Greetings, Maniacs, and welcome to another week of The No-Fly Zone. Last week, we ran the first part of our interview with Alan Moore, wherein he reflected upon his work on Marvelman in Warrior and, later, at Eclipe Comics. This week, we present the second part, in which Mr. Moore continues his musings on Marvelman, before discussing his own legacy and the state of the comics industry. It’s a long one, Maniacs, so get comfortable and enjoy!
Alan Moore: I can remember that I was listening to an awful lot of ambient music on a continuous loop while I was writing those first few John Totleben issues of Marvelman. I was listening to Plateau of Mirrors by Brian Eno, which was one of my favorites, and Lovely Thunder by Harold Budd. I was listening to those while I was writing those kind of prose passages for the beginnings of the John Totleben Marvelman run. So, yeah, it was interesting. I was able to take the idea [of the postmodern superhero], which, at the beginning, was a fresh idea. I hadn’t explored it myself. I would later go on with things like Watchmen—and even with things like Swamp Thing—to put the same techniques to greater use. But, with Marvelman, you have all of the ideas in their pristine form—some of them with their rough edges visible, I’m sure. I haven’t read it for a long time. But, yes, that was probably the first place that I really put my thoughts about how a superhero could possibly be handled in a more effective way—where I put those ideas into a coherent form.
KA: And, it’s left a legacy where it seems like almost all heroes follow the model you created with Marvelman and Watchmen. Instead of a “straight ahead” approach to heroism like you’d find in the Silver Age, all the heroes are psychologically damaged. They all have drinking problems and sexual dysfunctions and broken marriages. And, it’s almost become a new status quo in and of itself.
AM: Yes, it has. And, can I just say I’m sorry? That was never my intention for every book to be like that. The reason I wanted to do them like that was because nothing else was like that. I wanted to do something that was different. If I were, god forbid, still doing superhero comics today, just like my ABC work from a couple of years ago, they’d be very very different from the Watchmen or Marvelman template. They’d be much more about having fun—whether that be intellectual fun or just plain fun—much more about that than doing any revisions. I think, ultimately, that approach that I brought in—taking previously existing characters and reinterpreting them—has probably led to very grim and very un-enjoyable comic books. I didn’t want everyone else to copy what we were doing. And especially, if they were going to, I’d have preferred it if they’d copied the freshness and originality of the ideas—and, if they had managed to express a bit of the joy that we expressed, even in Watchmen, in Marvelman, and Swamp Thing. Yes, there were some very grim passages in all those books, but there were also passages of great joy. And, it seemed to me that people basically took from it what they were able to take from it—mostly a slightly depressing atmosphere and the idea that everybody had to be a grim, ruthless psychopath. Even characters like Stanley and His Monster—should they be reinvented as grim, brooding psychopaths? That completely robbed comics of a lot of the charm that, for me at least, they once had. Again, it was never intended as a blanket approach for all comic books. It was just an experiment that I was trying, and it worked better in some cases than it did in others. Yeah, Marvelman and Watchmen—those are pretty good books. On the other hand, where I was doing the same things in The Killing Joke, it was entirely inappropriate.
KA: You think so?
AM: I think so. This has nothing to do with Brian Bolland’s artwork, which was of course exquisite. I’ve never really liked my story in The Killing Joke. I think it put far too much melodramatic weight upon a character that was never designed to carry it. It was too nasty, it was too physically violent. There were some good things about it, but in terms of my writing, it’s not one of me favorite pieces. If, as I said, god forbid, I was ever writing a character like Batman again, I’d probably be setting it squarely in the kind of “smiley uncle” period where Dick Sprang was drawing it, and where you had Ace the Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite, and the zebra Batman—when it was sillier. Because then, it was brimming with imagination and playful ideas. I don’t think that the world needs that many brooding psychopathic avengers. I don’t know that we need any. It was a disappointment to me, how Watchmen was absorbed into the mainstream. It had originally been meant as an indication of what people could do that was new. I’d originally thought that with works like Watchmen and Marvelman, I’d be able to say, “Look, this is what you can do with these stale old concepts. You can turn them on their heads. You can really wake them up. Don’t be so limited in your thinking. Use your imagination.” And, I was naively hoping that there’d be a rush of fresh and original work by people coming up with their own. But, as I said, it was meant to be something that would liberate comics. Instead, it became this massive stumbling block that comics can’t even really seem to get around to this day. They’ve lost a lot of their original innocence, and they can’t get that back. And, they’re stuck, it seems, in this kind of depressive ghetto of grimness and psychosis. I’m not too proud of being the author of that regrettable trend.
