I Can’t Fight, For God’s Sake. I Can’t Fight Anymore (The Last War in Albion Book Two Part Twenty-Two: Alan Moore)
Previously in The Last War in Albion: Having decided to leave DC over their (ultimately failed) attempt to impose a ratings system on their comics, Moore found himself with an unparalleled level of financial security and creative freedom.
It is January, 1988. Alan Moore is thirty-three, and writing the introduction to the collected edition of Watchmen. His relationship with the publisher is in tatters, a fact he alludes to only vaguely when he notes that it is “the very last work that I expect to be doing upon Watchmen for the foreseeable future.” He looks back to 1984, when the idea originated, and the giddy enthusiasm of it all. And yet there is something he cannot quite locate in this. He notes that at the start “we wanted to do a novel and unusual super-hero comic that allowed us the opportunity to try out a few new storytelling ideas along the way. What we ended up with was substantially more than that.” But he cannot pin down the transition. Instead he describes a growing realization of the story’s complexity and scale, but without a sense that the realization had an end point. Instead, “there was the mounting suspicion (at least on my part) that we might have bitten off more than we could chew, that we might not be able to resolve all these momentous strands of narrative and meaning that seemed to be springing up wherever we looked, that we might be left at the end of the day with a big, messy, steaming bowl of semiotic spaghetti.” But even when the project ended. But even now, in 1988, Moore is lost in the process, saying that it is only now, in writing the introduction, that he realizes “how dazed a state I’d spent that year in, as if I’d been slam dancing with a bunch of rhinos and the concussion was only just starting to clear up,” a claim that oddly undercuts itself; the daze clearly extending beyond the year, simultaneously located “now, twelve months after” he finished the final script and in the past, as indicated by the past tense in the concussion metaphor.
A similar temporal ambivalence exists in the previously discussed description of how his “nostalgia for the [superhero] genre cracked and shattered somewhere along the way and all the sweet old musk inside just leaked out and evaporated,” a statement in which Moore is clearly lying, albeit as much to himself as the reader, the description of the “sweet old musk” evoking precisely what he says he has lost, so that the sentence offers the very experience it exists to reject. Moore casts superheroes away, but in doing so only draws them back in, a tension implicit in the very idea of nostalgia, which is of course an intense feeling for a thing that one is not actually experiencing at the time. He is nostalgic for his nostalgia, relishing in the scent of its memory even as he pushes the genre away, grimly certain in the necessity of all his burnt bridges. The “disappointment when I learned that we couldn’t use the Charlton characters after all” mixes in his prose with the bitter taste of his falling out with DC.
But more important than the way these things slide away from him is what he is looking for in amidst the rubble: “any sort of perspective upon what it was we actually did.” He does not find it in the essay. In some ways he never finds it anywhere. Watchmen simply proves to be the exact sort of semiotic spaghetti he feared, slithering through his fingers whenever he tried to grasp at it. Certainly his subsequent accounts of it only become more tinged by his deepening antipathy towards the work’s publisher. And it is hardly surprising that his memory does not improve with time; they generally don’t, after all. But all the same, he is perpetually unable to ever quite answer the question “what were you trying to do with Watchmen” in a definite way. For all that the trajectories of influence and thought that shape Watchmen can be traced and understood, it remains strangely difficult to articulate a statement of intent.
It is the summer of 1966. Alan Moore is twelve, and trawling the seaside bookstores in Yarmouth in search of comics he has not read. His day’s haul brings back two – an anthology of Mad comics that includes Wally Wood and Harvey Kurtzman’s “Superduperman,” and a collection of Mick Anglo’s Marvelman comics. That night, back in his caravan, he reads one, then the other. The ideas blur in his head. Kurtzman’s humor works, he reasons, because he applies real-world logic to the superhero genre. But the process doesn’t just have to work for humor, he realizes. “You could also, with a turn of the screw, make something that was quite startling, sort of dramatic and powerful.” He imagines doing so with Mick Anglo’s simple and innocent character, imagining Marvelman having forgotten his magic word.
It is 1980 and Moore is reworking his childhood idea into a pitch for Dez Skinn.
It is late 1986 and Moore, his relationship with DC fraying rapidly, is on the phone with Neil Gaiman offering him the opportunity to take over the comic, now called Miracleman and published by Eclipse.
The gears turn in his mind. He wakes up the next day and steps outside. He does not realize that the world has changed forever. No one does. Twenty years later, the first issue of Watchmen is released. Twelve years before, the legal dispute between DC and Fawcett satirized by Kurtzman and Wood forces Len Miller to have Mick Anglo create a replacement character for the Captain Marvel comics he had been publishing. Moore breathes in the salty air, and goes about his annual family vacation.
