to be going on.
By contrast, Moore’s script is almost entirely woven from comicbook cliches. The antagonist is a fiendish and yet strangely chivalrous master assassin, the jeopardy grounded in the threat to the life of Brian Braddock’s beautiful sister, the victory achieved through nothing more inspired than the battering of a momentarily confused Slaymaster into unconsciousness. Even the dialogue is uninspired when it’s not actually cringe-worthy. (A bystander watching super-hero battle super-villain declares “… my mother warned me this would happen if I didn’t stop reading comics”, while the stereotypically hard-as-nail policeman Dai Thomas reveals himself to be the most unlikely of Bowie fans, declaring, “Just when I thought I’d got all you scary monsters and super-creeps packed off back to America where you belong …”.) Brief flashes of inspiration, such as the effort Moore takes to suggest Braddock’s painful vulnerability to nerve damage, add little to what’s at best an amateuresque offering better suited to the pages of a fanzine than to a professional publication.
But there really is no doubt that the script for the following month’s Executive Action is the creation of a writer who’s not just ambitious and dogged, but untypically able and inspired. The panel count is down, the mass of text slashed, thought balloons entirely excised, the plot’s beats reduced, the portentous tone replaced by a sense of wonder fused with menace and good humour; it’s as if Moore had suddenly decided that he was going to use super-people to tell a story rather than producing a by-the-numbers superhero tale. Even the jokes in the script have suddenly become the means by which Moore’s characters are illuminated rather than one-size-fits-all wisecracks. As such, the high point of the chapter isn’t the conclusion of the super-powered fracas, but rather the revelation that Saturnye has sent a troop of alien mercenaries to convince Braddock to testify on her behalf in a far-distant court. It’s a compelling snare of a premise, given that she’s a character who the Captain feels fundamentally betrayed by, and it leaves the reader thoroughly impatient for the story’s next chapter, driving the narrative forward through the conflict of personalities and the mystery of what’s gone wrong off-stage rather than the milking of the squaring off of hyper-powered opponents.
Through Moore’s tale is saturated with conflict, enigma and incident, and though he’s careful to clearly place every event into the context of the property’s already-complex backstory, the reader is left feeling neither over-fed or under-nourished. To those who’d seen nothing else of Moore’s work beyond Captain Britain, it must have seemed as if he’d leaped from apprentice to master craftsman without ever bothering to qualify as journeyman first. The tendency has always been to see Moore’s Marvelman as the first flowering of his genius in the superhero book, but I’d argue that for all that strip’s undoubted excellence, it’s the writer’s work on Captain Britain which first showed him in absolute control of the sub-genre. There were moments in the first year and beyond of Marvelman’s run when Moore’s laudable ambition resulted in sequences which were both clunky in their worthiness and unconvincingly angsty. These were problems which were never again to undermine his scripts for Captain Britain once Executive Action had been completed and published.
It can be hard to credit just how poor the first few Moore scripts for Captain Britain were. Hindsight perpetually undercuts the mind’s attempts to process the apparent lack of promise, let alone achievement, in A Crooked World, the Captain Britain strip printed in Marvel Super-Heroes #387. Millidge writes that those “Early episodes show Moore still finding his feet”, a courteous judgement which manages to skillfully express the truth without ever detailing just how limited the writer’s chops were at this early stage of his career. Nothing so emphasises how admirably hard Moore must have worked at his craft as the poverty of these earliest efforts. Surely no-one reading A Crooked World at the time could have predicted how Moore’s future career would pan out, could have anticipated on the basis of anything other than faith the possibility of an Anatomy Lesson coming from the same pen within 20 months time, or For The Man Who Has Everything … appearing just a year after that.
What’s perhaps most inspiring about Alan Moore’s achievements is the fact that he evidently wasn’t always a genius, that he so obviously struggled with the same confusions and quandaries that every other mortal would-be-writer must. To push aside the idolatry is to be able to track something of the choices that he made, to note aspects of where he struggled and how he sharpened his skills. We inhabit a culture which claims to believe in the individual’s capacity to build on their natural gifts, and yet we so often explain away achievement in terms of intrinsic quality and inherent superiority, thereby excusing ourselves the effort of working towards our own aspirations. The mainstream of comics is still full of writers whose work rarely if ever appears to develop, of artists who after several decades as professionals still haven’t mastered the basics of anatomy or the bedrock givens of storytelling. Noting Moore’s first few stumbles doesn’t do anything other than accentuate how doggedly he must have worked to polish his craft, while casting an interesting light on those creators who allow their obvious limitations to persist under the white flag of their own personal style.
But to those who dismissively ascribe Moore’s successes to the great good fortune of innate talent mixed with self-indulgence, mood-enhancing roll-ups and a touch of pseudo-mystical delusion, the question remains; if Alan Moore’s a self-obssessed genius who never really had to try, why is there so much evidence of how fiercely he fought to make an artist out of himself?