Thursday, February 26, 2009

Stylistic Aspirations: Alan Moore

Even though there are plenty of artists I'd like to talk about, I feel I won't get any further than making constant allusions and comparisons to Alan Moore if I don't cover him extensively today.

Alan Moore is the De Niro of the comic book world, a method man, his dedication to the art form in the first half of his career is unmatched and forced everyone else to lift their game. Often immitated never duplicated Alan Moore is the real deal comic book writer.

I have to say though, that as in yesterday's approach I must agree with Tim Sale and say for my personal viewpoint reading an Alan Moore book is often taxing, sometimes tedious and rewards close attention. His books are unflippable. You would never flick through an Alan Moore book and be captivated by what you see there.

So it's kind of amazing he got discovered.

I think my favorite work of his is probably his short run on Miricleman as writer. You could tell way back then that it was something special. Furthermore it was a comic about comic books, ALan Moore is a deconstructionist, and the best thing you could ever read about that comic book icon 'Superman' can all be found in the pages of Alan Moore's Miracleman.

As such I am a big fan of Alan Moore's approach if not his execution, watchmen for example fits Mark Twain's description of a classic to me 'Something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read' I'm glad I read it but I didn't enjoy it the first time, and frankly still can't see why it is elevated so high above his other works. It also has a bit of an emperors new clothes feeling about it, I don't know what it is about even though I've read it and had a couple of years to ponder it. It seems brilliant but I couldn't tell you why.

Perhaps it is the host of unlikeable or dull characters that are clustered around Rourjake and Veidt, they are very human, very real and it is easy to empathise with them, but if I wanted that I'd read 'Beloved' or 'The Memory Keepers Daughter'.
And I just naturally hate ensemble cast stories with 8 or so main characters.

That might qualify what I mean by being a bigger fan of his appraoch than his execution.

There is one quality shared by everyone I like in this world and absent in everyone I dislike or don't have time for, and that is: they think.

Alan Moore thinks about the medium. Perhaps the biggest influence for me is his insistence on not deriving comic book writing from a cinematic mindset. Claiming if you think about comics like you think about movies, they will always suffer from the comparison.

But its what you can do with a comic that you can neither do with a book or a movie that makes it a legitimate format in its own right. For example, in a movie you might drop heaps of complicated clues throughout the course of a film that all coalesce in a climactic convolution of complication but the viewer doesn't have the option to flick back a couple of frames, minutes or hours to see those clues and appreciate what happened. You either have to do a montage of flashbacks to remind the viewer, or hope that they have the concentration of Mach 3 fighter pilots and can piece it together for themselves.

You can also change the size of the image to emphasize certain points, and cram heaps of little panels in tight silent sequences to convey action sequences.

The artist can do perfect juxtapositions and so fourth.

Anyway really step one of the approach is to think about the medium, then you proceed to come up with the idea.

The idea is simply to insert a motive into writing a comic. Alan Moore's greatest critique of the comic book industry by far I feel is that too many storylines are simply obsessed with conflict. Sale when talking about Bob Kane, and whoever created Superman that they literally thought no more than 'Hey how cool would it be to be a billionaire that fights crime at night, and how cool would it be to be bullet proof and fly and shoot lasers out your eyes!' and the early comics were no more thought provoking than this. New mythology without any real moral guidance or message behind it.

As such the idea is what you want to communicate through the metaphore of the story, so he gives examples of 'The Curse' which was a story about a woman who becomes a werewolf every full moon staying in a log cabin in the woods in Swamp Thing. A story inspired by the idea of womens menstrual cycle.

SImilarly his famous Superman book, where Superman is fantasizing about being home safe on Krypton having never come to earth, but in reality is the victim of a mind bending parasite plant sent from Moghul, was more obviously the idea of how the homes we dream of and feel nostalgia for are in reality not the great places we make them out to be. In the end Superman fights with his father and rejects the imposed reality to return to the real one. Poigniant, and actually moves the superman character forward in time, where most comic book writers move comic books backwards.

