Moore’s move into self-published and wholly independent comics had an obvious cost. The bulk of the Watchmen money had been spent failing to get Mad Love going, and none of Moore’s personal projects were advancing or earning money; A Small Killing was trapped under the crumbling wreckage of Victor Gollancz’s sale, Lost Girls and From Hell were coming out in Steve Bissette’s Taboo, which managed to produce seven issues in five years and only paid $100 per page, to be split between Moore and the artist, and Big Numbers simply didn’t exist. By 1992, Moore was broke and only nominally a comics writer, in that he simply did not have any current projects that were actually coming out anywhere.
And so in the spring of 1992, when Bissette approached him with an offer of work, Moore was receptive, even though it would mean wading back into the mainstream American comics industry that he had so definitively departed five years earlier. Bissette was in fact acting as a messenger—the job offer was from Jim Valentino, who wanted Moore and Bissette to do an issue of a comic called ShadowHawk. And in 1992, Jim Valentino was very possibly the single most interesting man in all of comics.
Valentino got his start in the late 70s/early 80s post-underground scene, appearing in anthologies like Dope Comix alongside underground veterans like Aline Kominsky-Crumb to tell the story of a bad trip on belladonna, or putting out his solo book Yer Basic Comix. He wrote a backup feature for Dave Sim’s Cerebus called normalman, about the one non-superpowered person in a world of superheroes, which eventually turned into a series, first at Sim’s Aardvark-Vanaheim, and then with Renegade Press when Deni Loubert effectively kept the title in the divorce, then went on to do a book of autobiographical comics called simply Valentino.
Eventually his career saw him drift into superheroes, and he settled into a job at Marvel writing and drawing Guardians of the Galaxy. This had been a longstanding minor property at Marvel, first created in 1969 by Doom Patrol co-creator Arnold Drake along with Gene Colan. The team languished in obscurity for two decades hamstrung by the detail that they were from the 31st century and thus largely outside of Mravel continuity, but around the turn of the decade Tom DeFalco, then editor-in-chief at Marvel, saw the concept as a way to cash in on the popularity of the new Star Trek series. Coincidentally Jim Valentino had just worked up a proposal for the characters, having been a fan of the most substantial effort to date to make the spacefaring team work, a stretch of issues by Steve Gerber, who had long been notable as one of the figures in superhero comics with the closest ties to the underground, and so he joined the book as a writer/artist.
Valentino’s work on Guardians of the Galaxy offered a gradual evolution over the twenty-nine issues that he did. On the one hand, his roots as a cartoonist are evident, especially early on, but he was adept at using these as a springboard for clear, expressive storytelling. Bits of outright silliness still appeared, most notably the absurd villain Taserface, and Valentino always retained a cartoonist’s adeptness at the grotesque—late in his run he falls back on these skills when tasked with creating evil fanged doppelgängers of the Guardians for Marvel’s Infinity War crossover—but as his run went on he grew into a capable action artist in his own right, while the book blossomed into a solid midlist performer ont he back of a miniature golden age of Marvel’s cosmic books.
In 1992, however, Valentino found himself a part of one of the most seismic shifts in the history of the American comics industry. The instigator of this was his studiomate Rob Liefeld, whose stint on New Mutants had seen the book go from the sick man of the X-Men office to a bestseller. Liefeld was quickly promoted to being the book’s plotter as well as artist (with Fabian Niceza doing the actual dialogue), and a few issues later, in June 1991, spun the book off into a newly launched title called X-Force. This marked a substantial shift for the book, which had originally focused on the student mutants at the Xavier School, but now found itself as a book about a mutant combat squad led by Liefeld’s creation Cable, a gun-toting cybernetic mutant of the future.
Liefeld in many ways exemplified the way in which Marvel had spent the late 1980s and early 1990s reacting to the changing tastes of comics readers in the wake of series like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Where DC largely split the difference, experimenting both with increasingly dark and violent comics and with Karen Berger’s efforts to find the next Alan Moore, Marvel focused almost exclusively on appealing to the sort of young male fans whose adoration of Rorschach so disturbed Moore. These fans wanted a sense of edgy cool, and so Marvel figured out how to give it to them. And for the most part this meant focusing on writer-artists in the vein of Miller, who had, of course, launched his career with them.
Hence Rob Liefeld, who has been the subject of considerable criticism, much of it understandable. His art is staggeringly easy to parody, with numerous idiosyncrasies. The cover of X-Force #1 is indicative, particularly the portrayal of Cable, who appears to be less a human figure than a cube of muscles with a head fastened onto the center, each of his arms seemingly larger than the entire body of his female teammate Boom Boom, who stands next to him wearing a pink jacket and tank top combo designed wholly around its boob window and a mildly troubling number of pouches on her belt. None of his characters display any emotional range that is not “screaming in battle rage,” nor did his plot required anything other than that. It was a ridiculous explosion of machismo. It also sold five million copies.
One can draw any number of conclusions, many of them likely accurate, about the nature of a fandom that bought so hard into something so silly. But it is important to stress that Liefeld, for all that he is fundamentally ridiculous, found himself a superstar for a reason: he was legitimately the best artist in comics at the things he did. Like William Blake, with whom he shared a complex emotional relationship with feet, Liefeld portrayed a fundamentally visionary world that existed beyond the stifling single vision of the material universe. Both artists distorted human anatomy so as to present a world existed in a fundamentally mythic register. Liefeld was not an artist who depicted objects that existed in space, hence the way in which the relative sizes of things, especially body parts, would fluctuate wildly across a scene. Instead he depicted raw kinetics—thrilling, pulse-pounding motion almost entirely untethered to actual concerns of space. He was the purest action artist that comics has ever produced, perhaps the purest that it is even possible to produce, the act of representation relegated to a vestigial semiotics necessary to frame his ecstatic kineticism.
Not long after X-Force debuted an advertisement appeared in the Comics Buyer’s Guide for a series “from the creator of the smash summer hit X-Force” to be called The Executioners, with a logo highlighting the X, one of the blurbs calling the book “x-citing,” and a plot description about “Rebel Mutants from the future come to destroy their past” that distinctly evoked the classic Days of Future Past story arc of X-Men. A few weeks later Bob Harras, Liefeld’s editor on X-Force, called Liefeld to complain about the degree to which the ad was blatantly trading off of Marvel’s trademarks. Liefeld was incensed, and began talking to his friends in the industry, and by December of 1991 had an agreement with Valentino and three other artists, Erik Larsen and Todd McFarlane, both of whom had similarly monstrous success on Marvel’s Spider-Man books, and Mark Silvestri, most associated with the X-Men books, with all five of them agreeing to jump ship and form their own company. But there was one final approach to be made in the form of Jim Lee.
Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane were two of the biggest superstars in comics—major artists of their era in the way that Frank Miller and John Byrne had been the decade before. Jim Lee, however, was in another tier entirely. Lee came up on the main Uncanny X-Men title around the turn of the decade, before, looking to repeat the trick that had done so well with X-Force of spinning off a new title with their hottest artist—a trick that had been pioneered with Todd McFarlane the year before when he was given his own book simply called Spider-Man. Similarly, Lee’s new book was simply called X-Men, and it launched in August 1991 with an absolutely gobsmacking eight million copies sold.
