“Life isn’t divided into genres. It’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you’re lucky.”—Alan Moore
How do I even begin to explain Alan Moore? Simply, he’s the greatest comics writer of all time. I’ve ranked his top 10 works below.
The pocket biography of Moore reads like this: Alan Moore is an English writer born in 1953 in the Midlands town of Northampton, where he still lives. Growing up after World War II, the working-class Moore is profoundly influenced by comics and the counterculture. In the ‘80s, he writes a groundbreaking series of comics that change the field forever. You’ve heard of most of them. Up until the ‘90s, the majority of his work was published through DC Comics. After DC Comics pursues what many consider to be an underhanded interpretation of contract laws on his most famous work, Watchmen, Moore breaks up with DC. He spends the next 25 years writing for independent houses. Moore declares himself a magician at age 40. In the ‘90s, the comics-to-film boom commences. Large corporations begin offering him ungodly heaps of filthy lucre. Moore refuses on principle, making him even more prominent. Year by year, Moore releases more work: indie films, performance pieces, one-off comics, a short novel, a leviathan novel, volumes of interviews.
Apart from his direct impact on comics and movies, Moore exerts a hidden gravity on our culture, his true reach hard to describe. The best way of thinking about the Magus of Comics might be to shove him in the same category as economists and philosophers. For example, most of Jimmy Fallon’s audience doesn’t know Adam Smith or Niccolo Machiavelli; these people were mildly famous in their lifetimes, and slightly more famous now. But these two figures exert a huge influence on the world. They named theories and set boundaries and made arguments, and even if you haven’t read them, the people who set the agenda for our society have.
That’s how Moore works. Practically everyone who has a say in our culture has read the man (or they have employees who have).
Confession time: I adore Moore. I spoke to him once over the phone for an interview. And so writing about him in a detached, scientific way is a rough proposition. There’s no chemically pure angle for me to take here—the man is a bedrock for me. I believe that he is the true father of comics-as-literature, the first sequential-art writer of the blood royal.
But even rabid apostles can learn to read a text critically. And honestly, whether you know it or not, you’re a fan of the Magician of Northampton. Moore is akin to David Lynch or Buddy Holly: we are all his students.
A Small Killing Cover Art by Oscar Zarate
10. A Small Killing
Artist: Oscar Zarate
Publisher: Avatar Press
Here’s the landmark which stands nearest to Moore. Allow me to explain: I don’t think A Small Killing is the work that means the most to Moore emotionally, or that it shows some never-revealed Rosebud, or that it amounts to autobiography by code. What I mean is that A Small Killing is the work I see as somehow closest to the heart of the creator, the way the Book of Job is central to any exegesis of the Tanakh. A Small Killing is a story that unconsciously comments on Moore’s anxiety. (This is all rabid hearsay, of course, and should not be aired in a legitimate court of law.)
Near as I can tell, Moore does not fear fire, flood, famine or pox. But he’s wary of being false to himself. I read A Small Killing as a stylized alternative nightmare world where Moore became an advertising executive. If Halo Jones is Young Moore who worked in a gas company, the protagonist of A Small Killing is the Moore who sold his birthright for a mass of corporate pottage, and became a gutless executive in the Time Warner conglomerate.
During this story, the lead character Timothy Hole leaves his sleek, lifeless city existence to travel to his Midlands childhood home. As Hole symbolically moves closer to his origin, he effectively moves backwards in time. All the while, Tim is haunted by a strange boy who looks exactly like his forgotten younger self. The child lobs armor-piercing questions at Tim: “Do you really like beer?” Of course he doesn’t. There’s a lot that Tim doesn’t like.
A Small Killing is the story of forgotten and lost alternative selves…the people we might have been, and could still be, if we want it badly enough. This story is a book to be read by quiet summer moonlight; it’s about selling your young self. If you’re a haunted reader, this is the stuff evening readings were made for.
But aren’t all of these works haunted stories?
It’s an apt phrase, “haunted.” To deal in Moore is to speak of occult wonders, of lingering spirits that do not depart easily.
These are only 10 (or is it 11?) stories from the magic mountain of modern comics. Would that there were 10 times as many works from this particular wizard. It’s said that Alan Moore has decided to step away from comics. Perhaps he’ll stay away this time. He may truly retire, and go on write movies, songs, and other novels. But selfishly, I hope against hope that his leave-taking won’t last. I don’t think he can stay away, and never look back. Moore is haunted by comics, and we are haunted by him.
