“There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse if often closer to the truth. Stories shape the world. They exist independently of people, and in places quite devoid of man, there may yet be mythologies.”
― Alan Moore, Swamp Thing, Vol. 2: Love and Death
I was interested in comics and writing long before I discovered Alan Moore, though he certainly was one of several writers who had a profound influence on me, in that they showed the absolute power a writer welds to make a story, or character – any character – complex and literary or conversely average. Another of these writers was also English – a television writer named Michael J. Bird, whose name I noticed as a child in the credits of several Mediterranean themed BBC dramas. These writers are probably an article each – and this isn’t about them.
It’s about something further back.
It’s about a lingering scent from childhood. The warm crisp slightly musky smell of cheap paper coated in cheap ink.
It’s about a small shy child sitting at home by a fireplace on a winter’s night waiting for his father to come home from work. Hearing the sound of an engine, and the creak of the basement garage, that signals his father’s return, he scrambles to his feet and rushes to meet the opening door. The child practically knocks his father over and grabs the old brown leather briefcase out of his hand, drops to the ground and searches among the cycle-part catalogs and tissue-thin invoices.
There’s a slight skip of his heart as he finds what he seeks: two or three thin newsprint comics, flat, white and pristine. Usually the English comics 2000AD & Battle, and one of the shorter lived IPC series of the day, Starlord, Tornado, Speed, Scream or the second Eagle. Occasionally there would just be invoices and the child would cry to his father “You forgot my comics!” and be very, very sad.
It has been so long since I have seen comics like these as they were then, black and white with color inserts, the fresh scent of ink as the page unfolds; yet I still know how they looked, how the paper felt between my fingers. All these comics were weekly, and had around five stories, each five pages in length – continuing serials. Judge Dredd, Johnny Red, Ro-Busters, Charley’s War, Dan Dare, Nemesis… so many wonderful iconic characters! I would often flick to whichever story had been left with the most exciting cliff-hanger the week previous and devour that first, slowly savoring the others over the course of the evening.
Only 2000AD remains today. It’s been a long time since I even saw a new copy. Last time it was in a comic specialty shop, and the comic was larger format, glossier, full color, printed on expensive paper, cost about $14 and there were naked women in the Judge Dredd strip.
And there-in lie all the problems, and the reasons why comics are all but lost and children will never know the excitement I felt. I really loved comics: comics were so important to me and I learned many things from them.
Even in this time, as a child (shall we call it pre-Moore), I noticed certain writers names in the credits and that most of my favorite stories seemed to be written by Pat Mills, John Wagner, or Gerry Finley-Day. It was the very first time I realized that there actually were people who wrote these stories – real humans – and some were definitely better at their job than others – especially to a discerning eight year old. Comics fueled my already established interest in reading. They encouraged me to draw. To draw my own comics, and soon I found I would have to write something – a script – so I could draw it. Comics absolutely led me to discover the love of writing. Without them – it’s unlikely I would have tried to write anything. Of course after a while I found I enjoyed writing more, and began to experiment with prose rather than comic scripts.
Comics shared with books a natural progression; picture books cater for children of all ages, then lead onto young adult novellas and finally adult novels – comics once did this too. There were comedy strips for very small children – Scooby Doo, Donald Duck etc in America and in the UK, the Beano, Whizzer and Chips and others – which produced extremely talented cartoonists such as Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid, creators who actually broke new ground and created magic on the page to delight their young readers. Moving up an age bracket, there were comics aimed at older children and young teens – Action, Eagle, and of course 2000AD. In the USA there were the superhero comics – Batman, Superman, Thor and many more costumed heroes for this age group.
Yes, comics waned due to the rise of computer games and play-station, which offer cheap thrills, but don’t make you think the way the written word or inked picture does (in fact the opposite – it’s not hard to argue that entertainment like play-station and TV actually kill creativity in both children and adults). So competition from other entertainment certainly led to comics decline, yet some fundamental changes within the comics industry also spelled a death knell.
Alan Moore and other writers like Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman appeared, followed by less talented writers who imitated their style without the substance. Comics grew up – which was the slogan in the 80s – Batman became the Dark Knight, gritty and realistic – writers tried to make all comics appeal to late teens and adults. Superman got killed and brought back to life. Characters got re-booted and re-imagined again and again. Comics gained higher production values, garish computer coloring and slick glossy paper. They became very expensive and were no longer sold in news-stands (in the US), or in dairies and bookshops in New Zealand. When I was a children, comics were everywhere; as easy to find as sweets. Now they are only sold in specialist stores in main cities, hidden away in dark bunkers.
Somewhere along the line, the comics industry forgot children. Moore and Miller – if they made one detrimental impact on comics – and I think they did – it’s this: they took the children’s Batman (and others kid’s comic characters) and tried to turn him into literature for grown-ups in ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘The Killing Joke’. Batman is not an adult concept and never will be. No matter how dark and violent writers make it – it’s a child’s fantasy and should be written that way. The comics industry saw what they created sold, and began churning out increasingly complex, gimmicky, expensive comics and forgot that their main audience should have been children. Of course I am (slightly) a grown up and would like to write a adult comic, and pursue literary themes, of sex, death, and love. (As you do). Yet if I was to write a comic (if DC or Marvel or any other publishers are listening?), I’d have one quite distinct desire. What I’d really like to write is a comic that tells a exciting, original, and straightforward story, one produced and sold cheaply, one that would excite an 8-12 year old, as much as it did the child opening his father’s old briefcase many years ago.
I’d love to revive some of the English characters I grew up with like Johnny Red, or The 13th Floor, but if not? Green Lantern? Sure why not? Thor? Absolutely. Anything can be good. If the writer makes it so. This is what comics and comic book writers taught me.