Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated the next twelve months to a reread of all of the major Alan Moore comics (and plenty of minor ones as well). Each week he will provide commentary on what he’s been reading. Welcome to the 12th installment.
Besides the three main serials that made his name in the comics industry, Alan Moore contributed dozens of short sci-fi comics to 2000 AD in the early 1980s, many of which were designed as part of the famous “Future Shock” section in the magazine. These two, three, four, or five-page stories were hyper-compressed tales with O. Henryish twists. The magazine’s editorial staff often tested younger writers on these kinds of stories as they continue to do today and the best of the “Future Shocks” distilled entire universes into a mere few pages. Some of them might even have been the engine that would have driven entire high-concept feature films, but in the hands of the keenest “Future Shocks” contributors, the concepts were whittled down into their essence and blasted at the reader in information-packed doses.
Also, they could be quite funny.
2000 AD was as much a humor magazine as it was a boy’s adventure anthology. In fact, its dark, edgy humor with the viciously satirical Judge Dredd at the center was a brilliant breeding ground for so many comic book writers and artists who would later dominate the American comic book industry. Though often the humor was chipped away for the American market, for readers who demanded serious, meaningful superhero action comics, so only the darkness and edginess remained.
But in “Future Shocks,” the gags were as important as the wittiness and all of it was presented totally straight-faced. The meticulously detailed sci-fi settings provided an unusual backdrop for the type of humor presented, though the British has always responded better to sci-fi comedy than we Americans.
Anyway, Alan Moore was pretty good at these types of stories, and though you can read all of his entries, along with other “Time Twisters” shorts and the brief “Abelard Snazz” series in The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks compilation reprinted in the U.S. last fall, I’ve highlighted some of the most interesting ones this week. Chronologically, these were all published within a year before or after the milestone that was Warrior#1. So they are pre-and-post Alan Moore’s initial launch into the stratosphere of comic book greatness, but not by much.
These are the “Future Shocks” that particularly display Alan Moore’s signature genius. Or maybe they just struck me as particularly hilarious, and by my reckoning, good humor always trumps genius.
“The Last Rumble of the Platinum Horde,” 2000 AD #217 (IPC Magazines, June 1981)
John Higgins later to provide the colors on Watchmen provides the penciled-and-inked artwork for this story about a futuristic alien culture (with clearly Imperial Japanese overtones and sense of style) called the Karbongian Empire and their war-like romp across the universe.
After “a billion bloodstained years,” with less than 10,000 warriors remaining, and a seemingly infinite universe stretched out ahead of them, the Platinum Horde of the Karbongians marched forward, razing every inhabited world in their path.
The twist? They learn that space is not linear, but circular, and the most recent world they have destroyed is their own homeworld. They’ve done a full loop around the universe. Their decision: “There’s only one thing we can do only one thing we know how to do we just keep going!”
It’s not the very first of the Alan Moore “Future Shocks,” but it’s the first one that walks that line between compelling and insightful and violent and funny, and it provides a bit of commentary on the machinery of war and its never-ending goals of conquest. In only a few short pages, Moore provides enough texture to establish the fictional reality of an entire culture, and there are even a few small character moments tossed in along the way. It’s not just set-up, twist. It’s set-up, story, characters, interactions, conflict, then a savage irony at the end.
“The Regrettable Ruse of Rocket Redglare,” 2000 AD #234 (IPC Magazines, Oct 1981)
This one’s even better.
With Mike White providing workmanlike artwork in the manner of a traditional space hero mold (with a Wally-Wood-from-Mad-magazine undertone), Moore deconstructs the entire space opera genre in six short pages. It may be overstating it to say this “Future Shocks” installment does for Flash Gordon what “Marvelman” or Watchmen does for superheroes, but it wouldn’t be an extreme overstatement. This is a brutally funny takedown of the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers/Dan Dare kind of hero, deflating and amusing at the same time.
