The Super-Heroics of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, Part 4

Late ‘90s to ‘00s Superhero Work

In the middle of the 1990s Alan Moore did something that confounded everyone, he agreed to work with Rob Liefeld. Liefeld was a bold creator and entrepreneur and his reputation as a creator and entrepreneur is controversial to say the least. But Moore enjoyed that Liefeld offered total creative freedom, and followed Liefeld when he broke off from Image to make Awesome Comics. Moore’s run on Liefeld’s Superman-analogue Supreme was beginning to demonstrate how critical Moore was of superheroes as dark and serious figures. His crossover book Judgment Day was a book that was intended to end Liefeld’s style of writing in Liefeld’s universe (with Liefeld providing the art). Moore provided a justification for the dark, violent take on superheroes in Judgment Day while at the same time saying that Liefeld’s depiction of superheroes was because of a person playing with reality, and a mistake rather than how the world (or rather the superheroes world) was meant to be.

Moore was doing this as his work on From Hell was beginning to finish (Big Numbers was tragically lost as an “impossible” book to make and Lost Girls was years away from completion) and his attention was becoming more focused solely on superheroes. Moore’s opinion of superheroes as said last week was more or less embracing superheroes as escapism, and he was beginning to develop a line of comics in Liefeld’s Awesome-verse that would be all written by him. But then Liefeld’s company fell apart and “a murder of crows” according to Moore quickly tried to pick up Moore from Awesome’s corpse. Moore liking Jim Lee as a business man agreed to join Lee’s Wildstorm Comics. Moore was given his own line of comics with creative freedom.  He entitled his line “America’s Best Comics” and created several fantastic series with artists he wanted to collaborate with.  But then the crushing tragedy to Moore came with DC buying Wildstorm. Moore even thought that DC bought the company solely so they could re-acquire Alan Moore, though Jim Lee has actively dismissed this idea. Moore agreed to work with DC if only because he had to answer to Jim Lee rather than Paul Levitz. But Moore was bothered too often by DC and eventually left America’s Best Comics behind.

But how was America’s Best Comics as a reading experience? Did it live up to its bold title? Well, I wasn’t reading comics at the time of publication, but I suspect I would have been reading everything Moore was publishing at the time it was being released monthly. Moore’s work on America’s Best Comics was not genuine superhero comics. The entire shared universe of America’s Best Comics referred to themselves as Science Heroes, and these works ranged from pastiche in Tom Strong to an exploration of magic in Promethea. Superheroes were becoming a backdrop for Moore’s work. Despite Promethea looking like a super-heroine, the story was an exploration of Moore’s views on magic and art. Similarly Tom Strong owed more to pulp characters than to Superman. Only Top 10, was an outright superhero series. But in a clever and creative twist, it was a city entirely composed of superheroes where the entire gift of superpowers was as trivial as cars or telephones. Instead Moore did something almost similar to Miller’s Daredevil run, where Moore told a cop drama series in Top 10, but used superheroes as the society where the police lived in. The work in America’s Best Comics reads as a much happier and comfortable man, but Moore’s approach to superheroes was even more disinterested as he was ostensibly writing them. He now viewed superheroes as a hook to draw readers, but then utilized the superhero appearance to tell unique different stories.

Unlike Moore, Frank Miller returned to Marvel and even DC with much more enthusiasm. Miller had been a pioneer for creator’s rights and found that a return to the company-owned works was fine as he was still at liberty to work on independent works simultaneously. In fact, Miller’s return to Marvel came in 1993, not soon after he began his creative renaissance. His first genuine return to superheroes (sans Spawn) was the fantastic Daredevil: The Man Without Fear.  It would be Miller’s final take on the character and also offering a definitive take on the origin of the hero. While still telling Daredevil in his gritty-crime book style, Miller was now warmly embracing the notion that Matt Murdock was a fully mature man when he puts on spandex and becomes Daredevil. Miller viewed the evolution to a superhero not so much as a rallying cry as he did in The Dark Knight Returns, but as a good man who is willing to help others. Miller was beginning to embrace the superhero genre and the conventions while Moore had all but forsaken them.

Miller’s bold return to DC was a follow-up to The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again. But unlike the previous story which was a deconstruction of the superhero to reveal them faulty figures Miller now was embracing the superhero for all their surreal glory. Miller wrote The Dark Knight Strikes Again as a satirical celebration of the silver age of comics. Critical of superheroes as dark and serious, Miller instead showed the superheroes as champions of the people who would help directly liberate the people from a fascist government. Miller drew pages intentionally awful and crafted a story that now saw heroes as being ridiculous but glorious characters. Miller did not see the superheroes as sacred characters but he did embrace them as fantasy and figures that reflected the mood of a creator and a country. The work was not warmly embraced as the satirical celebration of superheroes was met with confusion and debate among fans and critics alike. Miller now saw the superheroes as enjoyable for their colorful and ludicrous nature. He later applied this satirical nature to the downright farcical All-Star Batman and Robin where Batman is a sadistic adrenaline-junky and rationality and compassion is lost in the world of superheroes.

As people were beginning to adapt Moore’s work into films he was beginning to be interviewed more and more.  His attitude to superheroes had now soured to downright hate. It is almost difficult for me to reconcile my love of Moore’s work with some of these statements: “I haven’t read any superhero comics since I finished with ‘Watchmen.’ I hate superheroes. I think they’re abominations.” Moore still held that superheroes were escapist entertainment, but he increasingly described words to this effect with a frothing disdain. Moore now disowned superheroes as pointless entertainment and has stated that people who enjoy superheroes are emotionally subnormal. The statements are so repugnant to me on a personal level and so many responded negatively. Moore is increasingly critical of superheroes and by extension all escapist entertainment. To some extent, I can understand the vantage point and there are many who have defended Moore. But I found Moore’s statements to be bitter and downright cruel. He reflected this malicious attitude in his final work that included superheroes in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume III: Century, where the superheroes were ultimately pitiful, sexist failures with the superhero Jack Flash committing suicide (in homage the Rolling Stones song). This angry venom against superheroes and their fans had forever distanced fans from Moore. He seemed to genuinely hate anyone who genuinely enjoyed superheroes and was quick to spit vitriol against those who dared to critique him.

