The Super-Heroics of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Part 3

Early 90s Superhero work

I have been alluding at various points the real-life history of my two subjects in my past articles, but context is vital in understanding the next period of superhero writing for both Moore and Miller.  Miller and Moore had become superstars in the 1980s. They achieved something that few artists are ever able to achieve, critical and commercial success. People responded jubilantly to The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen as the maturation and vindication of the comics’ medium. But in the midst of this Moore and Miller cut their ties to the company that had published these works.

Moore had started off greatly enjoying work at DC Comics. After Moore’s Swamp Thing run, he pitched what could have been the greatest superhero crossover story of all-time. The pitch showed that Moore was on-board with both the commercial and artistic aspects necessary for working with DC. But then Moore and DC had an unfavorable parting. Too much money had been denied to him for Watchmen, his ownership of the book would never come back to him as had been promised. Furthermore Moore was disgusted when he heard that there would be an age warning on books published. Miller was similarly incredulous and offended at the notion of a “ratings warning” on his books and left with Moore and many other comics creators from DC’s alleged censorship.

Both Miller and Moore had grown tired of superheroes and both wanted to move on to different projects. Moore utilized Watchmen profits to fund two projects, an incredibly ambitious story about people and chaos theory in Big Numbers and a holistic analysis of the murders by Jack the Ripper with From Hell. But Big Numbers quickly fell apart with Bill Sienkiewicz unable to produce the artwork after three issues. As Moore was bleeding money into attempting to save Big Numbers comics had a revolution with Marvel’s superstar artists leaving to form the independent comics company Image.

Moore was asked to write for Image comics by many in the company (so many that it would lead to trouble). Moore was not familiar with the comics, and when he did read the comics he was not very impressed. But still Moore decided that it would be interesting to attempt to write very mainstream comics again. The work was so commercial in nature that many fans of Moore’s work seem confused and repulsed by it. Lance Parkin’s mostly reasonable and defensive biography on Moore (Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore) is surprisingly critical and almost indignant that Moore would work for Image:

Moore was, by any reckoning, a terrible fit for the crassly commercial, art and merchandising-led Image books.  For three or four years he had been loudly declaring that he was done with superheroes, and, now comics had a vast new audience of adult readers, he was primarily interested in exploring the outer limits of the medium’s potential in ‘serious’ work like Big Numbers[,] Yet, here, he was writing comics like Violator vs. Badrock. (261-62).

But Moore had a fair defense to his work with Image in an interview available on YouTube, he didn’t view the work as something to be taken overly serious. The Image work was obviously financially helpful, but also a welcome relief between work on more serious and tragic work in From Hell and his novel The Voice of the Fire. Taken in this context Moore’s superhero Image work was knowingly frivolous and a welcome cleanse from researching a serial-killer and writing about human sacrifice daily.

Moore’s attitude now for superheroes was to not place the weight of the real-world on them but instead to celebrate them for their incredibly frivolous nature. His work on almost everything in Image is essentially a blur of writing for 9 year-olds with no malice or irony in the text. Image comics was popular to children, and Moore wrote comics that had a better story to them then what the Image creators typically provided. One of the reasons perhaps why it is strange to longtime fans of Moore is that in contrast to his other work, the Image work is disposable but enjoyable escapist entertainment that is not greatly challenging or demanding on its readers. But it is worth noting that Moore’s treatment of superheroes was an attempt to rebuke the growing trends in comics that were most accentuated in Image. Moore thought that treating superheroes as serious works was ultimately inappropriate and instead wrote 1963 and Supreme to celebrate the wacky, goofy and light-hearted nature of superheroes. Moore viewed superheroes more and more as frivolous and relatively pointless to mankind as anything other than entertainment. But on the whole he was not against superheroes as entertainment provided no one ever took superheroes seriously.

In contrast to Moore who was difficultly juggling between directly commercial and artistic, Miller had been able to craft works that were satisfying to him and spoke to a wide enough audience. But Miller had to go through two unbearable experiences before reaching his creative nirvana.

