V for Vendetta Cover Art by David Lloyd
5. V for Vendetta
Artist: David Lloyd
Publisher: DC Comics
A story of politics as obsession. Here’s Moore as Lawgiver: the Author as a Young Terrorist.
In some ways, V is Moore’s most terrifying creation, beyond the dreams of Kid Marvelman or The Fury. Moore’s stories about Superman are justly famous; Moore wrote about Batman, too. The critics assume Moore wrote The Killing Joke and never touched the Dark Knight again. Oh no. Moore wrote about Batman throughout his career. He just split the Caped Crusader into three parts. In Rorschach and Nite Owl, Moore assessed Bruce Wayne as a scarred vigilante and as an overgrown kid. V is what happens when Moore takes Batman absolutely, 100-percent, no-fucking-around seriously. What would it be like, to be Batman? Batman without the neutralizing alloy of Bruce Wayne. A Batman without restraint. A Batman who went beyond a war on crime, to war on the cause of crime: the order of the state itself.
He’d be V. Look at what he does to Evey, his Robin. You’re telling me Bruce wouldn’t be capable of that?
In V For Vendetta, a terrorist wages eternal war on the fascist government that takes over post-apocalyptic Britain. In the same way, Lloyd and Moore struck at the comics medium. The strip is done in gorgeous, minimal colors. The sound effects are gone. The thought balloons have vanished. Noir in art, noir in soul, noir in tone: there is no place in Norsefire’s England where the reader can find respite. V is Moore doing what he does so well: extending an idea to its fullest conclusion.
What kind of man is V? I think we know: the hero. What does that say about our idea of greatness? A man who cared about nothing except abstract goodness would be monstrous, in the way that the heroic always has a touch of the monstrous. Such is our protagonist.
In this book, there are mysteries here that neither Lloyd nor Moore can answer: neither one of them knows what’s underneath V’s mask. An idea is what remains.
The Ballad of Halo Jones Cover Art by Ian Gibson
4. The Ballad of Halo Jones
Artist: Ian Gibson
Publisher: 2000 AD
“Halo Jones was my first love,” novelist Lauren Beukes wrote in her introduction to one of the serial’s collections, “or maybe my first role model. The girl that got out.”
Here’s a blue-collar feminist space opera that was published in a sci-fi comic in Thatcher’s Britain. Like the great TARDIS, The Ballad is so much bigger on the inside. Halo Jones is a character study posing as a space journey pretending to be a war story. The tale was never completed, but maybe it doesn’t need to be.
Set the day just after tomorrow, the eponymous protagonist of Halo Jones is an alienated young woman; she lives in a rough Earth neighborhood called The Hoop. She’s desperate to get out, so she makes her choices and lives with them. She becomes a space stewardess, then a soldier, then something quite different. The Ballad of Halo Jones has all of the deep-set yearning of the early Moore: the needy hunger of young people to get out, get away, to grab at the horizons they were promised.
During the series, the banality of Halo’s daily life is intercut with scenes in the far-future. Inside a college seminar, a scholar and his students debate the importance of the legendary Halo Jones. A saying of Halo’s—”Anyone could have done it”—is treated as holy writ. As the teacher in the future scenes opines, “You see, I’ve spent 15 years researching this woman—and do you know what I’ve found out? It’s this… she wasn’t anyone special.” So why does this everywoman seem so singular? Moore creates a space at the heart of his story, and invites us to fill it.
From Hell Cover Art by Eddie Campbell
3. From Hell
Artist: Eddie Campbell
Publisher: Top Shelf
This is Moore’s best comic, but not his best work. The Moore-Campbell working marriage is probably the choicest professional relationship the author ever engaged in, and it shows.
This tale treads down a familiar path. All of Moore’s stories are essentially about people who become gods. From Hell is another version of that story, which is a bit like saying that Moby Dick is about a fishing hole. The story is wilder than the black-and-white outline would suggest.
In his appendix to the book, Moore uses the example of the Koch Triangle to explain how one bounded story—the tale of Jack the Ripper—can contain so much information about the world, despite happening in a contained space. Under Moore’s pen, From Hell becomes one of those 19th-century mega-books that somehow contains the whole sum of human wisdom inside its pages.
In brief (nothing about this story is actually brief), Jack the Ripper uses symbolic masculine magic to create a four-dimensional happening; those bloody effects will echo through time and create the violent 20th century. As every wise commenter has pointed out, From Hell isn’t a whodunit—we know who, and how. It’s a whydunit. And whys are Moore’s specialties.
Watchmen Cover Art by Dave Gibbons
Artist: Dave Gibbons
Publisher: DC Comics
You’re reading a ranked list in the comics section of an online magazine, so I’m almost positive you’ve read Gibbons and Moore’s era-defining superhero murder mystery. I’ll repeat what a million thinkpieces have already said: Watchmen is a meditation on power, sequential art and superheroes, and a defining text in the history of the medium. Imagine being a reading adult when this new planet swam into the telescope’s view.
