Jun 7, 2016

How to write superheroes by Darko Macan

Watchmen N.12. Cover by Dave Gibbons.
From page 289 of the sold-out Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman (2003, Abiogenesis Press) which celebrated Moore's 50th birthday, below you can read the contribution written by the Croatian comic book writer and illustrator DARKO MACAN.

Posted on this blog with the author's permission.
Macan's official site here. (Croatian)
DC Releases N. 28, a flyer promoting Watchmen N. 1 for retailers.
How to write superheroes
by Darko Macan

The biggest lie Alan Moore ever told me was that superheroes were worth reading.
A parenthesis is, perhaps, somewhat necessary here: in the heart of the Balkans where I come from, superheroes are not the dominant paradigm in comics. For a few post-war decades they were actively proscribed along with the rest of the "capitalist black-market narcotics". But even when the Party discipline relaxed in the Sixties and the newspaper strips like Rip Kirby became widely read, there was no place for superheroes. After spending weeks in the archives I found but one Kirby's Fantastic Four page - printed in the leading comics magazine as an illustration of how bad the comics could get. A decade later the situation was even more lax. At least one magazine - a rather slapdash one - was publishing the supers semi-regularly, but it was still very much possible to be a well-informed fan of that art form with only a cursory awareness of the genre.
And then, Watchmen.
For the life of me, I cannot remember how I first learned of Alan Moore or Watchmen. Those were the times before the Internet, kids, and even the more assertive media like music and movies lagged behind their western releases six to eighteen months here. But I remember that I circled the book's weird cover on a Titan Books flyer sometime in 1988 and entrusted the flyer, along with some savings, to a friend going to UK to visit his au pair sister. The friend - another Alan, by the way, who is now working with the European space program - found the book, read it during his UK stay and brought it to me commenting that it was "very good." For all I know, he might have been the first Croatian to read the book and I endeavoured to become the second. It took me five days (two chapters, two chapters, two chapters, then three and three), my English failed me many times but in the end I could confirm that it was... Well, you've read it. You know how good it is.
A few years later, we, the Balkanites, entered our favourite periodic pastime of wholesale slaughter and there was not a well-informed comic fan to be found anywhere. Yet, occasionally I would meet a friend or an acquaintance weary of the wartime sameness, who would ask me if I were still into comics (yes, I was) and if I had anything good to recommend. Invariably, I thrust Watchmen in their hands. Invariably, they came back with a comment that it was very good and asked whether I had something similar. Invariably, I drew a blank.
No, I did not, not really. I had Maus and Love & Rockets at hand, even Moore's own Halo Jones, so I fed them these, similar by virtue of being different, and my friends devoured them happily. But what would have happened if I had tried to give them some other superheroes after they had already absorbed Watchmen? You do not follow the prime cut with McFood without leaving a certain hunger unsatisfied. Once you have read Watchmen there is not much to follow. Only a Moore can satisfy your hunger for more. And it has been so for the last fifteen years.
Promethea N.2. Cover by J.H. Williams III.
From time to time, Moore's originality is questioned. Just last week, for example, I read a review of Top Ten whose writer was extremely vexed by the teleport accident scene, claiming that Moore lifted it word-for-word from a Homicide episode which had a guy crushed under a subway train. Somebody else, for this was online, quickly countered that there was a long tradition of such scenes in entertainment and proceeded to give a list with which I will not bother you, although I may add an equally useless piece of trivia that Moore himself used a cart-crushed guy in his Hypothetical Lizard novella. Before that, there were claims that Moore had borrowed the highly memorable entrance of Jason Blood in Swamp Thing from Bulgakov's Master and Margarita (and, yes, the similarity is strong) or that he had outright stolen the opening episode of D.R. & Quinch from a National Lampoon feature which I have never read. The accusers usually voice their condemnations with a hurt surprise and a feeling of betrayal and I always find myself torn between two immediate impulses: the wish to defend Moore and the urge to join the lynch mob to crucify the thief. In the end, I do neither.
I do nothing because both impulses are knee-jerk and stupid. The originality is most appreciated by those who have none and most demanded by those who are unable to recognize it in its true form. For the original thought is not only the one which is virgin-birthed into the universe (those are few and far apart), but also the one which is dug out of mud and given a new polish by a caring mind. The handcuffs and hacksaw scene in Watchmen might have been a rather faithful copy of the Mad Max finale and Ozymandias' plan pilfered out of some old Outer Limits episode. Nevertheless, it is not because of those elements that my worn-out copy of the Moore/Gibbons collaboration is being returned by its borrowers with a pleased and appreciative nod. Every time. Watchmen works because the whole has all the components of a good wedding: something old and something new, something borrowed and something blue (that'd be Dr. Manhattan). Watchmen works because Moore wrote it the way he has written every comic of his I have ever read: with a brain, with a heart and with a wink.