KA: It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It’s both a tribute to your work and a signifier of the collective creative limitations of the comics industry.
AM: Looking back, I just wish that either I hadn’t done those works in that way or that people had responded to them differently. I didn’t mean to crush all of the joy and life out of the comics industry—albeit inadvertently. But, yeah, I suppose that people picking up Marvelman for the first time will see a lot of the crudeness in it compared to my later work. This was practically my first ongoing strip. I seem to remember I’d got two or three strips that I was suddenly trusted with doing at around about the same time. I think I was doing Skizz in 2000 AD at the same time that I was doing Marvelman and V for Vendetta, and, I think, Captain Britain for Marvel. But, Marvelman was amongst my very first continuing strips. I think that a lot of the things that were original about Marvelman have probably since been done to death by other people. I suppose I’d only ask the readers to just bear that in mind—that some of these ideas don’t look very new and fresh now. Indeed, I am probably one of the people who has done some of those ideas to death. If the reader could perhaps try to imagination, charitably, what it was like back in 1981 when these things were brand new. That was nearly 30 years ago. I haven’t read them for a long time, but I think that they probably still hold up—or at least most of the episodes.
KA: I’ve been rereading them, and I think they hold up very well. That’s just my opinion.
AM: That’s good, that’s good. I really hope that Mick Anglo finally gets his just rewards. He almost single-handedly was the British comics industry—or at least the superhero end of it—during the ‘50s and ‘60s. He’s a very nice man, by all accounts. I hope he’ll get his just recognition.
KA: Looking at your, I guess, unintentional legacy that’s created a new status quo, it’s infuriating, because—outside of a few guys like Grant Morrison—everyone still thinks they’re rebelling against the Silver Age. But, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s run on Fantastic Four is good, but not in the same way that Watchmen is. They’re different kinds of storytelling. But, we seem to be stuck in this rut where it has to be either/or.
AM: Well, actually, Marvelman was never meant as a rebellion against the Silver Age. The Silver Age, as far as I’m concerned was over by 1969, as I remember it. I was talking to Kevin O’Neill about this the other day. The ‘70s was kind of the mud age. In the early ‘70s, there were still some experiments being tried, but I remember it as a very grim period. There were perhaps a couple of books that I was interested in, but everything else seemed to be a mess. I was mostly reading underground comics during that period, or 2000 AD. But, the American comics of that period seemed very dull and seemed to have lost their way. There were exceptions, but overall it was a very lifeless, tepid scene. That was what Marvelman was rebelling against. It was just trying to give superhero comics a new lease on life. But, I’ve always been very, very affectionate towards the comics of the 1960s and before. That was a different age. For one thing, the people drawing and writing weren’t fans. They were often professional writers who happened to be making a living in comics. They hadn’t got this huge wealth of character continuity. They could use their imagination. Then, they were replaced in the middle ‘60s by basically fan-writers, some of whom were pretty good. But, it began a fairly incestuous process that meant that it was fans writing for fans who would be the next generation of creators. And, it was all getting very specific and obsessive. A lot of the fun seemed to have gone out of it. Even in my early work, when I was at DC—when I handled Superman—it’s difficult to see anything but love for the Silver Age and the often silly comic book concepts that typified that era. I’d got everything in there—Krypto and Bizarro—all of those things that I had loved, because they seem to me to be just full of imagination and energy. They were wonderful, strange ideas. And, in subsequent work, like with ABC, we were trying to be very progressive, but at the same time we were harking back to a lot of the things about comics of the past that we thought were really good, and shouldn’t have been thrown out with the trash quite so readily. I suppose the thing to say about Marvelman (and later, with Watchmen), is that these books were not meant as the Bible. They were ways in which the superhero could be handled. They weren’t the only way. They weren’t meant as a Bible or a jail sentence. We were trying to have fun.
