Friday, September 18, 2009

Toasting Absent Heroes: Alan Moore discusses the Charlton-Watchmen Connection

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On June 16, 2000, an interview was conducted by Jon B. Cooke with Alan Moore, then transcribed by Jon B. Knutson for Comic Book Artist #9 (August 2000.) There, Moore discussed how spotty distribution of American comics was to the U.K., as they were treated as shipping ballast rather than a periodical in need of a consistent newsstand presence. "...There'd be sometimes a whole month of a partic­ular comic, or even a whole lot of comics that I just missed." Also, the books were dumped en masse onto the market, so all the best books could be bought at once, leaving less desirable product still on the shelves for weeks. "Somewhere along the way there, I'd see the Archie/MU/Mighty super-hero comics, the Tower comics that were around at the time...." Charlton Comics would often sit around with titles like Caper the Friendly Ghost, but for the period Dick Giordano wrested the company out of the creative dumpster. "Prior to that golden period when Dick was editor, I very much enjoyed the Steve Ditko stuff—Captain Atom and the Charlton monster books—so the main reason that I liked Charlton would've been probably Steve Ditko, origi­nally. Not to say that there weren't other great artists and writers, but the ace of it all was, Ditko was the only one that I really noticed, until that period when Dick took over." Moore also name-checked Pat Boyette, Steve Skeates and Jim Aparo. "All of these things contributed in pushing Charlton higher up my league title of which comics to buy first. They never quite ousted Marvel or DC, but during that golden period, Charlton was up there with the best of them."

Moore pointed out how The Question came off as a mainstream reworking of Ditko's extremist prozine character Mr. A from witzend, and how Ditko's work was clearly informed by his right-wing views. Though Moore's politics were always far in opposition, the writer respected that Ditko at least expressed an honest viewpoint through his work, as opposed to being strictly commercial. "...I have a great deal of respect for the man, and certainly respect for his artwork, and the fact that there's something about his uncompromising attitude that I have a great deal of sympa­thy with. It's just that the things I wouldn't compromise about or that he wouldn't compromise about are probably very different."

Moore then went on to discuss the genesis of Watchmen. "Wouldn't it be nice if I had an entire line, a universe, a continuity, a world full of super-heroes— preferably from some line that has been discontinued and no longer publishing— whom I could then just treat in a different way." After having treated Marvelman in a similar manner, Moore's initial leaning was to have a go at the MLJ line-- Golden Age heroes who had been cast aside when Archie proved more popular than spandex. They had suffered through a limp revival in the '60s, and would soon be mangled again by other hands in the mid-'80s. "The initial con­cept would've had the 1960s-70s rather lame version of the Shield being found dead in the harbor, and then you'd probably have various other characters, including Jack Kirby's Private Strong, being drafted back in, and a murder mystery unfolding. I suppose I was just thinking, 'That'd be a good way to start a comic book: have a famous super-hero found dead.' As the mystery unraveled, we would be lead deeper and deeper into the real heart of this super­hero's world, and show a reality that was very different to the general public image of the super-hero. So, that was the idea."

Moore had done some work with Dave Gibbons for 2000 A.D., both were part of the first wave of the British invasion of comics in the early '80s, and they were looking to do something together at DC. "One of the first ideas was that perhaps we should do a Challengers of the Unknown mini-series, and somewhere I've got a rough penciled cover for a Martian Manhunter mini-series, but I think it was the usual thing: Other people were developing projects regarding those characters, so DC did­n't want us to use them. So, at this point, I came up with this idea regarding the MU/Archie characters, and it was the sort of idea that could be applied to any pre-existing group of super-heroes. If it had been the Tower characters— the T. H. U. N. D. E. R. Agents— I could've done the same thing. The story was about super-heroes, and it didn't matter which super-heroes it was about, as long as the characters had some kind of emotional resonance, that people would recognize them, so it would have the shock and sur­prise value when you saw what the reality of these characters was."