Miller himself alienated all of his fans and critics with the unapologetic propaganda comic Holy Terror. Miller wrote a genuine propaganda comic featuring a superhero fighting Al-Qaeda. Miller now appreciated the feel of superheroes, celebrating their fantasy to elate people. Miller was not concerned about people’s reactions to the work and was similarly apathetic to the controversy surrounding his expressed opinions on Occupy Wall Street. Miller was interested in solely telling the story he wanted and celebrated the superhero and the individual triumphing over an evil that as he saw was an enemy to everything he holds dear. Holy Terror is a work that is not without some merit from an artistic standpoint but for nearly all fans it was the final nail in the coffin for Miller. Few defend Miller’s work and instead focus on his earlier era.

Parallel to this Alan Moore’s modern work is now met with equal parts derision and fascination.  Both creators have gone through a great arc in their approaches to superheroes. They had different artistic approaches and attitudes to the superhero genre with both celebrating it at one point and also condemning at another. Both have strident defenders and critics, they indisputably changed the way the world looks at superheroes. Their work was an inspiration for a generation, and while both have mixed feelings on the impact of their superhero work, their superhero work is the most significant modern comics.

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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 see where you were going with the first part of your article. At that time I felt that you didn’t accurately defend your premise that Miller finally embraced superheroes but with this article I can definitely see that.
    Many see Sin City as a worthy work by Miller but I find that it has the roots of the end of Miller’s greatness. The work just feels sloppy especially when you compare it to the writing of Born Again or the art of Electra Live’s Again. Sin City was a step down and it’s been downhill ever since.
    I feel that some of Moore’s best work was his ABC comics. Promethea is as epic as anything he has ever written; as epic as Marvelman and as grand as the Watchmen, though he takes it in a whole new direction. The whole line is a worthy addition to Moore’s legacy and I feel that we haven’t heard the about it from critics and historians as it’s relevance will become apparent in retrospect.
    It’s amazing to me to see how much Moore has mastered the superhero genre. Even as early as 1963 we see Moore riffing on Stan Lee’s Marvel so effortlessly. he mastered it back then so of coarse his ABC work is going to take them in an entirely new and innovative direction.
    You say that Moore’s statement about superheroes was repugnant to you but I find it a understandable statement from someone who has been abused by the comics industry as much as he has been. As I said, he already mastered the genre by the end of the 80′s, of coarse he is going to make disparaging comments about something that comes so easy to him. And something that the industry holds so dear that they would rape a highly innovative and well respected creator as DC did to Alan Moore.
    I find it very strange and a little appalling that people can’t see where Moore is coming from. If a friend came to you and told you that a mutual friend had stolen their money and furniture, people would be up in arms about it, but people have a hard time seeing how Moore feels slighted by DC’s deception toward Moore. When Moore worked out a deal with DC he was very vocal about their earlier abuse toward Siegle and Shuster and was asking for a new deal that would set a precedence for future creators, one where the creators would reap the benefit of their creations. Moore signed the deal in good faith after expressing his concerns and DC promptly reneged (in spirit) on the deal. When they did, not only did they loose Moore’s good faith in them but they demonstrated their position to all future creators that they were and still are at present, abusive toward their creators. And to further add insult to injury, Jim Lee, the one who started the whole independent creators publishing revolution, sold Moore out to DC. I think Moore’s reaction is totally justified.
    I also disagree with your appraisal of Century. I feel that Moore is as innovative as he has ever been and I am excited to see what future projects he comes up with. the Nemo series has been lots of fun and I anxiously await the new installment in March. I only wish there wasn’t so much negative press against Moore, possibly discouraging future masterpieces. We should be loudly celebrating and financially supporting him, egging on his further involvement in the medium, not whining about his comments, and possibly discouraging future masterpieces from being created. He is getting up there in years. We only have a few good ones left, lets egg him on and see what amazing new worlds he takes us to.

    • James Kelly says:

      Thomas, it was not that Moore was critical of the superhero genre that disappointed me. Nor was his rage with DC. I understand everything about those issues, and sympathize with Moore. He was very much wronged by the situation. What I disagree with, and am disappointed in is that he then began to attack fans of superheroes as emotionally subnormal and losers. He was using the same argument that so many have been made in “The Big Bang Theory” that if you enjoy superhero comics you are a loser. That is downright malicious and unnecessary.

      Also, I did not say that I disliked League Volume III: Century. All I was analyzing was the portrayal of superheroes in the piece, which is very scathing. The main content deals with a perceived decline in fiction, so the portrayal of superheroes is in tone with the main piece.

  2. Edgar Retana says:

    This is an interesting topic, Moore’s growing hatred of superheroes and the trend he inadvertently started. I wonder what you would think of this article deriding the Rorschach character as a total failure on Moore’s part. (The blog itself is Moore-like but going so far as to deride the very concept of fiction as ultimately harmful, humans not being able to distinguish fact from fiction as an objective fact)

    I feel as tho Miller didn’t go far enough with his Holy Terror, which is interesting to analyze but rather toxic to handle, and it’s golden age aspirations. The Taliban could’ve used giant robots like the nazis were shown to in those golden age books. Too late now

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