KA: I think the issue of fans writing for fans and the continuity are what’s killing comic books these days. You can write a comic book about anything you want. But, people insist on dragging these corporate mascots out for 40, 50, or 60 years. It’s not about good storytelling, but about keeping characters around so that they can license them out. You want to just say, “Write a graphic novel or a miniseries and move on to the next story. Quit milking the ideas that a bunch of other people came up with.”
AM: That’s it. It’s the paucity of imagination. I was noticing that DC seems to have based one of its latest crossovers [Blackest Night] in Green Lantern based on a couple of eight-page stories that I did 25 or 30 years ago. I would have thought that would seem kind of desperate and humiliating, When I have said in interviews that it doesn’t look like the American comic book industry has had an idea of its own in the past 20 or 30 years, I was just being mean. I didn’t expect the companies concerned to more or less say, “Yeah, he’s right. Let’s see if we can find another one of his stories from 30 years ago to turn into some spectacular saga.” It’s tragic. The comics that I read as a kid that inspired me were full of ideas. They didn’t need some upstart from England to come over there and tell them how to do comics. They’d got plenty of ideas of their own. But these days, I increasingly get a sense of the comics industry going through my trashcan like raccoons in the dead of the night.
AM: That’s a good image, isn’t it? They weren’t even particularly good ideas. For Christ’s sake, get some of your own ideas! It’s not that difficult. You used to be able to have them! I’ve also heard that, apparently, a fifth of the direct sales market in comics is my work—twenty percent! I’d imagine that the sales in places like Borders and the big book shops, which are increasingly where the bulk of the market is, it’s probably a higher percentage.
KA: The trade paperback of Watchmen is still in the top ten of the New York Times’ list of bestselling graphic novels.
AM: That means that about 25% of the comics market is being held up by my work! That is not healthy. That can’t be considered healthy for the comics industry. We are seeing the death of comics publishing as we know it. The pamphlets—the individual issues—are not selling. They haven’t been selling for years. The companies using them as a way of financing the eventual trade paperback. I don’t really see the traditional fare of the comics industry—which is, regrettably, superheroes—I don’t see that as being best suited to survive in a serious bookshop environment. I don’t think you’re going to get the same trade of going in every week to see what Wolverine is doing at Borders. And, it needn’t have been like this. But, the people running the industry have taken it down a blind alley, and it’s largely because they don’t have any ideas of their own. There’s no vision of the way that comics could be done. That’s why they have to rely upon peoples’ visions from the past. It’s like a lot of contemporary pop music. It contents itself with recycling the great sounds of the 1960s, 1970s, and increasingly, the 1980s. People today deserve good useful stories. We deserve art that is of our time. We don’t deserve this endless recycling of a particularly nice beat or sound effect of the 1960s. Yes, the past is there to plunder. A lot of the ideas of the past were discarded before they should have been. They’ve still got an awful lot of life left in them. But, don’t make that an exercise in retrospection. Pick up those ideas and do something new with them. Make them shine again. But, I think that it’s been a long time since the comics industry had any talent that was capable of doing that. The talent it did have that was capable of doing that, it either worked them to death or alienated them. I tend to see the people who run the comics industry as being largely like some variety of tapeworm or some other parasite. But, they’re not very good at it. Any self-respecting tapeworm or parasite never kills the host. That is number one on the parasite’s list of dos and don’ts—don’t kill the host. I very seriously doubt whether the comics industry as we know it is going to be here in even five years’ time. Like I said, this could have been avoided if there’d ever been an investment of genuine new ideas and energy, rather than this lazy sort of complacent approach of simply saying, “Oh, we can take these old ideas and recycle them endlessly. The audience doesn’t know any different.” I think the audience has demonstrated that they do know differently, by voting with their feet.
