5 years, 5 months ago
I always knew there would be an Alan Moore entry around here. I wasn't completely certain where - it could have gone at the start of the Cartmel era, but it was always probably going to go right here, before the "canonical" Cartmel era begins. No, the hard question was what I was going to pick. I mean, one of these years I'm going to get around to doing the book I want to write on Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Which means I really don't want to do a general "Alan Moore" post here. Which left me having to choose among The Ballad of Halo Jones (which Cartmel apparently handed to anyone coming on to write for Doctor Who), V for Vendetta (for the anarchism), Swamp Thing, or perhaps Watchmen (for their revampings of past characters). All would be perfectly reasonable choices for the time period. But Halo Jones felt too close to the 2000 AD post I'd already done. V for Vendetta felt too oversignified and not quite relevant enough to Doctor Who. Swamp Thing and Watchmen felt too American.
No, the one I had to pick, in the end, was Marvelman. Or Miracleman, if you must - that was, admittedly, how the tail end of the comic was published due to some rights issues. But really, the heck with those rights issues, especially since they're all anyone ever talks about - both the renaming from Marvelman to Miracleman and, more substantively, the legal cases that have surrounded the character for twenty years now preventing anyone from finishing the series.
But that's not what's interesting about the series for our purposes. For our purposes it's more interesting to note that both Alan Moore's Marvelman run and Doctor Who wrapped up the same month in 1989. That while Moore's Marvelman run began earlier - he came onto the character in 1982 years - this is, nevertheless, the closest equivalent to Cartmel-era Doctor Who in Alan Moore's oeuvre. Both are cases of taking a largely discredited sci-fi institution of the past and getting it to work in the 1980s. Marvelman is a bit older - his original run was 1954-63 - but both come out of post-war utopianism of one sort or another.
But more than that, and here I'll briefly delve into the rights issue I suppose, there's an obscurity to it. Alan Moore and Doctor Who are both, in 2012, recognized as grand British institutions, albeit strange ones. But the Cartmel era, well-regarded as it is, remains an obscure stretch of Doctor Who in many ways. I've not perused detailed figures, but between home releases on VHS and DVD and platforms like Netflix it would not surprise me if something like Curse of Fenric had been seen by more people looking to understand Doctor Who's past than who saw it on first transmission - something that is tremendously unlikely to be true of the hits of the Pertwee or Tom Baker years, for instance.
Marvelman, meanwhile, is the most obscure of the consensus Alan Moore 1980s masterpieces. Out of print and with no clear road from here to a legal reprint, the fact of the matter is that it's bloody hard to get a legal copy of them unless you're willing to blow some substantial cash on the task. (Oddly, your best bet is the single issues, which you can find lots of on eBay for considerably cheaper than the trades. Or, as most people frankly do these days, you can go for less legal methods.) This means that it is in many ways the least actively looked at pieces of Alan Moore - one everybody knows about, but far too few people have actually managed to read.
Beyond that, of course, there's the more general connections between Andrew Cartmel's tenure as script editor and Alan Moore, namely that Cartmel was an unabashed Alan Moore fan. He's admitted to nicking from Watchmen in Mel's departure scene. He handed The Ballad of Halo Jones out to new writers. And he invited Moore to write for the program, though Moore declined with his semi-famous comment that he's found all the post-Hartnell Doctors to be just a bit pedophiliac. (These days he just says that he has no interest in writing for licensed properties anymore.)
But in this case we have a specific issue to look at - the issue of revamping and rebooting. These days this is standard practice - everything is revamped and rebooted every few years. The clock on how long before a property is available for a dramatic reconceptualization is a few years now, and I can only assume we're less than a decade from someone coming up with a TV show that just reboots itself every episode. (Oh wait. They did that decades ago, and you're reading a blog about it.)
But in the 1980s this process was just starting to become mainstream. This is the other bit of being in the right place at the right time that explains Alan Moore's larger career success. He had the good fortune of being the best British comics writer when Karen Berger began talent scouting the British comics industry, and the good fortune of being the best revamper in any medium at a time when revamps were breaking out into the mainstream. (Then, to the delight of really everybody with any taste, he got terribly irritated at his own success and began worshiping a snake god, but that's another book.)
