Feb 19, 2021

Feeling about comic writing

The Comics Journal n.93
Excerpt from The Comics Journal n. 93, September 1984. Interview by Mark Burbey.
Burbey: I had wondered if the title of Swamp Thing #23, "Another Green World," had been inspired by the Eno album of the same name. I think you've brought Swamp Thing down to a more human level, where the reader can more readily identify with what's happening to the characters. Despite its fantastic nature, it seems less like a "comic book" than most comics. The people and their feelings and reactions seem very important, more so than the so-called obligatory action sequences. What is your approach and attitude about writing Swamp Thing, and comics writing in general?
Moore: I suppose that overall my feeling about comic writing is that it should be a lot more effective and visceral than it is. I find myself reading humor books that don't make me laugh, adventure books that don't excite me, and horror books that don't scare me in the slightest.
    I think that what's gradually happened over the last 30 or 40 years is that each of these genres have gradually built up an arsenal of cliches that have totally overwhelmed and smothered the original concepts. In humor books, for example, if you look back to Kurtzman's Mad you have something that was genuinely funny and that would actually make people laugh. Since then, however, it's as if the producers of subsequent humor mags have only had to conjure a little of Mad's style in order to evoke the appropriate response. They cram a panel with largely mundane sight gags, they assume that it is sufficient to change a couple of letters in the name of whatever they're satirizing, the pacing is always on a breathless Laugh-In level...the assumption is that if you throw in enough items that are recognizable as something approaching funny comics, then the end product will somehow be funny. It's a bit like the approach that the Cargo Cultists had to practical electronics: if you get a wooden box and stick knobs on the front then it's a radio, and who cares if it makes any noise or not.
    The same thing applies to horror. It's been reduced to a form of shorthand: "If a werewolf jumps out from behind a tree and growls at the girl then this will be frightening." But of course, it isn't...the shock or horror and the similar shock of humor are to some degree based on the sudden recognition of something totally unfamiliar. A werewolf jumping out from behind a tree is such a stock image that there isn't the merest frisson of terror in it for the majority of the audience.
    So, basically, what I try to do when approaching any genre is to try and sort out the original idea from the accumulated silt of tradition. It's what I tried to do when approaching the super-hero strip by way of Marvelman, and it's what I'm trying to do with the horror strip by way of Swamp Thing.
    Specifically, when approaching Swamp Thing, I could see a number of problems. The first was that Len and Berni's original conception of the character, while it had worked perfectly back in the early '70s, couldn't really cut it for an '80s audience. The audience has changed, their environment has changed, and their notion of horror has changed. It's like something that I believe Stephen King said in Danse Macabre while comparing Val Lewton's Cat People to the version by Paul Schrader: he said that the reality set had changed, and that scenes that would have gripped and convinced an audience 20 years ago would be laughed out of the cinema today.
    For one thing, a large percentage of our audience now has some sort of access to video equipment. If they wish, they can watch glowingly explicit films showing a woman having her nipples torn off with a pair of pliers. On a more acceptable level, they can watch John Carpenter's The Thing and see vivid, godawful weirdness far more real and far more imaginative than anything ever experienced in comics...despite the notion that comics have an "unlimited special-effects budget." You see, the problem is that while we might be able to approximate an unlimited special effects budget with our lines on paper, people like Spielberg and Lucas actually have an unlimited special effects budget.
    We have to accept that this sort of stuff is what we're competing against for the attentions and money of the audience, and we have to work out what can be done about it. Now, obviously, we couldn't compete in the gore stakes even if we had any inclinations toward this area. Similarly, we can't rely upon our sense of wonder to pull us through, not when we're up against something like Poltergeist, or Alien.
    For me, the only areas in which we can successfully compete are in the novel things that we can do with our storytelling that cannot be successfully duplicated by other media, and in the weight, depth, and moment of our actual stories.
    This last point is probably the most important angle from my point of view...much of the culture that I find surrounding me seems to be composed mostly of flash and surface. There very seldom seems to be any sort of depth of meaning or importance to the films that I see, irrespective of how good the special effects are. This is a weakness that I think the comic industry would do well to exploit: people cannot maintain infinite enthusiasm and affection for a bunch of explosions. Sooner or later, to paraphrase a remark I believe was originally uttered by the estimable Jeff Jones, they're going to ask for a donut to go with the hole.
    With Swamp Thing, we're trying the best we can to construct stories that have some sort of real human resonance and some moments of genuine unease. From my end, this comes down to what I do with the characters and how I set up the story. I find that my general line of approach is to build up the characters, often in woefully slow and monotonous sequences, so that when the action does finally arrive, the readers will have some sort of real sense of what is at stake both physically and emotionally. This isn't a perfect approach, in that sometimes I seem to end up with a story in which practically nothing happens and I plunge into a morass of guilt over not having given Steve and John anything interesting to draw. On the whole, though, I think we're on the right tack. The alternative is to cram a book with action, which, due to the fact that the characters and events that make up the action have not been properly explored, comes over as empty and lifeless.
    I've no idea whether all this pretentious pondering will actually amount to anything, but it is at least an attitude. Having somewhere solid to stand is very important in the 1980s.

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