KA: I think the audience is part of the problem, though, because if you look at the sales charts for comics every month, at the top are Uncanny X-Men, New Avengers, Batman, and the like. It’s all stuff that’s been around for years. The fans themselves are helping to destroy the industry. Good comics are out there in both Britain and the United States, and with the direct market you can order anything you want. And yet, people keep buying the same stuff. I’m guilty of it, too. I pick of Grant Morrison’s Batman stuff. And yet, I always tell my readers that if they don’t vote with their wallets, all Marvel hears is that we want more X-Men so they can make more cartoons.
AM: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t read a book from any of the mainstream companies in years. I’ve read a couple of comics over the last couple of years. But, I’ve certainly not read anything from DC or Marvel, just because I’ve got such a strong aversion to seeing those logos on anything—nor do I have a collection of DC or Marvel comics. Indeed, I don’t really have a comics collection anymore. I’ve hung on to my issues of Herbie, because those are a rare treasure. But, everything else has been handed on to other people or given away. I think the lights are going out all over the comics industry. A lot of this is the fault of the publishers, a lot of it is the fault of the artists and writers, and I think, as you say, some of it is the fault of the readers. They sat back and ate what they were served, even when that was substandard. They never objected to the way in which any of the creators of their beloved characters were treated. I can remember the last time I’d read Marvel comics—this would’ve been back in the ‘80s, when there was the big furor over Jack Kirby getting his artwork back. Marvel was prepared to offer him 90 pages of the thousands that he’d done for them, because the other artwork had, I believe, been stolen under slightly suspicious circumstances. I remember somebody in one of the fanzines over here saying, “Well, why don’t we just not buy any Marvel comics until they give Jack Kirby what he deserves.” I thought, “Yeah, that sounds good. I’ll do that.” And, that was when I stopped buying Marvel comics. I think in the next issue of the fanzine, someone said, “Uh, yeah, but fans are never going to do that, are they?” And, as it turns out, he was right. But, they could’ve done it, if they’d really cared—not if they’d cared for the Hulk, but for the person who created the Hulk; not if they cared for Spider-Man, but if they’d cared for Steve Ditko. They could’ve protested, just once—even if that was only by not buying comics that were substandard or had got ugly practices with how their creators were handled. The whole of the industry, from top to bottom, does have a certain amount of responsibility for its decline. It’s a shame. But, on the other hand, as one thing falls to bits that does allow the evolutionary niche for something else to flourish. We are getting some wonderful new cartoonists more for this expanded adult marketplace. They are not hampered by a knowledge of the continuity of Iron Man going back to the ‘60s. They don’t have all of that luggage with them. They’re people who just enjoy doing comics, and have got something to say in their own voice. That is where the future lies. Marvelman was a bittersweet eulogy and a reflection upon superheroes as an idea. I think that even back then, in the ‘80s, there was something eulogistic about it. There was even a recognition back then that superheroes, to some degree, had had their day—that there was a kind of poignance in the figure of the superhero set against the modern world. The idea of taking something as innocent and charming and harmless as Marvelman and dumping him in Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain—there was something poignant about that that was almost saying perhaps superheroes would have been best left in those three decades—the ‘40s to the ‘60s—where they made sense and where they were most at home. I think you could get that from Marvelman from as well—that for all that it was a reinvention, there was an element of the epitaph as well.
Kurt Amacker is the writer of The No-Fly Zone, Mania’s weekly alternative comics column. He is also the author of the comic miniseries Dead Souls, published by Seraphemera Books. Dead Souls is available from the Seraphemera Books website, Amazon.com, and at comic shops everywhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.