Luke Graham selects his five essential Alan Moore graphic novels....
After the recent release of Man of Steel and Iron Man 3, I’ve been getting back into my comic collections, and digging through the works of my favourite comic book writer, the crazy, creative occultist Alan Moore.
Born in England in the 50s, Moore has been writing books and comics since the 1970s and has had a huge influence on the medium with his works on Batman, Superman and the revered Watchmen (but you probably knew that already).
It occurred to me that, with more and more people turning to comic books off the back of the successful film adaptations of the last few years, it might be useful to guide beginners towards some of the better quality stuff out there.
So here are my five essential books by Alan Moore. They might not necessarily be his best stuff, or his most popular, but their ones that any Moore fan should read...
5. Batman: The Killing Joke
This one-shot Batman issue from 1988 had a huge impact on the mythos of the caped crusader, as well as his arch-nemesis, the Joker. Moore’s portrayal of the two characters expanded on their dualistic nature, their linked past and destiny and the futility of their conflict: Batman’s code of morals will never let him kill the Joker, and Joker can never kill Batman because it would make things far too boring. It demonstrated how cruel the Joker’s schemes could get, as it depicts him kidnapping and torturing Commissioner Gordon through sadistic means.
The expanded origin of the Joker written by Moore, which showed him as a tragic comedian coerced into committing a crime that led to his transformation into the clown prince of crime, is fascinating, but also cleverly misleading, as it’s not clear whether the flashbacks are true or simply the product of his diseased mind. It may come as no surprise that this book influenced both Tim Burton’s Batman, as well as Christopher Nolan’s version of the Joker in The Dark Knight.
A compact, dramatic story full of tension and suspense, The Killing Joke is one of the definitive versions of the ever popular Batman and fan favourite villain, the Joker.
Remember the crappy film from 2003 starring Sean Connery? Well Alan Moore has had a very unfortunate history with Hollywood. They’ve adapted a number of his books into substandard or awful films (with, in my opinion, the exception of Watchmen).
However, it’s important to blame the poor choices on the filmmakers and not the source material, as Moore’s brilliant The League of Extraordinary Gentleman from 1999 demonstrates.
The books, which are effectively elaborate fan fiction, depicts a world where all of the characters from Western literature exist together. The three volumes and two stand-alone stories (The Black Dossier and Nemo: Heart of Ice) which make up The League of Extraordinary cover a huge scope. Starting in Victorian London up until 2009, Moore cleverly adapts, reimagines and utilises characters and concepts from a huge range of sources to create stories about swashbuckling adventures, alien invasions and nightmarish horror. Moore references an incredible number of sources, from decades old books and serials, obscure references to American and English folklore, and even clever, yet disguised references to modern literature, such as the Harry Potter franchise.
Researching and discovering what Moore is referencing is almost as much of a pleasure as reading the graphic novel itself, with it’s gorgeous art by Kevin O’Neill.
Introduced in the 1970s, the Swamp Thing, created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson, depicts the tragic story of scientist Alec Holland who, after an accident, is transformed into a hulking, plant-like being, and decides to live out in the Louisiana swamps.
Alan Moore took over writing duties of the comic in 1984, and produced a highly regarded, groundbreaking run of over forty issues from 1984 till 1987. He introduced a more compelling, supernatural origin for the character, vastly expanding the character’s powers and the comic’s scope, as well as introducing other concepts to the DC universe, such as the “Green” an otherworld plane of conscious where all plant life is connected.
Alan Moore’s issues are notable for being truly adult comic books. Abandoning the Comics Code Authority, Swamp Thing was written as a horror anthology, rather than the comparatively simple “good vs. evil” storylines of most superhero comics. Issues of the comic dealt with a range of complex ideas and challenging questions, as well as difficult topics such as body horror and genuinely terrifying plots, particularly a grizzly sequence involving incest.
Most notable of Moore’s run was the American Gothic series which explored America’s relationship with a number of topics, such as then contemporary fears about nuclear power, as well as pollution, sexism, racism, America’s history of slavery and the destructive relationship with guns.
