Tor.com comics blogger Tim Callahan has dedicated
the next twelve months more than a year 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 41st installment.
Alan Moore not only revamped Supreme for Rob Liefeld’s Awesome Entertainment comic book company in the mid-to-late-1990s, but he also proposed a line-wide reimagining of Liefeld’s other characters for what would have been a significant relaunch following the Judgment Day miniseries – three issues that were meant to provide a comprehensive history for the Awesome Universe and then clean the slate for a new direction.
Think about that for a second.
Three issues, and in that time Moore planned to justify the Awesome Universe by creating fictional antecedents and also establish a new approach that would draw readers back to the kinds of comics that had long been written off as empty spectacle at best and enthusiastic hackwork at worst.
It was certainly an ambitious notion, with an attempt to redefine characters and concepts like Youngblood, Glory, Maximage, and the New Men so they would matter to an audience that was intrigued by Alan Moore’s previous work – and his playful approach to Supreme – but may never have read any previous issues of a Rob Liefeld-created comic in their lives.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the Awesome Universe was built on a combination of exploitative, sensationalistic ideas mixed with traditional superhero underpinnings. A pure product of early-1990s comics and the youthful energy of Rob Liefeld, the Awesome comics that split off from Image to fall under their own publishing umbrella were full of arched-back anorexic beauties and gun-toting badasses who fought against each other as often as they opposed rampant supervillainy. It was what we would now identify as a video game aesthetic bound to a Chris Claremont/Marv Wolfman melodramatic sensibility.
Alan Moore’s meta-commentary-mixed-with-Silver-Age-celebration Supreme was the only significant exception to that standard Awesome approach.
But in Judgment Day, Alan Moore had a chance to change all that. In doing so, he also managed to explain how the Awesome Universe ended up being so dark and violent. Then, with a new foundation established, he could begin the major work of his mid-career by kicking off a fresh approach to the Awesome Universe that would continue – to great acclaim – for years.
Oh, wait, that last part never happened. So what did?
Well, Judgment Day, definitely.
Judgment Day: Alpha (Awesome Entertainment, June 1997)
In retrospect, one of the self-sabotaging aspects of the Judgment Day miniseries was the unusual numbering system, in which all three of the series’ issues were not sequentially numbered. The first issue was marked “Alpha,” while the second was “Omega,” and the third was marked with a “#3.”
And even today, the only collected edition of the series available is a cheaply-produced Checker Books volume, which features less-than-crisp page scans and a binding that is sure to crack loose.
For a company-wide event series written by the man widely considered the greatest comic book writer in history, Judgment Day has never been well-presented to potential readers. Perhaps that’s because, even for all of its ambition and optimism about the Awesome future, the company soon floundered financially and what was once heralded as a revitalization of the line was actually a discordant last hurrah.
But Judgment Day has its moments. It’s a solid companion piece to Moore’s Supreme run, and it does tell a complete story in the four issues plus the “Aftermath” one-shot, even if Moore didn’t stay long enough to see the follow-up comics all the way through their first arcs. And even if Awesome Entertainment wasn’t financially solvent enough to capitalize on Moore’s ideas before he took them over to Wildstorm and reformatted many of them into “America’s Best Comics.”
Above all, Judgment Day feels like a direct application of what Moore did with Supreme combined with a much more simplistic take on Watchmen. If it didn’t have Alan Moore’s name on the credits, it would be easy to read Judgment Day, particularly this opening issue, and see it as the work of someone writing a watered-down imitation of Moore’s influential mid-1980s work. Like Watchmen, Judgment Day begins with the death of a superhero, and like Watchmen, the through-line is about uncovering the mystery behind the character’s death, and, again, like Watchmen, the very nature of superhero comics are deconstructed in the telling of the story.
But Alan Moore doesn’t have Dave Gibbons providing the art here, and Moore doesn’t seem interested in structuralist games or showy and innovative uses of narrative form, which are the hallmarks of Watchmen. In Judgment Day, he gives us a superhero on trial for the murder of one of his peers, and in Supreme-like fashion, the main story is intercut with flashbacks drawn in the pastiche of some other time in comic book history.
