The Super-Heroics of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Part 2

Prime-Era Superheroes

After a falling out with British Comics publishers, Alan Moore began working with DC Comics writing the horror-book Swamp Thing. Most of Swamp Thing avoided utilization of most superheroes sans some supernatural characters. Moore, however, was demonstrating an evolving attitude towards superheroes in Swamp Thing. Before, he wanted to explore the superheroes conventions with a more realistic setting in Marvelman. Now in Swamp Thing Moore was beginning to focus on superheroes as figures of terror. The almighty power of the superheroes made them gods looking down on mankind and they were more frightening than comforting to man. Even mortals like Green Arrow and Batman come across more as demi-Gods with only some human attributes. Yet for all their power, the intentional irony is that the superheroes are mainly ineffective throughout most of the narrative of Swamp Thing. Moore made Swamp Thing progressively more powerful as the story progressed, yet most of his solutions to problems came from discussion. The ultimate solution to so many conflicts in Swamp Thing was not violence but rational discourse. While Swamp Thing’s powers became greater than any of the superheroes, as shown in him easily defeating Batman, the implication was that the superheroes method of solving problems was ultimately ineffectual.

The indictment against superheroes reached its most jagged and overt in Watchmen, Moore’s magnum opus. In the graphic novel, superheroes are the personifications of approaches to power.  The superheroes can be relatively effective or ineffective to changing society. In his characterization of the omnipotent Dr. Manhattan, Moore creates a character who single-handedly changes every aspect of human society. Certain technology such as electric cars is made possible, and Osterman unwittingly also shifts fashion trends and recreational drugs by his existence. Yet Jon Osterman (Manhattan’s real name) seems apathetic to humanity and see’s that he really has no free will and simply does what will be done. Osterman fleetingly says, “We are all puppets Laurie.  I’m just a puppet that can see the strings.”(Ch. IX) As Osterman has his own difficulty relating to humanity, humanity is in even dire straits by Osterman’s existence and later absence. Dr. Manhattan’s existence propels the Soviet Union to greater effort in their nuclear weapons and the looming threat of Armageddon is made all too real when Dr. Manhattan forsakes humanity for Mars. Ultimately, Moore viewed the existence of a genuine superhuman to be far too problematic for humanity, and for all the good he would do it would likely bring more problems than fix.

Furthermore, Moore included characters such as Rorschach and Dan Drieberg who believe in basic altruistic vigilantism despite an acute awareness of the minimal impact it has in changing society. Rorschach for all his praise by fans for his unyielding principles still operates on the optimistic outlook: “Nothing is hopeless, not while there’s life.” (Ch. 2) While this is admirable it also is somewhat cutting as the superhero in Moore’s eyes offers no progress for humankind but an unending and pointless crusade. Crime is never stopped by Rorschach and Nite Owl, and their existence while beneficial to a few serves no purpose other than as a method of personal vindication for their existence. Adrian Veidt is able to express this rage against the superheroes ineffectiveness: “I loathed myself and my sham crusade. Attacking the symptoms while leaving the disease unchecked.”(Ch. 11) As both Veidt and Blake are aware, the problems of the world are simply too big for men dressing up in costumes to fix.

The only real solutions to our problems in Moore’s eyes come from radical means, and essentially the “boy scout” integrity of superheroes like Rorschach is ultimately a detriment to society. This is not to suggest that I think Moore believes in the methods that peace is achieved in Watchmen, but is demonstrative of how critical Moore is of superheroes importance to society. Moore had essentially written the final farewell to superheroes both from a personal level and it seemed for the world. Moore had taken apart the superheroes and showed them to ultimately be either ineffective or too consequential to humanity. At their best superheroes were well-meaning people (plagued with certain psychological problems) who did little to actually help society as a whole. At their worst superheroes would actually create more problems by existing with even Rorschach potentially destroying peace and order for his integrity.

Countering this, Frank Miller began to more warmly embrace superheroes as seen in his works The Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil: Born Again. Frank Miller was still critical of superheroes and had characters express all of the flaws of the superhero in a real world throughout The Dark Knight Returns. Establishing the story in the present day, complete with Reagan (the then current) as the President of the United States. Batman was now a living anachronism, akin to Captain America, but unlike Steve Rogers, Bruce Wayne was in his 50s and suffering an identity crisis. Miller while embracing Batman as a heroic figure, still saw flaws in men becoming superheroes, with Batman having far greater psychological trauma than Matt Murdock. Bruce Wayne suffered from dissociative personality disorder with his demon of Batman constantly haunting him until eventually Wayne succumbs to his demon and his original personality is lost. But even as Batman becomes the dominant presence it is a recurring theme that Batman is truly seeking to die a heroic death, revealing that in Miller’s eyes most superheroes probably have a death wish.

Miller openly recognized that his hero Batman was a flagrant violator of basic civil rights, due process, and countless other basic laws. While other authors permitted suspension of disbelief in their escapist superhero stories, Miller looked at the problems of the superhero genre head-on.  Miller’s interpretation of Batman scoffs at such critiques, openly declaring that he is a criminal in the eyes of the law. Miller did freely admit that in the real world Batman would be problematic and undoubtedly a fascist, but he still stated that Batman was important to mankind as a symbol. Miller viewed the superhero as a flawed creature that is ultimately an inspiration for people more than something people should rely on. For one, Batman’s existence indisputably is the reason for the Joker’s return from a catatonic state and resumption of crime. Furthermore for all the good that Batman inspires, his Sons of Batman create more violence than they supposedly prevent. Unlike his run on Daredevil, Miller embraced all of the goofy conventions of the superhero: a kid sidekick, a bat-glider, Joker-poison, talking robots and Superman. But at its core The Dark Knight Returns is a rallying cry for the superhero, not so much as a direct savior but as an inspiration for change. Indeed, by the finale Batman is given his grand death and accepts a new life training youth to fight against corrupt governments.

