Mon
Jan 21 2013 3:00pm

The Great Alan Moore Reread: The All-Time Top 10 Best Comics Written by Alan Moore

The All-Time Top 10 Best Comics Written by Alan Moore

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 65th and FINAL installment.

After sixty-four weeks, here we are: the end of The Great Alan Moore Reread. Last week I talked about Moore’s legacy in the comic book industry—and the world—so we don’t need to rehash the where-we’ve-come-from-and-where-we’re-going speech again. But instead, let’s talk about the best of Alan Moore’s comic book work. Looking at his career, what would I designate as the capital-b Best of the Best? What ten comics would be the ultimate incarnation of Moore’s genre-bending, highly-influential comic book scripting?

I’m glad you asked!

Here’s the All-Time Alan Moore Top 10, as determined by me, the guy who has reread all of the Alan Moore comics over the past year-and-three-months and written about 100,000 words on the topic. All of the Alan Moore comics are worth reading (well, maybe not all of the later Extreme or Wildstorm work, but even those have something interesting going on at times), but these are the cherries on top of the ice cream sundae that is the Alan Moore oeuvre:

 

10. V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

I will still always dream of a world where the series was completed in black and white, but this challenging work remains one of Moore’s best, and Lloyd’s bleak artistry outlines the harsh conglomeration of a fascist state with manipulative media as well as anyone ever has. The title character—popularly interpreted as a rebel working against a corrupt system—may be more of a monster than some of his victims, but by giving us such a charming but merciless protagonist, Moore and Lloyd avoid simple answers to the tough moral questions.

Above all, V for Vendetta will haunt you long after you close its covers, even after the second or third or fourth read.

 

9. Captain Britain, by Alan Moore and Alan Davis

Moore’s first superhero work, now thirty years old, remains the ur-text of modern-day capes-and-cowls comic books. Too often does an incoming creative team break down and destroy a character before building him back up, but that approach was pioneered by Moore in his “Captain Britain” serials before he went on to explode the series into a widescreen action comic the likes of which the world rarely saw until the kids who grew up reading this series started writing and drawing their own comics a decade later. But this All-Time Alan Moore Top 10 isn’t based on what’s historically important. It’s based on what’s the best to read, and Moore and Davis’s “Captain Britain” comics are brutal and funny and wide-ranging and intimate.

Alan Moore didn’t just learn how to write superhero comics while plotting and scripting the adventures of Brian Braddock and friends, he demonstrated that he had massive storytelling ambitions from the start. “Captain Britain” does what so few superhero comics can: make you care about what happens while an insane, unrecognizable, imaginative world launches at your eyes.

 

8. Superman Annual #11, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

This is the only example of a single issue on this list of series and graphic novels, and while I thought about including “The Superman Stories” as an entry by itself—like I did with the original reread post—that would have been disingenuous. “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” the two-part story that closed out Superman’s pre-Crisis continuity just isn’t in the same league as Superman Annual #11. The former has some evocative moments, but it’s the comic book equivalent of a sinister clip show with a tragic tinge. With Dave Gibbons in Superman Annual #11, though, Moore tells perhaps the single best Superman story of all time.

In that issue, “For the Man Who Has Everything,” Superman is forced to accept reality and break free from an all-too-enticing dream of what might have been. It’s a gorgeous-looking superhero action comic that doesn’t skimp on thematic resonance. If you want a single, self-contained but powerful dose of what superhero comics can be like when they’re done well, this is a superior example.

 

7. A Small Killing, by Alan Moore and Oscar Zarate

Part Nic Roeg nightmare and part semi-autobiographical exploration of a man who compromises his artistic integrity to produce commercial products for cash, this not-too-well-known graphic novel is one of Moore’s few completed non-genre comics, and the stunningly evocative work of Zarate would make it the belle of the alt-comics ball in any recent year.

But it’s over 20 years old, written at a time after Moore had broken away from mainstream superhero comics (and before he would return to the weird and maybe-not-really-wonderful industry as Image Comics exploded into the market). It’s easy to read A Small Killing as Moore’s commentary on his own compromises, showing a man so haunted by his childhood dreams that’s he’s forced to violently exorcise what’s left of his innocence, but even if you ignore that possibly-self-referential facet of the book, this is a great comic about a human struggling against himself and against the cruel world that would force him into that unwinnable situation. Yet it’s not bleak and hopeless. It’s alive. Like a wriggling snake sinking its teeth into your heart.