In this short tale, we meet Rocket Redglare, once a great space hero, now a flabby middle-aged man who wears a girdle just to fit into his old costume for a pathetic public relations gig. His wife hates him, and reminds him of what she gave up to be with him she could be the Queen of the nefarious Loomis Logar now but she had to run off with the “hero.” The once-great Rocket Redglare who the younger generation doesn’t even remember. The former icon who’s best-paying job is showing up at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a “Mega-Market.”
Rocky, as his wife calls him, has a plan. He secretly meets up with Loomis Logar, his long-ago adversary, and asks him to help everyone remember how much they all need Rocket Redglare. If only Logar could mobilize his space armada and attack Earth, then the hero could fly in with his ship and save the day. Just like old times. It would be fun for everyone.
Everything goes according to plan. Rocket Redglare much to everyone’s relief is called back into action to repel the attacking fleet. But when he pilots his rocket towards Logar’s flagship, he doesn’t expect two giant robotic hands to emerge and crush him, and his rocket, into a twisted ball of blood and flesh and metal. Logar, you see, has held a grudge for all these years, and has patiently waited for a chance to kill his longtime enemy. So much for Rocket Redglare. So much for the space hero. The Earth is easily razed in the final panels.
Moore has often cited the Harvey Kurtzman influence on his work, and these “Future Shocks” do owe a debt to the early issues of Mad in more than just the artwork. But what makes Moore’s stories a bit different, is that while he may employ gags (like the giant robot hands crushing the hero’s ship), he doesn’t employ that kind of exaggerated foolishness from the beginning. He establishes the reality of the fictional world before he comes in and provides the dagger of comedy. That’s what humanizes his stories, and keeps them from being as cartoony as even the best of the Mad tales, even while they treat the world and the various offshoots of the sci-fi genre with the same kind of irreverence.
“A Second Chance,” 2000 AD #245 (IPC Magazines, Jan 1982)
Spanish artist Jose Casanovas provides the detailed linework for this one, and it’s certainly a lesser effort from Moore than the stories I’ve highlighted so far, but in only two pages it does manage to encapsulate some of the same themes of his other work, with a quick apocalypse, and nearly all of humanity destroyed by their own weapons.
The joke here and it’s similar to one that was later used by Saturday Night Live, and probably a dozen other places, because it’s a pretty obvious gag is that one man survives. Hope remains. Our protagonist staggers along the desolate landscape and finds a single survivor. A young female. Together, they will repopulate the Earth.
His name? Adam.
“Twist Ending,” 2000 AD#246 (IPC Magazines, Jan 1982)
In the very next issue, Moore provides another short-and-sweet-and-insubstantial-but-funny installment of “Future Shocks.” It’s among the good ones, but not one of his very best, and this time it’s Paul Neary (now known mostly as a long-time inker and one-time Marvel UK editor) who provides the art, and his elastic version of Ditko-esque characters lend themselves to the over-the-top story Moore has to tell.
This one’s a meta-commentary on the kind of “twist ending” stories these “Future Shocks” are built around hence the title of this story with an aggressive reporter trying to find out if Lamont Cosgroose’s sci-fi tale, “The Best that Types Like a Man” is as autobiographical as he suspects. Is Cosgroose an alien in disguise, like the character from his story. Is that how this schlumpy, inarticulate-seeming man can capture, in prose, the authenticity of alien lifeforms?
The reporter presses. Things get violent. But Cosgroose wears no mask. He’s but a man.
After the reporter leaves, we find out his secret. He may not be an alien. But his typewriter is. Cosgroose tells it to get back to finishing “The Invasion of the Death-Gerbils.”
Fact: the twist about the typewriter is funny enough, but ending it with the line about “Death-Gerbils” is what shows that Alan Moore has what it takes to make it in today’s harsh comic book climate.
“An American Werewolf in Space,” 2000 AD#252 (IPC Magazines, Feb 1982)
Paul Neary rejoins Moore for this three-pager, which begins like an Alienriff, with a monster aboard a space ship. In this case, though, it’s a Lon Chaney-style werewolf, and as the beast leaps out of the dark corners of the ship toward his unsuspecting target, we discover the twist: the victim, too, transforms into a werewolf.
