Alan Moore is often thought of as the man that made comic books grow up. His run on Swamp Thing was one of the first mainstream books purposefully aimed at mature readers, while Watchmen and Miracleman offered a darker, more realistic view of superheroes. V for Vendetta was a bleak view of Britain’s fascist future, and From Hell examined the depravity and conspiracy surrounding the Jack the Ripper murders. He’s credited with the modern tone of many superhero books, and making them relevant and realistic instead of just a bunch of yahoos in tights flying around and punching each other. A few people have even accused him of hating superheroes.
The latter view is often put forward by those who aren’t all that familiar with Moore’s work: Those who’ve read Watchmen and came away remembering the psychotic and brutal vigilante Rorschach instead of the bizarre aberration of reality and physics that was Doctor Manhattan. Those who haven’t even read Moore’s work at all, but are embittered by all the third-rate imitators who thought it was the violence and depravity that made Moore’s work so revered. Those who weren’t paying attention when he wrote 1963, Supreme, Top Ten, or Tom Strong.
DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore should put to rest the notion that Moore harbors any particular animosity towards the spandex set. While he may have since outgrown the genre, Moore wrote many stories in the mid-eighties featuring some of the biggest icons DC had to offer—as well as some lesser lights—and what shines through is a genuine affection for many characters in their original, outlandish forms. If there’s any scorn and derision to be found, it’s directed towards those who failed to take advantage of the limitless possibilities of the superhero genre.
While a few stories are little more than filler—Moore had to pay his bills—almost all of them are notable for two things. First is a seemingly automatic grasp of what makes characters tick; whether it’s Superman, Batman, the Joker or Green Arrow, Moore acts writes like he’s been studying them for years, assembling the best attributes from the writers of decades past. Superman, who features in several stories, is perfectly Superman; while these four stories represent the sum total of Moore’s experience with the character, few writers have grasped the Man of Steel’s world and motivation like Moore.
For the Man Who Has Everything, illustrated by future Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons, looks at what might have been, as a bizarre attack by one of his enemies sends Superman into a dream world where Krypton was never destroyed, and Kal El lived a normal life with his family. It’s everything he ever wanted… except for the fact that it isn’t. Despite a normal life with his parents, wife and child, he can’t help but feel something’s not right, whether it’s the rapidly deteriorating Kryptonian politics or something deeper and more fundamental. Moore treads the line carefully: Superman’s vision of Krypton isn’t so utopian to be unbelievable, nor is it obviously sinister enough to be immediately recognized as an evil ploy. In reality, it’s not an evil ploy at all—Superman is given exactly what he’s always wanted; the only thing that can save him is the self awareness to realize it’s not real.
Moore’s insights into Superman reach a pinnacle with Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. The final Superman story published before the 1980s revamp brought about a more grounded Superman, Moore wrote it as the last Superman story ever. In the future, Lois Lane tells a reporter of the last days before Superman disappeared, seemingly forever. This story alone confirms Moore’s love of superheroes, in all their fantastic and occasionally goofy glory.
Superman’s foes are joining forces and becoming increasingly ruthless: formerly harmless villains like Bizarro, Prankster and Toyman resort to unforseen brutality, while the more formidable team of Lex Luthor and Brainiac plot their final assault scheme. Superman retreats to his Fortress of Solitude, but finds he’s helpless to save some of his closest friends.
For all the grimness and death in the story, it still revels in Silver Age traditions: Moore fills the book with the Legion of Superheroes, Krypto the super-dog, Supergirl, super-powered versions of Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang, Kryptonite Man, the Legion of Super Villains. When Superman tries to seal off his fortress, he melts the gigantic key only he could lift. While Moore undoubtedly sullies some of these creations of an earlier and more carefree era, the story ultimately features a rejection the modern trends of lowering superheroes to the level of base humanity. Moore recognizes that while some characters, like Batman or Green Arrow, can stand to slip from their pedestals of unimpeachable morality, Superman, more than any other character in superhero fiction, needs to fly above it all.
Moore’s second calling card is his use of new, unique, and occasionally bizarre ideas. In a medium where the only limitation is the imagination of the writer and artist, too many have relied on the standards and conventions laid down by those who came before. Moore breaks through many of the imagination barriers with numerous new takes on old concepts, exploring new ideas and corners of the DC universe.