The art in the first issue is kind of a mess, with flashbacks by various artists – some of whom capture the style of an earlier period, and some of whom simply don’t – and art in the main, investigation-and-courtroom, story provided by Awesome founder Rob Liefeld.
Liefeld can be a polarizing figure in the comics industry, but he can be an exciting artist – all motion lines and action poses – when he has characters in physical conflict. He’s not best suited for scenes of people standing around and talking and then talking some more. That’s what he’s illustrating for much of Judgment Day. It’s not really in his wheelhouse, though he does have a few chances to draw characters making angry declarations, which are essential parts of any good courthouse drama. But those come later.
The rest of the first issue of Judgment Day ranges from flashbacks by the great Gil Kane (doing his version of the Alan Moore version of the Awesome version of the Marvel Comics western characters) and Keith Giffen (doing Jack Kirby wartime characters as drawn by Harvey Kurtzman) to tepid Tarzan, Shining Knight, and Conan riffs drawn by the bland or the grotesquely bombastic (from Dan Jurgens to Stephen Platt with Adam Pollina in the aesthetic middle).
Story-wise, Moore is building the history of the Awesome Universe by creating analogues for other comic book and pulp heroes from other universes. It’s a way to give the still-relatively-new Awesome heroes some kind of past for their world that is instantly recognizable, and Moore weaves that past into his murder mystery tale.
The problem is that the flashbacks, unlike the Rick Veitch shorts in Supreme, don’t have any merit on their own. They aren’t interesting except as analogues, and with two or three pages wasted on each (even when accompanied by nice Gil Kane or Keith Giffen artwork) they bog down the story without providing anything fresh or interesting beyond their immediate joke.
So all we’re left with in the first issue is an accused man – Mickey Tombs, aka Knightsabre – ready to stand trial, with the prosecution and the defense played by former superheroes.
It’s not nothing. But it’s not much. And though I neglected to mention it earlier, the opening narration for the first three pages of issue one is kind of atrocious, in a heavy-handed purple-prose kind of way.
As it turns out, that apparent badness is all part of the story.
Judgment Day: Omega (Awesome Entertainment, July 1997)
The second issue is more of the same, plus a subplot about the shutdown of Youngblood operations thrown in between courtroom arguments and flashbacks.
And again, it’s a mashup of artistic styles, with Rob Liefeld documenting the courtroom visuals and artists of varying aesthetic sensibilities drawing the flashbacks (Stephen Platt returns, along with Moore’s Supreme colleague Chris Sprouse and future Youngblood collaborator Steve Skroce, while veterans Jim Starlin and Alan Weiss pick up the Gil Kane western angle, and a less-than-fully-formed Terry Dodson tackles the Tarzan pastiche).
This middle issue provides a brief second act to the story, and lays down a bit more of the foundation for the soon-to-be-revamped Awesome Universe, but it’s in the third issue that the series actually gets interesting. So let’s jump right to…
Judgment Day: Final Judgment (Awesome Entertainment, October 1997)
Almost immediately, Alan Moore and Rob Liefeld introduce us to present-day Blake Baron, the Occult Agent. Baron was the subject of the Alpha issue’s wartime flashback, when he was commander of the Kirby-by-way-of-Kurtzman “Roarin’ Roughnecks,” but Moore has reimagined his 1990s incarnation as a Nick Fury/Dr. Strange hybrid who denies any participation in secret activities with the secret organization known secretly as the Veil. But Blake Baron’s testimony in the trial opens up the narrative steamroller that leads into the story behind the story. The saga of Storybook Smith.
Storybook Smith first appeared in the third issue of Moore’s Supreme run, as a member of the Golden Age Allied Supermen of America. A kind of Johnny Thunder meets Kid Eternity analogue – a nerdy young man with a magical tome able to summon characters from literature to fight the good fight – Storybook Smith, or at least his book, is the real star of Judgment Day.