It also introduced the character of John Constantine, who later got his comic in the form of Hellblazer, and was a loose basis for the fairly good Keanu Reeves vehicle, Constantine, from 2005.
Filled with nightmarish artwork, poetic yet gloomish writing and incredibly clever panel layouts and methods of storytelling (elements of which can be seen in the later work Watchmen), Saga of the Swamp Thing makes for compulsive reading. It’ll get under your skin in more ways then one...
“What!! But Luke, why isn’t Watchmen at number one of your list of most essential Alan Moore books!? Your list is bullshit!”
Well calm down, and let me explain.
Watchmen ran for 12 issues from 1986 to 1987, and depicts an alternate history of the world where masked heroes exist, both the pulpy, non-powered kind and the superpowered kind. Their presences has massively affected the planet, helping America win several conflicts, such as the Vietnam war, which has had the adverse effect of massively ramping up Cold War tensions to the point where the world is on the brink on nuclear destruction.
The series begins with the mysterious death of a former masked hero known as The Comedian, the ramifications of which are investigated through the series, leading to a race against time to prevent the end of the world as the heroes know it, as well as some of the most heart-breaking scenes ever placed between the pages of a graphic novel.
Made into a fairly popular film by Zack Snyder in 2009, Watchmen too had a huge impact on the medium. In the 1980s and 90s, many other comics tried to appropriate the gritty realism of Watchmen and its grim, dark aesthetic, along with its similarly themed cousin Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Millar. This period is often known as the dark age of western comics, as many artists only adopted superficial elements of the ground-breaking works by Moore and Millar, such as the violence and dark tone, without any of the complexity.
Watchmen, like most great works of art, is about a great number of things, and can be interpreted and analysed in many different ways: it deals with contemporary fears of nuclear brinkmanship, theorised how the real world would react to the presence of super heroes and the stresses those superheroes would go through, and deconstructed contemporary comic books and the concept of the superhero. It’s highly metaphorical, with a complex metanarrative involving a comic-within-the-comic and newspaper reports and interviews. It’s also about the clashing of ideologies, with different characters embodying different philosophies and outlooks on the world. The book poses difficult questions, and leaves few answers.
Not to mention the great art by Dave Gibbons, with deliberately crafted nine-panel layouts and recurring symbology, Watchmen is the text-book example of how good comic book story-telling can be, with words and visuals working in tandem to tell a moving, engaging story, in a way that has been done better by few, if any, comic books. It was ahead of its time, thoroughly meta, and a must-read.
It does have some problems. Elements of the story are (most likely deliberately) underwhelming and disappointing, leaving the reader wanting more. There is very little catharsis. Its impact on the medium, leading comic to behave in more juvenile ways, is also a knock against it.
Which is why my number one recommendation for the most essential Alan Moore graphic novel to read is...
1. V for Vendetta
Originally written in 1982 (although the final issues weren’t published until the end of the 1980s) for British comic book Warrior, the series depicts a dystopian version of Britain under a fascist, authoritarian government, and the freedom fighter/terrorist known only as V, an anarchist hell bent on saving the country.
Despite what the dreadful 2005 film might lead you to believe, V for Vendetta itself is very, very good. A product of its time and place, it’s a comic set in and about British society and was written as a reaction to Margaret Thatcher Conservative government of the early 1980s. But it’s also a long form treatise on the various merits and drawbacks of anarchist theory, as well as the importance of standing up to political institutions that you do not agree with.
It’s a dark tale, with a large cast of characters and morally grey heroes and villains. No one is innocent. Not everyone is guilty. It’s a moody piece with powerful, cinematic moments of action, and moving dialogue and writing. Much like Watchmen, it leaves more questions than answers, and stays in your mind long after you put the book down.
Why did I place it higher than Watchmen? Because this book represents a great writer honing their craft, before perfecting it. While Watchmen may be the better book, I’d recommend reading this flawed but fantastic and thrilling tale.
Luke Graham is a writer and works in newspaper production. If you enjoyed this review, follow him @LukeWGraham and check out his blog here.