Dark Satanic Mills
We kill our idols at such an alarming rate, you’d think we could afford to replace them. At a time when great artistic achievement is increasingly hard to find, we have been gripped with a mania for casting the few geniuses our culture manages to mint aside with great force, usually less because we find something flawed in their creations than because we subject their personalities to some variety of purity test and find them wanting. Having long ago decided that the iron wall between art and artist should be melted down and crafted into heavy scarlet letters, we have moved on to deciding that we need not even care about the art at all, if the artist stubbornly refuses to conform to the shape of our momentary passions.
Such is the case with Alan Moore. Once thought to be the preeminent genius the comics medium had ever created, much of its fandom now treats him as if he is that uncle that we kind of liked as children before we learned that he liked to take shits in the doghouse. Moore’s brilliance has not dimmed; while his comics work lacks the raw, naked fire of brilliance his early stuff was consumed with (his Fashion Beast was quite good, but was a rewrite of an earlier work, and his Providence is an exceptional piece of neo-Lovecraftiana, but has the murk of the familiar), this is largely attributable to his lack of passion for the medium, which, after all, hasn’t done much for him. His new novel, Jerusalem, is by all accounts a work of extraordinary ambition, the likes of which very few of his peers would even dare attempt, let alone carry out successfully. And yet every time his name is formed on the keyboards of comics critics and journalists, it is with a faint look of disgust, as if they’d smelled something awful waft past as they were obligated to think about the man.
It’s hard to understand why this could be. Moore not only created at least half a dozen of what are almost inarguably the greatest comics of all time in Miracleman, Swamp Thing, Watchmen, From Hell, Lost Girls, and Promethea, but he has written a hugely engaging novel in Voice of the Fire, penned some incredibly good single-issue comics stories (including two of the best Superman stories ever told), and he’s acted as a voice of conscience for an art form that seems perpetually to lack one. In the meantime, he hasn’t done anything to deserve being ostracized from comics’ Garden of Eden; he isn’t a crass profiteer, an abuser of women, a thief of the work of others, a bastardizer of his own creations, or a shameless hypocrite, unlike many other comics people who are far more successful and accepted.
So where is this rage against the man coming from? It is often dressed up in a politically correct disguise: Alan Moore, we hear again and again, is a gross old man whose so-called ‘groundbreaking’ works depend on the tired and sexist trope of violence against women. This is hard to credit on its merits. While it’s true that several of his books — Watchmen, From Hell, and The Killing Joke in particular — have sexualized violence against women at their core, Moore is hardly unique in this regard. Many other male writers who have done the same enjoy a much brighter reputation; Neil Gaiman, in particular, uses the threat of rape and murder twice early on in his Sandman book (along with all kids of other distasteful sexism), but he seems to get a pass, perhaps because unlike Moore he engages in a sort of performative feminism. Female writers, too, have used sexual violence against women to fuel their stories. So why does Moore get in trouble for it?
Much of the criticism stems from The Killing Joke, but I don’t quite fathom this. It’s not particularly egregious (I could think of a dozen critically acclaimed comics far worse in that regard), nor is it even particularly obvious; what’s more, Moore has essentially agreed with his critics and disowned the book as an immature and compromised effort, something many of his more loved competitors have never done with their far worse work. And beyond that, who of Moore’s contemporaries, whether or not their stories feature sexualized violence, have written a comic as sublime and complex as Watchmen, as profoundly feminist as Promethea, as deeply and humanely sympathetic towards female victims of violence as From Hell? If we must punish him for his infrequent sins, may we no longer praise him for his far more common triumphs?
I think the rejection of Alan Moore has far more to do with his personality and his attitudes than it does anything he’s ever actually written. Moore, a man it is entirely fair to say has been fucked sideways by the comics industry, is not a forgiving sort: he does not let us forget how he has suffered, and I believe that many modern comics fans, who believe their aesthetic preferences must always be validated, feel a certain degree of guilt at the fact that they really liked the Watchmen movie and the mean old crank who wrote it is making them fell bad about it. Moore is extremely outspoken at what he perceives as injustices in the comics industry, and for people who are determined to spend lots of their money on that industry, that’s kind of a bummer. And so we get a backlash without a sensible target: Darwyn Cooke made the Watchmen into something far more misogynist and homophobic than Moore ever did, but he got rich doing it, and then had the good taste to die, while Alan Moore is still around writing things and bringing us down.
Alan Moore isn’t perfect. He’s often been wrong about things, and has made aesthetic choices that seem embarrassing. He has learned, and he has grown over time, as all good artists do. But there is nothing in his work that deserves the level of scorn aimed at him in the last decade, during a period when — by no coincidence — interest in the medium has skyrocketed, especially among fans who see criticism not as a way of engaging with art but as a means of patting themselves on the back. Someday he will die, as will those far guiltier of the sins we repute to him but whose work is not nearly as great. On that day, we will see what they all left behind, and wish we’d been more careful about consigning him to the shredder.