This symbolic importance of the superhero was taking to new levels with Daredevil: Born Again, Miller’s triumphant return to Daredevil. Teaming-up with David Mazuchelli, Miller crafted a story that had Matt Murdock follow a superhero-version of the Passion story of Jesus.  Miller utilized heavy Christian-overtones to present the superhero as a messianic figure. While one can fully appreciate Daredevil: Born Again solely as a powerful Matt Murdock story, it also demonstrates a growing appreciation of Frank Miller for the superhero. Miller began to embrace the superhero as the ultimate inspiration, a figure who could endure beyond that which most humans could. Furthermore, while the superhero may not be able to completely change society, he is a helper to those great and small. Murdock not only is able to save and redeem Karen Page, but is also able to forever tarnish Wilson Fisk’s reputation as a legitimate businessman. The superhero in Miller’s eyes was evolving to a divine presence that inspired others.

Miller’s newfound appreciation of the superhero as an inspiration became most apparent in his return to Batman with David Mazuchelli in Batman: Year One. Year One was Miller’s definitive alpha to the omega found in The Dark Knight Returns. Here, Batman was shown to be living in an incredibly corrupt Gotham, bereft of supervillains and of hope. Miller defended that becoming a vigilante dressed as a bat proved genuinely advantageous to fighting crime. But beyond the character in the costume Year One was a story about Jim Gordon an ordinary policeman. Gordon begins as an enemy of Batman and tries to be a good cop in a city where that is impossible. Batman’s existence inspires Gordon to fight the police corruption from within. Similarly Harvey Dent is inspired by Batman to become more vigilant in his crusade against organized crime and police corruption. Batman in the end is a catalyst for change, the inspiration for legitimate sources of order to stand-up against the morally bankrupt establishment. To Miller, superheroes were the inspirations for change in society.

Moore and Miller were credited in this period of destroying the superhero. Moore saw the superhero as a flawed creature, incapable of genuinely bettering society. Conversely, Miller saw the superhero as a flawed creation that helped to inspire people to better themselves.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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  1. Your points on Moore’s Swamp Thing and the Watchmen ring so true. “Yet Jon Osterman (Manhattan’s real name) seems apathetic to humanity and see’s that he really has no free will and simply does what will be done. Osterman fleetingly says, “We are all puppets Laurie. I’m just a puppet that can see the strings.”(Ch. IX)” I had forgotten about this and yet it seems like one of the most important underlying themes of the book. With the Watchmen Moore took the superhero genre as close to being real as anyone has. Moore eventually went back to superheroes but he did it from a much more intellectual and whimsical point of view, first in his Stan Lee’s Marvel inspired work, 1963, and then in his Silver Age Superman inspired Supreme.

    Upon reading your article it occurred to me that Moore’s early works like V For Vendetta took place firmly in the real world but as time went on, his work became more and more cerebral. With From Hell he began to move from the grim and gritty London streets into the visionary inner world of the mind of the killer. Later, with Promethea, he abandons the external world completely and explores the inner world of Promethea and the world map of the mind. And if one cares to look, one can view Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman as a continuation of this exploration, for example Heart of Ice, where Janni goes to Antarctica to meet the horrors of H. P. Lovecraft’s world.

    Though I understand that the whole point of this article is to show how Moore and Miller moved in opposite directions, one embracing superheroes over time while the other moved away from them, I’m not completely sold on your theory in relation to Miller. I feel that Year One is one of the most realistic depictions of heroes that has been written even to this day. It’s a tremendously powerful work that gets it’s power from the fact that it is so grounded in reality. Though it embraces the role of the superhero, it’s virtues lye in the fact that it takes ordinary men like Gordon and puts them in positions of the hero.

    But all in all I think this exploration of Moore and Miller’s work was wonderful and eye opening. I’m pleasantly surprised at how well versed you are in their work and how you managed to grasp the big picture of their work.

  2. Bruno Franco says:

    Despite the repeating of certain words and names troughout the article, wich is a bit exhausting, i find myself agreeing with every point made here. I share the exact same opinions on the authors. One wishes to destroy so that something new can be built, the other wishes to perform a restoration. I always thought it was quite convenient that they produced their opposite works at practically the same time-period: One was interested on philosophy and the quiet introspection, the other seeked the Grand Opera, the Wagnerian epic.

  3. Jimmy Hanzo says:

    I like this series of articles so far, but I have to disagree with this point –

    “Furthermore for all the good that Batman inspires, his Sons of Batman create more violence than they supposedly prevent.”

    Remember, these were the same criminals who were previously attacking innocent people on the streets and subway. The violence already existed, it was just redirected to the criminal element. As Lana Lang said, “A bunch of psychopaths are killing each other, instead of innocent citizens — and for this you want to *blame* Batman?” (Paraphrased, I can’t recall the line exactly.)

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