 

6. Smax, by Alan Moore and Zander Cannon

If you had told me when I began the Great Alan Moore Reread that Top 10, Alan Moore’s superheroes-as-cops comedy/melodrama would not crack my All-Time Alan Moore Top 10, I would have called you an evil lying liar. I mean, “Top 10” is even in the title, and that series was really good, and hyper-detailed, and how could it not be considered one of Moore’s best?

As much as I like Top 10, and I sure liked it a lot even after reading it last year, it’s not as substantial or as entertaining as the rest of the comics on this list. And it’s not as good as its own spin-off. Smax takes a different approach than Top 10—pure parody instead of pastiche plus satire—but Smax is the better comic all-around. Zander Cannon brings humor and humanity to this slapstick fantasy quest, and though Alan Moore isn’t known for his hilarity, he sure does have a wicked sense of humor that he’s not afraid to unleash. Some of his other comics are actually, um, comical, but Smax is the best of the Moore funnybooks. It’s pretty mean, too. Just the way we like ‘em back home.

 

5. From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

If Smax is Alan Moore at his most successfully hilarious, From Hell is Alan Moore at his most methodically serious. But it’s Moore’s attention to detail—and the disciplined work of collaborator Eddie Campbell—that makes the narrative architecture of this story as interesting as its unfolding plot.

Yes, there is literal architecture at the heart of the conspiracy within From Hell, something we learn quite a bit about thanks to a rousing bit of London travel and a guide to Freemasonry, but when I’m talking “architecture” in this comic, I’m talking about Moore’s structural poetics. From Hell is constructed from historical reference materials and panicked suppositions and the psychogeography of a specific time and a specific place when bad things happened to many people.

The book may be about Jack the Ripper and the hunt to catch the killer, but that’s only what it’s about when you turn it into a tame Hollywood movie version. That’s the surface. Beneath, Moore and Campbell give us a chilling portrait of the Victorian Age, a true work of horror that relies not on shocks and gore but on the inhuman unfolding of history.

 

4. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

The conceit is simple: public domain literary characters team up…for adventure! In the hands of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill it becomes something far more than that.

Every time I reread The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series—whether it’s the original six issues or the Mars attacks follow-up or The Black Dossier or the Harry-Potter-and-the-End-of-the-World in the three-part Century—I love it all the more.

Mina Murray is one of the great heroines in fiction, thanks to the resurrection performed by Moore and O’Neill, and she leads the ragged band of British agents against the most menacing foes. That’s all great and fun and deadly and, thanks to the carved linework of O’Neill, hideously beautiful, but it’s the literary gamesmanship that provides abundant texture to the series. Moore and O’Neill pack allusions into every page, and it takes a whole team of annotators to get most of the references, but you won’t need the cheat sheets to get the point of each chapter of the larger story. The allusions amplify and enhance, tremendously, and they add a wink and a nod to each section, but there’s still a heart and soul to these comics that tell of flawed men and women facing insurmountable obstacles with wit and vigor. And sometime dying in the process.

And, as I write this, there’s still the promise of more. Nemo: Heart of Ice is due out in another month or two. It’s not over yet.

 

3. Marvelman, by Alan Moore, Garry Leach, Alan Davis, and Friends

If you read my original reread posts on this series, you’ll know that I stubbornly cling to calling this comic “Marvelman,” even though it became “Miracleman” once it resumed publication from Eclipse Comics in America. So my revisionist historical version of Marvelman runs up through the Eclipse issues until Moore steps away from the series, leaving it in the hands of Neil Gaiman, who never got a chance to finish what he started (to continue).

But why is Marvelman so great that it deserves a spot in the All-Time Alan Moore Top THREE?

Because this is the one that changed everything, and it’s still a heck of a comic to read, if you can find it.

