Thursday, September 23, 2010

"The Last Great Work of Alan Moore"

The last 24 hours have seen an outpouring of sympathy and, I imagine, scorn over the folding of Wildstorm's shutters. I don't have all that much to say about it, really. I mean, these were people getting paid to make comics, it's the best job in the world, they seemed to know that, and now those jobs are gone. That's about all that needs to be said about it.

But over at
Heidi McDonald's Comics Beat, buried near the tail end of a long tribute to Wildstorm by various creators and staff over the years, is this beauty by Rob Lefield.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen felt as important as Watchmen, a return to Alan Moore’s penchant of taking existing icons and pulling them together in a massive sprawling epic. It made it to screen, complete with condemnation from Moore, faster than any of his previous works. Had the film been and performed better, it’s legacy would be even more immense. For me, the last great work of Alan Moore.

Now, for many, the very fact that Rob Liefeld wants to critique Alan Moore is laughable on its face. We are forced to ask the question, "What, pray tell, is the last great work of Rob Liefeld?" But that's not really fair in this case. Liefeld isn't writing about Alan as a critic, or even as a peer in the comics industry, but rather as a fan. Reading the rest of Liefeld's comments, his love for these books, his enthusiasm, his sheer envy and fan-geekery, are unhidden. And that is a perfectly legit forum for Rob Liefeld to critique Alan Moore. As a guy who reads Alan's books, and who likes them, and who happens to think that everything after the first volume of League has been downhill.

It's certainly true that since Moore started ABC, artists and editors have been desperate for anything he has written, even going to the extent to publish old songs and poems he wrote years before. You get some amazing artist to illustrate Alan's text, which was never meant to be a comic, and people are bound to buy it because, well, it's Alan Frikkin' Moore. And most of the time it is still worth it, but no one would claim that something like "Another Suburban Romance" or "Hypothetical Lizard" are Great Comics.

So if we eliminate the obvious noncontenders, what are we left with? Well, there's everything else at ABC, including Top Ten, Tom Strong, and Promethea, and there's Lost Girls.

I love Top Ten. I've used it in the classroom, teaching it in a freshman composition & literature course where we could focus on textual analysis. It was the last book in the quarter, and it was there for a reason, because of all the comics we read it was the hardest for the students to understand. Gene Ha's art was just so damn busy, so damn rich, that the students were overwhelmed at first. The layouts made them seasick. It was awesome, but took some getting used to. They loved the characters, the sheer gutsiness of the book. When my students realized that Kemlo was a dog with a human girlfriend, and they were going home to have sex, I mean ... those moments are priceless. What other writer would DO that? And, while doing it, make it clear that this wasn't just done for shock value. It actually humanized the characters. We felt kind of sorry for her, because her previous guys had been such dicks to her, and Kemlo was basically a human being in a dog suit. He was a guy who happened to be a doberman, and he wore his Hawaiian shirts, and he was the complete opposite of, for example, the robot police officer who came around in volume 2, who didn't want to be human because, well, that would have been a step down.

Top Ten was a great comic. But it wasn't a Great Comic. It is tragically cut short by its conclusion at the end of volume 2, or "Season One," with many plot threads left unresolved and so much left to do or say. But, really, as a police procedural, could it really have ended any other way? It ended the same way Law & Order ended, with a sudden end-of-season cancellation and a couple of spin-off books which are decent, solid, but wholly unremarkable imitations of the original. Now I can't stop thinking of Sam Waterson as Smax. Think about it. It could have worked.

I was slow to warm up to Tom Strong. I didn't get it at first, when the various ABC titles were first being marketed and hyped. I didn't realize it was a Doc Savage/Tarzan/everything else mash-up which speculated, "What would superheroes be like if Superman had never been invented?" That's a brilliant concept, and it uses a bunch of wonderful titles I adore from the pulp era and before. The age of Victorian adventure fiction got new life in Tom Strong, and if his stories were wild fun and a little bit kooky and far-out, well, that was the point. It had a talking ape and a robot man who used wax cylinders for a voice box, it had Nazi super-vixens and an auto-gyro, and everything in that sentence is made of win. There's no question Tom Strong was fun. But where it started to get great, when it started to be real, were those moments when Tom came face to face with his father, his mother, and his attitude towards these people. Tom's father imprisoned his son in a gravity well for his entire childhood in order to make him into a superman. And every time Tom was forced to confront the fact that he loved his father, but also resented him, the book saw greatness. Tom was a father and a husband, and though his battles with colossal cybernetic snakes from an alternate dimension were never really in doubt, his real struggle was to be a better man, a better husband, and a better father than his own father. And he longed to reconnect with his mother who was gone, in a way that any reader of Maus can instantly recognize. If Art Spiegelman and Tom Strong sat down for lunch together, you know they would instantly recognize each other.