Captain Britain Art by Alan Davis
9. Captain Britain
Artist: Alan Davis
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Captain Britain is Alan Moore’s Pickwick Papers. The inchoate mass of ambition trying to become the creator Moore. Like watching a charismatic box of Duplos teaching itself to form St. Peter’s Cathedral. Moore did a few pieces for Marvel Comics, and this is the maypole of the lot. In this sprawling, trans-dimensional saga, we see the writer’s almost appalling fertility. Captain Britain fights Mad Jim Jaspers, a reality-warping politician. He assembles a team of costumed adventurers to fight off a truly ghastly robot, The Fury. Stay for a while. You won’t sleep again.
Moore has a dozen ideas every page, and five of them are solid-gold immortal. There are fights, monsters, time travel, alternative realities, love affairs, turns of phrase, fictional references, allusions to British comedians. The superhero at the heart of the game is barely the point. Moore is getting away with whatever catches his fancy. Where other strip could have given us Captain Britain’s Orwell-universe parallel, Captain Airstrip One? Moore’s Captain Britain run is also the story of Moore’s two halves at war. On one side, the practical-minded professional who studied Brian Eno. That guy’s trying to build a narrative and craft a calculated piece of sublime entertainment. On the other side, the magician: Moore the raw creative. The professional superego barely keeps ahead of his creative id; here is the rational storyteller trying to outrun his profligate and prodigiously gifted creative subconscious who gets bored at the drop of a hat.
In time, Moore would learn to fuse the two, but in Captain Britain, he’s in a beautiful conflict, and it’s a joy to watch. For a tale about parallel worlds, Moore manages to never say the same thing twice.
D.R. & Quinch Cover Art by Alan Davis/ The Bojeffries Saga Cover Art by Steve Parkhouse
8. Tie: D.R. & Quinch./ The Bojeffries Saga
Artist: Alan Davis/ Steve Parkhouse
.Publisher: 2000 AD/ Top Shelf
“My name’s Ernie Quinch, College Student. I like guns and starting fights. My psychiatrist says I’m a psychotic deviant.” So speaks one of leads of Moore’s hooligan saga, D.R. & Quinch. It’s a line that works for either of these titles.
D.R.&Q is the story of alien juvenile delinquents: two psychologically disturbed space youth have raw, Hunter-Thompsonian fun. Moore referred to the pair as “Dennis the Menace with a thermonuclear capacity.” The Bojeffries Saga is the tale of a working-class family of horror creatures who live in Northampton: one’s a werewolf, one’s a vampire, one’s a blob creature. The Saga is Moore doing his version of the Munsters. If you’ve read any Moore, you know by now how intense and otherworldly Moore “doing” any premise is. To live a Midlands British life is to be one horror among many, Moore is saying.
I pair these two off because they’re a natural fit: they’re the two sides of the strange cosmic comical vision.
There’s a contingent of Moore fans who prefer to view him as a purveyor of dour, gothy culture. But that’s a limited perspective. For starters, Moore made his bread in a daily comic about a magic cat. That was his go-to; that’s how he began the business.
Honestly, once you start reading all of Moore, it’s amazing how often the goofy and absurd shows up in his work. Outside of the serious books, Moore is surprisingly funny. Put simply, D.R. & Quinch is his guilty pleasure, and The Bojeffries Saga is his account of childhood.
That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, by the way. I’ll let the man speak for himself: “So in a sense, I suppose all stories are autobiographical to some degree or another, but with the Bojeffries this was taking observations from my deeply-buried memories of a working-class upbringing. It was probably taking memories of a working class world that wasn’t there any more by the time I started writing the story, or at the very least was on the brink of vanishing.”
Miracleman Vol. 1 Cover Art by Alan Davis
Artists: Garry Leach, Alan Davis, Chuck Austen, Rick Veitch, John Totleben, John Ridgeway
Publisher: Marvel Comics
As Chesterton said of Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, Marvelman (now titled Miracleman) is the only one of Moore’s works where it is necessary to know the date.