It is important to note that the numbers for all three of these books were heavily inflated by the nature of the comics market at the turn of the decade. The media attention given to books like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns meant that the original issues of these runs appreciated in value, even as trade paperbacks were readily available. Further media attention on the sale of Golden and Silver Age comics selling for thousands or, in a handful of cases, millions of dollars meant that comics were looked at not merely as an entertainment source but as an investment. Comics companies leaned into this, creating foil-embossed covers for comics, slapping holograms onto them, or shipping the comics in a plastic bag so as to entice readers into buying two, one to open and read, and one to save. X-Men #1, for its part, came out with four separate covers that could be arranged to form one long image of the X-Men fighting Magneto, and, of course, was rereleased shortly thereafter with a gatefold cover containing all four, so as to encourage people to buy as many as five copies of the comic. In practice these were superficial sales tactics pursued with little to no attention to the comic’s actual quality, and the market as a whole was a classic bubble, and the inflated sales and massive print runs ironically ensured that the comics were so common as to be largely worthless—for all that X-Men #1 sold, there were comic shops that were still putting their excess copies of the comic out on the racks a decade later, hoping that Bryan Singer’s X-Men films would spur enough sales that they’d finally be rid of the blasted things.
But it would be folly to suggest that the speculator market was the only force in play. A new X-Men #1 with art by Jim Lee felt like a major event that could plausibly justify the vast amounts of hype. And much of this was simply down to Jim Lee. Where Liefeld and McFarlane both, for all their hype, were artists who struck a single note with exceptional aplomb, and thus became easy to parody once that note started to move out of style. Lee, on the other hand, was always a consummate comics artist first and foremost. His style was rooted first and foremost in the clean expressiveness of Neal Adams, John Byrne, and early Frank Miller. He made these influences his own, creating a style that offered a kinetic thrill comparable to that of Liefeld, but that never lost sight of the fact that comics are a medium for storytelling.
With Lee on board, the breakaway group now contained essentially all of Marvel’s biggest draws, and on December 20th, 1991 the group met with Marvel executive Terry Stewart to inform him of their departure. The meeting went badly, to say the least, culminating in Stewart telling the group, “You boys don’t get that anyone can pick the cotton.” News quickly emerged of the rebellion, and Marvel stock plummeted in response, despite Terry Stewart’s public insistance that creative talent was largely “interchangeable.” Soon thereafter it was officially announced that the six artists, along with a seventh, Whilce Portacio, would be forming their own company called Image Comics, which would publish creator-owned comics, initially through an agreement with Malibu Comics.
The resulting comics mostly saw their creators leaning into their styles. Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood was the first book to debut, and was exactly the witless explosion of testosterone that one would expect. It also sold 1.5 million copies, a record for a comic outside of the Marvel/DC duopoly. Even Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. was, while gorgeous and thrilling, clearly not aiming for anything other than big, dumb fun. As for Jim Valentino, he created Shadowhawk, a grim Batman riff that proved an awkward fit for the degree of cartooning influence in his style, coming off in many ways as a poor man’s version of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn. But all of them sold phenomenally, even after their first issues, and for the couple of years after Image launched they were mainstays at the top of the sales charts; in April of 1993, for instance, ten separate Image titles outsold every single Marvel and DC title save for the Superman books, which were then engaged in a desperate but successful marketing ploy of killing off Superman. It was an instantaneous seismic shift in how American comics worked. The decades-long dream pushed by beleaguered creators had been achieved.
This success was not without controversy. Creators’ rights movements within comics, after all, had historically been closely related to arguments about comics as a valid artistic medium—arguments that found little to nothing to support them in the early output of Image. Gary Groth, the until then successfully self-appointed gatekeeper of independent comics saw Image as an existential threat to what he had built at Fantagraphics, where The Comics Journal served as a reliable and high-profile mouthpiece for arguments about the superiority of “proper” independent comics artists like R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman compared to the mass-market superhero material. For instance, in a lengthy interview with Alan Moore Groth tried to draw Moore out in criticism of the Image line. Moore, for his part, expressed the view that it was probably a good thing that Image was disrupting the industry, noting that “I believe one of the guys involved there is Jim Valentino. I haven’t read any comics for a long while, but I remember Jim Valentino with affection. He did Normalman and he did some great stuff in Dope Comix, there was a story about belladonna that he did,” to which Groth scoffingly replied, “Did you see his Guardians of the Galaxy? I’ll have to send you some copies. For a reassessment.” Groth proceeded to argue that “every time Marvel creates a superstar by putting a creator on a Spider-Man or a Wolverine book, that he eventually gravitates to Image, or an Image-like imprint, so that Marvel eventually becomes a feed-farm for other, smaller Marvels” the sales end up coming at the expense of publishers like Fantagraphics, and tried to use this argument to get Moore to criticize the fledgling company, which Moore generally resisted, presumably because it was profoundly silly to suggest that Fantagraphics and Image were competing for the same readership, insisting that “ I feel uncomfortable saying bad things about Image comics without having seen a single one of them.”
Not long after, however, Valentino got in touch via Bissette. Valentino’s motivations were severalfold. For one thing, he was, of the core Image partners, the one who had a background in self-publishing in general, and he always had aspirations for Image to become a company that published creator-owned work in general instead of a vanity label for six superstars. For another, Shadowhawk was one of the lowest selling Image books, launching at a “mere” 500,000 copies sold, and attracting someone like Moore to it was an obvious way to invigorate those sales.
Moore was ultimately uninterested in Shadowhawk, and indeed was relatively unimpressed with Image as a whole, feeling that “there’s no story. There’s no character. I’ve been away for five years, and comics have turned into some bizarre super steroid mutant hybrid that I’ve got no familiarity with at all.” But as Moore noted in the face of Groth’s extensive efforts to get him to trash talk the fledgling company, “anything that weakens the stranglehold of the two big monolithic companies over the marketplace is a good thing, because those guys have been working overtime, trying to reduce the cut of the market that goes to any independent publisher. Killing off good material by pumping out these cynical, one-book-with-15-different-hologram-covers, these merchandising things, these gimmicks. I think that something like Image. . . let’s face it, it does have a potential there.” And it no doubt helped that the approach was made by Valentino. And so while Moore declined Valentino’s initial offer, he accepted a follow-up proposal that Moore could do any sort of miniseries he wanted provided it contained superheroes.
At the end of the day, Moore’s decision was fundamentally mercenary. Simply put, Image offered a lot of money—other creators of similar prestige to Moore were making around $100,000 an issue around the same time, while Steve Bissette reports it as the biggest payday of his career, single-handedly funding his subsequent ability to self-publish his dinosaur comic Tyrant. For all that Moore insisted in an interview for Image that “ I have never done anything purely for the money. If I couldn’t find a way to enjoy the project, then I wouldn’t do it,” a 1992 question and answer session with the Preston Speculative Fiction Group that opens with Moore noting that “I’ve had about six pints” gives perhaps a more accurate account of his views. There he noted that “these Image guys, they brought out these comics that if possible are even worse than Marvel comics,” constructing a lengthy if at times casually racist analogy about how classic superheroes are like “the coca leaf—all these wonderful little brown people out in the Andes, they can chew the coca leaf all day,” but noting that the leaf can be refined into cocaine (“the equivalent of 1970s DC/Marvel comics”) and finally crack, which he compares to Image. As he tells the story, “Image Comics come out, and because they’re more like Marvel comics than Marvel comics, they grab this huge share of the market. Marvel’s down from 60% to 38%-DC is sort of scrabbling squalidly around the 15% mark. Image Comics, with these big new stupid comics are number two on the market. And what they want really is artistic credibility. Now, y’know, in the comics business I am Mr. Artistic Credibility. Also, since I’ve started doing these artistically credible comics I’ve been progressively more broke.”
