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Review of Alan Moore: A Critical Guide

By Steven Wandler

Ayres, Jackson. Alan Moore: A Critical Guide. London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

Jackson Ayres’ Alan Moore: A Critical Guide begins by asking a deceptively simple question that haunts the entire text: “Do we need Moore?”. Ayres’ study, published in 2021 as part of the Bloomsbury Comics Studies series, comes two years after Alan Moore’s proclaimed retirement from comics. As such, the study provides a presumably comprehensive perspective from which to ask this question about Moore’s long and influential career. But the question itself is a powerful one to contemplate in terms of any prominent contributor to an artistic medium. What does it mean — what could it possibly mean — to say that we “need” a particular artist or that we “need” specific aesthetic objects? Would the world be any less without the works of Shakespeare or James Joyce or Toni Morrison or, indeed, Alan Moore? Would an irreplaceably essential aspect of the world, or at least the artistic medium, be missing? Would comics today be any less or worse without Moore’s artistic contributions? 

Ayres’ study answers this question in a carefully and thoughtfully measured way: we might “need” Moore, but the ways in which we need him in the current comics era – an era that Moore himself is largely responsible for creating – are changing. Such an answer is only possible if one, as Ayres does, takes seriously Moore’s declaration that his comic book oeuvre is complete. (One should also keep in mind, as Ayres acknowledges, that Moore has made similar but premature declarations in the past.) Ayres articulates the recurrent themes that span Moore’s forty-plus years of writing comics, even as he comprehensively maps the (often-fraught) relationship between Moore’s career and the tumultuous changes in comic book publication across that same span. Indeed, perhaps one of the most fascinating and powerful insights of Ayres’ text is the nearly paradoxical way in which Moore’s work — particularly in the superhero genre — so dramatically changed the medium itself that, in a sense, Moore himself has been written out of it. For Ayers, because Moore’s work was both so groundbreaking for and misunderstood by readers and creators, Moore’s contributions appear simultaneously timeless and antiquated to us today.

Ayres’ text itself is divided into two major parts, the first of which looks closely at what he calls the “key texts” of Moore’s comics writing career, while the second part addresses the major critical questions and themes in Moore’s work. In the first part, Ayres breaks his coverage of Moore’s key texts into two main eras — first starting with Moore’s still somewhat obscure early breakout work in English anthology comics (including Skizz, Future Shocks, and The Ballad of Halo Jones) before turning to his famous superhero work for DC Comics in the late 1980s (such as The Killing Joke, his Superman stories, Watchmen, and, in a rather disappointingly truncated way, his seminal run on Swamp Thing). Due largely to organizational necessity, Ayres treats each text discretely even though Moore — like most comic book writers — was working on and publishing multiple projects simultaneously. In retrospect, it is somewhat shocking to realize that at a single point in the later 1980s, Moore was writing the newspaper strip Maxwell the Magic Cat, the 2000 AD-published Halo Jones, the small press-published Miracleman, the monthly series Swamp Thing, the maxi-series Watchmen, as well as completing chapters of the political thriller V for Vendetta. Nonetheless, Ayres helpfully articulates a continuity of themes across Moore’s work during this era.