Part of the idea is also the audience, and probably the biggest thing I took from his essay on writing comics into fowp was thinking about the audience in terms of feelings. Safely pre-release of fowp I feel I can talk about the influence without knowing how it works. But basically he points out that the industry goes to extensive lengths to create an 'average reader' much like the legal system creates a 'reasonable person' neither of which can be found in one place. Then the typical approach sets about not offending, upsetting or turning off the average reader.

A long legacy of this is the resurrection of killed off popular characters and do-overs that populate any long running series like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Spiderman, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Flash and every other western comic book ever. Even Spawn resurrected 'the clown' after boldly killing him off after the first couple of years.

But Alan Moore throws shit to the wall that sticks, and he does it on the assumption that if you (the writer) find something funny then chances are someone else will too, and that's how jokes manage to exist and spread. SO too if you find something emotional then chances are someone else will too. These feelings have a deep sead in evolution that allow society to function, so instead of tiptoeing around peoples sensibilities you have to go after them.

In fowp for example I knew when I wrote the guide to the last four pages that they moved me. The test though is if what preceeds it manages to set people up right for the same feelings and if my artwork is good enough to translate the writing onto the page.

In that Moore leaves nothing to chance, as Sale says he can do half page descriptions for one panel, which is a lot. I do things like 'we see people running away from the beach, guards running towards it.' and leave the rest of the composition up to me as the artist.

Not a fair comparison, to my knowledge Moore has never illustrated one of his own comics, so presumably I as artist am thinking what I'm thinking as a writer. Except you never know when things need juggling around or just don't fit on a page or how to twist the composition because it turns out flatter than you thought.

The next thing I take away from Moore, is the real 'method acting' component of it, which is the research phase, the setting. Once you've thought about the idea and it's audience you can slip any metaphore over the top of it, I inject at this stage a preference for the most disarming metaphore. For example if I wanted to teach kids about the phallacy of materialism I would pick a metaphore that had real appeal to kids, like a Naruto style Ninja School or some shit.

But you go further, and just churn out a detailed pile of notes about the government, culture, fashion, economy, trade relations, history, social issues, sciences, etc. Until you have a makeshift encyclopedia on your world.

I did this for fowp, even though the 48 hour window in which the story takes place allows you really only to see 1% of it. I have it all written down and didn't bother to write in any info-dumps, that is a character that explains the whole world to you early on 'Your father, the king' etc. It is enough for me to know it is there if the story ever demands it to make sense.

In other words, I would have made the movie of dune (a whole lot differently for one thing) without the introduction that explains in some detail an overview of the Dune universes politics and economy. That is really poor writng, and did not appear so blatently and unapologetically in the book.

In business and the military obviously you do the opposite, you put the bottom line up front, cut to the chase etc. You don't waste peoples time.

That's what really impresses me in Moore's run on 'Swamp Thing' and 'Miracle Man' he takes the encyclopedic imposition of the characters continuity as it pre exists, and deconstructs it into a new compelling idea. Swamp things autopsy by the florionic man was mind blowing. As was 'A dream of flying' that kicked of Miracle Man. Miracle Man is still sloppy, he pushes forward too fast in unveiling Kid Miracle as the villain. But that was early days, in later writing he attempted less and pulled off more.

I think that's what I dislike about Nolan in his Batman movies, he cherry picks the profound messages executed masterfully by Miller and Moore and inserts them into the movies in the most obtuse and artless way.

Example, Miller in Batman: Year One, had Batman crashing his car and botching his crime fighting all over the place. He had him running in with the cops and really created for the first time the batman character that wasn't a playboy billionaire but a man trapped as a grieving boy, that put on a mask to become himself.

In Batman Begins, Nolan believed it was a good idea to have the spiderman-esque love interest played by Katy Holmes reach up and touch Christian Bale's face and say 'I thought I'd wait till you take off your mask, but this is your mask Bruce' dumbing down something you really had to feel from Batman Year One, The Dark Knight Returns and so fourth.

