Monday, July 20, 2015

Alan Moore's Catastrophic Comix-Up

Legendary comics writer Alan Moore
Over the weekend, Alan Moore, possibly the most famous living comic-book professional who doesn’t draw, drew attention when a year-old interview gained new traction. In it, Moore, famous for epics like Watchmen and V For Vendetta, belittled his audience, claiming that “this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence.” Moore left his comics-reading audience, understandably, feeling mugged.

It’s tough to take Moore’s complaints seriously, since he’s famous for hating everything. Before attacking his audience, he previously scorned his media adaptations, his publicists, and his publishers. In this interview, Moore claims he’s retiring from public life altogether, but readers familiar with Moore’s history might justifiably wonder if that’s because nobody wants him around anymore. Still, Moore’s anti-comics complaint deserves one concise follow-up question:

Does Moore think retreating from modernity is a bad thing?

The current popularity of superhero movies and, to a lesser extent, TV series, partly reflects advancing technology. Notwithstanding my complaints about recent Superman and Batman films, the technical production qualities have generated cleaner, more elegant screen pictures than Richard Donner or Tim Burton ever imagined. But people won’t embrace well-made pictures that merely clunk; any Roger Ebert anthology can prove that. Superheroes address an unmet need, one which I fear is still going sadly unmet.

Alan Moore’s own creative heyday coincided with the frenzied final days of the Cold War. V For Vendetta addressed this obliquely with its image of Britain collapsed into Fascist nationalism. Moore invoked the Cold War directly with Watchmen, where a nuclear-powered man and his cadre of costumed übermenschen strive to prevent man-made Armageddon. Moore’s best work bespoke the perfectly reasonable belief that modernity proved human society fragile, one misstep away from massive bloodshed and anarchy.

Henry Cavill as Superman
We might consider that time comics’ third great blooming. Throughout the Twentieth Century, comics produced their most engaging stories and most durable characters during periods of great instability. The Great Depression saw DC inaugurate their classic “Trinity” of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all expressly pitched as “crime fighters.” Early opponents, whether malign capitalists like Lex Luthor or gangsters like the Joker, wanted to get rich by subverting society’s rules and watching hard-working citizens burn.

Stan Lee spearheaded comics’ second blooming in the 1960s. Though he’d earned his stripes writing others’ characters, like Captain America and Namor the Sub-Mariner, he and his company, Marvel Comics, really flourished with Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four: gifted, misunderstood, mostly young heroes dedicated to protecting a society that mostly despised them. As with DC’s Depression-era classics, it’s impossible to separate Marvel’s peak product from the hippie epoch during which it was written.

So comics’ three greatest periods, measured by the durability of their characters and stories, coincide with times when the historical tide left common citizens feeling powerless. Not for nothing did audiences flee into fantasies of superpowered (or, as with Batman or V, super-skilled) characters driven to resist the crushing weight of reality. The modernity Moore mocks comics readers for fleeing is characterized, for most people, by feelings of defenselessness, impotence, and isolation from history’s trends.

Over the last fifteen years or so, superhero movies have attracted fresh attention to classic comics. The movie which ushered the current trend in, Bryan Singer’s X-Men, jibed with millenarian fears common in 2000; its sequels reflected the public drumbeat for war after 9/11. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, featuring an American imprisoned in China, reflected America’s souring world relationships after Operation Iraqi Freedom. Superheroes, by nature, touch symbolically on lingering needs in the public psyche.

Chris Evans as Captain America
The problem superheroes face today isn’t escapism. That’s always been their advantage, not their liability. Rather, superheroes haven’t adapted to current situations. Batman pummeling bank robbers during the Depression, or the Fantastic Four battling alien invaders during the Vietnam War, don’t really require symbolic unpacking. But as I've observed previously, “Even Superman can’t punch Goldman Sachs.” The problems society faces today are much larger and more diffuse than those faced when classic superheroes first debuted.

Reading Moore’s complaints about superhero comics, one suspects Moore merely resents his own status as back number: once an industry leader, he’s currently about ready to be embalmed. Comics are struggling with sluggish sales lately, as most media are. Yet iconic characters like Batman and Wonder Woman retain their cultural relevance; even Green Lantern survived an embarrassing film adaptation because his struggles matter. While audiences continue feeling powerless, they’ll keep needing stories of super-powered champions.

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