Alan Moore’s early professional work (such as Maxwell the Magic Cat, Roscoe Moscow, and The Stars My Degradation) was firmly rooted in comedy, which may seem at odds with the more later dramatic work he became famous for. Although he would continue to produce comedy throughout his career, it would be the dramatic works such as Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and Watchmen that would establish his formidable reputation in the comics field.
It would be easy to suggest that his early cartooning work is of little relevance to his later dramatic works, but they are a significant element in the development of his dramatic writing, and an understanding and appreciation of his early use of parody casts new light on his development as a writer.
The title of the strip, The Stars My Degradation, is itself a parody of the title of Alfred Bester’s classic Science Fiction novel The Stars My Degradation, published in 1955. In an interesting quirk of fate, Bester wrote scripts for DC comics during the 1940s, something Moore would go on to do in the 1980s. At this point we need to think about how parody works. In order to parody something you need to identify fundamental features of appearance or behaviour of a person or thing, understand how these operate, and then manipulate or exaggerate them for comedic purposes. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this strip is that it allows Moore to gain mastery over the techniques of parody.
He is transformed by Moore into Judge Dedd, a skeleton wearing a Dredd-style uniform. The lawyers and jury in the court room are robots, and can be viewed as a literal manifestation of a simile, namely — “Justice running like a well-oiled machine.” Moore continues the parody with the inclusion of the Judges of Bunslott’s world. The neat angle taken here is a reversal of the Mega City One concept, in which every citizen is potentially a criminal, or “perp” (as in perpetrator), as on Bunslott’s world over 80% of the population are law enforcement agents.
Moore continues to take established genre and comics characters and character types and play around them for humorous effect.
Lance Laser is a typically gung-ho space adventurer, a cliché of a character who, against type, is completely and utterly inept as a space hero. Moore also returns to Marvel comics with one of his most bizarre parodies.
Curt Vile is a pseudonym (inspired by composer Kurt Weill) that Moore used to sign his work for Sounds, allowing him to claim unemployment benefit without fear of reprisal. Through this guise Moore appears in various forms throughout the strip, but his appearances as the Watcher from Marvel Comics are perhaps the most bizarre, due to how they have grafted Moore’s face and beard onto the bald galactic observer.
Moore reserves his most extended parody for a key American comic book of this period: the Claremont / Cockrum / Byrne X-Men.
In Moore’s hands, Wolverine becomes Warfarin, and Colossus becomes Cholestorol. Storm becomes Scorn, while Nightcrawler is now Curbcrawler. They are introduced to us by the Look, who is obviously a parallel version of Cyclops.
The Ex-Men (“ex” as in “formerly”) are pitted against Moore’s own protagonists, which are also reflections of the real X-Men.
The Look battles Three-Eyes McGurk, as both possessing vision-based powers.
Scorn battles Nekrilene, both characters displaying an aloofness resulting from their special character status (Storm is the only Princess in her group, while Nekrilene is the only undead Zombie in hers).
Finally, we have Cholesterol and Dempster, both of whom are prone to bouts of depression — as seen when Cholesterol takes his “characterisation break” to muse upon his situation in life (in a wicked parody of Chris Claremont’s writing style).
This is Moore’s first extended look at the superhero, following the brief inclusion of characters in Roscoe Moscoe (as I previously discussed). He captures the likenesses of the X-men well, and deserves acknowledgement for the style he has fostered, a mash-up of ’60s Marvel Kirby, underground comix stalwarts Robert Crumb and S Clay Wilson, shot through with British children’s humour comics in the style of Leo Baxendale. But Moore comes to the decision to turn his back on cartooning, and it’s a decision that needs to be considered carefully here.
His statements that he felt himself neither good enough nor quick enough to succeed as a cartoonist are no doubt genuine. I’d take issue with the idea that he felt himself not “good enough” as his work becomes more complex, developed and aesthetically pleasing as he gains experience. I would suggest that his artistic work lacked a sense of originality, unable to escape the influences of the artists previously mentioned.
He had worked with words and produced written pieces previously, writing poetry and articles for fanzines, as well as scripting his own cartoons, and I feel that he came to see comics scriptwriting as a quicker, more expedient way of supporting his family. He followed the example of Steve Moore, who taught Moore the basic mechanics of a comics script. These are probably at the root of the desire to switch from cartooning as a main source of income. However, he would continue to enjoy producing Maxwell the Magic Cat until 1986, enjoying the means it allowed him to offer his view on important events and ideas, until a disagreement with the homophobic stance taken by the newspaper prompted his decision to end the strip.
The importance of the Sounds strips in light of Moore’s future comics writing career are twofold. First, they allow Moore to develop his skills in creating sequential art narratives, acting as a training ground for the fledgling comics’ writer. Second, in exposing the inadequacies in such characters through parody for humorous effect, he develops the ability to perceive fundamental elements of the superhero archetype, which then helps him in his dramatic revision of superheroes undertaken some years later in works such as Miracleman and Watchmen. These were also hugely influenced by Harvey Kurtzman’s Superduperman, published in Mad, and these strips include his own attempts at such parodies, and are a vital step in understanding Moore’s reinvention of the superhero in the 1980s.
However, before he would begin this reinvention, with Marvelman (renamed Miracleman for the US market), he needed to develop the ability to create tight, coherent narratives, something he was able to do with his work for 2000 AD, particularly his short science fiction stories.