The Eclipse reprints of the earlier Warrior installments of the series are gaudily colored and the word balloons and captions are too small, and the later issues—particularly the ones drawn by John Totleben—are rare and somewhat pricey for single issues. But Marvelman is worth tracking down as a milestone of the superhero genre and as a declaration by Alan Moore about what it means to enter the Modern Era of mainstream comics.

Marvelmanis based on a Captain Marvel analogue, with the cynicism of the 1980s and a dose of real-world logic smashed into its innocent shell. The opening few chapters provide a blueprint that revisionist superhero comics would follow forever after—the revelation that everything the hero thought he knew was wrong, and he may not even really be a hero to begin with—and the inky realism of Garry Leach’s drawings only helped Moore make his stand on behalf of smart, relevant, devastatingly powerful superhero comics.

The fact that everyone who came after Moore took the faux-realism and the hyper-violence of Marvelman as its primary lesson isn’t Moore’s fault. He did it right, and they just missed the point.

 

2. Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Marvelmanwas born first, but Watchmen is the slightly younger child who learned from his sibling and turned out even more refined. The precisely designed structuralism of Watchmen can make the comic seem unnecessarily cold and self-important, until you actually sit down to read it. Watchmen’s reputation as a masterwork imparts it with a kind of aura of untouchability that’s not true to its trashy roots.

Yes, it is a well-crafted, exceedingly ambitious story with multiple narrators and multiple layers of meaning, but it’s also a comic about a mad scientist and a naked physicist and a vigilante who breaks people’s wrists. It’s about love and death and sex and violence and politics and science and war and a thirst for peace. Even when it was twelve single floppy issues, it was a big book, and nowadays you’re likely to see it in some massive Absolute Edition or regal hardcover. It deserves that treatment for the role it has played in showing that comics can do more than just tell racy stories about guys and gals in tights. But it’s really just a pulpy superhero story at its core, and it’s one of the best ever told because of how it’s told. Few comics in history surpass its achievements, and even fewer are as engaging and exciting on an aesthetic or storytelling level. There’s only one Alan Moore comic that’s better, and it’s….

 

1. Swamp Thing, by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, and Friends

Watchmen may be more precisely crafted and Marvelman may be more pioneering, but there’s only one correct answer to the question of “What is the Best Alan Moore Comic Book Series Ever?”

Swamp Thing, of course.

With Swamp Thing, Alan Moore trotted out his Marvelman revisionism on the much more fertile ground of American comics, and Moore’s early issues of this muck monster series show his facility at presenting characters as trite and overdone as the Justice League with a completely new point of view. In Moore’s Swamp Thing, the gods in the satellite above the Earth are terrifying and unknowable. It’s Swamp Thing’s world, and we all just walk on top of it.

Moore’s collaborators—mostly Bissette and Totleben and their former schoolmate Rick Veitch—give the comic a terrifying sense of frantic unreality, and their contributions cannot be minimized. Moore is only as good as they are, but they’re very good here and so is Moore. His second issue on the series, “The Anatomy Lesson” stands as one of the best single issue comics in the history of the medium, presenting a tragic unfolding of horrifying vegetable rebirth inside a sterile corporate laboratory. And the issues that followed—everything that makes up what would become the first Swamp Thing collected edition—present a challenging environmentalist horror action comic disguised as a monster story dressed in superheroic garb. It’s weird and wonderful and Moore tries to write the captions and dialogue like savage poetry and he succeeds.

Swamp Thing stumbles a bit at times, but for over 40 issues, Alan Moore chronicles the journey of the creature that once thought it was a man named Alec Holland, and where the monster travels to the depths of hell or into deep space, he’s always bound by his mortal love back home in the bayou. It’s messy and uneven and melodramatic and full of life and ambition and enthusiasm for comics and everything that surrounds it. It’s not pure Alan Moore, but it’s sloppy, amazing, wondrous Alan Moore and it’s the number one All-Time Best.


Tim Callahan would like to thank everyone who has been reading The Great Alan Moore Reread each week, and he's curious to see what your All-Time Alan Moore Top 10 list would look like. Post your own version in the comments, and show your work!

