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Sunday, 07 March 2010

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Ahistoricality

I'm having an Ockham's Razor moment. Isn't what Moore does with MiracleMan (and my familiarity with the character begins and ends with this post, so take this as the complete shot-in-the-dark that it is) a way of finessing (in that kill-a-fly-with-a-hand-grenade fashion so common in comic writing) the continuity issue while simultaneously allowing the contemporary reader to feel superior to the "golden age" readers who put up with the kind of thoughtless plotting and artwork that characterized the early years of the genre?

In other words, I don't see this as a "defense of the genre" but more of a self-defense of change within the genre.

SEK

I'm having an Ockham's Razor moment.

This is one of those cases where context trumps Ockham: had Moore not spent the entire rest of his career appropriating the histories of preexisting characters---from Charleston in Watchmen, the public domain in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls, etc.---I'd agree with you that this was a simple case of retconning. But Moore does seem to be invested in a genuinely different process: he wants to mine the unexplored bits of their premises for narrative and/or emotional effect, in the way that, for example, the sympathetic character of The Question (Marlow in a mask) becomes Rorschach (what a dogged detective would be if granted, say, a mask that provided anonymity akin to what's found on the Internets).

Doug M.


Question: is the comics medium inherently more prone to this sort of self-reference and self-interrogation?

History suggests the answer is "yes" -- comics started parodying, retconning, re-inventing and holding dialogues with themselves almost immediately. Other genres did too, sure -- Swift and Pope were parodying professional writers almost as soon as professional writers came into existence -- but I can't think of one that started so quickly and continued so relentlessly.


Doug M.


Doug M.

Ahistoricality

Other genres did too, sure ... but I can't think of one that started so quickly and continued so relentlessly.

One of the first true modern novels is Cervantes' don Quixote, which is built around a parody of the heroic literature of his age.

I could also argue that the Japanese poetic tradition, with it's highly referential, "thick" language, becomes similarly self-absorbed quite quickly (by medieval literary standards).

had Moore not spent the entire rest of his career appropriating the histories of preexisting characters....

So did most of the writers in mainstream comics. Truly original characters are very rare birds, and even very original writers (Gaiman [outside of Sandman], Stracyzinski, etc.) spend a lot of their time and energy trying to finish stories started by others. Moore's schtick is to play the backstory for laughs at the character's expense; I'm not sure I see that as a particularly subtle or interesting thing, except that he can get away with it and do more interesting things as a result.

Halloween Jack

Another way to look at that page with the quote from Nietzsche is to imagine Strauss' fanfare from Alse Sprach Zarathustra accompanying it; even though that's a bit Dark Side of the Moon-meets-The Wizard of Oz to assume that Moore might have intended that, it does make sense on one level; like the Monolith in 2001 (and Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen), Miracleman changes the world, in part, simply by existing.

Rich Puchalsky

"Moore creates a model here that he will come to define his career: take established characters and exploit their premises and history in order to interrogate and complicate the comic medium in which they are delivered."

I don't think so. On the one hand, this means that books like From Hell and Promethea do not "define [Moore's] career" -- that his career is defined commercially, instead of critically. On the other, this ignores the context of Vertigo. Taking established characters and exploiting their premises was so much a Vertigo tic that nearly all the Vertigo writers started that way (Gaiman and Sandman, say). So yes, it was what Moore did when he started out. I'd say that his career arc has been away from it, or at least away from "established characters" -- even those in Watchmen are not really the Charleston ones -- and into reexaminations of genre more broadly.

Moore has himself become an established character to be reconfigured, as you've seen if you followed my Email update on breakthroughs in Japanese-influenced schoolgirl fanart.

SEK

Doug:

History suggests the answer is "yes" -- comics started parodying, retconning, re-inventing and holding dialogues with themselves almost immediately. Other genres did too, sure -- Swift and Pope were parodying professional writers almost as soon as professional writers came into existence -- but I can't think of one that started so quickly and continued so relentlessly.

I'm inclined to agree, but it wasn't nearly so deliberate an act before Moore. If you were a frighteningly original writer working on comics, you went outside the mainstream and are now published by Fantagraphics. Moore opened up the possibility of taking these broken toys, these half-not-bad-ideas and enlivening them with dramatic purpose; in short, Pope and Swift never saw themselves as improving upon children's literature the way that, for example, Moore did. (And continues to do with, say, Lost Girls.)

Ahistoricality:

Moore's schtick is to play the backstory for laughs at the character's expense; I'm not sure I see that as a particularly subtle or interesting thing, except that he can get away with it and do more interesting things as a result.

Really? Swamp Thing is profoundly more moving and meditative than it has any right to be, as is Miracleman. Outside of something like Supreme, in which he's having fun at another character's expense, I can't think of many examples of Moore fiddling with the backstory to further mockery. (It may just be that I need coffee, though.)

