Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Mention Alan Moore to a comics fan, and the images that come to mind are probably pretty dark: the Comedian being thrown through a window at the start of Watchmen; the twisted politicians and equally problematic anti-heroes of V for Vendetta; the ghoulish tour through a dystopic London in Moore's Jack The Ripper masterpiece, From Hell. These images come to us in narratives that play with comic book time and space, that want to rethink tropes of reading and seeing, and use their eerie surfaces as generic lures for the reader.
But who says revisionism and formal play has to be dark? By 1993, Moore himself was a bit disturbed by what Watchmen had wrought: not the explosion of comic book innovation he'd hoped for, but books which ignored Moore's and artist Dave Gibbons' textual radicality and instead simply recycled the "gritty" characters and violent scenes with none of Watchmen's irony (thus proving, as Dorian mentioned the other day, that Rorschach really is a parody of comic book fans and authors). In response, Moore engaged in the most creative of penances: by crafting the delightful miniseries 1963 for Image Comics. Designed as both a tribute to and parody of the Marvel Comics of the 1960s, it's full of the same kinds of intertextual pleasures that other Moore texts provide: the knowing parodies of genre, the clever page designs, and the wraparound "paratextual" elements that make the entire book an art object (in Watchmen, this included a parallel pirate comic narrative that ran at the end of some issues, derived from a book within the main story; in 1963, it's fake "Bullpen Bulletin" pages-- here called "Sixty-Three Sweatshop"--made-up letters pages, and parodies of the old "Mighty Marvel Marching Society" that played up the former's militarist undertones). But because it comes to us in a much brighter and wittier package, its tone is much subtler: we're having so much fun reading that it takes us a minute to realize the complexity of Moore's project.
If you grew up reading Marvel in any period, but especially if you're familiar with the mid-60s brilliance and hucksterism of Stan Lee, 1963 should feel strangely familiar. There's "Mystery Incorporated," a pastiche of The Fantastic Four whose name reminds readers that the fearsome foursome were themselves pastiches of the earlier Challengers of the Unknown; "The Fury," whose name is reminiscent of a certain Marvel super-spy, but who is actually a play on heroes like Spider-Man and the Black Panther (Nick Fury is parodied in another feature, "Sky Solo, Lady of L.A.S.E.R."); a Thor parody called "Horus, Lord of Light"; and my personal favorite, "Johnny Beyond," a play on Dr. Strange whose beatnik image acts as a reminder of the Greenwich Village that would've surrounded the Marvel Dr. Strange in the 1960s, and becomes the launching pad for some funny cultural critique when Johnny is suddenly time-warped into a yuppified, 90s Village:
The miniseries has fun with its format, toggling between standalone issues for a given character, and "split-screen," half-and-half shared books reminiscent of the old Tales of Suspense. This means none of the characters wear out their welcomes, while allowing Moore and his artists (including Dave Gibbons, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette, all of whom are given playful monikers reminiscent of the old Marvel credits) to quickly weave an interconnected universe of heroes and villains that acts as a playful commentary on narrative continuity, fan obsession and editorial fiat ("Affable Al," as he calls himself, crafts a persona in the paratextual materials that's a sharp critique on Stan Lee's tendency to hog the spotlight).
The most Moore-like of all the gestures is one that happened by accident: the series actually never ended. The final issue was designed to lead into an annual that would time-warp the "1963" characters into the 1993 Image universe, but various personal and business problems meant that the annual was never written. Although it happened by chance, it's actually my favorite moment in the whole series; by forcing the reader to complete the story in his or her imagination, Moore and Co. stumble on the great secret of superhero serials: their open-ended, "Exquisite Corpse"-like appeal to future generations of comic book fans and artists, each of whom will build on what came before and establish new paradigms for readers and writers. As far as I know, 1963 has never been collected, and it can be difficult to track down (but it's well worth looking for). But I do wish some enterprising writer or fan would pick up the threads of Moore's project and carry it forward. In an age of Civil War and Final Crisis and 65 Wolverine titles, I'm kind of curious to see what new bind Johnny Beyond has gotten himself into.