I don't claim to be a Lost Girls expert. There are some people who have written long and thoughtful pieces on the book, people like Kate Laity or Emily Mattingly and others. I've got it, I read it, and I thought it was interesting, but I've never opened it back up since I finished it the first time. I remember I didn't really know what I was getting when I bought it. I pretty much picked it up because:
  1. It was Alan Moore
  2. He had been working on it for years
  3. It had literary characters in it
  4. It was porn

This four-punch combo was irrestible to me. And there's no question that the time, the sheer number of man-and-woman hours involved, is clear on every page. Gebbie has created something unlike anything else that is out there. And I am sure there is plenty in the text that I would appreciate, if I were educated on it. Issues of gender, and race, and sexuality, and machines and technology, and all kinds of other important topics. But the simple fact is that Lost Girls does not turn me on. Which I was pretty surprised about, to be honest. No matter what else we might get out of Lost Girls, it is written to be porn. Really, really, high quality porn. Porn that costs you a hundred dollars in hardcover and which you keep for a lifetime. But if porn does not turn you on, it's a failure. For those who are turned on by Lost Girls, bully for you. Don't let Christine O'Donnell catch you.

And what are we left with? Well, there's the other League books and there's Promethea. Did Liefeld mean to include the second volume of League and the Black Dossier and the stalled Century when he praised League as Alan's last great work? I don't know for sure, but I tend to doubt it. None of these comics have been made into film, which seems to be one of the measures by which Liefeld makes his case, nor have they been printed at Wildstorm, which seems to be what Rob is talking about here. But, out of caution, I will not try to argue that League volume 2 is Great, or that the Black Dossier is Great, despite my true and sincere admiration for both these books, which I have written about extensively elsewhere.

And so, Promethea. She was an initial hit with readers, who saw in these pages an action-adventure comic with a strong female protagonist who didn't wear a thong. JH Williams III made this book into a transcendant masterpiece. The layouts, the gutter art, the design of the characters and everything else we saw told you that this, this, this was something worth reading. Something you would be talking about later. As the first story arc ended, people started to drift away from the book. Sophie started to wander the mystical universe, meeting a large cast of supporting characters drawn from history, occultism, and the imagination. She became a mouthpiece for exposition about how the cosmos was put together, how it worked. Or, rather, she asked all the questions, because she was the novice, the learner, and everyone else she encountered provided the answers. She was Dante and her guides were many. We began to learn what magic was. We learned its symbols and its voices. The book became impossibly dense. It experimented with art, with photo comics, with realism and cartoons. The book split into two different stories: Sophie continued her tour through the Sephiroth, walking the path of the magus, while her best friend became her rival back on Earth, kicking ass and taking names. But there wasn't enough ass-kicking for most readers, or for the comics media, who simply stopped reading. It became too high brow, even when the end came into sight and Alan suddenly reminded us that, oh yeah, Promethea looked like an Arab, which means she could be a Muslim terrorist, and the world we were living in, you and I, intruded into all that mystic mumbo-jumbo and reminded us that the cold equations are never far away.

Promethea is a Great Comic. It shoots higher than Tom Strong, than Top Ten, than Lost Girls. And it scores. It's not for everyone. It's never going to change the comic industry the way Watchmen did. And that means Rob Liefeld and the people like him are never going to love Promethea. That's because it does not speak to them. Those people are not its audience. Promethea speaks to the literati, to the student of history, of culture, to the magus and the aspiring magus. It reaches out to those of us who have read comics since we were six and it asks us, "Haven't you always thought there was something magical about comics?" And we quietly whisper, "Yes" where no one can hear us. Except Alan and Williams, who nod knowingly, pull back the curtain of the world, and usher us into the magnificant moon and serpent show of our dreams.

But even this, even this argument, is unfair. Because Alan Moore, despite his increasing grouchiness, is not yet done. I am not the first person to note that Moore has become increasingly ambivalent towards not only the comic industry, but even towards his fellow creators. I won't go into that here. But we know he has been working on a couple of major projects, and I for one am still hopeful that they will, someday, see the sun. One of those books is his novel, Jerusalem. Another is his grimoire in comic form. Will either of these two things be "Great"? I don't know, and maybe its just because I'm not a young man any more, but I would think twice before saying a creator like Alan Moore wrote his "last great work" over ten years ago, when the guy is still alive and still writing.

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