Friday, November 30, 2012

More Moore part 3: Marvelman Book III

Miracleman, Book III: Olympus (1987-89)

Holy hell, Moore knows how to close off a saga; the storyline starts off exponentially more widescreen and epic than the last, and just grows from there. Marvelman's third act uses a framing story, a monologue by Marvelman himself as he wanders the empty halls of some sort of supremely opulent palace, describing the events that allowed this construction of 'Olympus'. Moore is in rare form, even more so than the first act, his pen dripping with symbolism and long, poetic soliloquys  from Marvelman, the newly discovered Marvelwoman (but not Liz Moran, Marvelman's human wife, who is increasingly sidelined until she simply leaves), and their new alien companions, the highly advanced Qys and Warpsmiths, who put aside their centuries-old rivalries in order to bring the newly-'intelligent' Earth into some sort of galactic community.

One of the main themes running through Marvelman has been whether the presence of superhumans among men is a good thing or ill,and act three is pregnant with the question. We still have yet to see Marvelman do anything at all heroic during the story, and as the story reaches its conclusion many of the things that he does for the 'greater good' border on despicable: Johnny Bates finally loses control of the beast inside him that is Kid Marvelman, which precedes the utter devestation of issue 15, Nemesis (all the chapters of the final act are named after Greek Gods and Demigods). Kid Marvelman obliterates London, and John Totelben shows his chops drawing some absolutely horrific imagery: heads on pikes, women and children eyeless and armless, human skins draped on walls...most of the work in the issue was apparently influenced by Goya, which comes as no surprise at all. After a chapter-long battle in which several of Marvelman's new 'pantheon' is killed or wounded to put Kid Marvelman back into the body of 13 year old Bates, Marvelman himself ends the problem by unceremoniously snapping the boy's neck. Nice going, superhero.

All that's left after the battle, now that there's no question the world knows of the superhuman's existence, is to take control of the world in a kind of fascist utopia, Marvelman, Marvelwoman, the Qys and Warpsmiths, and even Marvelman's goddesslike daughter Winter all keeping a very Big Brother-style eye on the humans of Earth to make sure they live in peace and happiness, or else. Baby Winter even spearheads the eugenics program, naturally. The End.

The last act of Marvelman is indescribably good. If we're still using the Shakespeare analogy, Marvelman ends up being the superhero Richard III, only unlike Richard, what was once Michael Moran ends up on top, untouchable, and stays there when the story closes; there may be rumbles of discontent among the populace, but they go unheeded and in the end are only an uneasy footnote in Moore's tale (he'll use a similar hinting of what badness might befall the plot after the final curtain in Watchmen). John Totelben's art is light years beyond Chuck Bekham's scribbles, and though I still miss Alan Davis and Garry Leach's dark, vicious shadows of the first book, Totelben's work on Marvelman's Ragnarok in issue 15 is impressively shocking and appalling. Moore is in full flower again, a story that posits superheroes as literal gods and takes an unsurprising dig at organized religion as a result...when gods walk the earth, how can society not end up fascist? Mind-blowingly well-written, crushingly depressing, beautiful and horrific in equal turns, Marvelman's final act really shows how forward-thinking Moore was, and how ripples of this work are still felt today, in comics, movies, and literature. We are robbed at a very base level that this masterwork isn't available for all to read, taken together it has to be one of the great trilogies of our lifetime.


Best quote: "Oh Earth, look up/Look up beyond the century's horizons, where the light of the millennium to come already stain the skies with colours strange and new/Look up: we have repealed the laws of gravity, torn off the ceiling of the world that was so very low/The skies are yours, new beaches made of cirrus-cloud, new valleys made of strato-cumulus/Lift up your heads! You were not made to gaze at gutters, mud and puddles all your lives, but have not dared to raise your sights in case the thing you longed for was not there/Look up and see it now, the shape that's haunted human dreams and legends since we first peered from the jungles long ago and wondered what might dwell upon those blue and distant hills, upon those mountains there.../Oh Earth, look up."

