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 22nd installment.
In my continuing attempts to confuse everyone by charging almost-chronologically-but-not-quite through the comic book works of Alan Moore, this time I’m jumping back to 1985, when Moore was first garnering attention at DC and getting a chance to turn his Swamp Thing popularity into a chance to write tiny back-up strips in other superhero comics and television dramas in the form of vigilante stories.
This is a guy, mind you, who had already exploded any minds (that were paying attention) with his “Marvelman” and “V for Vendetta” at Warrior and the patent-pending Most Amazing Comic Book Single Issue of All Time in Swamp Thing #21.
So of course he ends up writing four page strips in the back of the still-quite-unpopular-to-this-day Omega Men series. 1985’s version of Alan Moore was game for such things – after all, it mirrored his march through U.K.’s comic book landscape, back when he hopped between Star Wars shorts and Doctor Who tales and “Future Shocks.”
(And before the hate mail comes flooding in, I know some people do like Omega Men. I like Keith Giffen’s issues a heck of a lot myself. But let’s not kid ourselves: only a dozen people even remember the Omega Men series. And half of those only recall the guy who looks like a humanoid Wall-E.)
All of these stories I’ll be talking about this week (and next) can be found, by the way, in the handy single-volume DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore trade paperback edition. No need to scrape together your allowance to save for those pricey Omega Men back issues! Why just today, I checked eBay and noticed the issue with the first Alan Moore contribution selling for one-hundred-and-fifty cents. Guess the six Omega Men completists have that issue already.
First up: Not Omega Men. Instead, it’s the emerald archer himself, Green Arrow.
“Night Olympics Part One & Two,” Detective Comics #549-550 (DC Comics, April-May 1985)
Alan Moore pairs with then-frequent Frank Miller inker, Klaus Janson, on these two 7-page chapters of the kind-of-ridiculously titled “Night Olympics.” It’s a Green Arrow story, which means it involves archery, so I guess that’s the Olympics connection Alan Moore had in mind, but I’ll tell you this: it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s early-days Alan Moore reaching for a bit more poetry than he can effectively wedge into a short Green Arrow adventure.
The story is structured like a comedy, with street toughs giving up (and/or going into convulsions) at the mere sight of Green Arrow and Black Canary on the prowl. Moore establishes a DC Universe – from the street level, of course – where the superheroes have been so effective that the ordinary criminals not only hardly stand a chance, but immediately concede defeat when they see someone in a costume.
Green Arrow turns it into a sociological observation: “It’s like Darwinism or something…we’re gradually weeding out all the just-plain-average goons, gradually improving the strain…until only the flat-out-dangerous psychos are left in the running.”
What keeps it from being even the least bit funny is Moore’s attempt-at-grandeur captions, where he provides the “Olympic” narration: “The first event was the four-hundred meter dash with television set and first-stage drug withdrawl.”
Wait, that is funny. But it doesn’t feel funny with Klaus Janson’s moody, gritty pencils and inks. Actually, now that I think about it, it does almost read like a parody of what Frank Miller was doing just a year or two earlier on Marvel’s Daredevil comic. Grim characters living in an absurdly violent world, with long shadows and rooftop confrontations? Yeah, there’s more than a bit of Daredevil in the fourteen pages of this Green Arrow story, but it’s a lightweight affair at best, even if you concede to its parodic elements.
Basically, the twist is that Green Arrow and Black Canary end up hunted by “Pete Lomax…just an ordinary person,” also a master archer. But he’s no ordinary person, he’s a supervillain without a catchy name, and though he gets a sneaky strike in against Green Arrow’s lady, he’s easily dispatched by the superior bowman.
The story ends with Green Arrow bringing flowers to the recovering Black Canary, and the captions, repeating the opening Olympic-style narration, read: “Afterwards, all that remained was the soothing of injuries…and the awarding of laurels. There was no torch bearer...and no lighting of traditional fires. Nonetheless, a clear signal was given.” The heroes kiss. The end.
Not Alan Moore’s best.
Maybe if he had busted out the old Arrow Car, and some casual racism instead? No, he’s better off with the partly-jokey/semi-serious Frank Miller riff.
Vigilante #17-18 (DC Comics, May-June 1985)
Now here’s where Moore could have really dug into a Frank Miller style trench. Really carved up the noir landscape with this two-part story featuring the ski-goggles and velour-sweater wearing Vigilante, a district attorney with a mad-on for criminals and a secret night-time hobby of smashing their faces into the ground.
The Vigilante, 1980s-incarnation, was basically the Punisher with rubber bullets. He later became much darker and more extreme, and the series ended, years after Moore’s two-part contribution, with the lead character killing himself because of his guilt.
You might argue that such an ending for the series would have been impossible if not for Watchmen. And that would be easy to argue.
But issues #17-18 were a year or two before Watchmen, so the world didn’t know any better. DC was still a place, in those more innocent days, when a deranged district attorney/gun-toting vigilante would pull his punches for the sake of justice.
