Move over Stan Lee, Hollywood's got a new comic book king
You wouldn’t know it from the credits, but many of 2019’s biggest telly properties owe a huge debt to a man who might rightly be described as a genius, a visionary and the greatest living British eccentric.
Alan Moore, who lives in Northampton, is friends with Slowthai, carries a staff and practices magick with a K, has arguably had a greater influence on the comic book industry than any person who came before him, with the possible exception of Marvel icon Stan Lee.
Moore cut his teeth in the 1970s working on titles such as Warrior and the iconic British comic 2000 AD where, in the space of a few pages of a Tharg’s Future Shock, he could deliver a plot more intriguing, inspired and twisty than the entire final season of Game Of Thrones.
Eventually, the US comics giants, Marvel and DC, poached Moore to work on their own titles, making him the first of the so-called 1980s ‘British Invasion’, which also included the likes of Jamie Delano, Alan Grant, Peter Milligan, Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman, whose American Gods novel was recently adapted for television by Amazon Prime.
But while the work these British writers did would turn the familiar tropes of superhero comics on their heads and revive the comics industry, the publishers were reluctant, at first, to allow Moore and co. to pick apart their most valuable properties. So Moore was given free reign on DC’s Swamp Thing in 1984, when low sales meant the title was facing cancellation. In Moore’s hands, the unloved series about a faintly ridiculous bog monster created by a chemical experiment gone wrong became so much more: an ecological parable, an inter-species love story and a meditation on the nature of existence itself. Like all of Moore’s work, it was as readable as it was mind-expanding.
Similarly, when it came to 1986/7’s Watchmen, (written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons), DC had Moore create a self-contained universe of characters inspired by their canonical heroes. So in place of Batman, we had Nite Owl; instead of The Question, we had the disturbed detective Rorschach. In Watchmen, Moore posited a question that had – for so many years – been the unclaimed low-hanging fruit of the comics world: what if superheroes were real? What if, in regular, complicated society, in recognisable political structures, a bunch of superhumans were running around in spandex committing acts of vigilantism in the name of a self-determined sense of right and wrong? It’s a book that spawned a genre that thrives to this day, particularly in the work of next generation Scottish writer Mark Millar (Kick Ass), whose ‘Millarverse’ properties were snapped up by Netflix in 2018. His influence can also be felt in Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis’ efforts, whose The Boys is on Amazon Prime now. That series, set in a world in which superheroes are real, but corrupted by the celebrity status they enjoy, is one of hundreds that owe a debt to Watchmen.
Arguably, Moore’s defining work is one of his least read. Where Watchmen took apart the superhero team, the seeds were sewn in a 1982 work, Marvelman, for Warrior and, later, Eclipse Comics. Marvelman was a deconstruction of the daddy of them all – the Superman myth –which introduced us to a hero who had been convinced he was a normal person, only to rediscover his vast powers. Eventually, in a storyline picked up by Moore’s younger peer Neil Gaiman, he would declare himself a god and usher in a utopian society in which no one went hungry, nor needed to work. Suddenly, 50 years of Superman comics seemed, at best, silly.
But Marvelman, you suspect, gave Moore his first bitter taste of the machinations of the US entertainment industry. Marvel launched claims over the name of Moore’s hero, originally a 1950s UK answer to Captain Marvel. Moore was forced to change the name to Miracleman. Following various sales over the years, ownership of Miracleman eventually passed to Marvel, who reprinted the series with Moore’s name removed at the author’s request. Moore had plotted an entire arc for the saga telling the story of the rise and fall of Marvelman’s new society, and reportedly passed the blueprints to Gaiman. Given the bad blood between Moore and Marvel, it’s unlikely that what could be the greatest epic in comics will ever be completed.
Because Moore, you see, is not a man swayed by pay cheques, or credits, or premieres. His experience of seeing his work ripped off, appropriated and legitimately adapted to woefully poor standards (The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen being the best-worst example) has seen Moore wash his hands of the whole dirty business. His obstinate nature is a defining characteristic, an Achilles heel worthy of one of his own flawed heroes and sympathetic villains. Moore refuses to licence properties he owns, and with the majority he doesn’t own, he refuses to have his name attached to adaptations. V For Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell – all of these films have been made with zero input from the person who created them.
A glance at 2019’s big TV releases shows the extent of Moore’s influence on today’s cultural landscape. Amazon Prime has thrown its weight behind a TV adaptation of Swamp Thing (the latest screen version following a crap-tastic 1982 movie version, a ’90s TV show and even a kids’ cartoon), which harbours none of Moore’s magical chlorophyll and has already been cancelled, plus the aforementioned The Boys.
- Read more: Amazon Prime’s The Boys review: zeitgeisty adaptation of comic book for an era with no more heroes
Earlier this year, Netflix scored a massive hit with The Umbrella Academy, by My Chemical Romance frontman and Alan Moore acolyte Gerard Way, another deconstructionist superhero story taking as inspiration family superhero teams such as Fantastic Four. And HBO’s big, upcoming series is Watchmen, based on Moore’s work and the 2009 movie, a film that proved that source material as good as Watchmen can even overpower the cinematic turd-factory of DCEU-destroying director Zac Snyder.
Meanwhile, Joker rides high in cinemas, owing a massive debt to Moore’s one-shot, character-redefining 1988 reinvention of the Joker story, Batman: The Killing Joke. Some of these shows and films are good. Many are not. And by refusing to associate himself with any of them, Moore silos himself not just from criticism and celebration, but from influence over the product.
Clearly, following the successful adaptation of simpler comic properties in the Marvel and DC universes, producers are finding a rich seam of material in Moore’s more involved, clever and – let’s say it – genius storytelling. But for as long as Moore refuses to play nicely, they’ll only ever be pale imitations of his original works.
‘Watchmen’ premieres on Sky Atlantic in the UK at 2am and is repeated at 9pm on Monday 21 October