Up Next: Springtime for Hitler in V for Vendetta

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

More Moore part 2: Marvelman Book II

Miracleman, Book II: The Red King Syndrome (1984-85)

One thing you immediately notice upon flipping through the middle book in the Marvelman trilogy is the inherit problem with comic series that aren't explicitly designed as miniseries: the revolving door of art teams.  In its inception Marvelman was the work of Alan Moore and Garry Leach, but that duo lasted a whole issue before Alan Davis was introduced, and by issue 3 Leach had gone. The problem is exacerbated in Book II: not only are there three different artists between issue 4 and issue 10, but they've got such wildly different styles that it can really take you out of the overall narrative. Add this to the fact that Moore himself isn't firing on all cylinders, and The Red King Syndrome falls well short of the first book.

The book really contains two separate arcs: we start first with Marvelman hunting Dr. Emil Gargunza, the man who made Mickey Moran into this being to begin with, enslaving him and creating a false reality for his entire life. Alan Davis starts the arc, and with the exception of a clumsily-done kidnapping scene, the issues aren't too bad, with Gargunza narrating his life to Moran's wife Liz being a high point. Davis' work is as good as ever, dark and severe, and while none of it reaches the heights of the first three issues of the story, things are looking to be very satisfying. So what happened?

In a name, Chuck Beckham. In a phrase, corny revenge plot.

To be fair, I'm sure there are those out there who would love this story. Once Marvelman arrives at Gargunza's Central American hideout, there's plenty of action and a few interesting plot twists, introducing the vicious Marveldog. It's just that Alan Moore proved he could work beyond the confines of genre with the first three issues, and this simple 'superbeing gets revenge on creator' trope should be something he explodes, not follows rigorously. It's got action, and a satisfying conclusion in Marvelman taking his creator into orbit and then throwing him back to Earth as a falling star, but it's rather rote all in all. Beckham's art doesn't help this in the least, being a bog-standard 'How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way' style artist who gives everyone, even elderly Gargunza and out-of-shape Evelyn Cream, toned, muscled bodies. Thankfully he only sticks around till the end of the revenge arc, but his emotionless faces and bland bodies sap any sense of ethos out of an already not-so-great script.

So where to go after Gargunza (literally) fizzles out? Childbirth!

Art for the second arc of the book comes by way of Rick Veitch, who had already began working with Moore on Swamp Thing by this point (one more thing Alan's early works were known for were extremely protracted publishing schedules). Light years more accomplished than Chuck Beckham, Veitch is immediately put to the test in penciling Liz Moran giving birth, in a clinically unflinching scene that lasts nearly the entire issue. After the Gargunza snoozer, Moore was ready to start doing things differently again, and an explicit birth scene is one very strong, unexpected way to do this. Add in the fact that the baby talks seconds after being born, and...seems like Moore and Veitch were able to tap into that Swamp Thing creepiness just fine. The arc ends with the arrival of alien beings here to contain the rampant superheroism...and Johnny Bates, aka Kid Miracleman, in a coma and psychically attacked by his alter ego, is still a variable that I can't wait to see resolved.


Best quote: "It leapt then, its breath slamming into my face, a hot and rancid wall/And then there was a movement too fast to see, a pain too swift to experience/...and all that was a second ago. Where am I now?"

Up next: I married an alien in Marvelman Book III.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

More Moore part 1: Marvelman, Book I

Miracleman Book I: A Dream of Flying (1982)

A quick note on terminology: for those who don't know, Moore, Davis, and Leach's original comic was called 'Marvelman' from 1982 to 1985, at which time the character was changed to 'Miracleman' due to pressures from Marvel Comics. These days Marvel actually owns the rights (to the character, not to Moore's comics, though that's a story for another time), so now he's called 'Marvelman' again, but as you can see on that picture up there, it says 'Miracleman' on the cover. So for these three essays, it'll be 'Miracleman' for the title, but 'Marvelman' for any mentions in the essays. Got it? Good.