But how could he not be? How could Moore resist building this story around a character who could blur the line between fiction and reality with the magic of a book? Moore, by 1993, had declared himself a practicing magician, and though his true love letter to fiction and magic wouldn’t be written until he finished Promethea at Wildstorm, his explorations into the relationship between conjuration and creativity, art and ritual had found its way into his mid-to-late 1990s work. Not just in obvious texts like From Hell, but in Judgment Day as well.
Thus, the plot of Judgment Day, and the Awesome Universe itself, hinges on the powers of a magical book that not only allows characters from classical literature to pop up in a superhero universe but acts as the book of fate for all the beings in that realm. As the third issue of Judgment Day reveals, Storybook Smith’s book is, literally, the story of the Awesome Universe, and if its words are changed, the reality of the universe is changed as well.
A member of Youngblood discovered its power, and Riptide, the murder victim who sparked the events of Judgment Day, paid the price.
But it wasn’t Knightsabre who was to blame. He was an unwitting puppet to the true murderer. A pawn of the architect of the Awesome Universe: the Youngblood leader named Sentinel.
As the prosecution explains, young Marcus Langston – the man who would be Sentinel – stumbled across Storybook Smith’s lost book years ago. In it, the teenage Langston read his own story: “A petty criminal at fourteen, a pregnant girlfriend by fifteen, a mild heroin habit by seventeen…” Langston wouldn’t live to see himself turn 20.
So he rewrote that section of the book. He rewrote reality.
He wrote himself not as an addict and a criminal. But as a superhero: “the bestest superhero, in the bestest super-team in the world.” And though he first writes himself into grand adventures, he soon becomes bored with that, “he decides to write a nastier, shadowier and more violent world for himself…and for everybody else…Gone was the naïve wonder of the ‘forties, the exhuberance of the ‘fifties and the nobility of the ‘sixties.” The prosecution continues: “Marcus Langston let our world slide from a Golden Age to a Silver Age and finally to a Dark Age. Now, heroes motivated only by money or psychopathology stalked a paranoid, apocalyptic landscape of post-nuclear mutants and bazooka-wielding cyborgs.”
The fictive fantasies of Marcus Langston became reality and the Awesome Universe came to exist as we know it today. Moore justifies the violence of the Rob Liefeld-created superhero landscape while explaining it all away as the deranged dream of an adolescent.
In Judgment Day, Marcus Langston, as Sentinel, supposed hero, murders Riptide because she has taken the book from his collection. She is secretly the daughter of Storybook Smith, and she recognized her father’s magical tome on her leader’s bookshelves. But Sentinel couldn’t let her have it back. He was too frightened of losing control of this reality in which he was a celebrity superhero.
And in his frantic editing, he revised the recent past to implicate Knightsabre as the murderer. It’s Sentinel who “writes” the bad, heavy-handed, faux-Watchmen opening narration in the first issue. Alan Moore’s self-parody has metafictional layers, to be sure.
In the latter half of the final issue of the series, Moore gives us an appropriately absurd scene in the climax of Judgment Day in which Sentinel, revealed as the killer, leaps across the courtroom to seize the Storybook Smith book from the prosecutor’s hands, in an attempt to rewrite the ending of the trial. “No! No no no no!” he cries, “This isn’t it! This isn’t how it ends!” But his former teammates pull him back from the brink and declare, in punny superhero fashion, “We’re sorry, Marc…but you’ve hit the deadline.”
The book falls away, out of sight, for someone new to find and create a new version of the Awesome reality.
The Youngblood members and their allies comment upon the possible light at the end of all their dark times, knowing that the insanity they’ve been living through was the creation of their former leader. Alan Moore concludes the series with an optimism for tomorrow. For a new page to be written, presumably not by a scared, deranged, self-aggrandizing teenager.
But the follow-up to Judgment Day would be short-lived, and Alan Moore’s participation would only last a few months. In that time, he would write a handful of Youngblood and Glory scripts that would point to a new direction for the company. But it wouldn’t be until 2012 that anyone would truly follow his lead and write a decisively new chapter in the book of the Awesome Universe. But that’s another story.
NEXT TIME: Alan Moore’s Youngblood and Glory: dumb, young, and full of incompleteness.