Archive for Alan Moore

Friday Night Fights: Don’t Feed the Plants!

If it’s Friday, and if it’s approximately evening, that’s enough for me to declare it to be time for… FRIDAY NIGHT FIGHTS! And if it’s October, that means I’ve got some nice monster-themed fights to share with you, too.

Tonight’s battle comes to us from February 1984’s Swamp Thing #21 by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben. The classic tale “The Anatomy Lesson” revamped the Swamp Thing’s backstory and served up a frightful buffet of creepiness and terror, as the venal General Sunderland suffers an unpleasant encounter with an angry plant monster.




Yeah, General, that is probably not the best choice of words to offer to an infuriated monster that’s just had his worldview flipped over on him.



Important lesson: Don’t shoot plant monsters in the head and expect that to kill them. Also, don’t leave important research papers around for swamp monsters to read. Come to think of it, if you have a swamp monster in the building, don’t hang around and wait for him to get angry about something.

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Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

As long as we’re busy observing Guy Fawkes Day (We are observing Guy Fawkes Day, right?), it seems like a good time to talk about another great Alan Moore comic book.

V for Vendetta

Thanks to the 2006 movie, the profile of this story got raised a lot higher than it had ever been. And while I do enjoy the movie a lot, the graphic novel is a much different beast. So let’s review the basics a bit.

Obviously, it was written by the famously brilliant and bearded Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd. It was originally published as a ten-issue miniseries in “Warrior,” a British comic book anthology, in 1981. Due to sporadic publishing and production schedules, it took several years for the story to completed — in fact “Warrior” was cancelled in 1985, before the end of the tale could be published. In 1988, DC Comics published the previous “Warrior” chapters, in color this time, then published Moore and Lloyd’s final chapters, finally completing the series. It has since been compiled into a graphic novel under DC’s Vertigo imprint, and it’s available in stores for you to buy right now.

The story is set in a dystopian future in which England is ruled by a fascist dictatorship. There are no known black people, no known homosexuals, no known religious or ethnic minorities. Police powers are absolute. People are propagandized on television and radio by “The Voice of Fate,” an influential and soothing broadcaster, and they are watched at almost all times through pervasive video surveillance. Signs throughout the city proclaim “Strength through Purity, Purity through Faith.” England prevails, and freedom is dead.

There are two main characters. Evey Hammond is a young girl who runs afoul of a government vice squad. She is rescued by “V”, a man wearing a grinning Guy Fawkes mask. V is a virtual superman — terrifyingly fast and agile, a powerful fighter and merciless killer, endlessly patient, cultured, charming, theatrical, charismatic, impossibly intelligent — and completely insane.

We learn very little about V over the course of the story. He used to be an inmate at a death camp, he endured terrible experimentation and escaped after these experiments mutated him and twisted his psyche. He wants the people who held him captive dead. He wants the dictatorship destroyed. He doesn’t want to replace it with a democracy or a monarchy or a republic. He is a terrorist and an anarchist. He wants the government — all governments, really — dead. And he nearly never takes off that mask.

Evey is not at all superhuman and not very insane. She is a normal person who has been ground down by years of living in a world without freedom. Her parents were arrested and presumably killed years ago, she has little money and few resources until she meets V. She likes V and sympathizes with his cause, but she just wants to live a normal life. In time, she is captured by the government and tortured. In time, she becomes a freedom fighter, too.

Is this a perfect comic book? No, it really isn’t. There are a dizzying number of supporting characters, and you really cannot keep track of which ones are important and which ones are forgettable cannon fodder until the final chapters. There are times when the art seems a bit muddy — I attribute this to the fact that colors were added to Lloyd’s black-and-white art. And the story drags toward the middle. In a lot of imporant ways, the movie improved the story a lot — the vast number of characters were pared down to a more manageable size and the slow parts from the middle of the story were eliminated.