Ultimately Moore took his sense of alienation from the company he was agreeing to work for as a source of inspiration. In the wake of his trailblazing on works like Watchmen and Marvelman, Moore found superhero comics to be a disquieting experience akin to “viewing a distorted mirror at a fun fair, where you go in and see these grotesque-looking things, and you think, ‘My God, that’s me!’” Moore “could see stylistic elements that had been taken from my own work, and used mainly as an excuse for more prurient sex and more graphic violence. I had essentially a nasty time getting through them. And you do get the impression of saying to yourself, ‘Oh, my God, I wanted to make comics a better place to visit.’ But now everywhere I turn there’re these psychotic vigilantes dealing out death mercilessly! You know? With none of the irony that I hoped I brought to my characters. And I felt a bit depressed in that it seemed I had unknowingly ushered in a new dark age of comic books . . . You know? Where there was none of the delight, freshness, and charm that I remembered of the comics of my own youth. It struck me as a terrible shame.” And so Moore set out to create a work of comics neoclassicism, rolling back the years and rejecting the very aesthetic he was associated with in favor of demonstrating that “there’s plenty of fun to be had with super-heroes that aren’t grim. Even without psychosis or ulterior motives and all the rest of it. Super-heroes are still an excellent vehicle for the imagination. You can play in this wonderful funhouse of ideas with super-heroes. And that’s great. That’s great not only for kids, but imaginative fiction is something which is perfectly fine for adults.”
Moore’s idea, then, was to roll back the clock by thirty years, into the glory days of comics’ Silver Age, specifically the earliest days of Marvel Comics. The resulting series was called 1963, but in practice functioned as a series of six self-contained one-shots with titles like Mystery Incorporated, Tales of the Uncanny, and The Tomorrow Syndicate. Each of these was a relatively straightforward pastiche of a classic Marvel property—Mystery Incorporated, for instance, was a thinly veiled Fantastic Four featuring the scientist Crystal Man, a green-headed brawler known as the Planet, a lone female character called Neon Queen with powers involving turning into a noxious gas cloud, and a flying electric superhero called Kid Dynamo. No-One Escapes The Fury was, similarly, an obvious Spider-Man riff, while Horus, Lord of Light was transparently the Marvel Comics version of Thor, only drawing from Egyptian instead of Norse myth.
It is difficult to express just how perverse this is. To follow Watchmen with Big Numbers was, obviously, to actively choose to drive off a significant portion of his audience, but it was done transparently, as a conscious and high profile decision to walk away from the kind of comics he had been doing. More to the point, it followed up on at least one of the valid and sensible reactions one could have to Watchmen, catering at least to readers whose primary concern was its formalist use of the medium or its literary quality. These readers my have been a minority of Watchmen fans, but they were unquestionably an important part of why Watchmen was what it was.
But 1963 was marketing directly to Watchmen fans, sold overtly as “Alan Moore’s first superhero comic since Watchmen,” although in practice it would turn out slightly more complicated than that. The art was essentially an “Alan Moore’s greatest superhero hits” team, as it not only saw Moore reunite with his Swamp Thing collaborators in the form of Bissette and Rick Veitch, it had Dave Gibbons conspicuously brought on to ink the first couple of issues so that it could be a full fledged Watchmen reunion. Even Don Simpson, who had worked with Moore on In Pictopia, showed up on letters. And all of this was happening at the hottest company in comics, an ostentatiously cool outlet that had, in many ways, positioned itself as the true inheritor of Watchmen’s dark edginess, and to massive success at that. The expectations and desires in play here were very, very clear.
It is safe to say that Mystery Incorporated, the actual triumphant return issue itself, was not what people had in mind. The comic was not simply a riff on Silver Age Marvel comics—it was a straightforward imitation of the style. The opening scene features five straight pages of a large man in some sort of space suit smashing his way through “Mystery Incorporated’s mile-long underground fortress.” The reader knows that he is doing this because he overtly says so, speaking out loud to himself in order to narrate how, as a strange crystalline structure begins to grow over his feet, “these ruby galoshes I suddenly sprouted can only mean one thing… Crystal-Man!” All of this is executed in a strict six panel grid.
To say that it’s dated comics storytelling is to miss the point, given that the date is literally in the title, but it’s striking just how straight everyone is playing it. When Neon Queen spends six panels retelling the team’s origin story, the only real element of self-awareness comes in the sheer degree to which its delivery, with Neon Girl staring at “the rocket that started all of this” and talking about how “every time I see it, it all comes back to me, as if it were yesterday” before going into a monologue to her teammates, all of whom experienced the events she’s narrating, about how it all happened. And no real effort is made to remark upon the silliness of this—it is played with just as much sincerity as it might have been in an Arnold Drake issue of Doom Patrol—the sort of thing that already felt old-fashioned when it was being used in Shade the Changing Man in the late 1970s. The only real evidence that it’s self-aware is the basic absurdity of the idea that the writer of “Fearful Symmetry” might do this accidentally.
Sure, a closer look reveals a certain formalist élan that might not be apparent on first glance. The origin story is told as if it were a recap of an old familiar story, and Moore uses the narrative gaps opened by that acceleration to introduce suggestive possibilities. When Moore writes about “those gigantic alien statues, remnants of a long-dead race whose purpose was beyond our understanding” the statues feel austere and sublime precisely because they’re not being rendered beyond one middle-distance panel in which Veitch declines to depict any of their faces and colorist Marvin Kilroy (who is actually still Rick Veitch, just under a pseudonym) renders them all in a relatively monochrome blue, stripping them of detail. So when Neon Girl rhetorically asks, “was that crater wehre aliens worshipped their gods… or where they created them” the question hangs in the air in a way it couldn’t if this were actually part of a long-running Silver Age series that would no doubt have had to delve into that. Moore similarly boasts that during the writing of Horus, Lord of Light “I thought ‘Well hang on, this is not just a good Marvel pastiche comic, this is a good comic.’ All this stuff about the Great Barge of the Sun, and how actually the barge isn’t moving, but when you turn the wheel, the whole Universe moves a degree. That’s something I would have loved to have read when I was twelve, because I’d have sat there and thought, ‘Wow…’ It’s a big, mad idea, just thrown in. It was one line of dialogue. But there were a lot of things like that in HORUS. There were a lot of little jewels—inconsequential jewels, but jewels nonetheless—of little ideas, that I’d hoped would fire the imagination of the readers.” Moore also found space to work in some of his then-obsessions—one story in the Tales of the Uncanny issue, for instance, is built around questions of how higher dimensions would interact with ours that are blatantly rooted in the reading Moore would have done for Big Numbers.
And yet the word “inconsequential” fundamentally haunts the comic. There is simply no way, looking at it, to take it as a major work for anyone involved. Indeed, the entire edifice of creation was, by Moore’s admission, constructed “to do these things quite fast, without a huge amount of extra typing work for me,” so that Moore would “lay out a page with, say, six panels in it. I did two or three pages like that. I phoned them through to Rick Veitch or Steve Bissette. So what we did was I’d read them the panel descriptions over the phone like there’s somebody in the left foreground, or there’s somebody in the right background. We’re in this kind of setting. These are who the characters are. This is kind of roughly what they’re saying to each other. One of them looks angry. The other one looks impassive. Then I go through that bit and they send the artwork.” Similarly, the artists don’t generally seem to be in the project for anything more than a fun paycheck, especially Bissette, who, aside from Moore’s generous insertion of a hyper-intelligent dinosaur into No-One Escapes the Fury, was blatantly being pushed out of his horror wheelhouse in favor of turning in a competent but unremarkable Gil Kane imitation. Veitch even recalls that Moore was encouraging him and Bissette to “draw it two or three pages a day… blast it out like Ditko and Kirby” so as to make the art look suitably rushed and hasty. Moore, meanwhile, took evident delight in the fundamentally unserious nature of it, bragging that “we brought int hus really fascist comics code, which is brilliant… All female characters are ins econdary roles. They’ve got to faint a lot, they’ve got to be captured, rescued, all that sort of stuff. We had the Image people ring up-they said, ‘Alan, Steve, we know your reputations. We don’t wanna cramp your style; but… it’s OK to say ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ in these comics, but it’s not OK to say ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’. So we said: frankly as far as we’re concerned it’s not OK to say ‘hell’ and ‘damn’. ‘Heck’ and ‘darn’… that’s pushing it, y’know. ‘Durn’ and ‘tarnation’, we’re satisfied with.”
