As Alan Moore bids adieu to comic books, a look at his life, work, and towering legacy

Vinay Viswanath

Jul 28, 2019 11:02:50 IST

Last week, veteran writer and creative trailblazer, Alan Moore announced that he was retiring from writing comics. Moore’s announcement makes good on his declaration in 2016 that the long-overdue fourth volume of his creation, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, would be his last work in the industry.

Over a career in comics that has spanned a little over four decades, Moore became one of the most renowned and celebrated writers of his time, credited with a number of critically acclaimed original works as well as reimaginings of existing characters that helped revive their flagging popularity.

With that in mind, it feels like as good a time as any to take moment and look back on the life and work of a man that many consider one of, if not the, greatest comic book writer of all time.

A living legend from humble beginnings

Although Moore was not particularly academically accomplished (he was actually expelled from school as a teenager for attempting to sell LSD), he was a voracious reader and spent much of his free time with books from the local libraries of Northampton, where he spent his childhood growing up in relative poverty. Both of these influences would come to colour Moore’s work in comics, where he made frequent references to other literary work and history.

So too do Moore’s characters tend to be far more grounded, often just regular people, often of humble means, trying to live their lives and maybe dispense a little justice on the side, but only if they have the time. These portrayals of ‘working class’ heroes were far removed from the dashing billionaires, fearless super-soldiers, brilliant scientists and fantastical aliens that were dominating mainstream comic books at the time (and still do to this day, actually).

As Alan Moore bids adieu to comic books, a look at his life, work, and towering legacy

There were a few notable exceptions to this rule, of course | DC comics

While Moore got his start in the late 70s with a few regular comic strips, it would not be until he began working as a freelance contributor for 2000 AD, at the time a notable sci-fi magazine in the United Kingdom, that he would start to really garner attention for his work (as well as finally start to make ends meet with the proceeds of his new career).

He would go on to work for Marvel UK where he worked on Captain Britain, and Warrior publications where he would come out with one of his first original hits, V for Vendetta. A thoroughly British graphic novel series, V for Vendetta featured the efforts of a well-spoken and frequently verbose anarchist in a Guy Fawkes mask as he struggles against a totalitarian regime that draws its inspiration equally from Orwell’s INGSOC, Thatcher-era conservatism (Moore was not a fan), and good old-fashioned Nazi-esque racial-supremacy-based fascism (although this time Nordic rather than Aryan).

By this point, Moore’s personal writing style had almost fully matured, with his storylines offering cutting social commentary on real-world anxieties while maintaining a strong sardonic, deadpan wit that could elicit a laugh from readers even while handling the most dire of subject matter. A trait that was far more common among British writers at the time than their American counterparts.

With his popularity growing, Moore’s work in the UK began to get noticed across the Atlantic, and soon DC comics brought him on board to work on revitalising the character of Swamp Thing, who at the time was struggling with diminishing popularity and sales. Moore’s efforts to turn things around for Swamp Thing saw the character embark on storylines that were darker and more serious in their themes than was common among mainstream comics at the time; and audiences, which had been steadily skewing older over the last decade or so, absolutely loved it.

This success not only propelled Moore further into the ‘Major Leagues’ of comic book writers, but also led to American comic publishers seeking out more British writers. It was their hope that they would be able to inject some fresh new ideas and creativity into their industry, and looking back, it was probably more successful than they realised at the time.

The stories that changed an industry

Eventually, Moore was even able to start working on DC’s top tier superhero properties, producing two storylines for Superman. The First being For the Man Who Has Everything (1985), a story where an alien parasite attaches itself to Superman, slowly killing/consuming him while feeding him a vision of a false reality where all of his heart’s deepest wishes are fulfilled.

If you watched the Justice League animated series, then you may already be familiar with this plot, which was one of the better episodes in what, according to me at least, was a really strong series overall.

I didn’t know who Alan Moore was back then, but I was already a fan| Warner Bros

I didn’t know who Alan Moore was back then, but I was already a fan| Warner Bros

The second story Moore wrote for Superman was Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? (1986), in which Superman, having been forced to kill in order to save the day, rids himself of his powers and enters self-imposed exile ending the comic’s run prior to the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline.

He would also get the chance in 1987 to write a major plotline for Batman in the form of the Eisner award-winning The Killing Joke, the infamous story that sees the Dark Knight pushed right to his limits by his old nemesis, the Joker and possibly, depending on who you ask, finally killing him for everything he has done (The ending was left intentionally ambiguous).

