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 29th installment.
Here’s an unusual case.
Before the preponderance of blogs and Tumblr accounts, the only way that you would have ever come across Alan Moore and Don Simpson’s 1986 short story, “In Pictopia,” is if you had chanced upon issue #2 of Fantagraphics Anything Goes anthology, or in The Best Comics of the Decade 1980-1990 Vol. 1, also by Fantagraphics, or maybe in George Khoury’s book-length interview/overview The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore.
I suppose that’s enough variety of publication that you might have stumbled along “In Pictopia” somewhere along the way Years ago, I ended up with two different copies from two of the above books, without even particularly trying to track down Alan Moore comics. But “In Pictopia” holds a strange position in the Alan Moore oeuvre: it’s one of the major works of superhero comic book deconstruction alongside Marvelman and Watchmen but it’s never talked about in the same league as either of those. It’s rarely talked about at all. It’s a sideshow to the main event, at best.
That’s likely as much of a result of its relative limited (comparatively) distribution as it is any fault of its execution. Then again, it’s a mere thirteen pages. And unlike Marvelman or Watchmen (or V for Vendetta, or Killing Joke, or From Hell), it’s about as cartoony as you can imagine. Unlike D.R. & Quinch, it’s not Chuck Jones, either. It’s Tex Avery, via Alan Moore and Don Simpson, postmodernists.
“In Pictopia,” Anything Goes #2 (Fantagraphics, 1986)
Reportedly, Alan Moore turned in an eight-page script for this story, and artist Don Simpson (known then and now as the creator of uber-steroidal parody superhero Megaton Man) took it upon himself to expand the story by an extra five pages. I don’t know how often that happened to mid-1980s Moore, where an artist strayed from his detailed pacing notes and panel descriptions to change the shape of the narrative by over 50% of what was originally intended, but I’ll say this: Simpson seems to have made the right choice.
Like Marvelman and Watchmen (and it’s impossible not to bring those two monumental works into the discussion of a strip like “In Pictopia”), this thirteen page short takes the traditions of superhero comics and upends them. It’s a more overtly humorous take Don Simpson’s lumpy, exaggerated forms only amplify the tragic humor but in its few pages, it points to its existence as a deconstructionist take on all kinds of comic book characters. It seems to target the superhero above all, but the funny animals and domestic comedy strips and old timey adventure serials get riddled with holes as well.
“In Pictopia,” like the film version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that followed a couple of years later (or the novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? from a few years earlier), takes place in a kind of ghettoized “toontown,” where the shiny happy days are long gone and darkness encroaches.
Our gateway into the story, into the decaying metropolis of Pictopia, is Nocturno the Necromancer, an obvious analogue for Mandrake the Magician. (Nocturno even lives in the “Prince Features tenement.) He’s not so much the protagonist of the story as he is a tour guide, for this is more like a walk through what once was and the sadness of what has now become than it is any kind of fully-developed story arc. It’s an ambitious tableau, not unlike the best of Moore’s “Future Shocks,” I suppose, though “In Pictopia” isn’t built on an O. Henryish twist ending. Instead, it’s a consistent portrait of the seamy underbelly of the bright comic book characters we all grew up with.
So Nocturno is awakened by the ramblings of Sammy Sleepyhead next door (Little Nemo, slumbering, we presume), and he bumps into a Blondie analogue named Red, with a drunken Popeye parody in tow. “Poor Red,” thinks Nocturno. “I Guess she had trouble getting by while her husband was away drying out.”
Within Pictopia, different neighborhoods, different social classes, coexist, but as Nocturno says in his narration, “I used to dream about moving to the color section uptown, just for a few dawns and sunsets, but I know it’ll never happen. Only superheroes can afford to live in color.”
He continues on, guiding us through Funnytown where the old radios play “nothing but Thirties jazz” and there’s no urban violence on the streets “that wasn’t in some way amusing.”
Nocturno continues on like that, with Moore providing a melancholy and horrific-because-its-pointed-out description of what it would be like to live among these comic book savages, until he reaches the “perimeter fence.” Pictopia is fenced in, caged, and on the outside, all they can see are gathering stormclouds and “occasional yellow flares, like a petroleum plant or something.”
The character who speaks that last line is Flexible Flynn, Moore and Simpson’s Plastic Man analogue.
