|Figure 499: The first issue of John Byrne’s|
Superman reboot carried an ad for Alan
Moore’s Swamp Thing run on its cover.
It is worth highlighting the degree to which this is, within the context of 1986 DC Comics, actually controversial. Certainly John Byrne, who was inheriting the Superman books after this, did not like it, complaining years later about how he cannot hear the phrase “imaginary story” “without a snide and ennui soaked voice whispering in my ear ‘but aren’t they all?’” Indeed, he suggests that Moore’s preface to the story “goes most deeply to the root” of “the many things that can be seen to have gone wrong with American superhero comics.” His reason for this remarkable claim is that “when we ask ‘Aren’t they all?’ we are looking behind the curtain. We are seeing that the Emperor has no clothes.” While Byrne’s concern about the prospect of readers looking behind the curtain at that particular moment is wholly understandable, given that what they’d see was Byrne taking the job of an acclaimed thirty year veteran of the industry who had just been unceremoniously fired, it stands in marked and, more to the point, ideologically grounded contrast with Alan Moore, who noted that when he first got into comics at the age of seven he “was probably preoccupied with the characters themselves. I wanted to know what Batman was doing this month. Around about the time when I reached the age of say twelve, perhaps a lot earlier, I became more interested in what the artists and writers were doing that month,” a viewpoint that marks, for Moore at least, an active and conscious interest in the exact artifice of comics that Byrne wants to sweep under the rug (at least when talking about comics aimed at people who are not fairly young children, which, it is fair to say, few comics in the age of the direct market were).
|Figure 500: Jimmy Olsen is killed by the|
Brainiac-animated corpse of Lex Luthor.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Curt Swan
and Kurt Schaffenberger, from Action Comics
“Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is, as one might expect given Moore’s approach, very much invested in the narrative game that it is playing. It has two almost entirely contradictory jobs to do, and it does this by being actively concerned with the gap between them. On the one hand, it is self-consciously an epic tale of Superman’s last and final battle, where “his enemies conspired against him and of that final war in the snowblind wastes beneath the Northern Lights,” in which “all the things he had were taken from him save for one.” On the other, it’s a disposable “imaginary story” that everybody reading knows is just marking time before the big John Byrne reboot comes in next month, and that there is no actual finality to it. And so Moore makes the story about the very impossibility of it, starting the story with a journalist interviewing Lois Lane (now Elliot) about Superman’s now decade-old death. By foregrounding that fact at the start, Moore seems to fly in the face of the story’s lack of genuine finality. But because of the peculiar circumstances of the comic, serving as the last comic before a reboot that isn’t going to pick up where Moore’s story leaves off, but is rather going to declare that Moore’s story and every previous Superman story are no longer part of the Superman canon, Moore instead seems to be taking a sort of grim advantage of the situation. Since nothing he does is going to “count,” so to speak, Moore can do any terrible things he wants. And so the comic is in many ways an unrelentingly grim parade in which all of Superman’s great villains come back, deadlier than ever before, and wreck untold havoc.
|Figure 501: Lex Luthor kills Superman in the imaginary|
story “The Death of Superman!” (Written by Jerry Siegel,
art by Curt Swan and George Klein, from Superman #149,
But, of course, given the existence of decades of imaginary stories, this isn’t actually a new sort of power. It’s not even the first time Superman died, with Jerry Siegel and Curt Swan having written an imaginary story doing that all the way back in 1961. As much as Moore may play at the idea that his story is different because the Byrne reboot is imminent, this is ultimately a trick on Moore’s part. The key fact is the nature of the story’s grim parade. As with much of Moore’s work in American superhero comics, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow” is based on playing with existing concepts. This was, after all, the point of requesting Curt Swan for art chores: to make the story look like the decades of Superman stories in which its characters were developed. Moore doesn’t just tell a grim and apocalyptic story, in other words: he tells a grim and apocalyptic story that is unmistakably a Superman story. Indeed, the story is almost gratuitously a Superman story, positively relishing in getting every single major Superman villain and supporting character into the plot somewhere. Even Superman notices this; the story’s climax comes when he realizes that there’s one villain who hasn’t appeared yet, and that this villain must therefore be responsible for everything that’s happened.
|Figure 502: Alan Moore tasked Curt Swan with drawing|
a creature that his captions described as indescribable.
