A Change of Consciousness: The Legacy of Alan Moore

Few writers in any language have been able to bring about a flurry of political and artistic discussion upon the release of each new work. Even fewer have been able to change the way the medium they work in is viewed by both critics and the masses. One of these very few is the legendary comics writer Alan Moore. Upon finishing the final issue of the The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen this past Summer, the controversial icon confirmed that he would be retiring from the medium that brought him such acclaim. While Moore has done his best to distance himself from much of the work he has done in the past, there is no way to understate how that work has influenced and changed not just comics, but fiction and entertainment as a whole in the past few decades.

Miracleman; Cover by Garry Leach

Moore’s first well-known successes were created while writing for 2000 A.D. and Marvel UK. The Ballad of Halo Jones, described as a “feminist space opera,” is considered to be Moore’s best work for 2000 A.D. as a publisher. Unfortunately, the series was canceled due to a publishing disagreement (not the last time such a thing would occur). His other and even more famous early triumph was the resurrection of a British Silver-Age hero called “Marvelman,” later changed into MiraclemanMoore’s revival places protagonist Michael Moran in a state of normal living, with visions of flight and power before remembering he was a superhero. Upon regaining his powers, he engages with twisted superhumans, alien experiments and, of course, Nazis. Moore blends classic superhero optimism with the contemporary dark places of the imagination, creating something far ahead of its time and often highly controversial. This examination of a superhero in a more realistic world was not only the first step towards the future of comics, but arguably a prototype for one of Moore’s later acclaimed works.

From Saga of the Swamp Thing; art by Stephen Bissette and John Totleben

In the mid-1980’s, an editor at DC comics named Karen Berger contacted Alan Moore as well as several other rising British writers to take over and revamp some of their failing or forgotten series. In February of 1984, Moore took over for writer Martin Pasko on Saga of the Swamp Thing. This is arguably where the writer’s legacy and influence would truly begin. Moore’s poetic handling of myth and obscure characters in DC’s pantheon was unseen in comics at the time, as well has his introduction of metaphysics and esoteric beliefs that drove the analytical points of the story. Moore still had a mouth for horror as well though, and his use of it in this series still places it as one of the best horror comics ever created. Artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben were given plenty to work with, and brought the world to life in a flurry of artistic coloring choices and often gross detail. Saga of the Swamp Thing set a standard for not just the character, but for comics as a whole in the time of its release. DC decided to outright ignore the Comics Code Authority, a censor that prohibited “mature content” in comics and simply printed a “Mature Readers” logo on the covers. This lead to DC’s Mature Readers line of comics, which would later become the Vertigo imprint. Already, Moore would instigate the first major paradigm shift for the medium in decades. His greatest success, however, was yet to come.

Watchmen #1; Art by Dave Gibbons

In 1985, Alan Moore pitched an original story involving characters DC had acquired from the defunct Charlton Comics line. However, because DC had plans to utilize these characters in the future, they instead suggested that he create his own cast. As such, Moore teamed with artist and fellow Brit Dave Gibbons to start work on a new maxi-series. The concept was for an alternate history United States involving superheroes in a more “realistic” political portrayal. It also was meant to work as a deconstruction of the superhero genre, almost as a spiritual continuation of what Miracleman had attempted to accomplish. In 1986, the first issue of Watchmen was released.

Widely considered he greatest comic series of all time and one of the greatest novels of the 20th centuryWatchmen was the unexpected massive success of the decade for the comics industry. Nothing like it had ever been attempted in the medium, and its closest contemporaries were other Alan Moore works such as Miracleman and V For VendettaWatchmen’s poignant and relevant political commentary reached a level of profoundness difficult to find even among the worlds of cinema and prose novels. Its other winning element was something that only comics could achieve at the time: criticism and commentary on the concept of the superhero. Each character in Watchmen represents a different perspective on superheroes based on their archetype. Dr. Manhattan is a god-level being capable of manipulating time and reality, and as such loses his ability to feel empathy. Ozymandias is a millionaire-genius who comes up with a plan to stop World War III by killing millions. Rorschach is a paranoid conspiracy theorist who came to his moral choice because of his abused upbringing. The Comedian is an amoral reprobate who takes pleasure in bloodshed because he knows no one will say anything. These “heroes” all come to their respective moral conclusions based on their backgrounds, beliefs and experiences combined with their reality. This is all set inside a sharp satire of 1980’s America’s political backdrop. However, this does not make Watchmen dated in any way. Moore’s criticisms in this series are so universally appealing that the observations have held up over thirty years later.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the influence Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen had and continues to have on the comics medium and fiction as a whole. It’s widely considered the point where comics became a genuine literary art form in the same way novels and film are accepted as. While Watchmen may still be considered Moore’s most popular and influential work, it may not be quite as thought provoking as another of his works published by DC around this time. In 1981 while still working for Marvel UK, Moore and artist David Lloyd embarked on a purely politically charged tale of anarchism and vengeance against a totalitarian state. The first chapter of this story, titled V For Vendetta arrived in Marvel UK’s Warrior magazine in 1982. Unfortunately Warrior was shut down and left the story floating until DC agreed to continue publishing it as one of Moore’s conditions for signing on. Where Swamp Thing re-imagined horror comics and Watchmen revitalized the medium as a whole, V For Vendetta offered a political line of thought offered nowhere else in any entertainment medium at the time.