But don’t let that put you off from reading the graphic novel. This is a story that thrills and excites — it almost blisters your eyeballs as you read it. It smothers you under claustrophobic paranoia, stings you with terror, and shouts with the joys of freedom and righteous violence. V is an enigma behind his ever-smiling mask and ever-mysterious pronouncements, but his razor-sharp style and wit make him a very agreeable protagonist — I hesitate to call him a hero as he can be breathtakingly capricious and cruel — there’s a certain point in the story when most readers are going to be very, very angry at him. Trying not to spoil it, so no details, but while I was reading it the first time, I kinda wanted to kick the crap out of Alan Moore for even writing it, even though I was fantastically impressed with how well it was written and plotted. Evey, meanwhile, is the comic’s true central character, as everything revolves around her ultimate transformation from oppressed cog into enlightened rebel.

It is a highly political work. It was written when British politicians were toying with the idea of putting AIDS victims in concentration camps, when prominent people were talking about stamping out even the concept of homosexuality, by any means necessary. It was written during a period when police forces were becoming more militarized and surveillance was becoming more common. It was written when many Britons truly feared that they were looking at a pre-fascist government. In some ways, the fears of the graphic novel never came to pass — many of the excesses of the Thatcher government were turned away by more level-headed and less paranoid players. On the other hand, government surveillance, especially in England, is almost everywhere, on a level that’s almost impossible for us to believe in America — Great Britain is considered the most heavily surveilled industrialized nation, with security cameras almost everywhere in the larger cities.

There are so many wonderful moments. There’s the shy, bespectacled girl who, finally freed of the government’s omnipresent surveillance, celebrates her new freedom by shouting “Bollocks!” There are V’s methodical and brilliant murders. There is the heartbreaking letter from the political prisoner, Valerie — possibly the best single stretch of writing in the entire story — so good they lifted the entire thing for the movie. There are many, many more great moments here, but you can’t go much further without spoiling the story. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, and I don’t want to deprive you of the joy you’ll know when you find those moments for yourself.

You can find it in comic shops and bookstores right now. You should go pick it up.

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Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper

On this day in 1888, the body of Annie Chapman, the second victim of Jack the Ripper, was found.

That’s as good an excuse as any for us to talk about “From Hell.”

“From Hell” was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Eddie Campbell. It was originally published spread out across several different magazines, but eventually compiled into a single book in 1999. It’s a gigantic book — almost 600 pages.

It’s about Jack the Ripper, of course. It’s a fictionalized account, obviously, following Inspector Frederick Abberline as he investigates the killings, a group of Whitechapel prostitutes as they slowly realize that they — very specifically, in fact — are being stalked by the killer, and it follows Sir William Gull, royal physician to Queen Victoria and the man behind the gory murders.

Oops, was that a spoiler? No, believe it or not, it isn’t. We know almost from the beginning that Gull is Saucy Jack. This isn’t a whodunit. It’s a whydunit.

I think “From Hell” is my favorite of Moore comics — better than “Watchmen,” “V for Vendetta,” or “The Killing Joke.” I got into it because I’ve always been a horror fan — in fact, I’m the only person in my immediate or extended family who cares for horror, which makes me, well, the only person in my family who likes horror. Anyway, as a horror nut, serial killer stories, and especially stories about Old Leather-Apron, have always appealed to me. And “From Hell” ladles on buckets of horror. Not just gore — and there is a lot of gore, and I mean a lot — but suspense, paranoia, psychological chills. It’s a very scary, creepy story about the best known but most mysterious serial killer in history, and horror fans will absolutely love it.

But on top of that, I’d developed a taste for conspiratorial fiction and stuff about secret societies — books like Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s “Illuminatus!” trilogy, Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum,” and the more demented style of modern conspiracy theories. And “From Hell” actually manages to scratch that itch, too, because it’s crammed full of conspiracies, esotericism, sacred geography, secret history, weird stuff both subtle and spectacular. In the story, Gull manages to make mystical connections with poet/painter William Blake and 20th century serial killers like Peter Sutcliffe. He sees visions of Adolf Hitler and WWII and even sees the 1990s — he even claims to have created all of it himself, through the murders.

None of it seems like it should have any place in a story about Jack the Ripper, but once it’s introduced, it seems to make perfect sense. I get irritated by Moore’s obsessions from time to time, but it really is a testament to his strength as a writer that he can shoehorn all these unconnected elements into a single story, and it all works.

