Tony Black reviews The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer…
Greg Carpenter paints a beguiling look at three of Britain’s visual, literary masters in The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer which may well make you reconsider the lives and careers of messrs Moore, Gaiman & Morrison in the context of their many collective masterworks, primarily in the field of the comic book. Carpenter in his book presents these legendary contemporaries as the artistic beatnik’s of their generation when it comes the comics, dividing their life and career stories into four chapters apiece, all of which are named after classic Cool Britannia songs of the 60’s and 70’s, reflecting his essays which closely examine the trio as a certain Holy Trinity of the form, breaking down their seminal works with detailed examination which speculates on the psychology of these three different men while revealing contextual history about the comic book world from the 1980’s to the present day at the same time. On the whole, it’s a fascinating read, no doubt for comic book newbies such as myself or seasoned readers of the form.
What Carpenter ultimately aims to present is the idea that these three guys were the rock’n’roll stars of a flagging comics industry, with Marvel on the verge of bankruptcy as some of their best artists break away to form their own publishing outfits like Image and DC stagnating under the weight of groaning, fifty year old global brands and properties. They were The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, bursting their way into the public consciousness and like that band did with music, all three changing the perception of not just comic books, but the people who wrote and read them.
Moore balanced his genius alongside a recalcitrant charm and, more often, a bridge burning arrogance, justified by transforming defunct characters and properties like Marvelman or Swamp Thing before what many consider his masterwork, Watchmen (though not Carpenter); Gaiman lent a quieter, more middle class, educated sense of transformation in creating the dreamlike Sandman; and Morrison, well, he was always the punkish Scotsman, the odd man out, never quite creating a pop culture magnum opus but rather cultivating, through highly unusual quasi-spiritual means, his own cult of personality. It’s these differences (and in the end similarities) that Carpenter brings to life in crafting the point of his meticulously researched book: all were brilliant, all were flawed, yet all changed the world.
Though he manages to maintain a respectful distance which allows his scholarly facts and resource points come through, Carpenter is definitely more than a bit academically in love with these three titans of late 20th century literature, and wants to consistently make the point they were creating *literature* as opposed to the childish fodder the mainstream publishing houses had cranked out since the 60’s and before. Moore brought a grimy nihilism to titles such as From Hell or a striking, shocking sexual sensibility to Lost Girls; Gaiman introduced mythology and melancholy into the seminal Sandman; and Morrison was transforming perceptions of older characters or signature creations such as Superman or Batman.
Carpenter frequently touches on how these men overlapped with their work, at times picking up from each other on certain runs, and charts each of their repeated disillusionment with the Establishment publishing system in a variety of different ways, not to mention their lawsuits and at times personal animus (between Moore & Morrison, who you sense are probably more alike than either would like to admit). The author manages to illuminate their work while giving the historical and political context of when their comics were written. Sometimes the depth of his enquiry into the writers work becomes a little onerous, certainly if you’re not familiar with the subject material – you may yearn for him to reach his point quicker. The depth and detail in his analysis of these great comic works is often fantastic and insightful, however, and the book would be lesser without them.
Finishing the book with a detailed and interesting interview with Karen Berger, who worked at DC with each of the subjects of Carpenter’s book at various points and adds further insight into their characters and the work they did (though Carpenter does cannibalise a lot of her words earlier in the book), Carpenter rounds off his conclusions in an interlude–having taken a breath from his chapters to dip into extra corners these writers worked in–and makes his ultimate point: that these three men changed the landscape of comic books forever and without their game changing works, which he references in line with other literary figures such as Kerouac, and their personal characters & influences on fans and people in the industry alike, we may not have the quality of comics we do today.
There’s an argument even that it never got better than when Moore, Gaiman & Morrison were in their heyday and after reading The British Invasion, a fascinating and worthy look into their careers, you may wish the British were coming again.