Wednesday, August 21, 2013

More Moore part 23: DC Shorts Roundup part 2

"A Man's World" (1985)

This second Omega Men short couldn't be further from "Brief Lives", at least in terms of quality. A cute alien anthropologist finds a primitive tribe of men that seem to have no concept of what women are. She asks one of the tribesmen how his people reproduce, and they have sex. The next morning, he leaves the hut and checks on the babies of the tribe, who reproduce asexually, like mollusks. And that's it? I don't know if the mollusk reveal is supposed to be a twist or what, but there's really nothing worth going on here. Maybe it's a better read if you're an Omega Men maniac, but as-is, "A Man's World" is, at best, a waste of a couple minutes.

"The Jungle Line" (1985)

"The Jungle Line" is a typical DC team-up from around the time: two heroes run into each other, a misunderstanding makes them fight for a few pages, and then they team up to stop some villain. Even in the '80s, the team-up was an inoffensive bit of padding, with usually somewhat of a Silver Age throwback feel to it. What makes Alan Moore's single foray into the genre is his choice of heroes: Superman is a no-brainer, but here he teams up with the Big Green Machine himself, Swamp Thing! Rick Veitch channels his inner Curt Swan in a story about Supes going insane because of a hunk of Kryptonian fungus called Bloodmorel, and Swamp Thing finds his comatose body after the Man of Steel crashes a used car in the Louisianan wilderness. Once again trapped in his own mind by a sinister plant, Superman has all sorts of hallucinations, of bleak red landscapes and massive skeletal automatons, to the point where I really have to wonder if Scott Snyder and his ilk had been reading this story before coming up with 'The Rot' in the New 52 Swamp Thing stories. His mind clouded, Superman goes after Swamp Thing briefly before Swamp Thing pulls Supes into The Green, cleansing his mind and body. Superman wakes up, clueless as to what happened, and flies off, good as new.

Outside of the disturbing hallucinations, there's nothing special about "The Jungle Line", but it's good, harmless fun regardless, a quintessential team-up story under its strange choice of heroes and its battlefield of the mind: the heroes start out fighting, and it's only by working together that they can overcome the villain-of-the-week. Veitch's art is great, especially his closeups of Superman's crazy mug, all be-stubbled and ranting like an old EC horror lead, and Tatjana Wood does a fantastic job with colors as always, the Red World looking scorched and alien. If you're a fan of New 52 Swamp Thing, it's worth picking this up just to see the kernels of the new works opening story arc. Not Moore's best, not even his best short wok (honestly, not even close) but it's a nice palette cleanser for heavier works.

"Tygers" (1986)

Heavier works like this one. Oh man, like this one. "Tygers" is another Green Lantern story, this one detailing the backstory of Abin Sur, the Lantern who gave original Green Lantern Hal Jordan his ring and rank to begin with. In "Tygers", Abin Sur is exploring the corpseworld Ysmault, where the Lovecraftian abominations that make up the Empire of Tears have been chained for all eternity. Ysmault and its inhabitants are horrifying, part flesh, part architecture, and the demonic Qull of the Five Inversions feeds Sur twisted truths that will one day lead to his doom, kicking in motion the entirety of the Green Lantern story. In the future, when Abin Sur's ship falls screaming to a crash below, he can hear Qull and his chained brethren laughing.

"Tygers" is a brilliant fusion of horror into a superhero story, a visceral, body-horror-inflected work made all the more fantastic by Kevin O'Neill's totally unique, deep shadowed landscapes of pulpy masses and twisted demons. The whole planet of Ysmault looks like a scene out of Hellraiser, and the living architecture whispering promises to Abin Sur only ratchet up the hellish feeling. Here, Moore uses the 2000 A.D.-style twist ending; Qull's words of Sur's oncoming death haunting Sur to such an extent that he inevitably seals his own fate; to flesh out Green Lantern's mythos, giving Sur a reason to be traveling by spacecraft when we know that the Power Rings allow flight as-is. Modern Lantern wunderkind Geoff Johns mined into "Tygers" when writing his Lantern-centric epic Blackest Night, as many of Qull's prophecies about the end of the Lanterns are fleshed out and used during Johns' Lantern apocalypse. Kevin O'Neill's technique is unlike anybody else in the business, and "Tygers" is a great place to get used to his pulpy viscera before diving head-on into The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If you're a Green Lantern fan, check out "Tygers" for its deeper connection to the Lantern mythos, but even if you're not, the worldbuilding by Moore and O'Neill deserves to be admired.