Perhaps the most prominent theme of Moore’s work during this first period is one that, indeed, makes the case for “needing” Moore: his relentless scrutiny of the ideological assumptions and implications of the superhero genre. Moore has long been associated with foregrounding the otherwise implicit violent and authoritarian nature of superhero vigilantism while also unearthing the buried sexual objectification that underpins not just comic book visuals but many characters’ (and readers’) motivations. Such scrutiny is often mischaracterized as Moore’s having a “revisionist” or “deconstructionist” agenda, and Ayres effectively demonstrates that Moore was not so much taking apart the superhero genre as much as he was following it to its logical ends. For example, Moore’s 1980’s version of Miracleman intentionally incorporates Mick Anglo’s stories from the original Marvelman comics of the 1950s; however, in Moore’s reboot, these kitschy Golden Age stories are reconfigured as a series of wish-fulfillment fantasies piped into the dreams of the drugged and sleeping superheroes – superheroes that, once awakened, visit nearly unfathomable acts of violence upon the real world. The effect of “this intensified violence is to draw attention to the brutality latent within but elided by typical depictions of superhero conflicts: the horror of superhero combat is made visible here” (39). Moore’s transformation of fantasy violence into hyper-realistic violence takes seriously – and makes readers take seriously – what exactly comic books are fantasies of: “Anglo’s Marvelman,” Ayres writes, “retroactively becomes a metonym for superhero comics’ covert interpolations of readers into quasi-fascist ideologies of power, authority, and masculinity” (40). In this sense, one of Moore’s major contributions to the medium is to bring out what had been heretofore ignored, elided, or even celebrated: the dark and often reprehensible side of seemingly superficial superhero fantasy. 

At the same time, Moore was scrutinizing another aspect of superhero comics: the role of representation in a medium dominated by white, heterosexual men both on and behind the pages. Perhaps forgotten in today’s more conscientiously (but still far from perfect) representational comics is the radicalism of some of Moore’s early work in this regard. Writing in a medium consumed almost exclusively by young males, Moore persistently focused his stories on comparatively marginalized characters: women, racial and ethnic minorities, figures from the (so-called) lower classes, and transgender and non-binary characters, among others. These characters are all intentionally introduced by Moore in what Ayres describes as “attempts to induce [comics’] chiefly male audience toward” character identifications beyond their own experiences, work that “persist[s] as a significant part of Moore’s contribution to the comics field” (34). 

After discussing these earlier period works, Ayres’ study addresses Moore’s work following his notoriously cantankerous swearing-off of mainstream comics and publishers and his turn to independent publishing, original properties, and disparate genres. Ayres unpacks Moore’s texts from this period one by one, starting with Moore’s jump to (non-superhero) horror in From Hell, moving through Moore’s independent publishing projects (including the semi-autobiographical A Small Killing, the never-completed Big Numbers, and the proudly pornographic Lost Girls), and then culminating in Moore’s return to superhero comics and serial publication with his work for Image Comics and later his own imprint, America’s Best Comics

Increasingly prominent in this stage of work is Moore’s embrace of magic, which Ayres describes as a “turning point in Moore’s creative growth” (117). Moore’s work during this period is suffused with magic understood as a philosophy, as the source of creative energy, and as a kind of personal religion. As Ayres details, Moore’s engagement with magic is sometimes the actual focus of a work, as in Promethea or his H.P. Lovecraft stories. In other instances, it underwrites the work’s thematics, as in William Gull’s occultism in From Hell. However, magic is almost always present in some way. For Moore, magic is not stereotypical arcane rituals or cliched supernatural spellcasting, but rather a way to conceive of creation itself. Additionally, Moore views magic as a kind of linguistic incantation that uses words to give meaning to form and form to meaning, and that therefore shapes how we perceive and understand the world; on this view, magic is very nearly the same thing as art, as creative fiction, indeed as writing itself. “Art and magic,” writes Ayres, “involve wielding signs to shape collective perceptions of reality” and “change how consciousness perceives and engages with reality” (167). Far from being a mere collection of obscure and esoteric ceremonies, magic is, for Moore, deliberately mundane: our ability to create worlds through our perceptions as captured in (and generated from) language. 

Another prominent aspect of Moore’s work in Ayres’ second batch of key texts is intertextuality. Moore’s work in this later period seems almost obsessively intertextual, dominating everything from Moore’s panel-by-panel annotations (in his voice) of From Hell’s historical connections to Promethea’s issue-long tarot reading, to, of course, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’s endlessly layered references in nearly every panel. Moore’s production from the late 1980s through his retirement in 2019 repeatedly and persistently seeks to use comics as a kind of spatial and visual concatenation of all fictional media — Alice, Dorothy, and Wendy find themselves in the same text (that happens to be a pornographic story); characters from adventure novels, television programs, and superhero comics all team up to fight versions of Harry Potter and James Bond; and, in Moore’s run on Supreme, sixty years’ worth of Superman versions all end up hanging out together in their  city. Emerging from all of this is Ayres’ conclusion that “[i]ntertextuality may be the defining feature of Moore’s comics” (162).