In a weird way, the result evokes Moore’s eventual accusation about Morrison’s work in the period, namely that they “had arrived at most of their published works around this time by reading my early press releases concerning projects which it would take me years to complete and then rushing into print,” pointing to the appearance of Animal Man #6, with its “Mandelbrot set that had been spuriously shoehorned into the plot,” not long after the first announcement of what was then called The Mandelbrot Set, along with Bible John’s obvious debt to From Hell. It feels almost as though Moore has had Morrison’s Doom Patrol described to him and decided that he’d give the approach a try, with the clear implication that this was only good for a minor work. Indeed, Mark Millar basically accused Moore of exactly that, suggesting that “It’s good to see Alan Moore doing superhero comics again, but it’s too bad he’s had to re-hash Grant’s old ideas—1963 was better when it was called Doom Patrol #53,” to which Morrison replied, “Well said, mate. Funny how nobody else has pointed that one out,” while conceding that “if you were at a comic convention and some thugs with mohawks tried to mug you, I’ll bet big Alan would weigh in there with fists flying. There aren’t many other comics creators who’d be much use in a fight.”
And yet for all of this, the truth of the matter is that Moore and Morrison found themselves aesthetic allies in this. Just as Morrison had been motivated from the outset of their American career by their reservations about Watchmen, so too was 1963 an open attempt by Moore “to say, ‘Look, you know, get over Watchmen, get over the 1980s.’ It doesn’t have to be depressing, miserable grimness from now until the end of time. It was only a bloody comic. It wasn’t a jail sentence.” Indeed, in this particular moment it is in many regards Moore who found himself most pinned under his own reputation, most trapped by the monolithic presence of Watchmen, to the point that he had to engage in ludicrously self-sabotaging projects like the willfully disappointing 1963. After all, if Moore was wrong and Watchmen was a jail sentence, it was he who would be imprisoned within its fractal immensity. Whereas Morrison was off being a successful enfant terrible and writing Big Dave, which, whatever might be said about it, was gloriously free of the task of giving two shits about fucking Rorschach.
Having committed to a lack of ambition, however, Moore almost immediately seemed to undermine this by going back in and complexifying the concept. Moore had always had a predilection for deeply fleshed out secondary worlds, whether in the deliberately overwhelming worldbuilding of The Ballad of Halo Jones or the rigorously worked out larger culture of Watchmen, a tendency that dates all the way back to his Captain Britain run and its teeming set of multiversal Captain Britain alternatives. And given the premise of an entire fictitious line of comic books, it is hardly surprising that Moore quickly found himself sketching in an elaborate paratext for his silly 60s homages. This included a range of fake advertisements, mostly by Moore, although Veitch and Bissette contributed some to later issues. These ads included a “US Government Surplus” store in which you could order parachutes ($21.95), c-rations (5¢), body bags (3 for 99¢), plutonium ($2.79), senators (5 for 99¢, and Guatemala (a literal steal at $2.75), for instance, or the impressively barbed Magic Art Appropriator (“Turn comic books into fine art! Turn comic books into other comic books!”). There’s even, for those that want to make more of the idea that Moore is ripping off Doom Patrol, a Charles Atlas riff based on making people pass out with your stinky armpits.
Moore also built out the publishing backstory for the fictitious line of comics, giving everybody alliterative nicknames like Affable Al Moore, Dashin’ Dave Gibbons, and Sturdy Steve Bissette, but also doing a full letters page in which people wrote in about non-existent issues of the various series, enthusing about how “I really loved The Tomorrow Syndicate #8, “Fear is A Fossillized Fiend”! I loved it when The Ammonite made Infra-Man attack Infra-Girl. That was neat!” or how “Tales From Beyond #65 was the swingingest shot of shrieks and shivers YET! How do you guys do it? The Warsaw Pack are the toughest bad guys that ol’ lobster-limbs has ever faced, and there’s FOUR of them!!” All of these were cheerily answered by Affable Al Moore himself, who maintained the kayfabe of the 1963 universe, shooting down Grame Bassett’s suggestion that his company Incorporated Press Company might republish some 1963 comics in their humor magazine WHACK! by talking about how, for instance, “The Affable One himself has artfully acquired a personally-owned publishing company, profitably positioned over there in the charming fog-enshrouded village of London and trading under the memorable monicker of 1963 UK! These lovable Limeys will be producing absolute acres of Anglo-American art and action, which Affable Al, in his capacity as Sixty-Three Supremo, can then license from our bountiful bank account of 19963’d definitely deserving director, Affable Al himself!!”
The tone here gets at a major element of this paratext, which was a running joke about Affable Al’s despotic rule over the 1963 offices. These were mostly carried out in a text page that pastiched Marvel’s longrunning Bullpen Bulletins, complete with an Al’s Ampitheatre column to parody Stan Lee’s old Stan’s Soapbox. Over the six issues, these are used to paint a barbed portrait of Marvel, with, for instance, Affable Al musing on the notion of brotherhood by bragging that “we currently feature a person colored a light and inoffensive gray as a minor supporting character in one of our books, with plans to make him completely black in a few years time” and saying that “whenever you shell out for a copy of Tales of the Uncanny or Horus, you’re doing your two-bits-worth in the struggle to end bigotry forever,” ending with the note that if people only bought two copies they’d end bigotry twice as fast.
The most barbed part of this satire, however, came in the title, which renamed the Bullpen Bulletins into the Sensational Sixty-Three Sweatshop Section, a detail that sharpens the portrait of Stan Lee from a redo of the “affectionate character assassination” that Moore had provided a decade earlier in The Daredevils and into something much more like Moore’s later observation that “when you actually enter the comics industry, you find that Jack wasn’t always jolly, and Steve was sometimes far from sturdy, but that Stan was always smiling.” The joke, of course, was that all of this was simply an accurate description of how Marvel historically worked, with artists like Kirby and Ditko did huge amounts of the actual storytelling work, often working off of hilariously threadbare outlines from Lee while, in public, Lee positioned himself as the primary creative visionary behind the entire company and ensured it was him and not Kirby or Ditko who got a million dollar “chairman emeritus” salary long after he’d left Marvel and not the people who had, in practice, done most of the work. At the end of the day, even Moore’s joking about a book called Origins of Sixty-Three Part Two: How I Created Everything All by Myself and Why I am Great is only slightly more excessive than the fact that Stan Lee was credited as the author on How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way.
But there was something pointed about staging this barbed commentary on Marvel’s decades old employment practices at Image, a company founded by a bunch of artists who vocally stormed out of Stan Lee’s old company in search of a fairer deal. Amidst all of this, Moore essentially staged the original sin of Marvel, positioning Image not as a modern phenomenon rooted in the hyper-stylized art of its founders but as something with roots in far older offenses. Moore was hardly alone in this—before Image was even formally announced Valentino had gotten in touch with Jack Kirby and his wife to secure their blessings for the endeavor, thought not, as McFarlane had initially requested, to try to get a “Jack Kirby Presents” credit, and the first issues of both Spawn and Shadowhawk were dedicated to Kirby. Indeed, a few months after 1963 Image published two issues of Phantom Force, which would prove to be Kirby’s last work before his death in early 1994. But whereas these efforts veered towards the utopian, positioning the Image artists as part of a tradition that went back to the earliest days of comics, Moore remained altogether more cynical, focusing not on Image as a force of liberation but on the ugly realities of past exploitation.
