Mon
Jun 18 2012 2:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: 1963

1963 by Alan MooreTor.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 34th installment.

As I mentioned two weeks ago, Spawn #8 may have beat this series to the comic book shops by a month, but Alan Moore wound up writing for Image because of his work with a bunch of former collaborators on the retro-superhero series called 1963.

Printed on newsprint with flat colors and mimicking the sensibilities of early Marvel comics, 1963 was designed to be a loving tribute to the imaginative, over-dramatic stories of the past, and to provide a contrast to the gun-toting anti-heroes of the time in which it was published.

It not only sharply contrasted with every other Image book on the stands next to it, but it was conceived of as a work that would bridge the days of yesteryear with the comic books of today (or, what was “today” in 1993), and culminate in a massive 80-page 1963 Annual in which the old-fashioned pastiche characters would meet up with the Youngbloods and Spawns and Savage Dragons of 1993. Though all six issues of 1963 were released, the cliffhanger in the final issue – with the reveal of Rob Liefeld’s Shaft in front of a high-tech monitor board – was the last we saw of 1963. The Annual was never completed. Never will be completed.

The story remains unfinished.

As former Swamp Thing artist (and one of the driving forces behind 1963) Steve Bissette reveals in a post on his website from a couple of years ago, “we really dreamed that we’d one day finish it, and get it into print as a handsome one-volume collection.” Bissette goes on to say, “Over the past decade and a half, we hoped against steep odds and negotiated countless blind alleys, believing that we would one day be able to reprint the complete series, preferably with an ending (supplanting the planned but never completed announced 1963 Annual). We had some good ideas — I think we had some great ideas! — and in the end, we got mighty close.” But, because of the legal wrangling and behind-the-scenes disputes, Bissette says, “It won’t ever be. That dream is well and truly over, for my lifetime, at least.”

Like Big Numbers (and unlike Marvelman or V for Vendetta, which were completed years after their early un-ends), 1963 will always be one of those big Alan Moore projects that will remain open-ended, without resolution.

We have most of 1963 to reread – it’s easy enough to find in back-issue bins or online, and more copies of the comic were printed (and sold) than anything else Moore has ever written, save the collected edition of Watchmen – but we will never have it all. No one does. A written-and-drawn ending simply does not exist for the project.

But, I’ll tell you what: that’s okay. Because 1963 is among the weakest of all Alan Moore comics.

 

1963#1-6 (Image Comics, April-Oct. 1993)

For the Great Alan Moore Reread, I’ve been reading the comics in the same order in which I’ve been writing about them, so my opinion of these six issues may be affected my recent tour down Spawn-and-Violator memory lane, but think about that for a second. These comics pale in comparison to Spawn. And Violator.

I’m as surprised as you are.

I remembered these comics as clever parodies of old-fashioned comic book tropes, of the sort that Moore would later use in his Supreme series where he deconstructed the Superman myth mostly by celebrating its headier, more inventive days.

And while the 1963 issues are surely parodic, they are too similar to their source material. They are a joke that goes on for too long. An unfinished one, so that means it’s also without its punchline.

In isolation, any one of these six issues might be suitably diverting. Neither Moore nor his artistic collaborators do anything to make them particularly memorable – they all kind of blur together, giving off a specific cultural resonance, but without much sense of soul or substance – but I suspect that I might have enjoyed any one of these issues. If it were just one issue. But compounded with the other five, even with different names and characters and specific Marvel-homage gags, they are just too much. The page after page of inane dialogue – even though I get that it was intentionally inane – and superficial motivations were just overwhelming.

Maybe it takes a particular kind of obsessive fascination to really pay attention to the nuance of what Moore and company are doing in 1963, and I just don’t have it in me to care enough to look that closely at what lies beneath the surface of these issues.

Or maybe there’s just not all that much to find.

The big problem is this: I’ve read the Silver Age Marvel comics which 1963 parodies. And 1963 doesn’t do anything substantially different from the Fantastic Four, or Incredible Hulk, or Thor, or Dr. Strange comics that inspired the series. At least when I’m rereading the classic Marvel comics I can see the Marvel Universe coming together on the page, with plenty of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko art to make it look extraordinary. Here? A loving imitation of that stuff, with Rick Veitch and Steve Bissette and John Totleben and friends doing their best bullpen impersonations.

I’d rather have seen Veitch, Bissette, and Totleben draw like Veitch, Bissette, and Totleben.

I’d rather have seen more Alan Moore and less reheated Stan Lee-style servings.

And though the books are numbered — with Mystery Incorporated as 1963 Book One and No One Escapes…The Fury! As 1963 Book Two — and so on, Moore doesn’t even give us any progression of story from one issue to the next. Yes, we get the increasing sense that we’re building toward a confrontation with the present day Image characters, and yes the individual heroes band together in the Tomorrow Syndicate by Book Four, and yes the separate unrelated comics mimic the Marvel release schedule of a given month or two in the Silver Age, but none of those things make the series actually good. But that’s all 1963 is – fragmentary unfoldings of the past. A past easily accessible to anyone with a Marvel Masterworks volume on hand.

