I've seen a lot of fans rank Alan Moore as the best writer of superheroes. I've never agreed with that assessment (though a discussion of who is might be fruitful).
Alan Moore is only the best writer of superheroes within an ironic literary mode, as per my remarks here:
"Both of these modes ["high mimetic" and "ironic"] as well as Frye's "low mimetic" mode (which might include something like Bendis' POWERS) exist in a descending scale from the mode of romance. In this mode, protagonists have a "power of action" which, though not capable of creating aspects of reality as are the powers of the gods of myth, is still ineluctably positive. In romance (which connotes what most people call "adventure"). the hero's actions generally result in desireable outcomes, occasionally marked by tragic, comic or ironic touches but not fundamentally attuned to the demands of those mode-forms. As the "power of action" becomes increasingly attenuated going down the scale, the mode becomes more responsive to the perceived demands of "reality," even in works that have the phenomenal content of fantasies. Thus the "power of action" generally becomes more and more negative in tone going from romance to high mimetic to low mimetic to irony."
Moore's own attachment to irony is testified in these remarks from his recent WIRED interview, which directly follow the section I quoted in Part 2:
"That wasn't what it used to mean. That wasn't what it used to mean to me when I was a child. What I was getting out of it was this unbridled world of the imagination, and the superhero was a perfect vehicle for that when I was much younger. But looking at the superhero today, it seems to me an awful lot like Watchmen without the irony, that with Watchmen we were talking very much about the potential abuses of this kind of masked vigilante justice and the kind of people that it would in all likelihood attract if these things were taking place in a more realistic world. But that was not meant approvingly."
So Moore admits that he was not doing a pure superhero story like those with which he grew up-- a story meant to unleash "the unbridled world of the imagination"-- but one which incorporated "irony" and a "progressive spirit." Moore may not see these narrative elements as fundamentally opposed, as I do, but I agree that he was incredibly naive if he assumed that mainsteam superhero stories were going to take no influence from him once the WATCHMEN work both demonstrated strong sales and sustained favorable reviews. In fact, his story that he was only hoping to stimulate other works like unto his own sounds less like naivete than a Monday-morning quarterbacking attempt to un-implicate himself from association with whatever lesser works might have taken inspiration from him.
Frankly, I think the move toward "doom and gloom" started long before either Moore or Frank Miller entered mainstream American comics, but that's another story, which must wait while I critique Moore's impression-- which he himself admits may be "simplistic"-- of superheroes as an incarnation of "massive tactical superiority."
Note that though most of the time Moore's talking about how he's become 'distanced" from the caped crusader genre because it's become so bleak and superficial, he invokes that didactic "superiority" interpretation in terms of Superman. He implies that he's talking about not just current Superman comics, but the original Golden Age comics that posited Superman as an alien given superiority over humans thanks to "Earth's lesser gravity."
Yet these are, as he's said elsewhere, among the comics that introduced him to "the unbridled world of imagination." Could it be that the substance of power-fantasies and that of the imagination are not as distinct as Moore sometimes implies?
Equally wrong is his attempt to characterize superheroes as uniquely American. The fact that Moore may be attempting to do to old European heroes in LXG what he did for American superheroes in WATCHMEN-- to see them through a lens of literary irony in order to make intellectual comments upon them-- doesn't mean that the original characters weren't also all about "massive tactical superiority."
In KING SOLOMON'S MINES, Allan Quatermain and his three allies ride herd on a "lost race" of black Africans, convincing the tribesmen that the four white men are gods thanks to their superior weapons.
In 20.000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, Captain Nemo (who is perhaps more an antihero than a hero) has the world's only submarine, and even if he uses it against corrupt ruling powers, it's still a fantasy of "massive tactical superiority."
And the original Bulldog Drummond, though lacking super-powers, was as much a "strongman fantasy" as Superman, as the four books I've read constantly harp upon Drummond's phenomenal-if-natural strength. One book even has Drummond win a fight with a gorilla, with the excuse that it was only a "small" one. In BLACK DOSSIER Moore's "Hugo Drummond" is a reincarnation of the original brawler of the books, who, unlike the cinematic Drummond, was a crude bigot who cheerfully railed against Jews and darkies and anything else against which his Brit working-class audience liked to assail. Moore plays this aspect of Drummond for laughs, but in addition, the prose Drummond actually committed the sort of fascist actions that Fredric Wertham and Gersom Legman falsely attributed to American superheroes, for in THE BLACK GANG Drummond and his fellows arrange to kidnap prominent British Communists and to confine them on a desert island until they learn the error of their ways. Moore doesn't reference this little escapade, though I feel sure that he must have known of it. Maybe if he had brought it in, the author's contrast between Hugo Drummond and James Bond-- or Moore's super-imperialist version of James Bond-- would have seemed less pertinent.
I find it fairly obvious, then, that in terms of indulging power-fantasies there's no demonstrable difference between heroes without powers and/or costumes and heroes with 'em. The satisfying dynamizations of power are what the mode of romance is all about, just as the mode of irony is about critiquing the very notion of power in such a way that power seems not only impossible but fundamentally undesireable.
On some level I feel sure that Moore must've known that the originals of his LEAGUE-heroes were as much power-fantasies as any caped crusader. So why scapegoat superheroes as a symbol of the American lust for "tactical superiority?" Why not just say that he liked superheroes as a young reader but that he finds them irrelevant now (except, of course, for his ironical versions thereof)?
In the same interview Moore goes on a long diatribe against modern FX-movies in general, in part as a way of describing his alienation from both the upcoming WATCHMEN movie and all previous (and future?) cinematic adaptations of his work. Of course, a lot of authors have had problems with adaptations where special effects were not a concern, including Raymond Chandler, whom Moore references toward the interview's end. But I find myself wondering whether or not Moore's real animus is that (a) modern special-FX make it possible for the movies to do "straight" versions of superheroes that please a larger audience than any other era of superhero-filmmaking has enjoyed, which (b) insures some level of cultural validation of the genre of superheroes with that larger audience, which in turn (c) makes it possible for more people to appreciate a genre in which Moore himself has lost interest and which he may think is taking up the appreciation due to better things, whether they are things he does or things by other authors that he admires.
Of course, maybe none of that even remotely resembles what goes through Alan Moore's head. Maybe by imagining that, I am just "putting the worst construction" on him. But if so, it's just a case of tit for tat:
"[Modern comics are] being bought in many cases by hopeless nostalgics or, putting the worst construction on it, perhaps cases of arrested development who are not prepared to let their childhoods go, no matter how trite the adventures of their various heroes and idols."
I'm sure that, despite his blanket putdowns of both Americans and comics fans, I'll probably enjoy Alan Moore's works in future, the same way I can enjoy any other entertainment by anyone else with whom I disagree. He'll probably remain the best writer of superheroes in an ironic mode.
But whenever he talks about unbridled worlds of wonder, I'm going to wonder how much of his literary religion depends on the rhetoric of the scapegoat.
MONSTER MASHUPS #63
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