He probably just realised that after all this time his can’t even stop a mentally ill clown | DC Comics

He probably just realised that after all this time his can’t even stop a mentally ill clown | DC Comics

While The Killing Joke is likely one of Moore’s most famous storylines, it is, however, one that the author himself considers some of his weaker work and has stated that in the end, it didn’t really come together the way he had hoped.

However, it was between these bouts of writing for DC’s top tier characters that Moore produced what many, myself included, consider to be his seminal work, Watchmen. While this limited series only had 12 issues and lasted about a year, it is perhaps one of the most influential comics to ever be written. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War with all the hysteria and suspicion that accompanied it (a theme all too familiar to its American readers when it first hit shelves back in 1986), Watchmen followed the lives of several costumed ‘heroes’ as they get mixed up in events that would ultimately change history.

Although nothing happens in a vacuum, and other authors such as Frank Miller are also credited for the massive tonal shift that comic books underwent in the mid-80s (Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns also started in June, 1986). Together, these two storylines changed the comic industry forever. The morally grey characters of Watchmen and their less-than-noble, often selfish, reasons for becoming vigilantes was a far cry from the perfect and noble heroes that were the norm at the time and would heavily influence and inspire many other writers for years to come.

Also, since I’m talking about it, Chapter 3, The Judge of All the Earth contains perhaps the best representation I’ve read of what the inner-monologue of a God-like being who can see through time would be like.

Don’t dwell on it Doc, we’ve all had days like that| DC Comics

Don’t dwell on it Doc, we’ve all had days like that| DC Comics

Over the years, Moore would go on to develop several other successful comics that drew heavily on his interest in history and literature such as From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as well as get a chance to flex his comedic credentials in more light-hearted work such as Top 10 and SMAX.

However, his enduring legacy will, for better or worse, likely remain his time with DC and Watchmen and how it inspired at least a generation of gritty, adult-oriented comic book heroes, anti-heroes and plotlines. Not only did Watchmen become the first graphic novel to win a Hugo award (and unless I’m mistaken is still the only one so far), it also won itself a place on a 2005 list in Time Magazine among the 100 best novels since 1923, which puts it in some truly stellar literary company.

A principled man in an unprincipled time

But despite his success in the medium, one thing that Moore has seemingly never been able to enjoy, at least not for very long, was a positive relationship with his publishers. Right from the start of his career, Alan's tenure as a comic book writer would be fraught with dissatisfaction, and he would frequently clash with publishers over a number of matters from royalties and revenue splits to the intellectual property rights of his creations.

As you can probably imagine, these discussions usually went poorly and Moore, more often than not, would cut ties with that publisher shortly thereafter. A pattern that would repeat throughout his career, with his firm stance on creator’s rights costing him friends and leading to a lot of burned bridges.

To hear him speak on the matter it’s actually surprising that Moore worked in the industry as long as he did, although it is likely his return to self-publishing and co-publishing in the late 2000s that kept him in the game. In 2005 he is said to have remarked, “I love the comics medium. I pretty much detest the comics industry. Give it another 15 months, I'll probably be pulling out of mainstream, commercial comics.”

Moore has also been openly critical of pretty much all of the films that have been adapted from his work although, to be fair, pretty much everyone has been critical of these movies since they are, with V for Vendetta being the only exception in my opinion, universally terrible. In fact, by the time Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation was in production, Moore had requested that he not be listed in the credits and did not wish to be associated to the project in any way.

He may be an old man, but he’s apparently still pretty good at dodging bullets | Warner Bros

He may be an old man, but he’s apparently still pretty good at dodging bullets | Warner Bros

The bitterness, however, shouldn’t be that surprising since DC had gone back on their original agreement that the rights to Watchmen would revert to Alan and his co-creator Dave Gibbons after a certain number of years; a betrayal that Moore was clearly not willing to easily forgive.

In an environment where creators are easily tempted to just take the money and run, Moore’s determination to stand up for his principles even if it costs him several million dollars is certainly a rarity. That perhaps is the lesson we should take from Alan Moore, even if it’s not the one we usually do. The importance of, in his words, “To just know that as far as you are aware, you have not got a price; that there is not an amount of money large enough to make you compromise even a tiny bit of principle that, as it turned out, would make no practical difference anyway. I'd advise everyone to do it, otherwise, you're going to end up mastered by money and that's not a thing you want ruling your life."

Thanks for the memories, Alan.

But don’t get too upset all you Alan Moore Stans, as of now, he’s only announced his retirement from comics, not from writing altogether. From what he’s let on so far, it’s likely that you’ll still be able to look forward to more work from him in the near future, across a variety of other mediums including a film or two.

Updated Date: Jul 30, 2019 16:22:42 IST