Sunday, July 24, 2016

on attempts to rescue Alan Moore from the unanticipated legacy of his most famous works in comics

Here we are, thirty some years after Alan Moore's Watchmen and the nukes didn't fly. But the comics industry and the comics criticism scene seems determined to ignore this unavoidable real world historical fact in attempting to come to terms with the influence of Alan Moore's influence on the superhero genre.  It's a question that is so basic to interpreting the significance of what Moore was trying to do compared to what Moore did it seems overdue.  But, instead, we're getting writers discussing Moore's influence on the superhero genre in other terms. An animated adaptation of The Killing Joke has arrived and the goal of people who think it's worth writing about seems to be to complain about the influence of Moore on the superhero genre in a way that bends over backwards to exonerate Moore from what he voluntarily wrote or, if not that, by framing the influence of Moore as if it were more significant in the comics medium than it may, in the end, turn out to have been.

... The superhero genre was originally created as all ages entertainment, aimed mainly at kids but sometimes done in a manner that allowed adults to enjoy them as well. So isn’t it odd that the dominant mode of the genre is now so skewed towards an adult audience? And is this really the best use of the genre?  

Superheroes were not meant to be exclusively for adults. The comic books that introduced them were originally marketed to children, and in some cases were created by artists who were barely adults.


So what changed? Starting in the 1980s, an influential group of comic book creators, led by Frank Miller and Alan Moore, broke from this tradition and crafted superhero stories that were geared toward an exclusively adult audience. Miller and Moore are often credited with helping the superhero genre grow up, although their idea of maturity at times seemed mainly to mean including explicit scenes of torture and rape. Miller’s pathbreaking graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (1986) featured an aged Batman coming out of retirement and forming a vigilante group in a decadent future America. Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1986) deconstructed the superhero genre by portraying the bitter back-biting of a group of flawed vigilante’s set against the cheerless background of an imminent nuclear war. The work of Miller and Moore has been immensely successful commercially and has re-shaped the superhero genre. And aesthetically, Miller’s flamboyant expressionism and Moore’s intricate clock-work story-telling have left their mark. Yet by following the lead of Miller and Moore, the genre made a fundamentally wrong turn, and now has lost touch with its best tendencies.

On first glance, the film Batman: The Killing Joke—which swings through theaters on July 25 for just two days before going to DVD—looks like it should’ve been consigned to afternoon television, with its choppy animation. But this new Batman feature isn’t for kids. The Killing Joke explains the origins of the Joker, Batman’s arch-nemesis, and plumbs beneath the face paint for a pathology. It’s sourced from a specific pool of graphic novels that were authored by one of two men—Frank Miller or Alan Moore—between 1986 and 1988. Their mission: to make superhero comics visible to adults by dialing up the darkness.

The dial, of course, got stuck. Acclaimed graphic novels like Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987) as well as Moore’s Watchmen (1987) and Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) introduced a gloom that never quite lifted. They recast spandexed superheroes as violent vigilantes, and lowered them into atmospheres fraught with gravity, like the Cold War. “Miller and Moore are often credited with helping the superhero genre grow up,” wrote Jeet Heer recently in a smart piece for The New Republic, “although their idea of maturity at times seemed mainly to mean including explicit scenes of torture and rape.”

But it’s wrong to tie the thoughtful Moore too closely to the reactionary Miller. Moore’s celebrated series V for Vendetta posted a warning about Thatcherism and supplied the Occupy movement with a face. He turned a repudiated horror comic, Swamp Thing, into a repudiation of Reaganism. In 1988, he went so far as to form the publishing imprint Mad Love so that he could bring out a comic protesting homophobic English legislation. Compared to the rest of his work, then, The Killing Joke marked a regression. The last of the much-lauded graphic novels of the late ’80s, it exemplified traits that continue to bedevil the superhero genre today—misogyny, nihilism, and sadism for the sake of fanboys.

