The Comedian Is Dead (The Last War in Albion Part 28: Alan Moore's Earliest 2000 AD Work)

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This is the fourth of ten parts of Chapter Five of The Last War in Albion, covering Alan Moore's work on Future Shocks for 2000 AD from 1980 to 1983. An ebook omnibus of all ten parts, sans images, is available in ebook form from AmazonAmazon UK, and Smashwords for $2.99. If you enjoy the project, please consider buying a copy of the omnibus to help ensure its continuation

Most of the comics discussed in this chapter are collected in The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks.


PREVIOUSLY IN THE LAST WAR IN ALBION: 2000 AD built its reputation on the back of popular series like Judge Dredd, Ro-Busters, Rogue Trooper, and ABC Warriors. In his time working on the magazine, Alan Moore wrote for these properties only occasionally...

"Jeez, y'know, that felt good. There don't seem to be so many laughs around these days."
"Well, what do you expect? The Comedian is dead." - Alan Moore, Watchmen #1

Moore’s Rogue Trooper work is altogether more somber affair. The first, “Pray for War,” tells of Gunnar having to kill another soldier who calls himself “Pray for War” because, as he says,“war is the best thing that ever happened to me” and “combat is what makes me happy,” ending with Rogue reassuring Gunnar that “you only killed part of him - the ugly part. The war killed any humanity left in him long ago.” The second, “First of the Few,” involves Rogue finding one of the abandoned prototypes of the Genetic Infrantrymen, who he allows the mercy of death, actively declining to lead his consciousness into his gun or helmet. Both are straightforward anti-war stories; “First of the Few” describes the hellish world of Nu Earth, “the ultimate monument to war. The land is scorched bare and the air is a poisonous soup,” Moore writes with obvious relish, crafting a dour and pleasureless war story that subverts the genre. 

Figure 210: Hammerstein's somber reflections over the grave
of a Martian animal (2000 AD Annual '85, 1984)
Moore is even more somber in his ABC Warriors story, “Red Planet Blues,” which has Hammerstein investigating a problem on Mars. The problem turns out to be that the planet still has life on it, and the solution of the humans that hire Hammerstein is to simply burn the weeds in which the lifeforms live. Hammerstein reflects at the end that “we burned the whole undergrowth and we only found one dead Martian animal. I figure even that was a fluke.” Nevertheless, Hammerstein opts to bury the animal, admitting that he’s “getting old” and “getting soft.” The story ends as a haunting dirge about the nature of colonial genocide, as Hammerstein warns the dead alien that “the humans are coming, and soon all your tribe will lie as still as you. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s their planet now.” 

Figure 211: A classic twist ending page from
the first installment of Tharg's Future Shocks
(
From "King of the World," in 2000 AD #25,
written by Steve Moore, art by Blasquez, 1977)
But while Moore dabbled with these characters, the bulk of his 2000 AD work was either on the three strips he created - Skizz, D.R. And Quinch, and The Ballad of Halo Jones - or short stories, mainly under the banner of Tharg’s Future Shocks. These short stories were a pragmatic necessity owing to the hectic pace of 2000 AD’s weekly schedule. In between longer strips, or when an artist on a longer strip was running late and replacing him was unfeasible, the magazine would run bespoke short stories. The first of these was in Prog 25, where it filed the hole left by Dan Dare going on hiatus, and was penned by an uncredited Steve Moore. It tells the story of a war between red-haired and black-haired people, depicted as a war between cave tribes with swords. This goes on for two pages before a final page reveal that the humans are in a glass box kept by giant ants, who watch their antics with amusement and muse over how “they work together… and fight… I’d swear they were almost as intelligent as us ants” before concluding that “it’s just instinct.”

Figure 212: A classic horrific twist ending
from EC Comics, as narrated by the Vault
Keeper (From "Gone... Fishing!," written
by Al Feldstein, art by Jack Davis, Vault
of Horror
#22, 1951)
The underlying structure of this short-form story is one pioneered in American comics of the 1950s, particularly those published by EC, which maintained a line of horror comics like Tales from the Crypt, which featured short stories, generally with twist endings in which the protagonist suffers some ghastly fate at the hands of forces he has failed to adequately understand. Moore’s story of giant ants playing with humans has several antecedents in EC - for instance, a story in Vault of Horror #22 in which a fisherman goes to pick up a candy bar lying on the shore, only to find out that it’s a lure, and that he’s being dragged out into the ocean by some aquatic land-fisher. The structure is mirrored right down to the conceit that the stories are narrated and presented by the fictitious editor. These stories were what Alan Grant recommended Moore work on when rejecting his Judge Dredd script, and it was with one of them that Moore first got published in his beloved 2000 AD.