Two things keep 1963 from being absolute bottom-rung Alan Moore comics:

(1) The Silver Age pastiche boom, and mock-Lee/Kirby approach to comics, was practically non-existent when 1963 was originally released. Grant Morrison and Ken Steacy had done a memorable turn in that arena about nine months earlier, in DC’s Doom Patrol #53, but that kind of approach was a rare occurrence in the early-1990s, in a way that it just isn’t today. The Lee/Kirby pastiche comics are practically a genre unto themselves now.

(2) Though 1963 mostly lacks a satisfying narrative progression from issue to issue, there is a sense that Alan Moore is trying to top himself as he writes each successive comic. Certainly, by the time Book Five, Horus, comes around, and then Book Six, The Tomorrow Syndicate, Moore has kicked off some of the seemingly self-imposed constraints and let his own style shine through a bit more. Or at least the ideas seem Moore-generated, in a way that the early issues feature scenes that just seem safe and uninspired. Before Book Six climaxes with the reveal of Shaft (along with increasingly three-dimensional color rendering, to indicate that things are about to get “real”), the Tomorrow Syndicate flies through “Interdimensional Space” where they see “perplexing portals” into other realities. What we see on the page are images of other comics, from Bissette’s own Tyrant to Dave Sim’s Cerebus to Eddie Cambell’s Deadface, to Frank Miller’s Sin City, and more. It places the comic book hypernauts in a distinctly comic book multiverse, and underlines it as a piece of comic book commentary, instead of just a tame parody of what has come before.

But to get to that moment of revelation, you have to read through almost the entire series, and, in the end, is that revelation even all that interesting? It’s certainly a much clumsier version of what Moore already did with “In Pictopia” over half a decade before.

So that’s what we’re left with. A small glimmer of things that are worthwhile in a six issue project that overstays its welcome by about 80 pages. Perhaps 80 more pages, in the Annual would have made it work as a larger whole. We’ll never know.

What we’re left with instead is a small collection of comics (with nicely-designed retro covers – worth highlighting) that don’t have much to recommend them beyond their enthusiasm for replicating the past. A lot of comics that come out every Wednesday do that already, without Alan Moore’s help.

 

NEXT TIME: Not zeroes, but, in fact, heroes – WildC.A.T.s. by Alan Moore.

 


Tim Callahan writes about comics for Tor.com, Comic Book Resources, and Back Issue magazine. Follow him on Twitter.

14 comments
rob mcCathy
1. roblewmac
I can't say you're wrong but I liked the humor better than you did "radiation! GET a hose and really the idea of a giant dinosuar killing all the dinosars (by the way that's not a very Marvel 1963 idea) more Dc 1955. While I too would have liked more bang for my buck. I was 20 years old in 1993, in on the joke and happier having bought them than not. I suspect I am typical of the titles readers.
Jeff R.
2. Jeff R.
I always had a "the annual is going to pull everyting together in a really clever way" sense with these. (Much the same as with Gaiman's Miracleman and it's yet-unwritten final act. And most of the second act in that case.)

And even without that, the fake ads and Bullpen columns were worth the (fairly cheap) price of admission with these...
rob mcCathy
3. roblewmac
Does anybody think having a huge world ending anual that never came out is part of the joke? after all in 1963 Marvel did a HUGE battle at Reed Richards and Sue StOM'S wedding most of the univese gets in a big fight and in the end it does'nt matter.
Yep it's a reach but when talking about 17 year old pardody of 48 year old comics it seems a good time to REEEACH(GRIN)
Jeff R.
4. avidreader514
I couldn't disagree with you more: 1963 sets up the fun in America's Best comics. Spawn/Violator/WildCATS are the false steps and remain at the bottom of the barrel. Only the Supreme work shows Moore in fine form.
rob mcCathy
5. roblewmac
I like 1963 better than tom strong not as well as superme
Jeff R.
6. jman313
I really enjoyed 1963, it was more of the Moore having a good time while demonstrating how annoyingly serious comics had become and still somewhat are. It definitely reads as the proto-Supreme just as Marvelman is to Watchmen in my opinion. It's good, but it misses greatness. The missing annual is more annoying I think then Big Numbers because unlike Big Numbers it really is the fault of the people working around Moore and not Moore himself, (or Veitch and Bissette).
Jose Solis
7. bludemos
I remember reading the series back then and liking it a lot... Especially the bullpen column. Affable Al's alliterative rants are hilarious, very much like Stan Lee on steroids... which was the whole point, I suppose...
Eli Bishop
8. EliBishop
I found 1963 a lot more interesting than other Silver Age parody/homage stuff for two reasons:

1. The skill of the artists. Bissette, Totleben, and Veitch don't draw exactly like the people they're paying tribute to, but they get what made that art *feel* the way it did, to an uncanny degree.