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Curt Swan and Kurt
Schaffenberger, from Action Comics #583, 1986)
All of this exists to set up the real question Moore is examining with the story, which is what it means to try to craft an epic and apocalyptic narrative out of Superman in particular. And it is here that Moore pulls his great trick, ultimately opting to reject premise. The story’s main plot ends with Superman being forced to kill Mr. Mxyzptlk, the five-dimensional imp he realizes is behind all of this. (Mxyzptlk’s motive is one of the most charmingly pointless imaginable – after two thousand years of being a mischievous imp, he’s grown bored and decided to spend two millennia being evil instead.) Wracked with guilt, Superman proclaims that “nobody has the right to kill. Not Mxyzptlk, not you, not Superman… especially not Superman!” And so he opts to walk into the chamber of his Fortress of Solitude where he keeps the Gold Kryptonite, which will permanently strip him of his powers, and then, apparently to walk out into the frozen wastes to die.
|Figure 503: The last Superman story defers its ending.|
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Kurt Schaffenberger, from
Action Comics #583, 1986)
At this point the story returns to its frame narrative of the interview with Lois, who politely shows the journalist the door, leaving Lois, her husband Jordan, and their infant child Jonathan alone. They talk, with Jordan telling stories of work today. “Old Dan Hodge brought in some snapshots of his grandchildren,” he says, “and we’re working on this old ’48 Buick at the moment, trying to get her working. She’s beautiful.” Pressed by Lois on a criticism of Superman that he’d voiced earlier in the story, Jordan claims that “he was overrated, and too wrapped up in himself. He thought the world couldn’t get along without him.” But as he claims this, the image focuses on Jonathan playing with the bucket of charcoal for the fire, picking up a chunk and holding it and finally, dropping a diamond back into the bucket. Lois, meanwhile, suggests that they might sit in “bed with a bottle of wine. And after that, I figure we just live happily ever after. Sound good to you?” And so the comic closes with Jordan standing at their door, closing it towards the reader, and winking at them, answering simply, “Lois, my love… what do you think?” In other words, far from being an apocalyptic story with a downbeat ending, the story is in fact about how Superman earned a retirement to where he got to do the things he really loves, which is to say, to be an ordinary man working in an auto shop. The story does not mark the end of Superman at all – clearly their son is going to grow up to be a superhero in his own right. The story both serves as the finale for an entire era of Superman comics and as a demonstration that this finale is completely and utterly unnecessary.
First and foremost, then, this story is a love letter on Moore’s part to Superman comics and, more broadly, to DC. But the context of the love letter is both revealing and important. However good Moore’s story is, it only exists because DC was at the time actively seeking to jettison all of the past stories Moore is drawing on in favor of a single, unified, and self-consistent account of Superman and, ideally, everything else within DC. Moore is, in other words, ostentatiously winning the battle when the larger war has already been won by Byrne and people who agree with his aesthetics. Moore’s full-throated celebration of Superman only gets to exist in an elegiac context, as the flexibility and playfulness with which Moore could craft his story was precisely what the Crisis-mandated reboot was designed to excise from the character, and indeed, what Crisis existed to try to excise from the company as a whole. Indeed, not two years later, Moore himself would break ties with DC.
|Figure 504: Many Crisis on Infinite Earths tie-ins connected only via|
panels like this, in which the sky is red. (Written by Alan Moore, art by
Steve Bissette and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing #46, 1985)
Moore’s other engagement with Crisis on Infinite Earths came, as mentioned, in the pages of Swamp Thing. This came about as a consequence of a change to the nature of the American comics industry that is worth remarking upon: the crossover. Since Crisis on Infinite Earths was designed to impact every comic being published by DC, it was assumed that everyone buying any DC comics would buy it. And to this end, virtually every comic DC published ran at least one issue that, at least superficially, tied into the larger story. (It is worth emphasizing the word “superficially” here – Crisis on Infinite Earths also led to fandom coining the term “red skies crossover” to describe several of the crossovers, which consisted of perfectly ordinary issues of their respective comics in which, in one panel, someone would remark on how the sky was red and ominous, perhaps as if some crisis were coming, before getting on with whatever they were doing.) For Swamp Thing, this was issue #46, entitled “Revelations.” The timeline of this crossover is, however, vexed, and more to the point, vexed in a way that highlights the logistical problems underlying Crisis on Infinite Earths. “Revelations” features a sequence in which Swamp Thing visits the Monitor’s satellite. This is the same context in which Swamp Thing appeared in Crisis on Infinite Earths #5, released in May of 1985, the same month as the second part of Moore’s underwater vampire story. But “Revelations” did not come out until December of 1985, actually making it out two full weeks after Crisis on Infinite Earths wrapped up.