Rich:

Moore has himself become an established character to be reconfigured, as you've seen if you followed my Email update on breakthroughs in Japanese-influenced schoolgirl fanart.

Thanks for the link, Rich. I got the email, knew I'd seen those somewhere (turns out here) and was waiting until I found that site again before responding.

Taking established characters and exploiting their premises was so much a Vertigo tic that nearly all the Vertigo writers started that way (Gaiman and Sandman, say). So yes, it was what Moore did when he started out.

It's the other way around, though: Vertigo started in '93, a good decade after Moore started fiddling around with this formula in explicitly comic terms. Moore's reconfigured Swamp Thing migrated from DC to Vertigo at its inception. Also, Gaiman took over for Moore on the Miracleman with Warrior #17. Then there's this:

One of the things I had in common with Alan Moore and a whole generation of comics writers around us -- certainly Grant Morrison -- was a love and respect for what had gone before but also a healthy interest in seeing where we could go with it. It was a combination of those the two impulses. We were in a period then in mainstream American comics that things had gotten a bit hidebound. Comics read very much like a mixture of what had come before. And I think at the time you had this wonderful little transatlantic thing that happened, this mini-British Invasion. Looking back on it, the analogy of what happened to pop music in the 1960s was probably pretty accurate. Alan Moore got to be the Beatles and, along with Grant Morrison, I was Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Authorial intent to the side, Gaiman clearly sees himself (and Morrison) as a generation removed from Moore in terms of character re-purposing.

Halloween Jack:

Another way to look at that page with the quote from Nietzsche is to imagine Strauss' fanfare from Alse Sprach Zarathustra accompanying it; even though that's a bit Dark Side of the Moon-meets-The Wizard of Oz to assume that Moore might have intended that, it does make sense on one level; like the Monolith in 2001 (and Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen), Miracleman changes the world, in part, simply by existing.

That's not nearly so random as the Dark Side of Oz, and it works perfectly, amping up the playful creepiness of the sequence.

Ahistoricality

Moore's schtick is to play the backstory for laughs at the character's expense...

I can't think of many examples of Moore fiddling with the backstory to further mockery.

I put that a little roughly, I'm sorry. I didn't mean that his characters aren't emotionally interesting and serious -- often they are, though not always in ways that Moore, I think, intends or realizes -- or that Moore doesn't take them seriously. But I still can't quite get "Duck Amuck" out of my head: the Golden Age material is being used against the character, as evidence of insanity, or trauma. The reader is in on the joke: in the new age, old-style stories are infantile, damaging, the result of a more controlled, paternalistic publishing environment.

There's an otherwise forgettable episode of ST:DS9 in which the characters go back in time to intervene in the events chronicled in "The Trouble With Tribbles": when one of the characters notes to Lt. Worf the difference between Original Series Klingons and later ones, he gruffly says something like "we don't talk about that."

NickS

The first issue of the comic was the cartoonish book implanted into the more realistically rendered Michael Moran's brain, meaning that the reader has a similar relation to reality as Moran: cartoonish narratives are “implanted” in his or her head, and these narratives influence how they understand the world in which they live.

Hmmm . . .

I too know nothing about Miracleman other than what is contained in this post, but this makes me thinking immediately of Ronin by Frank Miller which uses a very similar device in which the first issue is revealed, by the end, to have been derived from a TV series. Incidentally wikipedia informs me that Ronin was published beginning in July 1983, so it was probably developed independently rather than taking inspiration from Miracleman.

It would make me interested in a simple comparison of the two, since I have always thought that bait and switch was one of the most effective elements of Ronin.

SEK

Incidentally wikipedia informs me that Ronin was published beginning in July 1983, so it was probably developed independently rather than taking inspiration from Miracleman.

Need to return to grading, but vis-a-vis Moore and Miller in 1983, here's a link to the Moore-penned mockery of Miller, "Dourdevil."

NickS

Oh my . . . that's awesome.

Rich Puchalsky

When you put it that way -- I agree that it could well have been Vertigo following Moore rather than the other way around. I don't think that what Moore was doing was so new that Vertigo had to get the idea from him, but it does make sense that Vertigo as a whole followed Swamp Thing. Perhaps Moore --> Vertigo is worth mentioning in your book, since that later became core Gaiman, Morrison et al material. I still think that your "original ideas" vs "transforming a caricature" dichotomy risks sweeping some of Moore's critically best-regarded work under the rug. Moore likes to work within a mode where he develops a childhood form into something more complex -- even From Hell could be seen as a murder mystery so developed -- but I don't think he's wedded to particularly caricatured existing characters so much as a caricatured setting.

Still wondering when someone is going to trace all of Moore's work back to his early run on D.R. & Quinch.

SEK

I put that a little roughly, I'm sorry.

Alan Moore will find it in his heart to forgive you, I'm sure.