2. The multiple levels of parody. It's not just about the stories, it's about the whole pseudo-historical world in which those stories were published, and not all of the homage is affectionate: Affable Al isn't just yet another riff on Stan Lee's prose style and persona, but also a pretty pointed attack on his business practices.
Lenny Bailes
9. lennyb
I loved Alan Moore's 1963. I recommend it to anyone prone to giggle out loud while reading Tomorrow Stories, or to those who have found themselves mysteriously compelled to intensely scrutinize the history of the ersatz DC Universe (and its accompanying pastiche cover gallery) in Supreme.

If you find yourself astonishingly attracted to aspects of Affable Al's Acerbic Alliteration, 1963 fan, you're not alone.

The letter columns, full of fake mail and satirical responses from "Affable Al, and the gang at the Sweatshop" are just one thing to love. ("Well, Ronnie, we've seen several separate and somewhat sordid speculations as to our Solar Sentinel's sliced-up sire and his sibling sweetheart ...")

Legend has it that over the six issue span, every single letter published in the 1963 letter columns was fake, except for this one -- whose author will, I hope, forgive me for reposting it:

((Tor editorial folks -- if he expresses displeasure to you at seeing this here, please feel free to go into the material, and cut/excerpt it as you see fit.)

"Dear Al and the gang in the Sixty Three sweetshop
I'm writing to you all the way from Merry old England, and I'm
writing about the JOHNNY BEYOND story 'England Swings Like a Pendulum -- Don't!'
I thought it was very good, but thought that there were some things about England that you got wrong. I've been to London lots of times, and there aren't any thatched cottages in Trafalgar square. Also English policemen don't carry machine guns. Also the Queen lives in Buckingham Palace, not in Big Ben like you said. And we don't really say things like "Och Guvner, if oi dinna get me some steak en kidney poi this here minute I'm going to be right chitglins." like you had the Prime Minister saying to Johnny Beyond.
But, surprise! I'm not writing to ask for an anti-award. You see, I had an idea which is, I want to be a writer one day (maybe for the Sixty Three sweetshop!) and if maybe you write another story and send MYSTERY INCORPORATED or THE N-MAN or even THE FURY to England then you could send me the story to read before you print it and I could tell you if it's English enough?! How would that be?!? Isn't it a good idea?!?!
ps Also have you ever thought about giving the English super-spy The Bowler (from MYSTERY INC. #12, "When Stocks ...The Terminatron!") his own series?! All my friends at school would buy it, if you did!
Yours sincerely,
Neil Gaiman
Nutley, Sussex, ENGLAND"
rob mcCathy
10. roblewmac
personally this came out at the right time for me I was on early internet comic fourms hearing "STAn stole from Jack therefore your enjoyment of old Marvel comics is morally wrong! Besides grown-ups know the only comics worth reading are by Warren Ellis. 1963 was a thing I could point to and say "Here's what Alan More writes now" As you can tell this pleased me no end.
Kevin Maroney
11. womzilla
Okay, it's now been 19 years since I last read 1963, so my memories are really unreliable. The two comments that come to mind are:

1. Yes, the jokes in 1963 are stretched thin. A few bits and pieces stand out--e.g., the Ben Grimm-ish character in MYSTERY, INC shouting, "Everyone knows there aren't any subways under Lexington Avenue!"--but a lot of the narrative might have been better served by these being shorter sidebars to a more substantial work. Which, unsurprisingly, is the approach Moore took on all his subsequent superhero pastiche stories, most prominently in TOM STRONG.

2. That said, note-perfect pastiche is harder than it looks. Getting right the precise blend of serious and goofy of the early Marvel Silver age--the flippancy of the FURY, the hodge and podge of superscience and mythology of HORUS--is a terrific technical achievement. (My favorite attention to detail was the Charlton mechanical lettering on "Johnny Beyond"--fake Ditko lettering on a fake Ditko story is spot-on.)
rob mcCathy
12. roblewmac
I think at least Hypernaght has a enough "Not Marvel 1963" to not be a homage. He's bit of DC's space Ranger with a dash of ultraa the multi-alien and Kirby's late 1970s bad guy AMin Zola.
You add to that what looks like Ditko page layout for Dr Strange in an outer space that looks very much like the Negitive Zone you have "Early 60s but NOT as on the nose as the rest.
Jeff R.
13. J.R. LeMar
I got this @ the time because it was during the period of my live where I was just automatically buying every single comic that Image published. But I don't recall particularly enjoying this series.
Jeff R.
14. Calum Carlyle
Nice to see you included 1963 in your reread, but you are simply wrong about it being some of Alan Moore's worst material. Maybe it is lighter in tone, and not so connotationally dense as his more well known work but I have read this many times and never lost any enjoyment. I also feel it is inappropriate to compare Moore's projects to eah other since they are all so different. I would compare this with work from the year 1963 by Ditko and Kirby as well as the work of Joe Simon, all giants in the field, and I would say this series stands proudly alongside them, in terms of quality.

It is a true travesty that Alan Moore has specifically put a stop to any idea that the seventh and final part might one day be created and published. However he feels about his rights, I think it is an excellent story which I have been waiting for an ending for for twenty years now. Mr Moore, I am still waiting. Do the decent thing and let Steve Bissette finish this story off for the fans, please.

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