The full collected edition also includes a gigantic appendix detailing, almost page by page, which elements of the story were based on fact, which were invented, and which were conjecture or theory, and it all closes with an illustrated essay called “Dance of the Gull Catchers,” which distills the entire history of Ripperology, its movers and shakers, and its leading theories and fixations down into a dozen or so pages. And it makes sense, and it’s entertaining. Heck, I remember laughing out loud when Moore made the Jack the Ripper/Cattle Mutilators connection, partly because it was completely mad, and partly because, holy macaroni, it had that perfect conspiracy-theory frission that feels so good to us conspiracy fanboys.

“From Hell” is a near-perfect mix of horror, detective drama, and conspiracy theories. I wish the movie (which I’ve never managed to see) hadn’t put so many people off of the comic, because it’s one of Alan Moore’s best and most ambitious stories.

You can probably find it at your local comic shop right now. Go pick it up.

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Marvels vs. Miracles


So Marvel announced at the just-completed Comic-Con in San Diego that they’ve acquired the rights to Marvelman — and right now, I don’t think I can bother to be excited.

Part of the problem is that I don’t know that we can trust Marvel to do right by the character or its creators. When you read the convoluted publication history of the character, it becomes clear really quickly that, while the story itself is acclaimed, the history of the comics themselves have been a tawdry and embarrassing mishmash of conflicting legal claims. Marvelman was originally a 1950s British ripoff of DC’s Captain Marvel; when the title was cancelled in the ’60s, no one touched it again ’til the 1980s, when the great British comics anthology “Warrior” resurrected the character — they didn’t have the rights to the character originally, but assumed that no one would care if they used him. The new storyline was written by Alan Moore, who believed that all the necessary permissions were in order.

The series moved to Eclipse Comics, which changed the name of the character to Miracleman because Marvel Comics was threatening to sue (Oh, the irony). After Eclipse went out of business, Todd MacFarlane bought Eclipse’s back catalog — Neil Gaiman, who was, as far as anyone knew, the last person to hold any rights to the character, sued to keep MacFarlane from using the character. Gaiman eventually won the suit, but there was no expectation that the old Eclipse stories, which have always been considered the best, would ever be published.

But now Marvel has the rights to the character… but no one seems to be talking about what rights those are. Is Marvel limited to just writing new adventures about the character? If so, big deal — they can’t reprint Moore’s or Gaiman’s classic Miracleman stories, much less re-tell them, without facing another punishing lawsuit. If they do have the rights to reprint the older stories, that may be good for readers — Eclipse’s “Miracleman” comics are very rare and very expensive — but that may be bad for Moore and Gaiman, unless Marvel is going to do something DC has always avoided — pay the original creators some significant reprint fees.

And on a fanboy level, I wonder if Marvel is going to shoehorn Marvelman into their regular superhero continuity. In only the last few years, they’ve added Superman-level characters like the Sentry and the Blue Marvel — do they really need another nigh-omnipotent demigod running around their universe?

Marvel’s press release is pretty vague about their plans. I’d like to think they’ll pay Moore and Gaiman — and orignal creator Mick Anglo — a tidy sum, if only to stick it in DC’s eye. But will they? I really have no idea — but I don’t hold out a lot of hope. Comic history is filled from its beginnings with comics creators getting screwed out of their money by the publishers, and my pessimistic nature suspects that the same thing will happen this time, too.

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20th Century Analog Boys

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1910

The first part of a new chapter in the literary-themed adventure series from Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill focuses on the early part of the 20th century. The current League includes former vampire victim Mina Murray, the rejuvenated Allan Quatermain (masquerading as his own son), immortal sex-changing warrior Orlando, ghost-hunting detective Thomas Carnacki, and reformed thief A.J. Raffles. They’re on the trail of a bunch of occultists, led by a fictionalized version of Aleister Crowley, who are trying to bring about the end of the world. Added on top of all this are the daughter of the late Captain Nemo, who becomes known as Pirate Jenny, and a brutal killer (who may actually be Jack the Ripper) named Jack MacHeath, who is better known as Mack the Knife. In other words, a large chunk of this story is based on Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” — and yes, there are characters who actually break out in song during the story. Frankly, this is extremely weird. It all ends with a terrific slaughter, but with the prophesied apocalypse seemingly scheduled for many years in the future.