So there’s not much a Frank Miller thing going on in this two-parter, where Moore is reunited with his “Skizz” collaborator Jim Baikie for a story about pedophilia, prostitution, and murder. Hmmm…that does sound suspiciously like a Frank Miller story, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t read like one at all.
Instead, with this story about a young girl on the run from her abusive father, we get a kind of mid-1980s television melodrama version of events. The girl ends up rescued and protected by a kindly prostitute and her pal. Vigilante is called into help in what could easily have been a comical scene as the prostitute (who goes by the unlikely name “Fever”) calls the DA and his costumed alter ego shows up instead, as if that’s not a dead giveaway to his secret identity.
The crazed, butcher-knife-and-pistol-wielding father (who is wearing the universal costume of a creep: obese, slicked-back hair, and trenchcoat) chases after his daughter, kills a few people along the way, and ends up in a showdown with Vigilante and Fever.
It’s like a no-laughs Starsky & Hutch episode. Or something from Steven Bochco.
Alan Moore even gives us a scene where Vigilante’s superhero motorbike is stripped for parts when he leaves it parked in a bad section of town.
But the ending is far more gruesome than you’d see in 1985’s primetime television – or maybe I just wasn’t allowed to watch those episodes back then – with Vigilante shielding the young girl, and Fever, behind the wheel of a car, not only running down the child’s creepy, murderous father, but then putting the parking brake on, and spinning the front wheels of the car on the body of the fallen man, splattering guts and blood everywhere.
Vigilante’s reaction? “Oh jeez…”
I don’t know why DC bothered, for all of these years, to try to entice Alan Moore back to do something else with Watchmen. The real money – and glory – would obviously have been in the further adventures of Vigilante and Fever. Every issue would have ended with Fever doing something unbelievably vicious to a criminal, and Vigilante just shrugging and saying his “Oh jeez” tagline.
“Brief Lives” and “A Man’s World,” Omega Men #26-27 (DC Comics, May-June 1985)
The Omega Men series – as much as I lovingly mocked it in the opener – is probably best known as the birthplace of Lobo, who first appeared in issue #3 and dominated the entire comic book landscape within another few years, with his flying motorcycle and his sassy attitude.
The Omega Men themselves are a rag-tag bunch of space-rebels, with names like Tigorr and Primus and Doc and Felicity. They look cool, they act cool, and they get in and out of space-trouble during their space-adventures on their space-ship.
Alan Moore doesn’t write about any of that stuff – or any of the actual Omega Men – in his two four-page backup stories for the Omega Men series. No, these are color versions of what are basically “Future Shock” stories, set in the DC Universe, even if it has nothing to do with Batman or Superman or even Tigorr or Felicity.
The first story is the best of the two, and it’s really the best of all the Alan Moore comics I’m writing about this week, even with its compact four pages. Moore is joined for “Brief Lives” by Kevin O’Neill, his 2000 AD peer and future League of Extraordinary Gentlemen collaborator. O’Neill, unlike many of that era of British comic book artists, had a particularly difficult time cracking into the American market because editors thought his work was too ugly. He was pretty much relegated to weird back up stories in DC sci-fi comics.
And this qualifies as a weird sci-fi story, but it’s also particularly sharp. The compressed plot features the Spider Guild attempting a take-over of the planet Ogyptu. But it turns out that Ogyptu is populated by giants who move so slowly that the “blinking of an eye lasts for ten of [the Spider Guild’s] years.” The spider-aliens try to make themselves known to the giants, so they can declare the takeover of the planet, but to no avail. Eventually (and remember, all this takes place in four pages), they whither and die, and the giants just sit there. At the end, we shift to giant-time, and hear their conversation as they notice some brief dust cloud (the nuclear detonation of some further attempt at an invasion, lifetimes in the future of the Spider-Guild, presumably). “Don’t let it worry you,” one giant says to another, “Life’s too short.”
Ha! Funny, right? Yes, indeed it is. Not as funny as my idea for an Alan Moore return to Vigilante, but close.
Sadly, Moore’s second Omega Men backup story is not nearly as clever. It’s not even particularly strange. It’s a miss, with a tale, illustrated by Paris Cullins, about the men of Culacao, a tribal society which reproduces via giant mollusks instead of sexual coupling.
An alien ethnographer studying the tribe teaches one of the young men about sex, behind closed doors, and…that’s the whole story. The young Culacao swaggers around with new confidence after his physical encounter, and colors a stick outside his hut to show that he’s now a man, but there’s really no story here beyond that. No twist ending, other than the reveal that the Culacao reproduce via mollusk, which I guess…is…funny somehow?
Nope, I declare it unfunny. Not good enough, Alan Moore! Don’t worry, though. It’s only 1985. You still have a chance to prove yourself!
NEXT TIME: Brightest Day! Blackest Night! Alan Moore turns a planet into a Green Lantern, all right!