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You wouldn't necessarily think that an anarchist Gnostic who worships the Roman snake-god Glycon would be at the top of his field, but Alan Moore is universally acknowledged as the most important mainstream comics writer of the last three decades. The second volume of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, his collaboration with artist Kevin O'Neill, was published early this month; given his recent announcement of his impending retirement, it's worth looking at how this very English writer has shaped American comics. Moore is comics' Orson Welles: a genius formalist with a natural collaborative impulse and a habit of taking on overambitious projects. His work is alternately groundbreaking and painfully lazy; he often coasts on his cleverness for a quick paycheck. The question of whether he's a fountain of imagination or just bats has never arisen: He's both, and his ability to see familiar ideas from an alien perspective is one of his best tricks.
Moore is best-known for a pair of furiously dark graphic novels, Watchmen and From Hell. Even so, he's dismissed the "grim and gritty" school of comics writing he fathered as the unwanted result of "a bad mood I was in 15 years ago," and his recent work is much lighter in tone. His writing has more to do with his fascination with Gnosticism: He's interested in investigating the inner workings of everything that affects him strongly (violence, sexual fantasy, mystical experience, old Superman comics). Hence the Glycon thing, about which he is both dead serious and very funny (see this sidebar).
But he's also spent his career as the bellwether for comics' path between commerce and art. Moore's debut, in the early '80s, roughly coincided with the rise of the independent comics movement and the schism between the mainstream (the superhero genre-fiction comics industry) and indie publishers (which concentrate on cartoonist "auteurs" who both write and draw). Despite a flirtation with indie art-comics around 1990, Moore is basically a mainstream reformer: He's made an explicit decision to work in genre comics but to try to do something broadly entertaining with a lot of craft. He doesn't draw the stories he writes, although he's notorious for obsessively detailed scripts that play to his artist-collaborators' individual strengths but give them very little latitude. (See this sidebar for an example.) Even if your sympathies lie with the art-comics side of the debate, it's pretty damn hard to complain about the depth and ingenious construction of Watchmen or Promethea. And even Moore's early work was about teasing out the subtexts of third-rate superhero and horror comics that gave them power and meaning: the Nietzschean fantasy of the hero who remakes the world in his image, the varieties of body-terror and sleep-of-reason that produce monsters.
Brought up in a working-class family in Northampton, England, where he still lives, Moore began his career writing short gag stories and serials for British anthology comics in the early '80s. His commercial breakthrough came in 1983, when he took over Saga of the Swamp Thing, a terrible American comic book; Moore took the opportunity to show off the range of his technique, which resulted in a certain amount of purple prose ("Clouds like plugs of bloodied cotton wool dab ineffectually at the slashed wrists of the sky") and a lot of thrilling formal experiments that had never been tried in mainstream comics before. His success led directly to American comics' "British invasion" of writers, notably Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, and Warren Ellis, all of whom have made much of his castoffs.
Moore hit his prime with Watchmen, drawn by Dave Gibbons and published in 1985-86. A densely orchestrated story about a world on the verge of nuclear annihilation, Watchmen is a high-modernist triumph: It's an astonishing piece of structural clockwork, an allegorical critique and history of the comics medium, and an adventure story that systematically undermines the whole premise of adventure stories. Meanwhile, Moore and artist David Lloyd returned to finish their incomplete early project V for Vendetta, recently adapted into a screenplay by The Matrix's Wachowski brothers. (Unsurprisingly, the film has yet to be optioned: Moore's story concerns a heroic British anarchist terrorist who blows up Parliament.)
In the late '80s, Moore briefly forswore the mainstream and started writing a handful of hugely audacious independent projects, none of which worked out quite as planned. The still fondly remembered Big Numbers ran aground after two issues. A few chapters of Lost Girls, a tenderly pornographic riff on classic children's literature (drawn by American underground cartoonist Melinda Gebbie, who is now Moore's girlfriend), and From Hell, a brutal autopsy of Victorian England and the nature of misogyny, were serialized in a short-lived small-press anthology, Taboo. Fortunately for Moore, flashy, tacky cartoonists like Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld threw wads of money at him to bang out superhero comics like Spawn and Supreme for them—lightweight at best, pretentious codswallop at worst. He reserved his actual effort for From Hell, which was being published in very occasional installments, and, apparently, Lost Girls, which wasn't being published anywhere. (It will appear in mid-2004.)
From Hell was collected as a single book in 1999 (published by its artist, Eddie Campbell) and filmed as a Johnny Depp vehicle that bore very little resemblance to its source. By then, Moore had begun his current project, the sardonically named America's Best Comics line: four allegedly monthly series and a handful of other projects, all initially written by him. It's often been noted that Moore does better with other writers' characters than with his own, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen lets him play with a cast drawn from Victoriana and early pulp fiction and their attendant subtext and colorful detail. (Moore has a particular affinity for the way Victorian culture and literature invested everything with symbolic meaning, and for the Victorian habit of describing quotidian or ghastly things in jeweled language.) Almost all the other ABC titles have fallen way behind schedule or been handed over to other writers, and he's clearly just phoning them in these days.
The one exception is Promethea, a thinly veiled exegesis of Moore's obsession with magic and the occult, which implausibly went from decent to terrific when he halted the plot to spend 12 issues explaining the Kabala. As with a lot of his work, it's sometimes showoffishly clever: One issue is a single image extended across 24 pages, in the course of which the major arcana of the tarot deck are presented as an allegorical history of human civilization (in rhyming couplets, no less), in parallel with a joke told by Aleister Crowley, not to mention a different apropos anagram of Promethea spelled out in Scrabble tiles on every page. Moore says he plans to become a full-time magician—not the rabbit-from-a-hat kind—once he wraps up his current commitments in comics. Although he's not entirely washing his hands of the medium (he's promised a third League of Extraordinary Gentlemen project at some point), he's quitting while he's ahead. Better snake-god-worshipping rituals than Paul Masson wine commercials.