It would be too easy to praise Watchmen, so I won't. And I need not do it to show you the workings of Moore's brain. Let us take a look at, say, Spawn vs. WildC.A.T.s instead, perhaps one of Moore's lesser efforts. In it, in some projected future, we find the characters speaking slang derived from the Netspeak of today. It was not done very expertly, more in a ham-handed way of someone who may be familiar with the Internet only by proxy perhaps, but it was done with two crucial characteristics of intelligence: curiosity and respect. It could have been done as a parody, mocking the silly customs of the no-good youth in the way pre-WWII cartoonists satirized the hippies, but Moore avoided that trap. To mock what we do not understand is too easy. Even a failed attempt at understanding is admirable. In 1963, his conscious attempt at stupid comics of yesteryear, Moore failed to be stupid enough: his take on the T-Rex-on-the-loose standard makes the point out of the lizard's useless forelimbs just as well as his version of Hulk managed to combine the theory of glass as a very slow liquid, nuclear explosions, molecular physics and the sixties-type Reds-paranoia. All without losing the sense of the story for even a moment. And those were all little smarts. When Moore is firing on all cylinders, he impresses us to the point of depression - the "ocean of emotion" or similar sequences from Promethea come to mind; I won't even go into the revisionist Tarot-slash-anagrams-slash-anecdote issue of the same series - he displays the workings of a brain which has too much fun with itself while managing to pay attention to every loose end and each minor character, a brain whose likeness we may only hope to find behind the reality we happen to inhabit.
And yet, a brain without a heart would be a sterile conductor of thought experiments, a fannish exercise in outsmarting others for the sake of being the idlest superior cerebrum. Luckily for us, Moore has just enough heart to temper his intellect. He loves all those people he births onto the paper - his strong women and his weak males (from the beginning, from Captain Britain or Miracleman his superheroes tend to fall into two categories: the slow of mind but good-hearted and the brilliant bastards, an interesting dichotomy deserving of a separate analysis). He loves his readers enough not to ever short-change them, he has a healthy dose of love for himself, and he loves - God help him - comics and superheroes. Those endless pastiches in Supreme and then in Cobweb ... those were intellectual exercises, but they could not have been done without love. Think on it: how limited must the audience be to equally appreciate the Kirby and Kurtzman references, the reworkings of inane kiddie comics and the use of the 19th century French engravings? All the work that went into the hidden references of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen cannot be explained away as a perverse wish to play hide-and-seek with the collective mind of World Wide Web indexers and archivists. They may seem a completely pointless endeavour till we remember that it was Moore himself who said, "Love has no point. Love is the point."
How doomed it is to love comics, the art form which will fuck you back if you say you love it, because it is too young to know the difference? This is where the wink comes in. The famous wink from the close of Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?, the wink which is curiously absent from Moore's more ambitious work in prose and poetry, the wink which is a pact reserved for a four-colour brotherhood, a hand across the chasm of the page or understanding. We are doomed, tomorrow if not today, but we have shared a story for a moment, a thrill or two, a few laughs. We have tried and we like each other. It may not be much, it certainly is nothing important but it is plenty. Right?
A brain. A heart. A wink. A friend of mine once called himself an Alanist, affirming that he worshiped Alan Moore. I sometimes wonder whether Alan Moore exists or is he just an afterimage conceived by our minds after stealing a look at the holy trinity touched upon above.
2000AD Prog 406 (1985). Cover by Ian Gibson featuring Halo Jones.
I have never read Watchmen for a second time. I have opened it now and then, read a few pages, flipped through a chapter. I have never read it again in its entirety because I did not have to. It is already burned upon my brain.
I have read good comics later on, even brilliant ones. I have read fine superhero comics, fuelled by hate or love for the genre. I have read each and every issue of every superhero comic Moore has written upon his return to the genre and I happen to agree that Tom Strong is a better template for a durable serial superhuman entertainment than Watchmen could ever be (one more issue of Watchmen and we would enter soap opera territory). Yet, I do not think Watchmen could ever be surpassed. And I do not believe I think so only because that book came at the right time for me.
By all accounts, Watchmen avoided being a piece of the Charlton fan fiction by a fluke of editorial vacillation. Given freedom, Moore and Gibbons managed to produce a very, very good comic which at the same time was a summation of the comic book past, an accurate novelistic picture of the times of its conception and the portent of the times to come. Moore has done better books (V for Vendetta is often cited as a example), warmer comics (Halo Jones is my favourite) and more personal works (those CDs where his Northampton accent completely baffles my Balkan ear; oh well, they look nice on the shelf and impress the pagans), but none more important or having a greater impact. Watchmen helped the comics industry up on its feet, without noticing it was aiding a paraplegic.
There have been many attempts at replicating the Watchmen "formula", but none have succeeded. The tortured epithet-laden phrases substituted poorly for the elegance of Moore's wit, the epigone bastards failed to be brilliant and the heroes were neither lovably dumb, nor good at heart. But most of all, the wink was absent, there was no understanding of the rules in the comics game. These wannabe-Moores wanted the Watchmen money and the Watchmen fame, demanded them loudly and lewdly, but forgot to woo us with convincing lies, to put their everything into their words.
And this is something Moore never forgets. He has produced weak scripts but never, one feels, for the lack of trying (for the trying in the wrong direction, perhaps). I, for one, have never felt cheated after reading an Alan Moore's comic book. No, not even after Blood Feud.
Which is why Watchmen remains where it is, eighteen years on.
Which is why it is a brilliant book to hook your friends with, but a damned tough act to follow.
Which is why Alan Moore is such a terrific liar that he could convince me - like so few before him and even fewer since - that superheroes were worth reading. And I think I may have even figured out how he wrote superheroes so true.
You see, you have to be one yourself first...


Darko Macan,
Zagreb, twelve days past the very last deadline

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