There’s an easy measure of the best talent in an art form. How do they dominate Best Of lists? Shigeru Miyamato’s name pops up a lot if you’re looking at a tally of the most acclaimed video games. Charles Dickens wrote several of the most significant novels in the English language. Johnny Cash is well-represented in any selection of the most acclaimed country music albums.
And an Englishman who looks like a drunken caveman is responsible for quite a few of the most acclaimed comic books. Generally, people who disagree on comics will agree on Alan Moore’s talent, even if there won’t be a consensus on what constitutes his best work. Wizard‘s list of the Top 40 comic books included seven stories he had written. The Comics Journal Top 100, published at around the same time, included four of his stories, more than any individual writer other than Harvey Kurtzman. There was little overlap, so these two lists of the best comic books ever made ended up including ten of his books, only agreeing on Watchmen.
Moore’s also been on The Simpsons. So there’s that.
Now that it’s been established that Alan Moore is one of the most acclaimed writers in comics, it’s worth considering the work that a new reader curious about his impact on the comics medium should check out.
Watchmen has gained a reputation as essentially the best comic book ever made. It’s the Citizen Kane or Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club of the art-form, the thing that changed the industry and came closest to achieving the potential of the medium. It’s the best example of a question that’s been explored in a lot of comic books: What if superheroes were real? In twelve issues, Moore and Dave Gibbons created a fully realized superhero universe in which guys with masks decided to fight crime in the 1930s, and one man actually gained superpowers at the onset of the Cold War.
Two things make the book essential. I love the little details about the characters, and how this world is different. A superhero changes the automobile industry so that mechanics are essentially out of work. Richard Nixon is in the middle of a fifth term, and there’s a reference to the mysterious deaths of two reporters. There’s a social movement/ gang obsessed with knots, and this includes a few minor characters. These are the details you notice the second or twelfth time you read the story. The first time around, the most striking thing is the characters, who are generally better-realized and more interesting than the Marvel and DC heroes who have been around for decades, and have had hundreds of issues to have a moment as enjoyable as a throwaway scene with Doctor Manhattan.
Two members of the ensemble stand out most of all. Rorschach is the vigilante as psychopath, an uncompromising Ayn Rand nut, more appealing than he has any right to be. He’s the ultimate example of how you have to be a little bit crazy to put on a mask and fight criminals. Ozymandias is the smartest man on Earth, and he has some unconventional solutions to the problems of the world. Both raise interesting questions about the “violence is the solution” mentality of comic books, while beating up people in interesting ways.
Moore’s first truly notable work was the English series Marvelman (renamed Miracleman in the US to avoid copyright claims by Marvel Comics.) It hasn’t been reprinted in decades due to a convoluted copyright history, although Marvel seems to have gained the rights to it, so it should be coming to comic book stores next year. Since this was one of the works that made Alan Moore’s reputation pre-Swamp Thing, and still appears on Best Of lists, it’s as significant to comics as something like Mean Streets or Paths of Glory is to cinema. It will be essential reading when it’s finally rereleased.
It was Moore’s first exploration of the “What if superheroes were real?” theme, as he brought back a 1950s Captain Marvel knockoff, as an ordinary schmo realizes that a man with the powers of a god is trapped in his body. No other work showed why it would be so unpleasant to live in a superhero universe. There are less battles to the death than usual, but it’s never been so intense or violent. Poor Kid Miracleman.
Saga of the Swamp Thing Books 1 and 2
Moore’s breakout work in the United States was his run on Swamp Thing. Every issue is worth reading, especially to anyone who is a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but a cursory overview of his first work would be limited to the first fifteen or so issues, collected in two trade paperback volumes.
“The Anatomy Lesson” of Saga of the Swamp Thing #21-24 shakes up the series in a way that was truly unprecedented, as the protagonist learned that everything about him is a lie. This come at an inopportune time as a minor supervillain takes the wrong lesson from the environmentalist movement, and attempts to exterminate mankind. With later series, Moore and artists John Totlebon and Stephen Bisette into the most effective horror title since the peaks of EC comics, looking at contemporary problems through a skewed lens. A memorable showdown with the supervillain Anton Arcane takes the hero to the DC Universe version of hell. Other highlights include a riff on Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and a unique consummation of the relationship between the inhuman lead and his love interest that comes to define the rest of the series, introducing the most interesting forbidden love story in comics.
Alan Moore’s Superman and Batman: The Killing Joke
I covered Moore’s Superman in a selection of the essential stories of the most iconic comic book character. On the strength of three stories, each shorter than 50 pages, Alan Moore has become one of the most significant writers of a character known throughout the world. Moore doesn’t care for it, but his 48 page Batman story is also quite memorable, and has served as an introduction to Moore’s work. There’s a well-tread path for comic book readers that begins with his best-known DC superhero, and ends with someone furiously trying to collect everything he’s ever written.
Due to the above work, Moore spent the last 25+ years with a reputation as a giant of the industry, that proved difficult to overcome. From Hell is his most notable and accessible work from the 1990s, a meticulously researched account of Jack the Ripper, and Freemason conspiracy theories. His explanation is controversial, especially to descendants of the man he determines to have been responsible for the killings, but it’s a fascinating account of madness and the struggles against social change. Eddie Campbell’s art is unlike anything else in Moore’s oeuvre, with a timeless style entirely appropriate for a historical drama. I will warn interested readers that it is very very violent. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in the comic book form with the stomach to read a 30 page autopsy performed by a serial killer upon a character we had come to like in the previous few hundred pages.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volumes 1 and 2
Moore’s fascination with the Victorian era continued with his most popular recent work, essentially a superhero team consisting of the leads of some of the most popular books ever written. Moore and artist Kevin O’Neill offer a trove of details for anyone familiar with the era (Jess Nevin’s books on the subject are worth hunting down) although it remains an entertaining romp about a group of very dysfunctional heroes is brought together to save England. Mina Murray is traumatized. The Invisible Man is a pervert. Captain Nemo is pretty quick to gun down legions of Muslims. Allan Quartermain is addicted to various substances. And we all know about Jekyl and Hyde.
I prefer the first volume, although it seems to me that the second has developed a slightly better reputation, containing some of the more memorable moments in the series. The stories begun in the first volume come to what seems like an inevitable conclusion, with betrayals, murder, the fall of the team and the true story of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds.
There’s clearly notable material I’ve left off this introductory list, including Moore’s most memorable character—the magician John Constantine—introduced in the second year of his Swamp Thing run. Once again, this is a testament to the man’s talent. Any manageable selection of his work is going to exclude notable material.