As DC had recently purchased the Charlton Action Heroes, Moore sent transplanted editor Dick Giordano his basic proposal shaped around the characters, whom Giordano had stewarded nearly twenty years prior. Dick liked the premise, but felt using the Charlton heroes would either ruin them for other DC appearances, or dampen the strength of Moore's mini-series. At first Moore resisted, feeling that he couldn't make up characters with the nostalgic resonance of an existing property. "Eventually, I realized that if I wrote the substitute characters well enough, so that they seemed familiar in certain ways, certain aspects of them brought back a kind of generic super-hero resonance or familiarity to the reader, then it might work."

Moore came to feel the plot and characters in Watchmen weren't as important as the overall quality of storytelling and innovative techniques the book contained. "So, we started to reshape the concept— using the Charlton characters as the jumping-off point, because those were the ones we submitted to Dick— and that's what the plot involved. We started to mutate the characters, and I began to realize the changes allowed me so much more freedom... So, it was the best decision, though it just took me a while to realize that... By the time I was writing the first issue, I was sold on the idea. It was in preparation when I had my doubts." As Moore continued, he began playing with surrounding elements: the pirate comic commenting on the current narrative, the incidental characters coming to the fore, the cryptic references and cinematic touches. "And that's when Watchmen took off; that's when I realized that there was something more important going on than just a darker take on the super-hero, which after all, I'd done before with Marvelman."

Moore was asked to comment on an issue of Swamp Thing he had done featuring the Justice League, and mentioned how he suspected the graphic excesses of Marvelman had made DC initially disinclined to offer him the reins of a more traditional book. He then detailed the exact analogues from the Charlton Action Heroes to the Watchmen. I can't really say that Nightshade was a big inspiration. I never thought she was a particularly strong or interesting female character. The Silk Spectre was just a female character because I needed to have a hero­ine in there. Since we weren't doing the Charlton characters any­more, there was no reason why I should stick with Nightshade, I could take a different sort of super-heroine, something a bit like the Phantom Lady, the Black Canary, generally my favorite sort of cos­tume heroines anyway. The Silk Spectre, in that she's the girl of the group, sort of was the equivalent of Nightshade, but really, there's not much connection beyond that... So, yeah, these charac­ters started out like that, to fill gaps in the story that had been left by the Charlton heroes, but we didn't have to strictly stick to that Charlton formula. In some places, we stuck to it more closely, and in some places, we didn't."

As for the present, "My super-hero comics are very different, I think. After I fin­ished doing Watchmen, I said that I had gotten a bit tired of super-heroes, and I didn't have the same nostalgic interest in them, and that's still very true to a certain degree. Even if I was actually writing for DC Comics again (and I often read Superman), I haven't got any interest in Superman now. I'd gotten interested in the character when I wrote it, but it wouldn't work for me now— the characters are dif­ferent, the whole world is different." The heavier material Moore often traffics in didn't seem to benefit from the presence of super-heroes, nor vice-versa. "Perhaps I over-burdened the super-hero, made it carry a lot more meaning than the form was ever designed for... The ABC stuff at the moment is not a denial of Watchmen, it's just a recognition that, hey, Watchmen was 1986, that was almost 15 years ago, and today's a completely different time. With ABC, I want to do stories with a sense of exhilaration about them, a kind of freshness and efferves­cence, a feeling that the people doing them are loving it."

Meanwhile, Jon B. Cooke also spoke with Moore's Watchmen collaborator Dave Gibbons about the Charlton characters, and whether he produced any art with them for that project. "As a matter of fact, Dave tells me, the very day he receives Alan's initial proposal in the post casting the Action Heroes, he also gets a phone call from the writer telling Dave that DC has nixed using Blue Beetle, Peacemaker, etc., and Moore & Gibbons will create entirely new characters." Gibbons never had much exposure to or interest in Charlton, and didn't recall even referencing them for his book. However, he did produce the unpublished cover above for the first issue of the aborted Comics Cavalcade Weekly. You can see a fan colored version here

Comic Book Artist #9 is presently sold out at the publisher, but you can read more about it here

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