In 1987 there was a surprise smash-hit science-fiction film RoboCop. The studio quickly recognizing a potential franchise looked to produce a sequel. But with a writer’s strike beginning the studios turned to unexpected territory to look for a writer for RoboCop 2. Frank Miller a fan of RoboCop was jubilant to enter the shores of Hollywood and immediately accepted the task of writing RoboCop 2. Miller having been an auteur in comics quickly learned that being a writer in Hollywood is the worst job imaginable. While his first draft was “un-filmable,” Miller gave draft after draft until a final script was written by a separate writer who watered down Miller’s vision and took away the emotional beats, the satiric wit and central focus from RoboCop 2. Miller had bigger hopes with RoboCop 2, he had wanted to direct the film, and the film’s star Peter Weller greatly enjoyed Miller’s original take (eventually Weller voiced Batman in the adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns) more than the final film.  Miller played along with the lesser version of RoboCop 2 and even cameoed as “Frank the chemist” (beginning Miller’s tradition of being killed in every cameo in movies). But Miller gained no clout in Hollywood following RoboCop 2, and his attempt to rectify the failure of RoboCop 2 with his script of RoboCop 3 was even worse. Miller is only given a “story” credit for RoboCop 3 as the final script was diluted to the point that the studios pushed for a PG-13 rating over the original’s hard R-tone. Thankfully, Steven Grant translated Miller’s original vision for RoboCop 2 and 3 in two fantastic graphic novels which are worthy of discussion on their own.

Miller’s experience in Hollywood was so horrendous that he swore never again to return to Hollywood. He then created a comic that was intentionally un-filmable, with a style that could only be captured in the comics’ medium: Sin City. The great irony in hindsight is that the work that Miller intentionally created as a cleanse from Hollywood would be the work that brought him back to Hollywood, but that’s a discussion for a later time. Miller’s Sin City was the anti-superhero series, a total hard-boiled crime series that was unabashedly adult and not attempting genuine realism but the evocation of reality. Miller’s work spoke to a great enough audience that he could explore the comics he wanted to make. As such, Miller was staying clear of superheroes while his colleague was doing them for monetary reasons. This period of work was a creative renaissance, where Miller was writing the magnificent Martha Washington series as well as works with Geoff Darrow and cartooning several yarns for Sin City. His only major return to capes came when Todd McFarlane asked for four writers to write Spawn. Miller agreed, and his take on Spawn was admittedly the weakest compared to the other three (Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim) but it was still infinitely more interesting than most of the regular Spawn issues. He then wrote the Spawn/Batman crossover which while not a triumphant return to Batman for Miller it was not without its merits. This work was mainly a fault of genre, Miller is not a great writer of the supernatural, and Spawn simply wasn’t the right fit for Miller.

In a fascinating parallel, Moore had begun loving superheroes but had quickly wanted to divorce himself from them. But by the 1990s he was writing more superhero work then ever, yet he did so with an acute awareness that superheroes should solely be silly, disposable entertainment for children. In contrast Miller had been free to do what he wanted to do and found that there was an audience interested in reading his non-superhero work. This time period had Moore finding little genuine interest in superheroes, which would eventually lead him to treat superheroes as nothing but a backdrop for his stories. Miller in contrast would eventually return to superheroes with genuine joy.

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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. I’m really enjoying your posts on Miller and Moore. I’m not so familiar with Miller’s work at this time. I always found Sin City a week work by him. I was in love with Miller/Mazzucchelli’s Year One for it’s down-to-Earth realism. I found it a new high even for Miller who’s career was one high point after another. Though I was tired of his cartoony, sci-fi looking street gang members and was really looking forward to seeing him shed this childish aspect of his art and really start producing exciting, adult comics as he always claimed he was producing. My point is that as emotionally resonating as his work was, no one unused to suspending their disbelief as comic readers do and must, would never take his work series. Year One was finally a work that anyone, comics and non-comics readers alike, could read and take somewhat seriously. I was really disappointed when I saw Sin City because I felt it was a step back from where he had been. If an adult wouldn’t read Dark Knight for it’s campy bits, Sin City was really marginalizing him and his work even more. It actually felt like it was never a serious work for him but rather just him casually messing around with comics which Dark Horse was happy to buy off of him for their Legends line. I honestly haven’t picked up a Miller book since. His Electra Lives Again GN in my opinion is one of his best art jobs to date. With his writing in Year One and his art in Electra, you could really have something there. Unfortunately we never see him drawing and writing like that again. So I stopped following him and I don’t feel that I missed anything.