“Hmmm. Well. I’d counted on having all these humans to myself, but I suppose we could make it a two-way split ”
But wait, more irony! It turns out that everyone aboard the ship can turn into a werewolf.
Moore cuts back to mission control on Earth, where the command center folks pat each other on the back for their great idea about sending all the planet’s werewolves, unsuspectingly, into deep space. The final panel shows a bunch of sinister-looking guys lining up for the next launch ship. These guys all have widow’s peaks and wear capes or overcoats. One signs in: “Uhh, Alucard Count Alucard.”
See, it’s Dracula, spelled sideways. These are vampires, get it?!?
All those twists and jokes in only three pages. Actually, this one is pretty close to classic-Kurtzman Mad, the more I think about it. Still funny, though.
“The Wages of Sin,” 2000 AD#257 (IPC Magazines, March 1982)
Okay, as much as I like the “Rocket Redglare” story, and think it’s kind of a brilliant deconstruction of an entire genre I’m rather fond of, this one is the only of Alan Moore’s “Future Shocks” to make me laugh out loud, then go to members of my family and enthusiastically point out one panel in particular. I’m hesitant to even discuss that panel, because there’s no way the description will provide any of the humor you’d get from actually seeing the comic. But let me tell you about the story first.
It’s drawn by Bryan Talbot, someone I’ve probably never mentioned in any of my posts for Tor.com, but if you don’t know much about Talbot, you should spend some time getting to know his work. His Adventures of Luther Arkwright, began in 1978, is a pioneering sci-fi graphic novel. It’s visually distinctive and hugely influential, and yet somehow still widely unknown by the kinds of readers who really should know such things. Most people these days tend to know him for his Grandville books, which are anthropomorphic steampunk detective graphic novels. They are just fine. But I prefer his earlier, rougher, headier work.
Anyway, he draws “The Wages of Sin,” and though it’s a lightweight yet hilarious story, his work on the character’s faces help to sell it as a minor masterpiece.
The premise is simple. The “Famous Villains Training School” is advertising for applicants. There are too many “square-jawed champions of justice” these days, and not enough arch-villains for them to battle. We follow lowly out-of-work repairman Stig Rutterblug as he attends the school, and learns under the drill-sergeant like tutelage of one Mr. Dreadspawn (who sports a skullcap, pointy ears, sharp teeth, and a skull brooch to hold up his sinister cape and collar).
“Listen, you vermin,” spits Mr. Dreadspawn to the pathetic Rutterbug, “to be a successful villain these days you’ve got to look evil! How about long tusks and a scarred face?”
“Er..couldn’t I just have a slight limp and a nasty cough?”
That’s the type of humor (and commitment from Moore and Talbot) that make the story shine, and reveal it to be a precursor to basically all the superhero comedies to follow, from Mystery Men to The Tick to whatever James Gunn has been up to.
I don’t know that the individuals involved with any of those comics and movies would have read this particular Alan Moore “Future Shock,” but the tone of those is present here. No doubt about that.
And my favorite panel? Mr. Dreadspawn, filled with frustration during a lesson, shouting, “No, no, NO! You’re supposed to raise your hand in a claw-like gesture of defiance as you fall into your own atomic reactor you don’t just WAVE!“
Talbot depicts a gleeful student waving at Dreadspawn, as he falls into the practice atomic reactor.
Maybe you had to be there.
It’s the funniest thing in the world when you read it on the page. Of course, now I completely ruined it for you. You’re welcome.
The story ends with kind of a whimper, after the formerly-pathetic Rutterblug looms over the populace and raises his metallic claw with a declaration: “You have not heard the last of Anthrax Ghoulshadow, B.A.!”
I don’t know, actually. That B.A. tag at the end is pretty hilarious. Maybe this is the greatest story ever? It’s possible. I love it to death.
I would buy an oversized hardcover reprint of just “The Wages of Sin.” It would fit nicely between Absolute V for Vendetta and Absolute Watchmen.
“Skirmish!” 2000 AD#267 (IPC Magazines, June 1982)
This one’s notable for two reasons: (1) It features art from future-Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons, and (2) it hinges on a classic arcade game joke.