The choice of a Plastic Man type as the voice of reason and as a symbol for what’s to come, as we’ll see in a bit is an interesting one because Jack Cole’s stretchy shapeshifter has consistently been one of the few superhero characters to garner a substantial art comics following while still sitting safely in the superhero mainstream. Art Spiegelman teamed up with Chip Kidd to produce a book about the character, and even today Cole’s Plastic Man Archives are seen, by critics, as unique artistic expressions rather than more fodder for the Golden Age mystery men gristmill.
Moore may not have thought of the character in any of those terms as of 1986, I don’t know that Plastic Man had yet been vocally adopted by the alt-comix elite and may have just selected a character who was out of step with the current times. A corny, goofy hero from two generations earlier.
Flexible Flynn lets us know about what’s been happening in Pictopia, as he drinks with Nocturno. (Flynn is great at getting drinks from the bar, by the way, without even leaving his seat). Characters are disappearing all over town. And new heroes are popping up, “walkin’ around in gangs, lookin’ superior, not talkin’ to anybody.” Simpson draws Flynn’s face melting down through his fingers, as he despairs for what the future will bring.
The horrors continue, as Nocturno makes his way back home, past some of the brightly-colored “new people” taking turns kicking a Goofy analogue, part of a disturbing new trend: “Mutilate a Funny, and seconds later, it’s healed completely. Often, they’ll let you disfigure them for a buck.” “I felt sick,” says Nocturno, “and walked only quickly.”
Let me pause for a minute, and reflect on that scene.
In the context of the story itself, it’s just a logical juxtaposition of how these characters really behave, and then putting some real-world motivations behind their actions. The cool, apathetic new kids can have their “kicks” without really hurting anyone permanently, and the desperate old Funnies can make a few bucks without walking away with any lasting injuries.
But turn that scene into a metaphor for the exploitation of comic book characters, and comic book creators, and that one panel of “an old dog man” getting kicked around becomes a symbol of the perpetual state of the comic book industry. It’s an endless cycle of the desperate getting kicked around, and somehow tricking themselves into thinking they’re benefiting from their suffering.
Was 1986 Alan Moore speaking to his future self? Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just always been this way, since gangsters first swiped all the rights to Superman from two kids from Cleveland for the price of an iPod Nano today.
Certainly that single panel of brutality and willing humiliation is the centerpiece of “In Pictopia,” and its emblematic of so much more.
But the story’s not done there, for there’s a gag about political caricatures running for office (Nixon and Hitler are the last two standing), and a Judge Dredd analogue laying down the law in Red’s apartment, downstairs. Disoriented by everything, with more analagoues cameos along the way back to the bar, Nocturno looks for Flynn, the voice of reason. Looking for some guidance in these troubled times.
But when he spots Flynn, and taps him on his familiar blue-and-green-costumed shoulder, what turns around is a lantern-jawed, dog-collared, sneering version of his old friend. The comic strip necromancer can’t believe it. “His face,” Nocturno says to himself, “his build. They were well, more realistic. It wasn’t Flynn. I thought, quite lucidly, ‘this is Flynn’s replacement.”
The slapstick superhero was no more. In his place, a dark knight of bendiness.
Nocturno stumbles away, a lost soul in a world he barely recognizes. Soon the bulldozers from beyond the fences make their way toward the city. Everything has been plowed away, razed for a new generation.
“Take my advice, buddy, an’ keep out of it,” says a cigar-chomping construction worker. “This city’s changing, and some things just don’t fit into the continuity no more.”
Nocturno is left, in the darkness, alone, gasping out at some fires in the distance, holding on to the fence, uncertain of what is still out there as his world disappears into a final, black panel.
Moore’s self-awareness that he would, at the very height of his revision of the entire superhero genre produce a story like this, that comments on the trends that would follow his influential work, well, that’s just astounding. But Moore wasn’t the first to bring “realism” into superhero comics, and he wasn’t the first to update old characters with fresh, rougher edges. He was just one of the few who did it with a substantial intelligence behind the stories, with something to say beyond just “isn’t this rad new superhero totally badass?”
Yet, “In Pictopia” provides a thirteen page prophecy for the future of the industry and a maddening eulogy for the innocence that was lost.
It may not belong on whatever pedestals exist for Marvelman and Watchmen, but it’s there by their side anyway, hovering over the entire era with a knowing, satirical glare. “In Pictopia” is tiny in page count, but exceedingly powerful in execution.
NEXT TIME: Alan Moore’s unfinished never-masterpiece Big Numbers