“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 he showed the absolute power a writer welds to make a story, or character – any character – complex and engaging, or conversely, average and forgettable. 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 worth an article each – and this isn’t about them.
It’s about a lingering scent from childhood. The warm, crisp, slightly musky smell of thin newsprint coated in cheap ink.
It’s about a shy child sitting at home by a fireplace on a winter’s night waiting for his father to come home from work.
Hearing 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 and 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’s been a long time since I’ve seen comics like these as they were, black and white with color inserts, the fresh scent of ink as the page unfolds; yet I still remember how they looked, how the paper felt between my fingers. All these comics were weekly, and had around five stories, each five or 6 pages in length – continuing serials. Judge Dredd, Johnny Red, Ro-Busters, Charley’s War, Dan Dare, Halo Jones, 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 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 $15 and included sexual situations in the Judge Dredd strip.
And there-in lies the problem, and reason comics are all but lost to children.
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 2000AD. In the USA there were the superhero comics – Batman, Superman, Thor, many kids costumed heroes aimed at this age group.
Yeah, comics waned due to the rise of computer games, which can never make a child 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 kill creativity in both children and adults). Competition from other entertainment certainly led to the decline of the comic book, yet some fundamental changes within the comics industry also spelled a death knell.
Pre-Moore, I took note of certain writers names in the credits, and quickly noticed 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 there actually were people who wrote these stories – real humans – and some definitely better at it 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’d have tried to write anything. After a while I found I enjoyed writing more, and began to experiment with prose rather than comic scripts.
Great writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman appeared, followed by less talented journeymen who imitated their style without substance. Comics grew up – which was the slogan in the eighties – Batman became the Dark Knight, gritty and “realistic” – publishers tried to make all comics appeal to late teens/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 while story and art grew secondary. They became expensive, no longer sold in news-stands (in the US), or in dairies and bookshops in New Zealand. When I was a child, comics were everywhere; as easy to find as sweets. Now they are only sold in specialist stores in big 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 other kid’s characters) and attempted to create fiction for grown-ups in ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘The Killing Joke’. They failed. But of course they would. A billionaire dressing as a bat isn’t subject matter for adult literature and never will be (unless we delve into fetishism, not that there’s anything wrong with doing so). No matter how dark and violent writers make superheroes – it’s a childish concept (and should remain so). Unfortunately, the comics industry saw what Moore and Miller created, and began churning out increasingly convoluted, gimmicky, dark, pricey comics and forgot that their main audience should have been kids. Neglecting young readers has not only been detrimental to the children themselves who’ve lost a valuable method of improving reading and exposure to a vibrant creative medium, but also to the industry itself, leaving it a very narrow, incestuous and shrinking audience (with a subsequent reliance on movie adaptions to make money).
Both Moore and Miller did embark on later work to expand the genres in play with Sin City (Miller), From Hell, and the unfinished Big Numbers (Moore).
As a (slight) grown up, yeah, sure, I’d like to write an adult comic, and pursue themes of love, sex, and death… as you do… but if I were to write a comic, I’d really like to create a one that tells an 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 one of the English stories I grew up with like Johnny Red, Dan Dare, or The 13th Floor, but if not? Ghost Rider? Sure, why not? Wonder Woman? Absolutely. Anything can be good. If the writer makes it so.
This is ultimately what comics and comic book writers taught me.
POST SCRIPT: In the years since this article was first posted, I was hired to write for the long running UK comic “Commando” (published since 1961), managed to create a handful of comics my 12 year old self would have enjoyed, and got to work with artists I admired as a child like Carlos Pino and Vicente Alcazar.
Currently I’m working on several adult, literary comics, focused on writing and story and making work with some Art in it. To get regular updates on these projects and a free prose book – sign up to my newsletter.