Verdict: I hate to say it, but thumbs down. While Jenny was an outstanding character, and her storyarc was very satisfying, the rest of this felt like Alan Moore was thumbing his nose at me. Sure, okay, Alan, you’re vastly smarter than I am, there’s no denying it. But do ya have to rub my nose in my own intellectual inferiority?

Secret Six #9

In one of the “Battle for the Cowl” crossovers, Batman is seemingly dead, and the criminals of Gotham City are going wild. A band of kidnappers have targeted the children of wealthy citizens, but Catman and Bane both decide to help stop them — partly because both of them would like to try to take Batman’s place. And Ragdoll is tagging along, because he, disturbingly, has decided that he wants to take Robin’s place. None of the trio is much good at leaving any of the kidnappers alive, but they do manage to save the children and their families — and they all get off some excellent one-liners.

Verdict: A big thumbs up. This one is a huge amount of fun, the action is absolutely top-notch, and like I said before, the one-liners are primo. Ragdoll gets the most, especially when he discovers that everything he says ends up sounding perverted, but Bane and Catman get their share, too. This one’s definitely worth picking up, even if you’re not into the “Battle for the Cowl” storyline.

The Human Torch Comics 70th Anniversary Special #1

Marvel is putting out a whole series of comics focusing on their Golden Age characters to commemorate their 70th birthday. This one, by Scott Snyder and “Atomic Robo” artist Scott Wegener, focuses on the Human Torch from the 1940s — unlike the more familiar Torch from the “Fantastic Four” comics, the Golden Age Torch was an android who was able to set himself on fire. The first story is pretty straightforward — the Torch rescues a woman from a sewer monster, but its venom means he has to discard his human-looking skin. Finding himself despised as a robot monster, the Torch has to decide whether to stay inside where his appearance won’t horrify people, or to go out and save lives anyway. The second story is a reprint from an old “Human Torch” comic, featuring the introduction of the Torch’s sidekick Toro.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a charming story, with wonderful illustrations. The reprint is a nice bonus. Definitely worth a read.

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The Black Dossier

I know this has been out there forever, but I only managed to grab this one after Christmas, thanks to some handy and much appreciated gift certificates. So what the heck, let’s review it.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier

This picks up several decades after the last episode of the entirely classic “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. (And if you haven’t read that yet, you really, really should. If all you know of “LoEG” is that awful Sean Connery movie, then excise all memories of that pile of cinematic dreck and go read the comics, ’cause they’re really cool.)

Aaaanyway, it’s 1958, Big Brother’s dictatorship from George Orwell’s “1984” has just fallen, and Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain are still kicking around England. Thanks to an encounter with the “Fire of Youth,” both are now basically immortal. They’re after a book called the Black Dossier, that includes the complete, secret history of their League, as well as the Leagues that came before and after.

While most of the main story is told through traditional comic illustrations, the material from the Black Dossier is, for the most part, recounted in straightforward text. These include a lengthy comic strip focusing on the life of Orlando (the immortal gender-swapping swashbuckler from Virginia Woolf’s novel); a “Fanny Hill” sequel; a short story written in the style of the ’50s beat writers; a Tijuana Bible about life and sex in Big Brother’s England; and a comedy combining P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Bertie Wooster with H.P. Lovecraft’s cthulhoid horrors. There’s also an actual pair of 3-D glasses to go along with the extended 3-D sequence at the end of the story.

Verdict: Well, I’ll give this a thumbs up, partly because I’m not sure I’ve got it in me to thumbs-down an Alan Moore story, and partly because I thought “What Ho, Gods of the Abyss?”, the Jeeves and Wooster story, was extremely funny. But yeah, this story has some severe problems. There’s vastly too many folks running around without their clothes on — sure, there’s an awful lot of classic literature that’s pretty wildly bawdy (like, fer instance, almost all of Shakespeare’s plays), but “The Black Dossier” really does desensitize you to sex and nudity after just a little while. (“Oh, look, it’s Mina without any clothes on. Oh, look, it’s Fanny Hill without any clothes on. Oh, look, it’s Orlando without any clothes on. Oh, look, it’s a Tijuana Bible. Oh, look…”)

In addition, several of the text pieces were really difficult to read, partly because of formatting issues (Paragraph indents, Mr. Moore! And less single-spaced stuff, please!) and partly because they’re not all that well-written — “The Crazy Wide Forever,” written in the style of Jack Kerouac, was almost unreadably awful.

