For most of their history, superheroes served as aspirational figures: they were looked at as examples of human excellence and strength; they were only capable of doing good; they were resistant to the temptations that would have easily snared ordinary men. Superheroes were the ultimate fantasy: dream-like in their perfection.
Esteemed comic book writer Grant Morrison expands on this in the introduction to his 2011 book Supergods, noting that the arrival of the more familiar iterations of costumed heroes such as Superman — a character he described as “…a perfectly designed emblem of our highest, kindest, wisest, toughest selves” — at the height of the Cold War effectively quelled the masses’ fear of the ever-looming Bomb, with their presence giving readers such as himself, a semblance of hope in those grim times. “In Superman and his fellow superheroes, modern human beings had brought into being ideas that were invulnerable to all harm, immune to deconstruction, built to outsmart diabolical masterminds, made to confront pure Evil and, somehow, against the odds, to always win,” Morrison writes.
Writer Julian Darius holds a similar view, asserting in an expansive series of essays for Sequart Organization that throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, comic book heroes were openly “pro-establishment figures, happily working with the police and presenting Western society as untroubled,” further noting that any theme that appeared to subvert the “happy veneer of Western society,” such as poverty or bigotry, would never be depicted in their pages. “These super-heroes could only appear to be champions of fairness because the world around him was so vastly out of touch with reality,” Darius says.
Alan Moore changed all of that.
Eschewing the established conventions of the genre, the characters that populated Moore’s books were nothing short of game-changers: they lived in a world that mirrored our own; They were tortured souls; They had morals, yes, but they were also incredibly myopic; They were ruthless and callous; They were desensitized and alienated; They were losers; They were prone to sin and abuse; They were flawed; They were human.
In Miracleman for example, Moore dared to challenge the concept of the Nietzschean ubermensch and deconstructed the mythology surrounding the superhero: his origins, his motivations, his moral compass. In Watchmen, Moore dissected and questioned the world he lived and operated in: How would people react to a costumed vigilante? What would the world be like if Superman and other self-styled “heroes” and “gods” actually existed alongside us? Going by the ideas postulated by Moore, the answer isn’t all peachy and bright.
Despite his propensity to deconstruct the mythology surrounding the superhero however, one must not make the mistake of thinking that Moore hates the genre — he doesn’t. In fact, if one were to look closely at his works — specifically his seminal run on Miracleman — one would see that it’s a cerebral meta-commentary on the kind of comics that Moore grew up with, as well as the inherent silliness they embraced back then. Much like what other writers would come to do after him, Moore simply forced those comics — as well as their characters and readers — to grow up and deal with reality.
It’s the same philosophy he applied on one of my favorite Superman stories, Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow? which imagines a world where *spoiler* the Man of Steel decides to give up superheroics to live a normal life with Lois and their son. It’s a powerful and emotional story, an exploration of Superman’s identity as depicted in the Silver Age as much as it is of his humanity, alien origins be damned. But a second reading reveals that it’s also a treatise on the role of superheroes to the world at large. In it, Moore — through Superman, no less — bravely postulates this: “Superman was overrated. Too wrapped up in himself. Thought the world couldn’t get along without him.”
As a reader, that alone was a lot to take in.
Moore wrote his last comic book story — the final issue of his long-running The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen — last week, and at the risk of sounding overly melodramatic, one might find it tempting to say that an era has come to an end.
It’s not too far-fetched of a statement. After all, Moore, as much as he complains about the influence Watchmen has on the current state of comic book writing — he says people put more focus on the superficiality of its grittiness and violence rather than its core message — did change the entire industry’s landscape: we see it in the increased number of experimental titles; in the uptick of unique and well-written characters and storylines; in the number of writers willing to take risks with their craft; we see it in the revamped takes on our favorite childhood heroes.
It’s tempting, to grieve and bemoan the fact that Alan Moore has left the world of comics, given his storied contributions to the industry. But it’s important to note that his works — V For Vendetta, From Hell, Promethea, Lost Girls, Supreme, Fashion Beast to name a few— are still with us and that the extent of his influence on is still far-reaching. So yes, Alan Moore may have left the industry, but to be honest, I’m not that sad. After all, in the words of Dr. Manhattan, “nothing ever ends.”