In this regard he's the most obvious inspiration for Doctor Who imaginable. Cartmel inherited a once popular show that had, in essentially everybody's eyes, fallen from glory and stopped working. One that seemed past its prime, no longer relevant, and a bit silly. Alan Moore was busily making a career out of being better at fixing pulp properties like that than anyone else on the planet and making them into something that was better than they'd ever been. Using him as your explicit model and inviting him to write for Doctor Who is something that, in 1987, any even remotely skilled script editor would have done. The show doing anything other than mimicking Alan Moore here would have been clear evidence that we were in for another rough patch.
But it's worth looking at precisely what the "Alan Moore" approach to revamps is. He is, after all, not the first person to make a career out of revamping old characters. Nor are the parts of his legacy that are most obvious the most relevant: it's true that he did a lot of dark reboots with adult themes, brutal violence, and explicit sexuality, but to suggest that this is the point of his work misses the mark considerably. (The accusation that Moore overuses rape as a trope holds water, but to date I've found no account of his use of rape that quite captures his use of it, which is not standard rape culture stuff in the least.) The famed 1980s comic reboot you're looking for if you want to trace that line of thought is Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a comic with few ideas beyond "what if Batman were more badass and violent." Moore's work in the 1980s is typically dark, but it's a very different sort of darkness.
Another way of framing this is simply a contrast between the US and UK, returning to that Warren Ellis quote I led the Thatcher entry with. In the US Reagan, in 1984, ran a massively successful reelection campaign on the slogan "Morning for America." Thatcher campaigned on having restored Britain, but was never daft enough to run that kind of sunnily optimistic campaign. Reagan and Thatcher's politics were largely similar, but Reagan was always gifted with the ability to make conservatism sound pleasant and hopeful, whereas Thatcher always had to trade in part on her "Iron Lady" persona.
So where Frank Miller recast Batman as an ultimate conservative fantasy for people who thought Ronald Reagan was too much of a doddering old fool to be a proper man, Moore's interests were always in the decline of past forms of utopianism. And this leads to the central innovation of Moore's reboots: he mirrors the cultural decline of the original text in the fictional world. This is a common trope in Moore's reboots - his characters themselves are faded glories who don't entirely understand their own decline. His reboots are consistently built around the theme proposed by his famed Superman story: "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?"
Marvelman is drenched in this. The character's sole innovation from his roots (he's a transparently reskinned version of Fawcett's Captain Marvel created when the company that had been reprinting Fawcett's stories were suddenly confronted with the fact that Fawcett had stopped publishing the character after getting slaughtered in a court case against DC Comics) was moving the magical incantation of Shazam! into "Kimota," the word "atomic" backwards. Moore took full advantage of this, treating Marvelman as a last and faded shred of atomic age utopianism.
His central structure here is quite good. On the one hand is Marvelman, who has forgotten his superhero nature. On the other is Kid Marvelman, who has remained a superhero for decades and become a powerful but sociopathic businessman. The implication is a clear division of the legacy of the atomic age: its utopianism is forgotten, while its horrors have mainstreamed themselves into society. It's cynical and brilliant, and in one shot takes a more or less rightly forgotten superhero property and turns it into something with something to say.
This, of course, is a trick that's not quite open to Doctor Who, which for a variety of reasons can't seriously be expected to sell out its history as inadequate. Regardless, an active suspicion of the show's own historical legacy shows up in the Cartmel era. Prior to the Cartmel era the program had only gone back to a year within its own transmission history once, in Mawdryn Undead. Now we have Remembrance of the Daleks doing it again, plus two more stories with The Curse of Fenric and Delta and the Bannermen both taking place within living memory. On top of that are stories that engage with the past or nostalgia less literally: Battlefield, Paradise Towers, Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and Ghost Light.