"Footsteps" (1987)

"Footsteps" tells the origin tale of The Phantom Stranger, A member of the DC occult pantheon used by Alan Moore to great extent in Swamp Thing. Here, prior to his career as a wandering paranormal assistant, the Stranger was an angel who was unable to take sides during Lucifer's rebellion. Cast off by Heaven, the new denizens of Hell tear off his wings and both sides leave him to wander the Earth for eternity.

To this reader, "Footsteps" is totally forgettable. There's a plot that runs concurrent to the Paradise Lost-style story, of a homeless man being similarly complacent in a gang war, that I didn't remember at all when it came time to sit down for this review. Joe Orlando, he of the endless prestigious career starting in Mad and EC, who last worked with Moore doing the pirate comic backup in chapter five of Watchmen, does the art in an EC horror pulp style, lots of various shades of red and burgundy, but the story leaves no lasting impression. John Constantine has gone on record canonizing this particular origin story, so big fans of Vertigo or New 52's Justice League Dark might find more merit within, but even as a Vertigo fan myself, I left the story bored.

"In Blackest Night" (1987)

Another Green Lantern story, this one penciled by Bill Willingham, about young Lantern Katma Tui and her attempts to find a new member of the Corps in the lightless deep space called The Obsidian Depths. The creature she finds there is totally blind and has no concept of color, thus the idea of a 'green lantern' makes no sense to it. Quick-thinking, Katma fudges the idea of the Corps to be more about sound than light. She describes the ring's energy to the creature as a bell making sound waves, and even changes up the Green Lantern oath to fit a creature with no concept of sight or color:

"In loudest din or hush profound, my ears catch evil's slightest sound.."

"In Blackest Night" is the slightest of Moore's Green Lantern work, but it's not too bad, it just doesn't have the killer ending of "Mogo Doesn't Socialize" or the squamous dread of "Tygers". The concept of adjusting the idea of the Green Lantern Corps to fit cultures that wouldn't understand it is clever, but like "A Man's World", the story just kind of ends after it does what it wants to, with no real resolution (though not anywhere near as jarring as "A Man's World" thankfully). Still, "In Blackest Night" shows that Moore was more than capable with the Green Lantern mythos, and probably could have made a killer arc if given the chance.

"Mortal Clay (1987)

 Moore's final short for DC is "Mortal Clay", a Clayface story of all things, that takes the sympathetic treatment that Mr. Freeze will get in a few years with Batman: The Animated Series and makes a gorgeous, by turns comical and by turns aching, story for one of Batman's worst-utilized rogues. This Clayface is Preston Payne, which is Clayface #3 I think, who can kill with a touch and is stuck in a biosuit to keep himself from falling apart. "Mortal Clay" is the story of Payne's relationship with Helena, a silent, austere woman whom Preston does not seem to realize is a mannequin. Payne narrates the story, and his narration tends to be hilarious, living the ups and downs of domestic life with his silent companion, embracing her after the stores close, joking darkly about women and shopping when she is moved to the ladies eveningwear section, becoming enraged when a night watchmen gets too handsy. This last action brings in the Batman, and when Clayface becomes convinced that Bats has stolen Helena's affection, the spurned lover attacks with a ferocity, until Batman realizes what has Preston so upset, and offers to help. Our story ends in Clayface's new cell in Arkham, while Preston and Helena watch TV, drink beer, and settle into a vaguely Honeymooners-esque marital routine. As they do, Preston's narration finishes us up, in possibly the funniest monologue Moore's ever done:

"He tried./Too bad it didn't work out./Oh, I suppose we can tolerate each other enough to live together, and neither of us wants to be the first to mention divorce./But the love...the love's all dead./Her habits and snobberies grow increasingly irritating. I long to be rid of her, but I can't bring myself to do anything./Each day she becomes older, dowdier...never mind. One day I shall be free. After all.../She can't live forever."