All the stuff drawn from “1984” was a bit of a setting breaker, too, frankly. I just can’t buy into the idea that England would transition so quickly from a fairly normal society, to a crushingly autocratic dictatorship, and then back to a normal society in such a short space of time. The Ingsoc from “1984” wasn’t a government that was going away any time soon, and the concept of doublespeak wasn’t something that would allow a normal, well-adjusted society to occur, in any case.

And finally, one of the characters who shows up at the end is a giant Golliwogg doll. If you’re not familiar with those, they were blackface minstrel ragdolls. Why is there a racist doll running around England with an airship? I got no idea. And it really pulls you straight out of the story. You’re reading along, you’re in an exciting chase sequence, and then, hello, racist stereotype doll! What the frackin’ frack?! Weren’t there any other popular children’s toys in England in the late 1950s? Winnie the Pooh, maybe? Peter Cottontail? Betsy-Wetsie? Madame Freakin’ Alexander dolls?

I really do think this is my least favorite of all of Moore comics, and I’ve read a ton of ’em. But even with that caveat, I still think it’s probably worth reading.

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Holiday Gift Bag: Watchmen

This isn’t so much a recommendation for something you can get the comics fan in your life — most comics fans out there either already own this or they’ve at least read it somewhere in the past. Instead, this is a recommendation for new comics readers and for movie fans. Because 2009 is definitely going to be the Year of Watchmen.

Watchmen was originally published as a limited series in 1986-87 by DC Comics and later collected as a graphic novel in 1987. It was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. It told a story of an alternate universe of costumed but unpowered vigilantes, how a single godlike metahuman changes the world, and how one person decides to bring the whole world together in peace. Is that telling things a bit too vaguely? Maybe so, but it’s also fun for new readers to discover the intricacies of the plot for themselves.

Our lead characters include Nite Owl, a gadget-using hero; Silk Spectre, a beautiful martial artist; the Comedian, a doomed government agent; Rorschach, a conspiracy-obsessed — but still badass — lunatic; Ozymandias, the smartest and richest man on the planet; and Dr. Manhattan, a man gifted with near-omnipotent powers but entirely detached from human emotions and concerns.

Like I said, most comics fans are very well aware of how great this story is. It also makes a great jumping-on point for new comics readers, because it demonstrates what many critics consider to be the very peak in comics storytelling — it’s a deeply nuanced and complex story, jam-packed with symbolism and bleak foreboding. It’s also a very adult story — and not just because it includes sex, nudity, swearing, and violence — this is a story told by grown-ups to grown-ups. I’m sure particularly smart kids can handle it easily, but it’s not something you wanna drop in your third-grader’s lap because it’s “just a funny book.” Alan Moore has now generally disowned the book because of his long-standing disagreements with how DC has treated him and his work.

And movie fans will probably be interested because Zach Snyder, director of “300,” plans to release a “Watchmen” movie next year, and it’s quickly become one of the most heavily anticipated films around. When the first trailer made its debut in July, demand for the graphic novel skyrocketed, and DC had to rush hundreds of thousands of new copies to print. In other words, when people see info about this movie, they want to read the comic it was based on. So if you’ve got a movie fan on your shopping list, they might appreciate getting to read the comic before the movie comes out in March.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Go pick it up.

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Comics Creators Turn Yellow

Alan Moore (creator of “Watchmen” and many others), Art Spiegelman (creator of “Maus”), and Daniel Clowes (creator of “Eightball” and “Ghost World”) will play themselves on an episode of “The Simpsons” in October.

More info here.

As expected, it’ll be an episode focusing on Jeff Albertson, the Comic Book Guy, with Jack Black stepping in to voice the hipster owner of a new rival comic shop across town.

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Alan Moore knows the score

A friend of mine suggested recently that I should spend more time here recommending writers and artists worth reading. Fair ’nuff — there are a lot of wonderful creators out there, and it’s always a good idea to steer people toward the Good Stuff.

So let’s start with the Best of the Best: Alan Moore.

Moore is a shaggy, shaggy Englishman, a practicing magician, a worshiper of a Roman snake-god called Glycon, and the second-best-known comics creator in the world, after Stan Lee. He’s known for intricate plotlines, razor-sharp characterizations, and scripts so detailed, a single panel description can go on for a page or more.