Drawing our attention to intertextuality as the dominant aspect of Moore’s writing points to both the advantages of Ayres’ career-long scope and its limitations. While it is perhaps unavoidable to break a long artistic career into manageable periods in a study like Ayres’, doing so inevitably leads to some reductions and simplifications. For instance, while Moore’s interest in intertextuality does indeed become much more prominent in his later works, he has always been interested in it and it has always been an important, even central, element of his work. Ayres recognizes this when he points out V for Vendetta’s many literary allusions, including Thomas Pynchon’s V but also including Shakespeare, television sitcoms, and Punch and Judy shows. Or take (as an example Ayres doesn’t address) issue 32 of Swamp Thing, entitled “Pog,” from January 1985. Coming about a year into Moore’s four-year run on the series, the issue is an extended homage and intertextual allusion to Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo, in which Moore mimics the unusual speaking patterns of Kelly’s characters even as he warps the story into one of the interplanetary vegetarians seeking refuge from the carnivorous evils of their home world. In this way, Moore makes “Pog” about Kelly’s strip but also continues his Swamp Thing storyline by wedding it to the environmental themes he was developing at the time.

There is, nonetheless, an important difference between the intertextuality of a story like “Pog” and that throughout the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series: the audience. The average reader of superhero comics in 1985 was a male in his early teens; Pogo had ended its syndicated run, and Walt Kelly had died, over a decade before. So while some contemporary readers of Swamp Thing might have recognized Moore’s intertextual allusions to Kelly, it is more likely that the allusions and references simply passed them by. What is more, even if these readers’ interests were piqued, there would have been few resources immediately at hand to aid them in their understanding of the allusions to Kelly’s comic strip and its own storied history. Compare this, however, to the experience of reading League in 2019: many readers (myself included) are not only older and thus have a deeper reading history, but they also have at their fingertips a wide variety of internet and social media resources that annotate every allusion and intertextual reference in every issue and individual panel. These resources — sometimes created by scholars, sometimes crowd-sourced by a global readership — change the reading experience by making it more accessible, meaningful, and richer. It also presumably changes Moore’s approach to writing, knowing that lots of readers, rather than just the erudite few, will be able to “get” the references.  

These differences in the physical and social aspects of the comic book reading experience across time bring me to what is likely the most important contribution of Ayres’ study and return us to his compelling question of if and how comics “need” Moore. It goes without saying that in the five decades Moore published comic book stories, nearly everything about comics changed, including the physical aspects of printing and distribution, audience and creator demographics, and the role of creator rights, among many others. While comics were once culturally stereotyped as silly diversions meant for children, today comics are taught in university courses and command shelves in public libraries even as their adapted storylines dominate movie box offices. Moore himself is often associated with this transformation of comics into a more “mature” medium, and one of Moore’s more controversial legacies might be this use of “mature” as an adjectival label on comic book covers and imprints. The graphic violence of Miracleman, the intense horror of Swamp Thing, the overt sexual violence of The Killing Joke and the Lovecraft stories — these were all considered inappropriate for young readers by the industry and parental groups in the 1980s, particularly in a visual medium. The label “mature” was meant, in this context, merely as a euphemism for “adult” subjects like sex, violence, nudity, swearing, and so on. 

But, as Ayres implies, there is a better way to understand Moore’s relation to the word “mature” when it comes to comics: as a verb. What Moore has sought to do, Ayres suggests, is mature comics by engaging the form in more serious and sophisticated ways. While Moore’s work does deal with more “adult” topics, it also embraces “revisionist storytelling techniques” and “formal difficulty, narrative depth, and thematic sophistication” (197-98). Much as the literary modernists of the early twentieth century embraced, experimented with, and ultimately transformed the novelistic form, Moore did the same to the sequential art medium. Further, just as literary modernists transformed what it was possible to write about in novels, so too did Moore change what mainstream comics could be about.

