Tag Archives: alan moore

Taking sides in the Grant Morrison / Alan Moore cosmic feud

20121128-001951.jpgSooner or later, someone is going to come up with the idea of a story about two wizards – a hirsute, midlander who worships a made up god and dapper suited, bald Glaswegian chaos magician – and the bitter feud between them. The real life story about the animosity between the UK’s greatest living comics writers Grant Morrison and Alan Moore is nothing like as dramatic, but for anyone who has even a modicum of respect for both of them, rather compelling.

We aren’t talking about a massive feud here, incidentally. The two don’t publicly attack each other at every opportunity. The intrigue is rooted in the fact that both writers have very similar interests and backgrounds, and why exactly it is that they have managed to rub each other up the same way

Pádraig Ó Méalóid has written a synopsis of the disagreement which Grant Morrison has taken exception to and comprehensively fisked. You can make your own mind up but to a large extent it is impossible to arbitrate on the issue without your own prejudices about either writer getting in the way. In the interest of full disclosure then, let me say this: on balance I am probably more of a Grant Morrison fan, so take what I have to say on the topic with that particular pinch of salt.

Although I think he is right on the broad thrust, I don’t entirely agree with Morrison though. I think he let’s himself off a bit too gently with his justification that his column Drivel for Speakeasy magazine, which he wrote in the late 80s, was purely work for hire on which he was working to a specific brief. While it is self evident to anyone who has read them that the columns were tongue in cheek – at one stage, I vividly recall his dictum being that “99% of comics are shit except for the 10% that I write” – the fact is that this persona was rehearsed in all the media interviews he gave at the time. What was quite funny a few times rapidly ceased to amuse and he slowly became the parody that he was mocking at the time.

Morrison and his then writing partner Mark Millar were given unprecedented editorial control over 2000AD in 1993 (“the Summer Offensive”) and the two set about tearing up the comic from its roots and implementing the sort of philosophy that Morrison had been espousing in his Drivel columns for years beforehand. The result was an utter disaster, best forgotten. Morrison and Millar’s take on Dredd is the worse mishandling of the character in its long history. I recall in an interview atbthe time Morrison denouncing Dredd-creator John Wagner for not writing funny Dredd strips any more. Ironically, even at his most serious and po-faced, Wagner manages to inject each episode with more genuine humour than Morrison and Millar managed in their entire run on Dredd.

To cut a long story short, in the early 90s, Grant Morrison was a bit of a dick. Having suddenly found himself rich and successful after more than a decade as a struggling writer (his graphic novel Batman: Arkham Asylum hit the bookshelves at the height of Batmania following the release of the 1989 Tim Burton film), discovered the drink, drugs and sex that he couldn’t afford and wasn’t particularly interested in during the early part of his career. In his 30s, he went on a teenage bender, something which almost destroyed him as a writer.

But the important thing is, he grew out of it. The Morrison who emerged over the following decade was a different creature altogether. Most of his works during this period have a sort of life affirming therapy quality to them, with Morrison himself effectively starring in The Invisibles, Flex Mentallo and The Filth.

I find the claim by both Moore and Michael Moorcock that Morrison is a creatively bankrupt thief of their work to be utterly bizarre. If you want to read a sub-Alan Moore deconstructionist and misanthropic take on the superhero genre, you need merely screw up a copy of Watchmen and throw it over your shoulder; the chances are you’ll hit a comic by a writer taking precisely that approach. On a superficial level, there are clearly similarities but where Morrison’s work is all about hope amidst the darkness, Moore’s work is, well, darkness amidst the darkness. They are so incomparable that it is barely worth even rebutting.

And this is the nub of it: Alan Moore’s complaint about Grant Morrison appears to be nothing more than a massive troll, and potentially an attempt by Moore to get his own back for a couple of mean-spirited things Morrison said about him during his idiot period. But as Morrison says, during the Drivel years, Morrison was a 30 year old still struggling to find his place in the world. Alan Moore is a highly successful man in his 60s. In the context, it is hard to deny that Moore is the bigger dick (term used in the strict Wheaton sense of the word).

I have heard more than once people defend Moore when he says his more outrageous things that if you hear him say them in person it is clear he has his tongue firmly in his cheek when he does so. But if this is all an act, is there a risk that Moore himself ends up resembling the persona he is pretending to be? We await to see what Jerusalem is like, but the fact is that most of his work over the past decade has given me the sense of a man coasting. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is good fun and a gentle read, kind of like putting on your favourite slippers, but nothing like as edgy as it thinks it is. Century had nothing to say ultimately other than “modern culture (and particularly Harry Potter) is rubbish” – the familiar old man lament since time immemorial. We appear to have reached the point in which Alan Moore has little more to say than “99% of modern culture is rubbish, except for the 10% that I write” – the only difference between this statement and Grant Morrison’s own utterance more than 20 years previously being that even at the time we knew with complete certainty that Morrison was taking the piss.