Moore has always worked to create comics for adults. That means there’s violence, nudity, swearing, and other stuff that parents may not want their kids getting their hands on. Moore sees the comics medium as something that shouldn’t be mired in juvenilia, though he also recognizes that superhero comics can be a great deal of fun for grown-ups as well as kids.

Here’s some of his best stuff, with short descriptions.


We’ve discussed this a bit already. This is widely considered to be the very best comic book ever created. They teach this one in many universities as literature. If you’ve never read this, you should.

V for Vendetta

A masked, swashbuckling anarchist battles a fascist dictatorship in Great Britain. Not a perfect work — there are way too many characters to keep track of — but the story absolutely blisters the brain with excitement, derring-do, and mad, dangerous ideas. An extremely political comic — Moore wrote it in response to Maggie Thatcher’s hard-right British government.

From Hell

This is a story about Jack the Ripper. Moore comes up with his own solutions for the Ripper slayings, ties it all together with head-trippy stuff about sacred geometry and time travel. Moore did a lot of research into “Ripperology” and includes an excellent bibliography and panel-by-panel endnotes. This comic is violent and absolutely blood-drenched, but if you have any interest at all in the Ripper slayings or in the seamier side of Victorian England, it’s highly recommended.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

It’s a superteam composed of characters from Victorian-era adventure fiction! The British government assembles a covert team of Mina Murray, Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Henry Jekyll, and the Invisible Man to battle Dr. Fu Manchu. A second series of the comic has the team taking on invaders from Mars. Guest stars include everyone from Auguste Dupin, Mycroft Holmes, Dr. Moreau, the Artful Dodger, Mr. Toad, John Carter, and many, many more.

Tom Strong

A modern-day superhero book that takes most of its inspiration from old pulp adventure novels, particularly Tarzan and Doc Savage. The quality is a bit here-and-there, but in general, it’s grand, frothy fun.

Top 10

One of my favorite Moore comics, it’s a hard-boiled police procedural set in a city where everyone — citizens, cops, crooks — has superpowers and wears a brightly-colored spandex costume. It’s a fun commentary on comics in general, plus it has a lot of really wonderful mysteries for the cops to solve. If you like TV shows like “Law and Order” or “Homicide: Life on the Street,” you’ll like this one.


A psychedelic/metaphysical comic about a superhero who is destined to bring about the end of the world. If you’re into new age stuff, magick, Qabalah, or the Tarot, you’ll love this. This comic is also the one where Moore does the most experimentation with visual styles and symbolism. It’s not light reading — it’s a very challenging book that requires fairly deep reading to understand.


A British superhero, similar to Captain Marvel. The original version got its start in the ’50s, and Moore started working on it in the ’80s. In his version, Marvelman ends up taking over the world and ruling as a god. It’s awfully hard to find this series anywhere in the U.S. — the rights to the character and the series are in dispute. (They even had to change the name from “Marvelman” to “Miracleman” when Marvel Comics threatened to sue.)

The Killing Joke

This Batman story presents the definitive origin of the Joker. And it’s the story that started Barbara Gordon on the path from being Batgirl to becoming Oracle, the wheelchair-bound super-hacker. It’s a wonderful comic, one of the best Joker stories ever.

Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

DC was preparing to reboot the Superman from the beginning back in the mid-’80s, and Moore wrote this story to bring an end to everything in the old Superman mythos. Supes is forced to deal with powerful enemies who destroy his secret identity, turn his old rogues gallery into psychotic murderers, and threaten to destroy him and everyone he loves. It’s a sad and scary story that’s soaked in nostalgia for the lost innocence of DC’s fabled Silver Age.

Saga of the Swamp Thing (especially “The Anatomy Lesson”)

When Moore took over this comic, the Swamp Thing was a low-selling comic on the fast track to cancellation. In the space of just a few issues, he turned it into one of DC’s best-selling and scariest comics. “The Anatomy Lesson” revamps Swamp Thing’s origin and re-introduces the character as a terrifying monster. Highly recommended — go hunt it down.

