Alan Moore and Super-Heroes, Part 2:

Moore Vs. Morrison, Round the 898th

Continued from yesterday.

Moore Vs. Morrison

In some cases, Moore’s claims not to have read works which he goes on to criticize might be read as a case of feigned ignorance as a form of politeness. The specific reference, which prompted Moore’s rather absurd claim not to have read super-heroes since Watchmen, was to Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern work. Moore’s made disparaging comments about Johns’s work before. Yet here, rather than slam Johns or make his Green Lantern the scapegoat for more generalized super-hero trends, Moore pretends not to have read Johns (nor any super-heroes since 1987!) in order to focus instead on these general trends. There’s arguably a form of collegiality here, in refusing to start what would be an inevitable internet fight with Johns (whom Moore might also have read, but not so closely as to feel comfortable dissecting). But this professional kindness towards Johns is accomplished by implying that Johns is part of a huge crop of comics writers who are not really worth reading, and the practical effect is to keep Johns out of the conversation. If you’re the President of the United States, you don’t engage with bloggers because it can only elevate them and make you look small. If you’re the King of Mature Comics, or representing yourself as such, you probably don’t want to put Geoff Johns on your level.

If Moore’s trying to be polite by not attacking Johns’s work by name, he’s not so kind elsewhere. In the same interview, in discussing influence in art, Moore apparently can’t resist misrepresenting Grant Morrison. He claims that Morrison’s “confessed” to “a tactic of not only basing some of his narratives on my style or my work but also trying to make himself more famous by slagging me off at every opportunity.”

Now, there’s certainly a lot of bad blood between these two, but Moore’s claim here is still an almost certainly willful distortion. Morrison has indeed “confessed” to copying Moore’s style… on the first four issues of Animal Man, way back in 1988. He thought that was what DC wanted (which incidentally, is something Moore should cite, since it substantiates Moore’s astounding influence on comics). Writers often imitate other writers’ style; that’s part of being a versatile writer. Moore himself has brilliantly channeled other writers, including Shakespeare in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier. The question is whether a writer does nothing else, or what the context was for a stylistic borrowing. By Moore’s own standards, Chris Claremont and Michael Moorcock could make similar charges against Moore himself. It might actually be a better criticism of the 1988 Grant Morrison to say his first four Animal Man issues aren’t a particularly good pastiche of Moore, or that they appropriate some of the worse traits of Moore’s 1980s writing, such as the purple prose Moore sometimes brought to Swamp Thing. And if you actually read the series, the very next issue – Animal Man #5 — is a revelation. It’s pure Grant Morrison, and it’s miles beyond the first four issues. Today, Morrison’s Animal Man is widely celebrated and beloved, but never for those first four issues. The moral of the story, for anyone who knows the work even superficially, isn’t that Morrison’s a shameless and self-confessed Moore clone; it’s that writers become great by moving beyond aping and by finding their own styles, precisely as Moore claims in the very same paragraph in which he slams Morrison. Moore’s using Morrison to illustrate someone who doesn’t do this, but Moore’s citation actually supports the precise opposite of what he wants it to.

On top of this, it’s sad that Morrison’s “confession” of influence, in this case, has been met with charges that Morrison’s entire career amounts to plagiarism of Alan Moore. We want writers to be honest about their influences and intents. It’s useful to both fans and scholars. And it contrasts sharply with Moore absurdly pretending he hasn’t read any super-hero comics since 1987. (This would include Morrison’s Animal Man; one might ethically be expected to at least skim someone’s work before charging him with ripping off your style.)

Moore’s claim that Morrison has tried “to make himself more famous by slagging me off at every opportunity” also misrepresents the facts. To the extent that Morrison has “confessed” to this, what’s specifically referenced here isn’t Morrison’s entire career, as Moore’s statement might imply. The only thing to which this can refer is “Drivel,” a column Morrison wrote for the British comic Speakeasy in 1990. The column’s editorial directive was to “take the piss out of the comics scene at the time,” in Morrison’s words. Morrison, then 30, adopted an exaggerated persona for the column, which he says was “partly inspired by the Morrissey interviews I enjoyed reading.” Morrison donated his fee for the column to the Blue Cross, most people got the joke, and Moore was only one of its targets. The column’s haunted Morrison ever since, and has often been quoted out of context to make Morrison seem like an enfant terrible, which in fairness is a fair characterization of the persona adopted for the column. He’s seemed embarrassed by it when he addresses it. Its goal wasn’t “to make [Morrison] more famous,” although it did prove a popular feature. To my knowledge, it’s the one time Morrison’s “confessed” to deliberately “slagging” anyone, and it had a context that makes citing it as such a confession more than a little problematic.

