It’s appropriate that Alan Moore should be the first graphic novelist in this slot. No writer has done as much to make comics worthy of critical attention — or dreamt up as many thrilling yarns.
Moore was born in 1953 in Northampton, where he still lives. One of the few working-class kids at grammar school, he was expelled at 17 for selling LSD, but he has been educating himself ever since. His speech balloons bulge with quantum mechanics or the Kabbalah. In the 1980s, having created some of the most original strips ever to run in “2000AD” and “Warrior” in Britain, he revolutionised American superhero comics with a hallowed stint on “Swamp Thing” and a paradigm-shifting mini-series, “Watchmen”.
There was (no pun intended) more going on in his comics than in anyone else’s: more imagination, more humour, more playfulness, more depth and breadth, more politics (Moore is an anarchist), more affection for the medium, and more anger that it wasn’t reaching its full potential. And more words. In “Swamp Thing” he replaced the traditional stand-bys “Meanwhile...” and “Suddenly...” with this: “Fog slakes the fever of the bayous, drifting like cold music between the trees. Leaves are hanging like dead notes on the wind’s invisible stave.”
KEY DECISIONS 1) To take superheroes seriously. Moore’s larger-than-life characters inhabit a recognisable reality, where people say “uh”, “y’know”, and “whatever”, not “Holy Bananas!” And yet, against this backdrop, the superheroes assume a godlike grandeur. Superman “searched through a memory vast enough to have every conceivable shape of snowflake precisely filed...” 2) Not to take superheroes too seriously. Moore may be credited with bringing darkness to a garish fictional landscape, but even his bleakest comics are brightened by delightful digs at the absurdity of the genre.
STRONG POINTS 1) Onomatopoeia. Comics are notorious for off-the-peg sound effects which don’t sound like anything (“Pow!”). But Moore’s are sublimely specific. A vigilante chews cold baked beans in “Watchmen”: “Chlop. Thlup. Shorp. Lep.” His dialogue is pinpoint too. In “V for Vendetta”, a Glaswegian gangster drawls, “A tellyawhat...A canna hert yeh now, eh?” 2) Clarity. Moore may lead you through several parallel universes per page, but you’re never lost: he has no qualms about letting characters explain things in time-honoured pulp fashion.
GOLDEN RULE God is in the detail. Moore leaves nothing to chance, whether it’s the name of a breakfast cereal or a sign in a café window. For period pieces and literary pastiches, he does voracious research and writes historically accurate slang. He even manages it in the future. “The Ballad of Halo Jones” contains this shopping list: “Ghost-toast, chickpeas, Kriskies, a Plasbulb of Alga-rythm, about a drum of Nulcept ...”
FAVOURITE TRICK Juxtaposition. He often cuts between two narratives, such as a TV interview and a street fight in “Watchmen”, so the captions in one strand (“Am I starting to make you feel uncomfortable?”) act as irony in the other.
ROLE MODELS Will Eisner, who smuggled parables about New York’s underclass into “The Spirit”; Harvey Kurtzman, the satirical, post-modern, adult cartoonist and founder of Mad magazine.
TYPICAL SENTENCES “Becoming over-excited, three sentient puddles from Minraud IV evaporate completely, leaving a faint odour of gasoline.” (“For the Man Who Has Everything”, in “Superman Annual”, 1985)
The Bojeffries Saga Out now, Top Shelf Productions
Magic Words, a biography of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin is out in May, Aurum