It will not go unnoticed, however, that this cynicism is an odd fit for the overall tone of 1963, which, text pages aside, really is largely concerned with a faithful recreation of the aesthetic style of old Marvel comics. Moore’s intended method of reconciling these ideas began to become clear in the final issue of 1963, The Tomorrow Syndicate, which sees the eponymous team (an Avengers riff combining characters from several of the past books) investigating a portal that leads them to alternate dimensions. This begins, with a shift in gears, as a riff on DC’s pre-Crisis multiverse, with a bit about the two “Blurs” of “Earth-Alpha” and “Earth-Beta,” but eventually sees the characters traveling across a vast field of multicolored Kirby Krackle where they get glimpses into other independent comics universes, including Dave Sim’s Cerebus, Frank Miller’s Sin City, Coleen Doran’s A Distant Soil, and Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur. Finally their ship lands in a bombed out industrial hellscape in which all of the characters are suddenly drawn in a more fully shaded style, in contrast to the 60s retro art thus far. The issue—and miniseries—ends on a reveal that the mysterious character who captured Kid Dynamo back in Mystery Incorporated was in fact Shaft, the lead character of Rob Liefeld’s Youngblood. This reveal was accompanied by an enthused caption box declaring, “Well, wayfarer? Don’t just stand there gawping! Get right on down to the corner store and reserve your copy of the double Image eighty page giant to witness our super-human Sixty-Three Stalwarts in their struggles with: Spawn, WildC.A.T.S, Shadowhawk, Youngblood, The Savage Dragon, and Supreme in All This And Earth2!!”
As Moore explained it, this annual “was the story the whole line was building towards if you like, which would have been putting up the innocent characters of the past against the tough, hard bitten characters of today and striking a contrast.” But as the conditional tense suggests, this was not actually to be. As Steve Bissette tells the story, things went wrong at the 1992 San Diego Comic-Con, where “Jim Lee sent an emissary to intercept Rick Veitch and I and ask if he could ‘do’ the Annual. We—Rick, me and Alan, as we somehow contacted Alan by phone, I think—stupidly said ‘Yes.’ We shouldn’t have.” Moore recalls this as being less of a discussion, saying that “ originally this was supposed to be Jim Valentino bringing out the book. Then we were told that Jim Valentino wouldn’t do the final book, Jim Lee would be bringing out the book,” which is consistent with Rick Veitch’s recollection of being dragged up to the Image panel at San Diego Comic-Con and being told by Jim Lee that if they’d agree to announce it right then and there he’d join the book, recalling it as “a huge pressure situation” that Bissette and he had to decide on in about five minutes, without being able to call Moore. Bissette, meanwhile, recalls that it wouldn’t have been Jim Valentino, and that the annual was supposed to have him and Veitch “drawing our respective characters, with Dave Gibbons inking our pencils, and the respective Image partners would be penciling their characters.” What everyone agrees, however, is that Jim Lee simply never drew the issue—Veitch suggests that this was in part because of a miscommunication where he and Bissette assumed Valentino was keeping in touch with Lee and Valentino assumed that they were. Moore appears to have written half the script before realizing that the art wasn’t ever happening and moving on to other work.
In many ways, the problem stemmed from the specific setup of Image, whereby each of the six partners had their own studios, which were independent companies that in theory could split away from the whole at any time (and indeed, in two cases, eventually would). This meant that the individual founders were to some extent in competition with one another. As Bissette puts it, the other Image partners “quickly took the initiation of the “1963” project as an open door to working with Alan on their respective projects. Again, we didn’t realize at the time this also was tied up with their competitive natures: that is, it was Jim Valentino’s coup that he got Alan on board via “1963,” and the other Image partners wanted a piece of that action, which would also trump Jim Valentino’s initial coup. There was apparently more than just a healthy collegiate rivalry involved. Some of it seemed pretty cutthroat from where we sat.”
While hopes remained for a few years that the project might finally come together (admittedly mostly on the parts of Bissette and Veitch, who had obvious need of the money), this largely fell apart in 1996, when Bissette gave an interview to The Comics Journal. As Bissette tells the story, he gave the interview to Kim Thompson, circulated the transcript to everyone he mentioned by name saying “If anything upsets you, I will take it out. If there’s anything I got wrong, I will change it. Please read this, go over it, and let me know,” and heard via Neil Gaiman that Moore was upset. Bissette called Moore, and Moore simply said ”Right, Steve? I’ll keep this short. Don’t call me, don’t write me, as far as I’m concerned, it’s over, mate” and hung up on him. Bissette maintains to this day that “I don’t know what offended him.”
Reading the interview, this quickly becomes hard to believe. Bissette himself admits that “I think what happened was, I talked about business practices. I really got into the nuts and bolts of the limitations of working comics as a writer. And what examples do I have to draw from? I mean, look at my career. The main writer I’ve worked with is Alan Moore.” But even this elides the details of what Bissette actually said about Moore. Sure, Moore would probably just have rolled his eyes at Bissette’s insistence that From Hell “might not have been conceived without my vehicle. I suggested to Alan the collaboration of Eddie as artist, and worked hard to implement it. I fronted money when it was needed, even when to do so meant hard times for my family. But it is in no way my creation or property, nor should it be considered such. I still wrestle with those emotions, as I mention in that introduction. When that marquee appears, if the film From Hell is actually made, that’s going to be a real rough night for me,” viewing it as little more than a curiously hand-wringing version of Paul Levitz claiming that DC’s bold experimentation with form factors is what made Watchmen succeed. But it’s impossible to imagine Moore being anything other than hurt when Bissette declared that after getting the money he needed Moore abandoned 1963, complaining “we couldn’t get him on the phone any more! We still had three issues to go! We couldn’t get him to write pages! We had to cobble together letters pages and ads, which paid nothing. Alan came through on all the story scripts in spades; it was the extra text material that started to elude his attention. I mean, I understood it as a friend: Gee, Alan finally has some decent income after years of scraping by. But goddamn it, here we are holding up this end of the boat, and how we had to carry his load too.” And Moore would surely have been incensed by the blunt accusation that “I really didn’t think, when push came to shove, that Alan would abandon us so readily. We built the bridge with him to Image, but I suppose we were just his porters in the eyes of the Image ‘aristocracy.’ Alan became ‘Affable Al.’ It took me a little time to recover from that,” with its direct comparison between Moore and Stan Lee’s abusive business practices.
All of this must also be taken in light of Moore’s declaration that Bissette “at the time, was seeing a therapist about his pathological lying, or at least that’s what he told me.” This was admittedly a quarter-century later, and in a letter to Don Simpson that Moore surely expected would remain private, but it’s notable that Bissette’s accounts of things don’t quite add up at several points—his assertion that Moore wasn’t writing his pages of 1963 mere sentences before saying that he came through on all the scripts in spades, for instance, or his simultaneous claims to have fronted large amounts of money for From Hell and his subsequent claim that “Alan earned nothing from From Hell to speak of, until the reprint volumes began.” There are ways to resolve the discrepancies if one is minded to, but they nevertheless stand out. Equally, the broad strokes are confirmed by Rick Veitch, who notes that “I don’t think Alan was really ever connected with the thing like he gets with his real projects, like From Hell. As we got deeper into it, he seemed to become disengaged; we were stuck with a lot of the letters pages, and ads, shit like that, that he should have been doin’,” although in a later interview he suggests that the problem was that Moore was having a difficult personal time, noting that this was “when he was first getting into magic and he was exploring magic using psychedelics, and he had a mini nervous breakdown,” and stressing that while Bissette “was pretty unhappy with it and saw it as abandonment of us, I don’t see that.”
For Moore’s part, he recalls that while “the conversation wasn’t a long one, it was slightly longer than Steve Bissette reports. I asked him why he had never raised any of these problems and complaints about my behaviour with me. When he did raise them, he decided rather than raise them to my face, to raise them in a comics fanzine. He didn’t really reply to that.” He also vividly recalls his hurt at the interview, saying that “When he called up I went through all this with him, I explained to him what had happened, that when I got this package, after The Comics Journal was already on the stands, I got halfway through it and I was in tears. My daughter took it out of my hands and put it in the trash bin … up until that moment, I had thought he was one of my closest friends. And, yeah, that was very, very upsetting.”