The High Overfiend and his armada arrive into the “Earth Continuum” and find themselves in a strange dimensional space composed of “electronic pulse signals.”
They soon get blasted by a snotty teenager playing with a joystick and buttons: “This Space Invaders machine just went ‘Aaarrgh!”
Not as good as “The Wages of Sin,” I know. Still, not bad.
“The Disturbed Digestions of Doctor Dibworthy,” 2000 AD #273 (IPC Magazines, July 1982)
Dave Gibbons draws this one as well, and I’ll give it the unofficial award of best-looking of all the Alan Moore “Future Shocks” installments, even if the story doesn’t reach the heights of the now-legendary “Wages of Sin” or even “The Regrettable Ruse of Rocket Redglare.”
In the “Doctor Dibworthy” tale, Gibbons gets to show off his skill with mise-en-scene and characterization, as the scholarly doctor hears a knock at the door, and soon finds himself visited by his own future self, after playing with a bit of folded paper.
Soon, that one bit of folded paper has caused a chain reaction leading to multiple future duplicates appearing, including a haggard survivor who declares, “the invention of time travel will make trans-temporal war a reality, by my decade, the world will be in ruins.” But he’s immediately followed by an older, yet seemingly healthy and glimmering, future self who says, “He’s wrong!”
Eh, Doctor Dibworthy just decides to throw his folded piece of paper into the fire, and all the future selves vanish. He savors the silence, but then notices the swirling “flow-patterns” in his glass of port and hears a knock at the door.
This one’s more Twilight Zone than Mad magazine, and it doesn’t have the layers of the best of Moore’e “Future Shocks” nor does it have much in the way of humor. Still, it looks nice, and shows off some of the time-fracture ideas Moore and Gibbons would later explore with the Dr. Manhattan character in Watchmen, so it’s interesting on that level at least.
“Bad Timing,” 2000 AD#291 (IPC Magazines, Nov 1982)
The last of the very-good Alan Moore “Future Shocks” (but not his last 2000 AD contribution more “Future Shocks” and “Time Twisters” were yet to come, even if they didn’t quite make my “Best of” list this week, and Moore still had “Skizz” to write) features Mike White returning to provide art, and it’s the perfect way to cap off my review of this phase of Alan Moore’s career.
Did I plan it that way? Not exactly, but it ended up being the exactly right pick to shift into thinking about Moore’s move to DC comics, because “Bad Timing” tells a very familiar story. With, as always, a twist.
This one’s about the planet Klakton, where the chief scientist R-Thur warns of “Armaggeddon! Doomsday! Apocalypse! The Big Bang! The Whole Enchillada!” Unheeded by the planet’s elders, R-Thur rockets his infant son to a faraway planet called Earth.
Unfortunately, R-Thur was wrong about Klakton. It was just fine. His son, however, reaches Earth orbit just as the citizens of our planet launch an all-out nuclear war. Bad timing, as the title says.
Unofficial though it is, I suppose “Bad Timing” is Alan Moore’s first stab at a Superman story, or a parody of it at least. Like “A Second Chance” it’s more of a Saturday Night Live skit premise than it is a compressed-into-four-or-five page mini-masterpiece like the best of the “Future Shocks” bunch. But it does show Moore upending the Superman mythos. Irreverence abounds.
And though he was a year-and-a-half away from shifting his career over to DC Comics and kicking off his march on North American readers with his award-winning Swamp Thing run, this is the last bit of pre-DC work I’ll be writing about. So “Bad Timing” provides a fitting transition for what follows, as Moore takes his irreverence and cleverness and turns it loose on the DC Universe for real. As I’ll begin to discuss in next week’s entry.
I feel like, considering the subject matter of this week’s post, that I need to end with some kind of twist of my own, in standard “Future Shocks” fashion. Know this, then: I’m writing this column from inside your house. And your house is an alien. An alien who, meh, thinks Alan Moore is slightly overrated.
Zing. Take that, irony!
NEXT TIME: Alan Moore kicks off the British Invasion: Swamp Thing Part 1