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 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.