Terra Obscura

This one was just plotted by Moore, but it’s still great fun. A simultaneous spin-off from “Tom Strong” and a series of superhero comics from the ’40s, this series featured a bunch of characters with a strong Golden Age flavor but modern personalities and characterizations.

Most of these stories are still in-print in various anthologies and trade paperbacks. You can go out and buy them today. In fact, you should, because they’re all wonderful reads. Git after it, kids.

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Politics in Comics: Watchmen

This is the first in an occasional series I’d like to do covering politics in comics. True enough, many comics are perfectly happy to limit themselves to good vs. evil fisticuffs, but every once in a while, a comic comes along that wears its political opinions on its brightly-colored spandex sleeve. They’re often (but not always) some of the best and most interesting comics out there, and they often manage to entertainingly infuriate people who tend to get entertainingly infuriated by political matters.

Let’s get things started with a comic that’s widely considered the best ever made.

The classic 1986-87 miniseries “Watchmen” is the main reason that Alan Moore is currently acclaimed as the best writer in comics. His epic DC series follows a number of costumed vigilantes, including the sadistic, doomed Comedian, the mad, enigmatic Rorschach, the intellectual but naïve Nite-Owl, and the inhumanly powerful and usually completely nekkid Dr. Manhattan, as they investigate a number of strange crimes in a world teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation.

Moore wrote “Watchmen” with the express purpose of dragging comics out of the often-juvenile ghetto they’d been relegated to. His success won him worldwide fame, plunked the comics genre into a decade-long “Dark Age” when gritty realism reigned, and earned “Watchmen” a reputation as one of the Best Comic Series Ever.

“Watchmen” is a series grounded in politics — Moore wanted his series to be more realistic than the typical long-underwear comic, so he gave his “costumed adventurers” a weakness that most people are vulnerable to: the law. In Moore’s continuity, the Keene Act was passed in 1977 and banned costumed vigilantes. Most of the nation’s heroes retire, with the exception of government agents like the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach, who just plain refuses to obey.

Nite-Owl and the Comedian try to quell a riot

On top of that, the existence of government agents as brutal as the Comedian and as awesomely powerful as Dr. Manhattan cause major changes in world events. Dr. Manhattan is able to win the Vietnam War almost single-handedly — a victory that allows Richard Nixon to repeal the 22nd Amendment. In “Watchmen,” Nixon has been President for five terms.

Most notably, the comic examines how political biases would determine coverage of costumed vigilantes in the media. “Nova Express,” a glossy liberal news magazine, campaigns against vigilantes and derides them as hyper-violent fascist stormtroopers. The hard-right “New Frontiersman,” on the other hand, is an enthusiastic supporter of costumed vigilantes, depicting them as the world’s elites, society’s only hope of surviving everything from communist subversion to juvenile delinquency.

Who watches the weirdies in the colorful spandex?

So are the heroes liberals or conservatives? Yes and no. Rorschach is definitely conservative and a big fan of the “New Frontiersman,” and the Comedian is an enthusiastic government operative. But they don’t entirely pass muster as political heroes — the Comedian is a thug and not much else, and while Rorschach has a great deal of cool, the dude’s also nutty as a bag full of walnuts. Ozymandias is a very wealthy capitalist, but he’s the owner of the left-leaning “Nova Express” — and his actions at the end of the book won’t endear him to many liberals out there. Nite-Owl and Silk Spectre both come across as somewhat squishy liberals. The only truly apolitical character in the story is Dr. Manhattan, and he’s not only the most powerful person in the world, he’s pretty darn close to being a god. He’s the cold, emotionless universe made flesh, and he cares not one bean for which party is running the country.

It seems to me that, though they may have political opinions, very few of the characters in “Watchmen” have consistent political opinions. In that, they are like most of us — caring passionately about some things, violently opposed to others, but mostly untouched by the crude politics that are supposed to run the world.

In the end (hopefully no spoilers here), the entire story turns on seemingly eternal political questions: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? What is the line between terrorist and hero? Can an elite few decide the fates of the masses? Do the ends justify the means?

Everyone seems to think those are easy questions. In “Watchmen” – and in much of real life – they aren’t. Conservatives may find themselves unexpectedly favoring stereotypically liberal points-of-view, and vice versa.

“Watchmen” provides no easy answers to those questions. That’s an exercise left to the individual reader.

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