Shiny Shelf

DC Universe – The Stories of Alan Moore

By Lance Parkin on 27 February 2006

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

After a surprisingly few number of years writing for Marvel UK, ‘2000AD’ and ‘Warrior’ in Britain, Alan Moore did what almost no British comic creator had done before, and what almost every British comic creator would do from that point, and started working for American comics companies. Disillusioned with Marvel, he concentrated on their arch rivals, DC, who at that point were in something of a lull.

The rest is history. Moore took a simple formula he’d honed on ‘Marvelman’ in ‘Warrior’ – imagine what would happen if superheroes really existed. Imagine the political, social and (above all) personal implications. Moore was given a title that barely qualifed as C-List, ‘Swamp Thing’, and within a year had turned it into one of DC’s bestselling titles. The revolution that followed, in which just about every DC comic going was revamped using the same formula, was not just down to Moore, but he was a very visible presence and, most importantly, this period saw Moore lay down some of the classics – ‘The Killing Joke’, ‘V for Vendetta’, and – it’s fair praise, rather than exaggeration – one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Watchmen.

What history hasn’t recorded so well is that Moore was a jobbing writer, and for the first couple of years, as well as his regular gig on ‘Swamp Thing’, was doing the short stories and fill-in issues all comics writers start off doing. A couple of years ago, DC collected most of this into the book ‘Across the Universe’. Now they’ve brought out a new version that adds Moore’s ‘last Superman story’, ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’ and the Batman story ‘The Killing Joke’.

Let’s start with that. When Tim Burton’s first Batman movie came out in 1989, most press and publicity said it was inspired by Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. Miller’s work on that is superb, and I liked the recent sequel too. But it has almost nothing in common with the movie. Instead, Burton clearly took all his cues from ‘The Killing Joke’ – everything from the central dynamic of the Batman and Joker, right through to the idea that Gotham City is in a timewarp where it’s the present day but still looks like the late thirties. (‘The Killing Joke’ is also one of the few comics Burton has ever acknowledged liking. QED.) It’s one of Moore’s most well-known works … and it’s also one of his weakest. Don’t get me wrong – pale imitations of this and DKR have kept the character at the top of the tree for nearly twenty years. Even now, three of the longest-running current Batman storylines – the Joker as the absolute arch villain, Barbara Gordon in a wheelchair and the Red Hood – all gained their momentum here. But there is no great insight into the characters. It looks very, very pretty thanks to Brian Bolland’s artwork, and – for perhaps the only time – Moore’s involvement is a little overshadowed by the pictures.

There are some superb Superman stories here – For the Man Who Has Everything has recently been adapted for the JLU cartoon, and shows a human side to Superman even in the midst of a story set on Krypton. That’s also in evidence in a Swamp Thing/Superman crossover, where Superman catches something nasty from an alien plant. But pride of place has to go to ‘Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?’, a story where the Silver Age Superman is confronted with his own Ragnarok, paying off stories that had, in some cases, run for fifty years. Moore had ushered in the revolution, and the ‘silly, childish’ Superman was being shelved in favour of a more modern, yuppified take on the character that’s endured in the comics, ‘Lois and Clark’ and ‘Smallville’. Here, Moore embraces the most ridiculous aspects of the legend, and has them go down fighting. Superman has rarely been done well. Every time Alan Moore touched him, he found gold. If you want to know why Superman is better than Batman, look no further than this volume.

The rest of the volume isn’t quite as monumental. It’s work that in places, ‘The Omega Men’ and Green Lantern’ stories in particular, resemble the short strips for 2000AD or Doctor Who Weekly. The ‘Green Arrow’, ‘Clayface’ and ‘Vigilante’ stories all attempt to reconcile the real world with comic book logic, and all are interesting sketches for Moore’s later work. Nowadays, it’s hard to remember just how shocking a Vigilante story about domestic violence was. But all are readable, and there are very few comics from the period that stand up quite so well today. It’s both a shame and a relief that DC don’t republish other people’s fill-in strips from the time to show just how much better Moore was at this sort of thing. This lack of context is perhaps most acute, for a slightly different reason, with the ‘Secret Origins’ story. Originally just one of four possible origins presented in one issue, Moore’s is a clever, solid piece of work that points to his later interest in the occult while tying in with similar work on ‘Swamp Thing’ (the pale echoes of which became ‘Hellblazer’ and ‘The Sandman’), but it’s one chapter of four and seems slight on its own.

Every library, and not just those of comic fans, ought to have copies of ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’. This is more of a curio, although the inclusion of the big Superman and Batman stories certainly strengthen it. It’s a record of the moment when comics went from being kids stuff to being for adults, with all the awkwardness, experimentation and straining against boundaries that implies.

You can buy the DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore here – and Lance Parkin’s book about Moore’s career is available here.

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By Lance Parkin

Lance Parkin writes lots of things, including a biography of Alan Moore that's due out late next year. Find out more at his website.

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