Ayres’ study addresses this part of Moore’s legacy by covering, in its second main component, the critical questions and cultural impact of Moore’s work. While Ayres addresses a wide variety of themes — including Moore’s influential work toward greater creator rights and his artistic and political fight against the political authoritarianism of Thatcherism — this part of the text also focuses on what might be most interesting to contemporary scholars of Moore’s work: the changing perceptions of his treatment of race and of sexual violence. Moore was once seen as the vanguard for progressive, nuanced depictions of sex and sexuality in mainstream comics, as in the issue-long sexual encounter between Abby and Swamp Thing in Swamp Thing, the frank depiction of childbirth in Miracleman, and the sympathetic presentation of gay and lesbian characters in both Watchmen and V for Vendetta. However, in the past decade or so, Moore has come under various sorts of fire for his representations of women — in particular, the prominent and recurrent depictions of sexual violence against women throughout his work. Similarly, Moore’s treatment of race, particularly the Galley-Wag character in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (whom Ayres refers to as not “Galley-Wag” but rather by the original source name of “Golliwog,”), has become increasingly viewed and critiqued as “appallingly racist” (3). Ayres addresses the complexity of these issues, arguing that even as there are legitimately troubling examples like Galley-Wag and the extended rape scenes in The Courtyard, they stand in complicated relationship to much of Moore’s other works as well as his “publicly stated (and acted-upon) political commitments” (188). 

How might Moore’s critics, and his many fans, respond to such criticisms? Moore himself, in a long interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid, responded with a kind of impatience: having spent his entire career on the forefront of bringing progressive politics and diverse perspectives into a stubbornly homogenized medium, he expresses feelings of near betrayal by the medium he worked and sacrificed to mature, confessing at one point that he “found the ready assumption of [his] alleged racial insensitivity or thoughtlessness to be a little disappointing” (Ó Méalóid). In many ways, this issue gets at the heart of what we might say about comics “needing” Moore now, for from our contemporary vantage point the politics of Moore’s decades-long corpus appears paradoxical in the same way as those of avant-garde artists viewed in retrospect. Having succeeded in throwing open the gates to new ways of seeing and creating, these erstwhile avant-garde artists are soon seen as standing still by those who hurriedly pass them by on their way through those same gates to the now open possibilities beyond. This familiar pattern, wherein the most progressive figures of an earlier moment are seen as old-fashioned, out-of-touch, or even conservative at a later moment, seems to be manifesting in emerging critical perspectives on Moore.

These new critical perspectives are themselves indicative that we have entered a new period of comics scholarship. As Ayres puts it, this new period no longer feels compelled to “justify” itself as scholarship but can now begin instead the process of “refining its methods and criteria, and rethinking its foundational canon” (213). By critically engaging and at times challenging the outsized position of Moore in that foundational canon, Ayres’ text is a clear first step in this process. Ayres shows that though the history of comics may not be identical to the history of Moore’s work, his work has nonetheless — for good or ill — laid the groundwork for much of what is happening in the medium today. While it may not be possible to answer in a satisfying way the question of whether we “need” Moore or not, Ayres’ study demonstrates the myriad ways Moore’s work has grown and matured the medium itself. Still relatively fresh off Moore’s retirement, Ayres’ Critical Guide is an early map for navigating the post-Moore comics world and provides a helpful model for what critical analysis of Moore’s work and legacy might look like going forward. In a transitional period where both Moore and his work are still treated by many in nearly hagiographic ways, Ayres’ study brings at last a sense of complexity, nuance, and critical distance that will hopefully inaugurate a more mature age of Moore criticism.

Work Cited

Ó Méalóid, Pádraig. “Last Alan Moore Interview?” 9 January 2014. https://slovobooks.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/last-alan-moore-interview/. Accessed 13 October 2022.

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