The Killing Joke was not a project instigated by Alan,” writes the artist Brian Bolland in the afterword to the 2008 edition, “nor was it, as far as I know, a labor of love for him.” This is an unsurprising revelation.  ...

You can trace the easy nihilism of many contemporary comics and movies—from Spawn to Kick-Ass—to cynical products like The Killing Joke. It’s the nihilism of a third-rate Nietzsche, the kind of starter-kit philosophy that compels adolescents.

And it was written by Alan Moore.  Moore didn't come up with the idea, we are assured, but the indisputable fact is he voluntarily wrote it, and got paid for it.  If that's not the very definition of exploitive genre hackwork then there's no such thing in the history of the arts.  But it seems Alan Moore has to be, in some sense, exonerated of any responsibility for having ... actually written The Killing Joke.   Guriel works to eat his cake and have it, too.

Yet there's nothing much to be gained by attempting to exonerate Alan Moore from the unforeseen consequences of his writing for DC.  Moore seems to be just respected enough but a subset of progressives they are eager to  exonerate him from the long-term effects of what could uncharitably be described as pandering exploitation genre hackwork.  Moore is a dedicated, skilled and capable crafter of genre stories, make no mistake, but if we harken back to an old lefty Dwight Macdonald style taxonomy of the arts, comics are low brow by definition; or to put it another way, it's difficult to see why Alan Moore should be seen as "thoughtful" in contrast to the "fascist" Frank Miller when both men are responsible for the same aesthetic weakness introduced into the genre. 

Thirty years ago Watchmen was inventive and daring but it was not above criticism. Grant Morrison's summary judgment in Supergods was that the things he hated about the comic series when it first came out (its detached tone, its obsession with formal and narrative symmetry) are the only things he can respect about it now.  The characters were ultimately all types and the central plot hinged upon the assumption that someone described as the world's smartest man does the dumbest possible thing after spending his whole life thinking about it--Ozymandias stages a stunt that kills millions of people because he's convinced it's the only way to avert an otherwise inevitable nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.  The greatest supervillain turns out to be the superhero who put the Watchmen together to begin with, doing what he convinced himself was necessary to save the world.  Morrison's comment about the end of Watchmen remains salient, the fourth-wall breach of the reader reading the entire story as framed through interludes in Walter Kovacs' journal reveals that in spite of the best efforts of Ozymandias and Dr. Manhattan Rorshachs' journal sees the light of day.  All that murder and all that covering up was, in the end, for nothing.

But rather than read that as being inherent to the narrative what the comics readership and production side seemed to "learn" from this was that in some ridiculous way Ozymandias was the "hero" who actually save the world.  Yet if you were to go back and read Watchmen, how many people die at the hands of zealous superheroes?  How many people die because of mob activity? One?  How many people are shown getting killed by non-supehero characters?  Moore's dehydrated send-up of the superhero genre has been read by supehero fans with a misplaced presumption of Moore having more respect for the genre than he may have.

Conversely, Moore has been taken more seriously as a writer than he probably should be.  If a subset of progressives want Moore off the hook for introducing sexuality and violence into childrens' entertainment appropriations is he on the hook for Lost Girls as well as Watchmen or for neither?  If not, why not?  Jason Guriel can attempt to propose that Moore was the first to reject the product he created but if we stick with a fairly uncontested progressive (and conservative, for that matter) proposal that all art is in some sense still political, how easily should Alan Moore be let off the hook for exploitation genre pandering hackwork? Moore can recount the "cripple the bitch" quote all he wants to impute some of the blame to DC.  Moore wrote the story. 

Not everyone would agree Ledger's performance drew inspiration or was in some sense indebted to Alan Moore's comic.  Ledger, being dead, isn't exactly around to clarify.  He may have incorporated elements of Moore's work but the first thing I noticed about the performance was that Ledger seemed to be more connected to the pre-comics code early 1940s Joker.  It's "possible" that Alan Moore's fans grotesquely overstate the reach of his over-rated influence. 