In any case, the resultant rift ensured that whatever lingering chance the book might have still had of coming out—which by 1996 was surely marginal at best—was closed. In 1998, on Bissette’s request, the ownership situation was dissolved, with Bissette being given the copyrights to the characters he co-created and Moore and Veitch owning the remainder, save for Doctor Strange knockoff Johnny Beyond, which was owned by Moore and Valentino. Bissette and Veitch attempted to spearhead a variety of efforts to bring it back and conclude it as late as 2009, at which point Moore decided he did not want to ever see it reprinted. Bissette made a couple of small efforts at making use of his characters, including licensing them to a small local comics company.
This largely sad tale found itself with a coda that was both as sorry as it was improbable, stemming, of all things, from Moore’s work on In Pictopia with Don Simpson, who had also lettered swaths of 1963. In 2021, Simpson commenced on a republication of In Pictopia with Fantagraphics, who sought to release it as a $20 oversized staple-bound volume running twenty-eight pages in total, which, in fairness, is probably about as far as one can stretch a thirteen page story. Moore had by this point made his final split from the comics industry, and had further decided he no longer wanted anything to do with Fantagraphics or Gary Groth due to the Bissete interview and “an editorial stating that it was my personal greed that had ruined comics” (likely Nick Halsted’s essay “Whatever Happened to Alan Moore?” in The Comics Journal #183, which Moore described at the time as “a very fair, sympathetic article, from a point of view that was very understanding about my situation, but still disappointed that I didn’t save the comics industry,” but presumably soured on later), and so fell back on his usual approach of having his name taken off it and foregoing his share of the money. Simpson, in an ill-advised move, “agreed to his request thinking that he would eventually see reason,” only to discover that Moore’s stance was entirely unyielding.
Simpson, it is clear, took this hard, publicly fuming that Moore’s decision “makes no sense to me; it’s not in any way a rational form of protest” and complaining about Moore’s foresaking of “moral agreements with collaborators that are deserving of respect and consideration.” Simpson’s frustration is at least broadly understandable—while In Pictopia was, for Moore, a fairly minor work, little else in Simpson’s career had any similar commercial appeal. Without Moore’s name—that being the reason In Pictopia had large scale commercial appeal—Simpson was largely unable to cash in on the work. Equally, Simpson’s claim that Moore had some sort of moral right to lend his name to Simpson’s attempt to cash in on a thirty-five year old story for a benefit book that only ran thirteen pages is, to say the least, strained.
Egged on in part by Steve Bissette, who vocally rallied to Simpson’s defense and, perhaps, recognizing that it was an easy way to get In Pictopia promoted on comics gossip sites like Bleeding Cool, took to an extended campaign of criticizing Moore, starting with a four page afterword in the reprinted In Pictopia entitled “Name-Dropping While Dropping the Name,” in which he goes to positively comedic lengths not to mention Moore’s name, such as his mention of “The Extraordinary Works of… well I can’t mention the full title, since it includes the name of The Author,” a claim that is ludicrous both for the contrived artifice of its capitalization and for the fact that Alan Moore’s name literally appeared on both the previous and subsequent pages. The introduction was stunningly petty, including a moment when, harkening back to the original reason Fantagraphics needed to run a benefit book, Simpson sniffed that “we have the old Ellisonian trick of taking one’s name off a story coupled with the hackneyed Fleischerian saw of taking offense at something written in The Comics Journal. Unoriginal? Surreptitious plagiarism? You decide,” a statement impressive both for its equation of Moore’s offense and Fleischer’s attempt to sue The Comics Journal out of existence, its apparent notion that Fleishcher invented offense, and the idea that Moore plagiarized the notion from him. From this, Simpson went on to pen multiple blog posts relitigating the grievance and publishing large swaths of private correspondence with Moore.
Bizarrely, this culminated in early 2022 with his announcement that he was working on a project called 1963: WhenElse?! Annual. This project, he explained, contained parody versions of the 1963 characters, which is to say that Simpson created entirely new parodies of the original Marvel characters, and mashed them together in what he described as a “stinging, denunciatory parody” that would “satirize the entire project of satire.” A glance at the cover, which featured the title “Fuck ‘Al’! It’s The 1963 Annual” along with a caricature of Moore captioned “Affable my ass!” and a sloan saying “‘Cancelled’ No Moore!!!,” makes it clear who the actual and indeed sole target of the satire was, a point Simpson hammered home in the blog post announcing the project, where he described Moore as “distant, absent, negligent, petulant, petty, scornful, self-serving, entitled, and about fifteen other pejorative adjectives, with no feeling of responsibility toward collaborator or audience,” further stirring the pot on his Facebook by declaring that Moore “has had several opportunities besides to see the project through, and has simply bailed. This demonstrates not only an unimaginable disregard for the fans and readers — an overweening ego-trip and sense of entitlement that many of his most ardent fans perversely take as a sign of genius — but it also demonstrably set back the cause of creator-owned comics, because it showed creators could not be responsible proprietors of intellectual properties. The irony is that work-for-hire projects like Watchmen remain in print and 1963 remains in the back-issue bin, fragmentary and uncollected and incomplete. Stupid, stupid indeed. Shame on the author forever,” and suggesting that the reason Moore never finished it is that “it’s kind of hard to pull the trigger on a satirical point about how comics got lost at the end of the twentieth century after you’ve been fellating Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee and socking away a fortune.” Moore, for his part, has remained quiet about this, presumably simply chalking it up as another reason why he wants nothing to do with the comics industry.
The blithely homophobic line about performing oral sex on Todd McFarlane referred to Steve Bissette’s charge that the event that resulted in Moore losing focus on 1963 was his agreement to pen the eighth issue of Todd McFarlane’s Image book, Spawn, to kick off a run of four issues that would be written by some of the industry’s superstars. McFarlane, along with Liefeld and Lee, was one of the three Image founders who were straightforwardly superstars. After a start at DC in which he gradually grew from early work as a Curt Swan imitator into a growing superstar tapped to draw the early portions of the Invasion crossover, McFarlane subsequently moved to Marvel where, in 1988, he took over art ditoes on Amazing Spider-Man, injecting the character with a newfound dynamism through a series of small but substantial design decisions—expanding the eye holes on Spider-Man’s costume, and reworking how his webs were drawn into something more detailed, so that as Spider-Man zipped about the city he left an intricate, dynamic tangle of detailed web behind him.
They key moment of McFarlane’s time on the book, however, came with his third issue, Amazing Spider-Man #300, where he ended up drawing the full debut of a character called Venom, who writer David Michelinie had been building to for some time. Venom was a monstrous double of Spider-Man who, for complicated reasons involving several years of continuity, wore a disused version of Spider-Man’s costume that was actually a sentient alien in the form of a jet black amorphous liquid that shaped itself around its wearer. McFarlane took this concept and ran with it, giving the character a grinning maw of teeth and leaning into the notion of the costume by having it move freely as a pool of strange, alien ichor. The character was a smash hit, and McFarlane was quickly established as a superstar artist.
McFarlane spent a little more than two years on Amazing Spider-Man before declaring that he would leave the book, requesting his own title that he could write as well as draw. This became a book simply dubbed Spider-Man, which debuted in June 1990, setting a sales record of 2.5 million copies that would stand until the next year when X-Force #1 doubled it. McFarlane’s Spider-Man reimagined the book as a dynamic action-horror book. The result was a visceral and thrilling play of shadows and monstrosity that wasn’t exactly long on coherent plotting and didn’t have much of sense of horror as a genre beyond a visual aesthetic, but as Liefeld proved, in the early 90s a visual aesthetic was more than enough to get by on, and the fans of the era snapped McFarlane’s comics up.