    Moore on the other hand was as relevant and groundbreaking as ever. The 90′s would see some great stuff like 1963 and Supreme but his best work was still to come like his treatise on magic (Promethea), his funniest work to date, and in contender for funniest comic ever, (Top Ten) was not just a comedy but a complex drama, and satire as well. Not to mention his big hit, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or any of the other ABC books. I think those works are as good or better than anything he produced in the 80′s and think it’s a travesty that the comics community has abandoned him the way they have. Fame is a fickle friend.

    Anyway I look forward to reading your next part.

  2. Tom C says:

    The thing that fascinates me about Miller and Moore is not the content of their work but the execution. Miller and moore were control freaks in the 80′s. Their work spelled everything out. i think what many readers call “mature” work is really spoon feeding an audience they didn’t trust to interpret their meaning. What both miller and moore began to do in the 90′s was simplify their technique. that takes tremendous courage for an artist because it requires the reader to supply meaning.

    Miller’s superhero work in the 90′s consisted of collaborations with other artists who were not his equals in terms of visual storytelling. Daredevil the man without fear was by far his best superhero work during this period. I think it’s every bit as good as earlier more “realistic” works like DD:Born again and batman year one.

    While I love Alan Moore I never found his work to be particularly deep so I’m sort of baffled at how many people were upset by his Image work in the 90′s. Moore’s strength was always in superior storytelling/pacing and that shined through on the spawn books. Moore’s Wildcats run could have been more in line with his pre-watchmen work like Swamp thing or Miracle man if it wasn’t mangled by the artists.They didn’t stage the book well at all. While Charest’s art was/is very pretty but he was a terrible panel to panel artist. There were several different artists drawing each issue most of the run. Where i find myself disappointed with Alan Moore work is when he declared he was going to undo the damage he’d done to comics and his solution was to become nostalgic and more derivative. LOEG was a great read but I found myself wondering why moore essentially an X-men comic starring the creations of 19th century authors whose work was public domain.

    • These are some good points. Though I can see your point, I wouldn’t say that they kept hyper control of their work, rather, they were being very particular about their work. They had something that they needed to express that required a lot of direction though I don’t think that they made demands on their collaborators to the point of stifling them. For example, I think one of Moore’s real virtues was that he inspired his collaborators to do their best work the way he did with Bissett/Totleben. I don’t feel that they were burdened with the weight of Moore’s demands, but rather pulled themselves up to the challenge of Moore’s vision. Miller, on his part, was extremely generous with his collaborators like Mazzucchelli and Sienkiewicz to the point of making his contribution hardly recognizable (at least in Bill’s case). It may just be semantics though I think there is a difference. And I do see what you mean about their work being much more loose in the 90′s. It seems like they were exploring the medium, looking for a new direction and it almost seems that Miller never found it again.

      “LOEG was a great read but I found myself wondering why Moore essentially (wrote) an X-men comic starring the creations of 19th century authors whose work was public domain.” But that’s the kind of comic he does best! I always loved Moore’s superhero work and found his other work much less interesting, even From Hell. Yes, superheroes are not the most sophisticated subject matter but he writes them so wonderfully. Even the Watchmen, with all of it’s fascinating analysis, is, after all, only a superhero comic. I wouldn’t recommend it to a non comic reader though, on the other hand, I would recommend Maus. But for all it’s kitsch vulgarity, I love his superhero work, and he really does take it to interesting, lofty places. I’ll never forget Jon’s line about human life, “Perhaps I’ll go create some.” Moore has a way of blowing your mind.

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