Marvelman is Alan Moore’s Book of Changes. Moore is a different creator at the beginning than he is at the end. When he starts the narrative, he has an idea, a sort of skeleton to hang a story on: what if the superman was real? What would happen? Marvelman is the story of Alan Moore saying just what. There are missteps and half-executed notions. But even his errors are gigantic wonders. When the story opens, Moore is merely the most gifted creator of his generation of British comics writers. He is trying, like Michael Moran, to make sense of a confusing situation. Any number of good scriptwriters could have handed the first issue in.
By the end of Marvelman, when the premise has been worked out, the writer is the modern Moore we all know: polished, sure, knowing, and rhapsodical (with restraint). Oh, he overwrites, he pours out prose by the purple yard. But Moore’s most salient (and underappreciated) feature is there: his humanity. In Moore, even when he is on board with a premise, there are always dissenting voices. That’s the hallmark of a great creator.
We are still in danger from this book, frankly. Before Superman the comic book character, the Victorians were worried about the superman, Nietzsche’s superman. George Bernard Shaw’s entire artistic canon came out of that obsession. The superman has several meanings, and Moore’s Marvelman meets them all. Is he a locus of power who makes a mockery of our morality? He is. Is he a supreme physical being that diminishes the human? Certainly. Is he a self-creating artist not bound by herd morality? Yes. Does he lose a part of his soul in the change? Without a doubt.
I need to repeat this, because it’s an important point, and scant few seem to notice: Moore is not the mocker of superheroes.
All Moore ever did was take comics seriously. Their premises, their possibilities, their audiences. It’s strange to say this about a man who got kicked out high school for dealing LSD, but nobody has ever been a more faithful student than Alan Moore. Imagine a radical doctor who made their patients immortal. That’s Moore.
The story of Michael Moran, who remembers that he is a superman, begins as a whimsical take-off on Captain Marvel, and ends as the story of a living god. Along the way, Moore reckons with issues of morality, humanity and the fragility of our world. After Marvelman, everything was possible.
Top 10 Cover Art by Gene Ha
6. Top 10
Artists: Gene Ha & Zander Cannon
Publisher: DC Comics
Imagine a cop show set in a city where every single woman, man and child has superpowers. That’s the world of Top 10. It’s one of several titles Moore created for the America’s Best Comics line, Moore’s return to superhero comics. He outdid himself. In the story of one police department, Moore shows the skills he’d perfected after 20 years of comics writing. Like most gifted artists, Moore went looking for inspiration, and found it everywhere, like fire in hell. The throwaway characters are better than the protagonists in other books.
Top 10 is a rambunctious demonstration of Moore’s Silver Age fanboyism. Look, I’ve been reading the words of Alan Moore for two decades now. Of course the man has his grim moments. But when Moore has negative emotions, they tend to rest on an ambient sense of disappointment. Moore is not a cyberpunk writer; the cyberpunks were cynical users of the side-eye and the tech-spec. Moore, as always, is a true believer with gifts that lean toward the prophetic. He is genuinely surprised at the failure of sci-fi in our world—surprised as only the faithful can be. When he creates a sci-fi city, he builds grandly, and without snark.
Moore’s ambitions put him at direct odds with reports of bitterness, which Moore is often (and unfairly) accused of. People who label Moore as a curmudgeon aren’t paying attention. Top 10 disproves them.
Bitter men don’t launch local newspapers (Dodgem Logic) in mid-career. Bitter men don’t write Supreme: The Story of the Year. Bitter men don’t get involved in comics, period, or stick around their hometowns, or care as much as Moore does. And a bitter man would not, could not have written Top 10.
Sci-fi is a smasher of unspoken clichés; it raises questions that complicate everything. And Top 10 is Moore’s treatise on sci-fi and superheroes. His story of civil servants from a freewheeling kitchen-sink Earth is proof of the depth of his vision. Here’s a giant horseman who fuses with a middle-aged office worker. Here’s a dog in a robot suit. Here’s a serious Christian woman who flies like a hawk, and works across from a devout peacock-feather-wearing Satanist. Here’s a toymaker who looks for love and employment, and forms an unlikely bond with a blue brooding fantasy hero. Top 10 is the biggest flattery of sci-fi that Moore ever wrote, disguised as a serial scientific melodrama. Even when Moore is writing a cop show, he doesn’t slack.