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.