SO too in the Dark Knight, the depiction of the Joker, Alan Moore revolutionised the character and the relationship between Joker and Batman in 'The Killing Joke' which retold the Jokers origin and also culminated in Batman and the Joker laughing at eachother over a joke about two madmen escaping from an asylum. This as far as I'm aware was the first introduction of the notion that Batman is as insane as the Joker and two needed eachother to keep playing their games.

It wasn't said but you picked up the subtext. It was really classy. Joker also quite depressingly says 'Sometimes I remember it one way, other times another' revealing the very memories that drive his identity shift on him. This was a get-out-of-jail free card to excuse the multiple origin stories around Joker and the multitude of ways the character is written.

In 'The Dark Knight' Nolan just has Joker deliver quite artless running commentaries lecture style to almost every character he comes across to make the same two points. I'm sorry Heath, but I would have given that Oscar to Fiennes for 'In Bruges'.

But that is what is ultimately so rewarding about Moore's writing, furthermore unlike someone like Jordan, Claypool or Clapton/Hendrix, it's easy to spot how Moore could be better, just use less words.

Oft times Moore doesn't sit back and let the visuals tell the story. His descriptions often more detailed than the pictures themselves. Someone like Loeb let's the setting be the complete domain of the artist, but then uses thought bubbles to tell most of the story.

I thus far have avoided using thought commentary as much as possible and completely let the visuals describe the setting.

AT the same time, I couldn't handle any really complex ideas, like Superman vs Society, or What makes someone human? or Anarchy like Moore does in Miracle Man, Swamp Thing and V for Vendetta respectively. I'm building up to it. But I know ultimately I will have to increase the word count to do it, and the amount of literary devices.

I think once you know the medium, the idea and the setting you have the big 3 down and it's really hard to make writing really hard from there. He goes on through Characters and then Layout and so fourth.

I followed his process pretty methodically, but mixed it up when it came to doing the writing. He does an afterword to his original essay on how to write for comics where he says once you've done it, you need to throw that away and be completely new. A good example of Moore doing this is his 'From Hell' work which is brilliant because its a historical essay converted into a comic book, it seems to be a stand alone story rather than being about anything other than its direct subject matter.

Unfortunately after League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, most of Moore's stuff is like De Niro's later acting career, flawlessly executed roles that offer very little. Tom Strong, Albion etc.

I hope he goes back to his own 'garage days' and picks up his old methodology to write something, because he is ultimately the best at it.

As for me, I was already abandoning the methodology in fowp, there were a lot of times things just worked out and I never made a conscious decision nor planned them that way. The pieces all just fit and I hope all my future writing goes that way. Somehow I doubt it.

As a stylistic aspiration my next major work I'm doing the prep for now, I'm still following Moore's process (but jumping back and fourth making constant adjustments) to me the feeling is still more important than the thinking though.

Writing is in many ways has the best ease of doing/enjoyment ratio. Drawing can be highly enjoyable and rewarding, but it just isn't easy to do. It's slow going and takes a lot out of me mentally. You'd think if you find drawing fun, then you would find all drawing fun. But it isn't across the board. I hate backgrounds and landscapes, and only really lose myself in a drawing if it is creating a dynamic character. Creating a generic character is perhaps the most thought intensive of all. Like having to describe someone you didn't notice down the street.

Whereas I enjoy writing an essay style economic diatribe, screenplay, comic and fantasy novel. It's easy to sit in front of a computer and just type. Comics are probably the hardest of them though because you have to be imaginitive whilst writing in a very contrived and unimaginitive style. Eg. We see the prince approach the begger. We see the prince proferring a diamond necklace above the poor beggar girls head. We see the necklace dangling around her neck, a hint of cleavage and some dirt marks across her chest from her unwashed neck.

That too Alan Moore is also the only person I have come across who has written an essay on writing that is any where near comprehensive, so it's really quite impossible to not have him as an influence. Vs. Frank Miller of whom I have no idea how he writes anything. (nor do I have any real desire to emulate his writing)

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