Alan Moore and Super-Heroes, Part 1:

Promethea Didn’t Happen Now

Alan Moore on The Simpsons

Recently, Alan Moore’s made waves by criticizing the super-hero genre. Speaking with The Guardian, Moore said:

I haven’t read any superhero comics since I finished with Watchmen. I hate superheroes. I think they’re abominations. They don’t mean what they used to mean. They were originally in the hands of writers who would actively expand the imagination of their nine- to 13-year-old audience. That was completely what they were meant to do and they were doing it excellently. These days, superhero comics think the audience is certainly not nine to 13, it’s nothing to do with them. It’s an audience largely of 30-, 40-, 50-, 60-year old men, usually men. Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched on to it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal. This is a significant rump of the superhero-addicted, mainstream-addicted audience. I don’t think the superhero stands for anything good. 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.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Moore himself has shown that super-heroes can be written more maturely and used to explore deep themes. But in all the flurry of attention given to Moore’s recent statements, few have discussed that this is actually a bit of a regression for Moore. While it’s not shocking to read Moore saying these things, they sound more like what he was saying in the early 1990s, after he abandoned super-heroes and DC Comics in favor of other genres and other publishers. Although surprisingly ignored in this discussion, Moore returned to super-heroes in the late 1990s and 2000s, authoring a new batch of seminal super-hero works like 1963Supreme, Tom Strong, Promethea, and Top 10. In fact, he’s still continuing these works with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (now at Top Shelf).

Throughout this second period of super-hero writing, Moore recanted many of his past statements disparaging the genre. Instead, he disparaged his own earlier super-hero work as needlessly dark and focused on the joy he felt reading super-heroes while younger. Moore never churned out mindless drivel, even in this period; he’s too good a writer for that, and it’s easy to see that works like Promethea are as complex and sophisticated as those of his earlier, darker period. But these were works that embraced the super-hero genre. Moore’s newest anti-super-hero statements aren’t only a repudiation of his 1980s work; they’re also a repudiation of a far more recent stage of his career.

In Moore’s version of comics history (and implicitly, his place in it), it now appears as if he’s retconned a decade of his own work out of existence.

This is fascinating, and there are several ways of looking at it. Perhaps the most charitable to Moore (and an interpretation that has the advantage of containing truth) is to say that Moore’s an artist who doesn’t sit still. He evolves. Having moved on (once again) from super-hero comics, he’s moved on psychologically as well. Moore might be nostalgic in many ways, and he might be precious about his older work in that he usually doesn’t want it modified or continued (or even in some cases simply reprinted), but he’s certainly not psychologically precious about that work. Reading him in interview, he’s often fond of his intentions in past works, but he’s wonderfully willing to criticize the results. He moves on, into new genres and media. And perhaps some disparagement of one’s past is necessary for an artist, in order to so produce new and startlingly different work — which Moore’s done pretty consistently. If you’re going to take a sharp turn, it’s not useful (nor perhaps even psychologically possible) to keep looking back fondly.

Of course, should one be inclined to not be so charitable, one could also point out that Moore’s second super-hero period wasn’t as favorably received nor as influential as his first. In this new interview, Moore claims that hasn’t “read any super-hero comics since [he] finished with Watchmen,” which is patently absurd. He spent years writing super-hero comics since Watchmen, during which he cited other works he hadn’t written but that were in the same vein. It’s as if, like some of his critics, Moore has himself chosen to ignore this entire second super-hero-dominated period of his career. Or the fact that he’s still writing super-hero comics. Personally, I think it’s too easy to say that Moore’s jealous, or resentful that his return to super-heroes in the 1990s and 2000s didn’t catapult him a second time to the status of a regularly top-selling super-hero writer. To say that he failed to conquer super-hero comics a second time, in a very different landscape, presumes that this was his intent, and I’m not sure Moore ever wanted or expected Promethea to sell like Spider-Man. This also ignores the regularly brilliant quality of Moore’s more recent super-hero works, which can’t be reduced to sales charts. If Moore were resentful that these titles weren’t regular top-ten sellers, given their quality, I certainly wouldn’t blame him. Still, it’s odd that Moore himself is so willing not to dismiss them as much as pretend they don’t even exist. The fact is that they do.

It’s telling that Moore mentions Watchmen, one of his own works, as the last super-hero comic he read. Moore can’t very well say he meant works other than his own, which might explain his omission of a decade of his own work.

And of course, if Moore’s not read super-heroes since Watchmen, why in the world would be immediately follow such a claim by expounding upon the current state of the super-hero genre? This isn’t new for Moore, who’s previously claimed both to have recommended Grant Morrison to Karen Berger, leading to Morrison’s work at DC, and to have essentially never read Morrison’s work either before or after (which I’ve discussed at length). In the same interview with The Guardian, Moore characterizes China Miéville’s work, based on reputation, while quickly adding, “I’ve not read his stuff, but I’ve heard he’s done that.” At various times, Moore’s claimed not to have read an awful lot, nor seen adaptations of his own works. And while it may well be true, as Moore says, that he no longer “read[s] very much at all,” it’s simply inconceivable that he’s willing to make so many specific characterizations of work he hasn’t read.

Continued tomorrow, with a look at how Moore addresses Morrison and others in the interview.

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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. He currently lives in Illinois.

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3 Comments

  1. Nick Ford says:

    Great article, Julian!

    I like how you give us two perspectives on Moore and they both seem carefully considered and weighted rather fairly. There are some I know who would be total jerks to Moore about his words or give him the least charitable interpretation possible but you’ve shown that to be unnecessary.

    I am not defending his statements by the way. But I am happy to see someone tale them a bit more seriously even if the reasons we may take statements like this more seriously is because quite frankly it is Moore and not someone else.

    I excited for the second part! :)

  2. Of course it’s impossible to get inside someone’s head, but the way he’s using “superhero” seems different from the way most of us use it. Instead of referring to the genre or concept, virtually everything he says seems perfectly consistent with “corporate-owned” superheroes. When I read the interview I thought the Internet outrage was much ado about nothing because, as you point out, it’s basically the same position he’s had since he left DC. He’s simply attacking DC and Marvel and the industry’s obsession with decades-old characters owned by corporations.

    Obviously, as a reader I don’t share the same view but I understand it. These are the comments of someone who has had a long and miserable set of professional experiences with the major publishers, both in England and in the United States.

    In this sense, the many books he’s written that are clearly part of the superhero genre are not what he’s talking about here. Could he be clearer? Sure. Is he being intentionally vague and, thus, more inflammatory and provocative? Perhaps, but that requires guessing his motivations. I’m not trying to be an apologist here, and as I said, I don’t share his position. But it seems to me that the simplest, most consistent, and least baffling interpretation is that he’s talking exclusively about corporate-owned characters.

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