|Figure 505: Alan Moore’s take on the|
apocalypse of Crisis on Infinite Earths
was altogether more psychological
and horrific than Crisis itself. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Steve Bissette
and John Totleben, from Swamp Thing
In many ways, however, Crisis on Infinite Earths is just a backdrop for “Revelations.” Moore has Swamp Thing travel around the world to see what it’s like in the face of the apocalypse, leading to a two-page spread in which he sees “horrors and marvels” that “could not be counted,” allowing Moore to offer descriptions like “a jackboxer from the Manhattan saltbogs of Soto had managed to bring down a young ichthyosaurus with his whorpoon, but the alligators were closing in fast,” and “a woman with a pulpy orange growth upon her shoulder stumble unwittingly into a field of water hyacinths. As they parted and she sank into the water beneath, the growth opened its mouth and began to bellow,” and “there was laughter and weeping and somebody was screaming for somebody else to hold their hand, please, please, just hold their hand…” None of these images have any corollary within Crisis in Infinite Earths – they don’t refer to specific scenes in the way that Swamp Thing’s appearance on the Monitor’s satellite do. Rather, they’re flavor: attempts to depict what it’s like to witness the end of the world.
But the tie-in to Crisis on Infinite Earths consumes only the first of five issues about the end of the world, and it would be a mistake to treat the apocalypse depicted as coextensive with Crisis. Rather, Moore’s story piggybacks upon that apocalypse, casting his apocalypse as an echo of the larger one. As Constantine explains within the narrative, “this sort of physical destruction is bound to cause temporary disturbances on the psychic plane. Our problem is that there are people who anticipated the disturbance and plan to take advantage of it.” For Swamp Thing’s part, he experiences it as “the whimpering that people made deep in their souls. He heard the bedlam of a mass mind faced with extinction.” Within Moore’s later cosmology this would seem to suggest an apocalypse within Ideaspace, although it’s important to note that the conflict is presented as taking place in the DC Universe’s Ideaspace, which is at best a tiny subset of Ideaspace proper.
Much of Moore’s work on Swamp Thing has engaged with this precise point. Moore explicitly sought to use Swamp Thing to engage with “the reality of American horror.” In his view, “what frightens people these days is not the idea of a werewolf jumping out at them, it’s the idea of a nuclear war.” In truth, Moore’s engagement with the apocalypse went beyond mere nuclear war (which he never touched on directly in Swamp Thing, although it was a substantial theme elsewhere in Moore’s DC work), and to the larger idea of the human capacity to destroy their own habitation in a number of ways, an image that ties in with the larger ecological themes of Swamp Thing.
|Figure 506: The Brujeriá’s awful ritual.|
(Written by Alan Moore, art by John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing #48, 1986)
So Moore’s apocalypse is framed, ultimately, as a conceptual apocalypse – as a nightmarish consequence of the very idea of the apocalypse and of the way in which the horrors Moore has been engaging with throughout his run on Swamp Thing loom over the culture. But this conceptual apocalypse is still grounded in specific ideas. The Brujería, the South American cult that Moore has unleashing this apocalypse, is described as having “existed for centuries in the forests of Patagonia, at the southernmost tip of South America.” They are, in other words, positioned at the root of the Americas as a whole. The “darkness at the heart of this continent” that Moore spent the entire “American Gothic” arc presenting, in other words, finds its most fundamental expression here – a dark and twisted cult lying at the deepest base of the entire land. (That this fits into the same tradition of demonizing and exoticizing indigenous American populations that Moore perpetuated in “The Curse” is, of course, a deeply frustrating failure on Moore’s part.) It is in this regard worth noting that the Brujería’s scheme is in many ways an echo of Moore’s own plotting. “Using their influence,” Constantine explains, “they’ve forced the dark stuff to the surface, all over the world. I only showed you the trouble spots I thought you could learn from.” These trouble spots, of course, constitute the “American Gothic” arc, a point hammered home by Bissette and Totleben’s art, which recaps these threats. “Each incident,” Constantine continues, “has increased the general belief in the paranormal by degrees, until the whole psychic atmosphere is like a balloon ripe for bursting.” In other words, the Brujería have created a bunch of typical horror stories in order to create an atmosphere of tension. This tacitly allies the Brujería with Moore, who, as a writer, has been enacting this exact plan: a series of traditional horror stories serving as a prelude to an eventual apocalypse.
|Figure 507: The bird flies, the pearl in its mouth. (Written|
by Alan Moore, art by John Totleben, from Swamp Thing
The unleashing of this horror, in “A Murder of Crows,” in Swamp Thing #48, comes when one of Constantine’s allies, Judith, betrays him to the Brujería and agrees to serve as their messenger. This involves a ritual in which Judith vomits out her intestines and allows her body to shrivel until only her severed but still talking head remains. The Brujería then place a black pearl in her mouth, at which point her head steadily transforms into a bird, a process that is laboriously and disturbingly described, at which point the bird is released to summon the nameless dark power by delivering a pearl held in its mouth to a distant destination. [continued]