I didn't mean that his characters aren't emotionally interesting and serious -- often they are, though not always in ways that Moore, I think, intends or realizes

I'm not sure I buy that: works as structured as his will, by clever design, signify in ways that the author didn't intend, because even if he doesn't invest as much energy in one end of an analogue as he does the other, he can count on meaning accruing to both via juxtaposition/imbrication/whatever you'd like to call it. That said, I think Moore's cannier than most about how these figures joust for meaning ... but I'm carrying out my end of this discussion in a very abstract way because I've been grading all day and forgotten how to use language good.

I don't think that what Moore was doing was so new that Vertigo had to get the idea from him, but it does make sense that Vertigo as a whole followed Swamp Thing.

The above caveat applies here too, but I'm not saying that Vertigo specifically followed Moore (although the authors most closely associated with the early titles, Gaiman and Morrison, did see themselves as following Moore's footsteps), only that Moore initiated the revisionary mode that led not to more adult-oriented titles -- Pekar, Crumb, and comix explored mature themes, after all -- but to investing ostensibly childish books with an adult sensibility. This isn't the case with Swamp Thing, as the horror titles were always intended to skirt the Comics Code by marketing themselves as adult books, but it certainly is with Miracleman.

I still think that your "original ideas" vs "transforming a caricature" dichotomy risks sweeping some of Moore's critically best-regarded work under the rug.

Off the top of my head, the works that don't fit my model are V for Vendetta, Halo Jones, and a slew of one-shots for 2000 A.D. Even D.R. & Quinch is repurposed from National Lampoon, and From Hell is heavily indebted to Stephen Knight's books. I don't mean this as a criticism: Ulysses, after all, works in much the same manner, which probably indicates why I'm so attracted to Moore.

Hob

Ahistoricality: Whether you're being too harsh or not, you seem remarkably confident about your thesis considering you haven't read the comic.

One thing you'll notice about the comic, if you read it, is that most of what happens after Miracleman's real story becomes known to him is much, much, much, much worse than anything that could've ever happened in the backstory. Everyone would've clearly been much better off if the original version had been true. I'm not sure how you can get from there to "feeling superior to the 'golden age' readers"; that sounds a bit like the kind of music criticism that's based on mind-reading of some annoying hypothetical hipsters that the critic imagines to be fans of the disliked band.

Hob

SEK - "Gaiman took over for Moore on the Miracleman with Warrior #17" - Slight correction: it wasn't in Warrior any more at that point. It was an independent Miracleman series, published by Eclipse Comics, which reprinted the short MM stories from Warrior #1-24 in its first six issues (changing the name from Marvelman) and then continued from there. So there were 16 issues of Miracleman written by Moore.

Argh, I can't believe this is still out of print.

Rich Puchalsky

Promethea, too. I think that I basically agree with what you've written; I think there's just too much emphasis on reexamination of existing characters as opposed to reexamination of the setting of those characters, so to speak. To do Promethea Moore had to invent a background for her that worked exactly as if she was someone else's old character, repurposed. But she actually wasn't. The same with the (less-regarded) Tom Strong: firmly set in a certain pulp tradition, the character is not actually a retread.

Maggie Gray

Um, the Marvelman/Miracleman story you mention didn't appear in the first issue of Warrior. It was a re-print of an original Mick Anglo/ Don Lawrence Marvelman episode from October 1956 with the balloons reworded by Moore and the final page with the Nietzche quote added by Moore and Garry Leach. It was done explicitly for the first issue of the Eclipse re-publication of the series.
The Marvelman episode that appeared in Warrior #1 was 'A Dream of Flying'.
The original Mick Anglo/Don Lawrence episode was called ‘Marvelman Family and the Invaders from the Future’ and was reprinted in the Marvelman Special, published by Quality Communications (the Warrior publisher) in 1984.
(N.b. Both Marvelman and V for Vendetta were black and white in the original Warrior versions)

Ahistoricality

Whether you're being too harsh or not, you seem remarkably confident about your thesis considering you haven't read the comic.

Most of Scott's readers won't have either. He's doing a close reading in the interests of illustrating some larger truths about comics generally and about Moore specifically, and while I may be blazingly wrong, my reading isn't particularly tendentious given the evidence presented, and what else I do know about comics history. It's up to Scott whether to take my reading seriously or not, whether the remainder of his chapter makes it unlikely that readers will be left with a similar impression, and whether his presentation needs more context or evidence to support the reading he's presenting.

SEK

Maggie Gray, I have to teach in a minute, but I wanted to thank you for that comment. Given the extremely sketchy publication (and lack of republication) history of Marvelman/Miracleman, I've been working with copies of the reprints, and they didn't indicate that they were different from the original. (And getting my hands on the original Warriors is even more difficult.)

Maggie Gray

the Grand Comics Database is generally pretty accurate I've found
see
http://www.comics.org/series/2706/

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