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The Shadow and Alan Moore
by Phil Bledsoe
For beginners, Alan Moore is a British sci-fi and comic book writer considered
by some as the most influential writer in comics since the genre's inception.
He first achieved popularity writing short pieces for British SF magazines
like 2000AD and Warrior. His work on Captain Britain,
Marvelman (published in the US as Miracleman), and his original
creation V for Vendetta gained him enough attention to land him
a gig writing Saga of the Swamp Thing for DC Comics in the early
1980s. His groundbreaking work on the title set a new standard for comics
writing and started getting attention from outside the field from people
who saw it as "true art" (as though comics had been worthless before).
For his success on Swamp Thing and his high demand among readers,
he was offered a project with complete control over a new set of characters
that DC had recently purchased from defunct Charlton Comics; in other words,
he could do whatever he wanted without being restricted as to adult content
or the ongoing later use of the characters. Just like Orson Welles did
with Citizen Kane, Mr. Moore did not create something wholly new and never
before seen; instead, he took things we had seen before and made us reexamine
them in a new light. Before he was done, the publisher made him rename
and slightly alter the characters (because they decided they did want to
be able to use them later), but the Watchmen series was born. The
simple tale of a murder mystery played out over a few weeks in 1985 involving
a group of (mostly retired) superheroes, the plot relied heavily on flashbacks
to previous events as far back as the heroes' predecessors in 1939. It
also included considerable sections of text at the end of each chapter
in the form of excerpts of fictitious publications from the story.
The first of these (capping off the first three issues of the series)
were chapters from "Under the Hood" by Hollis Mason, the original
Nite-Owl (an analog of the 1940s character Blue Beetle). In the first installment,
Hollis Mason admits that part of the influence on his becoming a masked
crime-fighter was his love of the pulps, specifically Doc Savage and The
Shadow. Speaking of growing up in Montana with his evangelical grandfather
(for whom he was named):
"The world of Doc Savage and The Shadow was one of absolute values, where what was good was never in the slightest doubt and where what was evil inevitably suffered some fitting punishment. The notion of good and justice espoused by Lamont Cranston with his slouch hat and blazing automatics seemed a long way from that of the fierce and taciturn old man I remembered sitting up alone into the montana night with no company save his bible, but I can't help feeling that if the two had ever met they'd have found something to talk about."
Hollis speaks of his other great influence, Action Comics #1,
"The atmosphere of the horrific and faintly sinister that hung around The Shadow was nowhere to be seen in the bright primary colors of Superman's world, and there was no hint of the repressed sex-urge which had sometimes been apparent in the pulps, to my discomfor and embarrassment. I'd never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane, but I'd bet it was nowhere near as innocent and wholesome as Clark Kent's relationship with her namesake Lois."
In the second issue, Hollis' autobiographical excerpt continues with his attempt to create his own costumed identity and the costume itself:
"I experimented with a cloak, remembering how The Shadow would use his cloak to misguide enemy bullets, leading them to shoot at parts of the swirling black mass where his body didn't happen to be. In practice, however, I found it too unwieldy."
Years later, Mr. Moore regretted the overarching effect that Watchmen had on the
comics industry. He had merely intended to take superheroes apart and see
what made them tick, holding up some of their sillier cliches to the light
of realism. Lesser talents attempting to imitate his technique spawned a
decade of grim, bloodthirsty, mindless, plotless comics that featured characters
who constantly scowled and shouted and replaced Moore's thoughtful irony
with exaggerated physiques and attitudes. Moore has said that he never wanted
to destroy the superhero genre, just tell a good story by having some fun
with how ridiculous some of it was and at the same time surprise people
by not fitting into the expectations that had been built up over fifty years.
After a number of other projects, in 1993 Alan Moore wound up at Image
Comics, a company that had largely capitalized on the "big muscles, big
guns, big boobs" school of creativity in the early nineties. What he did
there was to give their two-dimensional characters a soul. He did this
by administering a remedy for the infection that Watchmen had become: the
man who took superheroes apart put them back together.
The most talked-about of his Image work was Supreme. The character had
started off as an ultraviolent Superman homage/knockoff whose origin, powers,
and personality had become steadily more convoluted the longer his series
continued in print. Moore asked if he could write the character, but on
the condition that he be allowed to wipe away everything that had been
done up to that point. The series became a favorite among other comic writers
and was discussed throughout the fan community. What Mr. Moore accomplished
this time was to allow the character, rather than the reader, to realize
that he was in fact a fictional character with a slightly flawed history,
who was bound by a set of rules that only exist in comics. It has been
said that Supreme made perfect sense out of sixty years of Superman history.
Supreme's secret identity Ethan Crane became the artist on a comic book
called Omniman that was used to make fun of bad Superman stories, and had
to work with a British writer named Billy Friday whose deconstructionist
philosophies and absurdly shocking plots were an obvious self-parody by
Moore. The whole project was done with a big wink at the reader.
The series ended with issue #56, and was restarted as Supreme: The Return
with a new issue #1, only running through #6 before it was cancelled again.
In #6 comes an unusual and indirect reference to The Shadow. Supreme flies
to a remote Himalayan valley to investigate the overnight appearance of
a mysterious city. To greatly simplify a complex explanation, the city
is the creation of the spirit of a deceased comic book creator who wanted
a safe place to try out new story ideas. The creator (called "The King")
is obviously meant to be prolific comics writer/artist Jack Kirby, the
King of Comics, who passed away in 1994. After Supreme makes his way through
the bizarre surroundings and ascends to the higher levels were he meets
The King and has the city's existence explained to him, The King comments
"Yeah. I always like that Hidden Valley/Secret Kingdom kind of concept. Works Great with characters like you! Lemme see, you're a Wylie, am I right?"
"A Wylie? What's a Wylie?" replies Supreme. The King explains:
"Ah, it's after this guy Phil Wylie. Wrote a book called `Gladiator.' Sorta' introduced the whole superman archetype. That's you, incidentally. It's like, dark detective types, we call them Gibsons. Warrior princess types, they're Moultons. I've never created a Wylie personal, like. Handled a few, though."
A Moulton refers to William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman
and her Lasso of Truth (also the inventor of the polygraph, interestingly),
and there of course is Mr. Walter Gibson's tribute.