Even now, I can't read that without cracking a big smile. "Mortal Clay" is the perfect blend of the tragic and the comic, accomplishing in mere pages what many authors, graphic novel and otherwise, couldn't do in volumes. Moore writes the perfect Clayface story, a hit out of the park worthy of Dini and Timm's iconic turn for Mr. Freeze. "Mortal Clay" joins Watchmen, Swamp Thing, "Tygers", and "For the Man Who Has Everything" as absolute gold during his tenure at DC. Finally, when DC's withholding merchandise profits became too much for the Wizard of Northampton, it was time for him to go. And go he did, back to independents, where he was about to embark on yet another epic for the ages.


Up next: "The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn't you."

Monday, August 12, 2013

More Moore part 22: DC Shorts Roundup part 1

Special thanks to Cat for the generous gift of this collection! Wonderful birthday present.

Before we bid farewell to DC Entertainment, here are short writeups of his lesser works, all of which are collected in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore, which also contains Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? and The Killing Joke, making it a pretty good buy, all things considered. The stories are all short and sweet, several having twist endings similar to the 'Future Shock' one-shots Moore had done for 2000 A.D. prior. Some of these works deserve more extensive discussions than others, but, as befitting Moore's 80's work, nearly all of them are at least entertaining, and a few are better than some of his more well-known and prestigious work.

"For the Man who has Everything" (1985)

And the first of those surprises is 1985's "For the Man who has Everything", a Superman story that is not only better than the average-to-middling Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? but for this reader's money is the best Superman story there is, before or since. "For the Man..." takes place on Superman's birthday, February 29th (pause for big laffs) when Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman come to give him a surprise present and find the Man of Steel covered with extraterrestrial plantlife known as Black Mercy, immobile while the plant hypnotically sends Supes' mind to a brighter past, where Krypton didn't explode, where he was married and had children. I read the comic for the first time after I had seen the also-excellent Batman: The Animated Series episode "Perchance to Dream" which treads on similar ground: a villain traps the hero in a happy alternate timeline, and the hero has to reject this complacency for the world we have, darker but real. While Batman, Robin, and Wonder Woman struggle with interstellar barbarian Mongul, Superman has to untangle the illusory world in his mind, even as his new life proves seductive and comfortable. But even as he settles into that comfort, Superman knows things are wrong, and that to make things right he will have to shatter the illusion and bid farewell to the Krypton that never was, eventually forcing Black Mercy onto Mongul, leaving the conqueror stuck in a rather amusing dream of total intergalactic conquest.

"For the Man who has Everything" is good. It's a perfect comic to show Superman neophytes that the man is not 'too powerful' and has stories that are interesting, thought-provoking, and exciting without the usual song and dance of Supes getting his powers drained. The art is done by Watchmen's Dave Gibbons, and though his faces are a little limited (all the men look like Dan Dreiberg and all the women look like Laurie Juspeczyk), he is still an excellent artist and even here, a year before Watchmen you can tell that artist and writer understand each other. The colors are soft and washed out and rather stereotypically '80s, but that works with the dreamlike quality of the story. "For the Man who has Everything" is a story every comic fan should read, and whether you love Superman or hate him, you'll come out impressed.

"Night Olympics" (1985)

"Night Olympics" is Moore's one and only Green Arrow story, featuring Arrow and Black Canary wondering if they are responsible for the Social Darwinism of criminals, weeding out the weak ones until only the dangerous survive. The answer to the question comes in the form of a bow-wielding, mohawk and mesh-shirt-wearing "ordinary person" Peter Lomax, who wounds Black Canary but then crumbles easily to Green Arrow.