Ad for V For Vendetta; Art by David Lloyd

V For Vendetta is not a story about character and the lives of its characters as much as it is an analogue for political change and each character is a concept given form. The title character V is never analyzed past his persona. As such, he remains solely as a sort of living catalyst for political anarchism (Moore’s chosen political stance) more than an actual person. Evey Hammond, the protagonist of sorts, also functions as the audience’s window character. Her impoverished life and choices she’s had to make bring the reader into the world of desperation caused by Chancellor Adam Susan’s fascist regime. At the same time, it allows for the steady evolution of her understanding to permeate the reader’s thoughts as she is taken in and changed by V. Even the story’s central antagonist Chancellor Susan is more a satirical object than a person. The focus on the dictator’s unstable mental state and his ‘unusual’ desires play a bigger part than his actually leadership, making it clear that he’s more a metaphor for fascism as a whole. Vendetta’s ambiguity with its characters and story direction are made so as not to bludgeon the reader over the head with jargon and pro-ideological messaging. It’s created as more of a “for your consideration” when it comes to modern political thought. It’s certainly the most dense and difficult to approach of Moore’s early works at DC, but it’s also likely his most intelligent and provocative.

Despite any misgivings Alan Moore may have about superheroes and their place in culture, he did not shy away from the chance to write iconic stores about them. In 1986, Moore penned Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? This two-part story was created as a farewell to the classic Silver Age Superman of the era, as DC neared a modern reboot of the character with John Byrne following the Crisis on Infinite Earths event. Regular and iconic Superman artist Curt Swan joined Moore to tell a story that effectively closed the book on the Kryptonian’s classic mythology in a way that is satisfying and highly memorable. The frame narrative with Lois Lane recalling the final days of the Man of Steel makes for on of the most emotionally impactful stories found in mainstream comics, and also proves that Alan Moore understands that importance and meaning behind Superman. While “Man of Tomorrow” does contain darker moments with some of its villains, it still ends on a hopeful and bittersweet note that is absolutely the kind of note an emotional Superman tale should end on. Another Superman tale written by Moore, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” describes one of Kal El’s greatest internal struggles. On his birthday, Superman is trapped in the Fortress of Solitude by a parasitic plant that places him in a coma. While unconscious, the plant feeds him a hyper-realistic dream of what he most deeply desires: to be living happily with a family on Krypton. This one story has fueled much of the argument for Superman being a tragic character in many regards ever since its publication. Moore understands these characters well enough to hone in on their emotional centers while still respecting what they stand for.

Art by Brian Bolland

Unfortunately, Moore’s most famous superhero work is also the one he regrets the most. Batman: The Killing Joke is a one-shot graphic novel published in 1988 depicting Joker at his most heinous – and, strangely, most tragic. The Joker escapes from his cell at Arkham Asylum to shoot and paralyze Barbara Gordon, before capturing Jim Gordon himself in an attempt to drive the commissioner mad. The issue examines Joker’s life before being a super-criminal as a struggling comedian. The entire point of the story is that “one bad day” can make a sane person go mad. There’s obviously the parallel between Joker and Batman, with the latter’s loss of his parents, and their respective ways of responding to tragedy.

The Killing Joke is one of the most acclaimed comic stories of all time, considered required reading for Batman and comic fans as a whole. Moore himself however considers it “pointless” and “overly cruel,”  While Moore has never been one to shy away from criticizing his own work, his feelings toward The Killing Joke are roughly analogous to his feelings towards DC Comics as a publisher. Roughly a year after the publication of his iconic Batman story, Moore’s disagreements with DC finally came to a head and he left the publisher.

From Promethea; Art by J.H. Williams III

It’s admittedly a bit strange to give an overview of Alan Moore’s most influential and essential works when all of his work under such a category were published by a company the writer himself loathes. Even after his most iconic work in the 1980’s, Moore continued to create comic series’ that are iconic in their own right. With his reputation as an ‘auteur’ comic writer, he was able to create comics that challenged readers with his own views on reality. These included fictional theses on metaphysics, theoretical history, occultism, magic, and other non-mainstream topics. Here are a few of those works worth checking out:

  • From Hell was published by Top Shelf and was drawn by Eddie Campbell, and is dense investigation into the life and identity of Jack the Ripper, specifically from Alan Moore’s perspective. It has a reputation as one of the most challenging comic works ever written, and actually requires Moore’s annotations to be able to truly make sense of the plot.
  • Promethea was published under Moore’s “America’s Best Comics” line under Jim Lee’s WildStorm imprint before it was purchased by DC (much to Moore’s chagrin). It tells the story of a college-age young woman’s transformation into the mythic figure Promethea, a peace-keeping warrior that merges with anyone who writes or studies her. Combining superhero action with some of Moore’s most poetic and imaginative passages along with J.H. Williams extraordinary art, this is likely the most visually stunning work in Moore’s portfolio.
  • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is likely one of Moore’s most famous works due to the awful film adaptation. This aside, League really deserves its reputation. Described as a “Justice League of literary characters,” League follows The Invisible Man, Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Mina Harker, and others on a globetrotting journey against numerous threats political and supernatural. Collecting this series is a bit of a trial though, as the first three volumes are published by DC, and the rest by Top Shelf and Knockabout. As stated earlier, the final issue of this series is what spurred Alan Moore into retirement, so reading the whole saga would be a nice cap to finishing his bibliography.

Again, these are only what could be considered the most “essential” works for gaining insight into Alan Moore’s intelligent and poetic writing style. These works could be considered his most accessible, while still understanding what made Moore such a game changer for the industry. His capability to write relatable characters and identifiable environments on the one hand and then send concepts whirring past without making it too complicated. Unless of course, he wants to make it complicated. While his relationship with the comics is controversial and some of his work hard to parse, the effect his work has had on  the medium cannot be oversold. Alan Moore’s decades of work and influence have earned him a restful retirement.

Justin Munday
Justin Munday
Reader and hoarder of comics. Quietly sipping coffee, reading, and watching sci-fi in Knoxville, TN.