The most arresting thing about Marvelman is that, right out of the gate, Alan Moore proved that he could write comics better than anyone else. Marvelman would be an incredible work for even a journeyman writer, but for a man not even 30, whose previous works involved a bunch of shorts for 2000 A.D. and a Doctor Who one-off, it is absolutely unreal. Moore's prose is self-assured and poetic from the outset, especially in his descriptions:

"The fear is there, coiled in his stomach as he watches, unable to look away. The spider is laying an egg! An egg that burns like the sun..."

Prior to Moore's involvement, Marvelman was a goofy Silver Age character, basically a copyright-free riff on Captain Marvel. In Moore's hands, he becomes something much more: in just these three issues the tables are turned, Marvelman is cathartic and meaningful in ways that Captain Marvel never could even dream of. Props must be given to the artists; Alan Davis and Garry Leach's work is arresting, all dark shadows, grit, and ugly characters, which only makes the contrast greater when Marvelman comes on the scene, glittering and perfect like an Aryan superman (it's not for nothing that Moore quotes Nietzsche in the first issue). Marvelman predicts the entire thrust of comics in the Eighties and since; before The Dark Knight Returns or even Moore's own The Killing Joke and Watchmen, Marvelman was there doing the same thing, and doing it better (well, maybe not better than Watchmen, but certainly earlier). And already Moore is deconstructing superhero archetypes: Marvelman has no prayer against disturbed, disturbing former sidekick Kid Marvelman (surely one of the better villains in recent memory, can't wait to see what Moore does with him later) and only wins the battle on a technicality. Additionally, his attempt to catch a falling baby ends not in cheers and relief, but in broken bones and burns and regret. Try as he might, Marvelman seems ill-equipped to be a superhero, and there's question whether just his returning to the scene caused Kid Marvelman to go ballistic (which has become THE trope used endlessly in Batman, to good effect for sure).

The book ends with Marvelman learning his origins, not as a hero for mankind but as an experiment, his memories toyed with by Dr. Gargunza, a recurring villain in the old, Silver Age issues. An ill-equipped superhero perhaps, but he still has the power of a god, and now the rage to match.


Best quote: "Her name is Stephanie. She likes Adam and the Ants. Her boyfriend's name is Brian. She collects wedgwood. Her insides have turned to water. She is only human."

Up next: Clash of the Titans in Marvelman Book II.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Announcing More Moore: An Alan Moore Retrospective

It has long been the assumption of anyone who has even the passing interest in the comic book form that Alan Moore is the greatest writer to be contained in the medium. I mean hell, I know it, you know it, anybody that knows comics beyond the basic "Batman, Spider-Man, Superman" triumvirate knows it. And yet comic fans are as beaten down as video game fans by proponents of the 'higher arts' who think that the medium is entirely populated by children and mouth-breathers who have nothing worthwhile to give the artistic world as far as rational thought. So, in the interest of this supposed Shakespeare of the sequential art form, I've decided to plow through Mr. Moore's major works, to see if what he has to say is really worthwhile for discussion on a higher level. Read with me, if you will, and let's see what parts of Alan's oeuvre deserve to be discussed in academia...and which, uh...don't.

The works I'll be commenting on are:

Marvelman, Books I-III
V for Vendetta
Captain Britain
Swamp Thing, Books I-VI
D. R. & Quinch
The Ballad of Halo Jones, Books I-III
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
The Killing Joke
DC Short Work Roundup
From Hell
"In Pictopia"
Big Numbers
A Small Killing
Spawn: Blood Feud
Violator vs. Badrock
Alan Moore's WildC.A.T.s
Image Short Work Roundup
Supreme books I-II
Judgement Day
"The Spirit's New Adventures" #1-3
Tom Strong Books I-VI
Tom Strong's Terrific Tales
Promethea Books I-V
Top 10 books I-II
Top 10: Smax
Top 10: The 49ers
Tomorrow Stories, Books I-II
Lost Girls
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Books I-III

As I wrote out this list I realized, with a certain amount of dread, that I had only previously read a very small contingent of Mr. Moore's works, and even worse that there was a lot of material I hadn't even HEARD of. This is to be a very long, very daunting task, but with any luck it'll bring me to a better understanding of the medium, as well as its pagan king. Keep an eye out for Marvelman book I to start things off soon enough, and feel free to read along and give your own comments.