About ten years ago Justice League Unlimited wrapped up its final season and a tenth anniversary box set of the Powerpuff Girls came out (which I pretty much immediately bought).  The Incredibles was a year old about that time.  Moore's purported influence on the superhero genre should not be overstated.  The violence and sexuality Moore introduced into the superhero genre wasn't exactly less lurid than the violence and sexuality Miller had in the genre. 

And a propensity on both the left and the right is to dismiss all-ages entertainment as essentially not really art.  How many thinkpieces are we going to see about the 20th anniversary of Blues Clues this year?  How many thinkpieces are we going to see for the 20th anniversary of South Park?  Progressive criticism of the superhero genre isn't entirely misplaced, there are problems with the genre--the problem is that some of the worst perpetrators of the problems in the genre have been men with enough progressive street cred that progressives have wanted to exonerate some of these men (most conspicuously Alan Moore) from the work.  Alan Moore is not entirely unlike Mark Driscoll in this respect, a man can do a lot of work to have some kind of influence but isn't necessarily in control of what that legacy will be. 

When Moore dies his obituary may mention Lost Girls or Tom Strong but nobody cares about that beyond the confined niche market of comics.  If Moore is upset that his most lasting influence within comics was for well-crafted contributions to the superhero genre that can still, will all due respect, be regarded as misogynistic pruriently violent exploitation genre hackwork then he has a right to be; but the history of pop culture influence has already been written and it seems that there is a point at which trying to exonerate Alan Moore from the responsibility of influence is to forget that the whole thing about influence is that it can't be foreseen or controlled.

The irony of what Alan Moore's fans seem to think he did for the comics is that rather than truly elevating the superhero genre to an adult level of thoughtfulness he may have simply dragged it down into the gutter of cerebral prurience.  But because he's considered on the appropriate side of a left/right ideological political divide there are those who would seek to rescue Alan Moore from not merely the consequences of his influence but also the substance of his contribution to the superhero genre. 

After all, the power presupposed in Ozymandias' plan to save the world from nuclear war by killing millions of people depended on the unquestioned rightness of a paranoia that nuclear war under a Republican president was beyond even the possibility of second thoughts.  Here we are thirty years after the age of Reagan and the Cold War ended in something besides global nuclear war or full nuclear disarmament (as if that would have ended the Cold War, either).  It may be a testament to the far-reaching mentality of the Cold War that the paranoia of the left and right alike could (and apparently can, even in the wake of its end) only formulate and articulate dread in the most apocalyptic and violent terms.

Moore's story "works" to the extent that you bought into the assumption that Ozymandias plotting depended on the inevitability of a nuclear exchange.  Part of the pernicious influence of Moore's work on the comics industry may depend upon a "reading" of the "text" that presumes the legitimacy of a reading informed by a paranoia inherent to the Reagan era that no longer applies; a 21st century reading of Moore's "text" may reach a significantly different range of conclusions and interpretive possibilities. 

So in the end Alan Moore was not necessarily just a cause of any of this malaise in the comics medium, he has also been of its most articulate symptoms. 


Cal P said...

A couple of thoughts:

It is funny now how, in the new rendition of The Watchmen, it is Rorschach, the abused and psychopathic, highly conservative, black-white anti-hero who comes out on top. The movie invests the most narrative effort in him. And while the film contains a certain nihilism, it also is drenched in a kind of boredom.