This isn’t to say that Morrison’s always been kind to Moore. The two have been going at this for a while, and Morrison sometimes veers into the frustrated and exaggerated language of “always” and “never” when discussing Moore. Morrison claimed in Rolling Stone that Moore was “obsessed with rape.” Now, Moore does use rape in several of his works, and scholars do interpret this. Morrison’s underlying observation, that Moore’s use of rape needs more attention, isn’t wrong. But he’s not the best person to say it, given the history. Morrison didn’t do himself any favors by adding, “I managed to do thirty years in comics without any rape!” — which isn’t true. So there’s a pretty long and bitter history here. At this point, the issue certainly can’t be whether one has slagged the other. But to claim Morrison has done so for reasons of career advantage, or has confessed to doing so, is something of a different sort.

It might also be pointed out that no one seems to accuse Moore (who’s the one who’s stated that starting fights can help careers) for going after Morrison to drum up attention for the comic-book adaptation of his unproduced screenplay Fashion Beast. I don’t believe that’s true, incidentally, but I also don’t believe Morrison has such a motivation.

Morrison’s criticism of Moore, whether fair or unfair, essentially boils down to Moore not being accurate or nice or fair, or being “obsessed with rape,” or Watchmen being brilliant but antiseptic in a way that Morrison turned artistically against. But Morrison’s been consistent in admitting that Moore’s work is brilliant, and it continues to excite Morrison, as when Morrison made waves earlier this year with his interpretation of Batman: The Killing Joke‘s ending. Moore’s criticism, here and elsewhere, implies that Morrison is illegitimate. That his career is owed to Alan Moore, through recommending him to Karen Berger or through Morrison somehow ripping off and bashing Alan Moore. If you believed everything said by Morrison about Moore, you’d believe Moore was weird and a dick. If you believed everything Moore said about Morrison, you’d believe Morrison was a fraud who doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously as a writer, much less spoken in the same breath as the King of Mature Comics. These are, in fact, two very different things.

It’s a telling difference, which ought to recall Moore’s similar brushing off Geoff Johns as beneath direct engagement. Moore’s making an argument here that’s less about Morrison or Johns than Moore’s own place in comics history. Essentially, Moore’s claiming that he’s the King of Mature Comics, and that — outside of a few exceptions (the undergrounds, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville) — nothing else still measures up. Everything after him can be read as a series of footnotes to him: a few interesting works, a lot of pale imitations, and some outright plagiarism.

If you had to boil down Moore’s statements about Morrison and most comics writers since 1987 (with a few notable exceptions), it would be this: “I haven’t actually read them, but I’m told that they suck for the following very specific reasons.”

The literal truth of Moore’s claim not to have read super-heroes since Watchmen isn’t really worth discussing. Moore may not be anywhere near as fluent about the current state of corporate super-hero universes as he was in 1987, but that’s saying something else entirely — and you’d be surprised how many current writers for the Big Two could say the same.

What we’re witnessing, in Moore’s statements about other super-hero writers, is obviously less a statement about objective facts and more a case of authorial self-fashioning. It’s nothing new, to those who study wider literary history, in which many writers have claimed never to have read their rivals’ work, even when we know this not to be the case. Of course, this is a way of dismissing one’s rivals, but it’s a way of dismissing influences and comparisons one doesn’t wish critics to make, a response to the fact that it’s critics, not artists, who ultimately determine what a work means or how to understand it. Artists don’t control that, and this can be intensely frustrating for them.

Some artists accept this, or even embrace good criticism of their own work; they know interpretation is something they can’t fully control, and the best they can do is hope smart interpretations win out over time — and meanwhile, get their own voice out amid the critical chorus. Others rail against their powerlessness, seeking to control their place in history or how works are interpreted, and withdrawing when they can’t.

Continued tomorrow, with an analysis of Alan Moore’s Guardian interview as if a character’s dialogue… and why Alan Moore needs a hug.

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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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  1. In this recent podcast Alan Moore explains a bit what he meant in the Guardian Interview:

    The whole interview is quite entertaining and funny by the way.

  2. Rudy Moraski says:

    Having trouble digging it up, but I distinctly recall an interview with Moore from sometime in the past decade in which he stated that he enjoyed some issues of the the Superman Adventures comic in the 90′s (many of which were written by Mark Millar), seemingly because they were lighthearted and imaginative, in contrast to grim & gritty superhero books.

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