It’s spring of 1978. Alan Moore is twenty-four. His attempt at a comics career, encapsulated in the doomed and over-baroque Sun-Dodgers, has gone nowhere. He is a new father, living on the dole, trying to figure out how to write comics. Running out of tightrope to walk, he asks his best friend, Steve Moore, for help. He is told to scale down his ambition, advised that publications like 2000 AD (to which he had imagined pitching Sun-Dodgers) would not take pitches for ongoing series from writers who had not previously proven themselves with short work first. Moore refocuses, sending a series of pitches for the magazine’s Future Shocks feature, consisting of short sci-fi stories with generally humorous twist endings (the first, in fact, having been written by Steve Moore). This too proves slow, and for months Moore is left writing and drawing comic strips for Sounds and a local paper, at times hunching over an old Ottoman trunk because the heating had gone off, but eventually he finally breaks through. Moore eventually credits the discipline acquired doing short comics as key to his writing, advising it as the starting point for any aspiring comics writer.
It’s May of 1983. Alan Moore is almost thirty. He is sitting down to dinner with Phyllis, Leah, and Amber when the phone rings. Len Wein, an ocean away, is offering him the opportunity to write Swamp Thing. Moore assumes that David Lloyd is playing a practical joke on him. Persuaded otherwise, he starts work as per what is, by this point, his tried and true method, examining the character’s origin and premise for roads not taken that he can explore for stories, eventually settling on a quirk of the character’s origin. The result is an unexpected hit, with the comic quickly going from the lowest performer in DC’s stable to a widely-acclaimed hit, and generating even more work for Moore. The result is life-changing, with each issue he does for DC earning him as much as all his monthly commitments in the UK market combined. It is a level of financial security he has never imagined before, and scarcely could have. Gradually, he readjusts his output, winding down his UK commitments and working almost entirely in the American market.
It’s July of 2012, and Len Wein is calling Alan Moore selfish for his stance on Before Watchmen, claiming that if he’d viewed Swamp Thing that way Moore would never have had a career.
It’s late spring, 1984. Alan Moore is thirty-one, and starting work on Who Killed the Peacemaker, studiously dismantling the Charlton heroes and reassembling them to see what emerges. It’s a process he’s done many times before, creating “serious” or “realistic” takes on superheroes by picking at stray details of them, but here his aim is wider, based around the idea of a longstanding superhero continuity. One idea begins to lead to another, his old familiar process slowly approaching some larger revelation – some truth about the superhero fantasy and its relationship to history and power that can only fit into the specific narrative devices he is imagining. He does not know what he is doing; merely how to do it. There is no way to know what he is doing. There is only the work.
It’s 1980, and he is taking apart Marvelman.
It’s May of 1983, and he is contemplating Swamp Thing’s origin.
It’s August 1st, 1985. Alan Moore is thirty-two, and on his second trip to the United States to attend San Diego Comic-Con, where he meets his Miracleman editor cat yronwode for the first and only time, as well as appearing on a panel with Jack Kirby and Frank Miller – his second meeting with the latter and his first and only meeting with the former. (It is an awkward, tense panel, with Kirby’s argument with Marvel over getting his original art back hanging over proceedings. he only gets to speak to his childhood idol briefly, describing him later as “this sort of walnut colored little guy with a shackle of white hair and these craggy Kirby drawn features” who nevertheless has an “aura” around him. Kirby praises his two panel-mates, telling them, “you kids, I think you’re great. You kids, what you’ve done is terrific. I really want to thank you.”) It looks for all the world like a meeting of the greatest visionaries in comics; an all-time legend and two of the brightest talents of the future.
It’s November 29th, 1986. Alan Moore is thirty-three, and deep in the writing of Watchmen. He takes a phone call from Frank Miller, who informs him of a planned ratings system to be imposed by DC. Moore is incensed, not least because he’s aware that his work on Miracleman for Eclipse was one of the main things cited in the debates that led to this decision. His relationship with DC already fraying due to issues surrounding the Watchmen contract, Moore quickly signs on to a letter vowing to do no more work for DC over the issue. When DC backs down a few months later, Moore is perplexed to discover that he is the only creator who actually meant this in general, as opposed to as a negotiating tactic, and finds himself in the odd position of being one of the most bankable names in comics and no longer having a publisher.
It’s October 1987. Alan Moore is thirty-three, and taking his third and final trip to the United States, accompanied by Debbie Delano. He is a guest of the Christic Institute, a Washington DC law firm that has asked him to compile the extensive research they’ve done into the unsavory history of the CIA into a comic book. It is an appalling history; Moore eventually ends up describing various CIA operations in terms of the number of swimming pools that could have been filled with the blood of the deceased. Moore sifts through the evidence, tracing conspiracy after conspiracy, watching the way they trip over each other and stack upon each other. He will later describe his realization in blunt and chilling terms: “the world is rudderless.”
Later that month; Moore is sitting down to dinner after a Glasgow signing to promote Watchmen. At the table is Grant Morrison, a neophyte comics writer.