The Great Alan Moore Reread: ‹ previous | index
17 comments
Flye
1. Flye
Thanks for the list, I'll definitely be picking some of these up in the future. As a man with a Swamp Thing poster staring him in the face right now from behind the computer monitor, I don't think you could have got it more right with the number 1 pick. Everyone should read Moore's Swamp Thing work at some point in time.
Flye
2. Douglas Wolk
Thanks so much, Tim! I've enjoyed this series enormously. My own offhand one:

1. The Ballad of Halo Jones - there are a lot of moments from this I think about often: so compact, so beautifully realized, and such an obvious-but-original concept

2. Watchmen - every piece fits

3. Promethea - I genuinely love being lectured to when the lecture is as eloquent and heartfelt as this

4. "D.R. and Quinch Go to Hollywood" - when a joke is this great, who needs a punch line? Also: a fantastic punch line

5. Big Numbers - just for its sheer magnificent ambition, despite its flaws and incompleteness

6. From Hell - you can't get around the Alps

7. "For the Man Who Has Everything" - I just imagine jaws dropping at the DC office when the script came in

8. Swamp Thing - parts have aged beautifully, parts haven't, but I still remember what an enormous impact it had on me at the time

9. The Bojeffries Saga - a throwaway, but a very, very funny throwaway

10. Lost Girls - it flies for the sun and its wings melt, but again, the ambition counts for a lot for me
Flye
3. Pancham
Don't you think The Killing Joke deserves to be on this?
Flye
4. Kado
Halo Jones does not make your list? Why?
Matthew Abel
5. MatthewAbel
Marvelman - so good. So good. I know you've left a few off your list that some may question (Killing Joke comes to mind) but I think your description as "best" holds true. Now, most influential? That would be a different list and might even include Green Lantern stories.

I am thankful to have read Marvelman (I am not disclosing how) and it was amazingly well done. Wonderful book.
Flye
6. Veejay J
1. Miracleman/Marvelman
2. Captain Britain
3. Neonomicon
4. Watchmen
5. LOEG
6. Promethea
7. Swamp Thang (The Blaxploitation years)
8. Supreme
9. Top Ten
10.Lost Girls
Flye
7. Jeff R.
So, as the Obscure works guy on these threads, I'm going to give you my Top 6 Alan Moore Comics that you didn't talk about at all, most of which are uncollected or only spottily reprinted.

6. The American Flagg run, which I've talked about a couple of times here.

5. and 4. As a general rule, Moore's 2000 AD shorts that were under the Time Twisters heading were better than the ones marked as Future Shocks, so you really missed some of his best short works by only covering the latter. From the Time Twisters, my two favorites are 'The Reversable Man' (which takes a simple SF conceit and wrings every bit of emotion possible from it), and 'Chrono-Cops' (a tightly-plotted comlpex and multilayered short; an early collaboration with Dave Gibbons that likely was part of what convinced the two that something like Watchmen would be possible.)

3. Brought to Light, an exploration in 80s leftie paranoid politics that will give you a new unit to meaure mass murder in,

2. The Bojeffries Saga. Again, Moore-the-Writer-of-Serious-Stuff really tends to overshadow the Funny Alan Moore.

1. The Warpsmith stories. (And Moore-the-Writer-of-Science-Fiction is a version of the guy that we've seen far, far too little of.)

Honorable Mention: 'Act of Faith' from Puma Blues #20, which is only an honorable mention because I can't remember a thing about it other than that I liked it at the time.
Flye
8. Frank Holman
Tim - first and foremost, congratulations on this accomplishment!! It was a big project, and you delivered. There's a book in this somewhere....

I pretty much agree with your assessment on the top 10 - I'd have replaced SMAX with The Killing Joke - but I think you're on target. What Alan Moore's legacy is beginning to look like is one of being one of the industry's true innovators; so much of what is out there today has a little bit of Moore in it. I'd parallel him with Orson Welles and his impact on Film. I'd also draw the ego connection between these two artists...