What's important here, though, is that neither Moore nor Cartmel go so far as rejecting the past. Rather they are skeptical of it, yes, but this is not simply a skepticism of nostalgia. Remember how Delta and the Bannermen reveled in its own kitsch even as it subverted it. This is not the "there never was a golden age" message of Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Rather it's a nostalgia for imagined futures that never arrived. The past is valued now not for the idea that it might recur but for the idea that there may have been other futures that could have extended from it.
But there is something strange and difficult to track about these lost futures. The nostalgia for them is necessarily coupled with a suspicion of them. There is always the question of how and why they failed. Paradise Towers, of what we've looked at so far, is the key example here. On the one hand there's a revisiting of the lost utopianism of modernism. On the other, the utopianism is treated as revealing a cheap lie. Likewise, in Marvelman, the restoration of Marvelman's power is a source of ambiguity, causing both Kid Marvelman's horrific rampage in the fifteenth issue and, ultimately, leading to a functional totalitarianism in which humanity is ruled over by seemingly benevolent but fundamentally inhuman superhero overlords.
But equally, in both, there's a sense of love for the past - the 50s kitsch of Delta and the Bannermen or, perhaps most obviously and directly, the reverence for the original mythology of the series itself in the next story. In Marvelman this reverence manifests both in the love for and fascination with the original characters and mythology, but also, more esoterically, in scenes of genuine awe and wonder. One of Moore's signature techniques in comics, particularly in his earlier work (he's actively moved away from it in much of his later work) is the use of lengthy and substantial captions narrating the comics in which he merges the exuberant style typical of superhero comics with a more literate and literary style. To pick one at more or less random, "His muscles swim like fish beneath his skin, his skin that glimmers, alive with stars. His eyes drown her. He is like a god. And there is nothing to be afraid of. The empty air between them is alive with invisible signals: the semaphore of dilated pupils, the morse of her breathing. He approaches. Her mouth is dry." Although it's a technique that risks veering into self parody - much of why Moore abandoned it in later work, one imagines - there is a power to it. The usual exhalations of awe in superhero comics - the Stan Lee cliches of power - seem crass and stilted when compared to Moore's diction.
But perhaps the most interesting moment of awe in the comic comes in the sequence in issue #9 in which Marvelman's wife, Liz, gives birth to his daughter, a sequence drawn in graphic detail. It's an impressive sequence, partially because it's at once explicit and unerotic, something that the female body rarely gets to be in popular media, and especially not in superhero comics. But more to the point, it connects the transcendent wonder of Marvelman with the intensely, viscerally material. It's a moment of supreme alchemy. And it's at the heart of why Moore is so very, very good - he's capable of moving effortlessly between the epic and the visceral in thinking through a character. He can, at any given moment, play on the mythic aspects of his characters or tunnel down to the mundane with questions of the form "what if someone like this really existed?"
Not all of this ports well to Doctor Who. Moore often requires a lack of censorship in his work in order to pull off his switches of register, using the extremes religious imagery and material horror in order to manage the shift. (This is what's key to understanding his repeated use of rape, for what it's worth - it's an easy place for him to make a shift between the sacred and the profane. This is not a defense, mind you - frankly I mostly wish he'd realize that his use of it is too easily co-opted - but it at least explains why he views the image as being so potent.) Doctor Who can't do that. But on the other hand, Cartmel has already developed his own version of that strategy, using the combined simplicity of children's television and intensity of melodrama to create his own way of smoothing potentially jarring transitions in tone.
Thus far, however, Cartmel has remained in the realm of the material. This is necessary - since Logopolis took off blazing into the realm of the mythic the series has had painfully little connection with material social progress, dabbling with it only sporadically across the Davison era. First what was needed was a course correction - a regrounding of the show in the viscera of human life. That accomplished, Cartmel's next challenge is to juxtapose it successfully with the mythic and to see if his fusion of children's television/melodrama with the righteous anger of the anti-Thatcher left and the giddy grotesqueries of postmodernism can handle that switch in register.
You see, of course, where this is going.
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