Alan Moore is not known for being shy with his opinions, especially when it comes to the cultural intersection of comics and society. For Moore, given his spiritual and philosophical beliefs, everything is radically connected on some level, whether that be in terms of culture or life energy or, most importantly, the interlocking webs of ideas, knowledge, and information. In that context, topic choice for a comic story is an intellectual and spiritual cri de coeur. Everything is significant to Moore, and this is one of the keys to unlocking the hidden meanings in his art.
His recent comments denigrating the success of super-hero films like The Avengers have to be seen in that context.
Just to refresh the memory: In a new interview for The Guardian promoting Fashion Beast, Moore commented that he hasn’t “read any super-hero comics since [he] finished with Watchmen.” He went further, saying, “I hate super-heroes. I think they’re abominations… They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their 9-to-13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, super-hero comics [have an audience]… largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year-old men, usually men. I think it’s a rather alarming sign if we’ve got audiences of adults going to see The Avengers movie and delighting in concepts and characters meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of the 1950s.”
For someone who sees all art as a radically complex and interwoven fabric of ideas and challenges, a super-hero comic represents a very constricted form of storytelling. It’s like asking Charlie Parker to play “Rock Around the Clock”; fun for a few minutes, but he would very quickly get bored with the endearing limitations of the genre. The obvious irony is that Moore wrote the most compelling and complex super-hero story of them all, once upon a time. Perhaps “9-to-13 year olds” can appreciate and enjoy Watchmen; I hope they do. But I find it difficult to imagine that someone at that age would appreciate the almost infinite depths of meaning and significance in that book. So Moore has himself violated the constraints of what he has identified as the purpose and audience of super-hero stories. And, I would argue, writers such as Mark Waid have continued the work he started, producing intelligent and challenging work in the super-hero genre.
But there is a lot more that he says with which I agree. I must quote another comic giant, Moore’s friend Harvey Pekar: “Super-hero stories are basically science-fiction stories. I’ve never been a big fan of science fiction.” (Pekar also wrote off Manga as just “stuff for kids”.) Or Moore’s protégé Neil Gaiman: “[Comics are] an empty vessel that can be filled with any kind of story.” Pekar’s resolutely anti-genre comics superficially stand as a counterpoint to the super-hero energy of mainstream comics, and Gaiman’s expansive literary sensibility also pushes the boundaries for the casual reader. And, of course, Moore’s work itself shows a way forward into a deeper understanding of the symbolic storytelling style of comic books. If one needed to demonstrate that the medium contains much more than just super-hero stories, one need only point to those three writers.
The fact that comics can obviously tell more kinds of stories than super-hero stories is old news to people within the comics “world”, but once you step out of those circles, comics are still powerfully identified with super-heroes. A good example is the AMC TV series Comic Book Men. I know, based on years of listening to “Tell ‘em Steve-Dave” and other podcasts, that the hosts of that show have a broad and deep appreciation for all kinds of comic stories. But in almost three complete seasons of the TV show, the topics are overwhelmingly based on super-hero comics. The collectibles brought into the Secret Stash store for sale are almost always super-hero-related, the comics in question are all super-heroes, and the discussion in the wraparound segments that open and close each episode are almost invariably about super-hero comics. Yet, this show goes out to millions of viewers and is called Comic Book Men, as if this represents the realistic sorts of discussions in a comic shop. While I like the fact that the hosts are getting exposure, and the show itself can be very entertaining, it doesn’t portray comic books in a very good light. This is clearly the responsibility of AMC, which, like everyone else, is trying to reach the largest audience with the least effort. But is this good for comics?
I have had the experience – in teaching a course introducing comic studies – of meeting with indifference or even hostility when I asserted that we weren’t going to be talking about super-hero comics. Certain students kept trying to inject or question some piece of arcane super-hero trivia, as if that equated to knowledge of the comic-book medium. This is the legacy of the “comic book guy”.