Night Olympics, a two-part Green Arrow backup from Detective Comics illustrated by Klaus Janson, finds a growing population of criminals who really are sensible enough to surrender when confronted by a well-known superhero (even if they’re not exactly sure which hero it is). Mortal Clay documents the Quasimodo-like love affair between Batman villain Clayface and his beloved wife Helena, a department store mannequin. Two backup stories from Omega Mentell tales of the far-out planet Vega and its inhabitants: two colossal stone giants whose lives and very movements are measured on a geological timescale, and the Chulacoans and their unusual ideas of reproduction.
It’s in these snapshot sci-fi stories that Moore produces some of his best work. The simple task of writing a 10-page Green Lantern backup allowed Moore to break any of the remaining conventions he hadn’t already smashed. When the cast is the intergalactic, multi-species Green Lantern Corps, and the setting is as broad as “The Universe”, there really are no rules to follow. Mogo Doesn’t Socialize—again featuring art by Dave Gibbons—introduces one of the more unusual members of the cosmic police force. In Blackest Night, with art by Fables creator Bill Willingham, Moore presents a seemingly insurmountable problem to Green Lantern recruiter Katma Tui: how does one even explain the basic concept of a Green Lantern to a species that lives in complete darkness and has long since abandoned sight to the evolutionary waste bin? And in Tygers, Moore and future League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collaborator Kevin O’Neill take a look at one of the more problematic superhero origins: Hal Jordan was given his Green Lantern ring by a Green Lantern who crashed to Earth in a spaceship. But if he had this amazingly powerful ring that enabled spaceflight, what was he doing in a spaceship in the first place? Moore tells the tale of Jordan’s alien predecessor Abin Sur and his encounter with the grotesque Quill of the Empire of Tears, who offers three fateful predictions.
It’s worth noting that the Alan Moore doesn’t really show up here. There’s nothing here that revolutionized the industry, no stories that would forever redefine an iconic character. For the most part, it’s pretty basic work-for-hire: Backup stories, annuals, and general fill-in work for a writer still on his way up. The nature of the work, and perhaps Moore’s less than enthusiastic attitude towards it, shows up in a few of the stories: Father’s Day, a two-part story from Vigilante (one of DC’s Punisher-influenced books about, yes, a vigilante) seems particularly weak. While it plays to some of Moore’s stereotypical strengths—a dark story about a woman and her daughter trying to escape her brutally possessive husband, a quasi-realistic, street-level hero—it feels uninspired and surprisingly unambitious. While Moore makes a nice attempt at giving a violently abusive father a sympathetic voice, the story is mired by a dull protagonist and a group of streetwise hookers and drug dealers who seem to have escaped from a 1970s blaxploitation flick.
Even the generally acclaimed The Killing Joke doesn’t particularly live up to Moore’s standards. It feels like Moore trying a bit too hard to be Alan Moore (by the time it was written in 1988, Moore had cemented himself as one of the best in the business). It’s a dark and brooding story of the Joker, his origin, the relationship with Batman that seems destined to destroy them both. The Joker brutalizes Commissioner Gordon’s daughter (and Batgirl alter ego) Barbara in an attempt to prove that everyone, even outstanding citizens like Gordon, are bad day away from insanity. Moore has since distanced himself from the story, saying it says very little about anything; while it’s an nice enough story, boosted several notches by stellar artwork by Brian Bolland, it’s really just an encapsulation of several decades worth of Batman and Joker stories. It’s unfortunate that The Killing Joke seems to have become the template for the modern Batman/Joker dynamic; even more so given that few writers seem to remember that the story ends not with gunplay or fisticuffs, but laughter.
Alan Moore he has defined himself as a man who will not be defined. While he has been followed by countless imitators Moore’s legacy lies not in Watchmen or V for Vendetta or even From Hell. Rather, it lies in Moore himself, as perhaps the only man in comics who could write both Watchmen and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tommorrow?, snapshots like In Darkest Night and epic and intricate works like From Hell. DC Universe: TheStories of Alan Moore doesn’t contain Moore’s best work, or the stories for which he’ll be best remembered, but they nonetheless provide a view of the important developmental steps of a rising star, as well as a side of the author that should not be ignored. As the stories in this volume attest, Moore’s aim was never to make comic books grow up; all he ever wanted was to make them smarten up.