It’s great fun to watch Alan Moore be rude and nasty about everything, but there comes a point where it’s just rudeness dressed up as criticism. I think he went passed that years ago and it’s time he reined it back in. I suspect that if he did, his work would significantly improve as he was forced to move outside of his (cynical and world weary) comfort zone.

Still looking forward to Heart of Ice though.

John Constantine: Hellblazer. You only live twice.

John ConstantineNaBloPoMo November 2012The decision by DC comics to cancel its imprint Vertigo’s longest running title Hellblazer and replace it with a new comic featuring its main character John Constantine in a new in-continuity title may not seem like that much of a big deal to outsiders. For the comics’ fans however, this represents the end of an era and an uncertain future. Explaining why however, may get a bit confusing – for which I apologise in advance. Welcome to the mad, bad world of corporate comics.

John Constantine and Hellblazer were originally part of official DC continuity. Constantine was first created by Alan Moore as a supporting cast member of the horror comic Swamp Thing. A British occult investigator-cum-conman, Constantine acted as the Swamp Thing’s guide to the occult as he lead (and mislead) him through a series of adventures.

The Swamp Thing’s odyssey was itself part of a larger story which engulfed the whole of the DC Comics line. Constantine would use the Swamp Thing to perform a crucial war in a magical secret war taking place concurrently with the Crisis of Infinite Earths in 1986. The Crisis was DC’s rather futile and counterproductive attempt to clean up its continuity, replacing an infinite multiverse with a single universe in which all its characters interacted with each other.

Despite this integral role Constantine and the Swamp Thing played in the creation of this new world, within five years they would spin out of it to form a continuity of their own in 1993. This was ostensibly for commercial reasons. Both Swamp Thing and Hellblazer, together with a number of other titles (all of which, at the time, were written by Brits), were enough of a critical and commercial success to lead DC to publish a new imprint Vertigo. All the initial titles published by Vertigo moved from the DC universe to their own separate continuity. Initially, all these titles were tied together, even having their own crossover event at one stage.

Vertigo wobbled significantly during its initial period however, with most of its titles struggling to find an audience. Hellblazer was the only of Vertigo’s launch titles to survive for more than three years (admittedly, in the case of the hugely successful Sandman, this was due to the author choosing to end the series rather than anything else). The idea of a “Vertigoverse” fell quickly out of favour, and Hellblazer spent the remainder of its run existing in (mostly) splendid isolation.

So far, so – reasonably – straightforward. Things got a little more complicated in 2011 however with the reappearance of both Swamp Thing and John Constantine in DC continuity – despite Hellblazer remaining in publication. Of course, this was not technically the same continuity as the one the two characters left in 1993, with the universe having been rebooted in both 2005 and 2008 (and also 1991, but that’s another story). Indeed, the continuity they returned to was not even a universe any more, but a multiverse, with it having by then been established that there were now 52 separate worlds.

Both these characters kicked their heels around in the official continuity for a few months until DC decided to reboot their titles once again, this time calling it the New 52 (because there are to be 52 ongoing monthly titles in publication at any one time, not because there are 52 worlds). In this reboot, Swamp Thing has once again been given his own title (alongside fellow Vertigo alumnus Animal Man), while Constantine joined a title called the Justice League Dark (sort of an occult version of the Justice League America). It is this character who is about to get his own solo series.

You might ask “isn’t the new Constantine just the same character as the old Hellblazer character?” No is the answer, because while DC continuity has followed the standard superhero convention of having its characters age only very slowly, if at all (New 52 continuity has actually seen all the main characters get younger), since Hellblazer moved to Vertigo, that John Constantine has aged in real time. That John Constantine is an ageing ex-punk about to turn 60. The New 52 John Constantine is a still a jack the lad in his early 30s who can probably only just remember Britpop. Constantine’s slow march to docility is a main theme in the latter Hellblazer stories; in the New 52 Constantine is probably younger than most of his readers.

So what do I make of all this? I’m in two minds. I think there is an argument that after 300 issues and 25 years Hellblazer has run its course. It has slipped into repeating itself on numerous occasions now. Furthermore, while ageing a character over several decades is interesting and something we rarely see in comics, Constantine differs from Judge Dredd (who has aged in real time over 35 years) in two fundamental respects. Firstly, the comic has had a number of typically very good but different writers, each of whom have brought with them their own ideas, themes and supporting cast. While John Constantine’s own personality has been fairly consistent, pretty much everything else has been thrown up in the air every few years.