By 1985 and 1986, Watchmen was something Moore had been chasing after his entire career. It went back, probably, to his childhood. The story goes like this: Moore was sick, and asked his mother to buy a comic for him. His mother, Sylvia, brought the wrong comic back from an outdoor market. (They brought American comics over to the U.K. as ship-ballast). Moore had wanted her to get a copy of DC’s Blackhawks. Which one is that, she asked. The one with the dark uniforms on the cover, he said. Instead of Blackhawks, she returned home with a copy of the Fantastic Four, probably issue #3. In later interviews, Moore would describe this moment as significant. Something changed in me, he said.
Indeed. The supernova-in-a-box that plucks out the mystery of Doctor Manhattan from the mortal flesh of Jon Osterman is probably a delayed echo of Alan Moore reading the Fantastic Four for the first time. When the gods fly by in Kirby and Lee, we see the suns go out and galaxies grow cold. A great and terrible awe settles over us. Moore saw and remembered all of this. As the Fat Boy in Dickens’ Pickwick Papers says, “I wants to make your flesh creep.”
Watchmen is built on moments like these. In other interviews, Moore has discussed the strangeness of these foundational comics: the world-warping power of Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD, the eerie otherworldly worldliness of Kirby and Lee’s stories. Moore pointed to an early issue of FF where Johnny Storm, cut whole cloth from a romance comic, breaks off from the team. The Human Torch wanders around New York like a radiation-doused Holden Caulfield, only to arrive in a flophouse and find Namor, the king of Atlantis, living among the drunks and winos of Bowery Row. Side-quests like that didn’t happen in Silver Age DC Comics.
Watchmen is the fulfillment of the wild promise of 1961. This book is what the House of Ideas was growing.
Instead of telling you about Watchmen’s plot, structure and characters, I’d like to tell you about how I feel about Watchmen. Pauline Kael famously said, “I lost it at the movies.” Watchmen is where I lost it. You can write your own list of highlights: Ozymandias’ speeches during the last issues, Laurie’s slow-burning realizations, Rorschach’s monologue about the absence of God and Manhattan’s thoughts on Mars. Watchmen’s a house of cards, a postmodern adventure serial, a hall of mirrors, a tragedy, a melodrama, a comic about comics. Read it a thousand times, and you’d have a thousand different Watchmen. Wheels within wheels.
Allow me to exercise the privilege of the critic, and declare my own reading. At bottom, Watchmen is about justice in a chaotic world, and the redeeming power of human love. In it, Alan Moore shows us the path back from the superman. There’s a scene late in the book, where an adult uses his body to shield a teenage boy from danger. To me, Watchmen is about that man, and what his choice means. Where the demigods fail, humanity succeeds. Where there’s life, there’s hope.
Swamp Thing #64 Cover Art by John Totleben
1. Swamp Thing
Artist: Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Others
Publisher: Vertigo/ DC Comics
We have difficulty with the word “adult.” We use that term to mean “serious,” but nothing is less serious than an adult. Children take everything literally and dramatically. Even their spending habits are immediate and pragmatic: a child would buy candy, but no child would have bought Enron. Look at what we spend our money on versus what they spend their money on. Therefore, when we say “adult” in reference to comic books and comic characters, what we really mean is “extension.” We want to take our dreams of childhood to their logical conclusion.
Many people consider Moore a moody, clever realist who deconstructs comics. A professor of grimdark who transforms children’s entertainments into sketchy, grizzled drug-users. This is exactly backwards. The creators who came after Moore missed the lesson.
Nobody takes superheroes more seriously than Moore does. Nobody. Moore is the fulfillment of superhero comics, not the deconstruction. In our daily lives, we are occasionally shocked to discover religious people who take the tenets of their faith seriously. Moore is the first writer to seriously, soberly consider, What would superheroes mean? Imagine seeing Frankenstein for the first time, and really considering what the hell that meant. That’s what Moore did. As Julie Schwartz once said, it’s not Moore’s ideas, it’s his storytelling that made him famous. But the tale came from the thought. Moore’s signal advice to creators, in interview after interview, amounts to: think about what you’re doing. Above all, Moore is the man who thought. And felt.
The journey Moore began in Marvelman arrives here, in the swamps of Louisiana. As Moore wrote in a prose-poem ad for the series: “This is the edge of the twentieth century. [...] This is the place. This is the story.” Whatever Alan Moore is, it’s Swamp Thing.
You can build your own list of superlatives about Moore’s Swamp Thing run. Pick your panacea: Swamp Thing reinvented the horror comic. Swamp Thing invented modern “mature” comics, Vertigo Comics, and by extension, The Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan and The Invisibles. The Big Book of Alec Holland codified the trope of reinvention. That’s just for starters.
The entire plot of the Moore run can be summed up in a sentence: Swamp Thing discovers he is not a cursed man trapped in plant flesh, but an earth elemental that thought it was a man. Working out that equation occupies the whole narrative: what do you do if you’re a living plant in a world of superheroes? Which is another way of asking, how do living things work inside a comic?
Swamp Thing explains how.
Jason Rhode is not a Republic Serial villain. Do you seriously think he’d explain his best-of list if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? He finished it 35 minutes ago. He can be found on Twitter at @iamthemaster.