At Image, McFarlane dusted off a design he’d first worked on when he was sixteen to create Spawn, which proved to be the biggest hit of the initial launch of Image books, and is still the bestselling creator-owned book of all time. More to the point, it turned out to be the one of the initial Image properties with the longest staying power, still running with more than three hundred issues in print. There were several reasons for this. One was simply the fact that McFarlane was always a fundamentally different sort of artist than most of his compatriots. Where the bulk of the Image founders were fundamentally action artists, McFarlane’s focus on horror and monstrosity made him stand out from his compatriots. For all that Liefeld, Lee, and Silvestri were tremendously accomplished artists, putting them into a group with each other made their strengths blur together, making it difficult to identify what made each of them unique. McFarlane, meanwhile, had no such problem, and so was able to instantly define his niche within Image.
It also must be said that Spawn, as a character, was simply a better design. Most of the characters in Liefeld’s Youngblood or Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. were plagued by a degree of genericness. Youngblood, for instance, was largely anchored by Shaft as its central star—a generic blonde archer character more memorable for his rude sounding name than anything else. Spawn, on the other hand, was visually arresting from the start. The cover of his first issue made the appeal clear, from a simple contrasting color scheme between his bright red cape, which billowed and furled with the sort of mad geometric excess for which McFarlane was known, and the putrid green light that emanated from his hand. Beyond this high contrast pair, color was in short supply—the remainder of the costume was white, grey, or, for the most part, black. Spawn’s mask was similarly simple and effective—the monstrous white eyes on a black background that McFarlane had already made work with Venom, only expanded to fill a whole mask, with glowing green eyes placed in their middle. Past that, it was clear the design featured three other major components: spikes, skulls, and chains, the latter, it would turn out, designed to give McFarlane a second thing to draw in ludicrous and billowing excess.
It was not a subtle or nuanced design, but it was an excellent one, complete with an easy ability to be collapsed down to an instantly recognizable logo in the form of the green on white eyes. It looked like heavy metal sounded, explosive, ostentatious, as if it were the coolest thing it was possible to imagine. As with his earlier efforts on Spider-Man, and indeed as with most of the early Image books the writing aspired to the level of the sophomoric. And as with all of those, this complaint completely missed the point. The appeal of Spawn was simply that it was perfectly designed as a vehicle to do the shit that McFarlane thought was cool, and that, as it happened, Todd McFarlane’s sense of cool.
Equally, it must be stressed that McFarlane’s sense of cool was a savvy one. It wasn’t simply that he recognized the fact that chains, skulls, and spikes were all awesome. The individual pieces of Spawn—a dead soldier, Al Simmons, betrayed by his commanders, who made a deal with the devil to see his wife again, a vision of hell that, while full of the usual compliment of grotesque and over the top horrors, mostly seemed to view demons as a sort of exceptionally shitty boss, a sense of the demonic that was rooted less in the scary than in the grotesque, all of it added up to a kind of delightful mad alchemy—a set of ideas that worked, not simply in the sense of being a vehicle for their creator’s interests but in the sense of building something that other writers and artists could follow on interestingly. Sure, it wasn’t always successful—the plot of Spawn #5, which concerned a child murderer named Billy Kincaid released over the objection of basically every law enforcement authority because his lawyer was able to cite “some obscure case from the 1930s” in the course of an appeal, was basically every bad instinct it was possible to have in the dying days of the Reagan/Bush/Thatcher era. But when it was, as in the introduction of Violator, a giant spindly demon that was mostly mouth, appeared to recreationally eat the hearts of gang bosses, and periodically and for no discernable reason changed shape into a fat middle-aged clown, it was the sort of thrilling and delightful strangeness of genuine creativity.
In many ways central to this was Todd McFarlane himself, who, of the Image partners, was by far the one with the most aptitude at being a celebrity. In practice, for what Image comics was at its founding, this meant being an enfant terrible, a task he took to with an astonishing glee that put Grant Morrison’s Drivel columns to shame. He was the sort of creator who would saunter into an interview with Gary Groth and, when asked by Groth whether he thought his comics were well-written offered a simple “No.” When Groth followed up, in what has to be recognized as one of the most staggeringly condescending moments in the history of interviews as a medium, by asking, “Well, that’s probably not a good example for you to set, is it?” McFarlane shrugged it off, saying that “I don’t know if the trade-off of working with a writer that’s better than I am—which is probably 95% of them out there—that the trade-off would be that I’d be frustrated, so that all of a sudden my mind would start to go, and the whole cycle starts all over again. All I know is, personally, I’m doing what I know is keeping me personally happy.”
Perhaps the greatest moment of Todd McFarlane’s time as comics’ enfant terrible, however, came at the 1993 Philadelphia Comic-Con, where McFarlane got into a debate with Peter David, a writer, mostly at Marvel, who had taken McFarlane to task in several columns for the Comic Buyers Guide, which McFarlane had fired back at. Adding spice to the drama was the fact that McFarlane had worked with David on The Incredible Hulk. The situation climaxed in Philadelphia when David and McFarlane met at a panel chaired by George Pérez to debate. There, David laid out his criticism of McFarlane, quoting disapprovingly from the Gary Groth interview (specifically a passage in which McFarlane laid out his vision of the writer/artist relationship, saying, “Here’s how we deal with this relationship. You don’t tell me how to draw, I don’t tell you how to fucking write, and we get along just perfect. Because the first time you accept any advice or criticism or whatever I have about your writing, I have to reciprocate and say that you can now change my artwork and, unfortunately, I’m not big enough of a man to have some fucking writer change my artwork. So I’d go, ‘No. I don’t tell you how to write, and I’ll be Goddamned if you tell me to redraw a panel.’”).
At which point McFarlane took to the mic, dressed in yellow shorts with white polka-dots, an Image baseball cap, a gold chain necklace, and nothing else, looking as if his workout had been rudely disrupted by a sudden and urgent need to debate his former creative partner about his basic validity as an artist. McFarlane’s defense essentially restated his argument in The Comics Journal, noting that “when I broke into comic books when I was twenty-three years old, I said I want to get in cause I like superhero comics, and I want to have a hell of a time, and you know what? I still do superhero comics and I still have a good time.” That was it. That was the whole defense. Quality? Who cares. Todd McFarlane wanted to draw a superhero with lots of skulls and chains, he did so, and that was that.
For all it’s simplicity, there was a certain beauty to this—one expressed well by Dave Sim in his contribution to the same run of four issues that Moore wrote for. This issue is an almost complete departure from the plot, narrated by an entity that is overtly not Spawn, although he looks like Spawn and explains that “I share all of his memories. I remember my/his death. The skeletal face which haunts his days and his nights haunts me as well.” But, the narrator explains, “I am not Spawn, for I know many things Spawn doesn’t know. I know the names of the two detectives who pursue him. I know when and how they finally meet. I know why the little one is called ‘Twitch.’ I know the histories of every one of his friends and every one of his enemies. I know things about them that they have forgotten about themselves. When Spawn goes to Al Simmons’ grave one day and strips away the sod and digs down through the dark earth and opens the lid of Al Simmons’ coffin, I know what he will find there.” This narrator goes on a strange sort of vision quest, journeying to hell and visiting a corner of it where there is a cage, in which the recognizable arms of a host of Marvel and DC heroes desperately reach out from between the bars, begging for Not-Spawn to save them. Across from them, bound, is a row of hooded figures. Eventually he is visited by Cerebus, who explains that the bound men are “their creators. The ones who sold them,” and because of this there is no way to help them. Cerebus leads Not-Spawn away, to a house with a “sunken living room. A whole bunch of bedrooms. Fireplace. Grand piano. Great view of Mount Hood. Hot tub. Satellite dish. And about a million hockey cards.” He explains that Not-Spawn’s wife will be home soon. “Her name’s Wanda,” he says, which is also the name McFarlane gave Al Simmons’s widow, who he sold his soul to see again. And then Cerebus opens the bedroom to reveal a crib, with the McFarlane’s daughter. Not-Spawn weeps in stunned incredulity, and asks how this is possible. And Cerebus answers: “Your creator is still with you. He didn’t sell you. It’s as simple as that.”