Connected to that is the fact that nothing really changes in Constantine’s world. They hit the big reset button every few years. While one of the overarching themes of the series is that actions have consequences, you don’t see Constantine really deal with the consequences of his actions 20-30 years ago, which might as well be ancient history as far as the title is concerned, because everything has to get wrapped up in 2-5 year story arcs. In that respect the title’s continuity has been a real straitjacket. Contrast that with Dredd where John Wagner regularly revisits a storyline from decades in the past, and can irrecoverably change the world as a consequence.

So in principle, I have nothing against giving John Constantine a reboot, any more than I have for any other character. Whether this is the right reboot however is another matter; without wanting to get into the topic of the New 52 more generally, the John Constantine we’ve seen in Justice League Dark thus far has been fairly fun but unremarkable. He lacks the weight and groundedness that his past incarnation had in abundance.

It’s also interesting to note that this switch comes at a time when there are rumours of a Justice League Dark film directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Constantine has of course been in a film before, in a film which cast Keanu Reeves as a black haired resident of Los Angeles (as opposed to a blond Londoner). It shouldn’t have worked, and was certainly not a critical or commercial success, but I have to admit to enjoying it for reasons that go beyond my Tilda Swinton obsession.

My guess is that DC have decided that if the film does come off, they want to present the world with a single, simplified vision of the character, rather than two versions at different ages and with wildly divergent back stories. Of course this is dumb: they aren’t about to stop publishing the collected editions of Hellblazer, so anyone visiting a book shop will still be confronted by two versions. But it is how the corporate mindset works.

So this is a bit sad, but does point to the character getting wider recognition; and if that means more people reading Hellblazer at its best then that’s something. I just hope it doesn’t mean we’ll never get to revisit the old John Constantine again or that it will prevent other, potentially fascinating interpretations of the character.

A Beginner’s Guide To Comics: A Response

I had originally written this as a comment to Andrew Hickey’s Beginner’s Guide to Comics, but I thought I would add it here instead. First go away and read his article and then come back to this:

Andrew’s is a good list which I would broadly agree with. Jaka’s Story was one of those strips which was being hailed during the “Pow! Comics Grow Up!” period of the late 80s. I’d like my older self to give it a read – I certainly remember the ending being very powerful. But as he recognises there is that Dave Sim “ick” factor which stops me from rushing.

All-Star Superman is good but I wouldn’t put it above Morrison’s Invisibles or (more controversially) Doom Patrol. It is however, much shorter than those two.

I re-read Sandman earlier this year. It was actually stronger than I remember, although that was partly due to the fact that I was one of those people who read the monthly comic and thus got alienated by Gaiman during The Kindly Ones when he stopped writing a periodical and switched to novel writing. Reading it as a whole it stands up; as a series of (less than) monthly episodes it really didn’t.

One of the big problems with enticing people into comics is that sometimes they can be quite inaccessible from a visual impairment point of view. I won’t bother trying From Hell on my girlfriend not because of the subject matter but because I’m pretty sure she’d find it impossible to read because of Eddie Campbell’s scratchy lettering.

Alice in Sunderland is a book I suspect I will go back and reread every couple of years for years to come. It is such a rich, dense book. As a meditation about what it means to be English (and in particular Northern English) it is fantastic. It SHOULD be taught in schools in my view. One Bad Rat is currently high on my reread pile.

As for things Andrew missed…

The best non-superhero Alan Moore things would have to be V for Vendetta, Halo Jones and (controversially) Skizz. The latter is ET done properly, even if the South African bashing is a little dated.

For the Buffy fans out there, you should give Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run a go. It is his best comics work in my view.

I read Mike Carey’s Lucifer in quick succession last year and loved it. As a meditation on the nature of free will it is required reading (for all those libertarian bloggers out there especially – and I’m not taking the piss there). His Unwritten is also shaping up well. There is a lot of Vertigo stuff which started in the early noughties which I missed completely for the simple reason that I had had enough of tiresome Sandman spin-offs.

Overall, 2000AD is a tricky thing to recommend. Dredd is almost certainly an acquired taste and I do appreciate that a lot of the 80s stuff has dated somewhat. I tend to find the “funny” stuff more difficult to justify than the “serious” stuff despite initially being attracted by the former. This is a shame because Wagner deserves much greater recognition than he gets. Far from being a simple fascist cop, the characterisation of Dredd is incredibly rich and yet understated in Wagner’s hands. One gets the impression it has become semi-autobiographical.

Of the relatively self-contained 2000AD stuff I would recommend Nikolai Dante, Caballistics, Inc. and Leviathan.

Finally, I would throw in Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn and You Are Here and Evan Dorkins Dork! (an acquired taste but brilliant nonetheless).