My hope is that Mr. Moore thinks a little bit less of himself of ALAN MOORE and gets some perspective that brings him back to Alan Moore, innovator and re-creator....there's a lot of great stuff under all his hair....
alastair chadwin
9. a-j
Pretty much agree with the list, but not having read SMAX or A Small Killing I can't comment on them but instead would replace them with Promethea and 'Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?'.
Flye
10. chuckcoulter
I don't understand how SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR doesn't make the list. I simply don't understand. Brilliant, sweet, gentle, imaginative and epic, without all this false adolescent depression that even Moore sometimes disowns.
rob mcCathy
11. roblewmac
My Alan Moore thoughts
It depends on my mood weather Watchmen or From Hell is his greatest work. Watchmen is a great superhero story for all the usual reasons but what about the fact that it has a beginning middle and END? Superheroes do not generally DO that With me when you talk about Moore’s big two stuff you get into very subjective thinking I MAY like Swamp thing for it’s great take on classic DC BUT I love Captain Britain for goofy fanboy reasons it was not the first time they’d done parallel earth but it was the first time they went whole hog “INfinite Earth DC style. I can’t be the only one who who laughed when “MAIN Marvel earth was such a high number! did not like killing Joke at all. did’nt like the script much and was young enough to be disappointed it was NOT in fact about a magic joke that makes people laugh till they die.
Kevin Maroney
12. womzilla
Tim, I'm not going to quibble with any of your rankings--those are all good comics. However, you said "Alan Moore isn’t known for his hilarity", and that made me look back at the re-read and realize... you didn't re-read The Bojeffries Saga.

Moore is, in fact, quite a comedian, though few of his works are outright "comedies". A lot of the ones that are, are clustered at the early side of his career--Maxwell the Magic Cat, of course; Bojeffries; D. R. and Quinch (and a lot of the other 2000 AD work); "Captain Airstrip-One"; the autobiographical essays "Brasso with Rosie"; and quite a few others. And of course "The March of the Sinister Ducks"; where would we be without it? Perhaps these are all lesser works, though a lot of them still make me laugh very hard, indeed.

But his humor is present all throughout his "serious" works, too. From Hell would be lessened without "the Four Whores of the Apocalypse" and "I can't think, sir"; Swamp Thing would be weaker without "Did you like it?" and "The night can make | A man more brave"'; and Miracleman without "Superbreath?" would just not be the same.The League is full of high and low comedy, especially in the pastiches in the Dossier.

One of the things that separates Moore from the generation of pale imitators that followed is that grim is easy, comedy is hard.
Flye
13. ClanBlood
I agree with others that The Killing Joke is conspicuous by its absence. Easily one of the best comics that I have ever read. I have two first prints, along with a 3rd print that I read once in a while. Excellent writing, excellent characterization, excellent artwork (just about the best depiction of the Joker ever, imho). You actually end up feeling sorry for the Joker, at least a bit. First comic that did that to me, as the villains were, prior to 1988, all straw men.
Rob Rater
14. Quasarmodo
I'm just starting catching up on all the Alan Moore works that I originally missed out on. Currently reading Miracleman/Marvelman, likely the same way MatthewAbel did. Looking forward to reading the rest.
Flye
15. QuantumSam
I do believe he also did some XXX comics under a pseudonym.
Flye
16. Jason Malcolm Stewart
Good stuff, all. As always, you could quibble with the order and the work excluded (I have a weakness for the Marvel '60's send up series of the mid-90's myself) and some of his pre-blowup English stuff other than CB has a lot of merit. But, the Swamp Thing run can't be minimized for its influence on mainstream comics at the time. It was a complete game changer that didn't just redefine a so-so character, but completely transformed the concept.
Swamp Thing pre-Moore, et al., wasn't a horrible book, it had some moments before that creative team... But what they did with the character was so innovative and outside-the-box that it basically became their creation, regardless of previous history. And the majority of the run was so damn good, it affected the rest of the DC Universe (both on and off the page). There really hasn't been anything better than it in mainstream comics in the 25+ years since.
Flye
19. Damabupuk
Excellent list. I've had "A Small Killing" on my shelf for a while, but haven't got around to reading it. I will now.
I'd have to second (or however many) "Supreme." One of my all-time favourite comics, not just Moore's work. The art was dodgy at times, but the writing never was. I'd also love to throw in that I have a special place for Moore's super-early "Doctor Who" strips. Some of the first comics I ever read. Also, "Lost Girls," "Promethea".....how can we possibly choose?

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