Moore’s first published work with 2000 AD was actually the second one he had accepted - a short called “A Holiday in Hell,” which appeared in the 1980 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special. It is in many ways a textbook example of the Future Shocks formula. The story depicts a futuristic world where Earth has become “a world without war, without crime, without bloodshed,” meaning that people vacation on Murderworld (formerly known as Mars), to blow off steam killing robots. The story tracks a husband and wife who go on vacation there, but at the end of the vacation the wife, Gabrielle, begins acting strangely. After returning home she proceeds to kill her husband, and, at the end of the story, it’s revealed that from time to time the robots take a vacation by going to Earth and killing humans. The story is unremarkable, but competent and interesting. There’s a clever commentary under the hood, and a story that is at once smart and over the top. It’s not an extraordinary story by any measure, but it’s a competent one, and it’s easy enough to see why Alan Grant accepted it for publication.

Figure 213: Sundodger, the protagonist of Alan Moore's first
short story for 2000 AD (Issue 170, 1980)
His first accepted story, on the other hand, was “Killer in the Cab,” which came out in Prog 170, published in July of 1980, a month after he’d begun work on Doctor Who Weekly. The summer of 1980 was not, by any standard, a golden age for the magazine. Still ostensibly titled 2000 AD/Tornado following the merger with a floundering IPC stablemate, the magazine consisted of an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat books, a wretched Tom Tully number called The Mind of Wolfie Smith, the rather better Sam Slade, Robot Hunter, and, most promisingly, a middle installment of the sprawling Judge Dredd epic The Judge Child. With the Gerry Finley-Day series The V.C.s on a one-issue hiatus, however, there was room for a one-off strip, which Alan Moore provided under the banner of Ro-Jaws’ Robo-Tales, which was in effect being used in place of Tharg’s Future Shocks at this point in the magazine’s history. The basic plot is a space trucker (using the nickname Sundodger, a reference to Moore’s never written space epic Sun Dodgers, which he’d always envisioned sending to 2000 AD) whose truck’s automated defense systems have wrongly determined that he’s trying to hijack the truck, and is thus trying to kill him. Working via the futuristic equivalent of the CB with another trucker, the female Andromeda Angel, the trucker is able to disable the security system and regain control of his truck. In the final panel it’s revealed that the Andromeda Angel is herself a robot, a fact that will presumably frustrate the Sundodger’s clearly desired romantic relations with her when they meet in a week’s time at Max Drax’s Palace O’Potions. 

Figure 214: At the end of 1981, Moore
contributed a glossary of trucker lingo
to the BJ and the Bear annual.
The strip is a straightforward adventure story with a small twist pinned onto the end, but its craftsmanship runs deeper than its unremarkable surface features. Structurally, the strip is a procedural - the action focuses on Sundodger and the Andromeda Angel figuring out how to retake Sundodger’s rig, and on the technical steps taken to accomplish this. But given that this is a procedural based around an entirely fictive world - there are not, in fact, space trucks on remote, dead planets - this is no mean feat. Moore has to simultaneously introduce the rules of the space trucking world and show Sundodger and the Andromeda Angel figuring out how to work within those rules. The mechanism of having Sundodger have to explain everything he sees and is doing to the absent Andromeda Angel goes a long way towards making that easy, and it’s by no measure a subtle or nuanced accomplishment, but there’s an impressive grasp of storytelling here, and the entire exercise is entertainingly enlivened by Moore’s thick use of trucker dialect - a body of knowledge he’d put to use a year or so later when he contributed two pieces to the 1982 BJ and the Bear Annual. 

Six issues later, Moore was back again with “The Dating Game,” another Robo-Tales. Prog 176 is an unusual one for the magazine - fully three of the stories were shorts, as The V.C.s had ended the issue prior, the current Sam Slade, Robot Hunter story the week before that, and The Mind of Wolfie Smith was on a week’s break, leaving only The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World and The Judge Child to anchor the magazine. “The Dating Game” was the final strip in the issue, and the second Ro-Jaws’ Robo-Tales in it. Comparing it to the earlier story, “The Robo-Shrink” by C.P. Rice, it’s easy to see why Moore rose through the ranks at 2000 A.D. “The Robo-Shrink” is a three-pager about a robotic therapist who has clearly gone round the bend itself, advising patients to “murder the creep” and to “take an axe, go to your neighbors apartment - AND SMASH HIS HI-FI TO PIECES!” Ultimately, after failing to find a mechanical fault in the therapist, the mechanics send it to be analyzed itself. And that’s the end. There’s nothing that can quite be called a resolution, nor any real development over the course of the story. Indeed, it barely deserves to be called a story - it is in essence three pages of incident that do not evolve or develop at all. The ending seems to be going for humor, but it’s not clear what the joke is - that the obviously crazy robotic therapist should get psychiatric treatment? That it should be charged for it? 