The “comic book guy” stereotype represents a type of person to whom super-hero comics are their entire universe of imagination. Like someone who memorizes baseball scores or railroad timetables, the mildly obsessive “comic book guys” memorize reams of trivial information and dig deep into the mythology of super-heroes. On this topic, and perhaps no other, they are “experts”. They base so much of their social, cultural, and intellectual identity on how many facts they’ve memorized that when someone like Alan Moore comes along and says all of that is a childish waste of time, it’s not surprising that they react with anger. A quick glance at Twitter this week will illustrate the “fanboy” outrage over Moore’s comments.
There’s another perspective as well. As someone who wasn’t an avid super-hero comics reader as a child, and has huge gaps in his knowledge with regards to super-heroes but a profound love and appreciation for the medium, I’ve sometimes felt alienated from my fellow comic-book enthusiasts. When I walk into a comic shop, most of the time the staff are very happy to show me to the titles I like and discuss the nature of the medium. But there is always someone, often not a staff member, who says something along the lines of “I can’t believe you haven’t read [insert title here].” That was charming at first, but as time has gone on, I’ve started to take some offense to that attitude, and finally have reached a place where I wave it off with a sense of pity. Clearly, to that person, having read the “Dark Phoenix” arc of Uncanny X-Men (for example) is as important and essential to one’s experience of life as having passed Grade 3. Apologies to the fanboys, but that’s pathetic. And it doesn’t draw people into the medium that we all love; it in fact repulses them. Is that good for comics?
And finally we have to admit that Moore has a point when he argues that The Avengers really is a recycling of popular culture from 30 years ago, which was originally aimed at smart teenagers, not adults. Adults go to see these films for several reasons, not the least of which is that they are reminded of something they may have loved as a child. Nostalgia is a powerful draw. In my case, since I didn’t read those stories as a child, I experience them as interesting, pop-cultural, metaphorical sci-fi adventure stories. When something like that is written by Joss Whedon, I pay attention, because I know Whedon understands the Shakespearean connotations of the material and always keeps one winking eye at the audience. We can’t lay the blame entirely on comic fanboys for this phenomenon. Popular cinema has deteriorated to such an extent that all movies are pitched to the level of a prepubescent boy, not just the ones based on comics. This is hardly an original observation, but it bears repeating. I long ago lowered my expectations of what popular cinema could deliver.
And if Pekar is right, as I think he is, in labeling super-hero stories as “science fiction”, we can add that film, in general, has done a dreadful job exploring science fiction. Roger Ebert once wrote that he had yet to see a science-fiction film as interesting or complex as the science-fiction novels and short stories he had read, a sentiment with which I largely agree. Even when a science fiction film attempts to engage in an adult way with the subject, popular consciousness still seems to think those stories are fundamentally for children. When I went to see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, there were only three other people in the theatre, a father and his two young children, probably both under 12 years old. I was flabbergasted; what made this guy think that this film was suitable for children? The obvious answer is that it was a science-fiction film. Granted, that only demonstrates his ignorance, not the fault of the filmmakers or even the film studio. (That movie was not marketed as anything other than a visionary, adult-oriented science-fiction experience.) I doubt that the father is alone, any more than the grandmother who took her 7-year-old to see The Avengers and sat in front of me in the theatre. (I hasten to add that the 7-year-old girl really enjoyed the film and seemed to know her stuff. So good for her.)
In conclusion, I would say that Alan Moore has expectations of popular cinema that are frankly unrealistic. It disappoints me, too – as one of those guys in his 30s (at least for now) – that super-hero stories seem to appeal so strongly to my peers over and above all the other many kinds of stories comics can tell. But the blame for this can’t be placed at the feet of people in their 30s, at least not completely. I want to see progress more than anyone else in this regard, but the existence of the The Avengers – and the Watchmen film or any number of others – doesn’t negate the creative and daring work being done in comics. Alan Moore’s sentiments remind me of how some of my young students were disappointed with the lack of complexity in the recent Man of Steel film. I advised them to just opt out of the movie world, save their money, and buy a comic book instead. (Mark Waid’s Superman: Birthright was my recommendation.) And once they grow out of the super-hero genre, which – I would assure Alan Moore – many of them do, let’s always remind them that there is a whole universe of comic stories out there to choose from.