Wednesday, October 23, 2013

More Moore part 27: In Pictopia

"In Pictopia" (1986)

I would say that, when you talk to a comics layperson about the works of Alan Moore, the prevailing thought for the uninitiated is that Mr. Moore does comics which deconstruct superhero stories. Out of what can be termed his 'major works,' two of the most read, that being Watchmen and Miracleman (as it is now apparently officially called) deal explicitly with taking the basic superhero comic archetype and turning it on its head, especially in adding elements of fantastic realism, a move which has served to change the genre irrevocably since their publication. Surprisingly, Moore actually produced a third work in the superhero deconstructionist genre, one which retains many of the tricks he used in Watchmen and Miracleman while bringing its own sensibilities to the game. The most likely reason why "In Pictopia" isn't vaunted in the same pantheon as Moore's other superhero work is a question of length and availability: unlike the grand novels of the other work, "In Pictopia" is among Moore's shortest pieces at a paltry thirteen pages, and has only been reissued as part of a book of Moore ephemera, available originally in a Fantagraphics benefit book entitled Anything Goes. And yet, we have already seen how well Moore takes to the short story genre, and "In Pictopia" is no different, a by-turns blackly humorous and darkly depressing work which examines the state of comics at the end of the '80s, is surprisingly prophetic in its words. Watchmen may have revolutionized the genre by offering up a high-profile example of the art form in its most nuanced, intellectual, and dense, but it is "In Pictopia" where Moore seems to realize that, even as he is altering the comic landscape, sacrifices will be made.

The protagonist of "In Pictopia" is Nocturno the Necromancer, a down-on-his-luck conjuror and riff on Mandrake the Magician, '30s comic strip character. As he will do over a decade later in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Moore packs "In Pictopia" with references, in this case of older strip comics. Nocturno's next-door neighbor is Sammy Sleepyhead, a Little Nemo analogue who keeps the Necromancer up all night by falling out of bed and shouting in his sleep, while downstairs a Blondie knockoff named Red prostitutes herself to a Popeye parody while her husband Deadwood is away. Such is the life in the Prince Features tenement block, while comic strip characters of days past struggle to make ends meet in an environment that has forgotten about them. Nocturno does very little throughout "In Pictopia's" thirteen pages, acting more as a tour guide for the reader to see the squalor of life in the funny pages. Of course, just like any good metropolis, there's an income disparity, as Nocturno fantasizes about life on the other side:

“I used to dream about moving to the color section uptown, just for a few dawns and sunsets, but I know it’ll never happen. Only superheroes can afford to live in color.”

Solace from the endless drudgery of the Prince Features life is found in Funnytown, there the kiddie comic animal people live, a quarter stuck in the '50s where there is "No urban violence that isn't in some way amusing" that soon has Nocturno shaking his funk, if only temporarily. Past Funnytown he finds the edge of the city, a chain-link fence with a placeless industrial darkness beyond. It is at this fence we are introduced to Flexible Flynn, a Plastic-Man analogue and the only superhero willing to to seen consorting with the bums from the strip comics. Flynn speaks to Nocturno of strange changes happening in the city, of characters vanishing without a trace, and of dark new superheroes appearing, superior and apathetic, roaming in gangs. Pictopia is changing, becoming bleaker and more fierce, and Flynn doesn't know what role he or Nocturno or anyone will have in the coming world.

Heading home after the conversation with Flynn, Nocturno finds one of these gangs of new heroes beating a resident of Funnytown. The heroes, bored of fighting crime much like the new heroes of somewhat similarly-themed Kingdom Come, have turned to casual, banal violence to pass the time, and since Funnytown residents pop back from injury quickly and easily, they have taken to selling their bodies for violence for a few extra dollars. The whole scene is disturbing and uncomfortable, the Funnytown character literally prostituting himself to be beaten mercilessly, and much praise must be given to the colorist Eric Vincent, who paints the Prince and Funnytown characters in muted, faded newspaper colors while the superheroes are bright and vibrant. Back at the tenement, desperate for human interaction, Nocturno attempts to buy Red's services, only to find her being violently accosted by a pair of helmeted thugs not unlike Judge Dredd from 2000AD. Reports are given of political caricatures of Nixon and Hitler running for office in a dead heat, while Nocturno hunts out Flynn again, the voice of reason and the only person who can make sense of things while the new heroes seem to be overtaking Pictopia totally. Nocturno finds Flynn in a crowd, but the man that turns to face him is someone different: rippling muscles, tight suit, dog collar, face twisted into a grimace. This is Flexible Flynn, grim and dark and updated for the '80s.

Flynn has been replaced.

Nocturno has nowhere left to go. He ends up in Funnytown only to find it razed, workers bulldozing the land. When Nocturno inquires about what happened to the residents, one of the workers gives it to him straight:

"People? There weren’t no people livin’ out here. Just some stray dogs and stuff. They’ve been painlessly destroyed./Take my advice, buddy, an’ keep out of it. This city’s changing, and some things just don’t fit the continuity no more."

And we are left with Nocturno at the perimeter fence, his world fallen apart, while the encroaching blackness comes closer.

Funny, huh?

But is is funny, in a way, and that is mostly thanks to the art by Donald Simpson. Simpson's art is lumpy and soft and his characters, especially Flynn pre-reboot, look like they belong in an issue of MAD, and considering Moore's love of Harvey Kurtzman, this is likely intentional. While "In Pictopia" certainly has a malaise of desolation around its thirteen pages, the fact that the work is populated by pastiche characters means there is a lot of opportunity for humor. Moore and Simpson's parodies of Popeye, and the Katzenjammer Kids, and Dick Tracy are funny because they're characters we recognize being given a parodic treatment. It's funny to put characters we know into unusual situations, even if they're violent or turning tricks in an alley. Or hell, maybe I'm just a monster.

"In Pictopia" is a wonderful work, another killer short story that anticipated the next decade with an impressive accuracy. I have read people say that it's dated, that it blew the grim and gritty wave of comics out of proportion, that it treats as a terminal disease what eventually became simply a passing illness. But even if the bleakness of the '80s and '90s didn't kill nostalgia forever, it kept them in the dark for a long time, and "In Pictopia" is at least an affirmation of such. If you're curious to see the comic medium going through throes of change in the mid to late '80s, "In Pictopia" could be thought of as ground zero, a place where the old was unceremoniously ousted and the new began to take up residence, with only the author himself, the one who began the revolution initially, to mourn the dead. Now we'll just have to wait and see if Moore remembers his own lessons when he starts penning Spawn stories for Image about a decade after "Pictopia" was written...


Best quote: "I've been standing here ever since, just watching the horizon with its churning darkness; its smoldering, sulphurous light./It's not like a stormfront at all, really. It's more like a vast, creeping, industrial mass, wreathed in factory smoke and lit only by furnaces./Sometimes, it looks as if it's getting closer.../...But that may be an illusion, born of the distance."


Up next: Moore's lost work. Big Numbers

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