Figure 215: Myron Fooble is plagued
by the angry yet amorous advances
of his newly feral toothbrush. (From
"The Dating Game," written by Alan
Moore, art by Dave Gibbons, 2000 AD
#176, 1980)
While “The Dating Game” can’t be called a great story, it at least makes a point of coming to a humorous ending where the joke makes sense, and gets decent mileage out of its premise until then. It tells the story of Myron Fooble, who seeks romance via a dating agency only to have the agency match him up with the central city computer, which controls every aspect of the city. Fooble eventually spurns the computer, which promptly becomes a jilted and homicidal ex, trying to run Fooble down with automated taxi cabs and scald him in the shower. “Every machine in the city is after my blood,” he laments. “Even my electric toothbrush,” which proceeds to bounce towards him, growling. Eventually he flees the city to become a scavenger, only to be eaten by a computerized litter bin. “True love may never run smooth,” Ro-Jaws reflects, “but atomic-powered stainless steel garbage grinders certainly do.” It’s a simple strip, and indeed a faintly misogynistic one, trading as it does on the stereotype of women as irrationally and violently jealous, but, notably unlike “The Robo-Shrink,” it demonstrates a basic coherence to its storytelling. That this should be something that immediately puts Moore ahead of the pack says, as Moore readily suggests in countless interviews, more about the unfortunate state of British comics in 1980 than it does about Moore’s skills. Nevertheless, it’s clear even at this early stage that Moore is a rising talent.

Figure 216: One of Alan Moore's several engagements with Space Invaders
(Maxwell the Magic Cat
, Alan Moore [as Jill de Ray], 1983)
The most notable thing about “The Dating Game,” however, is that it marks the first collaboration between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Gibbons was a long-time veteran on 2000 AD, having made his debut in the first issue as the artist on Tom Tully’s Harlem Heroes. Since then he bounced around the magazine, drawing a slew of Dan Dare strips, a couple of Judge Dredds, and various Future Shocks. Like Brian Bolland, Gibbons’s style is characterized by an intense level of detail and an exceedingly clean line. Where Bolland specializes in the grotesque, however, Gibbons’s strength is, as Moore cheekily puts it, that he was “prepared to draw whatever absurd amount of detail you should ask for, however ludicrous and impractical.” It is not merely his willingness, however, but his skill at it - the cleanliness of Gibbons’s line-work makes the absurd depths of detail crystal clear. On 2000 AD, at least, Moore mostly used this talent for humorous effect. Of their half-dozen collaborations, four came in a period from May to July of 1982 shortly after Gibbons left Gerry Finley-Day’s Rogue Trooper. All of these four were two-page jokes, often with straightforward punch lines. “Skirmish,” for instance, depicts a group of alien invaders being cut to ribbons by human defenders with “terrible weapons that make such a ridiculous noise,” which turn out to be the machinations of a kid playing Space Invaders. (Space Invaders is actually a recurring theme in Moore’s work around this time - the game features in a joke in the fourth Abelard Snazz strip, and in a Maxwell the Magic Cat strip, all in the 1982-83 period when the game was at its most popular. [This strip is one of several Maxwell the Magic Cat strips to use recycled punchlines from Moore’s Future Shocks. A month or two earlier he did a strip in which an ET-like alien is squashed by Maxwell when it is revealed to be only four centimeters tall. This is the same basic punchline as the June 1982 Future Shock “The Big Day,” in which aliens prophesizing the return of their gods are crushed by said gods, which turn out to be the American moon landing, which dwarfs the microscopic aliens.] This makes it the only video game to get any sort of attention from Moore save for an appearance by Pac-Man in the penultimate Maxwell the Magic Cat. This information surely allows a dedicated researcher to track the precise progression of what arcade machines some pub in Northampton owned during the mid-1980s.) 

Figure 217: The Clone Ranger dispatches Billy the Squid
("The Wild Frontier," written by Alan Moore, art by Dave
Gibbons, 2000 AD #269, 1982)
These strips culminate in “The Wild Frontier,” a story that demonstrates straightforwardly how Gibbons’s art style lends itself to Moore’s style of comedy. Moore describes the strip as “one of those stupid things you do when you hear that Dave Gibbons will be drawing a job.” “The Wild Frontier” is a two-page bit of larking about on the premise of a space-western, complete with jokes about “the octobanndits led by that cephalopod sidewinder… Billy the Squid!” and the Clone Ranger, a vast stampede of identical masked men with their catchphrase of “Hiyoo, Chromium! Hawaay!” [continued]

Comments

G. 3 years, 5 months ago

Grand stuff, as usual. I always look forward to Thursdays. As soon as I can get some money into Paypal I plan to buy the collected versions.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

The synopsis of "Killer in the Cab" sounds a bit like Harlan Ellison's "Life Hutch."

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BerserkRL 3 years, 5 months ago

And the recycled Space Invaders plot seems reminiscent of the fate of the Vl'Hurg/G'Gugvuntt armada in Hitchhiker's Guide.

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