It’s a beautiful vision in its grand, sweet simplicity. The point of Spawn is for Todd McFarlane to do the comic he wants to do. And if that often feels like a comic created by someone who has not emotionally moved on from being scolded by his middle school teacher for drawing skulls and chains in their notebook, well, it’s important to remember that it was also a comic created to be read by middle schoolers that were actively being told that. McFarlane will appear in the War later as a more malevolent figure, but here, at least, he is one of the most innocent figures within it.
Moore, for his part, was charmed. As he put it, “ Todd McFarlane-he’s brilliant, I like him. He’s not an intellectual giant, and he’s the first person to admit it.” In Moore’s recollection, McFarlane “phoned up and asked if I’d do an issue of Spawn. [putting on an exaggerated American accent] SPORN! Y’wanna do an issue of SPORN?’ I said [American] ‘SURE!’ And I’ve written one. I wrote it that evening. I did! You just write ’em! It’s easy doing superhero comics; any idiot could do superhero comics, to be perfectly frank. So I wrote it that evening, phoned back and said “TAWD!” He said “ALAN!” I said “SURE!” And I got a cheque in the post in about three days. I’m not gonna argue with that. I’ve given him artistic credibility; obviously mine has suffered considerably, but my bank balance, on the other hand…! Don’t feel sorry for me!” But for all that Moore was disinclined to put more effort into the job than it required, there was an element of this that interested him. As he put it, “ I didn’t feel like dismissing this new language that was emerging through their comics. As much as it might’ve looked incoherent to me at first, with its two panels per page and very little dialogue, what I did understand was that Image’s comics were very popular with the readers. Therefore, it was just a matter of teaching myself this new language and trying to understand this new audience that had changed completely in the time I’d been away from superhero comics.” And so on Spawn #8, Moore attempted to do just that.
Although 1963 had been the project that brought Moore to Image, McFarlane managed to outpace Valentino and get Spawn #8 to the stands a month before what was supposed to be Moore’s big return. This was an example of the cutthroat in-house competition that the Image partners had, but it had the broadly helpful effect of making it so that Moore’s first superhero comic in five years was, instead of being an oblique exercise in deliberately frustrating expectations, something that did exactly what one would expect from the idea of Alan Moore at Image: Moore teaming up with one of the biggest artists in comics to give his spin on the hot new thing.
That the result is strange is, perhaps, inevitable. Called “In Heaven (Everything Is Fine),” the issue focuses on Billy Kincaid, the child murderer casually dispatched by Spawn a few issues earlier, as he wakes up in a strange pod full of a green, sticky liquid hanging from a tree in a foreboding forest sort of place. Billy quickly kills “this sorta four-eyed lizard thing” to wear its skin. He quickly hooks up with some other recently deceased people like Kimberly, who explains that “I have this, like, eating disorder? And next thing I know I’m a fruit, growing on a tree? Has that ever happened to you?” and is rendered by McFarlane as a sort of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle figure, dressed in a v-shaped strip of ragged fabric that appears to be held in place by the sheer tensile force of her erect nipples. Joining her are Larry, Claudette, Bob, and Little Jessica. Billy assess the group as “a buncha stiffs” before ominously noting, “kids cute, though.” The group travels for a while, and one by one finds themselves picked off by demons. The first, for instance, appears as a sort of robotic angel figure, and takes Claudette, a black woman who died during a gall bladder operation, and who enthusiastically tells the angel that she loves to sing hymns. Little Jessica explains that “it was a soul-trapper from the sixth sphere. They keep the souls as pets there. It’s a fashion thing. This year it’s singers. Last year it was acrobats.” Billy later reflects that “she’s a little autistic, whatever. Disturbed. That’s natural. Being dead, it’s a disturbing thing.”
Eventually, with a couple of splash page interludes in which Billy has vivid nightmares of being killed by Spawn, the group is whittled down to just him and Jessica. Being a child murderer and all, Billy takes this opportunity to attempt to murder Jessica in her sleep, hoping it will still the nightmares. But as he does, Jessica suddenly wakes up and reveals herself to in fact be the Vindicator, a relative of Violator, who chases Billy up a demonic tower to the eighth sphere, Malebolge, where he is forced to join the vast army of Malebolgia. Billy is introduced to K3-Myrlu, “a constantly evolving neural parasite” who takes the form of Billy’s worst nightmare: a Spawn costume. The parasite quickly bonds to Billy’s central nervous system, turning him into an overweight parody of the book’s title character. Billy sobs that “this isn’t fair! The afterlife shouldn’t be this way, full of alien monsters processing humans as if they were cattle, and nobody caring about good or evil!” But as Billy is ushered to his fate, the Vindicator explains that they “could care less if you’re covetin’ your neighbor’s ox or whatever! I mean, we’re running a business here, an’ I tellya for nothin the two words carved on marble in hell’s lobby ain’t ‘good’ or ‘evil’. It’s two other words, and what they say is this…”And with a final splash page of Billy joining a horde of similarly Spawn-costumed damned at the feet of a giant cackling demon, Moore offers his punchline: “‘Ca-ca happens,’ little buddy. ‘Ca-ca happens.’”
It is, to say the least, an odd comic. Grant Morrison suggests that “It was hard to read this and not imagine Alan Moore in that throng, sealed inside a superhero suit he couldn’t seem to peel off, manacled and bound as he was frog-marched back into the tenth circle of the abyss, the factory, the cold engines of the Industry. In the end, superheroes were bigger than he was. Bigger than all of us. What had seemed a gravy train was now pulling into a dreary Eastern European station with conformity cops waiting on the platform. For a freelance writer, the only money left in comics was in superhero stories.” Certainly the story is exactly the cynical and nihilistic piece of exactly the sort that Moore suggested he regretted unleashing on the world. Sure, it’s got a bit of wit to it—in many ways it reads like an extended version of one of Moore’s bleaker Future Shocks, complete with its shaggy dog punchline—and the ten sphere structure of hell suggests that Moore had probably begun some of his occult explorations and was reading about the Kabbalah. But at the end of the day, it’s twenty-four pages of a child murderer being tortured for the sake of it.
Equally, it’s difficult to read something that Moore dashed off in a night as some sort of elaborately constructed hell in which he was trapped. It’s not that Spawn #8 lacks artistic ambitions; it’s that its artistic ambitions existed entirely outside its staple-bound pages. Its artistic ambitions are finishing From Hell, having time to make Lost Girls, writing Voice of the Fire, and doing some experimental performance pieces. One is reminded of the quote from Michael Caine’s memoir, released the year before Spawn #8, in which he recalls his work on Jaws 4: The Revenge. Caine notes that “I have never seen the film, but by all accounts it was terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” Watchmen had consumed a year of Moore’s life, and its profits had gone up in the smoke of Big Numbers. Now, however, Moore could be paid comparable sums of money for a night’s work. Except instead of building a house, it would build one of the most extraordinary second acts of an artistic career it is possible to imagine.
Moore’s issue of Spawn was followed by one written by Neil Gaiman, who by this time had become a comics megastar on the back of his DC series Sandman (
End of Volume 3
Thanks to Ritesh Babu for help explaining why Spawn was awesome.