Can anyone really take Dr. Manhattan's monotone monologues on his infinite perception and godlikeness seriously when he is the manipulated hinge upon which Adrian's plan works? Does anyone really take Adrian seriously, given the absurdity of his vision (in light of what history actually looked like)? We're left straining our imagination of a five-term Nixon presidency and a Strangelove-esque environment of the warroom with the quite aged Kissenger. Does Nighowl II and Silk Specter, and hell even Silk Specter I and the Comedian, provide anything but an exhausted belch of a fatheaded, ugly, liberalism? None of the characters do anything, except in vain and fantastical stretches of their real impotence. Rorschach is the only one who actually lives anything real. In the end, Moore's work has been flipped upside down and repurposed. Rorschach is not exactly a Junger or any other aestheticized Fascists, but I can't imagine he's someone who'd oppose the Nazis. We're never given reasons why he hates Nixon, except, perhaps, for being too liberal. In the end, the nihilists and fascists are not defeated, but only justified in lampooning the kind of progressive vision that Moore tried to highlight. He became his own parody in the impotent Night Owl.

I like what Miller did with Batman. The problem is that none seems to know how to balance how this sort of thing is applied. Batman provides a great arena, moderated within a greater DC world, to explore darker and grittier aspects. But Superman is not, and the collision in Miller maintains Superman's iconic integrity, but revealing different angles. We don't need to make comics into real people. I mean, Gotham and Metropolis are both NYC at different lights and angles. So, I appreciate that. Even the more kid friendly Batman deals with serious "adult" issues like mental illness, paranoia, reform, and faux-reform.

The problem is that it becomes an ugly money maker. All the most popular comic heroes are always under threat of becoming sluts. I was hoping to see The Killing Joke, but the Barbara romance makes me sad, especially with its near incestuous connotations.


PS. Everything comes back to Mark Driscoll, huh? I guess I have haunted here long enough to know that :)

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

yeah, since he keeps insisting on being in the spotlight ... some mention of him happens.

I think the duel in The Dark Knight Returns has been a bit misunderstood. It seems clear in Miller's story that neither of these guys wants to fight each other but that the US government will kill Batman if Superman doesn't do it himself, and Bruce knows that faking his own death in battle with Superman will be the ideal death. And with a wink, Clark proved Oliver right. The trouble is that people forgot that aspect of the showdown and that was reflected in the painfully tedious Snyder film we got.

Noah Berlatsky had an interesting riff on Kovacs as the one who throws down the superhero mask and refuses to go along with the plan; as broken as he is he is the one who hasn't forgotten that the aim is always to help the innocent and to save lives, not kill millions of people in the name of some 'greater good'. Berlatsky proposed Kovacs became the real hero of the story in spite of Moore's own political agendas because Kovacs was the only one who attempted to follow his own moral compass consistently in the end. Berlatsky's leftist sympathies are easily found, he writes about them, so it's been interesting to read left critiques of Alan Moore's whole approach to writing decades after he's had his hits. I'm not much of a leftist myself but it's interesting to read arts criticism and ... well ... it's a bit difficult to read arts criticism in the West from non-leftists unless all we want to read is guys like Roger Scruton. Or maybe Eve Tushnet, who's a little more fun to read.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Where the inability to foreseen and control legacy goes, yeah, I did go there with Mark. Up here in the Puget Sound area I'll get to see how the spin-off churches go. I hope some of them can actually survive if the DNA, so to speak, has become healthier but I literally can't live in this region without occasionally reading or hearing things, and I distrust what mainstream and Christian journalism has tended to write about the history of MH just enough I will probably write about the topics from time to time in the future.

But there's still an ardent rang against Legend of Korra incubating. As much as I love The Last Airbender series, Legend of Korra as a shameful trainwreck. But I've got some offline projects I need to take care of before I can get to that.

I'm really disappointed by what I'm reading about The Killing Joke adaptation. Expanding a too-short-for-feature adaptation is a dubious project for comic books. Snyder did that with 300 with tedious results. By contrast, that was the right move for Whit Stillman to make with Lady Susan when he adapted Jane Austen because too many people make the grisly mistake of cutting down Austen's longer stories and cutting out the wrong things; Stillman expanded on something that was early and unpublished. He did a great enough of a job for my time I've been going back and watching his other stuff.