In contrast to "For the Man who has Everything", "Night Olympics" might be the worst story in the collection. The story is bland and uninspired, saddled with a handful of ridiculous Olympics metaphors like "...A sudden-death playoff beneath the sodium lamps a strip lights, night after night, a ceaseless marathon..." But moreso than the groan-inducing script is the art, which is flat-out terrible. Klaus Janson did pencils for the piece, and while his Daredevil work never bothered me, his sub-Frank Miller scrawlings here are passable at best, and atrocious at worst, with Black Canary unfortunately getting the lion's share of the latter. This one isn't worth it, I read it so you don't have to.

"Mogo Doesn't Socialize" (1985)

Moore teams up with Dave Gibbons again in Green Lantern story "Mogo Doesn't Socialize". Lantern Tomar Re tells the story of Mogo to apprentice Arisia, how Bolphunga the Unrelenting landed on a planet to seek out the enigmatic Mogo and spent years hunting until he realized Mogo was the planet itself. "Mogo Doesn't Socialize" pairs the best of Moore's quick-and-dirty 'Future Shocks' from 2000 A.D.  with the Green Lantern mythos to tell an enjoyable story in 6 pages with a killer twist ending. Gibbons' art is better here than in "For the Man who has Everything", and the lack of humans mean there aren't any Nite Owl or Silk Spectre clones running around. This is another keeper, though not the best of Moore's Green Lantern stories (that will come later).

"Father's Day" (1985)

"Father's Day" stars Vigilante, an amoral Punisher-influenced DA who dons tights and goggles every night to fight crimes the police are ineffective against. Eventually Vigilante committed suicide after looking back at his violent, arbitrary past, but there's no hint of regret in this story, where he defends a little girl and a pair of prostitutes from the girl's perverse, violent, incestuous father. Even in the grim and dark world of comics in the mid to late '80s, "Father's Day" is pretty discomforting. Everyone feels disposable, from the girl's mother to the prostitutes with hearts of gold to the scumbag, sociopathic father himself. Jim Baikie, who did the art for "Skizz", lends his awkwardly expressive pen to "Father's Day", making all the characters look pained and uncomfortable. The story ends with one remaining living prostitute trapping the father under the wheels of her car and spinning them, reducing the man to a pile of goo while Vigilante holds the young girl and intones, rather hilariously, "Oh jeez...". "Father's Day" is not a good story by any stretch of imagination, but if you're a fan of ultraviolent, grim early '90s comics, you might get a kick out of one of the precursors to the genre.

"Brief Lives" (1985)

"Brief Lives" is a one-shot found in the pages of The Omega Men, a team of misfits that originated in the pages of Green Lantern that I have to admit I know absolutely nothing about, aside from these two Moore stories. "Brief Lives" is exactly that, at a paltry four pages, but in those four pages, Moore and artist Kevin O'Neill tell an engrossing, humorous story that ends on yet another wonderful 'Future Shock' style twist ending. The story is told by the leader of an arachnid army after a failed invasion of a planet called Ogyptu, inhabited by blue giants that move on a different, incredibly slow time frame compared to the invaders. This fact renders the invasion moot; the arachnids would have to stand still for decades before the giants even noticed them, and after thirty fruitless years, the invaders have gone insane and died. Finally on the last page, we see things from the giants points of view, with the arachnid's city being built and crumbling to untended rust in the fraction of a second. Giant #1 asks Giant #2 if he saw the little blip at their feet, and Giant #2 responds with the perfectly-timed "Don't let it worry you./Life's too short."

"Brief Lives" is so succinct, and simple, and, well, brief, and yet it tells a story better than not only some of Moore's other short works, but even some longer ones. None of the Omega Men themselves appear in it, as far as I can tell, it's just a quick, entertaining one-and-done. Kevin O'Neill would work with Moore a few more times, most notably on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and his grotesque, busy lines perfectly encapsulate the insane arachnid species and the massive blue humanoids. "Brief Lives" is very, very good, and sits nicely with "Mogo Doesn't Socialize" as an example of a master of the short comic story showing off his craft, honed after years on 2000 A.D. By 1985, Moore knew how to write a short story, he just needed the right inspiration, and the right collaborators.

And there's still plenty to go.


Up next: More shorts! Green Lantern, Swamp Thing, The Phantom Stranger!